Death Valley, California, for the most part, is arid, stark, and rugged country. It is remote, desolate, vast, and remarkably alive given its official and reputable title. My girlfriend and I love it there.
Just outside of Death Valley National Park, almost 30 miles southeast of the valley’s spacious heart and a few miles west of the Nevada border, lies Death Valley Junction.
On first appearance it seems a “nowhere town.” Its city marker posts no population. There are no gasoline or food services. What there is is a schoolyard swing set with no swings. There is a wailing cat that cannot be seen. There is a Spanish-style one-story “civic center” that houses a functioning motel, the renowned Amargosa Opera House, and closed down shops (at one time, the town might even have sold comic books on a spinner rack), including an ice cream parlor.
There are a few weathered structures that could still be lived-in homes, it’s hard to tell. There are a couple of dilapidated buildings with fractured walls and shattered windows. One may have been a schoolhouse (it would explain the swing set), the other a train station (the town did have its heyday back in the early 1900s when borax was being mined in the area). We found Death Valley Junction kind of creepy.
In Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary #8, Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and The Drummer, members of Planetary, archaeologists of the secret history of the world, visit U.S. Science City Zero, a “nowhere town” somewhere in the American desert. City Zero was a government installation in the early 1950s that conducted repulsive, painful experiments on American dissidents during the height of the “Red” scare. One of its survivors, a woman named Allison, who bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, has contacted Planetary. Her meeting with them at the ruins of City Zero is to reveal her story. She relates her capture, her murder, and her being brought back to life by Doctor Randall Dowling, Elijah Snow’s greatest nemesis. She tells of being endowed with a radioactive half-life of fifty years, her horrible living conditions there, and the ghastly experiments performed on the facility’s other captives. And, finally, she speaks of the true purpose of City Zero. Rumors and secrets of the now abandoned and decaying installation become fact in the dry desert night, and then Allison’s radioactive half-life is over.
Standing at the heart of Death Valley Junction (while Mary went in search of the wailing cat; never found), I realized that while it may be in the middle of nowhere, it is accessible. It is not a ghost town in the traditional Western sense; there is life here, but there are no common tourist trappings. The history of the Amargosa Opera House is unique and its selling point (it even warrants a listing in the AAA California Tour Book), but if the venue should permanently close I believe so will the town. And while Death Valley Junction is not haunted, despite the mysterious wailing cat, it haunts me. Something about its location, look and feel brought all of Planetary #8 before my mind’s eye. The parallels were in the impressions. One is a fictional horror story set in the desert. The other is a creepy little desert town that retains its swing set with no swings.
We spent about a half hour in Death Valley Junction. It takes less than ten minutes to read Planetary #8. Yet both have instilled in me chilling, disturbing, and fascinating memories that will remain with me for the rest of my life.