The idea was born on a blistering hot afternoon. Sweat painted a dark line down the back of my T-shirt as I dug a trench through the cement-hard Mojave Desert caliche hiding under the thin topsoil. My new friend, Barry Edwards, and I had gotten a summer job with a local landscaper. Digging trenches for sprinkler lines was back breaking work.
That summer before my senior year of high school, my family moved from Trona, California to Ridgecrest, 25 miles away. Dad said I could drive back to Trona during the school year to graduate from Trona High, but all my old haunts and friends were gone for the summer with only dry mountainous desert stretching between us. I was stuck making a whole new set of friends in Ridgecrest.
The solution came with Barry Edwards and his pickup truck.
That day, as we chipped our way down the trench, one of the other workers cocked his head at Barry’s 1960 something Ford pickup that we used to travel back and forth between jobs.
“You know, if you got the right year of truck, the width of the axle is the exact same width as the railroad tracks. If you do it right, you can drive on the rails.”
That’s all it took. Barry and I looked at each other. “Let’s go see if your truck fits,” I said. He smiled, and we pushed the guy for any additional information we could get.
Our work day started around 4 am to beat the heat and often ended around 3 or 4 pm. After work we had the afternoon free, so we drove out into the desert on a dirt road we knew led to an isolated railroad crossing. We didn’t want anyone watching and the dirt crossings had more gradual drop-offs. I jumped out and Barry maneuvered the truck back and forth in the intersection until it was perpendicular to the road, heading in the same direction as the rails. With both hands waving, I guided him in, shouting, “This way, no that way a little, good, good ... come straight,” until all 4 tires had rolled out onto the tracks, the middle of each tire settling perfectly on the middle of a rail. Success!
Hopping inside, I said, “Remember, once we’re on the rails, you can’t steer or you’ll drive us off the tracks.” Barry nodded, hands off the steering wheel, and slowly pushed down on the gas pedal until we were going about 20 miles an hour. The tracks curved gradually and then started up a hill. We exchanged looks, but with a little more gas we purred up that hill like we were riding on glass. We were literally on a roll, and got that buggy up to 55 mph! We didn’t dare go faster. We cruised along, windows rolled down, radio blasting, scrolling the wind with our hands and watching the jack rabbits jump out of the bushes that covered both sides of the 10 foot high mound of the rail bed.
Barry peered through the windshield, then pointed. We could see the faint trace of another dirt road cutting across the line of our tracks. Another railroad crossing. We worried the tires would pop off the rails inside the intersection, but we sailed on through. By the time the next intersection loomed in the distance, however, we decided we didn’t want to push our luck.
“Better get the speed down,” Barry said, and took his foot off the gas. The brakes on Barry’s truck were old and pulled to one side, so we didn’t dare brake. By the time we got to the crossing we were going pretty slow, and with a touch of the brake and a careful steer Barry slipped us off those rails onto the dirt road.
Next day at work, we both agreed, “Let’s do it again!” This time we positioned a big flat rock against the gas pedal with one end resting on the hump in the middle of the truck floor and the other lying on the floor below the pedal. By scooting the rock further up onto the gas pedal, we could control the gas. Once we’d leveled our speed out at about 35 mph, we scrambled out the side windows, climbing carefully on the slick metal to sit on the roof of the cab, our legs dangling down on the windshield, our .22 rifles beside us. We hadn’t forgotten those jack rabbits.
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The breeze swept our hair back and the whole Mojave Desert stretched on every side. With no one working the gas, the pickup slowed down when we climbed hills and gained speed on the downward side, but otherwise drove itself. After cruising and shooting at jack rabbits for about an hour, we noticed a tunnel looming up ahead. Not thinking much about it, we rode inside. Pitch blackness enveloped us.
“Uhh, we need lights,” Barry said, and inched over to carefully climb inside the cab and switch on the headlights. Deep black stretched beyond the reach of our light beams with no end in sight.
“So what happens if we meet a train?” Barry asked.
I shook my head in the dimness. “Don’t know. No way off in here.”
For a couple miles we rode the tunnel, eyes and ears alert for the stabbing light and clicking of rails that would signal an approaching train. The only thing we could agree upon when we barreled out into the light was, “That was dumb.”
Barry got to work and talked to people he knew around town who worked with the railroad, getting an idea of schedules and when trains wouldn’t be running on the tracks. Not fail proof, but good enough for our purposes.
Our next question was, “Who do we want to invite?”
Their first responses were always the same.
“Are you kidding?”
“No, we ride the rails all the time. It’s great. Bring your .22 and some chips or pop.”
A slow smile would come with belief, telling us we had another convert.
The big flat rock stayed permanently in Barry’s truck that summer. I don’t know when he finally threw it out.I made great friends in Ridgecrest. Not all wanted to brave the slippery path to the top of the cab, choosing instead to slide out the door and climb around into the truck bed. We spent many hours perched on the outside of the driverless truck, shooting, munching, and ridin' the rails.