At the age of 63, Donald Vanneman III, who lives in San Francisco, was all about the thrill and experienced one adventure after the next. Last month – on a solo road trip to charming hot springs that were closed due to the pandemic and hidden deep in California’s most unforgiving desert valley – he went too far.
Vanneman wasn’t the first to die in Saline Valley Warm Springs, an extremely remote collection of hot spring baths and camping areas that were colonized by hippies, survivors, and rock dogs in the 1960s and annexed to Death Valley National Park in 1994.
“A long time ago, before the place became known and popular, people died at the springs and people along the street,” says Tom Ganner, the springs’ former camp manager. “Cars would break down, people would drive off looking for help, and they would expire.”
Park spokeswoman Abby Wines says she cannot recall any deaths in the area in recent years. Regardless of whether there have been others, Vannemans is unusual. It has caused a stir in the large community that still holds these hot springs sacred, as demonstrated by heated discussions in internet groups devoted to the site. Some group members expressed confusion about how this could happen. Others expressed their condolences. Many are angry. They say Vanneman did not respect “the source”.
Vanneman’s life, as portrayed on his Facebook page and described by his sister Donna Kerr Vanneman, was tumultuous. He grew up in Southern California, attended Cornell University, and developed HIV as a young gay man, his sister said.
“He was [one of] The first 500 men to receive the new drug in this study, ”she wrote in a post recalling her brother on Facebook. “A year later he was the only one alive. He took these drugs until he was around 40 years old. “
Vanneman has lived at the Castro for the past three decades, just a block from the Castro Theater, his sister said, and his two great loves were his partner Allan Sanchez and his service dog Shakespeare. Despite struggling with mental health problems, his sister said he had a “wonderful” job managing the Plaza Hotel, and in his spare time he loved traveling and camping.
Vanneman’s Facebook page is mostly made up of photos of him and his old mutt Shakespeare. Together they traveled all over California, visiting the mountains, beaches and deserts, and Saline Valley Warm Springs was clearly a special place for Vanneman.
On his featured photos, he shows a picture of one of the pools in Saline Valley Warm Springs with the meaningful caption: “Fled to Death Valley by the bishop 03/19/2008 to die, instead found paradise and pagans without leaving until 04/09. 2008. ”
For those intrepid enough to find the Saline Valley, it has often made such an impression. The springs are in the remote northwest corner of Death Valley National Park, 35 miles from the nearest paved road. In the 1950s, when the area was still under the control of the Bureau of Land Management, early settlers developed bathtubs and art installations there. They also built makeshift dishwashing stations, showers and latrines, and planted lawns and palm trees. Charles Manson and his followers are said to have visited, and the place was apparently quite wild.
“In the past, you could undress with a six-shooter in one hand and a can of beer in the other and ride a motorcycle through the dunes,” jokes Ganner, the old warehouse manager. “Now they’re making you wear a helmet and put your beer down. And no weapons. It’s no longer fun. “
The area was placed under Park Service control under the California Desert Protection Act in 1994, and while public nudity is still widespread at the sources, lewd behavior is now prohibited, according to the Death Valley website.
There is no camping or day use fee, but valet parking allows guests to stay at the springs for only 30 days in any given year. Many are taking advantage of this, although weather conditions can be harsh and there are no services at all.
The main attraction is the three tier system of hot springs lined up along a 3 mile stretch of road in the valley. Each level has multiple soaking pools with names like Dragon Pool, Volcanic Pool, and Wizarding Pool (named after the man who lived the longest on the property and who served as the caretaker until his death). There are also moving burros, a dirt runway, and the occasional low-flying jets, as the area is part of the US military’s R-2508 Special Use Airspace Complex. For those taking the treacherous 3 to 4 hour washboard road ride from Big Pine over the pass into the Saline Valley, this bizarre place and welcoming community often becomes a haven.
Of course, there are a few unspoken rules, mainly so as not to take photos of naked people and not to destroy the place. But here’s a big question: don’t bathe in the spring pools. They not only supply the other pools, but also the communal kitchen with water. So if they get contaminated with the naked body, for example, problems arise. For some of the people who have been visiting this oasis for decades, the spring pools are considered sacred.
During the pandemic, the Park Service closed the camping areas and emptied the bathtubs at Saline Valley Warm Springs. On December 20, Donald Vanneman drove to the construction site with Shakespeare anyway. When he found that the thermal pools were empty, he bathed in one of the spring pools and ignored a sign telling people not to enter, Park Operator Wines. “Our hydrologist’s best guess is that the pool was likely around 105 degrees Fahrenheit,” Wines wrote in an email.
What happened next was “not publicly known,” said Ganner, one of several people aware of the details of Vanneman’s death. “He was out there and copied,” says Ganner. “I am not at liberty to go into the details.”
A press release issued by the Park Service said the campsite volunteer host noticed Vanneman’s vehicle early December 20 but could not find it. “Later that day, two park visitors discovered his body in the Palm Springs spring pool,” the press release said.
When asked about Vanneman’s cause of death, Wines wrote, “It was an accident – no further details available.”
When asked if Vanneman’s personal belongings were found by the pool or if anything unusual was found in his person, Wines wrote: “He was bathing.”
The Inyo County Coroner Bureau declined to produce Vanneman’s coroner report, citing an open investigation. Vanneman’s sister revealed the cause of Vanneman’s death to SFGATE, which was quite unusual. “I had to look it up,” she said. But Vanneman’s sister asked that, due to her personal nature, the cause not be published in this story. He has problems with his heart, she added, and has struggled with bipolar disorder in his final years, she said.
According to his sister, Shakespeare joined Vanneman in his final adventure and was found in the Saline Valley. “[He] was alive but old so they had to put him down, ”she wrote on Facebook. “I will pray a long time for Shakespeare and my brother.”
When frequent visitors to Saline Valley Warm Springs learned of Vanneman’s death in a spring pool, they were distraught, confused, saddened, and even angry.
“That’s sad, but seriously, WTF?” A member of the Saline Valley Warm Springs Facebook group posted about the incident. “The pools are closed and drained and he was in the middle spring source pool. Ignorant? Entitled? Both?”
“Who would ever go to the source pool, closings or not?” another group member wrote. “Basic pool protocol and a no no at all levels. Sad but stupid. “
Confusion arose as to which spring pool Vanneman died in as the main spring pool is extraordinarily hot (he was not in this one). Some group members thought Vanneman might be a man they knew who was referred to as LED Don, but another member disagreed.
“No way would LED disregard the source,” she wrote.
Concerns have been raised about whether the valet service could take steps to close the springs or fence off areas. Wines clarified this in an email to SFGATE. “NPS has no plans to take any additional action,” she wrote.
Troubled by the tone of the conversation, a group member came to Vanneman’s defense. “Who cares whether they should be in there or not,” she wrote. “These mean comments are very inconsiderate. The poor guy is gone. “
“It’s a cautionary story for all of us,” wrote another user.