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When I arrived at the rendezvous point the sunrise was
spreading itself across the eastern horizon like a Dutch
painter in a red frenzy. We had planned to leave at 6
AM but of course as all carefully thought-out, diligent
Baja schedules come to pass, we left an hour late and
one man didn’t show up at all. This was a twenty
five percent deficit in our expeditionary force, a good
thing from a food-division point of view, but not so great
if we needed extra muscle at some point.
Saltido Road slowly escorted us past waving folds of
milk chocolate foothills that looked like pushed aside
blankets. They increased in size westward with swelling
repetition, the smooth slopes gradually changing into
complex fractal faces. In the distance the broken tooth
of Picacho del Diablo finalized the overture with a 10,000
We went south at the Arco del Triumfo turnoff and near
kilometer 23, stopped to do a short surface survey of
the shell fossil bed. No one had a rock pick and despite
the persuasions of heavy work boots, there was nothing
bed-like about the ground. Still, we found a slug of petrified
mud that looked like a death-mask of a small abalone.
Our two vehicles, an old Toyota land cruiser and a slightly
fresher Suzuki Samurai, departed the fossil bed after
half an hour and resumed trailing their twin plumes of
dust. Actually the lead vehicle’s plume didn’t
travel much beyond my nose and mouth.
Dust seemed to layer everything in the desert. Except
the mountains. The morning sun did strange things to them.
It etched precise shadows into their facets, like a Karsh
photograph of a face that shows its profundity in the
places that do not affect the photographic plate.
The road condition deteriorated and after a while we
pulled to the shoulder to reconnoiter. We were beside
a ranch with an active well pump that tried to drown our
conversation with tales of its aquafer exploits. We washed
some of the dust from our mouths with canteens and agreed
to switch to a parallel road that looked smoother. Turned
out it looked smoother because it was covered with more
dust. I kept my canteen within reach. After a few miles
we returned to the rocky road, presumably to conserve
A while later we noticed a sun-faded sign that arrowed
the direction of Agua Caliente in a rather inconclusive
fashion. We decided to trust where the arrow seemed
to point and continued southward. A tall, trellis-like
antenna marked an abandoned ranch to our left and I watched
it recede in the side view mirror. Eventually we reached
a working ranch whose gate wore the welded signature of
Sr. Lopez. Three vaqueros were in a paddock loading a
horse onto a pickup truck. We asked them for directions
to Agua Caliente. They politely provided three versions,
none of which proved correct, but one was closer to the
truth than the other two. The actual turnoff was part
of the ranch road itself and after a few faltering probes
in wrong directions, we veered up a gavel-pocked surface
wide enough to land a plane. We were moderately pleased
that at least we were heading toward canyons instead of
watching them parade by.
One or two abandoned ranches scrolled past as the ground
leavened with the mountain approach. The road began to
wear larger rocks as we neared the canyon entrance. The
Cruiser and Suzuki were put into low-4 and began a steep
ascent that crested then dropped through a dry wash then
rose again. Canyon walls climbed on either side and the
foliage seemed more exotic and green at the canyon bottom.
Near the top of a climb a small stream of water darkened
the dusty ground. Off to the left we saw an enormous,
circular brick-red water reservoir. Water trickled from
its cement foundation and spilled onto the road where
bees converged on the unexpected puddles like zealots
around a religious wonder.
We parked the Toyota near the reservoir and continued
in the Suzuki. There was an artery of one inch black pipe
paralleling the road. It was broken in several places,
obviously unused for some time. As we pushed deeper into
the canyon, we encountered the first of three places that
offered the Suzuki medicinal mudpacks for its tires.
A copse of trees marked the end of the road (such as
it was) with a rope barricade and a sign in Spanish that
announced an Eco-Reserve. It also said no motor vehicles
were permitted beyond that point. I parked the Suzuki
under a mesquite tree, removed the rotor from the distributor
and hid it in the branches.
As we hiked through the tree shade, we saw lengths of
twisted and torn irrigation tubing thrown about. The obvious
assumption was that the area had been given over to crops
of contraband and the federales had discovered the hidden
tillage and unceremoniously dismantled the infrastructure.
