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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter VI

Death Valley Geology

The pleasure of your trip through the Big Sink will be enhanced if you know something about the structural features which are sure to arrest your attention.

For undetermined ages Death Valley was desert. Then rivers and lakes. Rivers dried. Lakes evaporated. Again, desert. It is believed that in thousands of years there have been no changes other than those caused by earthquakes and erosion.

It is no abuse of the superlative to say that the foremost authority upon Death Valley geology is Doctor Levi Noble, who has studied it under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey since 1917. He has ridden over more of it than anyone and because of his studies, earlier conclusions of geologists are scrapped today.

From a pamphlet published by the American Geological Society with the permission of the U. S. Dept. of Interior, now out of print, I quote a few passages which Doctor Noble, its author, once described to me as “dull reading, even for scientists.”

“The southern Death Valley region contains rocks of at least eight geologic systems whose aggregate thickness certainly exceeds 45,000 feet for the stratified rocks alone.”

“The dissected playa or lake beds in Amargosa Valley between Shoshone and Tecopa contain elephant remains that are Pleistocene....”

“Rainbow Mountain is one of the geological show places of the Death Valley region.... Here the Amargosa river has cut a canyon 1000 feet deep.... The mountain is made up of thrust slices of Cambrian and pre-Cambrian rocks alternating with slices of Tertiary rocks, all of which dip in general about 30 to 40 degrees eastward, but are also anticlinally arched.”

“None of the geologic terms in common use appear exactly to fit 40this mosaic of large tightly packed individual blocks of different ages occupying a definite zone above a major thrust fault.”

The significant feature is that a stratum that began with creation may lie above one that is an infant in the age of rock—a puzzle that will engage men of Levi Noble’s talents for years to come. But one doesn’t have to be a member of the American Geological Society to find thrills in other gripping features.

Throughout the area south of Shoshone are many hot springs containing boron and fluorine—some with traces of radium. The water is believed to come from a buried river. The source of other hot springs in the Death Valley area is unknown.

More startling features were related to Shorty Harris and me at Bennett’s Well in the bottom of Death Valley where we met one of Shorty’s friends. Lanky and baked brown, in each wrinkle of his face the sun had etched a smile. “Shorty,” he said, “yachts will be sailing around here some day. There’s a passage to the sea, sure as hell.”

“What makes you think so?” Shorty asked.

“Those salt pools. Just come from there. I was watching the crystals; felt the ground move a little. Pool started sloshing. A sea serpent with eyes big as a wagon wheel and teeth full of kelp stuck his head up. Where’d he come from? No kelp in this valley. That prove anything?”

Ubehebe Crater is believed to have resulted from the only major change in the topography of the valley since its return to desert, but John Delameter, old time freighter, thought geologists didn’t know what they were talking about. “When I first saw Saratoga Spring I could straddle it. Full of fish four inches long. Next time, three springs and a lake. Fish shrunk to one inch and different shaped head.”

Actually these fish are the degenerate descendants of the larger fish that lived in the streams and lakes that once watered Death Valley—an interesting study in the survival of species. The real name, Cyprinodon Macularius, is too large a mouthful for the natives so they are called desert sardines, though they are in reality a small killifish.

Dan Breshnahan, in charge of a road crew working between Furnace Creek Inn and Stove Pipe Well, ordered some of the men to dig a hole to sink some piles. Two feet beneath a hard crust they encountered muck. When they hit the pile with a sledge it would bounce back. Dan put a board across the top. With a man on each end of the board, the rebound was prevented and the pile driven into hard earth. “I’m convinced that under that road is a lake of mire and Lord help the fellow who goes through,” Dan said.

A heavily loaded 20 mule team wagon driven by Delameter 41broke the surface of this ooze and two days were required to get it out. To test the depth, he tied an anvil to his bridle rein and let it down. The lead line of a 20 mule team is 120 feet long. It sank (he said) the length of the line and reached no bottom.

On Ash Meadows, a few miles from Death Valley Junction and on the side of a mountain is what is known as The Devil’s Hole which it is said has no bottom. True or false, none has ever been found.

A steep trail leads down to the water which will then be over your head. Indians will tell you that a squaw fell into this hole within the memory of the living and that she was sucked to the bottom and came out at Big Spring several miles distant. The latter is a large hole in the middle of the desert and from its throat, also bottomless, pours a large volume of clear, warm water.

