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Remembering Neal Johns

Neal Johns

by Marian Johns

December 27, 2019

This is a sad day for me; I lost Neal, last night – actually he died early this morning. Even though his death was expected, it doesn’t make it any easier for me now that he’s actually gone. Looking back, I wish I had had more empathy for Neal and the ordeal of dementia and prostate cancer that he endured. Dealing with someone who was once so independent and self-sufficient was frustrating and I was too impatient at times because of his limitations and need for help.

Neal’s last four days were peacefully spent in a coma; he appeared to be comfortable and not suffering when the end finally came.
I read that hearing is the last sense a dying person retains even though they can’t answer, so I talked to him a lot and told him how much I loved him. We were married almost 30 years and I have no regrets that I picked him to be my partner. We had many wonderful times and adventures together and now I have some wonderful memories. I will miss him terribly. The house is so empty without him.

I have planned to have a memorial get together for his family, for our Desert Explorer friends and for our Lytle Creek friends and acquaintances at the Lytle Creek Community Center on Feb.1 at 11:00 a.m. followed by a catered lunch – so don’t bother to bring a potluck dish.

Richard Neal Johns
1/19/1931 – 12/27/2019

Neal was born in West Plains, Missouri. He was only three when his dad died and his mother remarried a railroad employee. Neal hated his step-father because he was a mean drunk. Consequently Neal never drank – nor did he ever smoke.

When Neal was about eleven, his step-father was transferred to a godforsaken place near the Glamis sand dunes in Imperial County. His mother thought she was in hell because the summer temperatures were unbearable.

Even though he wasn’t motivated to do well in high school, Neal was no dummy. He found his calling in the Navy which he joined right after graduating from Palm Springs High School in 1948. The electronic and radar classes he took in the Navy peaked his interest and provided the motivation he needed to excel.

During the Korean War, he was sent to Japan. Then, in 1954, he was sent to the China Lake Naval Weapons Base (north of Ridgecrest, California) where he was a first class electronic technician. He met and married his first wife, Louise, while there. In 1955 he became a Chief Petty Officer – the youngest Chief in the Navy. In 1956 he was sent to Boston where he worked on outfitting the Navy’s first guided missile destroyer – the Gyatt. He was responsible for the guidance radar system on that ship. He went with the ship when it was sent on a trial run down to Guadalupe in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, he was not a happy sailor – he was sea sick and didn’t swim well. Luckily that was the only time he was on a ship “at sea.”

In 1958, after two stints in the Navy, he and Louise moved back to California where he went to work for General Dynamics as a guidance radar systems engineer. And although he had not gone to college, he passed the graduate engineering exam for professional engineers.

In 1977, Louise divorced him. He once told me that he was devastated and thought he might go crazy. So in order to keep his sanity he bought a new Toyota Landcruiser and began his love affair with the desert and 4 wheeling.

From General Dynamics, he went to work for the Navy as a civilian in Oxnard at Port Hueneme’s Naval Nemesis facility; he worked at the Naval Ordnance Test Station on the Terrier (radar) Missile System there. 

When I met Neal on a Backroad Explorer trip in 1988, I had an old CJ5 Jeep that was “locked” front and rear. I guess that Jeep and its driver (me) impressed him because he became rather attentive, helping me (a damsel in distress) when my Jeep broke down. By 1988 he had traded in his Landcruiser (and sleeping in a tent) for a Toyota pick-up with a camper shell – so he could sleep in it out of the weather.

So, in 1990, I ditched the Jeep and married him - and his cozy camper.

                             ~ Marian


Neal Johns’ passing marks the end of an era, a free and beautiful era on the desert that will never be again, a time when one could see a dirt road leading off into the desert and follow it just to see where it led. And Neal did that. I don’t believe there was a road in the East Mojave that Neal had not been on.
If only we could follow Neal into the desert again.

Sue and I met Neal at the “Friends of the Mojave Road” gathering in Nipton in 1985. Yikes, how did 35 years go by so fast? Anyway, as fate would have it Neal was the first person we met after we arrived in Nipton that day. Neal wanted to introduce Sue to Dennis Casebier so he took her into the Nipton Schoolhouse, where Dennis was holding court, and proclaimed, “Dennis, look what I found on the desert. Can I keep it?”

Originally Neal had a Toyota Landcruiser that had been extremely well used and he was living and working in Oxnard, or as he called it, the “West Edge of the East Mojave.” His Landcruiser was so well used that navigating it down the road was a bit like navigating a very 

large ship. It required a lot of anticipating which direction you would like to go. Fortunately though, it did quite well on dirt roads as the ruts helped to keep it on track. And… Neal’s Landcruiser “cuisine” was unique. Instead of just eating cold food straight out of cans, Neal would take the labels off the cans and mix them up before throwing them in the cruiser. This seemed to add an element of surprise to his meals.

