By Greg Niemann
Vince and I scrambled up the rocky bluff from the beach. At the crest, we looked back to catch the early morning sun bouncing off the ocean. We were rewarded with a silvery, shimmering and glossy sea. Lost in our reverie enjoying the tangerine sunrise and hearing the waves hit the cobbles below, we were startled by the din of thundering hooves.
We heard them before the beasts came into view; then about a dozen spirited horses galloped straight across the field toward us. At first we thought they were wild, not seeing the Mexican kid astride one of the rear horses, whipping his steed with a piece of leather.
I wondered if they would stop their momentum before reaching and perhaps plunging over the cliff. But stop they did. Raising a tremendous cloud of dust, the horses put on the brakes just a few feet from the precipice. Like the horses ridden by the riders at a Charro rodeo, these horses raised their heads, put their feet together and lowered their rumps to stop on a dime. Most of these horses, however, carried no rider and seemingly relied on instinct to bring them to that dramatic screeching halt.
Once we saw these animals headed directly toward us, we crouched behind the crest of the hill. When they finally came to that panting-filled stop, we dared lift our heads. Through the dust we were able to make out the kid who had driven this small herd to the brink of the cliff.
The boy, only about 10 years old, jumped off a horse that seemed way too big for him, confidently swaggered up to us, smiled, and said in broken English, “You want ride horse?”
Four guys set up camp
Our relief at not being overrun by wild animals was another highlight of that impromptu camping trip to Baja. My older brother Fritz, then 22, and his buddy Dick were headed for the Rosarito Beach area and invited me to bring a friend along.
Vince, 18 like me, was more than eager to join us. Over the previous two years, he and I had partied in Tijuana a few times with a couple of other buddies, but had never taken the time to venture south of there. In fact, it had been more than a decade since my family used to go camping in the sand dunes south of Ensenada in the mid-forties.
On the way down Vince and I tried, but couldn’t talk Fritz and Dick into stopping at any of the Tijuana nightclubs he and I had enjoyed on our earlier excursions. As we were invitees, it was the older guys’ show and they just wanted to hit some waves for body surfing. So, with regret and nostalgia, we drove right past the familiar twinkling gaudy bars along the bright and busy Avenida Revolución.
Maybe nightclubs weren’t on the agenda, but a little booze was. We stopped at that last liquor store on the south side of Avenida Revolución just before the turn to the old road which at the time wound south into the darkened hills. We bought some inexpensive rum, quart bottles of Coca Cola (a novelty at the time) and some blue metal cups to mix our potions.
It was night as we drove through the little village of Rosarito Beach. Just south of town was a small bar and a motel/trailer park (Rene’s, a long-time landmark), and south of that nothing but a grassy plateau for miles. We pulled off the road just past Rene’s and made our way to the narrow beach.
There, at the base of the bluff, we set up a hasty camp, merely pitching sleeping bags on the ground away from the cobbles and the high tide line. We looked out over the dark ocean and the lines of white froth perched atop the waves. Although surfing was just becoming popular in California and my brother was getting pretty good at it, nobody brought boards. But we were all veteran body surfers and were looking forward to challenging the waves.
Then we sat around mixing liberal warm drinks (we forgot ice) into the utilitarian metal cups. As the night wore on the moon joined the millions of brilliant stars in illuminating the landscape. Our campfire, which had aided the rum in providing warmth, also created dancing light to supplement the wondrous skies.
We were at once peaceful, powerful, content and happy to be alive. Vince and I regaled the older guys about some of our wild forays into Tijuana. I don’t believe Dick quite believed all of our adventures (He was quite a sheltered kid), but we delighted in telling them anyhow.
The camaraderie was a feeling of invincibility, of warmth, of a glad-to-be-in-Baja freedom that we four reflected on as we kicked out the embers and snuggled in our bags for the night.
A pack of dogs
A pack of dogs woke us early. They barked and yipped and ran around in circles. They were lean and hungry strays staring, barking and snarling at us, defiantly standing their ground from only a few yards away.
A concerned Vince reminded all of us that roving packs of dogs can be vicious and dangerous. I wished he had kept those thoughts to himself, but it definitely got us wondering.
I stretched from the warmth of my sleeping bag to grab a few cobbles lest they attack. But our alarm was for naught, as the dogs were probably hungrier that anything and once we started to ignore them, one by one they loped off down the beach.
It was still early when Vince and I climbed that bluff to survey our surroundings. We hadn’t planned to go horseback riding, but this Mexican kid’s hustle was irresistible.
“Okay,” we said, and the boy set about finding just the right horses for us. We mounted our selected beasts and clip-clopped off, leaving the adolescent holding the reins of his horse while the other horses stood around checking to see if there might be anything interesting in the grass.
We rode all over
We rode all over the place, back down the ravine to the beach and along the tide line, the horses kicking water and carefully sidestepping kelp, rocks and sea shells.
We went back up to the highway, then just a two-lane paved road through the center of what was a town in those days. No other roads were paved and there was not even a stop sign in town to thwart the meager traffic. The buildings were set back, yielding dusty approaches from the road. Aside from Rene’s and the grand old Rosarito Beach Hotel around which the town grew, there was little else there, basically just a few small taco stands, shops, and stores.
Finally hungry, we rode to a small cafẻ across the street from the Rosarito Beach Hotel. That site would for many years be the bus station for a city which would grow to about 100,000 people. Back then it was one of the few businesses in a small town.
We dismounted and tied our horses to a post out front (just like in the Western movies). We then proceeded to pig out on tacos and frijoles. Something about the setting and the day rendered them the best I’d ever had.
Sated, we headed back. It was early afternoon before we returned the horses to the kid on the bluff. When we asked how much the rental was, he shrugged and said, “One dollar, Señor, one dollar each.”
Vince and I looked at each other, smiled, and paid him. We also gave him some candy and other treats we’d bought in town. He quickly became the happiest kid in Rosarito Beach. They were simple times, those 1950s.
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.