FRANCISCO DE LA SIERRA, BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR, POSTED
JANUARY 20, 1998--
It was time to see just how slow this baby could go. Inches per hour. The final set of switchbacks lay ahead. The arroyo floor was now, unbelievingly, only fifty feet below. I had come 18 miles from San Fransisco de la Sierra, at 4500 feet above sea level, to where my van was now stopped, in the middle of the dirt road; a road full of rocks, boulders, gullies, ruts, loose gravel, 20 percent grades, and shoulder-less sides that dropped 1000 feet into land time easily forgot. During the two and a half-hours of descent, it was this stretch of road I had been particularly dreading, especially the final inward switchback. As the road changes directions there is a brief moment where it seems almost vertical. In fifteen feet the van could be going fast enough to be unable to negotiate the turn. Normally I would not have much of a concern, but today, I was traveling without any rear brakes. Somewhere on the upper portion of the road, the brake line began to leak. I poured in fluid and it pooled beneath the van. If I went slow enough the front brakes alone were sufficient, but there were enough times during my descent when the front wheels locked and the van briefly hopped down the decline. Tough to steer wheels which are not going around. It has always been mildly disconcerting to see the vast numbers of scavenged, overturned, rusted, automobile carcasses strewn all over the Baja, but at this moment it has never been more so.
I was on foot, scouting the road. It was wide, having been freshly graded. There was a slight berm from the grading along the inside edge. Worse case scenario, if the front brakes couldnt hold the van, I could steer it into the side of the mountain. It wouldnt be pretty, but it would be effective. In my favor, the road was slightly banked. I stood in the mid-afternoon sun, trying to make an honest assessment. I seemed to be unable to not attempt it. I walked back to the van. The dog was having a great day. There had been herds of goats wearing bells. There had been groups of mules, unable to get off the road, enabling Zelda to give them hell for miles. And of course, there had been cows. For the last two hours she had been on red alert. Me, I had been preoccupied with the image of myself jumping out of the car before it disappeared over the side, a confused-looking dog being the last thing I see.
I further reduced my air pressure. I crept forward. I kept the inside wheels in the loose berm. The front brakes were holding. I stopped the van. Regrouped. Tried to keep my leg from shaking. I was looking down at the floor of the arroyo. With a couple quick pumps of the brake pedal, I swung the van around and scurried down the final straight descent. Nothing to it-- just another day of bopping around the Baja.
Ricks giant RV needed a new radiator. He had coasted into town last night, along the way running over a Mexican on a bicycle. He told me he had partied in the junkyard/auto repair shop till wee hours of the morning. A regular guy, Rick. He is big, in many ways. Six-foot two, 250. A gray muscleman T-shirt did not disguise a healthy midsection. He wore shorts, Nike anklet socks, with worn leather loafers. He wore a baseball hat. Sunglasses hung from around his neck. He told me he was smart, creative, and does his homework. He and his wife were on their way to the Los Cabos area to get a piece of the action. He was banking on gambling coming to the tip of the Baja. He had money, his hair care product company having just been purchased by one of the big boys. It was done with hostility, he tells me. He told me he had energy; a knack for getting to know the right people. He strides about. He jokes with Porfírio. He is on a first name basis with all the junkyard hanger-ons. He comes back to me and tells me of a failing mall in Tuscon and how they didnt do their homework; didnt do their financial analysis; their traffic flow research. He tutors me in the fine points of owning a pro football franchise; how to go about getting a stadium financed. He complains about the Phoenix Cardinals. He complains about the owner of the Phoenix Cardinals. He jokes about with Antonio, the prime gofer. He circles back to me. He tells me about golf courses; how businesses spring up like magic when a vacant piece of land is turned into a golf course. He doesnt play golf, but he loves golf courses. The golf courses in Los Cabos amaze him. Big name designers, big-ticket condos. He tells me the strategies of selling condos around golf courses; how to get the pros to come.
Everything he owns, he tells me, is in, on top, or behind the RV. With two months of garage sales, he purged himself of his possessions. He tells me of the spiritual side of purging ones self of material possessions. It seems he couldnt purge himself of the new dune buggy with the Honda motorcycle in the back seat that he was pulling behind the massive RV. Understandable. He never got around to telling me about books, music, or films.
Porfírio is spending less and less time under the RV. The final nuts, bolts, and screws were being put in place. Rick excuses himself and becomes busy with preparing the beast for departure. He starts it up and no water spews onto the ground. The motor rumbles with authority. For five hours of work and any parts salvaged from his stock of junked autos, Porfírio decides $150 would be fair
compensation. Rick gives him more. His wife gives him a card she made while the RV was being worked on. "A Christmas card for next year," Porfírio says and grins. Rick starts up the dune buggy and drives it into position to be hooked to the back of the RV. We all help him hitch it up. He honks the horn, sticks his hand out the window, waves bye, and drives out onto the Transpeninuslar Highway, heading south. Rick and his wife will do well, I had no doubt about it.
