I'm not sure if I'm falling asleep, or asleep, or maybe, waking...
Driving south from Ensenada in the afternoon, glimpses of sunlight reflecting off the Pacific Ocean dazzle and tease me; I've been yearning for a dive in to sea water, since before leaving Toronto. I'm disappointed because the road, highway No. 1, veers inland.
I remember someone saying, "…fill up with gasoline at every opportunity."
A grey cloud floats across the perfection of blue.
We pull out from the restaurant, driving southward through the main intersection. After driving three blocks, John pulls into a parking spot. "Supplies", he nods at me; an acknowledgement of conspiracy? I get out of the car, and move towards the curb. I look up and the grocery store comes into focus.
"Do you want to get the beer, or the ice?"
"I'll go beer. What kind do you want?"
"We might as well get a bit of variety."
I nod concurrence.
I go instinctively back, away from the light, and find it, exactly in the proper place. I yank the handle and the windowless, metal door opens. I take two different sixes in bottles, and two sixes of the white-labelled cans.
We continue driving southward, but two more blocks down, the main road is closed.
"That's it." I point at a sign with an arrow. John turns left, down the narrow one-lane, alley. There is a wall on the left, and the south side is an abandoned field. Dry scruffs of grass grow knee high. Dust billows up from the track. I’m nauseas. "I'm glad yer drivin'. How do you feel?"
"Doin' alright." He catches his can as the car lurches through a dip in the track. He looks at it and takes a mouthful. He looks over at me. He grins, "I'm thinking about one of the Frank Corentti's." His eyes shine.
I nod and smile in agreement I reach behind the driver's seat, fishing around with my hand. I feel the canister, drag it out and take the lid off. "Okay, what do yuh want?"
"A medium." I hand him one with a medium-coloured skin. I take a dark one, and re-stash the can, jugling a bit as I sway to the right.
I look up; we’re back on the highway, going south. I chop the end off the medium, and fire it up. I hand it him. "Muchos gracias, amigo."
"Con mucho gusto, hombre." I cut a small piece from the end of mine, and fire it up. The smoke evacuates the car through the four open windows.
"Yeah." I grab two more cans. I open one, and hand it to him. I open the other, and take a sip right away, so it won’t spill so easily. It’s cold goes down easily.
"Cheers." He holds his can aloft.
"Jah man. Pura vida." I clang my can into his and take a decent swig. "Ice cold."
We crest a hill. To the right, I catch a glimpse of the sun, shining off the Pacific. We pass down into a valley. The grass rolls almost all the way up the small mountains. Or are they large hills?
The sunlight filters down into the valley through the dust and mist. At the bottom, the vegetation is green. There are a few deciduous trees; the leaves of a willow wave in the breeze. Above where the highway cuts through the next pass, all the vegetation is yellow to brown.
We come through another pass. "What's that?" Cars are stopped on the road on the rise through a low pass, on the far side of the valley.
"We're gonna find out."
I butt out the last of my cigar. We pull into the line of stopped cars. Immediately, I feel hot and sticky. I savour the memory of the breeze blowing through the car. I pass the empty beers cans behind my seat. I get out, bend down and look into the open window. "I'll walk along and see if I can find out anything."
"Uh." I can see the box of 1.5 litre-bottles of water behind the drivers seat. I walk around the front of the car, and take one, through the open backseat window. "Do yuh want some water?"
He looks over his shoulder to see what I'm doing. "That'd be real kind of yuh."
I hand him the bottle, and I grab another in one motion. "No problem. See yuh.”
I walk forward. It's dusty. The line of vehicles moves until John is pulled up almost even with me. He grins at me. I keep walking. I can see police guys and army guys gathered two hundred metres ahead.
A man walks, car-to-car, selling water in small clear plastic bags. He makes a sale at most of his stops.
John's caught up to me again. I walk along next to him, at the same speed. We’d already passed three camps with clusters of army or police guys and their cars, but no stops, slight slowdowns at worst.
“It's going along pretty good, eh?" He's still smoking the end of the cigar, now tiny. He holds it aloft and examines it. "No complaints, here." He laughs and takes another haul.
I laugh. "We're fucked!" I shake my head, smiling. He chortles smoke out.
"I want another beer." He looks at the end of the cigar, reflecting for a moment, “…like, an oasis."
He holds the very end of the cigar, pulling air through it, without actually touching it.
"The ‘Nick Black’ technique."
