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| Marian,Marilyn,John Page, Joan McGovern White | Trip Reports

2003 Trip Report - Neal's Rescue from Mexico - Five versions of the same story

The story of Neal's Mexico Rescue - All five versions!

Size Counts (story #1)

by Marian Johns

I know what all of you are thinking, but in this case, it was a bigger hammer we needed, rather than the smaller one we pack along on our desert travels. A big hammer and a small Mexican named Pancho saved the day. Actually, the real heroes of this drama were some incredible friends – Bob and Marilyn Martin and John Page – who came 500 miles when we called for help. Plus, there was a little instrument of modern technology called a satellite phone, courtesy of son (and satellite tester), Jonathan, which was an indispensable item that enabled our rescue.


A week of exploring and wildflower viewing near Cataviña in Baja (about 300 miles south of the border) started off well enough as we “oohed” and “aahed” at the solid blankets of orange poppies covering the hills along I-15 between Corona and Lake Elsinore. But fate had other plans, and she dealt us a hand with a few unpleasant surprises. First of all, Neal’s bridge broke as he was pigging out on Jelly Bellies we had just purchased at Tom’s Farms. After considering different options, we found a dentist in Escondido who temporarily cemented it back in place. By the time Neal’s teeth were fixed, it was too late to cross the border, so we camped in the boonies near Tecate on the U.S. side.

The next morning, Wednesday, we crossed the border with no hassles, enjoyed the beautiful drive between Tecate and Ensenada, had lunch at our favorite restaurant, the Misión Santa Isabel in San Quentín, and arrived at our destination in the late afternoon.

The following day, we explored some two-track roads off in the boonies east and south of El Marmol and were heading back toward the main, paved highway. We had just started down a short slope into a wash, when a horrendous BANG! brought us to an instant stop. Besides a downward tilt, the front of the truck was listing noticeably to the left. With all of that, we were still unprepared for the sickening sight of a wheel turned at a right angle from its normal position. Closer inspection revealed a separated ball joint, and a lower “A” arm buried in the sand. The truck wasn’t going anywhere, and, consequently, neither were we. Should we try to walk out? It was about 10 miles to the highway. We would have to carry a lot of water and take Tessa (our Husky) too. And then what? We needed a new ball joint assembly, but where could we find that? Probably back in U.S.

My next thought and question was, “Did we bring the sat phone?”. Was I ever relieved when Neal said, “Yes.” And Hallelujah! the blessed thing worked! From there in the middle of nowhere, we were able to reach Bob Martin who readily agreed to come and help. Fortunately, Neal had written down the GPS coordinates for each of the junctions where we had made turns. He relayed those to Bob and also suggested that Bob come with someone – maybe John Page?

The truck was at such an odd angle, there was no way we could have slept in it that night, so in the dwindling daylight, we managed to jack up the front end and then dug out the rear wheels until it was much more level. Then the wind began to blow – persistently and with ever-increasing force – over 20 mph. It rocked and buffeted the truck and camper all night long. Even though we had two jacks under the front end, we expected, at any minute, the truck to fall off. But somehow, despite the raging wind, it managed to stay up on its precarious perch.

Friday morning, the wind continued, but at 10:00 a.m. we learned, via another phone call, that Bob and John were rounding up the new part and would be heading our way later that day. Things were looking up! Next, we braved the wind and hiked about a mile to the last junction where we tied blue tape on the bushes as a sign for Bob to turn there.

There was nothing to do then but wait. Because of the wind, we stayed holed up in the camper the rest of the day. We read and played cards, took a nap, and read and played cards.

The wind continued to howl through the second night, and on into the next day. About 1:00 Saturday afternoon, Neal turned on all of the radios we had – the CB, the two-meter ham, and the GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service). I was ecstatic when, finally, about 3:00, we began to hear our rescuers on the CB. They had planned to pretend they could not hear us, but chickened out when they heard the relief in our voices. It was a beautiful sight to see the Martins’ and John’s trucks coming over the hill.

The men immediately set about to remove the broken ball joint, and worked until dark. Unfortunately, no amount of hammering loosened the ball, so they decided they would somehow have to get the truck out to the highway. The wind continued throughout a third night.

