Hungry Bill’s Ranch, Death Valley, CA. It’s amazing how a few years can turn a pile of trash into a pile of historically significant trash. Archaeologists spend a lot of time sifting through garbage heaps for what they tell about life, finding treasure in outhouses and dumps, looking for what has survived, what was meant to disappear. We’re not in control of the way our history is told. In the ghost towns and abandoned mining camps of California certain types of trash surface over and over. Old cars, for example, left to quietly take on the patina of the desert. Tin can graveyards always give me a vision of camp life—a steady diet heated over smoky campfires washed down with dubious spring water and rotgut, stuck high up in a lonely canyon, bread baked with rancid flour on a lucky day.
If that’s the case it makes it all the more understandable that one enterprising homesteader thought to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to one of the biggest silver rushes in Death Valley. William Johnson moved in on the Shoshone Indians already living at the well-watered canyon to create the ranch. A rugged path over the Panamint Mountains marks the fresh vegetable route. It led from Johnson Canyon to Panamint City, known as one of the toughest towns in the west.
Hungry Bill’s Ranch is not easy to reach. In Death Valley as in life the best things are hard won. We were lucky enough to score a Jeep for this trip—a huge machine, lifted with rugged tires. The road into the canyon is serious. Boulders, washouts and elevation switches make it fun, depending on your idea of fun. Sure real 4WD enthusiasts do crazy things—they winch their Jeep to the Jeep in front of them, climb these beasts up stone stairs or drive across deep ravines on precarious log bridges. So all things in perspective, but from my point of view, this was an exciting trip.
Where the road ends the trail begins. This is not a metaphor. Enter the canyon along the well-marked path past a clear and bubbling creek with luxurious vegetation. Signs of generations of camps are everywhere, Indian village, homesteaders, and our ilk, the Jeep explorers. You’ll eventually make your way to the site of the old ranch. When the silver rush ended, as these things do, Johnson up and left, and Hungry Bill, a Shoshone Indian, took over the land or took back the land.
There are no big trash heaps here. Instead there are cleared green fields, defunct orchards and low stone walls, works of art, made to last whether by Shoshone Indians or later settlers is unclear. The things that have survived here were meant to survive, and they’re doing pretty well.
Copyright Jenna Blough
Some of this material to appear in Moon Death Valley Guidebook 2015