His Home Evermore
“Lay me down in the soft sand, for I’ll be there evermore….” These words are part of a song that was written by Walter Bickel, who lived in the Mojave Desert for over fifty years. Bickel was a prospector who made his home in Last Chance Canyon, which is located in California’s El Paso Mountain range.
The canyon is a sandy area that is surrounded by walls composed of both sedimentary and volcanic rock. Summertime temperatures can top 100 degrees and winters can be 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, one can see the spiral arm of the Milky Way.
Bickel, a Kansas native, was born in 1905. At an early age, it was apparent that he was mechanically inclined. For example, he built a race car from the parts of several junked vehicles while still a teenager. The young Walt Bickel also built a rudimentary ducted fan aircraft engine. Although the engine apparently never found its way into an airplane, it produced 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, initially finding employment with a pipe company. Over the next several years, he worked in demolitions, becoming an explosives expert in the process.
Bickel 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.
Although he dreamed of desert gold, Bickel had to find a way to feed his wife and children. 1934 found the country in the middle of the Great Depression. At the time, 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 received 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 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.
Walt 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 and lived roughly 30 miles from the nearest grocery store. When a piece of equipment broke down, Bickel could not simply drive into town to buy the part he needed. Accordingly, he never discarded broken equipment. Broken, worn out machinery provided Bickel with a huge inventory of spare parts. His work shed contains 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 1980’s 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 though, 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 in order 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 necessitated Bickel’s moving to a nursing home. The possibility of losing his home probably contributed to his declining health. On top of all this, the BLM 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.
As a result of the BLM’s decision, Bickel’s friends and other interested parties mobilized and met with BLM officials in March of 1989. As a result of the meeting, 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 failing health and another caretaker is living there full time. Bickel Camp is considered to be a museum exhibit and visitors can 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 full of small engine parts and tools is more than a treasure. They are artifacts which tell the story of one man’s ingenuity and self reliance.
If anyone is interested, please check out my blog: www.elpasomountains.blogspot.com