Perhaps that was why we received poor directions from
the locals. It also explained the runway-sized road at
the ranch’s turnoff.
A short descent to the canyon bed put us within earshot
of running water but the wild tangle of overgrowth, young
mesquite among it, obscured the source. For nearly a half
hour we foraged through the brush as mesquite limbs snatched
at our shirts and pants. Then we scuttled across boulders
along the banks, searching for a hot pool. All we found
were lukewarm eddies and trickles. Finally we backtracked
and discovered a path on the opposite bank, a little further
east of where we arrived. Picking our way through low
trees, we came to a rocky stretch marked at intervals
by stone cairns. That led us to a copse of trees and the
source of Aqua Caliente. Steamy water billowed from a
small cavity in the ground at the base of an embankment.
The stream was very hot. But there were no pools or basins
large enough to accommodate a sitting person. If you ever
stubbed your toe, however, Agua Caliente would be the
place to soak it.
We ate lunch back at the Toyota then returned to Sr. Lopez’
ranch, where we rejoined the south road. At one point
we stopped to gather up some dead mesquite wood for the
evening’s campfire, just in case there was nothing
available where we were going.
Twenty five miles of dust, ruts and a section of the
SCORE race track that made me feel like I’d been
clamped in a paint-shaker for an hour brought us to a
boulder-strewn dry wash and some real challenges for the
vehicles. I watched the Toyota butt-slap some hardpan
and a few proud monoliths while the little Suzuki, with
its small footprint, bobbed over them like a June bug.
However, there was this one boulder… .
As we dropped down the final grade into Matomi canyon,
I noticed a high mesa across the desert with a large cave
at its base. High above the cave and a little southward
was a huddle of three or four blue palm trees. They were
pressed up against the side of the butte as if hiding
from the wind.
A sharp right at the bottom of the grade brought us into
the yard of a ramshackle plywood shack. I had been told
this was a communal way-station, but the place looked
well lived-in. Photographs of young Mexican girls decorated
the back porch and a five gallon water jug was pushed
up against the porch gate. A half-dismantled truck in
the yard had the remains of a make-shift shade in the
rear box under which sprawled a bed frame. There was a
fishnet-covered six-by-ten paddock at the far end of the
property. And a tethering tree with worn earth around
it still had a rope trailing from it. Just then a beautiful
black and white cat eased out through a space in the porch
and approached us. It pushed itself up against our legs
and made small, informal courtesy noises.
We hailed the house several times but it looked as if
the tenants had left for the weekend. A quick decision
was made to leave the shack in peace and follow up the
canyon until we found a place to camp near some palms.
This turned out to be only a hundred yards from the shack,
so the friendly cat found no trouble in keeping us company
for our stay.
The sun was already behind the western crest of the
canyon ridge and it was only three thirty in the afternoon.
We stacked the mesquite limbs near a rock fire pit. The
place had already been used as a camp in the past. Then
we unloaded the food coolers and our camping gear.
By the time our sleeping arrangements were in place and
a fire was dancing in the stone horseshoe, it was good
and dark. I had brought a folding canvas chair but my
colleagues were the cooler-perching type. We made dinner
over the fire, fed the cat, then talked as the sky grew
to a pincushion of constellations. There was no moon and
the Milky Way cut a bright swath of stars almost directly
A warm campfire, full stomachs, a hot cup of coffee and
friendly conversation in the heart of a palm tree canyon.
Was there anything better?
The sound of a small stream rose up from the ravine
floor as a chorus of frogs serenaded the night. A shooting
star sent a sudden thrum of light across the blackness
overhead. Another mesquite limb was placed on the fire.
Sparks flung upward, allied perhaps by some subtle connection
with the recent meteorite.
It seemed late when we turned in, although three hundred
miles to the north the lovers of smooth things were only
then dropping their forks onto empty plates at forty-dollar
As the cat made the rounds to our various sleeping places,
searching for an open hand, we yawned and dreamed under
the stars, very content to be where we were, how we were
and why we were.