Me and Baja

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Me and Baja

I came to California in January of 1964. I had heard horror stories about the California freeways, so my approach to LA was through San Diego from US 80. In '64 San Diego was just a tiny spot on the map compared to LA unfortunately that has changed Chula Vista grew some really nice tomatoes back then. This approach served two purposes namely to avoid snow and freeways. I entered Texas at Texarkana and exited 18 hours later at El Paso. I ran through a rattlesnake migration and did see signs at service stations (they did exist back then) “we do not fix flats”. It’s a big state.

It was about 5:30 PM on a work day, already dark and in rush hour traffic when I encountered my very first traffic circle somewhere in the Long Beach area. It was love as soon as I made the first left-hand pull on the steering wheel to join many other automobiles turning left in concert. A brutal tire wrenching exercise for bias ply tires (polyester ain’t been invented yet). Even with it being fun I felt relieved to exit the circle still headed north on US 101. I was much calmer when I entered the second one and I made an extra lap just for fun. Short track at it’s best and I am way better at it now. If I would have grown up in Long Beach or western Arkansas NASCAR might have been worrying about that damn unruly Alexander boy. Hmmm? Is there a Guinness World record for driving within a traffic circle?

My best high school buddy had joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego. Once while he was my passenger back in Arkansas he said, “Alex you drive like a madman”. Soon after semi-settling in Hawthorne I went to San Diego to visit him. He was married and Tijuana was off limits to military personnel, naturally that was the first place we headed for. 50 solicitations per city block was the average, all by males who had virgin sisters but some were even soliciting for their mother who also had a hymen that had amazingly been repaired. I did not care for this even after a few shots of Tequila and I stayed away for several years.

In 1972 I bought a new Dodge van. On the first trip to the desert I cried for my ’66 El Camino because of lack of power, I didn’t cry while going through Riverside. In the Riverside area smog would be so dense that visibility was a half-mile and it burned your eyes, now I avoid that with the windows up and the AC on. Very early in life the Dodge went to Mexico, possibly the first weekend that the interior was complete and there wasn’t a District 37 points race. A new van as it comes from the factory is somewhat like being inside of a large metal trash can rolling down the street. Dinah claims that it still sounds like that. Anyway the trip was to Santo Thomas and then to the coast. When the return was completed the van was washed and the undercarriage was flushed. In a few days the year will be ’06 and it still gets washed the same way, sometimes.

The next trip was through Ensenada and over toward Mike’s Sky Ranch to watch the Baja 1000. In Ensenada as we were looking for the road to Valle de Trinidad one guy went into a shoe store to ask for directions. This had to be destiny because he came out eating a taco and with perfect directions. No, he didn’t get sick and if he had it would have been from the three tacos that he consumed from street vendors in Tijuana not the one from the zapateria? As we neared Ojos Negros we had the thrill of meeting Walker Evans doing about 110MPH on a narrow assed mountain road. Recently in a Spanish class I found that Ojos Negros means eyes blacks a collision with Walker would have done a lot more than black your eyes.

The road to Valle de Trinidad was not yet paved beyond Ojos Negros. The paving was in progress and the dust would choke even a tall giraffe. Fresh water is a precious commodity and when it becomes too far to haul seawater the quality of the roadbed and the quality of life both suffer. As we approached the area where we wanted to watch the race from we ran over a rabbit, not nearly as tall as a giraffe and it was having real trouble seeing. It soon turned into rabbit asada this guy has a wonderful appetite.

The next trip was for the same purpose but this race started in Mexacali. There had just been a tremendous rain from the tail end of a hurricane. The bridges on Mex. 5 had been washed out there was a single blade cut making a new road down into each ravine and out the other side. The racecourse turned off the highway and went up the dirt road toward Valle de Trinidad. Shortly beyond the turn off there is a section of treacherous sand, where there are hundreds of vehicles stuck. It takes us a couple of hours to get through here. To my amazement I was never stuck, stopped and blocked but give this Dodge a clear path and it would move again. I gained a lot of respect for the Chrysler 727 transmission.

