I'm cruising out of Las Vegas through 120 miles of burnt brown desert, through Pahrump and Amargosa Valley, past the Amargosa Opera House, then heading west at Death Valley Junction. I put the Benz into neutral for a 20-mile coast into Death Valley National Park. There is no Park entrance station, thus no fees, so I smile a desert rat chapped grin.
It is August, heat gripping the landscape in a tight infernal fist. Traffic is light. Wave after wave of desiccated mountain ranges unfold as I fall into a silent awe, tires humming, as I glide past Zabriskie Point into the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere Death Valley National Park astride the California-Nevada border like a roadkill sidewinder rotting across the yellow lines on the baking tarmac.
I have stayed at the Furnace Creek Inn three times, but never in the heighth of summer heat. I am anxious to test my resolve in this true, rugged wilderness, but in elegant comfort. At least I am not behind a 40-mule team borax wagon. Do you remember "Death Valley Days" on TV? This is Ronald Reagan country. Salt licks. Salt pans. Panamint Mountains. Lost ghost mines. Borax mounds. Empty skies. Clear horizons. . . Heat. . . Hot. . . Water. . . !
Before leaving Pahrump I stop at a country store for ice water and the last chance for ice cream bars. I have to eat the ice cream fast, but the ice water is now slush, and cold, and good. Don't roll down that window. Tires whirl with an unusual stickiness. Did I just see a buzzard? Nah, not in this noontime heat. Am I cracking up?
Then after a couple of curves there is the mirage . . . Furnace Creek Inn, placed on a sandy, desert brow, looking across the lonesome valley. A refuge from death.
I park quickly, wasting no time in the hot box when the A/C shuts down with a rumble and a knock. I crack the windows a tad so the leather seats don't melt. I grab my kit bag and skip up the flagstone entrance to Furnace Creek. The blast of cool air tells me I would never make it as a pioneer, living out on the range, drinking jimpson weed water, sweating like a long-eared dog and then becoming as delirious as a dead longhorn steer bloating with death, eyes bugging out . . . flies. . . !
No sirree. It is straight to the Oasis Bar for a quick one, ice water that is. About a liter or two ought to do. Then I check into the hotel and it is back to the bar to swipe the sweat off with a cocktail napkin. A whole bunch of cocktail napkins. The bartender eyes me as warily as a coyote checking poisoned bait.
I get caught up in the saloon conversation. Talk circulates around the hotel watering hole about a man who lost his life in this heat sump called Death Valley, and only last June. He had walked only a few miles from his broken down car at Badwater before heat exhaustion took him from this earth. His wife survived in the car, using her cell phone to call a tow company; the crew drove up from Baker, California, and found the hapless motorist dead, sitting on a rock not far from the car. That is why they call this national park Death Valley. After that twisted tale, I am always close to the pool or the bar.
Then a grizzled lounge guest blurts out: "It was 170 degrees at ground temperature today." My jaw drops into my drink, cooling with ice. "I placed a thermometer on the rocks," the amateur geologist states. "But the world's record is over 230 degrees, also recorded here." It's true, the rocks never cool off in the night and I am later conscious of the radiating intensity on the way down to the pool. No wonder the original Star Wars had episodes shot in Death Valley. You can find few places as alien as the salt pans pouring out of the Panamint Mountains.
Furnace Creek Inn is one of my all time favorite hideouts. Just looking out across the naked monochrome salt flats makes me feel insignificant. Coyotes call in the night. The stars are out in full measure. No Vegas lights blotting out the heavens. The Saturday night during my stay there is a magnificent midnight meteorite shower The Leonides.
My favorite room at the Furnace Creek Inn and Resort is the pool house, a free standing rock hewn building with windows on all sides, complete with an old fashion screen door on two sides of the room, and antique bath with vintage faucets. The only drawback is the frolicking romping pool racket rousting far into the night. The pool is the most popular place for kids, just as the Oasis Bar is for adults.
This trip I take an Adobe wing room on the hillside, overlooking the Palm Gardens. The shady gardens are a nice stroll with birds flitting through the trees, then, where the palms end it is a blazing hike along the green edges of the hotel property, an abrupt truncation of civilization meeting the brown expanse of wilderness stretching in every direction . . . treeless . . . lifeless . . . beerless.
