I hated to take road trips when I was a kid but I liked the stops along the way, I liked to eat new foods and the chances to buy stuff. I wanted “girl watcher” glasses, as my mom called them, with mirrored lenses and metal frames and was able to get some as we passed through Needles in a 1972 Chevy truck. It was the Cheyenne model with dual tanks and a slider rear window.
I rode in the back of the truck with my brother, 18 months younger than me, for the entire trip from the coast of California through Arizona and Utah to somewhere half-way through New Mexico. Today that would be out of the question, putting kids in the back of a pick-up, but this was 1973. We stopped at the tourist attractions like Stuckeys, the great meteor caverns, and the dinosaur tracks if they were open. I wondered if there was really something called a Navajo Taco but I had one and loved it.
I wasn’t sure of the purpose of the trip. I had been in some trouble at home and now we were taking a vacation, I wondered if they were planning to get rid of me or something but the people (parents) were still being nice so I guessed it was OK, they were over it and I didn’t worry too much. I had my own comfort to worry about, what with it being late December in the Mojave and my little brother and I are in the back of a pickup truck going 65.
We gassed up in Albuquerque and headed further east before leaving the highway to head straight south. My family had come from central New Mexico and we were on our way to see Meme, Uncle AB and Aunt June and maybe another relative in the foot hills of Pinto Bean country, not too far from Mexico proper.
We arrived in a small town that looked a lot like a movie set with abandoned and boarded store fronts. Growing up in Los Angeles, I assumed everyone was busy, living in a boom town like back home but that was only the opinion of a fifteen year old. The roads were delineated by tumble weeds and tan colored sand that crept onto tarmac like a slow moving, but unstoppable flood. There were ball fields and shopping centers but this wasn’t spring in a 12 month town, it was fall in a farming community after harvest.
We came in the back way past my Uncles filling station. A sign mentioned help wanted but that “hippies need not apply”. Having come from Los Angeles, particularly the suburb of known as Hollywood where talent ruled over tint, I wondered what made some folks unacceptable in the eyes of others without out even giving them a chance to test how they really behave. I was always being told not to misbehave but not what to believe, that was up to me to learn.
After some time we entered what seemed to be the back door to the town. “Everyone was at the front door, when we came in the back” my uncle might have said if he was in the car with us at the time. I remembered a lot about the time we spent at our Aunt and Uncles house. He was good with words and making people feel at ease. A blend of southern hospitality with western charm.
As it turned out, no one noticed us as far as I could tell.
We swung right at the ball field and arrived with a feeling it was the perfect time, like it always is. My Aunt and Uncle were as beautiful as I remembered them; so warm and welcoming. So much so that I remember the moment even to this day.
I played in Meme’s 51 De’Soto sedan . She had delivered mail in that car, she said, and it was still equipped with snow tires from the day it was parked for good to scorch in the desert sun. It was now almost January and it still felt like summer.
I begged her for stories of the old days, and I wanted to feed her Chinchillas until I was told they would pee on anyone that upset them and decided to focus on other things.
I spent the first few days playing in the yard in the old car and drawing. I had made a few sketches after reading some things in a book I was given and played “Mouse trap” between trips to the kitchen. This was the first place I ever had biscuits and gravy country style with a week’s worth of pot liquor mixed with flour and spices. I loved to play Mousetrap as much as any kid but I was beginning to get bored and was looking out the window for something to do when my cousin pulled up in his copper colored F-150 Pick-up and asked my mom if “the boys” could go shooting. Just my cousin Michael , Mark (my brother) and myself.
I had fired guns before and had completed a hunters safety course, but my cousin really knew his stuff and had some nice guns. We went to the dump to shoot vultures and tin cans with his 30-06 rifle. The targets seemed irrelevant as I was pretty nervous about shooting a full-sized rifle with a cartridge like that. I thought about it a lot and knew what to do, but when I had my chance there standing in a chilling western wind, the gun was heavy and hard to aim and my strength was failing me. I only wanted to pull the trigger and be done. I yanked it and suddenly understood that what propelled the little bit of copper coated lead at near super-sonic speeds was a rather intense explosion and a small part of the (rumored) anchor of opposing mass was heading right for my eye socket.
I felt the back end of the scope hit my skull with a slam and my first instinct was to apologize for messing up such a simple thing like shooting a high-powered rifle. It was stupid and I was bleeding.
My cousin played it off just fine like he himself had done the same thing and we cleaned up the mess before my little brother took notice. He had a .22 and was shooting cans left and right and was unaware of what had happened. I had to admit I didn’t hit anything, dead or alive, and felt pretty empty when we got back in the truck. By then, my brow had stopped bleeding but it hurt like hell. It felt like the time the jellyfish stung my foot while I swam at Zuma beach the summer before, cold and numb.
We went around and met a few of my cousins friends. Paul had a drag racer and took us for a ride around the block, he told my brother he worked for the state police and he was the only one in the area and off-duty, ah, no worries. I had read a lot of Hot Rod magazines over the years and knew he had a big-block Chevy because he had the same brackets holding all the engine parts on but the engine itself was much wider than the one in our truck, which was a 350 and must have been a small-block since I had read of both. I asked him if it was a “big block” as we rolled around the corner and he floored it! The tires clawed at the paved surface, and the acceleration forcing my back against the pleated vinyl seat. I protected my eye from the wind that came through the windows as we raced down the dry desolate roads and I still felt stupid at 100 miles per hour, but it was fun.
