This story is about events that happened circa 1982. My recollections of these events have proven somewhat faulty. Since I first wrote this story, a number of people have said they feel the woman I call the Camel Lady was in fact Patty Partin, also known as Nury Alexander. Patricia Lee Partin was a member of mystic guru Carlos Castaneda’s inner circle. To date, it has not been proven that Patty the Camel Lady was Partin who was said to be the Blue Scout featured in Castaneda’s book The Art of Dreaming. That Patty was last seen alive in late April 1998, having disappeared shortly after Castaneda's death on April 27, 1998. Her whereabouts were not known for certain until her remains were discovered in Death Valley National Park in 2003 and positively identified by DNA testing in 2006. The cause of death could not be determined. I’ve now made corrections to bring this story as close to the truth as possible. Originally I prefaced this story with the following statement: “I guess one should state up front that people in this story are likely still out there, far as I know. It seems prudent tell those mentioned here that I never knew your real names. If you want to illuminate history, come forward if you like, and I invite you clarify any facts I have wrong. If it's your wish to remain quietly anonymous, well that's understood. There is no money to be made here so if you don't like what I say, please don't sue or shoot me. Your story, however, is too good not to be told.” I still feel this about the Outlaw John story, and will keep readers posted should more information become available. Click the “Castaneda Connection” button on this page to read about how bleached bones added to the tale.
Outlaw and The Camel Lady
By Bill Gann
It was in the spring of 1982, when my oldest son Billy was only 12, and we decided it was time to visit Walt Bickel. As usual, we had a box of stuff to bring Bickel, magazines, food, wine, and things of interest we had collected for him since our last visit.
In those days I was letting Billy drive when we hit dirt roads, just as I let my 12-year-old son Daniel drive in the desert today. When we got near Bickel's, I took the wheel. We pulled into camp with expectations of a few days hanging with Bickel, working our claim at Mesa Springs, and hiking the canyon.
On arrival, I saw a strange site. There was a young man who had all the obvious signs of having just been released from prison. He wasn't wearing a shirt, had a weight-lifters build, and was covered with tattoos from his waist and wrists to his neck. He had long blond hair, and the general look of an outlaw biker. He was about 25 years old.
"What the hell do you want?" He said, standing defiantly in Bickel's yard. He had what looked like a police 38-special pistol stuffed in the waste of his greasy Levies, and his hand moved to the grip. "I's just looking to see if Walt was here," I said, thinking I needed to go as fast as possible to find the sheriff in town to report that Bickel Camp had been overtaken some sort of biker crowd. "Bickel ain't here right now, so move on out of here," his hand now firmly on the pistol.
"No problem," I said. "Just tell Walt Bill Gann stopped by to say hi." I was backing out of the camp, trying not to look as if I was making a run to the law. My hand had slid to my own pistol under my seat. I backed up and smiled.
"Did you say your name was Bill Gann?" the young man suddenly asked, his hand coming away from his pistol. I hoped nothing bad had already happened to old Bickel.
"Walt told me about you," he said. "Don't you own the cabin at Mesa Springs?"
"Yea, I do, Yea, I do, we're just going to run over for a while, and I'll come back later when Walt is home."
"Wait! Don't go. I've been wanting to talk to you about your cabin." I had no intention of stopping.
About then, a naked lady came running from Bickel's outdoor shower. She stopped in front of my bus, jaybird naked; waved, said, "Excuse me!" giggled, and flashed her bare ass as she ran into the trailer. This caught Billy's attention.
"Don't mind her," the tattooed man said. "By now she's so drunk, she won't remember she didn't have any clothes on." It was about 10 a.m. on a sweet desert morning. "Can't you come on in to the trailer for a little while, and we can talk about your cabin?"
He extended his hand, said his name was John, which was probably an alias. He said Walt was in town and would be home soon. At that moment, I was still alert for whatever trouble the day might bring, but the change in attitude was encouraging.
I stuffed the pistol back under the seat to take the offered hand. Billy, who had no clue to the danger we had driven into, took the moment to hop out of the bus.
"I have good reason for not wanting a lot of strangers around here," he said by way of explaining the rude greeting as he directed me to his trailer.
