Saturday morning is storytelling time at El Sombrero. The breakfast rush is over and the small cafe next to the Imperial County courthouse in El Centro is nearly empty. The Bureau of Land Management rangers — the federal cops for most of the desert land drained by the lower Colorado River — turn down the volume on their portable squawk boxes, stir the Sweet ’N Low into their coffee, and, to a background of clattering dishes and laughing waitresses, sit back and quietly wonder what in the hell has gone wrong with the world.
Like city cops, the BLM rangers spend most of their time observing the human race at its worst, so it is perhaps understandable that their stories tend to be a bit cynical. Their job is to see more than the rest of us, to know things about people that most of us don’t care to know (but maybe should), and then somehow try to go on believing that the whole world isn’t made up of the human trash they call “dirtbags.” You might think the desert would be a place where you could get away from people like that, the rangers say, and maybe it was, once; but not anymore.
As an example, they tell of the man who called himself Michael Son of God. Like other misfits, religious deviants, space travelers, and lost souls, he had somehow acquired a strange fascination for the desert, for its emptiness, its eerie silence, its unreasonable solitude, and its complete indifference to anything human. He once told Kevin, the ranger who had the most dealing with him. “The desert is a place where 1 can do whatever I want and nobody else can tell me otherwise.’’
The residents of Ocotillo had seen Michael around town several times, buying groceries and filling his Plymouth Valiant with gas. The young man had a way of staring at people until they had to notice him, then he would introduce himself as Michael Son of God and begin quoting passages from books on the occult, or just start babbling incoherently. He seemed to relish the confusion and embarrassment he brought to people’s faces with his outrageous behavior. As if to demonstrate that he was beyond the normal restraints of time and space, he would point to one of the distant and inaccessible peaks south of town and say he was going to drive his Valiant to the top of it. The people of Ocotillo figured he was a little strange, but then, so were a lot of other people who passed through town on their way to the desert.
One day Michael drove his car to a place on BLM land called Sulphur Springs, not far from Ocotillo. He had probably planned on driving much farther, but when he got the Valiant stuck in the sand he found that he was, at least temporarily, subject to the same restraints as everybody else. He unloaded the goat and Doberman pinscher that were riding in back, fastened wire nooses around their necks, and led them off into the desert. Then, with nobody around to tell him otherwise, he built a crude altar out of rocks, staked the goat and dog to it, doused them with gasoline, set them on fire, and danced around their burning corpses while he chanted magical; incantations.
“People like that are drawn to the desert all the time,” Kevin says wearily. “They don’t attract the attention they might in the city. They usually don't get hassled by the locals because people who live in the desert have a tendency not to look, to turn their heads, to respect privacy. Most law enforcement people in the desert are probably a little more tolerant. We let people do strange things as long as they don’t interfere with other people. They can display their bizarre behavior and get away with it, no neighbors peeking over the back fence, so it goes unchecked for a while. Then it becomes a real problem.”
Michael Son of God left his car stuck in the sand and moved on to Anza Borrego, where the state park rangers picked him up for setting a campground on fire. They said he had been burying eggs in the sand, sprinkling salt over the mounds, then setting the nearby creosote bushes ablaze. He spent four days in jail before being released.
“Most law enforcement people won't put much effort into an investigation like that because they know nothing will ever come of it,” Kevin says. “The guy has already been picked up on a 5150 [psychiatric analysis] and been released. It's so hard to get anybody committed nowadays, they'll never keep him in jail, just keep kicking him out again.”
When the residents of Ocotillo heard about Michael’s animal tortures, they were angry and disgusted. A group of them went out to Sulphur Springs to bury the bloated carcasses, and at that time the Plymouth Valiant was still there, stuck in the sand. Within a few days, however, somebody had set it on fire.
“That's another recreational activity people like to pursue in the desert,” Kevin says, shifting the subject to a different class of dirtbag. “It seems there are certain kinds of people who like to drive around until they find an abandoned car; they’ll spend some time shooting out all the windows and tires, then when they get bored with that they figure they might as well torch it off. It happens to almost every car left out there for more than a day or two. It’s kind of like the Wild West out there.”
Kevin (who asked that his real name not be used) is typical of BLM rangers in that he is young, college-educated, and articulate. The competition for jobs like his has become very intense in the last few years, and the BLM has been able to select those people who are qualified for the peculiar job of recreational law enforcement. In one day Kevin might go from delivering a campfire lecture on the desert tortoise, to making a felony arrest, and back to the campfire again. If he ever had any illusions, as many people seem to have, about the benefits of working in a natural and uncrowded environment like the desert, he doesn’t have them anymore.
