A day with Death Valley Scotty
"Scott does have a great appetite for cash and I don't mind feeding it, because for every dollar I've given him, I've been repaid 10 - times in laughter and enjoyment." Albert Johnson
Nothing seems to fit - Scotty's Castle in the middle of the desert - Scotty the conman swindles a rich Chicago businessman and becomes his best buddy - and the Lady and I, two people whose favorite places are out of sight of the trappings of civilization, keep getting drawn back to this misplaced palace in Death Valley.
It's the stories that pull me back and it's the contradictions that make the stories so damn good. Our family photography album contains old black and white snapshots of Scotty's Castle taken in the 1950's. I'm almost the littlest one in the pictures. My Dad loved the desert and exploring. My Mom loved Scotty's Castle.
After a less hurried morning - I made the Lady a special veggie scramble for breakfast - I am not without skills - we drove up to Scotty's Castle. The four of us had reservations for the Lower Vine Ranch Tour. The tour is offered infrequently and each tour is limited to 15, so it is necessary to watch for its availability on recreation.gov. Getting reservations for the New Years Eve tour is what drove our decision to return to Death Valley.
Lower Vine Ranch is a few miles from the Castle and is where Scotty lived. After entertaining guests at the Castle he would retire to his bedroom, exit via the back door, and drive down to Lower Vine Ranch. The Johnsons were extremely religious and Bessie did not allow smoking, drinking, cussing, womanizing at the Castle. Scotty needed a place of his own so they built him one. We wanted to see it.
After obtaining information on where to meet for the tour, we relaxed and had lunch at the castle. We did some wandering about. Not on any Castle tours is where the Johnsons lived before and while the Castle was being constructed when they came West for the winter.
This was our kind of abode and we thoroughly checked it out.
The Lady even took a look at the root cellar behind.
Scotty's Packard is now on display in the Visitors Center.
In the palm trees near the restrooms is a boulder with petroglyphs. I don't believe many visitors notice. On another smaller boulder is a petroglyph of one of Scotty's mules.
At the appointed time we drove to the trailhead for the tour. It is a two mile round trip walk over fairly level terrain, a dirt road. Lower Vine Ranch sits up against the Grapevine Mountains at Lower Vine Spring, a large water source used for centuries by Native Americans and then by white settlers, ranchers, prospectors, conmen, and the like.
Our guide carefully explained how important this area was to native people, especially the mesquite trees and pods - a winter food source.
The structures at Lower Vine Ranch are simple but very well designed and constructed, and they were built with redwood lumber.
Except during tours, the entire area is closed to the public. Many stories were told about Scotty, of course. A key story concerns the Johnson's installing a full bathroom inside the house as a surprise for Scotty while he was away, complete with a large bathtub. Upon his return he hooked his mules up to the tub and dragged it out into the yard. "Cowboys take their baths outside!" he explained.
Notice he placed it close to his root cellar..............................I suspect he spent time cooling off in the tub and drank a few beers.
Apparently he didn't have much need for a toilet seat.
The highlight of the house was the old Wedgewood range with an attached water heater tank. It was said that Scotty was a good cook and even studied French cooking while in Paris with Cody's Wild West Show.
The touching stories about Scotty concerned his mules. This episode (second half) of California's Gold tells the story of Scotty making pancakes for his mules and they came right in the house and ate. Our tour guide told the story of Scotty finding one of his mules gravely injured by a mountain lion. It needed to be put down but Scotty, the tough cowboy who took his baths outdoors, couldn't do it. He asked Albert Johnson to do it for him. Scotty cried. We also learned his two remaining mules mourned for Scotty after his death in 1954. They would walk up to the Castle everyday in the morning and returned back to Lower Vine Ranch in the late afternoon every day until they died.
It was late afternoon and the shadows long as we returned to the front gate of the property which is entirely fenced using concrete posts.
Some of the posts have the "J" for Johnson on top and some have the "S" for Scott on the top. It's told when Scotty checked on the workers making the posts he'd tell them to put the "S" on the top then Johnson would come by and tell them the "J" should be on top.
Just outside the gate is a water trough. This trough tells a great deal about Albert Johnson.
Johnson understood water was the most valuable substance in Death Valley. He needed control of water and especially Lower Vine Springs. A rancher held property rights to Lower Vine but failed to keep up on his filing with the County. As soon as the rancher missed a file date, Johnson stepped in and claimed the property. The rancher, Bev Hunter, found out when he moved his cattle down from the high summer range and found his winter grazing land fenced off. He wasn't happy. Water rights were much more complicated and lawsuits determined that Johnson did not hold rights to all the water. The rancher thought he had a win. In response Johnson piped water and kept this trough full, outside the Lower Vine property.
Alex, our guide mentioned she had found an inscription on a rock by Bill Key on the property. We had recently found an inscription by Key in a different area. Bill was involved in the "Battle of Wingate Pass", a staged ambush by desperadoes set up by Scotty to scare away Johnson and another investor he was swindling. Scotty's brother took a bullet in the affair. Out on bail, Scotty returned to the site and moved the county line markers in an attempt to confuse jurisdiction and hold up prosecution.
We returned to Mesquite Springs campground for our last night there. It was New Years Eve, but with the wind and cold temperatures, partying by other campers was limited to close circles around campfires. We were brought out of our deep sleep during the night by a succession of 6 gunshots. The Lady rolled over, looked at her clock. "It's midnight", she said. We wondered if someone's brother may have taken a bullet in this stupid and illegal act.
New Years Day and it was another year. The Spiders headed north to home and we headed south for more exploration. Our first stop was Grotto Canyon.
The last section of the road, when it drops into the wash, is deep gravel and an appropriate vehicle is necessary, although walking it is no big deal.
As we started our hike, the canyon quickly narrowed down.
We entered a beautiful grotto and ahead was a high pour over that Digonnet pegs at 5.6. The Lady went up and I followed.
We were in another incredible grotto.
We were in another incredible grotto.
We were immediately faced with an overhanging 8 foot pour over that Digonnet pegs at 5.7. The first hand hold is high and difficult to reach. I made it up but the Lady needed quite a butt boost up to reach it. Since we had not planned a full day up Grotto, this was only a recon, we decided this was as far as we would go.
There is a difficult move getting up the first pour over. It is more difficult on the down climb. A belay is recommended. I noticed in Jim Boone's description of Grotto Canyon, he jokingly says to not forget your extension ladder. We had some chores to do - fill the propane tank and find some fresh produce (a very poor selection!) at Furnace Creek - but the Lady spotted a side canyon. Up we went, a scramble the whole way, but a great view at the top.
We stopped by the Visitors Center to inquire about the historian. Barking Spider had chatted up a couple of NPS folks at Scotty's Castle and it was recommended, if anyone knew about what we were searching for, it would be him. "He'll be in tomorrow," we were politely told but the photos we had brought along generated a lot of interest with the staff. This was a new one for them.
We bought a copy of the previously mentioned "Proceedings" and since I have an interest, I photographed one item in the collection. What is life without music?
I'll stop here, because perhaps we saved the best for last. Although not very publicized - some even want it kept secret - I had ferreted out information on what is called the most beautiful canyon in Death Valley National Park. We were heading south...........................
Continued in the next part, click for Part Four