It was a warm December afternoon, 1969, a day like any other in the temperate desert southwest. The setting sun cast ocher hues across Goler Wash and waning cottonwood leaves rustled in the breeze. Crescent silhouettes of a half-dozen turkey vultures circled above while a kit fox stealthily skirted the canyon wall, and long-tailed pocket mice took cover under scattered clumps of Napkin Ringed Buckwheat. The seasons were transitioning in normal fashion, but a macabre darkness loomed in the canyon. A few miles away, national park rangers and CHP officers, who were investigating a vandalized piece of heavy equipment, were preparing to raid a small encampment in a tributary of Goler, a semi-abandoned site known as Barker Ranch. One hundred miles to the south, Los Angeles police were focusing on a bizarre string of gruesome murders of prominent Hollywood celebrities. Little did each know, but the man CHP officers would find hiding under the kitchen cabinet at Barker Ranch, would become a poster child for out-of-control psychopathic killers. And, the ensuing arrest would be the impetus for best-selling books, hit movies, and documentaries, and shake the public's psyche for decades. Mom, meet Charles Manson.
As we approached the 40th anniversary of Manson's L.A. rampage, a headline of possible parole for his main axe woman, Susan Atkins, prompted us to take a closer look at this bizarre string of murders and further investigate Goler Wash and Barker Ranch. Following the SEMA show, we headed west from the glitter of Sin City (AKA Las Vegas) to the arid and foreboding reaches of Death Valley. The plan: to follow the tracks of Charles Manson and his gang of long-haired-hippy-freaky-kinda-LSD-hallucinating cronies, explore their haunts of four decades past, and ultimately to take in the view from Charles Manson's lookout chair atop a rocky knoll above Barker Ranch. In the process we'd get the bonus of traversing isolated desert two-tracks through Warm Springs, Mengel Pass, and Panamint Valley.
Wagon Trains and Desert Illusions
Ours was a similar winter morning, warm with a light westerly breeze. Pulling out from Baker, California, headed north towards Saratoga Springs and the entrance to Death Valley National Park. Airing down the tires near Harry Wade Road, the russet foothills of the Amargosa Mountains rose to the east, standing in desolate contrast to the cerulean easterly sky. To access Goler Wash, which lay on the western slope of the Panamint Range, we would climb a tributary of Warm Springs Canyon. The park map stated, "Road conditions require experienced 4-wheel drivers." Considering we were in the company of some really seasoned off-road experts - Dean Mellor (4x4 Australia Magazine), Patrick Cruywagen (South Africa 4x4 Magazine), Fred Williams (Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road), and Lisa Woods from ARB - we figured the worst that could happen is that we run into a Manson wannabe with a flat tire.
Though only an hour or so from the pavement, we thought we were suffering from a heat stroke-induced mirage. In the distant sheen off the desert floor, we could have sworn we were seeing...covered wagons? Can't be, that was 150 years ago, right? Low and behold, as we neared this aberration of the desert, our eyes behold the truth: a dozen covered wagons replete with wooden-spoked wheels, dusty canvas tops, sloshing wooden water buckets, and a handful of salty pioneers, crept slowly north along the dusty two-track. Pulling up alongside this spectacle of yesteryear, we stopped to chat with one of these sun-baked adventurers. The bearded old guy behind the reins gave me a nod and wink of the eye and said, "We're head'n to Salt Lake City, Pardn'er...Phoenix to Salt Lake...by horse and wagon...should take about six months." Enjoying the trusty 4x4s under our rears, we slipped it back into gear and moved on.
If you've never visited Death Valley National Park, in a four-wheeler that is, put it on your bucket list of places to go before you kick the bucket. It wanes only to Alaska's big six in size, and what Alaska's parks kick out in the way of sub-freezing climes in the dead of winter, Death Valley, with a mere two inches of annual precipitation and a record high of 134 degrees, steps up as one of the hottest and driest spots on the planet. Then there is desert oasis of Badwater (pun intended), which at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest spot in the western hemisphere. But don't get scared just yet, despite these extremities, Death Valley is one cool place. At almost 3,000 square miles in size, it sports several hundred miles of OHV routes. In fact, there are more dirt tracks than paved ones, more than 700 miles of them. I digress.
