By Greg Niemann
Back in 1986 I set out alone from Cantamar with my Baja-based CJ-5 Jeep loaded with toys (fishing rods and spears, boogie board, inflatable boat, etc.), and emergency-related gear like plenty of water, shovel, and two extra gas cans.
Objective: unwind, surf fish, explore old missions and mines, take notes and photos for a few stories, cross to the gulf and drive up the old road to Puertecitos (today’s Highway 5) eventually reaching San Felipe to rejoin my wife and friends.
After camping on a deserted bluff overlooking the pounding waves near Punta Baja (south of El Rosario), I explored the San Fernando mission ruins, lunched at historic Rancho Santa Inez and drove out to the El Marmol onyx mine.
About 10 miles before the Cataviña/Santa Inez area, I stopped to offer assistance to a stranded Mexican couple. I refused his offer to pay for a gallon of my gas we siphoned for him. Little did I realize I would be on the receiving end of such assistance before the day was over. In Baja, help is generally freely offered.
Later I left Highway 1 and set off across the Laguna Chapala dry lake bed to begin my trek up the dreaded dirt roads up the gulf. The road seemed "a piece of cake" as it crossed the lakebed and entered the foothills near Las Arrastras de Arriola.
The vibrations from the road’s washboard effect were soon to take their toll however. Thump! Thump! I pulled over and through the thick, white cloud of dust saw a piece of my tailpipe in the road. I tossed it in the Jeep and continued onward.
The new graded road to Gonzaga Bay was still under construction, and just as the bay loomed into view, I had to rejoin the old road.
Alfonsina's appeared to be a cluster of homes on a sandbar off the bay. Heading for it, I was surprised at the depth of tidal water in the access road. One puddle was so deep, water flowed into the floor of the Jeep!
At the lagoon entrance at the south end of the appealing and inviting sandbar I noticed residents had even lined the road bottom with rocks and boulders for entrance and egress. But it still looked deep, so checking, I waded until my shorts were wet – and it was deeper still ahead! I decided to pass on Alfonsina's! I learned later that the highest tide of the month occurred the very hour I was there.
I should have camped nearby and waited because my troubles were about to begin. In the hills before Papa Fernandez's five miles away, I heard a "Pow" and felt the uneasy sway of a rapidly deflating tire.
I must have hit a protruding rock, sharp enough to puncture both right side tires. And these were big, heavy duty desert tires. I wobbled to the right and parked, and with only one spare tire!
Knowing Papa Fernandez's place had to be about two miles up, I started walking. I felt a little uneasy leaving all my stuff in the open Jeep, but knew that the people who inhabit and visit the wild hinterlands of Baja California are among the most honest on earth.
Just as I hiked up a draw, a stake truck came bouncing up the road behind me. The driver, a good-looking young man, stopped for me. I figured he'd give me a ride to the settlement ahead, but no, he took me back to the Jeep to see if he could get it rolling again. He was immediately willing to help without my asking; it was just the thing to do.
Back at the Jeep, it became apparent that even his innate resources were not enough. As the right rear tire was only three quarters flat, we tried to see if it would hold air. He removed a spark plug from his truck's engine, and used the compression of his running engine to inflate the tire. Unfortunately, it would not hold the air long, so we jumped in his truck and set out to find help.
My Samaritan told me his family owned the Las Encantadas camp about seven miles up the gulf. But home could wait; I needed help. He drove directly to a small fisherman's camp of plywood shelters just to the south of Papa Fernandez's.
No, no one had a patch. Yes, one of the fellows would help me change my tires if we could find a patch. With my willing worker also in the truck, we set out to find a patch and drove into "downtown" Papa Fernandez's, where a few small cottages ended at a hard-packed clearing adjacent to a small store and palapa. An American appeared from one of the cottages. He offered a patch and refused payment saying, "Favors have a way of coming back to you."
My Samaritan and I went to the Jeep but discovered the patch was useless without a tube and the tire was tubeless. Great. We threw the flat in the truck and headed back to Papa Fernandez's to hunt for a tube. Everyone looked around the compound. Soon an excited little kid emerged from a small shed waving a well-used tube that already had about 17 patches on it. Success! Sort of.
My helper added yet another patch but now mounting the ill-fitted tube into the large Jeep tire became a chore even with the engine-compression method of inflating. A bubble developed on one side, We dumped water, then oil on the rim so the tube would seat properly. It never did.
Back at the Jeep we put my spare on the front and the mishappen monstrosity on the rear. I paid my two saviors for their now over four hours of concern, help and time.
I had hired the helper outright and almost forced the driver to accept something for his time. I was then advised that the only place in the vicinity that “might” have some spare tire components would be at Punta Bufeo, a small development up the road.
Not graded yet, it was a brutal road, yet the jarring apparently helped the mishappen tube to seat properly and I arrived at Punta Bufeo as darkness was setting.
I set up camp on the beach and went for a quick dip to wash off the dust, and relax off the frustrations of a long day. After breaking camp I sought the proprietor of Campo Bufeo.
After an hour of searching through his accumulated piles of rusting parts and scraps, we found an old Chevy tire mounted on a rim that had the correct number of lug bolt holes, and spaced correctly, but the axle hole would never have fitted over the protruding front axle on the Jeep.
"No problema," he said. "If you get a flat on the front, you take your rear tire and put it there, and put this one on the back." His broad smile and irrefutable logic prevailed and I bought the tire and rim for an absolute-emergency spare.
It was 40 miles of very difficult road to Puertecitos, often called "Baja's worst." I set out full of anticipation.
The heat bore down on the Jeep. The 20 miles to Nacho's Camp was still bad; rocky ravines had to be traversed and sandy gullies negotiated. On a couple of occasions at rocky hills, I parked and got out to assess the road, to determine which tires I wanted on which rocks.
The volcanic cliffs north of Nacho's had been my greatest concern, having a history of proving superior to many vehicles. My father even had to get towed out after smashing his oil pan in there in 1977. Others have had to abandon their vehicles there.
But by June, 1986, highway crews were busy blasting and widening what would eventually be Mexico Highway 5. I felt exhilarated that the end was in sight.
Puertecitos glistened in its quiet, small bay. It looked as large as Acapulco to me at the time. At the town's sole restaurant the owner set three different cold sodas on the counter. I chugged them all before she had the cooler door shut. She looked at me quizzically, I paid, smiled, tipped my cap and walked out.
About 20 miles out of San Felipe, my clutch foot went all the way to the floor. No clutch! It turned out to be a screw that had been jostled loose – but I didn't know. I was afraid that if I stopped I might not get going again.
So I limped into San Felipe in high gear, lugging the engine and aimed the chugging Jeep toward the campground, relieved to rejoin my wife and friends.
In many ways it was a good trip. I experienced and photographed a lot of interesting and fascinating sites. But my difficulties became positive too. The way the people of Baja attack adversity with help and kindness almost made the adversity welcome.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.