Slowly but steadily we are making headway on decades of forgotten maintenance at this house. This week I cleaned up an original fan. The year 1965 was a long time ago for an electrical appliance. This fan made a classic racket when you turned it on. Since it is co-wired to the light every time a person goes into the bathroom the wacky fan comes on and starts making its loud rhythmic banging. Racket, racket racket….Nice cover for any bathroom noises but also a loud announcement that you are in the bathroom and kind of takes away from the soothing ambiance many people like when in using comfort closet. I presumed we would replace it. Wrong. Again.
Under Burt’s orders I dismantled the fan and clean it. Unlike current day appliances this thing was solidly built and came apart for easy access to its innards. Inside the vent I found a bunch of sticks and leaves wedged under the vent flap. Could a squirrel have lived here? With all that noise and vibration. It sure looked like it. Burt applied WD-40 to the moving parts. I marveled at the quick to judge bias that lead me to presume we would throw this away. It worked beautifully and is now quieter than a new fan. Yay, Burt!
Yesterday I took a long walk with the dogs. We made it to Fort Hunt and walked along the Potomac. Elvis is getting old and cranky. Mark my words. This is a bit of prepare yourselves for the inevitable. He’s approaching 11 and slowing down like he’s on a freeway off-ramp. I had to drag him home from yesterday’s walk. Burt and I have both faced death in traffic as Elvis refuses to cross a street at a proper pace. He’s nipped at us and even broken skin. We think arthritis might be to blame but he moves very well. He still jumps and gets up and down with ease. Anyway, I tell you this because yo love him too and I don’t want you to be surprised if the end draws up faster than expected. But I hope it’s still far off and we are in a long and gentle geriatric stage.
Sometimes you wish you remembered the origin of an idea so you had someone to blame. Burt and I and Al and Rachele hatched an idea to hike someday. That idea morphed into a non-hikey excursion when corporeal issues precluded strenuous hiking. Someone, it might have been me, thought let’s go see the hot springs on the other side. We can take a drive, see something new and have a fun day.
Hey, and this was my idea, let’s bring the dogs. Dogs love spending 7 hours cooped in a car doing nothing almost as much as we do.
Yesterday the plan was put into action. We drove south to Al and Rachele’s at Elias Calles. Perusal of maps revealed it was a shorter drive around to the other side from Cabo. Five humans packed into an SUV with two dogs in the hatch. Remind me I am too old for three across in a backseat for any drive greater than a mile. Burt forgot his map. Al only had one of the cartoon like tourist maps. Oh well, we’ll ask for directions when we get closer.
Olive rode the first 2 1/2 hours with her paws up on the back seat whimpering and panting on Rachele’s sister’s neck. What was worse: the whimpering and panting or me ‘disciplining’ Olive to get her to back off? Patty was tolerant. Olive was tenacious. I gave up trying to stop her. Clear of the convolutions of Cabo we headed north up towards Milaflores and San Antonio. Now this crayon map was not much help. We headed into Miraflores, as lovely a small town as you can find in Baja, and went in the general direction Burt thought we should go. A collective stop was called when we saw an official outside the Sierra de La Laguna Biosphere Preserve offices. This guy was named Silvestre (WILD in Spanish). Burt and he exchanged sentences out of earshot while the four of us watched. We headed down a road that Burt thought was recommended. It rutted out into a rancho yard. I guess Silvestre doesn’t know his way around. Or maybe it was another incident of a preposition being lost in translation. Maybe he said If you go that way you’ll have trouble NOT it is not trouble to go that way. We’ll never know. We turned around. We met a ranchero with an equally packed truck cab and he gave all of us directions. Mutli-layered directions. Choices. Collectively we opted for what consensus concluded was, “Go back to the highway, go to Santiago, 12 km to the left.” There was debate about the alternate route and a schoolhouse landmark. Consensus was we stick to the highway. No more dirt. Olive and Elvis breath too hard on dirt roads and the ladies cheek to jowl in the backseat did not like riding the corrugated gravel.
