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Baja California Turtle Expedition V - Los Californios

Posted in Events on January 1, 2010
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Photographers: Monika Wescott

Bandits! Roadside robbers! Drug cartels and Mafia! That's the recent news from Baja California. It's enough to make you stay home. So what's the real story?

The Turtle Expedition has spent over 35 years following backroads in Baja, but mostly we have kept to the abundant coast of the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. Plentiful fish, crab, lobster, mussels, abalone, and clams were an undeniable attraction. We also could be pretty sure that the fishermen we encountered were not going to rob us. So where were all these bad guys hiding?

Leaving our idyllic camp at Agua Verde (FW, June '09), we decided to head inland for a change. Maybe we could find some bandits there. As you may recall, just after airing back up on Highway 1, we suffered a massive blowout, and the nearest reserve tire was three days away. We mounted the spare and continued, trusting luck to another 1,000 miles of dirt.

Large springs like this one could support two or even three ranches in a small valley.

The gravel road headed west out of Mulegé, a busy oasis on the coast of Baja California's Sea of Cortez. At first it was fast washboard, but soon it turned into a classic one-lane Baja backroad as it snaked into the mountains - just the kind we love to drive. What looked like small villages on our detailed maps were solitary ranches. Some were abandoned where water had dried up. Others appeared to be seasonal goat camps, judging by the quantity of goat droppings on the ground.

Over the years, we had heard of these remote ranchos. A book by Harry W. Crosby, The Last of the Californios, gave us a sense of these settlements, many still reached only by horse or mule. In recent years, some have become accessible by vehicle, but often only with four-wheel drive.

Two centuries ago, Baja California was mostly an unknown, forbidden land of vast deserts, rugged mountains, and deep canyons sculpted by periodic catastrophic flash floods. Prehistoric tribes of Indians were scattered here and there. Their amazing cave paintings date back over 10,800 years.

Splashing through an arroyo near El Patrocino, we thought of the Spanish soldiers who first explored these remote deserts.

Early on in the 1700s, Spain and the Catholic church established a few mission settlements. To guard and assist the padres, a select group of soldiers and skilled frontier tradesmen were deployed to these missions. Part of their responsibility was to explore the interior in search of suitable land for agriculture. There was little as we might imagine it.

When the Jesuits were expelled in 1776, they were replaced by Franciscans, followed by the Dominicans a decade later. Some missions were abandoned. Others fell into neglect. Many of the original settlers, soldiers and pioneers, stayed on. Seeking freedom and uncontested land, with their skills and tenacity they began to establish small homesteads, or ranchos, in the remote mountains where water existed. Could these be the desperados we were looking for?

Because of their isolation, many traditions and lifestyles have remained virtually unchanged for nearly 200 years. Goats are herded for cheese, sheep for wool and meat, and cattle for meat and leather, which is tanned using methods brought over by the original Spanish frontiersmen. Small vegetable patches and fruit orchards exist, often with soil carried in, one bag at a time, on burros. Where there was a spring, ingenious irrigation systems were built, often only to be flushed away by horrific flash floods ripping down the barren mountains.

The flaming tips of ocotillo gave color to a drab desert landscape.

Rough trails and dirt tracks have slowly brought some trappings of modern civilization. Solar panels provide power for some conveniences. The use of VHF radios has allowed ranches within a limited range to communicate. You might find the occasional pickup truck in the front yard, but it may not run. Not too important, anyway. These ranches are very self-sufficient. Cheese, meat and leather are sold or traded in town. Without refrigeration, meat is dried.

Though it was not really a surprise, the warm hospitality offered visitors like us was rewarding. Imagine no TV, no Internet, no light (maybe a 12-volt bulb hanging in the kitchen), no phone. The VHF radio, relatively new, is listened to by all, so there are no private conversations. Cooking is on wood stoves or fireplaces. The outhouse has a bucket of water to flush. The shower is a bucket job, too. Clothes washing is done on a traditional slab of stone using homemade soap.

Maria insisted we take a pile of homemade tortillas with us for the road.

As Spartan a lifestyle as The Turtle Expedition adapts to on the road, most of that seemed pretty normal to us, but there was still much to learn. We could always turn The Turtle V around and drive back to the modern world. For these folks, it was a 24/7/365 deal. They had skills and knowledge long forgotten by the 8-to-5 work crowd.

Looking for a place to stop for lunch, we pulled up under a tree at Rancho Injerto. With only two or three vehicles passing in a day, we were an oddity for sure. Juan waved to us and we asked if he minded that we borrowed a little shade. Of course not, and please come in for some coffee. It was a pattern we would come to expect.

Kitchens, both indoor and outdoor, were basic, clean, and functional.

Juan and his wife, Maria, and daughter, Daniela, herded goats and made fresh cheese. We spent the next day and a half watching and learning about cheese making and their lives. Milking is done once a day, and of course, Monika had to try her hand. In the evening, after a simple dinner, Juan proudly showed us the skin of a mountain lion that had taken a few of his goats. He and his dog had treed the cat, and, lacking a gun at the moment, he stoned it to death.