“Explored?” shouted Dad Fairbanks one day when a white-haired prospector declared every foot of Death Valley had been worked over. “It isn’t scratched!”

Only the day before (in 1934), Dr. Levi Noble had been working in the mountains overlooking the valley on the east rim. Through his field glasses he saw a formation that looked like a natural bridge. When he returned to Shoshone he phoned Harry Gower, Pacific Borax Co. official at Furnace Creek of his discovery and suggested that Gower investigate.

Since Furnace Creek Inn wanted such attractions for its guests, Gower went immediately and almost within rifle shot of a road used since the Seventies, he found the bridge.

That too is Death Valley—land of continual surprise.

Death Valley is the hottest spot in North America. The U.S. Army, in a test of clothing suitable for hot weather made some startling discoveries. According to records, on one day in every seven years the temperature reaches 180 on the valley floor. But five feet above ground where official temperatures are recorded the thermometer drops 55 degrees to 125.

The highest temperature ever recorded was 134 at Furnace Creek Ranch—only two degrees below the world’s record in Morocco. In 1913, the week of July 7-14, the temperature never got below 127. Official recording differs little from that of Arabia, India, and lower California, but the duration is longer.

Left in the sun, water in a pail of ordinary size will evaporate in an hour. Bodies decompose two or three hours after rigor mortis begins but some have been found in certain areas at higher altitudes dried like leather. A rattlesnake dropped into a bucket and set in the sun will die in 20 minutes.

The evaporation of salt from the body is rapid and many prospectors swallow a mouthful of common salt before going out into a killing sun.

One of the pitiable features of death on the desert is that bodies are found with fingers worn to the bone from frantic digging and often beneath the cadaver is water at two feet.

There is also legendary weather for outside consumption. Told to see Joe Ryan as a source of dependable information, a tourist approached Joe and asked what kind of temperature one would encounter in the valley.

“Heat is always exaggerated,” said Joe. “Of course it gets a little warm now and then. Hottest I ever saw was in August when I crossed the valley with Mike Lane. I was walking ahead when I heard Mike coughing. I looked around. Seemed to be choking and I went back. Mike held out his palm and in it was a gold nugget and Mike was madder’n hell. ‘My teeth melted,’ Mike wailed. ‘I’m going to kill that dentist. He told me they would stand heat up to 500 degrees.’”

I met an engaging liar at Bradbury Well one day. He was gloriously drunk and was telling the group about him that he was a great grand-son of the fabulous Paul Bunyan.

“Of course,” he said, “Gramp was a mighty man, but he was dumb at that. One time I saw him put a handful of pebbles in his mouth and blow ’em one at a time at a flock of wild geese flying a mile high. He got every goose, but how did he end up? Not so good. He straddled the Pacific ocean one day and prowled around in China, and saw a cross-eyed pigeon-toed midget with buck teeth. Worse, she had a temper that would melt pig-iron.

“Gramp went nuts over her. What happened? He married her. She had some trained fleas. If Gramp got sassy, she put fleas in his ears and ants in his pants and stood by, laughing at him, while he scratched himself to death. Hell of an end for Gramp, wasn’t it?”

In the late fall, winter, and early spring perfect days are the rule and if you are among those who like uncharted trails, do not hurry. Then when night comes you will climb a moonbeam and play among the stars. You will learn too, that life goes on away from box scores, radio puns, and girls with a flair for Veuve Cliquot.

A Personal Narrative of People and Places
Published by Death Valley Publishing Co.
Ontario, California

A Foretaste of Things to Come
What Caused Death Valley?
Aaron and Rosie Winters
John Searles and His Lake of Ooze
But Where Was God?
Death Valley Geology
Indians of the Area
Desert Gold. Too Many Fractions
Romance Strikes the Parson
Greenwater-Last of the Boom Towns
The Amargosa Country
A Hovel That Ought To Be a Shrine
Sex in Death Valley Country
Shoshone Country. Resting Springs
The Story of Charles Brown
Long Man, Short Man
Shorty Frank Harris
A Million Dollar Poker Game
Death Valley Scotty
Odd But Interesting Characters
Roads. Cracker Box Signs
Lost Mines. The Breyfogle and Others
Panamint City. Genial Crooks
Indian George. Legend of the Panamint
Ballarat. Ghost Town
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These items are historical in scope and are intended for educational purposes only; they are not meant as an aid for travel planning.
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