Desert Mexico

Baja California Norte view of the Pacific Ocean

Desert Roads of
Baja California Norte

By truck through on the backroads of the wild and vast Mexican state of northern Baja.

Above: The Pacific Ocean at dusk along the desert shores of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

I asked Vance to porter me through the state of Baja California Norte. I told him that we were to cross the border: without rhyme, without rhythm, we would head south, taking to the farm-roads that criss-cross the roads that appear on maps. Vance is one-half Indian, one-half Southern-Dutch, and full-blooded lunatic.

Naturally, he is a game designer, the details of which you must pry from him: he isn't the sort to monologue about the office, or 'Barbie and her Poodle', something along the lines of his latest title. Nevertheless, perpetually interested in toys and games, Vance has not lost his youth, and for that, I could not ask for a better porter.

We crossed the busiest border in the world, on the road that leads to the sea. The border is a gated entrance into another place - it is inviting. I knew quite a bit about Tijuana before this. I had been arrested here, I had nearly become ill from awful food, I had seen the wickedness. I knew the similarities between Tijuana and the old east from the days of prohibition. To me, Capone and the street thugs of New York, the mafia, the men of the east - they were family men and cowards.

This was Tijuana, where men are shot and beaten in the beating sun. Tijuana is a concrete and tin stretch of misery and sin, and, naturally, the center of the so-called Tijuana Triangle: American buyers, Asian investors and Northern Mexican production. The growing pains of NAFTA hold a tremendous degree of optimism here. Twelve percent of Baja California's labor force is ranked as technicians. Rents are rising, profits are soaring. The road was filled with the usual trash, the cheap signs, the smell of foul air and gasoline.

In the distance were the Korean-run maquilladoras with their machine-gun armed guard posts, high fences and microwave parts. These factories form the second largest segment of the Mexican economy next to oil. Millions of television sets are produced here each year and crated north. The televisions, of course, air enough news programs to make North Americans get fussy about immigration and 'Tijuana ain't Mexico!' But Tijuana is Mexico, a distinct and successful, if not American-influenced Mexico, just as El Paso or American Nogales are Mexican influenced, but distinctly American cities.

Tijuana is not an unusual model to the Korean, Japanese and Chinese investors and businessmen who came here to bring goods closer to market. After all, as North-Asian labor costs grew steadily in the last half of the twentieth century, they moved their plants to the south: India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Malaysia. They built economies from rice. Tijuana follows and is being transformed into one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But poverty still reigns, despite more and more neighborhoods of 'palatial settings, and New England-like streets.'

Mr. Overton, who assists a church youth group building homes for Tijuana's poor, writes,

"Often, the housing (they) live in is a chicken coop, some large shipping crates, pieces of pallet, sheet or corrugated metal, blankets, pieces of plastic sheeting or trash bags. Almost always the floors are dirt, a treat when it rains. Most of the colonias now have power poles and wiring running along them. No one can afford it, so a system of politely state-sponsored pirating of the power has grown up that relies on spliced together extension cords that often run across the ground with exposed connections right through where the kids play. It is not uncommon to see a pole with twenty-five or more cords snaking their way away from it."

Drugs, too, are a part of the new dynamics of Baja, and a by-product of the new wealth. The Colombians are losing a battle of the drug trade from increasing American pressure to eliminate South American drug lords. They are now bypassed by Mexican drug families, who buy coca directly from Peru and Bolivia. Nothing penetrates the flow of cocaine and heroin -- not wires, not steel or sand, not the dust rising from the wastelands of Sonora, or the desiccating heat.

Drug police, in their fruitless courage, estimate they confiscate forty-percent of all contraband into the United States. It does little to affect drug prices. It is uncertain that Americans will ever learn that the war over drugs is a war over education and community. Ironically, it is Mexican-Americans who seem to understand this the best, with their low divorce rates, belief in families and the neighborhood. An oil tycoon from Houston once told me, "Los Angeles is like Miami, it is where people go to escape their past, to hide and become anonymous." In my mind, he spoke of Baja. It was the poor expatriate's hideaway, a quick drive across the border to run from the tax collectors, the wife, the police.

There is little conjecture in this. A few days after returning from Mexico, I was told a story about a pair of Hawaiian adulterers who feigned their deaths (one left her shoes at the edge of a blowhole) and ended up in a fishing village in Baja. No one quite knew this until one relative saw them on a faraway Baja Califormia Sur beach, and decided to leave them, and the fact that they were alive, alone. Few real accounts have been written of Baja, and for that it remains in our collective a bitter desert, a dry road leading to nothing until Cabo San Lucas. There are the accounts of fishing for marlin, of course, and a few excellent articles on paddling the Sea of Cortez, but since Steinbeck's own, Baja has been lost.

