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2023 Trip Report - Lost and Found: The Continuing Story of the Mojave Cross

Lost and Found: The Continuing Story of the Mojave Memorial Cross

By Debbie Miller Marschke

I will be the first to admit that, lately, I am a Desert Explorer “At Large”.  Seasoned DE members know me well, so when I hear y’all say, “Where have you been? What have you been up to? Haven’t seen you for a while” it is well deserved. Yep, I’ve been out in the desert but working on other projects more than I’ve been boondocking.  In the July 2022 DE newsletter, I told the story of a “new beginning for J. Riley Bembry’s Mojave Cross’.  You see, I was one of the last people to see the famed “original” metal Cross at Sunrise Point in the Mojave Preserve before it was cut down and stolen in 2010.  That happened a long time ago. A replica replacement cross was erected in 2012 and that new cross still stands. However, the theft stuck with me for more than 10 years, like a representative of all the things I have loved and lost in the desert due to vandals.  I was not really planning on retiring in late 2021 but the company I gave more than 28 precious faithful years to thought otherwise. My number came up on some corporate pencil pusher’s balance sheet as “a future company pensioner who should be retired already.”  So finding myself suddenly not employed left me a bit shell shocked as I had not planned an early retirement. My husband Steve has some years to go before he joins AARP. So now I have all this time on my hands…what do I want to do?

            After working in a professional career for so long, an abundance of unstructured time was hard to wrap my head around.  Too many choices!  So to ease into this new lifestyle, I needed a project to focus on. What did I want to do? After pondering my options, the issue of the stolen Mojave Cross came back to me.  I had heard that had been found 400 miles away on the side of the road in Half Moon Bay, California. But what happened to it? Where was it now? I asked my good old friend Dave Given, as he seems to know just about as many people as Neal Johns did. Dave introduced me to Wanda Sandoz, who had received the recovered stolen cross and had it hidden in storage all these years. I proposed to Wanda that she donate the cross to the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association aka Goffs Schoolhouse and Museum. I promised that, should she consent to the donation, that I would build a respectable interpretive display.  Wanda immediately agreed and thus my project was launched.

            On April 8, 2022 I traveled to the town of Mountain Pass CA and the custody of the controversial cross was passed to me.  Bill Slutter and Jim Donatz lifted the cross into the bed of a truck.  There was a note taped across the face of the cross which read “This Cross is an important historical artifact. It is in fact the Mojave Cross taken on the evening of May 9, 2010 from Sunrise Rock in the Mojave Desert. I would be very grateful if you would be so kind as to notify the appropriate authorities of it’s presence here”. This is the actual note that identified the Cross as it forlornly lay in the weeds waiting to be rescued. Bill pointed out, “this is going to blow off on the freeway” so he used a penknife to remove the note from the Cross.  As we were driving to Goffs, Bill exclaimed that what he was holding was not simply a note – it was an envelope.  There was a letter inside the envelope from the person who stole the Cross.  Everyone in the truck was spellbound as Bill read it aloud.  It gave us chills; no one had ever seen the note until now. Somehow it was overlooked.  We all wondered whether it was a problem for us now, after all, wasn’t the theft of this Cross a Federal offense? It had been located within the National Park System. Is the F.B. I. going to be calling on us?  So just like the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the note was refolded and filed away in the depths of the Mojave Desert Archive in the Goffs Depot.

            I began to brainstorm how to best display the Mojave Cross at Goffs.  It certainly needed to tell the story of the Supreme Court case and decision, and of the good folks like Riley Bembry and the Sandoz’s role in keeping that cross standing for 88 years. The Cross is five feet tall and four feet wide, constructed of welded round pipe. I pictured it in my mind’s eye bolted to a concrete pad and decided that was unbecoming.  After all, it’s original location was atop huge granite boulders.  There are no boulders at Goffs.  I had a crazy idea that was worth pursuing: why not call the local gold mine to the north, Equinox Castle Ventures?  They had plenty of rocks. Rocks that the BLM or NPS would not give me grief about when I explained their provenance.  The worst thing that could happen is that Equinox could say “no”. Fingers crossed, I made the pitch.

            Equinox said “yes”. In fact, the neighboring mine was fully interested in assisting the MDHCA in constructing the monument.  With me exercising a lot of patience and prodding over the next year, Equinox arranged delivery of 4 haul trucks full of granite boulders to Goffs this spring, and two dump trucks of gravel. Success!  I now had building materials. However, I had no way to move those huge boulders. Again, a measure of patience was in order.  Equinox had struck a deal for me:  Empire Southwest CAT (Caterpillar) of Henderson would donate the use of a full size excavator but AT THEIR CONVENIENCE. I was informed that the opportunity may arise with one day of notice.  The rental value of the equipment was around $8000, so I remained on stand-by for that phone call patiently for weeks. I didn’t travel much in anticipation of the call. I told everyone I was on “baby watch” because “the baby” would arrive any day now. 