In the morning they tried binding the parts together with a steel cable dog leash we had. We packed up everything and moved about one-eighth of a mile before it broke. 

What now? Then we remembered that Neal had several chains stashed away in his menagerie of emergency goodies. So they tried one of those next, and (another Hallelujah!) it held the whole the way!

It would have been too dangerous to drive on the highway, should the chain break. So, John and Neal took John’s truck and drove another six miles on the paved highway into Cataviña in search of a mechanic with the proper tools. They returned with Pancho and his BIG sledge hammer. Wow! With just a few whacks, he had the old ball removed and the new part installed. 

The secret to his success was the big hammer, and....he pounded at a downward angle instead of from the sides.

What a wonderful feeling of relief! And, besides that, the wind had finally died down. We weren’t really able to properly express our thanks and appreciation to Bob, Marilyn and John, but you can bet we will be forever grateful for their kindness and willingness to come all that way to bail us out of trouble.

During our ordeal we all but forgot about wildflowers, but as we headed home in our repaired truck, we were able to appreciate the colorful fields and roadsides where they seemed to be blooming everywhere.

Thanks again Bob, Marilyn and John!!!

Rescue mission (story #2)

by Marilyn Martin

About 8 p.m. while we were collapsing in front of the TV, the telephone rang. On the other end of a frequently disappearing connection was Neal Johns describing a Baja horror story. Of course, when we had the facts, we agreed to start an immediate search and rescue mission.

First there were our own problems to be dispensed with. We had been in Victorville all day making one of Marilyn’s all too frequent trips to Kaiser for yet more tests. As we live out in the boondocks any trip to town entails completing the list of things that need to be done there in addition to the main mission. To that extent we had a car load of items, some needing freezing, acquired at Costco. Marilyn had announced when we got home she was too tired to cope with them and would do it in the morning - famous last words.

We had not been to Baja for some time so immediately a list of to do items was started. Again living in the country causes a few inconveniences, not the least of which is acquiring cash. We have a MacDonalds but no bank. We had no Mexican auto insurance. Our membership in Discover Baja was long-expired. The dog had no international health certificate. ( No, we have never been asked to show it; however, we had friends who were asked for one, and their horror story of acquiring one in Mexico so they could get home really impressed us.)

Luckily John Page was available and volunteered, not only to go with us like the Lone Ranger, but to seek out the needed part described by Neal so Bob could get the stuff we needed while Marilyn coped with the Costco groceries and the loading of the truck and notifying our sons to be on the lookout for us in case we needed additional help. Bob also checked with the local mechanic, who has worked not only on our truck but Neal’s as well, to see if he needed any additional tools. “Just a big hammer”, was the answer - “nothing else”.

Somehow everything got done and we were on the road about 11:30 a.m. Friday morning. The wind in Cajon Pass was awful. It never stopped being awful all the way to San Diego. There were lovely wildflowers south of the 91 all over the hillsides.

The proper part was waiting for us at Toyota in San Bernardino. Once again Bob asked if we needed any special Toyota tools. Once again, “No, just a big hammer.”

We had to stop at Discover Baja in San Diego as they could not guarantee that we would receive our policy in time to leave Saturday a.m. (Once more the small inconvenience of living where the air is pure and the views go on forever.) Naturally the traffic was stop and go, and we took a “wrong” turn. That was number 1.

KOA San Diego was a welcome sight. John Page was an even more welcome sight. Going into Baja alone did not appeal to Marilyn to say the least; and having someone to help Bob and Neal seemed a really good idea. Not only that, but John appeared with a lovely seafood salad to share for dinner.

We crossed the border about 6:30 a.m. and were told no matter what we had been told we had to pay the $21 U. S. each for our Tourist Permits. We were in no position to waste time arguing. O.K. so we forgot to take the route marked Scenic and had to take a detour through Tijuana. Luckily it was early morning, so we found the right route without major mishap, and Marilyn got to try her limited and mostly forgotten Spanish.

