May 4, 2003

By Michael Strickland


When one travels south of the border, the potential for adventure rises by an order of magnitude. While Mexico certainly has the amenities one expects in an industrialized nation, the extremes are more extreme than in the United States. The natural beauty is more untouched, the external stimuli more raw, the events more unpredictable. Add in the human element—from colorful vendors who just won't give up to stone-faced, machine gun-toting federales—and a trip to Mexico can have the experiential effect of wandering into a Fellini film.

Having said that, however, our weekend in Baja more closely resembled American television than Italian cinema. "MacGyver" emerged as the theme of the weekend, at least with regard to those of our group who camped down by the stream. Despite the good times we had on Saturday, the weather proved unpredictable. After we returned from our hiking expedition, the already-cloudy skies darkened and soon began to pour down rain. Those of us staying at the ranch either retreated into our rooms for a nap, or took shelter in the bar (always a good choice on a rainy day). The campers, however, had to contend more directly with the inclement weather.

Necessity being the mother of invention, MacGyver was reborn at Mike's Sky Ranch. Parking Drew's Land Rover alongside Christian's Rodeo, the campers strung out a tarp between the two vehicles to provide protection from the rain. Since this solution only provided cover, not comfort, they adapted Christian's REI cot, standing it on its end to create an A-frame structure for the shelter. MacGyver still wasn't done, however. Extending the cot's legs and putting some firewood to creative use, they built a small counter area where they set up the camp stove. The net effect was a slick little kitchen and living room area, a comfortable haven out of the rain. MacGyver would indeed have been proud. As we would find out later, however, the rain shelter was just the warm-up act.

Sunday dawned clear and bright. On the agenda before our return to the States was a visit to the L.A. Cetto winery in Baja's emerging wine producing region, in the Guadalupe Valley northeast of Ensenada. Eager to allow enough travel time to ensure a leisurely wine-tasting experience, some of us got an early start. Splitting up our caravan, two vehicles—Lory, Sirpa and I in the 4Runner, Tom and Mike in the Toyota pickup—headed out while the others broke camp and prepared to depart. Our group made for Ensenada, following an alternate back road back to asphalt.

We made good time on this graded dirt, stopping for a photo op here and there amongst the chaparral and cacti. As we rounded one bend, we picked up speed on a straightaway. Suddenly, a group of armed men emerged from the brush to one side of the road like dusty phantoms. Adrenaline instantly surged as I caught sight of automatic weapons being turned toward us. We were in the middle of nowhere, and at first glance, these Mexicans looked like they'd been living in the bush for days. Were they bandidos? It certainly didn't appear to be a normal checkpoint. In the lead behind the wheel of the 4Runner, I slammed on the brakes as one of the men raised a .45 in both hands. As we came to a stop alongside the weather-beaten group, we recognized the fatigues and insignia identifying the men as federales. I breathed a little bit easier, though the glazed, half-wild look in the eyes of the man who questioned us kept my nerves jangling. After the briefest of interrogations about where we had come from, however, he waved us on through. Before the adrenaline rush had peaked, we were on our way once again.

When we arrived at L.A. Cetto ahead of the others, we relaxed on the winery's sunny veranda while we waited. As time passed, and the others had still not showed up, we bought and shared a bottle of chardonnay. One dead soldier later, still a no-show. By this time, we were growing concerned, as our rendezvous time had passed over an hour ago. So worried were we that we decided to join the last winery tour of the day.

After buying some wine and getting back on the road without meeting up with the others, we knew something had happened to prevent them from joining us. Since we lacked cell phone coverage, however, we had no choice but to head for Tecate and points north. As we crossed the border, Lory's cell phone beeped. Several dropped calls and voice mail messages later, we pieced together the story of what had happened.

Somewhere on that same dirt road where we'd encountered the phantom federales, Drew's Land Rover lost a small but crucial piece of the ball joint connecting the steering control arm to the center tire rod. One of the front tires started wobbling like it was going to come off, forcing them to a screeching halt (if one can screech tires on dirt). The group weighed options: tow the vehicle, try to get the vehicle fixed in Mexico, leave the vehicle and come back in a few days. None were appealing.

Fortunately, MacGyver was still riding shotgun in spirit. Amazingly, Drew and Nate scavenged a bolt here and a part there from the Landy's many accessories and fashioned a temporary fix that enabled Drew and Karen to drive all the way back to San Diego—even if they had to do so at under 40 miles per hour. An exciting—if nerve-wracking—end to an exciting trip. Surely it must have been more thrilling than our rather mundane tour of a rather mundane winery. As I commented to Lory, such events cause untold stress at the time, but create unforgettable memories. We made lots of such memories over the weekend, but Drew's and Karen's will probably be remembered the longest.

Photo credit: Dana Williams


©2003 Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year, I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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5/3: Mike's Sky Ranch
5/2: Baja Bound
5/1: Ice Moon
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