As you know, I love exploring all the funky little corners of the desert. And one oddity I’ve been wanting to check out for years is Barker Ranch, a/k/a the last hideout of the Manson Family — an EXTREMELY remote cabin on the western fringes of Death Valley where law enforcement officials finally apprehended that rascal Charles Manson. For whatever reason, I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Charlie and his family of killer hippies… so Barker Ranch has long been high on my list of places to check out.
The main thing stopping me from going out there all these years has been the road — all the websites and books agree that Goler Wash (the main access route to Barker Ranch) is super gnarly, and should only be attempted by an experienced off-roader with a HARDCORE 4×4. Since my little truck is only 2WD, I just kinda figured I was shit out of luck….until one night last month, when — against my better judgment — I got high and decided to post on social media:
“ALL YOU ASSHOLES WHO ARE ALWAYS SAYING YOU WANT TO GO ON AN ADVENTURE WITH ME — HERE’S YOUR CHANCE!!! WHO WANTS TO CHECK OUT BARKER RANCH?!?! MUST HAVE SUPER-HARDCORE 4X4, GOOD OFFROADING SKILLS, AND ENOUGH INTEREST, TIME AND MONEY TO GET THERE! NO FLAKES!!!“
Or something like that.
As predicted, the next morning my inbox was flooded with responses from interested parties….around 90% of whom were total flakes: “I’d love to, but I don’t have a 4×4” and “OMG I wish I could get the time off work/gas money/permission from my mom.” This kind of dumb shit was exactly what I’d expected, so I immediately deleted the post…but fortunately, there were a couple legit responses in there that I was able to salvage. And so it was that I made plans with two total strangers to meet up at Ballarat ghost town one chilly November evening, and head up to Barker Ranch from there.
Now, you might find it weird that I would agree to meet up with two total strangers in the middle of nowhere with a half-baked plan to head up a super-gnarly road to a murderer’s hideout. But for me, that’s just a Wednesday! You have to take a few chances in life, if you want to have any fun at all. Like my Starbucks cup once said:
Besides, they weren’t total strangers — they were Facebook friends! And as I only have around 5,000 Facebook friends (add me!), I felt that was credibility enough for this kind of trip.
My two fellow adventurers — the only two respondents who ended up not flaking — were a guy from Southern CA, and a girl from here in Vegas. I had never met the Vegas chick in person or even really interacted with her online, but a quick perusal of her Facebook profile proved her to seem pretty cool; I’d met and hung out with the guy for about 15 minutes at that Burning Man campout I went to in San Diego, while I was high on mushrooms, and he seemed legit, too. I won’t say too much more about either one of them, since the Vegas chick works at the front desk of a very swanky Strip hotel and could get in trouble for the stuff we did, and the guy works in a VERY cool outdoorsy capacity with kids, so he could get in trouble, too. Guilt by association! Normally I get kind of offended when people don’t want to be mentioned in my blog…but in both of these people’s cases, I completely understand. But at the same time…..I’m glad I’m ME, and don’t have to kow-tow to any bourgeois moral code. I YAM WHAT I YAM, MOTHERFUCKERS!
Anyway, the Vegas chick and I headed out from Vegas last Wednesday afternoon, headed for Ballarat, a tiny ghost town on the western edge of Death Valley that was sort of near the entrance to the dreaded Goler Wash, where we had arranged to meet the guy, who was coming from Santa Barbara. The plan was to meet up and camp out overnight at Ballarat, then head out in the morning for Barker Ranch, and camp out a second night up there before heading back home.
Of course, we ended up getting a late start out of Vegas: I had ill-advisedly agreed to play Secret Agent Hotpants in a scavenger hunt that morning, and when I was finally done, the other chick had to go see her weed man in front of Bally’s before we could finally set off into the desert. So by the time we rolled into Ballarat it was almost totally dark.
Having never been to Ballarat, I was unsure how to proceed; I knew from online research that there was supposedly a campground onsite, but despite driving around the desert in the dark for 30 minutes I was unable to find it. I finally went into the “General Store,” which is more a creepy collection of dusty artifacts than an actual store, and which was completely dark and deserted, despite the front door having been left wide open with an “OPEN” sign hanging crookedly nearby, creaking eerily in the night breeze. I tiptoed cautiously inside and deposited the $3 camping fee into a rusty coffee can provided for that purpose…and then sort of drove over to an area where a few RVs and toyhaulers were parked, and found a spot with a picnic table and a fire ring. I guess that’s what they meant by campground! It was pretty rustic — no bathrooms, just a single port-a-potty about 1/8 mile away — but I’m used to camping in the boonies, so it was no big deal.
