My father first came to Death Valley because Charles Manson told him to. He always did what Charlie said; that was what it meant to be in The Family. The desert my father knew then was a place of dune buggies and doomsday, a wasteland accessible only by four-wheel drive, where even Helter Skelter couldn’t find him. He was in Death Valley during the Tate-LaBianca murders and he fled here again, afterwards. It was here that an old prospector named Crockett asked him, just after the killings, whether he really believed all Charlie’s bullshit. And it was here that my father first felt the velvety texture of bentonite clay under his fingernails, the freedom of pulling an opal or a hunk of turquoise from the rock with his bare hands, the breathing smell of sagebrush after it rains.
I believe these were the thoughts he carried with him the day he approached Charlie at Spahn’s Ranch – after the murders but before the raid – and asked to be released of his agreements. Or the night, shortly after that, when he opened the front door of the shack where he slept and found Charlie and Tex Watson crouched there in the darkness with knives between their teeth. The desert became his salvation, the love of his life. I’m told it remained so for fifteen years, until the day I was born. What would have become of us if this place hadn’t saved him?
I’ve seen a video of my father on CNN wearing a tan button-up shirt and a bolo tie. I’ve watched him fiddle with his malfunctioning earpiece and talk about his friends in The Family, saying over and over, They were sick. They thought they were righteous angels on a wave of revolution that was cleaning up the world. I’ve seen another video, too, in which he is propped up with pillows in the bed where he would die of leukemia. He looks into the camera. He says, Here I am, my girls. I want you to know how much I loved you. I want you to know who I was.
Did he know then that he was asking too much? I was six years old when he died. I have none of the memories he so hoped I would have. Instead, I have CNN, Helter Skelter. Sometimes, I look for him there. I play his interviews over and over, listening to his voice rasp and tremble in all the familiar places. I listen, but he never says what I need him to say.
This is what he gave me: this place, the desert off Highway 127 on the southernmost edge of Death Valley. It is the only thing that satiates my hunger for him. We look like tourists here, but we are the very opposite; this is the only place we’ve ever known. My sister and I are barefoot, she in his arms, me in the dirt. The ground here is strewn with hazards: stickers and goatheads, mesquite thorns. Scorpions. Rattlesnakes. You can almost see them. What it would have been to walk here, alongside him, in the place where The Family gave way to our family.
Once, they tell me, our dogs found a three-foot long rattlesnake near our house. My father cut its head off with a shovel, then he took us out to see it. My sister was just learning to crawl and she was as curious then as her own daughter is now. She grasped the body of the dead snake in her hand. I’ve heard the story so many times I’d swear the memory was my own. She took the severed end into her mouth and began to suck.
Photograph by mobili