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We topped off the gas tank at Stovepipe Wells, celebrating that gas was 90 cents cheaper per gallon then at Furnace Creek. We were surprised that both Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells did not have block ice for ice chests, only cubes. We did a bit of resupply at both places. It was mid morning and we started our drive back up into Cottonwood and Marble Canyons.
After passing the road up into Marble, the Cottonwood Canyon Road continues to the south and up canyon. After about four miles you come upon the noted fanglomerate cave.
This is a popular camping spot, but our objective was about four miles further up canyon, the end of the road.
“Two sets of boot tracks heading up the road, on top of the most recent tire tracks.” I said to the Lady as we slowly drove, ascending the rough road up Cottonwood. We were in the middle narrows, a wonderful spot, and had just passed a land rover with a tent popped up on the vehicle’s roof with tables and stoves and supplies neatly tucked away behind in the alcove they had set up camp.
It is habit with us, born out of so many years finding and helping folks in need, noticing tracks and clues. Yeah, we put our hands on hoods at trailheads and can tell if the vehicle has been parked overnight. Looking inside cars - dog eared guide books, type and style of supplies and clothes and food stuffs – are all clues to the occupants’ level of experience and possible plans. We are so happy to be retired from that world and don’t miss it one bit. But there are habits, habits that are deeply ingrained, like memorizing what the track of the Lady’s boot looks like, or being rigid on meet up places and times and plan b and plan c, and wiggle room for when things don’t go as planned, and always prepared for an unexpected night out. They are habits that come from unforgettable experiences, many that will continue to haunt, never to be forgotten. But they are habits that allow us to feel at home and at peace in the most remote places we can find.
“If they are hiking up canyon, why didn’t they just drive to the end of the road? That’s about 3.5 miles from here.” The Lady asked.
“I figure they are doing the circle up Cottonwood, over and down into Dead Horse Canyon, intersecting Marble Canyon, and then coming down and circling back to their vehicle, left in a middle spot.”
“Yeah but that is 26 miles, isn’t it? And, it is usually done as a backpack trip. All their stuff is set up like they are returning to spend the night.” The Lady was observing, contemplating the clues.
The Land Rover was the only vehicle we had seen up the Cottonwood/Marble Canyon roads. This was a surprise with this being spring break.
In Death Valley SUV Trails Mitchell mentions that the last .8 mile of this road deteriorates to grade IV. He is correct. We stopped and walked the last half mile and found a great camp spot that made the rough drive worth it. We settled in, popped the top, booted up and added food and water to our packs, and headed up canyon to explore the three Cottonwood springs that make this place an oasis in a parched land.
At our stopping point about four miles up at Cottonwood Spring we sat beside the flowing creek choked with water cress. We stayed quiet and watched and listened. The area slowly became alive with birds, with their sounds and activities. It made us think how dependent the creatures were on this oasis. We had seen sheep tracks on the trail, not much of a surprise, but we had also seen deer tracks, sharper than and not as rounded as the sheep tracks. We enjoyed a long afternoon in this special place.
We returned to the truck amid the continuing wind, took care of evening chores, and set up for just watching the world change.
Cottonwood Canyon runs from north to south here and is a narrow canyon perpendicular to the sun and moons travel. The Lady was busy in the camper, fussing with something, when I noticed the glow growing over the ridge to the east.
We stood out and watched the show, alone and quiet. Then I noticed the two bright lights coming at a fast clip down the canyon, headlamps, bright headlamps.
We enjoy hiking at night but prefer to let our eyes adjust to the night light, leaving headlamps as a back up and then starting with a red lamp so not to affect our night vision. These folks were toting some real candlepower. I had to look down as they approached, a couple with the woman leading the way. They did not slow down as they passed and we said hello.
“It that your land rover with the tent on top?” The Lady asked.
“Yes it is and we have to get there.” The woman answered.
The bobbing lights quickly moved down the canyon road.
“Boy are they barn sour, ready to be back!” The Lady exclaimed.
“Maybe they’ll be still in camp when we drive by in the morning. I bet there’s a story.”
They were still in camp. They had a story.
The land rover with Utah plates was still in place in the shadows of the alcove as we slowly drove down canyon unhurried on this wonderful calm morning. We saw no movement around camp and then we saw them to our left, coffee mugs in hand, standing in the warm morning sun on the opposite side of the canyon. They walked over to the road as we stopped.
“Boy did you two look barn sour when you went by us last night.” The Lady gets right to the point.
They were a fit couple probably around our age.
“We are used to long days but we really had a long day yesterday.” The man replied.
I said, “All I could think, from the way you looked last night, was that those final three and a half miles were going to be brutal and you just wanted it over.”
“My feet hurt so bad.” The woman said, but her eyes were bright. She was smiling.
“How far up Cottonwood did you get?” The Lady asked.
“Don’t know for sure, 13 or 14 miles maybe. We were going to do the circle over to Marble Canyon.” The man answered.
“That makes for a 26 or 28 mile round trip.” I added.
“We walked a long ways.” The man continued. “From what I read the pass at the top of Cottonwood Canyon was suppose to be evident, unmistakable. We didn’t see any evident pass. We went over the top and dropped into a canyon that suddenly narrowed and then we were up on 40 foot cliffs. I hadn’t read about anything like that. We had no idea what canyon we were in. We didn’t know where we were. We could have gotten killed up in the terrain we were in. We just turned around and hiked all the way back.”