Not much else happened worth mentioning and I am sure a couple of days went by at least. I guess someone had made plans for us to see our uncle Ed but he wasn’t known for showing up just because people were expecting him. He had served in three branches of the military before dropping out to join a motorcycle gang. I am not sure how he ended up being happy living in the mountains all alone but it seemed a long way from being painted green and stacked so deep one needs a serial number.
When we got to town one afternoon after a trip to Belen, AB and June were on the porch watching the world blow by on what now seemed like an endless conduit of dust and well traveled air that flowed past the house.
The grown ups talked about the trip with a caller. No one had seen Uncle Ed for a while, but back in July when he sent my birthday card, he promised he would be at home when we arrived in December.
The people talked for a while while I pretty much avoided them, then as (not) expected, everyone started to pack for another trip. We also grabbed some camping gear which was odd as it was starting to feel like the seasons were changing finally to the second of the usual two, I figured since we were carting supplies we must be heading way out of town so I joined in like I had been taught.
We left a little later than I thought we should have. I got that trait from my dad as we both knew when it was time to go. We headed toward the hills and it began to snow. We banged on the window for my mom to pull over when we couldn’t take the cold anymore but it took a while to get her attention. I also had to pee. I watched a small plane labor to maintain it’s position on the map, the wind taking almost all it had before it dipped out of sight and I had trouble keeping my balance but I locked the front hubs of the truck to enable the four-wheel-drive as I had on numerous trips where trouble might be found in the shifting sand. I turned around to finish my business and quickly climbed in.
We were soon underway, all in the front seat. With the flick of a switch, the smell of hot air from the vents filled the cab. It seemed to be the first time we had used the heater in a long time. Looking upon the red foothills that rolled out and up in front of us, the road, the fence and the old telegraph lines brought home the concept of the “vanishing point” outlined in my book on hand drawing in a way that no words could.
As we gained altitude the few flakes of snow that we had seen below had turned to near whiteout conditions. Not much had accumulated on the ground but it was blowing around the vehicle and looked like millions of little white flies. I hadn’t seen falling snow before that moment, and I could feel the cold coming right through the door of the truck. The traces of snow blowing across the red sand captured my mind, already slightly fatigued from the day’s activities, and I drifted a bit till I noticed the view blocked by a foggy window. I watched as beads of moisture blown across the glass, lurch rearward with each gust, formed temporary union with others only to break apart as they got too big to move and were in danger of losing purchase of the glass. I wondered why we were here when my thoughts were shattered by a horrible screeching sound.
A branch of a tree was was coming toward me and I ducked. My brother chortled a funny sound, as he had been paying attention and didn’t bolt knowing he was protected behind the windshield, I became aware of the way the truck rocked and swayed like a boat on a trip upriver. We were on a river that existed without our being aware of it or it’s unrealized potential as it was dry or frozen today but at one point in time it had been 20′ deep. As we arched across the canyon wall, avoiding the worst of the obstacles, and the view leveled out we could see my uncles cabin further up the canyon but only because something metallic and shiny was causing a reflection. My mother, using great care not to damage the truck on the rugged terrain, went on at safe pace like that of a confident sea captain that was sailing familiar waters .
Driving between steep grades and blocked from both the wind and the sun we ran out tire tracks when we hit the snow. We were on a remote dirt road, far from civilization and I felt empowered. The road had become rugged, it would take me getting out of the truck to guide my mom across the last 100 yards to the reflection, tents and pile of sheet metal that was our destination.
My dad had described my uncle as a “desert rat” and I always felt it was a tongue in cheek compliment somehow. Rats seem to have it easy compared to someone who seeks shelter in an old camper layered with tar paper, road signs and worn out tires. I don’t think rats find nirvana in a tin nest staring across a horizon void of color, variation and community for most of the year. The motorcycle he liked to ride was there but the door was standing wide open. None of that meant anything so we looked inside: He was gone. We touched a few things and everything liquid was frozen solid. Mom was mad and ordered us back to the truck. She looked around like she wanted to grab something and break it, just to get back at him for not being home. I felt a bit of that myself.
My brother and I looked around the camp while my mom thought about breaking some windows. We picked our way through the rocks on the way up to the top of one of mounds of dirt and rubble that surrounded the camp. A large silver tarp formed a tent atop a rock pile a few yards up the canyon. There was a large antenna just beyond that. I approached the structure with caution and raised a corner with a stick I had picked up. There were snakes in the high desert and summer had broken just weeks ago so one might expect to have an encounter of the undesirable type by reaching a hand under a tarp. I felt I had the makings of a desert rat in many ways.
A green glow from a military radio cast a faint green spray of light under the tarp. Large metal boxes painted the color of chalkboards were positioned behind a rugged truck tire with a folding chair leaning against them. I knew exactly what it was and what it did. I had an amateur operators license I had earned in scouts a couple of years back. It seemed odd that the radio was on when no electrical service existed so far from civilization. I found the power switch and reached over and gave it a touch. I knew everything was a survival situation to a certain degree and you could smell it under that tarp. Even keeping the tubes warm took a lot of power. I heard my name being called and returned to my family.
