Above is Walt Bickel at the Thanksgiving Dinner of 1982.
The Teachings of Don Alex
By Bill Gann
There are those who choose a big-screen life and then act it all out at the center of Shakespeare's stage. Alex Apostolides, a real-life Indiana Jones counterpart was such a man. He chose adventure, colorful friends, and to walk with Carlos Castaneda along a path with heart. Castaneda comes to mind because he and Alex were colleagues at UCLA back in the Sixties. The great sorcerer discussed the shamanic world with Alex, long before he published his many mystical books.
One wonders if Castaneda learned a thing or two from Apostolides, and if some of this knowledge later turned up in the guru's mystic writings. As an archeologist, Alex knew Mexico well and worked the ancient Aztec and Maya digs for many years. He was in the archeology department at UCLA when Castaneda was still working on his thesis that was later published as "The Teachings of Don Juan." Some have even implied that Alex was Castaneda's model for his famous Yaqui Indian sorcerer.
"I would tell Carlos that the secret of exploring a shaman's life." Alex recalled on the rare occasion he would discuss his relationship with Castaneda, "was to keep one foot firmly planted in reality. Carlito didn't listen, and often lost his way." Alex certainly never claimed any particular influence on Castaneda. Then, there was much about the wandering Greek I didn't know. I was, after all, a foolish young man in the days Alex lived at Bickel Camp. Perhaps he didn't feel I was worthy of the topic.
There was much Alex didn’t tell me. I didn't know until after Alex died, for example, that his sister Kleo was a writer of some merit, and that she was married to the famous science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Not only did Alex never mention his sister or his noted brother-in-law, he never told me of his own success in science fiction, publishing books with Mark Crafton in the Fifties.
It seems Alex had simply experienced much success, knew a myriad of famous people, and had so many interesting life experiences, he didn’t have time to tell the whole story. That, and there was much of his narrative he didn't want told. In fact, when I first wrote an early version of this bio, he reviewed it and said something like, "Yea, yea, that's good enough," by way of critique. Then he asked that some really good parts be removed. Years ago Alex was also upset with me for publishing the 1972 story about Walt Bickel. To me getting the first story about Walt Bickel in print in California State University’s Daily Titan was a great triumph. Alex felt I had blown the cover of a place that we should keeping a secret.
In the early Seventies, I hiked the desert with Apostolides, and it was indeed like going on a quest for knowledge. Still, my early experiences were nothing at all like desert wandering with a Yaqui Man of Knowledge. I had just returned from the Vietnam War, and was still wide-awake, and fearful. I did learn from Alex to approach the natural world with respect, and absolute assurance of the goodness a seeker might find there. But where do I to start?
There are so many stories about Alex; it's hard to separate fact from legend. For the record, there are those who really believe he was a mystic. He was listed in the staff box of the Los Angeles Free Press as 'Staff Shaman.' He ran the Art Scene page there and also reported for Open City in the Sixties, and was a star among Los Angeles' hip Bohemian crowd. Dr. Derek Lamar of the Quantum Metaphysics Institute told me of meeting Alex at a L.A. nightspot in 1968. Dr. Lamar tells a a highly entertaining story of Alex chain-smoking “cancer-fee” Mexican cigarettes in the Whisky a Go Go. No surgeon general warning on Mexican cigarettes, therefore no cancer.
Betty Reimers, an Apache opera singer and Bickel Camp regular once said of Alex, "That damn Greek is a brujo (wizard), but don't expect him to ever admit it. You know how witches lie." There was a good deal of military experience in Alex’s background but he talked little of this. I know he joined the British Navy at the beginning of World War II. There were battles, explosions, sinking ships, and survival on tropical islands. But the Greek only told me the funny story of how a British officer had to wear a proper beard or be told by his superiors to “Shave off!” This phrase, Alex would snap in a snooty limey accent when my red beard grew scraggly.
There are tales of Alex traipsing around South America; for example, doing a survey designed to map radio 'dead spots.' For who and why he did this was always given a cryptic answer of, "government." He slogged through jungles for three months looking for mysterious zones of silence. He spent most of this time where no radio transmission or reception was possible. This adventure generated great stories of places where compasses go crazy, and plant and animal life has taken strange evolutionary turns. There were even UFO sightings.
About the time I figured I had the real Alex sorted from fable, something would happen to cause me to question such conclusions. For example, I once visited an El Paso, Texas apartment he was living in during the late Seventies. I couldn't help but snoop when I saw an interesting letter on his desk. At the top was the letterhead of an exotic government agency. Alex and his girlfriend Anita were busy packing to go off to Saudi Arabia. He said he was going to Middle East to work for Raytheon, and to set up educational television. My inquisitive scan of the letter implied more interesting associations. I said nothing at the time, but noticed him pack a well-worn 38 snub-nosed police special pistol. He saw my inquisitive look. "Just a tool," he said. "Now, make yourself useful and come up with some incense that will mask the smell of bacon."
I asked him about all this before he died and he said, "Less said, the better for everyone concerned," adding in one of his many voices, "Ve haf ze Patriot Act, and ve know vere you live…." He then asked seriously that I not talk about which government agency had sent him the letter. At his ashes scattering, there were inquiring minds who wanted verification of their own suspicions. I had little to add, as they do know where I live.
Apostolides was born in San Francisco, 29 November 1923. "Jesus that's a long damn time ago," said Alex, when I asked his age a few years ago. His father was a doctor and mother had great sway in his life. In 1998, the last time I visited the stone water tank where he lived with his wife Patti, I was showing more age than he. Maybe in finding a good woman and water-tank house, one also finds a youthful fountain. "Damn, what happened to you?" he said of my aging, as wife Elisabeth, and children Daniel and Analissa and I entered the stone water tank called The Roundhouse. "A few short years and you become Burl Ives." You know how those damn Wizards lie; I'd hardly aged a bit.
