The arrival of a weekend, after a week given over to capitalism. To rest up or go? With no insight, procrastination. Saturday morning scratching feet and the ever familiar restlessness. I wonder what izzz around that corner. Gotta know or at least glimpse. Up and gone in 15 minutes fleeing any form of intervention. Safely away and alone. Good, very good.
Climbing out of dead gray coastal weather I pop out on to the high desert near the entrance to the Angeles National Forest, where the firemen plus fire truck disappeared in a flash flood. Once upon a time I looked too, but had no better luck finding them then the pros. Of course, the desert is clear and hot. Still good. I turn my phone off, quelling the last possibility of intervention.
Any who know me, know the desert is homecoming. And so that becomes the roadmap of this weekend. To peek around the corner into the past to see what it has become. Dizziness. Which explains how I find myself parked in front of a two room sugar shack in Cantil, California. Home to a great teacher and better friend Jim O’donnell. I hop the stacked tire wall and confront Tubby the guard bassett hound. His reaction is nonexistent. Only later do I learn he is both blind and deaf. Mr. O’donnell comes out and greets. He looks both older and slower as I surely am. The entire trip validated instantly just by having someone call me son again.
We catch up among the tires and the oblivious Tubby. We talk of the old days – of sprinting Bassetts and Kangaroo Rats, of kids flying off of vans and under them too. Of the risks we took that are not even available today. Of politics and God. Then we fell into swapping stories, which has become our way of catching up as years bloom between our visits. I surrendered with his rendition of the “Ballad of Jayme.”
Jayme went to my high school in Mojave; a slow town of 2,500. After high school, Jayme worked at the IHOP for many years flipping hotcakes. Unfortunately for Jayme, his defining characteristic was his speech impediment. For purposes of this story, you now have to perform an imitation. Bite down firmly on both sides of your tongue. Now speak out loud while maintaining dental pressure. You get the picture, what was not so well known about Jayme, at the time, was his need to see what was around the corner from Mojave. But, to get on the road properly requires finances. And so Jayme hatched a plan. Whether the plan was slowly cooked over time or an act of impulsiveness, is not known. What is known is how it all went down. Fade to the IHOP counter where the counter manager is counting the till. In walks a masked man with a gun. Manager freezes, bowels still steady. The gunman approaches the counter and says…(return teeth to former tongue position) “This is a stick up. Give me all the money.” To which the manager replies “What are you doing Jayme?” (bite tongue again) Jayme: “Goddammit. I’m not Jayme and I don’t work here.” Jayme’s life on the run with wealth lasted approximately seven minutes as the police beat him home. A classic and an apropo comment on the quality of my education.
Recently, courtesy of my sister Jill, the following knowledge had come into my possession. The ranch where Charlie Manson was caught still existed at the end of a narrow canyon somewhat near Death Valley. It needed to be found. I sketched my plan to Mr. O’D. His response? I need three minutes to feed the dog. And we were off.
Trona, California is a company town and the last stop heading to Death Valley the back way. A chemical is dug out of the earth there that I have never heard identified. But I note two impacts. An inescapable odor of rotting eggs throughout the town and the impossibility of growing grass. Thus, the hesitation of visiting football teams to visit. Lunch was the business of the hour and a sole sandwich shop seemed to be involved in the business. It was run by a lovely girl in her 20’s. She was of Cambodian descent. “Well, well our first customers of the day. The day being six restaurant hours old. We fell into chatting as Mr. O’D has never sped by a conversation. She told her story of exile from San Diego for unidentified transgressions. We offered her escape from the drudgery of Trona. She jokingly accepted. It was not until later that I realized she was serious. A final Trona note. There appears to be a joint agreement by the only two gas stations in town to not carry their namesake. An attempt to explain the post lunch one hour backtrack.
Leaving Trona, some miles, crossing salt flats. The ghost town of Ballarat where Seldom Seen Slim lies under the dirt. A store remains that sells only beer and chairs, provided on the porch, where the beer loosens tongues. On a chair, I learned from the proprieter that the signed Hustler Honey poster on the wall (picture extensive focus on vaginal anatomy) was a memorum of an actual live presentation by the very model in that very store some years ago.
