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Stories by Mike Humfreville

The Tempests of Summer - Bahía de Los Angeles 1985, Part 21: Friends    ( Posted July 20, 2004 )

Before we left southern California we hoped that our friends, the boys and Mary Ann's and mine, would come and visit us: this was a long time to be isolated on a remote beach. But Mary Ann and I also knew that if we had friends around much of the time we would defeat the purpose of the isolation. We were caught in a dichotomy.

We decided that the best approach was to encourage our friends (an independent lot) to come during a one-week window toward the end of summer. As we approached this period, we began to worry how many would actually make the trek. By late summer this was looming and we were making preparations to support a small number of visitors from the north. Many of our potential guests had never been to Mexico or Baja. We had told them in many stories about the lack of supplies. But you never quite know what to expect. We were going to be prepared for just about any eventuality.

We made a trip to Black Warrior for additional supplies and stocked up on food, gas and water. We spent several days cleaning up the area around the hut and along the shore where our friends would camp, moving large rocks and clumps of seaweed that had washed up on the beach. Once we were ready we sat through interminable hours awaiting their arrival. But of course there was no schedule of arriving flights or any such like. I had thought earlier that it would be difficult to find our place, with all the twisting roads leading north of La Gringa. Could our friends find us? Then I thought about Barsam and his family, who had helped us find our isolated beach. I grabbed a stack of paper plates from a fruit crate and got Mary Ann to do a little calligraphy work while I gathered a few pieces of wood and a handful of roofing nails. I started the truck and headed off into the desert, following our road back out to La Gringa. At the junction of our side road with the road from the village I stopped and nailed a paper plate to a piece of wood and pounded the assembly into the ground beside the road. The Plate read "Barsam's Corner, 3 miles" with an arrow indicating the direction to take. I drove back toward the hut, stopping and placing a similar sign at every intersection, reducing the distance appropriately. All our friends, originally coming from separate sources, by now knew Barsam. When they encountered the first signs they would know to follow them to our camp.

In the ravine where I had sweated so many early-morning hours, picking and shoveling the tight lava flow that prevented free access to our beach, where my sons had brought me the quenching and rejuvenating, life-renewing and ice cold kool aid, I placed the final sign: "Barsam's Corner." From that point our hut was visible.

When we are old and feeble and our lives are done and we can only look back at ourselves and our doings, what can we expect? The relationships we have formed will be our major accomplishments. We will look back on how we have helped the world or humanity. It will be difficult for me to find a serious contribution with respect to the work I have done and taken so seriously most of my life: the American Space Program. No matter what I have done, written hundreds of technical documents, help organize tens of missions to planets and around earth, helped freshouts learn the ropes, nothing will be left for which I am warmly proud, nothing for which I will be remembered. But I was proud that our friends were coming to visit a place they would not otherwise have ventured without our being here. A number of people would experience something new because we were here. Like Bill, John Treat, Nick and Peter Tompkins's trip of 1974 to visit our first hut, not all of them would enjoy the threats and pleasures of Baja, but at least they were open to new experiences. Many of our current friends had such negative impressions because of the contemporary drug smuggling problems across the long stretch of our common border and the news of Bandidos. I was anxious to put these in their place. We prepared for our friends with four pairs of eyes and ears turned toward the north.

We had cleaned and arranged the area and attended to every thinkable detail. We hung apprehensively around waiting, not having a specific day of arrival. We assumed they would come for a week, leaving L.A. on Friday night. That would lead them, with no serious problems, to the village by late morning or early afternoon on Saturday. I placed the directional signs, and we continued to wait...

On a Wednesday late in summer, Barsam and his family arrived. Mary Ann and I were sitting around Las Cuevitas and heard the noise of a vehicle floating over the desert. We went up onto the plateau to see who it was and could see Barsam turning his motorhome into the gully that led to the hut. We scampered up the barranca to the road. The motorhome was about as wide as I had expected and could squeeze between the sides of the gorge, but when it came to Barsam's Corner it was going to be tight. Bar reversed direction, cut the wheels, checked his rearview mirrors, scudded back and forth and eventually made it through the passage. He pulled down onto the beach, shut off the motor, and the Diradoorian family piled out onto the sand: B.J., 17; Brian 15; Melody 13; Bar and Marlene. The corner had worked and the signs had their desired effect. During the arrival of our friends over the next few days, no one failed to heed the clearly recognizable postings.

In the afternoon of the next day and after a long drive, the Gallo's arrived from New Jersey. Jimmy and Carol had driven across the country and down Baja in four days and were ready for cold beers and a fishing pole. Beanie and Lisa jumped into bathing suits and headed for the water. The girls had grown in the two years since they'd been out to California. Beanie was fifteen and Lisa seventeen. They had both matured nicely into women since we'd seen them. We all spent the evening catching up on the events of our lives and kids. The Gallo girls were great with the boys and they all wore each other out and fell asleep on the sand.

Somewhere in here, after dark and while no one was watching, Barsam had snuck up the most prominent side of the Three Brothers with a hundred pounds of lye on his back. He opened the sacks and created, in the white powder, against the dark tanned and parched skin of the hillside, a giant H (for Humfreville). It escaped our attention for some day's time until we were returning from a trip in the boat and one of us noticed the ten-foot high letter on the hill from miles away. What a guy!

