It was so hot that I could barely breathe. We didn’t have air-conditioning in the car back in those days, so the windows were wide open, and I could hear the wind rushing past as we drove through the total darkness of a moonless desert night. I leaned towards the nearest window, thinking that poking my head out would give me the relief of cooler air, but the wind outside was like a blast furnace. I recoiled in shock – I couldn’t believe that air rushing past the car could be so hot - at night. That just defied logic.
I settled back in my seat, noticing that both of my younger brothers (ages 7 and 6) were sound asleep on the seat next to me. I knew they had both fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion – the kind of fatigue that comes from having spent the better part of a day stranded at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in the searing hot desert.
The only light in the car was the dull green gleam from the speedometer. I could see from my spot in the back seat that our speed hovered around 70 miles per hour. The headlights illuminated the empty road ahead for a few hundred yards, but outside the span of the lights, no detail was visible. I was exhausted, but the oppressive heat made sleep impossible for me, even though I knew it was close to midnight.
Dad was driving, and I could see the faint glow of the speedometer reflecting off the side of his face as he stared ahead through the windshield at the long, dark desert road. Mom was awake in the front seat – her watchful eyes also searching the darkness ahead. It was eerie – completely dark except for the glow from the headlights. Otherwise, there was not a light visible, not even other cars. It was as though we were on an alien planet with no life; we hadn’t seen another car on this road since darkness fell. In fact, we didn’t see any traffic until we were close to the glare of lights from Las Vegas.
Our vacation had begun when we left our Montana home two weeks earlier, driving through the forests of Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. We camped in several National Parks, including Mount Rainier in Washington, Crater Lake in Oregon, and Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. We had enjoyed swimming in the warm Pacific Ocean in Oregon, and watching sea lions on a rocky shore in California. We had spent cool evenings in a forested Crater Lake campground, and marveled over the alien landscape at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.
All of those places were exotic, spectacular, and beautiful – unique experiences for us. But the real adventure began in Central California, when we left Bishop, heading towards Death Valley (at the time it was a National Monument; it is now a National Park.) Keep in mind that back in 1965, travel by car through remote areas was a considerably daunting challenge. In today’s world there is a gas station every few miles, even in areas once considered to be remote. Even if the gas stations are far apart, most people have cell phones to call for help if needed. In 1965, if you were driving through a place like Death Valley, you were pretty much on your own, and at your own risk. Day or night, it didn’t matter – the desert can be a dangerous place if you have a problem and you are far from help.
There aren’t many inhabited places in Death Valley, and we drove through the spectacular, blazing hot, early morning desert countryside until we reached the small oasis of Panamint Springs, California; at the time, the only gas station for many miles in any direction. After gassing up the car at the station, we headed east again on Highway 190. We didn’t get more than 10 miles when I heard a strange zing sound – we had a flat tire.
Dad brought the car slowly to a stop, still on the pavement, as wind had blown the sand away from the side of the road, leaving a drop off. It wasn’t very steep, but I knew Dad wasn’t taking any chances off the road. The pavement was the only solid surface – it was long and straight, so we would see any approaching cars long before they reached us. It didn’t matter – we were alone in the middle of Death Valley. We watched Dad working in the heat as he changed the tire, then we piled back in the car, and within twenty minutes we were back up to speed.
Not two miles later I heard the zing again. Incredibly, the spare had blown out. Dad turned the car around and we drove slowly back to the station at Panamint Springs. When we arrived, we were stunned to learn that although they had gas pumps, there was no one that could fix a tire, and they had no tires for sale. We were further stunned when the lady in the restaurant told us that the only solution was for Dad to hitchhike back out of Death Valley to the nearest town.
It seemed an incredibly dangerous proposition, but we were stranded and there was no other way.
We watched as Dad stood on the other side of the road with our two flat tires still on the rims, waiting to see if someone would drive past. Nearly two hours later, a car appeared and stopped at the gas station. The driver walked towards Dad and they spoke briefly. Dad climbed into the back seat of their car and they drove off. It was a strange and frightening thing for us to watch him disappear in a strange car, leaving us behind in the blazing hot desert wilderness. We had no idea what would happen – for all we knew we might never see him again.
