Driving north from Baker, California on the 127 Freeway takes you through the deadly heart of the Mojave Desert. Fifty miles to the north, you’ll see sturdy Joshua trees and the dry soil is mostly covered with tough desert scrub. But between Baker and Death Valley, daytime temperatures are often well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit and rain seldom falls. Along this stretch of highway, there’s far more dirt than weeds. And what does grow here can easily be torn from the soil with just one cruel hand. In some places here, there is even less life, just miles and miles of naked sand.
Even the names here warn passers-by, such as Coffin Peak, Bat Mountain, and Death Valley. Mineral wealth and a route to California brought pioneers to this land and now, many of them lie in its desolate graveyards. Whole communities, once thriving, are now cemeteries, scattered ghost towns crumbling between barren hills looking down on this harsh land.
Driving down this lonely, two-lane road, you may feel something special though, but in order to notice it you should pull off the highway. It is a feeling of isolation. Not loneliness exactly, it is a sense of being un-distracted, a pure, clean feeling of being unburdened by daily life. Therefore, hermits, mystics and eccentric have long migrated to the wilderness.
Mystics, dreamers, and madmen have long left their mark on the Mojave. Ancestors of the Shoshone carved countless petroglyphs on stone, some more than two thousand years old. Medical charlatan and radio preacher Curtis Howe Springer founded Zzyzx near Baker. And fifty years ago, not far from the entrance to Death Valley, someone once stopped and settled building an opera house. In my next article, you will hear the story of this special artist.