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Chapter 8

Ass Backward

We are as much strangers in nature as we are aliens from God.
 — Emerson.

October 19, 1997: After breakfast and breaking camp and warming up in the early morning sun, it took the best part of two hours—two anxious and frustrating hours expecting Misión to collapse any moment—to get everything loaded and lashed down.

 

I had trouble securing the wooden pack frame; the first three times I pulled the chest cinch, instead of tightening, it unraveled! I wished I’d paid more attention to my teachers. With that sorted out, the bags and boxes needed tying down. Nearly all the knots fell apart or worked loose—all except the very secure ones in my stomach.

 

Instead of looking tight and secure, the load flopped horribly forward and to one side. To make matters worse, Misión decided it was too hot in the midday sun and suddenly shoved his way between a couple of scrub oaks. Listening to the branches snapping and gouging into the cargo, I grabbed the picket rope and tried unsuccessfully to pull him out. There was no room to turn his head.

 

I think he knew I was using my “angry” voice when I shouted something about him being a miserable son of a jackass. Luckily he backed up. With his load hopelessly askew, he looked like a grotesque, somewhat humbled, four-legged Quasimodo. I threw my hands up in frustration.

 

Hearing steps behind me, I turned and was surprised to see three very serious-looking, green-uniformed, rifle-toting Mexican soldiers. One asked, “Is this your burro?” Embarrassed to confess that it was, I asked one of the soldiers to hold his rope while I tried to shove the load back straight. In response to their questions, I explained what I was doing, and where I was going. Satisfied that I wasn’t packing 200 pounds of cocaine or spearheading a new gringo invasion of Mexican territory, they explained that their unit was camped out in the hills, conducting a drug-interdiction exercise. They were all from mainland Mexico. I asked if I could take their photo, but with polite waves and smiles and gestures of refusal they melted back into the brush.

 

Still fearful that Misión would crash down any moment, I unclipped the long picket rope and replaced it with the lead rope. Directing all his movements in a circle, I added the last few items to his burden, and then slipped on my backpack and the bags carrying my camera and tape recorder. As Misión’s little hoofs slid deep into the warm, receiving gravel, I led him back down the arroyo toward the road and the ranch.

 

The rancher’s horse was saddled and tied to the hitching post. Hoping it wouldn’t notice us, I tried to bypass the ranch through the brush. Unfortunately, when Misión saw the horse, he let out a long, fearsome bray. Predictably, the horse reared up, shaking his head and trying to pull the hitching post from the ground. The one-eyed rancher ran out, rope in hand, just as the horse broke the reins. It would have headed for the hills if he hadn’t managed to lasso it immediately and turn its head. I thought it best to disappear and wave my thanks from a safe distance.

I had hanging from my neck a convenient bag with a little solar panel on the front; it could either charge batteries as I walked or directly power the tape recorder that I had placed inside. The first comment I recorded was:

 

I’m really tempted to stop and redo this pack. It’s incredibly loose and…looks like it is going to fall over the burro’s head.

 

Apart from the need to rebalance and retie the load a few times, all the ingredients for a nice, warm, safe, relaxing day were now in place. The road wound through the hills and was a treat to walk. No vehicles passed. We saw a couple of ranches, and I waved to their friendly occupants. Otherwise the only sounds were birdsong and the rhythmic crunch of boot and hoof on granite.

 

Exactly 300 years before, after briefly exploring another site to the south, Salvatierra returned to San Dionisio. He had made up his mind. “I went ashore with Captain Juan Antonio Romero, who took official possession of the land.” Salvatierra always regarded October 19, 1697, as the day that the Loreto mission was founded.

 

With Misión too often stopping for no reason, I reverted to the trailing carrot approach. All went well till I got complacent; I was looking at a particularly lovely vista of the road winding through a valley ahead when I felt the crushing pain of monstrous molars on my thumb and forefinger. A momentary lessening of the distance between us had enabled Misión to go beyond the carrot. Both my finger and thumb were bruised. But it could have been worse—he could have easily bitten them off!

 

Minutes later, a sudden slithering at our feet was the first snake of the trip—a large black racer wriggled off the road and disappeared beneath the chamise and manzanita.

 

Nature writer Elna Bakker once described chaparral as:

 

one of the most effective barriers against ground travel by the larger animals. Man and deer alike find mature chaparral with its profusion of stiff twigs almost impossible to enter.

 

Without a road or trail, it would certainly be hideous country to traverse with a loaded burro. Only the huge boulders and cliff-like rock faces were free of the spiny, tearing vegetation.

