In the late 1960's, seven or eight years before the pavement went
in, I would often rally with some pals and plan a trip to a
particular destination in Baja. With the slow road it was
impossible to plan to see the whole peninsula in less than
several months, weeks of which would be waiting for patched flats
at distant ranches. Most of our trips were planned for nine days
- a weeks' vacation.
I had a 1968 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-40. I bought it because it
was tough, but, more importantly, because it looked like I wanted
to look in Baja: a capable and seasoned traveler. This was all
image, of course. My mother, an artist, painted a replica of a
great tortoise on the back of the truck along with the words "La
Tortuga." After a hundred or more trips and hundreds of thousands
of dirt miles, rocks, mud, surf and sand and love, I retired the
exhausted truck around 1989. It sat in our back yard for the last
unused ten years of its life, replaced by a newer 1984 Land
Cruiser. I saved it because I wanted my sons, Michael and Kevin,
to learn to drive in it: it had saved my life, and my wife, Mary
Ann's, many times. But it grew into a safety issue and I decided
that it wasn't safe for the kids to drive. So I sold it for $400
to a younger guy who wanted to restore it. I cried on the day he
came to pick it up. By then, my life was tied to that truck the
way it was to Baja. The truck, the peninsula, and I had become so
intertwined I couldn't sort out who was who.
But my thoughts reflect many of the early days in this truck with
the doors and the roof removed and stowed at some remote ranch
and the windshield folded outward, onto the hood, with several
friends and me hanging on for life flying down some dirt track to
an outpost somewhere in the central desert, or the big adventure
in days before the highway: the Viscaino Desert and Malarrimo
From my tour with Epifanio I brought back photos and stories that
set some of my more adventurous pals mouths watering and threw
them into cold sweats.
I was single and moving upward at JPL (how far can you fall from
a basement window?). I had hired on as a computer I/O delivery
kid at The Lab in early 1967. Now I was a distant and lofty
leader of a small group of programmers, writers and other
cut-ups. We were collectively assigned to an exhausted
partitioned trailer buried in the backwaters of The Laboratory
where we wouldn't embarrass anyone. But we did good and hard work
and partied the same way. In those days, JPL was a smaller and
gentler place. The hard work, sometimes 24-hour days, was
expected. Some of us moved campers into the west lot and slept
there to be close during critical activities of a mission, a
planetary encounter, a landing. Hard partying was tolerated in
the midst of this. The level of effort was intense and the morale
of the space business was high. We were proud of our
accomplishments and to be associated with good work, promoting
our country at an international level and to know each other
because we were all hard chargers.
A favorite watering hole of The Laboratory was the Chef's Inn in
La Canada, a small town snuggling up to the tall mountains north
of L.A. Ah! The Chef's Inn. From the red leather booths of the
restaurant to the tall chairs of the lounge and the shaded
windows of the bar we gathered nightly to review the day's
activities and boost our egos. The work was fun and exciting and
rewarding and I was a tiny rising player in a field that was
important to me. I wish every young person setting out on a
journey through a working life could have shared that experience.
Each day I couldn't wait to get to work to implement some plan
that I had discussed with a friend at the Chef's Inn the night
before. I hated the weekends; there was no work. It was an
exciting time of my life. JPL ruled.
From our stools along the back bar we talked and gazed toward the
snow covered peaks of the northern mountains, the San Gabriel's.
Late in the evening the hardball players wound their way home,
watching for flashing lights through the streets of La Canada, La
Crescenta, Glendale, Pasadena and Altadena. We radiated out from
the Chef's Inn and into our communities where we were just
ordinary people. Today was another day.
So I considered how to squeeze my three days into five days off
(9 days counting weekends). I developed a plan that involved
calling in sick, and called my good buddy, Doug Hjelm, who had
expressed a sincere interest in the exploration of Baja,
Malarrimo in particular.
Doug was also single then, about to become a fireman in the San
Gabriel valley. He was working on a degree in history and
history was his love. Over years that followed, he spun stories
that smoothed many rocky roads of the peninsula, of Roman and
Greek civilizations and an occasional goddess or two. Doug sold
the trip to his brother, Peter. My brother, Tony, wanted to join
us, too. So we were four in number. This was perfect because we
needed two vehicles, one as backup, and we now had two drivers
in each: we were, after all, going forward into the unknown.