Boojum Trees in the Baja Desert

Boojum Tree in the Baja Norte desert.

We forget it is twice the length of Florida; twelve hundred miles of road through an intense history that changed the world, forever. I never read Steinbeck. I wasn't one for the classics - they had been read so many times before. And in travel, I was hoping for that new book that was yet undiscovered. In New York, I would tend to not know where I was going, rather than jet for Times Square. And here, in Baja, I was seeking a book still cracking at the seam with newness. A place known only by those who walked its streets. And newness in account is approachable in Baja, this unwanted place tamed neither by Mexico or America, industry or tourism.

I didn't require adventure, and had little desire for the true unknown or original. What I wanted was discovery. To know something I had not known before, nor had I expected to find. Because in travel, discovery isn't cutting the mescal and peering into its fibrous tissues, it is learning about oneself, about recovering memory and about carving out future. And that is why, this time, neither Vance nor I had any interest in stopping in Tijuana.

We stopped in Ensenada, a dirty rat-hole, to stock up on vegetables and beer. We took to the eastern side of the city; the side where the cruise-ships are thoroughly out-of-view, where we paid a man to watch the truck while we picked tomatoes, serranos, white onions and avocados. "It says here that they cannot sell beer," Vance said. "We'll get it somewhere else," I said. But there would be no beer, not further inland, nor down the road through red-dirt vineyards, and along valleys of cactus farmers and under quiet, green and pleasant valleys. The tamales, sold in a bare shack out of a plastic bag, by three men, were tasty, but 'Cerveza?', 'No Cerveza!' "But Why?" "Presidente!"

When we arrived in San Quentin, we also found that 'Presidente' was not letting the beer out of the fridge, so we continued on, south, and past a two-legged dog, dragging its way along the pavement, sweating in the sun and looking up every so often to see if anything would change. Blinding light cursed this unwanted place; the outskirts of San Quentin. The houses were like toys, unadorned and block-like. Few bothered to plant vegetables or tend their lot. And the rest left their garbage free to fly in the wind; catching on the creosote and affixing the land with the sickness of a place that had given up.

We continued on, south along the Pacific, and when the plastic bags and beer bottles gave way to a spare barrel cactus or desert scrub, and gentle dunes cast into the sea, I felt oddly at home.

Somewhere north of the quiet town of El Rosario, in the middle of nowhere, we turned off the road and onto a beaten gravel path to a rugged sandstone coastline; mountains, hills and cliffs and the Pacific's pounding surf.

Under our feet was a giant hole in the earth. The sea had cut an underground cave and settled here: a stretch of beach underneath the earth. Four seals were in the water. One had no head. Sharks. Somehow, this hole led to the sea, and we wanted to find out, but, "paddling in there is too dangerous. Lets put that out of our minds right now."

Blue Agave in the Baja Norte Desert

Agave and cactus woodin the Baja Norte desert

We lit the stove and wrapped it in tin against the pounding wind. We cooked sun-dried jalapeno eggs, and quesadillas, and then walked the shore with flashlights, under cliff and around boulders the size of cars. The wind was constant, keeping me up at night, rattling the pots and the tent. But I settled for Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. After all, wind, and the biting cold of the Pacific, this is travel. By its very definition, travel is inconvenient, travel is messy and filled with unexpected blights, and is particularly antithetical to the Ensenada cruise line commercials, although a cruise line's passenger fall into the same sort of messes as us; lost luggage and seasickness, hours of boredom, anything.

To travel is to accept inconvenience in reward for discovery, and that is why we came to El Rosario. Travel is not swashbuckling, or fish-stories, or 'it was incredible!' but certainly it is 'Banò?' (toilet?), and a finger pointing east, to a shanty fly-infested slap-to, without soap.

The wind stayed with us in the morning. I lit the stove and fixed coffee and walked into the tidal flats, fly fishing and examining the channel that led to the cave. What was I thinking, I thought, watching the wave velocity quadruple as it narrowed into the cave.

But senselessness got the better of us, and we hauled Sonora down the cliffs and into the water; Vance hadn't paddled in ten years, and in this particularly mean surf, we let the kayak free in the water and he jumped for it, paddling for the cave. "Out to sea first," I said. I wanted to see how he fared. "You're paddling like a canoer" I yelled. "Get away from the shore, you're gonna get impaled!" He hadn't heard a thing, of course, the water was loud and crashing.

