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Chasing the sun

January 05, 2002|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer
  • Johnson's Rottweiler, Mookie, tugs on his boot inside their trailer. CUAUHTEMOC BELTRAN PHOTO
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He's the original poster child for living life large.

Bob Johnson is living the life many of us plan for ourselves somewhere between freeway gridlock, the mortgage and putting braces on the kids' teeth.

While the rest of us might just dream of selling all and taking to the road permanently to chase the sun and live "la vida loca," Johnson did exactly that some six years ago.

After working in heavy construction in San Diego most of his adult life, Johnson was severely injured in 1993 while helping a workmate who had fallen from the rigging of a construction barge in San Diego Harbor.

Faced with early medical retirement, he basically sat around and felt sorry for himself for a few years before experiencing what might be loosely termed a "personal epiphany" one night early in 1996 while watching television.

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"It finally dawned on me that if I did not get up and do something I was going to die in that chair with the remote control still in my hand," Johnson said Thursday at his campsite in the Imperial Sand Dunes off Interstate 8.

That same night he rang a realtor friend and listed his El Cajon house. The house sold in 29 days and Johnson hit the road with his faithful companion, his dog Mookie.

Driving a mid-size camper van and hauling his four-wheel drive vehicle and quad in a 24-foot trailer, Johnson and Mookie took to the open highway that year in search of Johnson's favorite passion — sand dunes.

Johnson, who is 65, looks a bit like musician Willie Nelson though he thinks Nelson is "a whole lot uglier" and laughs in that distinctive gravelly tone that is pure Nelson.

Born on a farm in Minot, N.D., he remembers a sometimes difficult childhood with a father who drank heavily.

In 1954 the family home was sold to make way for the new freeway going through town and Johnson smiles at the memory of his mother being adamant that she was packing up the family and moving to California even though her husband offered to build her a new house in Minot.

"Man, we were like the Beverly Hillbillies when we moved out to California in '54 … and it was shortly after that that I saw my first sand dune over in Arizona."

Johnson estimates he has been coming to the Imperial Sand Dunes for more than 30 years and while he and Mookie are now on the road full-time "chasing the dunes" wherever they exist in the U.S., he concedes the Imperial dunes are his favorite.

"If you guys didn't have summer out here, I reckon I could be content just staying here forever," he says, shuddering at the thought of the high summer temperatures in this part of the world.

In a typical year he will spend time in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho and California and usually ships out from the Imperial Valley in late April to "beat the heat."

When he sold his house in El Cajon in 1996, he sold off all of the stuff that typically goes into keeping house and raising a family, only keeping his life memories, 200 pounds of photos to be exact, in large boxes in the back of his trailer.

Then a couple years ago he got to thinking the photos were useless in storage boxes, so arming himself with a heavy duty staple gun one night, he started wallpapering the interior of the trailer with photos.

Mookie at his heels, Johnson moves around the trailer pointing out aging black and white photos of the farm back in North Dakota, a faded and curling snapshot of his beloved first dog, a border collie named Shep, and photos of himself serving with the U.S. Army in France in the mid-1950s.

He points out a photo of a close friend who served in Vietnam and was wounded three times.

"They had him so drugged up with painkillers in the hospital because of those injuries that he realized he had to get clean … so my friend got himself an old Plymouth and drove from here clear down to Mazatlan in Mexico and lived in a hut with a woman for five years. All he did was fish and he said it was paradise."

Johnson admits sheepishly to not being a survivalist to the degree his friend was.

"I kind of like having a good life-support system," he said pointing to his RV. "And I can ring the Schwann's delivery man in Yuma and he brings me food right out to my rig here in the dunes."

His voice softens perceptively as he moves over to a section of photos where a picture of an attractive and easy smiling woman stands out from the rest.

"That's Janice," he says quietly, running a finger gently over her photo.

Stroking Mookie in an absentminded fashion and his voice breaking at times, Johnson described how he and Janice were childhood sweethearts who married in 1959 when he was not quite 20 and she was barely 15.

"She was my soul mate and together we raised four daughters."

Smiling, he related, "Having four girls and a station wagon in which there was total silence for 200 miles when we went on family trips was all because of Janice. I wasn't much of a disciplinarian but Janice sure knew how to deal with things."

Janice died in 1977 of pancreatic cancer.

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