Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Baja, Chihuahua, Victorio Statue, El Magnifico Misses An Opportunity

Since my last entry the Water Buffalo was cured of it's ills and I crossed over into Mexico.

The Buffalo was diagnosed with a fuel starvation problem caused by a bad ECU (the main engine control computer). The ECU would occasionally stop sending a signal to the fuel injectors, resulting in the cutting out which I was experiencing. The cure was replacement of the ECU. Apparently this is a common problem on these engines. The shop had a collection of these ECUs, all of them labeled with "cuts out or "stops running." Fortunately there's a shop in Los Angeles which refurbishes these units. Unfortunately, the part cost almost $1000. So far the problem hasn't recurred.

After stopping to acquire Mexican auto insurance and exchange dollars for pesos I crossed into Tijuana. Crossing the border wasn't what I had expected to be. I didn't have to stop or speak with anyone. I hardly even slowed down. I wondered if I somehow managed to slip through some place where I should have stopped. It seemed odd that the Mexican government wouldn't at least want to know who's entered the country, or have a chance to inspect incoming vehicles for contraband. I later discovered that I was supposed to have stopped and picked up a tourist visa. After paying a fine I later obtained a visa and a temporary vehicle import permit in La Paz.

After crossing I headed south on the main highway that runs along the length of the Baja peninsula. For the first 50 miles or so the highway is basically an interstate. After that however, it turns into a shoulder-less two lane road, filled with cars, 18 wheelers, buses, and RVs from north of the border (especially, it seemed, Canada). Driving on the road brought back pleasant memories of traveling to Mexico with my parents and siblings. Before my father died we travelled regularly to Mexico in an old van along a very similar highway. Us kids would play games and sleep on the floor while my parents took turns driving. It was a bit of shock to suddenly realize that, many years later, I once again was on a narrow Mexican road in an old van which I slept in. I had always looked forward to those childhood trips because I knew that at the end there were a bunch of cousins (there were twelve children on my mother's side) to play with.

More pleasant childhood memories came rushing back when I took a dip into the Pacific Ocean on a deserted stretch of beach I'd found. When I was a kid growing up in Texas my parents often took us to the nearby beach. I always enjoyed playing in the sand, but even more I enjoyed getting tossed around by the surf. I remember being very disappointed when I moved to Oregon and discovered that the ocean water was too cold to wade in. I ended up spending the night on the beach. Early the next morning five men showed up in a beat up truck and began picking up stones from the beach. After getting dressed I asked one fellow what they did with the stones. He said they sold them in a nearby town, from which they were shipped to Tijuana, where they were sold for use in the construction business. Picking up rocks seems like a pretty thin living, but I suppose they weren't in a position to pick and choose how they made their living.

On my way down the peninsula I took a detour to visit San Pedro Martir National Park. This park has the highest peak on the peninsula. The peak's name is El Pichado del Diablo (The Devil's Peak). I think it's a bit over 10,000 ft in height. I went on a three day backpacking trip, intending to summit the peak. I was surprised to find snow, water ice, forests with tall stands of cedar, and outcroppings of grey granite. The scenery bore an uncanny resemblence to parts of southern Idaho I'd visited earlier in my travels. I wasn't certain at the time, but I don't think I managed to summit El Diablo. After backtracking multiple times and trying various routes I managed to get to the top of a peak which looked like it could be the highest peak in the area. There was a pen at the top but no register. From the top I could see the Bay of California to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. I gradually came to the realization that I didn't know where I was, wished I had the Nav Unit with me, and backtracked all the way back to the Buffalo. On the way back I saw a sign for an astronomical observatory. I figured it was worth a visit. After parking at a locked gate I hiked up to a building which housed a large optical telescope. It was from there that I finally saw El Diablo. It definitely was not the peak I had gone up. It was an impressive looking peak, reminiscent of some of the peaks I saw in the Idaho Sawtooths. I briefly considered making another attempt, but I couldn't identify a route from that vantage point, so I figured I'd most likely get lost again. I headed back towards the highway.

