Deep Into The Valley Of Death We Go
Perhaps Death Valley’s name is what gives the land its sinister, otherworldly reputation. Certainly, the subzero elevation, the searing heat, and the moonscape panoramas also lend themselves to the atmosphere of mystery that surrounds the park.
And of course there are the legends. Tales tell of rotting wagons and gingham dress-clad skeletons half-buried in the shifting sands, of the fabulously rich Lost Gunsight Mine and Breyfogle’s elusive gold vein, and of Death Valley Scotty’s outlandish adventures.
A more macabre mythology has taken hold, too, in the wake of serial killer Charles Manson’s capture here in 1969. Manson retreated to Death Valley with his gang of killer flower children after two bloody nights of slaughter that he hoped would set off a cataclysmic race war. An adherent of a variety of occult doctrines, Manson somehow believed that Devil’s Hole, a deep, water-filled cavern on Death Valley’s Nevada side, was the portal to an underground world where he and his followers could wait out the apocalypse, re-emerging as leaders of a purified world. But he was arrested before he could figure out how to get his band through several hundred feet of hot, salty water that had drowned two skin divers just a few years earlier.
Manson may have learned of the underground world from the story of Tom Wilson, a Cahroc Indian who was a Death Valley guide in the 1920s. Wilson said that when he was a boy, his grandfather told him that he had found a tunnel that extended for miles beneath the valley. Walking its length, the man ended up in an underground chamber where a race of fair-skinned people dwelt.
The Indian eventually resurfaced and returned to his people, who were understandably skeptical about his adventure. But Tom Wilson believed that the old man hadn’t lied, and he spent the rest of his life searching for the entry to this underground world, convinced until his death in 1968 that it actually existed somewhere underneath Death Valley.
The rooms were filled with leather-clad human mummies. Gold bars and other fabulous treasures were stacked in piles around them. There was a passageway leading beyond the rooms as well, lit by an eerie greenish-yellow light. But White dared not explore any further, fearful of what might lie beyond.
White visited the rooms three more times, once with his wife and once with another prospector. But he was unable to locate the cavern later when accompanied by Wilson and a group of archeologists, although they did find a curious dead-end tunnel into the solid rock. The area around Wingate Pass was eventually absorbed into the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, and is now closed to the public.
One is the Amargosa Mountains (in the SE corner of Death Valley). Years ago, a desert rat was driving through this range in his Jeep when he came to a group of boulders blocking the road. He parked his vehicle, found a narrow pass between the rocks and walked down into a sandy valley, where he saw about 30 wooden buildings half-covered by sand dunes.
Too big and elaborate to be miners’ shacks, the structures were laid out like a planned community. The explorer went inside some of them and found wooden tables set for meals, brass candlesticks, scraps of cloth, and even an empty picture frame on the wall. There were no human remains, and no signs of violence or natural disaster.
No ghost towns were known to exist in these arid mountains, and no records of permanent settlements in the area have been found. Whether the unnamed explorer had really located a lost community, or was just spinning a tall tale, has never been determined. –MM