This Story Begins in a Desert

This story begins in a desert. I’ve often wondered what the definition of a desert is – being Australian our idea of desert is a little skew. To us, deserts are perhaps simply an abstraction of distance. The mind-bendingly vast, scrubby interior of the country. An empty landscape hostile to most of us delicate life forms. But this story opens its pages in another country altogether, in Las Vegas, a desert of its own kind.

Eager to exit the glittery wastelands, we had booked a hire car in early 2020 to get ourselves over to the famed State Route 1, so we could drive up the plunging California coastline. I feel sure we’d booked something up to the task – had it been topless? Wide-winged? Just a little too showy?  However, when we eventually located the supermarket-grade rental car office, it seemed our dream car had been given away. All that was left was a mini-van. And not a glorious, kooky, Little Miss Sunshine thing, but an industrial white block with disturbingly small wheels and enough cup-holders to be concerned about the mechanical integrity of the chassis.

But to the desert with us! Us and our deeply unfashionable chariot! To get to California from Las Vegas, one must traverse Nevada. Now Nevada. That has some deserts. I had requested an overnight stay at Death Valley Junction, because, well, I can’t really recall now. It just felt like something I desperately wanted to see.  Death Valley, though, is kind of the Disney of deserts. It has parking lots and sign posts and Instagram reminders. It’s still spectacular: sunk below sea-level with its miniature cathedrals of salt, lakes of bracken pink, the silver glint of the roads, the disappearing shimmer of the horizon, but it was the drive in the silence of the van, through the low-slung hills, the land scraped clean by aeons of sun and wind, the dry-throated plains that went on and on, with hardly a car passing by us, that gave us a real sense of desert. And of course, Nevada has some of the wildest, and the craziest. The children begged to side-track to Area 51, although I was keen to find Bravo 20, the illegal bombing playground for the US navy, made famous by the photographer Richard Misrach in his desert cantos, with images of craters filled with blood-red fluid and smithereened military vehicles. And of course, just over the state border is the Mojave desert with the dessicating bones of hundreds of abandoned, perishing aircraft, presumably now overflowing post-pandemic like Potter’s Field.

Here I am, though, wallowing around in set-up, without getting to the real story itself. Which was, as we blithely appreciated the immensity of time and space from the hermetic glory inside our mini-van, that we were, as is our wont, I’m afraid, blissfully ignoring the warning light on the dash which had blinked into existence not long after leaving the sadistic outskirts of Vegas. Low tyre pressure, which, of course, couldn’t be right because we’d JUST PICKED THE VEHICLE UP FROM THE HIRE PLACE.

Scene cut for brevity here, but there are not too many ways or places in the world less inviting to discover a flat tyre than coming back to your parked vehicle in the emptying lot at Badwater Basin when the sun has had enough for the day and is clocking out. All I could think about was that ‘one day this will be the beginning of a great story.’

But this is where I was wrong. Because somebody had already told this story, and so much better than me. Again, to resort to some time-saving Nabokovian techniques (garage, spare) we were able to limp our way to the Junction itself, wobbling down the road at a speed recommended on the side of the emergency tyre, not conducive to harmonious behaviour either inside the vehicle or out.

We reached our accommodation. Here I refer you to exhibit one. Armagosa Hotel and Opera House. No amount of description will do justice to crunching into the deserted carpark long after the turquoise of dusk had morphed into a chilling navy-black, to the welcome of only a few buzzing lights. One of our offspring refused to sleep the entire night, staying awake and vigilant for the obviously ghostry that was thumping up and down the uneven faded carpet of the corridors outside the doors with their faulty locks. The place was outlandish, improbable, intoxicating. There was a fully functioning Opera House tacked onto a crumbling ruin of a hotel in the middle, and I do not exaggerate here, of nowhere. But it was this story, the story of Armagosa, that trumped mine, well and truly.

Marta Becket danced for Broadway. She did not, however, want to be constrained. She wanted to dance the dances she believed she was born to. So she took her worldly belongings on the road with her husband, and they drove the wild breadth of the US, unsure how to find expression for her desire to produce her own ballet shows. Cue a flat tyre in Death Valley Junction, in 1967. While her husband was doing the manly thing at the wind-strewn local garage, Marta walked across the road to the ruins of the Armagosa hotel and hall, boarded up with the last of the paint flaking from the walls, and she looked inside and saw her destiny in a single beam of sunlight. She purchased the hall for a dollar and went on to make it her own stage. She performed every single night. If nobody turned up to watch by intermission, she would cut the performance short and return to painting the walls, which filled over the decades with a psychedelically coloured audience of royalty and other regal theatre lovers wearing their finest clothes, silently cheering her on. During one performance, a trio crept in to watch. They were from the New York Times. And the rest, as they say, is history, as obscure as it now is. Marta danced for over four decades, dying at the age of 93, with her last wish that she would swirl into a dust devil above Death Valley.

Below is a link to the Opera House, and Marta’s story.

As you can imagine, I was smitten. In love with the story, with the splendid coincidences, but mostly just because it is the grandest of all human tales: that of divine folly. It is one of the most admirable, endearing, and sometimes world-changing traits. Great, grand folly, despite the critics and detractors, comfortable in their armchairs. Marta, you absolute legend. May you pirouette through the dust over Death Valley Junction forever.

, , ,

About the author

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. Also, she writes.

Learn more