Ode to a Toad
By Debbie Miller Marschke
Neal Johns was a beloved friend of mine, and memories of my adventures with him follow me as I continue my explorations of the desert. Neal had volunteered for many organizations in his lifetime. You could not put a price on his knowledge, but there was usually a price paid in the mischief Neal brought to the table. Don’t get me wrong, he was clever and funny! One of the problems being that one could never really foretell how long one of Neal’s mastermind jokes would play out.
This story begins on July 31, 1983. Neal was part of Dennis Casebier’s team in creating the East Mojave Heritage Trail, which included the famed historic Mojave Road. On this particular date, The Mojave Road mailbox was installed on the section of the Mojave Road between Marl Springs and Kelbaker Road. This mailbox contains a log book to record dates and names of the folks who pass this point during their journey along the Mojave Road. There is a photo memorializing this occasion in the Mojave Road Guide and pictured is Spence Murray, Dick MacPherson, and Dennis Casebier with the newly installed mailbox. Marian Johns has provided me another photo of Casebier and MacPherson from that day. Neal spent countless hours working with Casebier, but apparently Neal had plans of his own turning in his head. I do not know exactly when Neal snuck back to the mailbox site. In my mind, the music “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” was playing in the background. About 100 feet north from the Mojave Road mailbox, Neal installed a large concrete toad statue. To ensure its permanence, Neal used rebar and a concrete footing. He was quite proud of his accomplishment, so proud in fact that he brought Dennis Casebier back to the scene of the crime to show it off to him. As a stroke of pure genius, Neal offset the offense of degrading Casebier’s historic route with “folkart” by calling it (biologically speaking) “Bufo Casebierus.” (If you can’t get the bosses blessing, name it after the boss!) Apparently the prank was received well and there was much hilarity.
Time marched on and Bufo Casebierus (the Mojave Road Toad) enjoyed his celebrity with (at first) only a subset of visitors that knew where to look. Eventually, word got out and the Toad became a beloved part of stopping at the Mailbox. I visited the Toad for the first time in 2005, and folks were treating it like a wishing well showering it with coins. (The Toad had a cash flow!) But not everyone was tickled about the attraction; on October 31, 1994 the Mojave National Preserve entered the National Park System. The Park’s Superintendent despised the Toad and everything it stood for. It’s hard to believe that such an innocuous thing could spark such controversy. It was declared that the Toad must go. In May of 2007, the Mojave National Preserve’s employees excavated and removed Bufo Casebierus. Local legend says that it had to be removed with a backhoe. This seems like the end of the story, but the saga is only beginning. Apparently, the Mojave Road Toad had a religious following of fervent admirers that continued to make the pilgrimage to the site. The public’s response to the Toad’s removal was to bring in more toads and frogs. Folks were leaving all kinds of toad / frog statues, and over time the collection had become remarkably large. I am sure there was much gnashing of the teeth by the Park Superintendent. Neal’s Toad had a life of its own and had become a local celebrity.
Early in 2020, The Mojave Preserve declared that it had enough of the Toads, and that all the toads / frogs were going to be harvested and discarded by Park employees. With the presence of social media, it did not take long for word to spread. Again, there was public outcry for the beloved Toads. Off road groups rallied on its behalf. DE member John Marnell was part of the negotiations team to save the Toads from annihilation and extinction on the Preserve. Finally, The Preserve relented with a compromise: a limited amount of the Toads could remain in situ, but most of them needed to be removed no later than Mid-March of 2020.
I was part of the volunteer team harvesting the multitudes of toad / frog statues on February 15, 2020, to include Dick & Kathy MacPherson and John & Barbara Marnell. The Toads were boxed up and transported to the MDHCA Goffs Schoolhouse property which will now be their forever home, as sanctuary for the hapless rejects. It is the Mission of the MDHCA to preserve and study history, so it was decided that the Mojave Road Toads that were relocated to Goffs should have their own display recreating their habitat. Dick MacPherson reproduced the Mojave Road mailbox, which has been installed on site at Goffs with the Toads / Frogs as audience. This occurred two weeks after Neal John’s memorial service, so for me it was something I could do in his memory.
I had an opportunity to visit the original Mojave Road mailbox again on April 4, 2020. Not only were the few Toads that were allowed to remain still in place – there were some new ones. As I had suspected, the public was not ok with the fact that the Park had removed the Toads. The pilgrimage has continued, presumably to the chagrin of the Park. And so the story and controversy continues...
There is more to this story. Neal had confided to me for years that there was not just one Mojave Road Toad; in fact, there were two. Neal had so much fun the first time that he decided to install another concrete Toad in the desert. I goaded him to tell me where it was located, but he would only bat his eyes at me saying “What will you give me, Floozy?” He never did reveal his secret no matter how often I asked. Sometimes he would give me a few cryptic hints: “you can’t drive to it anymore,” “I have not been back there to check on it for a long time,” “it’s probably in wilderness now.” I was never sure if he would not tell me because he wanted to drive me crazy, or whether he wanted it kept secret because of what happened with Toad #1. Marian Johns has no idea (it was before her time with Neal) and Dennis Casebier was not informed of Toad #2. Recently, I struck paydirt with a solid clue from DE Member Dave Given. Dave says that the first time he went on one of Neal’s trips, Neal took the group to Toad #2. It was a long time ago, but Dave recalled that it was in the vicinity of the East Mojave Heritage Trail Mailbox #3, near Dish Hill and Klondike. That mailbox was installed on March 18, 1989.
Armed with this knowledge, Steve and I excitedly drove out to the EMHT Mailbox 3, expecting to find the Toad installed within 100 yards of the Mailbox like the first one. We marched all over the hills and washes, but we did not locate it. I found myself talking out load to Neal, attempting to channel his spirit to please tell where to look. I realized that Neal was still laughing at me, tugging at my pigtails. I heard his voice in my head saying, “ Keep looking, Flooze” and mocking me the way he always did. What was I thinking? Neal would never tell me where it was. Nothing would make him happier than this vexing scheme to get me out into the desert again. I realized I had fallen for his evil plan, but now I am hooked on the quest and not willing to give up yet. Doesn’t this remind you of Forest Fenn’s story of treasure that he hid in the wilderness and gave hints of its location in published poetry? With the publication of this story, I am hoping that another DE member has additional information that will lead to Toad #2’s rediscovery.
Is Toad #2 still waiting to be found?
Or has it croaked?
I have a few more clues to follow up on and I have not given up the search yet for the elusive Bufo Casebierus Segundo, the last of its kind. ~ Deb