Mike Ward was born in Pomona, California during the Truman administration (1945–53) and grew up in Arcadia, an idyllic suburb of Los Angeles. He says the crowning achievement of his grade school years was when he “handily won the ‘Best Rester’ award during our morning nap ritual.”
His parents met at the Claremont Colleges, where his father was a business major and his mother majored in art. His mother, a bohemian at heart, grew up in Salinas, where she met author Henry Miller and dated Michael Murphy, future founder of the Esalen Institute.
Mike fondly remembers summers spent with his grandfather, Turk Tavernetti, at the family’s Salinas Valley lettuce and broccoli farm. He has magical memories of the farm and of being “precariously seated on the rusty old Ford tractor.” John Steinbeck, his grandfather’s Salinas High School classmate, mentions the “Tavernetti boys” in his best-selling novel East of Eden.
On the opposite side of the family, Mike’s paternal grandfather, a severe Scotsman who moved from Buffalo, New York, at the turn of the century, started a chicken ranch near Hollywood just before the silent movie industry arrived. Mike’s father owned a company that manufactured stoves and iceboxes for travel trailers and mobile homes. Several times a year his dad would take the family to Estero Beach, Ensenada, Mexico.
Mike says he surfed, dug for clams, rode motorcycles, and at the age of fourteen discovered the joys and inevitable sorrows associated with Mexican beer. “My love of travel and adventure stems from my father’s happy, open sense of exploring the world, and I’m lucky to be gifted with his easy-going, affable personality,” he says. “My artsy-fartsy side stems from my mother, who did her best to foster her creative instincts while trapped in the role of a 1950s ‘Leave It To Beaver’ mom.”
Mike is the oldest of three kids. His sister Joanne is married to a Walt Disney Imagineer, and his brother Tom, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Ventura, Calif., is a talented product designer whose work ranges from private French jet interiors to John Deere tractors. “Tom is a man of diverse talents and a great guy, just like my dad,” Mike says. “I count myself very lucky to be blessed with a sibling who is also a best friend.”
While Mike’s scholastic career was nothing to brag about, he says music has been the touchstone of his being since he took his first guitar lesson at age ten and could immediately whip out a mean version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” As it was for many Baby Boomers, the Mickey Mouse Club was the cultural apex of Mike’s after-school world. “It’s a toss-up as to what I had the most intense infatuation with, Annette Funicello or the Mickey Mouse Club theme song,” he says. He also loved the Triple R theme song of the Disney “Spin and Marty” serial. “Who would have thunk that more than fifty years later I’d end up writing the biography of the guy who wrote that song?”
In junior high Mike played bass guitar in a neighborhood rock band. Los Angeles was the perfect place for a guitar-playing high schooler, and Mike went to local concerts such as The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour where B. B. King and Ike and Tina Turner opened the show.
After high school, Mike chose Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for college because of its proximity to good surfing. But after two years, he headed for the big waves and went to work for Holo-Holo Campers, a company that rented camping rigs to tourists in Hilo, Hawaii. Mike loved Hawaii, but freaked out with a bad case of island fever one day when he realized he couldn’t just hop in his car and drive to Arizona any time he wanted to. He returned to California and entered Chico State University in northern California in the fall of 1972.
“The high points of my years there involved music,” Mike says. He was a DJ at the student station, KCSC, where his air name was Studebaker Hawke. “I could play whatever the heck I wanted,” he says, and even showed up one Saturday morning with a stack of Disney albums for three hours of “Uncle Hawke’s Children’s Hour.” Although his musical tastes are all over the map, Mike says, “I never seriously keyed into country and western music and yet here I am, the biographer of Stan Jones, who wrote one of the most famous western songs on the planet.”
One of Mike’s favorite professors at Chico was Dave Carter, who taught philosophy and became a lifelong friend. Mike says Carter’s reading list—Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem—changed his life. On spring break that year he and four other students crammed into his Dodge van and made a pilgrimage to Arches National Park where Abbey had rangered and written in the late 1950s.
After graduating from Chico in 1976 with what he calls a “catchall” bachelor’s degree in humanities, Mike moved to Berkeley and got by with odd jobs painting and cleaning houses. “I had no clue about a career of any kind,” he says, “just floating along the river of life, drifting like the poor soul in the first stanza of Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat.”
Mike was still going with his high school girlfriend when they drove to see their families over Christmas break in 1976. Their cat, “a six-toed fuzzy fellow named Mozambique,” went with them. They detoured through Death Valley and stayed overnight at the Furnace Creek Ranch. “Our normally well-behaved cat snuck out of the cabin and didn’t return,” he says. “We were heart-broken and stayed an extra day wandering around Furnace Creek in hopes of finding our fugitive feline.”
While searching, Mike stopped by the Fred Harvey Company personnel office. “There was something about the place that moved me to mutter to myself ‘what the hell, why not’ and I filled out an application. We found the cat, drove back to Berkeley, and five days later I got a call asking if I’d like to go to work at the Furnace Creek Inn washing dishes.”
On January 5, 1977, Mike said see you later to Mozambique and his girlfriend. “I packed my truck with a guitar, a box of books, and a modest selection of record albums, and drove back to Death Valley where I would live and work until the fall of 1991. I had floated right down that river to a desert paradise 278 feet below sea level.”
So that’s how Mike Ward grew up and came to work in Death Valley, the same place where Ranger Stan Jones wrote “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” In the next installment, we’ll see how Mike got the idea to write the book and how it came to be.
Ghost Riders in the Sky by Mike Ward is available now at your favorite bookstore.
Jim Turner is an historian, editor, teacher, researcher, and author. He received his masters degree in U.S. history from the University of Arizona and is now an editor for Rio Nuevo Publishers. He writes history articles for various newspapers around the state, and his pictorial history book, “Arizona: Celebrating the Grand Canyon State,” was named a “Top Pick” for Southwest Books of the Year by the Friends of the Pima County Library. You may reach him at email@example.com.