He looks over at me, and nods. He lets the smoke out, "he's right that the best part is the end." He inspects it again, holding it before him. "Oops." He puts the car in gear, and idles forward to make up the recently opened gap. He puts it into neutral and glides most of the way, to a slow, expiring stop, about a foot behind the next car. He works the cigar again. “The hard part is avoiding burning your lips. Oops! Ah!” He tosses the ember out the window, with a bit of urgency. “Hot.” He rubs the thumb and forefinger together, and laughs over at me shaking my head.
They look at the passports, and at the stuff through the windows. He asks me where we are going? Then he motions us through.
We pick up speed. It’s nice to have that breeze back; I’m soaked in sweat.
I reached around to the cooler and take a bottle. "You?"
"The cans are working for me." I hand him an opened one. "I feel like having another cigar."
I take a good pull on the beer. All is good. I’m glad to be here.
The climbs get steeper and longer. We’re inside shallow range that runs inland from the Pacific. The scrub becomes sparser and rustier. Cacti appear.
We descend into El Rosario de Abajo. It doesn't look too interesting. The sky is a pale shade of indigo; it's hard tell if the sky is clear or hazy, but there’s one thing, for sure, the light will be gone soon. We need to find a place. "Do yuh see anything that looks like lodging?"
He pulls into the gas station, and up to the pump.
I see a VW van with surfboards on to of it. Three guys sit on the floor, hanging out the of the sliding door. "I'll ask those guys. You, gas?"
"How's it goin'?"
"Hey. Hey." I nod at the other two. Were yuh surfin' around here?"
"Yeah, out at Punta Baja. It's awesome. The road's over there." He points a hundred feet down the highway; a dirt road runs from the far side.
"How's the road?"
"It's not great, but it's definitely there."
"Yuh think I can take that station wagon out there?" I point over to it.
Simultaneously, I hear, "Oh yeah", "No problem", and, "Uh".
"What do you think?" I asked the ‘Uh’ guy.
"You should be okay. How's the clearance?"
"Yeah, you'll be fine."
‘No problem’, was in the driver seat. He was tall and skinny with a mop of hair. "It should take. It should take you, uh,... about twenty-five minutes. I think it took us about, uh, twenty-five, huh?"
‘Oh yeah’, shrugs absently.
‘Uh’, shakes his head slowly. "Maybe is was more like, uh, thirty-five, or so. I think it was definitely, like, thirty-five."
The three signal voiceless consensus.
"What's out there, anything?"
"A few fishermen's huts. That's about it."
"No place to stay, eh?"
"Nothing like that. No running water."
"Is it nice?"
"Oh yeah. It's awesome, dude."
They all agree on that, too.
I ask for directions they could give me. All three start describing the way in; I scribble notes using a borrowed pencil and scrap of paper.
"Thanks man. Thanks guys. Have a good one.”
I walk back to the car. John is taking the nozzle out from the pump. Is he just starting now? I wonder what the problem is? Before he gets it into the car, the gas starts to pour out of it. Gasoline cascades over the car. "Fuck!"
He stuffs it into the gas pipe of the car. "Fuck!"
"Are you alright?"
"It took me a couple of minutes to figure out that I had to go pay first. There's no action on the control. It's open. They must turn it on and off from the cash.”
I start cleaning it up with the window squeegee. The side of the car is covered in gasoline. The pump turns off. John quickly replaces the nozzle to the pump. His clothes are soaked with gasoline. "We gotta clean the car."
A couple of guys, each filling up old, small Japanese pick up trucks, look up from their smouldering cigarettes, mild amusement in their eyes.
"I'll put it over there." I point to where the VW was. He nods. He's trying to clean his pants with a rag. I pull it over to the spot and walk back to the pump to get some rags. The car stinks. The water only smears the gasoline around. I keep working at it.
It's the first time I've seen him even a bit rattled. He's rubbing his eyes.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I just got a little bit of gasoline in my eyes.” He rubs his eyes with slick hands.
"I want to try to get out to Punta Baja." I point down to the turn off.
I move the car forward slowly down the steep ramp; where it meets the steep camber of the road is like a chasm. The car bottoms out as the back axel crosses the trough. I glide across the highway, and down to the dirt road; I turn right, on to it.
John examines the map I’ve drawn. He compares it to the map from the Automobile Club office in Palm Springs.
"This must be the road that shows up on the map going out to the point."
A ray of sunlight cuts through the dusk. There is hope. The car bottoms out going through a shallow dip.
"Take it easy."
Darkness is coming; it’s close now. I'm anxious. I want to get there, wherever it is. I can’t see any markings along the road.
"Yeah, this is it", says John. He sounds relaxed again.
