In 2020, in full-on lockdown for the rest of the world, a man who looked like a cross between Moses, Orson Welles and Zeus let me live in one of his caves in the 640-acre garden he’d created in the middle of the Mojave desert.
His Shangri-La bubble felt like a fabled land, but I could never work out which fable we were in. Some days it felt like Alice in Wonderland because people darted around like White Rabbits when Garth blew his famous horn from the tipi; Garth could turn into the tempestuous Queen of Hearts if you forgot to turn the solar panel. And other times you’d feel as if you’d downed Alice’s “Drink Me” potion because the epic boulders could make you feel so tiny.
But then on some days, the land felt like a castle. Garth was the king and we, the residents, were the courtiers. The tipi would have an air of the 17th century French court of Versailles and Garth was a desert Louis XIV, the famously fabulous Sun King and consummate showman.
At weekends, Garth was especially kingly. He smoked from his jeweled weed pipe (one of his favorite blends was actually a pine-scented indica called King Louis) put on his favorite crown (a leather belt studded with silver hearts) and wore his finest rings, many of which he made himself.
Reading from his Catholic missal was one of the Sun King’s morning rituals and because Garth started out as a Mormon (a branch of Christianity he ultimately rejected) he too liked to start the day with a religious structure. But he favored oracle cards to missals and sermons. He especially liked the Oracle cards themed on the Chinese Goddess of compassion, Kwan Yin. If he got a card he didn’t like, he insisted it was OK to pick another one.
Yet the central figure of his mix-and-match spiritual philosophy was Jesus of Nazareth. Alongside the 1950s Mickey mouse ornaments and the Pillsbury Dough Boy hanging from the chicken wire that covers the inside of his tipi, there is a statue of Jesus wearing a red bowler hat in a central position and a reproduction of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Garth focused on the good things from the New Testament. Namely, unconditional love.
He’d had a hard time with Christianity in his youth. A taste for theatrical outfits in church and a penchant for the wrong sex didn’t go down well with the Mormons, even in apparently liberal California where he grew up (in Riverside) with two sisters and a brother. But he dutifully did his two-year Mission – to the grim north-of-England town of Grimsby in the 1960s. It was a difficult time. He was dyslexic and he couldn’t remember all the prayers you were expected to know by heart. A woman at one of the mission homes told him he looked “evil,” although he loved to reminisce about the time another local lady made him Yorkshire pudding with gravy made from sage from her garden. Garth loved his food.
On his return to the US, he enrolled at the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University to study art and decorating followed by a stint at Woodbury University in Burbank. But he bailed. “It’s hard to be a good college student if you can’t read, you can’t spell, you can’t do math.” Nobody had heard of dyslexia back then.
He bought a piece of property in Pedley in Riverside County and converted an old chicken coop into his house. But the local kids vandalized his vehicles and his house with no restraint from their parents because he was the “gay person.” One night a friend that he had an unrequited crush on got up on the coffee table at a party and had a vision: a crowd of people walking around in white robes. It was a premonition that came to pass sixteen years later when Garth walked America barefoot in white robes for four and a half years with a religious organization called the Christ Family. “The idea was to live in faith, to trust in God to take care of you." Which he did most of the time.
Luckily, Garth had time to fit in some more earthly pleasures before he set off on this pilgrimage in his early 40s. Right now, it was LA in the 1970s. “Heavens, yes, the fun time - ho, ho, ho!” he told me with one of his humorous snorts.
At first, Garth was loathe to talk to me about his life as a young gay man. As he said, “Back then, you tell people you were gay, they want to kill you.” But one of the things I admired most about Garth (aside from his sense of humor) was his absolute unfiltered honesty. Like Jesus, his role model from the bible, he knew that standing up as an example could change lives. So he started to tell me stories about his fruity past on the scene. About his job as a topless barman at an LA bar called The New Faces (“There was never any new faces. It was a tired old bar with tired old faces!”) How he rented a tiny studio in the Los Angeles district of Silver Lake, the size of his tipi, and how he’d prepare for the adventures of the night.