In Ensenada we decided to very carefully follow the highway signs and wound up going the wrong way again to take the former, and luckily still open, go-around down by the harbor. There have been changes and a lot of growth in Ensenada since our last visit. John took over the lead, and no more wrong turns ensued. He couldn’t seem to stop the wind, however, and it was the worst we have encountered in a long time. The gasoline gauge decreased at an alarming rate. At one point we actually saw zopilotes flying backwards. Believe it! There were lovely wild flowers along the highway, and everything was green.

A lunch break at Misión Santa Isabel restaurant was greatly enjoyed. This place is really clean! The food was good, and we were inside out of the wind.

Finally we reached the place to start our GPS search. We had agreed to let Neal think we couldn’t find him. This was great fun for a while as we could hear Neal on the CB and continued to ignore him. Soon, however, we came to some unmarked intersections, and the fun ceased. The place Neal broke down is a warren of dirt roads. You could easily get into the wrong canyon. Then you would have to back track and start over. Luckily Bob guessed right (no wrong turns this time), and we finally found the sought-after blue tape.

A sorry sight greeted our eyes. How they managed to sleep in that truck is beyond me. The only comfortable one was Tessa. After all, sled dogs like bad weather. The men worked on the truck with no luck until dark then everyone crowded into the Martins’ camper to eat supper. At least the company was good.

The wind blew very hard all night, and at one time it got our attention when the blowing sand or leaves woke us up sounding like rain. Luckily it was a false alarm. That would have been the last straw.

As we drove prayerfully out at 5 miles an hour to Cataviña we got a chance to enjoy the lovely cardon and cirio garden that surrounds it. Some of the cardon were blossoming.

Pancho, whom Neal and John were darned lucky to find, and who understood a lot more English than he would admit, had the truck ready to run in short order. Some teasing ensued about all we needed in the first place was a real man - not to mention a really big hammer. A single-jack is not a big hammer!

As Neal, Marian and John hiked in the wind to see the palm canyon, Marilyn and Bob elected to set up camp and called time out. We noted we are none of us getting any younger and no one should go into Baja’s back country without some sort of a back up or at least a means of summoning help. Cell phones do not work. Neal’s and Bob’s ham radios were never heard, and even Marilyn’s voice did not carry far enough in the wind.

The trip home was nice, if hurried. The wind was down, and the wait at the border was only 40 minutes. The Thousand Trails at Pio Pico where we were to spend the night was a welcome sight. At 6 a.m. Tuesday we gratefully headed for home thankful that the trip had gone so well, and, except for Neal’s pocketbook, no real harm was done to man nor beast.

Search and Rescue of Marian and Neal (story #3)

By John Page

Thursday night, March 27, 2003: message on the Page answer machine from Bob Martin: “Are you ready to go to Baja to rescue Neal?”

I thought briefly about the many insults and injustices I’ve gotten from Mr. Johns over the years, but then I realized that the lovely Ste. Marian was also in peril, so I returned Bob’s call, and agreed to join his rescue mission.

Bob told me that he’d gotten a call for help from Neal on his satellite phone, who was stranded with a wife, a dog, and a broken Toyota in remote Baja back-country northeast of Cataviña, several miles off the old road from El Marmol. Neal had given Bob his GPS location, directions to that location, and the name of the broken part: the lower ball joint assembly in the left front suspension of a 1999 4wd Toyota Tacoma.

There are several Toyota dealers near my home so we agreed for me to get the new left front lower ball joint assembly. We would meet at San Diego KOA Friday afternoon and cross into Mexico early Saturday morning.

I packed my truck that night and my clothes in the morning. I included a small floor jack, a couple of jack stands, and two torque wrenches to my regular assortment of repair tools. and, later, after talking with Toyota, added a large single-jack (small sledge) hammer.

Called my Toyota parts person. He did not have the part in stock but would order it, and I should have it on Monday. I said no. So then he searched the Toyota parts database and located the only lower left front ball joint assembly in Southern California at the Toyota dealer in San Bernardino; easy for Martins to pick up on their way south. I asked about special tools, and he said all we’d need is “a very large hammer.”

Called Toyota in San Bernardino and confirmed that they had the part, which I told them to hold, and then called Bob, who agreed to pick it up.

Called Discover Baja who renewed my membership, sold me three days insurance, and e-mailed (PDF file) the policy to me so I could print it out at home. I really expected to be home Sunday night but added Monday to be prudent, which was wise, although, as it turned out, I did not need the insurance.