            I received the call on June 20, 2023. The excavator would arrive at Goffs tomorrow! Equinox was sending one of their skilled operators to help me build the monument, but I had to get the job done in 4 days or less. It was like being shot out of a cannon with a suitcase in my hand.  I live in Torrance and Goffs is 4 ½ hours away. I dropped everything  and raced out. The actual construction of the monument with the boulders, dirt and gravel took two 12 hour days.  The excavator operator, Cody Benson of Nipton, fully understood and shared my vision. The granite boulder monument needed to mimic the look of the original location at Sunrise Point in the Preserve. Not a structured pyramid of rock, something more “natural”.  I was really blessed with Cody as a team member.  He used that excavator claw and “thumb” like an extension of his own hand. He was careful not to scratch up the rocks, and even flipped them around to find each boulder’s best side. He used the heavy beast of a machine to compact, tamp, and secure the boulders so they would remain secure in place. He even allowed me to try my hand as an operator at the end of the day – today’s machines have several joysticks so it’s like a really complicated arcade game. On June 23, the “original” white Mojave Cross was lifted up and bolted to the top, restoring it’s rightful place back in it’s beloved East Mojave. Just in the nick of time, the following week the desert heated up to triple digits and did not relent for the remainder of the summer. Way too hot to work outside!

            I still had additional plans for the new monument, but I had to wait for more reasonable fall temperatures to continue construction.  I had time to consider my options with the exhibit.  When Riley Bembry and friends erected the cross in 1934, it was to honor deceased veterans of World War 1.  As time marched on, Bembry continued as steward to the Cross and erected a sign “To honor the dead of all wars”. I had no desire to create a monument as a replica of the one at Sunrise Point – nor a competitor of the original.  The unique monument and exhibit at Goffs will honor ALL veterans, living or deceased.  It will have an interpretive sign which explains the significance of the monumental Supreme Court decision (can you imagine what would have resulted if the decision was against displaying a cross in a National Park? The shock waves would have rippled through our nation, beginning at Arlington National Cemetery).  MDHCA will allow patrons to order engraved bricks with the names of honored veterans; eventually the bricks will be lain as a walkway around the Cross exhibit.  I have continued to develop this exhibit at Goffs, which is leading up to the Dedication ceremony scheduled for Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2023.  The local VFW groups will provide a color guard and 21 gun salute.  The keynote speaker is Head Chaplain Col. Erik Gramling from Ft. Irwin NTC.  Riley Bembry’s son Jess Bembry will attend, as will Wanda Sandoz. Finally the note that was attached to the Cross will be read aloud.  Lunch will be available at noon (by reservation) and the ceremony will follow.  If you are interested in attending, please see the Museum’s website at themojaveroad.org and RSVP. I have also been posting a lot of historical background on MDHCA’s Facebook page (search groups – Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association).  There is a Facebook fundraiser raising money to pay for interpretive signs, a historic marker, and a flagpole. So far, the exhibit has been constructed solely with donations; this has been one of my main goals as the Museum exists on donated funds. There is no town to support the MDHCA as Goffs is, for all intents and purposes, a ghost town.  The road sign says, “Population 23” , but it’s more like “ 2 or 3”.

            This is a story about a promise. A promise made between friends and a promise that was kept. Henry and Wanda Sandoz stood steadfast with their promise to Riley Bembry to maintain the Veteran’s Cross, despite the fact that neither one of them had served in the military.  Henry once said, “I just thought it was a good thing to do for veterans – in honor of the veterans.”  The Sandoz’s endured the anxiety and personal disruption when the litigation followed.  They even donated a parcel of their own land to swap for the section of land within the Preserve at Sunrise Point.  Following up on what happened to the stolen cross seemed like another good thing to do for the veterans, sort of like righting a wrong. So this is what I had decided to do first when I retired, I wanted to keep that promise made to J. Riley Bembry. I can’t really explain it, it seemed like the right thing to do and I have answered a calling. At first, it seemed monumental but I kept exploring options and paths – I am a Desert Explorer, after all; we all are a tribe that’s not afraid to knock on doors, make friends, and make thing happen.

Bembry and truck
Bembry and work truck
Cody Benson Debbie Jim Donatz
Debbie Miller Marschke and Wanda Sandoz
IMG-9519
Riley Bembry
Rileys Camp
J Riley Bembry center WW1
building the monument
group at Bembry gravesite
raising the cross
sunset at Goffs