My mom and brother were on their knees at the side of the truck. I could tell by the way the truck was leaning that a tire had gone flat. She would need to pull the truck forward to access the wheel lugs but that failed when the rim just spun in the tire as she attempted to creep forward. I threw my hand up and signaled to back the truck and as it began to move the rock sticking out of the sidewall became visible. I knew nothing about repairing a tire except that we would not drive out on that one.
It took a long time to get the jack positioned. It also took just as long to get out from behind the seat. None of the things we would need were easy to get at and the instructions were hard to read with what light remained. It was getting cold and my hands were numb. My brother didn’t complain and was right there to help. My mom had hurt her hand but managed to get the spare out from under the truck. I am sure the wheel was near her own weight but it lacked the fortitude of a frightened mother and soon gave way to her efforts.
She took us indoors before we could begin to loosen the bolts. We would need to build a fire if we were to use the shelter, or we could retreat to the truck. There were some matches to be found near the door. I lit one and found a candle close by and once the candle was lit, I found a lantern and a little swirl of the chassis told me that there was fuel in the tank. I closed the valve in the pump and gave in twenty good strokes. I lit the lantern and followed the recipe for a perfect flame. While doing so, I began to search for more fuel as my brother brought our clothes and the green canvas bags from the truck. I had been camping dozens, if not hundreds, of times and knew that we would sleep a little and be cold a lot. My mom stayed at home for most of those trips so my brother and I, knowing the routine, went to work but she did anything but watch.
We got a fire going in the vintage iron hearth using pieces of greasewood . I don’t know if it’s really what the plant is called (Adenostoma fasciculatum) but I did know it was easy to collect, light and it burned hot and seemed to be full of fuel as it burst into flames once heated. It would be nice if there were other things to burn but this is what we had on hand, there were no trees. I also loved the smell of it’s smoke. I was taught that these scrub brushes or trees or whatever they were, were some of the oldest living plants on the earth. They grew in large circles and very slowly. Only branches that had been discarded by the plant could be burned and the only way to tell is if the plant would release the branch when you gave it only a gentle tug. Sticks that were dry enough to burn would break right off. Any fire would be very small and would require maintenance even if the wood was 1000 years old. I was the person with that job and made sure every bit of usable fuel was consumed and was the only witness when the fire went out.
I waited a bit and tried to sleep and I kept my feet below my head but they still got cold. I had learned to strip to my long-johns and put my coat and pants over the top of my crappy cotton stuffed sleeping bag to keep warm but it had become much colder than anything I had felt in my short life and I dared to doubt my survival skills and began to get tears in my eyes and wanted to leave a note. I was the only one awake and the last glow of the embers seemed like a beating heart that was losing strength and would soon become silent. I was so tired and wanted to rest and my mind began to produce answers to the questions I wasn’t asking. I wanted to survive but couldn’t feel my body any longer. I was ready to accept the warmth that was being offered. I met a new friend that promised relief from the bitter pain. There was, however a catch that required some consideration.
The door burst open at some point after midnight. I heard someone out front but didn’t rouse until the blast of cold air hit my face and upon opening my eyes I saw a brilliant orange light inches from my face. There was a fire blazing in front of me and sparks were flying everywhere. I bolted up to see a large shadow pass between me and the the blaze in front. I had a moment or two to myself when the person I had seen before returned to the room with an armload of burning wood filling the small space with smoke and fire as they began to shove the burning mass into the fire pit. My lungs were washed in searing pain and I struggled to extricate myself from the pile of Sears-Roebuck jeans and mildewed canvas only to find my forehead pressed against a wall of flesh that smelled like burnt Gear Oil pressed in the shape of a hand.
“There is trouble out there and I’ll need your help” was what I heard but not so much in sound but vibration. There was a man standing in the doorway who had carried an armload of burning firewood in and dropped it at my feet. He brushed the embers from his coat and thrust his hand toward me faster than I could respond.
“Cowboy” he grunted. Huh? “Cowboy is my handle and Eddie said you would be here”. Embers swirled about the room like fireflies illuminating the room momentarily, punctuated by the darkest of black. It was then that he spoke again. “Time is important, we need to go”.
A greasy glove grabbed me between the wrist and elbow and I was suddenly swept from my cot and dropped on the dirt floor without warning or delay. I felt compelled to cooperate and spoke. “You know my uncle?”, “Boy, your uncle never mentioned the Cowboy?” His head pitched back and a huge face emerged from the hood of the red Fireman’s raincoat he wore as his boot came down between my feet, his massive voice spinning the bolts that held the building together as he quickly explained that there had been a plane crash in the canyons above where Ed had been prospecting and time was important. A giant fist again appeared in front of me and dropped in my hand with the weight of the axle jack I had struggled with hours earlier but it the form of a greeting of warm flesh.
“Cowboy” he said and showed me the teeth he still had. I didn’t mention I had never met my uncle.