It's hard smooth sand. The going is not too bad. We go through a shallow stream. I throw the car, screeching, into a corner I didn’t see until the last moment.
"This car is thirteen years old."
"It's going good." We bottom out again. Coming around a corner, I have to break hard, going down a steep hill. The road is like a wash-board. The car shakes violently, and screeches along the ridges. I can feel that John is tensing, but he's not uppity with me at all. He rubs his eyes. He reeks of gasoline.
I keep hoping to see sun reflecting off the ocean as I crest every next hill. But I find only disappointment, again.
"Hey, can yuh find something? Is the trail mix handy? Anything like that would be good."
"Do you want me to drive?"
"No, I want to drive." I didn't want to lose the 30 seconds of travel time it would take to change driver. "The road is getting pretty shitty. We've been going about twenty-five minutes now, eh?"
"Yeah, twenty anyways."
"There is a fork in the road; which way do you think?"
"Slow down." I slow it a bit. John's talking but I'm having a tough time making sense of the words. I'm just waiting for the conclusion, right or left.
"Is that left?"
My pulse is racing. I feel a bit light-headed. I could go for an espresso, but I don't want to lose the five or ten minutes of light that it would take to brew it up.
"Here they are." It's the bag of dried apricots. My mouth is starting to water.
"Good on yuh, dude." He places a few in my extended hand. I chew slowly. I feel the sustenance flowing from the blood vessels under my tongue. I can feel the energy moving along, like the sun spreading from over a mountain, into the valley. I can feel it move across my lungs. I can feel it moving up, through the brain-blood barrier, and into the cells in my head. The flavour is intense. I feel a bit better. My head clears. I breathe out, all the way out, and in, slowly.
"They're pretty good for you, too", Johnny says through chewing a mouthful.
"Whoa!" I brake hard around a hidden corner. I go straighter then the direction of the front wheels until I feel the back wheels sliding sideways. I drift across the road, the back swings around, taking out some light vegetation at the edge of the road. I stomp on the accelerator; the car straightens. I ease back.
“You godta chill out!"
"Okay, okay, I'm mellow. I'm mellow." I am not mellow. I'm slowing down. I can hardly see; it's the end of dusk. I've got to slow down. "We're not gonna be there before sun down, eh? I gotta change up, dude. Sorry."
"No problem. Bueno. Pull it over."
It's darker now then it was a minute ago. Dust rises up in white billows in the blazing high beams. Outside of that, there is blackness.
A return trip is unthinkable. In the last light, I look across the tortured grassland, broken only by stunted, gnarled trees, none higher than four feet.
John drives slowly, and steadily. He often slows to refine his bearing. He stops, turns on the cabin light, and scrutinizes the maps.
We're hit with three sets of headlights. They are coming at us fast, louder and louder. John pulls the car as far to the left as possible.
They drive by without slowing. Dust fills the car; I spit it out of the window. My spirits revive a bit; I'm taking the passing as a sign that we're on the right road.
Johnny drives on, methodically.
The road is up and down bad washboard gravel; but it's not so bad at this speed.
I notice a dull thump and faint roar.
"D’yuh hear anything?"
He slows the car to a stop. Shock comes from the ground, and again, each time, followed by a dull roar. The rhythm continues, exactly evenly.
"It's running hot."
"Yeah, I hear it. The temperature of the engine is up a bit."
"What do yuh recommend on it?"
"Nutin'. It's well within tolerances." He puts it in gear. We ease forward.
He changes to the second gear at the crest of the hills, the engine whines. At the bottom, he eases the gear selector back into ‘Drive’, and very lightly accelerates to and up the next hill.
"You change the gears like a manual transmission."
"Better to save the brakes; the transmission is made to do this, it definitely says to drive like this in the drivers' manual, definitely."
I nod, "Gotcha.” I got it; I didn’t know, I thought that would fry an automatic transmission. But I’ll remember, now.
"You were shakin' it up a bit coming out here. Maybe it shook plaque from inside the rad. Mike said it’s the original rad."
"You think it's okay?"
"Yeah, it's okay. These cares were built with a lot of tolerances, all sorts of redundant capacity. This car has a huge radiator."
We come over a hill, and I can see the black of the peninsula, surrounded by another black.
"Fuck", I'm fucking starving; I've got to eat. What was I thinking? There's nothing here.
We come up to some huts. Light shines out from the odd one.
He turns down a track of huts of various constructions. I can see there a two or three rows of huts.
A bright light shines from low down. Legs protrude, along the ground, from beneath the truck.
"I'm gonna go and talk to this guy."
