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 Charles Manson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Manson. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I always feel ambivalent about visiting the sites of murders, death houses, scenes of long ago violent crimes.  Partly it’s because of my inherent squeamishness.  If there actually is some remaining malevolent aura there, I’d rather not be around it.  And just as important, I don’t want to revel in and be entertained by the deaths of others, nor to make light of pain, whether that of victims or survivors. 

Yet I know one can protest too much about these things. There’s no denying the frisson that comes with walking through, say, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, or for that matter past the Bloody Tower in London.  I think the frisson is imaginative rather than supernatural, but nonetheless real for that.  One way or another a kind of shamanism is involved, raising the spirits of the dead, but equally a kind of dubious tourism is involved too

I don’t feel a whole let less ambivalent, though in a different way, about visiting the homes where my “heroes” once lived, even if I seem to have done plenty of it.  In recent years I’ve found myself visiting JG Ballard’s house in Shepperton, HG Wells’s in Woking, Raymond Chandler’s many Los Angeles homes. 

Of course when I say “visiting” I simply mean that I walked down the street and stood around outside the building.  I don’t go in for knocking on doors to interview the current inhabitants, although I know some who do.  My friend Anthony Miller, aka the Dark Sage of Sawtelle, recounts disturbing the tenants of Thomas Pynchon’s old apartment in Manhattan Beach, and found the occupant, a surferish dude, amazingly hospitable.  He invited him and let him look around.  A Swiss film crew had been there not long before, the one that made Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of P.

The objection here is not that it’s intrusive, but rather that it’s no big deal.  These are homes much like any other.  Everybody lives somewhere, lives don’t vary nearly as much as some people like to think, and houses and appartments are not always totally fascinating.  And in my experience there’s seldom any kind of lingering aura, even if there may occasionally be a plaque.

Having said all that, and with all my reservations, when I recently connected a couple of dots of information than had been floating in my head for a while, and realized that the childhood home of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, was in the same street where the Manson murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianco took place, well, you couldn’t call yourself a psychogeographer if you didn’t take a walk down that street, could you?

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were really the first act that completely excited me in my difficult but dull youth.  They seemed subversive, poetic, avant-garde, extremely cool – all the things I wanted to be.  These days it seems to me that there were times when Beefheart put rather too much effort into buffing his image as the unschooled, sui generis genius born out of nothing, but I’ve had a few decades to think about that.  At the time the freaky image was part of the attraction, and no doubt in some sense necessary for the grand project. 

Of course we also tended to think he was some crazy guy straight out of the Mojave desert: we knew that he came from Lancaster where he was best friends, later less so, with Frank Zappa.  But before he was a desert rat he lived in Los Angeles, at 3467 Waverly Drive, in the northeast corner of Los Feliz, a thoroughly pleasant suburban enclave right below Griffith Park; a great place to bring up kids then and now, you might think.

We also know that while he was at that address he was schooled, at least to the extent of attending art classes at the Griffith Park Zoo, where he was taught by a Portuguese artist named Agostinho Rodrigues.  When he was 10 years old Little Don Vliet (he wasn’t even van Vliet at that time, much less the Captain) won first prize in a 1951 sculpture competition run by the parks and recreation department, and made it into the local paper with his model of a polar bear.  The contest was monthly, and I don’t know how big the class it was, so winning it may not have been the greatest honor, though his polar bear looks just fine.

There are a few pictures of the lad from this period but I’ve never seen any of the family’s house, so I don’t know if the current 3467 Waverly Drive looks anything like the way it did back in 1951.  As far as that goes, I don’t know whether Don’s parents had the whole house or just part of it.  I’d assume the latter.  In the current configuration 3467 is the right half of the house, 3469 is the left half, and I think there are more than two dwellings in there.  When you peer round the side it looks as though the building’s been extended to make a small apartment block, though I’d guess the changes have been made post-1951.  

Waverley Drive is a long street but the young Don surely walked its length, in which case he’d have gone right past the LaBianca house.  At that time it would have been owned by the previous LaBianca generation, Antonio, who founded Gateway Markets and the State Wholesale Grocery Company.  It wasn’t till 1968 that the son Leon, who by then was running the family business,  bought the house from his mother and moved in with Rosemary his second wife. 

