On the Road, Part 6: Death Valley

by Kiko Matsing

Death Valley
Source: Google Maps

Amargosa Opera House

What, of all things, is an opera house doing in the middle of the desert? I had stumbled upon Todd Robinson’s documentary Amargosa at UF’s Library West. It tells the story of Marta Becket, a New York danseuse, who, on her way with husband to an engagement in the spring of 1967, found themselves with a flat tire at Death Valley Junction. There she discovered the skeletal remains of Mexican Colonial-style adobe buildings–part of the company town built by Pacific Coast Borax in 1925. It had a recreation hall on the northeast end that had been used as community center for dances, church services, movies, funerals, and town meetings.

I came around the back and looked through the hole in the back door. And it was dark, a very large dark cavern and sunbeams pierced through the cracks in the walls and hit a doll’s head that stared back at me. And kangaroo rats were running around and I could see an old calico curtain hanging from a track. And I really did feel as though I was looking at the other half of myself. Like I was looking in a mirror…

(from “Dancer, Artist Enlivens Death Valley Junction”, Ina Jaffe, NPR)

Marta–already in her forties and at the end of her dancing career–decided to stay, determined to repair the decrepit theater and establish a refuge for her art. She performed ballet and pantomime three times a week, even when no audience showed up: “That was like a dress rehearsal. A dancer has to work. I mean, you have to have even a dress rehearsal so that you have something there when someone does show up.” In fact, she created an audience for herself, by painting the walls with theater denizens from Spanish Renaissance–royalty and commoners, lovers and drunkards, Indian jugglers, flamenco dancers, bullfighters, harlequins, monks, nuns, and whores. The last she based upon the ladies who worked at a bordello across the border in Nevada. “The madam heard that we were opening this theater here, so she brought her girls here every month to my performances. For culture…”

It took four painstaking years to complete the walls, and another two to add a trompe l’oeil vaulted ceiling. It was all-consuming work; her husband eventually abandoned her. Today, in her eighties, she still performs a “sitting-down show”–now to packed crowds of admirers and the curious from all over the world. We sat at dinner behind the booth of a French family who was also staying at the motel adjoining the opera house. An interesting structure in itself, it had in fact been used as a setting in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. (Now why does that not surprise me?)

I once took a train from Madrid to Lisbon to look for a nondescript street called Rua Dos Douradores, whose only significance was being the setting of Fernando Pessoa’s imaginative life as Bernardo Soares (The Book of Disquietude). I find myself, this New Year’s day, off on the same whim, traveling thousands of miles, to admire the imagination of a woman who tenaciously clung against all odds to the creative life.

Death Valley Junction #5 Death Valley Junction #2
Amargosa Hotel Lobby #11 Amargosa Hotel Lobby #1
Amargosa Motel #1 Patio #1
Marquee Props #2
Theater Mural #9 Theater Mural #1

Sources and Links:

(Update: Marta Becket has since retired from performing. For the 2009/2010 season, Sandy Scheller created the show If These Walls Could Talk in collaboration with and inspired by Marta Becket).


The most visited place in Death Valley consists of shallow pools that dry up into salt flats. It is the lowest point in the US; a sign above us, propped against the hills, indicate where the sea level should be. It says we are 282 feet below it. Badwater, like other place names in Death Valley, evoke the extreme harshness of its environment: Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Teakettle Junction, Desolation Canyon, Funeral Mountains, Dante’s Peak, Hell’s Gate, Devil’s Cornfield. Other place names reflect its 140 years of boom and bust mining history: Leadfield, Chloride City, Charcoal Kilns, Saline Valley, Sulfur Road, 20 Mule Canyon.

Badwater, however isn’t all that bad. Despite average highs of 116 F in summer, the pools do not completely dry up. Pupfish, a local resident, thrives in the hot, saline puddles.

Salt Flat #4 Salt Flat #1
Bridge Walk Craters
Salt Pool #1 Sea Level

Zabriskie Point

The gulch and gullies of Zabriskie Point are one of the most sublime sights in Death Valley. Humans don’t belong here, in this landscape that is absolutely otherworldly. No wonder George Lucas shot parts of Tatooine here, while it signified desolate Martian terrain in the 1964 scifi flick Robinson Crusoe on Mars. This place is unlike anything on Earth; it must be from a galaxy far, far away.

Erosion #4 Erosion #6
Bench #1 Wall
Erosion #7 Erosion #8

View all Flickr photos of my trip to the Southwest.