Baja, Top to Bottom
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Hey, bring on the endless road, I say—the journey is the destination. (Or at least it'd better be. Else there would be no destination here at all.) On the plus side, my rental car is a manual shift with a pleasing amount of oomph. The passenger's seat has upon it a map, a bottle of water, and three granola bars. So, I'm ready to churn out some miles.
And miles. And miles.
Four hours in, I'm getting a tad loopy. The landscape is totally dead and still—the only flash of movement comes from tumbleweeds, with their comic, lurching somersaults. The radio is receiving no signal at all (there aren't even power lines here, never mind any radio transmitters). In the absence of stimulation, I find myself visiting some dark, far-flung corners of my brain. At one point, I notice that I've been talking aloud to myself for nine or 10 paragraphs. This prods me to turn the radio volume way up, even though it's just crackling static, because the alternatives—total silence or my own freak-show monologue—are simply not bearable.
Finally, at a military checkpoint (I have no idea what these guys could be guarding—who would invade an empty desert that's not oil-bearing?), the monotony is broken. A soldier motions for me to pull over and stop. He tries to explain something in long Spanish sentences, but I am useless. Finally, he hits on a winning formulation: He says the English word "ride" while pointing at something behind him. When I follow his finger, I see two young guys in soccer uniforms sitting on the curb of the highway median. They look at me expectantly. "Sí!" I say. "OK!"
So, now I'm rolling with two random Mexican dudes. They speak almost zero English, and I speak almost zero Spanish, and yet the communication flows. When one of them points forward and asks, "Santa Rosalia?" I happily nod, as this town is on my way. "Por qué Santa Rosalia?" I ask them in turn, thrilled to hold up my end of the conversation by simply placing an adverb in front of the town's name.
I catch enough of their reply—"fútbol" and "militar" and "Oaxaca" stand out—to gather that they are from Oaxaca, have been posted at an army base here in Baja, play soccer for a military-affiliated team, and have a match they need to get to in Santa Rosalia. So far so good, but now I get ambitious and try to tell them that I like soccer, too. The phrase I want is "juego al fútbol," meaning "I play soccer." But instead I keep repeating (I only realize this much later) "jugo de fútbol," which would mean (if anything) "soccer juice." They nod slowly.
(I like to imagine that they interpreted this as a profound, complicated metaphor. "Ah yes, my philosophical gringo friend," they thought to themselves, "we, too, are the juice of soccer. We are all of us the juices of soccer.")
After 90 minutes of blessed companionship, I drop off Blanco and Luis Alberto. (Yes, I did manage to ask their names—though I'm not certain if these are last names or first names.) It's dark out by now, so I find a room for the night and take a walk around Santa Rosalia.
This is like entering a time machine. It's a warm evening in the tiny town, and there are families out strolling together down the main street, greeting everybody they pass with some pleasant words. Teenagers flirt in the town square, and all sing along to an acoustic guitar.
I get a mild scare when I see an elderly man—who is very clearly mentally ill—staggering down the middle of the street with a pistol tucked into his waistband. But everyone seems to know him and like him. He's a shared responsibility: the town loony. In a big American city, there's no doubt he'd be institutionalized (or jailed). But here he's just a cute, eccentric character. (Who might one day fire bullets at a crowd of schoolchildren.)
The next morning, I drive to a spot recommended in the guidebook—a place that rents bungalows on the beach. But when I arrive, there's a sign that says it's closed. Nothing else here looks appealing, and I'm not really sure where to go. Mostly out of frustration, I just turn down the next unmarked dirt road I see with no idea where it will lead me. I find myself ascending a steep, rocky pass. There are large boulders and sinkholes in the road, and frankly there is no way in Hades my compact sedan should be attempting this. Somehow, I bounce and shimmy up to the ridgeline, but coming down the other side is worse. I am just beating the fuzznuck out of this rental car. And I am loving it. Eat it, Avis.
At last, I make landfall on a sliver of beach hidden between two rocky points. You can't even see this spot from the main road. There's no one here but a middle-aged gringo who's tinkering under the hood of a rusted-out van. "OK to camp here?" I ask. "Just pick a spot!" he shouts with a wide grin.
I pitch my tent on the sand about 10 feet from the lapping high tide. This friendly guy and his wife introduce themselves. It turns out they're from Vancouver, British Columbia, and they come to camp on this particular, semi-secret beach for several weeks each year. The guy offers me a beer, and soon enough we're standing waist deep in the crystalline waters of the Sea of Cortez, sipping cans of Tecate, soaking up the sunshine. As we chat, a 6-inch-long fish leaps out of the water between us and flops backs down with a splash. A flock of pelicans swoops by, skimming low over the waves.
The rest of the day passes by pretty much like this. I borrow the guy's mask and fins and take a tipsy snorkel around the cove (spotting a stingray and some gorgeous tropical fish). The guy and his wife cook me dinner to welcome me to the beach and then we talk until it gets dark. I wander along the pitch-black sand, take a leak on a cactus (praying no scorpion feels the need to take revenge on me), and fall asleep in my tent. It's among the deepest slumbers of my life.
When I wake, it's the break of dawn, and the sun is lifting itself up out of the sea. Soon enough, I've waded back into that water again. There's really nothing else to do here—other than marvel at the natural beauty; kayak through calm, clear waters; and feel insanely at ease with the universe and your place in it.
Standing there in the aquamarine shallows, with colorful fish swimming between my ankles, I realize that something is missing. For the first time in quite a while, I crack a beer before 9 a.m.
May I propose a toast? Here's to unmarked dirt roads.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.