Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Ballarat. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ballarat. Show all posts

Monday, December 19, 2011

DEATH WALKS


I don’t want to come across as some kind of Charles Manson obsessive, but if you’re of a certain age, if you live in Los Angeles, and if you also have a taste for walking in the desert, it’s a name that tends to come up once in a while.

The Loved One and I just came back from what is turning into a tradition; a short pre-Christmas road trip into the Mojave desert, to get away from all that holiday cheer.  We drove up to Death Valley, via Ridgecrest and Trona, and we took a side trip to Ballarat, which is called a ghost town, a term that I find increasingly problematic, though that's a matter for a different post.


Ballarat is a great place to do the kind of walking I do in the desert.  You drive there, park the car in the dirt, go for a walk, and poke around in whatever you happen to find.  In this case that includes some ruined houses, a graveyard, the former jail.  There are also a few abandoned trucks, including this one, a Dodge Power Wagon.


There is also, perhaps surprisingly, a little museum-cum-store, run by Rocky Novack, one of the town’s few full-time inhabitants.  He told me that Ballarat currently has a population of eight, mostly miners who live in trailers and work at the Briggs Mine a few miles down the road.  It’s a dirt road, of course.

Rocky also assured me that the truck pictured above had once belonged to the Manson family, and frankly I was skeptical, but it turns out there’s at least decent circumstantial evidence that it might have.  Manson and his crew largely used dune buggies and the occasional school bus for transport, but the Manson story as told in Desert Shadows by Bob Murphy, an eccentric but well-informed book about Manson in the desert, certainly features a few Dodge Power Wagons. The inside of the cab roof of the one in Ballarat is painted with stars, which certainly seems very period, and just the kind of thing one of those arty Manson girls might do.



Whatever the truck’s provenance, the fact is, once you’re walking in Ballarat you’re most definitely walking in Charles Manson’s footsteps.  The family used Ballarat as a gathering point before going deeper into the desert via the Goler Wash to the Barker Ranch where they lived for a time.

Recently, despite not being a Manson obsessive, I’d been wondering if I could make it to the Barker Ranch.  I knew the place wasn’t in great shape: a couple of years back a fire had destroyed all the wooden parts.  I wondered if somebody had done this as an act of ritual cleansing but apparently not.  The general wisdom is that somebody stayed there overnight and their propane stove got out of hand.


Before that, the Barker Ranch had become just another cabin available to passing hikers, campers and desert rats - there are quite a few cabins like that in and around Death Valley. They’re available on a first come first served basis, and you can see how that could create problems if some Manson-type was already in situ when you arrived.

I also knew that to get to the Barker Ranch we’d have to drive up the Goler Wash. Online sources, as is the way, told me both that a moderately experienced driver of a 4 x 4 could zip up the Goler Wash without difficulty, while others said the route was a serious challenge. Conditions are no doubt changeable. 


Rayner Banham said the greatest asset a man can have in the desert is “creative  cowardice,” and believing this, I drove the miles to the mouth of Goler Canyon, parked, then walked up the wash to see if it looked passable in a vehicle, given my admittedly limited skill set as an off-roader.  




Now, I’m not saying I couldn’t have done it.  The canyon walls were narrow, the track was steep, there was water flowing down the wash (it had rained the previous night) and the real problems were some rocky outcrops, described in the literature as steps or falls, places where a vehicle might get grounded or stuck, where you might pop a wheel or a tire. I thought it was perfectly possible that the Jeep would pass over the obstacles, but it seemed perfectly possible that it wouldn't.  Being stuck in Goler Wash, quite apart from the risks to self, spouse and vehicle, would have made me look like a complete idiot, something I generally try to avoid. 


So we settled for a walk instead.  It was a great walk.  The canyon’s walls were high but not oppressive. The rock was full of amazing colors.  Cactuses grew up the sides, apparently sprouting straight out of the rock.  There was also dung at the sides of the track, evidence that there were burros in the area, but we didn’t see any of them.

We knew we were never going to walk all the way to the Barker Ranch – it would have been a ten mile round trip – and in any case it was just a burned out cabin.  Only later did I read that the fire at the Barker Ranch had given the Parks Service an interesting problem.  They had contemplated restoring the place, not least to provide accommodation, but I think they feared they could be accused of restoring a Manson shrine, and maybe they also thought some bastard would burn it down again, and so in the end they decided to leave it as it was and it’s now officially designated as a “ruin.”  I rather like that.

As I have said elsewhere, I consider myself a pretty decent walker, but nothing more than that. I don’t really think of myself as a true hiker, but Death Valley, makes hikers of us all. And walking there often involves you in some scrambling up rocky slopes, and just occasionally in what the guide books call “canyoneering.”

There’s a great deal of information available about walking and hiking routes through Death Valley, some of it contradictory or course.  The Park Service publishes a sheet listing “day hikes” and they include the Telescope Peak Trail, a 14 mile round trip described as “strenuous.”  Just for good measure they add, “Climbing this peak in the winter requires ice axe and crampons.”  I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a day hike:  I’m absolutely certain it doesn’t constitute a walk.