Alex and Patti made their living the last 20 years writing and telling stories of the Old West on a Texas radio program called The Edge of Texas. I tried to talk him into putting what are now over a thousand of these wonderful tales into digital for the Internet. The truth is, it was damn near impossible to get the ornery cuss to even use E-mail. He saw E-mail as too public, calling it a version of the old telephone party -line where "ten thousand idiots are listening in on what ought to be a private conversation. I say to hell with it."
Use E-mail, and you can talk to his wife Patti. But if you wanted to talk to Alex, you had to send a letter by snail mail and wait for a response. When Alex got a letter, he immediately sat down and typed out an answer, and his letters were well worth the wait. I once got a letter back with him cussing his damn computer. At the time he had only been using a PC four years, but was missing his old Olympia typewriter that had no damn on-off switch, "just hit the g--dam keys and the words came out on the paper the way you wanted them to! F--- the 21st Century!" So taking all his highly entertaining stories over to the Internet will have to rest in the hands of others, but it must be done.
I guess I can best explain Alex, then, by looking back to the last century. Well actually, Bickel Camp people, in our hearts were living back farther still, in the 19th century. Nonetheless, It's around 1974, the time I'm thinking about. We are roaring off into the world in a 1959 Volkswagen bus. We've just pulled out of Last Chance Canyon and have hit the paved Highway 14 about 35 miles north of the town of Mojave. We turn north into rolling desert hills in spring bloom. To the west, frosted mountains cut into a cartoon blue sky.
On board the old bus are several good souls who have come to visit Walt Bickel. We are on a day outing looking for adventure and Apostolides is leading the charge. In those days Alex is living in one of Walt's trailers with his girlfriend Anita. Back then, it seems he's always just in from some great adventure or about to set off on another. He's either off working an archeology site deep in Mexico's Mayan or Aztec country, or he's on his way to a photo shoot for National Geographic or Arizona Highways. He went off once to ghost write a book for some rich Mexican on his private island. He came back another time from hiking with author Gary Jennings in the Superstition Mountains. He would tell of spending two months talking Aztecs with Jennings while he researched his epic novel, "Aztec."
So that day, it's good to have Alex in company. The bus will only reach a speed of about 40 miles per hour. While this is a good speed to see the lay of the land, we attract the attention of a Highway Patrolman who pulls us over to check things out. My first wife Diane holds our sleepy four-year old son Billy in her lap, no seatbelts required back then. The cop looks in the back and sees Alex, Anita, and friends Mike Palin and Eric Standring. Alex tells the officer he's an archeologist, and that he's doing some work on local Native American sites. He mentions the names of a few local people; the officer seems satisfied that adults are in charge. I think this is where George Lucas got the Star Wars line, “These aren’t the droids you are looking for.” We're good to go.
Working local surveys around Owens Lake and Bishop, in fact, was how Alex came to meet Walt Bickel. He had graduated from New Mexico's Hiler School of Art, and did graduate work in archeology at UCLA, where he taught field techniques. He was working the El Paso Mountains, and eventually stumbled upon Last Chance Canyon in 1958. That started a lifetime of visiting Bickel Camp.
First stop on our trip that day is Fossil Falls where we park on the banks of a dry lake. Back then, hiking for me is an extension of my Navy training. I'm all about covering lots of ground quickly. I start off with my head down, ready to plow through a few miles of desert, when I notice Alex doing what looks like tai chi movements. He moves in slow motion, eyes scouring every inch of the ground around and ahead. He sets each foot down carefully and steps around rocks and bushes like a reverent cat. I start to ask him what he's doing, but then he says, "Ah, here they are," as if he's discovered something.
I see nothing and want to know what he's found. He points out faint rectangular building-sized shapes in the sand. "These were probably railroad workers' cabins. See their cook fire was over here." There was a dark spot in the sand with a few rocks almost in a circle. Alex sees a 100-year-old workers' encampment where anyone else would see only sand. Nothing was still standing, and not a can or bottle was above the surface.
He keeps pointing out subtle signs and suggestions of what might have been. "This must have been a stock pen," he said as if there was a historical plaque for all to read. "This cabin must have been for the Chinese workers, see how it's off from the others, and near the animals. I'll bet you could find some opium bottles if you dug around here."
Alex at Bickel Camp.
So I discovered a whole new way of seeing the desert. Where there had only been rocks and bushes, a new reality comes into focus. We hike on and I assume the slow motion gait. My internal clock ticks to a powerful ancient rhythm; this does wonders for my photography. Snakes, lizards, tortoises and birds study me from the shadows, and don't show their usual alarm. I move as soft desert wind, and see things I've never seen before. Lichen grows in whimsical patterns, and paints the rocks in day-glow colors. Sand Matt flowers peek up like innocent little eyes.
Alex shown here at a typical Thanksgiving dinner at Bickel Camp.
The button above that says Edge of Texas takes you to
KTEP the Texas radio station that has hosted Alex and
Patti's story-telling program for over 20 years. Stories
can be heard from this site, but an index of all of Alex
and Patti's stories will hopefully one day be part of this
The Button that says DR. DEREK LAMAR takes you to a
site where writer Lamar talks about science fiction writer
Chris Bunch reminiscing those wild and crazy days when
they all worked together at an alternative newspaper in
the late 60's . Also, a search of Alex Apostolides in
Google, leads to interesting references to Alex's 1953
science fiction stories. Enjoy.
|©Bill Gann Copyright.|