San Felipe, Baja, Mexico
Libby Wagner was born in Madrid, Spain, and grew up with her military family traveling the United States. She received her Masters of Fine Arts from Eastern Washington University where she also began working in the Writers in the Prison program. In between her moves, she’s taught writing, waited tables, sold clothing at Lord & Taylor, and worked on backcountry re-vegetation crews. She lives in Olympia, Washington. Like This, Like That, her first collection of poems was published by Lost Horse Press in 2002. She’s now working on a second collection of poems and a memoir, The Twelfth House.

Libby Wagner

A la Diablo, and Back

The day before, when Ann described the trip, she was concerned we might not have enough seats and I said that I was ambivalent about going. I had no idea what the whole thing was about, and when she started talking about how George was a race car driver, I thought it sounded dangerous and dirty and loud-so it didn't seem like any big sacrifice to say I'd stay behind. She did talk about hiking up to a waterfall and seeing unusual sights and vegetation, so I was sort of intrigued, and now, here in the sun, I was ready to give it a try. She also said that if she were going out into the desert with anyone, it would be George, so that's another reason I decided to stand by the passenger's side of George's girlfriend Belinda's new rig.

I've left the blustery Northwest in search of sun and quiet time for writing. My traveling companions also hail from Washington. My friend Nance, bad girl trapped in a fragile body, is a quirky, smart writer/artist from Spokane who craves adventures and married a man who creates art objects out of recycled materials and roadside debris. Diana, tall and soft spoken, lives in Seattle where she works on Lake Union and owns her own sailboat. She's the penultimate Libra-loves to drive fast, but owns a non-speedy, practical Toyota Corolla. We have the same astrologer. We have come South to visit friends Ann and Chris, who live half the year in the woods of Northern Idaho and the other half here, watching the sun rise each morning over the Sea of Cortez.

On the morning of this trip to Diablo Canyon, northwest of San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, we're supposed to be ready before eight. A little after, Nance walks up to my trailer casita and says we're to drive to the Dos Equis crocodile sign where we'll meet and then follow Ann to Bill's (aka Memo and about six other nicknames). We've got two rails, these off-road racing vehicles. I must admit that up until this moment, I had no idea what "off road" meant. I really thought it had something to do with those baseball-capped boys who spend their weekends mudding up in the hills and making the lines long at the do-it-yourself-carwashes. I also admit that I'd sped past the Baja race broadcasts on ESPN with my remote and only gave a cursory look to trucks hauling trailers of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles. They seemed like land-versions of jet skis, their metallic, whiney sounds ruining my otherwise quiet day at the lake.

When we arrive, Chris and Bill are hunched over a yellow VW bug making noises and comments like, "ohhhhh" and "what's that?" Chris is going to ride his dirt bike. He's all decked out in this Mad Max-looking outfit-like body armor with pads and reinforcements, and he's about 6 foot 6 and lean, so he's quite imposing. He must be about 46, but he looks younger and really acts like a kid. He's got this blonde mustache that curves down toward his chin and a wide, toothy smile. He's cute. Bill is a recently retired tugboat captain from Puget Sound. Underneath, he's a kind, good soul, but his exterior is all captain-dry sense of humor, gruff. I know Diana wants to go fast and is probably disappointed that she's not going to drive, so it's completely okay with me that she goes in the 2-seater with Bill. It's the old Pete's Camp racing vehicle and it's blue and has no windshield, so they wear goggles. Bill barks that she's got to lose the straw hat and offers her a baseball cap. Later he'll tell her she should've worn a sports bra since she's holding onto her boobs as they bounce along.

George drives up in the four-place rail and we begin to pack our stuff into the vehicles, including the two dogs, Sparky and Jetta, who are going on the trip, too. Sparky's not feeling well because he ate a lizard yesterday and I guess the scales are sort of hard on a Jack Russell's digestion. I take the front seat with George, and Nance and Ann are in the back with the dogs propped up on old cotton Mexican blankets, shivering and excited to go. Ann is the Earth mother, tanned and beautiful, intuitive and resourceful. She writes touching essays of her double life-North and South.

