Looking back to the summer of ’69 and the journey into the desert
Most Manson authors don’t feel that Manson set out to become a murderous would-be messiah when he found his way as recent parolee to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in early 1967. Then, He was just a small-time car thief who had spent most of his life in and out of various institutions.
In San Francisco Manson quickly fell in with the hippie community as an edgy father figure. For a man that only knew the harsh Darwinian world of penal institutes, the free love and freer-drugs culture was an easy mark.
To the girls who would fall in with him, Manson had all the answers.
Jump ahead a few months. The Family left San Francisco for the open road in an old green and white bus that Manson had traded for. Manson languidly directs journey of the Southwest, being chased away almost as quickly as it stopped until he finds a home at Spahn Movie Ranch, in the Los Angeles countryside.
Spahn is secluded but close enough to still find food new girls and drugs. It becomes the perfect breeding ground for the cult.
With the move to Spahn, things begin to worsen as the cult begins to form. A ragtag group of hippies following just one more wannabe guru turns dark. Free sex and drugs become tools of manipulation. Talk of murder is everywhere as is helter skelter, an apocalyptic race war that Mason believes the Beatles prophesied in the “White Album.”
Family member and convicted murderer, the late Susan Atkins, wrote in her second book, “The Myth of Helter Skelter,” that the atmosphere around Spahn Ranch began to change about time.
She says leading up to the move to Barker pressure began to build within the Family. Manson was getting increasingly paranoid, and his anti-establishment rhetoric began an even darker turn.
She describes Manson as a con man, rather than a messiah, who told each different person what he or she needed to hear.
On purpose or maybe even by accident, Mason tore down the will of the girls and recreated disposable servants.
Girls were given knives and trained to kill. They ran nighttime excursions, “creepy crawls” as they called them, burglarizing houses, stealing small items and often just rearranging furniture or moving pictures on the walls.
But the race war was not “coming down fast” enough for Manson. He is running an auto theft ring and selling drugs from Spahn, but making enemies by stealing drug dealers and bikers. Food for the Family comes from dumpster diving nearby groceries.
To kindle the apocalypse or, perhaps, to confuse the police investigation of the murder of Gary Hindman, whom the Family tortured and killed, Manson sent a group of members to the former home of an acquaintance, music producer Terry Melcher, to kill everybody there.
In total that first night, five people were killed, including the 8½-month pregnant actress Sharon Tate. The second night two more people would be killed.
The brutality of the killings rocked the Los Angeles community.
Days after the murders, coincidentally, CHP officers raided Spahn and arrested Manson and the Family were arrested for car theft. They were later released due to the wrong date on the warrant. Little did the officers know that they had allowed those responsible for L.A.’s most notorious killings slip through their fingers.
one rock at a time
Soon after their release, Manson and the majority of the Family began the move to Death Valley. The bus was already at Barker, having been driven in by Manson in 1968. Along the way, the bus got stuck at the dry waterfall along the Goler Wash route, so Manson drove it into the canyon over Mengel Pass. The trip only added to Manson’s supernatural mystique.
According to Ed Sanders’ 1971 book “The Family,” members believed that Manson levitated the bus over the worst of the obstacles.
In reality, the bus was totaled by the trip, never to leave under its own power. The girls stacked rocks along the way for the bus to drive over.
Mengel Pass, the way we (my wife, Mitsy, at the wheel) approached Barker, is much rougher now than in ’68.
Taking the same approach, we started at Badwater Basin and an altitude of minus 275 feet. From there, the road climbs, turning west past several mines in the foothills of the eastern Panamint Mountains.
Once you leave the blacktop, there is only open space and the sound of tires on rock and gravel.
After climbing through Warm Spring Canyon, the road levels as it enters Butte Valley before climbing once again to its highest point, 4,295 ft, the site of early prospector Carl Mengel’s grave cairn.
From the start of Mengel Pass through most of Goler Wash, the terrain is rough rocky and steep, so rough that a spotter is needed to guide progress over the boulders for almost the entire 117 miles.
The already slow rate of travel slows even more to the point that the spotter covers ground faster than the jeep.
Unlike the Manson bus, our Rubicon Jeep Unlimited handled the road flawlessly, not slipping once while rock crawling except once when we approached the Jeep’s rollover angle only to slide rather than tip down the slope until reaching a more comfortable angle.
In planning for the trip, a sort of agoraphobia overtakes you at the idea of being so far out in the bush. Looking back, however, going at least six hours without seeing another living person never really enters your mind. Simply prepare for as much as possible, then, when you get there, stay focused on the next obstacle.
The Jeep rental’s satellite panic button helps. But even it came with the warning that any rescue would take hours and night rescues are a strict no-go because of the dangers of the terrain.
Finding only the solitude at the
end of the road
Atkins described Barker as the end of the road for the Family.
“The desert was hard and ugly. Maybe it was just that everyone in the Family felt hard and ugly on the inside,” she wrote just before her death in 2009.
“By the time the Family was arrested in the desert…only a dozen or so members still remained in the Family that at one time held almost 40.”
Paul Watkins and Brooks Poston, left by Manson in the desert back ’68 to retain Barker while he prepared for the move from Spahn, were the first to see through Manson.
Later in ’69, once the whole of the Family relocated from L.A., members Stephanie Schram and Kitty Lutesinger fled Barker as did Barbara Hoyt, then 17 years old, Sherry Cooper and walked nearly 20 miles to Ballarat.
Others tried but were herded back, Atkins writes.
The power that Manson had to hold the family was weakened in the desert – no one to con, no drug connections, little food and no money.
Even the Manson’s muscle at the Tate-LaBianca murders, Charles “Tex” Watson, had disappeared from Barker, racing down Goler Wash in an old Army surplus Dodge Power Wagon only to get stranded and had to hitchhike the 45 miles to the nearest town.
“Luckily for everyone,” Atkins writes, “Our stay in the desert didn’t last long.”
Today, the most striking feature at Barker is the unsettling quiet. It’s as if the absence of sound were a terrifying sound in itself.
Gone is any connection to the events of 1969. All the Family’s detritus left following the October raids has been scoured by time or reclaimed by the desert.
The Manson bus was hauled out and destroyed by miners, a nearby junk pit holds the GMC truck that appeared in the December 1969, Manson edition of Life. A fire gutted the cabin in 2009, but long before that, the cabinet where Manson hid during the raid was carted off.
In 2008, before the fire, forensic teams from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the FBI and Inyo County searched for a human remains. None were found.
It seems that all that is left of the Family at Barker lingers solely in the minds of those who visit it.