It was around September (1997) when I realized that the seven weeks of vacation I had already taken in my first year working at CurrentRutledge wouldn't be nearly enough. The Utah trip got me hooked on the desert, and the Oaxaca trip got me hooked on Mexico.

Disclaimer: At the time, I didn't know how to drive a car. Really. Any reference to "we drove to such-and-such" should be understood roughly as "Charlie drove us to such-and-such, while I sat in the passenger seat and read/ napped/ looked at maps and pretended to 'navigate'."

Those factors, plus my desire to escape Seattle winter for a couple of sunny weeks, all dictated that I should take another two weeks of vacation around Christmas to go for a road trip to Baja California. (In case you're wondering, I ended up taking ten whole weeks off during my first year here. Unpaid, of course.)

Now accustomed to Charlie's driving heroics (on the Utah trip, we made the 1100 miles from Zion National Park to Portland in 19 hours straight), we planned an ambitious schedule that would get us to Los Cabos (at the south tip of the peninsula) and back in just two weeks. This schedule was scrapped on the first day, however, when a 30-car pileup closed the pass at Siskiyou Summit on Interstate 5, and we had to drive back to Grants Pass and out to the California coast. Instead of getting all the way to San Francisco, we only made it to Ukiah.

Two more nights in California (including a beautiful solstice sunset viewed from the top of Coit Tower), and then we hit Mexico. Even with all of the reading and research we'd done in advance, neither of us knew much of what to expect. Would Charlie's low-slung Datsun 240Z coolmobile survive the roads? Should we really heed my uncle's advice: "Don't fear the taco stands"? Would we die a fiery death when we crested a hill and slammed into a cow asleep in the highway? Would Charlie learn even one word of Spanish?

El Camino. The Transpeninsular Highway, though it was paved in the late 1980s all the way from Tijuana to Cabo, is still best described as "crappy." The northernmost seventy miles (from the US border to Ensenada) are a toll road along the coast, passing all of the beach resorts that are an easy day's drive from San Diego and Los Angeles. The tolls and tourists make this a regular divided, four-lane highway with shoulders and passable road quality.

South of Ensenada, it's a bumpy, pothole-filled, winding, shoulderless, two-lane adventure with not much in the way of dividing lines. Reflectors are nonexistent, the omnipresent Curva Peligrosa signs don't show up too well in the dark, and cows love the heat rising off the pavement, so driving at night is risky at best. The roads are so narrow that eighteen-wheelers spill over a bit into the oncoming lane. In the towns, monster speed bumps will scrape the undercarriage of just about anything smaller than a sport utility vehicle.

Our muffler was so damaged by the time we crossed back into California that the first thing the good-natured INS guy at the border checkpoint shouted at us was, "Hey, how're you hot-rodders doin'?"

La Comida. When I was in Oaxaca, I ate only in restaurants. Nothing from sidewalk taco stands, no fresh produce from the market, no thirst-quenching strawberry water ladled from a street vendor's jar. All in fear of hepatitis, some deadly stomach worm, or just Moctezuma's Revenge. My uncle Sayre, who has traveled extensively in Baja, urged me to loosen that rule while on this trip, and I can't thank him enough.

The stretches of the Transpeninsular that run 100 miles without a town or a gas station are sparsely populated by loncherias, tiny one-family "restaurants" that serve small meals to people on the road. Pull into one and you're likely to be the only one there; one proprietor we talked to said he gets about 20 people a day. There's no menu -- just specials of the day. Often the food will incorporate something (cheese, meat, veggies) from the family's farm a few miles down the dirt side road. At one such establishment, we each had two of the best beef burritos known to humankind, costing a grand total of $2.50 (we added a 50% tip).

In the towns, the roadside stands have a little more to offer, and are just as tasty and almost as cheap. The best breakfast of the whole trip came in El Rosario on the second day, when we pulled up to a stand that was just opening for the morning. "¿Que quieres?" said the woman. What, no menu? Anything we want? "Pues... huevos. Y frijoles. Y chorizo. Y cafe y pan tostada." We named it, she'd make it. What a country.

