Thursday, April 23, 1998
SAN JOSE DEL CABO, MEXICO -- When camping in northern Minnesota the precaution that must be taken against black bears eating your food is to place it all in a Duluth pack and, using a rope, hoist it high into tree. Camping on a beach in the Baja one has cows to contend with. Although a cow is not apt to chase you up a tree en route to absconding with your vittles, it will never the less come into your campsite and will, despite your banging on pots and pans, eat your food, including your trash.
Cows in the Baja have free reign. Cars hit them on the road. Bicycles, trucks, and jeeps hit them off-road. There are no fences along the highways. Only recently have ranchers begun to complain that the government should pay for fences on roads that course through their land. One can hike into the most remote areas of the Baja and find cow pies. The Baja likes to claim the whale as its spiritual symbol, but a more representative embodiment should be obvious.
As it is, my dog could not be happier. With a plethora of bovine potentially around every corner, Zelda travels in the van with great anticipation. Her rear feet dance on the passenger’s seat as she stretches out the half-open window, ever alert; head far enough forwards to see in front of the windshield, 270 degrees. For hours she is content to alternate between that and having her nose pressed to the dog snot-besotted windshield, front feet firmly planted on the hard plastic dashboard, frantically fearful of missing the appearance of a cow. For thousands of miles she will refuse to sit. She will refuse to leave her seat to walk two feet to the water dish. Every so often a single bark will well up from deep within her, completely unrestrainable. Perhaps a series of several barks, seemingly prompted by nothing at all. She is the vision of the contented, albeit perhaps consumed, dog.
The Baja is a Mecca for all dogs cow-obsessed. Because of the cow’s close proximity to the road, all vehicles must slow down as they come upon groups of these clueless menaces. Perhaps nowhere else in the world does this particular species of dog have the opportunity to release an onslaught of canine verbosity with such intimacy, with such guaranteed frequency, as in Baja California. A frothing, rapid-fire tongue-lashing can be directed at cows not ten feet away. Big glazed-over cow eyes looking at nothing particular. And if such a rabid torrent of dog spittle should prompt a cow to hasten its gait, God forbid, to run? To the discerning human there becomes detectable a slight, almost imperceptible increase of dog mania; the barks become raspier--the capacity of the throat to accommodate such abuse stretched to its maximum; the volume is well into its
v-u meter’s red zone. A certain superego overtakes the dog and she is elevated to almost mythic-dog proportions. And as the vehicle again attains cruising speed, the dog lets go with a great, demonstrative, self-satisfied snort. "Take THAT! You stupid cows!" and re-prepares.
So it is with much relish that Zelda rose to the occasion and answered the call to protect our campsite-under-the-tree from assault-minded bovine. All it took was for Paco, his wife, Roxanna, their one-year old daughter, Mayel, myself and the dog to leave en mass for one brief boat ride, for Zelda to discover the import of the duty that was to be placed on her shoulders. We returned to a campsite in disarray. Fishing poles on the ground, lucky not to have been trampled. The table cleared of its contents. Gone were our tortillas, coffee, vegetables, pasta, crackers, and melons. Gone was all the dog food. Trash bags that had been hanging from low branches were shredded, contents dragged and strewn about. We each had our job descriptions and Zelda’s had now become indisputable.
Zelda had the night watch. Baja cows are well known for their nocturnal character. Inevitably, during the campsite’s inactivity, cows would slowly, like Cows of the Night of the Living Dead, close in. Zelda never slept--her ears were always erect. As soon as the cows were within ear-radar, Zelda would go into action. She had them moving. Going from one to another, they all received her attention. Barking at them and nipping at their heels, the cows retreated into the thorny scrub. Proud but humble, she returned to her semi-somnolence, curled next to the tent housing la familia de Paco. During the day, when a cow would emerge from the fringes, they never even got close.
Come morning, no questioning glances were issued by Zelda as Paco and I set out for a morning’s fishing. As much as she relished a day on the briny, she knew her place--there under the big tree, watching over Roxanna and Baby Mayel, making sure that no cows came to visit while the boys were away. Upon our return, she was there to greet us, lying in the shade, her tail wagging just enough to let us know she was glad to see us, but there was need to have hurried home.
