I’m not sure if I’m falling asleep, or asleep,… or maybe, waking? …
Driving south in the afternoon, glimpses of sunlight reflecting off the ocean tease me; I’ve been yearning to dive into the salt water, since, … well, since before leaving.
But… this road is veering inland.
I remember someone saying, “… fill up at every opportunity.”
A grey cloud floats across the perfection of blue… .
We pull away from where the car was parked, at the main intersection in Ensenada, in front of a burrito stand. It was nice relaxing, and watching the currents, while eating at one of the two tables, on the broad sidewalk. This is a real Mexican town. We continue south, John driving.
Abruptly, he yanks right, into a slanted parking spot.
“Supplies”, he nods at me, as… acknowledgement of a conspiracy?
I get out of the car. It’s blindingly bright. As I look up, moving towards the curb, the grocery store comes into focus.
I go straight into the depths of the store, instinctively, away from the light. I find it, exactly in the proper place. I yank the handle and the windowless, metal door opens. I take two different six-packs of bottles, and two sixes of the white-labelled cans. I turn to take it to the cash. John is already there. I place the beer on the counter, alongside the six bags of ice. He pays for everything, grabbing a couple oranges from a basket on the counter, before the total is tallied up.
Loaded, back in the car, we continue southward on the main street. Two city blocks further along the main road is barricaded. I see dust rising, to the left.
“That’s it.” I point at a small sign with an arrow. John turns left, down the narrow one-lane, dust track. There is a wall on the left, and the south side is an abandoned field. Dry scruffs of grass grow knee high. Billows of dust enshroud the car, as we advance on the small truck in front of us.
“I’m glad yer drivin’. How’s it goin’?”
“Doin’ alright. No problemos.” He catches his can as the car lurches through a dip in the track. He holds it up and looks at it for a moment, then takes a mouthful. He looks over at me, and grins, “I’m thinking about one of the Frank Correnti’s.”
I reach behind the driver’s seat, fishing around with my hand. I find the canister, drag it out and take the lid off. The pungent smell rolls over me. I take two, at random, and re-stash the can, just as we hit a big hole in the road. “Whoa!”
I look up; we’re back on the highway, going south. I chop the end off the medium, fire it up, and hand it to him. “Muchos Gracias, amigo.”
“Con mucho gusto, hombre.” I cut a small piece from the end of mine, a darker one, and fire it up. The smoke evacuates the car through the four open windows.
I tilt the beer back, but get only drops. “Hmm.”
I grab two more cans. “Open?”
He shakes his can, at his ear, listening. “Uh-huh,” he says as he places his empty can on the floor, behind the seat, “yer clairvoyant.”
I hand him the open can, and open the other one. He holds his aloft; I tap my can against it, and then drink a quarter of it down. “That was one COLD fridge, dude!”
“I like this place.”
He chuckles, nodding his head.
We crest a hill. To the right, I catch a glimpse of the sun shining off the Pacific. We pass down into a valley. The grass rolls almost all the way up the small mountains. Sunlight filters down into the valley through the dust and mist. At the bottom, the vegetation is green; a few willows sway in the breeze. Going up the slope to the next pass, the vegetation becomes yellow then brown towards the top.
We come through another pass. “What’s that?” Cars are stopped on the road on the rise through a low pass, on the far side of the valley.
“We’re gonna find out.”
I butt out the last of my cigar. We pull into the line of stopped cars. Immediately, it’s hot and sticky. I savour the memory of the breeze blowing through the car. I pass the empty beers cans behind my seat. I get out, bend down and look in, through the open window. “I’ll walk along and see if I can find out anything.”
I walk into the cloud of dust. After a few seconds, the line of vehicles pulses forward, so that John pulls up almost even with me, for a moment. He grins back at me. I keep walking. I can see a gathering of police guys and army guys, about a hundred metres further ahead.
A man walks, car-to-car, selling water in small, clear plastic bags. I feel the weight of the sun pushing down on me.
John’s caught up to me again. I walk along next to him, as he idles forward.
We’ve already passed three camps, each with clusters of army or police guys and their cars, but it only caused slight slowdowns, no full stops, no waiting behind a line of traffic.
“It’s going along pretty good, eh?” He’s still smoking the end of the cigar, now tiny. He holds it aloft, examining it.
He notices me observing him. “No complaints, here.” He laughs and takes another deliberate haul, from the remaining sliver of it.
I shake my head, laughing, “we’re fucked!”
He chortles smoke out. “I want another beer, …like, an oasis.”
He holds the very end of the cigar, no thicker than a dime, somehow without the getting burned by the embers. It glows as the air is pulled through it.
“The ‘Nick Black’ technique.”
He looks over at me, and nods. He lets the smoke ooze out, “he’s right, the best part is the end.” He inspects it again, holding it before him. “Oops.” He puts the car in gear, and idles forward to make up the recently opened gap, shifting while in motion, to neutral, and gliding, slowing, and stopping a comfortable distance behind the next car without touching the brake.
