My grandfather, “Pappy” Hazard, came to San Diego from Arizona in the 1890s. A real-life cowboy, he raised cattle on ranches spanning both sides of the border. This was back when there was no real border, when immigration wasn’t legal or illegal and the only thing that divided our two countries was a lonely outpost on a dirt road going—as Jimmy Buffett would say—“South.” Pappy made his living building highways, and in his spare time he hung out with people like Erle Stanley Gardner. Erle created Perry Mason, one of the TV shows I grew up on. He was hooked on Baja and explored the peninsula by truck, homemade ATV, helicopter, airplane and even a blimp. He wrote several entertaining books about his escapades that you can find in public libraries. Pappy’s in one of them—Mexico’s Magic Square. In that book, published in 1968, these old dudes in their 80s explored the remote areas between Tijuana, Ensenada, Tecate, San Felipe and Mexicali. They camped. They rode horses. They cruised off-road on homemade ATVs called “Butterflies” and “Grasshoppers.” Pappy, a notoriously lucky poker player, whipped them all at cards, and Erle documented it.
My dad, “Togo,” was born in 1922. His first trip to Baja was in 1931. This was back when it took all day to get from Tijuana to Ensenada on a windy little dirt road. The only access to Punta Banda, where Pappy had a fishing shack, was via a road that could only be negotiated at low tide. Otherwise it was under water. A far cry from the easy two hour drive these days…. My mom, Dorothy, swore she’d never had her toes off Wilshire Boulevard until she graduated from high school. She wasn’t very outdoorsy, but that didn’t stop my dad from taking her to Baja in 1949, right after they got married. He was so excited, she told me. After all, he was taking her to one of his favorite fishing haunts and showing her his little Baja “casita” in Punta Banda. Just imagine her shock when he drove her down a long, winding dirt road and pulled up in front of a tiny, one room, dilapidated fishing shack with an outhouse in back! There were dust bunnies, daddy longlegs and spider webs everywhere. Everything—especially the sleeping bags—stunk, like very old, very dead fish. And stale sweat. They were full of sand too.
Obviously, my dad learned something that trip about places that are and are not “chick friendly.” He was astute enough not to take her back to that shack. But he took her plenty of other places, and she grew to share his love of Mexico, and Baja in particular. And me … my first trip south was in 1957, when I was five. My first really big trip, though, was Easter Vacation, 1961, when I was eight and my sister, Nina, had just turned seven. We drove with our parents to the Tijuana airport and boarded a DC 6 bound for La Paz. Two-plus hours later we landed in a tiny airport pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. It was hot and dusty, and the air was ripe with unfamiliar, pungent smells. As we got off the plane, my dad grabbed both Nina’s and my hands and pulled us over to this really tall gringo in a cowboy hat who was surrounded by people. He and my dad chatted a moment, then he crouched down and reached for both of us, just as my father whipped out his camera. Nina jumped onto his knee; I held back and stayed next to my dad. It was John Wayne. Nina had her picture taken with him.
Our whole week was as magical as that moment. We stayed at a hotel right on the bay. Every morning we went out sport fishing and anchored off a different beach on Isla Espiritú Santo for lunch. The first day out, Nina and I ate the entire picnic the hotel had packed for our family and the boat’s crew—by 10:00. We weren’t very popular that day. In fact, we had to cut the trip short because everyone (except the two of us) was ravenous. Our mom taught us to snorkel on that trip. We swam through schools of yellow and gray-striped sergeant majors, spiny brown-spotted blowfish and rainbow-colored parrotfish. Nina, already showing signs of the scuba diver she’d become, dove at least twelve feet down to the reef below, searching the cracks between rocks for those devious, darting flashes of fluorescent blue, yellow and turquoise—those tiny, exotic tropical sea creatures that were the most spectacular of all. She found them, and an eel too. It leered at her from between two rocks, scaring Mom and me back to the boat.
We hunted for shells and picnicked on the sand. Nina and I ate tacos for breakfast every morning (we still do whenever possible) and every single piece of clothing we tossed onto the floor of our hotel room was washed, ironed and folded when we returned after our daily adventures. I met a girl named Frances Cuvi from Mexico City on this trip, and over the years we visited each other several times, staying in each other’s homes, going to each other’s schools and exploring each other’s lives. We lost touch after high school, but reconnected via Facebook several years ago.
And my kids? I have two—Gayle and Derek. They’re married with kids of their own now, but both of them first traveled south of the border when they were in my belly. For a good part of their childhoods, they spent most of their vacations and weekends in La Bufadora, just south of Ensenada and a three-hour drive from our home in San Diego. So … that makes us four generations of Baja Aficionados. Well, five now, actually. Lennox, Gayle and Mike’s son has already been to BCS and is coming back in a few days!
If you aren’t a Baja lover yourself, you’re undoubtedly wondering why we’re all so enamored with a foreign country. Well, let me share a couple of secrets about Mexicans. They believe that life is to be enjoyed, that integrity is paramount and that God and family are more important than money. They may live in a what the US media has termed a “third world country,” but guess what? I’m not buying it and neither are they. They don’t think they’re deprived. They think we’re fairly ridiculous with our obsession to hoard and discard possessions. Raise the hood of any ancient (but roadworthy) Baja troque—truck—and you will instantly appreciate Mexican ingenuity. These folks are more resourceful than you could ever imagine. They’ve raised recycling to an art form. And—they will use even the lamest of excuses to throw a fiesta. There are more holidays in Mexico than anywhere on earth, thanks to the ample number of saints’s days and political events they have to celebrate. From gray-haired grannies to Pampers-clad toddlers, everyone gets into the spirit of revelry. Food abounds, cerveza and tequila flow and music blares.
As a kid and as a teenager I loved going on trips to Mexico. It was my favorite kind of vacation. We got a camper as soon as they hit the market. We went camping on deserted beaches in northern Baja—places like Kilometer 181—and learned to make tortillas from a little lady who cooked over a stove made from a steel drum. We camped in the San Pedro Martir Mountains at the Meling Ranch and rode with cowboys. We camped on the beach in San Felipe at the northern end of the Gulf of California. We flew into remote places like Bahía de Los Angeles and Mulegé—places that were unreachable except by air or dirt road until the Transpeninsular Highway (Mex 1) was paved in late 1973.
I lived here in southern Baja from 2003 to 2009 and then spent a few years back in the States. But the irrepressible lure of Baja drew me back, and I’ve been here since January 2014. It is against the backdrop of its mountains, lush deserts dancing with cacti, surprise oases and endless empty beaches that we Baja Aficionados connect with the essence of who we are. I—like everyone else whose soul has been captured and forever held prisoner by Baja’s unique magic—am humbled by the vastness of its emptiness, the wildness of the waves on the Pacific, the clarity of the water on the Sea of Cortez. I wander outside at night and am stunned by the profusion stars. I walk the beach every morning with my dogs, laughing as I see pods of whales frolicking offshore. The moody mountains rising sharply above the palm huerta and the desert foothills are always a reminder that this is like nowhere on earth.
I’ll share with you one of my favorite quotes—from John Steinbeck’s book, The Log of the Sea of Cortez: “The very air here is miraculous, and outlines of reality change with the moment. The sky sucks up the land and disgorges it. A dream hangs over the whole region, a brooding kind of hallucination.”