The cabin door must have blown open and been open all night as snow was inches deep at the threshold and extended several feet beyond. I looked across at my mother and brother in the cot next to me and sleeping comfortably. I groped for my clothes trying to pretend my body wasn’t convulsing, shivering beyond my control in the few seconds that I had been exposed, as it caused me to feel like a scarecrow and laugh out loud. The man I had just met was stuffing wood in the fire box. One of the pieces he bought in had just come from a fire somewhere and was still burning brightly. Even half asleep, I noticed that.
The fire quickly picked up as I dressed and laced my boots and located my gloves to complete the process and the last thing I touched was the handle to the door of the cabin. It was an aluminum casting, salvaged from a commercial freezer, and should have been freezing cold. It was not.
Stepping out the door was like landing on a new planet. I knew our truck was 20 feet from the door and at a 15 degree angle or so. But there was no truck there now. There was another vehicle, however. At least 60ft long and 20ft tall, it was a school bus for the most part but the whole front was gone, fenders, engine, all of it. In it’s place were animals. They were joined by ropes, chains and rusty steel beams from which icicles hung and extended beyond the aura of firelight. There were Buffalo, Elk, Draft Horses and others I didn’t know. The bus had been equipped with tires from a piece of farm equipment that were much bigger than original and it’s stance was that of a “wagon of doom” but it smelled like a Sunday bar-b-que. On the back of the vehicle was a large camp fire. The steel beams that surrounded it glowed a deep red. The brush and rocks surrounding the fire, forming images and shadows, that stretched ever so grotesque as they danced in the light of the burning wagon.
I tripped and stumbled, landing on the ground just beyond the porch and bounced right up before anyone noticed. I had forgotten my pocket knife
The Cowboy had climbed up the side of the bus and was taking a seat on part of a park bench bolted about 6″ below the flashing lights, which were glowing the color of the fire somehow. I stood frozen in my track next to the front wheel which was double my height. The cowboy reached down and grabbed me by the collar of my coat and dropped me seated square on the plank. I felt the cold around my ears and had only seconds to enjoy the view before the big wrinkle in the reins reached the 20,000 lbs of livestock that were chained to the front of this rig and the clang of a freight train echoed across the valley as we began to move ahead, directly over the rock formation we had been forced to negotiate with before in the truck.
I held on to the seat back with one hand and pressed my feet against a piece of train track mounted cross-ways as a foot rest and was able to stay on the top side as it swayed and pitched with each feature of the landscape. ‘Cowboy just leaned.
The air was frigid and the wind blew a steady gale up canyon, gaining speed as the funnel got smaller. The sparks from the fire box swirled and bounced and spilled all over the desert landscape now totally void of anything flammable. We could see a glow on the side of the mountain, a few yards from that was a blinking light. I didn’t need to ask where we were going as we picked up speed.
Soon enough we rounded a bend and reflections light could be seen further ahead across a ravine. More spots, but dark had began to appear closer as we crested a ridge but there were scars on the earth exposing soil unbleached by the long shade-less days. My first thought was that the plane had crashed at an excavation site. I was somewhat correct as the impact of the plane had moved the rocks and earth and had created the mosaic of destruction that laid before me…….I never conceived of such a thing.
I thought I heard a voice over the clatter and confusion of the metal and wood organism that ground to a halt for a moment that seemed to stop time. The Cowboy pawed at a long lever nearly at the end of his reach and drew it back towards him as we began to roll backwards. A mighty roar of stripping gear teeth locked the two rear wheels that began to skid across the ground. The horses reared up and took a step back as I came to understand the extraordinary mass of the vehicle as it came to a stop against gravity and three tons of animal.
The Cowboys’ huge hand lowered me to within a foot of the ground before letting go of my collar. I wasn’t ready for the landing and stumbled briefly before tumbling to the ground but bounced up quickly and glad to be dressed as I was against the bleak and foreboding landscape now back-lit and dabbled with the glow of dark red flames and curl of thick black smoke. The wreckage now lay behind us. I began to run toward the fuselage but it was so hard to breathe that my legs quickly became thick and weak. My heart pounded in my ears and the skin on my face became thin and stiff but I could feel tears running down my cheeks into my coat. I quickly covered the distance between myself and The Cowboy who had, what looked like a carpet roll, over his right shoulder and a large heavy lantern in his left hand slowly swinging with each step and tossing a hazy glow over the fist-sized crumbs of mineral in assorted colors that stood several thousand feet tall and divided the miles of plains that were laid out at it’s sides. I first noticed the profile of a wing, then as other features appeared, I could see a man laying in the open doorway of the fuselage and he was attempting to speak as we approached. I foolishly took a small breath as a barrel of thick toxic smoke blew across my path. The air cleared quickly but the lingering taste in my mouth made me worry.
The Cowboy had arrived a few feet from the man and may have spoken a word to him before quickly walking 20′ uphill and laid the rolled rug on the ground and spun around to take a quick glance at my progress. A glint in his eye told me to go straight to the rug and begin to unroll it. I was able to maintain my pace up the rugged hillside taking small steps and lifting my feet the same amount each time as it was the only way I could get enough air. I remembered being in a place like this before many years earlier with my brother and father. A place where the air was thin and we cooked fish over a tiny fire, it was cold then also and I wondered if my uncle had been there somewhere also. Perhaps close by but beyond our range of attention as young boys at a remote-camp site my family had used for years.
