Walt Bickel was a genius, miner, archaeologist, inventor, astronomer, philosopher and all around amazing guy who settled in Last Chance Canyon in the 1930s. He is well known for hosting illustrious members of the UCLA Anthropology department, such as Carlos Castaneda, at Bickel Camp. It is rumored that Bickel was the mentor on which “The Teachings of Don Juan” was based. He was also mountain/valley “neighbors” with Burro Schmidt of the Burro Schmidt Tunnel fame. [See post and video about Burro Schmidt Tunnel at this link.]
My hiking buddy Death Valley Jim and I visited this site while hosting senior writer for Newsweek Alex Nazaryan while he was researching the article just published in Newsweek in which he explores the “green” destruction of the desert and the renegade efforts Death Valley Jim is making to save it. P.S. I have a couple of mentions and a wee quote in the article. Thank you, Alex. You did me a solid.
Here is the link to that article available online now and on newsstands March 25, 2016: http://www.newsweek.com/2016/03/25/death-valley-jim-california-desert-green-energy-437156.html
The day we visited Bickel Camp was action packed. The night before we hiked to the top of Black Mountain and made camp in the caldera of a dormant volcano, a sacred place for the native tribes of the region.
The black rock from its original explosion is scattered for miles around the mountain. Petroglyphs were carved by the natives in the volcanic rock (post about that to come very soon). Alex hopped out of his sleeping bag and hiked himself straight up to the mountain peak to explore the wonderful view and look for the mysterious rock circles atop the mountain. I stayed close to my stove where coffee was brewing and tried to capture a time-lapse of the sunrise in the caldera of the volcano. That was a total flat light failure, but at least I enjoyed the coffee.
Jim meandered around the caldera examining the rocks and discovered a couple of cowboy carvings in the rocks. “Petroglyphs” if you will, made by “white men”. Jim said that judging by the patina on the carving and the erosion they were surely at least a couple hundred years old.
We packed up and hiked out of camp stopping to examine a coyote skull at the volcano rim.
On the hillside was a grave, again, spotted by Death Valley Jim, Mozart of the Mojave desert.
We hopped in the jeep and Jim drove us up to Burro Schmidt Tunnel where we enjoyed a tour of the tunnel and Schmidt’s cabins (link to that post here).
As we got back in the jeep to drive down to Bickel Camp, Jim’s foot must have fallen asleep because he dropped the pedal to the metal and didn’t pick it up. It is one thing to go at top speed on the freeway, but have you ever gone at top speed over unimproved desert roads scarred with ditches? Its like being shaken like a Yahtzee die in the cup before the roll. At one point I had taken my seatbelt off to readjust something and because the jeep was hurtling over the desert, the belt locked and I couldn’t put it on again. Clearly Jim was on some kind of mission and I didn’t want to harsh his groove and ask him to stop so boring, safety-conscious me could put on my seatbelt. Unrestrained in my seat I braced myself against the bouncing by pressing my hand on the ceiling, but one dip in the road nearly ejected me through the roof. It was at that moment that I knew if I didn’t ask to stop to put on my seatbelt I was pretty likely to break my neck and die. To be honest, I’m pretty sure that was the outcome Jim was gunning for. He reluctantly stopped and begrudgingly slowed down a little bit after that, but it he probably did it so that Alex would think well of him, not to spare me. I’m pretty sure, that if we’d been alone he would have let me bounce right out the open window and left me for coyote food.
Here’s a small sample of how he treats me inside a jeep:
Bickel Camp was fantastic! The BLM had recently installed a caretaker on the site who was passionate about the history of the area and gave us a wonderful tour. We had some clementines, a brick of cheese and a salami that we were planning to eat for a picnic that day, but we decided to offer it to the Bickel Camp caretaker instead in gratitude for his hospitality. Given his remote outpost, he seemed to appreciate the sudden gift of fresh fruit. We followed up our visit to Bickel Camp by returning to Ridgecrest for Mexican food. All in all, not a bad way to spend a day in this humdrum life.