Not a lot of planning was required because you can't plan for
something you don't understand, but we spent many days
organizing what we thought we might need. This was just the fun
part; the expectation of a journey is often more pleasure than
the journey itself when the doing's done.
Baja is remote today; yesterday it was the Sahara. Men say that
and feel masculine and capable having survived it. But it was
the Sahara. When we got serious we prepared supplies as though
there were to be no additional provisions except gas and water
for the entire trip. We packed sturdy plastic milk crates full
of canned foods, dried foods, Jerry cans full of water and gas.
We threw in sleeping bags and other camping gear until the Land
Cruiser was loaded, but not overloaded. Land Cruisers then had a
problem with rear springs weakening. We had lots of rough roads
Doug's car was a chopped VW, the classic Baja Bug, and the
perfect car for this trip. The fenders were shortened and
widened to permit bigger, wider tires. The favored tread of the
day for Baja was airplane slicks; sand was best left
undisturbed. The rear, air-cooled engine meant no radiator to
leak and the weight was over the traction wheels. Doug's VW was
a magnificent mosaic of forest green and desert brown and sand
tan camouflage. Like my Land Cruiser, Doug's VW was Baja. What a
team we would make, flying across the desert in our beautiful
vehicles toward remote and distant, unexplored lands where
wonderful women, bored by other men, were waiting for our
arrival! Oh, how a young man can dream!
There were many miles driven before this trip begins on this
page, over roads more commonly described. The good stuff began
at Black Warrior and worked south and west from there onto the
the actual roadway and off the map we had studied for so many
months where the thick wedge of Baja, the Viscaino desert swings
into the Pacific. The northern rim of this extension is a
catch-all, a magnet, for everything in that ocean. Currents,
predictable and otherwise, eventually are attracted to and
deposit every floating thing along a desolate and almost
impossible-to-reach stretch of beach called Malarrimo. I never
have understood what the name means, but mal in Spanish is bad,
and that was an attraction for four young men. Malarrimo Beach
was our destination.
We dropped off the thinning pavement somewhere around San
Quintin and kicked up two dusty spirals through the tiny
villages and remote ranches. Two days later we arrived in
Guerrero Negro. We stopped at a small auto parts store and asked
if they had a part that Doug needed for his carburetor. The
owner said he could have one in the next few days, so we ordered
it. He asked where we were going and we told him Malarrimo. He
told us that we might as well be entering the Sahara.
"Arabia" he said, pronouncing the word in Spanish with a soft A,
"ah", and putting the the emphasis on the next-to-the-last
We asked how we could prepare ourselves. He said to travel
light. Light was not an option; we had solved every conceivable
need twice. But he said we could leave some of our equipment,
unneeded for that leg of the trip, with him. We all discretely
looked at each other out of fetching eye-corners and wondered if
we could trust this fellow with our precious stuff. But he was
honest and was with his family and we knew where his house was.
We immediately reached the same conclusion. The poor fellow must
have been intimidated when he saw the quantity of stuff we
offloaded from our vehicles into his tiny store/home. I'll bet
his wife wasn't happy. In a parting shot, we removed the roof
and doors from the Land Cruiser and left them in front of his
house. He reassured us this was not a problem. Maybe his wife
became the problem when she came home to all the junk the
gringos had left for her to deal with for several days!
The roads into the westward-jutting arm of the Viscaino desert
all started from Black Warrior then. We could choose between
negotiating a difficult passage with the foreign company that
owned a large evaporative saltworks at Black Warrior to cross
miles and miles of salt pond dikes. Or we could head south, past
Black Warrior to a small, almost unused road that turned west
toward the southern extremes of Scammon's Lagoon, to a distant
and lonely cluster of huts gathered together in the heart of the
desert, known as Ojo de Liebre, Rabbit Hole. Our heads swelled
with thoughts and visions of raw desert, of windy dusted huts on
the remote plain. Were maidens in this picture? Our romantic
hearts sang at the thought of doing things the hard way! We
turned keys in our ignitions and pressed our throttles too hard,
revving our engines and spinning our tires in the Baja dust and
heading south toward the more difficult road, Frost's road not
taken. We slept that night in bags thrown on sand at an unknown
location. We slept under the influence of a partial Baja moon
and several Coronas. We were tired from a long rough ride, and
looking into to the adventures of tomorrow.
