Penn and Teller after “Death” by
(194 Stories)

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The rocks in this area of Death Valley seem to move as if by magic.

Magic, illusion, not sure what to call the show, but Penn and Teller are well worth seeing in person. Several years ago Dick and I were in Las Vegas in January to attend an electronics trade show where his professional group was giving a presentation. Most of the major shows were sold out because of the number of conventioneers in town, but Penn and Teller had openings, and we thoroughly enjoyed the show. There was an aspect of magic and danger in their routines, and we had no idea how they accomplished the tricks. As a pleasant surprise, they hung out with the audience after the show. True to their characters, Penn expostulated on just about everything, while Teller didn’t speak.

Never before or since have I been freaked out ... and utterly captivated at the same time.

As fascinating as Penn and Teller’s magic was, I didn’t want to be in Las Vegas at all. Some of that had to do with not liking drinking or gambling very much, but mostly I was recalling where we had been the past week–Death Valley. We had decided to make the trip a real vacation, and neither of us had been there before, so we headed off from Santa Clara to spend several days at the lodge in Death Valley.

As we drove into the valley, my breath caught in my throat. There is no way I can describe the scale of the place other than monumental. We didn’t see another car for what seemed like hours–just drove down through the desert on a deserted road, with multicolored mountains, sand dunes, and rock structures everywhere. Never before or since have I been freaked out by nature, and utterly captivated at the same time.

We spent our days driving to abandoned mines, high outlooks, a salt lake, and a strange sand bed where stones moved on their own–as if by magic. One evening, rather late, we made our way down a narrow, dark road to a lecture about about borax mining, where we could see the huge wagons drawn by mules (remember 20-mule-team Borax?). A group of us sat in the cold, fresh air and looked up at a sky not masked by light pollution and loaded with stars not visible at our city homes.

At the end of our time in Death Valley, I wanted to stay rather than go to Las Vegas, but reluctantly we drove to the north border of the valley. The temperature dropped quickly and the sky grew gray. As we crossed the Nevada border and into the mountains, large, soft flakes of snow began to drift down, and as it became dark, I negotiated a snowy road for the first time in many years. The snow cleared as we continued to a lower altitude, and eventually the lights of Las Vegas shone out of the desert. I should have been relieved to see civilization, but I already missed the magical place we had left.

Humans like Penn and Teller make good magic, But in my experience, nothing can match Death Valley as a place where the magic of nature is manifest everywhere you look.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    What a beautifully told story, Marian, about the contrast between the magic of nature and show biz magic — no matter how well done. ( I, too, much enjoy Penn and Teller and also appreciate their efforts to disabuse anyone of the belief that what they do is real “magic”). And particularly when the natural magic you speak of is in Death Valley and is due more to the absence of so much than the presence of it.

    That said, I also well remember the Death Valley Days TV show and its sponsor, 20-Mule team Borax. And, of course, that its host for several years was Ronald Reagan. I think he left the show to run for governor of California or something.

    • Marian says:

      Now that I have thought again about 20 mule team borax, John, I’ll need to see if I can find an episode of Death Valley Days online. I don’t recall ever watching it. I can’t recommend a trip to Death Valley enough for everyone, although going in January would be preferable to summer!

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    You evoke the stark beauty of Death Valley and the sere Eastern Sierra landscapes so well. You did choose a good season to visit. I’m right there with you in awe of the wonders of desert and mountain and resistance to the Las Vegas glitz.

  3. Thanx Mare for your lovely piece about the beauty and magic that can be found in our natural surroundings.

    Years ago on a hike we took in South Africa I discovered the glory of looking at a sky – unlike the urban skies I was used to – this one unpolluted by light. Magical!

  4. Suzy says:

    Funny that you and I both wrote about Penn and Teller in Las Vegas, Mare, although you actually saw them and I did not. I’ve never been to Death Valley, but after reading your breathtaking description, I’m definitely adding it to my list of must-see places.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    During our trip out West in 2003, we stopped in Death Valley (this was JULY!) and it was HOT! We grabbed some lunch in the dining room before it closed, then went or cabins (the hotel was closed as too). We even had to change one of our rooms, as the AC was broken. It was 110 degrees! The kids and Dan went swimming as I unpacked. The water in the bathroom was spring fed, i.e., WARM, in the sink and toilet bowl. It felt like a sauna on my bottom. We did go to the Borax museum. We were exhausted and stayed in our rooms after dinner (I wasn’t feeling well – this was my IBS period, I was bone-thin) and before we got to Las Vegas; equally as hot. So we did not experience the beautiful, magical sky you describe. Thank you for giving me another perspective on this barren place.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, July is not the time to visit Death Valley, as you found out, Betsy. Years ago I went to Palm Springs in July, and had to negotiate a temperature of 124 degrees during the day! Fortunately the guest house closed half the rooms and upgraded me to a suite, where I could just hang out indoors. Then I took the tram to the nearby mountains, where it was a beautiful 75 degrees.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I really enjoyed reading your description of Death Valley, Marian. You are so right that nature can be magical and breath-taking. After many years of non-interest, we went to Vegas pre-pandemic to check it off our bucket list. Meh.

  7. This was a really nice meditation, well illustrated with examples and descriptions. Where and what is the true magic that we deserve? You raised that question and answered it visually and deftly.

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