In a few minutes, he had gotten the hang of it, and headed for the narrow slot-canyon water. Because of the velocity change through the channel, I wasn't quite sure what would happen to Vance when he passed through the dark, and when he did and I could no longer see him, I ran up to the top of the hole, thinking of Vance-splat against the rocks.

But when I reached the hole, he was walking on the underground beach, "Hey.seal skull!" When I met him back on the ocean-side, and he said, "So how do I get back on shore?" I said, "I don't know yet." The tide was pulsating from two-feet below to seven-feet below; and the scaly route to shore was filled with mussels. "I'm gonna line up right here," he said, and preparing to jump ashore, the kayak flipped, the water sank to seven feet below the rim, and Vance was thrown against the sharp rocks.

It was precisely these rough shores that landed Baja on the map. Any connoisseur of chili peppers will tell you about the varieties around the world - Thai chilies (tasty), scotch bonnets from Jamaica (milder than habaneros) - any Mexican market will boast a good deal of striated blankets and colorful colors. But it was the 'Manila Galleon' - Spanish tradelines - four hundred years ago, and the cunning English pirates, whose battles of gold, spice and theft made Ensenada, and further south, vital (if not Pirate infested) supply-line stopovers from the Philippines to Acapulco and to Barcelona. Baja (it was known simply as California back then) was the middleman to the Latin world's sense of spice (Asia); to Italy's tomatoes (South America), to Mayan dyes (Philippines) and inks (Indonesia), to Spain's empire, and tea for the English (China).

When the wave-line rose again, Vance climbed ashore, ecstatic, bleeding, shouting. That was Vance, one hundred percent lunatic, and that enthusiasm stayed with us for days, despite the fact this was the last time daytime temperatures would drop below one hundred degrees.

Cactus above the Mulege River in Baja California Sur

We left the coastline for El Rosario; the Southernmost mission town of the Dominicans, who sought to civilize the Cochimi but decimated them instead. The shanty Cantina had double swing doors; a couple of fish tacos.

El Rosario is a beautiful farm-supply town; inland, stuck between two steep ravine-cliffs. The desert is unforgiving to the reckless disregard of San Quentin, and here there is a sense of place, and that's reflected in the smiles and the clean streets. "Cerveza?" we asked. "No cerveza. Presidente!" A pair of Chinese hikers stumbled into the Cantina, mumbling something in English to the barmaid.

"Ask-a two American" she said. And they scrambled over to our table, "Excuse-a me. We need time to sink."
"You're sinking?" Vance responded.

"No. Need time to sink."

"I don't understand. Speak slower."

"Umm." And the female stepped forward and tried to out-English her friend. "We need to have some time to sink," she said. "Perhaps you need a ride to a hotel?" I said and Vance asked the barmaid where was a hotel? "It's two miles south. We'll drive you there in ten minutes. Just let us finish eating." "Okay, very good. Sank you."

And they disappeared. The fish tacos were excellent, and a green jalapeno salsa at that, but the Chinese appeared again and said, "Sank you, but we are done sinking. We will walk now." And we saw them hauling north over the road that would stretch fifty miles before the next town.

We left in the truck and went south and east, crossing the fiery stretch, in a forsaken place god had never known. This was a wasteland of flats and gnawed mountains. Brown, dead, death. Vultures. We played Ekova - Euro-Techno: what other way to interpret this harsh land than with the loopy rhythms of free-form electronica?

Then came the Boojums - spindly trees of a single arm, and Elephant trees, which looked of elsewhere, and wiry Ocotillo as from the flats of Anza Borrego. The cardons were next: tallest cactus in the world; sprouting from everywhere. But when we arrived, hours later, in Baja's Central Desert, the land was scoured by giant boulders; mountains of them, and hills, and the boojums were wily; going about each and every way - lawless plants they were.

We thought this a good place to camp, despite getting stuck in sand, despite the heat. We made salsa, and played guitar, hiked to an ancient Indian cave - cave paintings of geometric shapes and human-like forms. The last accounts of the Cochimi, a people who settled this desert but never made it beyond paleolithicism, reported that the paintings came from their ancestors, who they referred to in Spanish as 'The Giants.' The Spanish of Baja, sometimes over-generalized as 'The Conquistadors', and who were noted in that time to write in their journals in terms of economic value of places (the Grand Canyon - the most useless piece of land on Earth) and the need for all 'natives' to be 'civilized', accounted stories of the Cochimi.

