Last Chance Canyon - Mojave Desert
by Scott Schwartz
“Lay me down in the soft sand, for I’ll be there evermore.”
Those words are part of a song written by Walter Bickel, who lived in the Mojave Desert for over 50 years. He was a prospector who made his home in Last Chance Canyon, located in California’s El Paso Mountain range, not far south of the community of Ridgecrest.
The canyon is a rough sandy area bounded by walls composed of both sedimentary and volcanic rock. Summertime temperatures can top 100 degrees. Winters can fall to freezing. Yet, the area’s ruggedness is matched by its beauty. At mid-morning, sunlight bathes the rocks in a warm, orange glow. On clear nights, you can see the starlit wash of the Milky Way.
Bickel, a Kansas native, was born in 1905. While he was a youngster, it became apparent that he was mechanically inclined. He built a racecar from the parts of several junked vehicles. He built a rudimentary ducted-fan aircraft engine. Although the engine apparently never found its way into an airplane, it did produce enough thrust to blow out the wall in his father’s barn!
Perhaps intrigued by the exciting opportunities out West, Bickel moved to California in 1923, while he was still a teenager, initially finding employment with a pipe company. Over the next several years, he worked in demolitions, becoming an explosives expert in the process.
He visited Last Chance Canyon for the first time in 1927, while en route to Nevada. He apparently thought the area was worth a second look because he returned in 1933 at the invitation of a Mojave man who had a mine in Last Chance Canyon. Figuring that there was plenty of gold to be had, Bickel filed his own claim in 1934 and built a small cabin. The cozy little cabin stands to this day, a monument to the man and the time.
Although he dreamed of desert gold, Bickel had to find a way to feed his wife and children. In 1934, with the country in the middle of the Great Depression, Bickel owned a machine shop in Los Angeles, but this business, like many others, succumbed to the country’s economic woes. Bickel then worked a series of temporary jobs and commuted to Last Chance Canyon on weekends. He managed to make his living in this fashion, until he joined the Army in 1942.
Walt Bickel was never sent into combat, but he did receive a medal for inventing a tool that enabled soldiers to rapidly change hot machine gun barrels during combat. Discharged due to a back injury, Bickel returned to Last Chance Canyon in 1946.
Now, living in the canyon full time, Bickel spent each day working his mine until dark. He would then have dinner, which usually included local herbs that he had picked himself. During the evening, Bickel would sit by the fire and play his harmonica. He also passed the time by looking at the stars through his telescope.
Bickel built a life in Last Chance Canyon without many of the creature comforts we take for granted today. He did not have an air-conditioned sport utility vehicle. He lived roughly 30 miles from the nearest grocery store. When a piece of equipment broke down, Bickel could not easily drive into town to buy the part he needed. He never discarded broken equipment. Broken, worn-out machinery provided Bickel with a huge inventory of spare parts. His work shed contained components from dozens of small engines, which powered his dry wash sifting machines. In addition, many a stranded motorist benefited from Bickel’s stock of spare parts. Bickel’s resourcefulness also paid off when it came to life’s necessities. He collected water from the infrequent rains and stored it in wine jugs for later use. A water tank placed on a hilltop provided him with gravity-fed, solar-heated water for his shower stall.
Besides practical assistance, Bickel treated visitors to his home-cooked meals and stories of desert lore. He taught many city people how to pan for gold, and in so doing, provided a whole generation with a glimpse of a bygone era.
The late 1980s found the long arm of government bureaucracy reaching into Last Chance Canyon. As part of a plan to keep “squatters” from living in cabins on public land, the U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) banned prospectors from living on small-scale claim sites. The problem, however, was that many “small scale” miners had been living on the land for decades and felt that they needed to live there in order to protect their equipment. Nevertheless, the BLM chose September 2, 1987, to conduct an inspection of Bickel’s camp to determine whether his operation was large enough to warrant his living on the site. Sadly, Bickel suffered a stroke only hours before the inspection was to take place. The stroke, in combination with advancing Parkinson’s disease, forced him to move to a nursing home. The possibility of losing his mining camp probably contributed to his declining health. On top of all this, the BLM subsequently determined that Bickel’s operation was too small to justify caretaker residency. This meant the possible demolition of the cabin as well as the removal of most of Bickel’s equipment. A cultural treasure would have been lost forever.
However, Bickel’s friends and other interested parties intervened. They met with BLM officials in March of 1989. As a result, the BLM agreed to consider leaving the site as it was, open it to public visitors (as a museum), and permit a “curator” to live on the premises.
Walt Bickel lived to see his camp saved. He died in 1996, leaving his son-in-law, Larry O’Neil, as caretaker of the site. O’Neil was also Bickel’s partner and spent many an hour explaining the intricacies of mining and desert life to visitors. This writer was one of them.
O’Neil has since moved off the site due to his own failing health, and another caretaker is living there full time. Bickel Camp is considered to be a museum exhibit and visitors can now view the site, which is pretty much the way Bickel left it.
It’s been said that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Walt Bickel’s work shed, which is full of small engine parts and tools, is more than a treasure. The tools and parts are artifacts which tell the story of one man’s ingenuity and self-reliance.
Bickel’s camp is accessible from either Harts Road, from Route 14, or from the Mesquite Canyon Road, off Garlock Road. Trail EP 15/26 leads to the site. A four-wheel drive vehicle with high ground clearance is recommended. Much of the off-highway route is sandy, and there are some steep, rocky inclines. In addition, there are rattlesnakes in the area, so visitors should always watch where they step. Other hazards include numerous open mine shafts and flash floods. It is an area that you should visit with caution.
Note: The camp is still there to be visited by the desert traveler. There is a caretaker on site to help explain and protect the remaining historic artifacts. The site has seen its fair share of vandalism, but fortunately has not suffered the same fate as Burro Schmidt's cabin, which has been plundered and stripped bare; it has had no caretaker since May of 2004. You are invited to visit this site, and see how an enterprising individual named Walt Bickel lived with nature. The patient visitor at Walt's sees much of our history in a unique setting; mixing the timeliness of geology and nature with one individual's creative implementation of technology. Hopefully we can help sustain Walt's legacy for our children to enjoy too. Follow this link for a map to the site, travel suggestions, and road condition information before venturing to the camp.
For additional information, contact:
Bureau of Land Management
Ridgecrest Field Office
300 S. Richmond Rd.
Ridgecrest, California 93555
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