Photographers ask me about shooting in Death Valley all the time. And while it’s certainly an amazingly beautiful place…it’s really not ideal for shooting models. Not only is it a National Park (which means you need a permit, and nude photography isn’t allowed) — but it’s also an exceptionally popular destination, which means you’ll be battling crowds of tourists. Add to that the vast distances between attractions (DV covers over 5,000 square miles) and the limited services (no cell coverage, extremely limited Wi-Fi throughout, scarce water and scant gas/food/water)… and it all adds up to being rather unconducive to shooting models. And I haven’t even mentioned the extreme temperatures!
That being said, if you really want to shoot in Death Valley, I’m game…so when a group of photographers recently contacted me about modeling for a 2-day fine art nude workshop out there, I agreed, and drove out there to meet them.
This group was a class act — a group of upwardly mobile professionals who dabble in fine art photography on the side, and like to get together in exotic locales to shoot. Interestingly, there were more women in the group than men; this was one of the only times I’ve ever been photographed by a woman, let alone several women. It was a real trip!
This group was so classy that not only did they hire me and another art model to come out from Vegas, but they even booked us each a room at the motel in Stovepipe Wells, so we could stay overnight. The last time I stayed in DV for a shoot, I had to share a room with the photographer — which was fine, but honestly I really prefer having my own private space at the end of a long day, so I appreciated this new group even more.
Anyway, I drove out from Vegas the night before the shoot, to meet up with the group at Stovepipe and check into my room. The problem was, there is basically zero cell service in Death Valley, and the Wi-Fi isn’t much better — so when I arrived, I had no idea where in Stovepipe to meet up with my group! There’s not all that much to Stovepipe Wells Village — I poked my head in the cafe, the saloon and the motel lobby, but no one knew anything about it. And there was no room under my name at the motel.
Hmmmm! Had I been stood up again? As a freelance model, that’s part of the risk you take — last summer I went all the way out to Lowman, Idaho for a shoot, and to this day I still haven’t heard back from the photographer. But I hesitate to ask for a deposit for shoots, as most photographers would balk at hiring such a demanding “diva.”
In any event, I wasn’t really worried — a hippie friend from Burning Man, who resembles nothing so much as a 700-foot Viking Jesus, happened to be camping nearby at Furnace Creek, shooting the spring wildflowers — so I figured worst case, I would head over there and camp the night with him. In the meantime, I emailed the photographers to let them know I was there, ordered a drink and settled back at the saloon to wait and see what happened.
After sitting there a few minutes, I saw a familiar face — Tomiko, the other model who had been hired for the shoot! I already knew Tomiko from past work I had done for her fetish websites — she runs a veritable fetish empire where she wrestles men and women, and shoots videos of girls being eaten by giant fuzzy monsters. Come to find out she’s also a highly accomplished fine art nude model, and we would both be working together the next two days. Fun!
Anyway, the photographers eventually found us in the saloon, and all was well — except the motel had screwed up the room reservations, and Tomiko and I ended up having to share a room (and a bed). It was OK though — we both got along, and didn’t mind spending the extra time together. Roommates!
So, starting the next morning at sunrise, our little group proceeded to travel all over the park, shooting undercover art nudes at many of Death Valley’s best-known attractions: the low, rolling Mesquite Dunes, the harsh white Badwater basin (lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level), Salt Creek….and of course, the wildflowers.
By random coincidence, our shoot happened to coincide with a once-in-a-decade spring wildflower “Superbloom” — thanks to exceptionally heavy rains last fall, this spring the Valley floor was carpeted in colorful blossoms. It was absolutely beautiful, and really cool that our timing had worked out so perfectly — but it also turned out to be a huge pain in the ass, because thanks to all the national media coverage of the Superbloom(™), every asshole and their Aunt Mildred was out there with a tripod, trying to capture the beauty.
