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Saddling South Sierra Giganta


 by Graham Mackintosh


Story from Discover Baja





For a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that has hardly changed since the early years of Spanish settlement in Baja, consider joining one of Saddling South's mule trips into the Sierra Giganta mountains out of Loreto.


In early April, I joined a group of five Germans as they mounted their patient and sure-footed mules and boldly headed into the red, rugged canyons of the Sierra on a trail barely visible beneath a swaying carpet of floral color.


The trip leader was Trudi Angell who I had first met back in 1984 while I was struggling on foot down the coast between Loreto and La Paz. She had appeared leading a Paddling South kayak trip along the same stretch of coast.


"The leader of the kayak group, Trudi, was a quiet-spoken California lady. She clearly knew her trade and every inch of the coast...Sitting by the firelight, she marked on my map, every problem, water hole, farm and fish camp. What a stroke of luck meeting her."   [From Into a Desert Place by Graham Mackintosh]


Her "Paddling" expertise is clearly matched by her "Saddling" know-how. On the trip she was ably assisted by three dignified and kindly Mexican guides. They were real cowboys, having been born and bred in these mountains, as had their fathers and grandfathers before them. They aren't just employees of Trudi's, they are clearly respected friends. Trudi spoke fluent Spanish, translating their fascinating and informative comments for the benefit of all.


A trailside encounter with a rattlesnake led to one of the guides asking, "Have you ever heard a rattlesnake sing?" As we shook our heads, he explained that "rattlesnakes sing in the summer just prior to a rainstorm. When you hear this guttural hum, you know it will soon rain."


It was a privilege to hear the wisdom of the mountains and learn of the many uses of the desert plants. Strips of cardón, we were told, are placed on wounds because of their antiseptic, antiscarring, blood-coagulating properties. And when clumps of cholla are roasted and sliced and placed on embedded cactus spines, the spines are speedily and cleanly drawn from the flesh. We were informed about plants that make teas, and what medical conditions they alleviate. One night, cozy by the campfire, after we’d all enjoyed copious amounts of tea from a herb called poleo, we learned it was reputed to be a particularly efficacious aphrodisiac!


The isolated ranches were a delight to visit. We invariably were received with unaffected warmth and hospitality, fed like kings, and enthusiastically shown whatever we asked to see. Collections of arrowheads and Indian artifacts were proudly brought out; we saw how goat cheese was made, and how goat meat was cut and dried; and how horse hairs were twined into a thick and powerful rope. Most amazing of all, we saw how leather was tanned in vats of skins using the bark of the Palo Blanco tree as the tanning agent, and then turned by absurdly simple tools—nails, broken drills and knives—into the most exquisite saddlery and leather work. One horse-owning member of our party was happy to part with $50 and buy a rare pair of polainas, or strap-on leg protectors.


Sometimes we slept in tents by streams and campfires, sometimes on beds made of woven rawhide straps, sometimes we were in deep-set, tumbling canyons, sometimes on ridges watching the blue Gulf of California glisten twenty miles distant. As well as being an incredible journey into the Sierras, it was also a sojourn into the hearts and minds of people whose simple ways owe more to the traditions of 17th-Century Spain than that of 20th-Century America.


One night, around the fire, after the ghost stories had been told, we heard how making tequila had once been a popular pastime before the government outlawed the practice. One of the guides related the sorry tale of his grandparents who would habitually embark on wild, week-long binges with the evil distillate then sober up briefly before succumbing again. Certain of the destructive effect of this on their lives and livers, and wanting to draw the appropriate moral, I asked how old his grandparents were when they died. "Oh, he was 97, and she was 106." I took another sip of that aphrodisiac tea and pondered how it’s wise to remain open-minded when contemplating alternative societies!