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A Comet, A Canoe, 2 Gringoes And A Road Trip

Road Trip to Baja

I’ve been thinking about writing this for some time, but I never seemed to get around to it. But it’s an interesting and amusing anecdote about an early road trip to the South. This one road trip in particular, took me to Southern California, and on to Baja, Mexico.

Often near the end of winter, I’d get an itch to get in my car and head for warmer climes. Tired of the rain and cold, I yearned for the desert warmth and beauty. Many times I’ve driven south, to Death Valley, to Joshua Tree, or to the Grand Canyon.

Sometimes I’d convince friends to go. Other times I’d go on my own. I even spent a month traveling solo down the Baja Peninsula.

In the spring of 1997, I convinced my good friend Ean to take a road trip to Baja. I don’t think he needed much convincing. I’d been back a year or so from my first solo trip down the Peninsula, so he’d listen to me drone on about the desert, cacti, the friendly people, the warm water, yada, yada…

And so we made plans to head down. Now bear in mind, we don’t live in California. We don’t even live in the US. So taking a road trip halfway down the Baja from the West Coast of Canada is no small thing. But it’s a road trip, and road trips are adventures. And this was just another adventure. And we like adventures! No matter how far we have to drive to get there…

The Mostly Boring Part Of A Road Trip

Our plan, such as it was, was to drive down to Laguna, California and drop in on our friend Gabrielle and her family. I don’t remember for sure, but I think we let her know we were coming.

The drive down was fairly uneventful. Interstate 5 south, multi-lane, drive fast, pay no attention to the mostly drab scenery. This part of the road trip is definitely all about the destination, rather than the journey. The boring part.

At one point, somewhere in Northern California, we had to fix the ropes used to tie down the canoe. What?! Oh, did I forget to mention that we took a canoe? Well, now you know. We took a canoe. Try to keep up…

Somehow the rope we used to fasten the canoe to Ean’s makeshift wooden boat rack ended up under a tire. While we were stopped for fuel and food at a rest stop, the end of the rope got under the tire as we were driving away. A horrible screeching noise as the rope tightened on the rack told us to stop immediately. Had we kept going, the rope would have twisted the rack and possibly crushed the canoe. Yikes!

We arrived safely at Gabrielle’s and proceeded to make ourselves at home. Our half-formed plan was to have a visit for a day or so before heading south to the Mexican border. But plans are meant to be changed. At least most of mine are, so we stayed a few days longer. It’s nice to catch up with old friends, and sometimes one day just isn’t enough.

What’s A Road Trip Without Tequila!

Gabrielle’s son Jordan and oldest daughter, Bobbi, and her two year old were also staying with her. Which made for a busy, active household. So on our second day, we decided to have a little dinner party. Gabrielle’s daughter invited a young man she had recently met to join us. I don’t think she thought that one out…

The poor guy never stood a chance. He didn’t know what hit him! And it all started with a bottle of tequila.

Cinco De Mayo Drinking GIF by WDR - Find & Share on GIPHY

And you know, when something starts with tequila, it usually doesn’t end well.

Throughout the dinner, jokes and good-natured insults were tossed about. That’s often how we are when we all get together. It’s either that or very deep, emotional conversations. So after more than a year of all of us being together, it was jokes, friendly ribbing, and much laughter. We did our best to include the hapless date. We probably included him far more than he liked. But much fun was had.

And tequila! Did I mention that already? So when the tequila ran out, we did what anyone else would do. We got more tequila! I mean, wouldn’t you?

Meanwhile, the hapless dinner date sat there, eyes slightly glazed, wondering what strange family movie he had wondered into. I’m pretty sure he had all the exits lined up, ready to make a break in case we brought out the Pictionary…

But he did manage to make his escape. I can’t remember if it was during bottle 1 or bottle 2, but at some point later in the evening he was no longer there.

Nothing Like A Road Trip With A Hangover

The evening grew late, and I needed to sleep. I was sore from laughing, and my head swam. Time to hit the couch. We were hitting the road to Mexico in the morning. But Ean stayed up a while longer, writing down the bizarre and hilarious conversations the others were having. Poor Jordan was sitting in the shower, singing his drunken head off, and Gabrielle was doing her best to keep him from drowning. And through it all, Ean just sat on the stairs, writing it all down. How I’d love to catch a look at his notebook!

Morning came for some of us. The others didn’t wake until afternoon. But we needed to get a move on, despite our hangovers. So, coffee drank, we hit the road. The border was about an hour away, and we wanted to try beating the lineups.

Mercifully, the border wait was relatively brief. We picked up our tourist cards at the little immigration office at the border, and we were on our way south!

