We turned it over with a come-along, it had a winch and we pulled it back up on the road. The right hub had struck a rock, breaking the tie-rod knuckle off, and over she went. One of the Mom's was driving, with two kids in the cab. This truck held all of our spare food and supplies which we had to unload. We nursed the truck about 2 miles down the road, where we camped and cut a new hole in the knuckle with a small acetylene torch, then continued to La Paz and ordered a new knuckle from the Ford garage. No one was hurt, the windshield stayed intact, fortunately.
By the way, i enjoy your videos.
Awesome story I could listen to / read stories like that all the time . Thanks for posting it .Eight children, four adults, three trucks and one dirt road.
Sometime in 1963, I was in eighth grade and I remember my Dad coming back from a Kiwanis meeting talking about a trip that “tore up 10-ply tires. The road was terrible, conditions were grim and the scenery was unique, with trees that look like upside down carrots. We need to go!!”, he exclaimed.
How he and his friend, Francis Hewitt, convince my Mom and Patty Hewitt to take eight children in three trucks and drive for six weeks over dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas? It didn’t take much, because Patty Hewitt was a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner and his trips into Baja, and my Mom had been reading of Baja adventures in “Desert Magazine” for some time, so in 1963, the mom’s let the dad’s convince them and so the preparations began.
The group consisted of my Dad, Willard, taking his wife, Patsy and four children, Michael (that’s me) 14, Gordon, 10, Mary, 9, and Bob, 5 to Mexico for a trip of a lifetime. We were with our good friends, the Hewitt’s, Francis, Patty (who spoke Spanish), and their kids, Jim, 12, Jeff, 10, Pam, 8, and Janice, 6.
Francis already had a 1952 3/4 –ton Ford flatbed (4X2) and he bought a 1963 Ford ½-ton 4X4 pick-up with a winch. My Dad bought a 1959 ex-Forest Service, F-100, 4X4 pick-up. Two auxiliary fuel tanks of 11-gallons each were installed on all of the three trucks. They were all 4-speeds with compound low, automatic transmissions were not trusted back then since you can’t push start an automatic. A lumber rack was put on the flatbed, we also added a 12-foot aluminum boat on the lumber rack and carried a small outboard motor. They bought soft-top camper shells for the two pick-ups. Francis found some surplus tanks that held 10-gallons of water each and two were installed in each pick-up in the forward fender wells, with a garden hose spigot for access. The three trucks were given names, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Our truck was named the ‘Pinta’; the Hewitt’s 4X4 was the ‘Nina’ and the flatbed, the ‘Santa Maria’ (because it needed all the help it could get).
Three “Bearkat” trail bikes were purchased and racks were built of rebar on the rear bumpers to carry them.
Each truck had two spare tires, and for the two four-wheel drives the spares were interchangeable. Communication between the trucks was provided by ESP.
In February of ’63 we made a trial run to San Quintin and the mom’s figured out how much food we would need and began a menu. There could be nothing requiring refrigeration; fortunately, “Tang” had recently been developed was available along with dry cereal for breakfast on most days. Pancake mix requiring only water had also been developed and was used on ‘special’ days. There was always powdered milk to use for making instant mashed potatoes and Kraft macaroni and cheese. As I recall canned chicken, canned beef stew and Spam were also on the menu. Lunches were bread (‘til it ran out), crackers, peanut butter and jam, and “Hi-C”. In some of the larger towns were would be able to get “Bimbo” bread to supplement the crackers.
The week before we left, the shopping was accomplished at ‘Smart and Final’ and a great stack of food was deposited at “the plant”, Francis’ small concrete plant in Calimesa. One of my preparations included purchasing a hunting knife with a 5-inch blade at ‘Fox Center’, corner of Waterman and Redlands Blvd. I remember the salesclerk glancing at my Mom when I went to buy it and her barely perceptible nod of approval. I don’t know what I thought I needed a hunting knife for, but we were going into the wilderness and, by golly, I NEEDED a knife. All of us received typhoid shots. it was supposed to be a series of three, but we were out of time and one was better than none. The afternoon of the shots, I had to help pack the groceries in the back of the Hewitt pick-up, sore arm notwithstanding.
The timing of the trip was planned for the two-week Christmas holiday break from school and the slow time of year for my Dad’s contracting business. Francis had recently sold his business and had both the time and money for this trip. Teachers had been contacted and homework assigned, Patty being a school teacher would insure its completion.
The flatbed, driven by Francis, was packed with the kitchen gear on one side, tools on the other. The center was filled with food boxes and other stuff. The Hewitt pick-up was completely full of spare food, driving was shared by Patty Hewitt and my Mom. Our truck had the soft-top pushed half-way forward and children rode in the back. Each person had a military duffle bag, which contained their clothes and sleeping bag. Clothes went in first, sleeping bag on top. There were also 12 chaise lounge pads which were called ‘hefalumps’ to provide bedding on the ground. Generally Bob and Janice, being the youngest, rode in the cabs. The kids that weren’t riding in the cabs were secure in the cocoon between the duffle bags and the hefalumps.
Finally the departure day arrived. December 14, 1963. We were to leave the batch plant a 3:00 AM. The three trucks were backed up to the “Shell building” (the old gas station building at the batch plant in which the Hewitt’s resided). Gordon and I spent the night there, in the morning Mom and Dad would come up with Mary and Bob. A little after three, Dad called and told Francis that his work pick-up had been stolen and he would have to wait for the police to arrive and take a report. Francis had to drive to Loma Linda to pick them up. Ahh, the first delay.
Eventually we left Calimesa, headed for the border and adventure. Before crossing the border, we made a stop at the Bearkat factory for minor repairs and adjustments to the vehicles. I remember walking up the street to Pep Boys for tire repair kits and trying, unsuccessfully, to find fishing tackle. I think the Mom’s went to the grocery store for last minute supplies.
