THE NEWS FROM MEXICO was rife with stories of beheadings as the drug war produced narcotraffickers as merciless as Aztec priests. None of this escaped the notice of my friends, who made sure to log their disapproval of my trip in advance in order to tut-tut with impunity over my headless corpse later. My girlfriend and I were planning to drive from Wyoming to Baja in her ancient Toyota, a vehicle that had previously belonged to a grandmotherly Floridian who’d taken care to decorate the interior with stickers of Jesus and Mary. They were optical stickers: if you looked at them from one angle you saw Jesus, and from another, Mary. One of the stickers – our favorite – was cracked and always looked like a bearded Mary. The mild paranoia that I was beginning to feel about this trip was further fueled by my boss, who hailed from Guadalajara and would make a point of periodically taking me aside to update me on the latest caveats about his country.
“Make sure all your papers are in order, like insurance and stuff, in case the federales pull you over, otherwise you’ll have to pay la mordida. And don’t buy cheap gas. Only buy premium. The cheap gas is, um, volatile.”
Oddly, the only ones who were cool with our idea of descending into the netherworld were my parents. Maybe they’d just grown accustomed to my periodic jaunts out of the country. More likely though, their concept of Mexico had ceased to evolve after the sixties, when trips south of the border brought to mind nothing more dangerous than “Montezuma’s Revenge”. In fact, the last time my parents went to Mexico was in 1967, and they’d gone to Baja as well (albeit no further than Ensenada, less than 80 miles from the US border, where the road ended). I was seven years old and brought back nothing but happy memories. One memory that stood out was when my older brother and I were playing on a rocky beach, setting off firecrackers. We attracted a few local kids who watched as we placed a small firecracker on a rock and lit it. As we moved a short distance away and crouched in the sand, a crab scuttled across the ledge and grabbed the smoking cylinder. It raised the explosive above its head triumphantly and backed into a crevice with its prize. We all exchanged surprised glances which quickly became smiles as we waited to see what would happen next. A sharp report came out of the recess, and when we reached inside we found nothing but a severed claw, still clutching the smoking remains of the firecracker. Our new friends looked at us with admiration and no doubt spoke of us in hushed tones later as los niños de la explosión. Those were the days.
Hayley, my girlfriend, just wanted to get out of Laramie. She was in her senior year at the University and hadn’t been able to do any traveling in years. She’d watched with a feeling of betrayal as I’d flown to Morocco without her the previous fall, and gave me venomous looks whenever I broached the subject of travel. “Don’t go there,” she’d warn, referring to both the topic and the destination.
At last, with the advent of Christmas break, we had the time to take a trip together. Limited only by a lack of funds, we settled upon Mexico by rattletrap car.
We reached Las Vegas on the first day after twelve hours behind the wheel. It’s a testament to how much we wanted to get away from Laramie that we put so much distance between ourselves and that town so quickly, but it wasn’t until southern Utah that we saw the last of the snow. More than any passage of time or state boundaries, this demarcation felt like the first tangible evidence of our successful escape. It also ushered in our first mechanical issue when smoke started pouring out from under the hood. Realizing that I would be responsible for half of any repair work the car might require on this trip, I had another bad moment to go along with the headless corpse scenario.
We spent the night in a hotel off the Strip, and the following morning we drove to an auto parts store for a free diagnosis. It looked like a small piece of tubing that connected the radiator to the overflow tank had snapped off, allowing fluid to drip on the hot engine. The salesman confirmed that this was indeed the problem. We were relieved.
“So you’ll need a new radiator,” he continued. “Cost about five hundred dollars with labor.”
“But it’s just a little piece!” Hayley objected.
“Yeah, but the radiator is all one part,” he explained, “so if a piece breaks off, you gotta replace the whole thing.”
All the savings we’d counted on by driving instead of flying suddenly vanished before our eyes. Hayley’s mood plummeted while I put on my mopey face. Even the crack-heads who were ambling on the sidewalk seemed to be sneering at us. We did the only thing we could: we found a bar and started drinking. After a couple of rounds Hayley became confident again.
“I can’t believe I need a whole new radiator. All I need is a piece of metal tubing and some epoxy. I can fix it myself!”
And she did.
With ten dollars worth of geegaws from the auto parts store she jury-rigged an ugly but effective bandage for the old Toyota and we were soon back on the road.
“Do you think it’ll hold through Baja?” I asked.
“I bought an extra plastic tube in case this one doesn’t hold,” she said.
“Plastic? Won’t it melt?”
She shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out.”
We drove across the dry wasteland of Nevada and into the equally arid high desert of southern California until we ran out of America. Traffic slowed at the crossing station and we inched forward for the better part of an hour until at last we were released into Mexico. The road was flanked by concrete barricades and we could see nothing of the border town of Tijuana. As we scaled a steep hill on the outskirts of town the border fence came into view, tumbling all the way into the Pacific. All such barriers speak of exclusion; keeping the other out. I was glad to put it behind us and wondered if the people who lived within sight of this barrier felt insulted by its daily and unvarying snub.
