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’?