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Originally published Friday, April 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Life in Death Valley

Eastern gateway to California's Death Valley National Park. Population: 1,154. A couple of gas stations and motels, a few slot machines...

Special to The Seattle Times

BEATTY, Nev. — Eastern gateway to California's Death Valley National Park. Population: 1,154. A couple of gas stations and motels, a few slot machines. No supermarket.

Gargantuan motor homes circle around the Burro Inn Motel and RV park like a skittywampus wagon train, parked so helter-skelter that the only way to get information is to rein up around the corner and wade through the chaos on foot. It's midafternoon. You either find a spot for the night pronto or you'll sleep in your vehicle at the side of the road.

"I never thought I'd see gridlock in Beatty, Nev. We've been coming through here for 40 years and I've never seen anything like this," says a mystified tourist from Arizona searching for a bed. She is the only person in sight who isn't going to, or coming from, Death Valley, and she seems unable to comprehend that the wildflower bloom of 2005 has incited bedlam in Beatty.

She waits 20 minutes, then leaves in a huff: "I don't need this!"

"She'll be sorry," opines another. "Everything in town is booked."

Burro is busy

The Burro's tiny office has one receptionist, two phones ringing off the hook and a line of people about a dozen deep snaking out the door. It takes 30 minutes of patience to get to the desk and another 10 or so between phone calls to transact business.

The harassed but amazingly pleasant receptionist has the phone to her ear again: "Sorry, we have no rooms for that date. ... You might check in Pahrump, but they've been filling up, too."


DAMIAN DOVARGANES / AP

Colorful wildflowers bloom in the park.

A 70-something gent finally reaches the reception desk. He needs an RV space.

Gent: "I'm 50 feet long, if that makes a difference ... and that's if I unhitch the car I'm towing behind my rig."

Receptionist: "Unhitch and I'll put you in a 30-foot space. Just don't block the driveway."

(Don't bother doing the math. Rules must be broken. These are historic circumstances.)

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Thanks to record rain — more than 6 inches instead of the less than 2 inch average — no one alive has ever seen a wildflower bloom in Death Valley like this one. When the television networks got the word they sent camera crews, and you know how it is. If one media outlet has a story, all media outlets need the story.

The response has been part religious pilgrimage, part Woodstock nation. Thousands upon thousands of people — some days up to 10,000 more visitors than is typical — descending on a desert valley with a few narrow, two-lane strips of asphalt running through it.

They don't seem to care that access roads to some of the park's usual tourist attractions are washed out, like the Artist's Drive scenic loop and Dante's View, a favorite spot at sunrise and sunset.

Gold rush

Never mind that motels are booked solid within and outside park boundaries. They are camping in every imaginable type of rig and tent. And when the wind is too strong to pitch a tent, they sleep in their cars or on the ground under bushes, scorpions be damned. No hardship seems too great to see the acres and acres of desert gold sunflowers and purple phacelia sweeping across the desert floor and up the alluvial fans — what the National Park Service is calling "one of the best wildflower blooms in modern history."

If the Burro Inn is a microcosm of the hordes seeking rooms, the rest of the motel/RV park complex is the best imaginable spot for watching fellow flower stalkers.

"Are all these people here to see the wildflowers?" we ask, checking out the crazy quilt of faces and styles seated before us in the Bare Mountain Café, which adjoins a small casino and the Bark at The Moon Saloon.

"Guess so; been like this awhile," says the rheumy-eyed host. "Smoking or non?"

"Non" grants access to a space with lighter blue haze backlit by daylight that's trying to penetrate a wall of windows overlooking the parking lot. The diners seated at the tables represent the most unlikely array of Americans ever to gather in the same room.


DAVID MCNEW / GETTY IMAGES

A visitor photographs a field of desert wildflowers west of Jubilee Pass within Death Valley National Park, Calif. At 282 feet below sea level, Death Valley has the lowest elevation in North America and its summertime temperatures are among the hottest on the planet.

The fit and tan, high-end golf set with expensive sunglasses and cellphones munch on salads. Mr. and Mrs. Obese America with three overtired kids down platters of fries and burgers. A family-reunion-sized gathering of working-class country people is alive with laughter. A pair of gay men, obviously white-collar urbanites, stare glumly into space. Conservatively dressed retired folks in light jackets and walking shoes rub shoulders with young men in tank tops and baggy pants with tattoo-covered arms. Professorial looking men in corduroy trousers and oxford-cloth shirts sit near Harley Davidson riders decked out in full leather.

Flower power

After last fall's message that we are a nation divided into red and blue states, it's downright heartwarming to see a nation united by fields of yellow. As a devoted Republican campground host would say later: "We can agree on flowers."