We crossed the border without incident and followed the ‘old’ road to Ensenada, the new coast route hadn’t been built yet so it took three hours. We passed through Ensenada and into Maneadero. Maneadero is at the split between La Bufadora and the road south. We stopped at the small shack on the side of the road at the top of the first hill into town where tourists would get their visas stamped in order to proceed further into Mexico. The Agent thought these parents were crazy to make this trip with all of the children. By the time we got to Santo Tomas it was getting late, so we stayed at the trailer park for the night. In the morning we ate breakfast at ‘El Palomar’ and gassed up. The breakfast included great big French fries about 1/4 of a potato each. The four oldest boys were allowed to buy $20.00 each of fireworks to last the whole trip. I purchased as many as I could, including two “Atom Bombs”, giant firecrackers with a double fuse. The people of Santo Tomas were excited about our journey and considered the two women to be very brave to attempt the trip. The proprietor of ‘El Palomar’ caught a kangaroo rat and presented it to Janice Hewitt. It was put in a shoe box and became her pet; it was named “Ratsy”.
Forty miles later the pavement ended, it was the last pavement we would see for 600 miles. Between this point and San Quintin there was a lot of traffic and so the road was graded. The Department of Highways might have re-graded it every two or three years, so it was very wash-boardy. Occasionally there was a side trail to follow that was slightly smoother and just like now days, we followed that. Each river bottom was sandy and difficult to cross.
In San Quintin we gassed up at the Pemex distribution terminal, the last actual fuel facility until La Paz. We checked the oil and water and made sure that the Bearkats had gas. Again, in 1963, these were the only fluids required, no window washers, no power steering, no nuthin’. That night we reached Santa Maria Sky Ranch, where we had camped earlier that year. The proprietor was Irma Hernandez, she also thought the mom’s were nuts for driving the terrible road to the south, the road was “muy malo”. According to Pat Hewitt, “Irma” was a disagreeable woman with a tendency to flirt.
Camping on the beach, we boys wanted to blow off fireworks but were told “no”, so we went for a walk down the beach. After a couple hundred yards, we determined that we had gone far enough that the adults would not hear an “atom bomb”. We constructed a large pile of sand with the atom bomb inside; the fuse was lit; BOOM!!; you could have heard it in San Diego! The fireworks were then relegated to the cabs of the trucks for the remainder of the trip, accessible only through the permission of the parents. The planned meal for that evening was canned beans with Vienna sausage, ‘wieners and beans’. We promptly ate twice what had been planned so carefully months previous.
After the first of the cold breakfasts, we broke camp, said good-bye to Irma Hernandez who bid us Godspeed and began the real part of the trip. From this point until El Cien (100 kilometers north of La Paz), the road would be two ruts between the cacti. Because of the road condition, all supplies, including soda, food, beer, and 50-gallon drums of gasoline for towns south were delivered by truck, usually a 2-ton truck with the rear duals removed and only single rear tire on each side. That prevented hitting rocks on the sidewalls, it also kept the road very narrow.
During the planning, the Mom’s had read a few books on Baja, one by Ralph Hancock titled “Baja California” and we took this one with us and took pictures in some of the same spots. Another book named “Bouncing Down to Baja” was pooh-poohed by my mom as being silly because the authors hurried their way down the peninsula, rather ironic considering the racing we’ve been doing the last few years. There was also the Chevrolet “Hottest Run under the Sun” ad campaign, put together by Bill Stroppe. Since we were running all Ford’s we took pictures of our trucks at their photo spots too.
Climbing to the top of the mesa south of Santa Maria Sky Ranch, the trucks had the first opportunity to use compound low gear. Due to the dislike for the roads requiring compound low gear; low gear was given the name “Irma” for the remainder of the trip. After a short distance, “Irma” was used for a steepdownhill run on the side of a canyon that dropped us into El Rosario. At the bottom of the hill was grocery store belonging to legendary ‘Mama Espinoza’. All the kids got sodas and the adult’s, cold cervezas. We left town, crossed the river bottom and began a laborious climb up our first ‘cuesta’; more Irma. This section of ‘highway’ became known later on as the “stairsteps” for good reason. There was not a day that went by that “Irma” wasn’t used, and rarely a day in which 4th gear was.
We were now in darkest Baja. Climbing out of the El Rosario wash we saw our first Cirio tree, soon we were in the cactus forest, an incredible mix of Cirio, Cardon, elephant tree, yucca, cholla, ocotillo, old man cactus and a host of others. The camp that night was beneath a huge cardon with an Automobile Club of Southern California directional sign, showing the way. (How I wish I had that sign now.)
After forty-five years, the individual evenings, meals and campsites blur together, but because of my mother’s note taking I am able to identify many of the campsites.
We spent another night in the desert before we got to San Agustin, our first gas stop since San Quintin. It was standard procedure to gas up at every opportunity because a traveler never knew if there would be gas at the next location. San Agustin, although on the map, was and still is a simple rancho, only a couple of houses and out-buildings, surrounded by some palo verde trees, cactus and a well. Gasoline was pumped from barrels into the vehicles and we went on our way.
During one of these two afternoons, Francis got the first flat tire of the trip, his right rear. I remember two things about this stop:
1) Jeff, Gordon and I sitting off to the side of the road building a small miniature town out of sticks, putting firecrackers and firecracker powder inside some of the buildings, then burning it down with appropriate explosions and flare-ups from the powder.
2) After repairing the tire, Francis jumping in his truck and zooming off. Unfortunately, the truck was still up on the jack and the tires just spun. My dad thought it was hysterical. Francis thought it was kind of funny too!
One of the spots that we wanted to visit was El Marmol. In 1963, El Marmol was still an operating onyx mining town. After Patty visited the marble school and met the teacher, we backtracked to the main road and slept beside the windmill that is at the El Marmol turn-off today.
By this time in the trip we had established our routine. Around 3 PM, a suitable, flat campsite would be located. Finding one, the trucks were circled and Francis would set up the stove. Dad, Jim and I would assemble the 13’ by 13’ orange tent, Jeff and Gordon would locate firewood. Mary and Pam would help the mom’s get dinner ready. Each person (with the exception of Bob and Janice) got their own duffle bag and hefalump out of the truck and put it in the tent. We tried to eat before dark, but just in case we had Coleman lanterns. Every one washed their own dishes after eating and returned them to the box. Sometimes we’d sit by the fire, but normally we went to bed early. Francis and Dad had several ghost stories to tell, usually involving families lost in the desert. Patty and Francis Hewitt slept in the tent and Patsy and Stew in the back of the ‘Pinta’, because they were shorter and fit in the bed of the truck.
In the mornings the process was reversed, sleeping bags rolled and put in duffles; hefalumps and dufflebags placed into the truck, tent down and packed ; cold, dry cereal eaten and washed down with Tang or High-C; clean up the camp and hit the road.
