Death Valley--well, the name is certainly appropriate since not much life thrives there, but it’s not devoid of life, either. I’ve always wondered about Death Valley and what secrets it may hold.
Here are a few general facts about Death Valley:
Death Valley is located in California and Nevada and is 3.4 million acres which makes it the largest national park (established October 31, 1994) south of Alaska. It is North America’s hottest and driest place with a record heat of 134°F and less than two inches of annual rainfall. It is the lowest place on the American continent at 282 feet below sea level.
Though the name Death Valley certainly befits the place, it got the name in 1849 when emigrants headed for California’s gold fields happen to stray into the 120 mile long basin. It took them two months of endurance to forebear the hunger, thirst, and “awful silence.” One of the last to leave peered down from a mountain at the valley and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
An Arial View of Death Valley and the Highway that runs through it
Death Valley is actually a “graben” which is a geological term for a sunken fragment of the Earth’s crust. Believe it or not, there is beauty to be seen in Death Valley. There are rocks sculpted by erosion, colorfully tinted mudstone hills and canyons, shimmering sand dunes, thriving oases, and a 200 square mile salt pan surrounded by mountains that compose one of America’s greatest vertical rises. Once in a rare while spring rains come to Death Valley and trigger wildflower blooms from over a thousand varieties of plants. That must be an amazing sight to see.
More human activity than you might imagine has occurred in Death Valley. Native Americans comprised of Shoshone mostly, found ways to adapt to the challenging desert conditions. In fact, there remains rock art and artifacts that indicate a human presence as far back as 9,000 years.
You might remember the name of a laundry product “Twenty Mule Team Borax” that sponsored the old TV program, “Death Valley Days” way back when. It got its name from the time from 1883 to 1889 when wagon teams used to haul the powdery white borax from mines which have now fallen into ruin.
The Beatty Rental House in the middle of nothing and nowhere in Death Valley
Death Valley possesses stunning landscapes, crystalline air, and deep solitude. Wildlife, though illusive, resides in Death Valley. Bobcats, kit foxes, and rodents come out after nightfall. Desert bighorn sheep forage in the Joshua trees, juniper shrubs, and pines that live on the steep slopes of the mountains. Hawks cruise on the thermals in the clear blue skies.
Now for some fascinatin’ facts:
The Sailing Stones of Death Valley—mysterious stones that move on their own unrelated to gravitational cause. The “sailing stones” of Racetrack Playa near the California border of Death Valley, vary in size from a few ounces to hundreds of pounds. No one has actually seen them move, but the trails they leave and the changes in their location make it clear they DO move. The rocks are composed of dolomite and synite, the same composition of the surrounding mountains. Due to erosion, they break off and tumble down to the smooth, dry ground below leaving their tracks along their path.
Many of these trails are as long as 1,500 feet. That’s a mighty long way from the mountains. Scientists have noted that the Rough bottomed rocks tend to move in a straight line, whereas the smooth bottomed rocks tend to just wander. The sailing stones have been observed and studied since the early 1900s and several theories have been developed to explain how they mysteriously move.
It wasn’t until 2014 when scientists used time-lapse photography that scientists were able to observe the movement of the stones for the very first time prove the 1966 theory about how the movement took place. In the winter of 2014, rain formed a small pond that froze overnight and thawed the next day which created a big sheet of ice that, by midday, was reduced to only a few millimeters in thickness. Driven by a light wind, the ice sheet broke up and accumulated behind the stones pushing them forward. Mystery solved…maybe.
If you would like to see the sailing stones, drive 2 miles south of Grandstand parking area. The location of the sailing stones is always changing, of course, but they can be viewed by walking a half mile toward the southeast corner of the playa.
It’s important to remember not to disturb the rocks or their tracks. If it has been raining leaving the playa muddy, be very careful to avoid approaching the rocks or leaving your footprints. Driving off established roads is prohibited.
Death Valley Pup Fish
Feel Like Goin’ Fishin’?