“The hard part is avoiding burning your lips. Oops! Ah!” He tosses the embers, with some urgency, out the window, so insubstantial, it floats on the wind, for just moment, before completely disintegrating.
“Hot.” He rubs thumb and forefinger together, and laughs over at me shaking my head.
Were at the front! They look at the passports, and the car ownership, through the open windows. He asks me where are we going? I tell him we’re going to Cabo. He motions us through.
We pick up speed. The breeze chills, momentarily; I’m soaked in sweat.
I reached around to the cooler and take a bottle. I hold it up, “you?”
“I’ll stick with a fresh white can.”
I open one, and hand it to him.
The climbs get steeper and longer. We’re inside a valley of a range, running inland at a sharp angle from the coast. The scrub becomes sparser and browner. Cacti appear with increasing frequency.
We descend, passing a sign, ‘El Rosario de Abajo’. All I can see is a gas station on the left, and two or three sparsely spaced, non-descript, two-story buildings, further along the right side. I can’t see a grocery store, nor any obvious lodgings. The sky is a pale shade of indigo; the light will be gone, soon. “It’d be better if we find a place to stay, while it’s still light.”
“Do you see anything that looks like a place to stay?”
He pulls the car into the gas station, and up to the pump.
I see a VW van with surfboards on top of it. Three guys sit on the floor, hanging out of the sliding door. I get out. “I’ll ask those guys.”
I walk over. “How’s it goin’?”
I nod at the other two, “hey. Hey. Were yuh surfin’ ‘round here?”
“Yeah, out at Punta Baja. It’s awesome. The road’s over there.” He points a hundred feet down the highway; a dirt road runs from the far side.
“How’s the road?”
“It’s not great, but it’s definitely there.”
“Yuh think I can take that station wagon out there?” I point over to it.
Simultaneously, I hear, “Oh yeah”, “No problem”, and, “Uh”.
“What do you think?” I asked ‘Uh’.
“You should be okay.” Is he back-tracking? “How’s the clearance?”
“Yeah, you’ll be fine.”
‘No problem’, long and skinny with a mop of hair ventures, “it should take… It should take you, uh,… about twenty-five?… minutes. It took us about, uh, twenty-five, huh?”
‘Oh yeah’, shrugs absently.
‘Uh’, shakes his head slowly. “Maybe it was more like, uh, thirty-five, or so. I think it was definitely, like, thirty-five.”
A voiceless consensus?
“What’s out there, anything?”
“A few fishermen’s huts. That’s about it.”
“No place to stay, eh?”
“Nothing like that. No running water.”
“Is it nice?”
“Oh yeah. It’s awesome, dude.”
All three describe the way in; I scribble notes using a borrowed pencil and a scrap of paper.
“Thanks man. Thanks guys. Have a good one.”
I walk back to the car. John is taking the nozzle from the pump. Is he just starting now? I wonder what the problem is? Before he gets it into the car, the gas starts spraying out of it. Gasoline cascades over the car. “Fuck!”
He stuffs it into the gas pipe of the car. “Fuck!”
“Are you alright?”
“It took me a couple of minutes to figure out that I had to go pay, first. There’s no action on the control. It’s open. They must turn it on and off from the cash.”
I start cleaning it up with the window squeegee. The side of the car is covered in gasoline. The pump turns off. John quickly moves the nozzle back to the holster on the pump. His clothes are soaked with gasoline. “We gotta clean the car.”
A couple of guys, each filling up old, small Japanese pickup trucks, look up from their smouldering cigarettes, mild amusement in their eyes.
“I’ll put it over there.” I point to where the van was, moments ago. He nods. He rubs a rag across his soaking jean. I pull it over to the spot and turn it off. I walk back to the pump to get some rags. The car reeks. The water mostly just smears the gasoline around, but I keep working at it.
It’s the first time I’ve seen John even a little bit rattled, since we left Palm Springs. He’s rubbing his eyes, grimacing.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I just got a little bit of gasoline in my eyes.” He rubs his hands against a dry patch on his shirt, then rubs his eyes, again.
“I want to try to get out to Punta Baja.” I point down to the turn off.
We get in. I move the car forward slowly down the steep ramp. It bottoms out, as I pull onto the road. I glide across the highway, into the southbound lane, and idle down to the highway; I turn right, on to the dirt lane.
John examines the map I’ve drawn. He compares it to the map obtained at the AAA Club office in Palm Springs.
“This must be the road on the map that goes out to the point.”
A ray of sunlight cuts through the dusk. There is hope. The car bottoms out going through a dip.
“Take it easy.”
Darkness is coming; it’s close now. I’m anxious. I want to get there, wherever it is. I can’t see any markings along the road.
“Yeah, this is it”, says John. He sounds relaxed again.
Mostly it’s smooth, hard sand. The going isn’t too bad. We go through a shallow stream. I throw the car, screeching, into a corner I didn’t see until the last moment.
