"Baja is stunningly beautiful, challenging and never dull. It has opened my eyes to so much," said author Graham Mackintosh as he pondered the spiritual nature of his rugged journeys in Baja California. He had just returned from a solitary five-and-a-half week trip exploring Isla Angel de La Guarda, living in a tent at the edge of the Gulf of California and making drinking water from the sea. We met at the Splash restaurant just south of Rosarito for an afternoon of good conversation. To punctuate his words, a brilliant display of the Pacific’s tidal surge crashes onto the volcanic rocks sending a plume of iridescent spray into the sky.
Graham realized as we talked that April afternoon that it was almost 30 years to the day that he set out on his first Baja walkabout at the age of 32. Starting from San Felipe, this tenacious Brit began an almost two-year journey to circumnavigate the Baja coastline, learning about the peninsula in a way that few people will ever know.
His first book, Into a Desert Place, revealed his true grit in the face of the numerous personal and physical challenges he faced. For the next two years he will be revisiting some of his favorite places and people, admitting the adventure will likely lead to another book. “For me, the experience of being alone and physically challenged and sometimes a little overawed is crucial to my desire to write books. And Baja has taught me to live simply and given me time and freedom to do that.” He laughs and says about writing and publishing his four Baja books, "Then you are selling them for the rest of your life!" The most recent idea was born from feeling there was a need “to tie up some loose ends and expand on the insights gained over the years, to understand why I keep returning… I feel tireless in Baja and I seem to have a hidden energy source I find nowhere else. I just know it is the right place for me.” Graham admits the reason for the attraction might always remain a mystery and he may never be able to account for it.
The first location he has chosen to return to is Isla Angel de la Guarda off the coast of Bahia de los Angeles. It is dry and desolate and uninhabited, 40 miles long with little vegetation and water. "This time I had a hand-pump reverse osmosis desalinator capable of yielding over a gallon of drinking water an hour. Up to 30 gallons a day!"
I asked him why he chose a place of such austerity for his stay. "The attraction may be feeling like I’m the only person to have walked there," he muses. "It was unlikely that anyone would visit and I felt really alone, losing any feeling of self consciousness and being led deeper into my heart and soul. And it has something to do with the personal challenge that comes from knowing that you are completely responsible for yourself and your decisions. And that gives me such a feeling of energy and freedom."
In his last book, Marooned with very Little Beer, which describes his previous two-month 2006 trip to Guardian Angel Island he writes of this. And his most recent adventure to this island is captured on his website along with his clear storytelling style.
He quips, "I have nothing against comfort, but you know you can’t just head off and go for tacos and beer." He admits that at about five weeks he began to miss his family and yearn to do a little socializing. "Apart from a couple of halting radio conversations with folks in Bahia de los Angeles 20 miles away, I never spoke to anyone in five-and-half weeks except to Larry Ommen, an LA Bay fisherman and his boat companion who knew my Spot location and came out to the island twice with more water and much appreciated fresh food and other treats."
His next journey in May of this year will be one of his biggest challenges. He is setting out with a couple of friends to try to climb the 10,124 foot Picacho del Diablo from the plateau of the San Pedro Martir National Park. Admittedly not a climber, he is preparing as much as he can. "This is not a national park like in the U.S. I have to be responsible for every step I take. A fall or a snake bite could put you in real trouble."
"Before I undertake a challenge like this, I force myself to consider every possibility for things going wrong, and research as much as I can all previous attempts where people have got into trouble and been injured or even killed. I think it’s important to go into this with eyes wide open and feeling a certain amount of tension and anxiety. You really need a little fear, a little pressure to keep you focused and alert. But not too much so that you feel overwhelmed." "All my Baja journeys have started with that uncomfortable tension, then over time as I settle and gain confidence the feeling begins to change. When I realize I can handle it, I relax and begin to enjoy it and everything is in perspective.” I told Graham I thought this sounded like a philosophy for living life.
"Picacho del Diablo, Devil’s Peak, it’s a fitting name?" He looks inward before he speaks. "It might be wiser to leave it to much younger people. It is not so much the naked granite peak itself, but with the approach from the west, from the park, there’s a 3,000 foot, almost sheer drop into a canyon choked with trees, boulders and brush, and then there’s an exhausting struggle up the other side. That’s the killer."
"The climb and return to the canyon bottom is probably too intense for a day trip for us, and we may have to stay overnight on the mountain at possibly freezing temperatures. Carrying enough water is going to be problematic. It might even be beyond me. But I will at least try and see what happens and be prepared to leave it for another day if necessary."
I cannot help myself; I have to ask him why this particular challenge out of so many extraordinary Baja places? He laughs and answers like all true adventurers have answered, "Because it’s there! It’s Baja’s highest peak."
For all of Graham’s books and to read about his latest trek to Isla Angel de la Guarda , visit Graham's website.
Martina's email: mteomaya(at)gmail.com