Fish actually live in Death Valley. They are pupfish that are endangered because they only live in two small locations, Salt Creek and Cottonball Marsh. They are thought to be the remainders of a large ecosystem of fish species that lived in Lake Manly which dried up at the end of the last Ice Age.
View of Death Valley From the Summit of Telescope Peak
The highest mountain in the park, 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, lies only 15 miles from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S. The vertical drop from the peak to Badwater Basin is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
Named by gold prospectors struggling through the area in 1849, Death Valley has been inhabited by Timbisha Shoshone Native Americans; gold prospectors, including slaves; Chinese immigrants mining for silver and borax; Basque immigrants who settled here at the turn of the 20th century; and Japanese Americans temporarily interned here during World War II.
A Lone Hiker in Death Valley--You Better Know What You're Doing
Deaths and strange disappearances:
Sprawled out over a large swath of Eastern California, in the United States is a vast expanse of arid desert wasteland covering around 3,000 sq mi (7,800 km2), known rather fittingly as Death Valley, located mostly within Inyo County, California. This is an unforgiving, desolate land, which is a stranger to rain and known as one of the hottest places in the world, with some the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, at 134 °F (56.7 °C), recorded on July 10, 1913. It is as deadly, inhospitable a place as you are likely to find, that may as well be the surface of some scorching, barren alien planet, yet it has drawn more than its fair share of visitors who flock here to see the bleak, sun blazed vistas or merely out of pure curiosity. Yet for as many people that come here to visit, there are also those who never return, and this is a deadly, ominous place that has earned a rather sinister reputation for mysterious vanishings and deaths.
(1) One of the earlier unexplained disappearances of Death Valley happened in 1958, when 26-year-old Army pilot First Lieut. Paul Byron Whipkey vanished under strange circumstances from Fort Ord, California. On July 10, 1958, Lieutenant Whipkey casually told his fellow officers that he was heading out to get a quick drink in the nearby town, and he would bizarrely be next seen a few hours later and hundreds of miles away in Mojave, California, where he allegedly checked into a motel for no known reason. The next day, he purportedly bought 14 gallons of gasoline and then proceeded to vanish off the face of the earth. The only clue would come 5 weeks later, when Whipkey’s abandoned vehicle was found by California fish and game officers in a remote, forbidding region of Death Valley, 15 miles away from the main road and 400 miles from where he had begun his odd journey in Fort Ord. Whipkey’s dog tags, suitcase, and other personal belongings were found within, but there was no sign of where he had gone.
The Army was quick to dismiss this all as a case of simple desertion, and would later claim that he had died after wandering away into the desert from his car, but there is no evidence at all of what really happened, and Whipkey’s brother, Carl Whipkey, would be deeply skeptical of this assertion, saying that right off the bat the government was being suspicious about it all. He would claim that from the day after his brother’s disappearance the Army had said they were packing up his belongings, of which Carl would say, “Super hyper Super quick. When you catch them packing up your brother’s clothes one day after he disappeared, you get super hyper super quick.” Whipkey’s family has never accepted the Army’s official explanation, and feel that there is something more going on here, perhaps even a cover-up, which is especially believable considering that when Carl Whipkey requested information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the Freedom of Information Act, he was told that all of the files had been destroyed in 1977 for reasons unknown. Carl has said of the strange case: “The government knows what happened to my brother. There are many questions still unanswered. I would be satisfied even if the Army would say they can’t tell us for security reasons. But until then, we can’t rule anything out.”
In the meantime all sorts of theories have popped up, with ideas such as that he was really a secret agent who saw something he was not supposed to or was silenced, that he was a test subject for some military experiment, a victim of nerve gas or atomic tests who was covertly swept under the carpet, or even abducted by aliens. Interestingly, it has been found that shortly before his strange disappearance, Whipkey had developed inexplicable black moles and warts all over his body and had frequently complained of not feeling well, as well as displaying personality changes, appearing “nervous and uptight.” He also apparently had had many of his teeth pulled out and replaced with dentures. What does any of this mean, if anything? What happened to Paul Byron Whipkey? Whatever the answer to that may be is lost to us, as no sign of him has ever been found and all records on the case seemingly lost.
