Death Valley must be seen to be believed.
From the turquoise flats rolling out beneath lofty Dante’s View to the salty vertigo of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, it is a place of spectacular, desolate scenery. It's hard to believe that pioneers traveled thousands of miles across such inhospitable wastes in search of settlement.
We had limited time in the desert and rather than join the line of cars heading for the motels of Beatty, we went south. Our destination was the isolated ghost town of Ballarat, where I was in search of a very specific truck. Charlie Manson’s truck*.
Don’t judge me. I have dark tastes.
Off the Trona 178, we took the dirt road to Ballarat. The light was already failing but our car’s suspension wouldn’t let us go faster than 15 mph, so it was a tense journey as we raced the sun. Thankfully, we arrived forty minutes before dusk, when the long lazy shadows are most perfect for desert photography.
A sign at the entrance of town reminded us that “you learn nothing by sitting in the car,” so we parked to explore.
Ballarat was a small town that served nearby mining camps until 1917; the last resident died in the late sixties. Now, the town is a graveyard of dissected cars and trucks and a smattering of wooden buildings that would fall over if pushed. Some of the structures are maintained for tourism, such as the old jail/morgue – complete with wooden bench for laying out stiffs. The shadowy mountains rise up behind, shielding the town from the blistering, gritty winds.
The only person in town was the owner of the "Outpost" camping store. He happily pointed out a truck parked away from the others.
“One of the family wrote their name on the door,” he grinned indulgently.
We had found a grim piece of America’s past: a green-and-white truck used by the Manson family when they were camping out at Barker Ranch. The headlights had been smashed into blind, sinister eyes. Time and scorching winds had eaten bullet-like holes into the rusting metal.
As promised, we saw shapes painted on the door as if daubed by finger; when I tilted my head and squinted, it could have spelled "WAR." The inside of the cab was speckled with spray-painted silver stars, another Manson family fetish.
We didn’t have long to consider the horrors that this truck may have seen. The desert chill was urging us back on the highway before the sandstorms rolled in. It was a long drive to San Diego, but that didn’t matter; we had found what we were looking for.
*I am aware that Charlie’s truck may well be a myth. The truth is, I don’t really care. The journey to this ramshackle settlement in the desert was the adventure, not the conclusion.
Life is the bit you live – not what you know.