By David Kier
Let’s have a look at some of the first books that inspired our grandparents, parents, and us to take the peninsula plunge!
Following World War Two, with the creation of the Jeep and Power Wagon, there was now a more secure means to travel beyond paved highways. The desire to explore and experience fabulous fishing and hunting opportunities was high among the returning soldiers and sailors. Mystery author Erle Stanley Gardner, a fan of the desert, mentioned a Baja map that was labeled ‘unexplored’ over much of it. Gardner had to see it! His first Baja California travel adventure book was published in 1948. It had the title, The Land of Shorter Shadows. It would be the first of many other such books to 1968. My favorite one was his 1967 Off the Beaten Track in Baja. Thank you, Perry Mason (Gardner’s creation, and income source for exploring)!
In 1953, four outdoor enthusiasts, who used 4x4 camper trucks, traveled the length of the peninsula. They took many photos, made a short movie, and produced the book, Baja California by Ralph Hancock. One of these four men was Mike McMahan, who began producing large wall maps of Baja California in 1967 (his first two color maps are shown). For twenty-five more years, new editions were created to keep up with the new changes. McMahan also wrote his first book in 1973, and it was the terrific, There it is: Baja! In 1983, it was reproduced and revised in paperback with the new title, My Adventures in Baja.
Many other travel adventure books appeared in the 1950s and 60s, almost as if everyone who was brave enough to drive the peninsula was compelled to write a book about their adventure!
The Automobile Club of Southern California produced folding road maps and small guidebooks from 1930 to 2010. These were very popular, and free to club members. Most editions were brief in detail but still provided a degree of comfort to travelers, with fuel and water locations. The early auto club maps included labels showing fishing and hunting locations with the species possible to catch. The final guidebook editions grew in content covering much more of what was available and were very helpful. The final guidebook was published in 2004. See many of the auto club’s Baja California maps, here.
The first, very-professional guidebook, with accurate, detailed maps, came from Howard Gulick. Howard traveled the peninsula extensively in the 1950s and 60s by Willys-Jeep Wagon to document every road, with an exact mileage, location descriptions, and road details. Along with historian Peter Gerhard, they co-authored the hugely popular Lower California Guidebook. The first edition was in 1956, with updates and increased content in following editions of 1958, 1962, and 1967. Reprints to meet the sales demand were made in 1964 and 1970. When the paving of Highway One was completed, a total revision was made in 1975 by Walt Wheelock, owner of La Siesta Press, which produced several smaller Baja guidebooks. Walt and Howard had worked together for the City of Glendale, CA. The new edition was renamed Baja California Guidebook. It was reprinted in 1980, with a different cover.
The single book that may have had the biggest impact on introducing the fantastic fishing that brought fishermen south, was Ray Cannon’s marvelous 1966 Sea of Cortez, published by Sunset Books. It was a best seller for years, and rightly so. Many other books on sailing, boating, and fishing the waters off Baja were also quite popular.
In 1970, with driving Baja’s backcountry roads becoming very popular, Cliff Cross authored a very successful Baja California guidebook that featured easy to read maps, with a bird’s-eye view, as well as hundreds of photos. Updated editions followed in 1972, 1973, and 1974.
A new series of Baja California guidebooks was born with the completion of Mexico’s Highway One, also known as: The Transpeninsular Highway. The most popular was probably Tom Miller’s The Baja Book, with multiple revised printings and new editions from 1974 to 1996. NASA Satellite imagery was the source for maps. The final edition was produced by Ginger Potter, following the death of Tom Miller. Ginger was the daughter of Mike McMahan and with her husband Chuck Potter, traveled, fished, and lived in Baja , all of which began because of her dad’s fascination with the peninsula, which Ginger shared.
Fascination with history, missions, cave art, and old mines was also a reason to explore Baja California. While it was fishing that initiated my family’s first Baja trips, seeing so many artifacts of the past and reading of how many more existed inspired us (and others) to return south.
Beginning in 1967, Harry Crosby was hired to photograph El Camino Real, the mission trail, from Loreto to San Diego. This was for a book about the founding of San Diego and the 1769 Alta California expedition to Monterey. Harry was fascinated with the old trail, abandoned in most areas, overgrown, but visible for long distances. Still, it had a charm and a mystery of how it came to be. In 1974, Harry wrote his detailed look at his travels on the old trail, called The King’s Highway in Baja California. During his research, Harry would come to know and appreciate the hard working mountain ranch people of Baja California. He had to discover their roots and how these families came to be on the peninsula’s mountains. In 1981, he wrote The Last of the Californios about a people, trapped in time, living much like their ancestors did in the 1700s. Through his connections with these mountain people, he would see the fascinating cave art found almost everywhere in these mountains. His first book on the cave paintings was in 1975, but that would blossom into many new editions of The Cave Paintings of Baja California featuring color photographs and maps of the cave sites. The final edition was in 1997 and continues to be a top seller.
Through my collection of Baja California books, I continue to be inspired to write about this amazing peninsula. The attractions remain endless. Be it for recreation, fishing, exploring, off road travel, or hiking, the possibilities of making discoveries never ends. There are far more books from the 1940s to 1970s that inspired travel, this is just a small sample. Do you see the book that inspired you to see Baja before the internet? Thank you for letting me share some of mine.
David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler, author of 'Baja California - Land Of Missions' and co-author of 'Old Missions of the Californias'. Visit the Old Missions website.
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