After coming out of the mountains from El Marmol, we reached Lake Chapala. The dad’s took a break and zoomed around on the Bearkats, taking everyone for rides. Continuing on our journey, we were able to use 4th gear for the first time in several days. Finally, because, as the saying goes, “no good road goes unpunished”; Lake Chapala ended and we wandered back into the cactus forest. This stretch of road hasn’t changed much over the years, the road sweeps around cardon and cirio trees and is generally smooth, but as soon as you can get into 3rd gear, a rock outcropping or dry creek bed brings you back to a crawl.
This has always been one of my favorite parts of Baja California. The combination of giant boulders, majestic cardons, peculiar and weird cirios and the multitude of other cactus that makes this a true forest is amazing. The road winding between the cactus is fun to drive upon and the distant views of the mountains capped with giant cardons is spectacular.
Around noon on December 19, we stopped a Desegano, an abandoned mining town near the turn off to the Bay of Los Angeles. Stopping for a lunch of saltine crackers, peanut butter, jelly and High-C, we explored the area. Vertical mine shafts, ruined buildings and tailings were all over. While exploring one of the tailing piles, Gordon found a two-inch long quartz crystal with a green ‘tree’ intrusion in its center.
Continuing on, we arrived at Bahia de Los Angeles at 3:30 in the afternoon, and were greeted by the Diaz family, Antero, Mama, Sammy and Chubasco (Antero Jr.) Their store had supplies, the airport had gasoline, the artesian well had water, and, from 7 AM until 10PM the city had electrical power and lights. We set up camp about a mile south of town, next to a hill with a large concrete and rock structure that had been a stamp mill for the now defunct Los Flores mine. (Those who have been to the Bay with me know exactly where I’m talking about). Our total miles for the day were 79, the best so far.
We stayed here from the 20th until the 26th. We could fish from the rocks in the mornings. One afternoon a local came by with more fish and cleaned them all for us and shared in the bounty. Fishing from the rocks one morning, I had a good strong hit and shouted that I’d caught something. Jim Hewitt came running over to see what I got and as I reeled it in, up came a small fish which sent Jim into peals of laughter about my “big catch”. But I got the last laugh as I brought in a larger fish on the leader and showed him that I caught two at once.
Here, near the water, we boys were allowed to do fireworks to our hearts content. As I recall, there were no rockets or mortars in those days, just ‘black cat’ firecrackers, cherry bombs and the like. Of course, I still had one “atom bomb” in my collection. One evening, the four of us boys climbed to the top of the stamp mill with our fireworks, started a small campfire and put on a “fireworks show” for the rest of the family. This “show” consisted of us lighting firecrackers and tossing them over the side of the stamp mill. Somehow in the excitement, or confusion, of four young boys, four bags of fireworks, a campfire and burning sticks, Jeff’s bag caught fire and as it burned its contents began to explode, so it was pushed over the side and added to the excitement. The observers below thought it was part of the show, we, all except Jeff, thought it was funny.
One of the days we spent at the Bay of Los Angeles was ‘homework’ day. All of us were required to sit in the tent and do homework that had been assigned us by our teachers. One evening, sitting around the campfire, Francis and Dad were telling ghost stories, likely about two families on a deserted beach. Francis told one about a voice that cried out over the sea “IIIIITT FLLLOOOATS”; my Dad threatened to tell the story of “the king that pulled out the hairs, one by one”. He always threatened to tell that story to us, but it was always too scary to tell and any given moment. Well after dark and after the stories, Dad announced that earlier in the day he had placed a silver dollar upon a headstone in the small graveyard about 100 yards north of our camp and that whoever wanted to go get it could have it. It was still there when Dad retrieved it in the morning.
On Christmas Eve, we were invited to partake in the ’La Posada’ ritual held at Casa Diaz. The ritual included the people ringing the chapel bell and represented Mary and Joseph looking for rooms in Bethlehem. Our Christmas tree was a cactus, decorated with hand-made ornaments and bits of paper and each child received one present.
We stayed at Bahia de Los Angeles until the 26th and then drove west toward Mision San Borja.
Only 13 miles west of Bahia de Los Angeles is the turnoff to San Borja, and, acting upon directions given to us by the Diaz’, we turned south off of this road and visited the “Montevideo” cave drawings. We ate lunch while we explored, then continued on to San Borja. After visiting Mision San Borja with its stone circular staircase, we headed west towards Rosarito and the Pacific coast.
We camped west of San Borja and as we followed the bumpy, rocky road we left the cirios behind. Occasionally while traversing some of the worst roads, we would crest a rise and in the distance see a small rancho at the side of the road and next to the road would be a old Mexican with a beat up shovel filling the holes in the road with rocks and dirt. As we’d pass, we would pass him a couple of bucks for his effort as would most of the passers-by. I never did figure out if they would work or not when we were out of sight.
All during the trip, whenever another car or truck would pass, there would be a brief stop and the people would compare notes about the road ahead. At the very least, we would wave to each other as we passed. Of course, this occurred maybe twice a day. If we passed another ‘norte americano’, we’d stop and make each other’s acquaintance, exchange addresses and talk Baja. We crossed paths with one group of four several times; one of their names was “Ham”. Another bit of Baja etiquette that , at least remains for me and many others, is that whenever we saw a stopped vehicle, we would stop and make sure that all was well, that nothing was needed and offer assistance if required. At one point in the trip, Dad picked up a young hitch-hiker and he rode in the back with us. During the ride, he showed us how to tie a variety of knots, none of which I can remember to this day.
At the same time there was an airline that connected Tijuana, Ensenada, Bahia de Los Angeles, Mulege, Loreto and La Paz. It was a single DC-3, piloted by Francisco Munoz. We met him in Bahia de Los Angeles and during our trip we would check in at each airport and he would monitor our trip, always ready to help if a crisis were to arrive. He is legendary in Baja flying annals.
We continued toward the Pacific Ocean past Millers Landing, which we children wanted to visit, only because it had an English name, but we were denied the opportunity. I found out later that it was merely an abandoned camp that had been used to ship marble from a small mine in the local hills. We drove through miles and miles of silt beds and blinding dust. The womenfolk were not happy with the situation as this was in the days before air conditioning and all of the windows were kept down for a cool breeze in the cabs. We finally got out of the silt and into some mud flats, which, with careful driving techniques we were able to cross and reached a flat beach. Across a small lagoon were enticing sand dunes, and we had a boat! “Maybe tomorrow“, said the adults.