Neal loved Baja. Our trips to Baja were many. On those trips Neal would get up early and have a “Mountain Dew” for breakfast. Then he would drive circles around us honking his horn to get us moving. He even did this one afternoon when we were sipping beer in the hot spring at Puertecitos. Neal hated getting in water and wanted to move on. We were forced to abandon our idyllic spot late in the day and drive a torturous road to Gonzaga Bay. Such was my relationship with Neal in Baja that we almost always came home at extreme odds with each other. Time and the desert would soothe the nerves and our friendship would survive, but we always joked that when things between us were going too swimmingly, it was time for a Baja trip.

When Neal met Marian his life moved beyond “Hope” and his “Indian Guide” (campfire stories). Though he still maintained a list of “wives in waiting”, he had been totally smitten. I believe it all started on a 1987 trip in the Providence Mountains when Marian’s Jeep lost its rear driveshaft and yet she still continued on, using only the front wheel drive. At one point she even backed her Jeep up a steep, rutted hill rather than allowing herself to be towed. On a subsequent trip into the Panamint Mountains, the same Jeep’s chassis broke and the engine fan chewed up the radiator. After field repairs to the radiator and using a come-along to hold the chassis together, she managed to drive the Jeep out and became Neal’s “woman of considerable will.”

Aw Neal, we will miss your outrageous and risqué sense of humor. We will miss your voice on the CB and your unique way with words. We will miss your desert wisdom. We will miss what made you Neal. You can “Trust me”
on this. ~ Bob Jaussaud

I Miss Neal, But I Will
Never Forget Him

There is so much to say about Neal Johns that it is difficult to know even where to begin. He was one of the founding members of our club and throughout the years he has been the voice of the Desert Explorers. I think our club membership will be writing and talking about Neal for a long time. He was that unique.

I would just like to share with you a couple of my observations regarding Neal and my direct experience and interaction with him. The first thing that comes to mind is that Neal was a teacher. For instance, he took the time on several occasions to teach me the proper use of a GPS device. This might not sound like a big deal but it required considerable time on Neal’s part. He also tutored me in other areas also. Neal was willing to take the time to help so many other people as well.

Another aspect of Neal that comes to mind immediately for me is his sense of humor. You probably all experienced this. He was one of the funniest people I have ever encountered. Neal was the kind of a guy that as soon as you laid eyes on him, you started laughing. Mr. Johns could get away with stuff that was outrageously funny. He was quite unique in that regard.

One other thing I would like to mention right now regarding Neal was his outstanding book collection. I thought I had a good collection of books on Western History but it pales by comparison to Neal’s collection. I can only remember one time when I was able to share a book that Neal didn’t have!

One final thing about Neal that also needs to be said was his ability to find a great wife, namely Marian Johns. Her devotion to Neal and his devotion to her was very touching over the years.

I could write about Neal for a long, long time. There is so much to say. However, I think others can do it more eloquently than I. Nevertheless, I would like to close by saying that the heart and soul of the Desert Explorers is Neal Johns. ~ Bob Jacoby


I always enjoyed listening to him and following him on his “This will be easy” 4WD trips in the Backroad Explorer days. ~ Bob Pelzman


Please extend my condolences to Marian — And well said, he truly was one of a kind and will be remembered by all who knew him around the campfires to come.  ~ Dan Messersmith


So sorry to hear of Neal’s passing.
He will be sorely missed. We treasure our memories of traveling all over the desert and beyond with Neal and Marian over a period of almost 30 years. Neal was both knowledgeable and entertaining. Always looked forward to his antics.  ~ Ted and Joan Berger


At dawn on my first outing with the Backroad Explorers, I woke to the sound of a revving engine and a honking horn — inches from the door of my tent.
Neal Johns was ready to hit the trail and he wanted to make sure nobody would be holding up the trip.

He loved to be exploring, and going with him was a pleasure and a wonder and always an adventure. Sure, there were breakdowns, some time spent lost and chasing down sketchy 

directions, fixing damaged trails so we could continue on, but those were hardly a blip on Neal’s radar. He had to go there, see the place, walk the trails, know the story. And he did this with an uncommon grace, unassuming, and with a fun kind of craziness that was completely infectious. As fellow Desert Explorer Stan Sholik put it, “Neat guy. Never led us anyplace he was sure we could return from. I admire that.” I agree.

After all these years, Neal is in my thoughts and memories on every trip and every trail. I will remember him when things go sideways and when new vistas and formerly hidden pieces of history and natural beauty unfold unexpectedly.

He never let a dragon pass by without pulling its tail. What a great guy. He will be missed by all who knew him.

  ~ Jay Lawrence