By Greg Niemann
Way up the canyon Bruce waved his arm that all was clear. I turned to the next dune buggy in line and gave it the go-ahead signal. It slowly climbed up over the rocks, negotiated the tight canyon curve and plopped back onto the sandy arroyo to rejoin the others.
It was the tightest part of this off-road adventure and we wanted to negotiate the narrow space one at a time as incredibly fast on-coming traffic had already come roaring down the canyon. While my group of 10 San Felipe-based dune buggies was out pre-running new desert tours, those heading in our direction were out pre-running the Tecate/SCORE San Felipe 250 off-road race, a shorter version of the Baja 1000.
Our objective was to learn a new tour route to take prospective dune buggy enthusiasts. It differed quite markedly from the objective of those coming directly at us – they wanted to see how fast they could drive over the same terrain. Fortunately only a short section of our opposite routes were the same, and most of that was a broad, sandy arroyo some 20 or so miles into the desert southwest of San Felipe.
It was back in March 1999 and it was the San Felipe 250 that lured me to town to help on a pit crew. While the racers were out pre-running, I looked up fellow writer Bruce Barber who covered San Felipe and the northern Sea of Cortez area for the old Baja Times.
My timing was perfect as Bruce, then President of the San Felipe Association of Retired Persons (SFARP), was leading a team of buggies out in the desert the next day and invited me along. Bruce, then 69-years old, had produced a very fine San Felipe Magazine and since my visit, has penned the book "...of Sea and Sand" (2003).
Bruce is a leader and knows and loves the San Felipe Desert like no other. "I think he knows every single cactus by name," admired Irene Smith, owner of Baja Creations, a boutique and craft shop in town.
I had respected his desert knowledge from those earlier columns of a decade previous and this day I was in for a first-hand lesson. As he led the procession of buggies out of town he regaled me with facts. He reminded me of the way James Michener began one of his epic novels. He started his one-on-one class on the area’s history by pointing to the barren and colorful hills and saying, "It started with the ice age." No lie!
He pointed to various colorations in the strata of the hillsides, naming the types of rock. He explained the forces of the area’s infrequent water, how it gouged the depth of the gullies and created temporary reservoirs. "I call that depression Cardon Lake," he said, gesturing to delineate the depression, making it obvious even to the uneducated that water had at one time been backed up there.
As he and his buggy cut new trails up the arroyo, his whole presence was one of enthusiasm. "Oh I love it out here; it’s so beautiful. It's incredibly interesting, and so vastly different each day," he exclaimed exuberantly.
We stopped for lunch, everyone setting up handy little collapsible tables and chairs. The group relaxed and enjoyed sharing and swapping tall tales and stories along with specialties from various kitchens. Bruce’s wife Freda was unable to attend this ride (that's how I gained a seat), but her short-lived chocolate chip cookies quickly gained a new fan.
Later, while drivers, spouses, the handful of accompanying kids and dogs explored the nearby terrain, a few lead drivers pored over maps and discussed routes. It was obvious they deferred to Bruce’s expertise, but he always made it a democratic decision.
While the others wrapped up lunch, I accompanied Bruce and another buggy driven by Lou Wells to explore a nearby arroyo. They wanted to see if it would link up with a road heading north. It didn't and we returned to report to the others. Bruce laid out the facts and let democracy take over. We were running late and rain was threatening. We could either head back the same way or continue around to the north by first going south.
As five of the buggies were based south of town at Laguna Percebu, those five drivers opted to return. Bruce lives in town and the other four lived north at El Dorado Ranch. They opted to continue. It was a good decision for all.
The other drivers had plenty of experience too. After all, they were the leaders for the organized off-road dune buggy trips then offered in the San Felipe area. They lead enthusiasts who arrive in San Felipe to the Giant Cactus Garden, or Shell Beach, or Indian Caves and Fossil Fields. They also visit any of several waterfalls in what from a distance appear to be dry canyons.
One of the drivers, Don Dunn, had become quite an expert in buggy design. He experimented building a different style buggy, a larger one for more passengers and payload. He also wanted larger front wheels. His unorthodox design that evolved has become known as a "Barney Car," in reference to the similar looking vehicle driven by the cartoon character Barney Rubble of the Flintstone fame. No one laughs at this car anymore, not after its performance in the desert. Bruce said, "They’re great. We were out on the beach the other day and those Barney Cars ran circles around me."
Bundled up for warmth in the cold windy air accompanying the ominous and threatening clouds, five of us continued on up the canyon. Our eyes stained to see oncoming traffic and a couple of times we moved off the rocky and sandy track to allow a racer to roar past.
It got colder as the wind picked up and finally large drops of precipitation started pounding our open cars, drenching my jacket and setting my teeth to chattering. Hard to believe it could be that cold in a place where summer temperatures rise above 100 degrees almost daily. Clumps of hail even fell before the storm passed on, pelting our exposed bodies with machine-gun staccato.
While uncomfortable, the infrequent rain brought a new dimension to the desert, heightening the senses. The pungent, sweet smell of damp sagebrush, ocotillo, mesquite and cactus mingled with the fresh wet sand creating an invigorating and bracing fragrance.
The road’s previous billowing dust had also dissipated with the rain, rendering a dark, not-quite-muddy, wet and fast dirt road, like that of a hosed down baseball stadium infield.
During the day I'd seen a red hawk, several quail and roadrunners, vultures feasting on a dead cow, three wild horses, numerous cattle, jackrabbits, skinks and lizards. I saw forests of giant Cardon cactus, several the size of the 42-footer that was dug out of the area in 1992 and shipped to Seville for the World's Fair.
I also saw a gritty group of people who appreciate the desert for what it is. Unlike the race cars, the vehicles of these dune buggy enthusiasts take their riders to a place, not through it. Even though it was a nasty day in the desert, I loved it!
(Likeable "Baja Lou" Wells unfortunately passed away in November, 2012)
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 Greg's website.