The Known Unknown: Tales of the Yucca Man

The desert has its own version of Sasquatch, and it’s just as smelly and hairy.

Ken LayneDesert Oracle | Winter 2015 | 11 minutes (2,903 words)

The story you’ll hear most often goes like this: There’s a young Marine on guard duty in some far-off corner of the massive Twentynine Palms desert training base. He hears an awful sound in the dark, something like a growl. Then, the breathing, coming from one side of his lonesome little guard booth and now from the other.

It’s circling him.

He steps out into the dark, his sidearm drawn. There it stands, eight feet tall, an unbearable stench from its hairy body, the eyes glowing like red coals.

Sometimes, the Marine is knocked unconscious by the beast and found hours later by the next shift. One version occurs at the old rifle range, where the watchman — also armed with a rifle — wakes from the assault to find his weapon bent in half.

Since the 1970s, when the Mojave Desert base expanded from its World War II encampment, there have been regular reports of new recruits terrorized by both the Yucca Man and pranks inspired by the tales. But most sightings of the spectral creature come from campers and hikers at Joshua Tree National Park. Tents have been opened in the night by stinking monstrosities, and there is an occasional large footprint or blurry photograph submitted as evidence. A snapshot from the Hidden Valley campground has made the rounds for a decade now: The figure bounding over the boulders looks much like the iconic Bigfoot from the Patterson–Gimlin film of 1967.

The-Mysterious-Legend-Of-The-Yucca-Man

A photograph of the alleged Yucca Man from the 1990s.

Since the 1960s, when tales of Yucca Man and his desert cohorts were commonly reported by Southern California newspapers and television stations, amateur “cryptozoologists” and Bigfoot researchers have analyzed the blurry pictures and measured the prints in the sand, all in the effort to document a flesh-and-blood creature they believe exists alongside everyday mammals such as bears, coyotes, and humans.

But the Natives who lived in California long before European colonization considered these creatures to be supernatural entities, with names that often translated to “hairy devils.” They took care to avoid the gloomy spots where the devils were often seen.

The Tongva People living around the Santa Ana River called the devils’ hideout east of the river’s source in the San Bernardino Mountains the Camp of the Takwis, pronounced the same as the Tahquitz known to the Cahuilla of Agua Caliente. According to John Reed Swanton’s The Indian Tribes of North America, “Takwis” also survives as a site name at the head of the Santa Margarita River, at Temecula Creek. Throughout Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, you’ll see it spelled Tahquitz — the angry specter’s unhappy home in the region is the cursed Tahquitz Canyon.

Sometimes the Takwis or Tahquitz played a role in creation stories, as in Cahuilla culture. Other times the creature was an omen, or simply something weird in the wilderness that should be avoided. To the Cahuilla, the Tahquitz could be the “original shaman” and a murderous monstrosity that collected victims from Tahquitz Rock (or Lily Rock). “Tahquitz has also been said to manifest as a large green fireball moving through the night sky,” the website Weird California reports.

That coastal and desert Indians should know the same creature is not in itself cause for skepticism: Under various names and dressed in myriad traditions, Yucca Man has been reported in the wilder parts of Southern California as long as people have lived here.

In Fontana, that hard and wind-blown Inland Empire town, there was a famed racetrack north of Foothill Boulevard called Mickey Thompson’s Fontana Dragway. From 1955 to the dragway’s closure in 1972 following a gruesome series of fatal crashes, spectators repeatedly saw something they called the ‘Speedway Monster.’ Assumed to be a “wild man” resident of the foothills of the nearby San Bernardino Mountains, it had the habit of crossing the rural land at the dragway’s edge, during car races that produced horrific noise.

In the new suburbs of Antelope Valley, encounters with the Mojave Sasquatch reached epidemic levels from the late 1960s through late 1970s, as new housing developments in Lancaster and Palmdale pushed into the wild desert and secret technology was tested at Edwards Air Force Base and Lockheed’s notorious Skunk Works facility.

Under various names and dressed in myriad traditions, Yucca Man has been reported in the wilder parts of Southern California as long as people have lived here.

