The following is a three part report of a trip with my wife, Mary
Ann, Suzanne, a friend, and me.
Part I -- Whale Watching 101
February is alleged to be the best month for whale watching at
Scammons and San Ignacio lagoons and we were off on an
expedition. Mary Ann, Suzanne (GeoRock) and I piled into POT
(Poor Old Trooper) and headed south to spend the first night at
Cielito Lindo. By the time we arrived it was way past happy hour
but we bellied up to the bar anyway and greeted old friends and
introduced Suzanne to the locals. We ate dinner and crashed
early, wanting to get an early start to San Ignacio the next
morning. We checked in with Ricardo at Rice and Beans the next
afternoon, asked him to make radio contact with the whale
watching folks for Monday and then toured the town, the old Plaza
and the mission and later had dinner at the hotel. On Sunday we
headed south to revisit the villages of Santa Rosalia, and Mulege
and drop off the pavement at Santispac on the northern fringes of
Bahia Conception. On Monday we were off to see the whales.
The drive from San Ignacio to the lagoon is about thirty-five
miles. The road is graded, wide and crosshatched with heavy
washboard. It's so heavy you almost can't get on top of the
washboard by applying speed. It took us an hour. I'd allow two,
but there was no appointed departure time for our boat out of
Antonio's at La Fridera. We checked in with Rubi, one spunky
young lady at the small group of buildings and boats. She showed
us around and Mary Ann asked if we could have a meal on return
from our expedition.
"Certainly," she responds. "What would you like, shrimp or
scallops?" Mary Ann looks at me. I shrug my shoulders.
"Lets go for the scallops." She tells Rubi.
"And what about your friend?" Rubi asks.
"Well," I said, "she's a vegetariana."
"A what?" Rubi asks, stupefied.
"She likes seaweed."
"I see." Rubi responds sagely. "Would you enjoy our vegetarian
plate?" she asks Suzanne.
Shortly, we were ushered into a panga and our guide took us
twenty minutes west, almost to the mouth of Laguna San Ignacio
and the whales. Let the games begin.
Everywhere we looked whale cows and pups were floating gently on
the surface, pups curling across moms back and rolling underneath
in the calm waters of the lagoon. We watched in fascination as
the pairs frolicked off the sides of our boat, in length only a
small percentage of their lengths. They never came closer than
perhaps 15or 20 yards from us. Our guide told us that there were
not many whales at the moment. He explained that the bulls were
still in the lagoon. He pointed to a ferocious activity at a
distance and told us that was a bull trying to mate. He went on
to explain that the cows breed in one year one and bear young the
next. So assumedly half the females are breeding and the other
half are bearing young every year.
"Once the males leave, usually in mid March, the females nurse
their young until they are strong enough to make the run back to
the Bering Sea." Our guide tells us in Spanish. "Things calm down
after the males are gone, and the mothers are left to grow their
young." I translate this for Mary Ann and Suzanne. They chuckle
and look knowingly at each other. But I know who's really in
Soon a whale is nearby and sticking her head straight out of the
water. Her body is entirely vertical with the waters surface.
What's she doing, I ask the guide.
"Spyhopping." He responds.
I repeat the word, confused. Yes, he says, spyhopping. It's
obviously an English word and concept. I guess it is the cow's
way of gaining maximum altitude to ensure that the surrounding
water is safe for her pup. What an exciting concept and it
carries me through a moment of warmth of mother and child and
then there are more males nearby and the waster is rougher as
they pass through. Then another female spyhops and we're back to
just cows and pups and everyone is enjoying each others presence.
There is no conflict between protective whale mother and humans.
Last year Mary Ann traveled here with Debra and Miguelito and the
cows actually herded the pups up to the boat and encouraged the
humans to touch their babies. Mary Ann has shown me pictures of
this. What a wonderful moment frozen in time.
Behind us is a great roar and we turn to see a male above the
surface, falling massively back into the sea with a giant splash
that sends water in all directions for hundreds of feet. Around
us, whale tails, wider than our panga, are rising gently,
delicately above the surface and falling silently back into the
depths. It is an awesome time. An exhilarating experience.
After two hours the radio our guide is carrying springs to life
and he subsequently asks if we are ready for our meal. We turn
and head back to Antonio's rancho. Our adventure is over. But
only to face another facet of the day.