In the sand bog there were hundreds of people stuck in places as far as 30 yards either side of the road. Most are stuck in the road and in a little more than 12 hours that becomes the racecourse. When we get out the other side the tracks indicate that few vehicles have successfully crossed this soft area. Just a few miles later we are waved down by a group of banditos, I couldn't get around them and I didn’t want to get blood on the van from running over them. They jabbered a bunch of Spanish that none of us could understand but made no threats by actions. We got out of the van knowing that there was an arroyo in front of us. To our amazement in the bottom of the arroyo, squarely in the middle of the road is a two-ton truck loaded with about 6 and one half tons of what I have come to know as ironwood. There was no way to get around this truck. And that is just the way it is today, their problem becomes your problem with people helping each other if they can. Several families accompany this truck with small children in tow it is a chilly night and a couple of fires have been made for warmth but not from the precious ironwood, that was a cash generating commodity.

People are working on the truck and after we have been stopped for 15 minutes or so the truck starts. The families gathered with most boarding the truck and I think their troubles are over. One man stations himself beside each front wheel and as the truck begins to move forward the men kick the wheels into semi-alignment. There is absolutely no directional control from the steering wheel. Now here are some tough hombres, they could have robbed us using a stick of that ironwood as a weapon. As they move the front wheels are leaving tracks that look like two extremely large and extremely drunk snakes have meandered down the road.

The next day we watch the race at a serious uphill and I am amazed at how many contestants don’t make it up this hill. After months of preparation, thousands of dollars invested and 80 miles into the race you are finished by an uphill? I just can’t comprehend that. A serious District 37 Checker would have carried even a large vehicle up the hill on his back. These guys sitting around at the bottom of the hill crying and picking their nose are from Chicago or maybe somewhere in Minnesota. I recognized a guy from upstate New York and he went up that hill like shit through a tinhorn, name’s Bodine I think. The point being some people are competitors, some ain't. The one that I could never understand, a mechanically tired and completely stock Plymouth Valiant station wagon with new Sears steel belted radial street tires. What were they thinking? I offered to help them push this worthless piece of shit over a small cliff just to get it out of the way, they declined. At that time the tires were worth more than the vehicle.

In races like this it is not uncommon for a driver or rider to be evacuated by helicopter after a wreck. In some cases a "friend" is ask to recover the vehicle. I know of more than one instance in which upon returning to the US the vehicle makes a detour to the friend's house where the motor and transmission are removed. The vehicle then continues the trip to the owner’s house where it is reported that when I got there the damn Mexicans had already stolen the motor and transmission. A little bit of number scrubbing and a fresh coat of paint of a different color (dark blue or black easily covers any lighter color) and that motor and transmission will race again, in a different vehicle. Once away from the border towns I trust the people of Baja.

Some older Mexican woman is credited with the sage observation "bad roads bring good people". That’s all she said and there are times when I begin to wish the road below San Felipe had never been changed. Four and one half-hours is a long time to drive with an average speed of about 12 miles an hour. The woman probably does not see both sides of the coin. Or maybe I am too cynical as I believe there is a transitory change because of the environment. Here is my attempt to describe both sides of that elusive coin. If I am stopped in Baja on one of those 12-MPH roads and an American comes along generally he will stop to see if I need any help in finishing this piss. Put that same person on I-15 at 5 PM on Friday and if I am lying in the breakdown lane and he thinks that running over my legs will give him the extra traction that he needs to pass the car in front of him, say good bye to your legs. Why the change? If you have car trouble here the temperature is likely to be well short of the 100º mark and help is usually available within easy walking distance. The chances of the fat ass taking a single step are remote instead he will make 17 calls on his cell phone. Sixteen of these 17 calls are to advise people of his situation and location, one call was a wrong number and that person was more concerned than the 16 people he thinks are his friends.

People are curious about Baja but not many go there. I am repeatedly asked similar questions and I have developed graphical answers for some of these. The amenities in Puertocitos? If you have a large gun and $100 dollar bill, neither will get you a package of cigarettes. Traffic circles in Mexico? They are very common and I love them especially the ones wide enough for three or four lanes of traffic but there are no lane markers. I put my hat on backwards, lick my Mexican Insurance policy and slap it on the windshield, and drive like they do. My wife has her very own terminology but for that you will have to go to her.

I don’t consider myself to be in Baja until I am below Ensenada on the Pacific side and San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez side. I suppose that one of the reasons that I like it is because it reminds me of Arkansas 40 years ago.

There is no ending for this story because it ain’t gonna end until I am dead. Baja is very unpredictable so trying to look into the future is futile. I have no idea what will happen next I am simply trying to be ready for whatever Baja delivers.

by Ray Alexander
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