The worn wooden tables on the second-floor balcony of the Last Kind Words Saloon offer the best vantage point, at least from a people-watching perspective. The sight lines down into the tall, busy bar and restaurant are unobstructed, and the clatter from below rises to the tin roof like a light fog. From up here, you can take in the many details of the space: the hanging antlers, the long underlit bar, and every inch of the faded off-white wallpaper that runs from corner to corner.
More noticeable, though, are the dusty customers who blow in from various entry points, either emerging through the nearby buffet (called simply the 1849) and banquet room or by way of the heavy doors that lead to the sunny (very sunny) patio and fireplace pit out front. The two-story bar is the center of the action, as it were, for most travelers who stop here. They sidle in for pints of beer, for shots of whiskey, for steaks and sandwiches, or just for the views from the second floor. What they won’t see, from up there or anywhere else on the 370-acre desert property, is all that it took to make that beer cold and that steak hot in the first place. The Last Kind Words Saloon is more than just a roadside attraction; it’s a keystone piece in a larger dual-property resort and golf course smack in the middle of the hottest place on earth.
The Oasis at Death Valley, as its known, is a former mining outpost turned surprisingly lush resort — manicured lawns, shaded poolside lounging, and a 18-hole golf course — in the middle of some of the most inhospitable land the world has to offer, all just hours from Los Angeles. The massive property offers nearly a dozen different ways to dine, from buffets to the bar, plus a grocery store, catering outfit, and on-site wedding venue, all making up what is likely the most isolated restaurant scene anywhere in the continental United States. To make it here — as a diner, sure, but especially as a worker — is to make it anywhere.
Looking at a map, one might get the sense that Death Valley is just a flat, parched expanse of nothingness. The name certainly doesn’t help. The 88-year-old national park a few hours northeast of Los Angeles spans more than 3.4 million largely dry, dusty acres, or 5,219 square miles. That’s roughly the size of all of Connecticut, and larger than some countries, like Qatar and Jamaica. It contains few paved roads, endless rolling sand dunes and treeless mountaintops, and very little water, at least on the surface. And that’s to say nothing of the beating sun.
Yes, in the summer, Death Valley is the actual hottest piece of land on earth. It is little wonder, then, why some might consider the national park, the largest in the Lower 48, to be inaccessible, unfriendly, or downright hostile.
And yet there is life here, and there has been for thousands of years, from historic native tribes that continue to call this sun-baked corner of the world home to generations of old miners who scoured the sour ground for bits of wealth. Zoom in closely enough today on Google Maps, and you’ll see a huge swath of glowing green right in the center of all that sun. Welcome to the Oasis.
“People either really love Death Valley, or they really hate it,” says Trey Matheu*, who served as general manager of the Oasis for years before departing at the start of the pandemic in 2020. The impossibly vibrant drinking, dining, sleeping, and celebration destination is actually made up of two separate resorts: the Ranch at Death Valley and its more upscale sister property, the Inn at Death Valley. The two are bisected by State Route 190, which acts as a carotid artery for tourists flowing into Death Valley National Park — coastal Californians on the western end, Nevadans and the rest of America on the eastern side. In 2018, more than 1.6 million people visited Death Valley from across the globe, eager to camp, hike, and take photos of near-bursting thermometers. The Oasis at Death Valley resort aims to feed and house as many of them as possible at what is one of the only stops of any real substance within the entire park. The Inn boasts upscale lodging north of $300 per night, white-tablecloth dining, a spring-fed pool that sits at a constant 82 degrees (and is surrounded by lawn and palm trees), and a wedding venue. The Ranch, a mile east on 190, has its own 224-room hotel, campgrounds, grocery store, restaurants (multiple), post office, outdoor patios, Western-themed saloon, coffee bar, ice cream shop, and borax museum.
It takes a lot of human power to create miracles in the desert, or at least the perception of miracles. The reality is that in addition to acting as a hospitality complex for a ceaseless wave of Death Valley visitors, the Oasis is also its own actual town, populated by some 300 year-round working residents (aka employees) who cut the golf course grass, serve beers inside the two-story saloon, pour coffee for diners at the breakfast buffet, and generally scratch out a life at the livable edge of the planet. They come for work, or to escape, or for sun and adventure, or really to just hope for a better, smaller community to call their own.