The car slows and now stops.
I walk towards the light. Mexican disco music blares. "¿Hombre, que passa?"
"¿Hey hombre, que t'al?", I call, a little louder.
I can hear him singing along absently to the music.
I crouch down to see if I can get a look at the guy, "hola."
"Hola." He keeps on working, but I can see that he's going to finish what he's doing and talk to me.
It's cold. I'm sweating. I hear barking from several different voices.
The guy emerges from beneath the truck and says something that sounds like a greeting.
"¿Es uno lugar para comida o dormer aqui?
"Nada", he says with a hint of surprise at the question. He's a young guy.
"¿Entonces, donde es un bueno lugar por parquet mi caro para la noche?"
He looks around the vast expanse, slightly raising his arms. "Dondequiera."
I look around the blackness. "Gracias hombre. Gracias. Pura vida."
"Nada." He crawls back under the truck. I can hear metal on metal.
I get into the car. "Anywhere."
John cruises around, slowly, looking around, intently. I can hardly see anything.
He stops and turns off the car. I open the door. He turns the engine back on. "Not level enough." I close the door.
He backs up thirty feet, and turns it off again. "This is good."
Blackness abounds. I can just make out the drop, off a hundred feet north, I think. The rhythmic pounding is followed by a dull roar. It’s relentlessly, but I’m glad to be near the water, and not driving anymore. It should be okay here.
I feel like it's midnight. But the clock on the dashboard shows ‘7:34’.
Johnny gets out and stomps his feet. "It's cold alright."
I walk around in the blackness, trying to see anything, to no avail. I hear barking above the constant howl of the wind and roar of the waves.
Johnny brings two cans of tuna, some bread, peanut butter, and three beers. He's smiling like someone who just won a jackpot. "Nutrition!"
"Ahh. I can definitely go for one of those." He hands me a beer. Despite my lowness, I can't help but smile. "Thanks, man."
He opens a can. "Prost".
"Prost." I down the first third of the bottle. It's cool. I savour the taste of it. I feel the cool of it going down and flow out from my stomach. I feel the first bit of poison enter my brain, slowing it down a bit. The worst of the edge dulls. At least we’re here. I can’t spare the energy to worry about this place.
The salt and damp in the air and the crash of the surf calms me; I love the sound. Unexpected is what I had hoped to find on this trip. But for some irrational reason, along the border of my consciousness, on this spur to the water, I’d harboured the image of some really basic cabin lodging and maybe a roasted chicken or fish? What was I thinking?! I got the unexpected after all.
I got this car for just such situations as this. The situation is covered.
We eat standing and stomping, at the front of the car, food and drink resting on the hood. I make espressos. John loads them with rum, and lights a cigar. "You want one?"
"Nah. Thanks. But, I'd take that last beer?"
"No problem; we’ve got plenty of rum."
"Ah, beer." I crack the bottle. "This stuff in the bottle is really good." It's a stronger brew. The bottle is amber coloured, as is the beer.
"I'm gonna wander around. You?"
"I don't know."
"See you." He walks off, southward, I think.
A lantern glows faintly, a hundred and fifty metres to the south. I can see fishing boats pulled up on the harboured beach, by the light of it.
I shut the open door of the car, and sit on the front bumper, in the dark. The ocean pounds a beat through both land and air. The shocks arrive, slightly offset. It creates funky rhythms with my palpating heartbeat.
I take the beer, and walk towards the percussion. The moon is either not up yet, or lost behind the shroud. I can just barely see the boundary between land and air in front of me, by the change in the shade of blackness. I edge forward. I look over the edge of the black, and see the surf lit in phosphorescence, pounding the rocks, far below. The air is translucent. I crouch down to see the ground better, and inch forward, so that I can see over the edge. I look straight down. I can see the sand as a slightly lighter shade of darkness.
The discordance within me is gone. I feel empty, as if the anxiety was what was animating me, now that it is gone. I’m exhausted, but my heart beats in harmony with the waves. I breathe easier, longer breaths. I lie down; so I can look over the edge and watch the waves glow as they smash the rocks, then dissipate receding. It's beautiful; how many people get to have this experience?
I turn over and lie on my back. Feeling the waves behind me, I look up into the blackness above. Patches of stars shine inconsistently through holes in the mist and cloud. My breathing is smooth. The pain in my back is breaking up, little, by little.
The wind blows. I'm glad to have the leather jacket, and wool cap. I’m tired, I don’t want to have to get up and walk back to the car. I doze, shallow.
