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, shes
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. Shes
now working on a second collection of poems and
a memoir, The Twelfth House.
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
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.
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
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,
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.