According to the reports, they had little to eat for most of the year, but when the fruits of the organ pipe cactus would bear, the Cochimi would endure weeks of doing nothing other than feasting and 'engaging in massive orgies drunk on the sweet fruit of 'the pitayaha.''

Boojum Trees

Before dark, Vance and I set out in opposite directions. The temperature was boiling, especially in the white-sandy bottom of the windless arroyos. When we passed a rare blue fan palm - literally a palm with blue leaves, I was thinking: the only way to hike in this heat is to walk real slow. Vance said, "Just walk slow." I thought, 'Walk slow like a southerner.' Vance said, "walk real slow, like a southern man.

We took off, into the desert, into the hills, into the boojum and the cardon and the wrinkled land, and we met up, hours later, at camp, under the stars, under the Milky Way, under the most brilliant sky. There is something about an open night sky, and travel, maybe even about isolation, which makes people discuss the otherworldly.

Maybe it was the heat, but we talked about the size of the galaxy, the possibility that the universe is not alone in a 'constellation of universes', and the meaning of death, and life, and about how it would be good that reportedly, beer would be sold in Baja the next day. Vance trekked in the night to sleep under the cave paintings, I took to the arroyo, and wrote in my notepad, 'No laws in Baja. Can do whatever you want.'

Baja Coast

Breaking camp in Catavina, three black ravens were perched above us, on three cactus stands, peering. One cocked its head and revealed the carrion hanging from its mouth. The others squawked, and we left, heading south, and east.

A federale was perched on a quartzite mound, peering, and aiming an AK-47 at the road. I gave him the 'shaka' with my left-hand and he waved back. On the way to the sea, we passed cirio forests, and rocky valleys of elephant trees, and near the coast, cardon stands that stretched beyond the horizon.

I had told Vance that in Bahìa de Los Angeles there would be people, and hotels, and good food, telephones! We played Jimmy Buffett when the vast island-ridden bay appeared, and soon learned that Bahìa de Los Angeles was nearly deserted. 'Stashed his trash in Ecuador, Bought a good suit and clothes, Flew on up to Mexico.' A small town of fish camps, motels, and a few restaurants.

It was also the most breathtaking place I had been in weeks - wide, unspoiled beaches. Two sailboats moored against a sandbar; giant islands shadowing the bay. Despite my misperception, there was beer, and it was for sale, so we drank in the hundred and ten degree heat, and pitched camp under a palapa north of the city.

"We drove here," I told Vance. 'I dial your number for you' the lady next to a large fan said, drinking a soda with ice, pat in her comfort. I called my mother on a satellite phone, "I didn't know you could drive to places like this!" I said, and before the line went dead, she said, "You know that the elections." I took to a shower stall near our palapa - cool water - a man in the stall next to me was singing, "Mary had a Little Lamb" in a whispering falsetto.

It seems that the heat was getting to people. "You know that the elections." I thought about it for a while. The elections! No cervezas to be sold on election weekend. Zedillo! Fox! I suddenly had some appreciation for our struggle for beer. My mother, a constant reader and observer, was more in touch with Mexico than we; the plight of travel, of being out of touch, had caught us.

But there was a 'who cares?' line in there somewhere, and we snorkeled the shallows to get an idea of the life here - plenty of wrasses, sea bass, a grouper or two, skates. Most of the fish were oversized, well fed. It made sense: the Sea of Cortez is a natural fish-trap, and holds more species than any other region in the world. Vance went to sea, paddling in the vicious wind. I hacked away chest-deep, fly-fishing north of camp, in a spell of utter concentration, and a sloppy fly-line ripping at the water.

Fish were passing beneath me. Jumping feet from my line. I pulled a Corona out of my pocket, drank it, and soon my line was flying right, back, forth, back, forth. The fish kept jumping around my line, mocking me. But I drove here, and I couldn't give a fish-gut for a bite, I was chest-deep in the sea, exactly where I wanted to be. We took to dinner at a second floor beach-restaurant; the only restaurant in five miles, which was called, "Restaurant." The owner, Reno, offered us Margaritas (seeds at the bottom meant he used real limes) and we ordered fish tacos - the taste of the fish dominated, which meant this was caught locally, probably by the guy with a fishing pole who was yelling at Reno from the beach.


Coyote Bay

We had suspected that perhaps Reno was an outlaw who had gone south. But no, he was the son of bajacaliforniado's. Perhaps his parents had been outlaws? Perhaps the grandparents? It didn't seem to matter, because in Baja, records are erased.

