John Samuleson was a Swedish immigrant, a miner, a homesteader, a murderer and the inspiration of a totally over the top fantasy story. Also, and the reason I am writing about him, he built one of the oldest surviving art environments in this country.
Before Twitter and Facebook, if you had something to say you had to chisel it into giant boulders located in the far reaches of the desert where only a small handful of people would ever see them. Starting in 1927, while working at a gold mine and homesteading in a desolate area of the Mojave Desert, Samuelson started scrawling his thoughts into the giant boulders next to his camp site. During the midst of the depression he was chiseling his feelings about morality, religion and the major capitalists of the era, like Andrew Mellon, into hard stone. He was admittedly embarrassed about his poor grammar and spelling skills, but this was decades before thousands of strangers on the internet could mock him in the comments section.
But the question is – how did Samuelson, a sailor and Swedish immigrant, end up in the California desert digging for gold anyways?
The answer may surprise you. For you see, he had the “sleeping sickness”, that would come on any time it rained, knocking him out for days on end. So he figured since it rains less frequently in the desert he should make his way west.
OK, but how did he get this sleeping sickness?
Well after being shanghaied out to sea, he escaped his captors and ended up on the shores of Africa, where he was captured by a tribe that spoke to monkeys and even had a bona fide monkey-man among its members. From here the story gets crazier and includes a ledge made of gold that was guarded by intelligent killer ants. To make a long story short, Samuelson was able to gain the ant’s trust, and was about to pilfer lots of gold as well as the tribe chief’s daughter. But after some trials and tribulations and pissing off the elders, he was forced to eat the “bread of forgetting” – which did not fully erase the jungle escapades from his memory, but was the cause of his sleeping sickness whenever it rained.
Now how do I know this? Well because an L.A. based lawyer and avid desert comber purchased the rights to his story for $20 (the part with the monkey man/ killer ants/ bread of forgetting), turned it into a so so pulp adventure and sold it to Argosy magazine, a major pulp fiction magazine, for a few hundred bucks. And that author was Erle Stanley Gardner, friend of crossword editors all over the land, who would go on to write the crazy popular Perry Mason books, which were turned into the hit show starring Raymond Burr about a crusading lawyer who would take complex cases and solve crimes in the middle of a trial.
Gardner met Samuelson while he was on one of his desert jaunts in the Mojave. At first Gardner didn’t believe Samuelson’s fakakta story and feared that it was something Samuelson had himself read in some paltry adventure rag. After the story was published he figured that the sci-fi geeks of the 1920s would read his story and call him on it, pointing out that he ripped off some other story. But nope, Samuelson’s story was never contradicted.
Decades later in the 1940s, after Gardner struck it filthy rich from his Perry Mason books, Samuelson murdered a man in Compton after an argument. He then went straight outta Compton and straight into the hoosegow. After a spell in prison and an insane asylum he ended up in Washington state where he died in 1954 at a lumber camp.
While maybe not the most thrilling site artistically, it is just a bunch of rocks with one man’s ramblings etched into them, it is historically interesting as it is a great look into the mind of a desert vagabond and the populist political spectrum of the 1920s. It is also a blast finding them. More than almost every other place I meander on about, it gives you the feeling of discovery, that Indiana Jones aha moment (if all Indy had to deal with was a one mile hike over flat ground in a beautifully preserved and protected National Park). It should be pretty obvious by now that I don’t go out into nature much.
For more information on Samuelson’s Rocks I highly recommend this blog post by Phil Pasquini.
Also, I really enjoyed Erle Stanley Gardener’s desert writings and his Perry Mason books are quick fun reads. You can pick up used copies of his travel essays, including the one about Samuelson, in the book Neighborhood Frontiers. The short story that Samuelson’s story inspired, Rain Magic, can be found in several compilations. I found a really cheap copy of it in Alien Earth and Other Stories, which includes stories by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.