“I’d take a shower, do push-ups, iron the sheets on the bed, put powder on the sheets, then bring somebody home. Then I’d repeat the same procedure with the next person.”
He lamented that he was never a very good playboy. “I was too serious. I put my whole heart and soul into it. Not everyone else did.”
Garth had some fascinating insights on the dance between desire and Spirit. “Sex and Spirit are on the same spectrum,” he insisted. “Because a really good experience with someone else is about as close to Spirit as a person can get. You just kind of become one.”
He was philosophical about never having found a true love. He believed “Spirit set it up that way,” because if you wanted to follow Spirit you had to be 100 per cent in.
He worked for a while in an LA furniture store but he admitted that he was a terrible sales person.
“Why?” I asked.
“I just didn’t sell many things. That makes a bad salesman when you don’t sell much.”
This is classic Garth deadpan. But actually, one of Garth’s saving graces was that he was terrible with money. His father, a self-made millionaire working for Caterpillar, the construction equipment manufacturer, gave him his one square mile parcel of land in increments over several years. Garth admitted, “it was for the best. I probably would have given it away to someone.
Back in the early eighties, when he was just starting out with the “Boulder Gardens” project, he kept a Slurpee cup in his truck with about $30 in change in it. He’d go into a store, buy the worst white bread and the cheapest brand of luncheon meat. He refused to touch the Slurpee cup because “that’s to give to people.”
Giving everything you have away is not a conventional business plan, but then Garth spent his life doing things people didn’t consider normal. His plan worked: by the end of life, Garth had a crew of people looking after him in an attentive, loving, ad lib way that no health insurance company has yet conceived of.
And anyway, Garth loved what some people might refer to as “poverty.” He talked of the walking years with more relish than he did the Silver Lake years. “It was such a miracle ride. Everywhere you went there was Spirit. You saw everything laid out and you came to realize that nothing is accidental.”
He slept in an array of locations that the world’s billionaires would be unable to compete with: under bridges (“noisy and the concrete sucks the heat out of your body”) on freight trains (“filthy dirty. The vibration of the carriages made it feel like knives were going into the soles of your feet.”) and under a bush in the pouring rain (“ I was in my bed roll, singing and blissed out. Water was warm. It was like laying in a hot tub!”)
He created what was to become “Boulder Gardens” as a place people could come any time they wanted to escape society. The original idea was that this heaven-on-earth should contain: experimental structures, animal husbandry, permaculture, a healing center, an area for assisted living for retired spiritual people and a non-denominational spiritual retreat center. “We prefer no Satan-worshippers but we’ll talk to ‘em,” he once quipped.
In fact the only people Garth didn’t take to in 43 years were the Tik Tok crowd. They’d come up to take photos of themselves in the rock plunge pool without even saying hello to Garth. He explained that the devil-worshippers would at least have a dialogue with you. He’d met a few, as well as a man who claimed to be the actual devil. (He finally banished this man with the help of a dark smoky quartz from the top of the Sierras. Garth was a master storyteller and this extraordinary and baroque tale needs a night around the fire to do it justice.)
When his father first came to visit the land, he declared it to be “just a pile of old rocks.” Everywhere was strewn with bullet casings and glass and stolen cars when he first arrived. He worked like an ox: cleaning up, planting, building, hauling water up to the property then finally putting in the first well and laying four miles of piping by hand.
Despite Garth’s love of sparkles and glitter, he was very simple when it came to his beliefs. We residents had seen our fair share of channelers and orb whisperers and various stripes of snake oil merchant, but his message was very straight forward. One day, a young musician from New York who’d been living in his bus on the land for a couple of months came to say thank you and goodbye. He asked Garth what message he could take out into the world. Garth shrugged and said, “Be kind, help other people. Care for other people – that’s all that’s worth it in the end.”