 

An hour before sunset, after miles of unsullied, undulating “emptiness,” I was surprised to find wire fences flanking both sides of the road. Hoping I’d soon get beyond them and find a clearing where we could camp, I hurried Misión on. He suddenly started stomping his left front hoof hard into the road. Then he began tripping. I examined the hoof and could see or feel nothing obviously wrong. Worried that he’d gone lame and would flop down at any moment, I was even more anxious to find a place to camp, but the fences forced us on.

 

We came to a gate behind which was a collection of simple, shack-like buildings in the green and gentle floor of a rugged little valley. The occasional granitic boulder and sturdy oak tree rose from the meadow-like valley bottom, while stunted pines fought for their marginal existence in the craggy hills. There was grazing, a stout tree for Misión, a flat spot for the tent, decent shelter—probably water if I needed it. In short, it had everything.

 

I opened the gate and headed in. A small, rather Indian-looking old lady was walking slowly from one building to another. A little embarrassed, I called to her and asked permission to camp the night. She looked at me, still in shorts and T-shirt and almost shivering with the cold, then she looked at Misión with his heavy load. Unceremoniously and perhaps reluctantly she nodded and grunted her consent. She seemed to be alone and I felt concerned about imposing on her. I asked her the name of the ranch. She said it had no name, and shuffled away.

 

I unloaded Misión a hundred yards from the ranch under a large oak tree and then set up my tent on the grass. A group of cows came strolling down the valley, moving cautiously around the yellow-domed tent suddenly in their midst. In the descending evening silence, their piercing, mournful calls sounded like something from the soundtrack of  JurassicPark.

 

While inside the tent getting organized, I heard a more thunderous bellow. Peeking out the door, I was disturbed to see a large black bull heading purposefully toward us. He approached Misión and stood dripping snot and staring him down inches from his nose. I thought it unwise to intervene. Luckily the bull was all bellow, and soon ambled off in search of his harem. Misión’s irrepressibly calm disposition had saved the day.

 

It was a bitterly cold night. A freezing mist descended. After fixing my position with the GPS and then plotting it on my map, I thought of the higher mountains I would need to traverse in the weeks ahead. The road I had been following was clearly marked; in a few miles it would lead me to the broad valley and scattered Indian settlement of Nejí.

 

In the morning, with everything soaked by the mist, I got up ready to make coffee and have breakfast, and then I thought I’d better get into the habit of attending to Misión first. As I moved him to fresh grazing, I noticed that the leather strap that went across his rear had been rubbing and cutting his skin. I’d had a fleece sleeve for the whole thing, but left it behind on the advice of the ranchers who insisted I wouldn’t need it. A provisional repair was made by wrapping duct tape around the hard leather to soften the edges.

 

I had just a couple of pints of water, but I decided to go on without asking for any and further disturbing the old lady. Besides, after his tripping and stomping, I didn’t want to add any additional weight to Misión’s back.

 

A little way down the road, four dogs appeared, barking furiously and threatening to bite Misión’s rear legs. Luckily Misión was assured enough not to panic. I had time to pick up a stone—a gesture Mexican dogs have no trouble understanding. They retreated under the fence and disappeared.

 

Two minutes later, the road ended at a locked gate! For good measure, it was barbwired shut and there was a sign on it that read, Private Property. We were still hemmed in by fences on either side. Not wanting to retreat miles on the road, I reluctantly “dismantled” the gate with a pair of pliers. As I swung it open, what looked like a large bobcat bolted from its den a few feet away, making me jump in astonishment. After I’d put the gate back in place, we followed the road through a beautiful mixed forest and came to a shallow brook. Misión drank his fill. I took a quart, to which I added an iodine tablet. As we meandered along the stream’s broad valley among ever-taller trees, I was increasingly worried about dropping in on some paranoid drug lord. Nevertheless, it was a gamble I had to take. At last, we broke out into a wonderful mile wide, green valley—an idyllic pastoral scene of grazing horses and cows. Nejí! The gamble had paid off.

 

We crossed the valley, picked up a traveled road, passed a few ranches, stepped over another rivulet, and began the long climb into the high country of the Sierra Juárez. A battered pickup stopped and a friendly Mexican presented us with a large red watermelon and then offered drinking water—I took a gallon. While I talked with the driver, Misión helped me slobber down the entire watermelon. The climb seemed easier after that.

