Into the Abyss of Death Valley

Charles Manson’s bad day in the desert eventually leads to murder

Charles Manson

In the summer of 1968, Charles Manson was living with several of his ‘followers’ at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, California. He had been freed from prison just a year and a half before, slowly gathering young people around him while honing his music talents and seeking an entry into the world of the elite performing industry. He made one very powerful friend — Dennis Wilson, drummer for the Beach Boys — and the Manson Family stayed with Wilson for a time. But to preserve his relationship with the drummer (and the Dennis’ powerful friends), Manson moved his group to Spahn Ranch in the early summer of 1968.

But Spahn Ranch was no paradise. It was dirty, covered in horse flies, and Charlie constantly had to kiss ass with owner George Spahn, a blind 79-year old former horse trainer. George had a number of other people living and working at the ranch, as well — some were friendly to the Family, others were not. Eventually, Manson realized that Spahn Ranch was not an ideal location.

The following is excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story

Charlie started to talk about escaping. Susan (Atkins) wrote, “He was sold on the idea of reincarnation. ‘We are ageless,’ he said. ‘We will never die. But nothing else is secure because time is running out for the world… Society is killing the planet. Vietnam is just a part of it. And pollution, too. Society is evil. Big business is evil. The establishment is evil. Time is running out and we’ve got to get out into the country, into the desert, to live off the land.”[1]

… In his ‘memoir’, Manson explained, “As far back as 1955, when I was driving the stolen 1951 Mercury… and passed through the Mojave Desert for the first time, the spacious, sparsely populated land there had moved me. On recent trips with the girls, I had felt the urge to see more of the desert than could be seen from the main highways… I began making trips to areas of the desert seldom seen by tourists, little towns like Shoshone, Tecopa, Panamint Springs and others so small they don’t rate an acknowledgement on most maps. The smaller the town, the more earthy and likeable were the people who lived there. Even more to my liking, we could get so far off the beaten path that we were seeing places only visited by property owners, prospectors or some recluse seeking escape from people, laws and protocol… I thought the desert was the place to start establishing some permanent roots.”[2]

It was fortuitous that fall when they met Catherine Gillies. 17-year old Gillies grew up in San Juan Capistrano, in Orange County. Spahn nicknamed her ‘Capistrano’ but the Family shortened it to ‘Cappy’. Within a week, Manson learned that Cappy’s grandmother owned a ranch in Death Valley and peppered her with questions about the property.

…Manson was drawn to her descriptions of the place she called ‘Myers Ranch’. Charlie had another reason to escape: there wasn’t shit happening with the Golden Penetrators (the nickname given to Dennis Wilson, talent scout Gregg Jakobson and record producer Terry Melcher — the name indicated their sexual prowess). In September, the Beach Boys recorded Manson’s song Cease to Exist, changing the title to Never Learn Not to Love and altering several lyrics. Although Manson did not yet know about the change, he did sense that Wilson was getting cagey. He was slipping through his fingers and with him, his many industry connections.

…On October 7th, Sadie gave birth to a baby boy, two months premature…With another crying baby underfoot, Charlie knew he had tested George Spahn’s hospitality too far. By mid-October, it was decided that the Family would leave for Death Valley.

… As Dianne explained, “Cappy’s grandparents were part-time miners but were likely part of the migration during the Depression, when many families sought to escape the food lines by establishing claims to land they perceived as the last frontier. The claims were for mining… Some people used the homes as a potential livelihood… or in later years as a retreat when they simply wanted to get away from city life. The mining life was not for everybody.”[3]

Dianne also wrote, “The last connection to civilization was the little town of Ballarat, which was more a cluster of buildings than a proper town. Ballarat, now officially considered a ghost town, sits at the foot of the entrance to Goler Wash… We stopped in Ballarat to get soda pop and shoot the breeze with the few grizzled old miners who ran the small store there. All they had were a few candy bars that looked as ancient as they were and a rusted-out refrigerator that hummed loudly.”[4]

