Lessons from the Road: One Good Turn Deserves Another


Sometimes the stars and moon line up just right and the perfect adventure unfolds. An adventure that can never quit be repeated and is fondly remembered for the rest of your life. That was the case back in the late eighties when a group of us camping in Playa de Estero decided to head further south, down the Baja Peninsula, to the legendary fishing holes surrounding Abreojos.

It was common knowledge among anglers that those waters were teeming with fish. A friend who had returned that spring claimed the fishing was so good, in those mangrove bays, that you could throw your car keys in the water and catch a fish. But getting there was another story. Everyone had heard the stories of the road down. It was said to be so rough and lonely that a break down could leave you stranded for days. But we had seen the pictures of beautiful bays and beaches with no names, and fish as big a VW bugs. We had talked for years about going, so finally, decided to pull the plug and go.

This was a remote spot on the Pacific about half way down the Baja coast. We poured over maps to refresh our memories of the roads and trails that crisscrossed the Vizcaíno Desert. Our excitement grew as we checked our gear and got our vehicles ready, making shopping runs to REI and Squidco. We packed and re-packed to get things just right.

As the word got out as to what we were planning, our little group of fishermen grew to a small expedition of friends who had caught the fever to go. So after much anticipation, one dawn found us and our assortment of rigs headed down the world famous Transpeninsular Highway, Mexican 1. We were a rag-tag array of trucks pulling or car topping boats, packed with camping and fishing gear, and food and beer aimed to last several weeks.

All went well until we left the pavement late in the afternoon and started down the dirt road that crossed the Vizcaíno Desert towards the Pacific side of the Peninsula. It was slow going as we made our way through washes of deep sand and climbed rutted hills scattered with cactus and loose rock. We often had to have someone walk ahead of the trucks to help pick the safest route. Sometimes, we reached forks in the road and would have to guess which seemed the most traveled. This did not always work. Many times we found ourselves either lost or at the entrance gate of a rancho, greeted by a group of surprised vaqueros.

We traded for gas with the ranchers, siphoning it from 55 gallon drums through chamois cloths. The senores made us enchiladas made from goat cheese exhibiting Baja hospitality that is all but gone in these days of better roads and growing tourism. I remember an uncle of mine once saying the better the roads, the worse the people. I have found that to be true more often than not.

Late one afternoon, I remember stopping to check a section of the road when I noticed the strong smell of gasoline. Upon examining my truck, I saw a large damp spot growing from underneath. I realized a rock had kicked up between the skid plate and tank. The road had been so rough that it had vibrated a hole clear through. Gas was dripping out at an alarming rate.

When you’re hundreds of miles from civilization, in the middle of the desert, with gasoline pouring from your truck, you definitely feel a long way from home. My mind raked through all the stories the old timers had shared over the years, around countless campfires, of desert repairs. I remembered someone once telling a story of plugging a hole with soap and toothpicks. I was digging though my toilet kit, when my uncle pulled up. He had been following well back to avoid my dust. Soon the whole group was stopped and standing around my truck looking at the growing pool of gasoline.

Everyone could share how they would plug the hole if they were back home in their garages, but no one had any idea of how to fix it in the middle of the desert. That was until my uncle remembered that he had bought some material in a tube that was supposed to harden like steel when kneaded in the open air.  After a frantic search, we found it and all watched as I read the directions, squeezed it out, kneaded it into a ball, stuck it on my thumb, crawled under the truck and shoved it in the hole. At first the gas continued to drip down my arm. Worse, the material grew alarmingly hot from what I supposed was some sort of chemical reaction. I had visions of it igniting and burning me alive. But soon the gas stopped dripping. The hole was plugged and is to this day. My uncle had saved the day and done me a very good turn.

I was relieved and elated. Little did I know that I was to repay this good turn several days later. In time, and well after dark, we finally rolled into a rustic fishing camp situated on a mangrove bay. The moon was so bright it cast shadows. We literally could hear and see fish boiling off shore and so before setting up camp we all ran down the beach, and in knee deep water caught some of the biggest corbina I’d ever seen. The fishing, that trip, was only to grow from amazing to incredible.

The next week, we decided to try another beach farther down the coast that some of the locals had told use about. They said large trophy sized grouper could be caught in the mangroves channels but we needed to take care as there was quicksand along the shore.

My friend, Fritz, and I left early the next morning ahead of the rest of the group. I’ve often said it is harder to find a good fishing buddy than a good wife. And for twenty years until his death, Fritz was my best fishing buddy. Anyway, we were in the middle of an amazing day of fishing when I saw a boat far up the channel, rapidly coming our way. Surprised, I realized it was my uncle. He circled us several times before stopping.

I thought it odd he had come up looking for us.

Nonchalantly, he said, “Hey guys. How’s the fishing?”

I answered, “Pretty good, we’re catching some really big grouper. Throw a line in.”

My uncle answered, “Maybe later.” He paused, as though without a care in the world and continued, “Hey. Do you think that winch of yours could pull my rig out of the quicksand?”

So began the next adventure of trip.

Fritz dropped me off in the shallows and I used my gaff to scatter the stingrays and pick my way to the shore where my truck was parked. As I drove across the desert, someone on a distant dune signaled me with a mirror and I found my way to the beach where my uncle’s rig was stuck.  I’ll never forget the sinking feeling of finding his rig slowing disappearing in the quicksand. His truck was sunk up to the windows. Water was starting to seep into the cab. I remember one of the locals telling us they could have the transmission and engine out in 30 minutes. It didn’t look good and to make matters worse my uncle had barrowed the truck from his daughter. It was brand new.

Without a word, Fritz and I sprang into action and quickly hooked a chain around the rear-axel of my truck and to the front of a large two-ton delivery truck that had come in from town to help. This gave us the extra purchase we needed. Next, I gingerly hooked the cable from my winch to my uncle’s truck. The tide was coming in fast making it difficult to negotiate our way around.

Finally, the moment of truth came. Time was running out as the tide was flooding. When I engaged the winch, all the moist sand danced around our rigs. Just when I thought the winch would burn out, the truck popped out from the suction and unceremoniously rolled along as my winched worked its magic. It was amazing sight to see. Moreover, it was a once in a lifetime, miracle I’ll never forget.

That night as we sipped beers around the fire, I realized that had my uncle not helped me several days before in the middle of the desert, I would not have been able to help him. But I have to say, that truck was never the same.

As the saying goes, “One good turn deserves another.”

Author: Baja Moto Quest!

I am an educator who came out of retirement to consult with school districts, but I also live to ride my R1200GSA motorcycle as much as I can especially in Baja! In fact, without those adventures into the outback of Baja, I wouldn't be able to give my all at work or write. I've written a novel, Almost Human which was published recently and am working on the sequel, More Than Human.

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