(2) Probably the most well-publicized vanishings connected to Death Valley occurred in July of 1996, when four tourists from Dresden, Germany journeyed here to take in the sights. Cornelia Meyer, 27, her 4-year-old son Max, boyfriend Egbert Rimkus, 34, and his 10-year-old son, Georg Weber, were touring Las Vegas and the surrounding region in a rented Plymouth van. It was probably not the best time to be visiting, as at the time Death Valley was in the midst of a scorching, record-breaking heat wave which saw the already relentlessly, oppressively hot temperatures here soar up to 120 degrees and up. Regardless, they set out from their hotel in Las Vegas on July 22, and headed to Death Valley, where they stopped at a visitor’s center to purchase a book on the valley and a map before heading out to explore the heat blasted landscape. This would be the last time anyone would ever see them again.
On July 29, the family failed to board their scheduled flight home, and when a preliminary investigation was launched there was found to be an odd entry written in a guestbook perched on a metal pole at an abandoned mining ghost town in Warm Springs Canyon, which held the cryptic words “We are going through the pass,” written in German and signed “Conny Egbert Georg Max.” Although it was unclear just what they meant by “the pass,” authorities surmised that they must have meant Mengel Pass, a rather rugged and remote, poorly maintained dirt road that passed through a lifeless barren moonscape on the park’s southwestern border.
The Mini-Van of the Missing German Tourists
No other sign of the missing group of tourists was turned up until months later, when on October 23rd, the abandoned mini-van was discovered by a drug surveillance plane, in an isolated sandy ravine far from any road and well off the beaten path for tourists. The doors of the dust encrusted vehicle were found to be locked, and inside were found to be photo film, empty water bottles, sleeping bags, an information booklet, and a carefully folded American flag most likely bought as a souvenir, as well as a single child’s shoe. Other personal belongings such as wallets, passports, keys, or purses were not found, and oddly no tracks were found around the van either. It was as if they had just vanished into thin air. A beer bottle was found lying on the ground not far away, but it was unclear if this had belonged to the missing group or not.
In the wake of this baffling discovery, over 200 law enforcement officers from both Nevada and California methodically scoured the area on foot, horseback, and from the air, but no further clues were found. For decades the fate of these tourists remained a complete mystery, and theories swirled as to what had happened to them, such as that they had run across nefarious drug dealers and been killed or kidnapped, as well as the ideas that they had staged their own vanishing or that they had simply wandered off into the wilderness and fallen victim to the scathing, inhospitable conditions, but no one knew for sure and there was not a single trace of them or clue to their fate.
(3) In 2009, two hikers were traveling the dangerous and bleak terrain of a remote area of Mojave Desert park when they came across the gruesome discovery of human bones mired in the sand and brush. The remains, which turned out to be of an adult male and female, were speculated to be those of the missing tourists, especially since Cornelia Meyer’s identification was reportedly found lying nearby. However, this is not known for certain and the bones were too damaged by the sun for a successful DNA analysis. Despite this gruesome discovery, the remains have not been positively identified, it still remains a mystery as to what happened to them, and the remains of the two children have never been found.
The case has remained perplexing and widely discussed to this day. What happened to these people? Did they meet with foul play? Were they killed or kidnapped, and if so, who did it and why? Perhaps they just succumbed to the elements in their foolhardy adventure. Why did they drive their vehicle off road out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a merciless heat wave, with no provisions and an inadequate water supply? Were they just very adventurous, foolish, or is there some other inscrutable reason? Were those remains of the missing adults, and even if they are what happened to the kids? These are questions for which it seems the answers have remained evasive.
(4) Though the case of the missing Germans is the most widely circulated and oft-debated disappearance to have occurred in Death Valley, it is certainly not the only one and it isn’t even the weirdest.