One morning, there was a banker-turned-spiritual events promoter in the tipi, regaling Garth with his ideas for a razzle-dazzle VIP party he wanted to throw on the land. “Does that excite you, Garth?” he asked finally.
“Not really,” Garth replied. “I’m more, ‘What’s the weather going to be like today?’ Maybe something about what I’m going to eat.” With his huge bejeweled hand, he drew a slow, invisible line through the air. “I like to keep it like that. Just simple. No extremes.”
Garth’s brand of stoicism brought me to my senses on many occasions. I went into the tipi one rainy, howling morning in March, filled with what I thought was a head full of worries. And Garth was in his chair, nibbling on something he shouldn’t have been nibbling on, watching an old Technicolor movie on his battered laptop. The stove was glowing, Gene Kelly was singing You Were Meant For Me, show girls were dancing in silver-beaded spaghetti straps and ostrich feather skirts and I sat in a nearby chair, part watching the movie, part watching Garth - so happy and smiling, part looking at the latest decoration hanging from the tipi’s chicken wire: a singing plastic budgie in a cage. And I suddenly realized I didn’t have a worry in the world. And then Garth pulled his hot water bottle out (one of the good ideas he did bring back from England) and handed it to me, meaning I needed to go back into the freezing outdoor kitchen and boil the kettle. I left the tipi with a grin on my face.
Garth admitted he’d always struggled with his ego. He had a preternatural talent at a dice game called Ten Thousands (it was eventually re-named “Garth Wins.”)
“Oh boy, did I throw good?” he’d say in his cute Homer Simpson butter-wouldn’t-melt voice. Yet every so often he would lose. And it was so hard for him. One day he refused to come out of the tipi to play because his faithful dice opponent was on a winning streak. “He’ll only beat me again,” he said glumly.
This human side used to fascinate me because Garth was also like Atlas, the mythical Greek giant who held the world up on his shoulders and who exemplified the quality of endurance. Even if you weren’t at Garth’s, you knew that Garth’s Place existed and that knowledge alone brought comfort, stability and inspiration to all who’d ever set foot there - wherever they ended up in the world. And at the heart of that inspiration was Garth himself - the giant whose hair was a forest, whose shoulders were mountains. And those eyes. Some days they were yellow and green and some days they were just plain golden.
I sometimes wondered, if Garth had lived in a small apartment in some grimy city, would he have attracted the same amount of adulation and curiosity? Was it the epic boulders that conferred greatness on Garth or was there something special about him already? I came to believe that he was a late bloomer. He found out later in life that his name meant “garden” in Old Norse. His incredible life experiences made him as huge as his physical frame and that was only enhanced by his boulders.
Garth’s most amazing feat was to give society’s rejects, outsiders, questers, artists, travellers and dreamers a place to live. Garth gave his crazy mix of saints and sinners (and you often didn’t know which was which) the time and the space to untangle who they really were, not who society said they should be. By the end of his life, his father recognized that he had a very special son.
Garth certainly changed my life, as he did so many others. It was a wild ride, an adventure playground for adults that created experiences so extraordinary they seemed not to be of this world.
But the desert is also relentlessly harsh. It compels you to face your fears and innermost demons. Of course there were failures, of course there were problems. I heard Garth say several times how he wished everyone would just get along, although he also recognized, with one of his helpless shrugs, that “humans are humans...”
After three years of living in Garth’s mansion of the sky, I emerged with patches on my clothes, a lot of scars on my knees and some on my heart, but with a soul just a little bit more alive than it was before. And what tales to tell around the fire. “Life’s an amazing dance,” as the big man used to say.
Thank you so much Garth and the best of luck to Robert (pictured here.) Garth bequeathed his land to Robert because Robert had proved that he understood Garth’s vision. This is one of the reasons Garth could finally die in peace on the morning of Saturday, July 22 at the age of 79.
“Places like that don’t exist any more,” sighed the baker lady in Yucca Valley when I told her the Garth news. But maybe they still do. It’s the end of a 43-year-long era but it’s also just the beginning.