I’m shivering. I hear the pounding and roaring; oh yeah, I’m here. I turn over and back away from the edge a bit, then push myself upright as steadily as I can. I’m weary of the edge and panick as I lurch, listing hard to one side. I can see better now. I steady, and walk back to the car.
John tells me about driving the bread run across the top of Lake Superior. It was how he financed his engineering degree. The truck had a suicide clutch, requiring two hands to change the gears. He’d have to hook his left arm through the steering wheel to the clutch, and change the gear with his right, going around the switchbacks up and down the escarpment. It’s a twelve hour runs to Sault St. Marie, he says. He crashed at his girlfriend’s place there, then drive back the next day.
"I though you said that you lived at your girlfiend’s place in Thunderbay?”
“I lived with the one in Thunderbay, yeah, most of the time.”
He continues talking about something, but can’t track it anymore.
* * *
I have to piss. It is completely black, but I hear dogs barking with more intensity. I can’t care; I doze. A buzz in a dream becomes a straining motor; I’m awake again. I can see two lights crest the ridge; the grinding motor echoes back from the far side of the bay, penetrating everything here.
Another set of lights comes into view. The whine of this second engine creates discord with the first that passes now nearby, continuing to the beach.
The lights, engines, dust, and barking escalate and merge into a cacophony.
People are yelling, maybe greetings and directions?
A glimmer of lightening appears on the horizon in the east. I get out and stomp around. I light the stove on the hood of the car, pack a bucket, put it together, and place it over the flame.
I take my first sip. A thin line of sun gold pours onto me. I can see half-a-dozen fishing boats moving offshore. The air is clear. The colours seem supernatural. I can see my breath. The coffee is good. Now it’s gone. I've got to have another.
I can see John in the car. He looks asleep.
I cook another coffee.
The sun moves clear of the horizon. Steam rises off the water of the bay. Boats continue to go out. John stomps out of the car with a bottle of water.
I make him coffee and we munch on dried fruit and trail mix.
The sky is hazing.
By silent consent, we agree. I drive, slowly.
I’m having a hard time reconciling this return trip in the optimistic morning light, with the tense rally through the incresing threat of the faltering light of the evening past.
We reach the highway. I see the gas station back a short way, to the left. I remember the American man at the burrito stand in Ensenada saying, ‘always fill up at every gas station that you pass on the Baja,’ but I want to get out of this place as fast as I can. I turn right to continue out of town and south, down the Baja.
"What about gas?"
"We'll go to the next one."
He looks at me, pausing momentarily, "okay."
I put my foot down to leave the sin behind me. We’ll get some at the next stop.
The colour of the landscape changes quickly. Green is lost in each successive valley. Long narrow mountains run along the axis of the peninsula. Every layer is an environment away. Each valley textured in browner, stouter vegetation, until the green pillars of the cacti reign supreme amongst boulders.
Dust is caked-on to the residue of the window cleaning fluid. I can only see out the part where the blades wipe.
"Where do you think we are?"
"It looks like a desert."
He's looking at the map. "This must be the ‘Parque Natural de Desierto Central de Baja California’."
The gas gauge is already well below a half-tank; I'm hungry and the worry makes my stomach ache.
There is a building off the highway. I pull into the lot in front of it, hoping to get gasoline.
I stop by the door at the highway side of the building. A small child plays behind it. I can see an older man working on something in a pen, a hundred metres behind the house. The child comes by cautiously. I can see curiosity in his manner. John speaks to him. It's easy to understand his clear, simple responses. He beckons us inside the casa, by another door.
A woman looks up with a neutral expression, from scrubbing laundry.
She can make us some food.
I asked how far it is to get gasoline. She says the closest gas station is in El Rosario de Abajo. I go out to the car, untied one of the Gerry cans from the roof, and pour it in.
We get ham and cheese omelettes, toast, and coffee served in tin cups. The boy brings me a picture book; between mouthfuls I read it to him.
About halfway through the book, I glance up at the mother. She sees it, and the creases at the corners of her mouth soften and turn slightly upwards.
John asks her if she knows where we can buy beer and ice. She says that she has both.
This morning, it was colder here than it had been in Toronto, when I left. I feel the damp of sweat pushed against my back as I sit down in the passenger seat.
We roll. The road is good. It's not busy. John drives it faster than I. Nothing mars the hard, blue perfection of the sky. I feel the dampening of my clothes. It’s hot, now. The terrain is rocky, uneven, and thick with cacti. How could anybody have ever crossed it without motorization? It would be tough for a camel. I try to imagine going over the rough, burning geography, on a horse. What would the mileage be, for every ounce of water?