Just 2 years later, in the spring of 1998, five women vanished without a trace in the Los Angeles area against a backdrop of assorted other bizarreness. The women were most notable for being part of a sort of New Age cult headed by the enigmatic Peruvian born New Age writer and philosopher Carlos Castaneda, a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA who gathered quite a reputation for his outlandish esoteric theories and eccentric lifestyle. He was an extremely successful non-fiction writer of New Age books on supposed ancient, mystical knowledge of Native Americans in the 1970s and early 80s, selling millions of copies of his books with titles like The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan, and Tales of Power, which continue to sell well even now despite having received a good amount of scathing skepticism and criticism over the years.
Almost as well known as his books was his reclusive ways and the cult-like movement he formed in 1973, which was based on supposed shamanic secrets he called Tensegrity, which actually proved to be quite popular, spawning countless workshops, seminars, and instructional videos. One of the strangest aspects of the movement was an extremely secretive group of women Castaneda kept close by, a harem of sorts, which were referred to as “the witches.” Very little was known about the witches, what exactly their purpose was, or even how many of them there were, and they typically used aliases and absolutely refused to be photographed, all of which just added to Castaneda’s mystique. It is known that they were frequent users of peyote and engaged in all manner of shamanic mysticism and metaphysics, such as vision quests, speaking with animals, and various rituals.
Shortly after Castaneda wasted away and died of liver cancer in 1998, five of these witches, Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar, Amalia Marquez, Kylie Lundahl, and Patricia Lee Partin, all completely vanished in quick succession. The only clue found at the time was Partin’s vehicle, which had been abandoned at Death Valley’s Panamint Dunes. In 2003, some hikers would find a desiccated corpse half-buried in sand out in the desert wearing shredded clothes. When the remains were finally properly analyzed they were found to be those of Patricia Lee Partin, although the cause of death nor why she had been out in such a remote area of Death Valley could not be determined. One former follower of Castaneda has come forward with his own theory on the matter, saying: “Castaneda once told her (Partin), ‘If you ever need to rise to infinity, take your little red car and drive it as fast as you can into the desert and you will ascend’—and that’s exactly what she did. She drove her little red car into the desert, but she did not ascend. Instead, she got out, wandered around, and fainted from dehydration.
None of the remains of the other women have ever been found. It is suspected they most likely committed suicide, a theory bolstered by Castaneda’s alleged frequent praise for the virtues of suicide. Some of his witches were allegedly tasked with finding locations in Death Valley such as caves and abandoned mines that could be used as suitable suicide sites. One of these sites was spookily located not far from where Partin was found.
Did all of these women commit suicide out in the wastelands of Death Valley, or are the others still alive out there, as some believe? There are no answers. No one knows, and it remains a mystery.
(5) Another macabre disappearance and death in Death Valley happened in July of 2103, when Ryan Singleton, a 24-year-old former model and aspiring actor from Atlanta, Georgia, went out for a short vacation to Los Angeles. He decided to rent a car and drive out to Las Vegas. On July 9, Singleton left Las Vegas to return back to Los Angeles, taking a route that passed right through the unforgiving Mojave Desert. At some point, his car broke down near the small town of Baker. He got out and walked towards the town along the highway. Supposedly, a highway patrolman picked him up and gave him a ride into town. Once in town, Singleton made a call to his friend from a gas station and then sat down in the oppressive heat to wait for his friend to come pick him up. When his friend arrived, Singleton was nowhere to be seen.
Searches for the missing man began immediately but there was not a trace of Singleton anywhere. 74 days later his body as found sprawled out in the desert just 2 miles from the gas station, in an area that had already been extensively searched. Spookily, the body was found to be missing nearly all of its internal organs, a very strange detail that authorities would be quick to dismiss as the work of scavengers, even though the rest of the body, including common targets of scavengers were found relatively intact. The cause of death itself could not be determined and was listed as unknown. Even more mysterious is the fact that authorities were very slow and they were unable or unwilling to provide further details or information—not even to Singleton’s family.
