The wheels of the last surviving set of intact wagons from the 20 Mule Team at Harmony Borax Works. If these wagons aren’t protected and placed indoors, they will be lost forever.
Death Valley, California
A lot of people did all kinds of things during the Covid-19 lockdown. Some cleaned their houses and sorted through their belongings over and over again. Others chose to tear up their yard and start a vegetable garden. Some people decided to take on greater challenges in their downtime, like beginning the Next Great American Novel. Like all of the others, I also cleaned my house over and over again and sorted through my belongings. I re-planted my rose garden and put in new trees. I did not begin the Next Great American Novel, but I did decide to make – postcards.
These aren’t just any postcards, though. I decided to make something that I personally would want to buy. Something that I cannot find, that I think would be neat to send to someone. They’re fine art postcards of the Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley that I, along with a partner, made for the Death Valley Conservancy. My concept was to not only make postcards that are beautiful and a little bit different, but also make them frameable by the recipient (or even the purchaser) if they choose to do so. I’m really quite proud of them.
I had no idea when I took on this project how much work it was going to be. It’s a big process making postcards like these. First, I needed a printing expert to hold my hand while I waded through my ideas, chose paper stocks, envelopes, colors, and textures. Then I had a graphic designer help me with layouts, find historic fonts and design a folio to hold the postcards that matched precisely what I saw in my mind. Context was added with text for the both the cards and folio. Multiple people edited and re-edited the text to make sure it was exactly as it should be. Once it went to print, there would be no do-overs and the last thing I wanted was for the incorrect century to be printed on 1,000 postcard folios. That would have been a giant facepalm moment.
The next phase of the project involved getting it all ready for print. There were multiple press checks to make sure that the kind of black and white I would end up with on the cards was what I wanted to end up with, and that the color of the folio was not too greenish or reddish. Each and every tiny potential flaw was anticipated, examined and dealt with. All of these press checks were way across town (which in Los Angeles is a big deal) but it was okay because I was seeing what I’d been working so hard on for six months actually coming to life. At a certain point, though, I wondered if the postcards I thought were a great idea at the beginning of the pandemic would ever actually become a reality. But then one day they did become a reality, and when I looked at them, I could see the common thread of myself running through them. It was apparent that it was time to tell a little bit of my story, and how I came to do all of this.
For years I have photographically documented the Borax Twenty Mule Team® of Death Valley from 2011, when I was first introduced to it by historian and filmmaker, Ted Faye, until its appearance at the 25th Anniversary of Death Valley National Park in 2019. For the anniversary, the Death Valley Conservancy got to roll their exact replica borax wagons down Highway 190 to Harmony Borax Works, so they could meet their ancestors, one of the surviving sets of original Twenty Mule Team wagons. It was a powerful and emotional moment, bringing those replica wagons to the motherland – Death Valley.
The first time I ever saw the Twenty Mule Team, my jaw nearly hit the floor. It reminded me of when I saw Death Valley as an eight-year-old kid and later as a forty-something. I had the identical reaction. It’s that gut-punch of “epic” that hits you when you’re seeing greatness. You know you’ll never forget it.
When I saw that long line of mules hitched to ancient borax wagons with the Eastern Sierra Nevada behind them, it took my breath away. It was the same reaction I had to the folded, buff-colored hills in Death Valley that I saw as that forty-something. I longed to paint them. I wanted to do something really big with both – the mules and wagons and the natural beauty of Death Valley. I wanted to turn them into fine art because that is what they were and always will be to me. They are pure, unadulterated art.
I started painting Death Valley as a solo traveler in 2006. It was such an exhilarating experience, that I kept going back. I liked painting in the desert. Death Valley is not a friendly place to paint in, though. It’s hot, extraordinarily dry, sometimes freezing cold, and it can get really, really windy. Your painting can get picked up by the wind like a sail and go flying across the desert in a split second. By the time you track it down it’s filthy and your paint is full of sand and grit. You have to make the choice to either give up, or embrace the dirt being embedded in your painting. Which can be kind of interesting, actually. I always allowed the sandy dirt and rocks to stay, to let it be whatever it was. Most times I think that’s best, anyway. Allow things to be what they are instead of trying to change them to meet expectations.
Painting in the desert was hard and frustrating. Many times I’d end up working inside the back of my car. I would be out all day long in the sun and wind with bugs flying around my face, and ravens trying to steal my sandwich or paint tubes. I really liked it, though. With as difficult as it was, I really, really liked it. The dead silence of the desert was not only refreshing, but it helped me connect with myself. When you’re not constantly being bombarded with entertainment, and your mind is allowed to just be, you can learn all kinds of things about who you are. Really valuable things. Every time I went out to the desert to work, I came back a different person. I loved that.
After a couple of years of coming home with half-finished paintings, I decided to take a camera with me for reference photos, so I could finish what I had been working on at home. When I started playing around with the camera, though, I discovered that it could help me tell a visual story that was quite different from painting. It’s wasn’t a better artistic tool. It was different. The camera became an extension of drawing and painting for me.