I’m not kidding — the park was jam-packed! Finding a quiet spot to shoot nudes was problematic — even at sunrise out at Salt Creek, we were stumbled upon by a surprisingly angry hiker, who bitched us out for shooting “those kind of photos” in a public place. (He was a 60-ish male, if you’re wondering.) Worse, there was a sense of entitlement with many of the visitors, as though they expected a show, goddammit — I went into the convenience store at Stovepipe Wells to get a cup of coffee one morning, and some Coachella-type chick was relating her disappointment to the clerk: “I’m from L.A., and I’m like, ‘Where’s these fuckin’ flowers?!'” I guess the Superbloom™ wasn’t as Super™ as she expected.
Anyway, despite the crowds we managed to get some quality shooting time in, thanks in part to my knowledge of the park; come to find out, none of the photographers had been there before, so it fell to me to act as location scout. Most of them were from back East, so of course they wanted to hit up a classic Western ghost town; there aren’t really any great ghost towns within the park boundaries, so I took them out to Death Valley Junction one afternoon, to shoot around the Amargosa Opera House…and then another day, I took them to Ballarat.
Ballarat is a ghost town just outside Death Valley’s western boundary; I had camped there once before, when I visited Barker Ranch last fall, and knew it to be pretty half-assed in terms of ghost towns — a few busted up old buildings, some rusty old cars, and an assortment of weathered desert bric-a-brac. Its pièce de résistance is an old truck said to have belonged to Charles Manson — whether or not this is true, the Manson angle is pretty much the bread-and-butter of Ballarat; “CHARLES MANSON” is also carved into the wood above a doorway in the old jail building, allegedly by Charlie himself, and they get a lot of mileage out of that whole shtick.
In any event, our photo group ended up having a fantastic time in Ballarat — the caretaker, a local desert rat named Rock, came out and gave us a tour of the grounds, pointing out various points of interest and even letting us taste some home-brewed booze whipped up from corn feed sprouting in a wet burlap sack under an old sleeping bag. Yum!! You could tell hanging out in a ghost town drinking moonshine with desert rats was way outside the usual scope of these nice, bourgeois photographers…and they loved it.
Anyway, according to a hand-lettered sign hanging on the front porch of the “General Store” (a converted old gas station covered in anti-government propaganda and pinup posters, with a cooler full of sodas as its only inventory), Ballarat is a “Freedom Zone;” in that spirit, Rock let us shoot nudies all over town — on Charles Manson’s truck, in the jail, and on the charmingly dilapidated front porch of the Store. I even posed for a photo with Rock himself, and to thank me, he gave me a quart of moonshine and a bottle of Malibu Rum. Score!! It was a fantastic afternoon, and every one of us enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. I really, really liked that group of photographers — they were wonderful.
Before we left, Rock also gave me a stack of hand-printed fliers he had made copies of, advertising the upcoming “FREEDOM DAYS” celebration he was about to host at Ballarat — a sort of four-day libertarian blowout in the desert, where all comers were free to do as they pleased: camp out, shoot guns, blow up fireworks, run around naked and play music: “For those want to creat there own music festable. Bring It On.” FUCK!! How could I say no to that?! It sounded like something out of the early days of Burning Man, before all the ravers and douchebags took over; could this be the new Burning Man?! I vowed I would come back and find out!
But before I hit up Freedom Days, I had another Death Valley adventure on the agenda. Ever since I visited Barker Ranch last fall, I had been wanting to go back — but this time, instead of coming up super-treacherous Goler Wash from the Ballarat side, I wanted to approach from the Vegas side, up Warm Springs Canyon. At Saline Valley Hot Springs last October, an old hippie had tipped me off to the existence of some abandoned stone cabins out there — one of which, the Geologist’s Cabin, was said to be really nice, with a stone fireplace and a fully-equipped kitchen, including 100-year-old pots and pans….and a sound system! I found this extremely hard to believe….but my curiosity had been whetted, and I really wanted to find out for myself.
Alas, every time I tried to plan a trip up Warm Springs Canyon, I was thwarted by road conditions. But I finally got it together when a friend of a friend randomly emailed me proposing another trip out there — he’d read my previous blog, and was down to try the eastern approach. This guy is not only a pyrotechnician and stagehand for a famous bad-boy magician, he’s also a seasoned backcountry explorer with a 4×4 Jeep…so I knew I’d be in good hands. To round out the expedition, I also invited a few other people…who ended up inviting other people…and so it ended up that a group of 8 strangers met up one afternoon for this trip into the one of the most remote corners of the backcountry anywhere. But, hey — why not? A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet!