“The desert has become the place where people go to do their dirty work,” Kevin says. “If people want to kill somebody, they come to the desert. We've had four or five bodies — I’ve lost count — uncovered by rain in the last couple years. It’s become the place to bring your business partner and conk him over the head with a crowbar. It’s the place to bring the girl you want to rape. It’s the place for companies to dump their hazardous chemicals, try to save a few bucks.”
Bill Vernon, who has been chief ranger at the BLM’s El Centro office since 1972, says, “Nothing people do out here could ever surprise me anymore. Most of them don’t seem to want any law enforcement. We hear a lot of things like, ‘I came out here to get away from pigs like you.' We just tell them that if we’re pigs, we’re desert pigs, so they should at least use the proper terminology and call us javelinas."
The reason law enforcement problems in the desert have gotten so bad, Vernon says, is that as recently as twelve years ago there were no fulltime BLM rangers south of Riverside County. “We would drive down to patrol the area once a week or so, but in the summertime we only came down once a month because it was too damn hot.” And even though the rangers’ cooperation with the local sheriffs had always been good, most of the federal land went unpatrolled much of the time. Even today there arc only three BLM rangers covering the 1,420,000 acres of federal land in Imperial County and eastern San Diego County (over half the land in that area), yet they are only a few hours away from two major urban centers with millions of people looking for someplace to spend their weekends. “If you go out on a Friday afternoon and watch the rows and rows of RVs coming over the pass, you'll understand the nature of our problem,” Vernon says.
Up until a few years ago, most of the land managed by the BLM was considered to be worthless. It was America's wasteland, what the original settlers didn’t want or couldn't use, frequented only by miners, hermits, or people on their way to someplace else. The BLM's role was something like that of a reluctant slumlord stuck with a property he couldn't get rid of. “We have always protected the truly unique places,” Vernon says, “usually by giving them to the National Park Service.” But most of the land was not unique; in fact, a lot of it had absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It was the scraggly, alkaline, wind-whipped tracts of America’s Southwest, unwanted and unloved by everyone except Sierra Club members, who mostly enjoyed it at a distance through slide-show lectures given by anarchist writers who had stayed out in the sun too long.
The BLM’s role has changed, though. In the last ten years there has been a growing public awareness of the true value of all so-called wasteland. In Southern California, environmentalists began pushing for protection of the Mojave Desert’s archaeological, biological, and geological resources, such as the ancient intaglios (earth carvings) left by the Yuman Indians near Blythe, the bighorn sheep, and the Imperial sand dunes, the largest mass of sand dunes in California The recreationalists — off-road vehicle users, hunters, and hikers —all wanted more space set aside for their particular activity. With changing technologies, what had once been only marginal mining claims became increasingly valuable. Corporate interests, too, became more aware of the value of the desert’s geothermal and solar electricity sites.
The Federal Land Policy Act of 1976 took into account the public’s changing attitudes about federal lands, and redefined the BLM’s role as their managing agency. The rangers could no longer turn their backs on activities they had ignored for years, like the slow, steady theft of the desert’s resources. Even today many people seem to believe that whatever is on public land is there for the taking. For example, there are professional landscapers who go to the desert to gather the rocks, fill dirt, cactus, and mesquite for their projects. They simply drive around in a dump truck until they find what they need, dig it up, and leave. They usually go out on a weekday when the visitor use is low and the chance of getting caught is slight. One landscaper had hauled away several truckloads of gravel before the rangers shut him down. “We have places where people with permits can gather fill under controlled conditions,’’ Vernon says. “But this guy needed the fill faster than he wanted to do the paperwork, and just figured he could get away with it.”
There are professional reptile collectors — herpetologists — who go to the desert to gather rare specimens, or more common reptiles to be used as food for the collectibles. They cruise the paved roads at night looking for the snakes or lizards that bask on the warm asphalt. The rangers sometimes make midnight “herpet patrols” trying to catch the thieves in the act. Vernon says that one of the professional collectors who was caught was well aware of the modem search-and-seizure laws and had designed a secret compartment in the body of his jeep where he could deposit the reptiles as he collected them, thinking the rangers would need a search warrant to go after them
Indian artifacts such as manos, metates, and other stone implements are also frequently stolen. “Usually it’s the amateur collectors — ‘pothunters,’ we call them — who know just enough about archaeology to know what to look for,” Vernon says.
