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The White Heart of Mojave’: A trip to Death Valley

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In the early 1920s, Edna Brush Perkins, a Cleveland socialite, and her pal Charlotte decided to come to California.

“Charlotte and I knew the outdoors a little. Though we were middle-aged, mothers of families and deeply involved in the historic struggle for the vote, we sometimes looked at the sky.”

Gazing at a map, Edna saw “a great empty space just east of the Sierra Nevada Range and the San Bernardino Mountains vaguely designated as the Mojave Desert.”

“Was the desert just a white space like that?” she wondered. “The word had a mixed connotation; it suggested monotony, sterility, death — and also big open spaces, gold and blue sunsets, and fascination. We recollected that some author had written about the ‘terrible fascination’ of the desert. The white blank on the map looked very wild and lonely. We went to Los Angeles on the Santa Fe [Railroad] in order to see what it might contain.”

In those days, there was no paved road into the Mojave. And when they arrived in Los Angeles and aired their plan to explore it, they were met with discouragement on every side.

“Our friends drew a dismal picture of us sitting out in the sagebrush beside a disabled car and slowly starving to death. ‘You could not fix it,’ they said, ‘and what would you do?’ We suggested that we might wait until somebody came along. They assured us that nobody ever came along.”

“The White Heart of Mojave” (1922) is Perkins’ lyrical comic memoir of the trip that, to her and Charlotte’s everlasting credit, they took anyway. Along the way they had to ditch their borrowed red roadster, hire a couple of shady guides and go in on pack mules. But they made it to Death Valley.

You can still check the book out of the L.A. Public Library. Chapter titles include “The Strangest Farm in the World,” “The Burning Sands” and “The High White Peaks.” 

Inspired by Edna and Charlotte, last month I visited Death Valley myself.

It wasn’t my first visit. I’ve written here of one of my heroes, Marta Becket of the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction. Marta died earlier this year, and my second reason for going was to stay at the Amargosa Opera House — her destiny and vocation — and pay my respects. 

Death Valley was remote in 1922 and it’s still pretty remote now. From L.A., one way is to take the Interstate 15 Freeway to Baker and then set out on 127 North. Cell reception is nil, and towns are extremely few and far between. The first night I stayed in the hamlet of Tecopa, population 150.

The next morning, I drove through Shoshone and, 15 or so miles on, entered the park. “Next services 72 miles,” a sign advised, and over the next 60 miles I passed exactly one car.

I pulled over and parked at Badwater, the lowest point in North America, which consists of acres and acres of what looks like snow, but is actually pure white salt flats. You can walk way, way, out — it looks like you could walk forever. All alone, surrounded by mountains, and not a soul to see or hear you, you can have a very intimate chat with God.

I had done that very thing 10 years before. Walking through the whiteness, I was more tired than I’d realized. I felt that I’m unmarried and childless. I felt my age. 

Ten years before, the way I remembered it, I’d sat on some kind of log (though what a tree would be doing out there I don’t know) or rock. There was no log or rock this time.

So I laid down out there, on a bed of salt, with my jacket for a pillow and the sun beating down on my face.

Ten years ago in Death Valley, I had prayed for a specific thing. Not a selfish thing, but for a block to be removed, a wound to be healed, a situation to resolve. That hadn’t happened — and I didn’t pray for that now.

I thought of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who pictured herself as a little ball that the child Jesus could kick about into a corner, that he could pierce if he liked.

I thought, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.”

I thought how Badwater would be a good place to be martyred. A hawk flying over would see a field of endless white and a tiny red dot in the middle of it.

Yet my feeling wasn’t despair, nor depression, nor even doubt.

Edna Brush Perkins knew:

“We walked on and on, full of a strange, terrible happiness. … We stood listening to the silence. It was immense and all enveloping. No murmur of leaves, nor drip of water, nor buzz of insects broke it. It brooded around us like a live thing.

“‘Do you hear the universe moving on?’ Charlotte whispered.

“‘It is your own heart beating,’ I told her, but I did not believe it.

“We had found Mojave.”

 

Heather King is a blogger, speaker and author of several books.

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