Ojo de Liebre - Rabbit Hole
The road into Ojo de Liebre doesn't exist. At least it doesn't on
any of our new maps that I'm using to write this piece in 1999
about a story I lived in 1960-something. All the old maps were
destroyed, along with our house and everything else in it, a few
days before Christmas in 1997. The newer maps show another name
in about the same location. The new one is called La Cantina, but
I know this to be a few miles down the way. Regardless of the
road's absence from my map, we drove down it and off the map and
into the wilderness of the desert on that morning, somewhere in
the spring of 19-sixtysomething.
During the middle of the day we arrived in Ojo de Liebre. It was,
in fact, a dusty, tiny collection of several shacks and a
cantina. The bar must have done a whopping business. No more than
eight or ten folks could have lived in the village and it was
half a days' drive from any other living thing that might be in
need of a drink of whiskey. And you'd need plenty of that just to
survive the remote and featureless landscape of this sad,
forlorn, forsaken place. The land was flat, the earth saturated
with salty powder. Wind blew the silty dirt into swirls;
whirlwinds formed far across the plain. The simple, small and
broken, wooden, slatted houses leaned uneasily on their frames,
tired and resting, toppling into wind and weather, covered in
fine, light powder. A single scrawny dog, back legs wobbling from
hunger, ribs protruding from a shallow, hollow, dead and decayed
treetrunkchest paid us little interest: we had nothing to offer.
There were no other signs of life. The wind hissed, snakelike,
through broken and splintered frames of the houses. Discarded and
unloved rubbish threw upward in the gusts of wind and dust. A
loose plank slapped against a baseboard, a gunshot, a perfect
scene from a spaghetti western. So much for our visions of the
night before of women wanting warriors. We parked close and flew
through flying sand into an old and obviously abandoned building
and slept a long night on earth that others had used as a place
to shit. Good thing we were young.
San Jose de Castro
From Rabbit Hole, we swung around the bottom of Scammon's Lagoon
and worked more toward the Pacific. The Viscaino desert was not a
pretty place where the transpenninsular road passed, and was even
worse in the vicinity of Ojo de Liebre and La Cantina; as we
moved westward it grew less barren and had more personality. But
the sand was finer and deeper the further west we went. Before
long I had to shift into low range with the transfer case and was
running in second gear. Doug's VW was floating cloudlike over the
dunes when I had to stop and let air out of my tires. I dropped
to fifteen pounds. I'd have let them down more, but a Land
Cruiser is heavy. Unloaded it weighed 4500 pounds, heavy enough
to make it tough to deal with in deep sand.
Before long the entire desert was sugar-fine sand, working toward
flour-powder. The weather was sere bone dry with not a whisper of
breeze, not a degree of humidity to tie the sand into a
homogonous knot of solid, substantial traction. We were driving
on air, on clouds of sand, such fine and powdery dust that I was
soon sinking up to my hubs, the clouds of dust wrapping around my
wheels, resisting progress, dragging momentum. My clutch spun and
tried to burn; the resistance of the wheels was so high and the
gearing I needed so low. I shifted to find a compromise, working
between middle and high gears in low range and low gears in high
range. I could feel and smell the clutch working against the
plate, struggling to pull us forward. I feathered the throttle,
constantly shifting and trying to stay in the wavering shallow
tracks of the vehicles passing days or weeks or months before us
had left in the sand. There was no knowing if we were on a road
going places or following someone else's mistake. We continued
like this for hours.
Gradually the sun nested onto the tops of some distant hills,
assumedly the sierra Los Indios and Santa Monica. We drove
westward into the hot evening with the red and orange light
throwing a warm gold over the desert. A sparse population of
birds flirted with the cactus. Rabbits and chipmunks popped from
shallow holes in the earth. The colors of the desert in the early
morning and evening make it a friendlier place. Doug's VW in the
lead, and my Land Cruiser following far back, we raced into the
sun, throwing great trails of dust into the colored sky. We were
the exhaust, the con trail of great twin rockets blasting forward
through a void toward an unknown quadrant of empty space.
Reality struck just long enough to eat. We stopped for canned
dinner and continued. It grew dark and we pushed forward toward
where the sun had been. Eventually the moon fell through the tops
or our windshields, following the example of the same partial
moon of the night before.
