Broke Down and Left in the Desert

                                                          By Jeff Salter 

            When writing about unusual travel experiences, I’m stumped:  there are so many to choose from that I hardly know where to begin.
            So, how about the time our VW bus broke down in the middle of a sandstorm in the Mojave Desert in 1964? 

            From my 2nd grade through 8th grade (except one year), the whole family accompanied my father to his annual conventions.  We traveled on a shoestring because we had only the money from the plane ticket which my Dad cashed-in (in order to take all of us by vehicle).  Two of these trips were in the tiniest vehicles then known to exist (on American roads):  a VW Beetle and a Renault Dauphine.  We were a family of FIVE … with luggage!
            I don’t recall all the destinations, but along the way we encountered such interesting places as San Francisco, Glorietta NM, Washington D.C., Ridgecrest NC, NYC, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Miami … among others.
            During those six major excursions, we traveled through almost 30 states and visited most of the major national parks in the western U.S.  Dipped my feet in the Atlantic and Pacific and even crossed the border into Mexico at least once.
            This particular year was the late spring of my 8th grade … and, coincidentally, our final family trip (of this scope, anyway). 

            After some 48 years, my memories are hazy about exact geography and timing, but here’s a combination of what I still recall … and what I remembered in 1983 when I drafted some notes for a family history.  [While in 10th grade, I immortalized this episode in a little ‘short story’ I called Wind, Sand, and Sand.  That manuscript may still exist somewhere, but I haven’t seen it in over four decades].
            Within the Greater Mojave Desert of California are various individual deserts, including the infamous Death Valley.  Looking at the map of that area today, I don’t know where we were headed or what direction we were traveling.  The highways of today may not even have existed all those years ago.  All I know is:  we were crossing part of the Mojave Desert in our 1962 VW Bus, with one of my Dad’s nieces instead of my older brother (who had remained home to take some of his college board exams).
            It must have been late afternoon when we suddenly found ourselves in a full-fledged sandstorm (that suddenly came out of nowhere).  You know, the kind where visibility is about 10 feet.  I could feel the vehicle slowing down and I called out my advice, “Don’t slow down!”
            Well there was no choice … our engine had QUIT!  As we rolled to a stop, Dad steered us slightly to the sandy shoulder in case there should be any other vehicles … though we had not seen anyone else in the entire expanse of that desert so far.
            Hmm.  What to do?  No cell phones in 1964.  No mile markers on such minor roadways back then, so we had no idea where we were in relation to a (hopefully) nearby town.  Well, about all we could do is wait — maybe somebody else would appear on that desolate desert road.
            I no longer remember how long we waited, or whether the sandstorm had cleared by then, but eventually a tractor trailer loomed into view.  My Dad flagged it down and explained our situation to the driver.  He was willing to give some of us a lift into the next little town, but couldn’t fit everybody.  [Most of the trucks in those days did not have the behind-cab sleepers as many do now.]  Besides, Dad figured somebody should stay with our VW.
            Now, when we had broken-down previously (ran out of gas, as I recall, in Fla.) it was Dad who hitch-hiked to a nearby town while the rest of us remained with the vehicle.  But in this situation – with night coming on, miles of forlorn desert surrounding us, and no hint of how much time would transpire – it seemed more logical for Mom to head for civilization and Dad to remain with the stranded bus.
            So, the basic plan was for my Mom, sister, and cousin to ride with the truck driver to Trona and from there, try to contact AAA … with the hopes that AAA could locate us in the desert.  Remember, no GPS in 1964 either.
            My Dad asked me if I wanted to go with them in the truck and I said I’d just as soon stay in the desert with him.  And he let me.
            We had some edibles since we typically ate ‘lunch’ (i.e., Spam sandwiches) in the bus as we traveled.  And, a diligent Boy Scout, I had a two-quart canteen nearly full of water.  I honestly didn’t expect much of an ordeal unless dozens of ravenous coyotes attacked us.
            We snacked a little and played cards in the front seat until it was too dark to see.