The carpet was actually a tent or something and was made from a thick, tattered fabric and worn nearly through in places. It was canvas I think. It was positioned so I could unroll it quickly, moving from one end to the other. There were tool handles extending from pockets, bundles and packages neatly folded and pressed between the layers. I had the strangest feeling that put my mind at ease as the panic begin to subside a bit. I felt the presence of the people who had taken the time to explain a few simple things to me at one time or another and just teach me how to do things. Anything. And though I can’t cite a single example of something I had been taught about dealing with where I was at the moment, I knew I wasn’t alone and I could see images of the people around me gathering to share what they knew at some point in the past and were kind enough to teach me a thing or two. As I went to my knees I took a quick inventory then grabbed for blankets and the white box with the red cross. I knew where I was kneeling in relation to the wrecked plane and had seen the pilot on the other side and that the sound of metal and the tiny calm voice I heard call out wasn’t coming from Cowboy or the pilot, but the cab of the plane. I quickly turned to see small pale face in the window of the craft when I heard the words “Boy, what is your name?”
The plane was laying on it’s bottom right side in sort of a “V” shaped ditch, more on the side than the bottom I would say and there was door on that side also. Some sheet metal had been torn from the front and parts of the wing were splayed against the side of the plane and had been covering the hole in the plane, where there once was a small window was a girl of about twelve or so. I was surprised and I felt my face turn red and the only reply I could produce while clambering to my feet was “What?”. She gave a small smile and moved to place herself closer to the port that she called from. “Can you check on the pilot? I think he is badly hurt”. I looked at the contents in my hands and back at the girl and began to walk toward her again and before I could speak again “Please, can you help him?”. I ran around the tail of the plane and toward the man I had seen leaning against the wrinkled shell of the airplane and came upon Cowboy, who had removed his own overcoat and placed it over the pilot, who was now a few feet from the door of the plane in a patch of sand. I reached out with the first aid kit as I came between the plane and pilot. I stopped short seeing the amount of blood that the man had lost while waiting for us to arrive. I had been so overwhelmed with the ascent of the mountain that I hadn’t considered that people may be badly injured or worse and that striking the ground at 100 mph would be devastating. The pilot was bleeding from several places, the worse had been his left arm which now was wrapped with a tourniquet made from a strip of fabric. He had been unconscious, but within a few moments after being wrapped with the blanket and coat he began to stir and cough. He immediately began to sputter numbers, repeating them several times. They were unclear at first but I quickly understood it was the number on the side of the plane and perhaps coordinates describing the crash location. It was a lot for me to take in. I handed the items I had collected to Cowboy after touching his shoulder to get his attention. I suppose I waited a little while to mention the girl still in the plane but when I did, Cowboy didn’t seem surprised. “Someone had looked in on this fella a while before we arrived it seems, and I figured that someone else was on the same flight”. I scrambled around to the front of the plane and noticed the propeller was broken and part of the cowling had been torn away. There were fluids leaking everywhere and some smelled like they could ignite so I got up the embankment as quickly as I could. There was a Manzanita there, and a bit out of place considering where we were, but I grabbed the ruby-red branches and took the short cut through the stickers without catching a single thorn. Once I had pulled myself up, I looked through the windshield and through the cracks I could see the girl, watching me approach with anticipation. The passenger side window was shattered but had stayed in place, the window just rearward had been broken out completely and it was there that we exchanged words again.”Your dad is OK I think!” I yelled out against the wind that gained speed as it went by the narrow profile of the plane as it worked it’s way up the canyon as the rising sun warmed the surface. She replied “I am so relieved, I wasn’t sure I had been any help” and with that I had somewhat of an idea what had happened. She added “I didn’t know him before today but he had been very caring and he did the best he could under the conditions.” as I approached the side of the plane I gently removed the strips of metal that laid about and pulled on the latch to open the door. Glass began to fall but I was careful and didn’t cause the saggy broken panel to completely let go. I had to move a little dirt but the door opened enough for me to look in on the passenger and offer anything that I could to help. She was small and bundled up quite well. I asked her if she had been hurt and she laughed a bit and said the crash “Wasn’t as scary as realizing they were alone in a remote area in such bad weather” and she also remarked that it had been her that had propped the pilot up, administered first aid and then covered him as best as she could. I watched her as she spoke and realized, though small, she was older than me. A grown-up for sure. I heard Cowboy calling from the other side of the plane “Scrub, where’ya at?!” as he quickly scaled the terrain in two great steps. “What we got here boy?” She quickly interrupted upon seeing Cowboy and exclaimed “You must be driving that team I saw across the valley, thank you so much for coming for us!” She glanced quickly at me and I could see she was a little startled when Cowboy gently moved me aside and looked in to see her all covered in a pile of clothing and peeling home-knitted gloves from here hands. “Is the pilot OK? Will he be alright, He told me his name was James?” The Cowboy replied “You did good work there, ‘likely saved his life, by my guess. Are you OK?”. She offhandedly remarked that other that a bruise or two, she would be fine.”What can I do?”. “We need to put the skid together and get James to the rig so we can get him down the mountain, can you sit tight for a bit while ‘Scrub and I get this done? I’ll gather a few things and get ready to go while you take care of James”.