Inside the trailer, a sort of Hippie habitat had been established. There were candles, bottles of wine, clothes scattered about. Over the years, myself, a number of my good friends had stayed in Walt's trailers. Many memories were connected to the place. I felt more like someone had moved into my space than an invited guest.
The naked lady was sitting cross-legged on the bed. She had an old quilt thrown across her shoulders, and was mostly covered. She had a gallon bottle of wine, half gone, between her legs that provided a little modesty until lifted it to take a drink, corn-liquor style.
"Maybe we should come back at a better time," I said, directing Billy to go out and throw rocks, or pet the cats.
"No, no, I've got some business to talk with you," he said directing me to the trailer's table, where a bag of pot and a pipe was casually sitting. "Don't tell Walt about the weed. I'm interested in fixing up your cabin, so I can live in it. Walt said it would probably be okay, but I had to check with you first. I've been waiting to meet you."
My cabin was the old Harry Owens place out in Mesa Springs. It was a mile hike over open country, and there were two roads leading to it. Those who knew the place went there for water. One of the roads was up a sandy wash that usually required four-wheel drive. The other road had some unexploded dynamite buried in it.
Some local miners had tried to blow massive potholes in the good road to keep weekend people from going in and messing with the water supply. This wasn't a well-laid plan as some of the charges didn't blow. It was a dangerous mess until Walt went in, found the dynamite, exploded it, and cleaned things up.
At that time, the road situation hadn't been resolved and I advised John about it. "Yea, yea, I heard all about that, we're going to go out there and fix that this week," he said, as the woman on the bed mumbled something in slurred speech about getting dressed. She got up, weaved, and crashed back down on the bed out like a light.
"Well, looks like my lady has finished her breakfast," John said offering his pipe. "She came in last month with a camel caravan."
"Camel caravan? You mean real camels? This is the Mojave not the Sahara," I said, waving off the pipe, thinking of Billy playing nearby, and wondering what he was smoking that caused him to see camels. "I don't think there are any camels within 10,000 miles of this place."
"There was a whole bunch of them here last month," John explained. "They camped right here in Bickel's yard. It was a group of archeologists from the University of Riverside, I think. Said they were retracing the route of some camel expedition that had taken place way back when." This was probably related to Fort Tejon or the Mojave Road, but I never got the details.
It turned out the camel expedition leaders wanted to get rid of one of their members. Her drinking problem was so acute, it seemed, that she was holding up progress and creating a number of social problems on the trip. She was said to be the wife of a wealthy Long Beach doctor who had donated a lot of money to the reenactment. It was time for her and the camels to part Company. Bickel and John agreed to take charge of her until someone could give her a ride home. It turned out that she liked John and decided to stay with him to what was a bitter end. There she was, having just finished a half-gallon of wine before the golden morning light faded to afternoon white. I called her Camel Lady but never to her face. John introduced her as Patty. She would play a crucial part in the story about to unfold. At the moment, her bare butt was sticking up in the air like a camel's hump.
"I don't understand why you want to move onto my cabin, there's nothing but a roof and four walls," I said, "Seems to me you're pretty well set up here at Walt's."
I was unable to figure what this biker's real plan was. At first, he tried to make it seem he was just looking for peace and quiet, away from the activity at Bickel Camp. That didn't make sense, as in those days Bickel only had occasional weekend visitors, and during the week the canyon was as a quiet cathedral.
Finally, John did what any outlaw would agree was a most foolish thing. He told me he was on the run from the law. This was not unusual. The desert was full of people hiding from something. By the time John came along, more than one person had passed through Last Chance with a shady past. Usually it was somebody trying to avoid child support or maybe a person wanted for a petty crime. I wasn't even sure I believed him, and he was taking a chance I would turn him in. Though, John didn't actually give me the whole story at this first meeting. Originally I think he said he had a parole violation, and there was no way he was going back to prison.
Eventually, on future trips, he gave me details. Part of me believes he was just talking, trying to make himself seem important, and yet he may have been the real deal.
The gist of the warrant for his arrest turned out to be nasty biker business involving drug deals. John and some fellow outlaw bikers would rob all parties making a drug buy, stealing guns, drugs and money. One of these little parties, evidently, had gone terribly wrong. There was a shooting. It was unclear, but someone may have died, and John was the fellow police wanted. There was a warrant.