It was too dark and, even with flashlights, too bumpy to see our
dash-mounted compasses. I kept thinking about the moon as a
compass. It followed the sun around the earth as the earth
rotated on its axis. Didn't it make sense that, if I cut the arc
of the partial moon in half and drew a line perpendicular to the
center of the arc, the line would point to the sun? If the sun
set in the west that meant that my line would be pointing west.
The one thing we had was time and I thought about this principle
and convinced myself it made sense.
Mexico: the land that time forgot. The land of time for thought.
The land for thoughts to wander. A place for dreams to form and
Late in the evening we stopped and spent another night on the
The next day we continued for what seemed like many more miles
than they actually were. The Land Cruiser was too heavy for this
continued hard laboring. We had filled our gas tanks and water
cans in Guerrero Negro, but we were burning more gas than normal
because of the increased resistance in the deep, fine sand. By
mid day we were worried about running out of fuel. We had not
passed a ranch since the day before at La Cantina and there were
few tracks of other vehicles to guide us. The roads across the
Viscaino desert in those days were spur-of-the-moment at best.
Most were made by locals who knew where they were going and
deviated often from the main route because of rain or road
conditions. From a single route, many side roads forked out and
in. Maps were basically useless, as they had not recorded this
small level of granularity. Even when a road was shown, it was
impossible from the maps to tell which were the ones we wanted.
Most often the branches would rejoin our route. We started
counting the ones going out and the one's rejoining, but even
that was no good indication that they were alternative roads
rather than routes to other destinations. All we could do was
keep a general eye on the direction and distance. It was a
After driving all morning and part of the afternoon we began to
see more tracks. The roads seemed to be converging from other
paths and directions. We entered an area that rose slightly
above the desert into shallow hills. Here were low thick Smoke
or Ironwood trees and scrub. Cattle trails paralleled the road.
On the edge of a hill overlooking a barranca on the south side
of the road, we saw a simple fence and some small buildings in
the distance. Another road joined ours from the north heading
toward the buildings. Large aged palm trees shaded the area and
indicated the presence of water. Several men were sitting
outside one of the buildings and we stopped to ask where we
were. They had, no doubt, heard us coming for miles, pulling
through the deep sand, and had to have been amused at these four
gringos who had worked so hard to get here. And we didn't know
where here was. This was San Jose de Castro. We had found it
long after we had hoped and only by accident. We were all
expecting to be at least fifty miles off course after going so
far with little idea of our whereabouts.
We spent some time talking with the men and got directions to
Malarrimo. They had gas in 55-gallon drums and sold us enough to
fill our tanks. In those days many of the backcountry ranches
kept extra gas on hand and would gladly sell it at a profit. It
was customary than, as it is today in rural areas, to siphon the
gas from the larger drums to five-gallon latas and transfer it
from there to the gas tank of the vehicle.
In the process of filling my tank I got a heavy dose of gas
directly in my eyes. The whole camp panicked. My friends were
trying to find rags or towels, the Mexicans are running around
hollering things in Spanish, and I am screaming in pain.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I am also worried about
ignition. The Ranchers all smoked. Were they smoking now? How
close were they? Was I going to die in a burst of flame and
The answer was no. After a minute of panic someone found a towel
and I could get the bulk of the gas off my face. Someone else
led me a short distance to a cattle water trough where I could
rinse off most of the remaining gas. I didn't open my eyes for a
few minutes. None of us had any idea how serious a problem this
might be. I knew it hurt like hell but I didn't want to think
about long-term damage.
The road to Malarrimo was nearby, just east of San Jose de
Castro. From that junction it was about thirty kilometers to the
beach. The road was sandy after the first part, which was rocky
It was mid afternoon and we reckoned we could comfortably make
our destination before dark. We opened and passed beers around
and headed north for the sweeping beaches in search of floating
treasures, flotsam and jetsam.
On to Malarrimo
From the ranch we retraced our tracks back to one of the larger
side routes. We turned from east to north and wound out of the
ironwood trees and into a hot and hill covered desert. After a
few minutes of winding through the hills, we came to what I have
always thought of as the Grand Canyon of Baja. While it doesn't
rival its namesake in the U.S., it is a grand canyon, featuring
distant precipitous cliffs falling vertically a thousand feet or
more to a rocky bottom. Several large hawks circled through the
air over the void, searching for mice or chipmunks on the valley
floor. The road traversed the eastern edge of this gash, winding
down a narrow ledge, rocky and falling straight into the
boulder-strewn bottom far below.
