You just know when you have a trip where all the guys have the same first name you're in for some flak. This was certainly true in our case. I should also say that while this story is true, a few parts are exaggerated to the point of absurdity, e.g., we drank a lot less alcohol than I imply.
We arranged to meet at El Camote's in San Felipe on the first Saturday in April. Mary Ann rode down to JPL with me Friday morning in our battered Nissan pick up. We still had one cardboard window from our last trip to Bahia de Los Angeles where Miguelito had locked the keys in the cab after the town punks of El Rosario threw rocks at us in the middle of the night. But that's another story.
I had a couple early meetings at The Lab but soon Mary Ann and I were heading for Mexico through the Imperial Valley. We crossed at Mexicali and spent the late afternoon driving the thin band of asphalt that covers the two hundred kilometers between the border and San Felipe; that drive is among the most dramatic and inspiring drives in Baja, even though it's paved and usually trouble-free.
San Felipe was hopping with high school and college kids. They were everywhere.
"Kevin told us things would be busy." Mary Ann said.
Spring break was upon us. For the several weeks before, during, and after Easter all the tourist areas surrounding southern California are booked solid. We had decided to call Jack and Priscilla Edmonds and see if they could join us. They were from our small, rural town and had moved to Somerton, just south of Yuma, some years before. I shied away from the "street phones" of which I was suspect (for the reported high charges) and we drove through town and down to the El Cortez to use a phone in the lobby there. I couldn't raise Jack and left a message telling them we were in San Felipe. Could they join us? We didn't know where we would be staying tonight but it's a small town. The El Cortez had one room left, and the place was swarming with school kids. They were all having an obviously great time. They could drink here at 18. They were practicing hard at that and several other odd art forms that looked like fun although I was unfamiliar with them. The rights of passage.
It was getting dark and we drove back to the village and parked the poor old truck (POT) in front of Maria's place, Adrianna's Tacos, north of the Rockadile on the malecon. We visited a while, ordered shrimp tacos, and sat watching the villagers and tourists along the shore. It was a great evening, in the 70's, degree-wise. I walked to the corner liquor to get a Corona. When the tacos were ready we trimmed them with condiments; Mexican mayonnaise, several salsas, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, juice from sliced limes, guacamole. Hotcha! Maria always cooks her stuff after you've ordered it. Hot, crispy beer batter.
"So, how's business?" I asked. I know it's been good with all the kids. Wrong.
Maria tells us that the kids all sign up for all-inclusive tours. She explains how these work. I'll tell you (this all takes place in Spanish and is subject to misinterpretation on my part): The tour companies all sell the school kids packages that include complete transportation, all meals, all activities (except some amount of free time). When they sign up for a package, virtually all events are included. Maria tells us that the kids have wristbands that tell where they go and when, which location, which restaurant, which bar, and where to meet the bus that will take them there. Plus, with the wristband, the few who fall from formation after guzzling too many margaritas will be able to be carted home safely. But, says Maria, this all has a downside: none of the massive dollars spent in the above manner go to the small, independent businesses in the village. Too bad, we agree. It's up to us, I guess, to support this great taco stand.
"Can we have four more, por favor?"
By the time we left Maria's it must have been pushing 9 Friday evening. There were still only a few of the tourist kids on the street. Where were they all hiding? we wondered. We piled back into POT and drove around. Not many kids. We decided to call Jack again and drove back to the El Cortez. Here was an answer to our question; the place was teeming with young people. There were hundreds of youngsters pouring into and out of the Barefoot Bar, draped over the second-floor balconies, sitting in groups around the pool and on the sand, walking along the tide line. A few bodies lay prone and still, beer bottles in hand, sound asleep, mouths agape and snoring. We left another message for Jack. The hotel still had the single room available, but we passed. How would we sleep with these young people partying all night? We drove around town again. By now it was nearing 10. I noticed several of the bars were cordoning off their entrances. Must've had a fight or something while we were at the El Cortez. Or so I thought.
"Why would they close down with so many kids in town?" I asked Mary Ann.
By 10, the answer was obvious. They weren't closing the entrances, they were forming extended channels for the lines of youngsters that would vacate the hotels around town and soon descend en masse on the bars. We sat at Maria's and tried to hold up the San Felipe economy with shrimp tacos. I was also trying to keep the comer liquor store afloat. We watched the evening unfold. Soon lines began to form and the noise level raised well over our heads. Immeasurable Db. Most of the girls wore string bikini tops and the popular hip-hugger flared-cuff bottoms. The boys were dressed in slacker-baggy shirts and pants. They were all having a great time, shifting from one group to another; grains of sand in the beach wind. Could they all possibly be acquainted? Doesn't seem likely as they were there by the thousands. But what difference? They were all having fun and not making any trouble. In fact, the whole time we were there we never saw any problem with a single person. That is, if you consider public drunkenness anything other than a social accomplishment.
