Seventeen Days in Baja with Richard Shelton and I Still Don’t Know Dick by Ken Lamberton

On 4th of April it begins with getting lost. “Just head south,” Richard Shelton advises after we cross into Tijuana and end up heading east toward Mexicali on Mexican Highway 2.

Baja was Dick’s idea, something he’d wanted to do since a Mexico trip he took decades ago with his wife Lois and their friend, the poet Carolyn Kizer. I’ve lived in the Southwest for fifty years, but never traveled to Baja. So I was game. I’ve known Dick since 1989 when I walked into his creative writing class at the Cimarron Unit. Since my release from prison, we’ve traveled together many times, most recently to the Pacific Northwest so he could finish researching and writing his family memoir, Nobody Rich or Famous. Baja is our celebration for getting the book to publication.

“Blue Boy had no seats in the back,” Dick says as he reminisces about that trip in his unairconditioned ‘78 Dodge van. “Carolyn would sit in a folding chair, holding on and screaming on every sharp mountain curve.”

Dick still prefers Dodge vans. The one I am driving he bought a week ago, a brand new 2016 Caravan with power windows, GPS, and air conditioning. It’s bright red, the color of my blood-shot eyes and even plays movies, though not while I’m driving.

We spend our first night at San Vicente, a village surrounded by vineyards 300 kilometers south of the border, and founded in 1780 by Dominican missionaries. (Leave it to monks to know where to plant grapes.) At the “Mini Hotel” next to a Pemex station, I park in front of a yard full of roosters. “Un cuarto, dos camas?” Dick asks the proprietor, a woman who thinks we are family. I’m impressed with his language skills. “I’m a professor and this is my student,” he tells her in Spanish as a way of describing our relationship. Neither one of us has
been in a classroom for a decade. It won’t be the first time our relationship is questioned.

We take dinner in, crunching on vegetables and crackers. I roll up peanut butter burritos while Dick sticks to pretzels. Real Mexican fare. We should shower after a day on the road, but we’re suspicious of a bathroom whose floor is several feet higher than the bedroom. Dick says there isn’t any hot water anyway.

In Baja, I discover, the roosters crow at night. I start practicing some Spanish of my own: “Un cuarto, dos camas. No pollos por favor!”

At El Rosario I have one destination in mind: Mamma Espinosa’s, also next to a Pemex Station. The place is famous for its lobster rolls, but I’m on a mission: to find and eat the best fish taco on the peninsula.

However, I can start with lobster.

“No,” says our hostess.

“Okay, how about tacos de pescado?”

“No fish,” she says.

I order huevos rancheros.

When our hostess leaves, Dick says, “Red tide. I hear it’s affecting all of Baja. You won’t get any fish for the entire trip.” I don’t want to believe him, but I know about red tides, how the microscopic dinoflagellates create gorgeous bioluminescent oceans but poison shellfish. When our food arrives, he unfolds a tortilla and holds it up to the light in front of me. “Look at this,” he says. “Who needs fish? You know you’re in Mexico when you can see through the tortillas.”

Outside the restaurant, I stop to admire several cirios someone has planted in large terracotta pots. Our first boojums! The towering succulents look like pale, inverted parsnips, alien trees you might find on a Gene Roddenberry set. They are a teaser for what is to come as we head into the great Desierto Central of Baja and the Valle de los Cirios.

Fat-trunked elephant trees, spiny cardon with multiple columns like giant uplifted fingers, and boojums. Boojums! This is a desert unlike I’ve ever seen. Green with succulents that stand against white granite boulders the size of Spanish casitas.

We’re in a Lewis Carroll mood. We wander among the strange forest like the Butcher and the Baker hunting the Snark, taking our own paths and losing ourselves among the thimbles, forks and hope. Back at the car, both of us a bit sun-blasted and heat-stroked, Dick begins quoting Carroll’s whimsical poem, “Jabberwocky,” and for many long hours it is all Jujub birds, vorpal blades, and frumious Bandersnatches.

We cut through the heart of boojum country to the tiny fishing village of Bahia de los Angeles. Our guidebook tells us that once only thatched huts dotted the shoreline but since its “discovery” in the 1940s, the place has become a tin-roofed favorite for yachters, kiteboarders, anglers, and naturalists. I have kayaking with whale sharks on my mind, though I’ll settle for the more mundane sea lions or bottlenose dolphins. Dick has something else on his. “The book claims electricity made its way to the bay a decade ago. Maybe we’ll find a hotel with hot showers.”

We drive around taking in an air wet with pungence as if it were rising from the gullets of seabirds. North of town we find an off-grid, solar-powered commune offering a room with four beds on two levels that smells like a port-a-potty. Nope. South of town the “Best in Baja” has cabins on the beach with crumbling, musty walls. We settle on Guillermo’s Place, a restaurant-bar-mini-market-art-gallery-curio-shop-and-hotel. Clean, simple rooms overlooking the water where brown pelicans post themselves on abandoned pilings. “Agua Caliente?” Dick asks the owner. “Si. Por supuesto.”