Far in the distance, I can see a building, I think. I hope it’s a gas station. It's just before eleven o'clock, finally, gasoline. But no, it's long gone, shutdown. "Ah fuck."
"We're just about ready for the next can."
"Fuck! Yeah, yer right.” He starts gliding. “Wait a minute, is that one?" I point. Way down the road, I think I can see another building. John squints. “Can you see it?"
"There's something, for sure."
But it's also abandoned. We drive on.
After fifteen minutes, John starts to pull off at a spot with a generous shoulder.
"Wait, there's another."
He pulls back on the road, driving stoically on. It looks hopeful. There are many cars, but I can't see any pumps. I crack the last two from the first six-pack, and hand one to John. "Dry no longer." We crack the cans together. "But where are the pumps?"
We slow to idle speed. Young boys siphon gasoline from drums into five gallon Gerry cans. More boys carry the cans over to young men who sell it by the can. We get four cans. Three go into the car, and one refills our own can.
John checks the oil.
"I'm gonna go over there."
I point to the stone and plaster building on the far side of the highway. It is impressive-looking.
"Where did that come from?"
"I don’t know, but if it’s a mirage, I'm going to bust it," he looks at me, "and take a piss, anyways."
I walk unchallenged into a large reception area, past a fountain pouring water into a large pool in the middle of the hall. I walk on, looking for a toilet. Water cascades down a wall fifty feet high by fifty feet across. A garden grows from skylights. The sound of running water permeates the place. It's cool and damp here. I find a the acronym for ‘water closet’. Inside is a most luxurious washroom. The entire room is tiled in elaborate paterrns of dark purple and white.
I malinger. I could have a bath here. I take my time and wash cool water over my face. I take my shirt off and splash more water on my chest, neck, shoulders, and down my back. More again on my back; it feels so good.
I don't encounter anybody on my way out. I emerge into the stark, bright clear light of the Baja day. The light and heat hit me like a wall. I pause, overcoming the notion to go back inside. I walk across the burning highway; I can feel it through the soles of my boots.
John is chatting with one of the young men over the open hood of the car.
"How's the mirage?"
"I’d better confirm your mental illness."
He excuses himself and walks across the highway towards the hotel. I take off my shirt and clean the windows of the car. When I'm done, I climb onto it, and bask in the sun, shirt between the hot glass and my back.
It's smooth sailing to Guerrero Negro; which is at the division between the two states, Baja, and Baja Sur. To get into Baja Sur, one must pay for a spray-down of the car. Two guys in white suits with buckets and pumps spray the car for a few minutes. I can see the military base, not far away. Green camouflaged uniforms walk in and out of a gate, where several of them cluster.
Past the base, the road turns due east. The smooth, black tarmac runs straight, as far as I can see.
I get a cigar and a beer. I put a tape of Ron Hawkins and the Rusty Nails into the cassette player and turn the volume up to hear it over the roar of the air through the open windows. I smell the dry flinty dust, but also some must; there must be some moisture. For some reason, the smell reassures me.
The geography starts to roll, up and down slowly sloping hills.
Just after 2pm, we approach a checkpoint. I feel a slight tightening high in my back. Before it, off the right side, there is a restaurant. John idles into the parking spot next to the front door. We take turns buying six packs and using the washroom facilities.
I idle the car over to the checkpoint. The boy with the assault rifle wants to see what is inside the big blue trunk in the back of the car, full stop.
It takes me five minutes to get it out. Another man with a rifle stands over John, seated in the passenger seat with the door open. The kid jabs the gun into my ribs. He looks at the passports and the registration documentation.
He's asking something, but I can't understand him. I can see he is irritated. He jabs the guns into my ribs and hands me the passports and all the documentation for the car. They go to the next car behind, barking <<hurry up>>, as they go. There is stuff all over the road. We load it fast, and get back in.
I pick up speed pulling away then BOOM! The whole car shutters. I’ve hit a huge speed bump at sixty miles per hour that I never saw because I had my eyes glued to the rear-view mirror. “Fuck!”
“We’re still going. It’s probably okay.”
I keep driving. The rolls become longer and steeper. The thin desert greenery is flanked by earthen tones of the mountain, rising up. The view is vast under the ruthless sun, unchallenged amidst the blue perfection.
Up the mountain; it goes well. We crest and go up and down for a while. In the distance, I can see the next sustained climb.
“Brakes should be used in short, firm bursts.” He’s reading the driver manual. “This is a really good document. Too bad nobody reads them.” He explains how brakes wear; keeping pressure on them for sustained periods burns them out. I change the gears to slow the car, when I need to; I hardly touch the brakes.
