Sahara to the Senderos

By J.K. Kirkpatrick

The sound of 60 mechanized horses coughed themselves awake and gave a low, steady growl as Dad shifted into first. The screech of grinding gears faded suddenly into the crisp morning air, heavy with the overpowering stench of sulfur and mesquite brush. The folding windshield—the “heater”—stood vertical to redirect the chilly pre-dawn breeze away from the driver and his three young children in the back seat.

The Willys MC was the second iteration of the legendary Willys MB, the iconic vehicle which literally carried the Allies to victory in the Second World War. Manufactured between WWII and Korea, the MC carried on the same standards for reliability and do-all utility as its predecessor. The Allies had developed it into a literal lean, mean, fighting machine during World War II. The Willys MB was a reconnaissance, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and light infantry fighting vehicle, to name just a few of the roles it played. At one point it even lived a life as a tow-behind aerial roto-glider, but the introduction of the modern helicopter retired that idea. It was the Swiss Army Knife of 4×4’s before that metaphor was common vernacular.

Half a century later, a Texan would install a floor-mounted gun rack, a 20-gallon rear bumper corn feeder, and trade the signature non-directional zipper treads for some all-terrains. Had you told the original Willys engineers this, they would have given a nod betraying their lack of surprise that it could also play the part of a South Texas hunting vehicle.

The vehicle that conquered the Nazis in Africa was at home on the red dirt senderos of South Texas. With headlights that bulged like giant eyes, it lit up the sea of mesquite scrub brush and prickly pear cacti. We prowled the cut roads in search of venado muy grande. Dad flipped the metal switch by the steering wheel; the sound of corn being spun out of a metal drum rattled like a machine gun. He parked the jeep in a cut obscured by brush, and we made our way to the blind before sunrise.

The sun rose and lit up the landscape with shades of red, orange, and brown. We spent the morning watching the whitetails, the javelinas, and feral hogs make their way through artificially cut lanes in an ocean of mesquite. When the sun rose high the wildlife retreated to the shade of the tangled brush; we disembarked and mounted freedom’s iron mule to return to camp. It wasn’t certain that she would start every time, but a rusty can of carburetor start spray lived on the floorboard for just this purpose.

Back at camp, it was now time for lunch, siestas, and whatever candy was still on hand to reduce—but not totally eliminate—the crying fits of three mostly agreeable young siblings. Before dusk, we would once again crank the motor and return to the blind.

A decade later, the old jeep fell victim to a surely one-sided craigslist deal. I’m inclined to believe it’s still out there, with untold coats of rattle-can spray paint flecking off into the wind while the driver forces it into third. One thing I am certain of, wherever it is, it still holds cherished memories and a legacy of American exceptionalism that forever changed the world—and those that it carried.

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