Salty Walt of Bickel Camp or How a Small-scale 1930s Depression Era Miner Became Known as a Desert Philosopher
The following essay was written by Elva Younkin, past Curator of the Maturango Museum located in Ridgecrest Calif. Though written in April of 1989, while Walt was still alive, Elva's writing captures a significant portion of Walt's inquisitive personality, inventiveness, and way of life.
The California mining camp was ephemeral from the beginning. It was built up and improvements were made as it flourished. And then, most times, it decayed inside of ten years as the land took it over again, hiding most of the work men had done. Bickel Camp, in Last Chance Canyon, in Kern County's El Paso Mountains, is a notable exception. Bickel Camp has become almost a legend in its own time.
Walter Bickel, the Renaissance man of Bickel Camp, has spent nearly two-thirds of his life-time in Last Chance Canyon. Central casting would be hard put to come up with a better model of the true-life desert-rat miner; yet this mountain-man / prospector originally came from the flat plains of Kansas.
Bickel was born in Beloit, Kansas, on August 3, 1905. His pioneering spirit, which he had from the very start, came from lessons learned at his grandfather's knee. Certainly he resembles his Grandfather Henry Bickel, with his white hair and his long white beard. Henry Bickel was born on October 10, 1837, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the Union Army in 1862, to serve three years as a private in Company K, 142nd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers. He was discharged in 1863, disabled by a musket ball lodged in his knee. Henry married Catherine Goldman in 1867 and had seven children. The family moved from Pennsylvania to Washington, Kansas in 1878, to homestead.
After Henry's death in 1912, Walt's father, John, bought the old family homestead. Walt grew to young manhood there. The homestead was sold outside the family after Walt's mother died in the 1950's.
Walt has always had a lively interest in things mechanical. When he was still in his teens he showed his inventiveness by using bits and pieces of old cars to build a racecar. It was at this time that Walt built an engine something like a fanjet engine of today. It was powerful enough to blow one side of his father's barn out.
He had several jobs as a young man in Washington, Kansas. His first real job (he was in the 7th grade at the time) was working at the Majestic Movie Theatre where he started out by sewwping and running errands. He moved up to the player piano and finally became projectionist, a position of some prestige. He also did a stint as a watchman. In the summer of 1922, he traveled with a carnival, operating the carousel.
Walt left Kansas for California sometime in 1923. In Los Angeles he worked for a time at Western Pipe and Steel. He worked with demolition the next few years. He became an expert in explosives, a skill that served him in good stead during half a century of mining.
Last Chance Canyon was not the first experience Walt had with mining, but "it was the first place I panned enough gold to think there might be more." He prospected for gold and silver all over the upper Mojave Desert, from Jawbone Canyon to Owens Lake and into Nevada and Arizona. He originally saw the Last Chance Canyon area in 1927 while on the way to Nevada with a friend. It apparently made an impression because, in 1933, when he met a man in Mojave who had a mine in Last Chance Canyon, Walt and a friend had enough interest to go with hime to see his mine.
In the meantime, Walt met and married his wife, Eleanor Rose, in 1928. He was twenty-three and she was fifteen. They quickly started a family and had eight children in about 10 years. These ten years were during hte worst of the Great Depression era. Jobs were scarce, and a man did anything he could to make a living. Walt opened a fix-it machine shop and carved cunning relics of the past in his spare time. His stagecoaches and covered wagons had operable brakes, removable trunks and tools attached to the sides of the wagons. The harness on his horse teams was meticulously cut and authentically rigged down to the last minute detail. Walt had to close his business eventually, and a variety of other short-term jobs followed. His thoughts must have turned often to dreams of desert gold.
Early in 1934 Walt and several partners staked a claim in Last Chance Canyon. From that time on, most of his weekends were spent commuting between the Canyon and Los Angeles. He built his cabin at this time. He and his partners hosted a housewarming on Labor Day for the Canyon residents. Among the prospectors and miners attending were Tom Tait and Harris Lane from Bonanza Gulch, Fogey from the Big 4 Mine in Bobnanza Gulch, the Stoddard brothers from Mesa Spring, Burro Schmidt, the fellows from the Calsico Pumice Mine, Losey from Lee Spring, and Walt's partners, including John Tilford. Della Gerbracht was invited, but declined to come.