Seriously though, I was kinda nervous about how this disparate band of adventurers would get along. Aside from me and the pyro stagehand, I also invited my sister and this handsome, strapping kid from Montana I met at Deep Creek Hot Springs a few weeks ago, along with a brainy sometime-NPR journalist friend of mine and my hula-hooping acidhead travel companion of late, Ms. Firecracker — who in turn invited a stoner kid she knew from the drum circle, plus her pro-adventure-tour-guide friend, who travels around in a fully-outfitted Sprinter van, which he intended to drive all the way up the canyon to the cabins. I was the common thread, but even I didn’t know everyone — so it really was a group of strangers who met up in the desert that day.
We all met up at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center — my sis from L.A. in her 4Runner, the pyro guy in his Jeep, and the rest of us in the Sprinter van, packed in like a nomadic band of murderous hippies. After introductions all around (“Pyro, meet Sis, Firecracker, Stoner, Sprinter, NPR and Montana”) and a brief map consult, we headed down Badwater Road — past the Lowest Point in North America™, where Aunt Mildred and all her pals were still photographing wildflowers, and off onto the desolate dirt roads leading into isolated Butte Valley. Turning off the pavement onto the dirt of Westside Rd. was an amazing feeling — we left the madding crowds of the perfumed bourgeoisie in the dust, and careened forward into the wilderness, to meet our destiny.
The road wasn’t too bad at first; after a bit of deep sand, conditions evened out and we were able to make good time about halfway up the canyon, to the abandoned, fabulously dilapidated Warm Springs Mine compound, where there are several old buildings still standing, some of which are in surprisingly good shape. There’s even an in-ground swimming pool filled with warm spring water flowing down the hillside from a mountaintop source — totally unexpected, and totally surreal!
After poking around the grounds awhile and hiking up to the source pool, we took note of the astonishing number of people around (for such an isolated area, it was pretty busy, thanks to the Superbloom) and figured we’d better get back on the road, so we could reach the cabins before they were all taken! We only had another 10 miles or so to go, but because the road was so shitty, the van couldn’t go very fast; the road got really rough after leaving the mining camp, but Sprinter didn’t want to leave it parked, so he kept inching on up the canyon.
And so our little caravan poked its way further up into Butte Valley, mile by mile, in the gathering gloom of a chilly, blustery Death Valley twilight. The road finally got bad enough to where Sprinter had to park the van, and we all piled into the Jeep and my sister’s 4Runner for the rest of the journey. Pyro had done a lot of research and was confident of the route, but the rest of us were getting kind of nervous — well, all of us except Firecracker and Stoner, who had dropped acid sometime after leaving Warm Springs.
FINALLY, just as the sun was setting we arrived at the famed Geologist’s Cabin — but it was already taken 🙁 There were cars parked out front, lights in the windows, and a plume of smoke wafting cheerfully from the chimney. Dammit, I knew it!! Would we ever find a place to shelter for the night?
Knowing that there were two lesser cabins somewhere ahead, we soldiered on through the dark…and just a half-mile or so past the Geologist’s Cabin, we came upon a gate — it was Mengel’s Cabin, a/k/a Stella’s Cabin, the least-nice of the three, but at this point we were just stoked to find shelter for the night! By now it was really dark, really windy, and really cold — we just wanted a place to stay!! We pulled into the front yard, closed the gate behind us, and started unloading our gear.
In our desperation, this busted up little cabin looked like the Ritz-Carlton! It was rustic as fuck, but met our needs: a wood-burning stove, a rudimentary kitchen with sink and (unplugged) refrigerator, some bookshelves, a table and a few chairs. Pyro set about building a fire and NPR whipped up some Blue State hors d’oeuvres in the form of tapenade- and avocado-topped water crackers, while Montana strung some Christmas lights, Firecracker busted out her LED hula hoop, and I broke out the mushrooms. The party was on!
