Monday, January 11, 2010

"Trapped in Death Valley" from Edcon Publishing

This is the story of the Sand Walking Company and their
treacherous journey through Death Valley in an effort to reach

Something you will read about: borax: a white powdery substance used to destroy germs.

The road west was treacherous and untamed~ yet these brave men and women were determined to reach the territory called California.

The Sand Walking Company, consisting of a hundred wagons full of settlers heading for California and the newly discovered gold fields, halted in southwestern Utah. An argument had been going on for some time. Part of the group wanted to take a shortcut through the desert. But the leader, Captain Hunt, was very much opposed to it.

Donner Party
He squatted with the impatient young men, William Manly and John Rogers, critically examining a crude map outlined on the already cold ground. It was nearly December, in 1849, and this evidently worried Manly.

"We'll travel south," urged Manly. "These mountains are very treacherous in the winter. Remember what happened to the Donner party?"

A shudder swept over the three of them as they recalled the ordeal of the Donner party stranded by blizzards in the Sierras. Captain Hunt still argued.

"At least we know the way through the mountains. It would be suicide to endeavor to travel through that unknown desert."

Manly gazed carefully at the jagged line he had drawn due south, through the mysterious southeast desert region where Nevada meets California. It looked so easy, so direct.

"I want to attempt it," he insisted.

"Suit yourself," replied Captain Hunt, "but I'm taking all those who will accompany me over the mountains, the safe and sure way."

The following morning, most of the wagons in the train rumbled off to the mountains. A small party of adventurous souls, including the Bennett and Arcane families and Reverend James Brier and his family, gathered their belongings together, loaded up their wagons and headed south into the mysterious, unknown basin of sand, shimmering under a torrid sun. Around them towered rock formations of weird shapes, eroded by the sun and wind. Coyotes howled at night and bighorn sheep appeared in ghostly herds on distant hills. Day after day, the constantly turbulent wind whipped the grey sand against the slow-moving wagons.

The temperature rose as the wagons creaked forward and a large pond became visible. The children scampered to the welcome water, but a white, salty substance lay upon the surface.

"Don't drink it," Juliette Brier warned her three children, "it may be contaminated. "

"But we're thirsty," whined the children, "and we're tired."

"I know," soothed their mother, concealing her growing anxiety.

The fresh water supply was becoming scant and so were the provisions. It was difficult traveling through the sand, not nearly as swift as Manly had imagined. The shortcut had turned into a nightmare but Juliette maintained her fortitude and good spirits and constantly encouraged her companions. When the children got tired, she played a game with them, letting them ride on empty leather saddlebags. Manly and Rogers scanned the horizon, peering at the distant peaks of the Panamint Mountains, which separated them from California's wealth.

"The path to the mountains goes through those hills," Manly observed, and he directed the group toward a ravine. Wearily, the gaunt, starving oxen dragged the wagons down into a narrow depression through two cliffs, seeking a path between the rough stone walls. Oxen stumbled and perished and since the survivors couldn't pull all of the wagons, precious possessions had to be abandoned along with stranded vehicles. As food and water began to give out, the settlers wandered in the endless maze of grey rocks, thinking they were nearing the end of their journey but never getting closer to the mountains.

They followed a stream which they named Furnace Creek because the rocks seemed to have been bleached by the torrid sun. Most of the water was undrinkable. The white powdery mineral served to contaminate all but a few springs. In later years, this substance, borax, would make men rich as they hauled the "white gold" from the desert with twenty-mule teams, but to these travelers the salty powder just added to their ordeal.

Furnace Creek Valley
The children became sick, oxen died and more wagons were abandoned. Vultures soared overhead as the travelers persisted in their endeavor to reach the mountains. At last they came to a dead end, trapped in the hills.

"We'll surely die now," said Juliette in despair, turning her face so the children could not see her weep.

The men listened to Juliette's sobs in desperation. Her fortitude had inspired them and now even she felt that their situation was hopeless.

"Look," exclaimed William Manly, "John and I got you into this, so we'll have to go and get help. Meanwhile, the rest of you must stay here."

He glanced at the Reverend Brier and his brave wife.

"And pray. Pray like you've never prayed before."

