People Do The Darnedest Things

This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.

Editor’s Note: the author worked for many years as a law enforcement ranger for BLM and has many interesting stories to tell of his encounters with characters he came in contact with as part of his job. His first two stories appeared in the March, 2013 issue of Desert Report. Below are two more of his stories.

The Pushawalla Bandit

Cameron Barrows was the longtime Manager of the Coachella Valley Preserve, and I enjoyed working with him.

One day, Cameron drove with me to the entrance of Pushawalla Canyon, which runs through the Preserve. It is fenced and posted against vehicle travel at both ends of the three-mile long canyon. In between is a beautiful palm oasis, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault, which forces underground water to the surface as a live stream for several hundred yards. Cameron expressed frustration that somebody in a dune buggy was regularly vandalizing this fence, then driving through the canyon.

This trespass almost always occurred during a weekend night with a full moon, and it appeared to be the same individual each time. I told Cameron that I would try to catch this violator, and it became a challenge.

On a few promising nights during the next several months, I set up a surveillance for this unknown individual, who we called the “Pushawalla Bandit”, but he did not appear. Then, early on a Sunday morning, I drove to the upper end of the canyon and noticed that the fence had been run over. There were fresh dune buggy tracks running into and out of the canyon.

It happened that there had been very little traffic on the local dirt roads this early in the morning, and I was able to follow the buggy’s tracks with only a few interruptions. The tracks led through the Indio Hills subdivision, which is a curious mixture of occasional ranch style homes and desert shacks. I passed a side road that a local resident had posted with an official-looking street sign, “ROAD TO RUIN,” Farther on, the tracks entered behind a closed gate into a large compound. I climbed a nearby hill to where I could see inside and observed two dune buggies in the yard next to a ramshackle house and tons of assorted junk.

Road to Ruin Bandit’s residence. Photo: Ed Patrovsky
Road to Ruin Bandit’s residence. Photo: Ed Patrovsky

I researched the owner of the house, a biker named “Mike.” He had a previous conviction for producing methamphetamine, but no active arrest warrants. It happened that the Preserve’s part-time maintenance worker, who repaired the fence after each of the Bandit’s incursions, knew him. I didn’t feel comfortable citing Mike for Vandalism and Entering a Closed Area, because I hadn’t actually seen anybody driving the buggy. Instead, I decided to pay Mike a courtesy call. Accompanied by a Sheriff’s Deputy, I advised Mike that his buggy had been driven in a closed area and the Preserve’s fence had been vandalized.

Mike denied doing this, instead claiming that he had been lending his buggy to some friends. He promised to be more careful in the future. I suggested that he do so, because if this happened again, he would be held responsible. Mike seems to have gotten the message, as the vandalism stopped.

The Caveman Of Morongo Valley

In 1990 I was making a diligent effort to reduce an unacceptable degree of OHV trespass in the Big Morongo Preserve, which is located in the mountains several miles north of Palm Springs.

Among other things, this is Bighorn Sheep habitat, and they can be easily disturbed and scared away from water sources by motor vehicles. With the cooperation of several adjacent landowners, many illegal vehicle entry points were fenced and patrolled, and motor vehicle trespass began to decrease.

I had heard rumors of a “Caveman” living somewhere in the Preserve, and he had supposedly been there for some 20 years.

Somebody told me that he played the organ during Sunday services in one of the local churches. I didn’t take these rumors too seriously, especially since it is very hot in the Preserve during the summer.

One day, I was walking down a ravine in the middle of the Preserve, following a recent motorcycle track. Just above a 20-foot dry waterfall, there was evidence of a vehicle crash, including broken glass from a headlight. A rope had been left dangling over the dry waterfall. I guessed that the rider had used the rope to lower his bike down the ledge, maybe after taking a spill and damaging his bike.

Walking around the ledge, I found the caveman’s lair. The cave’s entrance was covered by a vertical tarp. I looked inside, and saw the occupant had a sleeping area and a small library of religious and language books. In front of the cave was a cooking area with a campfire ring and several pots and pans. There was also a trash dump off to the side.

This location was in a side canyon about ¼ mile West of Big Morongo Canyon. Walking down towards the canyon, I encountered a man in his mid-50s. His appearance was nothing like what I expected of a “Caveman”. He had short hair, was clean-shaven, wore glasses and was wearing decent clothes. He appeared quite sociable, and presented me with an Oregon ID card when I asked him for his identification. “Rene” advised me that he had lived in this cave most of the last 17 years, leaving during summer to do farm work in Oregon. He walked out to Morongo Valley for supplies every week or two. He told me that a motorcycle rider had indeed crashed his bike above the cliff a couple of days previously, and Rene had helped him lower the bike down. The rider walked out, later returning with whatever he needed to repair his bike.

Rene was antagonistic towards the rider because it had led to his “Discovery” by the BLM.

The Cavemn's home. Photo: Ed Patrovsky
The Caveman’s home. Photo: Ed Patrovsky

Long term occupation on BLM land is prohibited, especially in a protected area like the Morongo Preserve. However, aside from his garbage dump, Rene was causing minimal resource damage. I offered him an unofficial deal: he could stay for now, if he would begin to reduce his garbage pile. I suggested that he pack out some of his trash each time he hiked out for supplies. Rene said he would consider what to do, but he was unhappy about his cave being discovered, which would spoil the isolation he had enjoyed for years.

I returned a couple of weeks later, and Rene had abandoned the cave and removed his property. He had left his trash. Later, the Preserve Manager, her boyfriend and I drove as close as we could to the cave and carried out several bags of accumulated garbage.

The Caveman was not heard from again.

Footnote: I later stopped and cited the motorcycle rider referred to in this story, on one of his subsequent rides through the Preserve.

Edward Patrovsky has been a Sierra Club member since 1970, when he worked on the early campaign for the Sheep Mountain Wilderness in the Angeles National Forest. Ed was a National Park Ranger for many years, transferring to the BLM in 1988 where he worked for BLM’s Palm Springs and Ridgecrest offices until his retirement in 2004. He was appointed by the Senate Rules Committee to the California Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission in January 2013.