“I’ve got electricity, a hot shower and a television set!” he announced, followed by “Heh heh heh!” that slow staccato laugh that I would learn to love.
Herman Chester Hill was a constant in Bahia de Los Angeles from the late 1980s until his passing on December 6, 2013. When I first met Herman in 1992, it was quite by accident. He was a stranger who saw this mom and her young son walking past his modest home in Guillermo‘s campground. My son had his fishing pole over his shoulder, we heading out to catch our dinner off the Villa Vita jetty. “Come back and show me what you catch” he said, followed by that flirty catch phrase that I would hear him use repeatedly on others, for such things were a luxury in Bahia at that time.
The last thing I wanted to do was go back to that fresh man's house, but my son caught a nice halibut and was insistent. I am glad I listened to my three-year-old boy that day.
Herman has been my Baja dad and my children's grandpa ever since. He has been many things, as I would learn over the past 22 years. Some of his adventures and occupations were believable, others were a bit questionable, and if you knew Herman, you knew not be surprised.
I was not surprised to know that he was a gambler, loving the Keno boards at his favorite casino, the El Cortez in Las Vegas. He was a rocket scientist one day, a census taker the next as he interviewed hotel guests under the palapa at Guillermos. One summer afternoon I had to swim out in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez to find him under his straw hat, where he was a climatologist that day, as he claimed to be conducting experiments as to how long it took to drink a margarita while floating in the sea of Cortez.
He was a blue eyed, red headed son, a loving brother, an uncle, a husband, a father. He was a Seaman in the Merchant Marines; he also served in the Navy during WW2. Herman was very patriotic. He never lost the love for his country, as evident every year at his hot dog and apple pie party when the July 4 holiday rolled around. He was an avid miner, a gold prospector, often taking to the deserts around Bahia for weeks at a time in search for gold.
Herman was happy to act as a guide, sharing his knowledge of the ancient petroglyphs, the desert plants and their medicinal uses, how to track and look for signs of animals or areas to avoid. He loved to point out the rock formations, the wonderful “leaverite” that would have his guests elated at holding something valuable in their hands, to laughing as he would then add, “Leave ‘er right where you found it, it’s worthless.” He was a friend to the lost or as often happens in Baja, the stranded. He had an open door, a cot for the night, a pot of beans and something cold to quench the thirst.
Herman loved to entertain tourists with his tales of people and places, his risqué jokes and old Navy songs. Every day was his birthday. He was a storyteller from the beginning. A published author, writing short stories for The Nevadan in the 1970s, as well as his pride and joy in 2008, Baja’s Hidden Gold: Treasure Along the Mission Trail. That book was a work in progress; I can tell you that, after many, many hours of reading his hand written notes under the dim light of his propane lantern after the town electricity had gone out. Many thanks to his friend Roger Silliman (contributor) who was the one to make Herman’s dream a reality, a friend to finally put Herman’s stories of his interesting life, prospecting perils, Jesuit treasure hunting, and local Bahia lore into paperback book form.
If you visited with Herman during the warmer months, you could find him in the early mornings enjoying coffee with the sunrise, over looking the sea under Guillermo’s palapa. Later in the day you probably sat at his red picnic table on his patio, maybe dodging a few humming birds here and there. You may have joined him in a game of cards, a tour of his garden, maybe a cold beer and a story or two. In the winter, Herman would be warmly closed inside, happy to turn down the volume to the western playing on the TV as you walked through the hanging wooden beads that hung in the door to help keep the dogs and the flies out.
On Friday morning, December 6, 2013, Herman closed and locked that door for what would be the last time. He planned to attend a birthday party in Ensenada on the following day. The accident logbook on the Caminos Federales desk in San Quintin showed that Herman went off the road at Km 199 +100m. Sadly, the accident happened on Friday and was not reported until two days later, on Sunday December 8. We can only hope he did not suffer. From the amount of skid marks at this location, it appears this deadly curve has been a problem for others as well.
Herman was an icon and will be missed by many, townspeople and visitors alike. His legacy has left a mark on in the original mining display from Las Flores, which he helped to construct at the Museo de Naturaleza y Cultura. Herman lives on in our stories now. His family has graciously allowed Herman’s cremains to return to Bahia, to be a part of the history of this beautiful place, where he loved to be.
As he would always sing as I drove away from his house, "Good night Irene, good night Irene, I'll see you in my dreams..."
In addition, I would answer, "Happy Birthday, Herman!"