Bleak, stripped, burned-out shells of rock-walled buildings present skeletal remains of the desert ghost town of Dunmovin, California, on the west side of Highway 395, between Little Lake and Olancha, in the shadows of Mountain Whitney and the Sierra Nevada.
Campers and skiers rush past this forlorn scene as they head toward the livelier destinations of Lone Pine, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. But this was once home to a village of desert dwellers, whose owners, Ruth and Les Cooper, were the desert angels of Dunmovin.
In 2011, after my first book on desert spirituality, The Spirit in the Desert: Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley, appeared in local bookstores, I received a surprising phone call from Ruth Cooper, the owner of Dunmovin. She had read a chapter in my book on Dunmovin and the brief religious community established there by Father Enrico Molnar.
As she shared some of her personal story with me from her new home in Ridgecrest, California, my imagination began to place muscle, sinew and skin over the dry, dead bones of old Dunmovin.
I recalled Ezekiel’s Vision of Dry Bones:
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.
With a slight Southern accent, Ruth began to reveal the story of Dunmovin. As she spoke, I could feel the animated energy in her voice as she reimagined her town once again alive and thriving.
In the early 1900s, the place was known as Cowan Station, named after pioneer James Cowan. It served as a freight station for the silver ingots being transported from Cerro Gordo, high in the Inyo Mountains, to Los Angeles. Water was piped in from Talus Canyon. In 1936, Charles and Hilda King bought the property and changed the name to Dunmovin. There was a post office here from 1938-1941. Ruth and her husband bought the town in 1961.
There would be several more telephone conversations with Ruth. Each time I could sense that she was reviving her memories of Dunmovin and her beloved husband Les.
Les grew up on a South Dakota cattle ranch, played football at the University of Minnesota, studying mining. He went on to be a professional boxer, hunter, storyteller and a Hollywood stuntman in western film, including the classic film, Stagecoach, and Gunsmoke. When he broke his back, he became an attorney in 1943.
Ruth and Les married in 1949, settling in the desert town of Ridgecrest in 1952. They had a special heart for mentoring young people. Ruth went to law school herself and became Ridgecrest’s first woman lawyer.
In 1961, they purchased 160 acres at Dunmovin.
Why did they make the move to this isolated little desert village? Ruth suggested there was something spiritual about that windswept place at the foot of the majestic, jagged Sierra Nevada mountains.
In between our telephone conversations, I continued to make retreats to the Owens Valley. I no longer rushed past Dunmovin. I would stop and walk about the ruins. Some people still lived there, toward the back, in rusting mobile homes. The frontage property presented the shell of a restaurant and several rock cabins that served as hermitages for Father Enrico Molnar’s religious community.
As I stood there, highway traffic rushed by on the now divided highway 395. There is always wind here, sometimes so strong as to blow 18-wheeler trucks on to their sides. Violent summer rainstorms create flash floods that rush out of the desert canyons and across the highway. There are very few services within 100 miles. 110-degree summer heat and hot winds feel like a blowtorch to the skin.
Ruth’s unfolding memories gave a haunting, melancholy feeling within me of vibrant life that had now passed.
Although I promised to visit her at her home in Ridgecrest, I missed the opportunity. Ruth died this year. However, Dunmovin still has life in the fond memories of her family.
Another grace for me was a letter from her nephew, Steve Lupardo. As he was managing her estate after her death, he found my contact information in her address book, sent me her obituary, and we met for lunch.
Steve breathed more life into the dusty desert bones of Dunmovin and revealed the special ministry of Ruth and Les Cooper to desert travelers and troubled youth, sheltering the lost and abandoned.
Ruth and Les were desert saints at Dunmovin because they provided a radical hospitality to desert travelers. Highway 395 is a deadly road, where fatigue or alcohol/drugs cause drivers to drift off the highway into horrific rollovers in the rock-strewn landscape. Ruth and Les rescued the injured and helped stranded travelers with food and lodging. But it was their heart for vulnerable young people that stood out.
