Finding a Decent Drink in Death Valley

Finding a Decent Drink in Death Valley

We’re at the Corkscrew Saloon in Furnace Creek and in search of saloon salvation. We’re on a run of bad bars and can’t seem find a decent drink in Death Valley. Seems odd to complain about this so close to actual tragedy and tribulation. Death Valley has been the sight of countless catastrophes and a few survival miracles. We need a miracle. Let me explain.

We think we find the worst bar in the world: The Crowbar Cafe & Saloon in Shoshone, California.

It started at The Crowbar Saloon in Shoshone, CA. It’s our first bar in California and we’re looking for a treat after a few days on the road, a failed trip to Mohave, and a ghost town experience in Katherine Landing. Shoshone is a tiny town and more than one person remarks that it’s entirely controlled and owned by one family. They own the gift shop, the tourist businesses, and the gas station selling gas for $5.10 a gallon 27 miles from where we last filled up for $2.97. The town has all the makings of a quaint, tiny town, but is instead a money grab and monopoly nightmare. Our experience with it is horrible.

Crowbar Saloon in Shoshoe, CA. One of the worst bars in the world.
Crowbar Saloon in Shoshoe, CA. One of the worst bars in the world.

It’s a Sunday, we’re out of cell coverage, so we have no idea what’s happening with the Packers. Up until that day, we had been pretty lucky catching the games as we traveled around. We’re coming off a wild experience in Phoenix, and are starting to get a little cocky about finding Packer-friendly places in nooks and crannies of America. And up until now, the Packers had been winning. The day’s game was supposed to be a gimme – the Kansas City Chiefs had a losing average and weren’t playing consistently. Aaron Rodgers had about as much luck as us that day.

NFL-themed coasters are only there to fool you.
NFL-themed coasters are only there to fool you.

So we’re in Shoshone, surprised to even find a saloon at first, but soon feeling entirely confident we’ll be able to catch the game, because that’s how it has worked up until now. It just works out, so we go for a bit of a hike and then roll into the Saloon at what we think is about half-time. It’s an afternoon game, which had made kickoff around 11AM in California.

When we enter the bar, we find it quiet. No problems there, it’s just past noon and a small town, why would it be packed? We get odd looks when we say we’re just having a beer – no lunch. Odd indeed. This is a small town and it should have some regular drinkers like all other small towns.

A football-compatible TV not fulfilling its life's purpose.
A football-compatible TV not fulfilling its life's purpose.

We’re the only ones at the bar. Lisa asks about the game. The response is odd: “Honey,” the waitress begins, “I can’t even turn the television ON!”

We assume that means it’s broken. Oh well, not the end of the world.

A younger waitress appears to chat us up. She must be bored because she’s attached herself to us. We, having spent the last few days with only ourselves as company, are happy for a new voice. But then we learn the real reason there’s no football in this bar.

“The owner doesn’t want to turn this into a sports bar,” she confesses to us.

We look around. Surely the owner must want customers. Another couple enters and gets a sandwich to share to go. We’re it – the sports-hungry, rabid fans the owner is scared of. A sports bar? Come on. Just turn the fucking TV on and show the game. Showing a sporting event does not turn your bar into the damn ESPN Zone. We hide our incredulity until we leave and try to be nice.

The waitress suggests we take a look at the museum next door. It’s fine, but it’s no Packer game. The Packers end up losing 14-19. We’re convinced it’s because we didn’t watch it. We can’t believe our bad luck until we stumble into an even worse bar later in the week.

Actually, the worst bar in the world is the Badwater Saloon in Stovepipe Wells.

We’re still stinging off the Shoshone experience when we’re camped a few days later in Stovepipe Wells. The Stovepipe Wells bar, we’re encouraged, is run by ‘new management’ … which, in hindsight, should probably always be taken as a bad sign. It’s in another bar-monopoly situation – the only bar in town/at this particular crossroads bearing a name that is also home to a gas station. However, the gas station prices aren’t even at Shoshone-levels, and we’re in the middle of Death Valley now instead of the edge — we stay positive. We enter after a long day of hiking and exploring. The dim light in the bar is nice after a day in the Death Valley sun.