Truth is, on that first trip I was still worried about Walt. Usually he was a good judge of character, and these characters were definitely questionable. I wanted to see he was alive and okay before I went any further. It wasn't long, however before Walt came roaring back to camp in his blue 1959 Plymouth Fury, that Walt called "The Flurry." He was alive, well, and chipper as ever.
Relieved that Walt was okay and vouched for John, Billy and I went on a hike with him. Since he didn't put on a shirt, I started to notice his tattoos were about white power and Nazi themes. He said this was how one survived in prison. I found the three-sixes, mark on his left arm particularly disturbing. He, however, was most proud of having "earned my numbers" evidently by killing someone in prison.
It took me some time to get Walt off by himself so I could question him about his new campers. I was helping him feed the cats that evening when I got the story from Walt's point of view. "John, he's a good boy, hard worker too, really helps out around the place. It's that damn woman, I don't hold with her, drunk all the time, John aught ta let that one go, she'll cause him nothing but trouble," Walt said. It turned out he was right about the woman, but not about John.
"I guess he had a little trouble in 'down there' (meaning the Los Angeles area) with the law," Walt added, "but he's done with all that running around, and wants to settle down."
I kept feeling I needed a gong to bang on to get Walt's attention. He seemed to be seeing the world from the last century where boys were boys that would be all right once they were finished sowing wild oats. Shooting drug dealers and shanking inmates was some really wild oats.
On the first hike with John and his Camel Lady we went out to my cabin and then to old cave he had found. Walt had told him the cave was once a bar back in the gold rush days. I had never seen it before and have since read that the Chinese railroad workers used it as an opium den. John was quite a hiker and had already discovered a number of canyon secrets. He was an especially good learner and wanted to know all I knew of the desert plants and their uses.
I had learned about desert plants from Bickel and John Bullock, and had shot slide presentations for some of the botany professors who came out to study desert plants. On future Bickel visits, I developed the habit of showing John the plants I knew and what I understood about them. "This is Chia, you can eat the seeds or pack a jelly made from the seeds around your eyes if they become sunburned," I would hear myself saying as we hiked about the canyon. "These are Creosote Bushes, you can make a tea from the leaves for a cough. It flavors food cooked over it. This is a Joshua Tree, you can eat the flowers."
So it went on our many hikes around Last Chance. John seemed to have a keen memory. I could see dodder growing on a bush and tell the parasitic plant was used by Indians to make a birth control tea, and when we came to the plant again, he could parrot back everything I had told him about it. It got to the point where he was walking about saying, "Mariposa Lilly, you can eat the root, Death Camas, eat the root and you die. Mormon Tea, makes a tea, imagine that." I was beginning to think Walt might have made a good call on John until I showed him Jimson Weed. "Now John," I started out with a sever warning about the dangers of that plant. "Indians made a paste that they put on their eye lids out of the roots of this stuff. It was so powerful that many died or went into a coma. Every part of the plant can get you high, but anyone I know who ever tried it said it was awful."
I made the foolish mistake of adding the only part about using Jimson Weed that it seemed John remembered. "I've read that Kid Carson used to smoke the dead leaves, and this sort of gave a Marijuana-like high." From then on John seemed to have found what he was looking in the desert. He evidently began to gather and dry Jimson Weed leaves with a passion. He would mix these with regular Marijuana, and sell the result as a potent killer smoke.
When I came back for a second visit, the Camel Lady had gone back to Long Beach and had returned with money, credit cards, and her husband's new Jeep. The two were now high desert lowlifes, and seemed to have business with people all over the countryside.
I didn't know about John's Jimson Weed business until took me to meet another character who has a tragic but significant bit part in this story. Charlie lived in railroad car, that again, I had no idea was out there in Last Chance. The old caboose-like car was up in a remote corner of the Gerbacht mining claim. I've always called this guy Railroad Charlie from this one meeting. He was a nervous little guy of about 120 pounds, and stood about 5'4" with curly blond hair. He was so stoned he couldn't talk. Inside his shelter, I saw racks of drying Jimson Weed.