As I recall, there was no wind that night and you could hear the breakers in the distance beyond the sand dunes. In the early morning, we could hear the water lapping, very close; very, very, close. In fact the sea was touching the corner of the tent and one truck was parked in water, the tide had ‘riz’. The parents were not enthusiastic about our predicament and camp was immediately packed. Problem was, there was water ALL around us. God must have been smiling on our group, because high tide was reached at that moment and the water never came higher.
Well, to the children’s delight, tomorrow was here, so we unloaded the boat, and my Dad ferried us kids and Patty Hewitt over to the sand dunes where we spent the morning playing. The condition was fun for us. The low areas between the bottoms of each dune were full of sand/water. It was like quicksand but about two feet deep. You could run and jump off of the top of the dune, kersplat, into the ooze. We had a blast. As we returned to camp it was obvious that the tide was in full ebb and the boat struggled back to camp against the tide to complete the packing and regretfully exit our island paradise.
As we waited for the final ebbing of the tide, it was time to determine the origin of the disgusting smell in the cab of the Nina. It was almost unbearable and no one wanted to ride up front. The mom’s, who had to be in the cab, wanted the source identified and removed; and soon. After everything was removed from the cab, back behind the seat was the culprit. Alas, poor Ratsy had expired and that is where they found his remains. I don’t recall exactly, but I am sure we had the appropriate ceremony and put Ratsy to rest at Laguna Manuela.
As the tide finished its retreat, it became apparent that our route out was a sliver of sand between two lakes. We waited until the sliver appeared that it would get no drier, and, since we didn’t know if the next tide would be higher or not, it was time to try to get out. The Nina drove across wet sand first, and this put a four-wheel drive on each side of the sand spit so if the Santa Maria needed help we could pull her back from either end. Francis blazed across the sand spit next in ‘Santa Maria’ (at least as much as an over-loaded ¾-ton flatbed can blaze) and the Pinta followed without incident. Back through the silt beds, onto higher ground and as the day progressed we skirted the mountains up to El Arco.
El Arco was, and still is, the dividing line between Baja Norte and Baja Sur. We went through the checkpoint, showed our papers, set our clocks ahead one hour and camped near El Arco. In the morning, the schedule called for a hot pancake breakfast. We had these every so often to relieve the monotony of the cold, dry cereal. On this morning as the pancakes were prepared a strong wind came up and blew dust and sand everywhere. It was in our duffle bags, our clothes and most importantly, our pancakes. Patty said that she thought there was more grit in the pancakes than pancake mix.
The next day we started across the Vizcaino desert. The road wound between the cirios and cardons, there was an abundance of ocotillo and cholla. Every turn of the winding road revealed a beautiful, new vista of the same old thing, a flat desert filled with cactus backed by rocky, cactus filled mountains. We loved it. We kids in the truck bed sang songs, (“Dominique” by The Singing Nun, was popular at that time, it was in French, so we mumbled the words), we played cards; we ate saltine crackers (which were stored in the back of this truck) and we argued as only children can. We were allowed to stand in the back of the pick-up and look forward, we got terribly dusty and we loved it.
This stretch of highway, if you can call it that, went across the grain of the arroyo channels so it was very slow and rough. The next civilization was San Ignacio, 60 miles away, it was a long day.
We arrived in the square of San Ignacio after dark, with nowhere to camp. We were invited to stay at a local ‘posada’ (hotel) and were directed down a narrow side street and through two large gates into an interior compound. The proprietor thought that we were an Erle Stanley Gardner expedition which had been the last large group, a couple of years before. He was surprised to see two families with eight children. The ‘hotel’ consisted of two rooms. The women shared one room; the guys shared the other with another ‘norte americano’.
The entrance to the town passes over a lagoon of fresh water and is surrounded by date palms, truly an oasis in the desert. We decided to stay over a day to rest and clean up. The next day we explored the church. It is a beautiful example of a 1700’s mission, completely restored and maintained. It sits at one end of the town square and is flanked by small stores.
On one of the two nights in San Ignacio, my dad took Gordon, Mary and me out to dinner (as of this writing, that’s all I remember who went). We went to a little place just west of town named “El Oasis”. In the front room was a table and a small statue of a ‘Cantisflas’ looking character, whom they had named “Pepe”. When a cigarette was put in Pepe’s mouth, it puffed. Through the door to the back room was the kitchen, complete with a 2-burner Coleman white gas stove. I don’t remember what we had for dinner. .] Later in the evening, in the town square, the young men and women of the community would ‘promenade’ around the square while the older folks sat on the benches and watched.
[Note- in 2011, passing through San Ignacio, I saw a billboard advertising “El Oasis”, desde 1963. I returned in the spring of 2012 with some friends. It is now known as “Rice and Beans, El Oasis and I met the owner, Ricardo, son of the original owner,Rudy. He and I talked for a while and I found that Rudy died a couple of years ago, but his mother lived in San Felipe, where one of his other restaurants is the infamous “Rice and Beans” in San Felipe with another in Rosarito Beach. I knew I had the right place when I talked about the statue and stove as he nodded and smiled, thinking back
That night was New Years Eve and the town had a fiesta to which our adults were invited to attend. While the parents danced, we children made friends with the local kids. The communication gap was bridged when the locals found out that we had “trekkies” or in other words, fireworks. We shared our stash with them, running around the square throwing firecrackers, and a great time was had by all.
The next morning it was time to leave, I think we got a late start, not all of the adults were running at 100%. We packed our gear and started out of town. As we pulled out of the compound and out to the square, the mariachi band that had played the night before serenaded us on our way out of town, we replied with honks and waves.
A couple of miles out of town, I was riding with Dad in our truck. We were alone, the rear of the caravan. I assume that the remainder of the children were riding in the cabs of the other trucks. Dad pulled over and said that he was hungry and that cold, dry cereal was not going to cut it. Rummaging in the back of our truck, he liberated a can of Spam and tied it to the manifold of the pick-up with a piece of wire. Then he climbed into the passenger seat and let ME drive. I bumped along, the rocky road. To our northeast was the ‘Tres Virgins’ volcano and the desert floor was volcanic ash. As we neared a large lava flow, we stopped, opened and ate the Spam and then wandered into the lava, examining rocks. We continued on and met up with the rest of the group on a high bluff, overlooking the Sea of Cortez in the far, far distance. Between us and the sea was a very steep grade, with multiple switchbacks. This grade is known as La Cuesta del Infierno (the grade of fire). My driving days were over and Dad took the wheel for the descent.
