Salt to Summit: A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney

Salt to Summit: A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney

by Daniel Arnold


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From the depths of Death Valley, Daniel Arnold set out to reach Mount Whitney in a way no road or trail could take him. Anything manmade or designed to make travel easy was out. With a backpack full of water bottles, and the remotest corners of desert before him, he began his toughest test yet of physical and mental endurance.

Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley, the lowest and hottest place in the Western Hemisphere. Mount Whitney rises 14,505 feet above sea level, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Arnold spent seventeen days traveling a roundabout route from one to the other, traversing salt flats, scaling dunes, and sinking into slot canyons. Aside from bighorn sheep and a phantom mountain lion, his only companions were ghosts of the dreamers and misfits who first dared into this unknown territory. He walked in the footsteps of William Manly, who rescued the last of the forty-niners from the bottom of Death Valley; tracked John LeMoigne, a prospector who died in the sand with his burros; and relived the tales of Mary Austin, who learned the secret trails of the Shoshone Indians. This is their story too, as

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582437507
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 05/22/2012
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Daniel Arnold is the author of Early Days in the Range of Light, and his work has appeared in Rock and Ice, The Mountain Gazette, and elsewhere. He lives in Sonora, California, with his wife and son.

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All told, I have had little travel in my life which has yielded so much profit on the exertion as the old Mojave stage. I understand that the road is well furnished now with gas stations and hot-dog stands, and the trip can be made in a few hours without incident. Which seems on the whole a pity.

Mary Hunter Austin, Earth Horizon, 1932

I began on the corner of Torrance Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway, a convergence of a dozen lanes heavy with midday traffic. I had grown out my beard as sunblock. My pants were old favorites, stitched and patched and faded to the color of the desert itself. I carried a gigantic backpack stuffed with empty two-liter soda bottles that I would fill with water when I reached Furnace Creek. The driver of the Torrance 3 let me on without a second glance — I was not the strangest thing floating around the Los Angeles County mass-transit system. The bus bumped us all along past strip malls and concrete. At the corner of Torrance and Hawthorne, as I waited for a second bus, a kid with a skateboard and baggy corduroy shorts looked me up and down. "Been traveling long?" he asked, at last. I should have said yes or all my life, but instead I tried to explain that I lived just down the road. "Uh-huh," he said. He seemed dubious but willing to believe that I might be speaking in some kind of interesting code.

Today's highways run straight dead sprints across the desert, slowing only through parade lines of neon-bright food and gas marts. For most people, the Mojave slips by unrecognized — a whisper of air-conditioning, a blur of orange outside the glass. When Mary Austin rolled along the rutted tracks of the sage country, she had time to talk to fellow travelers and study the character of the strange, parched land to which she had come by accident and stayed for fifteen years. Though the modern asphalt web would disappoint her, the stagecoaches still do exist in a form she might find passably entertaining. From my tiny apartment near the ocean, it took me two city buses to cross Los Angeles, a commuter train to escape over the San Gabriel Mountains to Lancaster, and two county buses to curve around the western edge of the Mojave through towns like Inyokern and Olancha.

I have a feeling Austin would have much to say about Lancaster. She knew this patch of ground in the 1880s, when she was a young woman and it was wide open and called the Antelope Valley for a reason. Now Lancaster has filled the space with the kind of ragged-edged crossroads city that fascinated Austin, though I imagine its hungry sprawl would horrify her, too. Lancaster peters out into flat space, the Mojave beginning right where the concrete ends; the light is orange-yellow and flat as the ground, the wind hits the train station with a will to knock it down. But Los Angeles is just over the hill. The local kids waiting for the Bakersfield bus could just as easily have been standing on a corner in Torrance, draped in their plated gold, baseball caps and ear-cigarettes turned backward, elaborate portraits of the Virgin silk-screened on their shirts.

I'd like to have had Mary Austin with me, to see her in action extracting stories from the other passengers. She had an insatiable need for other people's experiences and would go to any length to unearth a tale. Fortunately for her, she was the kind of listener to whom people felt compelled to spill their souls, no matter the contents. Shepherds, priests, Paiutes, mining stiffs and wandering prospectors, spouses (usually wives) abandoned for one sort of desert fever or another — she talked to all of them, and all of them talked to Mary, along with the coyotes, quail, and elf owls, too. She sifted the grains she was given, tossed the dross, hoarded the glints of color, and fused them into the rich composites of people and places with which she filled her books.

