You pay your money or you take your chances.
Mike Castro takes your money for the privilege of crossing his property outside his weathered cabin in the furrowed high desert several miles southeast of Hesperia. Castro's property, an old ranch, lies athwart a trail to the popular Deep Creek hot springs at the bottom of a narrow canyon along the northern boundary of the San Bernardino National Forest.
You can also walk a long five miles to the hot springs on the Pacific Crest Trail, but Castro's property offers the easiest access, along with a secure place to park--for a fee.
If you try to cross his land without paying the $4-per-person toll, chances are Castro will catch up with you somewhere out on the crinkled outback he prowls on his dirt bike, armed with a pistol, on the lookout for scofflaws.
The toll paid, you head on foot down a steep ravine to Deep Creek and its cluster of hot pools. You follow a trail blazed by Serrano Indians and later widened by homesteaders, fishermen, squatters, naturalists, biologists and, more recently, by urban escapists.
The short hike ends at a bluff above a U-turn on Deep Creek, a ribbon of water that feeds the Mojave River. The pools are just a short slide down the bluff and a hop across wet rocks. Below unfolds a scene of mostly unadorned sunbathers sprawled lizard-like next to the water.
This is government land, but rarely is there a uniform or badge in sight. Officials of the U.S. Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management, who share jurisdiction over the region, say they lack the resources to station a ranger at Deep Creek, let alone maintain the springs or build and operate a campground.
The only full-time enforcement is carried out by Castro. He has no authority beyond his property. But he maintains a semblance of order, picking up trash, tracking down lost hikers and notifying authorities when creek-side conduct threatens to get out of hand.
Most of the time, an air of benign anarchy prevails. Flouting a government rule against camping, people put up tents, which sprout colorfully from the stream bank's rocky recesses. Naked bodies come and go languidly from the hot pools. Drug use is rumored, but doesn't appear flagrant.
On one recent afternoon, soakers jeered, and one displayed his backside, as a county sheriff's helicopter circled several times overhead. The sheriff is empowered to enforce state laws on federal land.
People have been coming here to take the waters for at least 30 years, ever since some amateur landscape engineers, using sandbags and a bit of masonry, created the pools. Castro estimates that at least 1,000 people a year come to relax in the pools, which blend diverted creek water with 108-degree seepage from the hot springs. There are several pools of varying temperatures. Small waterfalls connect three of them.
The full treatment involves a soak in each, topped off by a dip in the cold creek water or in the ultra-hot "crab cooker" pool. With the pools deeper than a tall person in some places, the challenge is to perch yourself comfortably on a submerged rock and let your cares melt away.
Most who visit come and go during daylight hours. Many wear swimsuits. Modesty is not the only reason. Who knows what kind of person might be drawn here by the prospect of lax oversight and nudity. Deep Creek was once a wild place, and the aura of an outlaw oasis still clings to it.
In the 1960s the creek's side canyons sheltered AWOL servicemen and homeless squatters. Charles Manson was reputed to be among them. In 1970, the Forest Service and the FBI led a sweep of the area and found scores of ramshackle camps and several fugitives. That same year the service banned overnight camping, a dictum more easily proclaimed than enforced.
"Before Manson's time, there were no patrols at all. There wasn't much need," said Ranger Brad Burns. He joined the Forest Service in 1976 and later became responsible for law enforcement along the 22-mile Deep Creek and its environs. Two unarmed rangers patrolling together were assaulted in 1977. At least a year passed before the first charges were filed. Over time a crew of nine dwindled to one. Now management rules allow rangers to carry firearms and require two armed officers to mount a patrol. If Burns can't find a partner, the sheriff is asked to supply a deputy.
"No one else around even wants to take on the job," Burns said. "People just don't want to get into it."
Most of the lawbreaking today is limited to littering, spray-painting rocks or motoring down one of the pedestrian-only trails on a dirt bike or all-terrain vehicle.
The greatest danger most soakers face is dehydration or, after a lengthy immersion, a treatable skin rash caused by bacteria that infects hair follicles.
A Shady Past
Deep Creek has drawn visitors from many parts of the world. Yet it has not quite shed its checkered history of fatal accidents, strange disappearances and occasional assaults, mostly growing out of drunken arguments.
In 1997, a local man named Ronnie Bates disappeared. More than a year later, a human jawbone was found near a trail, the few teeth still on it eventually proving that it belonged to Bates. His death remains a mystery.
This past spring, authorities foiled plans for an outdoor dance party near Deep Creek and confiscated 1,000 maps directing revelers to the creek bottom "rave."
Burns recently tore up nonnative vegetation illegally planted and a "bootleg trail." The ranger times his patrols to advise visitors of rule violations during daylight hours. Then he returns before dawn and cites those who have ignored his warnings against overnight stays.
"I've survived down there because I use a great deal of diplomacy," Burns said.
Land management officers also credit Castro.
"We hear that Castro has taken a very hard line in enforcing Forest Service and BLM rules," said Barry Nelson, the Bureau of Land Management's chief ranger for the Barstow district. "There's no question it helps our management efforts."
"What makes Deep Creek unique is the private intervention," said the leathery, long-haired 48-year-old. "This is a very spiritual place. If it's not handled right, the place goes to hell."