Matomi Canyon

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico



3 Hot Springs
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Matomi Canyon

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 foot crescendo.

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 drinking water.

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 overhead.
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 restaurants.

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.


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