They sheltered abused children and youth. You may remember that the psychotic cult leader Charles Manson, lived with his followers at the Barker Ranch, about 100 miles from Dunmovin.
Manson had a particular attraction to underage, vulnerable girls. He would bring them into his cult. If a girl ran away, she could be killed. One young girl did escape and found herself on Highway 395, dropped off by a trucker at Dunmovin. Ruth and Les took her in and secreted her, as Manson’s followers would be searching for her.
Ironically, Les was assisting Frank Fowles, District Attorney for Inyo County, when Manson was arrested and brought to the County Courthouse in Independence.
The radical desert hospitality that Ruth and Les Cooper provided at remote Dunmovin has powerful roots in Judeo-Christian-Islamic spirituality.
As nephew Steven Lupardo remembered the compassion of Ruth and Les Cooper, I called the patriarch Abraham.
St. Theodoros, one of the early Desert Fathers, wrote:
“Accepting the task of hospitality, the patriarch (Abraham) used to sit at the entrance to his tent (cf. Gen. 18:1), inviting all who passed by, and his table was laden for all comers including the impious and barbarians, without distinction. Hence, he was found worthy of that wonderful banquet when he received angels and the Master of all as guests. We too, then, should actively and eagerly cultivate hospitality, so that we may receive not only angels, but also God Himself. ‘For inasmuch,’ says the Lord, ‘as you have done it to one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me’ (Matt. 25:40). It is good to be generous to all, especially to those who cannot repay you.”
Abraham, patriarch to Jews, Christians and Muslims, modeled the foundational virtue of desert hospitality.
For Muslims, hospitality is a basic virtue in the Islamic ethical system. Its roots are in the Bedouin value of welcome and care for the stranger in the deadly desert. In the Arabic word “Dayafa”, Mohammed said, “There is no good in one who is not hospitable.”
The Quran emphasizes “karam”, providing food to the needy stranger.
Miriam Shulman and Amal Barkourki Winter explain:
“The virtue seems an ineluctable product of the landscape….to refuse a man refreshment in such a place is to let him die, to threaten the openhandedness nomadic peoples must depend on to survive.”
Snjezana Akpinar reveals:
“Hospitality was considered as an act of unconditional surrender to the needs of others.”
A knock on my office door. The door opens and there is parishioner Evangelina. Her normally bright, smiling face is solemn, her voice quiet. She speaks in Spanish: “Padre, I met someone outside the church, and she needs to speak with you. She was sitting on the bench at the bus stop and she was crying a lot. It frightened me. She is crying about her son Jesus. I do not know her, but I know it would help if she could talk with you.”
The sad lady appears, tears welling up in her eyes, her face flushed. She is an older Latina, perhaps fifty, with a bent back. She cautiously enters my office and I invite her to sit on the sofa.
She releases a deep sigh; her body shakes as she sobs.
I am fluent in Spanish, but at times like this, with someone I do not know, I need a context to understand what is being said. Give me a subject, verb and direct object. Why is she grieving?
Evangelina sits beside her, stroking the woman’s back and speaking softly. Her name is Luz Maria. Something has happened to her son Jesus.
Last month, in July, Jesus was trying to cross the border from Mexico with his uncle Luis. They had found a remote area on the Mexican/Arizona border, a desolate, dry desert. At this time of year, it would frequently be 110 degrees.
Luis and Jesus had been chased by bandits and hid in the dense desert brush, filled with cholla, mesquite, and other thorny cacti. But they become separated. After hiding for several hours, believing that the bandits had moved on, Luis called out for his nephew. For several hours, Luis moved about the landscape calling for Jesus. No response. Travel had to be by night, because the scorching heat would return in the morning. They lost water and supplies as they ran to escape from the bandits.
Jesus could not be found.
Luis continued on, coming into California. A family member picked him up in El Centro and he came to Santa Ana, without Jesus.
Luz Maria had been waiting for her son for several weeks. Every night she had the same dream: her son was wandering in the desert crying for help. Her maternal instinct to help and protect her son made the dream a horrible nightmare.