We climb out of the panga and enter the simple restaurant. Mary
Ann and I share a plate of tasty scallops mojo de ajo. Suzanne is
presented with a plate of mixed things not meat. It's quite tasty
she tells us.
"MMMMmmm." We respond, loving our seafood and garlic.
"How's everything?" Rubi asks.
"Better than sea turtle." I offer. Suzanne is squeamish. Mary Ann
Rubi launches into a very informative tutorial about her position
in the scattered village here. She is trained in conservation and
protection of endangered species here in Laguna San Ignacio. Her
husband and brother-in-law also work to educate the locals on the
concepts of preservation and protection of those elements of our
environment that are at risk. How cool, I'm thinking, that this
far into the outback the word is getting out. These three have
integrated into the villagers and carried forward a mission to
inform and introduce change into family traditions that have
carried on for perhaps centuries, to help local families
understand how select habits can damage their futures, can have a
negative influence. How far we have progressed, I reflect,
awestruck. It's an easy deal to sell a city dweller on not eating
some food they never thought about anyway. But to convince a
family that has made a living by capturing for generations some
animal that has become endangered that it would serve the world
better if they gave up their pursuit? That's a difficult
Rubi sparkles in her conversation, telling us the impact and
cooperative influences she and her kind have had on the locals,
how most folks now recognize the need to protect the environment
and the endangered. She excitedly cites incident after incident
where the rural community is working toward a common concurred
objective. Mary Ann, Suzanne and I are touched with the moment.
On the drive back to San Ignacio Rubi and her world dominate our
conversation, rattled somewhat by the nasty washboard surface.
In our room we wash and prepare for dinner. Suzanne tells us how
she's missing Pete and knows how much he would love this day and
our experiences. We dine in the hotel restaurant and later sit,
the three of us, in our room, talking late into the night. Rubi
and her impact on a remote world, well hidden from modern day
hype is once again our focus. Tomorrow we head north and then
east, across the peninsula for the even more remote beaches of
Part II -- The Men of San Rafael
Two or three simple lean-to's, a land-bourn camper laying on the
beach like a turtleshell and a couple of rough trucks standing
guard along the sandy bluffs of the blustery gulf. Sun-darkened
men worn down from a day battling with a rocking boat, nets and
surf, working to bring in the catch at this remote outpost,
diving into the depths for mussels, scallops and squid. The fish
camp at San Refael.
Five miles south at four in the afternoon of a gentle spring day
we were driving north, out of San Francisquito and bound for
Bahia de Los Angeles, passing through one of the more remote
parts of the Baja California peninsula.
I was driving the lonely dirt track. We were admiring the vast
fields of green, strewn with the yellows and purples of tiny
delicate wildflowers just beginning to pop up across the desert
floor after the recent rains of springtime.
After the bad washboard of the El Arco road we were pleased to be
back on the smoother surfaces of the wayward and less traveled
track here in the outback. I had decided not to air down because
I had neglected to pack my compressor. We were hitting the 40 MPH
mark when the first tire blew. By the time I stopped it was in
complete tatters. We changed to the spare and continued. Within
the next 10 minutes we had, simultaneously and contemporaneously,
two additional flats. Three blowouts a thousand miles from
We stopped to evaluate the problem. The two back tires were
airless, the shredded spare useless. Both front tires were in
good shape. Looking at the map we were a few miles south of San
Rafael, a tiny point on a page of the Baja Almanac, a
periodically occupied fish camp.
I wasn't certain what to do, but it seemed reasonable to crawl
slowly into the camp and see what resources she offered. It was
that or hike back to San Francisquito, many miles distant and
with little to offer in the llantera department. So we drove
north, limping and slow, the sand of the road cushioning my worn
By the time we reached San Rafael it was dusk. A wind was howling
out of the west, blowing sand and dust across the bluff on which
the huts were positioned. Several men were wrapping up the
efforts of a demanding day at sea. We pulled into the center of
camp and shut off the engine, climbed out of the truck. Curious
men approached to greet us. I explained our predicament and they
went to work.
