March 22, 2021
It's approximately 7 am on February 12th, and I am crossing the U.S. Border into Mexico at Mexicali. I am nervous. 10 hours ago, while trying to get some sleep in a cheap hotel in Yuma, I read the account of a group of surfers who crossed into Mexico at Tijuana and were subsequently followed, stopped, chased at gunpoint, and had their van stolen. There are differences between their trip and mine. It's daylight, for one. And I'm not in Tijuana. But I am alone. And that solitude creates space for my imagination to run to wild and dark places. I think, "If I can get out of Mexicali and down past San Felipe, I should be fine."
I've been to Mexico a dozen or more times over the last few years. Mostly to Sonora. Mostly to far-flung villages in Sonora barely noticed as more than a small dot on a Google Map. But most of those trips had been as part of a group and part of a caravan. If anything is going to happen, it's on this trip when I'm alone.
But despite my hesitation, I cross and go through the initial customs inspection. Pay $30 for an FMM immigration card to accompany my passport, and I am on my way through the streets of Mexicali, longing for the solitude of Baja.
This is my third time on the Peninsula. The first was to hike a canyon west of San Felipe in the interior. The second trip, to film a sheep hunt on the coast of the Sea of Cortez between Loreto and La Paz. And now this one. Both of those trips informed what I hoped to find on this trip. One morning on that second trip, while overlooking the Sea near Puerto Agua Verde, I watched the sunrise paint the most incredible, vibrant red and orange sky I'd ever seen. And its reflection in the glass-like Sea doubled the pleasure. And that's what I wanted now: color. To be immersed in it. To find a place in the transition of extremes. To find a place between the absence of water in the desert, and the abundance of water in the Ocean.
I'm driving my Tacoma down Mexico Highway 5 to the intersection with Mexico Highway 1. I'll stay on that road all the way to the bottom of the Peninsula. My destination is Playa Cerritos, where I have a stay booked for the next few weeks. Uncertain of gasoline availability along the way, I have an extra 5-gallon tank that should get me to the next Pemex station if needed. I have 10 gallons of water, some freeze-dried meals, a Canyon PRO45 cooler full of beer, and a Nomad 20 full of water In my passenger seat.
The night before crossing, I planned where to stop and camp for the night to avoid being on the road after dark. I make it with easily enough daylight to explore the area and cook a meal.
An hour or so into the drive, I see the water on my left - and I make my way into San Felipe. Aside from the main highway, the roads in San Felipe are dirt. And the dust that's stirred up by the wind mixes with the salty air rising off the Sea. The dust, the salt, the moisture - it gets to you, and on you and on everything. So much of our lives in the U.S. (in our cities at least) are paved or covered somehow. There's asphalt, and concrete, and artificial turf, and landscape rock, and any number of other coverings that create a barrier between us and the land. The dust never gets behind your ears or into your hair. And you're never really connected to the land. But in San Felipe, I start to feel immersed in Baja.
From there, it was endless smiles as I drive, watching the Sea connect to the desert. And then the road turns west, and I drive up the mountain to the Peninsula's interior. The road turns south at the junction of the two highways and slowly descends through distinct phases of flora - from the Cardón to Boojum Trees, down through Yuccas, and finally what looks like creosote flats along the Pacific Coast. I'm reminded of a poem I'd written in college twenty years ago about the desert... its muted colors and beauty, its hostility - how its plant inhabitants spread out far from their neighbors and lash out at anything that intrudes. And how I lived in the desert, and the desert somehow lived in me.
Before too long, having passed through a number of military checkpoints, I realize that all of my fears about driving alone through the expansive Baja landscape were largely unfounded. It's a wild 1,000-mile drive that may be one of the loneliest drives on the planet. It was beautiful and everything I hoped it would be.
My next few weeks in Baja were filled with regular workdays during the week, interspersed with sunrise cycling along the road from La Paz to Cabo and sunset surfing 2-meter swells at Cerritos. And on weekends, I was on the East Cape, with a fly rod - camping and cooking on the beach - immersed in color as I had hoped.
There's magic in Baja for those willing to open up to it. The locals who live there know about it and protect it - afraid that too many visitors could spoil it into the next overly sterile tourist trap like Tulum. I caught a mere glimpse of it. And I am changed for having done so. It's a place I'll return to any and every chance I get.