“This car is thirteen years old.”
“It’s going good.” We bottom out again. Coming around another corner; I have to break hard, going down a steep hill. The road is like a wash-board. The car shakes violently, and screeches along the ridges. John rubs his eyes. The smell of gasoline is making me feel a bit sick.
I keep hoping to see sun reflecting off the ocean as I crest every hill. But I find only disappointment, again and again.
“Hey, can yuh find something? Is the trail mix handy? Anything like that would be good.”
“Do you want me to drive?”
“No, I’ll keep driving”, I say quietly, without looking over. I don’t want to lose the 30 seconds of travel time it would take to change driver! “The road is getting pretty shitty. We’ve been going about twenty-five minutes now, eh?”
“Yeah, twenty anyways.”
“There is a fork in the road! Which way?”
“Slow down.” I slow it a bit. John’s talking but I’m having a tough time making sense of the words. I’m just waiting for the conclusion, ‘right’ or ‘left’.
“Is that left?”
My pulse is racing. I feel a bit light-headed. I could go for an espresso, but I don’t want to lose the five or ten minutes of light that it would take to brew it up.
“Here they are.” It’s the bag of dried apricots. I can feel saliva pour out from under my tongue and cascade down my throat. I have to swallow it down so it doesn’t down my windpipe.
“Ahh, good on yuh, dude.” He places a few in my extended hand. I chew deliberately, as slowly as I can. The flavour explodes; it almost hurts. I feel it seeping into my blood stream through the vessels on the bottom of my tongue. It moves downstream, into my core, like the sun spreading from over a mountain, into the valley. It moves across my lungs, then upwards, through the brain-blood barrier, and into the cells in my head. My head clears. I feel a bit better. I breathe out, all the way, and in, slowly.
“They’re pretty good for you, too”, Johnny says, chewing through a mouthful.
“Whoa!” I turn and brake hard, startled by a corner I didn’t see coming. But the car continues straight, until I feel the back wheels sliding sideways. The back end swings around, taking out some vegetation at the side of the road. I stomp on the accelerator; the car lurches and straightens, out of the weeds. I ease back.
“You gotta chill out!”
“Okay, okay, I’m mellow. I’m mellow.” I am not mellow! “No, that’s a lie.” I’m slowing down. I can hardly see; it’s the end of dusk. I’ve got to slow down! “We’re not gonna be there before sun down, eh? Well… sorry about that. I guess I got to change up.”
“No problemo. Bueno. Pull it over.”
It’s darker now then it was a minute ago. Dust rises up in blinding white billows in the path of the high beams. Outside of that, there is blackness.
A return trip in the dark is unthinkable. In the last light, I look across the tortured grassland, broken only by stunted, gnarled trees, none higher than four feet.
John drives slowly, and steadily. He often slows to refine his bearing. He stops, turns on the cabin light, and scrutinizes the maps.
We’re hit with three sets of headlights. They are coming at us fast, louder and louder. John pulls the car as far to the left as possible.
They drive by without slowing. Dust fills the car; I spit it out of the window. But, my spirits revive a bit; we’re on a road going somewhere.
Johnny drives on, methodically.
The road rolls up and down bad washboard gravel. But at this speed, it’s not so bad.
There’s a dull thump and faint roar.
“D’yuh hear anything?”
He slows the car to a stop. The thump comes from the ground, and again, each time, followed by a dull roar. The rhythm continues.
“It’s running hot.”
“Yeah, I hear it. The temperature of the engine is up a bit.”
“What do yuh recommend?”
“Nuttin’. It’s well within tolerances.” He puts it in gear. We ease forward.
He changes to the second gear at the crest of the hills, the engine whines. At the bottom, he eases the gear selector back into ‘Drive’, and very lightly accelerates to, and up, the next hill.
“You change the gears like a manual transmission.”
“Better to save the brakes; the transmission is made to do this, it definitely says to drive like this in the drivers’ manual, definitely.”
I nod, “Gotcha.” I didn’t know, I thought that kind of action would fry an automatic transmission.
“You were shakin’ it up a bit coming out here. Maybe it shook plaque from inside the rad. Mike said it is the original rad.”
“You think it’s okay?”
“Yeah, it’s okay. These cares were built with a lot of tolerances, all sorts of redundant capacity. The radiator is huge.”
We come over a hill, and I can see the black of the peninsula, surrounded by another black.
“Fuck”, I’m fucking starving; I’ve got to eat. There’s nothing here! What was I thinking?
Several irregular ‘huts’, running in an approximate row, are illuminated by a light, close to the ground, coming from the far end. I point at it, and he nods slightly. He turns down the track. The crude structures are of various constructions, but the light shines out from under a slightly raised pickup truck. Legs protrude from the front end.
“I’m gonna go and talk to the guy.”
I walk towards the light. Mexican disco music blares loudly. “¿Hombre, que passa?”
