By Bill Gann
Mark Aslin has returned to Last Chance Canyon bringing a paranormal understanding we had all forgotten.
Indeed, after Walt Bickel left the canyon there was always something missing, and it wasn't just the old desert sage. Bickel Camp without Walt had become empty and eerie. A cruel barrenness fell over the camp for many years. Aslin, the camp's new caretaker brings a life thread from deep in the canyon past.
In the days when Old Bickel held court from the cabin table, something of a magic spirit dwelled with him there. Through Bickel, ghosts spoke in ageless rock messages as he took visitors on artifact tours of his Native American tool and rock collection. Hot wind spoke softly, as Bickel patiently explained to city folk how Indians made life from sharp obsidian or worn grinding stones. During long quiet times when no visitors came, I remember a peaceful phantom that seemed to curl like one of Bickel's lazy contented cats around the old miner's cabin.
Strange, but recently I felt a familiar welcoming peace the moment my foot fell in the old miner's sphere. I had parked in front of the camper at Bickel Camp where Aslin now hangs his tattered and sweat stained hat. A 100-degree day was slowly giving way to purple skies, creosote scented breeze whisked about my face. Something seemed right about the camp, perhaps this was nothing more than a subconscious feeling that says, "someone is home here, and you are most welcome." Aslin, you see, has clearly come home, and I was indeed well received.
"I've been waiting for you," Aslin said, using the same greeting Bickel always used when I visited in the old days. "What took you so long?" Aslin was sitting in the shade of his camper watching the last light play across the canyon hills, as he puffed contentedly on a cigarette. His black sand tailings were in a bucket waiting for him to pan out the gold.
Before cell phones, E-mail, and the Internet, friends came as quiet intruders into each other's thoughts. It's a lost power we once took for granted. This is how I always knew when my highways would lead me to the desert. A song, a fragrance, or a longing look on a stranger's face might put me in mind of old friends and there I'd go. I suppose this forgotten enchantment is how Walt knew to wait for me. Now it seems Mark knows when to look down the canyon for my dust.
When I had last seen Aslin he was a young man still in his teens and just out of high school. In those days, having just come back from the Navy and Vietnam, I saw myself as a grown man and him as a mere lad. But now with both our beards gone gray any age difference is only to his advantage. Aslin told me later that he was born in Santa Monica General Hospital at 4:07 a.m. on January 14, 1952 making him six years my junior. "I was not being polite to my mother," he said of his early-morning arrival to this life.
A few weeks of turning dirt with a pick and shovel for gold have in fact returned him to his high school weight of 165 pounds. After two heart attacks while living in the city, the desert air and exercise have given him back his health. In fact his gray beard almost seems a theatrical prop added to his boyish face as he takes in his world through blue-sky eyes.
Aslin was anxious for me to explore the camp to see all the cleanup and organization accomplished about the place. The work done by claim owner Charlie Hattendorf, volunteers, and Aslin was indeed impressive. His blond hair caught the sun and gave him a surfer look as he bounced about the camp explaining the displays. I thought of Bickel as we walked about, I could almost see the old miner again taking visitors around his yard showing off rocks and mining rust.
Aslin says he can find gold and a good spot to dig for it with his homemade copper dowsing rods. This, he was anxious to demonstrate. He explained that one's ability to dowse could actually be measured using an Ohmmeter. Mark remembered that Walt measured dowsing skill in a similar way except he measured in micro amps.
Bickel had indeed made what he called a "Water-Witching Box" where one hung onto two brass doorknobs and watched a needle register (or not in my case) on some sort of meter. I had forgotten the box because I had never put much stock in such things, but Aslin wanted to show how measuring Ohms was a great improvement on Bickel's magic box.
Holding the probes of the Ohmmeter, I could only show one Ohm of resistance. Aslin smiled as he picked up the probes. The meter immediately registered 107 units of mojo. "You see, I can dowse anything," Aslin said as the needle did voodoo vibrations. "I just have to keep a clear picture of what I want in my mind, and my body does the rest."
This took our discussion to another of Bickel's inventions, his Unidentified Flying Object Detector. Aslin said he could set off Bickel's detector simply by passing his hand over the contraption.
Frankly, I've never mentioned Bickel's UFO detector on these pages because I thought this was one of those things best left unsaid. Living in the wilderness with all those cats caused many people to judge the old miner as a few gold flakes short of an ounce, and I didn't want to add to that myth.
Aslin, however, explained the UFO detector in serious detail, and even drew a schematic. He showed that a sowing needle suspended from thin copper wire would naturally orient itself to magnetic north. A buzzer connected to an open circuit and battery would sound if the needle moved off north, hit a nail and closed the circuit. The assumption was, I suppose, that UFOs (or Aslin's cosmic vibrations) could move the needle.