“The trannie is designed to do this. It's so over engineered. It's the most complex technology on this car. Good going."
We crest and start the descent. I can see miles down. It doesn't look real. The air is so clear it seems unnatural. The car levels momentarily over the crest. At the bottom of this new horizon, I see dark blue. "Ahh, the Sea of Cortés!"
The road goes one way then switching back, winding downward.. It levels att the sea, and bends right, south again. The highway dodges around long sharp ridges, running parallel to the sea.
Around a corner there is a sign for the puebla of Santa Rosalía. It's 4:20; I smile wistfully, wishing I could be observant of it. I see the passenger docks as I enter the town. I pull hard to the left, into the parking lot.
"Why are we stopping?"
"Oh yeah. Good thinking."
"I need to eat. I want beer."
A man, he looks to be a janitor, tells me that the next "barquo" would be going on Tuesday.
"It's not going until Tuesday."
"Three days is too long. Let's keep on going. We can get to La Paz tonight, and be on the boat tomorrow, if it's going."
"I’ve got to eat."
"Yeah, we'll eat, and then we'll go. I can drive, you can sleep."
I don't want to drive in the night. “Well, first, food."
There's not much of a town to see from the highway. We bend around a bay. At the south end, I pull into a restaurant parking lot, between the road and the water. The building is already in the shadow of the mountain. But the tranquil bay is yet brightly lit; the colours burn the backs of my eyes.
We go in. I go straight to use the facilities. When I emerge ten minutes later, John is sitting, chatting with a crusty old guy. They each hold a bottle of beer. There's a full bottle with sweat dripping down it, on the table between them. I pick it up, salute the two of them, and down half of it.
Now Crusty is chatting up the waitress, in a familiar manner.
I want to order while she is here. To all, but none, I ask, "what's good to eat, here?"
He looks at me. "I’m in a conversation, if you would kindly give us a moment.”
I got to get food. I force myself to calm down; I focus on breathing slowly in, and slowly out, concentrating on the feeling of the air as in enters my nose.
He finishes up with the woman. They both smile as she returns to the kitchen.
John smiles impishly, on the verge of laughter, watching me. The old geezer turns his gaze to me, “I was just talking something over with John, here. What's the question? By the way, the name's Don Sutherland. Who are you?"
"Dean Cassady, pleased to make you acquaintance. What's good and fast, for food here? Whudeayuh recommend?"
"Hmm," he looks at the menu as if seeing it for the first time. "Hmm, that looks good", he says to no one in particular.
He finishes his beer. The waitress comes out immediately, and replaces the empty with a full one, the gas still floating up from where the cap was removed. I turn, happy for the opportunity to speak to her. ¡Que bonita! "Uno mas, por favour." I watch her retreat to the bar.
I settle back in my chair, reflecting. I notice Crusty staring at me, and remember, with a start, that I was speaking with him. "Can't say I blame yuh. But I don't think that yer gonna get any mileage there. They're pretty wise to gringos, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, kinda thing."
What are you, her father? "Oh well. What's there to eat, here?"
"To tell you the truth, uh, I usually only have a beer or two on the way back to my cabin. But everything should be good." He waves the girl over. "what's mucho rapido, Flower?"
She looks at us, voicelessly asking where to put the beer?
"Por señor, gracias." She puts the beer down and looks at the menu and points to something. I can't concentrate. But I like her encouraging smile. "Bueno. Por favour."
"Dos por favor", John holds up two fingers in a 'v'.
She retreats towards the kitchen, turns before getting there, "¿algo mas?"
I down the last quarter of my beer; "uno mas, por favour." John isn't half way down yet, but he quietly adds, "dos", and nods.
"No, no, no". Don Crusty is indignant. "Don't order another while you're a ways off on that one. It'll go warm on yuh." He addresses the girl, "uno, uno." He's holding up a single gnarled finger, "uno". She gets the message. "It won't take a second to get another from the freezer, when you’re ready for it. Take your time and finish the one you’ve got. It don't take long fer them to warm up here, even in winter."
Flower brings me another beer. "Graçias."
How could I not desire?
"I've known her since she was born. She's Matilde's daughter, the lady who runs this place."
As if called, another woman comes from behind the kitchen door. "How are you today, Donald?" She has a strong accent, but it doesn't affect the clarity of her English.
"Bueno. Bueno. Gracias, thanks for asking. These two men are from Canada. Can you believe it, they drove here, all the way from Canada? They're going to all the way to Costa Rica!"