I feel confident it would be the same with black bears.
Sometimes I have this strange feeling I was meant for something other than drivin’ around in a car. Oh sure, it’s great. There’s always good music. And lots of sleeping when we finally get where we are goin’. But when I get around cows, well, there’s somethin’ more at work here. As much as I detest these creatures, I think I belong around them. They get me goin’. I know what to do. I chase them. I make them go where I want them to go. They listen to me.
Like the other day. Peter and me and some other humans are out driving around. Then we stop for a while and hang out. There are cows around. I can smell them. And then what? They come right up to us! Walk right in like where do they think they are?! I take care of ‘em. I tell them where to get off. Get outta here you stupid cows! Now! And you’re not moving fast enough!
I chase them all into where they can’t be seen. Outta here! I know I did good. This is what I am supposed to do. No one has to tell me. I know what to do. I feel good. I feel proud. I strut back to the people. Head up. Tail up, waggin’. It feels great to be able to contribute. Peter takes good care of me. The least I can do is keep the cows away.
The other day he went out in the water in the car. Normally, I’m there, man. Standin’ up front. Barkin’. Diggin’ it. But I felt I was needed elsewhere. Back with the other human and her little human. I could tell she liked havin’ me around. I felt important. It was up to me to protect everyone, ‘specially at night.
Those cows don’t sleep. They love to come around at night. They sneak in. But I never sleep either. There is part of me that’s always awake. My ears stay awake. They let me know if they hear something. Then they tell me. The other night I had to chase them out. Stupid cows! Think they can sneak up on us?! HAH!!
Getttttttttt OUT a here! Stay out! I am here…can’t you get that through your stupid cow heads?! Sheesh. Sometimes I think my talent is being wasted
I have always said camping in the Baja is the best there is—and this is coming from a guy who has spent his life camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and it doesn’t get much better than that. But this year, for one reason or another, while in San Jose, I have not done as much camping as I normally do. In the past there was always The Boys to camp with. One day, 24 hours is all we had, since they all had only one day off each week, Monday. We would depart San Jose about four in the afternoon, Sunday, drive two hours, drink most of a case of beer along the way, stop for more beer along the way, get to the camp site, drink all the beer, go to sleep, spend most of the next day doing whatever, having no beer left to drink. But Jimi is no longer around, off to who knows where, and he was always the spirit of the group. The rest of The Boys are still in town, but, after coming down to San Jose for four years, they no longer are the only people in town I know.
To camp in the Baja you need to bring plenty of shade and water. There are thousands of miles of beach from which to choose a camping spot. Most beaches are tough to get to from the road, but when you do make your way to one, it is normally fairly deserted—with the exception of during Mexican holidays.
Two favorite spots are five miles apart: Cabo Pulmo and Playa Los Frailes. There is a little beach at Cabo Pulmo that can comfortably accommodate three or four groups. The snorkeling is superb and if the wind isn’t blowing directly at you, it is well protected. Late spring/summer is the best. Los Frailes is protected from the prevailing northerly gails and is good all the time. There are more people, but you can launch a boat here, which is difficult at the Cabo Pulmo site.
With the boat I went camping the other day with my fishing partner, Paco, and his family—his wife Roxanna and their one-year old daughter, Mayel. At Los Frailes there is one great campsite—the one with the tree. And it is a great tree. We arrived at Los Frailes mid-afternoon to a deserted beach. We had our choice of camping wherever we wanted. We took the tree. Trees along the beach are rare in the Baja so it was with obvious relish that we strung up our hammocks and to lie in the generous shade.
For them it was the first time camping in the Baja. Originally Paco and Roxanna are from Mexico City. They moved to Chaipas and built a house. They left Chaipas when the trouble started. Paco makes and sells jewelry and right now, there is no better place in all of Mexico to make money, than the boomtowns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. This is their first full year here.
In the morning Paco and I fished, having brought along the sweet 14’ Prez Ja. We fished three times and caught one pathetic sierra. Spear-fishing I was able to pop a yellow tail snapper, a good sized triggerfish, and out of a school of a couple thousand, pick out a couple lookdowns. Paco forgot the cooking oil and we had no butter so we grilled the lookdowns using a homemade fish rack. They were very tasty.
