Authors John and Barbara Marnell will be making a presentation and signing copies of their book “Good Samaritans of Death Valley: Lou Westcott Beck and Rufus,” at the Eastern California Museum in Independence on Saturday June 21.
The slide show and presentation will begin at 1:30 p.m. In addition, the authors will be at the Museum to sign copies of their book from 1 to 4 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.
The book documents a rather unique era in Death Valley history in the early 1900s when visitors started driving cars into the desert, and explores the unique, live-saving team of Lou Westcott Beck and his dog, Rufus. The pair took it on themselves to provide directions, instructions and, when necessary, rescues to stranded or distressed motorists. With Rufus decked out in custom “boots” made of elk skin, and Beck driving a big, lumbering touring car named “Chuckwalla,” the team was a welcome sight to many desert travelers.
In the early 1900s when automobiles first started to cruise through the barren and often dangerous terrain of Death Valley, there were virtually no road signs or informational signs that directed motorists and visitors to the places in the sprawling desert where they could find water. The era’s automobiles could be quite unreliable in the desert, since they were prone to overheating without a steady supply of water for the radiator. Tires went flat so often most travelers carried multiple spares and patch kits.
Beck had a life-changing event himself in Death Valley, when he ran out of water and Rufus came to the rescue by locating a spring.
That promoted Beck to become a tireless promoter of safe travel through the desert.
Rufus, thanks to his booties and other unique gear, quickly became a bit of a celebrity. The Siberian bloodhound carried a “packsaddle” on his back with food and water, and a camera case around his neck containing snake bite antidotes and other medical supplies. A pair of yellow goggles, to protect his eyes from the dust, completed his outfit.
The Chuckwalla was also customized for desert travel. One of the most interesting adaptations was Beck’s homemade “tire chains,” which consisted of wire wrapped around the tires to provide better traction in the sand. The car also carried water, food and a full array of tools.
The pair were quite a sight, and even participated in the Pasadena’s famed Rose Parade to bring attention to their mission.
Besides roaming the roads of Death Valley and offering hands-on help to travelers, Beck also worked tirelessly to get the state to put up road signs and informational signs along the region’s roads. When the state dragged its feet, Beck went ahead and painted and placed his own signs. Many of them directed travelers to water or shade or provided information about various services available in desert towns.
The Marnells, a husband-and-wife writing and research team, have thoroughly researched Beck’s life and his Death Valley days. The book’s lively style provides interesting insights and information about the early days of motor travel in the desert.
The Eastern California Museum is located at 155 N. Grant St. in Independence. Call 760-878-0258 for more information.