Baja Then and Now

Exploring Baja this year, a place of my youth, I recently realized the extent to which I feel defined by past experiences, or maybe the extent to which I want to be defined by past experiences.

There are places I’ve been, years ago, that no longer exist, will never again exist. They’re now boarded up, over-run, paved over, or washed away. What I saw and experienced in these places can no longer be obtained or recreated. They weren’t necessarily special places in their own right, and nothing necessarily notable happened there. But now, because those places are no more, my memories of them as they were are sacrosanct.

“How long have you been coming here?”

“Since 1985.”

“Yeah, me too! So you remember how it used to be?”

“I do!”

“It’ll never be like that again.”

“Nope.”

Exploring Baja this year, a place of my youth, I recently realized the extent to which I feel defined by past experiences, or maybe the extent to which I want to be defined by past experiences.

A couple months ago, we sailed into Bahia de Gonzaga, up in the Northern Sea. I imagined it would be little changed from how I remembered it from my last visit, about 15 years ago. Alfonsina’s Resort is in the northern part of the bay, just south of Punta Willard. It’s an isolated part of the world, accessible primarily to private pilots and off-road motorcyclists. Resort is a misnomer, as the place is little more than a road house for adventurers (minus the road) constructed of rough rock walls, sheets of tacked-on plywood, and tin and palm frond roofing. The floor is a mosaic of broken tiles and electricity comes at the expense of the drone of a small diesel generator. My fondest memories are of eating huevos rancheros on chipped plates and washing it down with a cold beer as they day began to heat up.

Alfonsina and her sons are a hearty cast, having made axel-breaking excursions down here since at least the 1960s. There are always cold beers and fresh tortillas available in the dining room. There is also fuel for sale, the lifeblood of the travelers who make it here.

Aboard Del Viento this summer, we dropped the hook in front of the tiny rock-and-cement structure I remember. It was immediately clear things had changed. Everything I remembered was there, but diminished by the structures built up around them. Resort no longer seemed like a misnomer.

We went ashore for huevos rancheros—they weren’t like I remembered them, and these plates weren’t chipped. I wore a 20-year-old Alfonsina's shirt I owned and when nobody commented, I pointed it out to the waiter.

“Estaba aqui viente-cinco anos pasado.” ("I was here 25 years ago") I said, letting him know that I know what’s what. He smiled politely, as if to indulge me. He said he’d worked here for three years.

“Como esta Alfonsina?” I asked, as though she and I were good friends, “Ella esta aqui?”

He told me she’d died a while back.

“Lo siento.” I inquired about her eldest son.

He wasn't here this month, the waiter told me. I could tell he was eager for us to order.

While we ate, I spotted a coyote less than fifty feet from where we sat. I pointed him out to Windy and the girls and we watched him forage tentatively. Then a full-sized Toyota Tundra pickup truck roared up and parked. The coyote fled. A clean older couple got out of the truck and took a table inside. They greeted us warmly as they passed. “Did you see that coyote?”

I grunted. Their clothes looked pressed, their hair was neat. This dining room used to seat only the hearty, the dusty, dirty adventurous souls who’d made it here. How did this good-smelling couple even get here?

After a breakfast that cost three times what it used to, we walked along the old runway, surveying the improvements to all the cabins people had built along the beach. Everything was too spiffy. Minutes later, the couple in the truck passed slowly by us, stopped, and backed up.

“Hey, we’re gonna take a drive down to Punta Final across the bay, you guys feel like going for a ride?”

It was the kind of invitation people in remote places extend to each other. I looked at Windy and the girls, “Sure, we’d love to,” I said.

“Climb in.”

Despite the many trips I’d made here over the years, I’d never been to the other side of the bay. I felt a bit guilty though, accepting this invitation from a stranger I’d just derided in my head. As we drove, I learned a shocking truth: Alfonsina’s was no longer the dusty outpost from my youth because a paved road had just been completed that connects it to San Felipe, to the north. A journey that used to take a dozen or more hours in an off-road vehicle, now could be done in less than two hours, in a Honda Civic. Where the road ended at Alfonsina’s, there was now a Pemex station and a grocery store. I felt depressed.

“This is how a lot of people drive roads like this,” said our clean companion behind the wheel. “But by speeding up like this…” I held on defensively to the seatback in front of me and looked over to notice whether the girls were buckled in. “….and take the corners like this…” Ooh—wait, that was nice, easy.

“Ivan’s done a lot of driving on these roads,” the coiffed woman in the passenger seat said.

Ivan dug through the center console as we raced down the rough dirt road. “Here, take one of these.”

He handed back a media sheet with dramatic photos and stats.

“You’re Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart? I’ve heard of you.”

“Yep.”

Stewart’s won the Baja 1000 and several other desert races a bunch of times, he’s a legend in that circle. I relaxed my grip on the seatback.

“So you’ve been down here before, I mean, you know Alfonsina’s from before the road was built?”

He laughed. This was the only prompt needed to get the stories pouring out of Ivan. He knows everyone, has a house up the road. He's been coming here since the 60s, loving it. It was a fast trip to Punta Final and back.

Things change down here and they’ll continue to change. But there remains much left to explore and memories to be made by new generations, like my daughters. I got out of Ivan’s big truck no longer feeling so badly about it all.

We waved goodbye, my girls’ first memories of this particular place taking root: coyotes, interesting characters, not-so-bad huevos rancheros, and flying down rough roads with grace and precision.

In our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we lived the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Click here to read more from the Log of Del Viento.

Baja Night Sky

Baja Night Sky

It was so dark and pretty before moonrise out there. There is nothing like a desert night sky. I mean, It's great at sea too, in that you're also away from light, but the fact that the water is reflective means it doesn't feel quite as dark. And the fact that you're moving doesn't lend the stillness appropriate to a night sky. Of course, I took this from shore, with my 50mm prime and the shutter open for about 20 seconds.Michael Robertson
Ironman Stewart in Baja

Ironman Stewart in Baja

Windy and the girls with Ivan and Linda.Michael Robertson
Night Sky in Baja

Night Sky in Baja

Another night sky pic. This I took shortly before moonrise. The light is the navigation light on the point. Check out the clouds with the stars.Michael Robertson
Bahia Willard

Bahia Willard

Frances looking out over Bahia Willard, Del Viento at anchor.Michael Robertson