That evening, at a beachfront palapa of ancient palm fronds, our host takes our orders and delivers ice-cold Tecate. A trio of cats waits patiently with us at our table, hoping for handouts but settling on crickets as tasty as shrimp by the look of it. Dick eats pescado veracruzano, impressed with the foilwrapped fish, tomatoes, peppers, and green olives. The olives he leaves on his plate. “I’ve read that chefs here are working to create their own unique Baja style, blending traditional Mexican and Mediterranean cuisines,” I say over my fish tacos.

“Okay with me. As long as they don’t adulterate their tacos with capers.”

In the morning, wake-up comes in the pre-dawn darkness with the roaring of Evinrude 2-strokes at the boat launch. No pollos y no pangas, por favor! I think. The gulls are laughing.

I take a long run across the mudflats at low tide, dodging armies of fist-pumping fiddler crabs scurrying around my Vibram-soled Merrell’s. Most seem to be left handed. When I return, Dick has coffee.

“They have rolls, too,” he says. “I got this, but it’s kind of hard.” He hands me a football-shaped loaf.

“Bolillo!” I say. “My favorite—you can live off these! I take a bite, but it’s Styrofoam. “What? You stole their decorations…?”

Dick thinks this is funny, that I would so easily fall for his stunt, and he’s still laughing when I step out of a cold shower. “You get used to it,” I say, drying my hair.

“After your first heart attack,” he adds.

We spend the hot morning watching the gulls drop clams onto the rocks to slurp out their innards. Although Dick prefers the “friggin’ frigate birds,” I decide that turkey vultures are the quintessential bird of Baja. They’re everywhere. They stand outside our room on poles, staring at their feet. When an emaciated dog sticks his head in at our door, Dick invites it in. The stray retreats to a cool spot under the nightstand next to Dick’s bed.

“Look, he wants to join us for a siesta. Good perro,” he says, instantly enamored with the sad animal.

“He’s sleeping in your bed, not mine,” I say.

At noon, I leave Dick in our sweltering room with his friendly perro and rent the only kayak at Guillermo’s. The flat water mirrors a silver sky where the tide slides landward as the earth spins beneath the ocean’s lunar bulge. A slight breeze touches my face. Perfect. I aim the kayak for Isla Cabeza de Caballo across the bay and don’t return until near dark, paddling for hours among the bulbous heads of sea lions.

For dinner, I try the special, Guillermo’s Callus— scallops wrapped with bacon and grilled in garlic. The ubiquitous chips and salsa, con cerveza, con sopa de cebolla, a thick dark broth with sliced onions under a mat of manchego cheese. Dick orders pescado veracruzano a second time. Under our palapa, we eat alone except for the same three cats.

In the morning, Dick goes for coffee, since the coffeemaker in our room seems only for decoration. Like the bread that’s plastic, the faucets that run only cold, and the air conditioner that does not. When he returns, he informs me that he is not taking a shower until we find a hotel with hot water. While we pack for the next part of our trip, he says, “There’s a third remote control. I don’t know what it’s for.”

Is he pulling my leg? I think. I pick it up and press the power button. The air conditioner fires up. We will be out the door in fifteen minutes, but at least the room will be cool.

In the late afternoon of Day Four, we come to the town named for the Spanish knight, turned hermit, turned priest, theologian, and founder of the Society of Jesus. Our guidebook says that if we were to visit one mission in all of Baja, it should be the 1760 San Ignacio de Kadakaaman (“Creek of Reeds” in the language of the native Cochimi) for its restoration work and the role it played in Jesuit history. Dick is all about Jesuit missions. We venture off the highway and drive through the largest forest of palms I have ever seen. A spring-fed oasis of palms among the rock-strewn canyons and mountains of the Desierto de Vizcaiño. Someone has switched out the brown crayon for green.

Stained light and the hot breath of hundreds of votive candles presses against my skin. Like every 18th-century Spanish mission I’ve ever visited, this one carries the tang of burnt stone and wax. The smell of something holy.

In the shadow of the mission, a man stands in the doorway of Victor’s Restaurante. “Where’s the best food in San Ignacio?” I ask.

“Right here,” he says, pointing to a table on the street surrounded by dogs. His name is Victor.

We order cervezas. Chips and salsa appear. “There’s a law in Mexico that says you must have food before you can have a drink,” Dick explains. “This is how chips and salsa were invented.” He repeats this claim whenever we ask for cerveza and our host drops the basket and bowl in front of us. “See! It’s the law!”

I explain my own theory that chips and salsa were invented by Saint Ignacio, who added cheese, and people ever afterward called them “nachos.” “Those Jesuits were always adding dairy products to the local cuisine,” I say.

The Jesuits established Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé fifty years before San Ignacio, and the church on a bluff above the Río Santa Rosalía is our next stop. While Dick tours the restored mission of mortared stones, I climb a stairway of rock to stand eye level with turkey vultures. The river with its broad margin of palms cuts a green swath through brown hills where the colonial town of narrow, paved streets rises in the distance.

