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 Beach.
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 ahead.
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 syllable.
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 flourish!
Late in the evening we stopped and spent another night on the salty sand.
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 best-guess situation.
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 smoke?
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 and steep.
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 sound.
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 running.
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 Malarrimo.
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 his showroom.
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 cab.
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 sand."
"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, you know!"
"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 outpost.
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 taking care.
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.