When I go to the desert, I expect to meet odd characters. Of course, I also expect warm temperatures and THAT didn’t happen.

When I heard that a freezing weather system was headed to the Bay Area, I was thrilled that I’d be leaving the day before for Death Valley. I imagined hiking in balmy 70 degree days in the sunshine. Little did I know that whatever this system was and wherever it came from, it was fully California sized. As I rocketed down the I-5, instead of getting warmer, the temperatures kept dropping. And the winds kept accelerating. By the time I’d passed Bakersfield, it was getting kind of scary. Luckily, I always have a Plan B when RVing. Originally, I’d planned to stay in a little known State Park in Castil that featured nothing but pit toilets. As the wind kicked up to 45 MPH gusts, I decided I’d hit an RV park that featured not too scary reviews. (Which is saying something out around Mojave and Edwards Air Force Base area which can be pretty rough.)

I pulled in as the wind gusts increased and the temperatures hovered around 40. I decided it didn’t matter how aged the showers were, a warm one was going to be a bonus and with shore power, I could run the fan on the propane heater and at least cheer myself with Internet access. Sierra Trails RV Park was definitely down on its heels, but not without its charms. Again I go to the desert looking or desert color and the desert rats are part of that. I don’t mean the real rats, I mean the kind of people who live maybe mostly off the grid with dirt yards full of art made of found objects and bottles, homemade wind vanes, and maybe a few Joshua Trees. This felt like that kind of community — except with RVs instead of adobe walls.

The owner of the park was an elderly ex-marine. I remarked, as I was checking in on the cases full of fine quilting work. He said it was mostly his. His late wife had taught him how to quilt and, when she died, he continued the practice because he said, “It makes me calm.” I wish I’d bought one of his pieces. But there was a sort of belligerent German man who was demanding that someone hook his cable up. The poor ex-marine was barely mobile, so I volunteered to do the duty. I also ended up sharing my one bottle of Pinot Noir with Herman the German and his wife to calm them down since the wind gusts were kicking up and I didn’t want a veteran hobbling around working on RVs. From the looks of the place, the German and I were the only non-permanent residents. I’m judging by the amount of art made of found objects outside the other RVs and trailers.

Wine shared, I hunkered down as the temperature swiftly dropped to 25 degrees and the winds kept howling. I’m assuming all the permanent residents had space heaters and cranked them up past Eleven. Because at some point the electricity blew out, my little rig switched to battery power and the inverter, the heater fan and the cold drained it right down. But, thank you very much Roadtrek and Almaden RV Repair, all the back up jump starter systems worked, I got charged up in 20 minutes and was on my way.

Here’s where things got really hairy. I mentioned that I like eccentric desert rats. That’s because they are the good people you find in the desert. The other kind are like Charlie Manson and his family. When I was plotting my way in to Death Valley, I assumed I’d go in through Olancha which is a nice drive ending with a heart-stopping descent from Panamint Springs into the Valley. But Google Maps kept urging me to go another way. I double-checked with my friends Rand and McNally, and they confirmed that it was a more direct route. Unfortunately, if there is an uglier route into Death Valley than this one, I can’t imagine it. I drove through hardscrabble towns until I reached the only one with a gas station, Trona. I got an eery feeling driving through as, besides some sort of smelter belching smoke, most of the houses and buildings had broken windows and boarded up doors.

Finally, I approached Death Valley, but given my penchant for braking for all historical sites, I had to stop for this one.

Ghost towns. Just the sort of thing I like to see in the desert.

Turns out, this was a ghost town of a different nature. As I drove down the road, I noticed two ruins of adobe structures and a number of wooden shacks. But also, a lot of trailers and old junked cars. I pulled up to what was billed as the Ballarat General Store and met a character who told me his name was Slim.

I remembered from the plaque that the last known resident of Ballarat was named Seldom Seen Slim. So maybe this wasn’t this guy’s real name. But a lot of people retreat to the desert so they don’t have to give any names.

Turns out Ballarat contains very little of the original town, but a lot of the planned RV resort that never came to fruition. According the Slim, “The water wasn’t no damn good and the owner never could make it go.” So now, it’s a kind of tourist attraction with population: one. That would be Slim. He was an engaging fellow and took me and a passing bicyclist on a tour of the premises. Turns out, Ballarat is largely a shrine to Charlie Manson, whose “family” camped out at a ranch not too far away before they went to the old Spahn Movie Ranch closer to LA. The highlights here are a shack from that ranch purportedly with Charlie Manson’s signature on it.

Or perhaps someone carved this here to give a thrill to the tourists.

Next on the tour was an old truck that Slim said, on the title, belonged to Charlie Manson’s side-kick, Tex Watson.

Again, we’ve got Slim’s word on this. But I was sufficiently creeped out.

Of greater interest to me was old Slim’s explanation of why the town of Trona had been so dilapidated. Slim says mining died there — in fact, he used to work for the mines — and Trona descended into, as he put it, “meth and welfare”. He said, “You can buy a house cheap there, but the meth-heads will move in and steal everything…the copper wires, the pipes…” Which was surprising to me, as on my way in, I saw a number of buildings that said “Halliburton: Now Hiring”. I’m assuming mineral extraction companies are lining up waiting for National Park land to be opened by Trump for mining. Slim says, “no” (despite all the Trump signs he had in the General Store): “Them days of hiring locals is gone. They brings in their own guys and don’t hire nobody from here.” There you have it. Making America Great Again.

By this time, I was thrilled to pull into Death Valley where my campground was adequately guarded by on-duty National Park Rangers. Sometimes, a little local color is just a bit too much.

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