Photographs of the couple suggest they weren’t much influenced by alternative culture, but Lord knows there were some divergent energies abroad in Los Angeles at the time.  Even in this quiet suburban enclave, the LaBiancas’ neighbor, one Harold True, had thrown an “LSD party”, and some of the Manson family attended.  The day after they’d committed the Tate murders up on Cielo Drive, Manson instructed his followers to kill again.  They might easily have selected a different house and different victims, and if things had played out just a little differently the LaBiancas wouldn’t even have been home.  They they’d been to pick up Rosemary’s daughter Suzanne from Lake Isabella and had thought of staying there overnight but decided to come back late Saturday night rather than the following morning.

Manson had found the Tate killings needlessly chaotic, and to show his followers how it was done, he went into the house and tied up the LaBiancas with the minimum of fuss, so that the killings could be done in a nice orderly fashion.  I’ve done my best not to become a Manson obsessive, but if you need a full account of the events, I reckon Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is still the best.

Photographs from the time show the La Bianca house to have been remarkably accessible and vulnerable – a long straight driveway, no gates, the house visible and inviting at the top of the hill, yet a fair way from the street.

Some things are noticeably different at the house these days; the street number’s been changed for one thing, though that’s hardly bought them much privacy.  There’s now a gate across the entrance to the property, and you can see that a large separate garage with a second curving driveway has been built between the house and the street, at the very least providing protection from prying eyes, though not inevitably from Google. 

It still looks like a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood.  Would I personally want to live in it, given its history?  I suppose not, but if there price was right; everything’s negotiable. 

Charles Manson famously said to an interviewer:

My eyes are cameras. My mind is tuned to more television channels than exist in your world. And it suffers no censorship. Through it, I have a world and the universe as my own. So...know that only a body is in prison. At my will, I walk your streets and am right out there among you.

Captain Beefheart once sang:

my baby walked just like she did
walking on hard-boiled eggs with a --
there's a --she can steal them 
oh, I ain't blue no more, I saidlord,

Words to live by.

Monday, December 19, 2011


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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Sometimes you watch a movie and you think, “Wow, this movie has been made with exactly me in mind.”  The corollary may be that sometimes you think you might be the only person who actually wants to see it.   In the case of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” this isn’t literally true: the Internet reveals a few diehard fans, but there are a great many more who hate it with a hard and gemlike flame. 

If imdb is to be believed, it cost $3.5 million to make and brought in $26,000 dollars on its opening weekend, which will surely come as no surprise to anybody who’s seen it: this is not a movies destined to pack them into the multiplexes.  The most amazing thing may be that the movie ever got made at all.  According to some sources, people “walked out in droves” at early screenings.  I don’t believe I’ve ever “walked out in a drove”

The movie was recommended to me by a reader of “The Lost Art of Walking” - Will Stone, a man who works for the Morning Star – and he thought, rightly enough, that I would be intrigued by a movie, the “action’ of which consists almost entirely of walking in the desert (actually several deserts).

The plot is pretty straightforward.  Two guys – Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who refer to each other as Gerry though that may well not be their "real" names - go for a walk in the desert, going down a “wilderness trail” in order to see “the thing” at the end.   They get lost, try to find their way back – and that’s pretty much it for the next 90 minutes or so. 

There’s a lot of walking and not much talking. The guys have no food or water with them, and they don’t find any, and although it’s not clear how long they’re actually lost, you can’t help thinking they’d be dead, or at least incapacitated, very soon indeed, in which case there’d be no movie.  But that’s an over-literal response.  This desert walk is metaphysical rather than geographical.  One wag on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “Hiking With Godot.”

They walk in certain desert places that are recognizable to me – Death Valley and the salt flats of Utah.  However, and I only worked this out afterwards from the credits, they actually set out in Argentina, which was where they started shooting the movie, but Van Sant was dissatisfied.  Certainly the desert in the early part of the movie is much less picturesque than that in the States.

The movie is probably genuinely and intentionally “boring,” though I’ve certainly been more bored by movies in which much more happened.  However, since the two stars are Hollywood actors, I kept fearing that they, or Van Sant, or somebody, would lose their nerve and the movie would go all “Hollywood” at the end.  It doesn’t.  Everybody keeps his nerve; more or less.

