Lost Highway Hotel

By John Mulvihill

In case you were wondering, the "lost highway" in David Lynch’s movie of the same name is California State Highway 127, running north-south across the parched Amargosa desert. The footage that begins and ends the film is of this road, and in the desert scenes near the end, the building called Lost Highway Hotel really exists. Its actual name is the Amargosa Hotel, it’s a going concern, and it’s located at the crossroads of highways 190 and 127, about 30 miles east of the heart of Death Valley.

Death Valley has a lot of negatives for the motorcycle tourer. It’s too hot for riding most of the time and too cold much of the time. The roads are poorly maintained, mostly straight and boring, and heavily patrolled by radar-wielding CHP and park rangers. Witless RVers and rubbernecking sightseers make up most of the traffic, and during the busy season there’s more traffic than you would expect. Unlike Montana or Arizona, whose wide-open spaces are best experienced in motion, Death Valley’s vistas are more accessible when you’re off your motorcycle, at parking areas at Badwater, Zabriskie Point and Dante’s peak.

Still, motorcyclists return again and again; the region’s geological and human history makes it unlike anywhere else. Over the eons, shifts in the earth’s crust and volcanic action have created a basin below sea level, at the same time uplifting the Panamint mountain range to the west so that precipitation is blocked. It rarely rains, and water that does find its way to the floor of Death Valley has no place to go, so it evaporates, leaving behind salts and mineral deposits that accumulate many feet deep. The soil is too alkali, and available water too saline, to support much plant or animal life. As a result, the valley and surrounding mountains have been spared the softening effects of topsoil and vegetation, and look much as they did 20 million years ago.

The scale of the place is huge. Seen from Dante’s Peak, the Panamint mountains are jagged, barren and stark, a spectacle of unearthly grandeur. The volcanic hills and domes on the eastern side of the valley, retain the rounded molten shapes and charred surfaces of prehistoric subterranean convulsions. The valley floor is a vast bleached map of salt deposits and brittle lava shingles. One can only imagine what the 49ers made of it as they labored through en route to California. Some of them died here, and that’s how the place got its name.

Because it’s a national park, there’s a refreshing absence of wayside souvenir stands and billboards. Death Valley’s tourist amenities are centralized at a place called Furnace Creek. Furnace Creek has everything for the tourist—motel, gas station, restaurants, bar, convenience store, tennis courts, even a golf course!—but will leave the dedicated motorcycle tourer restless. It’s crowded with families and retired RVers, and policed by staff in golf carts (who didn’t stop someone from stealing everything in my soft luggage a couple of years ago). Like tourist destinations everywhere, Furnace Creek is designed to simulate the comforts of home. It could be a thousand miles from Death Valley, even though it’s right in the middle of the place.

Furnace Creek is expensive. Single rooms start at $85, the prices in the convenience store and gas station will take your breath away, and there are lineups for everything. (The coffee shop offers good, inexpensive meals, though.) Motorcycle tourers in the know will gas up and continue another 28 miles on 190 East to Death Valley Junction, where their reserved rooms will be awaiting them at the Amargosa.

The Amargosa is a hotel for tourers, not tourists. Tourers adapt to an environment; tourists expect the environment to adapt to them. Tourers seek adventure; tourists shun it, preferring to be find exactly what they’ve been told would be there, "consuming" their destination so they can cross it off their list and move on to the next. Tourers are willing to put up with a little discomfort if it immerses them in a place; tourists will not put up with discomfort, period.

While the Amargosa lacks the amenities of a tourist hotel—telephones, television, refrigerators, cheesy pictures on the walls—it provides the basics that are appreciated by tourers: clean rooms with good beds, air conditioning, ice for your cooler, plumbing that works. But more, much more than this, you’ll find magic here. It lives in the original building’s austere alabaster colonnades, in the hand-rendered paintings that grace the interior walls, in the sense of timelessness that surrounds the place like a capsule.

From the 1920s to the 1940s Death Valley Junction was the headquarters of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, who built the town at a railway junction to house workers. They changed the name of the original hamlet from Amargosa (meaning "bitter water" in Payute) to Death Valley Junction, and hired architect Alexander Hamilton McCulloch to design a waystation. His centerpiece was a U-shaped Mexican Colonial combination hotel, office complex and recreation hall.

The town prospered through the 1940s, then went into decline. In 1967 it was pretty much deserted when itinerant dancer Marta Becket came upon it en route to an engagement. She was smitten by the possibilities of the ruined theatre, built the year she was born. On a shoestring, she first leased, then bought the complex. Benefactors helped— the Amargosa is now owned by a non-profit organization—but it was she who provided the energy to restore the theatre and hotel. Her personality permeates everything, and makes a visit there a special experience. It’s an ideal destination if your notion of touring is to get into the heart of a place and understand what makes it different from where you came from.