Ryan Singleton and Investigation Scene
There has been much speculation that Singleton met up with foul play of some sort, especially since he was not only African American, but also openly gay, but why would they kill him and take his organs? Indeed, there has been much attention placed on the state of the body, with its missing organs, and suspicion over the official statement that it was scavengers as well. The missing organs have rather been blamed on perhaps illegal organ thieves, or that it was the MO of some sadistic serial killer, but the real reason remains a rather bizarre detail that hasn’t been satisfactorily explained.
In fact, nothing about the case has really been explained to any meaningful degree, and it is shrouded in secrecy and unanswered questions. Why would he wander away from the safety of the gas station when he knew his friend was on his way to pick him up, and how could he have gotten lost and died just 2 miles away? If he was targeted by nefarious individuals then what was their motive? And what about those missing organs? Was that done intentionally or was it the work of scavengers, as authorities seem to think or at least want us to think? What happened to Ryan Singleton will likely continue to be another mystery of Death Valley.
Death Valley seems to be a forsaken place that certainly lives up to its name and filled with mysteries.
Tourists in the Death Valley Park
If you plan on visiting Death Valley there are some safety things you may want to keep in mind.
Drink plenty of water: Drink at least one gallon (4 liters) of water per day to replace loss from sweat, more if you are active. Be aware of balancing fluid and electroyte levels.
Avoid hiking in the heat: Do not hike in the low elevations when temperatures are hot. The mountains are cooler in summer, but can have snow and ice in winter.
Travel prepared to survive: Stay on paved roads in summer. If your car breaks down, stay with it until help comes. Carry extra drinking water in your car in case of emergency.
Watch for signs of trouble: If you feel dizzy, nauseous, or a headache, get out of the sun immediately and drink water or sports drinks. Dampen clothing to lower body temperature. Be alert for symptoms in others.
The main cause of death in Death Valley: More people die in single-car accidents than by any other means. To avoid an accident, follow the speed limits, shift to a lower gear on steep downhill grades, and wear your seatbelt.
Dangerous Animals: Never place your hands or feet where you cannot see first. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, or black widow spiders may be sheltered there.
Hantavirus--a potentially fatal respiratory disease--is spread through contact with infected rodents or their urine and droppings. Although no cases have been reported in Death Valley, the virus has been found in deer mice and cactus mice here. Use caution in rodent infested locations such as cabins and mine structures.
Flash Floods: Avoid canyons during rain storms and be prepared to move to higher ground. While driving, be alert for water running in washes and across road dips.
Mine Hazards: Do not enter mine tunnels or shafts. Mines may be unstable, have hidden shafts, pockets of bad air and poisonous gas.
Backcountry Travel: Hikers, backpackers and four-wheelers need to be self reliant and well prepared. Always plan ahead, carry detailed maps and let someone know your plans. Backpackers should obtain a free backcountry permit from any visitor center.
Illegal Marijuana Cultivation Sites have been found in remote backcountry areas of Death Valley National Park. Learn to recognize and avoid these potentially dangerous areas. If you find signs of cultivation:
- Get out immediately! Do not linger to take photos or coordinates.
- Go back the way you came. You've already established that the route is safe.
- Make as little noise as possible. If the garden is occupied, they may not be aware of you.
- Get to a safe location. Run, walk, crawl or hide... just make yourself safe.
- Notify FICC Dispatch (numbers below).
- Be prepared to provide your exact location. Coordinates are great but a physical description will do.
- Get to your vehicle if possible. If you can, drive away.
In Case of Emergency: Dial 911 from any telephone or cell phone. Cell phones may not work in many parts of the park. Do not depend on them.
I am going to admit right now that I have no desire to go to Death Valley. After researching for this article I believe I will steer clear of that desolate place.
Have you ever visited Death Valley? If so, what was your experience there?
I am going to admit right now that I have no desire to go to Death Valley. After researching for this article I believe I will steer clear of that desolate place.
Have you ever visited Death Valley? If so, what was your experience there?
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