The other chick and I set up camp and built a fire, and waited for the guy to arrive. It gets dark really early out here at this time of year — around 5pm — so it seemed like we sat there in the dark forever waiting for him, her getting baked off her freshly-scored weed, and me drinking hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps. Around this time I mentioned to her that we were probably the only two chicks in Vegas who would do something like this — go camping at a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, alone, next to the cemetery, no less. And it was probably true!
But around 8pm we saw a pair of headlights coming our way, and our guy finally rolled in, true to his word. I couldn’t then (and still can’t) believe that two people actually stuck to their word and went on this adventure with me! I’m so used to people flaking out on me (remember my Saline Valley trip last month?!) that it was really a bizarre experience to have TWO PEOPLE — strangers, no less — actually follow through!! Maybe my luck is changing 🙂
Anyway, we all hung out by the fire and engaged in semi-awkward getting-to-know-you-type chit chat — remember, we were all basically total strangers! But we pretty much hit it off OK, and after a few hours we were fairly comfortable with each other, and went to bed with the intention of getting up early and heading off toward the ranch. It was really cold that night in Ballarat — in the 20s — so I shoved HotHands in my sox and wore a knit cap, but still ended up freezing my ass off. That’s just the way it’s gonna be until spring, I guess :-/
In the morning, we broke camp and piled all our gear into the guy, who we’ll call Shaggy’s, car — a 4×4 Toyota 4Runner with fairly rugged tires, which he seemed confident could make the trip. I decided to leave my truck parked down at the campsite, so went over to the General Store to put another $3 in the coffee can before we left. That store was even wackier during the day — full of random weird shit piled up everywhere, and an old-timey refrigerator which I assumed contained cold drinks for sale…but turned out to be full of someone’s actual food and leftovers 😮
Also, in the desert out front of the store was this rusted out old Ford truck that legend has it belonged to Charles Manson himself…so I figured I’d better pose for a nudie or two with it. It was sunny and fairly warm by now, so I stripped off my clothes and went to town, hoping to have poor, beleaguered Shaggy bang out a few shots before the General Store proprietor came out and gave us hell. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, in my hurry to get dressed afterward I somehow dropped the wad of cash I always carry in my bra for emergencies — about $150, I reckon. D’OH!!!!!
Anyway, after getting dressed again we all three piled into Shaggy’s car and headed off for the Ranch. From Ballarat ghost town, you take the fairly smooth, gravelly Wingate Road south for about 15 miles, and then turn off to the east toward the Panamint Mountains onto Goler Wash Rd, which runs up a canyon, eventually leading over Mengel Pass and back down into Death Valley proper.
I had done quite a bit of reading on road conditions, and knew that Goler Wash and Mengel Pass were supposed to be über-gnarly routes that were often impassable by all but the HARDEST-CORE 4x4s — so I was well prepared for the possibility that we wouldn’t be able to drive up, and would simply have to hike in. Of course I was hoping we’d be able to drive up, as I really wanted to camp out at the Ranch but didn’t think I could pack all that firewood and booze in on foot — but I was open to anything, at this point.
Incidentally, the best route to take on this trip would have been from the east — inside Death Valley park. If you take Warm Springs Road up from Badwater, and approach Mengel Pass from the east, not only is the road much less intense, but there are also several abandoned cabins you pass along the way, which are open to camp in — FOR FREE! The Geologist’s Cabin in particular is supposed to be really nice, with a big stone fireplace and a fully stocked kitchen, with pots and pans dating back 80-100 years!!! There’s also an abandoned mining encampment along the way, with a warm spring swimming pool (!!!!), and you don’t even need 4WD until about halfway up the mountain. I really wanted to go in that way, and stay overnight at the Geologist’s Cabin…but alas, due to the recent heavy rains in Death Valley one of the access roads had washed out and was thus impassable 🙁 But, as Dog is my witness: I hereby VOW to return to Barker Ranch next spring via Warm Springs Rd., and I *WILL* stay overnight at the Geologist’s Cabin!! (As long as no one else beats me to it; it’s on a first-come, first-serve basis.) WHO’S IN??!?!?
So anyway, it was with no little trepidation that we set off up Goler Wash toward Barker Ranch that morning. At first, the road was gravel and washboard, and not all that burly. But once the canyon walls started to close in, conditions became much worse — loose sand and gravel, with ginormous boulders strewn about here and there for good measure. I knew from my research that this super-gnarly portion only lasted about 1/2 mile or so…but getting through it was a real challenge. I kept thinking back to how the wacky Manson Family somehow got a freaking school bus up there (!?!?!) — I guess the county or the Park Service does occasionally grade the road, and back then it must have been in much better condition. And the recent rain storms must have adversely affected conditions, too. Either way, it made the road into Saline Valley look like the Las Vegas Strip!!!