Another surprising thing is that the movie was “based on a true story,” that of David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian, two hikers who in 1999 got lost (rather less symbolically, though no less existentially) in Rattlesnake Canyon, part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

Kodikian and Coughlin were actually better equipped than the Gerries of the Van Sant movie. They had three pints of water and a pint of Gatorade, and they did have a map, though it seems they didn’t know how to use it. And they got far more desperate than the Gerries; licking rocks, eating cactus fruit, drinking their own urine. Anyway it all ended very badly in a “mercy killing.”  After 3 days Coughlin was dehydrated and vomiting and begged Kodikian to kill him, which he did. 

According to Kodikian’s journal “I killed & burried (sic) my best friend today. Dave had been in pain all night. At around 5 or 6, he turned to me and begged that I put my knife through his chest. I did, and a second time when he wouldn't die.”  The general opinion of the autopsy reports is that this was very premature.  Both guys were dehydrated, but survivably so, as Kodikian demonstrated.

Kodikian was found guilty of second degree murder, sentenced to 15 years, all but two of them suspended, and he actually served 16 months.  At the risk of a spoiler, this isn’t exactly what happens in “Gerry.”

Having been lost (mercifully, briefly) in the desert I'm not at all smug, and I’m well aware how quickly a casual walk can turn into a nightmare, but the word online is that Rattlesnake Canyon is an amazingly benign piece of territory, an easy trail, with water and toilets nearby, easily walkable with your nine year old grandson.  Interestingly, nobody seems to mention the presence of rattlesnakes.

Of course this apparent benign quality is often part of the problem, and I’m not being metaphysical here. I simply mean that when you know you’re walking somewhere dangerous, you tend to be on your mettle, to be careful, tend not to take chances.  Any damn fool who visits Death Valley, for instance, is surely well aware of the distances, the isolation, the punishing and potentially lethal heat.

Which brings me to the four German tourists who died in Death Valley in the summer of 1996.  There always seem to be quite a few Germans driving around the American deserts, but few of them to do it with such reckless abandon as Cornelia Meyer and Egbert Rimkus, and their two children.  They were on vacation in the States, rented a minivan in Los Angeles and headed for Death Valley.   They disappeared in late July, in a week when temperatures reached over 120 F.

In October that year their van was found in sand in a ravine off Anvil Spring Canyon, probably not a route to tackle in a minivan.  All four tires were wrecked: the van was locked.  Clothes, sleeping bags, rolls of exposed film, and a couple of beers, had been left in the vehicle, but the tourists had taken their personal belongings - such as passports, wallets and air tickets - with them.  They had evidently decided to walk out of there.  There were no tracks showing which way they’d gone, although a beer bottle, similar to the ones in the car, was found half a mile away.  A major search operation began, that included the use of horses and helicopters, but all involved would have known they were months too late, and in the event they found nothing.

And indeed nothing was found at all for the next 13 years until late 2009 when a couple of hikers, actually two members of the Riverside Mountain Rescue team, found skeletal remains and identification, just a few miles from the abandoned van, which only goes to prove that a full scale desert search is not guaranteed to find, much less save, you.

 Reports said the remains were found southeast of Goler Wash, and of course some of us can’t read the name Goler Wash without being reminded of Charles Manson.  The Goler Canyon Road leads to the infamous Barker Ranch where Manson and certain members of his “family” were eventually captured.

A piece appeared online recently about Manson getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  It was a satire, but you couldn’t help thinking there were probably some people in the world who might not think it was such a bad idea.  An unsatirical (as far as I can tell) petition was set up to protest against the star.  I'd have signed it.  I suppose Manson isn’t doing too much walking these days, at least not outside of the exercise yard.  In 1970 he did say, “I am the beast. I am the biggest beast walking the face of the earth.”   But you know that was just self-aggrandizement.

When I tell people that I like walking in the desert, even alone, they sometimes ask, “Isn’t it scary?  Aren’t you afraid you’re going to encounter some Charles Manson type?”  The answer is no, I'm really not scared of that.  And the truth is, you’re far more likely to meet some Charles Manson type on Hollywood Boulevard that you are in Death Valley.  Out there in the desert you have far more to fear from yourself and your own failings. 

Here is a photograph of your blogger, in Death Valley, in the snow, reflecting that sometimes walking may be preferable to driving.