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Get a taste for desert dwelling in tiny Shoshone

Tucked away alongside a stretch of the 125-mile Amargosa River, west of Pahrump and east of Death Valley National Park, is the quaint, tiny town of Shoshone, Calif. If they don’t stop briefly for gasoline, most people just buzz on through. But taking a closer look at Shoshone is really worth half a day to anyone who loves the desert and its off-beat people. The desert lover will find satisfaction in hiking trails and canyons immediately outside town, and hundreds of acres of nearby wetlands, ready to be explored and especially interesting if you’re a bird-watcher. And the student of mankind will find the town itself a living essay on how tough, inventive people adapt to hostile and isolated environments. Besides the gas station, general store and saloon, you’ll find an eclectic mix of historic buildings and the Shoshone Museum that explains the local challenges and how they were met. That museum is a good place to start your tour. There you’ll see mammoth bones thousands of years old and Indian artifacts that date back centuries. You’ll learn that the town was founded a little more than 100 years ago to serve the crews and passengers of the Tonopah &Tidewater Railroad, one of two railroads built by competitive, gilded-age tycoons racing one another toward then-booming mining districts of Central Nevada. The T&T won the race, but the boom didn’t last, so the T&T adapted by serving the borax mines of Death Valley, promoting early tourism in the region, and doing whatever else it could. Shoshone was a welcome restaurant stop before the railroad shut down in 1940. At the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce in the museum, you can pick up a walking tour map of this historic town. There are 22 stops pointed out on the map, with descriptions, and all are an easy walk from each other. You’ll learn that many of the buildings weren’t originally constructed there but were hauled from Greenwater, a failed town in Death Valley. The museum itself used to be the miners hospital there. Another notable building was the home of Shoshone pioneers Charles and Stella Brown. This was built from a Sears home kit after their original house burned down in 1926. It now houses one of the most important organizations in this area, the Amargosa Conservancy. The conservancy’s mission is to protect the land, water and beauty of the Amargosa area. The Amargosa River originates in Nevada, travels south and then west and ends in Death Valley National Park. It travels through Shoshone alternately above and underground in different areas. It received the important designation as a Wild and Scenic River in 2009, which means it is now part of the National Landscape Conservation System. If you head across the main road from the museum, you can visit the town’s cemetery, which was first used in 1924 when a child died in a fire. It is now the resting place of more than 55 people, many in unmarked graves. From the cemetery, be sure to walk up a small canyon called Dublin Gulch, where you will come to Shoshone’s most unusual “buildings.” In the 1920s, area miners carved caves into clay walls of this canyon and proceeded to live in them. Like the celebrated home/hole of “The Hobbit,” the cave houses weren’t damp but said to be dry and quite cozy, superbly insulated from the summer heat and winter cold. Nor were they necessarily dark; some of the owners positioned mirrors outside the caves to reflect sunlight into windows. The caves typically had stovepipes and wooden doors; some had hardwood floors, some were split level, and one even had a garage. Some say they haven’t been inhabited since the 1970s, but I have heard rumors of more recent use. Whether it’s true or not, they’re a charming reminder that desert people used to be true nonconformists, cheerfully making the best of a rugged environment. Come to think of it, don’t you hope they’re still doing so? Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at deborabus@aol.com.

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