The waitress/bartender greets us. There are TVs that are on. We have no interest in what they’re playing, but we still take it as a good sign that this place isn’t as backwards as the last bar. We grab two stools at the bar. There are a number of beers on tap and an impressive selection of booze, signs that point to success. We’re ready to order. Fat Tire for the lady and an IPA for me, please. All we need is the waitress.

The waitress is a woman in her mid-40s or early 50s. She has long gray hair and a bit of a gut. Her glasses turn her eyes into laser beams of hate, fired at every customer. Her scorn is only matched by her ineptitude, but we wouldn’t learn that for a few more minutes.

We’re the second group in the place. There’s an older gent trying to crack the code of the menu and stumble into some decaf iced tea. There isn’t any, but he presses on. Surely, there’s something, so he reads through the menu again. The waitress leaves him to ponder his options, walks over to the bar by us, wipes down a few things, asks us how we’re doing, we start to utter our orders, and she walks away. Tea-guy hasn’t ordered yet, and we’re not ordering until he’s finished, evidently. Transactions happen serially here; it’s too complicated to transact business in parallel.

Our frustration passes from tea-guy to waitress as we continue to wait … and wait. Just pour us some fucking beers, lady. It finally happens … eventually. But first.

A woman comes in asking about happy hour. The front desk told her it was happy hour in the bar and she’s ready to have a drink and give the bar money and all they have to do is take it. The waitress, who we’re learning hates humanity and most of all customers, glares at the woman. “There’s no happy hour here,” she says. No shit.

She  jumps on the phone in an attempt to berate the front desk. She’s unsuccessful – they don’t pick up. She yells to the manager. “Go down there and make sure they know there’s no happy hour. That’s against the law,” she rails. The manager agrees. The horror of all this! The manager leaves to do her bidding.

The customer, after some brow-beating, still attempts to order. She just wants some food to go, presumably to feed to her young children that are with her or perhaps she wants food for her older mother who’s also in attendance. Her daughter crawls up on a bar stool. “You can’t sit there,” the bartender snaps, “not unless you’re 21.”

After yelling at the woman’s child, she tells the woman she can’t get soup to go (no container) or a salad (no container either). When the woman says she’s a guest and will bring the plate back, the waitress gets slightly nicer and ends up giving her a salad in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. I want to comment on her Gandhi-levels of patience. The customer is a saint. I was ready to snap.

Then the bartender reluctantly pours a British couple a beer after failing to help them choose between the foreign selections (they default to Bud). I’m almost laughing now at the insanity of all this, but Lisa is ready to leave.

Before we do, the waitress/bartender drags her feet through a cheeseburger-to-go order. The manager decides he’s doing such a bang-up job managing that he has her pour him a beer and a Jager chaser. Or maybe it’s a Jager shot with a beer chaser. Whatever it is, he definitely deserves it. He’s managing this shit out of this place and shouldn’t just drink plain-old beer all night … which is what he had been doing. He leaves just after 6PM, the bar is, after all, in good hands.

Meanwhile, the computer system is printing out drink orders from the dining room almost constantly. The bartender ignores them. The waitstaff have to physically enter the bar all night and verbally confirm their orders. She screws them up constantly and then tells the waiters that they were entered wrong (they weren’t). She just sucks at this.

We order another round (I want to watch this all continue to unfold — it’s great entertainment) and some chili fries, something we deem un-fuck-up-able on the menu. When our fries arrive, the waitress is told that the order was to-go and that she has screwed up. The fries disappear for a minute and come back in a to-go box that would have easily held the salad the earlier woman had tried peacefully to order. The bartender kinda half apologizes/half complains about the order being wrong. Not our fault, chica. Give us the fries.