After Dad left, we, being kids, decided to play. That lasted all of fifteen minutes. It’s surprisingly difficult to maintain the energy to play when the sun is beating down relentlessly, and the temperature is approaching 120°. So we spent a good deal of time sitting in the meager shade of some kind of desert tree. Of course, it wasn’t any cooler under that tree, but at least the sun wasn’t frying us.
We knew that the restaurant was air-conditioned, and after a couple of hours baking in the heat, we went inside. Mom ordered us cold drinks, and we enjoyed that until it became clear that the lady in the restaurant wasn’t too happy that we were hanging around soaking up her cool air and buying nothing except drinks. Mom herded us outside and explained that we had just learned a lesson in how some people could be extremely rude and unhelpful. We spent the next six hours sitting under the tree, dozing occasionally, and watching roadrunners do what they do best – run very fast. In all of that time, we saw only three cars. Every one of them stopped, either for gas, or to eat in the restaurant. By late afternoon – about eight hours since Dad had left, we were anxiously scanning the road to the west, wondering where he was and what was happening.
Then, about 8 o’clock that evening, with the desert sun still above the mountains to the west, we saw, off in the distance, a car approaching. We moved towards the road, eagerly awaiting, hoping Dad would be in it. As the car drew close enough to see the occupants, we realized that we had seen this car before – hours earlier. It was an older couple that had stopped for gas, and then driven off with Dad. And there was Dad, sitting in the back seat.
The car pulled into the lot, and Dad jumped out, carrying two tires on rims. The older couple that we had seen hours before smiled and waved at us; turned their car back in the direction they came from and disappeared into the desert sunset.
It didn’t take Dad long to put one of the new tires on the car, and we were finally, after ten hours, back on the road again. As we rode along, Dad told us about his journey. The car that had picked him up in front of the restaurant in Panamint Springs, had taken him all the way to Bishop, and dropped him off at a gas station. He had bought two new tires and watched while the mechanic put the new tires on our old rims.
Before the mechanic had finished, Dad looked up to see the old couple that had given him a ride pull into the station. They told Dad they could not leave him there, knowing that he had left his young family far out in the desert. They waited until the tires were ready, and they drove Dad back to Panamint Springs – several hours out of their way.
It was one of those things that rarely happens – total strangers that do something kind for someone they will never see again. How many times in your life have you been treated badly by someone and wondered what makes a person behave that way? How many times have you gone out of your way to help a total stranger? We could not believe that these people had gone so far out of their way to help us.
After that trip, my parents said they weren’t interested in visiting the desert again after a day of flat tires, blazing heat, and roadrunners. They could not have guessed at the time that thirty some years later, they would settle in retirement in the desert northeast of Las Vegas. Although that 1965 day and night in the unrelenting Death Valley heat had not been entirely pleasant, it sparked an interest in me for the desert – the spectacular landscapes and wildlife. I have taken my family to see the Mojave, Sonoran, and Painted Deserts in recent years – all deserts in the American Southwest; each with its own unique features.
That long ago trip remains part of the lore of our family; my children enjoy hearing the story of how their own Dad, uncles, and grandparents had been stranded in the desert once upon a time.
And then in March 2013, 48 years after that first desert drive, I left my Texas home, flew to Las Vegas, and found myself driving through another black desert night. I was alone this time, driving a modern car with air conditioning, and with my iPhone and all of it’s incredible modern capabilities – things that none of us had even dreamed of back in 1965 – I was secure in the comfort of knowing that had a tire or two gone flat, help was only a phone call away.
As I drove through the Mojave Desert, away from the lights of Vegas, I rolled the window down and felt the cool air of a spring night rushing past – how different from that long ago night when the air had been so unbelievably hot. I was heading for my parents’ home – in the desert where they never expected to settle; the desert where they had chosen to live because of the spectacular, unique beauty of the landscape; the desert where my Dad was living his final hours.
This time, I was making an unhappy return to the desert - I was trying to get there before he passed away.