On October 8,1942, Walt joined the Army. He was stationed at Fort Hood (then called Camp Hood), Texas, for the duration of his enlistment. He was a member of the 138th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and he wrote a song for his outfit. Walt received a Letter of Commendation, a plaque and a medal for his invention of the barrel handle for the .50 caliber HB12 machine gun, allowing hot barrels to be changed more rapidly and safely than before. He was honorably discharged on March 21, 1944 because of a severe back injury.
After his return to the canyon in 1946, Walt's daily routine for the next forty years started with his preparing his breakfast of mush, bacon, and stron coffee before heading out to dig until sundown. After eating a dinner of stew seasoned with edible herbs and plants found in the canyon, Walt played the harmonica beside a campfire or studied the stars with an old telescope. "There wasn't no loneliness at the camp" Walt recalled. "There's always something to do."
Walt placer-mined his claims, using a dry washer. Because a lot of the gold he collected is what he calls a "fine flour gold", and to make the most of his time and get the most out of his claims, he modified the current model of the miner's dry washer to retrieve up to 97 percent of the fine gold from the dirt. Another of Walt's innovative ideas lead to what he calls his "one-man hole sinker". A small-scale miner / prospector works totally alone most of the time, and this invention allows on person to work from a pit or shaft without having to come up to empty each bucketload of soil. Walt's mining operation is small-scale. The modest tunnels and drifts that dot the landscape are hardly noticed by the visitor. It's obvious that Walt loves the land and considers himself its 'caretaker'. Neat rock walls shore up problem areas that might erode in a flash flood. Walt abhors the large operations that come in and move whole hillsides with their heavy machinery and equipment without a thought given to the living land.
Gold isn't the only thing keeping Walt in Last Chance Canyon. What's kept him here all these years was the finding of friends-kindred spirits-along with the serenity and health. It was here that he defied the doctor's predictions about his back injury with th curing powers of the desert. "Lay in the sun when you want to, eat when you want to, and stay away from the drink...but a little bit never hurts anybody." Walt also gives credit to the use of squaw tea, with sage and miner's lettuce for a cure that enabled him to use a jackhammer within three months of his arrival. Walt is wise to the ways of the desert. He did not come to Last Chance Canyon to conquer the land. Instead, he let the land supply him with what he needed to survive. What must have looked like a life of poverty to many people was never that to Walt. He found life rich and fulfilling. He observed the land, watched the skies, and listened well to the winds. When the rains came he was ready. At one time, Walt had collected hundreds of gallon-sized wine jugs-no he didn't drink all that wine-which he washed and had ready to collect the elusive desert rains. But the water collected in the jugs was an extra heaven-sent luxury. In the early days, most of the water used in Bickel Camp was tediously collected from Mesa Spring, a mile away. One might think with such a shortage of water that Walt would wait for his infrequent trips in town to take a bath. Not so! A little thing like no plumbing didn't stop Walt. A round metal tank high on the hill behind the cabin lets gravity bring solar heated water flowing down to the shower stall Walt built by the side of the cabin.
The bewildering profusion of material and equipment around Walt's cabin was all collected with a definite purpose in mind, though it might be difficult for the white picket-fenced-oriented town folk to understand. As Walt says, "There is no such thing as junk; there is only useful stuff." And many a mining problem has been solved from that 'junk'. When Walt or another miner needed a motor or part, there was always an old lawnmower or washing machine to supply what was needed. And many an unhappy motorist found a friendly helping hand and a plentiful supply of replacement parts when stranded in the isolated canyon. Walt harvested parts from old machinery with the same zest that he gave to harvesting his herbs and the thornberries which he canned along with domesticated fruits and vegetables to stock his larder. Many a visitor has sat down to Walt's table which was graced with food Walt himself canned.
