I didn’t want to be here. Not really. I took a wrong turn at Panamint Springs and headed south. I gave in to a bad impulse, lured on, summoned almost, by the name of Golar Wash. It was 35 miles of hard road to the ghost town of Ballarat, where first they mined gold, then uranium, before moving on or dying, then up the twisty curves and narrow slots of Golar Canyon, until my car could go no further, and I was forced to walk the last mile until I encountered a faded sign, hand-painted on plywood, propped on a fence post: “You Have Entered Barker Ranch Please Pick Up Keep It Alive.”
Keep it alive. Here, standing in the desert sun, on the shattered flanks of the Panamint Range, a deathly chill seemed to rise up from the ground. I wanted to be down below on the sunbaked valley floor, where Michel Foucault, tripping on acid for the first time, tried to punch a hole in the constraining rules of consciousness. Instead, for all I knew, I was standing on the grave of an unknown victim of the Manson cult, starring at the burnt ruins of the ranch house, where Charlie himself made his last stand, as the Rommel of the Mojave, his brood roaming the canyons and playas in their stolen Jeeps and dune buggies, firing automatic weapons from the back at anything that moved: jackrabbits, roadrunners, coyotes or hikers.
Keep it alive. Barker Ranch had become a shrine to America’s most infamous cult of death. (Until the arrival of the current government.) It was here that Manson had plotted a new killing spree, human sacrifices who would, in his stark phrase, be de-meated so the cult could thrive, their clothes string up on fencelines like scarecrows of the departed. I’d forgotten that Manson and his cult of killers had been finally taken down by Park Service rangers from Death Valley (or the Valley of Death, as Foucault insisted on calling it), after Manson and his gang had burned some road-grading equipment inside the park’s boundaries. The rangers had no idea that the Barker Ranch had become a commune of a death cult. They found Manson, where you could imagine they’d find Trump in a similar raid: cowering in a cabinet under a sink.
People have left tributes near the scorched foundation of the house and down by the little pool: rock cairns, flowers, coins, medallions, lipstick cases, knives, small Buddhas. Not for Sharon Tate or Jay Sebring, not for Elizabeth Folger, Wojtek Frykowski or the LaBiancas. But to Charlie and Tex, Susie, Patty and Linda. There’s something about America that loves a killer.
I had merely wanted to get away from the frigid, arrogant sound of Trump’s voice for a day, as Americans began to fall to the COVID-19 plague. I had been staying on the eastern Sierra front, in a motel in Lone Pine, between the concentration camp at Manzanar and the dead white bed of Owens Lake, where ghostly twisters of saline dust danced across the valley in the late afternoon winds: a landscape of crime scenes.
Trump, the man without empathy, kept talking about the sick and the dead as numbers, his numbers versus Xi’s–10,500 dead later, he’s not so proud of his body count. But the voice goes on.
So, I hauled myself up at 4 am and, to the sound of coyotes gossiping in the Alabama Hills, finished editing and loading the CounterPunch website, and then drove east into the sunrise, over the Inyo Range toward Death Valley Park with the intention of revisiting Zabriskie Point, where almost 20 years ago to the day, Alexander Cockburn and I had absconded to from LA in his mighty Imperial. Zabriskie Point was a cinematic backdrop for one of Alex’s obsessions–the, as he put it, “divine Daria”, Daria Halpring, who had cavorted memorably in this surreal golden landscape at the explosive denouement of Antonioni’s film. We sat on the retaining wall, eating sausages and drinking cold cans of Tecate, as the sun slipped down below the ragged bronze peaks of the Panamint Range, before driving back to the city in the dark with one headlamp and a lurching transmission.
Still, there was no hint of death in the air that April day. But here at the dead end of Golar Wash, just a few miles away as the vulture flies, I was overcome by the sensation that the American death cult had gone nationwide. Unnerved, I retreated to my Subaru and rattled my way back down the wash, up the Panamint Valley and into the park. I pulled over south of the white waves of the Mesquite Dunes and struck off on foot across the playa until I hit Cottonball Marsh, 200 feet below sea level. It’s one of the harshest environments on Earth. The saline water of these shallow pools is 3.5 times as salty as the Pacific Ocean. In the summer, the water temperature tops 105 degrees. But there, right in front of me, where hundreds of endangered Death Valley Pupfish, little streams of life, flashing out of the deadlands. Keep it alive.
Death Valley pupfish. Video: Jeffrey St. Clair.