Why the suspense?
School was out! Summer vacation had come at last. My younger brother, Hugh, and I itched for adventure, and we recruited Jay Bell to borrow his dad’s old pickup truck and come with us. We could drive hundreds of miles in almost any direction out of Trona, California, and not cross a paved road, much less meet another human being. This time we decided to explore the Panamint and Argus Mountain Ranges and told our parents we would be camping for a week.
|Looking North from Trona|
Panamint Mountains in the distance
From Searles Valley to Panamint Valley to Death Valley, the terrain is rugged with mountain trails climbing thousands of feet above sea level into regions of permanent snow and valley trails dropping hundreds of feet below sea level into arid desert that rarely sees a drop of rain. Roads and trails were often washed out, overgrown with sage brush, and barely usable. But, they were the only way to get to the old mining sites and ghost towns. Not all the old sites showed up on our maps, and we were always excited to stumble across a new find.
The morning of our departure, packing was quick and easy--we threw all the big stuff into the truck’s open bed behind the cab. This wasn’t our first time camping, and we packed our usual: lots of easy foods, like Hostess fruit pies, nuts and jerky, a couple ten-gallon water jugs, a shovel and ax, our sheath knives, firecrackers and matches, guns with lots of ammo, sleeping bags, and TP. Sun-protection gear for the day and cold-weather clothes for the night were essential. In early June, mornings in the Mojave Desert heat up fast after the sun comes up, but nights get cold quickly once the sun goes down.
We always tossed in lots of extra batteries for our flashlights, hoping to spend as much time as possible exploring old, abandoned mines that we found along the way. We also brought along a backup can of gasoline in addition to topping off the gas tank. In the 1960s gas was cheap, but we had to make our gas last all week. And, of course, this was B.C. (before cellular phones). It was normal for us to be out of touch with our parents until we got back. We were always camping, and they figured we knew what we were doing. We didn’t think to tell them where we were going--and they didn’t ask. Mom just waved and said, “Don’t get hurt.”
The first day out, we drove north into the mountains, getting as far away from civilization as possible. Though the desert seems desolate on the surface, we saw lots of wildlife. Vultures, hawks and eagles filled the sky. Besides the ever present scorpions, tarantulas and snakes, ground squirrels and jackrabbits bolted from clumps of scrub as we passed, and a scraggly coyote appeared in the distance, watching us warily. We knew mountain lions prowled the high country, but they were usually too smart to show themselves. The sky was clear; the air was fresh and clean; life was good; and we didn’t have a care in the world. This was our kingdom, and we were the unchallenged rulers.
After a long day exploring unfamiliar roads and trails, we realized the sun had disappeared over the mountain tops. Night was imminent, and in the fast-dying daylight, we needed to pick a campsite safe from wildlife and weather before darkness engulfed us. As we drove up a deep mountain ravine, just coming up onto the embankment, loud popping noises suddenly rang out under the dashboard. The cab filled with smoke. The dashboard lights blinked out and the engine died. Turning the key off, I put the truck in park, and tried to restart the engine. Nothing happened--nothing at all. The starter didn’t even click. The truck’s electrical systems were totally dead.
Silently, we sat in the deepening gloom, surrounded by acrid smoke from the electrical flash fire. Winding down the window to air out the cab, Hugh leaned out to look behind us. “I don’t think this is a very good place to park.”
The truck perched perilously on the edge of the ravine and straddled a well-used wildlife trail—the one we had followed up out of the wash.
Looking back and forth from Hugh to me, Jay asked, “Did anyone think to tell our parents where we were going?”
When Hugh didn’t answer, I said, “No, but it doesn’t matter since we told them we were camping for a week. No one will think to worry about us until we’ve been gone for more than a week.”
Hugh leaned back and closed his eyes. “It will take a week to hike back to that last paved road we crossed.” He let out a long, weary sigh.
Jay nodded. “And another week, if we’re lucky, before anyone drives by.”
“And,” I added, “unless we figure out how to carry one of those big water jugs, all our water will be back here with the truck. I didn’t see any signs of wet springs along the way.”
With daylight almost gone, we decided to get out and look around while we could still see. Things didn’t look good. A wide web of small gullies fed down from above into the large ravine, on the edge of which our truck was precariously stalled. If it rained higher up in the mountains, we could lose our truck in a flash flood. Also, all the wildlife trails coming down the mountain merged into the wide path going under our truck and on down the deep ravine.
Our truck had become a road block for any local critters passing through in the night. The mountain grade was too steep for us to push the truck up the hill off the trail and away from the ravine. Rolling the truck back down the hill would put it deeper in the ravine and in greater danger from flashfloods. Like it or not, our truck had to stay stuck right where it was.
Once the deep blackness of a moonless night was upon us, we hauled out the flashlights. Scouring the area, we piled what dry sticks and dead brush we could find on the trail several yards up the slope in front of the truck. As Hugh got a fire burning, we heard the yelping and howling of a coyote pack in one of the higher gullies. We hadn’t brought firewood with us, and there wasn’t much dead wood in the area. Our small bonfire wouldn’t last long. Without a fire, the coyotes would soon be down to see who was trespassing in their territory.
Suddenly, we heard the sound of larger rocks cascading down the side of the ravine not far downhill behind the truck. Something big was climbing up the wildlife trail toward the truck, and it was making a lot of noise as if it didn’t care who knew it was coming. Quickly, we climbed back into the cab, rolling up windows, locking doors, turning out flashlights, and slumping down in our seats--as if it wouldn’t be able to see us, if we couldn’t see it.
Checking around, I realized all the guns were back in the open truck bed, not in the cab with us. Outside, everything had gone quiet. Even the coyotes had stopped howling. After holding my breath for an eternity, I slowly lifted my head to peek out the driver’s side window, just in time to see a dark shadow on four legs glide out of sight around to the front of the truck. Lifting my head slightly higher to look forward through the windshield, I saw our bonfire had died down to glowing embers, blowing in the gentle wind.
As I watched, the dark shadow slid out slowly away from the truck toward the bonfire, blocking my view of the embers, but still not revealing any detail of what it was. If only I could turn on the truck’s headlights to see what was out there! For a second, I considered shining my flashlight through the window, but knew if I turned on my flashlight in the cab, the windows would reflect light back at me, and whatever was out there would see us all sitting in the cab.
We should have prepared for predators, I thought, but it’s too late now. We’re sitting ducks, unarmed and trapped!
<> To be continued ! <>