Wagonmaster: The Backcountry Adventures of George Service

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June 22, 2019–In the days when the Palm Springs Art Museum included desert in their name, they featured an exhibit spotlighting three dune systems: the Salton Sea, the Coachella Valley and the Algodones Dunes. One of the artists starring in the 1983 show was the now-acclaimed Stephen Willard.

George Service, sand dunes

The other was George Service, a Pinyon resident who died in August, 2018. There’s little chance you know his work or his cinematic story, but for a time he was the leading nature photographer in the desert. His life was entwined with the first backroads jeep tours in California as well as the earliest days of the Living Desert. He belongs in the pantheon of Coachella Valley folk heroes along with Mike Dunn (builder of the Dunn Road) and search-and-rescue marvel Jim Maynard. But George’s renown faded, partly due to his need to make a living–as is often the case. This, then, is a reintroduction.

George Service with his studio monorail camera in the eastern Sierra. He always had a Doberman by his side.

George Service was born in 1942 to US Foreign Service diplomats Richard M. Service, Sr., and Helen Gardes Service. He grew up all over the world, in China, Russia, Belgium, the Netherlands and more. The black-tie state dinners he attended as a boy would give him polish–and a curiosity about cultural differences–to last a lifetime.

He went from prep school in Connecticut to Pomona College where he studied history, then dropped out senior year. Until then his life had been controlled and cosmopolitan. He was about to veer off the paved pathways. Driving his 1952 Willys Jeep to Death Valley, he landed a job at Scotty’s Castle. He camped all over the park, learning the plants and animals and teaching himself to drive off-road and take photographs–skills that would become central to his life.

A Desert Expeditions trip in 1975, with George at right and Karen Sausman seated on a rock, in black shirt and sunglasses.

Next came a six-year career as a banker in Indio, Barstow and Palm Springs. The irrepressible individualist in George told him to move on again, so he began a business called Desert Expeditions, calling himself the Wagonmaster. He outfitted Chevy Blazers with 8,000 lb. winches and extra wide tires, 48-gallon water tanks and a rolling chuck wagon. While we’re used to seeing tourist jeeps today, in 1970 Desert Expeditions was the first licensed off-road tour company in the US.

This was the era for desert discovery. The environmental movement was in bloom and so was hiking and landscape painting. Nature photography was at a zenith, due to the popularity of Ansel Adams and Sierra Club calendars. The original Desert Magazine (unaffiliated with the current Desert Sun version) inspired legions of new devotees. Just as people were craving a real desert experience, George Service came along promising A Way Out. (The slogan on his brochures.)

Tour destinations included the Pinto Mountains, the badlands of Borrego, the Dale Mining District near Joshua Tree, the Orocopias, Wiley Well, Turtle Mountains, the Bodie Hills and the Eastern Sierra. George often took groups to tour his alma mater, Death Valley.

George making repairs in the field.

Out in the field, things were always going wrong and George–a former Boy Scout–was ready. He had trained with the Barstow Desert Rescue Squad and on the volunteer fire team in Pinyon. For mechanical repairs, he hauled an oxy-acetylene welding unit. He fixed broken axles in the field while guests snacked on the chuckwagon delicacies he cooked up. A visiting columnist noted that the group’s motto was: Let George Do it. (Because jeep touring was so new, the trips attracted journalists from Sunset Magazine, the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and other outlets.)

George Service, Wagonmaster

The wagonmaster’s personal style was part of the appeal. An erudite, articulate man who could hold his own at formal dinners, he looked like a ruffian with a pirate beard, cowboy boots and a shaved head–before the look was fashionable. George appeared even more roguish after a sandstorm in Death Valley in 1974 left him blind in one eye and sporting an eye patch.

He was shyer than his appearance suggested, friends say, and was driven by a need to share his passions. “George just had an exuberance for life,” says his former Pomona College classmate Jeff Bruce. “He could get quite excited about ships, about world history, model trains, gathering wood and playing chess. He did big stuff.”

George Service, Edge of the Road

High on his list of Big Stuff was photography. He had been taking pictures ever since his Death Valley days, but his efforts  got a boost when he met Karen Sausman, then the only employee of the newly-founded Living Desert. Then a small wildlife preserve, the Living Desert would develop into one of the most successful zoos in the country under Sausman’s guidance. She served as President and CEO for 40 years.