George is a character out of a Cormack McCarthy novel. Fifty-something and looks sort of like a desert Indiana Jones, except he's an engineer who loves the Baja more than anything. He races in the Baja 250 and has his own team, the Snarling Chollas of San Felipe, named for some unfortunate racing incident with a cholla cactus. He's wearing zip-off hiking pants, boots and a long-sleeved denim shirt over a t-shirt that has a logo for a brain injury foundation. He also had a nylon-web belt with all sorts of gadgets packed inside small pouches. He had a big, wide smile and a seriously mischievous chemistry. I liked him immediately, even though I sensed he was trouble. He smoked Carltons, he said, because they had only 1 milligram of tar and he was trying to cut down. His cooler was full of Keystone and some off-brand non-alcoholic beer and electrolyte juice. The first thing he did when he saw I was in the shotgun seat was ask me if I knew how to read maps. He handed me this map of Baja from 1648 when someone thought it was an island. Since I didn't know him, it took me a few seconds to realize his joke. He also didn't know me, or my notoriously bad sense of direction, so I could've used the map and it wouldn't have made much difference.

Soon, we were off toward Mt. Diablo via the Baja raceway. George started out asking us if we knew much about the vegetation and then began to catalog and identify plants, cacti, trees, shrubs-their Spanish and Americanized names, their flowers and fruits. Barrel Cactus, for example, is also called the sundial cactus because it always faces south. When people buy them to set on their kitchen counters or coffee table, the cacti almost always die because they'll spend all their time twisting themselves around to find the sun. Cordons are the big, tall, multi-limbed cacti, which may be related to the more-famous saguaro, but the cordons are native to Baja. A plant called desert lavender perfumed the air and its tiny purple flowers looked like the lavender in my garden of past years.

At first, the ride feels like what I imagine going on a safari might feel like with the vast desert as far as I can see, bumping along in an open vehicle. I'm not sure why it's called a rail, except that seems to be the predominate element on it-rails of steel over and around the places where you sit. Wide tires and some sort of amazing airbag suspension so that when you are riding over extremely bumpy or rutted sandy roads, it doesn't feel nearly so jarring as you anticipate. Ours was a Funco four-place rail and George said he was checking it out since they'd just bought it for around $10,000. I'm wearing a yellow baseball cap and sunglasses, a black tank bathing suit top and my REI shorts. I don't have my hiking boots and don't know what's ahead, so I've worn my running shoes, which will never be the same. As we ride along-about 30 to 40 miles per hour-George tells us where we are in the race course, the names of bushes and trees and cacti. We're in the rear. Chris is fast on his bike and Bill and Diana zoom along to keep up with him. George has got the heaviest load with three women and two dogs.

We ride along until we stop at some fork with a sign I can't begin to translate-half the letters are transposed and it doesn't make much sense. I think it says "Be careful of livestock crossing" or something like that, and later George will tell us that good racer etiquette includes searching out a rancher and paying him if you've killed one of his cows during the race. I try to pee behind a bush, but this is not like the Olympic peninsula where you just pee on the path, or take a step off the trail. Everyone can see everything here, which is part of Chris' s explanation to me about safety a few nights earlier. He's talking about how everyone sees everything out here in the desert, and it's true. I've even gotten sort of used to the KOA feel of my little hacienda trailer, the comings and goings of other renters and the Mexican workers raking the sand outside my bedroom window or turning up the radio station as they clean the next-door trailer. Not many secrets. Chris says if a woman screamed, 40 guys would come running. I wonder about this.

Soon we were making our way through a dried-up lake bed, flat and expansive, and George punches the gas and we race along to José's. José's hacienda is truly, utterly in the middle of nowhere. It reminds me of the bootlegger's in Kentucky, dark and secretive, yet this is not on some windy back road, this is in the middle of the desert. It's a shack of two rooms. One has his items de compras, his mini mercado-dusty bags of Doritos, batteries, cans of sardines and transmission fluid. He's a tiny, dark man with a lovely, wrinkled face, and he smiles at us. Most of his teeth are missing. In the back room, I see a bed covered with a striped serape and two small cats climbing around. Chris is talking to him in Spanish and he tells me José has this underground container where he stores cold beer and juice. We buy Libby's Mango Juice from him, which is indeed cold, and I ignore the sugar and give him a dollar for the can because I want to buy something from him. There's a little trailer outside, too, which looks abandoned, but I know better and can't imagine the heat in that thing on a day like today. Later, George tells me that José knows everything about the area, the old ranchers and the Baja families. He says José is 87 and he wants him to tell all the stories before he's gone.

Outside José's, covered in fine dust and glittered dirt filled with gold mica flecks, we pose for some pictures. We have dust everywhere, and there's no use or no trying to wipe it off. It's more than a powdering, but we pose and laugh and drink our mango juice until it's time to get moving again. We're half-way, George says, mostly because the roads are windier now and we'll head into the bottom of the canyon.