The most common crime, though, is not taking something from the desert, but rather leaving something behind. For years the employees of other government land agencies have joked that the BLM should be nicknamed “America’s Dump,” and judging by the hundreds of pickup-size loads deposited along the desert’s highways, they are right. “I suppose,’’ Vernon sighs, “in a thousand years from now the archaeologists will be calling them midden deposits and sorting through them to see how we lived. But for now, they’re just trash.”
Just about everybody who visits the desert tries to lighten his load in some way. The RV owners have favorite spots where they like to empty their septic tanks before driving back to the city, and the rangers have favorite stake-out spots where they like to catch them. Besides the usual weekend trash dumpers, there are professional dumpers who will dump anything for anybody, no questions asked. One electrician from San Diego who wanted to bum the insulation off several hundred pounds of copper wire drove out to the desert to torch it, leaving the burned rubber behind. The farmers of Imperial County have been using the desert as a place to unload excess pesticides for years. “Some of that stuff is incredibly potent,” Vernon says. “If some kid on a motorcycle rides through a white spot in the sand, he’s got that stuff all over him and he’ll never know what it was.” Even the federal government uses the desert as a dump: the Department of Health and Welfare recently determined that Imperial County, among other places in the nation, would be a suitable location for unloading “slightly radioactive waste.”
The rangers say industrial dumping is increasing, too. “One company left two fifty-gallon drums of cleaning fluid alongside the road; it cost us $2000 to have it hauled away,” Kevin says. “Another company from San Diego was dumping acid they had been using in an etching process; they had an accidental overflow of this stuff, so they brought it out to the desert at night. When we caught them they said, ‘It’s just the desert. If we can’t dump it here, where can we dump it?’”
The BLM’s policies may be changing faster than the public can keep up with them. Most people still seem to believe the desert is a place where laws are not in effect. Imperial County averages twenty-five fatalities and 2000 serious accidents a year due to ORV use, a statistic that causes the rangers to look upon that activity as being a suicidal, if popular, one. “The law says you can’t operate a vehicle in a reckless, careless, or negligent manner, ” Vernon says. “Well, that’s the whole point of driving an off-road vehicle. They come out here so they can be reckless, careless, and negligent. So what can we do to regulate their safety?” Most of the BLM’s efforts in controlling ORVs don’t go into enforcing safety, but into keeping them out of the protected areas where ORVs are not allowed. “They usually say, I didn’t know it was off-limits!’ So we give them a copy of our four-part interpretative brochure,” Vernon says, flapping through the pink, blue, white, and yellow pages of his citation book.
Another example of the Wild West mentality is the public’s use of firearms in the desert. Everybody, it seems, wants to be the star of his own cowboy movie. “Something happens when you put a law-abiding citizen in the desert and give him a gun,” Vernon explains. “He might be walking down the road and see a road sign. The guy has never vandalized anything in his life, but there he is alone, thinking, ‘God, I always wanted to shoot a sign,’ and the next thing you know he’s blasting out all the zeros… Most of the people we come into contact with are armed. They’re the weekend plinkers, either hunting or taking target practice, and we do encourage that as a legitimate use of the land; but it also makes our job more difficult. If a cop in the city sees some guy walking around with a gun, he automatically pulls down on him. But out here we can’t go around screwing a gun in the ear of every guy who is armed.”
Sometimes the wide use of firearms in the desert leads to tragedy. In McCain Valley, east of Ocotillo, there is an old miner whom we shall call Herbert. He fits that image, popular in Western folklore, of the hermit who has grown weary of associating with other people and has decided to take refuge in the desert. He has a mining claim of questionable validity which he uses as an excuse to occupy BLM land. It is a common ploy that has been used by people like him for years, and even though the BLM knows his claim is invalid, getting him evicted is another matter. “He has a few crystals of something or other which he says he took from the ground," Vernon says. “What we go by in determining the validity of a claim like that is called the prudent man theory’ — is there enough valuable ore there that a prudent man would stay and work the claim? The trouble with that theory is that Herbert is not a prudent man."
In 1981 a couple of kids from San Diego were out hunting jackrabbits when they happened to stumble into Herbert's mining camp. The law says that a miner has the right to keep people off his work site, and Herbert, who knew this, pointed a gun at the kids and said, “Get out, you got no right to be here." And the kids, who were unfamiliar with the law and were annoyed by the tone of Herbert's demand, refused. They exchanged threats, and when one of the kids raised his gun to protect himself. Herbert shot him in the eye and killed him.