When George approached Karen about offering jeep trips through the Living Desert, she agreed, but only if she could go along as a driver. “I convinced George I could drive stick and 4WD pretty well,” she says.

Karen Sausman and George Service

Sausman and Service were soon married and Karen began teaching George skills she’d learned in a previous job as a photographer’s field assistant. “I learned a lot of tricks about how to do stills using animal set-ups,” she says. At the time, she was building a photo library for the Living Desert. George and Karen began constructing miniature movie sets for their wildlife photos.

George Service, bighorn sheep

Sausman brought wildlife home to rehabilitate at the couple’s residence in Royal Carrizo–a small community on Highway 74 above Palm Desert. There were rehabbing skunks and baby coyotes in the yard, along with snakes and a sparrow hawk who attacked George’s bald pate while he was working.

George kept a pair of rosy boas in a terrarium on his desk. “They presented me with five little fellers ’bout the size of a pencil,” he wrote in a letter to his parents. “Karen snatched all the young ‘uns for the museum.”

Karen Sausman on a Desert Expeditions trip.

In addition to his wildlife photography, George began offering photography jeep tours through Desert Expeditions. One of his guest instructors was Lee Marmon, who then worked as a photographer for the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Marmon is today widely lauded for his portraits of tribal elders on New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, where he lives.

Around the time George was working with Marmon, he gravitated to large format cameras, purchasing a Calumet 5×7 field camera.  Ansel Adams was then inspiring widespread interest in large format and the slow art of landscape photography.

Along with Adams, George’s heroes were the masters of formal landscape: Eliot Porter and David Muench. “He never used any filters to alter or enhance the colors of his photographs,” says his wife, Patty Service. (He and Sausman divorced in the 1970s.) “He was adamant about capturing the beauty of nature in its natural light.”

To do justice to the desert light required supreme patience. “He would go out with his camera and his tripod and a book and his chair, and go back to the same spot four days in a row,” says his brother, Ric Service of Rancho Mirage. “That’s a lot of patience.”

The patience paid off as George’s work increasingly appeared in magazines such as Palm Springs Life and Desert Magazine, with clients including the Nature Conservancy and the American Museum of Natural History. His landscape photos were used to illustrate Frank Bogert’s classic: Palm Springs: The First Hundred Years. His photographs were displayed in Palm Desert City Hall, and he started selling a line of popular postcards.

 

In 1977, the Desert Expeditions’ insurance company caught on that George was hauling city-slickers out into the snake-infested desert. The company raised their rates 300% and the pioneering off-road outfit  was forced to close down. George then planned to make a living on commercial photography, but found it difficult. He took a job as Director of Operations at Las Casuelas Terraza, the landmark restaurant in downtown Palm Springs then owned by his brother, Ric Service.

Patty Gomez Service and George Service on the Dunn Road. The couple hosted annual dinners for friends on the abandoned road above Cathedral City.

There he met his wife Patty Gomez, or “Patty the G.” as he called her to distinguish her from his brother’s wife at the time, Patty Delgado Service. Patty and George were married in 1998 by the late desert sage Bill Edelen. They would remain together until George’s death 21 years later.

George was married a total of four times, a fact noted in his obituary: “George loved women, and married quite a few!” His former wives–Patricia Fowler, Karen Sausman and Diana Evans–remained friends with George until the end of his life. As Patty Service said: “No one could stay mad at him.”

After he left the restaurant business, George discovered an encore career that encompassed his love of driving and the land. He was almost 60 when he took up long-haul truck driving. Once again, he had intended to return to photography, but instead began coaching truck-driver trainees on the open road. The novices were from all corners of the globe–Romania, El Salvador, Iran, Nicaragua–giving George a work-out for the diplomatic skills he learned as a boy.

He relayed his adventures to friends in a newsletter he called The Trucking News. Cherished by the recipients to this day, the newsletter revealed George to have literary chops in line with his skills as a photographer and wagonmaster. He exulted in “skipping smoothly up and down through a 13-speed transmission, matching engine torque to vehicle speed, running 80,000 lbs down steep grades….”

In the years before Alzheimer’s dimmed his radiance, he was channeling Least Heat-Moon as he hauled diapers to Toronto and kitchen cabinets to Houston. From his high perch, he admired the starbursts of small town fireworks shows, as he fiddled with the radio to bring in NPR. He taught his sidekick, a Dobie puppy named Dulcinea, to check the side mirrors.