We really did have a great time in that little cabin that night — we sat up talking and dancing and listening to music, reading the weird old magazines and notebooks that had been left behind by past overnight guests, trying not to be freaked out by the various accounts of sleepless nights due to the scurrying sound of rats in the attic. We knew there were rats around because of the poop pellets in the corners, and signs posted warning of Hantavirus — but we just tried to be careful, and not stir up any dust. (So far none of us has exhibited signs of Hantavirus…fingers crossed.)
After the conversation finally ran out, we lay down a huge tarp on the cement floor and then piled all our blankets, sleeping bags and air mattresses into a huge sort of cuddle puddle in the middle — as far away from the walls and corners as possible. I hate to think what all kind of bugs, spiders and rats were running around that place all night as we slept…but we all woke up in the morning no worse for wear, so it was all good! Character-building, I guess you could call it 🙂
The morning sunshine revealed our little cabin to be just as busted-up as it had appeared in the firelight the night before — if not moreso — but the valley we were in was absolutely amazing. The Superbloom may have been at its tail end down in Badwater, but up here in vast, desolate Butte Valley, there were wildflowers everywhere! It looked like something out of the Sound of Music — you half expected Julie Andrews to come cartwheeling out at any minute. It was spectacularly, breathtakingly beautiful — way out in the boondocks, far from Aunt Mildred and the impatient L.A. hordes. Where’s the fuckin’ flowers now, bitch?!
After frolicking about in the morning sunshine awhile, we packed up all our gear (and trash — plus some pre-existing litter, in the spirit of Leave No Trace) and headed on. The original plan had been to either drive or hike up the rest of the way over Mengel Pass to Barker Ranch, which no one else in my group had been to…but because Sprinter’s van traveled so slowly on those mountain roads, we had to leave that excursion for another day, and reluctantly decided to just head back down to the Warm Springs Mine encampment for a leisurely picnic lunch, instead. There was goat cheese and a baguette and stuff waiting in the van, so that sounded pretty good to all of us!
But before heading all the way down, we decided to stop off and see if the Geologist’s Cabin was available; even if there were still people there, we wanted to check it out anyway. As it happened, the previous occupants had already left…and we had the place to ourselves. And O……..M………G!!! That guy at Saline Valley Hot Springs wasn’t kidding!!!!!!
This little cabin in the middle of nowhere is amazing — tightly chinked stone, with nary a rat dropping in sight, and a fully-equipped kitchen including well-stocked pantry, stone fireplace, sink and formal dining table and chairs in front of a picture window looking out over all of Butte Valley. A bookshelf holds books, games, knick-knacks….and sure enough, a solar-powered sound system!!! My Deep Creek friend hooked up his iPhone, and before you know it, the sweet sounds of house music were echoing through the cabin and grounds — there were also speakers on the front porch, by the firepit, overlooking the valley. Fantastic!!!!
The solar panel also powered electric lights — in the cabin and in the outhouse, which was the cleanest outhouse I’ve ever had the pleasure of pissing in. I’m telling you, this cabin was out of this world!!! We all got so excited, we started immediately planning a return trip — next time with the ingredients for a fancy, formal dinner at that fabulous dining table! Maybe a sort of Mad Tea Party, with mushroom tea!
It was really hard to tear ourselves away from the surreal luxury of the Geologist’s Cabin…but we finally did, and headed back down the valley to the Warm Springs Mine, where we all enjoyed a fantastic lunch in the sun. We were all abuzz with plans to return to Butte Valley ASAP — but you know how it is. Realistically, we probably won’t be able to get back there until the fall — but hey! It’ll be an amazing reunion, for sure 🙂
After lunch, we cruised down the rest of the way to the paved road, and finally went our separate ways — my sis back to L.A., Pyro back to his place, and the rest of us back in the van to Vegas. We were sunburned, slap-happy and totally exhausted — but guess what?? Freedom Days in Ballarat was just around the corner. No rest for the wicked!!
Now, I’ll be honest with you — I was so worn out, the thought of skipping Freedom Days did cross my mind. But then I remembered how much fun I’d had in Ballarat during my photo shoot, and I knew I couldn’t miss it! I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect — would it really be the new Burning Man? Or would it just be a bunch of cranky rednecks spouting anti-gov’ment rhetoric between rounds of target practice?? Only one way to find out — so I gathered up as many people as I could from Vegas, and headed back out to Death Valley.