With that Cowboy flipped back the canvas roll he had brought and produced two thick wood dowels about 8′ long and pushed them through loops on a flap he had torn free from buttons on the edges. He then took two short pieces of rope and tied them to the one end of each pole. We worked our way around to the other side of the vessel to find the pilot conscious and aware of his surroundings. Cowboy placed the skid next to the pilot and we dragged him by his clothing a little at a time until we had him completely on the skid and covered him again with the blankets we had brought along with the ones we had found him with. It took a while to get him back to the rig, but I took some pleasure at the look on his face as we got closer. Cowboy took the front of the skid and I steered it from the back with the ropes, keeping the damaged pilot from bouncing off one rock to the next as we made progress. Cowboy pulled like one of those animals on the front of the wagon and seemed to dig in and “find another gear” as my dad used to say and kept right on pulling with no additional effort. I hoped to grow up to be like that but it seems like a long way from here.
I was sweating and breathing hard but the warmth from the fire on the back of the wagon felt good on my fingers which were aching from the cold. I had taken my gloves off a while back and the pain was remarkable. Cowboy opened a door on the side of the rig and there were some brackets on the side of wagon we could hook the skid poles onto lift one end at a time until the skid was at the threshold, Cowboy shoved the wounded pilot through the door and swung it shut after a promise to return quickly. We headed back to the aircraft for the girl. She had done a good job caring for the pilot and I had to admit that had I been involved in something like that, I doubt I would have been so cool. Cowboy cracked a joke about borrowing a cup of sugar as we approached the plane. By now the sun was warming the ground around the plane and I unzipped my coat and put my stretched out old watchman’s cap in the pocket. We carefully removed the metal shards from around the door and opened it without disturbing what remained of the shattered window. We filled the moment with an update that the pilot was doing better and was safely in the vehicle. The girl was still cheerful he seemed to be fine but we both noticed she had dozens of cuts and scratches all over her hands and forearms. She was sure there were no broken bones “at least ones I can feel” was her reply. I was asked to gently support her legs as she was removed from the fuselage. She was very small and thin, Cowboy hovered his body over hers and told her to hang on as he lifted her and himself gently from the mangled plane with an arm around her back. I placed my arms under her legs as she was slid from the passenger seat and noticed there was little more than some tiny bones and a pair of shoes and that her knees of her jeans looked they had been on the same trip her hands had and been nearly worn through. Cowboy gently set her on the carpet roll and covered her with a thick wool blanket “Can you walk sweetie?” “No, I can’t today but there is some hope that will change”. I didn’t understand at first and it must have been taking too long as she spoke again “I have a tumor on my spine that I’ve had since I was a child. I am unable to walk without assistance”. The thoughts moved quickly when I realized what she was saying. She not only survived a plane crash and likely saved the life of the pilot but she did so in the dark, during a life-threatening fire and while pulling herself along with her hands only and no help from her legs
Cowboy carried the girl, wrapped in a blanket over one shoulder and the extinguished lantern in the other. It had been my assumption that we would abandon the gear we had spread around but Cowboy made a point that I return to the crash site and and restock the roll exactly how I had found it with one exception, I was to remove the Walkie Talkie from the roll so that we could make a call. I made another trip back to the plane for some of the personal items stored in the cargo hold. My stomach burned for a moment recalling the HAM radio under the tarp and my thoughts about how long the batteries would survive without our help and that now the situation was very different. I can remember the grey paint, rough texture and enormous size compared to today’s devices but it had a decent range from our path far above any potential listeners. I memorized my call letters “K-C-M-2-8-5-6 requesting an emergency channel”. I waited a few seconds and called again “K-C-M-2-8-5-6 requesting an emergency channel” again I waited a few seconds and as I positioned my finger over the transmit button I heard a crackle over the speaker. “You have an audience K-C-M-2-8-5-6 please proceed” I knew to speak in short sentences and provide information but I didn’t really know anything and handed the radio to Cowboy, showing me those teeth again as we slowed a bit to make the hand-off. You could tell Cowboy was very comfortable using the radio. He also knew the man at the other end who called him by name after he described the location of the crash and where we would meet the ambulance or at least how I thought it would go. I was proud of myself for remembering how to use the radio correctly though it wasn’t something I used regularly. Many of the things my brother and I did and why my parents insisted was sort of a mystery. The radio communication and shooting skill classes, regular camping trips and the freedom to travel 20 miles from a remote camp site, alone on a motorcycle or even a bicycle.
I heard what sounded like a loud clap of thunder off in the distance that echoed though the rigid canyons like ripples on a undisturbed lake. I had no idea why Cowboy chose animals and this conglomeration of steel fire and flesh to move himself around in. Plenty of people had modified military trucks or jeeps to travel in remote areas with good results. We were averaging a decent pace and the animals took care of themselves as we went along and as long as we kept a reasonable pace and managed our effort. It wasn’t fast but anything this size would move with conviction and resonance.
We had to stop a few times to check on the passengers. The pilot wasn’t bleeding much but I still spent much of the ride in the back because I was able wiggle through a freezer door bolted through the roof of the bus and down to the passengers below to try to help where I could. The girl had dozed off in a big pile of animal skins and blankets in the corner, the pilot was still unconscious. Cowboy stopped the rig once to check the bandages and make sure our guests were comfortable and not getting any worse. I had left the radio up front and had no idea that our plans had changed and we were heading straight to the highway using the shortest route at our disposal.