Anyway, Shaggy kept doggedly driving his 4Runner up the wash. I reminded him a few times that he didn’t have to impress anyone; the other girl (who I’ll call Velma) and I were perfectly happy to hike up if we had to, and it would still be an amazing trip. But Shaggy is a real hardcore outdoorsman, and he took it as a challenge, figuring out ways to navigate each difficult portion as it came along. I learned on this trip that many offroaders simply enjoy navigating difficult roads, viewing the experience as a problem-solving adventure! I don’t totally understand it myself….but I’m glad there are people like that out there.
I was especially glad about 5 minutes later, when we finally hit a portion of Goler Wash that was so burly that even Shaggy conceded that we’d have to turn back; it was basically a vertical stair-step situation with some giant slippery boulders in the middle where his tires simply couldn’t gain traction. But, wouldn’t you know it — WAY OUT THERE in the middle of nowhere, there just happened to be a retired couple in a super-hardcore offroad Hummer that had a winch on it! And we just happened to encounter them right at the difficult part!
It was really astonishing — if we’d been just 15 or 30 minutes later, we’d have missed them altogether, and would have had to turn back. But as it was, they were more than happy to winch us up over the difficult portion — in fact, I’d venture to say that helping us out made their day! Again, I don’t fully understand it myself…but apparently these hardcore desert off-roaders really get off figuring out these tough roads, and helping their fellow man triumph over nature.
In any event, we got over the last bad section and the road mellowed out — somewhat. We followed Goler Wash up into the mountains another 3 miles or so, passing all manner of abandoned bull dozers, mine shafts and other weird desert detritus including a bathtub that had somehow gotten wedged into a ravine (how the hell this shit gets up there, I have no idea — this place is REMOTE as FUCK!). And finally, we crossed over the Death Valley National Park boundary. It was kinda surreal to pass an official sign like that after traveling through such desolate, rugged backcountry…but there it was!
From the park boundary sign, it was only another mile or so to Barker Ranch. The last part of the turnoff road was pretty steep, and Shaggy felt unsure about trying it in his 4Runner, so we decided to just park there and hump all our gear in the last 1/4 mile or so, past this giant pile of rusted-out old garbage: cars and tin cans and old soda bottles, and all kinds of crazy old junk that looked to have been there for at least the last 50 years. Far out!!!
So Shaggy, Velma and I carried all the firewood and camp gear and booze and whatnot to the Ranch, and set up camp in the afternoon. I had heard that the Ranch had burned down back in 2008, and was afraid I’d missed all the really good stuff — and while much of the building had indeed been burned, there was still plenty of stuff standing. The original cabin was half stone anyway, so the walls and foundations and stuff were still there, and it was really fascinating.
Of main interest to me was the bathroom, which is where Charles Manson was finally apprehended, some two months after the famous Sharon Tate murders were committed. Ironically, the cops who arrested him and the rest of the Family didn’t even realize they were responsible for those murders, which were as yet unsolved; they were raiding the cabin for something completely unrelated — the torching of a bulldozer way on the other side of Death Valley! It was only after they brought these Earth-defending vandals into custody that all their other nefarious hijinks came to light.
Moreover, Charles Manson himself very nearly evaded being caught during the raid! 5’2″ Manson had hidden himself in a tiny cabinet under the bathroom sink — which was so tiny that the arresting officer later said that he never would have even looked in it, if not for a single lock of Manson’s hair that was accidentally hanging out the door. D’OH!!! Just one more reason not to be a long-haired hippie!
Anyway, the infamous cabinet where Charlie hid was long ago stolen by enterprising souvenir hunters/fanboys, but you can still see the corner of the bathroom where it stood — and you can still crouch down there as Manson himself did in October 1969. Trippy! We all took turns doing so, and went around the grounds taking photos and stuff until we decided it was time to really get the party started. Shaggy started a campfire, and I busted out my baggie of mushrooms!
Let me tell you, there is nothing like eating mushrooms at the top of a remote mountain pass in the middle of nowhere at the site of a murder’s den on Friday the 13th Eve with two strangers! It was magical! We took our medicine at golden hour, and the shrooms kicked in just as the sun began to set. We sat there marveling at the beautiful autumn sky as the colors all came to life, and then when the sun sank below the horizon we hunkered down around the fire, and talked and talked and talked late into the night. It was amazing.