There are minor inconveniences, like the lack of a restaurant. A kitchen and dining room are in place, but the $85,000 required to upgrade to government standards is not. Guests make do with always-on coffee and tea, and a microwave that prepares frozen pizza and other delights, also always available. (The honor system is alive at the Amargosa Hotel.) And good food abounds nearby. Five minutes up the road at the Nevada state line is the Crossroads hotel-casino, with a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can get gas there, too. Twenty minutes in the other direction is Shoshone, with a locals-oriented café and pub (and a fine little museum whose curator, a Brit transplant, knows everything about Death Valley and speaks with a curious Nigel-of-Arabia accent). An additional twenty minutes’ ride south and east will take you through the hamlet of Tecopa, known for its hot springs, to the Desert Cat Café (760-852-4185). You’re triply rewarded for these extra miles by spectacular scenery, a glimpse of the RV subculture around the hot springs, and superior wood-smoked, Texas-style barbecue at the Desert Cat. Regular meals are available, too, and everything is home-made. A half-hour west of the Amargosa on 190 will get you to the coffee shop and steak house at Furnace Creek. Visit at off-hours or you’ll stand in line.

If you’re like me, you’ll settle for a microwaved pizza and bask in the Amargosa’s atmosphere. There’s a truism in motorcycling: that cheap, out-of-the way places offer a richer traveling experience than their tourist-oriented counterparts. A curious combination of motel and theatre, the Amargosa Hotel is pretty cheap ($45 for a single) and a long way out of the way, and it offers the tourer an experience unique in all the world.

Yes, in all the world. Which is why people travel from the world over to stay here. Most take planes, some drive, and more than a few ride. The riders show up on motorcycles, bicycles and horses. And contrary to American tourist-industry tradition, they are treated not like untouchables by staff and fellow guests, but as fellow pilgrims to a site where a miracle has taken place and, in Miracle of Bernadette fashion, repeats itself on a fixed schedule.

Marta Becket is the magic behind the Amargosa Hotel. For the past 32 years it has provided both a home and a venue for her lifetime ambition: to perform her dance and pantomime works to paying audiences. Since 1968 she's been doing just that, twice a week, audiences or no.

The hotel guest’s first encounter with Marta is through her paintings in the lobby and dining area. Once she and her husband had upgraded the structure of the hotel and theatre, she make them unique by painting their walls with shimmering frescoes (not real frescoes but the effect is the same) in a style uniquely hers. Some of the paintings are deceptively three-dimensional, like the guitar leaning against a wall that you don’t realize is a painting until you reach to pick it up. Some are evocative of carnival art from the early part of this century. All are vibrant, whimsical.

If you’re lucky, your room will be graced with similar wall paintings. Room 22 is where Red Skelton used to stay. He visited once to catch Marta’s show, and like so many others, fell victim to the Amargosa’s enchantment and returned again and again. He asked Marta to illustrate his room with circus performers and though he died shortly thereafter, she did so anyway. Staying in this room, with acrobats scaling the walls and trapeze artists flying form the ceiling, is a singularly evocative experience, one I wouldn’t trade for a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Marta Becket’s art has supported her during the lean times, when she and her mother lived in a New York cold-water walk-up, but it's as a dancer that she wants to be remembered. She knew this from age five, and started ballet lessons at 14. Up to middle age she worked as a ballerina, a Rockette, and in Broadway chorus lines. Later, she took her act on the road, playing her one-woman show to small theatres and school auditoriums around the country.

Marta Becket writes and performs ballet-pantomimes: fairytale fantasies where the story is told in dance and gestures (though she cheats with a taped narrative voice-over). The Amargosa Opera House has featured her exclusively for the past 32 years, and will until her death. In the beginning audiences were tiny, occasionally non-existent, but the show always went on. Today you have to book in advance to get a seat. Coverage in National Geographic, on 60 Minutes and in countless magazine articles and film documentaries have made her an international name.

During the busy season when weather is moderate—November, February, March and April—Marta performs on Saturdays and Mondays. Other months it’s Saturdays only. Doors open at 7:45, the performance begins at 8:15. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for children.

Her co-star is longtime companion Tom Willett, who also serves as ticket taker, master of ceremonies, and general factotum. He’s a good-natured ham, and is careful not to upstage her.

