I paused to read Ballarat’s hand-punched tin welcome sign on the way in:
THIS IS A FREE ZONE TAKE ANY KIND OF PHOTOS YOU WANT CAMP PARTY MAKE MOVIES ETC NO HARM NOBODY CARES FEEL FREE LEARN NOTHEN SETTING IN YOUR CAR THE FRIENDLY ZONE WELCOME TO BALLARAT GHOST TOWN CAMPING 3 DOLLARS THIS WAS THE POST OFFICE 1897 SEE THE MUSEUM STORE TRADING POST HISTORY OLD PHOTOS CHARLE MANSONS TRUCK MAPS FIRE A GUN
It looked like an additional line at the bottom had been scratched out. I couldn’t help wondering what had been been struck from such a permissive charter.
From his trading post porch, Ballarat’s caretaker and “mayor,” Rock Novak, can see for miles the dusty trail of an approaching visitor on the rutted washboard road that connects Ballarat to Death Valley’s only slightly less desolate Trona-Wildrose artery, and he stood to greet me as I arrived a bit after 9 on a Saturday morning, offering a cold drink before I could so much as say hello.
“I got Coke, not diet, just Coke,” Rock said, “and Miller High Life.” Coming off a morning bender of hydration-tab-laced water, I declined for the moment, though when he later saw me laying a twenty-spot atop a pile of change in his Yuban donation can, he thrust a cold red can into my hand. “This one’s on me,” he said. I hadn’t tasted a real Coke in years and the sugar bomb was alarmingly astringent compared to the diet versions my palate had conditioned itself to accept. Surviving as I was on protein bars and other shelf-stable camping foods, the junky binge felt especially indulgent.
While it was plain from much of the paraphernalia posted here and there that we didn’t have much in common politically—what with admonishments to legalize the Constitution, join the NRA, and yes, “Make America Great Again”—Rock seemed eager to talk at someone other than the wild burros who grazed Ballarat’s endless brown scrub. He said it got lonely out there in the dog days of July and August, when four-wheelers and ghost-town spelunkers steered their attention toward destinations with more hospitable weather. What we did share was a common fascination for this harsh place and its allure for generations of fortune seekers and outliers.
It was here that Death Valley earned its name in 1849, when the Brier Party emerged into Panamint Valley after weeks of wandering lost through an unforgiving hellscape of desert mountain passes. They had swung south months earlier in hopes of avoiding the fate of the Donner Party, fellow gold rushers who were trapped by a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada just a couple of years prior, leading to uneasy choices that would brand survivors as cannibals for all time. After seeing four of their own fellow travelers die from exposure and disease, after burning their wagons to cook and consume their dying oxen (though apparently none of their dead peers), and after stumbling along interminably on wasted feet and wasting bodies, the surviving Briers eventually found a way out, led by matriarch Juliette Brier, who bade simply, “Goodbye to death valley.”
Ballarat wouldn’t emerge until nearly half a century later, in 1897, as a supply town to nearby mining operations. With a trading post, an assay office, a handful of saloons, a post office, and a school—but, historical records note, no church—its population peaked at around 500. Ballarat entered a rapid state of decline just eight years later, when the Ratcliff Mine went bust, and in 1917 the town officially gave over to ghosts when the post office closed. Mining towns tended to burn bright and fast, like the populations they served. The most complete extant building is the jail, its solid wood frame now anchored and reinforced. The adobes that once predominated here are mapped by little more than piles of rubble outlining rough structural footprints, with a few lonely wooden doorframes standing crooked sentry, demarcating a long lost boundary between inside and out.
However defunct as a place, Ballarat as an idea is a hub for all manner of intrigue these days. Part-time desert rats, old hippies, and assorted libertarians descend on the town for an annual Freedom Days festival over Easter weekend. EagleRider’s motorcycle tour of Easy Rider film locations kicks off festivities in Ballarat, where, just like protagonists Billy and Wyatt, biker pilgrims can toss their watches to the roadside and declare freedom from the tyranny of time. RVers can camp by the old cemetery for just three bucks a night (sorry, no hookups). Fighter jets from the China Lake Naval Weapons Station, some 50 miles west, blaze through on training runs in this corner of Death Valley, nicknamed “Star Wars Canyon” by military personnel; three F-18s buzzed my car on the drive in, the first two passing in twin formation and scaring me senseless for one dislocated moment that was made odder still by the fact that I was practicing my conversational Russian at the time for an upcoming trip to Ukraine, aided by a language learning podcast. Meanwhile, dark tourists routinely search for signs and artifacts of the Manson Family in the hollow ruins of Barker Ranch, about 20 miles away, tucked up into a remote canyon not intended for ordinary vehicles. It was there that the cult hid out after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and there that they planned to wait out the race war their prophet foretold.