The natural underground Amaragosa River is tapped by the Inn to fill the pool and water the gardens. The small stream flows out of the Palm Gardens and then disappears back into the wasteland. Not even a cactus grows out here because of the salt. That thought quickly brings me back to the pool, a veneer of sweat making the cotton T a weeping rag. It does not take long to over-exert in the heat. My blood pressure is thumping. Someone should microbrew Death Valley Beer. What a winner that one would be. The only salt I want to see is around the rim of a Margarita glass.
Because it is high August, the pool is hot during the day, but mildly warm in the morning, so I exercised in the palm shaded pool in the early hours, and I am often joined by French and British kids running over the oven temped flagstone pavement like fire walkers dancing over hot coals, and then diving into the deep end. Laughter and pain are the same in all languages.
I am the only "native" in the pool. There is a sauna off to the side, but who needs it in the heat. The pool bar is closed for the summer and I wish I had the concession selling ice cream drinks to the European tourists.
The Furnace Creek Inn is a grand old California-style hotel surrounded by towering mountains and desert canyons, home of the world's lowest golf course. There is a service station, airstrip, and 4,800 feet of meeting space at the ranch side of the resort.
Most rooms have one king bed, some with two queen beds. Check-in is at 4 p.m. and checkout at 12 p.m. No pets allowed. There is an extra person charge of $15; first night's deposit required with confirmation. No reservations within 48 hours prior to arrival. Remember, they have to ship in the food, so they provision on short notice.
Furnace Creek Ranch was established in the 1800s as Greenland Ranch to provide accommodations for the men working the borax mines, provide alfalfa for the horses and mules, and raise cattle for food. In 1924-1925 the Pacific Coast Borax Company operated the ranch and owned extensive holdings in Death Valley, and the workers planted a grove of Deglet Noor date palms. Today, the 1600 palms are still abundant and create the cool oasis on the floor of the valley near the ranch.
Later, after hanging out at the room, reading and showering a couple of times every few hours to cool down (I hate air conditioning, after all I am testing my desert mettle.), it was soon time for dinner. Reservations are required. but the timeliness of your arrival is loose during the summer, as is the formal dress code; this time of year it is shorts, but no swimming suits. Men in jackets, ladies in dresses, in other seasons.
There are 66 rooms, including two suites, at the Inn. Some rooms feature spa tubs and/or balconies, most with garden and desert views. There is a turn down service, massage therapist, concierge service, but no room service in the summer. Children under 18 free with adult at the Ranch. Crib or Rollaway - $10. All rates are based on the European plan (No meals included; holiday rates slightly higher.).
I hate to report this. After my wonderful dinner at the Gourmet Room, the night did not cool off at all, so I have to do it; on comes the A/C for most of the night, but set on low.
(Editor's Note: The Inn no longer offers summer accommodations. I stayed at Furnace Creek during an experiment by the Inn to see if it could draw guests during the hottest part of the season. Most guests were Europeans. It's too damn hot!)
In the Spring of 1931, the hotel opened a nine-hole golf course over the portion of the Ranch formerly used to raise alfalfa. One of the date caretakers, Murray Miller, had set up an informal 3-hole course in the pasture around 1925. The golf course was the first grass course in the California desert region, and the lowest all grass golf course in the world (averages 214 feet below sea level) a lowly distinction still enjoyed today.
The beautiful palm gardens meandering spring fed streams and pools are the focal point of the entire Inn. Now that the Inn is open year around, the gardens are landscaped with decorative grasses, cacti, and native desert plants, to create a garden laden with desert colors, textures, and scents.
With major reorganization of the parent Pacific Coast Borax Company in 1956, the Fred Harvey Company of Chicago assumed management of Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch resort, and in 1969 they purchased the Death Valley properties. The Fred Harvey Company was later purchased by Amfac Parks and Resorts (now called Xanterra) which owns and operates the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort year around and Stovepipe Wells and the concessions at Scotty's Castle.
The Inn and Ranch are surrounded by the 3.2 million-acre Death Valley National Park. The valley's wild, unspoiled desert features geographic wonders, including Dante's Point at 5,475 feet above sea level, and Badwater, at 280 feet below sea level, both within a few minutes drive form the Inn.