Have you ever driven on Mexican roads in the countryside? Have you ever driven on Mexican roads in the countryside with a hangover? So much fun…

Camp I

After several hours of having our inflamed brains slosh back and forth in our skulls, we started looking for a campsite for the night. Our final destination was to be Bahía de Los Ángeles, on the Sea of Cortés side of the Baja Peninsula. But we wouldn’t get there until the next day. We were still on the Pacific side of the Peninsula, so we found a bit of a dirt road that headed toward the ocean.

A short off-road drive brought us down next to a small beach. We were miles from the nearest village, with not a soul in sight. Perfect!

Look! Up In The Sky! It’s…

We put the tent up just away from the sand, with a low bluff protecting us from the stiff offshore breeze. The sky was a leaden grey, with a threat of rain. It seemed unlikely we’d get a view of the comet tonight. What!? Comet?! Did I forget to mention the comet?

Yes, the comet Hale-Bopp was in full glory. We were hoping we’d catch a good view down here, a long way from any city lights. Okay, you’re up to speed now. Now please, just try to keep up…

We made a small fire on the beach, and enjoyed a light dinner washed down with a couple of beers. If I’m not mistaken, we might have even had a shot or two of tequila. “Hair of the dog” and all that…

The wind died down and, unexpectedly, the stars came out. The threat of rain disappeared, and the night sky opened up to us. And there it was, Hale-Bopp. It wasn’t even full dark yet, but the comet stood out over the Pacific very clearly.

By Philipp Salzgeber –, CC BY-SA 2.0 at,

Warning: Nerd Facts Ahead

Does anyone remember comet Hale-Bopp? It was called The Great Comet of 1997. And for good reason. Incredibly it was visible to the naked eye for 18 months. The comet’s nucleus was measured to be about 50 kilometers in diameter, or about 6 times the size of Halley’s Comet. So it would be a very bad thing if this behemoth crashed into the side of our planet. Like, disaster movie bad…

And the last time it showed up here was July, 2215BC. Moreover, it won’t be back in our neck of the woods until about 4385! So there’s a pretty slim chance that I’m gonna get to see it again. I had to make this trip count.

So we sat in the sand by the sea and watched the comet for a few minutes. Oddly, it didn’t do anything exciting. It just floated there. I’m sure it’s moving pretty fast, but you wouldn’t know it by watching it. After a bit, we walked back to the fire. You know, you see one comet, you’ve seen them all. Am I right?

Of course I’m not entirely serious. After all, I am part of a family of nerds. The science of the object completely fascinates me. I could read everything about comet Hale-Bopp, but I can only look up at it for so long. Shoulda brought a telescope…

If This Is A Road Trip, Why Aren’t We On A Road?

The next morning we packed up and got back on the road. Actually, the road that runs the length of the Baja is, in some places, barely a road. I mean, it’s paved the entire distance, but it runs through some incredibly remote landscapes.

There’s no shoulder to speak of, sometimes the center line is nowhere to be found, and it’s a favourite lounging spot for livestock. The occasional speed bumps are car killers, and DO NOT drive this road at night.

But the Trans Peninsular Highway is definitely an adventure worth pursuing. If you’ve never driven down that part of the world, do yourself a favour and add it to your bucket list.

You will see plants you’ve never seen before, like the boojum tree. Also called the Cirio, boojum trees got their name from the Lewis Carroll poem “The Hunting of the Snark”. Granted, you probably won’t disappear if you happen to see one. Endemic to the Baja, the boojum looks like a misshapen carrot sticking 50 feet up out of the ground. So when you do see one, you’ll shake your head in bewilderment. They are a sight!

Baja road trip-boojum tree near Cataviña
Ean and a Boojum tree near Cataviña

You’ll also have many opportunities to get off the road and go explore. We stopped in a place called the Cataviña Boulder Field and wandered for a good 40 minutes. This is a parkour enthusiast’s dream. Giant sandstone and quartz rocks, some the size of two story buildings, lay scattered among giant cardón cactus.

Baja road trip-Cardon cactus
Giant Cardón Cactus

The Bustling Metropolis Of Bahía de Los Ángeles

Eventually it was time to ignore all the amazing side trips and just get our butts to the Sea of Cortés. About 90 minutes from Cataviña, the Sea came into view. We turned off the main highway and drove southeast, toward the little town. I’m not really sure you can call it a town.

A small village of fewer than 700 inhabitants (dogs not included), Bahía de Los Ángeles didn’t even have electricity until 2007. When we were there, power was provided by diesel generators.

But the location is absolutely stunning, with the blue waters of the Sea of Cortés and the tawny mountains of the Peninsular Range.

Baja road trip - overlooking Bahia de Los Angeles
Approaching Bahía de Los Ángeles

Camp II

Because of our incredibly detailed trip planning, we weren’t sure where we would camp. We drove into the town proper and found a place to buy a few provisions, namely beer and ice. Then we headed north, just out of town, and found a stony track that lead to the water. I think Ean just liked to find the worst bit of terrain to drive his truck into. He probably felt it was a personal challenge to overcome. I was happy to get out and walk, and take photos as he tried climbing 50 degree slopes.