We picked our way down, avoiding large rocks, without Tortuga's
doors and roof, clinging to the inside of the road, creeping in
our lowest gears, feet on brakes. We would return up this road
later in the trip; I hoped we could climb it.
The adventure to the bottom of the canyon took about fifteen
minutes. We made it with no problems and rested at the bottom
before continuing north. When we headed out again, the roadbed
gradually changed from rock to sand.
Doug's VW was so light on its feet it danced over the sand while
my Land Cruiser was so heavy it buried its wheels into every
soft dune. But going at the bottom of the canyon was easier than
it had been above. The steep walls trapped some small humidity
and passed it to the sand, causing the grains to coalesce and
better support the weight of our tires. The work was also less
because the sandy flood plain was gently winding down to the
level of the beach at Malarrimo, thirty kilometers distant.
The sand was not as fine as it had been on the desert between
Black Warrior and San Jose de Castro. We twisted between the
canyon walls as the cliffs on both sides eased into hills and
eventually flattened into coastal plain. Baccharis brush defined
the edges of the winding tracks that worked down the way. I was
in the lead, Doug on my tail as we pushed our cars as fast as we
could toward Malarrimo and the approaching evening. I was trying
to outrun the VW, but the Land Cruiser was so heavy I was
leaning dangerously from side to side as we twisted in the
tracks in the sand.
After a moment of worrying about my own driving and losing focus
on Doug, I checked the mirror and he was gone! I let my foot off
the throttle and immediately sank my front tires into the sand.
No brakes needed. I jumped out of the truck and checked the road
behind me; no Doug. I turned the engine off and we walked
several hundred yards back down the road. We couldn't hear a
We turned the truck around and started back. Returning a
quarter-mile, rounding a turn, we saw Doug and Peter and the VW.
They had the rear engine cover open and we could see smoke, or
steam, rising into the hot air. But a VW is air-cooled; no water
is associated, thus, no steam. It was smoke. This was not good.
The engine had seized. The continuous effort of pulling through
the sand over the extended time had caused the engine to
overheat, but having only air to cool it, had found no cool air.
It labored as long as it could find strength. Finally, in
desperation, in its last gasp of life, it had regurgitated its
oil onto the sandy granules of the road to Malarrimo in an
effort to ease the pain in its gut.
Doug's VW died that afternoon on a sandy, lonely wash leading to
a beach, Malarrimo, twenty kilometers distant and a million
miles from nowhere.
For a while, we weren't sure what to do. We were two backcountry
days from the small civilization of Black Warrior. My truck had
been engine-knocking for the last several hundred miles; I was
concerned about its health. The most dangerous thing that we
could expect was for both vehicles to break down here. We had
lost our backup. We were in trouble. We had to get the VW
But Doug knew his engine. He knew it had overheated and seized.
There was no oil in the crankcase. It would not turnover, by
means of the ignition or manually. It was dead. We sat in the
sand and thought. We paced, struggling to erase this problem. It
hadn't happened; it couldn't, here, in this most remote place.
We struggled individually to understand the actual nature of our
situation. It was unfathomable.
I looked at the body of Doug's camouflaged VW and the small oil
patch under the engine. I smelled the heated and burned oil and
singed my fingers on the block. I thought back across the
experiences of the past two days. The VW was a big part of the
image of this trip.
Young men must have some deeply-buried survival skill in the
core of their being that pulls them up from suffocating
circumstances and situations in which they are wont to become
immersed. I knew we could get out of this but I didn't know how.
I knew we were too far out, with too much deep sand, for what
seemed like hundreds of miles, for us to pull the VW back to a
place where it could have the engine replaced. The engine was
the heart of a vehicle; when the heart has quit, what is there
to do with the body?
So we torched Doug's beautiful car; we burned the manly image of
our adventure, there on the sands of that vast Sahara of the
California's, there in the empty bed of the road approaching
We salvaged what we could from the engine compartment. We
transferred Doug's and Peter's trip equipment and food from the
back seat. We took everything that was salvageable and stashed
it into the Land Cruiser. We arranged it all to enable the four
of us to fit where there had previously been two.