The sun shone across the planes like a blade of white fire with it’s heat passing just above the stucco textured mountains. In the spring, the tiny flowers that are too small to see from a few yards away would be so plentiful that they would tint the entire desert floor as they unfurled themselves to bathe in the flood of light, but today, now was the end of the summer and me being still too young to appreciate autumn and it’s almost invisible influence on desert life, nothing seemed to be alive or at least awake.
The rail road, telegraph lines and a service road all ran parallel to each other, and to my eyes, marked the beginning of the desert floor and the end of the mountains though the terrain was far from flat. I had noticed the train wasn’t moving and that neither end of the lengthy machine could be seen from where yet, we were still heading the same direction following either one path or another and never cutting straight across. I didn’t have to ask why this was done though I lacked the words to describe it exactly describe it other than “we are not birds”. I could also see a dust cloud far off in the distance emanating from a vehicle moving in our direction. Had we been stopped I would have been able to identify that it was not a car or truck but a group of motorcycles by the sound that would travel all over the giant valley til bits and fragments arrived at my ears because there were few other sounds to compete with. Just the bus and the motorcycles . When we finally drew up close to the rail lines on one of the thousands of old dirt roads that formed the lattice of humanity’s imprints on the planet, but we were also up against a wall of steel that may have been as many as twenty miles long and with neither end of the giant steel chain that stretched beyond our range of sight, it seemed like were covering a lot of ground going nowhere. I leaned out and peered toward the back of the vehicle only to see the giant tires churning up a million years of silt that due to it’s small particle size will remain airborne for several days will settle somewhere far from here. The old dirt road would rise and descend with the profile of the foothill side of the rail line. The terrain was flatter on the other side of the tracks and between the rail cars I could see several smooth avenues heading in a perfectly perpendicular path to the direction of our travel, but none drew the attention of the Cowboy though at our direction, the sweating, breathing engines pursued each undulation with unending enthusiasm as we approached a dilapidated ranch another 1,000 yards adrift from our current location.
100 years of sun, wind and struggle were evident in the emaciated skeleton of fence posts that somehow held the endless expansive desert at bay with a few posts and rolls of wire, all of which leaned from the pressure of the breeze that, while sometimes a blessing, pressed against it’s foundation like the endless weight of gravity. We slowed a bit as we came to an area with cattle pens on our left, next to the sleeping train and the homestead to our right in the shade of a few Palo Verde that had dropped their brilliant yellow flowers en masse on the surface of the rusting steel vessels for watering the livestock. Filled by the windmills that must have been working away though for no master anywhere in sight. More here than anywhere yet in our adventure, the road was worn deep into two trough-shaped ruts that would likely guide the vessel with no human input. Finally a moment of silence when we finally rolled to a stop and took inventory of our condition. Though the air was cool still, my face felt warm from the many hours of cold dry desert wind. My ears rung from the increase in air pressure and warmth from the sunny spot on the valley floor. I could hear that the motorcycles I had seen earlier were now approaching. Cowboy had climbed up top and rolled a couple of logs that had been lodged between a few sections of graveyard fence protruding from the top of the vehicle into the hungry fire below. The animals, startled by the crash and explosion of embers, lurched forward just a bit and almost sent me to the desert floor from my position on the front, a couple of stories up if not for the generous amount of pipe welded to the front of the rig. This time I reached out for the brake lever and gave it a good pull. It didn’t move far the first time, but my second pull was much better. Cowboy had both of the doors on the port side opened wide. The pilot was now fully conscious and as I moved across the side of the wagon on one of the narrow catwalks that ran front to rear, just above the wheels “Scrub, can you help our passengers and gather their belongings?” Cowboy called out. I wasn’t sure he was aware of the motorcycles but I was sure, he wasn’t unaware as the sound echoing against the side of the box cars was unmistakably, a couple of triumph twins, a BSA B50 and the quite metronome beat of a BMW H.O. motor that all became silent one at a time as they jockied the bikes around just on the other side of the hollow iron cube that stood between us and them.