“Wow, quite a story and adventure.” I said.
“Yeah, but we are back. We are doing fine.”
I continued. “You know this sounds familiar.”
“What do you mean?” They both asked.
“We were up Marble Canyon early New Years Eve morning,” I explained, “in the second narrows with friends, when we heard voices up canyon from us. It was three young men, backpacking. They were doing the circle. They said they had gotten turned around up top, were not sure what canyon they had come down, weren’t even convinced they were in Marble Canyon until they had heard our voices. They were happy to see us.”
“We got confused up there.” The man repeated.
“We’re glad you are doing fine.” The Lady said. “Where are you off to now?”
“We have one more day so we might stop at Valley of Fire on our way home to Salt Lake. But the nearest Trader Joes to us is in Vegas so we’ll have to stop there to stock up on as much beer as we can fit in the land rover.” They grinned.
We left the couple behind and continued down to the junction with Marble Canyon and turned left, up canyon. Near the end of the road is a nice camping spot, a father and son were finishing up packing their gear and had the Tacoma loaded. We took the spot and wished them safe travels. We quickly got settled and were heading up Marble Canyon.
Why were we back to explore in Marble Canyon? We were just here over the end of the year holidays. What had brought us back? 1849, footnotes in history, and connections.
We headed up into the marvelous second narrows.
I get fascinated with history. Hiking Death Valley mentions the faint inscription up the canyon, “J.B. 1849” with no details. We looked but did not see it on our last visit. Further research, after we returned home, turned up a 1952 issue of Desert Magazine that mentions the inscription and a possible tie to the Savage-Pinney group of the Death Valley 49ers. They were the group ahead, twelve in number, young men. Only two survived, Savage and Pinney. Lewis Manly in his book, Death Valley in 1849 talks about meeting them years later and asking about details of their journey. He said they both broke into tears and could say nothing. What happened to the other ten? Hearsay reports come from many sources. One man reports hearing from the Panamint Indian, Hungry Bill that his father found a body with a bullet wound on Towne Pass. Hungry Bill confirmed the story by pulling out a locket his father had said he had taken from the body, a locket with a picture of a lovely young woman inside. In the 1860’s miners in the Argus Range to the west told the story of finding nine skeletons behind a brush barricade. Are they the missing ten? It was reported one man in this group was named Baker. Is that the J.B.?
I get drawn into stories like this, the little footnotes of history.
The Lady and I spent the afternoon searching. It was faint, but there, 1849.
We found no discernible J.B.
We sat in the shade and relaxed. Our friends joined us.
“Do you think it is the same two ravens that shadowed us a few months ago? The Lady asked.
“Absolutely, this is their home. Ravens live a long time. They stay together as pairs. I love ravens. They are remarkable, intelligent birds. They play tricks, mimic the calls of other birds, they take things of no real valve to them, things that catch their eye. If you think of this canyon and all the human cultures and history present here from the ancient ones to the more modern tribes, from the travelers in 1849 to the prospectors to the modern tourists, we have all come and gone. The ravens are still here, living their lives, being ravens, and watching us.”
It was late afternoon. We lingered as we worked our way back to camp down through the second narrows.
We stopped for awhile in the large central amphitheater.
We returned to camp and found we were still alone up in the canyon. We enjoyed the evening and the moonrise.
This was an incredible place to spend the night.
I fell asleep thinking of connections. One of my interests is family history. It has been remarkable to make discoveries about my ancestor’s stories. My great-great grandfather Sam was an older man in 1864 when he finally succumbed to California fever. His oldest son, my great-grandfather was off to war. Sam, leaving in the spring on the overland trail from Iowa City, left his family behind to find them better prospects. In route to California, talk on the trail was the big new gold strike in Virginia City, Idaho Territory (soon to be Montana). Sam joined in the fever. The old mountain man, Jim Bridger blazed the Bridger Trail to the new strikes, avoiding the controversies surrounding the Bozeman Trail, and led the first wagon train through. Did Sam travel with Bridger? I need to do further research to find out. Sam did not leave a journal. Virginia City was a rough place, ruled by vigilante justice. Jeremiah “Liver Eating” Johnson was in Virginia City that summer. Did Sam meet him? These are fascinating possible connections. Sam, a teamster did not like the town and when two other men paid him to take them back to “the states”, Sam returned home. From there he moved the family north into the unglaciated western section of Wisconsin, near to where Lewis Manly and the Bennett family left on their 1849 trip into Death Valley. Connections.
And then there is Captain Edward Doty of the Jayhawkers. My great grandfather married after returning from the civil war. His wife’s mother was Patsey Doty from Illinois. I have not made a connection here yet. Edward is a reoccurring name in the Doty family. The first Edward Doty came to Plymouth as an indentured servant aboard the Mayflower.
These are just possible connections and little footnotes of history but they come alive as I walk over old trails and trace stories.
This night was quiet that ended with a beautiful dawn.
The ravens joined us as we ate breakfast, watching.
This day held the promise of adventure for us. We were going to search out a tale about dragon eggs.
To be continued in Part Three.