We decided we we're too old we we're detriments to the soon-to-be-rollicking scene and made a final pass through the village. Exhausted roars from the many busses floated throughout town as the kids were carried to and deposited in the queues of their selected bars. We got a room at the hotel the locals know as La Langosta. It's actually either that or La Hacienda (-$30/night in Y2K) and unpacked what we needed. Busses gassed the streets. We climbed to our second-floor small, clean room and settled in, reading. Busses raced through town; even after we were asleep, throughout the night, the air was filled with their full-bodied roars and rushes in and around the village. Buildings vibrated. Bands and recorded music pulsed, shook the night air. But by first light it was dead still.
I awoke to silence, showered and dressed, told Mary Ann I would be back by 10. I headed POT toward the Club de Pesca. I wanted to ask the owner, whom we knew, for something conclusive about the murder that had occurred there a couple months back. As I drove through the village only the vendors were evident. The kids, having partied all night, were probably sleeping 'tiI 4. After a night of little sleep I wished myself into the roll of town crier at this early hour. Wake 'em ALL up! But I behaved myself. Besides, I had a mission.
The young man behind the counter at Club de Pesca was close-mouthed about the murder, acted like he didn't know about it. He said to ask the owner who would return in an hour. I'd have to come back. I drove back to the malecon where the vendors were setting up for the day. Maria's was closed. I sat on the seawall across from her place and watched the fishermen moving boats, untangling nets, draining and launching vessels. Their work was slow and comfortable. Many of their wives and children had joined their husbands on the deep beach beside the tidal dry-harbor. A completely rusted pickup, even more battered than my POT, hauled pangas across the sand by the bowline toward the water. The colors and configurations of each boat were distinctive, names: Anahi I, Yossi, Lucky Star, Kathy, La Yukimuri.
Fishermen's children ran in the sand, shouting, yelping. Fishermen's wives sat on old folding chairs near their children and husbands protecting, in that order, their brood. The quiet waters here at the top of the Gulf gently lapped the shore, more occupied with huge tide-swings than making waves. A few gulls argued over drying bones. High up in the blue sky a single Magnificent Frigatebird floated, prehistoric and mysterious. I had only seen them this far north on one other occasion.
I sat of the wall watching this scene for some time. Actually, to tell the truth, I was crying. Not the crying that racks your body, shakes, rocks you. But the kind that is triggered by a simple, moving experience, the kind where a wet trail slowly winds down your cheek, works through your beard (if you're lucky enough to have one) and falls onto your shirt or arm. Why was I crying here, now? I ask myself; it's such a warm scene. Exactly. People sharing time, even sharing work, in an environment where all can play the same game. Fishermen, wives, children of all ages, together. My mind flashes back to the patio at the Diaz Ranch in Bahia de Los Angeles. Michael and Kevin are young there, 6 and 8. Children are playing soccer. Children of all ages, even a few almost-men with shadowy two-day beards join in. There was a complete sense of community, of belonging. In my world, the world of most of us from the U.S., we get up, go somewhere to work, husband comes home, wife comes home, children come home from daycare, we share dinner, watch television, go to bed. Not too far off the mark for most of us, I think. But the guy in San Felipe has something better. In fact, maybe he has all things better. He's just learned to live with less. At least less money. It seems he has more of most everything else.
I'm sitting there on the wall chewing on all this and wishing I was young again. I am brought back into the present by a tap on the shoulder. I turn and there are Jack and Cil, smiling at me. I jump up and we hug and slap me back to the future. My eyes are wet still.
"So, you got our message."
"The second time you called we were out getting insurance and gas."
We sat on the seawall sharing new events since we'd last seen each other until it's time for me to meet Mary Ann. We fetch her and head out for breakfast, which we find at El Club, half a block south of Maria's. Jack and Cil will be heading back to Somerton mid-afternoon. Mary Ann and I have a date with El Camote, Mermelada, Amo Pescar and Maria Bifasico* (a completely fictional and pleasing person), at their home in El Dorado Ranch.
After breakfast we walk through the shops along the main street and down to the south end of town, to the Artist's Gallery, always a source of current Baja books. There I spot Graham's new "Baja Burro" and snap up the next-to-the-last copy. I also get Ann Hazzard's "Cartwheels In the Sand". While I'm paying the owner, who we've spoken with many times previously, I mention that I'm on the way to the Club de Pesca. Does she know anything about the murder there?
"I live there," she says. "The guy who was killed wasn't even staying in the park. The whole thing happened in the sand dunes outside the park." It was obvious she was tired of having this bad stuff blamed on the place where she lived.
"Did they catch the guy who did it?" I ask.
"Yes, they did. But that's all I know."
By the time we all walk back to our hotel Jack and Cil are making departure noises and Mary Ann and I are thinking about El Camote and crew at El Dorado. We all hug and slap backs again and agree that we'll see them at our ranch in a couple weeks. They're off in a gush of San Felipe dust, back to the border they just passed through a few hours before. Mary Ann and I leave our stuff in our room, pay for another night and pile into POT, ready for another adventure. Adventure was the word. If we had only known!