George Service in his encore career as a long-haul truck driver. Photo by Ric Service.

He riffed on the songs made by truck brakes and kept an eye out for wildlife. Climbing the east face of the Rockies at twilight, he spotted 15 Rocky Mountain bighorn churning through deep drifts. Karen Sausman says it was one of the happiest times of his life: “He could be a cowboy again on the road.”

My gratitude to Patty G. Service, Ric Service, Jeff Bruce, Karen Sausman, Pat Fowler and DD Evans for telling George Service’s story. For inquiries about George’s photographs, contact: pattyservice@aol.com

 More George Photos:

George Service was recruited for this AC spark plug ad due to his tough-guy image.

On Desert Expedition trips, guests were encouraged to get close to the ground to admire the belly flowers. Tour guide Karen Sausman at right.

George entertained guests on jeep trips with his fine baritone and a repertoire of 200 American folk songs.

 

George was a good cook and kept trip guests well-fed from his custom-made chuckwagon.

George Service, coyote

23 comments for “Wagonmaster: The Backcountry Adventures of George Service

  1. Ana D
    June 22, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    George Service had a interesting life and his desert expeditions, photography taught us about the wilderness desert.

  2. glenda
    June 22, 2019 at 7:49 pm

    can still “see” the dust trails from george’s chevy blazer, high in the bodie hills!

  3. Jeff Bruce
    June 22, 2019 at 9:16 pm

    Splendid job of capturing a giant.

  4. claudia byran
    June 23, 2019 at 4:37 am

    Captivating telling of an interesting life. An ineffable sadness hovers over it. Wonderful pictures. Something tells me he’s out there in the desert–finally a happy man.
    Thank you, as always, Ann.

  5. June 23, 2019 at 11:44 am

    What a wonderful story. Thank you for telling it!

  6. Vicky & Craig Johnsen
    June 23, 2019 at 4:49 pm

    Craig & I met George in 1976 when Karen had us up to their home in Royal Carrizo and Craig recognized George’s ship model as a U.S. Colonial Swift: thus began a life-long friendship with both. Later, when George drove for Swift, he would email his impressions, thoughts, anecdotes and philosophy back to a few friends: those we’ve transcribed and kept all the chapters of what he called: “Trucker’s News”. They were so good we shared, and shared… (early form of “going viral”) and George would chuckle at the fame that resulted, and well earned. Need to set aside the tears of the loss of such a special man, cherishing the memories he has honored us with. Vicky Johnsen

  7. sharon apfelbaum
    June 23, 2019 at 7:10 pm

    Thank you, Ann Japenga, for capturing one treasure of a man who was larger than life and lovable as a teddy bear. He left indelible memories for those many whose lives he touched and elevated.

  8. Ann O'Keefe
    June 23, 2019 at 8:04 pm

    Oh, what a wonderful article. I did not know George except through his dear Patty when he was in his later years, which, as the author says, were “dimmed.” What a fantastic, amazing,man he was. Sort of the Rustic Renaissance Man! His story is captivating. I am so glad I saw this story, and I wish I had known more about him when he was alive, and I was living in Rancho Mirage and knew Patty.

    Ann O’Keefe, Gainesville, VA

  9. Paige King
    June 23, 2019 at 8:51 pm

    I wish I knew how cool George was when he was my boss at Las Casuelas. I’d never have seated a soul, I’d have just been bugging him for more stories. Beautiful article! Thank you for illuminating me!

  10. Rodger Garrett
    June 23, 2019 at 10:08 pm

    Well deserved. Read every issue of the Trucking News. Told him each time, “Man, you have GOT to put some photos with this and turn it into a book.” It was =that= good.

  11. Mary Lou Montagna
    June 23, 2019 at 11:02 pm

    This article is a wonderful tribute. What a dynamic man. So sorry I came into the picture too late, Patty. Would have been fun to know George. Especially liked his slogan A Way Out. But I think just “Way Out” would have been perfect for him!

