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Trying to find a fugitive river

The Amargosa is a fickle river. It rampages during frequent thunderstorms, then retreats underground, otherwise surfacing only to provide a tempting streak of green in the brown, baked desert.

This river lacks a sense of direction. It runs 200 miles only to end up about 50 miles from where it started. Beginning near Beatty, it runs south along the Nevada/California border, before cutting west toward Shoshone and Tecopa, in California. Below Tecopa, the Amargosa seems to remember where it was going in the first place, pulls a wide U-turn, heading back north to fizzle out at Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point it could go in the United States.

Not only is the Amargosa River tricky; so is its name. The natural tendency is to add an “r” to the first syllable making the pronunciation “ARM-uh-go-suh,” but natives say “am-ar-GO-suh.”

Near Shoshone, the Amargosa River runs above ground for about 20 miles providing a green, welcoming corridor. Although Amargosa is a Spanish word for “bitter water,” in the desert, water is water and this area has naturally drawn people — archaeologists say it has drawn them for 8,000 years. In historic times, travelers followed the Old Spanish Trail through here trading horses, mules and woolen goods between the New Mexico and California missions. Mountain men, horse thieves and explorers used the trail, then the ’49ers hurried along it to California’s gold fields.

My husband, Richard, and I chose to search out the elusive Amargosa River south of Tecopa at China Ranch. Since we spent the night in Shoshone, we headed south on California Route 127 for approximately 5 miles, then made a left turn on Tecopa Hot Springs Road for 4.3 miles. The road soon forks and we went to the left to stay on Tecopa Hot Springs Road, then went left again onto Old Spanish Trail Highway. As we continued through the little community of Tecopa, rights at each junction kept us on Old Spanish Trail. Soon, we turned right on Furnace Creek Road and spotted the first of the signs that led us down narrowing paved, then dirt roads, to the ranch.

The road winds and curves steeply down a narrow gulch — no place to be in a rainstorm. Floods have eroded strange hoodoos, narrow slot canyons and even a few tiny arches. Old gypsum mines pockmark the walls. Suddenly, the gulch opens up to a green valley, a desert oasis.

During the 1890s, Ah Foo (some say his name was Quon Sing) quit work at the Amargosa Borax Works and started growing vegetables at what was promptly dubbed the “Chinaman’s Ranch.” Ah Foo’s success didn’t go unnoticed. Local stories claim that one R.D. Morrison’s gun persuaded Ah Foo to turn the farm over to him. About the time of World War I, the Tonapah & Tidewater Railroad ran a spur line up to the gulch to haul out gypsum. A sign along the road tells the story of a derailment that killed the fireman and injured the engineer.

By 1920, the ranch was owned by Alex and Vonola Modine. Vonola ordered date seeds through the mail so she could have a tree-lined drive. The climate proved perfect, and the date trees thrived. The Modines were doing well on the farm when their 5-year old son burned to death. The grief-stricken Vonola insisted they leave, but Alex wanted to stay. One day, while Alex was at work, Vonola hauled their furniture outside and burned down the house. She got her way, and the Modines moved on, leaving behind the date orchard.

In a strange twist, the Modines’ nephew and niece, Charles Brown Jr. and Bernice Sorrels, purchased China Ranch in the 1970s and, now, Brian and Bonnie Brown run the family business. They’ve increased Vonola’s original date grove, added a gift shop, improved trails and helped designate and encourage appropriate use for the Amargosa River Area of Critical Environmental Concern. This 23,000-acre nature preserve lies along both sides of the Amargosa River, from Shoshone south nearly to Dumont Dunes, a recreation area beloved by ATV owners.

China Ranch is one of the better jumping-off points to access the natural area, and we learned that one of the best trails starts at the ranch gift shop.

We were surprised to find about a dozen cars there, and quickly realized they’re not hikers but visitors sipping date milk shakes, eating date-nut bread or date-chocolate chip cookies, or sampling several varieties of Southern California dates. We decided to hike before we indulged in the goodies.

We walked past a rusted Model T Ford still sporting the sign “China Ranch Dates — We Deliver” on the wooden door panel. Soon, we passed three graves outlined with river rock and a bright red sign written in some foreign language. Brown later explained they weren’t the graves of three unfortunate souls, but part of an old movie set.

Nature makes up for scorching summer temperatures by providing mild winter days like this. I brought along a sweatshirt just in case, but didn’t need it. Richard wore a long-sleeved cotton shirt and claimed he was just fine. A good idea for desert hiking is to dress in layers, that way you can add or subtract clothing as the weather changes.

The well-marked trail follows along the old T&T rail bed, then winds through a wash. As it passed a mesquite thicket, I heard noisy birds. We didn’t see them, but rare birds like the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher are among more than 250 avian species that have been observed here. In fact, the area is called a “vagrant bird trap.” That concerned me until I learned the unpleasant title refers to a region containing birds that have wandered off their natural migration paths. These lost creatures enjoy the Amargosa’s water, too.

Of course, the water draws all sorts of four-footed wildlife. The Amargosa vole, an endangered mouselike rodent, is found nowhere else in the world. And in the water itself lives the endangered Amargosa pupfish.

Rusting cars and a stone cabin restored by China Ranch attest to earlier habitation. Behind the cabin, a door leads into the bank of the wash. Richard and I finally agreed it must have been a root cellar.

The trail, now marked by rock cairns, heads up a small hill to the Acme Siding, where trucks dumped gypsum onto railroad cars. White gypsum still litters the ground, and railroad ties hold up the cliff. This is the end of the easy trail. We walked about a mile to reach this point.

The trail ahead is faint, but marked, and the view is wonderfully clear. On the left, the green Fremont cottonwoods, mesquite, willows and tamarisks of Willow Creek join with the Amargosa River itself. The Amargosa River makes slow, easy bends bordered on each side by thick growth of willow and cottonwood. Branches hang over the water, protecting the precious resource from the sun. The river runs silently, as if trying to sneak its way through the desert before it is forced again into hiding. On the Amargosa’s far side are cliffs striped with red and gray.

For those wanting a full day of hiking, just hike to your heart’s content. The Amargosa Canyon offers the route of the T&T Railroad. It took nearly a year to build the portion through the canyon. The old town site of Sperry can be explored, and there are small waterfalls and hanging gardens. Hike up Willow Creek to see a deep gorge. Richard and I abandoned hiking in favor of the date shakes waiting back at China Ranch, and we wanted time to explore the Shoshone area.

After an incredibly rich shake, we backtracked to Shoshone just in time to visit the Shoshone Museum. The museum building, built in 1906, was moved from Greenwater to Shoshone in 1920. An old car and antique gasoline pumps are outside what once was a service station. Inside, an eclectic collection of Native American artifacts, fossil bones, camel and ancient horse footprints preserved in rock and a good supply of local books make for interesting browsing.

In the museum, we learned of the Dublin Historic Gulch area at the north end of town. Dublin Gulch was an early housing development, but because of a shortage of wood, the homes were caves dug into the soft sides of the wash. They still have doors. Being warm in the winter and cool in the summer, these caves were occupied by miners and vagabonds from the early 1900s to the 1960s — a few into the ’70s.

The Amargosa River, despite all its winding and hiding, has been found eligible for designation as a Wild and Scenic River. Rich with western history, geology, hot springs, and an oasis complete with a date farm, this region is great for hiking and exploring. Not bad for a sneaky desert river.

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