Out by Ridgecrest, a little sun-blasted city which to me has always looked in imminent danger of being swallowed whole by the Mojave, I met a woman who climbed mountains in the Sierra in the 1950s and 1960s and had had a passing acquaintance with Norman Clyde. A man from Riverside told me about life as a GI in Germany during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it seemed the world might end in fire on any given afternoon. As a kid, he chummed with a half-tame raven his brother named Black Bart. Mary Austin would have liked this part of his story. She wrote affectionately about a raven in a Shoshone camp — the bird could practically speak and was treated as another kind of child.

Mary Austin liked nothing better than a long stagecoach ride because on the stage, with nothing to do but talk and watch the world lurch by, the stories came for free. And when the other passengers were dull, or asleep, or too fleshy or tubercular, there was always the driver up on the box in the wind and dust, and he was invariably a salty fountain of happenings and lore. In a car, the drive would have taken me four hours. By bus and train, it took eleven. I didn't mind. Sometimes when I drive to the Sierra, I arrive feeling like my brain hasn't left Los Angeles. There is something octopus-like about the concrete, the immense, curving arms of the overpasses. The city's grip loosens slowly. Puttering on the bus through the desert outskirts allows time for the asphalt to thin and the land to open wide. The creosotes multiply to the horizon and the first Joshua trees shake their jester hats in the wind. There's time for me to come up for air.

No buses run through Death Valley proper. The closest I could get on public wheels was the town of Lone Pine, just under the Sierra Crest, in sight of Mount Whitney. It was the end of March, and the mountain was shaggy with ice and snow. The driver let me off, I walked a few hundred feet down two-lane Highway 136, planted myself under the sign that read FURNACE CREEK 102, and stuck out my thumb.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Mary Austin made her home in the Owens Valley, here in Lone Pine, and north a few miles in Independence and Bishop — farming towns, limited to the water in the creeks spilling off the east side of the mountains. Rain was an anomaly that couldn't be counted on. More prominently, at least to Austin, these places were also mining towns in decline, forever teetering on the edge of the global silver market. A few points up, and the mines turned a profit, the workers were paid, the streets were lively. A few points down, and the ore cost more to pull out of the ground than it was worth, and the wives and children left at home went hungry. California was fifty years old as a state, but this was its far corner. Paiutes lived in a camp above Lone Pine. Down in town, Mexican holdouts tended white adobe houses and gardens full of peppers. Each September, they celebrated Mexico's independence from Spain, just as they had before the Bear Flag Revolt turned California over to America.

The Owens Valley towns are the western edge of Austin's gritty, beautiful, half-real, half-mythic Land of Little Rain, her name for the place and her most famous book. The region extends east and south through Death Valley with only one definite border: the mountain wall to the west, where the dry country begins. The Sierra Nevada reaches so high that its peaks catch all the moisture rolling off the Pacific. By the time clouds float over the crest, they are spent shells worth nothing but a momentary shade patch before they shrivel in the sun and vanish. The Sierra also marks the beginning of the basin and range. The Owens Valley is not a true valley — not made by the passage of water and ice — but rather a basin made by the movement of continents. The land stretched, the mountain ranges pulled apart, and deep troughs opened between them. Standing under the Furnace Creek road sign at the bottom of the Owens basin, I could look west at summits fourteen thousand feet high on the Sierra Crest, or east at summits eleven thousand feet high on the Inyo Crest. East of the Inyos were more desert mountains — the Cottonwoods, the Panamints — and beyond them, Death Valley and the salt.

