Amargosa Hotel and Opera House: A Death Valley Adventure
With nothing around it for 30 miles in any direction the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House sits on an intersection of desert roads that make up the Death Valley Junction. While looking for places to stay in that area a few weekends back, my friend and I stumbled upon the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House online. The place looked intriguing with it’s crumbling adobe walls and haunted desert aesthetic. But what caught our interest and sealed the deal was the Opera House attached to it. In fact a ballet performance was scheduled the night we would be arriving. There was no way we were going to miss out on this. A ballet in an Opera House in the middle of the desert!? It would be irresponsible for any modern day explorer not to check it out.
The 4.5 hour drive from Los Angeles had us in a hypnotic state, with the empty desert landscape stretching out endlessly in all directions. Suddenly, after a sharp turn the hotel appeared. At first I dismissed it as a desert mirage, but then I saw the turquoise tiles on the adobe building with a sign that read Amargosa Opera House. It was no mirage, we had finally arrived and the excitement started to kick in.
The original structures were built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the early 1920s. At the time the town was bustling with the employees of the mining company and their families. Dormitories, an infirmary, offices and a social hall... the town had it all. After the mining operations ceased the place and its structures sat abandoned and uninhabited for the next 40 years.
In 1967 a young ballerina from New York City discovered the abandoned social hall while on vacation in the area. Her name was Marta Becket. It was love at first sight and the genesis of a creative project that would last for the rest of her life. She left the big city and moved to the remote desert outpost. She rented the theater and started putting on ballet performances. Often for an empty house. Eventually she purchased the whole town and started a foundation to restore and maintain it. She reopened the hotel and painted an intricate mural of a 16th century audience on the theater’s walls. It took her seven years to complete. She painted backdrops, built sets, hemmed costumes, hung stage lights (made with empty tin cans) and has been performing her ballet’s there ever since. At the ripe age of 91 she still lives in the town. Her house is the only one standing in a ghostly neighborhood of dilapidated ones. Her last performance was in 2012 to a packed house and thankfully she has passed the torch to her young protegé, Jenna McLintock, who continues to perform Marta’s ballets to this day.
During check-in they asked us not to explore behind the building because we could fall into old abandoned mining holes, which were usually impossible to spot until it was too late. Also we were asked not to go into Marta’s neighborhood. What we didn’t tell them was that we had already done both... to our defense we hadn't known the rules yet. But as enthusiastic explorers knowing the rules probably wouldn’t have made any difference. Thankfully we did not fall into any holes or disturb the mysterious Marta Becket in her ghost town neighborhood.
It was finally time to hop into our best duds for the ballet (modern day explorers should always be prepared to look their best when an event calls for dapperness). There was a single mirror in our room that struck me as ghostly. We snapped a selfie in it and the result was an image of us that could’ve been the lost spirits of the hotel that were rumored to be in our very room. These spirits then headed to the theater. There was a total of about 15 people in the audience. A pretty good showing for a theater in the middle of nowhere I thought. We were immediately impressed by Marta’s all encompassing mural. It made the place feel like a real opera house, timeless and grand. The lights made from tin-cans dimmed and the show started with a 15-minute recorded narration from Marta Beckett. She spoke about the history of the theater and her life long relationship with it.
The curtain opened to reveal Marta’s painted backdrops... Paris, a circus, the Death Valley, they transported us to all of these places and more. The ballerina emerged and proceed to shuttle us between all of these changing worlds, the graceful movements of her feet echoed off the adobe walls. It was quite beautiful, and quite surreal. At times I was transfixed by Marta’s great mural, a painted audience of Kings, Queens, peasants, jesters, angels and primitive natives. It made me feel like there were more people in the theater then there were. All part of Marta’s intent of course. I could imagine her in her early days, dancing alone for no one except for the audience she painted from her imagination. On nights when there was no one there I’m sure it still felt like a packed house. Jenna Mclintock was an impressive ballerina, transitioning from classically skilled ballet to the art of mime, all part of Marta Becket’s original repertoire.
Marta Becket once said, “Art has no way to protect itself! We have to do it.” I think the same applies to exploration. We must protect it by doing it. Her wise words reverberate off the walls of the Opera House and down the long and haunted hallways of the hotel. They fall and swirl in the old mining holes, through the dilapidated houses of the ghost town, and out into the open desert. Hopefully you will find the Armagosa Opera house; as it found us, explorers searching for something new, and something to protect.
For more information on the Armagosa Hotel and Opera House visit their website.
DO YOU HAVE A STORY TO SHARE? SEND US AN EMAIL, AND SHARE ON SOCIAL MEDIA USING #THEMODERNDAYEXPLORER
About The Author
Ben Scharlin is a wilderness enthusiast, an adventure addict and a cultural creative. In order to graduate his high school all students had to complete a month-long outward bound course in the High Sierras. It was on this trip that Ben discovered a life long passion for wilderness adventure. Years later he would complete a National Outdoor Leadership School semester in East Africa. He spent a month climbing to the top of Mt. Kenya, 3 weeks traveling with Masai through the Ngorongoro Crater, and three weeks sailing from island to island in The Indian Ocean. Whether it's abandoned warehouses or snow-capped peaks, Ben believes in the power of exploration and adventure, and hopes to inspire people to seek it in their own lives. You can follow him on his adventures by visiting his Instagram, or visit Aim High Cultural Magazine to view his professional work.