American farmers and industrialists promoted Mexican immigration in the early 20th century in order to benefit from the cheap labor it represented. That changed during the Great Depression when the now-familiar refrain about Mexican laborers taking jobs from Americans and draining the welfare system was articulated. Mexican communities in the US were devastated as a forced repatriation program saw over 500,000 Mexicans deported from the United States. This policy was reversed during World War II when cheap Mexican labor came back in vogue. The Bracero program made it possible for Mexicans to work legally as short-term contract workers. Illegal immigration continued, however, since more people wanted to work in the US than were allotted by the Bracero program. This led to a joint US-Mexico program with the unfortunate name of “Operation Wetback”. Because of this punitive program over a million illegal immigrants were deported, with many of them sent deep into the interior of Mexico – regardless of where the workers came from – so as to make further attempts at re-entry into the United States as difficult as possible. This particular element reminded me of certain wildlife management policies I’d encountered while working in Yellowstone National Park. “Problem” bears who’d become habituated to humans and would frequent campsites in search of food were caught, tagged, and flown deep into the forest where it was hoped they would readjust to their natural way of life. Even in wildlife management circles this was considered a poor alternative to dealing with the real problem: our inability – or unwillingness – to share the park.
We flew down Highway 1. There was almost no traffic as the hazy beach rolled past and the sun sank toward the Pacific. It was getting late and we were beat, so we decided to stop at the first town on the map: Rosarito. It wasn’t much of a town, with broken sidewalks and boarded-up shops, but we were happy to finally be on foreign soil and were looking forward to our first meal in Mexico. As we strolled along the main drag we attracted the attention of panhandlers, all of them American. Their faces were hopeful and predatory as they sidled up to Hayley to give their pitch. It seemed odd that in Mexico, a far poorer country than the United States, all the panhandlers should hail from the north. All their stories were the same, too: “I just need a few dollars for bus fare to Cali…” But when I asked how they’d gotten stranded, or even why they’d come to Mexico in the first place, they became guarded and evasive. They gave me nothing and I reciprocated. Even after we’d begged off they continued to tail us in silence until the lights of a taqueria offered a respite. My boss had been very thorough in his caveats about Mexicans, but he’d neglected to warn us about the norteamericanos.
More than twenty years ago I’d bought a guidebook to Baja. It lay moldering in my parent’s attic for decades until its rediscovery on my last visit home. The same guide now provided information on this trip. The section on Rosarito was filled with the kind of gushing enthusiasm one now hears in reference to the up-and-coming resorts along the Riviera Maya: A few years ago, Rosarito was a quiet fishing village with a few taco stands… Until it was “discovered” by Hollywood stars and surfers and, eventually, the rest of North America. But judging from the condition of the town, and the fact that twenty years later prices were less than those quoted in the guidebook, Rosarito had fallen on hard times. According to the latest news stories, the peninsula was suffering from a one-two punch: fear of drug violence and the lingering effects of the financial crisis of 2007. It was the old aphorism at work: When America catches cold, Mexico catches pneumonia. Only this time, we were refusing to visit her sickbed.
The following day Hayley and I went to the tourist agency in Rosarito to get our passports stamped. The Free Zone, which extends from the American border to Ensenada, allows U.S. and Canadian tourists staying less than seven days to visit Mexico without having to obtain a tourist card. Since we would be traveling farther and staying longer, we had to pay $20 for the tourist card. Not a problem, except that the tourist agency was closed. A policewoman noticed us lingering at the door of the agency and informed us that we would have to drive on to Ensenada and get our tourist cards there.
So we moved further down the Baja, a peninsula that was for the first few decades after the Conquest an almost mythical region, luring the Spanish into exploring what they thought was a vast island paradise “peopled by black women, without any man among them.” The Spaniards were constantly embarking on quixotic adventures, seeking cities of gold, fountains of youth, and islands of receptive women. They wanted the adolescent fairytale: money, sex, and an endless youth to enjoy it all.
Traffic came to a standstill just before Ensenada because a part of the road – the entire cliff, really – had sagged several feet toward the ocean. Police were manning the spot where vehicles had to crawl up an incline to get back on the highway. The day after our passage the entire cliff collapsed into the Pacific, taking the road with it. I began to feel like a visitor in a haunted house, and the malevolent spirits had just slammed the door shut behind us.
Ensenada seemed like a nice enough town though, situated on a curve of All Saint’s Bay and surrounded by low, friendly hills. Hayley and I stopped by the Immigration Office and presented our passports to a white-haired man sitting behind a glass partition. He stamped mine, but handed Hayley’s back after giving it a cursory glance.