            I no longer recall how long we were stranded out there, but I have to assume it was many hours.  I mean Trona CA was not the size town which likely had an AAA-contracted tow truck … so AAA must have dispatched that truck from either California City or Ridgecrest (different from our destination in SC).
            Anyhow, way after dark, a tow truck DID appear.  He examined our engine and determined we had sand in the points.  Small wonder:  an air-cooled engine driving through an intense sandstorm.  [Note, in the olden days before electronic ignition, automobiles used to have distributor caps with contact points which would open and close in order to ‘fire’ each cylinder repeatedly.]
            I no longer recall whether the rescuer fixed it there or if he towed us into Trona.  I assume the latter is more likely.  I mean, what are the chances of him having VW parts in his truck?
            Whichever it was, we arrived in Trona and had no idea where my Mom, sister, and cousin had ended up.  Obviously they had found a phone, but where?  It wasn’t like my Dad could’ve told Mom where to meet us because we had no idea what facilities were in tiny Trona.
            Anyhow my Dad and I ended up at Trona’s little hospital [well, more like a clinic].  I think – now, as I’m writing – that the police station would’ve been more logical … if Trona even had one.  While my Dad prowled around town looking for the rest of our family, I remained at the hospital.  A kindly nurse gave me a peanut butter sandwich and checked on me occasionally.  I wasn’t exactly a ‘child’ but I was not yet 13.5 years old … so she likely realized I could use some reassurance.
            It was well into the wee hours of the night when my Dad showed up with Mom and the others.  I no longer remember where they had been all that time. 

            All’s well that ends well.  I no longer recall what we did for the remaining few hours of that long night — presumably we found lodgings, if Trona even had a motel.
            Presumably the VW bus was fixed by the next morning and we were again on our way … to wherever we were headed when we drove through that desert in a sandstorm.

            What is YOUR most interesting travel ‘adventure’?

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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18 Responses to Broke Down and Left in the Desert

  1. Tonya Kappes says:

    Jeff, I have to say that even though it was scary, it seems like it was a great memory with your family.
    I’m not sure what vacation I would say was the most memorable. Knock on wood, there hasn’t been many crazy things happen on our trips.


    • jeff salter says:

      Thanks for visiting and commenting, Tonya.
      Yeah, it was a great memory … even though my actual memory is fading (ha).
      But from my notes in 1983 — at which time I did still recall a lot — I was not scared. Here’s a short quote:
      “To me it was an adventure, and I had absolutely no fear that we would come to harm; after all, I was with my dad.”


  2. Tonette says:

    Wow, scary stuff…again,I see where it’s the beginning of a novel,(if it ends well or even Stephen King-like, but remember, the tow-truck driver theme is MINE…the play is written!)
    It is incredible to think now of how many trips and chances we all took without any life-lines, cell phones, GPS; young people today must see us akin to sailors of old, off to sea.(Actually, they probably don’t pay attention!)
    And it is amzing how we put so many people in the cars;I took many trips with people literally squeezed in. My husband used to fit so many of his siblings into a VW Beetle, someone once told me it was like watching the circus clowns coming out of a tiny car.No need for airbags, between the bodies and the luggage, no one could go flying ANYWHERE.


    • jeff salter says:

      Yes, Tonette. We were practically like the pioneers in conestoga wagons, compared to cross country travel today.
      You didn’t even mention the DVD players, electronic games, etc.
      Our main entertainment — besides aggravating each other and our parents — was watching the scenery for hours on end. I didn’t nap well while traveling and I couldn’t read in motion. So I saw a LOT of scenery. And in some states, it was all the SAME for hundreds of miles.


  3. jbrayweber says:

    It’s so hard for me to imagine splitting the family up like that, in the middle of nowhere, with no assurance of finding them later. I guess I’ve seen too many horror flicks and Twilight Zone episodes. But as you said, all’s well that ends well.

    My family didn’t travel when I was a kid. But I do remember this time on the way back from my grandparents farm (Texas) something unusual. I think I might have been around 10-ish. It was nighttime and it was just my dad and I. Just another long trip home, no different from any other drive home. Except the hundreds, and I mean HUNDREDS of tarantulas on the road. They’d rear up on their legs in the car’s headlights, they’d jump, and invariably, many were run over with a ‘pop’. *shudder* Did I mention there were HUNDREDS of them on the road? Now I’m not one to be afraid of spiders. But that night, I had my knees tucked under my chin in the front seat.



