Tandem, An American Love Story

Desert Dancer

We stood in the cool shade of the verandah arches of the Amargosa Hotel in Death Valley Junction. A hot desert wind whipped pale green salt cedars in the courtyard between the old Spanish-style hotel and the Amargosa Opera House.

We had just filled our water bottles and were enjoying the ambiance of the place before tackling the punishing headwinds for the 27 miles to Shoshone, when we noticed someone else nearby. A thin woman dressed in black floated across the courtyard, disappeared into the Opera House only to reappear suddenly at the end of the verandah, and disappear again.

She wore black sweat pants and sweatshirt and a wide brimmed straw hat and large dark sunglasses. Her face suggested a not-so-young woman, but her body a much younger one; lithe and flowing,.

Through the final arches in the long verandah we could see beyond to a clot of wild horses, turned against the wind and looking toward the place where she had gone, looking, perhaps like us, for her reappearance. In this noon-day sun, wind and dust-blown place, they seemed waiting; posed as for a picture framed in the final arch. Such are the images of the desert; enigma and mystery mingled with the mundane in absolute timelessness.

This place, Death Valley Junction, is the domain of Marta Becket, dancer, painter and desert eccentric extraordinaire. She came here in the 60’s with husband Tom and began the revitalization of this remote ghost town in the Mojave desert.

The opera house is her private stage and she performs solo, twice a week in season, to sold-out crowds who come from as far away as Europe to see the grand-dame of the desert perform. She is known world-wide, and yet little is known about her. She is a most private person. We had been told not to approach her, because she does not like to meet or talk to tourists, strangers, people like us.

The hotel and opera house have been restored from the remains of a company town when mining and ore processing made the desert thrive here for a time. Murals (painted by Marta) animate the walls with images of a formal Spanish culture never seen here. The effect, coming in from such a stark desert environment, can be startling, and most pleasing.

As we talked Marta walked the long Spanish arches toward us, her hat anchored to her head by long slender fingers. She had the walk of a cat, silky, flowing, young in movement, belying her perhaps 70 years. I could see that make-up covered signs of aging, but the bright eyes needed no help in showing a deep intelligence and curiosity.

It was Zippy, our camping-gear laden tandem, that had attracted her attention. She was interested in our travels, and the American and Washington State flags we fly from a fishing pole. After nearly 11,000 miles, they are battle torn; no doubt she could see her desert’s wind was adding to their character.

We had a brief discussion of the dangers of desert travel, and she invited us to return for her show someday. Then, she disappeared as quickly as she had appeared, a desert enigma, if not a mirage, ageless, timeless, the essence of Mojave.

Marta allows Wild Burro Rescue the use of the hotel and surrounding acreage for the annual roundup to rescue the burros from Death Valley National Park.

Marta has herself rescued two domestic burros, and she feeds a number of wild horses that can be seen wandering around the desert near the opera house. Something learned about the private woman. Now I understand the wild horses watching for her.

Marta has saved the town of Death Valley Junction with her years of dedication, and now she feeds wild horses and saves burros also; giving back to the desert that has framed her life for so many years.

Just south of Death Valley Junction, on a small and dry boot-hill overlooking the scattered buildings of town, sits a cemetery of wood and stone markers, surrounded by an iron fence. We stopped, looked and listened to the wind. To the west, wind-scoured distance revealed the Amargosa mountains separating this place from Death Valley, and the place where the sun would set.

I wondered if Marta would be put here someday, and who would be in attendance on that day; who would mourn, who return that lithe body to earth, dust to dust once more. And how long would they return to lay flowers and say prayers. I hope the most faithful mourners will be the wild horses and burros grazing there and the wind singing a song for her dancing feet.

We got back on Zippy and nosed into the gale, settling into the rhythm that pushes the difficult miles beneath us, takes time and toil from our minds and moves us on to the next place in our story.

I dropped a piece of bread and it blew against the spokes, and stayed there while we had lunch. That is a hard wind, and we were pedaling into it.

After a night in Shoshone, we were repaid for past headwinds, with a morning tailwind that blew us into Baker, before noon. What a joy, to fly along at more than 20 mph with so little effort, and finally be able to enjoy the desert without the pain. We can only hope the wind holds for us, we have several thousand feet to climb over 60 some miles tomorrow. However, we discovered that the town’s only cash machine will not, for some reason, accept our kind of card. Something about California law excluding some cards for cash. We’re down to fifteen bucks.

We didn’t go anywhere the next day. I must have had some bad meat at a local restaurant the night before, and my temperature hit 101, along with the other unpleasant symptoms that go with such things, and which I will graciously not describe here. I was so weak I could hardly stand, so those big climbs would have to wait. The worst part was we were wasting a great tailwind, a cardinal sin of touring.

The Joshua Tree Highway, between Nipton, California and Searchlight, Nevada is a very beautiful place. We passed here westbound, but were bucking such headwinds that I hardly looked. Perhaps it is the twilight and the savoring of a long hard climbing day well done.

Joshua trees are really not trees at all, but yuccas, but they are as big as many small trees and can easily pass for them. They blanket these mountains above about 3,500 feet in elevation, standing a respectful distance from each other in the manner of saguaro.

The slantlong light of sunset made them seem imposing and rich in color and texture. This twilight softens them, makes them familiar and comforting companions for a tent and two, to hide away in for a cold desert night.


Tandem, An American Love Story — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the memories, and the update on your own adventures. That last few days back to Sequim was bitter-sweet after more than a year on the road. We’ve never been the same; a good thing.

  2. What a marvelous and beautifully descriptive article about a simply amazing woman – Karen Landis. I’ve had had the serendipitous experience to create and nurture a friendship with Karen after I underwent a hip replacement and three hip fractures and realized I needed to request the local “Meals on Wheels” service. And of course, if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Karen serves the Chino Valley community two days a week by delivering meals to people in my circumstance.
    I loved Karen the first moment I met her. And when we started chatting I knew I had met a soul mate. I’ve been looking all my life for a role model, a hero, an amazing example of humankind. I don’t know if she realizes what an outstanding example she is of a strong, independent, intelligent, talented woman. Sometimes as women, we have a dentency to undervalue ourselves. But Karen, I want you to know you are the real deal. You are just so beautiful in your authenticity. And I a so appreciative of the value you have added to our environment by caring for the land and the animals under your watchful care. Your abilities and strength simply boggle my mind. And thank you for your loving service to me these past four months. You rock girl!

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