Ten seconds pass.
“¿Hey hombre, que t’al?”, I call, a little louder.
I can hear him singing along absently to the music.
I crouch down to see if I can get a look at the guy, “hola.”
“Hola.” He keeps on working.
It’s cold, but I’m sweating. I look up, hearing several different voices barking, further off in the darkness. The guy emerges from beneath the truck and says something that sounds like a greeting.
“¿Es uno lugar para comida o dormer aquí?
“Nada”, he says with a hint of surprise at the question. He’s a young guy, native indio.
“¿Entonces, donde es un bueno lugar por parquet mi caro para la noche?”
He looks around the vast expanse, slightly raising his arms. “Dondequiera.”
I look around the blackness. “Gracias hombre. Gracias. Pura vida.”
“Nada.” He crawls back under the truck. I can hear metal on metal.
I get into the car. “Anywhere.”
John cruises around, slowly, looking around, intently.
He stops and turns off the car. I open the door. He turns the engine back on. “Not level enough.” I close the door.
He backs up thirty feet, and turns it off again. “This is good.”
Blackness abounds. I can just make out the drop, off a hundred feet further north, I think. The rhythmic pounding is followed by a dull roar. I’m glad to be near the water.
I feel like its midnight, but the clock on the dashboard shows ‘7:34’.
Johnny gets out and stomps his feet. “It’s cold alright.”
I walk around in the blackness, trying to see anything. I hear barking above the constant howl of the wind and roar of the waves.
Johnny brings two cans of tuna, some bread, peanut butter, and three beers. He’s smiling like someone who just won a jackpot. “Nutrition!”
“Ahh. I can definitely go for one of those.” He hands me a bottle of beer. I can’t help but smile.
He opens a can. “Prost”.
“Prost.” I down the first third of the bottle. It’s cool. I savour the taste of it. I feel the first bit of poison enter my brain, slowing it down a bit. The worst of the edge dulls. I don’t have the extra energy to worry about this place.
The damp saltiness in the air and the crash of the surf calms me. ‘Unexpected’ is what I had hoped to find on this trip. But, for some irrational reason, along the border of my consciousness, I’d harboured the image of a basic cabin and maybe a roasted chicken or some fresh fish? What was I thinking?!
I got this car for situations just like this.
We eat standing and stomping, at the front of the car, food and drink resting on the hood, lit by the cabin light. I make espressos. John loads them with rum, and lights a cigar. “You want one?”
“Nah. Thanks. But, I’d take that last beer?”
“No problem; we’ve got plenty of rum.”
“Ah, beer.” I crack the bottle. It’s a stronger Mexican brew; I’d not seen before. “I like this stuff.”
“I’m gonna wander around. You?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay. See yuh, then.” He walks off, in the direction I’ve assumed is southward. I shut the door of the car; the cabin light goes off. I walk back around, and sit on the front bumper. I can’t see John, anymore. About a hundred and fifty metres down a steady slope, the glow of a lantern illuminates fishing boats pulled up on the harboured beach.
The ocean pounds a beat through both land and air. The shocks arrive slightly offset. My heart beats erratically! I breathe slowly in and out, trying to restore a regular rhythm.
I take the beer, and walk towards the percussion, back somewhere behind the car. The moon is either not up yet, or hidden behind invisible cloud. Only by the almost imperceptible change in the shade of blackness, can I just barely distinguish between the land and air in front on me. I inch forward towards what looks like the edge. Now I can see the surf, pounding the rocks, lit in phosphorescence, far below.
I crouch down to see the ground better, and inch forward, so that I can look straight down.
The churn within me is settling down. I feel empty, as if the now ebbing anxiety had squeezed everything else out, and now that it’s going, nothing remains. I’m exhausted, but my heart beats in harmony with the waves. I breathe easier, longer breaths. I lie down, my chin resting on my hands at the very edge of the drop; so I can relax, watching the waves glow as they smash the rocks, then dissipating, receding in a dull roar. It’s beautiful; I wonder how few people get to have an experience like this?
I turn over, and move down a bit so that my head rests comfortably on the edge. I hear the waves pound the surf, and feel the shock wave through the land on my back. I look up into the blackness above. Patches of stars shine inconsistently through holes in the mist and cloud. The pain in my back is easing, little, by little.
The wind blows, nipping me enjoyably on a few exposed surfaces. I’m glad for the heavy leather jacket, and wool cap. I’m tired, but I don’t want to have to get up and walk back to the car, yet.
* * *
I shudder back to wakefulness. I’m shivering.
I hear and feel the pounding and roaring; oh yeah, I’m here. I turn over, slowly, and take a last look at the surf below, before backing away from the edge on my hands and knees. I push myself upright as steadily as I can. I lurch, listing hard to one side! I panic, just for an instant, wary of the edge.
