The first time I heard about Manson’s escapades through the California deserts was in 2010, when on an i-need-to-get-the-fuck-out-of-here whim, I packed up the Jeep and drove twelve hours out to the desert and directly up to a rusted out beautiful, rusting 1942 Dodge Power Wagon, just sitting by itself way out there in a Death Valley ghost town. I hadn’t expected the truck, or the ghost town, but on a dusty desert road with nothing around, I saw two dirt bikes divert off to the right (as it turns out, the road to Manson’s final hiding place at Barker Ranch) and I followed.
Besides the spirits that live in the ghost town’s tiny graveyard, Rock is the lone living resident, who told me the truck belonged to Manson before he was arrested for his cult leader murder sprees back in 1969.
My first encounter with the Manson truck in 2010
I was drawn to visit every time I went back to Death Valley, to marvel at the gnarly offroad symbol of twisted death and trippy taboo, with painted stars on it’s ceiling. I picture naked long-haired girls on acid with guns and flower dresses, laying across the seats as the truck kicks up desert dust, singing
“It's time we put our love behind you
The illusion has been just a dream
The valley of Death and I'll find you
Now is when on a sunshine beam. “
(Try to listen to that without the hair standing straight up on your arms – one of Manson’s many recorded songs.)
Four years later, I was naked in a desert oasis hot spring, three and half long backroad hours away from the next sign of civilization except for the other (also naked - it's what you do) person sitting across from me, Lizard.
Lizard is an old man who lives in a trailer in the dust way out there, left over from back when the place was an unincorporated hippie commune, before the government bought up the land and kicked everyone out except Lizard, whom they allow to stay and be the “Ranger”.
The oasis, the next morning in calm
Lizard didn’t look at me or talk. He soaked quietly, gazing the other direction, eating cashews from a can. The desert wind breezed consistently through the smattering of palm trees around the oasis, and the kinetic hippie sculptures made occasional tinking and knocking sounds. He was the only person I’d seen out here in Death Valley all day. I felt imposing and awkward.
From this oasis, you can see the dust of someone driving long before you can see the car. As I watched the dust trail slowly get closer I was starting to second guess my life choices. If I die here, at least it wont be cancer.
I lost track of the vehicle for a bit in the heat mirages and then suddenly a donkey with a hard on appeared to greet a pickup truck with a motorcycle in the bed, pulling a janky metal travel trailer bouncing over the uneven desert behind it. Mad Mike, as he was called, jumped out and promptly dropped trou and got in the hot spring, apparently to the delight of Lizard – they were old friends.
Mad Mike had stories. Like the one about his favorite donkey (a different one than the erect greeter) that lived here for 45 years drinking whiskey with them. One time they had to evacuate the him to an old cowboy’s house because of a fire, and after six months the cowboy told them to come take the donkey back because he was drinking him out of house and home. He died a few years ago and Mad Mike hasn’t had a donkey friend like that since then.
Mad Mike, a greying, long-haired, bandana’d badass, was the ranger at another hot spring in Apple Valley 150 miles south of here called Bowen Ranch, where he grew up watching “Muslims with their machine guns” and “Mexican guys with their illegal grow operations” and good ol Charlie Manson and his naked hippie chicks, all run around in their debauchery at the Deep Creek springs in the summer. Now the place is reduced to “millennials with their ‘dumb’ phones who drive their mini coopers into ditches”. I visited Bowen Ranch two years later on my way out of California, hoping to find Mad Mike and a weird secret desert commune but he was right. Instead, I found groups of hipsters and girls in heels asking how far the hike was to the springs. Sigh.
Deep Creek Springs in 2018
I left Mad Mike and Lizard to their reminiscing as it was getting dark and retreated to my tent area. I laid on top of my jeep to avoid the red ants and tarantulas and scorpions I could no longer see by daylight, and searched the diamond-twinkly night sky for Vega and Cigna and Hercules. Immediately, clouds so dark they just looked like negative space started moving over the milky way. It was very clearly an enormous devil’s head – a long face with sharp eyebrows, a goatee and horns, looming directly over me, looking directly at me, and I could feel the Manson evil.
He died in prison a few months after that night, and before visiting the Bowen Ranch on my road trip out of California and across the states, I drove back up to visit the Manson truck one more time to draw studies of it in the early desert sunrise. By late morning it was too hot and I sat on the porch with Rock, sharing some of his homemade corn hooch, knowing I might never be back.
If you’ve ever been asked “What’s with the fascination with serial killers, or with dead things”, or whatever malevolence delights your witchy, macabre side, you’ll know that’s not a simple question to answer. For me, I think of it like Perry Farrell’s song “one must eat the other, that runs free before him, put him right into his mouth, while fantasizing, the beauty of his movement, a sensation not unlike smacking yourself in the face.”
Manson's Abandoned Power Wagon. 30" x 48" oil on wood