The Opera, Pupfish, and Ghost Towns


As the diffuse morning light painted the landscape in pastel we packed up and left the desert rat enclave of Tecopa and headed toward Death Valley Junction.

Death Valley Junction is a small desert town with a population of less than 20 people. The town was formed in the 1920s with the backing of the Pacific Coast Borax Company; its original name being Armargosa meaning “bitter water” in Spanish. Like many western towns which rely on the economy of mining Death Valley Junction began to decline a few years after its inception. However once in a great while someone will take a look at a broken town like Death Valley Junction and find magic. In 1967 Marta Becket and her partner were making their way through town. As they stopped to get work done on their vehicle she took a look around. Hidden away in the ruins was an old dilapidated theater. Marta was a dancer and singer and immediately saw potential in the space. Over the next four decades Marta transformed the theater into the Armargosa Opera House; painting beautiful murals on the walls and providing entertainment to travelers. Marta passed away on January 30, 2017 at the proud age of 92. She continued to perform almost to the end of her life. Today the theater has performances every Friday and Saturday night. Unfortunately we were not able to stay for a performance and see the inside of the opera house but as we explored the grounds I could not help but admire the puck of Marta Becket. She had a passion and a dream and did not let anything stop her. She saw potential in a space with peeling stucco walls and dust covered floors and built a monument of beauty and art in the middle of a harsh unpopulated area.


The next stop on our trip was Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The springs which feed Ash Meadows bubble up from a huge underground aquifer which stretches 100 miles to the northeast. A geological fault in the area causes the water to seep up to the surface in Ash Meadows. The minerals in the water reflect the light and make the pools a color akin to blue cool aid. Ash Meadows is the home to four species of endemic fish including the infamous Devils Hole pupfish. The Devils Hole pupfish was one of the first species placed on the Endangered Species List and depending on who you talk to is either a miracle of evolution or a pest and a drain on the natural resources we rely on to grow crops and raise cattle.

The Devils Hole pup fish only exist in one location in Ash Meadows; at the bottom of a deep ravine at the base of a hillside where the ground opens up and water from the aquifer is exposed; Devils Hole. Devils Hole extends downward into the earth to unknown depths. Professional divers have been able to dive down 500 feet and still could not find the bottom. The area the pup fish live is only a few square meters on a shallow shelf within Devils Hole. Due to the habitat of the pup fish being concentrated to a narrow area a change in the aquifer level could drastically impact the population. Because of this ground water pumping in the area is strictly regulated.  Water use in an arid environment can stir up a lot of emotions. When a fish less than two inches long dictates how much water can be drawn out of the aquifer it can cause hackles to rise. This has resulted in a few instances of attempted sabotage, including bleach being thrown into the spring. Despite the controversy the home of the pup fish and the way they survive in this harsh landscape is a site to see.

 The scarcity of water in the arid west has always been a source of contention and strife for the people who call these places home. To quote Edward Abby:

Water, water, water….There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.

The Ash Meadows of today was almost wiped off the landscape. In the 1980s there was a huge push by Preferred Equities Incorporated to developed the land Ash Meadows sits on. The plan was to create a new Las Vegas complete with shopping centers and track housing. The water demands for the development would have used three times the water available in Ash Meadows and would have significantly altered the level of the aquifer likely leading to the extinction of several species of endemic pup fish and the loss of thousands of acres of migratory bird habitat. Luckily environmental organizations stepped in, and after a lengthy legal battle the project was abandoned and Ash Meadows became a National Wildlife Refuge. Today the Refuge is the home to 26 endemic species, 5 of which are listed as endangered. It has hiking trails for the public and provides hunting opportunities for upland game and water fowl. Seeing this beautiful landscape up close make it hard to believe that it could ever be paved over. It makes me think of what the great western cities looked liked before we graded the land, channelized the washes, and suppressed the natural processes of the landscape. Case studies like Ash Meadows give me hope that we can be good stewards of the land; that we don’t have to pave the world to get value out of it.


How we value land changes over time and it in early 1900s much of the west had money signs over it. Gold, silver, and other minerals brought thousands of people out west. Boom towns sprung up over night. One such town was Rhyolite, Nevada, a short drive from the town of Beatty and the next stop on our trip. Like so many other mining towns Ryholite was short lived. The light were shut off in 1916 only 12 years after the first quartz deposits were discovered. Despite its short life Rhyolite had been one heck of a town with a three story bank, schools, ice cream parlor and red-light district which attracted woman as far away as San Francisco. Today you can walk the ruins of Rhyolite to explore the structures including one of the best preserved train stations in the country. There are also art installations at the entrance to the Rhyolite which are creations of strange beauty among the crumbling infrastructure of the long defunct town.


In America we have a history of extraction and exploitation.  Where there are precious metals we mine them, where there is water we drain it, and where there are open tracks of land we grade them and mold them into human habitation. But not everyone sees the world as an all you can eat buffet of resources. There are people like Marta who adapted to the desert and created beauty out of a found space. There are people who fought to make Ash Meadows a National Wildlife Refuge and who continue to fight for the protection of natural resource. When all else fails it would do us well to remember the fleeting nature of boom towns like Rhyolight. The wilderness; the sun, sand and wind will always take back what is theirs. We can never truly control nature, it is a far better practice to be stewards of the lands and appreciate the beauty in the wild.

As I mused over the desert, open space and my place in it we took a turn and headed into Death Valley National Park; taking the scenic route across the desert mountain ranges to the Eastern Sierra.

To be continued…


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