Just a few miles northeast of Mesquite, Nevada, less than an hour away from the hospital where my Dad lay dying, I-15 enters Arizona, and one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen – the Virgin River Gorge. Because it was so dark, I could not see the outline of the majestic, spectacular, towering cliffs above me, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed the scenery anyway, even if it had been visible. It was much like the feeling on that day in 1965 when we had been so worried about Dad returning alive that we hadn’t enjoyed the desert experience.
Now, I hoped he would stay alive long enough for me to get there.
Alone in the car, I had nothing else to do but think. I couldn’t help but remember that hot night all those years ago – when my Dad was a young man and he rescued us from the desert after a long day in the heat. To me, it had seemed a heroic effort on his part – doing what he needed to do to care for his family. All these years later, it still strikes me that way – it epitomized the way he was: a man never satisfied until he could solve a problem; a man seeking results.
In recent years, as often happens when parents grow old, my parents began to rely on their children to help them with the things that they would have handled in younger days. Mom and Dad frequently called asking for help with computer problems, tax questions, and other such things. It is the classic role reversal that happens in many families – when the aging parents no longer have the energy or confidence to solve some problems; when children become adults and take on an advisory role for their parents.
My Dad had lived a long, full life. But now, at 81, he had been suffering from several serious medical issues for years, and I knew he was tired of fighting. He had given it a valiant effort – to do what he had always done: solve problems, beat the odds, and carry on successfully. Unfortunately, he couldn’t solve this problem in the way he would have wanted – this time he wouldn’t be able to fix it.
As much as I would like to be able to step in and solve it – to bring back the ‘new tires’; i.e., ‘save the day’, like Dad had done that day in the desert in 1965 - I couldn’t fix it either. And so here I was, traveling through the desert to be with Dad and Mom at this pivotal time in our lives – to be there when my Dad took his final breath.
I made it to the hospital after 1:30 am, and as I pulled into the parking lot, I saw Mom looking out the window from a room on the third floor. I had called her when I landed in Las Vegas, and she was anxiously watching for me – hoping that I would arrive before Dad left us. Dad wasn’t conscious when I arrived, but he was breathing. I had really wanted to talk to him one more time, but a stroke that morning had left him unresponsive, barely alive.
Anyone that has lost someone close, and has been through the hospital vigil knows how it is. I sat there talking with Mom, catching up on news of my family – our usual conversation when I visit. The only difference was that every so often, I glanced over at the bed to see Dad lying there unconscious. What a strange and unpleasant thing that is to see someone so important to you in such a helpless and terminal state. But even worse, it was a situation that I could do nothing about.
Mom and I sat there all night, wondering when the end would come. We alternately hoped that he would hang on and then almost immediately after that thought, hoped that he would not linger, as we knew that he was in serious pain. (Despite the morphine, he was suffering seizures – we did not find out until later that he had suffered a stroke earlier that day).
My daughter Emily called, wanting to say goodbye. I put my cell phone on speaker and held it to Grampa’s ear. We heard her voice quavering with grief as she told him she loved him and that she would miss him so much. It was absolutely one of the saddest moments of my life – to listen to my 11 year-old baby saying goodbye to her Grampa.
Just a short time later, he was gone.
Although we had known that this time, Dad would not beat the odds and recover, it was still one of the strangest things I have ever felt – my Dad was no longer alive. This time, he wasn’t going home.
We left the hospital and wandered slowly through the sunlit parking lot towards the car – both of us in a daze; still in disbelief. I was bombarded by random thoughts: I can’t talk baseball with him anymore; we won’t be able to show him pictures of the kids playing sports, and band concerts. I had lost one of the two people that I have known the longest in my life. He had been there when I was born, and he was there for everything that happened in my life. He had taught me to play baseball, to drive a car, to do many of the things that I know; he taught me how to be a man.
He had once rescued me from the desert.
He was there when I took my first breath; he was always ready to offer support throughout my life. The least that I could do in this unhappy return was to be there to offer my support when he took his last.
© 2013 Larry Manch