This time, I was joined by the feisty Ms. Firecracker (who hates to miss a party even more than I do) and strapping young Montana; everyone else from the Cabin trip had to work. But a few other Vegas hippies from the drum circle crowd planned to meet us out there, including this fascinating dreadlocked, pierced, combat vet hairdresser/drag aficionado who I had somehow never met before. All in all, it was shaping up to be another good crew.
Firecracker, Montana and I got there first, and it was awkward as fuck — we rolled into Ballarat on Friday afternoon, and there wasn’t really anyone there, other than a few old guys drinking beer on the porch and some RVs parked off in the distance in the camping area. But the guys on the porch were super cool (probably because Firecracker and I were basically naked, celebrating our Freedom to do so) and we made friends in no time, setting up our tent in the little area beside the store next to all their RVs and toyhaulers. Still, you could tell my squad was like, “WTF? You dragged us all the way out here for this?!”
Fortunately, before long a bunch of other nutters rolled in — two gay guys on their way back from photographing the wildflowers, a couple of Marines up from Twentynine Palms, a group of artists from L.A. who set up camp across the way in front of Charles Manson’s truck, and a few assorted dirtbikers and off-roaders. Meanwhile, one of the old-timers who had been there when we arrived also had his young sons running around…so by the time the rest of the Vegas crew showed up, it ended up being a bona-fide party. An unconventional crew — but a party nonetheless!
The first order of business, after making some drinks, was to take a ride out to Indian Ranch — come to find out, the guy who owns Ballarat used to come out there as a kid because his parents owned nearby Indian Ranch, which in those days was a true oasis-style sort of RV park/summer camp complete with swimming pool, cabins, clubhouse, bar and grill. Unfortunately, some years ago the local Native Americans demanded their land back, and the compound was dismantled…and now sits rotting away in the baking desert sun, abandoned and forgotten.
Anyway, we all piled into the one old-timer’s truck and headed down the road to check it out, me bumping along in the back along with a pile of firewood, gas cans, the little kids and one of the gay guys. What a fun ride!!! Those little kids were really cool, I have to say — even riding in the back of a truck with a semi-naked hippie freak and a gay guy didn’t faze them. That’s Freedom Days for ya!
After we returned from Indian Ranch, we made some more cocktails, built a campfire, and a couple of the old-timers fired up their grill to make everyone cheeseburgers. Meanwhile, me and a couple of my squad ate some mushrooms — and before you know it, the party was on again! I’m here to tell you, no one parties like they do in Ballarat — we had moonshine martinis and maracas, fireworks and LED hula hooping, pot-smoking and mushroom-eating, beer-drinking and ass-shaking…with the nasally twang of Tom Petty presiding over it all: “YessssI’m FREEEEEEEEEE……..FREE FAAAAALLLEEELLIN’!” Ain’t no party like a ghost town party!
In true festival style, there were options — if you got tired of the Tom Petty jamboree at the General Store, you could walk across to the L.A. artists’ camp, where they had a separate campfire going in the shadow of Charles Manson’s old truck. Those artists had their own, totally distinct vibe going on over there — otherworldly music, moonshine-infused pineapple chunks, and a trunk full of costumes that the one guy was supposedly going to bust out at some point to take artsy Polaroids in. WOW!! I’m here to tell you, until you’ve danced by a campfire in the shadow of Charles Manson’s truck wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and a sheer kimono under a sky full of stars…you haven’t lived!!!
Then the moon came up, bathing Ballarat in a silvery light, and it was even freakier! The General Store crowd put on some slow, old-time Louis Armstrong, and Ms. Firecracker danced to it with her LED hoop in the fireglow, while somebody set off fireworks into the desert night above us. At some point, a couple of the L.A. artists got into a squabbling match, broke my hand drum, and then one of the guys busted the other guy’s arm. Far out! It’s not a party until someone gets hurt…ya know?