In Santiago we sought out an update to the previous advice. This man on the street alarmed us when he responded, “the hot springs were very, very far away.” His face was contorted in dismay. Like 12 km he sadly informed us. All of 8 miles. We had driven 2 1/2 hours. He was speaking English and we were speaking Spanish so maybe he mixed up his near and far. We’ll never know. We dug deep to find the endurance to cover the remaining 8 miles. Past the zoo. The well known zoo of Baja. Nobody I know has gone in. We are all much too scared of what we might see in a zoo. So, past the zoo, through the arroyo, and past some tidy houses to a guarded gate. Twenty pesos a person n we were in. Now to soak and recover from the arduous drive.
The east cape of Baja is much warmer than our side of the peninsula. I felt my leaden muscles move from stiff to limp. A bald sun beat down on a tight, hot canyon. The pools of El Chorro (the stream) are algae and fish filled and small. They are also tepid. It was hot so tepid wasn’t much of a problem but it made me wonder, when is a tepid hot spring enjoyable? Too cold out and you can’t get in. Too hot out and you don’t want to get in. Green and small and unappetizing were the problems. Road weary and hungry we crouched under a thorny bush and enjoyed our lunch. Canadians of the great plains can be quiet people. There wasn’t much to say about our underwhelming feelings at reaching the hot springs. No false praise to be found amongst this lot of don’t say anything if you can’t say something nice at all people. Myself included in that remark. Eye rolling and nose scrunching was about all that needed to be said. Even Burt didn’t have much to be jolly about.
Fortified with victuals we ambled about to see if we were wrong in our first impressions. Maybe we were too hungry to see the secret beauties of the soaking pools. A German woman was in the one person pool behind the dam. She exclaimed that the fish were exfoliating her skin. There was only room for her and the fish so we continued on. Upstream Burt spotted a precarious boulder with a blue and orange Virgin of Guadalupe on the face of it. She cast her protective gaze down upon the canyon and it’s fetid, tepid water. I was thankful that she was worth seeing. The dogs found the shallowly buried poop of humans. That makes for healthy neck drooling on the ride back. I’d seen enough it was time to go.
Rumors of lovely swimming holes further up the canyon will have to remain rumors. We left. I picked up a bottle of local honey on the way out. Al took us back by an alternate route and everyone but Al switched seats so we could wear out different parts of our anatomy on the drive home. Burt sat on the middle hump. We thumb wrestled. He won. Numbed by disappointment and car time we didn’t stop in El Triunfo or anywhere else. The dogs slept.
All in all it wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be here. I realized it was just too far for 5 people and 2 dogs. A camp out might have made it more enjoyable. Time to go up canyon in the early morning would have been fun. I hope Al and Rachele still like us after we shared a lame adventure with them.
Our second day in the Sierra de la Laguna dawned cold. I’d been in our tent for 13 hours and I still didn’t want to leave my down bag. Our tent was in the shade. Burt was out there somewhere laughing with Esteban, drinking coffee and soaking up sunshine. Time to get dressed and see what the day will bring.
Our camp area had a roofed outdoor kitchen, an outhouse with a wonky door I couldn’t properly close and two bedrooms. There wasn’t a bench, chair, couch, or stool to sit on. Some wobbly rounds of tree trunk made for terrible seating so I opted for the edge of the buildings slab. The lack of seating is my only complaint about the accommodations. Even the outhouse door didn’t bother me. But sitting in a crouch just above the dirt gets old. I’d rather lie in my tent than get a butt ache on a 6′ high slab reading.
Food on this trip was you feed you and I’ll feed me. I tried to convince Esteban that he could feed us but he wouldn’t so Burt opted for easy backpacking fare. Granola, cheese, tortillas, beans, spaghetti. It was boring but quick and easy. Esteban ate in his quarters so we wouldn’t drool over his Mexican mountain fare. He also ate at typical Mexican hours. Late breakfast, never saw lunch and late dinner. We were mostly gone when he was eating. I think the cultural differences are greater in scheduling than the actual food.