I asked Reno about the road from Chapala to Puertocitas. He said, "Stop by a tire store first." I said, "Even with clearance?" He drank Tecate, and said, "I've known guys who've lost three tires on that route." "Cars?" "Careful drivers. Monster four-by-fours." When the sun went down, I paddled to Bahìa de Los Angeles with a headlamp for light.

I passed grounded Pangas, and people grilling fish or drinking beer under Palapas. Everything was scattered, each giving space to the other, the way it should be. Some people would get up from their chairs and wave, or tell me to catch a fish, or "look at the guy out there!" Fish were jumping, I couldn't tell what kind, only that they were relatively large, and making my trip rather wet.

Since I was paddling just three or four feet from shore, I was protected against the violent winds howling through the canyons of Bahìa de Los Angeles and out into the windswept islands of Baja's most picturesque bay. But I learned quickly that if I paddled on the edge of the wind line, and lifted the hull wind-side, my kayak would jet five miles per hour faster.

Since a Naval architect designed Sonora, her entire hull is like a centerboard, and she holds a line steady. There was no wind to my right, and blaring to my left. I traveled on a line so smooth and silent that the only noise was the hum of the wind, the rattling of the water against my bow, and the fish jumping.

From here I could see the white lights and flickering neon of Bahìa de Los Angeles - reportedly named for the white islands in the distance which resemble angels, but the city itself hasn't grown since Steinbeck griped about too many new buildings in 1940. A thousand people, if that. The Angel Islands; fifty-mile long Isla de la Guarda, for example, is one of the most pristine and untouched islands in the world; but sparse and void of little other than reptiles and scrub.

Coyote Bay

At the PEMEX station (gasoline is state-owned and subsidized in Mexico) the next morning - a car-shop with a pump in a shed, I asked the attendant what he thought of the road to Puertocitas.

"It's like any Mexican road. Got sand, got bumps."
"What about my tires? Are they okay?"
"Those tires take you to hell."

We took his encouragement without knowing that we were in fact, headed north, to a place that certainly would look like hell. Terrified, drinking warm Tecate, we crossed the sandy, rock-strewn road across the flats with a desert tortoise's persistence. From the sand came the wind; a rampage of desolation, dancing in its defeat of sameness and the everyday. It was rough road, miserable, tire-popping madness. Our one response was to keep on going and fuck everything.

Two hours later and twenty miles along the road to Puertocitas, we passed out of a canyon and onto a saline flat. This was the lowest, hottest, dreariest flat: white sand, ocotillo, not even a creosote. We saw a flash of silver in the distance - a building maybe. Some time later, we came upon it; a strange otherworldly shanty made of ocotillo and hanging cans of Tecate. I pulled the truck up. The sign said, "Cold Beer." This was the first sign of man since Chapala.


"Hola" there was a voice but no person. I was remembering the singing man from Bahìa de Los Angeles, '.little-lamb.little-lamb..." The hanging Tecate cans clinked in the wind.

"Hola. Hola. Hola," came the voice.

"Hola, Senor. Where are you?"
"Ah! One minute." A dark-tanned half-Mexican, half-American climbed from under a truck and attached a wooden leg (which he carved himself) and said, "You want Cervezas?"

"My hands smell like gasoline. Why don't you go in my fridge. I got cervezas, I got burritos. Anything you like."

He introduced himself as 'Coco.' We sat down at his open-air table, under the clinking beer cans, the doll-heads screwed onto posts, and 'Kangaroo Crossing' signs, and he showed us a guest book. He had become a skillful artist in his ten years here, drawing and coloring the cars, bikes and trucks of each visitor with intricate detail, and his drawings were wrapped in borders and reliefs of orange, purple, yellow, gold.

Vance looked for the last passage in his guest book. "You are the first people who come this month," Coco said. When I opened my camera and began to affix it to the tripod, he said, "Let me change my hat. I get my good hat." And, "That camera is your papa's camera." "No, this is a new camera." "That camera is one-hundred years old." Vance said, "How did you get here?" "Ten years, 3 months, and 28 days. I was working in Ensenada" (he was a crop-duster.)

"When I lost my leg, no one want me anymore. So I come out here. That camera is three hundred years old!" and he posed for a photo with a new hat that said, 'Coco's Corner.'

He looked at the truck, kicked our tires and we began to deflate them. "Let the air go for five seconds," he said. "Always take the side roads. To the left, to the right. I built them. Much better than the main road." Leaving the flats, Vance said, "Coco went from being a person of utter insignificance. He was rejected by society.became a man of utmost importance."

