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Stories by Mike Humfreville

The Tempests of Summer - Bahía de Los Angeles 1985, Part 15: Don the Geologist    ( Posted June 9, 2004 )

About the end of the first month we were sitting on the beach one afternoon and heard voices carrying over the wind. We'd never had visitors to our hut or the area and wondered where the voices were coming from. I walked up unto the mesa behind us where I could get a better view of the surroundings but couldn't see anyone. Still, we heard people talking off and on for several hours. We watched the nearby beach and surrounding countryside, but saw no one.

By evening we thought we had been alone too long and were hearing things. Then Mary Ann spotted a man on the beach on the north side of the plateau. We got out the binoculars and as we focused on him he was wandering amongst the rocks at the waters edge. There was no sign of anyone else. We wondered with whom he had been talking? But that was the extent of our contact that day. It was unusual to be so far in the outback and have a stranger unannounced and so close.

The next morning we had not seen any further activity and I wondered what was going on and walked up to the mesa again to see whatever I could. About five hundred meters from our camp, in the center of the mesa, was a small open camp trailer; it looked like it was filled with travel and camping gear. There was no car or truck and were no people anywhere that I could see. I walked back to the hut wondering if someone was in trouble.

Late in the afternoon we saw the same fellow on the other beach again, but we couldn't tell if he knew of our presence or not. If he were in trouble, would he be able to see us? Our hut hugged the shoreline, behind which were hills and the mesa preventing our silhouette from showing against the sky, and making us all but invisible from his angle. He had now been there by himself for two days and had no fire that we could see or smell, cooked no food, and had gone to the toilet on the beach, using seaweed to cleanse himself. We knew he had originally come with at least one other person because his trailer was there on the mesa. Whatever had towed it there was gone. And we had heard the voices.

By early evening we decided that I would go see if everything was all right. I climbed up the side of the mesa with the intent of going to the beach where we had seen him, but when I got to the top he was standing near the trailer. I hollered to him from a distance to avoid startling him. He looked at me for a moment, then waved. I walked toward the trailer and could see that he was about my age, mid-forties, and a gringo. He was a slight and studious, bookish looking fellow and I could see right away that he presented no threat. I asked if he was having trouble.

He explained that he had come to Baja with a couple of new friends, his cousins from San Francisco. They had planned to be gone several weeks. He was a geologist and a professor at one of the California State Universities. His cousins were students. The three of them had car trouble coming down the peninsula and it had gotten worse just as they had come to the mesa. The students, both about twenty, had taken his car into the village to see about repairs. They had now been gone two days and he had not heard from them. I felt he knew more than he was telling. I told him we were living just over the lip of the mesa and asked if he would like to come and sit in our sparse shade and do some thinking.

I introduced Don to Mary Ann and Michael and Kevin and we sat on the patio beneath the bamboo. I asked if he had expected his friends before now; he said that they told him they would be back by the previous evening. He didn't know where they were. The whole thing didn't set right. I asked him how well he knew them and if there was a chance they wouldn't return. What he would do if they didn't come back for him? He was clearly without a plan and it wasn't easy for me to understand how an adult could get this stranded. But matters got even worse.

When his friends had taken the car, it had his identification and wallet in it. On top of that Don told us he was a diabetic; most of his insulin was in the car. Regardless of the sad circumstances and na´ve attitude that had left him stranded in this remote place, we could only identify somewhat with his predicament. He was a fragile guy, educated academically but not in the ways of an often rough-and-tumble world. I remembered the fish we had seen swimming in the depths of the channel off Isla Coronado, constantly on the watch for threats, a custom necessary for their survival. Don needed a little of that instinct too.

We asked how often he needed insulin and how long could he go without it. He had a couple of doses on his person, and after that he was good for a day or two at the most before he was in more serious trouble. His life could be threatened.

We asked him to stay for dinner (where else would he have gone?). We tried to sort out the situation and help him make plans. He had all the camping gear he needed for the night. His trailer was full of equipment and supplies. We decided that he should spend another night at his trailer and the next morning we would take him into the village to look for his car and friends. I was convinced they had deserted him, but kept my thoughts to myself. We finished off the day and he went back to the mesa. Mary Ann and I put some Spanish guitar music on and we read and the boys went to sleep reading their books listening to the tranquilizing sounds of waves lapping gently on a soft-shouldered shore in concert with John Williams plucking gut strings.

