Death Valley daze
Notes from a Manson Family vacation
When I got to the Motel 6 in Bishop,California, my fingertips were frozen. I’d gotten a late start out of Sacramento, and by the time I’d traveled the 250 miles east on Highway 50 and south on Highway 395 to this remote eastern Sierra village, the temperature had dropped to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. I pried my frozen paws off the motorcycle’s handlebars, stumbled into the heated lobby, slipped off my heavy gloves and screamed like a man passing a kidney stone as the blood flowed back into my frostbitten fingers.
“Do you have a reservation, sir?” the clerk asked.
I did. I’d made it months in advance. After many years of promising myself to do it, I was finally taking the Manson Family vacation, and there I was in Bishop, more than halfway to Death Valley.
I was tired from the ride, but sleep did not come easily in my stuffy little room. All night, I was plagued by the same, recurring nightmare I’ve been having since I was 16:
Charles Manson is being arraigned on grand theft auto charges in the Inyo County Courthouse in Independence, just a few miles down the road from Bishop. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, on hand because he suspects Manson and his so-called Family may have perpetrated the infamous Tate/LaBianca killings, notices that his self-winding watch has stopped. He looks up, and Manson is staring at him from the docket. They make eye contact, and Manson laughs maniacally, as if to say, “Yes, I stopped your watch.” Then Manson makes eye contact with me, and I realize he can control my mind.
I always wake up sweating.
Mansonphiles will immediately recognize the nightmare as the final scene from Part 1 of Helter Skelter, the 1976 TV movie adaptation of Bugliosi’s bestseller about the Manson case. Bugliosi played down the watch incident in the book, chalking it up to coincidence and scoffing at Charlie’s alleged magical powers. Manson himself admits that he’s never been able to make a watch stop. But back in 1969, he was able to program a group of sex and drug and rock ’n’ roll-addled 20-year-olds to kill, and the image of Charlie, the watch-stopping supernatural demon presented in the film, has haunted me for the past 25 years.
In the morning the cold snap backed down; it was slightly above freezing as I continued south on 395, through the Owens Valley and past the courthouse in Independence where the famous watch-stopping scene occurred so long ago. Just past the jagged white edge of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in California, I turned east on Highway 136, which merges into Highway 190 on the way into Death Valley. The black ribbon of roadway snaked through fresh fields of snow studded with boulders and Medusa-headed Joshua trees, a surreal landscape signaling I had entered Manson country. After crossing a final mountain pass, the road plunged into the granite and basalt abyss that is Death Valley.
Manson first brought the Family to Death Valley via magic bus in late 1968. The group was made up of around 20 people, the women outnumbering the men two to one. Charlie’s angels were for the most part pretty girls from solid middle-class backgrounds. How and why they hooked up with a 33-year-old, 5-foot-2 career criminal whose rap consisted of a bastardized mixture of doomsday Christian theology, Scientology and Satanism remains one of life’s great mysteries; supernatural powers should perhaps not be ruled out. Neither should drugs. According to Paul Watkins, a Family member who would later testify against Manson, the group brought a kilo of marijuana and fifty tabs of LSD to Death Valley with them.
Their destination was Myers Ranch, a cluster of dwellings located in the rugged Panamint Mountains, approximately 20 miles from Ballarat, a ghost town left over from Death Valley’s gold-mining days. The grandmother of one of Charlie’s girls owned the ranch, but the Family instead chose to take up residence in the abandoned Barker Ranch, a quarter-mile to the west. There they proceeded to gobble acid, play music and grope and fondle one another for several months before returning to Los Angeles to kill Sharon Tate.
Barker Ranch was my destination, so I turned south on Highway 178, just past Panamint Springs, and made my way to Ballarat, 20 miles farther. There’s not much left of Ballarat. A few wind-worn concrete foundations. A closed grocery store. A few camper trailers. I followed Wingate Road, a graded dirt stretch heading south out of the ghost town, 14 miles to a rocky gorge known as the Goler Wash. The temperature had warmed to a pleasant 80 degrees.
