John Steinbeck wrote of Baja California: “If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen. The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water. But we know we must go back if we live and we don't know why.”
How does a British self-proclaimed “couch potato” find his way across the ocean to walk the perimeter of the Baja California peninsula and not die? Beyond all reasoning of the mind, he followed the strangest impulse. He has in fact survived nearly 40 years of his Baja experiences and written four books that chronicle each step of the way; following the shoreline, through the deserts, up to the highest peaks and being stranded on an island in the middle of the gulf with very little beer. And finally this mad man of the wilderness has come home to roost in northern Baja to make his home in the land that has filled his heart for so long.
Most “old timers” know Graham at least through his books. Now a whole new generation of people are finding their way to Baja, leaving behind the increasing stress, following their own need for a connection with wild nature. Baja California has undiscovered wilderness and places with profound silence of an open sky and gentle waters touching a white sandy beach. Graham has brought to the reader what it is to risk everything in order to follow an inner call, changing his life forever.
In Into a Desert Place, he set out into the unknown. He thought himself prepared with just the equipment and water he could carry on his back. His preparedness was challenged every step of the way. His hiking boots fell apart, he rarely knew where fresh water was to be found, and he looked for rattlesnakes under every bush. The snake became his nemesis for fear of being bitten, yet also being a life sustaining food source. Stung a number of times by scorpions was nothing compared to running out of water and finding himself wandering delirious between Loreto and La Paz. Without water and severely dehydrated, he had lost his way. “It was the scariest moment of the whole trip,” he admits. When he heard a voice, he thought he was hallucinating. Yet a miracle happened in that moment in human form. Francisco, a young Mexican boy, appeared, took the backpack, lead him down to a fishcamp where the family cared for him. There were those times of exquisite peace in the stillness of being alone, when he opened to a profound sense of his true nature. “I was surprised by what was happening to me and the way I was looking at the world was changed.” He completed the 3000 mile walk in two years and wore out 7 pairs of boots. He wrote, “Perhaps when we are alone, we can escape from the fads and fashions of society, find our real selves, have our psychic powers unleashed, and gain an insight into the future...”
Out of the blue and years later, Graham realized he had to go back into the Baja desert. After 3000 miles on foot, carrying his water and supplies on his back, he decided to let a burro carry the load. This second book, Journey With a Baja Burro, records his plan to follow the mission trail from Tecate to Loreto. Mexico’s Tecate brewery sponsored this trip so that he could fully outfit himself, plus giving him all the beer a burro could carry. He would travel inland to walk in the footsteps of the padres, who began building their missions to save the souls of the natives. Graham did extensive research and there are wonderful excerpts from the padre’s own journals. It is a rich travelogue of the earliest written records of the peninsula. However, what is most striking about this second book is his relationship with his burro named Misión. First, almost an adversary, Misión fought Graham for control, sometime flopping down in the dirt refusing to get up. Other times Misión, upon hearing the call from free range female burros, forced Graham to chase after him. Many a foul word was heard by the local cactus. It is hard to know just how many little baby burros Misión left behind. Graham’s writing is a delight with a natural ability to create humor from his many challenging experiences. As Graham and Misión travel together, a bonding out of need for one another took place. When Misión steps into quicksand and begins to sink, we realize how much we love this burro.
So what do you do next after covering 4000 miles by foot and writing two books? First you adopt two street dogs and decide to take them to camp with you in the Sierra San Pedro Martír, looking across at Baja’s highest peak, 10,000-foot Picacho Diablo. This venture is a trek into another kind of wilderness with rugged trails and tall pine trees. Here the majestic Condor still soars above. Graham again writes with great humor and the title of his third book, Nearer My Dog to Thee, reflects his wit. When Graham goes on a camping trip, he means business and he spent four months dodging lightning strikes, writing and playing with his pooches.
With a relentless wanderlust, Graham takes to the water in Marooned With Very Little Beer. This was a two-month kayaking, camping and walkabout on Isla Ángel de la Guarda. There was no [drinking] water on this island and so running out of beer was an even bigger issue. But with some help from locals in Bahía de Los Ángeles, he was close enough to have both delivered, though infrequently. Challenged this time by poachers, feral cats, little beer and his old nemesis, scary “giant rattlesnakes.”
An excerpt from Into a Desert Place reads: “It should be the duty of every man and woman to take themselves into the empty corners of the world, to be truly alone and receptive, to see who they are and where they're going; and, if they glimpse there a worthy destiny, to espouse it with confidence and faith...”
Now from his mountaintop home in the quiet pueblo of La Misión, northern Baja, Graham writes his fifth book, recording his kayaking trip along the Gulf of California coastline from Bahía Gonzaga to La Paz. He first walked this nearly 40 years ago. This trip features a “sit on top” kayak, loaded with nearly 400 pounds of equipment, and of course, beer. The readers will learn how he reconnected with many of the people who befriended him in the 1980s, supporting his journey along the way and after all this time they called out, “Welcome back!” Graham knows the true hearts of the Mexican people and affirms, “I was met with hospitality everywhere I went.” So, is there an end to his adventures? He laughs and says, “I’ll be finished when they carry me out in a box. I belong to Baja and those who feel they belong. I never get tired of it. To me, it’s sacred and a never-ending source of inspiration and adventure.”
Martina's email: mteomaya(at)gmail.com