Esteban asked what we wanted to do on day two. Our choices were to explore the area to La Cascada (the waterfall) or climb Picacho. Picacho looms over the area like a ship’s prow breaking through sea waves. It juts straight up from the valley floor. The name Picacho means peak. That’s not very interesting in English. The Spanish name is more fun: El Picacho. After much discussion where we said nothing but,” sounds good, okay, we’ll follow you, uh huh, yes, okay….” it was decided that we would go see the waterfall. Our time for departure was malleable, too. We’ll leave soon. We’ll leave when my friends get here, we’ll leave now. We left abruptly, friends never seen, and Esteban mounted his mule and led us across the valley to the start of the drainage of the waterfall. At the creek’s head he said, “Have fun. I’ll see you later.” and turned his mule and rode away. He wanted us to enjoy the water in private. He suggested we swim and bathe. My kind of guide. No hand holding. No lurking. No babysitting. We had no idea how far we had to scramble to get to the waterfall but we decided to see what we would see. There was no way to get lost but a body could get hurt. This was a boulder choked gnarly stream bed.
Water is where the action is. Birds, frogs, and insects abounded. Spring was here. Catkins on the willows buzzed with bees. Frogs croaked until they heard us. We climbed and hiked up and around and through massive rocky detritus. Once in a while I’d spot a small ripple and ask Burt if he thought it was La Cascada. It never was. The pools made lovely reflection photos. I got bored with the closed in creek and hiked up to the rim to get a view. Maybe I could see the Sea of Cortez or the waterfall from up high. All I saw was another rim blocking my view. Burt came up and we had lunch while a group of young Mexican men passed by below. We shimmied back down over slippery oak leaves and tried to get to the waterfall. We found ice. We wondered if we were too tired to make it. The previous day’s journey had sapped us. Should we have sex? Frogs croaked, bees, buzzed, yellow-eyed juncos visited. We heard distant frolicking. La Cascada was in earshot. One more steep hands and feet slog up and over a mucky cliff and we would be there. Even Elvis needed help getting through. I was glad I had left my skirt at home. Burt and I reached the lip and looked over. That was close enough for us. It was 2:00 and we’d been out for 3 1/2 hours. It was uphill home but we likely wouldn’t dawdle. The boys left and we took advantage of the solitude. Then we headed back. It was a strenuous 1 1/2 hours up through rocky stones and slippery creek crossings. Esteban was waiting at the start. He almost looked like he was thinking about worrying about us. When we told him we had made it to La Cascada he was happy and maybe a bit surprised. It’s tough persevering through boulders when you don’t know how far you have to go. We might not have made it if we hadn’t heard the boys having fun. It was their laughter that carried us over the last messy climb.
So we made it back to camp. Esteban went for a siesta. We read. Burt made us an early dinner. Pasta bows, tomato puree, powdered milk, butter, onions and parmesan cheese. It was really good. Everything is good when you are cold, tired and hungry but this was good. As we cleaned up a man walked up with Esteban’s mule, a dead pig on Camila’s back. I woke Esteban. Cochi, cochi, chochi. This means pig here and means a lady’s personal bits elsewhere so be careful where you sling your Spanish. This pig was promptly skinned and butchered by Alejandro while Esteban stoked the fire and got pans and more fire wood. It was party time. As soon as all the work was done three more guys walked in with the two dogs that had done the killing. These 35 pound mutts were scrawny and submissive but they knew how to kill a hog. The deal is (are you listening Elvis?) you have to get it by the neck and hang on until it bleeds out. Our hog hunting dreams had just come true. People we were with had gotten a hog and were having a party. Time passed. The moon came up. It got dark. It got cold. There was no place to sit. I was a woman. I went to bed. So did Burt. These guys had a peaceful quiet party with lots of chortling. They had hiked the long way in and had a successful pig hunt. We fell asleep long before it was over.
