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Death Valley Junction, California, is a very tiny town located near the border with Nevada. It’s surrounded by the Mojave desert and contains more abandoned buildings than people. A hotel and restaurant display the only signs of life should you happen to drive by it on the highway.

I stopped here briefly on my way to Death Valley National Park, and this speck on the map was the highlight of my day thanks to the Amargosa Opera House and the inspirational story of Marta Becket.

Once a busy location for borax mining operations in the 1920s, the town was in full decline in the late 1960s when Becket, a dancer from New York City, stopped in Death Valley Junction to fix a flat tire. Seeing possibility in a run-down meeting hall, she rented the space and began performing her own one-woman shows there.

In the beginning, audiences were small, but Becket performed three shows a week whether there was anyone there to watch her or not. She painstakingly repaired the theatre with the help of donations and painted permanent audience on its walls, albeit one that would fit better in Shakespeare’s time than modern-day California.

The king and queen sit in a royal box at the back, surrounded by courtiers. Nuns attend the same performance as the ladies of a bordello. Actors and dancers wait in the wings for their turn to join the action onstage.

In time, word of this unique theatre and the entertainer whose vision transformed it spread and seats began to fill up on a regular basis. In 2009 when I visited, more than 40 years had passed since she first settled there, and Becket was still dancing for sold-out audiences, many coming from long distances just to see her.

Stepping into the opera house for the first time is an experience, as you come face-to-face with what one person can do with an idea and some determination and guts. Becket created a space for herself to do what she most loved to do in the craziest location.

Death Valley Junction is even now practically a ghost town, but the Amargosa Opera House saved it from its inevitable fate. With Becket now in her late 80s, I hate to think of that charming little building left to crumble in the sand and wind of the desert. Here’s hoping her vision lives on.

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Once upon a time, settlers crossed this continent in the hopes of making a better life for themselves and they spread themselves into practically every nook and cranny they could. Imagine that you are part of such an expedition, making your way into California through the Mojave Desert – it’s hot, it’s dry and generally unpleasant. Then, you come across the view in the photo above. Off to the left, that looks fairly promising – like maybe there’s a lake ahead and before you can stop yourself, you’re delirious and imagining yourself cannon-balling into that kind of strange-looking water.

Sadly for you and any settlers like you, you’d best abandon all hope as you have entered what is now known as Death Valley. Hot as heck, with sparse and scraggly plant life and one of the harshest climates I’ve ever visited, there is no irony in this place’s name. Explorers would discover this fact for themselves if they decided to go searching for that “lake”, for what they would find instead was a great, big salt flat.

This particular area of the basin is known as the Devil’s Golf Course, as in no one but the Devil would play golf there (other portions nearby are flat, including Badwater Basin, the lowest point of elevation below sea level on the continent). Those crevices are formed from various salts, leftover from some prehistoric inland sea; they look like they should be fragile and prone to crumbling, but they are rock solid and super sharp.  It was incredibly difficult to walk around this place because it was so consistently uneven and I could feel everything through the soles of my shoes. There was no give to even the smallest ridge, which would be more likely to poke a hole through your shoe than break off under your weight.  It would be easy to misstep and twist an ankle or, worse, fall and cut or puncture yourself on those unforgiving edges.

I absolutely love going to new countries and finding natural oddities like the Devil’s Golf Course that are like nothing I see here in Canada, and it is only one of many amazing things to see in Death Valley National Park. The world is full of wonders and often in unexpected places. In this case, Death Valley is about a two-hour drive away from  uber-artificial Las Vegas.

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