My mother’s love of glamour began in the Mojave, not as unlikely a place for romance as it might seem. She was twenty-six when her sister Marit and her brother-in-law Ralph invited her to leave her Norwegian North Dakota home and go live with them in Death Valley Junction—the fifty person settlement where they’d found work with the Borax Company during the Depression.
The temperature in Death Valley Junction on the day my mother arrived hit 120 degrees, and she spent her first two weeks lying on the floor all day beside a cooler that operated on recirculated water. “What have I done?” she asked herself while resting on the braided rug, missing the green lands of North Dakota, and waiting for the evening to bring relief from the blast of oven heat. Then, as today, the Junction sprawled in the midst of desert rubble, its stark horizons broken only by the smoky plumes of tamarisk trees.
Only twenty miles away, Death Valley Monument itself rose into barren mountains on two sides, flattened itself into moonscapes of salt pan in between, and plunged without warning into gorges, like Desolation Canyon and Dead Man Pass.
Junction folks learned, because they had to, how to create a sense of home in the middle of this wilderness. They baked cakes for each other’s birthdays, traded recipes for cookies and fudge, and ate slabs of apple pie, while discussing Junction life and romance. According to my father, folks “knew more about what you were feeling than you did.” They gathered in the community hall for movies, Monopoly, and dancing at night, acted as godparents for each other’s babies, and took frequent communal dips in the wooden swimming pool. This pool appears in some of my baby pictures in which I stand wearing what appears to be a little woolen bathing suit, my wispy hair bleached gold from the desert sun.
In the embrace of this tightly woven enclave, Mother, too, began to feel at home. She became a maid and then head housekeeper at the Junction’s Amargosa Hotel and grew quite popular with the young men building roads for the Civilian Conservation Corps. By then Death Valley was fun: “It was booming.”
And “booming” was the right word. By the time of my mother’s arrival, in August 1934, Death Valley had been enshrined in western literature and Hollywood films, not just as a place of desolation and hellish heat but of gold and silver, booms and busts, of ’49ers lost and ’49ers rescued, and of desert eccentrics who were rumored to be, or not to be, fabulously wealthy.
Advertising brochures were turning the Valley’s “grotesque desolation” into something “weirdly strange and thrilling,” “the most romantic desert in America.” Ever since 1927, the Borax Company, whose revenues from mining were in decline, had opened tourist hotels in the Junction and at Furnace Creek, which drew film stars to the Valley with some regularity. Would-be stars appeared in Borax Company public relation films, riding and smiling gaily on the Baby Gauge Railway.
Living in this Hollywood-haunted valley, Mother soon acquired a taste for dazzle, as one of the cookbooks that she owned still testifies. Purchased in nearby Las Vegas, where, five years later, I would be born (and named after Judy Garland), Foods and Fashions of 1936 featured the favorite recipes of people like Fred Astaire (Chicken and Oysters) and Ginger Rogers (Pimento Salad), provided pictures of actresses I’ve never heard of wearing “evening frocks” of rose and silver, and contained sample menus that proposed that lunch and dinner both be served with desserts such as “Cocoanut Custard” pie or “Date Pudding.” I like to think that Mother consulted Foods and Fashions during her three-year courtship with my father, which began shortly after his arrival in the Junction in 1935.
Although Mother, as far as I know, never served Date Pudding, dates played an important and alluring role in her Death Valley life. To supplement its tourist industry, the Borax Company farmed a date palm grove that produced two hundred tons of fruit a year, and, in this company town, Mother proudly packed these dates during harvest season.
She took a good deal of care placing the sticky, amber fruit just so in the low wooden boxes that bore an image of the date farm at Furnace Creek Ranch and were lined with what she called “fancy paper.” The Furnace Creek Inn sold these boxes to its visitors and developed a recipe for Death Valley Date Nut Bread, a delicacy that it also marketed and served at all its meals.
Dates pleasantly haunted our family life long after we moved from the Junction, appearing in my mother’s date bars, date cookies, date muffins, and her own Death Valley Date Nut Bread. At Christmas a box of fat, shiny dates would appear on a side table in the living room of our Compton home. I didn’t much like dates straight from the box, but I found them exotic. Those swollen, honeyed fruits, vaguely resembling the bodies of large, golden insects, evoked the strangeness of Death Valley, the barren horizons of the Mojave Desert that were ever present in my baby pictures, the date palm oasis of Furnace Creek Inn, and the adventurous life, that to me, appeared to have been lived long ago. Dates seemed like the spirit of Death Valley incarnate, or at least an outward sign of my mother’s nostalgia for it, and a reminder to me of the admirable daring that had first brought her to that weirdly strange and thrilling place.
My parents married in 1938 in the date palm garden at Furnace Creek Inn in what was touted as the first official marriage in Death Valley. The hand-colored wedding photo shows my mother wide-eyed, straight-backed, and stylish, with marcelled hair peeking out from under her blue, wide-brimmed, flowered hat. She is wearing a filmy, pleated, powder-blue chiffon dress with short, puffed sleeves and looks more like Ginger Rogers than a future housewife. My father stands at her side beneath three date palms. Smiling faintly, he is looking handsome in an all white suit. It is 6:30 a.m., and the date palm garden that mid-June day still seems cool and fresh. The wedding breakfast would follow some thirty miles away at the Junction’s Amargosa Hotel. Death Valley Date Nut Bread appeared on the menu.
Death Valley Date Nut Bread
Makes 2 loaves.
2 cups chopped dates
1 ½ cups very hot water
4 cups flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts
½ cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons baking soda
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Chop dates and place in a bowl with hot water. Let stand for
In another bowl, blend the flour, granulated and brown sugars,
chopped walnuts, softened butter, salt, and baking soda.
Add dates and water. Mix until dates are evenly distributed and
the ingredients are moist.
Pour into two loaf pans and bake for an hour or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.