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 "highway".
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 stream.
"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. Nothing.
"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 getting into.
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 gold.
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 of here.
"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?