Porfírio rinses his hands, gives me a big smile, and says, "Brake line, right?"
I saw them last night. Dogs. But not like the other dogs I see. Not the sorts who sniff butt and pee all over everywhere. These were different. They made me a tad nervous. I wanted to chase them, but Peter wouldnt let me. I pleaded. I whined and growled. I told me to stay. I could see them right out there! RIGHT THERE! Heck, they werent so big. Half my size. I coulda handled them. But no, I had to stay. What kinda deal was that?! That is my job! Keep everyone safe and protected. And I had to just sit here. I didnt get it I get to chase everything else.
I growled at them and they didnt even move. Didnt even lift their heads. No respect. I even gave them a couple good barks. Pissants. So, I went reluctantly back to my chair and curled up. Though dont for a minute think I closed my eyes.
Then the next couple days were great! We went real slow. I hung out the window. Way out. Sometimes I almost fell out. Whoa! Checked out lots of new smells. And there were cows! Right next to the road! I told em! I even got em to move! I told em if I wasnt in this car, Id be out there after em. Im not afraid of them! They may be big, but theyre slow. Ive seen em move before. Id be out there chewing em up. Cows are they useless, or what? And then! More cow-like animals. Smaller, with big ears. Tons of em! Theyd run in front of the car. And these things could run! Run right off the road! Almost straight up! Made this weird baaaahing sound. And they had these things on that made noise when they moved. How stupid is this?! Every time they ran they clanged. Sometimes when we would be walking I could even hear them way far away. Couldnt see em or smell em xactly, but I knew they were up there cause of that stupid noise. And boy did I tell these animals a few things! Get out of the way! Here we come! Were coming through! Youd be in big trouble if I was outta here! Weird thing, though, there were always other dogs with these animals. Hanging out with em. Kinda showing em where to go. Making sure they all stayed together. Doesnt seem natural. Maybe its like me and cats. But the best were these other cow-like animals. Pretty big, almost as big as cows. They could run ok, but they never got off the road. Just run up ahead and stop. Go around a corner and stop. Like what are they thinking? Were not going to catch up to em? Man, I yelled so much at them, for so long, my throat started to hurt. My voice didnt come out the same. I started to get real thirsty. But I let em have it. Get off the road! Yeah, you! Or Ill get out there and chase you off! Stupid animals like cows! Im stopping this car right now and Im coming out! Yes sir, youd better move! It was great! By the end of the day, I was pooped. I slept like a big piece of wood. Had these strange dreams where I was chasing cows but my feet didnt want to move. They moved real slow, no matter how fast I wanted to move them. Drove me crazy. Glad it was only a dream.
Drove three hours south of Huerfanito to Bahia San Luis Gonzaga and camped at Papa Fernandez (a small beach community) on Punta Willard, behind sand dunes to keep out of the wind. Spent the day working. At one point, I baited up a hook with a small grouper fillet, tossed it out from the beach, placing my big shore-caster in the pole holder stuck in the sand. I returned to work in my van, behind the dunes. During a work break, an hour later, I went up over the dunes to check the pole. It was gone. The pole holder had been up-ended. Luckily, the fishing rod had not been dragged into the Sea of Cortez. (More and more I am coming to believe in the powers of the guardian angel I found in Arizona that is now attached to a curtain in my van.) Still attached to the end of the line was a giant triggerfish. Praise Ja, for he will provide. Until then, I had no food for supper other than rice and canned mushrooms. Tonight I now look forward to fine garlic-butter sautéed fresh trigger; a meat so sweet as to actually emit a floral-like aroma when freshly filleted .
Left early the next day. Stopped to fill-up with gas. While I was waiting a Mexican man approached the van, asking for a lift to the main highway, four hours through the rugged rural countryside. His name was Fransisco. He was dressed in a black shirt, jeans, boots, and wore a white corduroy PLAYBOY baseball hat. He had his possessions in a small, white plastic trash bag. He claimed to have seen me in Huerfanito. I agreed to give him a lift. He offered me $20. I refused. He refused my refusal. Fransisco was originally from Guaymas. He now has a San Felipe postbox. He was working on a shrimp boat. You can hear them at night, their diesel engines chugging far out on the water. He was on his way to Ensenada where he had a job on a sardine boat. It seemed he made the trip often. Between his poor English and my poor Spanish, (and The Texas Tornadoes and Flaco Jimenez.) we conversed. He told me the Huerfanito area is famous for UFO sightings. He himself has seen three, one so vividly as to be able to describe in detail the emanating pulsating rays. As we maneuvered along the rutted, rock-strewn dirt road the he gazed at the volcanic hills that rose abruptly from the arroyo the road followed. He told me there was gold to be found in those forbidding black hills. In fact, he told me he was planning to apply for the various permits necessary to legally prospect. He was truly optimistic. He felt that my ride was, "de los Dios," (from the Gods.)
