Baja, Top to Bottom

Margaritas, Señoritas, Ass-Kicking, and Clams
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 13 2005 7:20 AM

Baja, Top to Bottom

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Click here to see a slide show. SAN QUINTIN—It's evening at the Rancho Cielito Lindo. The light socket in my room is broken, so I've lit the candle that was sitting on the nightstand. I'm looking at some maps to figure out where, exactly, I am.

San Quintin is on the Pacific Coast—only a half-day's drive from Tijuana but already a different world. The towns here are tiny agglomerations of houses and shacks (and, if you're lucky, maybe a gas station) spread out along 200 yards or so of highway. The prevailing features are emptiness and dust.

Getting hungry for dinner, I change into warmer clothes by the light of the candle, then walk a few steps across the desert to a nearby cantina. I take a table underneath a red lantern. As my carne asada arrives, I notice that the house band is climbing up on a tiny stage. Two guys in matching outfits. One takes his place behind a keyboard and drum machine while the other struts forward with a microphone in hand. They launch into a series of Mexican ballads and then throw in an English-language surprise: I'm certain John Lennon, departed 25 years now, would thoroughly enjoy this synth-accordion-tinged rendition of "Imagine" ("Choo may saaaay I'm a dreamer").

Over at the bar, I notice two younger guys I'd seen earlier, drinking beers at the Wet Buzzard while the sun went down. It's several beers later for them now, by the looks of things. After settling my check, I join them for yet another round of Tecates.

Will and Chris have driven their camper all the way from Idaho, and they plan to spend a month or two touring Baja. They're eager for some fishing tomorrow. Will strikes up a conversation with a gringo sport-fisher in a wide-brimmed straw hat. He gets tips on which part of the beach to troll for yellowtail. The older dude insists that Will must buy some clams from the kitchen here to use as bait. Before Will fully understands what's happening, the guy is negotiating with a waiter and then handing him a wad of pesos. Moments later, a dripping, odorous plastic bag is delivered into Will's arms. Not sure what to do with it, he places it on the floor under his barstool.

Chris orders a round of tequila shots (a particularly vicious variety) to celebrate the clams' arrival. Soon after, margaritas arrive, so big that the bartender ought to issue them with snorkeling gear. The music is growing louder, my brain is growing fuzzier.

Will's struck up a flirtation with a busty, red-headed señorita. He attempts to keep up with her on the dance floor, but he's no match at all. Now she's spurning him for other partners (including a vaquero, in stitched boots and stetson, who dances infinitely better than Will). But at the same time, this woman is giving Will all these pouty, smoldering looks over the vaquero's shoulder. Her friends walk over and energetically try to explain something to me and Chris, but the language barrier is insurmountable. The only thing we establish is that they have never heard of Idaho. At this point, I notice a commotion near my feet and glance down. A dog has somehow entered the cantina. He's sniffing at the bag of clams.

Over in the booth by the window, a group of crusty old gringo sport-fishers is ordering tray after tray of those lagoon-sized margaritas. Now one of these wrinkled guys limps over and leans in, unsteadily, toward my ear. His voice is a growl, and his breath reeks of half-digested limes. "You might want to get your friend out of here before he gets his ass kicked," the man says. He leans back to stare unblinkingly into my eyes.

"He's not actually my friend," I quickly stammer. "I just met him today." I am desperate to avoid all responsibility and consequence. I am not a good person.

"Well," the man says as he leans back into me, "you should get him out of here or he's gonna get his ass kicked."

It's not entirely clear what he means. Is he saying that the vaquero won't take kindly to Will's flirtations? Or is he stating that he himself wants to kick Will's ass?

(It's not unimaginable. Perhaps he's had a few too many 'ritas, is itching for a fistfight, and simply doesn't like the cut of Will's jib. If so, it's rather polite of him to warn us in advance.)

I reckon that either way, the prudent course is to get Will out of there quickly. His pal Chris is long gone, so it's up to me at this point. I put our drinks on the bar and hustle Will to the door. As it swings shut behind us, the raucous music and yelling instantly cut out and give way to a whistling desert wind.

I have no idea where Will's camper is. He swears he can find the way, so I bid him good night and good luck. The last I see of him, he is stumbling into the pitch-black desert, clutching his bag of clams.

The next morning, I head out early. I'm looking to make some headway on a long day's drive across the desert. At a military checkpoint a hundred miles into my trip, I notice that a couple of cars ahead of me in line there is a camper with Idaho plates. I manage to flag it down, and we pull off at an arroyo further down the highway.

Will is intact, thank goodness, though a tad foggy on what transpired last night. No matter: Now is the time to let his dog scramble around and urinate on this roadside cactus patch, to take some snapshots of the eerily desolate scenery, and to rehydrate. After recapping the night over a round of water, we say goodbye once again, and I drive away in a cloud of dust.