Dodge Ram 4x4 EarthRoamer Baja California Journey Home - Home At Last!Posted in Features on December 1, 2002
In the preceding episode, intrepid traveler Bill Swails and his EarthRoamer expedition truck found themselves-on their way back to the U.S.-lost and out of fuel at the end of a Mexican trail, and with severe structural problems. Could he find his way and solve his problems, or would his present location be the site upon which future travelers would find the Swails EarthRoamer Shrine? Read on to find out.-Ed.
This was not good. Here I was, deep in desert Baja and not all that far from the final phase of my trip through the wilds of Baja California, headed back north toward the U.S. and home. But there seemed no way to continue, as my problems had accumulated into a huge and seemingly insurmountable pile: I'd completely lost the trail. I was sure I didn't have enough fuel to backtrack, and I didn't have a clue where I was. My truck, the EarthRoamer, was comprehensively broken, its expedition camper hanging onto the chassis by a few steel threads.
After getting out of my truck and searching for several minutes, I was elated to pick up the faint trail on the other side of the arroyo. The barely distinguishable trail began to snake its way through palm trees. After several hours of painfully slow driving with palm fronds dragging along both sides of the camper, I came upon a couple of small rancheros. To my complete and total surprise, I'd arrived at mission San Luis Gonzaga.
My spirits soared as I began to believe that perhaps I really would get out of Mexico safely. I took a few minutes to photograph the mission. The only sound interrupting the silence was that of a crowing rooster. Finally, a man looked out the door of a nearby house and gave me a friendly wave as the rising sun began to warm my bones. I'd never felt more relieved, optimistic and thankful. My problems weren't over yet, but there was hope. At least I knew where I was.
I headed out of San Luis Gonzaga on a dirt road that I would have considered rough a couple of weeks ago, but which now felt like a paved freeway. I was able to achieve speeds of more than 20 mph and I was just 24 miles from pavement.
After a couple of miles, the road became completely covered in deep sand. This was even better, since it made for very smooth driving. I continued on, and soon enough I was back on pavement. After only a couple of miles, I spotted a pickup truck with its driveshaft hanging loose and broken. Even though my truck was seriously crippled, I was eager to accumulate as much goodwill as possible, so I stopped to offer assistance. But the pickup's driver declined my offer, saying that help was already on the way.
So it was that I finally came to Ciudad Constitucion. I immediately found a pay phone and called my friends to let them know that I was OK. After that, it was time for the next step in my adventure, which I was not really looking forward to. Somehow, I needed to find a shop capable of repairs that would at least get me back to the U.S. border, still 788 miles to the north. I'd had difficulty finding good repair shops in the U.S. How would I ever overcome the language barrier? How would I find a decent shop in Baja?
Fortunately, my problem was easy to explain. All I had to do was point to the broken mounts. Actually fixing the mounts would be more difficult than that, especially since I didn't want anyone to try to weld to the frame for fear that the frame would be weakened. How would I ever communicate this?
I stopped by the campground in Ciudad Constitucion, the same place I'd stayed on my way south, to ask the campground owner for a recommendation. He pointed me toward a shop next door to the campground, and I drove over. The maestro (head mechanic) looked at my broken mounts and attempted to explain something to me in Spanish. After a few minutes, he gave up and went to find a guy who spoke English so that he could translate. What he had to say was that he could not fix the mounts. But he knew someone who could. He sent for him.
After about 20 minutes, a kid who looked to be about 16 years old showed up. He jumped into the passenger seat, and I followed his directions through the dusty back streets to his dad's repair shop. The shop was little more than a junkyard and didn't come close to meeting my already low expectations. But it would have to do.
I couldn't imagine how they would be able to repair my busted mounts, but at that point my options were limited. I got my tools, and together we all began to work. I tried to explain to them that I didn't want them to weld to the frame. Luckily, their friend Carlos stopped by. He spoke excellent English and began translating for me. The father agreed that we should not weld to the frame and explained that he would cut off the old mounts and bolt new mounts to my frame. He showed me a section of old truck frame that he would use to fabricate new mounts. It sounded like a reasonable plan to me, probably because it's the only plan we had.