While we slept Elvis sneaked out of the tent (HOW?) and joined the festivities. We were awoken to the gentle gnawing of a happy dog just outside our tent. We both presumed it to be one of the successful hunters not our dog (HOW?). Gristle and bristle and bone were lovingly chewed for a very long time. We fell asleep. Burt woke up and discovered Elvis was not in the tent. He called for Elvis and Elvis slunk in. Then the night’s party really began. Raw pig offal puked in a tent is the worst bodily excrement smell I have yet endured. I played dead. Burt persevered through 3 vomits of pig guts in the vacant slot between his head and the tent wall. He despaired of having enough spare clothing to clean the messes up. By our calculation Elvis had nabbed over 10 pound of leftovers. We quaked in our bags hoping he had only scored garbage and not an actual leg or rib cage.
In the morning Elvis could barely move. Burt got up and faced the music. No harm, no foul. Elvis was stealing parts deemed unfit for humans. Tails, toes, hide. The vomitus was laden with brushy bristles, shards of bone and pink goo. As I waited for the day to warm Elvis vomited for me. I gave up my bandana. I got up and dragged Elvis outside with me. He demanded breakfast. I gave him 10 kibbles. He promptly threw up two more times for a total of 6 witnessed events. We wondered if Elvis would survive his love of pig but we had a big day ahead of us and his indiscretion was not going to get in our way.
The 7,000′ peaks of the Sierra de la Laguna are the backdrop of our lives in Baja. Watching the skies color in the morning sometime reminds me of that old multi-colored Patagonia fashion logo. Much of the steepest country in the mountain range is a biosphere preserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Southern Baja was once an island and many of its flora and fauna are found only here. So you might be wondering what took us so long to get up into the high country. I can’t really account for that. Last year we had enjoyed a physically and spiritually crushing day long outing that could have put us off the idea forever but this year arrived with us fit and ready to go high. Esteban, our guide and mule wrangler, was contacted a date was set and off we went.
Loose Spanish skills cause the biggest problems when giving and receiving directions. Our laxity of understanding and propensity to believe we have understood found us at 6 AM Monday morning on the side of a dark highway wondering where Esteban might be. There was no yellow truck with mules. Burt and I and Olive and Elvis were sitting in our Exploder just 1 km past the new bypass’s junction with the old highway on the far side of Todos Santos. This is a blank spot on the unstable cell network of Baja. We both pondered that we saw a large truck about 5 miles back with its flashers flashing. It was too dark to see mules or the color. Maybe he was late. Maybe that was his truck. Maybe he was late. We had a few dropped calls where Esteban could be heard and we could here him but no possibility of explanation existed. This was a rocky start. Day light is burning. How long will he wait for us? Following our gut instinct, after all we both had seen the truck with its flashers, we headed back towards town. The cell phone rang and much harried Spanish followed. I slowly asked, “Estas en la nueva seccion de la careterra?” Sí. “We’ll see you in 10 minutes.” And so we did. It was Esteban sitting on the side of the road. He was 1 km past the junction of the bypass and the old highway on our side of town. We had gone to the same location at the opposite end of the bypass. His truck was white and his shirt was yellow. How embarrassing. I was looking for a camioneta amarilla and he was wearing a camiseta amarilla. Oi. We were only twenty minutes late.
Esteban is a retired back country fire fighter. He worked in the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains for 32 years. Now he runs the occasional guided trip for tourists. We’d gotten his name through word of mouth a couple of years ago. Esteban does not speak English and his Spanish is very Bajaian. Locals here can speak a murky version of the language. It’s like somebody from East Texas trying to understand somebody from Scotland. I think he is not a chatty man either. The typical rancher/ranger type all over the world is slow to speak. We followed him up a washboarded road for 40 minutes in the gathering light. Twenty foot cacti silently watched as we rattled by. At 7:30 our car was parked and our gear was left with Tomas, Esteban’s driver, for loading on the mules. Camila would carry our gear and un-named mule would carry Esteban. Esteban walked me about 100 yards up the trail and said follow the signs, see you later and turned back. Here we were. Walking. Up. Our destination was some unquantified distance of a lot away. It was very high and pretty far. Maps, books, websites and Esteban’s elevations all vary. We can safely presume we had 5,000′ to climb in about 6 or 7 miles. Those are the short values. We didn’t see Esteban for 4 hours.