Around this time all us hippies retreated into our 6-person cuddle puddle tent. We hadn’t put the rainfly up, so we could see the moon and all the stars right through the mesh roof… and we drifted off one by one, bathed in the magical glow. What a great night!
In the morning, things were even better. One of the L.A. artists started a bluegrass jam on the front porch of the store with one of the locals, and the other two squabbling artists made amends, with the one guy bandaging the other guy’s arm with a cardboard splint. Awwww! Then Rock (the caretaker of Ballarat) lit a fuse around the neck of a beer bottle, breaking it off to make a bottleneck slide, so that
the guy with the newly-splinted arm could join in the jam on his guitar as well. I joined in on maracas, and it was one of the best jams I’ve ever been party to!
Then, the Marines from 29 Palms brought out their AKs and ARs and whatnot, and we all went out back to the desert for a little morning target practice. There’s nothing like the smell of gunpowder in the morning, I tell you — there were half-naked chicks with guns everywhere you looked, just like the Manson days. That’s Freedom Days! We blasted off a few rounds into an old barrel, then marched around waving a Gadsden Flag singing the Star Spangled Banner. All of this, incidentally, still wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and a sheer kimono. What a morning!
Now, I know I say this about a lot of places I go to — the Cat Ranch and Deep Creek come to mind — but Ballarat is one of those places that’s really hard to leave. You can sit in the shade on the front porch out there for hours, just waiting for new people to roll up — even when it isn’t Freedom Days, all kinds of people from all over the world come through on their way into Death Valley, so you get to meet all kinds of interesting characters!
On this particular morning, a guy rolled in to park his car for a run up Surprise Canyon to the Panamint City ghost town — a total distance of 16 miles there and back! He was one of those nutty fitness freaks who live for running; he sold everything to buy a camperized Sprinter van and is writing a book about summit running, which is the practice of running up and down mountains all over the west. Sometimes, he straps a paraglider on his back and simply flies back down the mountain — how about that?! He invited me to join him on this morning’s run (he supposedly had extra shoes for me), but although I’m fit, I ain’t that fit; instead, we made plans to go paragliding when he’s in Vegas later this summer.
With people like that rolling in all day, you can see why it was hard to leave! To make matters worse, more and more locals were starting to arrive for Freedom Days, bringing with them an assortment of drums and musical instruments for the big Saturday night jam sesh — one guy rolled in with a huge sort of glockenspiel he’d made from PVC pipe in the back of his truck, and another chick brought her congas. This being my first Freedom Days, I didn’t realize that Saturday night was the big night — the old-timers were planning to make steak and potatoes and homemade macaroni and cheese, and it was shaping up to be another fantastic evening! Alas, the rest of my crew wanted to go back to Vegas for a drum circle that night, so I had to tear myself away…but I vowed to myself that I’d be back.
Before rolling out, we all got together one last time for a big group photo on the front porch of the General Store — one of the L.A. artists took it with his camera, and I sincerely hope he sends me a copy, as it was a great testament to everything I think is right with this country TODAY. We were a really diverse, rag-tag band of kooks — lefties, righties, hippies, rednecks, kids, old-timers, gays and straights — but by golly, we all got along swell, and had a fantastic time partying together, celebrating our freedoms. And guess what?? I can’t wait to do it again next year! Now that I know what to expect, I’m already making plans for a comeback — in mad style. WHO’S WITH ME???
Anyway, I finally rolled out of Ballarat, and left Death Valley for the third time in recent weeks. In the rearview mirror, Aunt Mildred and her pals were still photographing the dregs of the Superbloom; the summer heat had already started creeping in, and the wildflowers were wilting one by one. Before you know it, they’ll be gone — and with them the crowds, and Death Valley will go back to doing what it does best: baking quietly in solitude and scorching heat. The kangaroo rats will take over Stella’s Cabin, the rattlesnakes will have the run of the Warm Springs pool, and out in Ballarat, Rock will sit sipping a beer in the shade of his front porch, waiting for the next tourist to come through: “Ya see that? That’s Charles Manson’s truck over there.”
Where’s the fuckin’ flowers, you ask? They are all over the place.
You just have to get out there and open your eyes!
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