At the bottom of the grade we made an early camp on the north side of the road, and after camp was set up, Dad took Gordon and me on a Bearkat ride up a nearby dirt road into the hills. There we found a complete mine ghost town with buildings and mineshafts and headworks and machinery. Alas, I had no camera so you’ll have to take my word for it. When we went to bed that night, local field mice had taken up residence in the tent, to the dismay of the womenfolk and the mice had to be escorted out of the tent before anyone could sleep soundly.
Leaving camp in the morning, our next stop was in Santa Rosalia. Sunset magazine had written an article espousing the wonders of the French bakery in Santa Rosalia, so we went there to get some fresh bread. The manager was delighted and showed us around the bakery. We made our order and he took us back to the ovens to pick it up. We had several large plastic bags to put the bread in. When the bread went in, it was so hot that it melted through the bags and onto the floor. The loaves were quickly picked up and given to the ‘pan’ boys that deliver bread throughout the town. Another batch was made and this time it was put into pillow cases that didn’t melt! Looking back on it, we missed seeing the Eifel church, just up the street.
With fresh bread packed in the trucks and in some bellies, we were off to Mulege, 40 miles down the road. We gassed up at the Pemex station in downtown Mulege, crossed the river and continued south to Bahia de Concepcion about sixteen miles away; only an hour or so.
Arriving at the north end of Concepcion Bay we made camp at a beach called “Santispac”. Behind us were cliffs with a medium sized cave, to the front, a white sand beach opening to a vista of flat calm light blue water, surrounded by desert hills, shrimp boats moored together with their wide, colorful booms hanging off to the side. On the left, the dirt road (Highway 1) came down out of the hills and passed between us and the cave, and to our right was a small lagoon, surrounded by mangrove trees. We had arrived in heaven. This was January and the temperature was in the 80’s and the water in the 70’s. We immediately hit the beach. We discovered that when dipping our hands into the sand, instead of bringing up sand, we brought up clams, steamer clams. I had never had clams before, but the adults were delighted, so a pot of water was put on to boil, clams were added, butter was melted and I was hooked. We ate clams with every meal, every day.
Over the last few days, some of our group had been feeling under the weather, flu, colds; we didn’t know what it was. During the first day or so at Santispac, the malady became much more severe, vomiting, diarrhea and cramps. The only people that weren’t affected were Jeff, Janice and me. (To this day, I think that the reason we didn’t get sick was that the three of us were always nibbling on saltine crackers, much more that the others.) Everyone else was very sick and we didn’t know why. Sometime during this time, Dad, while getting a glass of water, noticed flakes at the bottom of the glass. The flakes were paint chips from the interior of our Army surplus water tanks; we were poisoning ourselves with zinc!
Adults and Jim drove back into Mulege and purchased bottles of ‘agua pura’, Pepto Bismol (or some such remedy). At the local fishing resort, they met Chuck Connors (the actor from “Rifleman”) and observed a famous “beer drinking deer”. The deer was in captivity, but the owner of the place would hold out a long neck bottle of beer, the deer would grab it with its mouth and tip its head back and guzzle away.
From then on, we would buy water, “agua pura” at every chance. We ended up staying at Santispac for five days. In the mornings the shrimpers would motor in from their boats in a skiff to eat, drink and sleep in the cave, at night they’d go out and shrimp. You could hear the shrimp boats chugging around at night. One night a taxicab from Mulege putted past, with only one headlight. We don’t know where he went and we never saw him come back.
After everyone had recuperated, it was time to leave paradise. The road followed the coast line; it was a trough between piles of rock and shells, a flat sandy beach or a twisty, rough rocky road, hewn out of the side of the cliffs next to the bay. As usual, Francis was in front in ‘Santa Maria’, Patty in the middle in ‘Nina’ and Dad taking up the rear in ‘Pinta’.
On this fine morning, Jim and Janice were riding with Patty, Mom and Bob were in the cab with Dad driving and I was in the back of the truck. We passed a number of beautiful beaches, El Coyote, El Requsion, and Playa Armenta. After Playa Armenta the road climbed a long hill. The road was blasted out of solid rock and was about 10 feet wide. At one point, the bay was 100 feet below. Every once in awhile there would be a spot wide enough for vehicles to pass, but these were rare. As Dad rounded a sharp curve, the tide was out and the rocky beach was six feet below the edge of the road, and there on the beach sat ‘Nina’, upside down. Patty, Jim and Janice were crawling out of the cab windows with a stunned look. We immediately stopped and rushed to help. Unfortunately, the ESP system of communication between trucks was on the fritz and Francis kept motoring on. Dad unloaded the Bearkat and I headed down the road to catch Francis and bring him back. When Francis and I returned, everyone was safely out of the truck and well.
Luckily, it was low tide, but that would change soon. The first step was to unload the truck, get it turned over and out of the bay. What had occurred was that the right hub hit a protruding rock and the knuckle to which the tie-rod attaches snapped off. This resulted in a lack of steering and over the side it went. We were all scrambling to get the truck unloaded before the tide came up. Jim sat on the side of the road cleaning tools. When the truck was emptied, we used our come-along to right it, then, using the attached winch, the Nina was pulled back up to the road. Mind that during this two or three hour ordeal, not one other vehicle came down that road, and it’s a good thing too, because we had it completely blocked with trucks, people and paraphernalia.
Because of the fact that there was no air conditioning in the truck, the windows had been down and none were broken, the cab was caved in a bit but no headroom was lost, the bed soft-top was bent up but serviceable; time to get out of the road. Stuff was put wherever it would fit. Dad used a tow chain, hooked to the rear bumper and looped it around the front hub to keep the tire straight and walked alongside with a piece of cardon spine to keep the chain on the hub. (I had found this rifle shaped stick way back near San Augustin and called it “Old Betsy”. It was about 5 feet long, but has gotten shorter over the years. Now, in my back yard, it is only two and a half feet long.) I don’t remember who drove which truck, but we walked four or five miles down the road to a very wide spot at the south end of Bahia de Concepcion and set up camp.