Aslin told of one night when he and John Bullock visited Bickel for a Yahtzee game. Mark would often set off the detector as a joke, so when the buzzer sounded everyone looked to him as the culprit. Across the room, Mark raised his hands in protest. The three men went outside and beheld an awesome sight. In the eastern sky hovering over the nearest hill was an enormous dark object.
"It was shaped more or less like an inflated life raft," Aslin recalled. "The sky was crystal clear and it was a brilliant, star-studded night." Aslin pointed out that desert living had made them accustomed to ambient stillness, but the silence they encountered that night was like being deaf.
"Then the shape moved over the cabin slowly," he said. Everything became unearthly hushed. "You couldn't hear animals, insects or even the wind. It became frighteningly quiet in a desert known for silence." The object moved on slowly and disappeared in the west. The men went back inside to finish the Yahtzee game.
Aslin's history in El Paso Mountains goes back to the days when Della Gerbracht, known much to her chagrin as "Della the Queen of the El Pasos," lived out her life at her father's gold camp. Gerbracht Camp established in 1905 by Della's father Fred was where Aslin lived with the colorful John Bullock when I first met him in the early Seventies. As a child Aslin's family visited the canyon, staying with Della. Mark grew up visiting Bickel and as a toddler even met Burro Schmidt. "I have a vague recollection of Schmidt as a very old and stooped over man," Aslin remembered.
Mark's family and the Gerbrachts had been friends for generations. In the early Thirties, back in Ames, Iowa where they all came from, Mark's grandmother Viola was going to marry Della's brother Joe. Joe was killed in a car accident but the families stayed together and eventually moved to California. Mark's parents and extended family all took jobs at the Long Beach shipyards.
John Bullock was part of this crowd and Aslin said he grew up around people who were into the Beatnik lifestyle of creating literature accompanied by heavy drinking. Bullock had been married, divorced and paid child support for two daughters. Aslin said Bullock lived with the Aslin family from time to time and told stories of hanging out with a group of Los Angeles area science fiction writers.
Aslin grew up hearing Bullock tell stories about adventures with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Willie Lay, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, and L. Ron Hubbard. Aslin remembered Bullock telling of a dinner party at Clarke's house. It was at this party that Hubbard was said to have presented his idea of Dianetics.
"According to John," Aslin recalled, " Hubbard never meant to start the Scientology religion, he was just looking for a way to help people learn how to think." None the less, Hubbard's ideas also manifested in Herbert's books. Aslin feels the Bene Gesserit witches of "Dune" represent the epitome of the mental discipline Hubbard envisioned.
It's ironic to point out that Alex Apostolides, a science fiction writer in his own right, was also part of this Los Angeles' early writing scene. Apostolides was friends with many of Bullock's eclectic group of writers, Bullock and Apostolides, however, didn't know each other until they both moved to Last Chance Canyon.
Aslin pointed out that Bullock also talked quite seriously about reincarnation and openly claimed to be over 800 years old, and saw young Aslin as his apprentice. Bullock, who had been trained as a machinist in the Army, believed young Mark had mechanical genus and paranormal powers. So when Della Gerbracht died and Mark had finished high school, he and Bullock moved to Last Chance Canyon to Gerbracht Camp. It was shortly after this that I first met Mark and John, and began paying visits to their camp.
Gerbracht Camp, which Aslin pointed out I have incorrectly called Bent Nail Camp, was without a doubt the nicest spot in the canyon. The cinder block cabin sat on a high hill overlooking Last Chance and was oriented to have a spectacular view of Black Mountain. The two miners had a power generator and their shops and outbuildings were a joy to behold. All was clean and orderly and I always felt the two men could build almost anything on their desert mountain. How foolish it was that the Bureau of Land Management destroyed that lovely piece of American history.
Finally, with all this talk of reincarnation and paranormal powers, it seems prudent to address the skeptics. First, I only report what I've seen and heard and let the readers decide what to reject or believe.
This said, it also seem prudent to again recall here the night Apostolides had some slides from one of his National Geographic trips he wanted to share. We all planned to visit Gerbracht camp's power generator with his slide projector, and had all crammed into my old VW bus. A girl in the back said, "These old miners are all crazy, I can't wait to go home." That young lady left the canyon, never came back, and wasn't missed. Yet I feel her closed mind caused her to miss a great deal of wonder.
Another lady in my bus that night, a redheaded beauty named Jenny who I had just met, spoke up in defense of Last Chance Canyon dwellers. She seemed star struck by her experiences that weekend, and said the local folk were some of the "most sane people she had ever met." As is now well documented, Jenny met Bullock, fell in love, married the man 50 years her senior, and gave birth to their daughter Amber in the Gerbracht cabin.
This series of events also caused Mark Aslin to move out of the desert and he became a traveler far from home for many years. Now events have conspired to bring a desert rat back to his place of predilection. Those who go to the El Paso Mountains will find him where the night sky is his television and news of old friends is his information highway. Those who seek such things might also encounter the unexplained phenomena one only finds far from paved roads and city lights.