Late Friday morning, I kissed Anna goodbye and drove to Chula Vista, where I checked into a KOA Kabin for a fast start the next day. The Martins had not arrived yet so I drove to San Ysidro to change $400 into pesos for Martins and myself.

Then back to Chula Vista Costco for gasoline and a Shrimp and Krab salad plate to contribute to dinner with the Martins. (Turns out there is a money exchange at the Costco, so I could have avoided the drive to San Ysidro.)

Pleasant dinner in the KOA campground with the Martins, but we retired early because we had a big day ahead.

Up at 5:30 and across the border by 6:30 after paying $21 for the Tourist Pass which we had expected to be free because the duration of our trip was less than seven days. [Later: I reported this to Discover Baja who said they would discuss it with the Mexican authorities they were scheduled to meet in a few days.]

We took a scenic side trip though northern Tijuana after the Martins missed a sign to the “Scenic Road” to Ensenada.

Then we made it through Ensenada by about 9:30 in spite of the Martins missing the turn to Ensenada Centro which is the shortest way through town.

Worked our way south through very strong winds, which took a heavy toll of gasoline from the Martins’ truck with its pop-top and large frontal area. Great lunch at Misiõn Santa Isabel restaurant in San Quintin. Gas in El Rosario.

It has been several years since my last trip down Mex 1, and a lot of memories came up as we passed side roads to places we’d visited on previous trips over a period of 40 years.

At 3:00 we were off the highway a few miles north of Cataviña and started following Neal’s directions to his location. The directions Bob had were pretty good, but he had to make a guess at one or two Y’s. Luckily, he guessed right.

Found the Johns by 3:30. They acted as if they were happy to see us.

The truck was heading downhill on a little bank into a 50-ft wide wash. The front tires didn’t line up very well, the left having fallen over on its side when the ball joint failed. We used the floor jack to raise the truck and jack stands for safety before we started working on it.

The failure was in the socket which “uncaptured” its ball, allowing the ball to pull free. The ball, mounted on a tapered pin, had to be removed before we could install the new assembly.

We could not remove the old part. Toyota people had told us all we needed in the way of special tools was a large hammer to break the tight fit between the tapered pin and its sleeve. The Toyota Manual recommends use of a rugged, special “puller” tool which uses a strong screw to push the pin out of the tapered sleeve.

We supported the pin using Neal’s light hydraulic jack while we beat and beat on the sleeve, to no avail. We tried heating the sleeve so that it would expand away from the pin and hit it some more; that didn’t work either. We tried hitting down on the sleeve using a bar; that didn’t work either. We finally quit working just before dark. It was
pretty clear that we needed either a better tool, or more smarts on balljoint removal, or both.

Spent the night in my tent to avoid the blowing sand. Slept well.

In the morning, Neal and Bob figured out a way, using a steel dog leash, to lash the ball joint together to, maybe, get us to Cataviña for help.

We started out, and the dog’s leash failed right away, so they found some small chain that was stronger and looked like it would work just about as well, maybe better. That lash-up worked O.K.

Drove 5 or 6 miles at about 5 mph (plus stops to check the lash-up) to the La Virgen Shrine on the old main dirt road where we decided to hold up because it is quite easy to get to and has a nice flat, firm, working area.

Neal and I left the others at the Shrine while we drove my truck 6 miles to Cataviña to find a mechanic on Sunday. The guy in the tire shop across from the La Pinta hotel said he couldn’t help us, but he had a friend who was a good mechanic who lived in a nearby rancho.

Neal asked the tire guy to guide him to his friend’s rancho. The tire guy said O.K. and closed up his shop, and they took off in my truck. I stayed at the café next door to the tire shop and sipped on agua purificada while Neal and the tire guy rounded up the mechanic.

They returned in a very short while, along with the mechanic, Pancho, in his own truck.

Pancho did not want to drive his truck into the back country, so we took him, with Neal sitting/lying comfortably on the console of my truck. The mechanic asked if we had tools and we said “yes” but Pancho still wanted his BIG HAMMER, which he brought along.