The Antelope Valley Daily Ledger-Gazette described the common features of the eyewitness reports in a staff report from June 1973 beneath the headline “Bigfoot Surfaces Again In Palmdale, Nine-Mile Canyon.”

According to reporter Chuck Wheeler, “the creature likes to run around houses and leaving footprints. That is its MO in the East Lancaster area where footprints were found around several houses recently. One woman reported that the creature ran around her house and scratched at the door. A small boy sent to tell his father supper was ready was found hours later crying near the corral. When asked what happened to him, he answered that a big, furry man would not let him pass.”

Southern California encounters were common enough in the 1970s to keep multiple Bigfoot-investigation groups busy taking reports. In March of 1973, a babysitter and three Marines — separately, we presume — reported seeing the sasquatch in Lancaster. Nerves were frayed to the point that two separate vigilante groups searching for the monster nearly killed each other two months later, according to the files of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.

In May 1973, a search party in Lancaster attempting to follow up on several ‘Big Foot’ reports was forced to take cover when another party on the same sort of search panicked and started shooting when they thought they were being approached by a large creature. Fortunately, no one was injured.

In recent years, the hair-covered red-eyed “Sierra Highway Devil” has been repeatedly spotted by terrified drivers on Highway 14 near the junction with Pearblossom Highway, always at night, always running along or across the road.

The strangest tales come from Edwards AFB itself. The desert base adjoins the massive Rogers Dry Lake, with its miles of smooth desert runways, and is famed for its “Right Stuff” test pilots and landings of NASA’s space shuttles. There is significant subterranean infrastructure at Edwards AFB, with the personnel and technology required to keep secret aircraft a secret. Security cameras were always pointed at sensitive areas. According to persistent stories from Edwards, those cameras repeatedly captured images of desert sasquatch moving through the tunnels by night. Entire families of the hairy monsters apparently traveled the base’s buildings and corridors, appearing and disappearing at will, and to the bewilderment of base police sent chasing after the phantasms.

With the report of Edwards Bobbie Ann Slate, that tireless Bigfoot researcher, collected this report from the base policeman, who was patrolling the old “sled track” section of the base where the notorious Thelemite wizard and Jet Propulsion Laboratory founder Jack Parsons tried out his rockets, and where Nazi V-2s had once been tested on a specially built railroad:

Heading back to the main base, I noticed maybe 200-300 yards to my left, these large blue eyes. I do a lot of night hunting and it was strange — they were larger than anything I’d ever seen before. The [blue eyes] had to be about four inches apart and seven feet off the ground. I stopped the truck and sat there watching them. It was too dark to see any body shape to the thing. The blue glows proceeded toward my truck at a right angle for about 100 yards and then stopped.

As an overpowering stench filled the desert air, Sgt. House saw the huge blue eyes again, now just 50 yards away. “The movement of the eyes was extremely fast. Another thing that bothered me was that they didn’t bob up and down. It was like two lights on a wire moving from one point to another.” A radio call gave him a good reason to drive away fast.

Because of the ribbing he suffered after filing a report, others in the squadron refrained from making formal statements about their encounters.

But the encounters didn’t end. Not until 2009 would Edwards Air Force Base officially acknowledge the many incidents with “Blue Eyes” and other strange phenomena.

The hair-covered red-eyed ‘Sierra Highway Devil’ has been repeatedly spotted by terrified drivers on Highway 14 near the junction with Pearblossom Highway, always at night, always running along or across the road.

According to a 2009  article in the base newsletter, Inside Edwards, the entity known as “Blue Eyes” was much discussed at a reunion of the 6510th Air Police Squadron officers who worked on base between 1973 and 1979, known as the 6510th Desert Rats.

“Attendees traded memories of their bizarre experiences on patrol such as seeing ‘Blue Eyes,’ the local version of a Yeti near South Base or ‘Marvin of the Mojave,’ a ghost who could be heard but not seen and left size-10 sneaker imprints in the sand,” Lisa Camplin of the 95th Security Forces Squadron wrote in the official Edwards newsletter.

