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A warm welcome to Death Valley

Desert towns outside the national park offer vast and quiet open spaces, good food and even music in an opera house.

By Jessica Gelt

March 14, 2010

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At 2 a.m. the coyotes began circling, yipping and howling in the darkness beyond our tepee. I gulped hard and stared at my friend Terry. Were these fearsome beasts poised to attack? Terry just laughed. "Think they'll gnaw us to death?" he asked.

We had checked in about 1 a.m. after a five-hour, after-work drive from Los Angeles. Our domicile for two nights in mid-February was one of three tepees on the grounds of China Ranch, a date farm in the tiny town of Tecopa just outside Death Valley National Park. We had found the place through a random Internet search, after efforts to book a room in the park proved fruitless.

Although the two other tepees were occupied and proprietor Cynthia Kienitz lives nearby in a rustic cottage, I was nervous. Maybe we were about to be gnawed to death.

Terry stirred the embers in the raised fireplace in the center of our dwelling, the smoke swirling upward through the opening at the top of the tepee. The room was handsomely appointed with three cozy beds, nightstands, wooden towel racks and woven rugs. I sipped a cocktail and tried to breathe. The howling slowly subsided, followed by a profound silence that was astonishing to city ears. There is something about the desert — its vast open spaces and quiet lack of inhibition — that frees a person. This is what we had come for.

When we stepped outside to get ready for bed in the cottage's bathroom, a stone's throw from the tepee and shared with other guests, we realized what the canines' fuss was about. It was the new moon and a milky fan of shockingly bright stars hung in the desert sky. The coyotes had been celebrating.

The next morning we awoke to the sun as it gently filtered through the top of the tepee, warming our faces. We felt especially relaxed because Tecopa has no cellphone reception, and we were already savoring our enforced shutdown.

We enjoyed a European-style breakfast that Kienitz had laid out on a long wooden table in the cottage's dining room. Guests from her other properties — a hostel and trailers that have been converted into quaint little rooms — came for breakfast and chatted about their plans for the day.

After polishing off our hard-boiled eggs, cold cuts and cheese, Terry and I set out for a short hike just beyond the property. In a few minutes the squat, green date palms of China Ranch gave way to the lonesome hills of the Mojave Desert. We scrambled into a dry riverbed, following it past rusted midcentury sardine cans and rain-smoothed glass bottles until we reached a bullet-riddled Studebaker half-buried in decades of rigid mud.

A little unnerved, we soon wandered back to the China Ranch gift shop for a frosty date shake before making the 10-minute drive to neighboring Shoshone, where we took in an exhibit about the area's history as a rugged mining settlement.

Lunch was rich espresso, followed by a delicious three-cheese crêpe and crisp veggie sandwiches at the charming Café C'est Si Bon in Shoshone. The adorable fat pig in the restaurant's backyard made for a fun diversion while owner David Wash prepared our order.

After our meal, it was time for a soak at the Tecopa Hot Springs Campground & Pools, one of the hot mineral baths the town is known for. Its private pools aren't fancy — just large concrete tubs that look like Jacuzzis — but the water that bubbles up from the earth is as soft as silk and full of minerals and magnesium that soothe minds and relax muscles.

The campground has less expensive public pools as well, but we were glad for the solitude while we watched through the skylight as the sun sank. Thoroughly refreshed, we stopped for a cocktail at the bustling Crowbar in Shoshone before driving about 30 minutes to the Amargosa Opera House in the decaying little town of Death Valley Junction. .

This town has gained a cult-like status, thanks to the eccentric performances of its famous inhabitant, a dancer and actress from New York named Marta Becket, who got a flat tire in Death Valley Junction in the 1960s and decided to stay. She owns the opera house and has been performing here ever since.

At 85, Becket no longer dances. Instead, she performs a "Sitting Down Show," which involves her sitting in a high-backed chair, switching hats and describing a musical in which she used to dance and sing. Her voice cracks, and her movements are slow, but her wit is razor-sharp, and the audience is riveted by the experience.

After the show we ate dinner at a lovely desert flower of a restaurant called Pastels Bistro on the grounds of the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort. The bistro, run by chef John Muccio and his friend Shelley Scott, is the kind of place that draws the community close to it.

Families stop by to give Muccio and Scott fresh strawberries from their garden, couples celebrate anniversaries and friends hole up for hours over hearty plates of Brazilian black beans and rice. We ate simple green salads and made-from-scratch clam chowder, followed by a slice of what very well may be the finest banana cheesecake I've ever tasted.

The next day we packed up our things and took a leisurely ride on California 190 through Death Valley National Park and back to L.A. We stopped at the below sea-level salt flats of Badwater, which were filled after a rare rain, and the rolling sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells Village.

As we emerged from the park, our cellphones came alive with texts, e-mails and voice messages.

"Is it too late to turn around and go back?" I asked Terry.

He smiled.

"You can always shut off your phone," he said.

But we both knew that wasn't the same.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com