I don't have much luck as a hitchhiker. Something about the dark beard and big shoulders, I guess. To be fair, I'm not 100 percent sure I'd pick myself up. I tried to be friendly — I smiled and waved and pointed at my backpack, hoping to suggest that roadside serial killers don't go for the Gregory brand. Some people smiled and waved back, which I had a hard time interpreting. Most looked uncomfortable, as if eye contact alone might infect them from the roadside. None so much as slowed except for a pleasant man with a sun-lined face who was only going up the road to Keeler but stopped anyway to chat a moment and wish me luck. An hour passed, then two. Two immense Vs of geese ribboned across the sky, headed north again. The sun disappeared behind the Sierra, turning the crest into a ragged silhouette, painting the Inyos crimson and purple. I began to eye the buggy, mucky pastures behind the roadside barbed wire. They looked uninviting, and getting more so as it looked increasingly likely that I'd be bedding down among the cow pies.

I didn't care. I was free and happy. No car to feed, no water caches to worry over, no schedule to keep. I was as self-contained as I could hope to be, and my plan was scratch-paper simple. (It was H.W. Tilman, as far as I know, who first suggested that the ideal expedition could be organized in a minute on the back of an envelope.) I had cracked open the door on a new adventure, and I hadn't needed to burn a thousand dollars or gallons of gas to get here.

A dented white pickup materialized out of the dusk and stopped on the shoulder. The driver, a chiseled guy with straight blond hair to his shoulders, jumped out to ask if I needed a ride. Aidan, it turned out, was a climbing guide who'd worked in South America, piloted bush planes in Alaska, done first ascents in China. He told me stories from his recent efforts in East Tibet — blizzards, unstable snow, fragile cornices — and we compared notes on ridge traverses in the Sierra. He was driving straight through Death Valley on his way to Red Rocks outside Las Vegas. We talked mountains and climbers, gossiping like two old hens about the latest successes and divorces within the climbing tribe. He was enthusiastic about my project, and I told him he would be welcome to join me; but there was a woman, also a guide, in Salt Lake City, and he might or might not be falling in love with her, and he had to go find out.

Mary Austin would have been proud of us. We passed the news like a couple of Shoshones or Death Valley miners. The farmers who worked the Owens Valley didn't much interest Austin. Her Land of Little Rain was peopled with nomads. She felt a kinship of circumstance with shepherds and miners who had no fixed place. Her notion of a stable home had crumbled into the Owens dust when she was all but abandoned by a husband who had proved incompetent in all the ways that mattered. Besides, wanderers told the best stories. In her desert writing, tales ricochet back and forth faster than the drifters who tell them. On the vagabond network, legends became living truths.

Aidan drove us up out of the Owens Valley, through the gap between the Inyo and Argus Ranges, past the Darwin Plateau, down into Panamint Valley. He had spent some time in the desert himself. He remembered hearing years ago about a pair who crossed Badwater Basin and deployed snowshoes for the salt marsh on the western edge. This piece of news didn't thrill me. In my last days at home, I had obsessed over the Badwater salt marsh. Its dimensions changed with each new story I heard. Sometimes the whim of the desert produced a narrow strip of mud, sometimes a quarter mile of hip-high muck and neck-high brine. It changed from season to season and, as best I could figure, from week to week. In the end, I decided to bring an extra pair of boots for the marsh — the rattiest I had — to avoid spending the next four days walking around in mud bricks. And I decided to stop worrying about it. But snowshoes! I had images of being mired like a mastodon and preserved for the benefit of future archaeologists. Salt Man Discovered! I asked if Aidan had an inner tube I could borrow to keep my gear afloat. He suggested I try the solo alpinist's glacier-crossing trick and walk in the middle of an aluminum ladder, but he didn't have one of those either.

It was a new-moon night, so it felt black and late when Aidan dropped me off at the Furnace Creek ranger station and the water spigot. The mountains to the east and west were invisible except where their jagged tops cut sharp outlines against the heavy dust of stars. I pulled out my bottles — twenty-one liters in all — and queued them next to the faucet, where I filled them one by one.