Your experience of a Marta Becket performance will depend on your point of view. Some audience members see a creaky old lady posturing around a dowdy set doing inexplicable things to light classical music. Other see a fantasy come to life as it can only on the stage, and are transported to eighteenth century France, the origin of pantomime, by an accomplished master.

I saw a fine performer and a play within a play. Our evening’s story was of a dollmaker whose creations come to life and serve as consorts for the rich. A baron purchases Marta-doll as a trophy to show off to his friends, but dies heartbroken when he cannot win her love. (She plays both parts.) I found the story enchanting, and her ability to tell it through dance convincing. Like a great old jazz musician, she executes her remaining chops with the timing and conviction of many years’ practice.

But Marta Becket’s outer story is the real magic. Patrons of the Amargosa become a part of someone’s real-life fairy tale. Overcoming great obstacles, Marta has created a world of her own and cast herself in the role of prima ballerina for all time. For her, as for everyone who falls under the spell of place, time does stand still. We are spared its ravages, but only if we believe. Apart from a few who left early, the audience believed that night, treating her to curtain call after curtain call, standing to applaud and shout bravos, and staying around for autographs later. It was a performance I’ll never forget.

If motorcycling is important to you, I think you’ll be moved, too. Marta Becket embodies the qualities most admired by motorcyclists: individualism, determination, integrity, physical toughness, and most important, the conviction that life must be an adventure. Rather than methodically plot a course toward death with a routine job and 401ks, she has chosen to follow her dreams. But she is no mere dreamer. Like a motorcyclist, she puts her dreams into motion and is not hindered by age, the cautions of others, or the occasional wrong turning. For her, as for us, life is a death-defying act, and though the outcome is inevitable, it's not important. Being true to your nature is, because then, for whatever time you are allotted, you truly have lived.

The Amargosa is a haven for like-minded individualists: performers, writers, executives. An elderly corporate scion from Tokyo spends a week here each year, sleeping and eating instant noodles he prepares in the microwave. He tells his staff not to bother trying to reach him; he is unreachable. (This isn't strictly true. Though the rooms have no phones, the front desk does. Call 760-852-4441 between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.) A screenwriter from New York works on her next project in contemplative isolation, then uploads her manuscripts from her laptop PC via the front desk's phone line.

Drop-in visitors tend to become regulars. They bring friends, or refer them. During the cool months, the hotel is heavily booked. In the summer, mainly masochistic Germans and English are in residence; it's too hot, up to 120 degrees, for everyone else. If you're thinking of visiting on a motorcycle, May is the last month to ride there, until November.

The Amargosa welcomes motorcyclists of all stripes, from Gold Wing touring clubs to one-percenters. Several clubs schedule annual rides to the Amargosa, among them the Atascadero Roadrunners and the Over the Hill Gang, both from southern California. A chapter of the Outlaws from Texas also visits regularly. "They get drunk but never use bad language or break anything," says manager Lori Novak. "Not like some college students I could mention."

If upon seeing the Amargosa for the first time, it reminds you of some archetypal desert haunt from the movies, maybe it’s because you’ve seen it in so many. Apart from the Lynch movie, the Amargosa has been featured in Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher and Carl Copaert’s Delusion, and numerous others.

Lori has stories about the movie people, and when things are quiet, as they usually are at the Amargosa, she’ll happily sit at a picnic table in front of the hotel’s entrance, chain-smoke her Marlboros and tell them to you.

Lynch modified the building almost beyond recognition for Lost Highway, but because it’s a historical landmark, was careful to put everything back as it was. His crew were Art Bell fans and when they couldn’t pick up his radio show, produced in nearby Parumph, would drive miles into the desert to listen in their cars.

Rutger Hauer prolonged his death scene in The Hitcher by two days so he could continue rockhounding in the nearby mountains. He’d show Lori his growing rock collection with a grade-schooler’s pride.

There’s no telling what about the Amargosa or its desert setting will get to you. But if you’re open to it, you’ll be affected by the magic of this place.

Like others you’ll notice how in the desert, time stops. You’ll sense how the Amargosa has stopped time within time. Here, the calendar pivots around twice-weekly shows of a Jazz Age ballerina. Like her, inside the adobe walls you will feel impervious to the years. It's a fairy-tale world, a world out of time, a place to be apart from the world outside. It’s a respite for dreamers who put their dreams into action.

A quarter-mile up the road from the Amargosa Hotel, a prairie cemetery is home to the graves of long-forgotten early setters whose names have been erased from their wooden markers by the constant wind. Regularly, at every grave, someone leaves fresh flowers.


John Mulvihill writes, mostly about technology, from his home/office in the East Bay. You can reach him at john@john-mulvihill.com.