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Merino family has sand in the blood
In his family, Yuman Steve Merino Sr. is affectionately referred to as the "Mayor of the Dunes" for his lifelong passion for off-roading at the Imperial Sand Dunes.
"Before the first chill of fall ever hits the air, he starts getting the itch to go," Dave Merino said of his soon-to-be 75-year-old father. "Right about the Fourth of July every year, he starts talking about the sand dunes."
Halloween weekend is the traditional start of the duning season at the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. The Bureau of Land Management typically expects between 60,000 and 100,000 people at the dunes this weekend.
Merino Sr. has been building dune buggies and going to the sand dunes for more than 40 years. Over the years, those weekends spent at the dunes developed into a longtime family tradition.
"I still have the bug. It has never left me," Merino Sr. said. "There is nothing like being out there. I thoroughly enjoy it."
His son Dave added, "It is in his blood. He likes sitting out there in the sand, smelling the gas and grease."
Merino Sr. said he goes to the dunes twice a month, usually to Buttercup, with an occasional trip to the Glamis area.
"My mom will say, 'Why couldn't he have taken up golf?'" Dave Merino said with a laugh.
Duning has become such a tradition for the Merinos that two years ago, during one of their family gatherings there, they had four generations together at once.
"At 3 months old, we took my grandson out there and stuck his feet in the sand, just to get his feet wet," Dave Merino said. "Now he is out there riding along with us all the time."
Merino Sr. said what makes going to the dunes so special is the feeling he gets knowing his family and friends are going to be out there, too.
Because of the friendly atmosphere out at the dunes, Merino Sr. said, it's not unusual to be out riding around and have someone call you over to their camp to share their food and have a beer.
Dave Merino said his father not only passed his love of the dunes on to him but to many other family members, making duning truly a family affair.
"I feel like my dad now. Just about everything my dad feels about the dunes, I do too," Dave Merino said. "I want to spend as much time with my dad as I can, and this is something we both share."
One of Dave Merino's fondest memories associated with the dunes is of a picture he took of his father a couple of years ago. It was taken from behind him while he sitting in a chair, drinking a beer and watching dune buggies racing up a hill.
"It's like my dad in his own world doing what he loves to do best," Dave Merino said. "It exemplifies my dad's life and his passion for the dunes."
The one drawback to having a family full of duners, Steve Merino said, has been their mom sometimes has to go out to the dunes to see her grandchildren when out-of-town family members come to Yuma to go duning, because they sometimes don't come all the way to town.
"She has been a good sport about it, though, over the years," Dave Merino said.
Merino Sr. even remembers the first time he stepped foot in the dunes. It was back in August 1953. He said it happened while he was on furlough from the U.S. Navy and was in Yuma getting married to his wife of 56 years, Yolanda.
On their way back to San Diego to drop off some friends who had attended their wedding, he said, they stopped at the rest area at the sand dunes.
"It was dark at the time, and it was really peaceful out there. We decided to take our shoes off and run up the dunes."
Merino Sr. said he left the Navy in 1955 and returned to Yuma. But it would be more than a decade before he would he would tear across the sands that would come to shape his life in the ensuing years.
"I just got busy with life. I was working at Yuma Proving Ground and raising my family."
It wasn't until 1966 when Merino Sr. started going to the dunes with friends on a regular basis to watch them that he got hooked.
He said after watching them having so much fun racing up and down the massive dunes, he wanted to be something more than just a spectator.
"I knew a lot of people who had dune buggies who were going out there," Merino Sr. said. "After awhile it got to the point where I wanted to go riding out there, too."
But before he could do that, Merino Sr. needed a dune buggy. And in true backyard mechanic fashion, he built his first dune buggy the following year out of a 1965 Oldsmobile.
Merino Sr. would go on to build 11 more dune buggies, including one for each of his sons and grandchildren.
"Everything my father built he made by hand," Steve Merino said. "We keep waiting for him to say he is done, but that isn't ever going to happen."
Merino Sr. said he would rather build the dune buggies himself from old cars than spend the money to buy one.
"All it takes is a little bit of time and a lot of labor," he said. "It's cheaper and you know what goes into it, unlike if you buy it."
Dave Merino said while other kids his age were at Saturday morning matinees, he would spend many hours in car yards scavenging parts for whatever dune buggy his dad was building at the time.
"I remember my dad using a burner to groove the tires for better traction just so you could go a mile an hour faster."
Dave Merino said because of duning, he and his dad now also share an interest in cars and that they are working together on his dad's next dune buggy project.
He said his dad recently bought a 1948 Jeep, which once done will be his. Dave Merino explained that in 2005, when his dad built a dune buggy for his grandson, Mark, who lives in Phoenix, he used his, so now he doesn't have one anymore.
"It works out because we keep Mark's buggy at my house, so I get to use it," Dave Merino said.
Dave Merino added that there are probably hundreds of people from Yuma like his dad with a passion for the dunes that they have shared with their families.
James Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6854.