I dropped him at the cantina where the dirt road met the Transpeninsular Highway. There he would wait for a bus to Ensenada. I ordered a couple burritos while I re-inflated my tires to highway pressure. And who pulled up next to me in a pick-up, here in the middle of nowhere? Yuca and Chulom!two long-time friends from San Jose del Cabo. Seems they had recently started an "import" business to supply necessary materials to businesses in the San Jose area. The thumbnail description showed promise. Two characters. I got caught up on some of the local San Jose gossip. Their return trip from San Diego would put them in San Jose before me. I was looking forward to gabbing with them over ice-cold Pacificos and shrimp tacos. I also found myself wishing to hasten my travels and setting up residence in my familiar tiny room at the Hotel Posada Señor Mañana.
After 80 miles of dirt road that often had me clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth, the hotels promised tranquillity loomed large.
Just north of Rosartio I camped on the beach at Laguna Miguel on the Pacific Ocean. That night, just after I had turned off my reading light, pulling the sleeping bag snugly around my shoulders and closing my eyes, Zelda began to growl. I peered out the vans gaping side doors, and there three feet away was a coyote sniffing around the dinner table. I had no trouble seeing, since the moon was almost full. I yelled. It didnt flinch. I banged on the van. It didnt move. Zelda was whining loudly, ready to go after it. I held her back. They were wily critters. I didnt want her running off to an awaiting pack. Then sauntering into camp was another coyote, a smaller one, the size of a fox. I banged on the van and it vanished into thin air. I lay awake long enough to make sure they had left and sent Zelda back to the captains seat to curl up. We slept soundly. In the morning, in the sand, lots of little coyote footprints.
Drove to Guerrero Negro for supplies for a proposed week excursion around the Vizcaino Peninsula. I had actually taken the turn-off from the main highway toward the coast. After proceeding several miles, the thought of the upcoming 230 miles of washboard dirt road began to make me slightly nauseous. All that for a mere 55 miles of beachfront suddenly confounded me. I turned back onto the highway with a now open-ended itinerary, feeling cheery. I popped a Modelo, put Skeleton Key on the stereo, grappled with my map, and headed south. Ten miles down the road was a little side trip of only 23 miles to the tiny pueblito of San Fransisco de la Sierra. The indicated dirt road ended not far from a mountain peak, Pico Santa Monica. It was listed at 6905 feet, which is a respectable mountain in the Baja. A journey of no more than four hours would put me smack dab in the middle of some serious topography. I drove the length of the road and, deciding not to spend the night, made the short climbof the hill behind the town. From there I could see the Sea of Cortez as well as some spectacular scenery.
Coming down was tougher. (see main story.)
Stayed in an RV park in San Ignacio. Stayed two days. Met this guy, Ewan, former bike courier from Edinburgh, who was riding his bike (and towing 70 pounds of stuff) from San Fransisco to the tip of the Baja. He had just put behind him 140 kms. A good day. He usually averages about 100km/day. Says when the idea first came to him, and he started running it by other people, they told him he was nuts. The fact that Americans thought the plan nuts, he says, made him think it probably had some merit. As it was turning out no one had any idea what they were talking about. He said he couldnt believe the bike riders around the Marin County area. Had these great, expensive mountain bikes, but never went anywhere. When he asked directions how to get somewhere on the bike, no one could tell him anything. He was amazed that everyone just put their bikes in their cars and drove them where they wanted to go. Pretty interesting guy. That night we were sitting in the van, me sipping brandy, Ewan, his mescal, when through the door popped this wide-eyed, wild-haired neighbor. I cant remember his name. He was from Iowa. He said, "Can I come in?" "Sure." "What you guys doing? That your bike? Wow. What is it with these border patrols? I need a map. Saw one for five dollars. No way. Five dollars. Do we need a tourist card? " and on and on. He told us hed be right back. Ewin noted that this guys mouth seemed to be working a little faster than his brain. He returned with a loosely rolled joint. Pot just keeps me awake, and it was getting late, so he and Ewin passed it. This guy was earmarked for trouble. Between his wild, anarchistic looks and distorted thought patterns he was begging for some sort of confrontation. And to be carrying around drugs in Mexico to put it mildly, is not the soundest of ideas. Ewin? He left the rv park after one night. Hes out there somewhere in front of me. Ill no doubt be seeing him somewhere down the road.