Finally, we arrive. There's a truck there and it looks like someone has left the makings of a camp. We think we'll see them on the hike up. We're strapping on our day packs or fanny packs and getting ready to go. George jokes with me, wondering if I'll carry up a six pack and then says he'll pack it up in my pack, so I say 'okay' and he loads me up with that crappy Keystone and the Near Beer. He forgets, though, so I carry the pack, which is not so heavy after all and only contains some clothes I won't wear, my lunch, two bottles of water and my water shoes, along with the beer. We start to make our way through a woody area-ocotillos in bloom, huge towering cordons, mesquite trees.

We've not gone far when I notice Jetta has stopped and is shaking her head, like she's eating something, and as I get closer, I notice it's a small cholla cactus. It's stuck to her paw and she's biting it. I stoop to her and notice now her terrible predicament, a mouth full of cactus spines, bleeding, and the small one still stuck to her foot. This terrifies me; she's snorting and snarling and it happens fast that I'm holding her by the scruff and under her belly and George is there with his Leatherman pliers quietly saying this doesn't look good. I know she's afraid, so I hold on as hard as I can, and I don't even think about the fact that she could turn and bite me, as dogs in pain do, because I'm afraid for her and I want Chris and Ann to get there and help poor Jetta. It takes both of them holding her and George carefully yanking the spines. He says they're barbed on the end, so if he doesn't pull hard, they'll break off. She's got them on her tongue, lips, and even her gums. Poor, poor Jetta. She was so good, really, and later I learned that both Chris and Ann's parents were vets and they knew how to hold her and what to do.

We finally make our way along, Jetta looking much better and Ann carrying her part of the way. Soon, we leave the sandy desert trail and make our way to a clear stream and a wide area of what looks like granite river rocks. Huge boulders, small speckled stones lined the side of the canyon with lovely, clear cold water. As we climbed on, it seemed hard to imagine we were in the middle of the Baja desert, as there were weeds and greenery and blowing bushes and the smell of lavender. As I always do, I take a few minutes to listen to my body figure out it's carrying a small load and my steps are deliberate and careful. Hiking boots would've been better simply because the rocks are uneven, sometimes slippery and unstable. It's easy to see how I could twist my ankle pretty quickly and end the hike. The grade was moderate and mostly challenging because of the rocks, crossing the stream every so often, and scrambling over boulders as we moved up. We saw some smaller waterfalls-cascadias-and green, cool pools where the dogs jumped in yipping and splashing. George hung back with Nance and Diana chatting and talking and saying 'just a little farther,' as good guides do.

Soon, we reached a place shaded by boulders with a strong rush of water falling over and into a deeper pool. A good place for lunch, it seemed to me. Ann and Chris stopped while Sparky tried to carry around a branch, as if it were a good stick for throwing. He's tenacious, as terriers are supposed to be, and won't give up the stick, even if you promise to throw it, which is what you think he wants. He'll growl and shake and won't let go for anything. Or, if he does, he waits until your hand is 3 inches from the stick, and he'll snatch it away. This is sort of amusing, except when it's a 4 foot branch with spiny thorns on the opposite end.

Sparky's branch wasn't the only challenge in the scene, however, because it seemed that whoever had been there before us-the campers?-had left the anchored lines for making our way across the rocks and up over the waterfall over on the other side. There was no way to crawl up the waterfall both because the water was too powerful and because the water in the pool was too deep to crawl up. Plus, the sides of the canyon here were smooth, tall granite. At some point, someone had installed an anchor in the rock and fastened two metal cord-like ropes that could swing from one side to the other. The idea was that you'd grab the rope and move across, spider-like, with your legs braced against the granite. I'd done this kind of thing before, like rappelling, but not for a long time, and it certainly looked like we were going to miss this opportunity because we couldn't reach the rope. Ann tried to take a long stick out into the water to reach it and pull it across, but the water was too deep and took away her height advantage.

I was content to stop for a bit, eat my lunch and contemplate the pool of clear water after the dusty, hot trip. I wasn't really paying attention to the guys, distracted as I was by Sparky's branch and Jetta's swimming, but soon, it seemed, they'd tied a hook made from a piece of steel wire, on to the end of a long line of dental floss, which was also somehow tied onto that long stick of Ann's, and now they were casting it out, fishing for the rope wire. These disparate items had emerged from George's belt pouches! Chris hooked it in one throw-our luck! Amazing that it happened so fast and soon, we were switching to water shoes and thinking about who was going to try it. By now, Diana and Nance were with us and I was glad because I didn't want them to miss the waterfall scene.