Later, we walk the town looking for a panaderia for pan dulce and bolillos. At El Candil, under palms and blooming bougainvillea, we sip from bottles of Negra Modelo. I order the tacos, fish grilled in a bright-red, smoky chile marinade and slipped into warm corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, and pico de gallo on the side. I don’t know it, but my search is over. These are the best fish tacos I will find in Baja. The best in my fiftyseven years, in fact.

On Day Six we make Loreto, more than a thousand kilometers down the peninsula. I go for a run along a beach where the margin between desert and sea is a thin line drawn in white sand. Where osprey and pelican perch on spiny, guanowashed cacti to scan the flat water for fish. Where stripe-tailed lizards zip across heaped-up beds of oystershell.

When I return, Dick says there is no hot water. Again? He’s informed the front desk, so he says. “Turn the right knob— it’s tepid,” he says, as I pull off my sweaty clothes and grab a towel.

I turn the left knob, the one marked “C,” thinking maybe the faucets have been reversed. Hot water! Then I recall that “C” means “Caliente”—hot. We’ve had hot water all along! Or Dick has had hot water all along!

I imagine him lying on his bed, hands behind his head, a huge grin on his face. Heart attack my ass….

By La Paz, I know I can’t trust Dick but I learn to trust the truckers. They use their left turn signal to indicate when it is safe to pass, especially on narrow mountain roads. Dick, on the other hand, isn’t so sure, so this is my payback. Now, I’m the one grinning while he grips the seat and holds his breath.

Hotel El Moro is an oasis of coconut palms and fountains, even the swimming pool is a fountain of falling water under a wooden suspension bridge. Mexican women stroll by, carrying straw-pierced coconuts the size of my head: “agua de coco.” Mariachis in bright charro outfits perform with violins, horns, and guitars, their voices spreading into the streets. As the sun drops in the west, I walk the malecón among the strollers and skaters. On benches facing the bay, some neck while others hold hands. I’m the single gringo among Mexicans on holiday. Sculptures of leaping whales, mermaids swimming with dolphins, and a boat-clad fisherman decorate the promenade. I stop to examine one that at first I think is a tribute to the tourist—a thin, sunburned, grinning man with glasses and camera. Then I notice the scuba tanks. It’s a statue of Jacques Cousteau!

By Todos Santos we are ready to quit. Seven days. Enough driving. Time to break for the beach. Maybe for a week.

In a town where “every road leads to a beach” we find Posada la Poza and meet Jörg and Libusche, a Swedish couple who came to Mexico to open their restaurant and hotel twenty years ago. Libusche studied art in Prague and her emotionally expressive paintings hang on the walls in every room. Jörg takes charge of the kitchen, combining local organic produce and seafood into a fine fusion of Mexican and International dishes. Dick is impressed with his parrotfish veracruzano. But it is the couple’s rescue dogs that win him over.

From our shaded porch, Pacific waves crash in the distance as a steady roar. A breeze pushes through the palms and across the saltwater pool. Belding’s yellowthroats wichety wich from the reeds along the lagoon. Another endemic bird, a Xantus’s hummingbird, glitters green and cinnamon at a hibiscus flower. This is it. Dick plants himself in a lounge chair with a book and glass of tequila on the rocks. “Welcome to paradise,” he says.

We spend the week writing and hiking along the shoreline. The 18th-century mission town is still a center for agriculture because of its freshwater spring but now more a haven for artists. It offers galleries to peruse among 100-yearold brick buildings like the Hotel California, and a panaderia with yeasty bolillos that melt in our mouths.

At Punta Lobos to the south, I watch as fishermen pull their pangas through the rough surf. The first plays out a long line as it shoots the breakers, then waits, bobbing among the swells before gunning its outboard and pulling the second panga through the waves trailing its long line for the third panga. On and on they go. The first motoring off into the ocean for a day of fishing after launching the second that in turn launches the next. It reminds me of how teachers prepare the way for their students, who, in turn, prepare the way for the next to come.

Dick writes a new poem about the selling of paradise, which he discovers is better as prose. I look up a poem he remembers publishing years ago about the little dogs of Mexico. “It is the season of rain,” he begins. “I am lonely and afraid in a dark land….” Then in the final stanza: “Little dogs are everywhere. They know I have come a long way and cannot go back, that I have come to sell myself, and they know how much will be offered.”

In the end, we return the way we have come, as most do, stopping again at Vincent’s in San Ignacio for a repeat of the best margaritas in Baja. Dick says that after paradise, San Ignacio is his favorite spot on the peninsula. I love the smell, the rich taint of life lived in one place. I even love the little dogs resting at our feet as we eat. The next day, while diving into the great Vizcaiño Desert of Baja, we both begin scratching at red welts rising on our skin, and I wonder if the little dogs of Mexico came with little Mexican fleas.

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