By Bill Gann
There was something of a right of passage to become known as a “Bickel Boy.” Tom Cody, a Southern Pacific Conductor, ran that gauntlet with the speed of a freight train flying through The Great Central Valley.
The Bickel Boy test was clearly open to both men and women, and took a variety of forms. First, you had to arrive. One way or the other your spirit had to lead you to Bickel Camp. All the signs in Last Chance Canyon, after all, clearly point to Burro Schmidt’s famous tunnel. That’s where most people arrive. It actually takes what seems like a wrong turn up a sandy wash to wind up at Walt’s place.
In the time I spent at Walt Bickel’s, I knew of people arriving a number of ways. Helicopters landed in the wash, hang gliders swooped in from Black Mountain, cowboy tramps clomped in on horseback. A dromedary caravan brought in the famous Camel Lady told about it the Outlaw John story. A fair number of Bickel friends wandered in on foot. The pedestrians ranged from adventurous backpackers to lost souls holding broken car parts and empty gas cans.
Tom Cody, born in Denver in 1943, arrived at Walt’s place in 1966. He was playing the role of a big brother to a sad 12-year-old boy whose father had committed suicide on Christmas Day. He intended to take the boy on a quest for adventure in the Mojave. He and the boy passed Bickel’s cabin and saw a large party going on. They stopped to see what was happening. Cody himself had a turbulent youth. His parents were divorced when he was six and his mother seemed to attract abusive boyfriends. In a scene reminiscent of President Clinton’s life story, Cody tells of being a young boy and confronting a drunken sailor with a butcher knife.
So helping a boy through a confused time was a natural act of understanding for Cody. That was also a good start for becoming an accepted member Bickel’s extended family, many of which, he met that first visit. Tom arrived, being a good guy for a kid whose bad-mannered father had set a poor example. Behavior like Tom’s in that incident always set well with Bickel and friends. What ever came his way wounded or broken, Walt tried to fix as best he could.
Bickel had a farm boy code he lived by that came from his Beloit, Kansas upbringing. He believed, in every situation, a person should try to do the right thing. You ran, or you stood and fought, you shared, or you saved, you cared for the least, or you didn’t suffer fools. He felt common sense helped a person decide which path to take. There was a time to work, rest, laugh or cry. He modeled what he felt was proper behavior for fellow travelers, and looked for good in all of us.
Bickel took in quite a number of lost souls during his years in Last Chance Canyon, and most were decent people at their core. Some drank, used drugs, lied, cheated, and some were wanted by the law. Walt would give sage counsel to those who asked for his advise. He always helped friends rise above their human foibles.
Bickel friends would bring potential husbands and wives to pass family muster. Sometimes it was enough to see how a person reacted to Bickel to know if you had found a good life mate. Tom became one of the many to be married at Bickel Camp. As if he were Solomon, people would come to ask for Walt’s opinion on crucial life decisions. He’d ask key questions, help people separate real problems from foolishness, and then offer clear sound advise.
I know many people who went into Last Chance Canyon with something pushing heavily on their chest, and left with their heart soaring and a clear idea of where they were going. Over the years I saw people go back to school, leave bad spouses, open or close businesses, quit or start, stay or move, win or lose, or decide to live like Bickel in the desert.
The next step towards Bickel friendship was to understand Walt himself. You had to “get it,” and understand what was really going on at Bickel Camp. I saw plenty of good people come to the camp, but the whole Last Chance Canyon thing went right over their head. Many thought Bickel was a hermit, a nut, or a crazy old windbag. Los Angeles Times Writer Charles Hillinger stumbled into camp, met Bickel, and published a story about a prevaricating crackpot. There were many who turned up their noses to the lack of city things, and hence judged Bickel himself as lacking.
Maybe there’s something in the spirit that makes one become a railroad man. There are all those romantic songs, after all, about riding the rails. Tom Cody is a freight train conductor, and perhaps that puts him in the category with dreamer poets. Travelers of a kindred spirit seemed to understand Walt Bickel as clearly a frosty desert morning.
Cody saw in Bickel a man who had figured life out and was living on his own terms. Bickel was eating desert plants and rabbit stew. His 160 acre gold mining claim was basically free land. He was digging gold from the hills to buy tobacco, flour, coffee, and beans. He built the roof over his head, and walked beautiful country as a truly free man. He breathed pure Mojave air in vast, wide-open spaces, and drank water flowing from ancient underground rivers. He asked nothing from men like Tom Cody, gave freely, and lived a long happy life with many close friends.
After he first met Walt, Cody couldn’t stay away from the desert. He showed up every chance he got with ribs to roast over a Creosote wood fire, and a big jar of Valasic Pickles. He eventually adopted Walt as family, and developed the habit of calling him “Grandpa.” He came to love the desert, and everything about it. Under summer blue skies or starry winter nights, Cody and fellow Bickel friends would eat pickles and share interest in everything. They saw strange lights in the night and talked for hours of travel on trains and flying saucers.
A person hanging around Bickel Camp had to love to hear or tell a good story, as the fine art of storytelling was alive and well in Last Chance. There was no electricity or television reception, and they weren’t missed. Tom is full of stories that start out, “One night, we were pushing a mile of boxcars out of Bakersfield, I was back in the caboose with the brakeman, when all of a sudden….” Bickel would ask lots of questions or make comments, and genuinely enjoyed a well-told tale. Cody’s long hours riding the rails made him well suited to pass peaceful desert hours with good friends.
So it was, Tom Cody became a Bickel Boy by passing an easy test. All he had to do was follow the path of his heart, make good friends, love life, and pass time in a place of his predilection. He joined a group of us who, one way or another, did the same. We were not a cult, club, gang, or even a loosely organized group. We are good friends who consider an old desert sage as a departed family member, and Bickel Camp as a place that helps us remember what’s needed to live a long happy life.