The Postcards: Making Art Out Of Mules And Wagons

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.

Sometimes Our Wishes Are Granted. We Just Can’t See Them. Yet.

I remember the first time I saw Michelle Pfeiffer in a movie.  I thought she was the most ethereal, angelic creature ever to walk the planet.  I wanted to look like her, with those delicate features and her extraordinary beauty.  But I knew that was not possible.  I don’t look anything like Michelle Pfeiffer.  Not. One. Bit.  But I still wished I could look like her.  Maybe a little.  Just because.  I figured somehow my inner Michelle Pfeiffer would come out eventually.  It was just hidden inside a face and body that looked nothing like her.

Canyon Storm. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

I’ve always wished I could be good at math.  But I’m not.  Not at all.  Not in the slightest.  I always have to ask one of my sons to help me figure out how much of a tip I should leave in a restaurant, or for the pizza guy when he delivers our Combo and BBQ Chicken Pizzas.  It’s sad, really.  I’m fifty one years old and I can’t calculate a fifteen percent tip for a pizza.  I figure that’s why I was given smart kids, so they can do it for me.  Until they leave to be on their own and then I will also be on my own, trying to calculate tips.  Maybe deep in the recesses of my mind there is a mathematician waiting to be released.  But I doubt it.  I don’t think that is a wish I will ever be granted.

Jail. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

Then there are the things I wish for that actually come true.  Like when I was in kindergarten and had a friend who could draw.  Her name was Pam and she liked drawing cartoons.  They were really good cartoons of worms and snails and stuff.  I distinctly remember looking at one of her drawings and thinking, “I wish I could draw like that.”

Then one day in second grade my wish came true.  During an art assignment I made a drawing of elephants and monkeys in a jungle.  Why I chose that subject I don’t recall, but when I was finished, it was pretty darn good.  I won an award for that drawing.  The teacher praised me to the skies .  I remembered that time in kindergarten when I wished I could draw like Pam.  It startled me that my wish came true.  From then on I was known as “the artist” in school.  I got what I had wished for.  I’ll never forget the realization that deep inside me was an artist that I did not know was there.  It just needed to come out at the right time.  When I was ready to see it.

Rhyolite Window. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

I’ve always had a thing about black and white photographs.  From the time I was a little kid, I always thought black and white images were deeply profound, almost other-worldly.  I wanted to make black and white images like the Masters.  When I was about ten or so, I took a photograph in a forest and when I showed that photograph to my mother, she said, “You have a gift.  You are very good at composition.”  That shocked me.  She was so matter-of-fact about it, as though she already knew I had that ability, she could see it, but I didn’t know it was there.  I couldn’t see it and I was intimidated by the Masters.  I didn’t try because I didn’t really believe I could do it, even though I wished that I could.

Titus. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

As I got older I didn’t want to be a photographer.  I simply wished I could make compelling photographs that were just a little bit different from the norm.  Images that would make people feel and maybe see things differently.   To think.  But I resisted that urge to make photographs for decades until one day I was handed a Nikon and after five years of hard work I finally got my wish.  I am not a Master by any stretch of the imagination, but I relish making my own brand of black and white images.  It makes me happy and feeds my soul.  I’m still astonished, though, that people like my quirky photos.  I’m glad that they do and I hope that one day I, too, will be a Master.  I’m working on that wish, but I try to not wish too hard for that to happen.  I’m superstitious that way.

Wishes are funny things.  Sometimes we want something so badly that it almost seems to push the wish away.  As if we somehow send out a force field of “want” that becomes a wall that won’t allow it to be.  Or maybe what we’re wishing for might not be the best thing in the long run, like desperately wanting to be asked out on a date by the good-looking, popular guy in high school.  But he never notices you.  Then a few years later you run into that same guy and he’s turned into a shallow, crude ass who lives in the past, in his “golden years” of high school.  He never grew up.  Then you realize how lucky you were to have dodged that bullet.  Sometimes it’s for the best if your wish doesn’t come true.

Winding Road. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

On my last trip to Death Valley I went out on an excursion with my friend Amy.  She said, “Why don’t I take you to Titus Canyon?”  I’d never been to Titus Canyon.  I was always afraid of the rough, rocky road you had to travel on to get there.  The thought of getting a flat and being stranded out in the middle of nowhere alone was not high on my list.