Herbert never went to jail. Technically it was self-defense. But during the investigation it was discovered that Herbert had previously had two similar encounters in Washington and Oregon, which in Kevin's opinion qualified him for the category of dirtbag. “He told me when he was a kid a Catholic priest shook him too hard, that's why he's the way he is. He said flying saucers stop and drop him messages. He's still out there. He'll probably kill somebody else one of these days."
Besides the typical weekend plinkers, Kevin says there are other people who go to the desert to practice a more aggressive use of firearms. “It’s not uncommon to be driving along a wash and come upon a group of guys dressed in camouflage fatigues holding what appear to be automatic rifles — you can only tell if they arc automatic by inspecting them closely — and they’ll be running up and down the hillsides, setting up different paramilitary situations, trying to take' certain hills. Most of them are just recreationalists doing their thing, playing a game. But we also know there is another element out there that we need to worry about. They're revolutionaries planning and training for the ultimate survivalist situation. We’ve never been able to identify exactly who they are, but we know they're there."
The rangers also frequently see evidence of what they call “recreational bombing," which is the increasingly popular hobby of people who are fascinated by explosions. They spend their free time experimenting with new ways of making homemade bombs out of gunpowder, dynamite, gasoline, or anything else they can get their hands on. They take their creations out to the desert to detonate them, leaving their shrapnel and blackened craters behind for the rangers to marvel over briefly before adding one more item to their growing list of dirtbag activities.
Some of the explosives used by the recreational bombers are known to have come, illegally, from the U.S. military's aerial gunnery range in the nearby Chocolate Mountains. The dark and ruggedly beautiful peaks and canyons have been under siege by the military since World War II, and are riddled with live ordnance, making them forever off-limits to the public. The area has been fenced to keep people out, yet there have been six civilian fatalities in the Chocolate Mountains in the last ten years, and the BLM continues to get reports from the military that there arc people inside the gunnery range. “Just the other day one of the jets was coming in low to drop a 500-pound bomb, and at the last second the pilot saw some guy sitting on a motorcycle right in front of the target. He was able to pull up just in time, but I suspect some of the pilots go ahead and fire anyway, trying to make examples of them," Vernon says. Some of the people go inside the gunnery range to steal the C-4 explosives from the unexploded missile heads, some of them are scrappers trying to collect aluminum or steal batteries and such from the vehicles the military puts there for targets, and still others, Vernon speculates, are there because they are fascinated by the war games and are hoping for a hero’s chance to play, too.
Because of the desert's mild winter climate, the BLM rangers see a lot of the people they call, almost affectionately, “pilgrims.” Most other cops would call them vagrants, or even bums, but Vernon doesn’t think most of them would fit into the category of dirtbags. “We see a lot of these people during hard times when the unemployment level is high. They’re always the first ones to be let go, and most of them are just down on their luck. But how do we know the difference between somebody down on their luck and a dirtbag? It’s our job to stop and talk to everybody, let them know we’re around, and try to make the best decision we can.”
Some of the pilgrims return year after year and are almost like old friends. In Borrego Springs it is the Ice Cream Man who shows up every winter, sleeps in vacant lots, and eats only ice cream. The rangers stopped to talk to one tough old wino who had run out of gas and was pushing his moped along the highway; he said it was too cold in Oceanside and he had to get back to the desert, but he had neither food nor money. When they ran a license check on him and it came back “suspended,” they told him he couldn’t drive the moped, so he said he’d push it. The next day they checked on him and he was twenty miles down the road, still pushing. Another fellow was walking from Ocotillo to Hemet, barefoot, in 110-degree heat; he refused any help, saying he was “into the desert.”
The BLM practices dispersal camping on most of its land, which means that anybody can camp anywhere he likes for a period of fourteen days; after that he has to move a minimum of twenty-five miles away. At their discretion, the BLM can issue long-term visitor permits to accommodate the “snowbirds” — those mostly retired trailer club people who migrate south every winter to get out of the cold — so eventually the difference between a long-term visitor and a vagrant comes down to a ranger's personal opinion. The rangers are a bit touchy about that subject, perhaps afraid of being accused of harassment. For the most part, they seem surprisingly tolerant of their pilgrims, as in the curious case of Henry the wandering patriot.