There was some initial head-shaking concern that my problem could
not be solved with the meager equipment available at San Rafael
before the Mexican mentality of Just Do It sputtered and caught
the moment. Makeshift tools appeared; a rear tire was removed and
de-rimmed. An inner tube was located and cut into shards to form
a plug. Glue was produced and applied and the rubber thrust into
the eye of the hole in the first tire. A small pump inflated the
tire and tested the patch.
The second rim was removed and a similar patch effected. There
was no pneumatic pump or changer, no gauges or electrically
driven equipment, no automated support. All the efforts of the
several men were accomplished on the sand and in the dark of a
wind driven night. Seals were tested and found faulty, patches
were reapplied and re-tested, tires were once again removed from
rims until each repair was perfected.
In the midst of this grand labor I was shuffling through the
camp, assisting with whatever I could. I came across a 5-litre
box of blush in the back of the Trooper which I opened and
positioned on a nearby table, filled plastic cups and passed them
around to the normally beer-swilling men who tentatively accepted
my offering. But we were filled with great humor and mirth by
this time and joking about all sorts of silly stuff and tapping
each other on shoulders and making jestures and generally goofing
off while completing the job at hand, namely patching my tires.
It was a wonderful time with friends we had just made. They all
lived in Bahia de Los Angeles. I was surprised we hadn't met them
previously. They came to San Rafael for 5-day sprints to catch
fish and fill a van and then drive back to the Bahia where they
would pack their catch onto a larger truck steaming north toward
the markets of abundance, where they were sold at the best prices
to a demanding public.
The wind continued. The sun had now completely set behind the
hills to the west and a chill settled over the beach. One of the
men directed Mary Ann and Suzanne into the beached camper, turned
on a dim light sponsored by a small solar cell and retaining
automobile battery. "Musica romantica?" he suggests with a sly
wink, playing an old audio tape of warm Mexican music through
aging sunbeaten speakers.
As the evening wound down it became clear that my third tire had
passed the inspections of the men, was blessed and remounted on
my right rear hub. This left me with three tires, total. There
was no patching the fourth; the damage was just too great. We
were still stranded.
Seeing the situation emerge, one of the men, Julio, came forward,
offered to let me use a tire and rim off his truck to get to
Bahia de Los Angeles, where I could leave it with Sammy Diaz Jr.,
a mechanic and the tire man at the bay. Julio would retrieve his
tire a few days later, when he arrived at the bay by boat.
Before I could refuse Julio's spare was mounted on my left rear
hub. We were now ambulatory, albeit without a spare. We joked and
shook warm hands on a chilly, windy night in the heart of Baja. I
asked how much I owed them for their efforts, for their limited
supplies that had been expended in the repair of my tires. There
were jokes about leaving Suzanne behind in lieu of other forms of
"That's up to you, amigo. Talk to Pancho." they said.
I pulled a second box of vino from the back of the truck, bagged
some bucks from my bolsa and pressed them into the hands of our
hosts, hoping that it was a respectful act. By this point we were
all truly all fast friends.
I suspect they were a little late in their fishing business the
next day. By the time our truck pulled out of camp none of us
were feeling much pain.
Mary Ann and Suzanne and I drove on into the night. We had no
spare tire and thus I drove slowly over the lava roadbed the
remaining three hours to Bahia de Los Angeles. We laughed and
looked loving back at the men that had so selflessly come to our
assistance and offered unending support in our need. We pulled
into Camp Gecko late in the evening and unloaded into one of the
unoccupied rooms there. We had arrived in Bahia de Los Angeles
secure and safe, if a little wired and tipsy, thanks to the good
and strong men of a small and sometimes occupied fish camp named
The next morning we drove into the village where I bought two
used tires from Sammy Jr. Then we carted Julio's tire over to the
house where his family lived, adjacent to Carolinas museum. I
deposited it there with a woman I assumed to be Julio's mother,
along with what I hoped to be an adequate propina. Not that a
reward was necessary. Human kindness was the glue that pulled us
through such a trying moment.
Mining Bahia de Los Angeles
We awoke with the sun slanting through the rippled panes of glass
and weathered thatch at camp Gecko. We hung on the edges of our
previous night's threat. The men of San Rafael would become, I
knew, one of those rare moments we carry into forever as
cherished. Suzanne made coffee, Mary Ann dressed and the three of
us formed the day. We checked in with Doc and Beach Bob. At Bob's
we met George and Doug, both locals.