It turned out that the old man had been right, and we followed his words to the tee. But as we circled up mountain-tops and into deep-sandy arroyos, and through embattled lands of Gulliver's tales and C.S. Lewis; of odd boojums and giant cardons, twisted lands and dry, dry heat, the roads became worse and worse. Hurricane Nora had largely destroyed them in 1997, and the truck banged, and Sonora flopped and crackled and beer bottles broke, and eggs soiled the cooler.

The land was to become more desolate; the sea would begin to appear more often; but the only continuity was the display of rusted cars buried in sand, or upside down, years old, everywhere. Hurricanes, drug deals, or a flat tire. It was a mystery, but also symbolic of isolation, because a car gone bad out here is not worth hauling back. I asked Vance if he had seen any submarine movies. "Das Boots, why?"

"I feel like we're in a submarine when they're being (depth-charged). It's just us in a little tin can, and we're relying on that tin can to make it." I told Vance that 'We'll get a hotel in Puertocitas. Showers!"

When black rock and brown shores, scarcity and elevation took over, We spotted a slender black bird floating around the vultures and hawks. "Albatross" I said. "Cool," Vance said, "...he's just happy that he can soar with the big birds." But I had been wrong; albatross are rarely this close to shore - rather a frigate bird, which cannot hunt, cannot fish, cannot dive for its own food, but has become an expert in stealing from the mouths of vultures and other scavengers.

But it is the vultures and hawks after which the name 'California' comes, which roughly translates from Spanish mythologizing here in Baja, "Land of Califa (Empress of the Amazon women) where giant coastal birds dwell."

The road went paved eighty-seven miles later, at the base of Puertocitas. I was hoping for signs of life. But what we found was empty houses, broken windows, steel-wires banging against aluminum siding. Tropical colors were painted on each house: West Indies green and Bahama blue, but it was all flaking away. A small, shallow bay. A young girl jumping off the side of an outboard.

The PEMEX station was closed, the stores vacant. "Should we check it out?" I said. "There's nothing here," Vance said. From Puertocitas, the road was paved, but that didn't mean much. Vance accelerated to forty-five miles per hour, and we hit a drainage dip. The truck flew, the wheels left the ground, the kayak crashed, more water bottles broke, and we were off to San Felipe.

Road of Mexico

Arriving in San Felipe is like arriving in heaven; shade, palm trees, restaurants. Long, lazy beaches. We found a hotel off the main road, and ordered margaritas and fish tacos across the street. I noted the whalebone kitsch, the all-terrain vehicles, the jet-skis, the dune buggies. Everybody was driving crazy, drunk. Portly sun-baked Americans were speeding about in rusty Mad Max mobiles.

It was a shame, such a beautiful town, and for all the respect I had for the expatriate, who were these people rebuilding Phoenix in Baja? Panhandling was incessant in San Felipe. It was back to 'Hey Meester, wanna look at some of my junk?'

This is a sort of evolution that happens when you mix the third-world with the turista's natural poor purchasing practices. Panhandlers sold walking dog sticks, balloons in the shape of poodles, bags of beans, unworthy curios, and t-shirts of Bart and a Bong.

But there were also sailors in the harbor. After all, it was Fourth of July, and sailors are good drinkers, friendly storyteller types, and usually, they knew how to have a good time. At night, we walked into the sea, out several hundred meters (the tides in San Felipe create a quarter-mile tidal change), poking in the shallows with flashlights. From here we saw the fireworks begin; launching from shore and from the moored boats; all aimed above our heads. Weary from the road, we let the ashes fall to our right and left; it was grand, really, the fireworks dropping and reflecting on the water underneath us in red, white and blue. When a stray red flash of fireworks shot across the water a dozen meters from us, and broke in an Apocalypse Now glow over the water, we had a strange feeling of being invincible, protected somehow, and certainly outsiders.

Desert Mexico Roads

In the morning I told Vance I was going to teach him how to shop third-world style. We loitered around the back streets, Vance asked the price of a knick-knack.

"One dollar."
I said, "Don't buy it, ask for fifty-cents."
Vance said, "fifty cents."
The man said, "One dollar." I said, "watch."

I went about the store. How much is this and how much is that? Twenty dollars, twenty-seven dollars. Fifteen dollars. "Okay, I'll take these three for thirty five. But only if you give us (the knick-knack) for free. "Yes," he said.