Henry was a well-educated man who liked to flaunt an impressive vocabulary and a commanding, though opinionated, knowledge of American history and politics. Rumor was he had been an influential attorney in San Diego before he decided to chuck it all and move to the BLM campground at McCain Valley, where he lived out of the back of his pick-up with a family of dogs. Even though he lived the life of a gypsy, Henry had a passion for neatness and order, and kept himself, his dogs, and his truck perfectly clean at all times. After his fourteen days at McCain Valley had expired, the BLM rangers told him he would have to move on. But Henry didn't want to leave, and with his background in law, he decided he would circumvent the BLMs regulations by homesteading the public campground; after he informed the rangers of his intentions, he wrote out a quit-claim deed for them to sign, thereby relinquishing the federal government's interest in the land.
The famous Homestead Act, which had settled the West by allowing citizens to claim up to 160 acres of public land, had been repealed by Congress in 1976, and now exists only in Alaska and in Henry's imagination. When the rangers suggested again that he move along, he delivered a scathing speech denouncing the evils of federalism and centralized government. The rangers were impressed by his oratory skills — but not that impressed. Henry then informed them that he was a close friend and counselor to their boss, President Reagan, that they conferred almost daily on all the major decisions concerning the country — for example, he was the one who had first warned the President that the Russians were preparing to invade California from Mexico — that it would be easy for him to take this matter of his homestead on the McCain Valley campground over their heads, and if they weren’t willing to cooperate, he would do just that.
The rangers told Henry that if something from the President came across their desks, he would be the first to know. But in the meantime, Henry would have to move along. In the following weeks, the BLM office in El Centro received several taped messages from Henry; while “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” played ceremoniously in the background. Henry would expound on various obscure constitutional themes, always leading up to his demand that the BLM honor his claim for the campground at McCain Valley.
Eventually Henry began to lose faith in President Reagan, who had failed to intercede on his behalf, and decided he would have to take matters into his own hands by running for president himself. He had some bumper stickers printed with his name and began mailing out his own newsletter. The BLM rangers always received a copy. “That was when the Secret Service got involved,” Vernon says. “When somebody decides to run for president, those guys are either going to protect him, or keep their eye on him.”
“The last we heard of him,” Kevin says, “somebody had torched the American flag on his truck. That disgusted him so much he couldn’t stand it and finally decided to move on.” Sometimes, in the saddest situations, the rangers are forced into making decisions about the pilgrims only because nobody else has. That is what happened with Alex.
Alex was a Jewish-Russian immigrant, in his midfifties, whose past — whatever it might have been — had left him scarred, bitter, and insane. He had been in and out of mental institutions and was living on social security when he moved into an abandoned mining shack on BLM property, not far from Tierra Del Sol.
He told the local residents that he was a warlock, a male witch, and as a warning for people to leave him alone, he raised around his house several poles with the heads of dead animals mounted on top. He had been seen bathing in his own urine, and smelled like it. A compulsive ragpicker, he dragged home every piece of indescribable junk he could find and heaped it up around his house like a fortress. The Indians from the nearby Campo Indian Reservation were terrified of him; their own culture included witchlike shamans, and they believed him when he said he would “witchcraft” them.
When the local residents complained to the BLM that the man was obviously insane, that he was known to have guns in his possession, that he was squatting on public land, and that they fearing having him around, the rangers decided he would have to be evicted. When they went to serve him a thirty-day notice he wasn't home, so they let themselves in to have a look around. They found, among other things, a warm icebox full of rabbit heads, jars of human feces, and a rotten horse’s head.
Not long after their visit to his house, Alex showed up at the BLM compound in El Centro to place a curse on each one of the rangers’ trucks. On the truck belonging to a female ranger he left a note calling her “the witch bitch.” In the meantime, the Jewish Defense League had decided to help Alex fight his eviction, but before it could go to court, the shack was burned to the ground — apparently the work of an arsonist. The rangers haven’t seen Alex since.
The BLM rangers, like everybody else, wonder why our society deals so poorly with people like Alex and some of the other people who find their way to the desert, for lack of anyplace else to go. “They’re usually the victims, not the aggressors,” Vernon says. “They ’re the forgotten people, the lost souls. Most of them aren’t dangerous, but how can we know that? Any one of them could be the next Charlie Man-son. We don’t know what their history is. If somebody looks dangerous, or unable to take care of himself, we take them in for seventy-two hours of observation. After that, the law says we have to let them go. I don’t know what the answer is.”
So the pilgrims wander around the countryside, following the paths of least resistance, looking for a place where they will be left alone; where they can see that the laws, for whatever reasons, go mostly unenforced; where they can do what they want and nobody will tell them otherwise.