I wanted to approach photography as a painter, not as a photographer. I was trained to see everything in the abstract first, the large, simple, geometric shapes that make up a composition. The way that a drawing or painting is composed always comes first, before everything else. I wanted to compose my photographs as though I was blocking in a painting – seeing the biggest elements first, and everything else second. I fell in love with being able to shoot photographs from my own, unique point of view, not someone else’s. It is a love affair that has lasted for over a decade.
For the first several years of my painting trips to the desert, I spoke to no one. I was completely by myself. I met people in Death Valley only after I started taking photographs – people like Ted Faye. It was through Ted that my deeper desert journey really began. He introduced me to the Twenty Mule Team, which had been revived in the 1990’s by Preston Chiaro of U.S. Borax, and muleskinner, Bobby Tanner. I also met others who have a genuine passion for preserving the history of Death Valley and the surrounding desert. I have made some of my very best friends out in the desert.
When I visited Death Valley as an eight-year-old, it wasn’t so much the beauty of the place that got to me. Instead, it was the history. Most people only know of Death Valley National Park as the “Hottest Place on Earth”, or they think of its extreme, but beautiful natural landscape. In truth, Death Valley has a huge history connected with it. A large part of that history has to do with prospecting and mining.
Mining has an enormous place in the timeline of Death Valley. In particular, the mining of borax, which is its most famous mineral. In the 1880’s, borax that was mined and processed in Death Valley needed to be transported to the nearest railhead located in Mojave, California, which was 165 miles away. In order to get the borax from Death Valley to Mojave, teams of twenty mules (or 18 mules and 2 horses) were hitched to enormous, tall and narrow wagons built especially for hauling tons of borax across the desert. It was a ten-day trip from Death Valley to Mojave for two men and all of those mules, horses, a big tank filled with water and 22 tons of bagged borax. After unloading, they turned around and headed back to Death Valley with hay and supplies in the giant wagons.
In the winter of 1971, the only thing I really remember about my first trip to Death Valley (other than seeing Scotty’s Castle and being freezing cold), was the story of borax. Everything was about borax. From the Borax Museum to the original borax wagons that were on display at Furnace Creek and at Harmony Borax Works.
Those old wagons were GIANT to a little kid and had a vibe about them I couldn’t really put into words, but it was – eerie. In fact, the whole of Death Valley had an unmistakable surreal energy to it, which I liked. It felt like the ghosts of history were all around me in that place, as if people and times that were long gone had left behind traces of themselves. Those haunting feelings stayed with me and I never forgot about them. Years later I would reflect back on that visit to Death Valley and the way that it made me feel. It scared me a little, made me just ever-so-slightly uncomfortable, and I liked that.
When I returned as an adult, I again felt that same haunting vibe I had liked as a kid. I noticed that some of that strangeness I picked up in the area was ending up in my photographs, which I liked quite a bit. I wanted my photographs to have a surreal timelessness about them and for viewers to feel transported to the past, but have it not clearly defined as to exactly what time period it was.
Over the past twelve years, I have amassed thousands of images of not only Death Valley, but also the Twenty Mule Team. At the beginning of 2020, I decided to choose a few of my favorite photographs of the Twenty Mule Team to turn them into a set of fine art postcards for the Death Valley Conservancy. This was not an easy task, though. It was daunting. Intimidating. I had no clue which images to choose because I have hundreds of “favorites”. This went on for months until finally one day I felt the urge to find the common thread running through eight photographs, enough to tell the story of the Twenty Mule Team of the 21st century. Then it all fell into place like magic.
I knew immediately which photographs would tell the story of the Twenty Mule Team through my eyes and would have that sense of haunting timelessness and history that I love so much.
The postcards ended up being what I originally intended so long ago. They are pure, fine art, and a period at the end of a journey.
The exact replica Borax Twenty Mule Team® wagons are on display at Laws Museum in Bishop, California. If you would like to purchase a set of the postcards of The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley, you may do so by visiting the Laws Museum in person, or by contacting the museum directly and ordering a set. Their website is lawsmuseum.org.
All proceeds go to the Laws Museum and the Borax Twenty Mule Team® so they may both continue their efforts in preserving history.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Twenty Mule Team as well as Death Valley, books and videos may be purchased at http://goldcreekfilms.com/.
The Death Valley Conservancy works tirelessly to preserve, restore and protect the history of Death Valley. If you would like to learn more about what they do and about the exact replica Borax Twenty Mule Team® wagons, you can do so at https://www.dvconservancy.org/.
If you feel compelled to have your own borax wagons built, or any kind of wagon for that matter, the best wagon maker in the world is Dave Engel of Engel’s Coach Shop, in Joliet, Montana at https://engelscoachshop.com/
A owe a huge thank you to the people who have supported me and what I do and who helped me with this project. Firstly, to Preston Chiaro, President of the Death Valley Conservancy, for understanding me and my work, to Janet Klein of @janetkleinprintworks and Mary Cay Walp, graphic designer, for helping make my postcards a reality, and to Ted Faye of Goldcreek Films for his help and believing in me all of these years.