It was Halloween night when we went in the bathroom to have a look around. Two little square windows of moonlight and a Coleman lantern lit up the stone room where many years before, a brown tuft of wiry hair poking from the top of a cabinet door tipped off police to the fact that Charles Manson was hiding there next to the toilet. “It’s gone,” someone said. The lantern moved on to the next room. I did not move on. I stood in the doorway squinting through a zigzag of dusty moonbeams. The outline of Manson’s missing cabinet clung to the wall like an Atomic Shadow.
Some places are more haunted by the past than others. The compound of broken buildings on Wingate Road has been suffering to hold onto its dark secrets since 1969. Wind, fire, and the passage of time have done their level best to help out. The desert (God love her!) is the most clever mystery writer there is, alternately blowing the dust off clues while burying the bulk of what she knows under layers of rotted bedsprings, animal bones, and busted Budweiser bottles. Windgate Road is a real page-turner.
Whenever I’m asked to explain where the inspiration for my writing comes from, its journeys like this one that pop into my head. Many authors, both living and dead, have influenced my work, and it’s true that I adore reading as much as I adore breathing. Still, I’d have to say that nothing feeds my imagination like an excursion into the unknown. Books are merely one way I like to travel. A blue Ford Bronco is another.
Barker Ranch was damaged by fire two years ago, but on the night we visited, it looked like many of the other places I’ve tromped through in the desert, which is to say, it endured in a state of Mad-Maxian squalor, a sloping, sand-pitted relic of the gold-mining apocalypse. Tin roof, lopsided walls of stone and concrete, and a door lousy with splinters of sunbaked green paint… Same old same old. Except Manson and his hippies once lived there.
We weren’t morbid enough to choose Barker as our destination for that particular weekend but if you want to hang out in Death Valley, you have to be flexible. Washed out roads, the sudden appearance of a No Trespassing sign, or unexpected damage to your vehicle can cause a change of course at any time. That our change of course should take place on Halloween near the ranch where the Manson Family was arrested seems like a suspect twist of fate. But we don’t call our little band of off-roaders the Dangerseekers for nothing.
Wingate Road leads to a sun-bleached bus that was once lifted into midair and transported by God Himself over the impossibly bouncy bumpy trail that winds its way through Goler Wash, or so the story goes. If you’ve ever driven this way before, you can embrace at least that much of Manson’s trippy psychobabble. The sight of that old bus is the first sign that you’ve stepped inside someone else’s dusty jar of secrets.
Exploring Death Valley really is like taking a trip to Armageddon. It’s no surprise to find a yellowed calendar still thumbtacked on August 1923. There is sometimes a jar of freeze-dried Folgers waiting for you behind a flowered curtain under a sink, along with a warped roll of toilet paper, a dead flashlight, and some fresh mouse turds. Striped mattresses trapped beneath fallen ceilings and ancient refrigerators with their doors rusted open give the impression of a hasty retreat, but there’s also the quiet presence of the curious campers who have come before you, their own history, if you’re lucky, meticulously and/or drunkenly recorded in a journal left behind on an old plywood table. And should you ever happen to stumble across the word DANGERSEEKERS burned with a magnifying glass into a stray board and resting against the wall of an exceptionally awesome fire pit built of perfectly shaped stones, you’ll know that you and I have traveled the same holy ground. I like the idea that, together with my husband, children, and friends, we’ve left behind a piece of our journey with all the other pieces.
To unearth some of the more interesting secrets though, you’ll want to rummage through one or two of the trash piles left behind in these miniature makeshift towns. Pick through the chipped, broken-up clues, and you’re likely to discover which brand of whiskey was the most popular with the hearty souls who mined the land back in the day. If interested, it’s not hard to figure out what sort of ammo these old-timers liked to shoot too. Or the freaky medicines (Tutts Pills for Tired Liver) they swallowed for poor health. These trash piles are the bone yards of secrets come and gone.
When I lived in California, I had a wooden shelf in my backyard and my husband and I lined it with jars filled with the mysterious stuff we found in the desert dirt; purple glass, one jagged piece of a teacup with tulips painted around the rim, an assortment of shoe buckles, a finger bone. Lucky for me, the desert has a long memory and I think that’s why we’re such pals. I’m an absolute nut for secrets.
I’m a nut yet I’m also a sensitive girl. Just ask anyone. But yeah, I admit it. When we pitched our tents at Barker Ranch, we made uncomfortable jokes about the fact that some of Manson’s victims had never been found. Heck, the Off Road guide makes jokes about that. But if you have any speck of heart at all, you’re sure to be touched by the mystery that surrounds the loss of those missing people. Think about it too hard, in fact, and uneasy thoughts are apt to reach up from the rocky earth like Carrie’s arm and grab you by the ankle. There wasn’t a one of my off-road buddies who didn’t draw a booted toe over the dust and wonder what might be buried under our lawn chairs and coolers.
That night at Barker Ranch, the moon rose as it always does. The wind whistled through the old walls. But for the appearance of a staring, black-eyed rat that crept in circles around our poker game, it was a quiet Halloween. The bus, the missing cabinet, the dust beneath our feet, all remained silent, keeping their secrets to themselves. This is not to say that we did not feel their presence. They set up house on our skin like a tender bruise, forgotten until, from time to time, we brushed against the spot.
In 2008, I heard that Sharon Tate’s sister, a team of forensic experts, and a cadaver dog named Buster formed up together and went out to Barker Ranch to demand some answers. Sensitive high-tech devices had picked up chemical compounds of the sort emitted by decaying bones and tissue. Responding to the command FIND FRED, Buster sniffed out five possible graves. The team of experts dug for bodies beneath the place where we’d spread our sleeping bags. They sifted through our footprints for fingernails and teeth.
It’s this sort of thing that makes my skin prickle more than almost anything else – ugly black secrets patiently nestled under a polka-dot pillowcase. Of course, mass murderers aren’t the only ones to keep secrets, and the desert is not the only place that counts them dear. While the forensic team failed to turn up conclusive evidence of any clandestine graves at Barker Ranch, it’s never far from my mind that the most stunning and awful secrets are often just a FIND FRED away.
Because of this, I feel hopeless to comb through the ruins of the past, both with my writing and with my own two feet. I just can’t seem to get my fill of these harsh and beautiful landscapes, where the sound of rusted cans clinking together in the wind sounds decidedly like the tambourine of a disappeared flowerchild.
If you’re putty in the hands of a good old-fashioned secret too, please check out THE WHISPER JAR at:
This post is part of my Blog Tour and was originally written for Erica Naone at Words Words Words http://ericanaone.com/