We drove to Las Hamacas for lunch and filled out a lazy day with
Suzanne's first visit to the turtle sanctuary and Carolinas
Museum, bought a new Baja book or two and just hung out at camp.
The day was warm for late February, mid-'70's with a breeze
varying across the day from many directions. There were two
younger couples camping adjacent to us. We swapped life
experiences. Both were on extended tours, one couple from New
England, the other from Canada. They were in a place in life I
had been, would never see again and I was happy for them and so
looking forward to my own next personal adventures.
As Suzanne is a geologist, we decided to tour the region for
areas of geologic interest. Mary Ann and I had visited a copper
mine in the early '70's, north of La Gringa. It had been
inoperable for half a century but still held history and there we
headed that Thursday morning, just so few days ago, I ponder as I
write tonight, listening to Josh Groban on the same CD player we
used at Gecko.
There is little of monetary value in the old mine but it was an
excuse to pass by the beaches north of the village where we had
lived across the years and reflect. The road to the mine was as
eroded as I remembered from a quarter-century before. It carries
us through elevated inland valleys tinted with the green-blue
varnish of early spring. The ocotillo are just blushing with
red-tipped flowers a few days after the recent rains that left
small and scattered reflecting ponds across the desert. We
spotted tiny trails, padpaths across the hillsides where coyotes,
foxes had covered ground between unknown objectives.
The mine I was familiar with was not a primary objective, I've
learned. It was secondary to the main attraction, El Toro, an
hour's hike from the end of the road. But we made do with our
secondary site, picking small pieces of a blue-colored string
from the tailings and wondering about the lives of those that had
lived here. From the ridge we had climbed, I spotted two
locations where the miners had no doubt spent their sleeping
hours, one a simple dugout from a northfacing hillside; the other
a more formal structure, aged by the decades, of stones stacked
tall and struggling to hold the chill winds of winter at bay.
We bagged a few colored stones and wound back the byways to
Gecko. That night Bob came by and we had a visit. The girls broke
out their tequila. Bob and I persisted in our cervezas. The trip
was winding down to the final day at Bahia.
We rose midmorning after visiting late the night before and
decided to visit an outcropping of garnet not far from the
village. We stopped for lunch at Las Hamacas again and were in
the midst of consuming our favorite breaded fish (Suzanne was, of
course, still chewing on her tasty kelp) when a fellow walked in
and introduced himself.
"I'm Max" he announced. We all shook hands.
"We're going to poke around in the desert for an old garnet
outcropping." We said. "Want to join us?"
And so we connected with Max and his wife, Polly, rock hounds par
excellance. We drove to the location we had received directions
to and parked and scoured the hills for the mid day and
afternoon, finding the proper conditions to produce the
semi-precious stones but never the stones themselves. We'd have
to save the rockhunting experiences for the next trip. We bid Max
and Poly adieu and headed back to camp.
It was our last night and a northbound trek was tearing at me,
all the forces of nature bore against my heart and our wish only
to remain in Baja or move further south to the adventures we knew
were looming there, the loves and warmth's of the deserted lands.
Our touring friends joined us for a last hurrah. Suzanne and Mary
Ann opened their favorite bottles of tequila. They raised bottles
to open mouths and I snapped a 4-megapixle recording of their bad
behavior. These two almost non-drinkers had made the driving on
this extended trip seem so quick to pass, so small in comparison
to the distances covered. I stood back for just a moment, in
writing this, late on Wednesday evening, a few days after the
trip. The three of us were new to each other. We had no specific
expectations. We had grown to know a few basics of each other
before our trip. But we knew we could fit and get along.
The shining moment of this trip was dead set in the center: the
men of San Rafael. My vision of life was forever changed by these
five wonderful guys. If we hadn't been in need we never would
have experienced them. Without their giving nature Mary Ann,
Suzanne and I would have been at risk. Maybe it was a Yin and a
Yang moment. Maybe it was fate. But for several hours I was
privileged to see into the core of what forms us as humans, our
souls were bared on that small beach in Baja where we simply had
time to share and carry forward. All this while changing tires.