With directions in hand, for Charlie’s last stand, from the storekeeper: “Go down that dirt road a long ways and turn left up the last canyon” we set off. His last shouted words were “Good luck with that road.” Coyote Canyon proved to be a perfect flash flood canyon. 15’ wide at the base with sheer ascending rock walls. Each side canyon cluttered with mines or mining experiments. Clambering around the ruins made me consider and reconsider motivation. What drives a man to set up shop so far away from anything. And why did they stop? Did they give up or die in place. Romantically, I prefer the latter and judging from the amount of relics left behind, I might be right.
Halfway up Coyote Canyon we butted into a three foot vertical rock wall across the track. To the marketing department of Mr. Rowley’s Jeep; for once corporate claims of transport invincibility were not bullshit. For on the third attempt we did what shouldn’t have been possible.
Some hours later of misdirection and good stories the Barker Ranch found us. It was here that Charles Manson became a permanent guest of the U.S. government. The bathroom where Charley was found hiding under the sink is still there, but the sink has gone on to become a talking point in someone’s living room. The swimming pool remains as do a number of outbuildings. All pretty anticlimactic until you acknowledge the tingle at the back of the neck I feel every time I encounter tangible history. Especially when it comes to the bad boys. Charley Manson, a psychopathic killer hid here or Hitler danced there. Weird but incontrovertible, and the kicker I brought home Charley’s coffee jar which I found in a trash dump near his ranch. For sure it is.
With the sun setting we retreated from our planned run over a sketchy pass into Death Valley and headed back to Cantil. Hunger hovered so we stopped in Ridgecrest for dinner at a Chinese-Thai place. Suspicious of hybrids since birth I demanded proof the cook was Thai. Proof was provided but upon reflection so was insult. I put on my usual show to the waitress, that I wanted it “Thai Spicy, not gringo spicey- blah blah blah.” The first hint of my impending digestive tract collapse was the unusual blue flame licking around my noodles. The suppression of which took no small amount of time. I would say I was well into the seventh bite before I realized the cooks reponse to my insult. She had soaked the chilis in gasoline. And I was without recourse. I had very specifically asked for my fate. Critical, was maintaining my composure in front of my ex teacher while the firestorm raged within. Expected were the throat spasms, stomach tear and loss of bowel control. Unexpected was the powerful feeling of narcotic intoxication. I meekly asked for mine to go and as the cook came out of the kitchen we smiled pleasantly at each other. Respect to the victor.
Back in Cantil, Mr. O’D opted for the Lazy Boy , I took the bed and Tubby the space in between. Mr. O’Ds last words were “Enjoy the meth rapper. He starts early.” And so I was ready at 4:30am to hear the following, sung at the top vocal volumes Mr. OD’s neighbor, some 25 yards away, could manage. “Fuck the nigger cops because the nigger cops fuck us.” And so it went till I tired of the concert and returned to my dreams. Tubby never even stirred.
In the morning friends parted ways and I headed east free from compromise. Every sidetrack that caught my eye I went down. That is how I found the Reverend Springers’ ranch at the end of Zyzzx Road. Reverend Springer had a Christian radio show from the 30’s until the 70’s that was broadcast from his ranch on the edge of the Soda salt flats. He also ran a Christian health spa centered on the natural springs which bubbled up from underneath his land. He named his ranch Zyzzx because he was the last name in health and in the phone book, Another dreamer and another dream ended. Now it is a desert research station but the history is tangible.
My goal was the Kelso dunes where a plan concocted in India was at one time in place. Why not bring camels and drivers from India, Buy the abandoned railway depot at Kelso, turn it into a guest house, and trek rich tourists from L.A. out over the dunes for a big bucks. Well the short answer was the Feds had other plans. Which is why my depot is now the HQ of the Mojave National Park. Win some, lose some. At least the dunes were still there. According to the park service sign at the entrance to the dunes, these are the third highest in the United States. I remember the spot as where Mr. OD told us, his students, of the ultra violet animals that hunted down kids, as we sat around a campfire. Thus our pragmatic decision to sleep inside the van, rather than out on the dunes, that particular night. A search of my childhood memories informed that the hike to the summit of the highest dune was about three hours. I set off.