“They drove up the highways to the town of Trona, then down a gravel road that rattled the bus,” wrote author Jess Bravin. “When the bus could go no farther, they had to hike the rest of the way, a two and a half hour trek…. the others who marched ahead had trouble with their packs, and sometimes dropped things so they wouldn’t have to carry them.”[5]

“You don’t want to be in those canyons when it rains,” warned Cappy, “unless you want to die. There’s a reason they’re called washes.”[6]

Manson recalled his first view of Myers Ranch: “It was a fair-sized dwelling surrounded by unexpected green vegetation, a nice little oasis in the middle of nowhere. The house had a large front room with a big fireplace, two bedrooms, a small kitchen and a back porch with an attached bathroom. It was… a hell of a lot better than some of the places we had called home.”[7]

But the visit to Myers Ranch was cut short when Cappy admitted that she didn’t have permission to stay there. Her folks might return anytime and make them leave. So, Charlie and Paul (Watkins) went into Ballarat and asked about other properties. A local pantomath known as Ballarat Bob told them about Barker Ranch, owned Arlene Barker, who was not currently living at the property.

Manson contacted Arlene and to woo her, gave her a gold record he’d ‘inherited’ from Dennis Wilson. He told her he was the Beach Boys’ manager and she agreed to let the Family stay at her ranch.

For the next two weeks, life in Death Valley was pretty fun. Games of swashbucklers and pirates, of Bedouin nomads, and pioneers ensued. Death Valley kindled one of Manson’s interests: the stories of Rommel’s World War II desert raids. General Erwin Rommel, the Nazi’s ‘Desert Fox’, led Germany’s North Africa excursions from 1941–1943. After successful campaigns in Poland, the Netherlands and France, Rommel was sent to Tripoli where, with fortified tanks suited for desert sands, the Nazi’s attacked Axis forces. Rommel was known for his dogged determination and rapid-developing, mobile style of battle leadership. Manson was fascinated with Rommel and his desert raids. When Charlie was arrested the next fall, copies of National Geographic with articles on Rommel were with him.

… “Before a month passed,” Manson said, “we knew every rock, gully, bush, spring and old mining claim within miles… We learned that in the daytime rattlesnakes and other varmints shift to the shady side of a rock or bush, so it was safest to pass on the sunny side of what might be a lair. At night, you stayed away from the part of the rock that received the most sun during the day, since at night the snakes used the warmth of the rocks as heating pads.”[8]

Adam Gorightly wrote, “One of the things that most appealed to Charlie about the desert was that it was a ready made acid trip, from its enchanting rock formations to its wondrous sunsets… Death Valley is perceived of as a place where nary a trickle of water runs; a place devoid of life… life does indeed abound there, but it is only the heartiest and wildest of animals that survive in these harsh environs… The Manson Family’s sojourn into the desert was a societal withdrawal from the continual harassment they’d begun to experience from The Man. It was also a spiritual quest where — it was felt — they could finally become one as a family. Another aspect of the desert which fascinated Manson was that it was a ‘land where rivers ran upside down’, a fact that appealed to Charlie’s ‘no sense makes sense’ worldview.”[9]

But after a couple weeks, everyone but Charlie tired of the Family’s desert romp. Even getting to the nearest grocery store was a several-hour ordeal. Plus, there were dangerous snakes, spiders and scorpions and a lack of hygiene.

“While everyone professed to love the desert… it became clear that many were getting bored,” explained Paul Watkins. “Gradually, things on a spiritual level began to degenerate.”[10]

…Watkins recalled witnessing Manson’s decline. “One night during a rap, he {Manson} paused in the middle of a sentence and stared straight ahead, as though addressing a presence above our heads. ‘I came to you,’ he said softly, his face wearing a distracted expression, ‘as a deer in the forest. I came to you with wonder in my eyes and love in my heart for you… I came to you with love. And you slaughtered me.’ Though it didn’t register consciously at the time, his statement was a prophetic one. It was the first sign that the flower child in Charlie Manson was dying, wilting away in Death Valley.”[11]

Charlie felt like all he did was love and give and nurture these kids, and what did he have to show for it? Where was his recording career? Where was the fame and wealth he was due? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

Maybe he was sick of doing for those kids what nobody ever did for him.