 

We reached the high point of a rolling chaparral-covered plateau. I could see way back to the United States, and south to endless sun-kissed mountains. And looking down, I recorded:

 

I just love my shadow. It looks like something out of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. You can see old big ears behind me, and I’m holding the reins. With my floppy hat I look just like part of the Seventh Cavalry.

 

Late in the afternoon, even though I was hurrying, Misión was suddenly overtaking me. I was pleasantly surprised. I quickened my step to keep up with him. Then, seeing huge paw prints on the road, I wondered if he was being energized by the presence of a mountain lion!

 

My only protection from mountain lions is…a fish fileting knife strapped to my daypack….But as I get more into mountain lion country, I really should have the machete somewhere where I can grab it.

 

We came down from the rocky plateau into another idyllic green valley. A deer ambled confidently among the flitting blue scrub jays and fat, contented cattle. Misión was tripping again. It seemed to happen when he was tired. I might have stopped and made camp, but for both our sakes I wanted the security of a ranch about us.

 

After a long day, we finally reached Rancho El Compadre—a ranch that offered camping for tourists. There were old trailers and shacks and the usual collection of abandoned vehicles and machinery. And beside a two-story house there was a surprising duck pond and a somewhat incongruous palm tree! Further afield, beneath tall and spreading oaks there were privies, barbecue pits, trashcans, and benches. I seemed to be the only guest. A worker directed me to the house where I introduced myself to La Dueña, the lady owner, who gave me permission to camp. There was no set fee; it was pay what you want—or at least it was for me. I tied the burro to one of the larger trees, but was disappointed at the poor grazing, especially after passing so many lovely meadows. Throughout the evening, I moved Misión from tree to tree until it was time to retire.

 

After picking up water and directions the next day, we left the ranch and headed south. Two miles later I began wondering if I was on the right road. Keeping one eye on Misión, I took a fix with my GPS. As I suspected, the road was drifting too far south. I backtracked to a less used road behind a closed gate and followed it through increasingly dramatic hills of chamise, redshank, sage, buckwheat, manzanita, cholla, and prickly pear cactus. Occasional coveys of quail scurried in procession on the ground and sometimes fluttered noisily into the air.

 

Tall, dark-green lines of live oaks sprouted from some of the deeper gullies. And as we climbed through more rocky, rugged terrain, an increasing number of pines appeared above the autumn-hued vegetation.

 

Among the smaller Christmas tree-like Parry pines, the occasional, wind-blasted, solitary Jeffrey pine reached into the sky. To my right, shafting sunlight illuminated the peak of Cerro Compadre, lending an air of alpine splendor to the scene.

 

The road split several times. Concerned about arriving at a dead end, I always took the road most traveled. We came to a ranch. The few unpretentious buildings rested on a shelf above a broad, scenic valley with well-tended, cultivated fields lining the fertile bottomlands. Just as I was wondering if the ranch was abandoned, I saw two young men talking outside a trailer. One was stripped to the waist, brushing his teeth. As I approached, he unceremoniously spat a glob of white spume on the ground.

 

When I inquired about directions, he was quick to point out that the ranch was private property. I was sent back out the gate and invited to follow the “road” running around the north side of the ranch.

 

About three miles ahead, the road climbed steeply from the valley, zigzagging into boulder and brush country. I wandered a few hundred yards along the base of the rise and unloaded the burro near an open stand of pines. There was plenty of firewood but I decided not to make a fire.

 

While putting up the tent, I let Misión walk free. By turns he took advantage of the fair grazing, drank a gallon of water, and sat down, manger-style, to chew the cud. Being alone, I was watchful and alert. It was not particularly cold as a thick layer of cloud had moved over the night sky, but rain was a real possibility. I covered with tarps the boxes and bags that were left outside. After tying Misión for the night, I entered the tent and studied my feet, which had started to feel tender. Sure enough, there were the beginnings of three blisters!

 

A mist came rolling down the valley. Occasional flashes of lightning illuminated the base of the clouds, but the storm was too far away to hear.

 

I woke to the sound of Misión munching. When I zipped open the tent door, I saw a coyote trotting among the trees a hundred yards away. Before emerging I put moleskin on the blisters. Then I went through what was shaping up to be my morning routine of moving Misión, slipping him a carrot, having coffee and breakfast, washing and shaving, slapping on sunscreen, drying the tent, then packing, and loading. The whole business was taking an incredible four-and-a-half to five hours from sunup till noon!