As the two men disappeared into the wilderness, their friends watched in despair. The two men had taken few supplies. Who could survive in this torrid desert? One by one, most of the oxen were killed for their meat. It seemed as if the waiting people would die of thirst when a sudden winter storm, bringing the rare rain of the desert, nearly drowned them in a flash flood but left pure water in hastily set out containers. Then a miracle seemed to happen. Flowers of purple, gold, red and yellow appeared, springing up where the moisture had reached them. Juliette hugged her starving children and gazed hopefully at the flowers, assuring the children that help would come soon.

Meanwhile, John and William had crossed the desert and reached the Panamint Mountains. Powered by sheer fortitude, they crossed the mountains and wandered through a smaller desert, the Mojave. They stumbled into a ranch, looking more like skeletons than living men. At the nearby settlement of San Fernando, they purchased whatever provisions they could carry, plus three horses and a small mule.

The return journey was an ordeal. The horses died. The men utilized few of the provisions, saving them for their friends. As they approached the ravine where the wagons ground to a halt, they were filled with dread. The only sound was the wind whistling around the wagons. Manly raised his revolver and fired, the shot echoing from the forbidding stone cliffs. There was a scratching sound as a man crawled painfully from under a wagon. He blinked, then in a hoarse voice he shouted.

"The boys have come! The boys have come!"

Immediately, the atmosphere was alive with jubilant exclamations and cries as the survivors staggered from the wagons where they had sought shelter from the torrid sun.

"Thank the Lord!" exclaimed Reverend Brier.

"Good bye, Death Valley."
The Bennetts and Arcanes embraced the men in wordless emotion and Juliette fell to her knees, tears streaming down her weather-beaten cheeks. Strengthened by the provisions Manly and Rogers had secured, the survivors trudged on foot out of the desert toward the mountains. The trail was desolate but now their leaders knew the way. Halfway up the mountain trail, Juliette Brier surveyed the forty miles of rocks twisted by erosion, endless sand and salt ponds.

"Goodbye, Death Valley," she whispered.

Death Valley, as it has been known since, is a place of terror, mystery, and for some, the source of great fortunes. But no one who travels through Death Valley, even on modern roads, can forget the little group who first crossed it in the winter of 1849.


1. The leader of the Sand Walking Company was ___________ .
a. Reed Donner.
b. William Manly.
c. John Rogers.
d. Captain Hunt.

2. This leader was strongly against taking a short cut __________ .
a. through the mountains.
b. through the gold mines.
c. through the desert.
d.through the Sierras.

3. In all probability, the group that followed Manly would have had less trouble if they followed ____________.
a. the Sierra family.
b. Captain Hunt.
c. Juliette Brier.
d. John Rogers.

4. The group followed a stream called ___________ .
a. Furnace Creek.
b. San Fernando.
c. White Gold Creek.
d. Panamint Creek.

5. The powdery mineral which contaminated most of the springs was _________ .
a. sand.
b. borax.
c. gold.
d. table salt.

6. A sudden winter storm caused flowers to spring up __________ .
a. just before the two men left to get help.
b. long after the two men returned.
c. before any of the oxen were killed for
their meat.
d. after the two men had gone for help.

7. Juliette thought of the flowers as a _____________ .
a. sign of hope.
b. sign of winter.
c. dream.
d. sign to pray.

8. A more detailed account of this story might be found in a book on ________ .
a. deserts of the world.
b. western expansion.
c. rocks and minerals.
d. the gold rush.

9. Another name for this selection could be _________ .
a. "Vacationing in Death Valley."
b. "Beware: Death Valley."
c. "Searching for Borax."
d. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to California."

10. This selection is mainly about _________ .
a. a wagon party stranded by blizzards.
b. the Donner party's mistake.
c. the Sand Walking Company.
d. the little band who were the first to cross Death Valley.

This story is an article from a series of Reading Comprehension Workbooks by Edcon Publishing Group. It is under Copyright, and included here with permission from the company. Edcon has all the rights to the audio files of their articles and stories. Edcon Publishing has a very large selection of different types of readings and other materials for learning. I highly recommend this company. - The Teacher

Here are some links for more information and
visuals about Death Valley.

Death Valley: Photos
Death Valley:Wikipedia

Death Valley Music Video from Youtube:

Death Valley National Park

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