I’m here to tell you, there is no DishTV or anything that can compare with real life stories! As you might guess, I have few doozies myself….but my camp mates had some amazing tales to tell, too. First Shaggy regaled us with an ultra-dramatic near-death experience he once had while hiking in the mountains one winter’s day, and it felt like I was watching the Travel Channel. Then Velma started in with an amazing story from her high school dropout hoodrat days, when she and her little thug boyfriend stole cars and sold drugs and ended up living with a generous tweeker down in Tijuana. That Velma was a real enigma: she looked like a little gangster chick, but she was one of the most astonishingly well-informed, well-read, progressive people I’ve ever met! I mean, she had to have been pretty progressive to volunteer for this fucked-up expedition in the first place…but it just goes to show, you never know who you’re dealing with. She was absolutely wonderful — and a bad-ass hiker/camper, to boot. She never complained for one second about anything, even when carrying a heavy load up a steep hillside. Now that’s a badass bitch!
And Shaggy, of course, was equally amazing. He really was one of the best possible people to go camping with, as he’s one of the most seasoned outdoorsmen I’ve ever had the pleasure of hiking with, and he was full of fascinating, useful information about the backcountry and nature in general. Super cool people, both of them!
Anyway, we talked late into the night, until the mushrooms wore off and it started to get REALLY cold. The plan was for everyone to bunk in Velma’s tent, but I have a really hard time sleeping so I kind of killed the party by sleeping by myself in my little Boy Scout Walmart tent, off to the side. But I had my mom’s old 1975 down mummy bag, with HotHands in my socks and a warm knit cap, and shockingly I stayed very warm and cozy, and slept reasonably well.
In the morning, we woke up pretty early and broke camp, and set about the slightly daunting task of getting back down Goler Wash to Ballarat, where (hopefully) my truck was waiting for me and where I was also hoping to find my missing $150, which I had only just then realized I’d lost. Of course if I’d had my druthers we’d have continued on eastward over Mengel Pass to the Geologist’s Cabin, and spent another shroomy night camping out there…but as it was, I had to be back in Vegas by a reasonable hour for a photo shoot the following day. So I was really hoping we wouldn’t have any problems like a busted tire or broken axle getting down Goler Wash!
Fortunately, gravity worked in our favor and we made it down the wash just fine — it was MUCH easier going down, in fact! Along the way we encountered a group of Jeepers heading up the wash — apparently that weekend was Panamint Valley Days, a sort of offroad rally that takes place near Ballarat every year, where all kind of crazy 4x4ers take their rigs out exploring in the desert. Ballarat campground was FULL of them!
My truck was still there, unmolested….but alas, my $15o was nowhere to be seen 🙁 Oh, well — I wrote it off as a sort of Adventure Tax; $150 is a small price to pay for the fun I had on this trip. Although when I think of how freezing f*cking cold I probably was, laying naked on a rock to earn that $150….arrrrrghhh!!!
Anyway, back at Ballarat we all said our good-byes, Shaggy going on his way down to Southern California while Velma and I headed back to Vegas via this weird, desolate sort of sun-nuked town on the southern edge of Death Valley called Trona. OMG, was that place WEIRD!!!
Apparently, Trona was once a thriving mining town situated on the edge of a vast dry lake bed on the most desolate, arid plain this side of Tattooine. The mine has seen better days, and the town is about 3/4 deserted…but there are still people living there, hanging on by their toenails with that hardcore desert determination you see in towns like that. The town itself is basically a cluster of cinderblock shanties in the shadow of a giant sulphur-belching factory, and the local high school has the distinction of being the only high school in the country whose football team plays on a dirt field — they can’t even grow enough grass for a football field out there, it’s THAT arid! It was fascinatingly grim.
Then, on the outskirts south of town are these astonishing natural formations called the Trona Pinnacles — giant tufa spires, similar to those at Mono Lake…only instead of poking out of water, these jagged peaks rise out of a dry, barren moonscape of a desert. It’s truly surreal, and in fact the area has been used as a backdrop in movies like Planet of the Apes and Star Trek and whatnot. What a great place for a future shroomy campout — I totally bookmarked it 🙂
Anyway, Velma and I finally rolled back into Vegas around sunset, exhausted but exhilarated from a fantastic few days. This little adventure may have been a little chilly and a bit uncertain, but it taught me one valuable lesson: it’s definitely worth it to take a chance, and meet up with strangers for a bizarre campout in the desert. You never know what might happen! Sure, you might get murdered….but you might also make some really bitchin’ new friends!!! 😀