Desert Roads In A Rainstorm

By Dr. Ralph E. Pray

We're driving southwest out of Death Valley National Monument, along the highway from Emigrant Canyon past the Charcoal Kilns onto the grade through Wildrose Canyon. The two-lane road plunges down the west escarpment of the Panamints. We've delivered the payroll and a week's food supply to the Christmas Mine camp. The small underground silver producer permitted by the National Park Service lies near the base of Telescope Peak. My companion is Rod, a mechanic from the Pasadena company headquarters who is expert at keeping old machinery running at the mines. It is the late summer of 1975. Thick black clouds hover low over the Panamint Range.

Our destination an hour away to the south is a road in Goler Wash going back into the Panamints. This narrow steep path, the first quarter-mile recently rebuilt of rock following a twenty-year storm, crosses the mountain range. The peak-top entrance to Death Valley National Monument on that road is graced with the burial cairn of Carl Mengel. He was the miner who pioneered the road over the top in the 1920's.

It's mid-day on this Wildrose Canyon route out of Death Valley, but darkness lies just behind us, a gathering summer cloudburst in pursuit. Huge dirty raindrops, a mixture of descending cloud water and fine, wind-blown sand, splash on the windshield. Lightning flashes illuminate the hillsides ahead of us. Thunder pushes us onward like a foot on the pedal. The sky suddenly falls down around the pickup truck, water everywhere. The road turns into a silver river racing before us. We can no longer see more than fifty feet ahead. We slow the vehicle as it bumps over unseen obstacles, rocks washing onto the hidden surface in the swift current. Here and there a high plume of muddy water identifies a boulder being pushed into our path. We steer around the moving obstacles. I know the road; it's an old friend, but I can't see it. Nor, I think, will anyone else for a couple weeks as government work crews repair the damage.

Our course finally emerges from Wildrose Canyon onto a high road bank, and we're above the roiling flood, out of danger. We can see sunlight ahead, down in the north end of Panamint Valley, the ground still shimmering wet from light showers. We descend into the bright valley floor and turn due south, between the Argus Range and the Panamints. We roll our windows down and catch the smell of the dampened desert. There is no other sensation like it on earth or in dreams. The wet, sharp freshness of the desert can touch the soul. Nine miles south we turn east to Ballarat, the ghost town, then south on the Inyo County dirt road skirting the eastern shore of Panamint Dry Lake. We slow down for water puddles. The pickup creeps along in deep water lying over a low section of road, where a shallow lake from an earlier storm covers the land. A few small ducks swim in the brackish water near us.

Fifteen miles south of Ballarat we make a left on the stone jeep trail up the huge alluvial fan into Goler Wash, the southern access to the Panamints. We see the burros far ahead. They're standing in the wheel tracks across the fan, watching our slow approach. There are six adult burros and two small ones all facing us with unblinking eyes and swishing tails. They are fat, gray colored, with large heads and long ears. Now they're going back up the road to avoid us. A few go to the sides, then all leave the hand cobbed way to watch us pass.

The sky ahead over Goler Wash is black, ominous. We have to go in -- no choice. Payroll and food must be delivered to the Keystone Mine camp two miles up the wash. Entering the mouth of the canyon in the early afternoon we need the headlights to see the road. Rain falls on us in a sudden torrent. The walls, almost within touch beside us, rise straight up three hundred feet. A coyote scurries past, frightened, nearly brushing against the door. Now the walls are six hundred feet high and the gravel trail beneath us is a rushing stream of dark water. We're in four-wheel drive on a rock-covered passage I know every foot of, inching along in low gear.

The largest dry falls in the wash, where the west-bound 1849 emigrants may have lowered their wagons by rope, lie ahead. At the base of this eight-foot ascent filled with gravel, rushing water turns the road into a deep crevasse between the packed-down wheel tracks. We see this continuous pit right in front of us, three or four feet deep, water racing down it and beneath us to make it yet wider and deeper. If the sides cave in to the center the little truck will fall into the disintegrating road-fill.

An even greater danger during the downpour is if the river rushing toward us suddenly quits. That means there's a blockade ahead, trees, boulders, and bushes jammed across the narrow canyon, a dam waiting to burst upon us. Other falls lie ahead, all carefully ramped with tons of sand and gravel. I increase our speed, gaining the few seconds of time we may need and giving up the sense of seeing ahead. Wind-blown rain blankets the glass. I'm driving almost blindly, following a road barely seven feet wide newly carved with dynamite and hand labor into this desolate fissure. Thunder crashes upon us as every element of nature seems to push back our progress. There is no safe place to park, no space in which to turn around. Our only advantage in the bitter struggle is the truck and its drive train.

The canyon widens. We're safe again. Jagged lightning flashes reflect from the walls on each side, showing hundreds of little waterfalls as the rain water from above spills over broken cliff surfaces. I lean back in the seat. We're in smooth sand, going about twenty, one mile to go. The rain slackens as we pull into the gold mine camp. We park beside the main house, built of stone by Carl Mengel a half-century before. We have to drive out east in the morning, past a mile of wilderness we've reclaimed from old mine activity. Near Sourdough Springs we see huge black buzzards perched in tree-tops. We ease over Mengel Pass into the Monument to finally arrive in Shoshone and then Baker.

Our Goler Wash road in the steep-walled canyon, a repeated victim of the desert's timeless change, and once again to be re-built, no longer exists.

Published in California Explorer, 2000.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy
805 S Shamrock Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
Telephone: 626-357-6511
Fax: 626-358-8386