Over the course of the next few days, we had the best of everything, and the least, with the minimum of supplies we had on hand. But in this minimal environment we found magic. We had several days spent with the Diradoorian's and the Gallo's. The kids all worked together and joined with the adults whenever they wanted, and the adults with the children, there were no lines of division. We spent time all around, in nothings and everythings. We talked about sense and nonsense. We sat on the beach and made intelligible noises or were silent. We enjoyed both. The men, young and old, took to the sea to reinforce and substantiate the tall tales that we spun with each other. The women, young and old, shared stories about home, work and family. Sometimes these stories included shady aspects of their husbands and male offspring, and offered simple attempts at understanding things beyond anyone's grasp.

And life perpetuated.

The small waves of Las Cuevitas, the sand, the sun and the smooth round stones and their associated simplicity, lack of confusion cast their spells. The earth, the sky, the sea became one, as did we, with the dolphins, the working bait, frigate birds, empty seashells, pelicans, and the warm and humid wind from the east.

By the end of the week many more folks passed through the barranca of Las Cuevitas and Barsam's Corner. We welcomed, over the next two days, at least forty friends. Several families brought small trailers, some brought tents; some brought only sleeping gear and a few cloths. Two other families brought aluminum boats about the same size as ours. Our friends fell primarily into two groups, they were from JPL or they were from a group we had gotten close to in the Indian Guides, a club for Michael and Kevin and a number of other youngsters. So there were friends of all ages. And they all knew each other.

The area surrounding our camp had a hundred feet of beachfront on either side where everyone camped, strung out along the sand and stones in an assortment of funky campsites. The afternoon was spent setting up equipment and staying in the shade and adjusting to the heat and humidity and recovering from the two-day drive. We gathered in and around the hut, Mary Ann and I showing off all our simple facilities. The boys took their friends through the paces: into the water, down to the beach caves, up into the hills, the Three Brothers, and onto the plateau.

The adults, dazed at driving through such desolate backcountry, settled in, guzzling beers and wine coolers to shake off the dust from the road and then settled into the beginning of a week full of promise and adventure. Bill was there with Judith, a friend to many of us from JPL. John and Laura McLeod and one-year old Ian - also JPL friends, Peter and Mary Jo had brought both their kids, Jesse and Melia. Peter, of crab-in-the-fondue-pot fame [in an earlier story], sold airplane parts to some spooky third world countries. Dave Hubrig, a career guy with a food chain had brought his son, Philip. John and Devon Boyd had their Carly and Mathew in tow. John was a career bank Data Processing Manager for Glendale Federal. All these were friends from the Indian Guides. Barsam of course, was a carpenter and Jimmy a Gym Teacher. Quite a mixed bag. But all these folks knew each other from parties and picnics on previous occasions.

The men were anxious to get the boats into the water and checked out and backed trailers up to the beach in the gravel, pulling the gear out, mounting outboard engines, gathering fuel lines and organizing fishing tackle. The air rang with sputtering 2-cycle engines all around Las Cuevitas. Meanwhile, tents were erected, campers organized and appetizers prepared. We had caught yellowtail and tuna and had marinated several sides in soy sauce and brown sugar for a day or two. We smoked and served these. We had ceviche, small cubes of raw fish, marinated in Mexican limes for a few hours and mixed with diced tomatoes, onion and cilantro. If we were lucky enough to catch octopus, it went into the ceviche also. Everyone fixed something and there was always food on the tables of every campsite as we all walked back and forth visiting on the beach.

That evening was the typical Baja scenario: great sunset over the desert and backlit mountains; jumping bait; several guys, poles in hand, surf fishing against the darkening sky; boys with a campfire even though the temperature was over eighty. The ladies sat on the patio of the hut or on the steps, talking, while the guys harassed each other regarding the small catches from the shallow water. When the light had faded enough to give us a bit of privacy we bathed in the ocean, squirting dish soap or liquid shampoo into our bathing suits and scrubbing modestly as appropriate. We rinsed with a cupful of fresh water poured over our heads. When it was completely dark we watched the stars and the earth-orbiting satellites, with Bill and John telling which were the military and spy orbiters and which were civilian, based on their direction of travel.

Marlene set a Coleman lantern at the tide line and we sat in sand chairs in the shallow, clear and still water, her tradition. She chummed the water with a few scraps left over from the omnipresent snacks. Soon, small fish were schooling in the six-inch deep water along the shore. Within a few minutes a five-inch Blue Point crab came on the scene. Later, a small octopus passed through. The search for life-sustaining substances was unending.

By late evening the line of aluminum chairs had appeared, filled with groggy men. We told a few last stories, and took some abuse from the ladies behind us on the stairs of the hut. We had three boats, which was enough for all of us that wanted to go fishing every day. But the early mornings were always reserved for the serious fishermen. The kids slept in anyway and the women enjoyed reading and talking in the early morning before it got hot. The guys arranged their pecking order for the next morning and we went to bed by 10.

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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