A Historical 4x4 Adventure In California's Famous Valley Of Death
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.