The now-retired Edwards guards also recalled “observing unexplainable objects in the skies [and] seeing disappearing tail lights on the dry lake beds.”

The Desert Rats’ motto, shared with the Air Force Test Center for which it served, was Ad Inexplorata, or, “Toward the Unknown.”

As with the padres’ old stories of “hairy monsters” living at a camp of devils along the Santa Ana and Santa Margarita rivers, written accounts of monsters in the Antelope Valley date back to the Spanish colonial era. Horace Bell, famed for his role in the frontier vigilante group called the Los Angeles Rangers, later wrote two influential history books about life in mid-19th century California. One of those, On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminiscences of a Ranger, tells of a shadowy winged beast at Elizabeth Lake, that deep-water hole where the Sierra Pelona Mountains meet Antelope Valley. The “sag pond” was created by the San Andreas Fault, and successive generations have branded this generally welcome geographic feature—ample fresh water in the desert!—as a cursed place. Supposedly given its old Spanish name by no less a figure than Junípero Serra himself, the Laguna del Diablo held an awful creature, a beast that would fly in shadow form over the rancho from the 1830s—when early California legislator Pedro Carrillo (grandfather of actor Leo Carrillo) abandoned the place following a mysterious fire and general bad feelings.

The winged wraith flew over the hacienda of Don Chico Vasquez, a man unimpressed by the folklore surrounding the lake. It was his foremen who alerted the Don to the beast thrashing in the mud on the cursed lake’s shore. He saw it, too, but the creature vanished — whether into the lake or into the sky or into thin air, they never knew. Cattle and horses began disappearing shortly thereafter, with the eventual discovery of several carcasses leading to the belief that the devil in the lake had grown hungry for meat. As with the “hairy monsters,” the winged lake beast also assaulted the rancho with its vile stench.

Don Chico Vasquez had enough, selling cheap to Miguel Leonis, the “Big Basque” known as the “King of Calabasas.” Leonis not only proposed to capture the lake monster that had bedeviled his Indian, Spanish and American predecessors, but he also planned to make money on the deal. The Big Basque contracted with the Sells Brothers Circus, which operated across the country from its base in Columbus, Ohio, from 1862 to 1895. According to On the Old West Coast, Leonis’ contract with the Sells Brothers would have made him significantly richer, had the flying lake beast been captured:

That if the python is such as the party of the first part describes it to be, and if the party of the first part succeeds in taking it alive, then the party of the second part agrees to pay the party of the first part the sum of $20,000.

Instead, the winged snake flew east after being shot by the Big Basque’s hunting party. According to legend, this was the same “dragon” killed outside Tombstone, Arizona, in 1890. But evidence of the monstrosity’s corpse has proved elusive, and Elizabeth Lake remains “haunted” to this day.

While Yucca Man and its cohorts are often described as huge, hair-covered humanoids, there are nearly as many reports of shadow beasts lacking any real definition beyond their brilliant glowing eyes — often red, sometimes blue as in the Edwards AFB reports. Such brazenly paranormal entities have much in common with England’s “Owlman” and West Virginia’s “Mothman” — or the Mojave Desert’s own “Cement Monster.”

As with the ‘hairy monsters,’ the winged lake beast also assaulted the rancho with its vile stench.

Anyone who has taken the scenic drive on Highway 18 from the West Mojave up to Big Bear Lake has driven past the huge concrete mine eating into the mountainside and national forest. Now owned by the Mitsubishi Cement Corporation and surrounded by security fencing, there was a time when many of the mine’s graded roads could be easily accessed from the two-lane highway.

In March 1988, two U.S. Marines returning from a day of snow skiing at Big Bear encountered the red-eyed shadow giant and pursued it into the strip mine. The former Marine, Ken Fox, sent his report of the incident to sasquatch researcher Douglas E. Trapp in Texas.

