Marvels, Mirages, and Manson: Four-Wheeling in the Mojave Desert

The desert of full of sights both creepy and cool.

Arthur St. Antoinewriter Tim Marrsillustrator

"Those things are really freaking me out. Especially seeing 'em way out here." My friend Case was studying a row of 12 ghosts, their white, hooded shrouds reflecting the last rays of twilight as the sun settled into the vastness of the Mojave Desert. He turned to me. "You told me we were driving to a ghost town. You didn't say we'd actually see any."

Case and I were standing in front of "The Last Supper," an outdoor sculpture created in 1984 by the late Belgian-Polish artist Charles Albert Szukalski. It's near the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada, itself a spooky apparition formed by the cadaverous remains of a gold-rush boomtown where, from roughly 1905 to 1908, as many as 5,000 people lived and worked and even attended performances at the local opera house.

"Not what I expected when I said, 'Let's go four-wheeling.' " "This is where Manson holed up with his 'family' after the Tate and LaBianca murders. "

Szukalski figured his fiberglass revenants—exposed as they are to the brutal environment here outside the eastern edge of Death Valley—would survive for two years at most. Instead, almost supernaturally, they've endured—and today form the centerpiece of what's since become the small Goldwell Open Air Museum. We poked around a bit, studying the other peculiar statues rising from the surrounding sand, the wind whistling over the Bullfrog Hills and rustling the creosote bushes, not another human in sight. Szukalski's ghosts had dimmed to shadows, their robelike forms, arms outstretched in benediction, somehow even more disquieting now, as if living souls might be shaping those black figures silhouetted against the ink-blue sky. Case tapped me on the shoulder and made a "let's go" motion with his thumb. "We stay out here any longer, and those things are gonna start moanin'."

Three weeks earlier, Case had become the proud owner of a low-mile 2017 Toyota 4Runner TRD Off-Road, and ever since, he'd been bugging me to show him some of my favorite haunts (er, sorry) in the Mojave. Earlier in the day, we drove north from Los Angeles on Highway 395 before cutting east on 178 at Ridgecrest to check out the first site on my tour, the Trona Pinnacles, an alien landscape of towering tufa-rock spires—some as tall as 140 feet—rising from a dry lake bed. You've seen them in a million car commercials and such movies as Planet of the Apes, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Star Wars. We crawled around the moonscape in the 4Runner then hiked on foot.

Any poisonous snakes out here?" Case asked.

"Mojave rattler is the deadliest of 'em all. Take out a man with a single bite."

"What does it look like?"

"Don't worry. You'll never see it coming."

Several hours later, after winding down into Death Valley and then just across the California border into Nevada, we were eating burgers at the Sourdough Saloon in Beatty. The walls of the rustic roadhouse are crowded with car parts—mostly German—left behind and signed by the manufacturer teams that come to DV for hot-weather testing in the 120-degree summers. We found the MotorTrend license plate I left here years ago. A couple of old-timers—they looked like regulars—sat behind tall beers at the bar, each sucking hard on a cigarette. Santa Monica boy Case popped a fry into his mouth.

"I almost forgot what smoking looks like."

After nightfall, leaving the ghosts behind, we pointed the 4Runner southwest, back into Death Valley, and soon arrived at yet more surrealism. Namely, the Furnace Creek Inn. Right smack in the middle of the frying pan, near desiccated borax mines, heat-baked alluvial fans, and the Badwater Basin—at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America—the Inn is what you see in the dictionary when you look up the word "oasis." Or maybe "mirage." Rising out of the wasteland stands a grand, warm-lighted edifice of stone and stucco, an 88-room hotel built in 1927 and lovingly restored, rated four-diamond by AAA, date palms swaying in the evening air, a spring-fed pool beckoning in sparkling blue. After we checked into our rooms and each grabbed a welcome shower, we headed to the dining room for a feast of grilled mahi-mahi and wagyu ribeye. "This place is expensive, but I really don't mind," I said, savoring another bite of smoked Gouda polenta cake.

"I know you don't," Case said. "'Cause I'm paying."

After dinner we took a swim—the water is always 87 degrees—then enjoyed a few beers by the poolside fireplace. Case looked up at the stars.

"Not what I expected when I said, 'Let's go four-wheeling,' but that's OK by me."

I took care of that missing component the next morning. Starting early, we crossed into the Panamint Range, eventually shifting into four high and reaching Goler Wash Road. It's more "wash" than "road," mostly a rocky cut through the mountains, but the 4Runner handled the worst of it with ease. Finally we pulled up to a small cluster of stone and cement ruins. "This is Barker Ranch," I said to Case as we climbed out and headed to the main structure. "In 1969, the local sheriff's department captured Charles Manson here. This is where he'd holed up with his 'family' after the Tate and LaBianca murders. Word is the cops found him hiding under the kitchen sink."

The ranch had been largely intact when I'd first visited the place ages ago—even had cans of food on the shelves and a guest book full of whacked-out inscriptions—but a 2010 fire wrecked most of it. "Just as well," Case said. "I don't need to see where Charlie Manson didn't take any showers."

We crawled out of the west side of the Panamints and headed north to Ballarat, another abandoned "town." A scene in Easy Rider was filmed here, and you can still find the rusted green pickup of Tex Watson, the lead practitioner in Manson's murder cult. From there, we made a long slog southeast, detouring onto Highway 14 before arriving at Mojave Air & Space Port. "This is where aviation pioneer Burt Rutan built the Voyager, the first airplane to fly around the world nonstop," I said, "and where his SpaceShipOne completed the world's first privately funded human space flight."

We motored around the airfield, passing by the huge boneyard of dry-stored airliners, a few odd-looking experimental airships, and the National Test Pilot School—the world's busiest. Finally, I had Case pull up alongside a truly colossal hangar. "Inside that place is the Stratolaunch, the world's largest airplane. One day, it'll start carrying rockets to altitude that'll then be launched into space."

"Cool! Can we see it?"

"No. But the Voyager Restaurant in the terminal has a pretty decent club sandwich."

The light fading, Case pointed his trusty 4Runner south toward L.A. "Pretty cool coupla days, Art," he said. "I'm always amazed at the weird stuff you find."

"Oh, we've only just started. I mean, you haven't seen the Mojave Megaphone or…the Racetrack."

"What are those?"

"One is a giant megaphone bolted to two boulders in the middle of the desert and no one knows why, and the other is a dry lake bed with rocks that move. By themselves."