“It’s definitely a small town,” said Matheu last year, describing the intricate social layering that comes with being a boss and a neighbor at the same time. Employers and employees might work service one night, go hiking the following morning, do side-by-side laundry that afternoon, and pool resources on their days off to make a Costco run.
All those off-duty employees are largely kept out of sight of customers, spread across small apartment-style buildings, standalone cabins, or mobile homes behind wooden fences that span several dirt streets beyond the main Ranch building. Those quarters form a mostly shadeless trailer park of sorts, complete with power-accessible parking spaces for camper vans and RVs. Utilities such as electricity and water are partially subsidized, but not free — just like the private restaurant and bar on property that exists exclusively to feed the workers and the park employees stationed nearby in Death Valley. It’s called the Sidewinder, and it’s definitely the place to be on a Saturday night. It’s also the only place to be.
“In any other place, you could drink at the bar and there’s a good chance that nobody would know who you are,” Matheu said as we walked through the Sidewinder last year. “Here, you could make a fool of yourself and not have a job the next day.”
In 2019, the Oasis took in north of 200,000 overnight visitors. Peak-hour dining across the entire property could see as many as 600 people sitting down to eat and drink at once, not including catered private events, or the takeaway snack shop, or the grocery store. Even today, travelers wash in and glide out with ease, just as they did throughout much of the pandemic. They cluster together in waves from November to May and again in the apex of the summer months, creating a near-endless flow of faces asking for seats at the buffet restaurant or overlooking the saloon bar, should local dining regulations allow. That’s a lot of glasses of filtered water to be poured, a lot of previously frozen hamburgers to be cooked, and a lot of toilet paper that must be shelved and restocked — particularly when compounded day over day, year over year.
It wasn’t always this way. The area, found on most maps under the historic name of Furnace Creek, has for the vast part of its history acted as ancestral land for the Timbisha Native American tribe, a few dozen members of whom still live separately on Native lands just down Highway 190. Today most of Furnace Creek is held by the Xanterra collection of nature-focused hospitality businesses (like the Oasis), wholly owned and operated by the often-controversial billionaire Philip Anschutz. Many of the employees who come through the Oasis at Death Valley have previously spent time — in some cases, many years — working for Xanterra across its vast network of properties in places like Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. Xanterra also operates a cruise line, travel companies, and a private train with access to the Grand Canyon.
While human life here has existed in some form for thousands of years, it was during California’s gold rush when miners discovered large deposits of sodium borate — better known as the do-it-all cleaning compound borax — in the greater Furnace Creek area. The robust extraction effort that followed meant a need for access in and out, plus shelter, water, and food. In 1927, the Pacific Borax Company chiseled away the first wing of the Inn at Death Valley on the site of a natural underground spring, adding the nine-hole golf course on the lower Ranch portion of the property several years later. In the nearly century since, both the Ranch and the Inn have grown exponentially in vision and capacity. The golf course is now a full 18 holes, and future plans (part of a $150-million-plus overhaul) call for car-free streets, casitas with their own front porches, and an old-time soda fountain serving milkshakes and malts made by employees wearing bow ties.
If you happen to live and work here, however, the experience is a bit different. There is no school in Death Valley, no movie theater, and only a handful of restaurants outside of town. Steaks & Beer in Tecopa is some 70 minutes to the southeast, and the weekend-only, seasonal, and volunteer-run Amargosa Cafe sits outside the eastern edge of the park (it also, magically, includes a 100-seat opera house). Las Vegas is a two-hour drive, and a trip there usually comes with an overnight stay. By contrast, Badwater Basin, the lowest point of land in North America at nearly 300 feet below sea level, is a brisk 18-minute drive.
