Let’s play a game. A choose-your-own-adventure of sorts. Imagine that you are driving down a narrow two lane highway and you see a yellow strip of paint bisecting your horizon. You can:
- Pretend it isn’t there
- Slow somewhat, but only just enough to risk getting rear-ended by the car behind you and not nearly enough to change your ability to react if there is indeed a road hazard.
- Slow to a crawl until you are slammed into from behind by a driver who chose a options 1 or 2.
This situation, which plays out many times over when one drives the length of Baja, is of the ilk that Joseph Heller would have undoubtedly appreciated, though us humble commuters less so.
You see, there appear to be three types of speed bump here in the great states of Baja California: an innocuous paint stripe, a painted gentle bump, and what can only be described as a painted curb with the edges ever-so-slightly worn away. There is no speed at which the latter manifestation can be crossed that doesn’t make a driver wonder whether they just broke an axle.
All in all, however, the highways that run the peninsula are in remarkably better shape than expected and nearly entirely paved–large swaths of which I’m told were still dirt roads as recently as last year. Time comes for us all, and Baja is no exception. I wonder (with great concern) for the ever-present Llantera tire shops peppering the rural roadways–will their meager commerce be strangled into nothingness by all this asphalt?
But let me not get so far ahead of myself. Perhaps because I’m actually allergic to the type of simplicity that I purport to be seeking on this voyage, or perhaps because I’m simply too enraptured by that siren’s song of the open road, I added a vehicle to my stables when I was up in California for a wedding and the subsequent holidays.
The second-gen Toyota 4Runner has (reasonably) low miles but had been in rough shape when it was traded into a dealership, which then promptly sold it for peanuts to one of its mechanics. He performed many of the repairs (new timing belt, water pump, gaskets, new axle and suspension) that I have none of the inclination, innate ability, or proper workshop to dig into myself before (as he tells it) he was given an ultimatum by his girlfriend to cull from his 5 project cars. Fortunately for me, the remaining requisite repairs to make it reliable were in my wheel house, so to speak. I replaced the entire ignition system, fuel delivery components, and fiddled with some electrical. It (almost always) runs like a top!
Possessed now with this new beast of the road, dog and I took off together for southern climes. Our first night was spent boondocking near the shores of the Salton Sea, of an interest moreso theoretical than empirical. A nice place to park and spend the night, mind you, just a bit odorous for a longer term exploration.
The next day, my only trouble crossing the border into Mexico was actually finding an immigration officer so that I could receive a 180 day tourist card. The process is so automated these days that I drove right across, unmolested, then had to park in downtown Mexicali and walk back to the pedestrian border crossing and ask for their help. The immigration officials seemed a little confused by my plight, but were undeniably gracious in their help.
Subsequent nights were spent camped on various beaches down the Baja Peninsula. For the most part I tried to avoid commercial camping outfits, although I did pay a caretaker $150 pesos to camp near some old rundown palapas of Playa Armenta, about 45 minutes south of Mulege. This old ranchero, Benjamin, and I shared coffee brewed over an open flame the next morning as we waxed philosophic about the world and the often head-scratching nature of the people in it. Although our life stories are quite distinct, it comes as little surprise to me that I share much in common with the outlook of a rural campesino on the nobility of a solitary life working a land with his dogs.
I have a propensity to experience places and judge them through the lens of the potential to homestead a vineyard-ranch there. Part of this habit is undoubtedly fed by a greedy desire to want to amass more, always more (see above: car). Also part of it is reflexive after so many years working around the world for wine properties–it makes a kind of sense that I’d be inclined to organize the world in that way in my brain. A further explanation, to be sure, is that I’m eager to put down roots, to feel connection to a place again. Of that, I must be wary. The inclination is fine, in theory, but what is that expression, ‘you don’t want to marry the first person on your dance card’? Something to that effect, anyway.
I love the deserts of Baja. Whether the enormous, looming Cardon Cactus, the rocky red bluffs carving the horizon, or the brilliant contrast with a glittering ocean (in view or not, but never out of the mind’s eye) the stark beauty is ever impressive to contemplate. However, I am wary of being duped by my fears in wily disguise. Do I have the strong urge to burrow into this land–simultaneously both barren and lush–with such permanence because it actually does call to me so, or is it because on some level I find the prospect of my eventual sail to the Marquesas (or Colombia, or Alaska, or wherever) to be so perturbing that my psyche is looking for a backdoor exit? Hmmm, indeed.
For now, I am here, in La Paz on my boat with my dog by my side. We expect to spend the coming month writing and working on the boat–which sadly sustained not insignificant damage while I was away–and the several months after that exploring the Bay of California. So I get to enjoy this enchantment without any real danger of getting too caught up in it. Not that I’m not inclined to fall head over heels down the rabbit hole, mind you, just that logistics somewhat preclude it. After all, this boat ain’t gonna sail itself, and the Great Unknown awaits.