In the morning Don climbed down from the plateau and we all took him to the village. His car was nowhere. We stopped by the Diaz ranch and I described the car and asked Sammy if he had seen either it or the men and he had not. There was only one other mechanic in the village and he hadn't seen them either. The grinding in my stomach grew worse. I knew Don's friends had stolen his car and his money. They had threatened his life by taking his insulin. We asked what he thought was best. He wanted to go back to the mesa and wait another day. He couldn't believe they would do this to him. I thought that they didn't care if he was alive or dead, but I kept quiet. Don was a nice and an educated fellow and was enjoyable to talk with and his business was his business. He just needed to learn how to choose his friends.

We fixed lunch and sat on the porch the better part of the afternoon. He had come here to research the geology and the micro-climate that had provided an updraft from the gulf around the Bay that carried moisture into the desert surrounding the west side of the Sea of Cortes. He told us of the mysterious influences that drew the water from the coast and supplied the cactus forest inland from there. Indeed, there was an explosion of cactus, elephant trees and Spanish moss growing from some of the taller cirios in the desert as it rose to the west of the bay. This forest was known throughout Baja. We all listened to Don's dramatic stories of the evolution of this part of the peninsula, of the formation of the mountains, in a flurry of creative volcanic activity, of the decomposition of the lava into fertile soil over the centuries, millennia, and of the flora that had clutched tenaciously to the earth in the barren and rainless desert. He told us about the palm trees, some types of which were brought by the Jesuits in the 1700's. He taught us which plants and cacti were endemic to the area and grew nowhere else on earth. He was a wealth of information, a truly knowledgable and interesting guy. We all went swimming and were glad to have a visitor after so long on the beach with just the four of us. But we knew he was soon going to have to face the fact that his friends, for whatever reason, were not coming back. He was beginning to look unhealthy with no insulin.

I couldn't understand how he could operate under these conditions with no plan. I assumed his mental processes were deteriorating just as his physical appearance. Finally I told him that what I thought we should do. I proposed to go back into the village and find out what time the daily bus to Ensenada passed by the turn off with Highway 1. I told him he had to get on that bus and get to the border. The trip was about fifteen hours. He had family in San Diego and could rely on them to help him. He looked at me somewhat confused. I wrote it off to lack of insulin and continued with the plan. I asked if he could rely on his family to later help him retrieve his trailer. He could.

So I went into the village for information on the bus. It had already passed for the day but it went by the turn-off every day at the same time. I went back to camp. Don decided that he would be safe if he got insulin once he crossed the border late the next night. We went up to his trailer and helped him pack. I would take him to the highway the next morning. We fixed dinner and opened a bottle of wine and were surprised when Don joined us in a glass. We sat through another sunset and swapped Baja stories. His were geographical and historic. Mine were about travel and friendly encounters along the dusty roads.

It's funny how easy it is to connect to others when there is so little to interrupt you. For many reasons we had enjoyed his visit and wished him better and would be sad when he was gone. When we left camp the next morning for the junction the boys and Mary Ann waved him goodbye and bon voyage. We had swapped telephone numbers and addresses; he would call us when we got home in the fall.

We arrived at the turnoff well before the bus, which was behind schedule. I couldn't even imagine the concept of a schedule over these roads. Don was looking pale and unhealthy, but the bus arrived and we got him on board and his gear stowed. I waved and the bus engine roared as it blew dust and diesel smoke across the road and was off for the north.

Several weeks later two members of his family came back for the trailer we had been watching (there was no one around to protect it from). They told us that Don had passed out in the bus before it had reached Tijuana. He had been taken to the hospital there and transported across to another hospital in San Diego. He had spent a week there, where he had fully recovered. Then he had gone back to San Francisco. They told us that he had almost died on the bus. There was something about the shock that a diabetic falls into without insulin.

Months later, back in the States, we got a letter from Don's mother. She thanked us for saving her son's life. He had come home for a few weeks after his recovery and was now back in his UC professorship. We were pleased to help and it was too bad his trip had been such a flop. We had enjoyed his visit and missed him when he was gone. But I still had to wonder what the full story was. I grabbed another opportunity to remind myself: we are all smart about some things and dumb about others; we all have unique senses and viewpoints that we put to work. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Occasionally we can see really deep into the murky waters and sometimes we can't see anything at all.

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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