Desert Hideaway

A visit to the sunstruck landscape of Death Valley, and to the isolated cabin where Charles Manson lived in 1969

LOS Angeles is a desert (or almost), but sometimes you want even more desert. What you do then is get in the car and take the 10 to the 405 to the 5 to the 14, or the 55 to the 91 to the 15, or some other combination of highways heading roughly northeast from the city, and after an hour and a half or two hours the expanses of pavement have narrowed, the sky is a bright blue tinged with smog, and empty, unmistakable desert is all around. Brown hills dotted with small bushes as regularly spaced as beard stubble rise on the horizon; low brush beside the road holds shreds of fluttering trash. A canyon is filled with boulders heaped up like paperwork you'll never get to. Then comes a broad flat plain of nothing but gray sand and rocks, with a single anomalous object -- an orange traffic cone, the hood from a barbecue grill resting in the middle distance, as if to aid perspective.

If you stay on the 15 toward Las Vegas and night falls, the four lanes of headlights and taillights become a string dwindling far across the darkness. Suddenly, at the Nevada border, the lit-up casino town of Primm appears, as gaudy as a funhouse entrance. I don't go that way, though; for some reason, Las Vegas does not interest me. Instead I take the 14 north through the high-desert town of Mojave. Just past there a field of wind turbines hums in the wind, the long, propellerlike blades on towers eighty feet high throwing giant shadows as they turn, some clockwise, some counterclockwise. Across the highway from them, to the west, an airfield full of used passenger jets bleaches in the sun. The map shows the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a blue line running nearby. In fact the aqueduct here is an imposing white pipe eight feet across that wanders the contours of the dirt-bike-furrowed hills like a garden hose. From 14 I cut across on a two-lane road to the old mining town of Randsburg, and from there continue to Trona, a lakeside town whose lake dried up 20,000 years ago, leaving a bone-white salt flat that is said to contain half the natural elements known to man. IMC Chemicals, a sprawling enterprise, now mines the flat; Trona smells like sulfur and is windy, gritty, and hot. Past Trona, over some hills and across another vast and shimmering desert flat, is the western boundary of Death Valley National Park.

DEATH Valley is the largest national park in the lower forty-eight states, and it includes more than three million acres of wilderness. At its center is the long, low desert valley from which the park takes its name. Toward the east side of the valley is a fancy inn, the Furnace Creek Inn, and an eighteen-hole golf course. The first time I went to Death Valley was to play golf. I had wondered what a golf course in the desert, 214 feet below sea level, would be like. When I got to the pro shop, a high wind was whipping the tamarisk trees that enclose the course, and dark storm clouds were pouring over the barren Panamint Range to the west like spilled paint. The guy in the pro shop said the storm was supposed to hit in an hour, but if I wanted to play, it was my money. The bad weather had emptied the course, a situation I like; I am such an indifferent golfer that I prefer there be no witnesses. Also, I am afraid of injuring somebody. I teed off, occasionally running down to a green to reset a flag knocked over by the wind. By the time I reached the fifth hole, the storm had turned to the north, the wind had dropped, and the sun emerging on the horizon lit the course like a klieg light. Mourning doves were eating the recently sown grass seed on the tees, and a pair of coyotes had emerged to stalk the ducks and Canada geese gabbling in the hazards. A coyote with eyes only for the waterfowl was sitting on his haunches on the fringe of the seventh green.

The village of Furnace Creek sits in a natural oasis and makes a green rectangle on the desert floor. Along with the inn and the golf course there are campgrounds, a motel, and the headquarters of the Park Service. Tour buses and little rental cars come and go, and tourists -- many of them Germans, who seem to have a thing for deserts -- line up at the cash registers in the gift shop. Just a step on the other side of the tamarisk-tree border extreme desert begins. One afternoon I ducked through the trees at a corner of the golf course and walked across desert like gray pie crust to the village of the Timbisha Shoshone Indians, a half mile or so away. I had heard that the Timbisha had been high-handedly evicted from the oasis years ago. Among the irregularly spaced mobile homes of the Timbisha village I found the one belonging to the tribal chairman, Pauline Esteves, a dour, heavyset woman in her seventies. After many questions about who I was and what I wanted to know, she reluctantly agreed to talk to me. Sitting with her head in her hands at her dining-room table, she said that people who write about her almost always get everything wrong. To my questions about Timbisha history she responded first by staring back at me, irritatedly and long.