"Wow, that's something. Why did you do that?"
She's holding two plates. It takes quite an effort for me to focus on the questions. I tell her in stunted Spanish, how I needed a break, and wanted to travel through Latin America. She turns to Johnny and says, "an’ why are you here?"
She's a good-looking woman.
Johnny explains, in broken Spanish, how he had a bit of a break; so couldn't turn down the adventure. She patiently corrects his grammar.
"Bueno," she says, "your friend looks like he's hungry," she puts the plates down, "bon appetite". She walks back to the kitchen, entering into a hushed conversation with her daughter.
I eat; everything else fades into a backdrop of grey noise. I try, as best I can, to chew my food. John and Don talk, but I can't track it. When I zone back into it, Don is talking about his time in the US Air Force, during the Korean War. He talks about the years he's been living just south of Santa Rosalía, in a trailer park. Recently, the region had been the subject of a government program to boost tourism. More tourism, according to Don, had only increased the cost of living for the local inhabitants, including him. He’s thinking about moving, even though he loves it here.
He asks me about Costa Rica. He'd heard about it, and he’s interested. But he's worried that it is expensive too. I tell him what I know about the cost of living there.
Don tells us about the boat to the mainland. He says that it would be leaving on Monday, not Tuesday. He asks me if I have a 'temporary importation permit' for the car? He says I need it to get the car on the boat?
That was it! The documentation I’d been told I needed, but forgotten about. Uh oh.
There isn't an office in Santa Rosalía to get this permit. But it can be got in La Paz.
John says were going to drive over night. He wants to get to Mexico City to stay with a friend.
Don admits that he'd driven at nights before, in extreme circumstances. But he implores us against doing so. The truck drivers, he says, follow a night-time code of driving in the centre of the single-lane road. They expect anything smaller to yield.
"What about the cows?"
Dons says the cows are just an irritation.
John is unconvinced. He feels that he is more than up to the task.
Don persists. He implores us to allow him to get us a ‘locals rate’ deal on the best hotel in town. “Follow me. I’ll show you where it is. I know the owner.”
John still wants to drive. But he agrees to look at the hotel. I can tell that he likes Don; maybe he doesn’t want to upset him.
Don leads us back around the bay, then inland from the highway. The centro is tucked behind a long ridge. He continues up a small mountain, to Hotel Frances.
He speaks with a woman at the reception, explaining that we are his friends, and that we will be staying the night. When she mentions the price, Don winces and reiterated that we are his good friends, and so should get, the best, price.
Don heads out, relieved, as if it his mission to prevent us from going is accomplished. I'm glad he’s talked John into staying. I grip his hand in sincere thanks. He hugs me, and then John. Then he drives off into the dusk.
The hotel is made of wood. The wainscoting is quilted fabric. The room has a strong smell of mildew. I can't open the windows, they're nailed shut. I shower and lie down for a minute.
There's knocking on the door. I awake. “It's time to go out.”
I pull on some pants and a shirt. We walk out, and down the hill into the town. There are a lot of people in the street. It looks like a festival. A wedding party spills out of a large church.
We dine on tacos from street vendors.
By ten, I'm fading. At the hotel, there's a small dinner party in the main dining room. It's a grand room, with wood paneling everywhere. The lady invites us to join them. We sit and she brings beer. Before I'm finished it it, my eyelids are drooping. I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open. I excuse myself and retire to my room. The bed flies up at me; I try to line up to one of the softer spots. I don’t remember the landing.
* * *
We're on the road before sunrise. After half-an-hour driving, the brightening eastern horizon over the Sea of Cortés yields a singular golden fruit.
John is on a mission. He keeps the speedometer at 70 miles per hour. We pass Mulegé and come along Bahía Concepción. It's so beautiful. I’d like to stay here for a while. Past Mulegé there is graphic art on the entire face of some mountains. The coast is one beautiful bay after another, glowing in the morning light.
We stop at Loreto for cash. John gets some at a bank machine, but my bank cards are not working. I feel a tensing in my spine.
After Loreto, the highway headed back diagonally across the peninsula, and through the agricultural towns of Ciudad Insurgentes. We stop in Ciudad Constitución, for supplies.
The drive south from Ciudad Constitución, is straight and hot. He keeps it at a hundred mile per hour. We climb and run straight along a plateau for hours then approach a climb. We pass a range then plummet down. I can see the bay, and the town along it.
I think of the impending administration. I can feel my heart beat quicken. A drop of sweat rolls down my forehead and drips from my eyebrow, momentarily blurring the vision.