Titus Canyon, Death Valley NP

Blame It on the Mine: A Desert Marathon Is Born

‘I think we get up into the pines briefly before dropping down into the canyon,’ announces my friend, Rick, between deep breaths. Puzzled, I look up from the gravel road we are running at the Grapevine Mountains ahead and do some quick math. Let’s see. We started a few miles back at about 3,500 feet. The pinyon-juniper zone generally begins around 6,500. That’s at least 3,000 feet of climb. I thought this was a downhill run. I figure Rick’s pulling my chain.

It’s a bit after noon on a blustery late-February day and the fact that I’m enroute to Titus Canyon on foot has got me jazzed, so much so in fact that I’m not even particularly annoyed by the dirty dozen caravan of Elements, each a different color, that rumbles past. What is this, a friggin’ Honda commercial? What was that Abbey said about not being able to see anything from inside your metal contraption? To really experience the harsh beauty of the desert you’ve got to get out and crawl around on your hands and knees awhile. I figure being upright in a pair of running shoes will suffice. I’ve been dreaming about this run for a decade, ever since my first trip to Death Valley in 1998. The car-drop logistics of this 26+ mile point-to-point journey have always been a deterrent, resulting in a disproportionate amount of my Death Valley experiences involving fantasizing about Titus Canyon while soaking up the sun poolside in Furnace Creek, after some consolation-prize adventure in the southern end of the valley.

Today, however, I have a crew, the trail-running world’s equivalent of rock star treatment. Rick’s wife, Barb, and a mutual friend have driven ahead several miles in my truck, a roving aid station of sorts loaded with mouth-watering grub and a cooler full of beer. Seven miles into the journey, after a gradual climb up the Grapevine’s eastern flanks, and just as the rate of ascent begins to quicken, we round a corner and the truck comes into view. Rick, nursing a recently-acquired injury, opts for a spot on the crew vehicle and immediately trades in his hand-held bottle of electrolyte drink for a microbrew. It’s now a 3:1 crew to runner ratio. My Bobby Brown just got upgraded to a Mick Jagger, minus the lips.

I’m feeling really good and thinking about cranking it. While wolfing down two five-star hummus and avocado sandwiches, made with Great Basin garlic sourdough bread, I load up with the runner’s equivalent of fast food: chocolate GU, an easily digestible form of carbohydrate that looks but does not taste like a cross between brownie batter and Nutella. Grabbing a couple of freshly topped off water bottles, I continue on, looking over my shoulder briefly to fire off a friendly warning, ‘That cooler better not be empty when I get done.’

As the ascent continues, I settle into a comfortable climbing rhythm, first topping out over White Pass at 4,900’, then, eventually, after a short bomber descent, Red Pass at 5,300’, what turns out to be the high point of the route. My desire to run hard is in constant battle with the urge to stop, take photos, and drink in the amazing views. It being my first journey through this area, my camera ends up working at least as hard as my legs. Atop Red Pass a cold wind is whipping, but I linger anyway, mesmerized by the barren landscape laid out below me, the upper reaches of Titus Canyon now within sight. I see the pines Rick must have been thinking of, several miles to the north on the upper reaches of Grapevine Peak, at 8,700’, the highest point in the range. I could use their shelter right about now, I muse, but then again I’m glad my climbing for the day is done. Pulling on a windbreaker, gloves and a beanie, not your standard Death Valley gear, I pick up the pace on what is a fast several mile descent into the leftovers of mining infamy: Leadfield.

This ghost town may just be the shortest-lived outpost in mining history, a one-hit wonder of the west, with an illegitimate gold-record twist. Enticed by exaggerated claims of the area’s potential, by August of 1926, a road was built, a post office opened and 300 people had moved in, dreaming of imminent wealth. Six months later the town was abandoned. It seems, according to one telling of the story, that some of Leadfield’s more creative promoters had gone so far as to haul in richly-veined ore from other claims in order to give the impression that the rock being extracted from the area’s mine was more lucrative than the geological reality had intended. The song being played to attract Leadfield believers turned out to be, at least partly, sung in the voice of a different mine. This Milli Vanilli of mining towns is not without its legacy, however. Just as the dreadlocked duo of the late-80s turned lip-synced lyrics into a million-selling album that never should have been made, before the truth was revealed, the resultant boom left behind a road that, otherwise, never would have been built.

What the area failed to produce in gold nugget wealth, it has more than made up for in recreational riches. The road I have been running is one of the more popular areas of Death Valley National Park. Although, in this era of fossil-fuelled fun, most prefer to explore its length in a motorized fashion, there are enough folks out there faithful to our species’ bipedal evolution, that an organized marathon, which fills quickly, is held every year during the first weekend of February.

Leaving the mining madness behind, I quickly descend into the mother lode of this journey: the road’s namesake, Titus Canyon. Initially, it hardly qualifies as such, and, set up for disappointment by years of trail-tales and anticipation, I am running along in quiet disbelief that this is what all the hype has been about. Although incredibly scenic, it is more akin to a valley than a canyon. I pass Klare Spring where petroglyphs on the rock walls leave a timeless reminder that long before the miners boomed and busted nearly simultaneously and my pampered 21st century adventure came to pass, the natives were demonstrating that a water source in the desert attracts living things like a pop star does groupies. Seeing an astounding abundance of life crowded around this lone and minimal water source, I am reminded of my own hydration needs and take an unrefreshing slug of warm electrolyte drink from my bottle.

A few miles later, and still with no sign of a canyon worthy of the name, my friends roll up, grinning ear to ear. The sound of empty bottles clanging around in the cooler combined with my creeping tiredness makes me briefly wonder who is having more fun.

‘Hey man, there weren’t any pine trees and what’s up with this canyon?’

‘You’re just about to get to the really cool part. Want a beer?’

Three miles before I am spit out of the canyon’s mouth onto a broad alluvial fan descending into the valley, the headliners finally appear onstage: sinuous walls made of uplifted Cambrian age limestone, formed when Death Valley was submerged beneath tropical seas, close in until they are less than twenty feet apart. Suddenly, my fatigue is completely erased. It is one of those indefinable, ephemeral moments that the natural world throws at you from time to time, just when you begin to feel a little jaded. I will it to continue on indefinitely, but the age of easy access quickly reasserts itself in the form of a surprisingly busy parking lot. It’s rush hour at Titus Canyon.

Oh, did I forget to mention that? The narrowest and most awe-inspiring section of Titus Canyon is accessible with a 5 minute walk from the Death Valley side. Only a trail runner being followed by a modern day ore cart full of liquid gold would start on the other side, on foot, 26 miles away. By the way, those first suds tasted damn good, reasserting a truth I discovered long ago: a beer in hand is worth more after a long push.