Death Valley Daze

Keep it alive

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

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.”

Barker Ranch. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

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.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3

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