After Chris had scampered across and back-there is really no other way to describe a 6 foot 6 inch, 170 pound lanky man moving over a rock like this-Ann said she'd go, but was feeling uncertain about her arm strength, so she passed me the line and I said I'd try it. I grabbed the line and knew that it would rip my hands to shreds, holding my body weight and moving across the rock. But luckily, there was another line that someone had tied a fabric rope in a knot at the end and Chris fetched it for me to try. The beginning and middle of something like this are always fun-the end is scary as hell because realization sets in and you imagine you might let go at the last second or slip, or something else. There was water below and my friends were, yes, cheering me on, so I held on to the rope, inching my feet across until I did it! I made it to the other side and threw the rope back for Ann. Others soon followed.

We scrambled and clamored up from there until we came to a rope ladder, which George and I decided to take while Ann and Chris and Bill stayed behind at another pool. Lots of rock-climbing principles came back to me, not in an obvious way, it seems, but more subtly. I found myself looking for hand holds and thinking about creating a three-point base, one hand or one leg free, searching, while the others hold steady.
We didn't venture too much farther, really, because suddenly I remembered Bill saying he wanted to get back by 3, and I remember at the time he announced this thinking 'what for?' because nobody out here has much of a schedule and rarely are they on time. But I didn't know this was said as a deterrent for George, who was known to simply get lost in this-the scramble, the clear pools, the sunning lizards, and the warm, warm rocks-so he'd have us dangerously making our way back in the dark, cool desert, and they knew this. But because I didn't know and was all of a sudden conscientious, I asked George if Bill was serious about the 3 o'clock thing, and he asked me the time, which was 1:46, and said we'd better go back.

George is the Edward Abbey of Baja. Well, he's my version of Edward Abbey, except he doesn't seem so cranky or cantankerous and he was so patient when Nance felt dizzy and Diana wanted to stop after she'd slipped. He loves this desert. How can you resist someone who's so passionate? Isn't that the truth? In people, the lack of passion, the presence of apathy or simple beige-ness is so dull, so the opposite of engaging. But show me a man who loves just about anything, and for some reason I'll think it's a transferable skill and he'll eventually love me too. This is why women fall for men like George. And George does flirt. He smiles and smirks and admires. He pats and hugs and insinuates he'll take you anywhere you want to go in the desert.

We talked a little about his life, not too much that didn't get us right back here-to the desert, the Baja races, and his sense that he was less and less apt to deal with stateside stuff like traffic and paperwork. He asked me how old I was and told me it wasn't too early for me to start retiring, scaling down, and said he'd started working half-time at 37. It seems many of the 40-50s group here has somehow found the Baja, loved its simplicity and wildness and been hooked by it. George says it's like Wyoming and Colorado in the states-wild and god forsaken and no one gives a shit about it, so they leave it alone. It seems true, although the development of El Dorado-the condos and golf courses and the constant hum of the backhoe, the wasteful sprinklers in the afternoon-these will invite a different clientele all together. It will be hard not to notice an increased stratification-the Mexicans, the American expatriates and bikers, the long-time RV retirees, and the luxury condo golf group. Hard to see how that will benefit George's wild place. But perhaps, after all, they won't stay, because this desert is not for the faint. Like on the Olympic peninsula west of Seattle, where the constant rain and gray skies for most of the year keep the people from staying too long. I guess it depends on how much paradise they're willing to import to the desert here. I suspect a lot.

The hike out, after we'd crossed over on the rope again, was mostly solitary for me. I trekked out front until I veered off in the creek bed. I had that absolutely blissful feeling that I have when I'm out like that-breathing air that's different, stripped of all distractions save for the scenery and my own small self in it, truly thankful for my body, its working muscled parts-and I wanted to cry. Cry because it is indeed impossible to describe what this was like-my skin dirty and sparkly from the desert dust, my legs scratched from brambly bushes, my own smile big and wide. Almost like after sex: transcendent, descendent-yes, I did that, I was fully present, and I am forever transformed.

The ride out was just as fun, faster this time because George was bolder with us and had had a few beers, and we got back to Bill's just in time to climb the steps of his house to watch the sun set over Diablo and the rest of the range. I drank a Sol, a cold, mild Mexican beer, which was perfect, after all, like the rest of the day had been, and I plotted my way back to Baja.