When we returned to the Shrine and the Johns’ truck. We jacked up the chassis, removed the left front tire, and set the safety jack stands. Pancho wanted a solid support for the pin before he started working on it, rejecting Neal’s small hydraulic jack in favor of my larger hydraulic jack.

He jacked up the pin and disappeared under the car with the BIG HAMMER. Bang, Bang, BANG! and the pin was free!

A few more minutes with conventional wrenches and sockets and the old part was out and the new one in place. The whole operation took 20 minutes or less. Apparently the secret is to have the pin very solidly supported and to hit down on the sleeve with the BIG HAMMER. My contribution to the operation was the amusement generated by my offer to supply a torque wrench for re-assembly to Toyota specs.

We all drove to Cataviña to return Pancho to his truck.

It was early afternoon, too late to return home, so the Johns offered to take us to a pretty canyon they had just found.

We decided to visit that canyon, crossing a broad wash that looked like a good campsite, where the Martins hunkered down while the Johns and I went on for some sight-seeing.

We parked at the mouth of the canyon and hiked half to three-quarters of a mile up the canyon, past a couple of tinajas (pools of water) and looked around at the many palm trees, including some up high, far from the water table. As advertised, it was a pretty canyon.

Returned to the wash with the Martins and set up camp. I called home, using Neal’s satellite phone, to tell Anna that we had found the Johns and fixed their truck and all was well but that I would not be home until Monday night. The wind was finally waning, so I slept comfortably on my cot, sans tent.

Up a few minutes after 5:00 the next morning, we broke camp early, and drove back to the old road where we separated; the Martins and I heading north along roads leading to the highway, and the Johns going the other way to continue their vacation.

We stopped briefly for a tailgate lunch by the El Palamar in Santo Tomas and made it through Ensenada to the Tecate border crossing by mid-afternoon, without any wrong turns. We waited about half an hour in line to return to the U.S.. After crossing, we exchanged our remaining pesos back to dollars, and the Martins headed west towards Otay Mesa to an RV campground they knew, while I went east to Campo, Ocotillo, and north on S2 and 79 to I-15 and the 210 in order to avoid the San Diego and LA traffic.

I arrived home about 11:00 Monday night after a helluva weekend.

The Truth (story #4)

By John Page

It was really Marian on the CB that led us to the scene of the broken Toyota.

When we got there we found Neal lying huddled on the sand in the wash in the fetal position. He was twitching and jerking and sobbing hysterically. We could hear him babbling to himself “Save me, save me, please somebody, save me.” There was sand stuck to his face where the tears, the spittle drooling from the corners of his mouth, and the stuff coming out of his nose had all smeared together into a gooey, slimy mess. His eyes were red, and his pants were stained. He smelled of vomit.

Marian stepped calmly out of cab of the truck and looked at her miserable husband with disdain. “There, there, Neal,” she said, “I told you everything would work out OK.”

Bob found a roll of blue paper shop towels and wet it; the three of us, with some help from Marilyn, cleaned Neal up as best we could. He, of course, resisted being touched by water, but we overpowered him. It was quite a while before we had him wiped off, and he settled down and regressed to his normal obnoxious self.

Dear Editor:   (story #5)

As I read the account in the May issue of the newsletter of the Johns’ recent misadventure in Baja, I was surprised on several accounts.

First, who would have thought that Neal Johns still had two friends left in this world, let alone two intrepid souls willing to pay Mexican authorities $21 just to save his sorry little you know what, especially when his demise would have left a first rate Husky and a serviceable woman available for adoption?

Which brings us to the second surprise. Wouldn’t you think that Neal, a founding member of the Desert Explorers, would be knowledgeable not only of Rule 5 of the By Laws (“maximum loss (vehicle or people) is 10% per trip”), but also of Amendment B? This clearly states that the leader cannot be included in that percentage; of course, any children, animals or spouses legally in his/her possession at the time of the trip are eligible for inclusion. Perhaps this is what Neal was thinking of.

And the biggest surprise of all was to discover the Neal Johns still HAD a ball capable of being separated from its joint. Had the editor not included 3 eyewitness accounts and detailed photographs, I would have dismissed this as so much coyote melon.


Joan McGovern-White