We unfastened Doug's the gas tank, filled not long before from
the ranch in the desert, and poured its contents over the car.
We poured the flammable liquid over the top and into its bowels.
It soaked into the materials of the small bucket seats and
carpets of its soul.
And then we stood back and threw a lighted match onto the car.
It didn't catch.
We threw another. Nothing.
The third match had a result. It struck liquid and ignited and
the whuuummmpp caused us to back up. But we watched and wondered
about the absoluteness of what we'd done, the fact that before
us was a burning vehicle. We had invoked a process that was
destined to run to its end; we could have no further influence.
The destruction of Doug's wonderful car was complete. Time fell
in upon itself. Moments became seconds, which became
milliseconds. During the fitful time we watched in awe the power
of heat and energy that consumed the dying metal, glass and
rubber beast. The material of the interior burned first. We
retreated, avoiding the acrid smells of smoldering wires. The
tires ignited and burned, exploding violently; we felt the
impact of the great blasts and of burning, liquid globules of
rubber flying through the air. We stepped, awestruck, back
again, and watched. And the car burned. We waited for the gas
tank, which we had replaced, half full, to explode: it never
did. But the glass of the windows melted, pouring over the poor
doors of the VW; tears over steely cheeks.
Doug cried too.
We took photographs to record the incident, more a trauma, a
tragedy. We sat in the sand, watching the car burn until the sun
had set and the fire had dwindled to dark smoke swirling upward
into the evening sky.
Then we went on, to Malarrimo.
But the moment had value beyond this writing. Relationships
currently tagged, in the year 2000 with identifications of Bonds
and Honors were formed then, in the mid-1960's, resultant from
this disaster. Those were days before we were shrink-wrapped and
living in a society that felt it necessary to insist on can
warnings regarding ingredients and other inconsequential risks.
In the midst of facing this crisis and other breakdowns in Baja,
we formed more meaningful relationships. We would share this
common hearty experience forever. A simple unexpected shaking of
a system, a test, a vision of the edges of our selves, our
souls. Like military service, in a way, Baja was forming us in
ways we might not otherwise experience. Some were good and some
were threatening, but they all built character. The four of us
sat on the windy beach figuring how we were all going to finish
the trip with the four of us in a single vehicle.
But we knew we could do it, and would, had to, and jammed and
crammed ourselves into Tortuga and headed out toward the beach,
slowly and saddened, toward a deserted camp at Malarrimo.
[Note: in today's world it would be, even then it was, a tragic
impact environmentally, to burn and desert a vehicle in this
manner, but the end of the story addresses this issue]
Strong winds blew during the night. In the morning our sleeping
bags were full of loose sand. We had camped in a location, back
from the beach, where the road widened and ended in front of us
with the tracks of others running onto the beach and ending
where the tide had washed them out. The beach was deep enough
for us to drive. The sand was damp and firm enough that it was
no problem. There was one area, where the track met the beach,
that was soggy and we stopped before that point. With a single
vehicle we could afford no chances. Bogging down with an
incoming tide could be risky business. We would be hard pressed
to try and walk back to Black Warrior, about a hundred miles
east and north.
We walked east along the sand with cliffs on our right and the
sea on our left. Gradually the cliffs lessened and quit; they
were replaced by wave-like rows of flotsam and jetsam, ten feet
tall. High tide lines from stormy weather, one behind the other,
running parallel to the beach. Ocean currents during storms
piled the objects in deep collections for miles, as far as we
could see, looking eastward.
The most striking items were also the largest: whale ribs and
vertebrae. The ribs were up to ten or twelve feet long.
Vertebrae were up to two feet thick. Tony sat on one and his
feet barely touched the ground. The larger spinal discs, used to
separate two vertebrae, were two feet in diameter and two inches
thick. Like huge tortillas.