While the youngest son was fabricating the replacement mounts, another son began cutting off the old mounts with a cut-off saw. Carlos drove me to the bolt shop to buy the bolts we would use to attach the mounts to the frame. I was concerned that they would only have low-quality hardware that instantly would shear off, but to my surprise, the shop had bolts in boxes marked "Grado 8." With all of us working and using our combined sets of tools, we managed to get two mounts fabricated and almost completely installed by sunset. My mechanics were prepared to work until the job was finished, but I insisted we finish the job maana. No need to rush at this point.
I camped there for the night, and early the next morning, the father came out of the house singing and in a jovial mood. Within a couple of hours, we had finished installing the mounts and cleaning up our tools. I had no idea what they would charge me for their work, but in my Lonely Planet guidebook, it mentioned that the average salary for a Mexican factory worker is about $8 per day, so I didn't expect them to charge me too much.
I ask the father, "Cuanto?" Yesterday, when we were trying to line up the camper, they had used the word poquito when we needed to move the camper a very small amount. Half jokingly and with a great deal of exaggeration, I smiled at the father and said, "poquito dinero!" He thought this was pretty funny. He calmly picked up a stick and began to write my bill. In the dirt, he slowly wrote the numeral 1, followed by a zero, another zero, then another zero and finally a fourth zero. Four zeros, 10,000 pesos? That's a thousand U.S. dollars! I didn't have a $1,000. He looked at me very seriously and then began laughing as he crossed out the last zero. Just what I needed, a wise guy. A thousand pesos is only about $100. Relieved, I paid my bill, gave the father and each of his sons a 200-peso tip, and let each of them pick out a photograph that I had brought along for gifts. Then I jumped into EarthRoamer and started driving. I've never been so happy to be back on the road in my life.
By now I was less than 100 miles from the nearest beaches, so after a quick fish-taco lunch and refueling, I headed east and north to Juncalito Beach. With renewed confidence and enthusiasm, I was eager to spend a couple of days relaxing. All of my guidebooks had good things to say about Juncalito Beach, so my hopes and spirits were high. Unsure of my new camper mounts, I drove very cautiously, avoiding as many potholes as possible. When I arrived at the beach late in the afternoon, I was severely disappointed. The camper mounts were fine, the setting and scenery were incredible, but the entire area was covered with trash. I met another couple camping at the beach, and they were clearly upset. They had been coming to this beach for years and said they had never seen it in such bad shape. They were walking around their campsite trying to pick up the trash, but it was a hopeless task. I thought about pressing onward in search of another camp, but it was already late and my new friends inspired me to do what little I could to improve the situation. I spent the next hour picking up the trash around my little section of beach.
The next day I drove to El Coyote campground, where I had stayed on my trip south. I knew that it was a nice place, and I hoped it had not been trashed. When I arrived the winds began to pick up, and life outside of the camper quickly became uncomfortable. Enough, already! The pervasive trash, broken camper mounts, military checkpoints and now the relentless wind finally all got to me. I was tired of Mexico. I was ready to go home.
I drove hard the next day, with a brief stop at San Ignacio to check out the mission. About 90 miles north of San Ignacio, I left Baja California Sur and crossed the border into Baja California Norte, which meant that I was past the halfway point. By nightfall I reached the Bahia de los Angeles Junction and set up camp for the night.
On my final day in Mexico I was up before the sun. It was only another 364 miles to the border, but with the poor roads and frequent military checkpoints, it was a long drive for one day. The further north I drove, the more the population density increased, and the less I liked Baja. I stopped briefly in Ensenada for lunch, and by late afternoon, I made it to Tijuana.
Tijuana was even more depressing this time than it was the first time through. Near the border, many people were begging for money, and a guy with a crazed look in his eyes jumped up on my truck and wiped a dirty rag on the windshield in a futile attempt to make money. There was a huge traffic jam at the border and it took more than an hour to make the crossing back into the U.S. I noticed that there wasn't a traffic jam heading south into Mexico.
Finally, across the border in San Diego, the abundant green vegetation and lack of litter stood out in sharp contrast to the barren hillsides around Tijuana. I was amazed at the smoothness of the U.S. freeways and vowed to never again complain about a rough road in the U.S. By my revised standards, there are no rough roads in the U.S. After a final day's drive, I was back in Colorado. After driving for more than 5,000 miles through the Western U.S. and Mexico, and nearly being stranded in Mexico, Colorado was a beautiful sight.
Still, I wasn't even home yet and my mind already began drifting to thoughts of my next adventure with EarthRoamer.