The sheriff clomped down the wooden stairs. His Stetson was set tight onto his head, the brim protecting his hooded eyes against the dry burn of the sun and the grim whirl of a howling dust devil. His badge glinted dully, his spurs flashed, his tongue darted over his chapped lips. The notched wooden handle of his six shooter was an easy reach away. I held my ground, a brave man thinking fast. It was a dire welcome to Calico, CA -- a ghostly boom town long since gone bust.
"Great bus!" the sheriff exclaimed. I warily nodded my head in agreement. It is indeed a great bus. "I should know," he continued, "I had one back in '62--the kind with the windows across the roof. You must be one hellava mechanic to keep that old girl going."
At this point, I usually downplay my mechanical skills (who am I kidding?) and give my new pardner the lowdown and the tour: Subaru engine, water cooled, custom HVAC, etc. But this time I let it go. It had been a long day already and it wasn't yet even high noon. Besides, the sheriff was too busy telling me about his own microbus adventures.
We had spent the previous night in Barstow, CA, (a mere ten miles shy of Calico as the buzzard soars) at a motel right on the fabled Route 66. Barstow is dry. It is windy. It is isolated. And it's the only place in the whole Mojave Desert to have a mechanical breakdown in a '71 VW microbus.
Perhaps a breakdown is too strong a word. Then again, the old girl began the day by spewing motor oil all over the pavement. Was it just a passing phase? A terminal condition? Hell if I knew. The wind was already roaring. Dust was storming. The sun was a harsh burn. And we were stuck in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Taking the advice of a leather-faced old farmer I cunningly accosted, we limped to the town's longest-running mechanic's garage (and yes, it's on Route 66). I hasten to add that this farmer also recommended that we call a wrecker and have the old girl hauled off to the junk yard. We of course took the former piece of advice, and we're glad we did. The mechanic came out to greet us. He got in, saying (and I quote): "Great bus! I should know. I had one of these. A panel van..."
A few hours and dollars later, not only was the bus roadworthy again but we were on the road. Which brings us back to the sheriff of Calico, CA.
Once the silver ran out, the town of Calico was forgotten. That is until one burning soul resurrected the place, sold it to the family who owns Knotts Berry Farm Inc.; who then turned it over to the California State Parks to operate. Or something like that.
The result is a lively little ole gold mine that's overrun with tour buses, curio shops, sno-cone stands, beer gardens, all going strong with the help of some slow-moving miners who work a never-ending drift.
There are even a few historic buildings and artifacts. We loved Calico.
Believing that our luck had turned for the better, trusting the strong-running promise of the mechanic's work, we took leave of Calico and drove south on desolate two-lane roads through the heart of the Mojave, ready now for anything.
Our destination lay many miles and 7,000 ft. above us in the form of Big Bear Lake, CA. Ski resort to the stars.