We each wandered throughout the collections of floatables: light
bulbs, bottles, plastic trash, sea weed, lava, bones, large
hollow glass balls the Japanese use to support their fishing
nets, piles of driftwood and formed lumber, wooden implements of
unfathomable origin and utility, dead fish, sea lions and
whales. We looked through the debris for the better part of the
morning. It would provide a junk dealer with a career, picking
through the rubble before the next storm struck and rearranged
What we wanted were the whalebones. These somehow symbolized the
trip and the place. And they were rare in the states and would
make good conversation pieces. But they were so big and we had
so little available space in the Toyota. We decided what we
wanted and lugged it all back to the Toyota and tied bones and
other collections to the front bumper and winch and the built-on
toolboxes and the back bumper and in every small void inside the
We spent the remaining day resting and wandering the dunes and
beaches of the mysterious and distant Malarrimo. We saw that the
world's residue was mostly what collected there. It was a sad
epitaph to our global waste. We dug through the rubble for small
treasures. We worried about getting back to Black Warrior. If we
could get that far there was no worry. But that was a long way
off over bad roads. The engine in the Land Cruiser had been
knocking since we left the transpeninsular road. I had been
concerned, constantly checking the oil and trying to keep the
gearing balanced to prevent the engine from lugging or
over-revving, afraid that a connecting rod would break under
stress. In the heat we would not get far on foot if our second
vehicle broke down.
That evening we watched the sun dive slowly into the Pacific. We
retold stories of Doug's VW. We thought of home. Six hundred
miles was almost walking distance in the U.S. But here was
another story. Just walking back to San Jose de Castro seemed
impossible. As the light faded we make a meal of canned food and
built a small fire, opened a bottle of Tequila passing it
amongst us. Our moods were mixed. We had made our destination.
But we had lost Doug's car in the process. We rethought the
decision to not try to get the VW back to Black Warrior. My Land
Cruiser was burdened with its own weight in the deep sand.
Pulling another vehicle would have been impossible. And yet we
had now taken on additional weight: two passengers and their
supplies. Would the difference have been that great? Could we
have somehow towed or pushed the VW with my truck? We have
collected ourselves at various times of our lives to ponder
those issues. I have felt bad for much of my life for not
working more in the direction of saving the VW. And Doug, when I
talked to him while I was writing these pages, said the car had
little value to him. But I know he was protecting me. He had
loved that little camouflaged beast.
And I've also become more of a risk taker. That's easy as we
age; we have less to lose. Today, I would have given my best and
fullest effort to pulling his car back to Black Warrior. If we
had lost, we'd only have needed to pass the next test: finding
another way into Black Warrior and retrieving both vehicles.
Take the chance!
Return to Black Warrior
The next morning we filled the car with our ample supplies and
our selves. There was only enough room in the front seat to
squeeze three bodies. The rear of those older Land Cruisers had
a small bench seat on both sides. But the back was so packed
with our gear the seats were well buried. The only conceivable
way to fit a fourth person into the truck was in a prone
position on top of the gear in the rear.
This was not an entirely unattractive opportunity for one of the
four of us to catch a cat nap while the others cut up in the
front seat. But the road back to Black Warrior was no smoother
on the return than it had been on the way out. And the weight of
the truck made the problem of sand tracking even greater. There
were more protuberances in the back of that truck than we could
locate and move. The poor guy lying outstretched in the back
trying to rest before an upcoming tour at the wheel would just
get comfortable when we'd hit an obnoxious bump, dip or stone in
the road to have a shovel or fishing pole poke into some
sensitive part of his body. This accounts for why I did more
than my share of driving.
We had stopped at Rancho San Jose de Castro on the way back from
Malarrimo and shared a tasty morsel with the men there. The meal
had consisted mainly of refried beans and tortillas. An hour or
so back down the road after lunch, crammed into the tight
quarters of the truck, we all felt the effects of this meal. No
obnoxious noises were heard over the sounds of wide tires in the
dirt, metal smashing on metal as we pounded over the rough
surfaces, and wind whipping our hair and eardrums as it blew
through. But occasionally the truck was filled with a noxious
odor. Doug looked at me. I looked at Tony. Tony looked at Peter.
Peter just shook his head.
"It's not me." He insisted.
As the severity of our condition increased, so did our vocal
recognition. Each new olfactory outburst was greeted with
enthusiastic, prolonged applause. The quality of the recognition
matched to the quality of the offense.
This must mean that we had recovered from the effects of Doug's
loss. Or it was simply guys being guys. Whatever it was, it
eased the moment of such a great defeat in the desert.
We swapped positions many times throughout the day it took us to
drive back into Guerrero Negro. We arrived late in the afternoon
and went at once to the store where we had ordered Doug's part
and stowed my roof and doors. The shop owner saw us coming and
greeted us at the door. He had Doug's part. He asked where his
car was. We told him the sad story about throwing all the oil
from the crankcase and the engine seizing and having no way to
tow it back through the hundred miles of sand.