The Geologist Cabin, Gravestones, And A Desert Oasis
Back in the day, in the 1880s, the single-track to Warm Springs, which was part of the Panamint Shoshone Indian Reservation, led to a small ranch built by an old Indian named Panamint Tom. In an area seemingly void of surface water, the aquifer has pushed its way through strata in the form of an artisan spring known as Warm Springs. Back in the day, Warm Springs provided year-around water for 150 fruit trees, livestock, and the local mines. When a flash flood destroyed the ranch in 1897, the area remained relatively sedate until the 1930s when talc was discover in a nearby canyon. The post-WWII demand for talc sent the mines back into operation until finally shutting down in 1989. After exploring the artifacts of bygone years, we continued west towards Butte Valley and a famous stone abode know as the Geologist Cabin.
Uplifted, folded, warped, and subjugated, Death Valley holds the geological history of the world, and almost every period of the planet can be sniffed out. Butte Canyon and the sculpted arroyos surrounding the old Geologist Cabin are a potpourri of this geological record. Standing testament to 100-million years of torturous tectonic folding and rifting, a precipice to the north displays fossilized Precambrian riverbeds, sandwiched between those of Paleozoic and Jurassic era. Standing on the long-silent footsteps of the cabin's owner, in our mind's eye, we were humbled by the thought of our brief existence on earth and the evolutionary history that lay before us.
Tracing a serpentine track from the Geologist Cabin, we climbed a boulder-strewn track to Mengal Pass. The old prospector, Carl Mengel, became an institution in the valley, roaming the region for decades in search of riches. After losing one leg in a mining accident, he continued to prospect into his 70s before ultimately passing in 1944. His ashes and prosthetic leg are buried under a stone monument on the summit.
Holes In The Desert And Barker Ranch
While it is said that Manson accessed his Barker Ranch hideaway from this shorter westerly route though Panamint Valley, we were coming from the eastern escarpment of the Panamint Range. Descending from the summit through Goler Wash on a fairly well-traveled route, we kept a keen eye out for the entrance to Barker Ranch. Through a small side canyon, a non-descript two-track veered off to the south. More than 100 miles from the long arm of the LAPD, hidden from view and veiled in overgrown brush, this would have been a perfect hideaway for Manson's clan. A few hundred yards up the wash, the canyon walls parted to reveal several structures and the ranch-style gate of Barker Ranch. Tucked up against a rock outcropping, the main ranch house, several outbuildings, and a crudely-built swimming pool lay abandon and dusty, but still fairly well preserved.
As we wandered through the grounds poking around, we couldn't help but to reflect back on the macabre accounts of the Tate and La Bianca murders, of the merciless killing of an unborn child, or that of Gary Hinman. And, what happened to the number of Manson associates who just disappeared without a trace, who vanished in the desert, and those who succumbed to the psychological control of Manson? Murder, deceit, and treachery...? Under our watchful eye, every nondescript pile of dirt was suspect as we shuffled through the sagebrush and kicked over long-silent stones.
Behind the main house we followed a narrow single track up the escarpment to the east, and there it was. Manson's famous lookout chair, bullet ridden and rusting, its metal legs firmly incarcerated in a shallow bed of concrete and stone. Sliding into the cold metal chair provided us a crosshair line-of-sight view of both accesses to the canyon. Flashback 40 years to 1968, and Manson or one of his clan was probably sitting in this very chair, but with a completely different agenda than ours. As we discussed the prospect of camping at the ranch, a couple of vultures swept in on an unusually chilly breeze. We decided it would be better to camp at Panamint Springs. We left Barker Ranch to the spirits of those who remain, a forgotten name on a missing person's report, those whose fate is only known by the surrounding hills of Barker Ranch.
Making our way north to the boomtown of Ballarat (population 10...including dogs), we stopped to check out Manson's old truck, the jailhouse, and the combination post office/general store/saloon. The sun was setting on the horizon as we passed the signpost for the now-closed OHV trail to Surprise Canyon and Panamint City. But, our stomachs were growling for Fred William's famous chuck wagon Corona Burgers, so we would have to hike Surprise the next day.
As for following the tracks of Mason to Barker Ranch and locating his infamous lookout chair, we were successful. But as we turned our tires north to Panamint Springs, we knew we had only scratched the surface of possibilities for exploring Death Valley. While tossing back a few coldies and swapping yarns around the fire, we vowed to soon return and continue our exploration of California's famous Valley of Death.