I could identify with her fear and terror at this dream, as I sometimes have the nightmare that our disabled son Erik is lost somewhere, and we can’t find him.
Luz Maria said that last week the nightmares became more intense: she could see her son lying dead under a desert tree.
Luis convinced two cousins, who are documented and legal, to go to Arizona, to the general area where he was with Jesus, and search for him. By this time two weeks had passed. The Arizona desert heat was 115.
They followed a well-worn trail leading up from the border. They found Jesus. He was indeed dead, propped up with his back to the trunk of a mesquite tree. In the intense dry heat, his body was partly mummified. His shoes were missing. There was no water to be found in the hellish heat.
As I listened intently, Luz Maria forced herself to focus and complete the narrative. Evangelina continued to massage her back.
And then the sobs returned, as she repeatedly cried “Mi Hijo, Mi Hijo.” “My child, my child.”
I invited her into the church sanctuary. I held her hand as we walked to the dark corner of the Lady Chapel. She knelt before the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I lit a blue votive candle and knelt beside her, opening the Prayer Book to the Litany, I prayed in Spanish:
Deliver your servant, Jesus, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I continued praying in Spanish, but my own body was absorbing her grief and I had to read the prayer slowly, as my own tears flowed:
Almighty God, look with pity upon the sorrows of Luz Maria. Remember her, Lord, in mercy; nourish her with patience; comfort her with a sense of your goodness; lift up your countenance upon her; and give her peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
At that time of year, the Arizona desert landscape seems blow-torched by the incredible heat. Dozens of immigrants die each year for lack of water, as they struggle through the desolate landscape.
If only some compassionate souls would bring water out there.
Less than five miles from the place where the body of Jesus was found, a building known as “The Barn” offered food and water to undocumented persons crossing the border from Mexico. Since this place of assistance for desperate desert travelers was well-known to immigrants, it is possible that Luis and Jesus were trying to locate it before they ran into the bandits and had to run off.
For many years, concerned volunteers from “No More Deaths” in southern Arizona have been planting caches of food and water as a help to people walking through this desolate desert wilderness.
Recently, Scott Daniel Warren, who teaches at Arizona State University, was at the Barn aiding two lost undocumented immigrants. The U. S Border Patrol had been observing activities at the Barn. When they saw Scott helping the two other men, the U. S. Border Patrol moved in and arrested Scott for harboring two illegal Immigrants, providing them with “Food, water, beds and clean clothes.”
Scott’s attorney, William Walker, said that there has always been an understanding between No More Deaths and law enforcement:
“We have always had an understanding here with both the U. S. Attorney’s Office and the Border Patrol and also the wilderness area managers that we are a neutral party. We don’t smuggle people; we don’t violate the law—-what we do is help to save lives and they’ve recognized that for years.”
When Border Patrol agents find these rescue caches of food and water in the desert, they pour out the water on the ground.
In a press release, the group No More Deaths reported:
“We document how Border Patrol agents engage in widespread vandalism of gallons of water left for border crossers and routinely interfere with other humanitarian-aid efforts in rugged and remote areas of the borderlands.”
Officer Carlos Diaz of The Border Patrol office responded after viewing videos of the destruction of the water and food:
“Our agents are briefed frequently and are advised frequently to leave those resources alone. If anybody sees any activities like the ones in the videos, they need to inform us so we can take the corrective action because it is not acceptable.”
At a court hearing, the judge dismissed the charges against Scott Daniel Warren.
For many years, I have been writing about the spiritual potency of the desert landscape. But in the story about Luis and Jesus, we learn that for hundreds of desperate undocumented persons, this is a life-threatening journey through a hellish furnace.
Two contending voices: compassionate volunteers from “No More Death”, moved by the ancient desert ethics of hospitality; dedicated Border Patrol officers protecting our desert wilderness borders. Toward which voice is your own heart drawn?
If you wish to donate to “No More Deaths”, here is their contact information:
Ridgecrest Daily Independent, April 26, 2019, “Ruth E. Cooper, Obituary.”
Philokalia, Vol II, p. 32 #84.