Jake With Can. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

So on a Saturday morning that had fluffy, white clouds in the sky, we set out for Titus Canyon.  First we stopped in Rhyolite Ghost Town because I wanted to take some photos for a project I’m working on.   While we ate lunch, we noticed that those fluffy, white clouds had turned ugly and dark.  We could see streaks of rain coming down from the clouds in the valley below us.  Then came the thunder and lightning.

Perfect Storm. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

“I want to get a picture of lightning!”  I said, and placed my telephoto lens on her open car door.  I waited.  And waited.  With each lightning strike I pressed the shutter, then looked at the LCD screen and saw no lightning.

“Come ON.  I just want one picture of lightning.  Can’t I get just one?  PULEEEEZEEEE????  I want lightning.  That would be way cool.”

Amy said, “I wish for rainbows.  With all of this weather, there will be rainbows.  I know it.  I want rainbows.”

Bottle Storm. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

“I just want lightning.  Come on, Universe, God, Allah, Whatever!  I REALLY WANT A PICTURE OF LIGHTNING.  NOW.  Let’s GO!!”

A bolt of lightning would strike and I would press the shutter. Over and over again.  But there was no lightning in my image.  I began to feel like a loser.  I wouldn’t get my wish for an image of lightning.  Damn.

“I bet when you get back to your computer and you upload those photos, you will see that you got lightning.  You already have it.  You just can’t see it.  Yet.”

_DSC2082

I doubted her.  But that’s just how Amy is.  She knows stuff.  She is calm, composed and deeply spiritual.  I am not.  Well, sometimes I am, but not when I want something badly.  Then I get all “Type A” about it and stressed.

When the rain reached us, we gave up, got back into the car and headed to Titus Canyon, hoping the storm would not follow us.  But it did.

Leadville. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

All through Titus Canyon that thunderstorm was behind us, sometimes catching up and raining, always with lightning bolts that I could never quite catch with my Nikon.

Further down the canyon she stopped so I could get out and shoot rock formations.

“Rainbow!!!  Rainbow!!!”  I heard her scream.  I looked behind me and saw a rainbow.  Cool, I thought.  She got her wish.  But I had failed with the lightning.

“Go!  We’ve got to go NOW!”

Little Stream. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

I ran back to the car and we continued on down the canyon in the pouring rain, realizing that being out in a thunderstorm in the desert, where flash floods take out people on a regular basis, wasn’t the best idea we had ever had.  It was kind of exciting, though.  I liked it.

But the best was yet to be.  When we got down into Death Valley, that thunderstorm came up over the mountains and created the most incredible rainbow either of us had ever seen.  It was like something straight out of Oz or a magnificent dream.  A double rainbow with black clouds and lightning strikes behind it and rays of light coming up out of the ground that were like a fantasy.  We got out of her car and shot photo after photo of those rainbows.

Rainbow. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

Amy’s wish ended up being much more than she ever thought it would be.  It was like the heavens opened up and gave her a present.  But I still did not have a photograph of lightning.  Or so I thought.  Afterwards we ate dinner in Furnace Creek where she helped me calculate the tip for the waitress because my inner mathematician had not yet come out of hiding.  Then we drove back to Tecopa in the black of night, the desert illuminated by dozens of lightning strikes all around us.

The Storm DV. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

“I know you got a photograph of lightning.  You’ll see it when you upload your photos.” she said.

I got back to my hotel room and uploaded my photos, knowing there was no lightning.  I ran them through Lightroom looking at what I had managed to shoot.  And then I saw it.  In one photo there was a slender, delicate bolt of lightning coming out of the clouds and anchored in the Earth.  Subtle and ethereal.  It was so pale and angelic I couldn’t see it on my camera, but it was there.  I realized at that precise moment that sometimes our wishes are granted, but we just can’t see them.  Yet.

Amy was right.  What I wished for all along, I already had.

Lightning Bolt. Copyright Merilee Mitchell

Then I remembered a luncheon I went to a few years ago where I was talking to a woman who suddenly stopped what she was saying, looked at me with a startled expression and said, “Do you know who you look like?  Michelle Pfeiffer.”