Rock tried to feel out my level of curiosity about Manson, as Ballarat lays claim to a rusting but remarkably complete Army surplus Dodge Power Wagon associated with his followers. Its provenance is sketchy, but it seems most reliably linked to Bobby Beausoleil, who’s currently serving a life term for his primary role in the Family’s first killing. This murder wasn’t planned, apparently, but its eerie details would make it the gloaming of an impending nightfall so dark casual historians would attribute to Manson the death of an entire era.
“It’s no wonder those kids were so messed up, strung out on LSD all the time,” Rock said. “You know who invented LSD?”
I didn’t, offhand. Some Swiss guy, I thought…
“Hitler,” Rock said. “That was how he got the Nazis to do all that stuff. Same with Manson.”
It was a nice conviction in its way, feeling so confident that people can’t engage in that level of evil without mind-altering drugs. I favor a Pollyanna worldview often enough myself, but I’m not unaware of the horrible depravity squarely within the scope of human sobriety. Maybe I’m not such a liberal snowflake after all.
Apropos of nothing but Death Valley’s late-July heat, which insinuated itself into conversations as surely as it enervated my best attempts to ignore it—this last weekend in July the temp was already well on its way to Saturday’s high of 125—Rock indicated a heavy fiber mat wired to ceiling posts and enthusiastically described the mechanics of his new cooling system. The mat rose nearly waist high from the floor and covered about eight feet of the porch apron of Ballarat’s trading post/museum. You soak it down and if you catch wind going the right direction you get a little mist glancing off it. He hadn’t caught a breeze in weeks.
I excused myself to take some pictures before the sun rose so directly overhead it would bathe the valley in an oppressive haze of uncontested UV. After about 45 minutes of walking about the acreage I was done in; desert hallucinations are no joke. I came back to the shelter of his porch patio to mop my brow. A burro stood within the shade of the building, disturbed neither by my presence nor by the loud and dusty fight that had erupted between two herd mates only about a dozen feet away.
Meanwhile, Rock held a shot-glass-sized red Solo cup at his side. When he noticed me noticing it, he said, “This is my new batch of moonshine. Got a still out back, but weather’s only right for brewing about two months out of the year. The rest of the time it’s too hot or too cold.”
“What’s in it?” I asked.
“Just some corn mash, sugar, and yeast,” he said. “The trick is in the filtering. Some guys just run it over some charcoal and say it’s filtered. I soak mine good and long. My brew is smooth.” He extended the cup to me. “Give it a sniff.”
I leaned into the clear liquid.
“Give her a swallow,” he invited.
I’ve replayed this decision point a few times since, because in retrospect I realize that I had no inherent reason to trust that no harm could possibly come of taking a sip of mystery brew from a man who harbored some hostilities toward the government and with whom I sat about 50 miles outside earshot of anyone beyond a herd of wild burros. My smart phone had been out of service range for the last 18 hours, and the freedom that surrounded us could easily become its own kind of prison. But the urgency of saying yes overcomes me increasingly as I approach 50, because when I survey my life to this point my only real regrets are those times when I’ve let new opportunities pass me by. If life in the end is a catalogue of experience, curate the hell out of that shit.
I gave it a swallow and it went down easy, like a good decision.
“Pretty smooth, yeah?” Rock said.
“Very,” I affirmed. No lie.
“I brought it out for a flame test,” he said.
He poured a bit into a spoon and set that down, then went to fetch his lighter. As he flicked it to coax a flame, I noted a can of Lysol standing perilously near the test target and took an instinctive few steps back. Saying yes to new experience has its limits.
A yellow flame indicates impurities, and a red flame warns of lead, Rock explained as he hunched over to light it up. Nothing blew up, and the flame burned clear with a phantom blue sheen. “Look at that,” he said. “Clean as can be.”
I was pleased, of course, though I’d have just as soon tasted it after this exercise. But later when I researched the “flame test” I was given to understand it’s not terribly scientific anyhow—methanol also burns clear, and that’ll kill you dead.
In short order a telltale dust cloud appeared in the distance, and after watching it for a bit I could make out the shape of a Jeep drawing near. It slowed near the welcome sign, then proceeded on toward the trading post. “Learn nothen setting in your car,” the sign admonishes. As the Jeep pulled up, I bade Rock thanks for the hospitality, leaving him and his latest visitors to discover one another. I was a bit delirious from the heat, my wanderings, and the twin sugar and alcohol rushes in my brain. I fired up my car’s air conditioning, dropped a hydration tab into a fresh, icy bottle of water from my big Yeti cooler, and laid up a few snacks for my 90-minute drive to Badwater Basin: some dehydrated cheese, a handful of pepitas, a macro nutrition bar. But before I strayed too far from moonshine and Manson country, I jotted a few notes for a writing session later. And as I retreated in a shroud of dust from the remoteness of Ballarat, back toward what passed for the beaten paths of Death Valley, I turned on a podcast and resumed my Russian lesson already in progress.