The next day, gear was sorted and re-packed into ‘Nina’. The right front tire was removed and the broken knuckle examined; and the broken parts were removed from the tie-rod. As luck would have it, part of the gear deemed necessary for this trip had been a small acetylene welding torch. Francis cut a tapered hole in the remaining piece of knuckle, inserted and adjusted the tie-rod and, viola, repairs were finished.
Our next destination was Loreto but we were low on gas. The next “town” was Canipole and we headed there in hopes of fuel. We arrived late, to a pack of barking, growling dogs and thus we kids weren’t allowed out of the trucks. Alas they had no fuel, but maybe ‘manana’. We went out a ways and set up camp.
Manana arrived but fuel did not, so off to Loreto. We headed for Loreto with empty fuel tanks. I did not realize how empty until my dad ran out of gas trying to climb a steep hill, not far from our destination. After repeated attempts, trying speed to make it, he gave up and backed up the hill to allow the pick-up tube in the tank to reach the remaining fuel. Arriving in Loreto on fumes, we gassed up and looked over the local mission. This mission was the first, the ‘Mother’ of all of the California Missions, founded in 1684.
My mom and dad wanted to stay in Loreto for another day, but Francis had a Rotary Club commitment in La Paz in order to keep his good attendance record and did not wish to delay, so on January 8, 1964, the two parties split up, the Hewitt’s continuing to La Paz and the Stewart’s remaining one night on the beach at Loreto. The adults made arrangements to meet in La Paz in a couple of days.
We parked on a particularly beautiful stretch of white sand beach, north of the town, with a view of the bay and outlying islands, pelicans gliding by in echelon formation, inches above the water; blue and brown footed boobies circling higher in the sky, looking for a promising dinner and way up in the air, the turkey vultures coasted in circles, keeping their eye out for whatever food may be left behind. Occasionally the boobies would spy something tasty and dive headfirst into the water with a splash.
As the sun set and we enjoyed this display of nature, Mom prepared dinner on the tailgate of the Pinta. While we looked for shells along the water’s edge, a gust of wind came up and sent the tent rolling down the beach like a giant orange beach ball. Luckily, it did not roll into the water and we were able to catch it several hundred feet from our camp and drag it back. We had forgotten to put the sleeping bags, etc. inside. Unfortunately, some of the poles were bent, and as darkness set upon us, we realized that we’d have no tent tonight. To stay away from the bugs, Mom and Bob slept in the cab of the truck, Dad, Gordon, Mary and I slept under the collapsed tent. In order to keep the weight of the canvas off of us, the tent was held up with “Old Betsy”.
(One last note about “Old Betsy”, twenty-five years later, when Bob and I drove back to Cabo with our young families, the day before we were to leave, the little shock absorbers that kept the tailgate of my Jeep Cherokee up decided to give out. We didn’t have time to replace them, so we used a stick to keep the tailgate off of our heads. That stick was “Old Betsy”.)
In the morning, the ‘tent’ was folded and put away, bent poles stuck in the truck and other camp gear was packed. Now, without the other two trucks, the six of us were in one, along with the accoutrements necessary for camping. The extra spare tire was tied to the grill of the truck, bent poles stuck out of the back at odd angles. Dad hung a galvanized bucket from one of the poles and it dangled and shook. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies (which hadn’t even been invented yet). Somehow we all fit in and left Loreto and began the climb up the mountains to San Javier.
This was some of the steepest grades we had yet seen and though it seemed impossible, the roads were narrower than anything yet traveled. On this stretch of road was the Chevrolet picture location a truck squeezing between the rocks. We finally arrived at San Javier, another of the early missions. This one is also not in ruins, and you drive around it on a cobblestone street; we appeared to be a curiosity to the locals.
We camped just outside of San Javier. We were now in the mountains and located a small dry creek bed to set up. The damaged tent poles were bent back into shape so that we could assemble the tent in its proper manner. It was cooler up here and we made a camp fire and the sleeping bags felt nice and warm. In the morning it was cold, so cold that the coffee left out the night before was frozen in the pot. This morning was quite a change from the day previous, on the beach where Mom had comfortably washed her hair in the sea.
After getting packed up and moving, we continued on our way. The road followed a valley and crossed and re-crossed a running stream. There were fig trees here with white roots growing over and around the boulders.At one point we stopped in the middle of a stream crossing and washed the truck. After several miles of river bed, we hit the graded road that runs north from La Paz through Villa Constitucion and turned south.
Although the road was still dirt, it was well maintained and we were able to use 4th gear. In addition there was much more ‘civilization’, more like the San Quintin area. We finally stopped for dinner at a restaurant, “all right, real food!” The waitress/owner was quite pleased that she spoke English as she took our order. Soon she returned with coffee for Mom, sodas for the kids and tea for Dad. “Tea? I didn’t order tea”, he said. Well he had, sort of. He had ordered “steak”, which sounds like “te”, Spanish for tea. He should have ordered “besteak” which is Spanish for ‘steak’.
After dinner we realized that we were not going to make La Paz this night, so another camp was made. The next morning we reached La Paz and located the Hewitt’s, checking into the same hotel for the night. Wow, beds and sheets!
The Hewitt’s reported that there was nothing new; they had dropped off the Nina at the Ford garage, to get the steering knuckle replaced and the top straightened out. The folks at the Ford garage told them that when Chevy made their run the year before, upon arrival in La Paz, because there was no GM garage in La Paz, the Chevrolet trucks would come into Ford one at a time for repairs.
After a day’s rest in La Paz, it was off to Cabo San Lucas. We went down the east side of the cape, stopping at Hotel Las Palmas. While the children waited under some trees, the adults went into the hotel and used the ‘ship to shore’ radio telephone to call home and report our safe arrival in the south of Baja. According to international rules, using a ‘ship to shore’ radio from dry land was prohibited and the parents had to be careful of where they said that they were. Other than letters that had been sent from the different towns, this was the first communication with home in four weeks.
We set up camp just south of Las Palmas, and although it was January, we were near the Tropic of Cancer and the air and water were warm. On the beach we found a dead 5-foot hammerhead shark with 5 or 6 babies all gutted and lying neatly on the beach. I wanted to put one of the babies in a jar and keep it but was told “no”.
