The secret of Death Valley is to be found in traces of life. These traces are everywhere. Look around and see a history of man’s folly: fortunes won and lost; communities founded, then abandoned; dreams built, then shattered. The astounding power of hope rose up again and again, only to be dashed to bits across the arid ground. But there was always hope in Death Valley, and it shows up even in the Death Valley Charcoal Kilns.

When I approached the charcoal kilns for the first time, their craftsmanship impressed me. They’re built like fine watches — all uniformly-sized, without a stone out of place. Even their placement in the small valley gives them an aesthetic purity. I wondered if that fine attention to detail might have seemed like a waste to the people involved with their construction.

But the men who built these kilns obviously answered to some higher authority. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing right. They had to look good because things done right look good.

The Death Valley Wildrose Charcoal Kilns were built in 1877 by the Modock Consolidated Mining Company. Charcoal produced here was to be used in smelters at two silver-lead mines 25 miles to the West. Only a year later, the ore in those mines ran out. The charcoal kilns, and the camp-town of Wildrose, were abandoned. Another dream shattered, Death Valley shrugged, then turned its attention to the next wave of hopeful invaders.

I feel I got to know Death Valley in some intimate way on this visit to the charcoal kilns. I was sweating. Even April in Death Valley brings daytime temps of 105°F or so. Thing is, there’s almost nothing – like pavement or buildings – to retain that heat. Overnight, I was grateful for my hoodie as the thermometer dipped into the 40°s.

Who knew a place called “Death Valley” could be so inhospitable?