A heaven-sent dune buggy guided them back to safety.
Posted in , Apr 27, 2022
Our Volkswagen Squareback bounced over the sand and rocks, leaving a cloud of dust in our wake. I looked over at my wife, Sue. With the windows down, her hair whipped around her face. It was a beautiful spring day. The sun was bright and the sky was clear—perfect conditions for off-roading.
Back then, in 1984, Sue and I were living in southeastern California, right on the border of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. The scenery was majestic, but not without its dangers. Summer temperatures could rise above 125 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was no place for tourists to go off-road without sufficient preparation for getting stuck or lost. Heat stroke or dehydration could be deadly. As could the rattlesnakes and scorpions one might encounter.
Sue and I always took a day bag with us, packed with snacks, water, sunscreen and a first aid kit. We’d also had a car specially modified for driving in the desert. With it, we could go anywhere a dune buggy or Jeep could go.
That day, we drove about 20 miles into the park and up through a beautiful stretch of dry wash. Around midday, we stopped to stretch our legs. As usual, we had the desert to ourselves for as far as we could see. When the spirit moved us, we hopped back into the car. But when I turned the key in the ignition…nothing happened. I tried again. And again. Nothing. I could see Sue was thinking the same thing: The engine wouldn’t start back up today.
Our Volkswagen had one odd quirk. Roughly once a year, it would refuse to start. If left overnight, the engine would run just fine the next morning. We’d taken it to two different mechanics and a VW dealership. But no one could find anything wrong with our car. Because it happened so rarely, we’d just learned to live with it. But it had never happened suddenly, when it had been running reliably.
What now? I hadn’t seen a soul on our drive out here, and we had no way to call for help.
“We could walk back to town,” Sue said. “Flag someone down.”
“That’ll take hours.”
Sue took my hand. “Let’s pray,” she said. Together, we bowed our heads. I took a deep breath, willing my thoughts to stop racing. “Please, God, give us guidance. Show us what to do. And get us home safely. Amen.”
Eager not to waste any more daylight, we quickly gathered the supplies. We were about to set off when Sue called my name. “Look!” she cried, pointing to the horizon. Sure enough, coming up through the wash, there was...something, getting closer. It wasn’t long before I could make out what it was—a dune buggy! And it was heading straight for us!
There was a man in the driver’s seat. Not a local. Our community was small, and I didn’t recognize him at all. “You folks need help?” he asked.
“Do we ever!” said Sue.
“Can you give us a ride back into town?” I asked. “Our car won’t start again until it sits overnight.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
I knew it was hopeless, but I didn’t want to be rude to a stranger trying to help. The engine cover was already off, so he could see for himself.
He barely examined the engine before he said, “I know what’s wrong.” It had something to do with our “solenoid switch.” The part was being hindered by accumulating moisture due to a small hole in its casing, which prevented the car battery from getting power to the starter motor. We’d need a long screwdriver with an insulated handle to bypass the solenoid and create a direct connection between the starter motor and the ignition switch. “Lucky for you,” the man said, “I have that tool with me.”
The man got to work, and the engine roared to life. My jaw dropped. The man gave us a big smile. “Don’t stop again until you get the car home.”
We thanked him profusely.
“Please, at least let me pay you!” I called after him.
He shook his head. “Just glad to help.” And with that, he climbed into his dune buggy and roared off, continuing the way he’d been going—past us and deeper into the desert.
“That was an angel,” Sue said. I couldn’t disagree. And even if he wasn’t, if it was just a VW expert who happened to be passing by, he had to have been sent by heaven. Because what were the odds that it was all just coincidence? All these years later, I’m still astounded.
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