So we finish our drinks and food and when I take my last sip, I start the timer on my phone. How long will it take to get our check?

The bartender is in the middle of a complaint session with another member of the staff. She knows what’s right and will take whatever time is needed to explain it. Lisa and I discuss ditching on the bill. Finally, Lisa gets up to go to the bathroom, walks past the woman, walks back, puts her jacket on and just stands there, waiting to catch her eye to ask for the check. We get our bill. It’s been just shy of 11 minutes.

The fates smile … we owe $19 for four beers and the fries. Something’s not right. I ask for a receipt and pull out some money. I leave her a $20 and we get out of there as fast as possible, nearly forgetting the receipt. She has mis-charged us for the beers and left a round off — it should have been $30+.

We take the money we would have spent to the store across the street, buy two beer loosies, and retreat to our van.

The Badwater Saloon, only tolerable in extreme cases of dehydration.
The Badwater Saloon, only tolerable in extreme cases of dehydration.

Thank heavens for the Corkscrew Saloon.

It’s on this run that we enter the Corkscrew Saloon in Furnace Creek. The two big disappointments are fresh in our minds and still sting. We enter and find TVs (an inconsistent sign of quality), a good selection of beer and booze (another inconsistent sign), and a regular customer at the bar (historically a good sign). The bartender and the guy at the bar are chatting like old buddies. We grab a table and a Ukrainian college student takes our order. When our beers are low, she asks if we’d like another. Later, she doesn’t just let us sit there wondering what’s next, she brings us our bill. And there’s free popcorn here. The niceness and friendly service are almost too much to handle. I fight back tears, not wanting to waste any water in this inhospitable desert.

Cold beer, fresh popcorn, and attentive service make the Corkscrew Saloon the best bar in Death Valley.
Cold beer, fresh popcorn, and attentive service make the Corkscrew Saloon a great bar in Death Valley.

The company that manages Furnace Creek is Xanterra, and later I look them up and take a peek at their job listings. Briefly, I dream about working at one of their resorts and living in the employee barracks with Lisa. I bet they have WiFi and electricity. But I’d have to work, so I abandon the plan or at least put it on hold. For now, a cold beer is enough.

We’re back on the good streak in Panamint Springs.

The beers are big in Panamint Springs.
The beers are big in Panamint Springs.

Later, we find our way to Panamint Springs and the Panamint Springs Resort. For a resort, there’s certainly a lot of scrap metal and junk laying around. When we register to camp, the guy working the registration desk/gas station cash register tells us they have nearly 200 beers available at the bar. We decide to check it out that night.

The ~200 claim isn’t an exaggeration. Bottles of beer fill their own room off the main bar area. It’s self-serve, so you can browse, which is nice. They also offer various sized pours of beers on draft. I get a big Ranger IPA draft (24 oz.), Lisa grabs a bottle of Fat Tire after minutes of choice paralysis.

About half of the selection of beer bottles.
About half of the selection of beer bottles.

The beers are good, but the real entertainment is the conversations we overhear. We learn that Aron Ralston hiked into Panamint Springs after his ordeal and that he’s an idiot for not telling anybody where he was going. “I’d be ashamed to be that guy!” we overhear. “He was so unprepared.” (Later, the interwebs clarify that AR was in Utah, not California.) Then we hear about how difficult it is to run the resort, how they’re not where they thought they’d be when they drafted their 5-year-plan. (We wonder if the they know CA is bankrupt and that the economy dived into the shitter in the last 5 years.) Then there’s a discussion on coyotes and how they get friendly to humans too quickly after a few are chased down the street, and a discussion on the deliciousness of the resort’s food. “The bacon is amazing!” (Meanwhile, some guys from Germany seem daunted by the $35 pizza price and hesitate to enter.) It’s surreal, but it’s also wonderful. It’s how a bar at the edge is supposed to be — not as polished as Furnace Creek, more welcoming than the other two we’re trying to forget — a place to grab a drink and relax and find reality temporarily improved.