When my father heard I would be vacationing in Mexico and planned to rent a car, he told me, “Just don’t get lost in the desert down there.” A week later, I was lost in the desert in Mexico.
This was in Baja California Sur 10 years ago this summer, an unforgettable anniversary, for not a July passes that I don’t recall the experience and shudder 1 a little, imagining a darker end.
Young men flying to Baja for sun and sand typically go to Cabo San Lucas, the Pacific resort town at the tip of the peninsula. My friend Burk and I vacationed in La Paz, 90 miles up the coast on the Gulf of California side, a busy port city with thick traffic and a thermoelectric plant belching 2 pollution.
On Day 3 in La Paz, with the map I’d brought, I planned our route: a half day’s drive that would take us north along La Paz Bay, then inland before going to town and our dated 3 but pleasant hotel overlooking the malecón. The midway point - the spot where I had us refueling and eating amazingly fresh fish tacos from a rustic hut - was a town called San Juan de la Costa. On the map it existed as a tiny dot 4 hugging 5 the water’s edge.
We left midmorning. Burk drove our rented Ford compact, while I studied highway signs. La Paz proper quickly gave way to 6 south-of-the-border sprawl 7 (farmacias, Pemex gas stations, mystery businesses housed in low cinder-block buildings), which gave way to - nothing.
The day was typical of summer in Mexico: hot, cloudless, blindingly bright. Out our windshield was a perfect Kodachrome image of desert blankness. Not awesome, John Ford desert, either, but scrubland 8.
For 20 miles this continued. Then cliffs 9 rose along the road on our left, and the rocks became strangely bleached-looking. Rounding a curve, we saw a village with buildings the same bleached white. As we got closer, it was clear there were no cars, no people, no life of any kind. The place was eerily deserted. It was as if a plague had passed through. The road forward had been ominously blocked with large rocks.
“Is this San Juan de la Costa?” I said, nervously.
Burk shrugged 10. “You’ve got the map,” he said.
We faced a decision: go back the way we came - drive two hours for nothing, basically - or find a way around the roadblock and continue our awesome Baja adventure. We waited on the highway, debating.
Here I should pause to mention some things we learned later, historical details that more informed tourists might have found useful.
San Juan de la Costa isn’t really a town so much as a phosphate mine. Hurricane Juliette destroyed the mine in 2001, explaining the apocalyptic emptiness.
Also, superstitious locals apparently avoid this region at the north end of La Paz Bay because of the Legend of Mechudo. According to the story, a young pearl diver, Mechudo, spotted 11 a fantastically large pearl and became obsessed with retrieving it for himself. He drowned 12 for his greed 13, and caused the deaths of the divers who jumped in after him. Campfire stuff, although there’s been a plane crash and several mining deaths in the area. Into this cursed 14 ground drove two gringos in a tiny Ford.
After some discussion, we regretfully decided to turn back. Or I thought we did, anyway. Burk suddenly changed course and turned down a dirt road that went toward the sea and curved north.
“This isn’t a good idea,” I said, repeatedly, increasingly aware 15 of the remoteness 16 of our location. Finally Burk conceded, and attempted a three-point turnaround. Given the car’s off-road capabilities this was ill advised; our wheels sunk 17 into the desert floor and spun 18 futilely.
At this point, two things happened, almost instantaneously. I became urgently, desperately thirsty, as if a sand dune were stuck in my throat, and discovered between us we had only half a bottle of agua. And a bird of prey 19 appeared and began slowly circling overhead.
There’s this thing young men do; they fantasize about finding themselves in perilous situations. It comes from a desire to find out what you are made of, a belief you will be Rambo in a crisis. Well, I found out who I am in a crisis: not Rambo but a frightened jerk 20. I began to panic. We’ll be robbed and murdered by narco-bandits! I screamed. The rental car - secured with my credit card - will be picked apart 21 by scrappers 22, its metal carcass left to rot in the desert like us! I worked up a mighty thirst insulting and lecturing.
Whether remorseful 23 or just embarrassed for me, Burk stayed calm and said he’d get the car free, no problem. He opened the trunk 24, took out the jack 25 and tried to raise the wheels. Which might have worked had the car not been on sand. By now I was apoplectic. Still, my solution was no less delusional. I took one of the white hotel towels we’d taken in case we went swimming, placed it around my head turban-style and, like Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” set off 26 under the scorching noonday sun to walk the 30 miles back to La Paz.
For my continued existence I owe Miguel. For all I know, he was a guardian angel disguised as a fisherman wearing a Dodgers T-shirt.
He was sitting under a thatch-roofed 27 lean-to 28, about half a mile south and more toward the sea from our marooned car. We had missed the place coming in, but now I went to it like an oasis. Miguel was in there with his boy. Burk trailed in after me, and redeemed 29 himself by using primitive, high school Spanish to communicate our predicament: “Mi carro son malo.”
We all walked to the car, where it was Miguel who became Rambo, putting dried sagebrush 30 under the wheels for traction, finding a length of wire 31 fencing 32 out of nowhere. He couldn’t get the car free, either. But eventually, a man came along in a truck, and the wire became a towline 33.
Seeing our car moving freely and back on pavement, Burk and I laughed the laughter of grateful idiots and thanked our rescuers.
The day next day we drove to Cabo.
1. to shudder: estremir-se
2. to belch: eructar
3. dated: antiquat
4. dot: punt
5. to hug: aferrar-se a
6. to give way to: donar pas a
7. sprawl: desorganització urbana
8. scrubland: terrenys de matolls
9. cliff: penya-segat
10. to shrug: encongir-se d’espatlles
11. to spot: albirar
12. to drown: ofegar-se
13. greed: cobdícia
14. cursed: maleït
15. aware: conscient
16. remoteness: llunyania
17. to sink: enfonsar-se
18. to spin: girar
19. bird of prey: ocell rapinyaire
20. jerk: idiota
21. to pick apart: desmuntar
22. scrapper: ferroveller
23. remorseful: penedit
24. trunk: maleter
25. jack: gat
26. to set off: sortir
27. thatch-roofed: amb sostre de palla
28. lean-to: cobert
29. to redeem: esmenar (un error)
30. sagebrush: matoll
31. wire: filferro
32. fencing: material per fer una tanca
33. towline: cable per remolcar