Sometime in November, Charlie walked away. Restless, angry, spiteful — he decided to show those little punks how important he was by leaving. He dumped some cold coffee into a canteen, grabbed a hunk of day-old bread and left at dawn to walk toward the Panamint Mountains and watch the sun rise. Two hours later he’d stomped most of his frustration away. He sat on a rock to eat his prospector’s breakfast and determine how much further it was to the next valley. After his appetite was sated, he began walking again.

By 6:00pm, Charlie was lost. He was cold, tired, suffering leg cramps and thirst. His tongue was swollen in his mouth, his body streaked with sweat and dirt.

Something broke inside the man and he fell down, weeping and half-crazed. After having a brief conversation with a rather large rock, ration kicked in. He had a stern talking to himself and decided to just sleep it off. When Charlie woke in the morning he felt refreshed and alive. He hurt and he was damn thirsty but had enough strength to make it back to the ranch.

When he arrived at Barker Ranch, everyone ran out, jumping on him in their glee at his return. Manson returned from his trip into the abyss with newfound enthusiasm and dedication for his music. “We spent hours each day practicing, arranging and writing songs, and the music was often so good it gave me goosebumps… The acoustics out in the open didn’t compare with a studio set-up but the quiet, open desert added its own magic to our music. Without microphones or amplifiers there was a pure, earthy quality to our instruments and voices. We were a bunch of kids sitting around an open bonfire in one of the most primitive areas in the nation, but our arrangements and lyrics were as modern and free as our philosophy. God, there was so much talent there… We had reached a level of accomplishment that was amazing.”[12]

  • The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©2019 Swann Publications (including the following quotes: [1] Child of Satan, Child of God by Susan Atkins with Bob Slosser ©1977 Logos Int’l; [2,7,8,12] Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press; [3,4] Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties by Dianne Lake, Deborah Herman ©2017 William Morrow; [5] Squeaky: The Life and Times of Lynette Alice Fromme by Jess Bravin ©1997 St. Martin’s Press; [6] Quote by Catherine Gillies in Reflexion by Lynette Fromme ©2018 Peasenhall Press; [9] The Shadow over Santa Susana by Adam Gorightly ©2009 Creation Books; [10,11] My Life with Charles Manson by Paul Watkins with Guillermo Soledad ©1979 Bantam Books
A recent photograph showing the inhospitable desert conditions near Barker Ranch

Within a week of his failed escape from his Family, Charles Manson left Death Valley to return to Los Angeles, to pursue his music career. And within a week of his return, he heard The White Album by The Beatles for the first time.

During an LSD trip, he listened to the album and began to hear what he believed were hidden messages to HIM, Charles Manson, from the four Beatles, warning him about an impending race war. Manson later called this war ‘Helter Skelter’ and it was one of several factors that ultimately led to the murder of ten innocent people by members of his so-called Family.

After the murders, Charlie and the Family again retreated to Death Valley and to Barker Ranch. There, in the fall of 1969, they committed an incredibly stupid criminal act — the arson of a piece of earth-moving equipment. Law enforcement investigated the crime, the Family were all arrested.

Charlie was arrested in Death Valley while hiding under a sink, inside a tiny bathroom cabinet. The desert was no longer his refuge. He was captured and soon implicated in the ‘Helter Skelter’ murders from that summer.

Charlie was found hiding under this tiny cabinet during an October 1969 arrest at Barker Ranch. The arresting officer only saw Manson because a tuft of his dark hair was sticking out.

You can read more about how The White Album influenced Manson’s Helter Skelter vision here:

And more about Charlies’ use of acid (LSD) here:

Please follow H. Allegra Lansing here at Medium or our blog at for more information about Charles Manson and the Manson Family.

Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series.

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