A lifetime of close association with the things and people of the desert, and particularly the environment of this arid land, has had a profpund effect on Walter Bickel. It has colored and formed his habits, education, religious or spiritual beliefs, and his response to life in general. Over the years, Walt has been host to people from all walks of life, and they have learned as much from him as he has from them. Many's the time a class or fourth or fifth graders or a troop of Boy Scouts has come to Bickel Camp to learn about 'Gold' and has gone away with a new appreciation for the frailty of the living desert. Among his 'students' is Orange County junior high school teacher William Gann, 42, who first met the miner in 1968. "We saw him as a patriarch, a third grandfather, who lived in a place where life was cut down to the basics. He cooked beans and bacon, and spareribs were cooked over creosote bush - meals that put spice in our souls that will last a lifetime."
Many an archeologist has been given a helping hand and a friendly home base when working in the area. Now and then a friendly Search and Rescue helocopter pilot crew 'dropped' in for some of Walt's coffee and a little desert philosophy while waiting for information on a search. The advent of automobile air-conditioning, four wheel drive, and paved roads also brought increasing numbers of venturesome city dwellers. Bickel Camp became a favorite place for these visitors to rest their dusty boots and learn some lessons in dry washing, panning, and mining as in the days of old.
Examining Walt's life, it becomes apparent that he sees the significance of things. But he is not just quick and alert in the 'things' of life; he also has the imagination and the vision to see behind and beyond the superficial aspects of objects and ideas. Walt's observations are not objective. This world would be a drab and dreary place without human emotions which color and shape our sense of value. If many of Walt's conclusions are tinged with idealism, he need make no apology for that. The space and solitude of this land of distant horizons are conducive to dreaming. In this environment, where the immediate interest may be the unfolding of a rose-tinged sleepy morning or the efforts of a coyote or kit fox to raid the grub box without detection, the world of men and their affairs seems remote and even unimportant. One can't get away from the affairs of man for long, though. The balance and harmony Walter Bickel forged in his life in the 'outback' of the Mojave Desert have been blasted asunder, blasted with words and papers. Flimsy weapons, one might think, when compared witht he explosives one normally associates with miners of the earth.
For the past two years considerable controversy has surrounded the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) new 'zero tolerance to occupancy' policy for small-scale miners. Many of these miners have lived on their claims for 30 to 50 years and more and feel occupancy is absolutely necessary in order to protect their mining operations and equipment from theft and vandalism. Walt was given notice by the BLM that he would probably have to vacate the cabin he built in 1934, used throughout the 1930's depression-era, and lived in exclusively from 1946 until 1987. The date of 2 September, 1987 was set by the BLM for a 'surface use' inspection to determine if his mining operation was extensive enough to permit caretaker occupancy. A few hours before the time set for the inspection Walt suffered a mild stroke. The stroke in combination with advancing Parkinson's disease led toWalt's being confined to a nursing home. When the BLM inspection determined that Walt's claims did not show enough surface use to warrant his occupancy Walt's many friends were concerned about what the demolition of his camp and cabin would do to his failing health. There was also concern about the historical and cultural values that were about to be destroyed.
After newspaper accounts focused national attention on the BLM's actions, a meeting of interested individuals and organizations was held in March 1989. Among the groups represented were Friends of Walt Bickel, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Maturango Museum. The following quotes are taken from a BLM Memorandum on that meeting. "...Through group discussion, the option of curating Bickel Camp in situ and having the site open for public visitation was decided to be an initial starting point. It was felt by the group that a consortium of individuals and organizations operating under a Cooperative Management Agreement (CMA) might be used to coordinate and guide this effort. It was recognized that there are various factors to be considered and decisions that would have to be made. In order to initiate action on this concept, the "Friends of Walt Bickel" group...offered to take the first steps in forming the consortium and developing operating procedures."
Though the BLM is also offering Walt a life lease with an option to move back to the site, he still fears of never again being able to live in his beloved Last Chance Canyon. To visitors Walt has recalled a dream that has haunted him ever since his troubles with the BLM began. "I'm out prospectin', and I see big pockets of gold in a hole but my arms aren't long enough to reach 'em."
A line from a song written by Walt sums up his committment to his home in the desert better than all the news articles, letters, and bureaucratic paperwork: "Lay me down in the soft sand for I'll be there evermore." Elva Younkin Curator Maturango Museum 4/89
Maturango Museum is located at 100 East Las Flores St., Ridgecrest California 93555 760 375-6900 and also has an onsite display dedicated to Walt.