It sends a shock of wake-up through my system. I can see better now. I’m steady, more awake than I’d otherwise want to be. I walk back, in the direction of the faint light on the beach. I’m startled to see the car; I’m so close to it, I have to stop short to avoid walking right into it.
I get in the car. John is wrapped up in a sleeping bag. “I was wondering what happened to you?”
He sounds barely awake. “Just looking at the surf. And passing out.”
I take off my jacket and boots and get into my own sleeping bag.
“I was just dreaming of the job I had in university, driving the bread run from Thunder Bay, across the top of Superior. The truck had a suicide clutch. You had to use two hands to change the gears. I’d have to hook my left arm through the steering wheel to the clutch, and change the gear with his right, going around the switchbacks up and down the escarpment. This drive is a breeze. After the twelve hour run, I’d stay at my girlfriend’s place in Sault St. Marie, then drive back the next day.”
“I thought you lived at your girlfriend’s place in Thunder Bay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I did. Different girlfriend.” He chuckles in the dark, then starts snoring.
* * *
I wake with a dull pain in my mid-section; I have to piss. It is completely black. Somewhere in the blackness, dogs bark with heightened intensity. I doze on. A buzz in a dream becomes a straining motor; I’m awake again. I can see two lights crest the ridge; the grinding motor echoes back from the far side of the bay, penetrating everything.
Another set of lights comes into view. The whine of this second engine creates discord with the first, now passing, nearby. It continues towards the beach.
The lights, engines, dust, and barking escalate and merge into a cacophony.
People are yelling, maybe greetings and directions?
Is that a lightening on the horizon, in the east? I get out of the car, and stomp around. I light the stove, on the hood of the car, pack a bucket, put it together, and place it over the blue flame.
I take my first sip. A thin line of gold sun pours onto me. I can see half-a-dozen fishing boats moving offshore. The air is clear. The colours seem supernatural. I can see my breath. The coffee is good. Now it’s gone. I’ve got to have another.
I can see John in the car. He looks asleep.
I brew another coffee.
The sun moves clear of the horizon. Steam rises off the water of the bay. Boats continue to go out. John stomps out of the car with a bottle of water.
I make him coffee and we munch on dried fruit and trail mix.
The sky is hazing.
By silent consent, we agree to go.
I drive, slowly.
I’m having a hard time reconciling this return trip in the optimistic morning light, with the tense rally through the dying light, a few hours ago.
We reach the highway. I see the gas station back to the left, a short way back along the highway. I remember the American man at the burrito stand in Ensenada saying, ‘always fill up at every gas station,’ but I want to get out of this place as fast as I can. I turn right to continue out of town and south, down the Baja.
“What about gas?!”
“We’ll go to the next one.”
He looks at me, pausing momentarily, “okay.”
I put my foot down trying to escape the sin behind me. We’ll get some at the next stop.
The colour of the landscape changes quickly. Green is lost in each successive valley. Long narrow mountains run along the axis of the peninsula. Every layer is an environment away. Each valley textured in browner, stouter vegetation, until the green pillars of the cacti reign supreme amongst boulders.
“Where do you think we are?”
“It looks like a desert.”
He’s looking at the map. “This must be the ‘Parque Natural de Desierto Central de Baja California’.”
The gas gauge is already well below a half-tank; I’m hungry and the worry makes my stomach ache.
There is a building up ahead, just off the highway. I pull into the lot in front of it, hoping to get gasoline.
But there are no pumps here.
I stop by the windowed door of the building. A small child plays behind it. I can see an older man working on something in a penned-m area, a hundred metres behind the house. The child looks at us cautiously, but brimming with curiosity. John speaks to him. It’s easy to understand his clear, simple responses. He beckons us inside the casa, by another door.
A woman looks up from scrubbing laundry, with a neutral expression.
She can make us some food.
I asked how far it is to get gasoline. She says the closest gas station is in El Rosario de Abajo.
I go out to the car, untied one of the Gerry cans from the roof, and pour it into the car.
We get ham and cheese omelettes, toast, and coffee served in tin cups. The boy brings me a picture book; between mouthfuls I read it to him.
About halfway through the book, I glance up at the mother. She sees it, and the creases at the corners of her mouth soften and turn slightly upwards.
John asks her if she knows where we can buy beer and ice. She says that she has both.
This morning, when I awoke it was colder here than it had been in Toronto, the day I’d left. Now, I feel the damp of sweat pushed against my back as I sit down in the passenger seat of the car.
We roll. The road is good. It’s not busy. John drives it faster than I.
Nothing marks the hard, blue perfection of the sky.
It’s hot, now. The terrain is rocky, uneven, and thick with cacti. How could anybody have ever crossed it without motorization? It would be tough for a camel. I try to imagine going over the rough, burning geography, on a horse. What would the mileage be, for every ounce of water?
It’s just before eleven o’clock. Far in the distance, I can see a building, finally, gasoline?!
But no, it’s long gone, shutdown, a ghost gas station. “Ah fuck.”