Continuing south, the highway cut inland into a vast desert filled with cacti. I spent a couple of days in the desert practicing animal trapping (didn't catch anything) before continuing on. After the inland desert the road briefly followed the Pacific coast. On a dirt road off the highway I found a hidden lagoon with a few fishing boats, a shack, and two trucks. I intended to stay for a couple of days and explore a bit, but I soon got myself stuck in the sand. How uncharacteristic of a water buffalo to be stuck in the mire, I thought. Seeing my predicament, a man drove out from the shack and spent the better part of his afternoon helping to get me out. His name was Narcisso. He was an older fellow, so I took to calling him "Don Narcisso" ("Don" being a title of respect). Afterwards he invited me to his shack for coffee. His shack was about the size of my van and was made out of old pieces of plywood, tin sheets, and pieces of plastic. I hung out with him for a couple of days, sharing coffee, chatting about various topics, and exchanging stories from our lives. He had been a fisherman for forty years, but couldn't work anymore because his knees had given out. He said making a living as a fisherman had become very difficult anyway. Too many fishermen and not enough fish, he explained. He now spent five days a week living in the shack to watch over the fishing boats while their owners were home for the evening. He never asked me for anything despite the trouble I'd put him through and refused to accept anything from me when I offered.

Soon after the lagoon the highway headed east, eventually reaching the eastern coast of the peninsula. A bit before reaching the east coast the highway passed near the town of San Ignacio. I stopped there to check out a campground which a Canadian fellow who I'd earlier met had recommended. He said he would be there. I've taken to avoiding places which require paying for a spot to spend the night (a practice which I learned is known as "boondocking" amongst the RV crowd), but it sounded like a good deal and an idyllic setting. It was indeed an idyllic setting. San Ignacio is a literal oasis in the desert. A desert spring had been dammed up, creating a small lake surrounded by reeds and palm trees. The campground was right on the lake. The Canadian fellow was there as promised. The campground was owned by a different ex-pat Canadian. It wasn't quite as good a deal as I'd been lead to believe, but considering what was included (use of a kayak, showers, WiFi, an excellent breakfast, and a real bed) it was pretty good living for the money.

The next day I reached the town of Santa Rosalia and for the first time saw the Bay of California (also called the Sea of Cortez) up close. Santa Rosalia wasn't much to my liking (it's an old industrial town), so I continued on. Later I would return to Santa Rosalia to take the ferry across the bay. The highway stays near the east coast for a good stretch. I spent a couple of days on some empty beaches between Mulege and Loreto before continuing on towards Loreto.
Near Loreto I met a Czech fellow (now living in Denver) named George. I ended up parking the Buffalo next to him and his wife's camp site. They were living out of their van, like I was. The day before I met George his wife had caught their van on fire. It actually looked pretty bad. A rear interior quarter panel had turned into a molten pile of plastic and she had suffered burns on her hands. Luckily she'd managed to put out the fire before the whole van was engulfed. Some of the wiring had been burned through, resulting in various electrical problems. I spent a morning playing electrical engineer and repaired the electrical system. They really appreciated this and often invited me over for dinner during the remainder of my stay there. George and I also went on a hike up a canyon together.

Later I went on a backpacking trip up into the same canyon I'd day hiked with George. I really enjoyed the canyon. It contained a series of minature oases formed by pools in the rock. There were occasional water falls and places where the water had worn a natural water slide into the rock. I dropped down some of the water slides into the pools. One night I had my first bivy of the entire trip. I managed to get lost and was unable to find my way to camp before it got dark. All I had were shorts, a t-shirt, and a fleece, all of which were mostly wet. My night out reminded of one of the definitions of a bivy: A place where you lie down and shiver for the night. It wasn't the most pleasant night of my life, but I managed to get by.

The place where I purposely spent the night was much nicer. I'd found the perfect spot under a garage sized boulder. The ground here was fine sand. It conformed very nicely to my body. Since it was under a monolith of rock it was dry. Further into the little cave under the boulder there was a perfect spot for a fire. Moving away from the cave but still under the boulder (thus affording protection from the rain) was a bunch of dried plant matter which I used as fuel for the fire. I slept between the fire and the fuel. No need for a bivy sack here. Even the sleeping bag seemed superfluous. When the fire got low all I had to do was move the fuel from one side of my body to the other. I found a few plants nearby that were edible. Some of them were actually pretty tasty.

On the hike back to the van I ran into some construction workers. They looked rather menacing at first. One of them had two tools that looked like ice picks in his hands. He initiated a conversation with me, asking me for a cigarette. Later another five or six crossed to my side of the street, one of them with a machete in his hand. We started chatting. They asked me all kinds of questions, mostly about what I'd been doing. I suggested that we stage a photo, with them holding the machete and picks in a threatening fashion. I would then send the photo and an email to friends and family, claiming that I'd been kidnapped. If anyone sent ransom money I'd split it with them. They all had a good laugh from it. I would have taken the photo if my camera hadn't run out of batteries. When I left I promised to return on the next working day to show them some of the photos. I did return, but I forgot to take a ransom photo. I think they enjoyed my visits. At least, it was a good excuse to stop working. Not that they needed an excuse. Even by their own account, they weren't actually doing much in the way of work.

