Beyond the End of the Road in Baja
Text and Photos by Stephen Ausherman
The map showed that the road ended in San Felipe. That was my sole reason for driving onward. I knew the jeep's alternator had self-destructed back at the Parque National Constitucion de 1857, nearly a hundred miles back. I didn't know what that meant, only that it didn't matter. I had a St. Christopher, and when you're driving through Mexico with a St. Christopher, nothing can go wrong. The saints are alive and working overtime in Mexico.
I pressed on through the desert, a shadeless plane of blood-red bushes, towering cacti and a carpet of sand burrs the size of golfballs. Mountains walled in the west side; the Sea of Cortez lined the east. But to the south, the desert's expanse seemed unlimited. Despite the map, the asphalt continued to unfold before me, unbroken, save for a series of dips, or vados, which allowed water to cross from the mountains to the sea on those rare occasions of rain. After 52 miles, the asphalt finally ended and I passed though the pink gates of Puertecitos, a bayside fishing settlement with a seasonal population of U.S. expats. It was mid-June, not quite summer. Puertecitos was practically a ghost town.
I stayed long enough to inquire about a hotel, but all anyone knew were rumors of a hotel. I did find a deluxe campsite in the center of town. Rumors of its proprietor led me across the street to the Puertecitos Post Office and the library. Either could've been mistaken for a phone booth, and clearly no one was there.
I decided to move onward.
The road, now rather resembling a dirt track, climbed precariously along mountain ridges and offered a view of the desolate beaches ahead: rocky cliffs flanking smooth water and stretches of coarse, white sand speckled with brick-red pebbles. Thatched-palm umbrellas provided the sole source of shade and the only hint of civilization. Nothing else upset the landscape. But as the sun began to slide behind the mountains and the sky turned a searing shade of orange, a disturbing thought crossed my mind --I have no food nor drinks, the alternator is shot, I've been warned to stay off the roads at night, and wherever I am now, it's not on the map. None of that really mattered because I had a St. Christopher.
I turned around and drove another 180 miles or so back to Ensenada. At last the engine quit, leaving me with just enough momentum to coast into a hotel parking lot. The hotel, however, had no vacancies. A bad omen, perhaps.
Not five minutes passed before someone figured that I was mechanically illiterate and offered to help me. Between my knowledge of Spanish and his of English, we had a working vocabulary of about 40 words. Despite that, he was able to reconfirm my suspicions that the alternator was indeed shot. (I still don't know what that means). He also took the battery out of his car to restart the jeep engine, slicing his hands open in the process. He asked for nothing in return. He just stood there smiling, waving adios, and bleeding from his palms as if suffering from stigmata.
Minutes later, the engine quit again, giving me just enough time to coast into the parking lot of another hotel - this one with a vacancy. I hadn't yet lost hope, but the problem remained that I needed to fix the alternator so that I could return to San Diego in time for my flight, which would be departing in about 27 hours.
I was musing on this small predicament when I turned around and saw - not 50 feet away - blazing red letters on a bright yellow garage: ALTERNADOS.
The next morning, it took all of one hour for the mechanic to push the jeep across the street, install a shiny new alternator, recharge the battery and send me on my merry way.
Yes, the saints are alive and working overtime in Mexico. And they would watch over me all the way back to the border at Tijuana. After that, I was on my own.
Maybe they got held up at immigrations, or perhaps they learned that I'm not really Catholic. I just know the saints were no longer with me because within the next 24 hours, my flight was canceled, an earthquake rumbled me out of bed, I got food poisoning from barbecue ribs, my tongue turned gray and everything in the jeep (except the alternator) broke down.
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