"And wrap it up really good. We're going to the Sierras."

We took to the rocky road to Laguna Hansen, reportedly named after an American who was burned to death in a cauldron of boiling water by a friend. We were stopped at a federale post north of town. "You speak Spanish?" "No Spanish." "Open your back window." I obliged. "He your brother?" "Vance? No he's traveling with me."

"Where you been?"

I pointed to the map. Here. There. Tapping my finger on the map in quite a few areas.
"Where are you going?"

I pointed to a distant place without a name. He took the map and stared at it for a while.

"Okay, thank you."

It always seemed to work. It worked for the Pinacate, and it worked at the borders. Federales liked that we had been to these places. Surely they had trained in similar conditions.

Lake Hansen

High up on the desert savannah to the Sierra de Juarez, we played Manadou Diabate, a kind of Malian harp and tabla flamenco. We rode into pines - Ponderosas, Jeffreys, jutting out of the sand with the wildly shaped granite rocks that littered this entire range.

These Sierras are a bioecological island - pines of Alaskan origin, a place of snow and ice, lakes and mountains, surrounded by desert. The lake itself is shallow, but five miles around and surrounded by a rugged mountain and plains landscape. It is cows, bats, coyotes, wild horses and apparently a few catfish in the lake itself.

But I wanted to find this out for myself, so I shoved Sonora through the marsh and circled the bouldery islands near the northern shore. No fish, but the view of the granite peaks at night from these islands was stunning; and the Milky Way was bright enough to lead me around the islands and onto them; between the pines and under uneven boulders.

Returning at dark, Vance had just returned from walking the granitic peaks. "Check it out," he said - a set of 8-inch lacerations up his leg. "Fell, huh?"
"Yeah, hey check out the bats."

Baja River

The road to the Sierra San-Pedro Martir was unpaved; actually it was also un-signed, and so we didn't know if this was the road, only that it led upward, to the edge of the protected-zone. When the road became impassable, we stopped and trekked the rest of the way into the Parque de Sierra San Pedro Martir by foot through the sandy, waterfall-filled river.

It is much like the Sierra Nevada's up here, only we are the only ones. Trout are darting in the pools of water, huge peaks loom, green aspens line the river. Climbing two miles through the canyon, and back, we returned to the plateau, and paid for beds at a solitary rancho. We sat down, as is custom at the ranch, with the other ranch guests, in a dimly lit Cafeteria from another time.

Steak and tortillas were served. We introduced ourselves. Two white men from Fontana, and an Asian couple from Gardena. Mike's Sky Rancho has survived turbulent times; it began as a quiet cantina for horseback riders, a lonely place to rest en route from La Paz to Ensenada; it made it from time to time as a resort, but almost fell apart until the Baja 1000 came roaring through, and kept Mike's above water.

The two men, it turns out, we're dirt bikers, on their way to La Paz from San Felipe. They had plenty of stories to tell, and the Asian lady, Soso, also a biker, loved to hear Bert tell tales of life in San Felipe; of buying a trailer and (this story took ten minutes) lying and deceiving the federales into moving materials to build his beach house for fifty dollars (the actual cost of the taxes was three-hundred dollars.)

Soso ("I work records at the police department in Los Angeles"), was ecstatic. She giggled at the story of the two white men braving against federales. She loved how they cheated and stole against the Mexicans. Her husband was not talking, but peering down his whiskey bottle. The others were drunk too.

Screwface, Bert's dirt-bike partner, was telling stories about thirty years of 'ridin' and 'crashin'. "One day, I was out riding in San Ignacio, and I ran into this cow..." Soso clapped and hee-hawed. "...I punctured a lung and broke five ribs." The shopkeeper didn't flinch from the bottom of his bottle. "...then I was on valium and scotch for a month, driving around in my little remote-controlled wheel-chair. Zip Zip. Ziiiip."

The others weren't interested, and Bert interrupted, belching first and telling more stories about 'blazing across Baja', although I noticed that the stories proved enough inconsistencies in their knowledge about Baja geography that much of it seemed fabricated, or conglomerated.

Screwface said, "...I was riding on my dirtbike one day and I stopped in this restaurant in Baja and we ate all this Mexican food and I started throwing up all over the place..." But the others weren't laughing, so he added, "...But then all my Mexican friends started throwing up too..." Screwface was a life insurance salesman, and he was chain-smoking and telling a story about 'breaking his femur in Catavina.'