She said that the Timbisha people had lived here for thousands of years; that they had been the first to use the natural springs at Furnace Creek to cultivate the land; that a mining company had dispossessed them and bulldozed their houses in the 1920s; that the golf course was near where her house used to be; that despite such incursions the Timbisha had never left and didn't intend to leave. She added that they found the name Death Valley insulting. I asked about a local landmark, and what the Timbisha name for it had been. She buried her face in her hands for a while in silence. Then she looked at me and said, "Impossible to translate." She said that the tribe had been working for decades to get their land back but that she doubted they ever would. (A few weeks after I talked to her, I saw in the paper that the federal government had agreed to return 300 acres of land at Furnace Creek oasis to the Timbisha, along with about 7,200 acres outside the park. Congress has yet to approve the plan: I have a feeling that Pauline Esteves will believe it when she sees it.)

In the evenings I sat in my motel room and listened to the whirring of the lawn sprinklers on the golf course and read a book called by Bob Murphy, which I had bought in a little museum in a nearby town. The woman minding the museum had said it was an interesting book, and it is. When I got to the end of it, I went back to the beginning and read parts over again. Somehow I was in a mood to think about Charles Manson. Manson was arrested -- in Death Valley, as it happened -- thirty years ago last October. He and his followers roamed all over this desert back then, on foot and in chopped Volkswagen dune buggies, and they used it for a hideout. At the time of his arrest Manson was wanted only for auto theft and for torching an earthmover belonging to the Park Service; his involvement in the famous murders in L.A. came out afterward.

says that Manson was captured at a cabin on the Barker ranch, his remote hideaway in an isolated part of Death Valley, up a canyon called Goler Wash. The book describes how difficult it is to drive or even hike up the canyon, and refers to it as "treacherous" Goler Wash. I considered: would I like to see a place like that -- the desert hideout of a deranged killer? I decided that, all in all, I would not. Then I thought about it some more and decided that I actually would.

I spent a day driving and asking around to locate Goler Wash, which is in the Panamint Range in the park's southwestern corner. Early one morning I drove to the ghost town of Ballarat, and then continued south about sixteen miles on a road of gravel and sand to the foot of Goler Wash. I left my car, took a daypack with sandwiches and sunblock and water, and started up the canyon.

You might miss the entrance if you didn't know it was there: from a distance the canyon looks like just another seam in the mountain front. But within fifty yards high walls rise up to enclose a passage about the width of two cars, and the way winds between the walls like a narrow street in lower Manhattan. Grayish dawn light showed the canyon as I ascended; though the time was past sunrise, the sun would not get there for a while. This was the sort of place that needs the accompaniment of foreboding minor chords on a bass viol. But when I stopped and listened, I heard not a sound. As I went on, the stones clicking under my feet at a steep part seemed indiscreetly loud.

After about a mile the canyon opened out, and I could see farther. The sun lit the top of one ridge, and then slid to the next. I passed greenery -- mesquite trees, scrubby willows -- and thumb-shaped cacti poking from the canyon walls. In the crook of a switchback was a spring, upwelling and dark-tinted among creepers and weeds. After another few miles the day became hot. The sun, now overhead, filled the widened canyon with a fierce brightness unmarred by any shade. The silence remained vast. A raven glided over a ridge, and I thought of the Manson family members, some of them young women with babies, hiking up this track barefoot back in 1969. Then I began to think about 1969 in general, and what an unhinged year it was, and how the insane expression in Charles Manson's eyes in that photograph of him on the cover of Life magazine seemed an apt image for that time. I had begun to give myself the creeps when I was distracted by the sound of an engine, and then by the sight of a bright-red ATV coming up the road. It stopped beside me, and its window rolled down. In it were Scott and Marv, businessmen from suburban Chicago, who were tooling around the desert in Marv's high-tech, diesel-powered, tanklike, very expensive Hummer while their wives played blackjack in Vegas. They were looking for Manson's hideout too. They had read about it in a guidebook. They offered me a ride, and I hopped in.

