A Drive Down Into Baja


As a final thought before heading out the door the next morning, I changed the message on my phone. If you want to know where I am, it’s down in Baja. Look for a trailer along the sea. It’s about 200 miles south of the border

I climbed into my old red and white pickup and headed south in the early light. The traffic was not yet heavy at that hour. Just a few souls heading into Laurel Lagoon on their way to work.

Half an hour later, I was motoring along through dry chaparral country. The sea was on my right, rolling hills to my left. The madness of the modern world faded further and further into my rearview mirror with every passing mile.

Soon, I was passing through the little beach towns north of San Diego. Years ago, they were truly quaint little towns, with old bungalows alongside the highway and rows and rows of rickety greenhouses. Now that stretch of highway was a wasteland of car dealerships and strip malls. As homage to the area’s Spanish past, they had slapped a Southwest veneer on all the new buildings and painted them pink.

Further south, the highway passed over several still unspoiled lagoons. Reeds and waterfowl and wooden shacks that rented boats.

The swaths of Navy infrastructure around San Diego brought a wonderful feeling of wars and swing music and faraway places. The downtown skyline was crisply etched against the harbor. A stiff wind had blown everything clear.

I stopped to top off my tank before driving into Baja, just so I wouldn’t have to stop again on the way down, used the john, then exchanged some dollars for pesos across the parking lot. Five minutes later, I was hitting the Mexican border. A portly official with a disheveled uniform and greasy gray hair waved me through without a second thought. Vendors were hawking everything from Indian blankets to car upholstery to religious icons alongside the road. The carnival atmosphere of Mexico never failed you.

The main road quickly transitioned into a series of go-kart like loop de loops that miraculously had me headed south. The metal border fence rose up twenty feet to my right. Ramshackle slums climbed the hillsides to my left. A freeway as wide as a football field had been exchanged for a two lane road with potholes.

That road soon led over a hill and down along the sea. The drive south was one of barely suppressed impatience for me. All my thoughts were of getting past Ensenada. As lovely as the sea was on my right, and as much as there was open country to my left at times, the area immediately around the highway was a litter of haphazard commerce and development. Occasionally, I came upon American enclaves and the somewhat swanky hotels that catered to them, with golf courses here and there alongside the sea, but mostly it was a fifty mile stretch of Mexicans turning paradise into a dump.

Then came the ten mile clutter of Ensenada, yet another long stretch of haphazard construction that finally dissipated into open country. Then the sea was off to my right again, and the high, rocky point of La Bufadora farther off beyond that. Brightly painted block homes and olive groves dotted the land. Gentle hills rolled off to my left. Higher mountains loomed up ahead.

I passed through the checkpoint at Mandeanero and the road jackknifed up into the foothills from there. A long, steady winding ascent ensued, with a wooded creek far down a slope to my left and the road always ascending higher. Back and forth, back and forth along the sheer rock walls of the mountain, but always ascending higher.

Then the road came to a summit and plummeted down two thousand feet into the adjoining valley along four, long steep grades. You saw the valley far below and after four wild turns you were down to that mostly level terrain.

This was followed by rolling hills with vineyards, and ten miles later by a high pass shadowed by oaks and sycamores. That pass led down into another valley, and then there was another pass and another valley. Here and there you saw peasants making a stand up among the hills, with the wealth of the vineyards always below them. The peasant’s shacks were mostly constructed of corrugated tin and cardboard. An old camper or trailer was usually parked nearby. There were invariably goats and chickens and most of these peasants grew nopales as a cash crop. The cactus was planted in neat rows along the hills and sometimes you saw their brown-skinned children playing up among the rows in their dusty, white clothes.

I came upon the little town of San Vincente some miles later. The highway crossed a stream going in. There was a hardware store and three other businesses among the trees to my right. Two ranchers were walking from their truck up to a lone café on my left. Then the highway wound hard to the right again and the town was gone.

Another green valley followed, rich with irrigation. Then I came over a high, rocky pass and down into the town of Colonet, which was quite a bit bigger than San Vicente, but still only an impoverished little town. It was getting on towards the end of the day and several school girls were walking alongside the road in their white blouses and plaid skirts.

From there I came to a speed bump at the outskirts of town. The highway went out straight for two or three miles. A pretty young woman stood on the center divider, wearing a white uniform and cap with red piping. She was collecting donations for a religious charity and looked impeccably clean and smart in her uniform. The vision of her was magical against the dusty brown hills of the impoverished land.

Since she had positioned herself at the speed bump, and it was arguably the most impressive speed bump in North America, I was forced to slow down and had little choice but to roll my window down and place twenty pesos in her red and white donation can. This brought a look of gratitude to her cherubic but serious face. I thought as I drove away, perhaps she will say a prayer for men with broken hearts before going to bed that night.