Knowing that I would begin with forty-six pounds of water alone made me pare everything else back. For extra clothes I had a long-sleeved T-shirt, a second pair of socks, and a wind shell — no jacket. I had a bivy sack — a nylon envelope that fits around a sleeping bag — instead of a tent. I planned on using rocks instead of toilet paper. Still, I needed food, and my camera bag weighed five pounds, and there were the extra boots, and somehow I had ended up with three books: a wildflower guide because it was the middle of the spring bloom and two novels. Add in the bits and pieces — compass, map, toothbrush, notebook, seventy-foot length of cord for lowering my pack into the canyons — and I had something like eighty-five pounds riding my back as I left the spigot. Stumbling around in the dark, feeling like a newly saddled donkey, I nicknamed my backpack "the goblin." I imagined a flabby toad creature with its arms around my neck and its feet wrapped around my waist, spurs dug into my hips, grunting, Onward! Onward!

Badwater still waited twenty miles down the road. I had one more round of hitchhiking and it wasn't going to happen until morning. It felt like the middle of the night, though I had no idea what time it really was. I hadn't brought a watch. I wasn't worried about the ounces; I just didn't want to know the hour or even the day beyond what the sun could tell me. There was a campground at Furnace Creek, but it was filled with RVs and wood smoke — a peculiar odor on an eighty-plus-degree night. I staggered out into the desert and found a convenient sand-bottomed ditch to stretch out in.

I was tired and wired all at once. The sky glowed pale, and the desert buzzed in my ears. I tossed around on my patch of sand, hearing noises that were probably just my mind creaking as it uncoiled. Mary Austin tells the story of a miner who, at the end of sixty years of prospecting, makes one last little strike and decides to quit the Death Valley country and move to the city for an easier life. He returned to the desert in two months, explaining to Austin that every time he walked out the door in the city, there was a house "right bung up against" his eyes. More than anything else, the desert offers space. Vast, uncorked, drown-if-you-don't-breathe-it-in space.

* * *

My eyes popped open at the first hint of light. The air was five-in-the-morning cool and felt light and clean. A number of years back, on a February morning at five thousand feet in the Grapevine Mountains north of Death Valley, I watched water in my bottle turn to ice in the twenty minutes between first light and sunrise. Now the early-morning decline simply allowed a moment of relief — like a quick, cold shower — before the sun revved up the day.

I stuffed my sleeping bag into my pack and got the goblin up and mounted on my back. We tottered down the road together to the end of the Furnace Creek enclave, where the goblin took a seat and I resumed my roadside vigil from the night before. I spent an hour on the receiving end of a lot of downright hostile looks from middle-aged guys with neck wattles and wives done up shiny like the cars they drove. True enough, it's a long way to anywhere from the side of the road south of Furnace Creek — a committing place to pick up a hitcher.

The sun topped the Funeral Mountains and set about igniting the day. Stones made the ground, billions of jagged, desert-varnished chunks all jigged together in the top layer. There is sand in Death Valley, and there is salt, but mostly this place is built of rock: dry stone mountains shedding their bodies piece by piece into the basins below. Along the road, miraculous yellow sunflowers on foot-high stems sprouted from between the stones — miraculous because they apparently needed neither dirt nor rain. The flower fields stretched down toward the salt and up toward the mountains, an immense multitude of little suns looking back up at the big sun above. Close by, I watched a three-inch green caterpillar with black tiger stripes and a spike like a rose thorn sticking out of its rear rip into one of the flowers, massive mandibles slicing and chewing. It hardly seemed fair to grow straight out of stone in the middle of the desert only to be devoured by a dinosaur caterpillar with the soul of a chipper-shredder, but Death Valley is a hard place.


Excerpted from "Salt to Summit"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Daniel Arnold.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Chapter 2 - DEATH VALLEY,
Chapter 6 - SALINE VALLEY,
Chapter 8 - OWENS VALLEY,
Chapter 9 - MOUNT WHITNEY,
Copyright Page,

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Salt to Summit: A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Don't use it as a trail guide! Aronlds "trails" are not for everyone (anyone else?) - but it IS a fun adventure read. It might help to have some knowledge of the land but if not, imagine yourself as the author trying to transcend the region. If you do know something of the Eastern Sierra you understand the hardship faced here. The land is beyond unforgiving. Everything is at an extreme from elevations to depth of sand to right angle cuts of rock to climate changes. The idea of trying yourself against such a place must come with the knowledge that it isn't going to suffer fools lightly. Arnold conveys this. It's a good adventure read, for those who have been in some of these places, it's a harrowing return.