By Greg Niemann
It was May 1976 and the Baja Highway was only a couple of years new. A buddy and I had driven to La Paz and Cabo, looped the old dirt road through Todos Santos, and were heading home. We had passed Cataviña in my old Dodge Dart when it happened.
The Dart had performed well, even when dropping off the high crown of the three-year new highway onto dirt virtually every time we stopped. Except for the streets of a couple of cities like La Paz, every other road, or village frontage, or town, was dirt.
Even on Highway 1, we’d forded streams and jostled everything in the car loose on some rocky detours, stopped for the ubiquitous animals in the road, and carefully worked our way around some vintage vehicles that had wheezed their last breath right in the middle of the highway.
Jon and I had enjoyed the trip to its fullest. Both recently divorced, we partied hearty and now had two days to get back to Southern California. I’d heard the noise earlier and thought something was wrong. It was a loud WHAP, then thumpa-thumpa-thump, then nothing. But I ignored it. Even though deep down I thought it was a car problem, I willed it to be a rock or something I might have hit.
Maintenance had never been one of my strong suits. I related easily to many laid-back Mexicans I’d come to admire. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s part fatalistic behavior and part a “take it as it comes” attitude. This time it was a problem.
A few miles up the road the car began to run hot. I pulled the boxy old Dodge off the pavement, dropped onto a gravel parking lot and bounced over to the entrance of a rancho.
We were at Rancho El Progreso, about 40 miles south of El Rosario, perhaps 80 from San Quintín and about 250 miles to the border. It was the waning part of the afternoon, when the cardon cactus and cirio trees cast long shadows across the hot desert floor.
Steam poured out from under the hood so I opened it to let the engine cool and the steam clear. Then I pondered my next move. Jon was less mechanically- inclined than me; translation – we were both hopeless!
But once the steam cleared, the problem was quite evident, even to a couple of klutz’s like us. There was no fan belt! I reflected, yup, that’s what it sounded like, a fan belt breaking: WHUP, thumpa-thumpa-thump.
In those care-free, post-divorce years I hardly carried tools, much less emergency gear and spare parts that later accompanied me in Baja travels. So we were in a dilemma.
The woman at the rancho said that her husband would be back in the morning; perhaps then he could help us. We decided to try to hitch a ride into El Rosario to seek assistance.
While we waited for a driver to stop, the señora who ran a small café out of her kitchen prepared a dinner for us. Then we waited. In those days traffic was rare, and after dark, non-existent.
It got dark, so we decided that in the morning one of us would hitch a ride and the other would wait by the car in case help might arrive.
After the rancho lights went out, we dragged our sleeping bags out of the car and stretched them nearby. It was an uncomfortable, restless night. The rancho dogs howled at unseen objects that strained our imagination. And no matter how many rocks I removed from under my bag, there were always others left to jab me.
I was up as soon as the sky began to lighten and the vast panorama of stars began to lose their luster. I was up before the roosters began their chorus to welcome the light of day. Dawn was most welcome but with it came reality. Our predicament became primary. I looked about the harsh desert landscape. Then I noted where we’d set up camp – right in a roadway that led to ranchos in the valley beyond.
Jon and I were chilled in that high desert dawn. We stretched and packed and waited for the rancho residents to stir so we could buy some coffee and breakfast.
With daylight came activity again on Highway 1. A few trucks rumbled by, and one pulled onto the gravel. The driver, a slender fellow with a large droopy mustache, saw us and approached. He looked decidedly older than most of his fellow warriors of the Baja road, perhaps in his mid-to-late thirties.
In the Baja outback it is not necessary to ask for help. It is freely offered to strangers and rendered with such sincerity that denizens of big-city America could hardly understand. There is no catch. There is no payback expected. There is just the help given as needed.
The truck driver went right into action once he saw the problem. He talked to the rancho people and poked around their salvage pile until he came up with a rope and a small strand of wire.
He cut the rope to the size of the original fan belt, put it on and braided it with the wire. He squeezed the whole mess tight with pliers and asked us to crank the engine up.
The rope held! The car started right up thanks to that creative Mexican ingenuity so often discovered by gringos in Baja. Refusing a tip, he did let us buy his breakfast before we got on our way.
El Rosario at that time had two small gas stations, yet neither had fan belts so we confidently rolled on, the engine kept cooled by jump rope and baling wire. But neither our luck nor the rope held for too long. The rope snapped on the outskirts of San Quintín and I eased the car off to the right. I stayed with our crippled transportation while Jon started walking into town.
It wasn’t long before I saw an old pickup coming south toward me. The vehicle’s alignment was so bad it looked like the rear wheels and axle were trying to get ahead of the front axle. The disjointed pickup pulled off the road (front wheels first) and Jon jumped out.
The driver was a mechanic Jon had located. The fan belt he brought did not fit. So now while Jon waited I climbed aboard the sideways-moving pickup with the mechanic and we roared off towards town.
The mechanic stopped at an outdoor market where vendors had spread their wares out on blue canvas mats. The place was crowded with women, children, and short, squat native farm workers buying fruit, knickknacks, toiletries, tools, and other necessities at the various stands.
I thought, “Great. Here’s Jon waiting at the car and we’re out shopping at a swap meet.” Then I realized that there were several vendors with new and used automobile tools and parts. We stopped to check the wares of each and I was delighted to see some fan belts, but we could not find one that would fit the Dart.
We drove another quarter mile to a second swap meet and continued our search. The mechanic suddenly smiled and picked one up. He knew the size from memory and he was not wrong. I paid for it and we left.
It took a couple of minutes to install and his fee was ridiculously inexpensive so we added to it. Pleased, he took off toward town, that bent, comically-cantered pickup filling the entire lane.
Verily, that mechanic’s vehicle belied his profession. I was convinced he could have fixed its bent condition had he been so inclined. But it still ran, so why should he bother?
The incident taught me many things. My attitude toward the warm people of Baja and their helpfulness was reinforced. I again saw the mechanical magic performed by the people of rural Baja. I also learned to be more prepared. Since that trip I always carried a few hoses and belts and other emergency equipment into the wilds of Baja.
And every time I drive past Rancho El Progreso I smile, thinking about that miserable night spent trying to sleep on that rocky driveway.
Greg Niemann is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit Greg's website.