6-Months Pregnant and Going Down The Thousand Mile Peninsula: Baja, Mexico
- Category: Dad's Dirt Roads: A Blog
- on Fri Jul 24, 2009
- by Mark Stephens on Fri Jul 24, 2009 - (1) Comments
"Everyone has seen photographs of Mexicans wearing those big sombreros. When you come to Mexico, the astonishing thing is, nobody wears these hats at all."
— Bruce Beresford
Careful with the Baja Peninsula. If you travel here, it'll pull you in. You'll adopt broken flip-flops as your footwear of choice. You'll sit on a beach and stare at the golden glimmer upon an endless sea and come close to believing that email never existed at all. You'll drink beer for breakfast. You'll assume that a perfectly suitable retirement plan is to live in a little seaside hut facing the Pacific.
I could be wrong, but I hope not.
Speaking of glimmers, though, Brooke was six months pregnant and we knew a little girl was brewing inside when we crossed the border at San Luis and dialed it in toward San Felipe in March of 2007. Our little muñequita-without-a-name went to Mexico with us while we lived out of the truck for a week - camping on beaches and eating lobster burritos. We like to think we introduced her, first, to the ocean in Mexico where the air is just different and the beaches are empty, free from trash and glass and stuff made in far off factories. Even if she couldn't really dip her toes in the water, she could, though, experience the shushing of the midnight tide from our little home on top of our truck every night. She'd get to taste the tacos and guacamole.
One problem with back road travel in Mexico, especially the Peninsula: if you break down, you're screwed. Badly. And it doesn't matter if you're on pavement or not. The stretch of hardened incessant washboard that follows the Sea of Cortés coast from San Felipe down to Bahía San Luis Gonzaga for some 100 miles and never passes through a town with more than abarrotes or sleepy fishermen — I associate myself with other vagabonds and dirtbags who find this road really damn cool. Sure, there's one paved highway running the entire length of the Baja Peninsula. But, get this, it even sports a legendary section known as The Gas Gap. Consider what that means: a lonesome 150-mile expanse where no gasoline or diesel is consistently available for sale.
You thinking what I'm thinking? Geez, stick to the dirt roads. Your odds are better.
So, dirt roads in Baja . . . right. While cruising down this road to Bahía San Luis Gonzaga, and somewhere south of Puertecitos, the washboard dips grew larger, seemingly swallowing half of the BFGs at once, and that whole "you're screwed if you break down" thought repeated in my head. No matter my pace, I envisioned the shock absorbers working so hard to the point of the oil inside boiling and combusting with a loud, dramatic trip-ending bang — never happened, by the way. But it could have.
This place, the Baja Peninsula, is so disguised. Some parts look like pleasant paradise-like beachfront. However, it's still the desert. Cardónes, a cactus intriguingly similar to the saguaro, grow right up to the edge of water in places. The air palpates with the sensation of a furnace room, until the wind blows in off the water like a cool blessing from ancient Aztec gods. This whole forsaken peninsula is a giant incarnation of opposites.
In 1532, the peninsula remained a legend. "The island of California" as it was called. Hernán Cortés ordered three of his ships to find this island. They set sail, followed Mexico's Pacific coast northward, and finally . . . disappeared. Without a trace. Poof. Gone.
You know what I think? His men found the peninsula and cold beer, hunkered down, and burned the ships. Makes sense. It's a great place to hide out and put this pesky business of exploring behind.
I stared off to the east thinking about 16th Century explorers when an odd dot far down the road appeared in a cloud of dust. It grew, then splt into two dots that took the shape of a pair of motorcycles. But they weren't motorcycles. I could see their slow progress, their buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-bumping along with every single washboard dip along the road. I stopped to let my dust plume die - for God's sake, these were two bicyclists pedaling northward on this 100-mile dirt road. A really bad road. Did I mention that?
The man and woman on their bikes had been coated in a fine layer of dust, but it didn't hide the misery that cloaked their faces - in fact, I'd be hard pressed to figure out which one was thicker: the dust, or the misery? One crank rotation after another, they were going to get to know every one of the thousand miles on the Baja Peninsula in an intimate way. Sleep on the ground when necessary, feast on guacamole and tacos when possible, and (geez!) greet with a padded bicycle seat any version of Montezuma's Revenge that may manifest after a meal.
Around 4:00 in the afternoon, we coasted down a hill about two miles from Gonzaga Bay and spotted a military checkpoint on the side of the road. Brooke drove and picked up speed due to the steep down grade, then I saw eight or ten bodies rush out of the building that sat back from the road by 30 or 50 yards. Oh, I also saw machine guns.
"Ummm, maybe we should slow down. They've got guns."
"Right in front of us."
The Federales waved us down to stop, and they gathered around the truck as one spoke to me through the open window. Typically, they just want to inspect the truck for contraband - weapons and drugs. I'd been so stunned at the sight of guys with machine guns running at us that my heart pounded and their words just slipped on by. All I noticed was their demeanor, the sweat on their heads, and their inconceivably young age. Adolecents, every one of them. And they looked at me like, "So, are you going to answer?"
"Repite, por favor." I had to request.
Ah . . . they needed a ride. Just two of them actually. I said, "No problema" -- beacuase, you know, who turns down guys with machine guns? -- and proceeded to shove stuff around in the backseat to make some space. The two boys hopped on top of the Eezi-Awn and smacked the fender twice with an open hand. The international signal for "let's go."
Brooke took us down the road, two Federales sitting on top of our kit in the back of the truck. So I unstowed my camera — at the time I was still shooting with 35mm film, so it took a minute — turned it on, set the aperture and reached out the window with it facing backwards and blindly snapped off two frames. I didn't have any idea what I captured, if anything at all, until weeks later when I had the film developed.
One Federale caught me. He held up the two fingered peace sign.