I went into ultramarathoner mind set. Just keep moving your feet and you will get there. The trail is dessicated and floury. We are climbing a pile of loose sand with some rocks and roots to hold it together. I am glad to be in my cool Utilikilt, After an hour I stopped for 10 minutes. After another 59 minutes I stopped for 10 minutes. After a shorter while Burt and I stopped for 1/2 an hour. We got carried away discussing marital issues. No sign of Esteban. The dogs were happy. We saw a 4 point (8 in Mexico, they count both sides, we count one) deer buck, muscular and thickly furred. Somewhere around 11:00 a ranger on horseback blocked our way. We didn’t have the right permits. What permits? I explained our guide was behind us and that he should leave us to climb and go talk to him. He must have our permits. No can do said the ranger. We were in a Mexican stand-off. He stood there and stared. I sat under a scrubby bush to wait him out. Burt crawled in with me. The dogs were happy. We wondered how much day light we would burn sitting waiting for Esteban. I turned into a reptile. I had nothing to do but rest. Esteban showed up in about twenty minutes. He and the ranger had a mild exchange where I caught, “I know your boss.” The ranger practically dashed off. I guess we did have the right permits. Burt and I started back up, this time with mules on our heels. We arrived shortly at La Ventana a spot where you can see both the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. Only a couple of more hours to go. The vegetation slowly shifted as we climbed. Soon after La Ventana Burt spotted the first pine tree. I knew he would. I never notice things like that. I’m too busy listening to my heart pound and lungs wheeze.
Just before we arrived at the ‘Laguna’ Elvis and Olive got onto some cochi or hogs. Esteban had teased us that our dogs might bring us dinner. We have heard about these pigs in the sierra for years and did not take him seriously. All I wanted to do was get off my feet and here I was holding the mules while Burt and Esteban ran after the dogs running after the cochi. The forest was thick and sticker filled. I saw nothing. Noises came and went. Little piggies say wee wee wee while running all the way home. The soundtrack to deliverance looped into the nursery rhyme. Dogs baying (I think it was baying, I’d never heard Elvis sound like that) and pigs squealing and the mules looking deadly bored. Burt and Esteban both saw Olive racing after a pig her own size looking as happy as a dog can look. Olive must have got a fright because she broke off the chase long before Elvis. It got quiet. Burt called for Elvis. Elvis. Elvis. Elvis. I whistled. Esteban was looking for a pig. A long time went by. Maybe those yelps were yelps of distress. Maybe the Bobo got into something more than he could handle. Then Elvis suddenly appeared. With his tongue a foot long and his feet barely clearing the ground he sauntered out of the underbrush. Only the Bobo knows what happened and he’s not talking.
We arrived at camp in ‘buen tiempo” according to Esteban at 2:00. Our camp was in the fabled lake bad that gives the Sierra de la Laguna their name. In these mountains there once was a massive lake. Sometime in the 1870’s it drained by natural causes. The mountains still house massive quantities of water but it is all underground now. The lake bed is now a large, flatish meadow sprawling across a plateau near the very top of the peaks. We were only a short distance away from the the highest peak in the area, Picacho. Esteban offered us some bunks in the fire fighters cabañas but Burt wisely opted to use our tent. I was tired and weariness makes me more ambivalent than usual. I just wanted to lie down. As soon as our tent was up I went to bed and read my book. Burt fed me at 5:30 and we were asleep with the dark at 6.