After visiting the construction workers I continued south. I stopped in La Paz (where I fixed my permit situation), Cabo San Lucas (at the very southern tip of the Baja peninsula), and Todos Santos. Of these three I spent the most time in Todos Santos. This was a charming town on the Pacific side. It was a surfing hot spot. I mountain biked, hiked, and got into the water again. From Todos Santos I headed back north to Loreto. I had bought a dingy from the Czech fellow. I called it the "Sea Hawk" since that's what was printed on it. I rowed it out to an island, taking snorkeling gear along with a homemade spear. The water was very clear, and there were a lot of sea critters to see. It was like swimming in a giant tide pool. Despite all the creatures I didn't manage to spear anything. I had wanted to paddle further out and spend more nights on another island, but the on day I had set for this the wind had picked up and the sea got pretty rough. As it was, I'd had problems with the Sea Hawk's oars. They kept coming apart, usually at inopportune moments. It seemed like a bad idea to head out in such seas with the craft I had, so I packed up and headed north, returning to Santa Rosalia.

I planned on taking the ferry to the mainland (specifically, to the city of Guaymas) from there. The ferry was docked when I arrived. It's departure was delayed by two days due to rough seas. The ferry ride lasted about 13 hours, the first half in rough seas. The ferry was an old Norwegian vessel, originally designed for short river trips. Like many things in Mexico, it was being used for a purpose that it had not been intended for.

From the port of Guaymas I headed inland to the city of Hermosillo, then east across the state of Sonora, towards the city of Chihuahua. On my way to Chihuahua I planned on stopping for a few days in Copper Canyon, a national park. I had always thought that this part of Mexico was all desert. Guaymas and Hermosillo certainly were, but as I headed east the road gained elevation, eventually reaching the highlands of central Mexico. The desert gave way to pine forests, rivers, and waterfalls. There were patches of snow and ice on the roads. Before reaching Copper Canyon the Buffalo began overheating. I found two leaks in the cooling system. A local mechanic, who everyone referred to as "El Maestro" (the master), managed to fix the leaks using plastic cement and silicone. He charged me the equivalent of nine dollars (plus a few beers we split after he was done) and had me on my way the same day. An American mechanic would have wanted to replace the parts and would have charged me at least $100. I admired this fellow's resourcefulness. The last thing he was going to do was replace a part, which given my remote location would have taken many days to obtain. Even if the repair later fails it at least allowed me to reach a major city where parts are easier to come by.

With the leaks fixed, I continued on to Copper Canyon. The park is located in the highlands, and is actually a series of interconnected canyons, with many waterfalls, fast running rivers, and a few lakes and hot springs. It's a popular park. I hadn't seen any non-Mexicans since leaving the ferry four days earlier, but they were present in the park in spades. I explored the area on mountain bike, sometimes leaving the bike to hike through the rougher bits. Many Tarahumara indians live in the area. I often came across them and their remote habitations during my explorations. Some of them live in caves and rock overhangs that have been walled off. The Wikipedia article on the Tarahumara is pretty interesting. They are known for their ability to run extremely long distances. They practice a form of hunting which involves running after game until the animal becomes too exhausted to stay ahead of the hunter.
I would have liked to take a backpacking trip in Copper Canyon, but I wanted to be back in the US by mid February, which only allowed for a few days in the park. The canyons aren't as impressive as the Grand Canyon, but it's a pretty park nonetheless, and the Tarahumara added a unique aspect to the visit. Somehow I managed to miss seeing the 800 ft waterfall, the tallest in Mexico.

After Copper Canyon I headed for Chihuahua, a large city almost due south of El Paso, Texas. It was here that I found a statue of my namesake, apparently an Apache hero from the past who only had a first name. I also found a poster announcing a Mexican wrestling match, which is the photo at the top of this entry. I'd been looking for these throughout my stay in Mexico, hoping that I could find an event that offered an amateur night where El Magnifico could make his wrestling debut. Unfortunately the event announced in the poster had already been held. I'll have more chances when I return to Mexico in the spring. From Chihuahua it was a few hour's drive to the border crossing. I crossed the Rio Grande into Texas at Presidio, just west of Big Bend National Park, which is my next destination. I'm planning on spending a week or two in the park. I'd like to do some backpacking and might also pull out the Sea Hawk and float it down the Rio Grande.

Baja photos are here. Photos from Chihuahua and Copper Canyon are here. There's also a set of photos of vultures striking various poses here.

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