“No bueno,” he said.
My girlfriend looked at her passport in disbelief.
“¿Cómo?” she managed.
The agent shook his head sadly and waved away her attempts to hand it back to him.
“No. No es bueno, señora.”
“But it’s a brand new passport!” she protested.
There was a lingering, uncomfortable silence before the agent took the passport once again and opened it. He pointed to the signature line.
“Necesita una firma,” he grinned.
Hayley signed her passport and the agent genially stamped it, chuckling at his good joke.
Finding a hotel was easy once we learned to avoid the places that advertised rock-bottom prices, as those rates were “by the hour”.
Up to this point the trip hadn’t really jelled into anything. We were simply moving from place to place. Over time I’d come to expect my overseas adventures to have a theme, like the ancient history theme while trekking to Mayan ruins in Central America, or trying to be a freelance writer in southeast Asia. The theme for this trip became apparent the following day when Hayley and I drove over three hundred miles to Bahía de Los Ángeles on the Sea of Cortés. The theme was the apocalypse.
Truth be told, this theme had manifested itself slightly earlier in Las Vegas, when Hayley and I passed an evening by attending a show at Planet Hollywood called Zombie Burlesque, “a musical for the zombie apocalypse.” The crumbling town of Rosarito was another manifestation. As we drove south through deserted towns and long stretches of roadway specked with dead dogs and shredded tires, the only figures were motionless locals who watched our passing with dull interest. They gave the impression of patiently waiting for a blowout, a mechanical failure, or for a jury-rigged geegaw in the radiator to melt in the heat. At Cataviña, where we initially planned to stop for the night, the town (“in the middle of nowhere” according to our guidebook) offered nothing but one overpriced lodge and a couple of abandoned gas stations. There were a few enterprising zombies by the roadside, guarding a stockpile of barrels with a sign in English advertising GAƧ, but we were too smart for that ploy and drove on.
As the sun reached the western horizon we found ourselves passing through a cactus forest. Strange trees topped with Seuss-like tufts bent themselves in yogic postures among the cacti. These were boojum trees, named after the animal in Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark, which caused people to “vanish away”. As darkness fell no lights came on anywhere around us. We traveled in silence along the lonesome road that connected one side of the peninsula to the other. At last the road began to drop toward the sea and a few lights appeared in the distance, huddled at land’s end. One of the lights signaled a small hotel and we gratefully stopped for the night at the humble outpost of Bahía de Los Ángeles.
As we strolled along the beach the following day it was apparent that the zombies had already cleaned out this part of the peninsula. The town had gone to seed: shuttered cafes shared real estate with empty RV hookup sites and a bay devoid of boats. The tourist office was an empty shell. An extinct volcanic cone rose over the extinct town. There was a large, octagonal building close to shore that might have been the scene of a last stand by the locals. Roughly mushroom-shaped with a wrap-around balcony, the former hotel still preserved an air of elegance. However, the tattered chain-link fence, boarded-up doors, and smashed windows testified to the futile last-ditch efforts of the occupants to keep out the hordes of brain-eaters. Other decrepit buildings along the beach still advertised cold beer and ice cream, but the birds took no notice. Hayley and I stopped into a small museum a couple of blocks inland, mainly because it was one of the few places open, and spoke with the American expat inside.
“Yes, times are bad right now,” she confirmed with a sad smile. “The recession is still hurting us and all the media talks about in the United States is the drug war. There’s no trouble here. It’s very safe. But what can you do?”
She informed us that there was no bank in town. No ATM, either. A few locals drifted in to chat, exchanging news of the latest attrition rates among their cohort and why it was taking so long to get cell phone service in town.
“Mañana, they tell us. It’s always mañana,” they lamented.
We bought a bottle of Baja wine and settled into our room for the night. From our window we could see black vultures circling the lovely bay.
Leaving Bahía was a relief. It seemed to be one of those places where you either fled the decay or became a part of it. Crossing the peninsula once again we reached the shores of the Pacific and entered the Vizcaíno Desert. Already flat and featureless the landscape took a stark turn as black cacti appeared by the roadside, like remnants of a nuclear holocaust. The apocalyptic imagery was beginning to pile up, which was oddly comforting because it confirmed the aptness of the theme I’d settled upon for this trip.
The town of Guerrero Negro lay just across the 28th parallel, which divides Baja into northern and southern regions. Our guidebook noted that the town was “renowned for having the world’s largest evaporative salt works.” Perhaps “renowned” was too strong a word. It implied – like “famous” or “celebrated” – that people all over the world immediately nod with recognition at the town’s mention and say things like, “Ah, the evaporative salt works of Guerrero Negro, where the Salt Yeti still prowls…” However, next to the blasted wasteland of the Vizcaíno Desert, this quiet town lying a short distance from Scammon’s Lagoon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a charming and welcome haven.