The following day we were to arrive in Cabo San Lucas, a sleepy fishing village of no note. But before we got there, we were invited to the home of a Mr. Jefferies. We followed him along his driveway, which was several hundred feet long, with one hundred foot drops to the ocean below on each side. His house was situated on a point of land with the sea 350 degrees around it. In the center of the parking area was a turntable where after parking thereupon, you would spin your vehicle around for the return trip down the narrow driveway, thus preventing having to back down and possibly falling off the precipice.
There were patios and walkways all around the house and you could see the Cabo arch in the distance. At one point, Mr. Jefferies took a high powered rifle and shot into the ocean, sent one of his minions down the path who returned with a large fish.
We said our good-byes, spun the two trucks around (the Nina was at the Ford garage) and continued to our final destination, Cabo San Lucas.
Setting up camp on the beach in view of the arch, we had the place to ourselves. A large blue and a larger red yacht sat a anchor in the bay along with many smaller boats, many pangas came and went. Across the bay the cannery received the retuning fishing boats. Between us and ‘town’ there was some activity as the first hotel, the “Hacienda” was just beginning construction. (And you think Cabo is paradise now.)
While we swam or lounged on the beach, a young man named “Oswaldo” talked to my Dad and asked him if Gordon and I would like to go fishing the next day. As a matter of fact, yes we did and arrangements were made for an early morning expedition.
Unfortunately for Jim and Jeff Hewitt, they were leaving to return to La Paz the next day and were unable to go fishing. (Years later, Jim told me that he was VERY jealous of me for years because I got to go on that fishing trip.)
In the morning, as Jim jealously watched on, a panga rowed up to the beach, Gordon and I loaded our fishing poles, and we shoved off. In the boat were Oswaldo and ‘Gordo’ a short fat young man whose job it was to row. On the transom sat a 3/4 –horsepower, British “Seagull” outboard motor.
We rowed across the bay to the fishery and Oswaldo climbed the ladder to get bait. While we waited in the boat, Gordo hung a homemade treble hook over the side. Every so often he would jerk the line, and up he would bring a sardine or some such small fish and put it in a coffee can. This was to be Gordon’s and my bait. He caught ten or so, and then let me try. I caught zero, Gordon was equally lucky, zero. Finally Oswaldo came down the ladder with a fish 2-3 feet long, wrapped in a burlap bag. Pushing away from the dock, Gordo propelled us out to sea, past the arch, between the ‘Friars’ and a small rock jutting just above the water, upon which rested a baby seal.
After we got well away from land the fishing began, Gordon and I baited our rods and tried to catch anything. I caught a seagull who gave me quite a fight until he finally let the bait go. It looked like a regular man vs. fish dual except my line went up in the air instead of into the water. Oswaldo and Gordo were laughing at the sight.
When Gordo wasn’t rowing, he was bailing with a square scoop made just for that duty. Oswaldo rode in the bow, watching for signs. Soon he gave direction to Gordo and we pulled alongside a sea turtle which was gaffed and pulled into the boat, upside down. When Oswaldo determined that we were in the ‘fishing spot’. He unwrapped the burlap bag and cut the fish into 6” by 6” cubes. Putting a chunk of bait on a 2” hook that was attached to a stout 1/8” cord, he whirled the cord overhead like a lasso and let loose. Oswaldo held the cord in his hands and we rowed around. Nothing happened. Another turtle was spotted and brought into the boat. Fresh bait was added to the hook.
At last there was a tug on the line and we had a hit. The line was let out and the fish was allowed to run, pulling us along. From time to time Oswaldo would pull it in a bit, then let it back out. At one point, the fish jumped out of the water, seventy-five feet away, a blue marlin, maybe six feet long.
The marlin fought for forty-five minutes before he was brought in. During that time, as we were pulled out of site of land, the boat continued its leaky ways. When the water in the boat approached the nostrils of the upside down turtles, they’d begin flapping their flippers like mad, flipping water all over us. Gordo would then get the bailer and lower the water level until they stopped flapping.
When the marlin finally gave up, Gordo clubbed it and tied it to the side of the panga, just like the “Old Man and the Sea”. We started for home, not making much headway. While Gordo rowed, Oswaldo continued to fish. In the distance there were other fishing boats and behind one of them I watched a sailfish jump clear out of the water. A grey shark cruised by and Oswaldo kept throwing the baited hook at it but he didn’t bite (to my relief). Eventually, Oswaldo determined that we’d had enough and it was time to start the motor. After several attempts it wouldn’t start, so a second set of oars was put to use by Oswaldo. It looked like a long trip home.
As we struggled against the tide, the blue yacht we had seen the day before took pity upon us and threw us a line, towing us back to the beach. It was very thoughtful and much appreciated. The days score, one marlin, two turtles and almost a seagull.
Mom, Dad, Gordon, Mary, Bob and I spent one more day on the beach. Mr. Jefferies came by in a dune buggy and shot a vulture that was flying above us. We packed up in the morning and started north, crossing the 23’27” parallel and eating lunch in Todos Santos, making it back to La Paz that evening. The Hewitt’s had set up camp at an abandoned house on La Paz bay; the kitchen was on the back porch and looking through the back door window, there was a large dead scorpion on the floor inside.
In the morning we went to town and Dad made the arrangements to take the freighter across to Mazatlan. (This was in the days before the ferries.) We had a couple of days to kill before the trip. Nearby there was a playground with slides and swings, there was the beach on the bay, and the Hewitt kids reported that they had found a ‘hot spring’. Sure enough, there was warm water in the bay, how nice is that. Well, not so nice at all, one of the dads noticed the pipeline coming from the adjacent hotel to the “hot springs” and the source of the hot water was determined to be the sewer line. No more hot springs for us.
We found a small restaurant, the “Cri-Cri”, with dirt floors and chickens running around, but it had good food and we ate lunch there every day.
One afternoon we decided to go to the movies and get some local culture. Arriving amply ahead of time, we stood patiently in line with our tickets to go into the show. Suddenly the doors opened and the earlier performance came surging out dismantling the line, splitting up our group and forcing Gordon, Jeff, Jim and me into a small corner. Shoved up next to us was a police officer, watching over the crowd. Art one point Jeff got sucked into the rushing tide and he struggled to stay with us in our protected corner; the policeman started to push him out with the crowd and he yelled “norteamericano, norteamericano” and the cop helped him back into our happy spot. Someone yelled something at the cop, and he tossed his baton at the guy, hitting him in the head, and the baton bounced back into the cop’s hand, the guy shut up.
