Mary Ann and I pull our Isuzu Trooper to the crest of the final range of hills that divide the southernmost valley in the U.S. from Mexico. South loom many other ranges and the town of Tecate.
"Mexico". I say aloud and unintentionally.
"Mexico". Mary Ann repeats.
I reflect on the collage of feelings and images that single word conjures up inside me.
Living in Cuernavaca as a young boy in the '50's, climbing the slopes of Popo, hiking the desert, riding wild burros, playing with friends at the Instituto Americano school, strong summer rains every afternoon for an hour, only, then clear blue sky again, holding hands with Sandy McPherson, my first girlfriend, a Scot. I remember Palobolero and the John Brille Institute, my first job. I remember the tiny Indian village adjacent to our home, with crudely fashioned huts and children and chickens running everywhere, poor but content.
In the '60's we were hitting Rosarito in groups and with a force, staying in rooms at the Rosarito Beach hotel, camping in the dunes to the south and tearing over the sands in our dune buggies and Land Cruisers. Late in that decade we traveled the entire peninsula, wondering at the central desert and the established tranquility of the towns from San Ignacio southward. We developed a love for the more remote places along the way and grew friendships based on need and reliance. We spent quiet time along shorelines and absorbed nature.
In the '70's and '80's we brought friends down the peninsula. We got to know her from head to toe. When we are first married we build a hut on the Sea of Cortez and spend the summer getting to know each other outside the fuss of L.A. suburbs. We bring our children, when each are 6 weeks old, to La Gringa, building huts and staying for the summer in sometimes-hostile environments, that's where they learn to read. We have friends come by for visits, meet and get to know the villagers at Bahia de Los Angeles. Our children make friends with the local children and bring them to stay with us. We learn to fish, trolling around the islands of Bahia, and bounce down the road to the village where the boys idle their time in the hammocks on the second floor at La Enramada restaurant and we eat Pescado Empanizado and drink a cold cerveza at Las Hamacas in the searing heat, watching the villagers build and then play soccer on the dusty field across the road from the restaurant, the deep blue sea dotted with islands, behind. In these days most every establishment has a box or jar for donations to help build the coming museum. Antero Diaz dies. The museum is built and operational.
The '90's are filled with motorhomes and less time for Baja, trips, racing, down and back, times at La Gringa with groups of friends, fishing, broken-down boat motors and too many technical problems, children bitching about extreme heat and severe sunburns, shortages of water in the village and leaks in the blue tube that carried that substance from the spring in the desert, inland. A complete solar eclipse occurs early in the decade. Mama Diaz is now gone. The social and political fabrics of the village at Bahia are changing.
As the centuries flipped we are making new Baja friends via an emerging medium: the Internet. We are directed to Freds and the Amigos de Baja web pages and experience the concept of our first "post". We meet with friends, new and old and in varying-sized groups at places in the outback to the south to make deeper explorations. Mary Ann and I begin taking trips without our children as they have other plans. There are still many places we want to go in Baja, GPS technology will help us get there, to pinpoint the "reef" where for years we could only approximate by triangulating three distant peaks. We had learned enough to fall back to a 14-foot aluminum boat that I could manage on-shore solo during violent weather. We wanted a smaller motorhome. We made bullet trips over 2-day weekends, chartering boats and filling ice chest for the race back on Sunday afternoons. We learn about government plans to develop the Sea of Cortes and west coast of Baja with new ports and other tourist facilities. Fox is elected and Baja has great expectations. Two tragic accidents take many lives in and just outside Bahia.
And so it continues. I don't have a clue where it's going. What I do know, with absolute certainty, is that my life would not be half as rich without Mexico, without Baja California.
We summit the final ridge between us and Mexico. The small town of Tecate lies at the bottom of the next valley; parts of the village ascend the north-facing hill beyond the town center. The brewery is spewing steam high into the atmosphere. As we approach the border-crossing with no one in front of us we turn off the air conditioning and roll the windows down. The heat and smells that are Mexico fill the cab and we know we're home.