In the late '60's, my brother, Tony, and I were returning from
an adventure out to Malarrimo. We decided to take the old
turnoff for the east coast road at the small ranch where the
east road cut off from the then fully dirt transpeninsular
We spent the night near old El Crucero. I had met the family
living there years before, on my first Deep Baja Adventure, with
Epifanio Ybarra, from previous stories. Tony and I threw our
sleeping bags on the warm sands, climbed onto padded surfaces
and tossed around enough to make the sand conform to our
individual body shapes. We talked for a while across a small
fire before falling asleep, thoughts of wayward snakes and
scorpions crawling into our sleeping accommodations. Perhaps
the smoke from the small dying fire would drive them away?
The next morning we said adios to the rancher and his wife and
were off north up the worst road on the entire peninsula. My
old Land Cruiser, La Tortuga, was worn down from the sands of
Malarrimo. I was hoping she was up to the grueling trip ahead.
The road at first is sandy and narrow, passing between lively
cactus gardens filled with many of the smaller endemic species
of cacti growing right up to the edges of the road. Sometimes
it was hard to get out of the vehicle they were so close to the
dirt roadbed. A very attractive area.
Soon we were making tight corners and I had to back up and try a
second time. That's how sharp the corners were, even in the
stubby Tortuga. Large boulders, smaller but ala Catavina style,
made the turns even tighter. Then we encountered a small
"Am I hallucinating?" I ask Tony.
"Me, too, I guess."
The stream is glued to the center of the roadbed and we had no
choice but to follow it. It grew deeper as we continued north,
but Tortuga is a heavy lady and was well endowed with not only
4WD but high and low range as well. Just for thrills she also
had a PTO winch. She was, by then, Baja proven.
We plugged along, stone-by-watercovered-stone, for an hour or
more before we encountered the Calamajue Mission, stopped for a
visit and then continued. From there, the road climbs from the
small creekbed we had followed for miles and onto the central
desert and continues, fairly flat and in the general direction
of Gonzaga Bay. Soon we were closing on a range of hills,
moving in from east of the road. Then the mountains,
decomposing granite, covered with sparse vegetation, are
enticing us, calling to Tony and me to look closer into their
ravines and small valleys, to become more intimate. We spot a
site where it looks like a two-wheeled cart or wagon might have
rutted earth a century or more before.
"Let's go for it." Tony says.
"Absolutely." I echo.
I pull the steering wheel to the right, following the barely
detectable indentions in the weedstrewn desert, east up into the
foothills. Soon we are winding up a threateningly narrow canyon
below two towering peaks of loose stone, one on each side and
I'm a So Cal boy. I'm thinking "No Earthquakes Please" and
issuing this request to On High. But I'm forced now to focus on
the canyon we've chosen, where the road no longer exists. We're
now in 4WD and I'm downshifting into low range. We're creeping
at 1-2 MPH over raw granite in our narrow channel between hills
while banging sideburns on sidewindows. We climb maybe two
miles from the main road and clamor around a corner turning
south and then in front of us is a small decomposing adobe hut,
maybe a hundred years old and completely unattended. Abandoned
for decades. We stop and shut down old Tortuga, sputtering with
pre-carb and spewing oil everywhere and check out the area.
Although only a few miles from the main road, we're way into the
backcountry. Nobody has been here for many years.
Tony and I look for artifacts, signs of life, around the hut
where people once lived and then scan the surrounding hillsides.
"Why would someone live here? Tony asks. I'm wondering the
same thing and thinking.
"Water source?" I ask "Maybe gold or silver?" We lift our eyes
higher on the imposing mountains.
"Look there." Tony says. I look where he's pointing. There is
a small indention in the hillside several hundred feet above our
rockstrewn canyon. We climb slowly to the dent there. While we
chose the route without thought, it wasn't without ingrained
logic and we soon find ourselves climbing a steep path where we
sense others preceded us many years ago. We continued climbing,
slipping in the decomposing granite, climbing again. Soon we?re
nearing the small place we had noticed from below, then pulling
up onto a small earthen table. We catch our breath and scan the
desert below, full of breathtaking panoramas. Behind us,
tunneling into the hillside, is the mouth to a mine. We must
have had some concept of this from the time we left Tortuga,
because we had flashlights with us.
"Are we up to this?" One of us asks.
"Come too far to go back with no adventure." the other responds.
And off we go, down into the mine. And I'm no spelunker. I'm a
damn claustrophobic; that's why I like Baja. It's wide open.