“We’re just about ready for the next can.”
“Fuck! Yeah, yer right.” He starts gliding. “Wait a minute, is that one?” I point. Way down the road, I think I can see another building. John squints. “Can you see it?”
“There’s something, for sure.”
But it’s also abandoned. We drive on.
After fifteen minutes, John starts to pull off at a spot with a generous shoulder.
“Wait, there’s another.”
He pulls back on the road, and drives stoically on. It looks hopeful. There are many cars, and lots of activity, people walk with Gerry cans. Though I can’t see any pumps, there is definitely gasoline here.
I crack two from the six-pack, and hand one to John. “Dry no longer.” We crack the cans together. “But where are the pumps?”
We slow to idle speed. Young boys siphon gasoline from drums into five gallon Gerry cans. More boys carry the cans over to young men who sell it by the can. We get four cans. Three go into the car, and one refills our own empty can.
John checks the oil.
“I’m gonna go over there.”
I point to the stone and adobe building on the far side of the highway. It is impressive-looking!
“Where did that come from?”
“I don’t know, but if it’s a mirage, I’m going to bust it,” he looks at me, “and take a piss, anyways.”
Walking across the asphalt, I can feel the heat through the soles of my boots. I walk down the long, smouldering driveway, and enter the building unchallenged. I walk past a fountain pouring water into a large pool in the middle of the hall and up to a large reception area. But, no one is here!
I walk on, looking for a water closet (WC). Water cascades down a wall fifty feet high by fifty feet across. A garden grows from skylights. The sound of running water permeates the place. It’s cool and damp in here. I see the “WC” on a door.
Inside is an absurdly luxurious washroom. The entire room is tiled in elaborate patterns of dark purple and white.
I malinger. I could have a bath here. I take my time and wash cool water over my face. I take my shirt off and splash more water on my chest, neck, shoulders, and down my back. I feel a bit guilty for indulging so much. I take time to mop the floor and dry around the surface of the sink.
There’s still nobody here! I walk back out, through the lobby, and emerge into the stark, blinding light of the Baja day! The heat hits me like a wall. I pause, overcoming the notion to go back inside. I walk across the burning highway.
John is chatting with one of the young men over the open hood of the car.
“How’s the mirage?”
“I’d better confirm your mental illness.”
He excuses himself and walks across the highway towards the hotel. I get a squeegee and clean the window. When I’m done, I take of my shirt and place it one the window, then climb onto the hood, and bask in the sun, shirt between the burning hot glass and my back.
It’s smooth sailing to Guerrero Negro, at the border of the two states, Baja, and Baja Sur. To get into Baja Sur, I have to pay for a spray-down of the car. Two guys in white suits with buckets and pumps spray the car for a few minutes. I can see the military base, not far away. Green camouflaged uniforms walk in and out of a gate, with the unnaturally abrupt affectation of military people, the world over.
Past the base, the road turns sharply, to due east. The smooth, black tarmac runs straight, as far as I can see.
I pull out cigars and beer. I put the bootleg tape of Ron Hawkins and the Rusty Nails into the cassette player and turn the volume up to hear it over the roar of the air through the open windows. The melodic guitar bangs out the chord and the words start right away, “We tried to find, a radio station. You smoke and drive, while I adjust the wave attenuation…”[i]
I smell flinty dust, with a strange, faint mustiness in it. For some reason, it reassures me.
The geography starts to roll, up and down progressively larger hills.
Just after 2 p.m., we approach another checkpoint. I feel the, now familiar, tightening in my back. Off to the right side, there is a restaurant. John idles into the parking spot next to the front door. We take turns buying six packs and using the washroom.
I idle the car over to the checkpoint.
The boy with the assault rifle wants to see what is inside the big blue trunk in the back of the car.
It takes me five minutes to get it out. Another young man with a rifle stands over John, sitting in the passenger seat with the door open. The kid jabs the gun into my ribs. He looks at the passports and the registration documentation.
He’s asking something, but I can’t understand him. He acts irritated. He jabs the guns into my ribs and hands me the passports and all the documentation for the car. They go to the next car, barking <<hurry up>>. There is stuff all over the road. We load it fast, and get back in.
Eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, I pick up speed as fast as I can without attracting undue attention. Can I relax…
BOOM! The whole car shutters.
“Oh fuck!?!” What the fuck? Oh no! What have I done, now?!?
“We’re still going. It’s probably okay.”
I keep driving. “It was a fucking speed bump!?”
He nods slowly, conspicuously non-judgemental.
Sorry bub; again.
The rolls become longer and steeper. The thin desert greenery is flanked by earthen tones of the mountain, rising up, glowing under the ruthless sun, and indomitable blue.
We crest, and go up and down for a while, passing intermediate peaks.
“Brakes should be used in short, firm bursts.” He’s reading the driver manual. “This is a really good document. Too bad nobody reads them.”