How to visit:
Samuelson’s Rocks are located inside Joshua Tree National Park. The park is always open. Admission is currently $20 for the whole carload, so pack ’em in, clowns. The park is about two hours east of Los Angeles, two and a half hours northeast of San Diego and 45 minutes north of Palm Springs.
Odds are pretty amazingly high that you won’t just stumble upon the Rocks, the park is huge. Directions provided at your risk. They are sort of tricky to find as there are no signs pointing the way.
The short version directions: drive into the park for a bit , keep your eye out for a Joshua Tree standing next to a handful of small rock outcroppings and a lot of sand and dirt and then get out of your car and wander into the desert. Fun fact – According to the park’s website, Joshua Tree is home to 25 varieties of snakes.
If you plan to visit please be careful, the desert heat can often get well over 100 degrees. Getting lost or being unprepared could mean injury or death! Bring lots and lots of water, maybe bring a GPS. Check out Joshua Tree’s website for other safety considerations.
Here is the slightly more comprehensive version: If you want the shortest possible hike, from the northwest entrance gate, you drive almost exactly 3.5 miles down Park Boulevard from the entrance gate where you pay. Set your odometer (The GPS coordinates for the pull off are 34.06116, -116.22692). Pull off to the side of the road. Look to your right, you will roughly see a giant pile of rocks over a mile southwest of where you are standing. The good thing about pulling off over here is that there is a slight trail towards Samuelson’s Rocks that you can follow.
From here you start hoofing it over pretty flat ground for about 1.3 miles. The slight trail will take you half way to a wash, here the trail veers off, but you will be able to clearly see a giant mound of rocks about 3/4 mile further to the southwest. Once you get close you will see writing chiseled into one of the larger rocks. The GPS coordinates for Samuelson’s Rocks are 34.04722, -116.2425. If you hit the mountains you have gone too far. For a slightly longer walk you can drive to the Quail Springs Picnic Area, which is an official turnout about six miles from the west entrance gate, from here you wander about 2.5 miles northwest. I have included a map at the bottom of this post.
Once you find the mound, the journey is not over as there are eight chiseled rocks to find, most are easy, but a few are trickier to find, they are all on the same little rocky hill. Finding them all is part of the fun. I have intentionally only put up a few photos of the rocks so you can discover them for yourself.
In the Area:
Well for one thing you are smack dab in an absolutely amazing National Park. You might as well explore/ hike/ rock climb/ fight mountain lions/ picnic.
There is a ton of great stuff to see outside of the park in Joshua Tree (the town) and Yucca Valley.
There are the other art environments I previously talked about on the California Desert Art Environment Trail. The closest being Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Museum, which is in the town of Joshua Tree, about 10 miles from the park entrance. Contact the foundation that cares for the environment here, they will gladly email you the address.
Also, Desert Christ Park, in the town of Yucca Valley, is only about 11 miles from the Park entrance.
From Desert Christ Park drive about 5 miles further west into the mountains where you will find Pioneertown; a small town front that was actually built to be a backdrop in old westerns movies. The western facade hides an actual real working town. During the day there are small quaint shops. But at night the only thing really going is Pappy and Harriett’s. It’s a large, really popular roadhouse, that has live music throughout the week and pretty decent food. It is amazing for people watching – you get bikers (Harley not Schwinn), hippies, desert outcasts, L.A. hipsters and confused tourists. For such an odd, large out of the way place it does get really packed, so call ahead for reservations.
The Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, 29 Palms area is pretty strange and remarkable place. Luckily for us there is the High Desert Test Sites, a very cool group of desert artists who have mapped a lot of the weird and strange places, stores (including an amazing weekend swap meet). If you are going to be in the area I recommend checking out their website for other points of interest.
I really am just scratching the surface of the interesting things to see in this area but I fear this post is already getting too long. Hopefully, in another post I will mention the Integratron and Giant Rock, in nearby Landers, CA.
Go get yourself new hiking boots!
Map to Samuelson’s Rocks
California environment map