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Manson Family Vacation

In the morning, we busted into the desert, and all was blue sky and mama sun.

By Novella Carpenter

When it gets toward the end of the year, and the holidays sparkle and then blow out in a puff of menorah smoke, a fizzle of gift wrap and the last glug of gravy, I tend to get kind of depressed. I was all set to write a final review of cars and car culture in 2004, all that's happened wrapped into one neat column. But I've always found that kind of thing to be boring, like those episodes of Three's Company where the screen goes blurry, and they replay clips from the past season.

I was heartened, then, when my Billy proposed ... a road trip. The beauty of a road trip while feeling depressed is that you get the sense that you might be able to escape the pall that has set in--if you keep moving, your problems won't catch up. We decided to go to Death Valley, specifically up to some canyons in which the Manson family--yes! that Manson family--lived out the last few days of their free lives.

Our best friend Lana and her 180-pound dog Oscar jumped in a rusty Mercedes diesel circa 1971, and we were off. We took 99, and a thick fog rolled through the Central Valley. Smells of cattle wafted out of nowhere; the headlights stabbed the night air softly. We slept in a motel I would rather not discuss.

In the morning, we busted into the desert, and all was blue sky and mama sun. We cruised down a tiny road, through ghost towns, and came across a movie set--the booms up, the crew loafing--and we felt like we were the movie they were waiting for. After Trona, a stinky sulphur-smelling town, we went off-road and entered the abandoned town of Balarat. Rock, the town's one and only resident (though he said he'd been interested in getting a lady companion out there), showed us around. "That's Tex Watson's old rig," Rock said, and pointed to a 1942 Dodge power wagon that seemed to melt into the landscape, along with the rock and wood cabins.

Five miles along a dirt road, we came to the road that led to the last hideout of Charles Manson. In 1969, the Manson family had become the country's worst nightmare, a funhouse mirror reflection of hippie culture. The family lived communally with Charles as their charismatic leader and killed with the hopes of triggering a race war in America. They traveled in a green and white former school bus, and a baby was said to have been born in the vehicle. After they murdered the people at the Sharon Tate party, they piled into the bus and drove to their hideout at Barker Ranch, an abandoned piece of property complete with a house and lookout points.

I was ghoulishly interested. Except our car couldn't make it up the road. Rocks banged against the bottom of the car, and we had to turn around. How did the Manson bus make it up that boulder-strewn, dangerously narrow canyon? One of his followers claimed that Manson levitated the bus. According to The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, by Ed Sanders, "Over a period of several weeks, they stole a bunch of dune buggies." Manson said he was "going to be the Desert Fox of Devil Hole at the head of a flying V of dune buggies racing across the desert for plunder." In the end, they were all arrested for car theft, and only later did the police connect the dots to the murders.

That night we slept under so many stars, they kept me up. A car rolled by our campsite near dawn. In the morning, hiking up into the canyon, we came across two young guys stuck on the road. They were going to dig themselves out, they told us. We noticed they were drinking beer for breakfast. People say that water runs underground out in Death Valley, but a stream spurted out of one of the rock outcroppings near the boys. Suddenly, I wasn't depressed anymore.

Happy New Year! Email me at [email protected].

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From the January 5-12, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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