    • jeff salter says:

      Jenn, as I’m typing this reply, I have my feet up and I’m checking for tarantulas. Good grief. Did anybody ever explain why so many were out all at the same time and place? Was it a convention? Were they voting on when to attack the Jenn Bray family?


  4. Adventure indeed. I can remember long road trips when I was a kid, too – all squished up in the car and fighting with my sister on who had the most of the backseat. Brought back some memories with this post, Jeff. Been in a sandstorm myself on occasion!


    • jeff salter says:

      Yes, Jillian. Compared to how we traveled in decades past, the current generation of kids are practically VIPs traveling in well-appointed suites. LOL


  5. Laurie Ryan says:

    How did we ever survive pre-GPS and cell phones? I’m not sure you can find that type of isolation these days, even if you want it. Although, there’s a rustic, somewhat mystical vacation destination on a lake on our state where there is no television or cell coverage, so maybe you can truly “get away.”
    I can’t think of any adventures, but my siblings and I still remember the time we had to cut our lake vacation short to take my brother to the ER. You see, he’d gotten a big sliver embeded under his toenail. (eeeewwwwww!). He got to sit up front with Mom and Dad while the 4 of us piled into the back seat (no seat belts in those days). But we had to put up with his dirty, stinky feet hanging over the back seat and into our faces as Mom made him keep the foot up. We still tease him 40 years later. 🙂


  6. Lindsay says:

    Your adventure sounds scary but your dad did do the right thing in sending your mom and the others to the nearest town while the two of you stayed with the VW.
    Mine wasn’t an adventure as much as it was a nightmare. I was flying home from my honeymoon on 9/11.


    • jeff salter says:

      Wow, Lindsay. That was such a horrific day. I’m sure you were very apprehensive … I know I would have been.
      My daughter, at that time a flight attendant, was also flying that day, but I don’t recall if she was in the air or on the ground when the horrible news hit.


  7. Llewelyn Tucker says:

    That was a fun remembrance! I’m glad you made it through. Truckers back then thought of themselves as ‘knights of the road’ and it was a point of pride that they helped so many people. But they didn’t have the company regulations or the crackheads plaguing them back than either. Now there may be a few who are still ‘knightly’ ( I know of one) but regs keep them from helping. But there are too many creeps out there now.
    My travel tale happened when I was about 9. Dad was driving us from home in New Orleans to my grandmother in Mississippi, a trip we made a thousand times or close. This trip it had started to rain hard and the up and down hill of the road made for difficult driving. At the top of the next hill the rain let up just enough for us to see a car and utility trailer with appliances on it pulled over to the right side of the road. Dad slowed down but as we got to the bottom of the hill, the Ford Ranch Wagon started to hydroplane and we hit the utility trailer knocking the refrigerator 50 feet beyond the car and into the ditch. The stove wasn’t much closer. Our car was down for the count. The police came and everyone got situated. The were two injuries- a cut on the forehead for Mom and a goose egg knot on my 2 years old sister’s head. They were in the front seat. Every one was sore. Since we were not close to home or Grandmother’s we started to look for a hotel but the folks we hit said, “Nonsense. You are coming home with us. We have room.” And we did! I was afraid at first thinking in terms of they would get us back but calmed down when we ate supper and went to bed -3 kids to a bed- me and my 7 year old sister in with their little daughter.

    I didn’t find out until the next day that the dad and pulled over to check the right front tire on their car. He had just reentered the car when we hit. Five of their family of seven were in their car. Some how we got on the road the next morning. I do not recall how or who or if the car was fixed or someone came to get us.But we did go on the grandmother’s house, I think.


    • Jeff Salter says:

      Wow, Llew. Fascinating story. And scary. A miracle nobody was injured worse than that. And how awesome that the family was so kind and hospitable to y’all.
      In a horror movie, they would have skinned you and roasted your brains.


  8. Pingback: Eye-Witness to a Bank Robbery | Four Foxes, One Hound

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