Times reporter battles Mojave backcountry to find the Death Valley hideout where the Manson Family spent its last free hours
The canyon country does not always inspire love. To many it appears barren, hostile, repellent – a fearsome mostly waterless land of rock and heat, sand dunes and quicksand … rattlesnake and agoraphobic distances. To those who see our land in that manner, the best reply is, yes, you are right, it is a dangerous and terrible place. Enter at your own risk. Carry water. Avoid the noonday sun. Try to ignore the vultures. Pray frequently.
-Edward Abbey, from “The Journey Home”
Charred remains are all that is left of Barker Ranch, build in the 1940s on the boarder of Death Valley and the larger Mojave Desert, is a candidate for a National Historic Location as the final hangout of Charles Manson and the Family. California Highway Patrolman Jim Pursell, who saw Manson’s hair hanging out the cabinet door, pulled Manson from his hid-ing spot, a tiny bathroom cabinet, on the second day of raids, Oct. 12, 1969. Manson and Family members were charged with auto theft and the burning of a park earthmover. Only later were the subjects connected to the Los Angeles murders.
Photo by Mitsy Coffelt
Note: While the author does not seek to glorify a series of grisly murders that happened over 40 years ago or defend the people involved, this is a chapter of our history that needs to be remembered, an ugly chapter that contains graphic content that some may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
“Manson, as in Charles Manson? Why would you ever want to go there?”
That’s what most people ask when they hear that I’m heading to the infamous Barker Ranch, the last refuge of Manson at the very edge of Death Valley National Park.
It’s located square in the middle of nowhere.
Barker Then and Now
The composite image shows the infamous green-and-white Manson Family bus as it looked in 1969 when reporters descended on the area during Tate-LaBianca murder trial, and Barker Ranch today. Charles Manson and members of the Family used the bus to roam the southwest just ahead of the police, before settling at Spahn Movie Ranch, in Los Angeles, before moving to Death Valley. The Family used the bus, heavily damaged by the drive into the area in 1968, as a depository for its communal clothing pile (shown littering the ground around the bus, presumably after Los Angeles prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi searched the pile for bloodstain evidence). What ever happened to the bus is a matter of lore among Manson authors. Sources agree, however, that it stayed at the remote ranch until the mid-1980s when then-owner Arlene Baker paid some local miners to remove and destroy the bus. A junk pile in a nearby ravine contains the remains of several vehicles, including the pictured mid-1960s GMC step-side pickup, but no trace of the bus.
Photo by John Coffelt and courtesy of CieloDr.com
Imagine the nearest permanent neighbor lives a distant 40 miles, on what locals generously call roads, in – of all places – a ghost town.
It’s that kind of nowhere.
For the best answer why go, I guess it’s one of those strange urges some people have to connect someway to a fleeting piece of history. Like visiting a battlefield or a ruined house. It’s something either you get, or you don’t.
Or as Manson historian Scott Michael says about Barker in the documentary, “Six Degrees of Helter Skelter,” “It’s our history. Maybe it’s not a bright spot, but it’s ours, and it deserves preserving.”
Getting acquainted with
the so-called valley of death
Death Valley National Park, enlarged with the change from a National Monument in 1994, is an immense park in the corner of the Mohave Desert. It contains over 1,000 miles of roads, and at 3.4 million acres, is larger than the state of Connecticut. Death Valley is the hottest and lowest place in North America, is even more arid than most other deserts of the world.
The park’s western flank is the Panamint Mountain Range. Nestled in those mountains is a spring-fed canyon where a retired L.A. police officer Butch Thomason built the small Barker Ranch cabin in the 1940s.
Today, all that remains at Barker is a tiny bunkhouse, an empty cistern that the Manson Family mistakenly thought a swimming pool and the walls of the cabin that burned in 2009.
At one point, years before Manson set his eye on the house, Barker was a nice family retreat, purchased by Jim and Arlene Barker in 1955, but by the time of the Family’s arrest in mid-October, 1969, the house and the neighboring Myers Ranch, owned by Family member Catherine Gillies’ grandmother, were trashed with everything from stolen vehicle parts to fuel tanks from dropped from Navy planes flying sorties from nearby China Lake. Now most of the trash is gone. The irrigation system that kept the trees alive is in disrepair. The desert reclaims what isn’t constantly maintained.
what lies at the very end of the road?
There are only two ways to Barker. One, cross Badwater Basin, the lowest, hottest place in North America, continue over silt-y alluvial fans that mark the end of the valley floor, into the Panamint Mountains to the hidden Stripped Butte Valley, and continue into the Panamint Mountains over a nearly impossible mountain pass named for Carl Mengel, a blind, one-legged prospector who mined the area until his death from tuberculosis in 1944. (Really, you just can’t make up some of these Death Valley characters.)
This area, near Anvil Springs, is where a family of German tourist got lost in the early 90s, and their remains were not found for 13 years.
Like I said, middle of nowhere.
The other route cuts a jagged line down the far side of the Panamint Mountains, through miles, and miles of dusty gravel road to the mouth of Goler Canyon and a road that doubles as a creek complete with waterfalls during the rare (or not so rare this year) flash floods.
If you see signs for China Lake Naval Weapons Center you have gone too far and are lost in Wingate Pass.
An already difficult drive was made worse by a hammering of rain that caused, according to the Inyo County Register, $12 million dollars of damage to the county’s roads.
About a month later, Death Valley was hit again with another series of literal gully-washers.
For us in the southeast, it is difficult to understand how much one rainstorm can alter the landscape, but in the desert, where the terrain is rock, sand and stuff that used to be rock. Nothing there soaks up much rain, so runoff quickly turns into a mud avalanche that can wash out gorges deep enough to hide a jeep.
Death Valley road conditions change so frequently the park has a dedicated Facebook page that lists road closings. As of October, more backcountry roads are closed than open. Namely, all the ones that would get us anywhere close to Barker.
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