"So it's sitting on the sand on the way to Malarrimo?" His
eyebrows raised and his eyes widened. His arms were outstretched
and his palm faced up into questions.
"Yes," I said. "It's blocking the road." In fact the road was a
hundred feet wide at that point. It was nothing of a road. It
was a sandy wash.
"Well, then. Let's go get it!"
"We knew we could not bring it back with us through so much soft
"Yes, but we can get it now! I have your part." he said. "This
is the Sahara. We are prepared to deal with these problems here,
"Yes. But, ah, ah, well...we burned it."
"What do you mean 'you burned it'?"
"Well, you see, we didn't see any way to get it back here
through all the sand and bad roads. So we poured gas over it and
set it on fire."
So the poor guy is now seriously shaken by the events we're
telling him. He's pacing rapidly in small, tight laps around his
shop. The index finger of his right hand is scratching nervously
at his right temple and his eyes have an incomprehensible,
fearful and questioning look. He has some concept of taking a
truck into the desert to retrieve Doug's vehicle. We had not
considered this as an option. But he knew the capabilities of
the town and how things got done in "Arabia" better than we did.
To listen to him it was accomplishable. But I was wondering at
the time what would we do even if we had Doug's car back in
Black Warrior? There were no replacement engines there. There
was no serious supply of Volkswagen spares in that remote
That was true, for sure. But what there was, that we could have
learned from our friend at the time, we missed.
As I write these words and pages so many years later, it is
simple to see. We, gringos, had that great blinding force
shining directly into our eyes, preventing us from a simple
vision. The glaring error was that of time and of patience, of
an assurance that, given enough of these ingredients, all things
can be accomplished. We were willing to sacrifice Doug's car for
the sake of expedience. We Gringos are always in a hurry and
have no patience for failure or breakdowns; these interrupt our
progress. We are willing to waste, even destroy for the sake of
keeping our plans moving.
Our Mexican friend, on the other hand, would have gone to any
extreme to save the stranded VW. He would have worked for days
to retrieve this item we saw as a liability. In fact, he left
that afternoon. The last we saw of him, we were in the midst of
explaining to him the manner in which we had destroyed the car,
laughing and cutting up, when he got up and left to find the
means to go and get the poor burned beast. Our gang was willing
to leave it behind in the dust and proceed. His thoughts were
focused on the value of the remains, even burned and distant.
We were in a rush; he was not. Here is the difference of our
societies. Another sad story.
I asked myself if we would change if we had known the outcome of
this event. Probably we would not. After it's all said and done,
we are Americans and Mexicans.
And so we steamed north to the border and our own customs
waiting there. Before that, though, we spent a wonderful night
in a simple hotel with two knobs for cold water. And we tried to
absorb what we had experienced. After it all, maybe we were so
na´ve, so protected by our lives in Alta California, Ama Rica,
Amerigo, that we flung ourselves into this trip with such gusto
we were willing to throw a car away because of our need for
momentum. Bad news if that was what we did.
Enough, though that we have thought about this experience for so
many years to still find it unresolved in our minds. Certainly
it has been settled in some ways. We were a wild bunch of young
gringos having fun and not hurting anyone. But we were not
The thoughts of young men never linger long on negatives. Their
hearts search the higher fields, where the growths are more
resonant, where the long strands of life vibrate and hum with
warmer more sensuous harmonics.
We allowed ourselves the last two days of the nine for our
return trip and it took all of that. We continuously switched
our seats around to stay awake. The guy in the prone position
always got the blame for the bad aires of the trip.
Our recent adventures had cemented Baja into our lives forever.
We made other trips to Malarrimo. The VW was no longer there and
we always knew, without being told, that our friend the
autoparts guy had salvaged her.
We four went on, into our misty futures, each in our own
direction. Occasionally we regathered somewhere along the shores
of our adapted peninsula. Inevitably we raised a glass in
respect to Dougs VW. It was good to know that, in the fashion of
Baja California, her miscellaneous parts were still helping who
knows how many people in which she had replaced parts more worn
than her own.
Hopefully a few of them are still in service today. That's
rather a long shot; it's been so many years. It's not that
important anyway. She's in our hearts for life.