Truck drivers arrive twice a week from Las Vegas to deliver produce and meat and ice cream and wine and everything else the grocery store and restaurants need, all housed in massive air-conditioned buildings behind the Ranch. Water is pumped up from deep below, and filtered at a large semi-hidden site just behind the Inn. But these supply chain logistics are a perk built for guests, not workers. For instance, a side of lobster mac and cheese trucked in from Vegas and served at the saloon sells for $11 a plate, while a carton of fresh-enough eggs at the local (read: only) grocery store 100 yards away costs more than $20. Mercifully, an employee beer at the Sidewinder is only $4.
“We’ve had people leave after one dishwashing shift,” Carolyn Woytek told me. She’s the food and beverage director overseeing the entire Oasis at Death Valley property, and yes, she also lives on site. “It’s definitely not for everybody.”
Woytek moved to Furnace Creek for work in late 2019 after hospitality stints all over the United States, including working with Kogi chef Roy Choi back when he was cooking hotel food in Sacramento. She and her husband feel a sense of serenity in all that open space, though she admits that, without much access to anywhere else, her convertible has been mostly gathering dust.
Others come from a background working on seasonal cruise ships and find that a six-month stint in the cooler winter months suits them just fine. What wears people down, Woytek says, is the unending push, as the property gets its second high season in the middle of the summer from customers who want to gawk at the brain-scrambling heat. The seemingly endless landscape and ink-black nights can throw others off balance. (The park is a certified dark sky preserve.) A few rugged workers, like the Inn’s executive chef Adam Dickerson, opt instead to drive more than an hour each day from Pahrump, Nevada, population 36,000, just to ease the isolation.
It takes a mindset to survive here, former general manager Matheu believes, as evidenced by the attitudes of those who catch on with the rhythms of the land. There’s even something of a colloquial, tongue-in-cheek saying surrounding the weather: “You can start complaining about the heat when it reaches 115 degrees. And at 125 you’ve actually got a legitimate gripe.”
Some of the busiest restaurant employees end up being the most temporary. The Oasis at Death Valley receives about 40 annual workers from overseas as part of the J-1 exchange visitor visa program sponsored by the federal government. These workers are mostly from Thailand. A Thai flag hangs in the kitchen at the Inn and is signed by many of the visa holders who have come and gone. The young men and women manage to stay quite busy during their truncated stays, bustling through the corridors of the property’s half-dozen kitchens, cooking steaks and spaghetti and banquet food before retreating home for the night along with the 200-plus other employees, out behind the grocery store-slash-post office. During prep, one Thai worker tells me in passing that he’s happy to have a chance to work while experiencing the American West, though he laughs when admitting he didn’t think it would all be quite … like this, with the dust and heat and general isolation.
Even within the longtime employee ranks, a certain percentage of turnover is common, and there’s sure to be more ebb and flow as the effects of the ongoing global pandemic continue to ripple through all aspects of restaurant and hotel life. As of late 2020, according to representatives for the Oasis at Death Valley, there had yet to be a single confirmed case of COVID-19 at the property. But that doesn’t mean that it’s been business as usual for the workers and lifers living along Highway 190.
The Oasis suspended some of its operations (as did parts of the national park) for three months in the spring of 2020, and it is still subject to Inyo County’s public health regulations outlining on-site dining, occupancy rates, and coronavirus mitigation protocols. Last year’s travel bans meant fewer tourists (and tourism dollars), which meant fewer hours worked and fewer dollars in the door for all those staff members who stayed behind. Now with national parks expected to have banner tourism and California leading the charge for low COVID-19 rates and vaccinations, it’s bustling once again in Furnace Creek.
In a desert where time can be measured by stones that move silently, slowly, across the cracked desert floor, it’s easy to feel the slowness of life at the Oasis. Stay for a night, stay for a year, stay for a lifetime. There’s something for everyone in this nowhere place, and a sense of nothingness for those who feel compelled to live without the rest of the world. Everyone’s first visit to a national park happens because there is a desire to get away; at the Oasis at Death Valley, it’s the staying that’s ultimately the most interesting.
*Between the original reporting for this piece, in February 2020, and today, Matheu has since left Death Valley, but he remains an important part of this story. For starters, he spent most of a day driving me short distances in a white SUV so that I didn’t die.