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We Were Riding Dune Buggies in the Desert

When Howard Disappeared

Dad and his friend in our dune buggy. Photo credit: Fran Dunphy

“I don’t want to go to jail!” I screamed.

I was four and sitting in the back of Dad’s dune buggy with my sister. Oversized white helmets and black-rimmed goggles covered half of our face and gave Mary and me the look of life-sized bobbleheads. Our shared seat belt was snug across our lap. Dad was driving with Mom beside him. There was nothing different about this ride. We explored the hills of Elsinore, and Mom bribed us with Tootsie Rolls before we climbed the steep hills.

Dad had taken this route several times before, and he typically crossed the two-lane highway illegally. This time a police officer spotted us and pulled the dune buggy over. My vivid imagination took over, and the simplicity of getting a traffic ticket never occurred to me. My four-year-old mind was convinced that we were all about to be carted off to jail. Concerned how he had alarmed me, the huge man in the blue uniform let Dad off with a warning. Mom quickly explained to me that they never put little girls in jail.

When Dad and Mom met, skydiving was their hobby. Now that my sister and I were in the scene, dune buggies became Dad’s new passion. He built and rebuilt them, made repairs, and even started a short-lived business called “Boll Weevil Buggies.” Sometimes we went to the desert and camped on the dunes with a group of Dad’s friends. We would pitch a tent and Mary and I built campfires as a form of entertainment. If I asked, Dad would give me sips of his “Sand Buggy Cocktail” a mixture of cheap wine and 7-Up.

At night the temperature in the desert dropped dramatically, and we found sanctuary in our sleeping bags until sleep let us forget about the cold. It seemed like the next moment when the buzzing of motorcycles became our early morning alarm clock. Desert nights were chilly, but the daytime brought scorching temperatures. Mom had trouble tolerating the heat and wore water-soaked towels on her head or sat in the car with the air conditioner blasting.

We would go riding on the sand, and the dunes seemed to go on forever. Once without our knowledge, our German Shepherd Superdog followed us for miles. Dad finally glanced in his mirrors and saw the distressed dog trying like mad to keep up with us. Superdog ran such a distance that the pads on his paws ripped open and were bleeding. After that, Dad was sure to secure him at camp when we went for a ride.

My family frequently traveled to Elsinore for the weekend. We pitched a tent at Harry Proudy’s. His house sat solemnly on a few acres of desert and many of Harry’s friends would stay there on the weekends.

There were campfires in the darkness under the pepper tree where various guests of the Proudy ranch would gather. Stories of the day were shared among the friends and my tuneless, intoxicated Dad would sing, “Home Home on the Range.” Sadness or worrying didn’t exist when the campfire was glowing. A crackle and pop would randomly sound as the smell of wood smoke overtook my senses. I would watch the red ambers float gently toward the heavens until they disappeared.

A steep hill on the edge of the property was dubbed “Harry’s Hill”. It was a challenge to climb whether on a motorcycle or sand buggy. Dad designed a patch for those who were successful that stated, “I climbed Harry’s Hill”. Mary often rode shotgun when Dad skillfully showed others how he could ascend the slope, but no amount of persuasion could convince me to go up that monster.

Some evenings, when dark descended on the Elsinore sky, we would load into the dune buggies. My cousins, Joe and Anne, would ride with Dad’s friend Howard, pillowcases in hand. We would drive to an uninhabited field where there were no buildings or lights. Only the moon illuminated random patches of desert scrub. Going further into the field, Dad and Howard turned off their lights and killed the engines. Mary and I were told to be very quiet.

After a few minutes of staring at the blinking stars in the night sky, Dad and Howard switched on their lights. This action would reveal kangaroo rats who would sit stunned from the bright interruption. My teenage cousins soon were scrambling, trying to catch the confused rodents in their makeshift linen traps. If needed, this process was repeated until a few of these creatures were captured and stuffed in a shoebox. By the time the jaunt ended, we ended up with a new pet in a cardboard cage. The cunning animal would usually chew its way out of the box by the time we packed up to go home.

Howard disappeared in front of us. His dune buggy was suddenly gone.

Earlier that day, he and Dad decided to go on a morning ride. We packed in our four-seater and followed behind Howard’s buggy. He said he wanted to go on a new trail that someone had told him about. Exploring new places in Elsinore was typical for the two of them.

We bumped along on desert rocks and dirt-crusted roads, climbing and descending hills as we peered into lifeless canyons. The strap on my helmet was bugging me, and Mary kept telling me to move over in our shared bucket seat. I gazed out my sandblasted goggles at a distant plume of smoke, knowing some brush was on fire in the dry desert heat.

I never seemed to have as much fun as Mary did on these rides. She would giggle at the bumps and smiled in anticipation when we climbed the hills, knowing the best part would be going down the other side. I was usually just scared and gripped the roll bar tightly beside me.

We climbed another seemingly ordinary hill when we lost sight of Howard. “Oh shit!” yelled Dad. The tone of my dad’s exclamation over the noise of the engine sent alarms through my body. “What’s going on?” Mary asked. “Not now Mary,” Mom snapped. This was warning enough for me to also be quiet.

Suddenly we slowed and veered right. Dad found a path around the side of a canyon. Halfway down we stopped and peered into the deep pit. There was Howard and his dune buggy sitting squarely at the bottom of the crevice. We stared at Howard’s still figure, waiting for some sign of life. Dad raced down the dusty hill, zig-zagging through brush and rock. Time seemed to linger as we sat motionless, eyes fixed on the lonely buggy.

By the time Dad reached him, Howard was pulling off his helmet and climbing out of his useless vehicle. Thankfully, my dad’s friend had escaped serious injury. Later that night, after the men extricated the mangled wreck, they drank without restraint and celebrated Howard’s good luck. Soon they were planning new adventures for the next day.

My family in the dune buggy. Photo credit: Dick Dunphy (He probably took this with a timer.)



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Christy Dunphy Rommel

Christy Dunphy Rommel

Christy has mild cerebral palsy. She lives in Washington State with her husband and has two grown children.