He explains how brakes wear; keeping pressure on them for sustained periods burns them out. I change the gears to slow the car; I hardly touch the brakes.
“The trannie is designed to do this. It’s so over-engineered. It’s the most complex technology on this car. You’re doing good.”
The car levels momentarily over the crest. At the bottom of this new horizon, I see dark blue. “Ahh, the Sea of Cortés!”
I can see miles down! It doesn’t look real. How can I see so far down, so clearly?
The road switches back, winding downward.
I can see the blue of the water again, not too far ahead.
The road levels, then bends right, pointing south. The highway dodges around long sharp ridges, running parallel to the coast.
Around a corner there is a sign for the puebla of Santa Rosalía. It’s 4:20; it makes me smile. I pull hard to the left, into a parking lot.
“Why are we stopping?”
“Oh yeah. Good thinking.”
“I need to eat. I want beer.”
I get out and walk around looking for anybody. Finally, I see a man; he looks like he’s a janitor, or something like that. He tells me that the next “barquo” goes on Tuesday. I walk back to the car.
“It’s not going until Tuesday.”
“Three days is too long. Let’s keep on going. We can get to La Paz tonight, and be on the boat tomorrow, if it’s going.”
“I’ve got to eat.”
“Yeah, we’ll eat, and then we’ll go. I can drive, you can sleep.”
I don’t want to drive in the night. “Well, first, food.”
There’s not much of a town to see from the highway. We come around the bay of the port. At the south end, I pull into a restaurant parking lot, on the bay side of the highway. The building is already in the shadow of the mountain. But the tranquil bay is still brightly lit by the sun shining over the mountain; the colours burn the back of my eyes.
We go in. I go straight to use the facilities. I emerge, ten minutes later. John is sitting, chatting with a crusty old guy. They each hold a bottle of beer. There’s a full bottle with sweat dripping down it, on the table between them. I pick it up, salute the two of them, and down half of it.
Crusty is chatting up the waitress, in a familiar manner.
I want to order while she is here. “What’s good to eat, here?”
He looks at me. “I’m in a conversation, if you would kindly give us a moment.”
I’ve got to get food. I force myself to calm down; I focus on breathing slowly in, and slowly out, concentrating on the feeling of the air as in enters my nose and travels into my lungs.
He finishes speaking with the woman. They both smile as she returns to the kitchen.
John smiles impishly, on the verge of laughter, watching me. The old geezer turns his gaze to me, “I was just talking something over with John, here. What’s the question? By the way, the name’s Don Sunterland. Who are you?”
What is this fucking critter? “Dean Cassady, pleased to make you acquaintance. What’s good and fast, for food here?”
“Hmm,” he looks at the menu as if seeing it for the first time. “Hmm, that looks good”, he says to no one in particular.
He finishes his beer. The waitress comes out immediately, and replaces the empty with a full one, the gas still floating up from where the cap was removed. I turn, happy for the opportunity to speak to her. ¡Que bonita! “Uno mas, por favour.” I watch her retreat to the bar.
I settle back in my chair, reflecting. I notice Crusty is staring at me, and remember, with a start, that I was speaking with him. “Can’t say I blame yuh. But I don’t think that yer gonna get any mileage there. They’re pretty wise to gringos, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, kinda thing.”
What are you, her father? “Oh well. What’s there to eat, here?”
“To tell you the truth, uh, I usually only have a beer or two on the way back to my cabin. But everything should be good.” He waves the girl over. “what’s mucho rapido, Flower?”
She looks at us, voicelessly asking where to put the beer?
“Por señor, Gracias.” She puts the beer down and looks at the menu and points to something. I can’t concentrate. But I like her encouraging smile. “Bueno. Por favour.”
“Dos por favor”, John holds up two fingers in a ‘V’.
She retreats towards the kitchen, turns before getting there, “¿algo mas?”
I down the last quarter of my first beer; the second won’t last very long. “Uno mas, por favour.” John isn’t half way down yet, but he quietly adds, “dos”, and nods.
“No, no, no”. Don is indignant. “Don’t order another while you’re a ways off on that one. It’ll go warm on yuh.” He addresses the girl, “uno, uno.” He’s holding up a single gnarled finger, “uno”. She gets the message. “It won’t take a second to get another from the freezer, when you’re ready for it. Take your time and finish the one you’ve got. It don’t take long fer them to warm up here, even in winter.”
‘Flower’ brings another beer. “Gracias.”
How could I not desire?
“I’ve known her since she was born. She’s Matilde’s daughter, the lady who runs this place.”
As if called, another woman comes from behind the kitchen door. “How are you today, Donald?” She has a strong accent, but it doesn’t affect the perfectly understandable English.
“Bueno. Bueno. Gracias, thanks for asking. These two men are from Canada. Can you believe it, they drove here, all the way from Canada?! They’re going to all the way to Costa Rica!”
“Wow, that’s something. Why did you do that?”