(Triggerfish are tough fish. It is not uncommon to see entire triggerfish skins on the beach, the rest of the fish, except the bones, having rotted or been eaten away. The skin does not decompose. And they have an incredibly powerful
dorsal and similar opposing fin which are like giant "triggers" that can wedge the fish into a hole in the rocks or coral, where nothing will remove it. They also have sharp front teeth and jaws that can bend hooks. While cleaning the triggerfish, I wasn’t paying attention and my finger got within striking distance. The triggerfish bit my finger to the bone. My whole hand went numb. The bite bled for two days. I’m not complaining…it was only fair.)
In general it was a relaxing couple days. I got some work done, read, fished, and swam, and Paco and la familia just kicked back. Zelda kept the cows away.
When the time came to pack up and head back, the beach was still deserted. We played some frisbee, Paco’s tosses frequently forcing me to leap into the water to preserve the catch. But the time had come to take the boat out.
It was hot and the sun was brutal. (When I got back to the hotel, I heard "eye, negro" from a couple people, and, believe me, I was quite tan before that. Paco says he never gets tan--he gets a shine. Paco is a dark Mexican.) Usually at Los Frailes there is someone with a four-wheel vehicle to help you take the boat from the water. Not that day. Using the trailer secured to a post, we winched the boat out of the ocean and up the beach. It took about an hour, necessitating numerous separate winchings and the expulsion of a lot of energy. In retrospect, I suspect I suffered a little dehydration. Water was at a premium. Ask anyone who has undergone a serious dehydration and they’ll tell you how scary it is.
(Surprisingly, the one other time I entered a state of dehydration was in the middle of winter, in the middle of a seven-mile lake, on the Canadian border, while ice fishing. It was night, we were on our way back to the cars, and all I wanted to do was curl up on the ice and go to sleep. If it weren’t for the others in the ice fishing party—all of who were suffering some effects of dehydration themselves—I would have wandered aimlessly on the frozen lake or simply closed my eyes and drifted off. I just made sure I never lost sight of the person in front of me)
On the way home we had a couple beers and a lot of water.
When I returned to the hotel I unpacked the van, showered, drank a lot of water, cooked up the triggerfish, some potatoes, cut up an avocado, had a cup of coffee, and lied down to read. It was eight-thirty. I read for three minutes. The next thing I knew it was ten-thirty. Time to go to bed.
Note: Last month when I was last at Los Frailes, there was some confusion as to what was legal camping—the feds were there trying to explain it to the campers.
In talking with long-time campers it seemed that the owner of the little hotel at the far end of the beach was trying to prevent any camping at all on the beach. He wanted the entire beach at his hotel’s disposal. Upon this most recent outing there were new signs up stating a long list of things not to do, such as fish. Somehow Los Frailes got lumped in with Cabo Pulmo as a protected area. Cabo Pulmo is a reef—a spectacular reef. Los Frailes is just a beach with a lot of expensive real estate surrounding it. It is not hard to see what’s going on. The people with money want the beach to themselves. Simple. They don’t want campers. They don’t want fishermen. They don’t want to share the beach with anyone who isn’t in their income bracket. Less low-lifes/higher property values.
The Baja is a great place. Its beaches are some of the finest in the world. But as the world discovers it and people with money invest in it, it is going to disappear.
It is going to be denied to the people. The rich will keep it for themselves. And if there is any country where privilege can be bought, it is Mexico.
Ecologically, places like Los Frailes are not threatened by the beach camper or the person who fishes in a boat that can hauled across the sand. They are more apt to suffer from the hands of unscrupulous commercial fishermen, especially of foreign origination, or from the effect of land developers.
Wait until the hoard of America’s Baby Boomers liquidate their assets and begin to search for a place to retire. They’ll just pack up what’s left, put it in a truck, and just drive across the border. As my friend, Paco, says, "The Baja? It is America." If it’s America now…by tomorrow, they’ll never know what hit ‘em.