  12. Alexandra Bickler
    June 24, 2019 at 4:28 am

    What a great article of George’s life and character. To me the dinners, with always interesting conversations, were a highlight. Patty and George were the lovely neighbors and brought me back to life after the death of my George. Thank you for the lovely memory. Alexandra Bickler

  13. Kathy Block
    June 24, 2019 at 9:56 am

    Experiencing the world through George moments whether it was a beautiful handcrafted piece of furniture, a delicious foil wrapped onion from a cookout, a sweet song sung with his guitar, being a guest at his home, a treasured Christmas photo with Patti, or enjoying his view of nature through his camera lens, I am forever grateful to have known this renaissance man. Kathy Block

  14. June 24, 2019 at 12:02 pm

    In the 70’s, my favorite place besides the ice-cream store, was The Living Desert. Our family met George there. He and my Dad, Gary Klein became fast friends. He taught my Dad to cook on Desert Expeditions, and taught me to toe the line at my first paying job, Las Casuelas Terazza in 1985. I was always in awe of this quietly brilliant soul and his piercing eyes. I last visited George before his death when he was my father’s roommate at Desert Cove Memory Care. There, they could enjoy the view of their beloved desertscapes. Thank you, Ann–What a beautiful and accurate tribute!

  15. Marvin Roos
    June 24, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    I loved George and Ric as the brothers I didn’t have. Post Desert Expeditions, George “Wagonmastered” annual excursions with his brother, Ric, me and usually others to visit some of his favorite haunts, usually in the winter. It was never a case of “Let George do it” but rather that George knew exactly how he wanted certain things like clean up accomplished and would always reject our pitiful suggestions of helping out. He would let us scrounge firewood and reconnoiter morning or evening photo ops but stay out of the galley. He was the host with the most whether out on Dunn Road for a sit down dinner for 20 or gathering a dozen at his mountain abode for Turkey and the trimmings followed by a few songs. Renaissance man par excellence. Love ya, man!

  16. Ruth Watling
    June 24, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    George was a unique friend…
    No matter the stage of his health he revered nature and the open road. We were so fortunate to have him in our lives.

  17. Margaret Haynes-Switzer
    June 24, 2019 at 1:36 pm

    Thank you for such a wonderful memoriam and tribute to George. He was the kind of man that we as wives wish our husbands to be, and leave a legacy that George left.
    Also, thank you Patty for sharing with us all of George’s accomplishments and having you as a wife at his side.
    David and I will never forget you both.

  18. Andrew Janik
    June 24, 2019 at 4:47 pm

    Add our names to the thanks for a great tribute. We will never be done learning more things about George. Back when we were still living in the Desert I remember asking George whether Trucking News would ever make it into book form. I believe he said that an attempt was made but never got off the ground. In this time of our country’s discontent , I can’t think of a better antidote. Time to revive the idea?
    Andy and Alice Janik

  19. Wendy Morton
    June 24, 2019 at 8:48 pm

    What an awesome tribute to your husband, Patty! I sure wish Craig and I had been able to know him, he sounds like such a wonderful and caring person. He was taken away from this world way too soon and I can only imagine how much you must miss him. Big hugs to you my friend and I look forward to seeing you soon, love, Wendy

  20. Shannon Service
    June 25, 2019 at 11:06 pm

    Thank you, Patty and Ann, for the time and thought that clearly went into this stellar piece.

    George’s death has ripped a hole in the universe for those who knew and loved him, but the task of measuring and quantifying that hole was too much for many of us. This piece really does him justice and reading both it and the loving comments from those who knew him are such a huge gift.

    Thank you!!
    Shannon Service

  21. Frances Miller
    June 29, 2019 at 9:57 pm

    Oh, how thrilling to read this and learn about your George. I wish Bob and I
    could have been part of his life. He’s our kind of person loving the outdoors. Like his long haul trucking, we were fortunate to have an RV that we crossed Canada all the way to Labrador. Now I understand more about why you miss him so much. You were so lucky to have been part of this man’s life. May George’s memory always be a blessing to you.

  22. Constance
    July 4, 2019 at 10:29 am

    What an amazing man and life, nearly impossibly true were it not for friends & witnesses of George Service. I appreciate Ms Bryan’s comment on ‘ineffable sadness hovering…’. And happy to see old friends Sharon A and Rodger G among the many commentators. Thank you for this exciting, moving tour-de-force on a memorable desert life, Ann.

  23. Michelle Palladine
    July 4, 2019 at 2:05 pm

    What a great article. Sometimes, when you know someone peripherally, it takes an article like this to fully appreciate them. What a wonderful life he led. Much love to Patty and George’s family as they move through their loss.

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