But this doesn't stop Tony and he's forging ahead, yards ahead
of me into the black shaft that heads into mother earth at an
angle about 20 degrees south of horizontal. Out come the lights
and I'm watching for nasty critters and wondering what we're
We progress several hundred yards into the tunnel. It's
absolutely black and noiseless except for the sounds of our
boots on small granite pieces and our lungs working and some
occasional, unpredictable and mysterious sound I can't identify
but don't like. At least they're no damn bats! I hate bats!
We keep moving downward. The flashlights cast tunnel vision
into the blackness ahead and we're feeling the walls of the mine
for assistance. What creatures are thriving there? We check
out both sides of the tunnel just to assure ourselves. We shine
lights on both sides. Here is a clue as to the purpose of this
scary sinew running deep into the tissues of the earth. Along
both sides our flashlights expose two parallel lines of red clay
inside of which are positioned layers of clear quartz. Inside
the inner walls of quartz we could see a subtle change in the
quartz's composition and spotted, in the now-dimming
battery-powered flashlights, a substance that appeared to be
Now that we understood what had caused someone to settle this
far out in the badlands, we were further motivated and
continued, expending the limited resources of our bodies and
flashlights down deep into the earth where no one had passed for
maybe a hundred years. I'm thinking EARTHQUAKE! We continue on
for several hundred yards. The path is so steeply downhill I'm
bringing up issues about our ability to extract ourselves from
this black pit. Tony's huffing and puffing. Soon, though going
downhill, one of us is suggesting that maybe we need to just
take a break and sit down on a rock in the darkness, turn off
our lights and rest for a minute. In the last hundred yards the
temperature has gone up considerably. Suddenly, alarms are
going off in my head.
"Rest here?" I shout to Tony. My mind is working overtime. My
call echoes around the sides and then the end of the cave,
bouncing back to us at varied intervals and I'm realizing that
we might be encountering thinning oxygen or a buildup of other
obnoxious gasses and slowly growing delirious. I only want out
"Let's head out." I shout. "Now!" Tony agrees and we begin the
climb that could have claimed our young lives. Going down into
that great void we were working with gravity. The energy we
were expending was small and resisting the pull. Going down we
only noticed the effect of whatever was now messing with us in a
way that was not influential. But going up was another matter
and soon we were almost unable to move, unable to capture
lungsfull of air and staggering, then crawling, then pawing the
dry, so dry earth and with my face on the floor, inhaling it,
sucking life out of my body, still deep in the lower intestines
of earth but Tony'd kick me and I'd prod him on as we worked for
the surface and rued the decision we'd made to come here. We
mentally composed our final farewells. We knew we were goners.
We move on, now down to a barely visual motion. This continues
for what seems like hours. I don't know where I'll find the air
to feed my muscles that drive my momentum. I realize this is a
mind deal. This concept throws a binary switch deep inside me.
If I'm going to survive this I have to focus. There's no time
to consider the problem, just figure out HOW TO SOLVE THE
PROBLEM! We just need to get out of that damn shaft!
We worked up the black angle toward where we knew the surface
was for an hour or more. When one of us grew silent for more
that a few seconds the other would call out and not proceed
until we heard a response. There was no progress until we were
together regardless, and the going was slow. But then the air
seemed richer. We weren?t breathing as heavily and our heads
were clearing and we were returning to the normalcy of
self-preservation, rather than -sacrifice. I was glad to hear
that as I rather enjoy life over the alternative.
Then we're seeing small modulations of light and enthused and
motivated if just from the fact that we may have survived.
We're on our knees now, then staggering, punch-drunk legs and
then standing at the mouth of the mine and sucking in great
gulps of the best air we'd ever inhaled and realizing that we'd
been under some influence ever since we'd entered that mine.
Perhaps old mining chemicals decay across decades? Maybe the
natural decomposition of natures elements are additive? Maybe
just the phenomenon of air thinning the deeper it gets in a
tunnel into the earth. I just don't know.
We sat, and then stood, at the mouth of the mine for a while,
then, Tony and me, reflecting on the incident. As guys do, we
laughed and kidded about the risks and became closer, much in
the same way two men do after a fight. Surviving serious
difficulties we males are most likely to open ourselves to our
perceived opponents. I knew him more closely than I do now.
But he's eleven years younger than me and just a kid.
We reclaimed the wondrous Tortuga, waddled across stones down
narrow canyons, returned to the old dirt road, sandy and
relatively smooth that far north, and sped toward Alfonsina's.
Many miles before we reached her then outpost, while we were
still far off in the desert, we could smell the turtle steaks
cooking, smothered in garlic. That was back in the days when
none of us was endangered. The land of plenty?