At the mouth of the wash, a narrow, rocky jeep trail winds its way seven miles up a dry creek bed to Barker Ranch. Back in 1968, the group parked their bus at the mouth of the wash; the road was simply too rough to traverse in anything less than a dune buggy. It’s easier going now, but a dual-purpose motorcycle or a four-wheel drive is recommended for anyone attempting to trace this route.
The canyon walls closed in almost immediately; impossibly tight switchbacks slowed my progress to a crawl. I broke into a sweat wrestling the motorcycle up the narrow draw. I felt claustrophobic, as if someone was watching from atop the red sandstone cliffs. Halfway to Barker Ranch, a coyote suddenly leapt from the bushes, startling me so much that I crashed at slow speed in the deep gravel. The coyote ran off, leaving me alone in the chasm. I recalled a Manson quote from Ed Sanders’ book The Family:
“Christ on the cross, the coyote in the desert—it’s the same thing, man. The coyote is beautiful. He moves through the desert delicately, aware of everything, looking around. He hears every sound, smells every smell, sees everything that moves. He’s always in a state of total paranoia, and total paranoia is total awareness.”
The Family returned to Barker Ranch shortly after the Tate/LaBianca murders, preparing for the coming apocalypse as foretold by Manson, a race war in which the blacks would defeat the whites. “Helter Skelter,” he called it, and the Family would ride out the storm in “the Hole,” a giant cavern supposedly hidden beneath Death Valley. In the final months of 1969, Family members combed the area in stolen dune buggies, searching frantically for the Hole. They never found it.
I was searching for something, too, in the Goler Wash. I was hoping the dilapidated buildings of Barker Ranch, some of the last remaining traces of the Manson Family, could help me distinguish between Manson the myth and Manson the man, between fantasy and reality. I needed a sign, something that confirmed or denied Manson’s alleged supernatural powers, I didn’t care which.
When I arrived at the ranch, the stone-and-wood-and-tarpaper shacks were silent. No whispers of orgies on the wind, no sense of evil emanating from the black, empty windows, just a couple of old, empty buildings on their last legs. Garbage from previous visitors littered the site. A barbed-wire fence surrounded the grounds to keep wild burros out. I worked the latch of the gate and walked through, not seeing the barbed wire strung at precisely the same level as my forehead. I walked right into it and felt the sharp barbs jab into my skull. I touched the spot on my forehead and saw blood on my fingertip. Damn. I continued up to the main ranch house, dabbing my forehead with a shirt sleeve.
Inside, I was surprised to find the smallish ranch house was well kept. There was a table with chairs in the kitchen, a couch in the living room, dog-eared paperbacks lining the shelves and two made-up bunks in the bedroom. The bathroom cabinet the diminutive Manson had hid in during the police raid that resulted in his arrest had been ripped out. There was a guest book with a pen on the kitchen table; the first entry invited visitors to spend the night. A drop of blood from the cut in my forehead splattered on the book. I dipped the pen in my own blood and signed in.
I had no intention of staying, of course. Not that I was paranoid or anything. It would take an hour or two to make my way back down the Goler Wash, the sun was setting, and I wouldn’t be able to negotiate the trail in the dark. I returned to the motorcycle and used some water and a towel to dress my wound.
A surprising amount of blood had formed a thick clot in the center of my forehead. It took some time to scrub down to the cut. When I’d finally scrubbed it clean, I looked at the cut in one of the bike’s mirror. It was shaped like an X, just like the ones Family members carved into their foreheads during the Tate/LaBianca trial.
It was just a coincidence, I told myself. Just like Bugliosi’s watch. Just a coincidence. But as I fired up the bike to leave, I couldn’t help thinking that somewhere in a California prison cell, Charlie Manson was laughing at me.