This modern-day rush to find desert gold is boosting business to record-setting levels within Death Valley National Park as well as beyond its boundaries — for example, at the can't miss 'em Day-Glo yellow buildings sitting on the desert landscape not far south of the Scotty's Castle park entrance. Those would belong to the Shady Lady Ranch. And, yes, it is one of Nevada's legal brothels — winner of the "small brothel of the year" award in 2002 and 2003, should anyone want to know. But we digress.

Asked whether the wildflower bloom has increased business, Shady Lady owner Bobbi Davis says, "Yes, it did. Springtime is always good for us, but I'd say we've had 50 to 60 additional customers."

Brothels and broad-leaved gilia? This is not a typical season in the desert.

Nor is it typical for the Park Service. The visitor center at Furnace Creek is doing an estimated five years worth of business in one season. It is jammed with visitors from across the United States, Canada and abroad — all participating in what at least one writer dubbed "Bloomstock."

Answering plea for help

"The Park Service was totally unprepared for this," says Lori Spoelhof, a ranger usually working at Yellowstone National Park. She and her ranger husband answered a desperate plea for help sent forth as soon as the flower-seeking hordes descended.


DAVID MCNEW / GETTY IMAGES

The color of the desert wildflowers is the best in years, due to one rain storm after another last winter.

The ranger-led flower walks are just one more story within a story. Most springs there is one flower walk daily for a handful of people. This year there are at least two a day and often more than 100 people show up for each one.

"We have the 30-year-olds in the Volkswagen bus who drove all the way from North Carolina to be part of it," Spoelhof says, describing what she's seen. "Then there are the people who say the flowers are better elsewhere but who don't really know what a desert looks like."

But for anyone who loves flowers, there is elation at standing knee-deep in a swath of desert gold, or getting down on hands and knees among the monkeyflower, to shoot photograph after photograph.

"Old-timers say they have never, ever seen anything like this," Spoelhof says, as she welcomes more than 100 people to a 9 a.m. flower walk. "This is the bloom of the century."

As the crowd moves like a ribbon up a dry wash, Spoelhof stops at one plant after another. An animated speaker who engages her audience with wide arm gestures and funny faces, she quickly has the children looking for sphinx moth caterpillars and blister beetles.

Stopping first by desert gold, the signature flower that's turned the valley floor and alluvial fans yellow, she explains that unlike the sunflowers we might raise at home, this species has adapted to survive much harsher desert winds and scorching temperatures. She points to the small, furry leaves that help conserve moisture. "It's like us wearing a long sleeved T-shirt for protection." And unlike our garden sunflowers, she says, each petal of the desert gold is a separate flower capable of making a seed.

Seed scenario

Making a sweeping gesture that includes all we see, Spoelhof says, "All these plants are in a hurry, in a hurry, in a hurry, to make a seed. They have to make at least one fertile seed. ... Some of these seeds have been in the ground for decades ... waiting for the right conditions."


We get an hour of fascinating facts:

• All the white flowers are pollinated at night.

• Yellow evening primrose blooms all day.

• The notch-leafed purple phacelia has an oil that causes a rash. And don't touch the blister beetles that feed on them! They cause a rash, too.

Spoelhof closes by advising the group to drive another five or six miles up the road to the Beatty Cutoff road, and 20 miles or so beyond that to the Titus Canyon trailhead to enjoy more flowers.

One family in her audience has already been to Titus Canyon. "I didn't pay any attention to the flowers," the mother confesses to a bystander. "It's not my thing, really."

But most people on tour with Spoelhof were focused on the plants, even if they'd seen more spectacular blooms en route to Death Valley. A retiree driving home to Canada after wintering in Baja, Calif., said, "The flowers in central Baja are so much better. You can't even see the brown earth they're so thick." Not as many yellows, more purples and pinks.

The truth is that unusually heavy winter rain produced wonderful wildflowers just about everywhere in the southwestern United States this year. That doesn't mean Death Valley, usually the hottest place on earth, isn't making history.

Spoelhof sticks around to answer questions from stragglers then lets a couple of them in on a secret. Take the trail to the left of the bathrooms at the Titus Canyon trailhead and hike toward Fall Canyon, she advises. "There's a patch of monkeyflower that just emerged about four days ago."

Then she adds that there is a niggling question on the minds of rangers worried about the crowds tramping through the fragile desert: "What's happening in the back country? Nobody has time to go see. How many years will it take to recover?"

In a few weeks, when the scorching heat of summer hits Death Valley, the flowers will fade, the crowds will dwindle and Park Service employees will have time to tally statistics and inspect the back country. The numbers will be talked about for decades. So will the impact of so many visitors — all those who can tell their children and grandchildren, "I was there for the Bloom of 2005."

— Karen M. West, special to The Seattle Times

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