She’s holding two ladened plates. It takes quite an effort for me to focus on the questions. I tell her in stunted Spanish, how I needed a break, and wanted to travel through Latin America. She turns to Johnny and says, “an’ why are you here?”
Johnny explains, in broken Spanish, how he had a bit of a break; so he couldn’t turn down the adventure. She patiently corrects his grammar, as he goes.
“Bueno,” she says, “your friend looks like he’s hungry,” she puts the plates down, “bon appetite”. She walks back to the kitchen, entering into a hushed conversation with her daughter.
I eat; everything else fades into a backdrop of grey noise. I try, as best I can, to chew my food. John and Don talk on, but I’m not even trying to track it. When I zone back into it, Don is talking about his time in the US Air Force, during the Korean War. He talks about the years he’s been living just south of Santa Rosalía, in a trailer park. Recently, he explains, the region had been the subject of a government program to boost tourism. More tourism, according to Don, had only increased the cost of living for the local inhabitants, including him. He’s thinking about moving, even though he loves it here.
He asks about Costa Rica. He’d heard about it, and he’s interested. But he’s worried that it is expensive, too. I tell him what I know about the cost of living there.
Don tells us about the boat to the mainland. He says that it would be leaving on Monday, not Tuesday. He asks me if I have a ‘temporary importation permit’ for the car? He says I need it to get the car on the boat?
Uh oh! That’s the thing that my buddy Shaun mentioned to me, would be needed. I knew I’d forgotten something! This was it!
He notices my expression, but keeps on talking; there isn’t an office in Santa Rosalía to get this permit. But it can be got in La Paz.
John says, “we’re going to drive there overnight.”
Don admits that he’s driven at nights before, in extreme circumstances. But he implores us against doing so. The truck drivers, he says, follow a night-time code of driving in the centre of the single-lane road. They expect anything smaller to yield.
“What about the cows?”
Don says the cows are just an irritation.
John is unconvinced. He feels that he is more than up to the task.
Don persists, he implores us to allow him to get us a ‘locals’ rate’ on the best hotel in town. “Follow me. I’ll show you where it is. I know the owner.”
John still wants to drive, but he agrees to look at the hotel. Maybe he just doesn’t want to upset the old guy.
Don leads us back around the bay, then inland from the highway. The centro is tucked behind a long ridge. He continues up a small mountain, to Hotel Frances.
He speaks with a woman at the reception, explaining that we are his friends, and that we will be staying the night. When she mentions the price, Don winces and reiterated that we are his good friends, and so should get, the best, price. Somewhere along the way, John’s resolve fades.
Don looks relieved. As he makes to go, I grip his hand in sincere thanks; I want to sleep in a bed. He hugs me, and then John. Then he drives off into fast-descending dusk.
The hotel is made of wood. There is an abundance of ornate carving. The wainscoting is quilted fabric; I’ve never seen anything like it before. But the room has a strong smell of mildew. I can’t open the windows, they’re nailed shut. I feel a bit claustrophobic despite the largeness of the room. I shower and lie down for a minute.
* * *
There’s knocking on the door, on and on! “It’s time to go out.” What? Oh, I fell asleep.
I pull on some pants and a shirt. We walk out, and down the hill, into the town. There are a lot of people in the street. It looks like a festival. A wedding party spills out of a large church.
We dine on tacos from street vendors.
By ten, I’m fading. At the hotel, there’s a small dinner party in the grand dining room. The lady invites us to join them. We sit and she brings beer. Before I’m finished it, my eyelids are drooping. I’m having a hard time keeping them open. I excuse myself and retire to my room. I try to line up one of the softer-looking spots, as the bed flies up at me. I don’t remember the landing.
* * *
We’re on the road before sunrise. After half-an-hour driving, the sun emerges from the brightening eastern horizon, over the Sea of Cortés.
John is on a mission. He keeps the speedometer at 70 miles per hour. We pass Mulegé and come along Bahía Concepción. It’s so beautiful; I wish I could stay here for a while. Past Mulegé there is graphic art on the entire face of some mountains. The coast is one beautiful bay after another, glowing in the morning light.
We stop at Loreto for cash. John gets some at a bank machine, but my bank cards are not working. I feel a tensing in my spine.
After Loreto, the highway turns back, inland, diagonally across the peninsula. After a few hours, we pass through Ciudad Insurgentes.
We stop in Ciudad Constitución, for supplies.
The drive south is straight and hot. John keeps the car going at a hundred mile per hour. We climb and run straight along a plateau for hours then approach a climb. We pass a range then plummet down. I can see the bay, and the town along it.
I think of the impending administration, and feel a drop of sweat roll down my forehead; it drips from my eyebrow, momentarily blurring the vision.
[i]. “Crackstatic” song, opening lyrics, by Ron Hawkins and the Rusty Nails, from the album “Crackstatic”, released 2000, produced by Ian Blurton; for more information go to http://www.ronhawkins.com/ and/or https://www.victimlesscapitalism.com