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Driving a Dusty Road
updated: Feb 19, 2011, 9:30 AM
Borrego Springs, down yonder southwest of Palm Springs, is easily my favorite desert - hospitable and comfortable much of the year, lovely, with a palm-lined mountain spring in easy hiking distance. And if you want a REAL desert, there's the adjacent "Badlands" - a word capitalized and glamorized by B movies and pulp fiction. A photo-worthy place, a truly forbidding landscape . . .
We'd seen the Badlands from a distance, directly to the east off the main road through the park, on previous visits to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, but this time I had to drive right up close. The friends we were visiting, Al Perrin and his wife Patty, owned a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but Al was not feeling up to driving that day. Patty assured me that we could go in our car and she could guide us to a good viewing place.
What she didn't tell me was how bad the road was. Four MILES of bad road.
"Patty," I said as I stopped at the dirt entrance to a scraped, winding lane leading to Font's Point, "Do you think I should try this in our poor little Nissan? Kinda rough!"
"Sure," she grinned, tauntingly. "Chicken?"
"It's no problem. Let's go." Sharon agreed. I tentatively eased our aging Altima onto the road and immediately got the washboard vibration. "God, four miles is a LONG way at this rate of speed."
Bumpity bumpity bumpity.
"Don't worry about it," one of my cheering section said. "What else do we have to do?" asked the other. We bumped on for an agonizingly long while and then hit some sand. I felt the car fishtail a trifle. I stopped.
"Don't stop!" Sharon said too late. "We'll get stuck!"
"You know," I said, "I really think we should give it up. You need a four-wheel- drive for this."
Boos, hisses, catcalls from the women. Heavy sigh from me . . .
"OK," I said, "here we go." I put it in lowest gear and eased forward.
Happily, the rock-studded washboard effect returned and I breathed easier, although I still wondered what part of the motor was going to vibrate loose. I wasn't sure if the ladies were aware of it, but it's almost impossible to do any roadside repairs to modern car engines, wonderful machines though they may be.
"Aw jeez," I almost cursed as we hit another stretch of sand.
"You know," Patty said thoughtfully, "the floormats in your car make really good devices for driving out of the sand if you're stuck." We laughed (ruefully, in my case).
"Thanks for sharing that, Patty. I feel a lot better! I was having a small panic attack." We had a good chuckle.
Patty, riding shotgun in the front, turned and asked Sharon, "Has he always been like this? A nervous wreck?"
"It goes way back," Sharon answered. More laughter.
"Glad you guys are having fun, but there's a reason, you know."
Sharon said, "because your dad held you over a cliff when you were little? You told me about that."
"No," I said, "I got over that. But I've never trusted machines. Mechanical things. Cars do fail, you know, and look where we are! Airplanes actually do fall out of the sky! I don't even want to talk about submarines!"
The women were having an enjoyable, scenic ride between tall, spiny ocotillo spears and occasional creosote bushes (there were no flowers yet, in early spring, lending a dead brown look to everything; shades of brown, shades of gray). I, however, was forced to concentrate, even gritting my teeth (which, thankfully, made the time go by faster).
I had a tough choice to make: Keep the front wheels on the sandy edge of the road and the humped-up middle, also sandy, risking getting stuck or swerving into a rock (mercifully, the road was almost perfectly level); or keep the wheels in the ruts made by earlier wheels, and risk dragging off the muffler or knocking a hole in the oil pan. These little cars are built LOW, unlike jeeps and trucks.
"I wonder what type of man Font was," Sharon said.
I couldn't think about what she may have been talking about because I was concentrating too hard on driving. But going past the turnoff the next day on our way home, Sharon said, "Do you know what I was expecting you to say when I asked what type of man Font was?"
"Oh, God," I began to see the light …
"I expected you to say he might have been Italic. Or boldface. Type…font… get it?"
Oh, good one, Sharon. A real groaner.
But back there on the road from hell I drove on, feeling smug, almost happy, enjoying my expertise and my certainty that I knew more about cars than the women did, owing to my misspent youth helping hot-rodders fix up their old Chevvies and Fords.
And yet I was beginning to get desperate - four miles is a LONG way when crawling along about four miles an hour - but then we made it.
"Take the left turn around the loop," Patty said. "We survived! Good job!" Her playful smiles added to my pleasure at the small triumph. Patty is 10 years older than I and, like Sharon, 20 or so years smarter, so I was in good hands. I should have known.
We had some grand views, stretched, philosophized, took a few photos, walked around, and headed back.
I drove smoothly, almost insolently, through the sand and noted that it was like flying: We were floating and the closer I got to the conclusion, the better I liked it. Nothing rational about that, but this was an irrational trip, as is flying.
Clocking the return leg, I noted that we were only a quarter of a mile from the highway when Patty said, "Yeah, two-wheel drives are fine out here. The last time we came here in a friend's car, we got stuck, big-time."
I jerked around and stared at her for an amazed moment, then said, "And NOW you are telling me this!"
Sharon was having a great time laughing in the back, and Patty added, "Well, of course! If I'd told you that to start with, we wouldn't have come!"
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Looking down at the Carrizo Badlands near Borrego Springs.
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