 

That morning I congratulated myself on getting away relatively early—at 11:15 a.m. And I felt I’d done a better job with the pack, cinching it what seemed like cruelly tight; but I had learned that it would loosen dramatically during the day. At first the burro hung back a bit, but eventually got into his stride and we managed a tolerable pace. We soon came to another locked wooden gate. Again, I was able to remove the wire serving as its “hinges,” and swing it open—all the while keeping Misión close and never taking my eyes off him.

 

After I put the gate back together, we ascended first through thick chamise-manzanita brush dotted with scarlet-fruiting prickly pear cacti, then through relatively open pine forest swaying yellow with rabbitbrush.

 

We followed a track that tended increasingly, and somewhat worryingly, to the north. I stopped more than once to take a GPS reading and mark my position on the map. The temperature in the sun was just perfect for hiking—a pleasant seventy degrees. I shared all my snacks with Misión, hoping I wasn’t ruining his teeth.

 

Just beyond an abandoned ranch in a lush, grassy valley surrounded by pines, we came across a stream where I filled a gallon jug and watched with satisfaction as Misión drank his fill.

 

Then we came to a high, modern, chain-link fence enclosing a flat, partially cleared area of the forest. Inside, a flock of ostriches were running free. The sight was too much for Misión. What trucks and bulls couldn’t do, the big birds accomplished. He was nervously crabbing sideways, refusing to turn his back on them.

 

A few miles later, the road led us to Pino Juárez—a scattered forest settlement whose wooden homes and buildings seemed either half finished or half-dilapidated. I wasn’t sure if the place was growing or decaying. I heard voices and dogs, but saw no one.

 

Two miles from the settlement, I searched for a sheltered, secluded, comfortable campsite. It was getting dark. I thought I’d left it too late, but at the last gasp we came across a lazy brook and camped by its grassy edge. After I’d unloaded him, I again let Misión walk free. He grazed awhile then sank down beside the tent, looking pooped.

 

{Photograph}
Stream side campsite

There was frost on the tent the next morning. A rest day would have suited both of us, but I had just two days to make the rendezvous with Bonni at Laguna Hanson. Misión had a good drink from the stream, so I left carrying just a few pints of water.

 

Misión started slower than ever, as if thinking very seriously about where to place each step. The night before, I had read in my Baja Plant Field Guide that the Baja peninsula was slipping north at the rate of about four inches a year. I made some scathing remark that if he didn’t shift his ass, we’d end up going backward. For the first time, I whacked the rope across his rump and walked behind him. The pace picked up.

 

Emerging from thick pine forest, we dropped into a little open valley and followed some motorcycle tracks to an abandoned mining area. Old dirt roads and trails radiated all around.

 

We had reached Gavilanes, an area rich in scheelite—an ore of tungsten that was much in demand by United States defense industries for the production of very hard alloys of steel. The mines were worked during both world wars. During World War II the Gavilanes area produced about 2 percent of the world’s tungsten supply. Following the wartime boom the mine closed because of labor troubles and falling prices.

 

After passing an old adobe hut, the road we traveled became completely washed out. I had to retreat and try another one. Pressured by the need to make the scheduled meeting with Bonni, I did not enjoy having to continuously decide which road or track might be the right one. Most clearly dead-ended at abandoned mine entrances.

 

Once more Misión became maddeningly slow. I turned to deliver a blast of my “angry” voice but instead slipped and crashed to the ground. From my new perspective, I looked up at the burro’s comical face and had to laugh. He was probably really tired, and ironically, part of my anger was because I was thinking of him and his need to rest.

 

Beyond the wooden headframes and concrete claim markers of Gavilanes, we passed into pine forest again. All around, it looked like wild, unexplored country. It was getting windy. We came to a small canyon with a flowing stream. I found a way down and was happy to find a relatively sheltered campsite and warm my hands before a blazing fire. After dinner, with the cold wind whistling through the swaying pine tops, I retired to my tent and listened to one of the baseball games in the World Series.

 

Poor Misión was doing his best to deal with the wind chill outside. I shone the flashlight at him. He looked like a picture of misery, head hunkered down, butt to the wind. I doubt if he’d ever known it so cold.

 

When I went out to offer him a few treats, the wind was blowing down a splattering “rain” of water droplets from the branches and the pine needles; later the drops were joined by a steady drizzle that flew fine and freezing through the night. Exactly three centuries before, Salvatierra had his own California rain to deal with:

 

a downpour drenched us who were so sure that it never rains in California…we brought ashore the Holy Madonna, who found the ground all drenched. She was received on land with many salvos. We recited with the Indians the Ave Maria in their language, and sang the Litany of Loreto.