After the exiting crowd finally cleared the way, the neat orderly line turned into a crush of people trying to get into the theater. It was like you could pick up your feet and get inside without touching the ground.
Evidently we all survived and got into the theater, the lights dimmed and we wondered what we would see. [Pregnant pause] The theater darkens, the curtain rises, “TA DA” - Walt Disney presents, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”, second feature, Disney’s “Third Man on the Mountain” (Matterhorn). They were both in English with Spanish subtitles. So much for getting some local culture.
The time had come for the Stewart family to say good-bye to the Hewitt’s and to leave Baja California. We drove to the docks and waited to load on to the ship. While we waited we milled around the dock, the customs inspector made sure we had the correct ‘tourista’ decal on the windshield of the truck and that all of our papers were in order. As the tide changed and the ship pulled and tugged, suddenly a rope tightened, catching Mary in the back of the legs and launched her toward the edge of the dock, between the dock and the ship. Thankfully Dad was looking that way and saw it happen and was able to grab her before she fell over the side.
It was now time to load our truck, so two four by twelve planks were set down and Dad crept up the ramp and onto the deck. A deckhand guided him across the ship and when he stopped, the front and rear bumpers were hanging over the side of the ship; the only way to get to the bow was to go through the cab or over the bed of the pick-up.
We had a small cabin, but Gordon and I slept in the truck to give more space to the others. Also on board was a scientist of some type with his young son. The gentleman spoke some English and was the person that told us that the green ‘tree’ in Gordon’s quartz crystal was an “inclusion”. The little boy enjoyed coloring with Bob.
The two day, two night trip was uneventful but for two things, really great refried beans and Gordon and I climbing the radio mast to the ‘crow’s nest’ and some deck hand demanding that we get down and not go back up there again. Mom and Dad reinforced his instructions.
With all of the adventure we had been on, Dad still hadn’t had enough, so, arriving in Mazatlan we turned south and drove to San Blas (why San Blas? I don’t know). This was mainland Mexico and jungle country with vines hanging from trees and coconut palms. We camped on a white sand beach. As the sun set, the “no-see-ums” came out, forcing us into our tent until it became dark. The next day Dad and I rode the Bearkat down the beach and got it stuck in quicksand. We were lucky to get it out. At another time while there, I was standing about three feet from the water’s edge and a ten-foot grey or blue shark cruised past, not six feet out into the bay. We didn’t swim at San Blas much after that.
While there, Gordon climbed up a palm tree and cut down a coconut, and on the way out, we stopped by the side of the road and Gordon shimmied up a vine and we swung him around until it came out of the tree. We dragged it behind us for miles.
Working our way up the coast, it was paved road all the way, narrow, but paved. We stopped in the small town of Alamos, known for its silver work. I purchased a small curio display box.
We found a camp site somewhere around Hermasillo and continued north in the morning. The horse was headed for the barn. Crossing back into the U.S. at Nogales, we made it to just outside Tucson, Arizona, where we pulled off the road for the night. The skies looked like rain, so Mom, Mary and Bob slept in the truck bed with the canvas pull all the way back, Gordon slept in the cab and Dad and I slept under the truck. Sure enough, the rains came, lots of rain. Have you ever noticed that there is a gap between the cab and bed of a pick-up? Well there is, and the rain found it. Soon, there was drip, drip, drip onto our sleeping bag, then drip, drip, drip in our sleeping bag. So much for sleeping under the truck and Dad and I climbed into the cab with Gordon.
I never told too many details about our pick-up, the “Pinta”. A 1959 Ford f-100, ex-forest service truck; no frills, no extended cab; it did have a heater, 4-speed transmission and 2-speed transfer case, each with its own shift lever coming up from the floor. Dad added a removable AM radio: the steering column was solid, no folding up out of the way, the dash was steel, no padding, and the seats did not recline. It was not designed for one person to sleep in, much less three. So we all sat up, trying to sleep. We were in wet sleeping bags (Gordon’s was also wet now from rubbing against ours), so Dad tried the radio to kill time and maybe lull us to sleep. After lots of static (it didn’t have push buttons, you had to turn the knob) we ultimately found one radio station that we could hear clearly. It was out of Shreveport, Louisiana and featured disc-jockey Wayne Rainy, playing pure down-t-home country music with all the harmonica and twang you can imagine. He spent the entire night trying to sell record albums of “country’s best musicians”. It did not lull us to sleep, so it was a very long night. (About two weeks ago, March 2012, I was talking to Dad and began describing a night sitting in a pick-up truck and he blurted out “Wayne Rainy” before I even got to the part about listening to the radio.)
The next day we drove to Phoenix and visited the Frank Lloyd Wright designed house called ‘Talison West’ and then finished the trip home, January 29, 1964.
One last note, the Hewitt’s had to stay in La Paz until the ‘Nina’ was repaired before they could cross to Mazatlan, so they stayed at the La Paz bay campsite a few more days.
During that time, the Hewitt kids made friends with a local family and the Hewitt kids ate with them once. Jim has since told me he thought the meat tasted bad then. After they got to sea, a serious storm came up, waves taller than the ship battered them about and they had to stay below decks for most of the trip. They remained at sea an additional two days, thirty-six hours of which was spent taking shelter behind a coastal island. While onboard the ship, all of the children became ill, severely ill. So ill that when they reached Mazatlan, Jeff had to go into the hospital, he had dysentery! Bad meat, ‘hot-spring’, we’ll never know?’
Well, hospitals cost money, and they frown on people camping on the hospital lawn so the remainder of the Hewitt’s had nowhere to stay. The Captain of the ship that they had just sailed upon took pity upon them and let them stay in the Captain’s cabin, while he took the mates cabin and so on down the line. In addition, when the time came for Jeff to be released, they hadn’t enough money to bail him out of the private hospital so the Captain and the mate loaned Patty and Francis enough to get Jeff out and have enough gas money to get home. After they got back home, they mailed the payment to the crewmates, BAJA KARMA.
I have driven back to Cabo San Lucas five more times since 1964 and I’m writing this in 2012. Three trips have been due to racing, two just for the adventure. None of them will ever compare with the first, but with every trip there are more stories to tell and more roads to travel so I’d better get packing for the next one!
Vaya con Dios.