There were more valleys and high passes for the next twenty miles. Then the road careened wildly to the left and wound up over a rise, the terrain leveled out and a bank of sea mist became visible far off on the distant horizon. You did not actually see the Pacific, only a damp haze rising up high against the distant horizon.

The road then wound lazily all along the coastal plain, but always down and towards the sea. By the time I hit Camalu, the wind was blowing hard off the coast. There were dust and papers swirling everywhere and the clothing of peasants flapped and billowed like sails in the wind.

The land rose up in rolling hills to my left and everything below the hills and down to the sea to my right was farmland. The blue of the sea was visible here and there beyond the rolling farmland.

Over the next twenty miles, the little towns slowly began to merge together until there was rush hour traffic, such as it was in these little towns of Baja California, but more traffic than you would see anywhere else and at any other time of day. I was fortunate to be going twenty miles an hour.

I stopped at the market in San Quintin, where ripe bananas hung all around the entrance to the building. The inside of the market smelled of raw meat and more ripe bananas. There were many other smells inside, in complete contrast to an American supermarket, which left me wondering as I shopped. How did so much food end up smelling like nothing in America? A great deal of money must have been spent to accomplish that end. Whatever it was, they definitely lacked such technology in Baja. There were enough scents around me to baffle a dog.

I bought what was needed to make some tacos de carne asada that night, along with potatoes, squash, fruit, water, eggs, cream, avocados, bacon, a carton of homemade coconut ice cream, some beer and a bottle of red wine. If memory served me correctly, I still had come tequila and rum tucked away in the trailer.

I had considered going out for dinner at Molino Viejo, where all the gringos launched their boats in the bay, or closer to the highway at Jardines, but decided it was best to be alone. I wanted to face the feelings alone. I wanted to face the pain and sorrow and everything that now seemed hopeless alone.

Leaving San Quintin, the terrain returned to what it had been for the previous thirty miles; hills off to the left, though closer now, and the sea visible here and there on my right. I crossed a narrow bridge and came upon the tomato farms at Los Pinos. It was the end of the day and many of the peasant workers were walking alongside the road. They were Indians from the south and were wrapped in colorful clothing, all about their heads and faces and all the way down to their toes. It made me think of a sci-fi movie.

The greenhouses went on for several miles. Then there were collections of block homes and makeshift businesses gathered alongside the road, and then barren brush country for three or four miles, and finally the crude, pot holed road into Socorro.

My trailer was up on a knoll to the right. The closest place was a hundred yards up behind me. Massive sand dunes loomed up behind that house. The rest of the little enclave was nestled along the hillside below us. From my front door, you could see the coast curving out to a point for twenty miles. Endless lines of surf broke in that direction.

After opening the door and piling all my provisions onto the kitchen counter, I quickly installed the freshly charged batteries and propane tanks I had brought from home. I then lit the refrigerator and water heater at the backside of trailer. With suitcase and water cooler in hand, I went back inside to test the stove. Assured that it was working, I unpacked and put everything else away. The whole point of driving down was to forget the world and slow down and I delighted in the idea. The Mexican’s understood this concept very well. Everything in the goddamned world could wait until tomorrow.

With my view of the sea, I started in on making dinner. The potatoes were cut into quarter wedges and set into a pot of boiling water. Once they were a bit soft, I oiled and seasoned them and threw them into the hot oven. The steak I cut into thin strips and sautéed it with garlic and green chilies. I wrapped some tortillas in tin foil and also set them in the oven.

With the potatoes still crisping in the oven and the meat tender from a half an hour of slow cooking, and everything else in order, I stripped down and took a hot shower. Afterwards, with my hair still partly wet, I felt cool from the late breeze blowing down from the mountains.

The sun was about to set as I sat down with my meal at the dining room table. The food was good, simple and good. I gathered the meat up with tortillas and ate with my hands. I drank from a cold beer. I salted one of the potato wedges and took a bite.

The surf broke down the curving coastline. I could see the lights of cars and big rigs coming around the turn from El Rosario, fifteen miles to the south. The way the Mexicans drove, sometimes that same set of lights would flicker along the coast for half an hour, disappearing behind a hill or down into a hollow and then reappearing again. It was enchanting, in the same way that it was enchanting to watch boat lights move out on the sea at night.

So there I was, at the edge of the world, isolated from everything and everyone in it, and a bit hollow over that fact, but glad deep down inside to be alone. There were times in life when you had to face things all alone, to search your own soul for answers, and this was one of them.