Marv was dark and stocky, Scott blond and thinner. Scott was driving. Each was smoking a big cigar. Scott said he especially wanted to find Manson's bus, which their guidebook also mentioned. In 1968 Manson drove the family's green-and-white school bus up to the Barker ranch, in what was perhaps the only noncriminal real achievement of his life. According to the guidebook, the bus was still there. As Scott negotiated the road's dicey parts, occasionally adjusting a control on the dash in order to add extra air to the Hummer's tires and raise the vehicle's underside an inch or two over the high spots, he kept saying, "I can't believe he got a school bus up here!" At a vista point with desert waste stretching beyond, Scott said, "Marv, when I look at scenery like this, I feel small." Marv puffed his cigar and said, "Drive, Scott. Just drive."

Marv told me about his glass-and-mirror company, and how it had installed the mirrors in the Chicago-area mansion of the basketball star Michael Jordan. As the throbbing Hummer motored upward, Scott kept saying, "The Hummer loves this, Marv. He loves this place."

The Barker ranch is on a tributary canyon that joins Goler Wash from the south. We took a couple of wrong canyons before we found it. Then we passed another spring, hung a right, squeezed through a narrow defile and under a low-hanging cottonwood, and there was the Barker cabin. The cabin where Charles Manson and his followers were captured is a trim one-story structure of local stone set against a low hillside and surrounded by willows, cottonwoods, and a pomegranate tree that was blooming crimson. An ingenious network of plastic pipes connected to a spring irrigates the grounds. It's the sort of place one comes across unexpectedly now and again in America -- a homemade utopia, or (in this case) dystopia.

No one lives there. The cabin now belongs to the Park Service, which maintains it as a backcountry stopover for hikers and other off-road travelers. A notice on the door lists the rules for visitors, and another warns that the house and its contents are protected under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and the American Antiquities Act of 1906. Scott and Marv and I poked around -- no sign of the historic school bus, disappointingly -- and then we shook hands and they continued on their way, following a route that would take them over the mountains and into the valley from the western side. Three minutes after they left, the silence had returned. The sun now stood directly above; I had never before been anyplace so still at midday.

Gingerly, I went through the cabin a second time. Its dimensions -- of windows and ceiling and doorways -- seemed slightly miniaturized. The man who built it (I later learned), in the forties, was a former L.A. police detective with a small wife, and she liked the reduced scale of Pullman sleeping cars. Perhaps this smaller scale also appealed to the five-foot-two-inch Manson. The highway patrolman who arrested Manson found him hiding in a little cupboard in the bathroom, under the sink. The cupboard is now gone, and most of the fixtures are too. Past visitors to the cabin have left behind playing cards, books, a bird's nest with feathers stuck in it on the mantelpiece, Far Side cartoons, animal vertebrae, candles, .45- and .22-caliber shell casings, a bottle of dishwashing soap, a pitching wedge, nonperishable foods, and an oil painting of the view from the front porch. In an outbuilding I found only a set of bedsprings and, on the wall, a map of the Orion Nebula.

The Park Service or someone has provided the cabin with a guest book. It was nearly full, with entries dating from several years to just a few days before. Being in the cabin made me jumpy, so I took the book outside and read it sitting on the edge of the porch, in the shade. Entries from polite Europeans with good handwriting complimenting us Americans on our magnificent scenery alternated with all-capital-letter scrawls from apparent fans of Manson: "HELTER SKELTER DUDE! WELL HERE'S TO ANOTHER YEAR OF KILLIN!" There were ballpoint sketches of Manson, and mystifying symbols, and obscure references to the date of his arrest; a ranger at Park Service headquarters had told me that members of the Manson family come back to the cabin sometimes. As I was reading a comment signed by someone named Feral Jenny, suddenly I heard what sounded like a scream from the hillside above. I don't know what it could have been -- a coyote or a wild burro, maybe. Unobtrusively I stood up to see where the sound had come from. I looked all around, but I saw nothing besides a dilapidated fence at the edge of the property, some weeds along it, some tire tracks in the dirt dwindling away, the bare and hot hillsides, and over all a bright-blue western sky of endless, careless possibility.

Ian Frazier is the author of (1994) and (1996). His most recent book, was published last month.

Illustration by Owen Smith.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Desert Hideaway - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 40-43.