“From the left side of the road something very large seemed to stand up on two legs and run across the road,” Fox wrote. “The bottom half looked human, covered with hair. The top half wasn’t very visible, but appeared monsterish, scary in other words. The headlights only got the bottom half, and the damn thing ran out about 150 feet in front of us. It made it across the road in three strides. I distinctively remember seeing the arms pumping back and forth just like any of us would do if sprinting across the road in front of a car. It appeared to be 8 feet tall.”

What was it? Ken Fox’s buddy recognized it immediately: “It’s the Cement Monster! After him!” They briefly pursued, but having no luck continued back to base at Twentynine Palms. If the cement mine is still haunted by this monster, it is considerably more difficult for people to access the cuts in the mountainside today.

This transition zone between the transverse mountain ranges and the High Desert is rich with reports of similar monsters, from the beast seen as recently as 2012 at Devil’s Punchbowl to the sasquatch stalking hikers at Big Rock Canyon.

Yucca Man, too, is connected to these immense mountains via the Little San Bernardino range that runs from Joshua Tree National Park westward into the proposed Sand-To-Snow National Monument up to San Gorgonio and Barton Flats —generations of summer-camp kids have suffered sleepless nights as a diabolic forest monster lurked just beyond the cabins.

The harsh, hot badlands that comprise much of Anza-Borrego State Park are home to many strange and terrible stories of the creature that has been called “The Missing Link” and the “Borrego Sandman.” The Sandman has been seen by 20th-century gold hunters and rockhounds and is most often described as being an enormous primate with whitish fur and glowing red eyes.

The Missing Link sasquatch of Deadman’s Hole is reportedly a mass murderer.

Once the Gold Rush reached Southern California’s mountains and deserts in the later 1800s, prospectors and bandits quickly made the area home. Discoveries of gold at Julian and in the desert to the east brought many hopeful miners to the scorching San Diego County desert, and many stagecoaches loaded with suspicious characters. One of them, Peg Leg Smith, claimed to find and then lose a “mine” near the Salton Sea where gold nuggets could be picked up off the ground. And a couple of characters from Julian, Edward Dean and Charles Cox, claimed to have shot a sasquatch dead. An 1878 article in the San Diego Daily Transcript reported that the men had found and then killed the monster at Deadman’s Hole, northeast of Warner Ranch. Delivery of the mysterious creature’s corpse was promised, but it never appeared in San Diego. More than a century later, a Daily Transcript reporter named Herbert Lockwood went digging for the old story and found it appeared in an 1878 issue dated April 1.

While Yucca Man and its cohorts are often described as huge, hair-covered humanoids, there are nearly as many reports of shadow beasts lacking any real definition beyond their brilliant glowing eyes.

It was March 1876 when a more credible report appeared in the San Diego Union. A man named Turner Helm claimed he saw a “missing link” near Warner’s Ranch (four miles south of present-day Warner Springs). Described as a bear-like giant with a human face, the report generated great interest because of the many unsolved murders at Deadman’s Hole, then a water stop on the Butterfield stage line.

The bodies had been piling up at the stagecoach stop’s waterhole for two decades, with the victims including a French-Basque shepherd, several dubious individuals on the run from the law or creditors, and a wealthy San Franciscan named William Blair.

Many of the victims were found with bruised and broken necks, their money or gold untouched. The last unsolved murder at the waterhole dates to 1922, when again a strangled victim was found there, 64 years after the first recorded murders at the hole.

Deadman’s Hole — “Deadman Hole” on modern maps — is located in a grove of live oaks about 15 yards east of California State Highway 79, an 8-mile drive up from today’s Warner Springs, just southeast of the place called Takwi at the headwaters of the Santa Margarita River.

The visitor to the Deadman’s Hole of today should look for the small, plainly lettered sign that reads “U.S. Navy Remote Training Area,” at an unmarked crossroads just before Sunshine Summit. As at Edwards and Twentynine Palms, here the Marines train side-by-side with the elusive sasquatch of Southern California’s wild lands.

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This article first appeared in the fourth issue of Desert Oracle, the quarterly print magazine edited and designed by Ken Layne out of Joshua Tree, California.