The rustic wooden hand-hewn cattle ramp that stood just a few yards away from where we were parked it’s floor terminated level with the floor of the rail cars and nearly perfectly aligned with the heavy locked door of the ruddy brown car. “ Can you show our guests in please” Cowboy called out as I dragged a few pieces of luggage and a wheel chair folded flat for travel. I stacked the items on the ground and jogged between the rows of steel wire that lined the path. I instinctively reached my hand out for balance up the rugged ramp but quickly recoiled when the railing I expected was actually barbed wire decorated with bits of dried flesh and fur torn from the sides of the cattle as they made the trek into the rail car that sat idle in the never ending sun. The latch was large and heavy but well-worn from the endless vibration caused millions of revolutions of the heavy iron wheels and I was able to work the latch with no trouble but unable to move the door. I looked back to see if Cowboy had any signals for me (as he seemed to whenever I was in doubt of what I was doing) Hearing voices on the other side, I gave the door another heave and with the help of another set of hands on the other side, we quickly had the door completely open. “Well hello there young man! Come say hi to Bessie” a woman’s voice called out but the light splashed across the floor only illuminated a pair of heavy leather boot with thick soles, the type that were used by cousin Mitchell who was a Lineman for the power company. She quickly stepped into the light and bending a little, to my eye level, removed dusty leather goggles and a badly chipped helmet. She was well over my height and bigger than any woman I had met before but with the face of a movie star with wavy brown hair cascading over the sheep skin collar of her winter parka. From glancing under the low slung frame of the rail car I could see at least three people or perhaps four on the ground and though I didn’t see or hear it, there must have been a truck or something to move the people with as the moments were slipping away. I looked up at Bessie as the put her hands on my shoulders and moved us toward the closed-off end of the box car. I heard a motorcycle burst to life and the racket from the open exhaust pounded the flat sheet walls and briefly faded as the bike moved away for a few moments then seemed to be coming toward us. I felt safe standing next to my new friend but I plugged my ears anyway and put my hand on the nearest wall. I had expected something to pass through the door but not a side-car motorcycle. The rider was standing and struggling with the heavy machine as it bounced and scraped it’s bottom through the threshold , then suddenly as though it was part of his body, quickly swung the corner and vanished down the ramp. I struggled to escape Bessie’s grasp but felt her pull me firmly toward her just as another sidecar motorcycle fought the steep grade in line behind the first. She wore a lot of perfume but was as strong as any grown man and it didn’t seem to me that she had been the first one through the door that she didn’t get out here as a passenger on the back of one of those bikes. I thought that was cool.
The pilot was doing better and was able to speak. Between the shock of the horrible wreck, severe injuries, and exposure to the elements the man was lucky to be alive and if not for the little angel, he would not be. There was one more rider who stayed on the other side of the train. The riders, all a mish-mosh of scrap and re-purposed items, worked quickly to move the injured passengers. I wanted to approach the girl as she was loaded into one of the “sidehacks” as they were called and ask her what she was called and let her know my name wasn’t really Scrub but before too long the work was done and the motorcycles left just as they had arrived in a cloud of dust toward the closest hospital.
My brother showed up suddenly and my face flashed red as I remembered I had almost shut the radio off the day before and but they had heard my transmission on the portable radio describing the situation (though we were unable to hear their response) and decided to meet us here and a short while after Cowboy and I had left the camp early that morning, Uncle Ed had returned to camp in his Jeep with news about the missing plane also. To me it seemed like a great stroke of luck that my uncle’s friends had been so close but as I came to understand it was something of a ritual, being at the “right place, at the right time” was an annual affair that the “feared and fearless” became the saviors in times of need though not in an official sense. I had noticed under a layer of dirt and oil , the sense of duty on the faces of those I met today that was pretty hard to ignore. I fell in line with the others and did my job like it was my only purpose.
“I guess we showed up at the right time” now speaking to the Cowboy as an authority on the subject, but mostly to show my brother that the Cowboy and I were now friends but the Cowboy didn’t reply as he moved toward the wagon. My mom had remained in the truck for a while but now was shouting something, calling my brother and I over to the point between the cars where she stood with our little aluminum ice chest. I glanced back at the cowboy as he withdrew four buckets and large metal tub that he filled with water from black pool, still in the shade from nine o’clock sun. My mothers coal black hair was tied back with a red scarf which struck me as the brightest color I had seen today. My brother darted under the massive hitch that resembled two rigid hands interlocked in such a way as to divide the work and I moved to the side to grab the other end by lifting the chrome bar. I formed my fingers like the coupling on the train and the work seemed easier than ever.
My brother and I hauled the cooler to a circle of black stones soon joined by our mother and Cowboy. My mom took note of the surroundings and kneeling, began to remove the neatly packaged picnic items she had prepared the day before. Cowboy spoke. “Sam, (my mothers name is Samantha) it’s going to be a holiday like the past few” and seemed look beyond our faces, lost in thought or a painful memory, rubbing his grainy palm back over his forehead, pulling off his filthy hat and slicking back his few strands of hair in one motion he continued “Me and the boys got those old GI radios out a few years back so we could meet up in town from time to time. We were getting old and the days just drift by sometimes and the name of the day loses importance. Anyway, a few years back we started leaving the radios powered up all winter and ended up getting pretty good at showing up when we were needed with the help of Trooper Paul. Ned, Bessie and Dirty Bob cover the northern parts and Ed and I have the canyon and ridge at the east end” He went on to explain, “Ed was out towing a passenger car that had been caught in a flash-flood on the way to the mountains to cut a tree for the family room, when your mother decided to head up the hill with you boys and we got the call that the little plane had gone down on Jones tower hill”. We had about finished eating the sandwiches and cookies that my mom had handed out and Cowboy had finished the small thermos cup of hot coffee he was working on and got up and headed toward the animals, now fed and beginning to make a lot of noise. I stowed a few things in the cooler and began to yell out in the Cowboys’ direction if he’d like to join us for Christmas dinner, when the Walkie-Talkie on the bench began to crackle like a TV stuck between to stations. He turned and looked at me “Seems my plans have already been made Scrub, and besides….I just hate taking long road trips.”
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!