Bert ("I'm an attorney in Fontana, not many attorneys in Fontana!") was asking Soso for more Cerveza, and interrupting Screwface. Confused, we settled for a game of chess. I wondered why Bert, assumedly a man who was meant to defend the law, was so disrespectful of law in Mexico. And why did there appear a unanimous disdain for the federales, who are here - oddly enough, to defend American turistas against drug corruption passing north from Sinaloa. It was courageous work, but turistas turn their fear into condescension, a pattern that replicates the history of the United States and Mexico for decades.

Grasses in Guadelupe Canyon

In the morning we left the ranch, hit the main roads, and a sandstorm on the way to Mexicali. The run-off from the now mostly dry Laguna Salada caught wind and sailed across our route for hours; probably not much help to the jack-knifed truck in the road, or the squinting federales. We were trailing around the giant, mostly dry Laguna, first north into Mexicali, and then south, back toward the Sierra Juarez and into the canyon perimeters of Parque Nacional Constitucion de 1857.

The rocky road to Cañón Guadalupe is some thirty-five miles, first along the shore of the Salada, then sandy flats. High enough in the canyon, we find the two-thousand or so California fan palms lining the creek and blue mineral pools that dance down the canyon.

These palms are oddly the only major species endemic to the Californias. But the fan palms are magnificent in their natural state; forming dark, cool canopies of mosque-like interiors, '.and a giant rattlesnake too', Vance would say later.

But I was higher up by then, where the canyon narrowed and waterfalls formed blue pools of water. I swam in the cool water, watching a lizard make it down the cliff to drink from the pool. It had no idea I was there, and when it noticed me, it lost its grip, and hung by one hand off the wall, finally making a pounce for a nearby ledge and escaping to the drink. I thought, now that is a bajacaliforniado.

Vance was stewing the whole time over 'should'a killed that rattlesnake and ate it' until we crossed the border. It seems that perhaps being out-of-touch had overcome him; he had in a sense adapted to a faraway place. But what being out-of-touch can do is bring perspective to the shriveled newspapers in the driveway. "Zedillo Ousted!"

It had been good news, maybe the most significant event for Mexico in seventy years. Not because Zedillo was a bad president: he was honest, and free-market, and pro-NAFTA, doing great things for the country. But he was part of a long-established political monarchy; that had ties, ultimately to corruption and 'old ways.' A monarchy that turned the other way at Baja California's nightmarish murder rate, and cocaine running, and to the drugs that 'nothing can penetrate.'

Guadelupe Canyon

Guadeloupe Canyon

It seems his successor, who Zedillo quickly heralded, is himself an outsider, somewhat out-of-touch with the 'way Mexico was.' President-elect Fox has sworn to make the corruption his enemy, and NAFTA his objective. Bert and Screwface may be upset, but who cares about frigate birds anyway? Baja, in a sense, is a symbol of Mexico's future.

Perhaps Baja - lawless, separated, out-of-touch, is the way places should be; after all, Baja is Northern Mexico's most unregulated region, and is leading the way in development, despite years of near-abandonment from Mexico City. It is no coincidence that the 1990's did great things for Mexico, the United States and Canada. It is no coincidence that despite 'squawking about immigration', California is the world's sixth largest economy in part because of immigration - legal and illegal.

Freedom from everything but one's own path - this holds true for Tijuana, as it does for the Baja outback, and immigration, economies, and Coco - rejected by order.

The states of Baja California are expected to benefit by the rise of Mr. Fox, who intends to decentralize federal rule and hand more over to the individual states. Less laws, fewer borders, more freedom for a booming state to rise and meet a new century on its own terms. The fact that Fox has many potential key cabinet members in the state of Baja California will help too; and all of them understand the border.

Borders, it is shown time and again, are largely nonsense, and culture, anyways, is geographical, not political. Someday, borders between Mexico and America will be like those between Minnesota and Canada, or North Dakota and South Dakota. And because of all this, Mexico will soon be seen as America's equal, and maybe the world's fastest growing economy. Out of Mexicali, we played Eyes of the World driving home underneath the date palms along the Salton Sea.

Explore more in Desert Mexico

My road trip to the black desert of Sonora state in Mexico.

My road trip through the northern Baja peninsula state of Baja California Sur.

My road trip to the Bahia Coyote in the southern Baja peninsula state of Baja California Sur.

Sketches and notes from my travels to La Paz and Isla Espiritu Santo.

This is my guide to the hot sauces of the world; Mexico's great contribution to global cuisine.

Notes on three mornings exploring the wildlife wonderland of Baja's freshwater oasis.