Tales of our best meals could go on and on. We had fish tacos just about every day, usually with fresh tortillas from the local tortilleria, and often with fish caught that morning. McLulu's taco stand in Loreto ("Mucho Tacos Aquí," read the sign) may itself have been worth the entire trip. Fresh tortillas have now become a staple at our house, and we're spending a lot more time at La Guadalupana, a terrific little Mexican grocery and lunch counter in Lake City.

Las Ballenas. Humans aren't the only mammals that love to spend their winters cavorting in the sunny surf off Baja. The bays and lagoons on both side of the peninsula are the winter homes and calving grounds of thousands of California gray whales, who spend their summers cruising in Alaska. Three Pacific-side bays are famous for whale watching, and one of these, the Laguna San Ignacio, is known for having especially "friendly" whales -- they'll come up close to boats and seek out petting and other contact with visiting humans. (!) Having seen a picture of my aunt Judy in that very lagoon, up to her elbows in the baleen of a whale that must have wanted its tongue scratched, I was enthralled by the prospect of hanging out with whales for a day.

But the nearest paved road is 35 miles from the Laguna, and by this time in our trip the 240Z had lost another few inches of muffler clearance. But $70 to hire a truck to take us out there? No thanks; the Z would have to do. We left all of our gear and supplies in a motel room and left town at dawn on a gray, windy morning. Two hours and 35 miles of bumpiness later, we arrived at the shack villages, home to fishermen that undoubtedly made better money taking tourists out on the lagoon than they did fishing all day.

The wind was blowing a steady 20 or 25 mph, however, so all the boats were tied up and everyone was inside. The storm had been blowing for three days straight, and no fisherman in his right mind would go out in the bay. We were on a tight schedule to get back to the USA, so we couldn't stick around and wait to see if things cleared up the next day. Frustrated and whaleless, we turned around and drove the 35 miles back to town.

Next time.

¡Gasolina! We'd planned to spend the next day driving from San Ignacio to Los Angeles, USA, a long 700 homesick miles. The Pemex station at San Ignacio was out of gasoline, but we had at least 100 miles of gas in the car, enough to get us to the next gas station at Guerrero Negro. Rumor had it that the whole central peninsula was out of gas: the storm of the last few days had been so rough on the Sea of Cortez that the ferry that normally brings tanker trucks over from the mainland to refill the gas stations had been unable to land. Rumor also had it, however, that a gas truck had been seen driving off towards Guerrero Negro. We decided to leave behind the comparative comfort of our cute little motel in San Ignacio and head for Los Angeles, taking our chances that there would indeed be fuel in Guerrero Negro.

Leaving a little after dawn (again), we asked the nice 18-year-old soldiers at the roadside army checkpoint if there was gas in Guerrero Negro. Of course, they assured us. We pulled into Guerrero Negro at 8 a.m. Guerrero Negro is an industrial town built around one company, a salt works that produces more salt than anywhere else in North America. On the outskirts of town are dozens of square miles of seawater evaporation ponds. The whole place is flat, dusty, gray, ugly, and depressing. What a place to get stuck.

The line of cars at the Pemex station stretched around two blocks. We were 67th in line. The truck was expected to arrive at 6 p.m. At 9 p.m., at which time there had still been no sign of the truck and another 100 or so cars had lined up behind us, I sacked out on a tarp next to the car.

Cries of "¡Gasolina! ¡Gasolina!" woke me at around 1 a.m., closely followed by the air horn of a semi truck. We inched groggily through the line, shepherded by local police who were trying to crack down on "cutters." At 3 a.m., we reached the pump, filled up, and made a run for the border in a caravan of other homesick Americans, hoping the lead car wouldn't hit a cow or run off the road before dawn.

Tired, cranky, and anxious to get home, we crossed into California at noon, only about 18 hours behind schedule.

- nw

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