Around 10:00 in the evening, a pickup full of scraggly dudes sputtered up in front of the house. They were returning from town, and were as happy as you might expect after a few six-packs of Tecate. Maybe these guys were bandits. They looked the part. No such luck. Juan knew them. Everyone knows everyone in these mountains, and no one comes here accidentally.

They wanted to borrow a screwdriver and a flashlight. I grabbed our LED light and watched with respect as one guy completely disassembled the carburetor, cleaned the float bowl with his shirt tail, blew the needle jets out, and reassembled the thing like it was something he had done a hundred times.

Only a day old, this cute baby was abandoned by its mother and had to be hand fed.

There was some improvement, and after locking his hubs, they rattled up the road into the darkness. I wondered what times will bring when all these trucks are controlled by black boxes and sophisticated fuel injection systems like our Power Stroke. It might be hard to work on a PCM on the side of the road.

After the morning milking was done, we left with a pile of fresh handmade tortillas and a kilo of cheese. Four-wheel-drive Toyotas and Ford Rangers are the choice of locals. Juan warned us that our F-550 might be too big for the track up the San Raymundo wash past La Presa. We stayed to the right.

Thatched roofs and adobe walls were the norm.

Road signs were few and far between, but we sort of knew where we were going. We climbed in and out of steep canyons, sometimes requiring low-range. By evening we had reached the abandoned site of the Guadalupe Mission. Established by the Jesuit Everardo Helen in 1720, by 1795 the Cochimí Indians had dwindled under the onslaught of Old World diseases, and the mission was abandoned. All that was left were old rock walls and corrals. Nearby, neglected fruit trees were heavy with huge lemons. We could have heard a pin drop at night, so total was the silence. A small adobe chapel, its walls already crumbling, had been built by a few locals. Perhaps a traveling padre stops by from time to time for a wedding or a baptism. Still no sign of bandits.

In the morning we continued into the Sierra Gigante. We had been cautioned to keep a watchful eye climbing over the steep Pie de la Cuesta. This narrow one-lane section over an intimidating pass had few turnouts. What a great place to ambush a lonely traveler. Alas, not even another vehicle passed us all day.

As we dropped down into a long valley, the road improved. Hungry mesquite trees were the only thieves as they raked the sides of The Turtle V and grabbed at the roof rack, nearly tearing it off a couple of times when the Hi- Lift jack snagged a limb. We hit the blacktop again and aired up at San José de Magdalena. Not a bandito in sight.

The classic water cooler was standard on every veranda; a clay pot wrapped in a damp cloth.

Eighty miles north, we stopped to resupply in the sleepy oasis town of San Ignacio. The inviting main plaza was a convenient place to fill our water tank. The beautiful old Mission San Ignacio Loyola was built in 1786, and with its four-foot-thick volcanic walls, it is one of the best preserved on the peninsula. After a quick lunch under the shade of the huge Indian laurel trees, we headed west on the newly paved highway toward Laguna San Ignacio.

We had followed this route earlier in our trip when we visited Pachico's Ecotours whale watching camp. The asphalt ended after a few miles andwashboard brought us to a sign pointing to El Patrocino, one of the oldest ranchos in the area. Ramón, one of the employees at Pachico's Ecotours, had invited us to visit his family there.

The juice from local sugar cane was extracted using a 100-year-old mule-powered mill.

As we continued across the bone-dry desert, only the flaming tips of ocotillo gave any hint of life. We tried to imagine Spanish soldiers on horseback following this route, with no idea what lay in front of them. Could there be a spring or an oasis in the distant grey mountains? They hoped!

Ramón knew we were on the way. In fact, everyone in the area with a VHF radio new what this strange vehicle was about. Again, we were welcomed with opened arms. After the traditional coffee, Ramón gave us a walking tour, showing us the main spring that fed the valley. Thanks to many past generations, there were groves of date trees and orchards of orange, lemon, lime, pomegranate, mango, and even a small vineyard.

We followed a classic one-lane Baja backroad as it snaked into the mountains. This was the kind we love to drive.

Most ranchos have a little patch of sugarcane, and we had arrived just in time to watch the annual process of extracting the juice from the cane, using a mule-powered Blymyer Iron Works cane mill, well over 100 years old. The juice was then boiled for eight hours in a huge brass tub, with constant stirring. As the boiled-down juice cooled, it took on the texture first of thick maple syrup and then of creamy peanut butter. Poured into hand-carved wooden cupcake-size molds, it hardened into a delicious confection. Remember, there were no Snickers bars 200 years ago.

Back in San Ignacio, we relaxed on the veranda of Rice & Beans with one of their famous hand-made margaritas. Rice & Beans is a full-service RV park, hotel, and restaurant just outside of town. Looking at our Baja California Almanac, it showed dozens of backroads and mule trails that form a network between hundreds of one-family ranchos. There was an old trail we hadn't followed for years.

Leaving Highway 1 south of Guerrero Negro, it snaked across the desert and mountains to the Sea of Cortez, and further to Bahía de Los Angeles. We had pretty much given up on being hijacked. Doing a little fishing would be more productive. Still, without a spare tire, we did wonder if it was wise to travel these remote two-tracks alone. Our luck seemed to be holding.

For an armchair glimpse at this amazing culture of Los Californios, check out the excellent DVD documentary called Corazon Vaquero-(Heart of the Cowboy);

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