Success in dune hiking involves two key “always”. Always go barefoot and always shoot a straight line. I reached the base of high dune after 30 minutes. Lo and behold my legs had lengthened over the years. By this time I had the dunes to myself as all others wearing hiking boots and trying to follow wavering ridge lines had turned back. I sat down for a drink and thought about the storm that was nearby. The wind had been picking up all day and now it was starting to howl. Good atmosphere, and scenic sand zipping off the ridgelines. Up the face I went. Now climbing sand dune faces is a drudgery but stubbornness an asset. And that is how I found myself on the knife edge of the dune summit looking in the direction of the wind. The knife edge ran east to west with a lower southern branch leading off the back of the dune.
As everyone knows when you climb something there is always a treat. By the time I reached the summit the winds were probably around 70mph. Standing there, facing the oncoming wind, I happened to look down. My treat. The dune was liquid. So much sand was blowing up the face that the dune itself was invisible. It was a river of sand about a foot deep. Another always for dune climbing. Always wear sufficient clothing. As the river sliced across my bare shins, I considered the maxim.
And then I made a mistake. I turned around to look at the other side of the dunes. My back to the wind as Bobby says. I felt the $200 flash sunglasses, gifted by my friend Nick Rowley leave my face, but was frozen by their action. No, they did not obey gravity and fall. Nor did they fly away level to my face. No, they sailed upward, vacuumed into a cloud of sand. Everyone knows mistakes travel in tandem and thus I made my second. Instinctively I jumped onto the southern knife edge in hot pursuit. Ten strides in and oddly disoriented I fell off the edge and rolled for awhile. When I stopped I considered another sane dune truism. A river of sand, one foot deep, blowing up the face of a dune, becomes 20 ft. deep on the other side of the dune after it crests the lip. I figured I was in the 20 foot part because I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I lay there for a while with my hat over my face waiting for it all to stop. The sand blasting on my skin rated below pleasant. The only course of action, to wait it out.
The first sense to go is hearing, both canals filled with sand. No more wind howl .The second, sight, as the sand worked its way under the eyelids. Tubby’s world. Followed by the nasal passages. I was afraid and contemplating panic. My guess was I had been laying there for about 20 minutes at that point. I had said goodbye to the glasses at around five minutes. By now the sand had worked its way into my lungs and I was coughing up chunks of it. Thinking of Rangers trying to explain my passing in a microstorm was the embarrassment I needed to motivate movement. In the end it was simple. I fanned my arm out along the sand until I could judge upward angle. Then crawled that way. When I reached the knife edge I turned left and crawled again until I arrived at the east/west juncture. I felt around until I was sure of the Downward face, stood up blind and ran until the base of the dune. With my leftover water I was able to clear my eyes and head back to the entrance silly giddy.
At the entrance an old timer told me he had followed my climb through his binoculars. He couldn’t believe it when I was blown off the Summit. I left it at that.
And so I made my way back to Topanga Canyon. Past Amboy and the Pisgah Crater, where as kids, on one of Mr. OD’s fieldtrips, we had found an ancient 25 lb. wooden crate of dynamite, complete with blasting caps. The dynamite was sweating, as were us kids, because we decided to carry it the four miles back to the van on our heads. Eventually we flagged down a highway patrolman to show off our find. We heard later thru the grapevine that the bombsquad was surprised by the size and force of the explosion.
And on to Victorville, where the rain of my personal windstorm started coming down in sheets. Forced into a gas station, I threw away the blistered container of Thai Chili-killer. And rushed yet again to the toilet for another workout of my collapsed colon, but this time with a new twist. Passing a sand plug through a burning ring. As I sat there, resting my head on the condom machine, I just couldn’t stop smiling, with still more miles to go, but sans shades.