One hundred years before the salt works were built, the nearby lagoons attracted another kind of industrialist: the whaler. In about five years these ships decimated the gray whale population, which came here to breed and calve. The outcome was predictable once these shallow lagoons were discovered by “the all-grasping western world”, in the words of Herman Melville. The lagoon has since returned to its former condition as a safe harbor for these cetaceans, albeit under the near-constant gaze of sightseers. The next morning, Hayley and I would be joining their ranks. It was my girlfriend’s birthday and I had the good fortune of being able to offer her an excursion on foreign waters to see a storied creature of the deep. A better gift than flowers, I thought.
We dressed warmly for the three-hour tour around Scammon’s Lagoon in a Panga outboard, a type of boat popular with both fishermen and Somali pirates. The day was cloudless and warm, the extra clothes were for protection against the cool breeze coming off the water. Joining us in the boat were ten other landlubbers who staggered aboard under the passive gaze of Luis, our captain, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela. After making sure we all had our lifejackets on, Luis backed his craft away from shore and into the ruffled waters of the lagoon’s interior. Once the shore merged with the indistinct horizon we had nothing to look at but the sparkling waves. It was impossible to gauge our speed as we cut through the surface of this inland sea, and we fell into an easy reverie. Although the average depth of the lagoon was no more than 40 feet, there were far deeper channels cut by the fast-running currents below us. It was in these darker chambers one imagined the whales; lurking in silence, accustomed to the deep but cognizant of the light above. They were intelligent creatures and one had to wonder how they regarded us; if they saw us as gods. After all, we ruled the world where they drew their breath. They didn’t understand us, yet they didn’t seem to fear us either. I read about how they would occasionally approach the boats to take a closer look, the parents allowing their young to be touched by our alien hands. All this after we’d slaughtered them for centuries.
It wasn’t long before Luis pointed from the stern, indicating a dark shape breaking the surface nearby. As it disappeared below the waves I could still see the exhaled mist of its breath lingering in the air. My first whale. The next one that came into view was even more theatrical, rising vertically to the surface like an immense, barnacle-encrusted buoy, pausing dramatically to scan the horizon before slipping back into the deep. We spent the rest of the afternoon chasing footprints: surface riffles left by the powerful up and down movements of their tails as the animals propelled themselves below us. The whales eluded us for most of the afternoon when suddenly we noticed a long, mottled shape gliding alongside the boat a few feet away. It matched our speed exactly, becoming more distinct as it ascended. Finally it broke the surface and spouted, revealing a black skin covered with clusters of star-like barnacles. Then just as quickly it dropped back into the sparkling sea.
“Did you see its eye?” Hayley shouted.
Everyone watched, fascinated, as the whale slowly cruised away, merging with the blue-green depths.
As if we’d received the benediction we had come for, the occupants of our boat seemed to relax. Like judgmental Old Testament gods we nodded to each other in silent agreement that this species should not be allowed to perish from the face of the earth. It had shown proper obsequiousness and had, perhaps, sacrificed enough. There was no need to be petty.
Sated, we parted ways, each striving through the seemingly infinite blueness to our common end.
Once more we ducked into the Toyota and left town. Again we crossed to the Sea of Cortés, continuing our zig-zag course down the peninsula. At the seaside town of Santa Rosalia the hills were blanketed with rubbish, as if the wind had carried all the plastic bags and other airborne debris from the mainland and deposited it here. It was New Years’ Day and everything was shut down, further adding to the bleak setting. We ventured onward and I began to wonder, in the words of Gertrude Stein, if there was any there there. At any rate we would soon have to start heading back; the halfway point of our vacation was fast approaching and we had a lot of ground to recover.
The town of Mulegé offered herself to us, sprawled along the banks of its namesake river. We drove slowly through the narrow streets of the quiet town, then followed the river to the sea as vultures noted our passage from atop crooked telephone poles. Along the way we spotted a row of lovely cottage-style houses lining the banks, and then saw the ruins of another row of cottages closer to the river that had been swept away in a hurricane. All the remaining houses were for sale.
We parked at a rocky beach where the Sea of Cortés washed aimlessly into Conception Bay. A cool breeze was blowing the waves ashore as we got out of the car and made our way to the water’s edge. Gazing past the breakers to the blue beyond we took our seaward peep and sighed. I found myself strangely satisfied, lingering pointlessly on the wet rocks as my girlfriend ran away from the stray dogs who chased her down the beach. I felt as though I were re-enacting the final scene in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Childhood’s End, when the earth is destroyed by its children as curious aliens watch from a safe distance, wondering what it all means. Our mission over, we, like Karellen the alien commander, turned our vessel around and started the long journey home.