Baja road trip-the road less traveled
Ean extracting us from a sticky situation

But we found a pretty spot to make camp, and soon were settled in. At last we had made it to the Sea of Cortés!

Baja road trip-Camp II
Camp II near the bay

The next few days were spent leisurely exploring the area. We hiked the coastline north, and sat on the rocky shore gazing out at the islands across the bay. And since we had dragged the damn thing all the way from Canada, we paddled along the shoreline in Ean’s canoe.

The Island Beckons

There was one island in particular that caught our imagination. Isla Coronado lay only a couple of miles offshore. It was the tallest of the nearby islands, with an extinct volcano jutting up. It begged to be climbed. And we were just the gringoes to do it!

So early one afternoon, we loaded up the canoe with provisions (a water bottle) and emergency supplies (seat cushions), put on our best survival gear (shorts and long-sleeved shirt, sun hat, life jacket), and launched the trusty canoe. Another adventure! And it was a beautiful, sunny day, with just a bit of a breeze. Everything was perfect. Nothing could go wrong.

Baja road trip- Volcan Coronado
The volcano on Isla Coronado. Note the kayaks on the beach.

About halfway across the channel, the wind started to pick up. The occasional wave would break over the gunwales and splash us. But that was okay.

We approached a small island and discovered a current that tossed us about. The sea was a little more lively here, and we had to really bend our backs to the paddles. It wouldn’t do to tip here.

But as we rounded the tip of the small island, the current calmed and the sea smoothed out. From there it was an easy paddle to a small beach on Isla Coronado.

After pulling the canoe up onto the sandy beach, we took a look around. A faint trail lead toward the base of the volcano, so we followed. Soon we were climbing, the wind stiff in our faces. The higher we climbed, the stronger the wind blew. At one point, my favourite hat went flying off my head and out over the edge of the volcano. Crap! I loved that hat!

Baja road trip-desert fauna
I really loved that hat!

The View From The Top

In what seemed like no time we reached the summit. What a view! From that peak we could look out in all directions and see out across the Sea of Cortés, back across the channel to our tiny campsite, and over the spine of the Peninsular Mountains. It was exhilarating standing on this dead volcano, on top of the world.

We sat on top of the volcano and watched a rain squall approach. Raindrops pelted us, driven by the stiff wind. But it quickly passed, and we started back down the mountain. It was time to be getting back across the channel before darkness set in.

Once back down to the beach, we discovered the wind was blowing here as well. Even in the protected lee of the small island, the waves were choppy. Looking out past the island, we were dismayed to see the sea was a mass of whitecaps. Our canoe was no match for this.

We explored along the beach for a while, waiting for the wind to die down. I knew that, in this part of the world, the wind always died down with the approach of dusk. It meant we’d probably be paddling in the early evening darkness, but so be it. It was better than trying to cross the channel in a gale.

Can You Spare Us Some Soup?

But twilight approached, and the wind just blew harder. The sun dipped, and took the temperature with it. Our paddle across the channel was not going to happen on this night. We picked up the canoe and brought it high on the beach, against a small dune. Turned on its side, it would provide us with some protection from the cold wind.

We had a little water, and no food. Both of us were dressed in shorts and light, long-sleeved shirts. This was going to be a long night.

A small group of kayakers were camped at the end of the beach. They seemed well equipped, unlike us, and we decided to go introduce ourselves.

The kayakers were a friendly group of Americans who were on a week long excursion through the islands. They took pity on us poor, ignorant and unprepared paddlers and offered us some soup. We gratefully accepted, then sheepishly returned to our poor excuse for a camp.

We pushed the sand up around the gunwales at both ends of the canoe to try and block the wind. Then we gathered the two seat cushions and curled ourselves on top. It’s not easy coiling up your body to fit it all on one 18 by 18 inch seat cushion, but we gave it our all. Then we put on our life jackets. And, by curling up into the tightest fetal position humanly possible, we might be able to conserve some of our precious body heat.

The Long Night

And so we lay there, tightly curled like two cinnamon buns, listening to the moaning wind and shivering to get warm. Throughout the long night, we silently willed the wind to stop blowing. But amongst the howling and whooshing, I’m sure I heard mocking laughter.

The sky lightened toward dawn, and the wind still blew. I was happy to note that we were still alive. Always good to focus on the positive, don’t you think? But back to the negative, the damn wind was still blowing!

The sun rose over the mountains, and I began to feel warm again. Well, less cold really. It was still a long way from Baja warm. But I knew I’d soon be warm…

The kayakers came by to check on us. I can’t remember if they brought us coffee or tea. That would have been the charitable thing to do, don’t you think? I mean, they brought us soup! Wouldn’t they think to bring us some nice, hot, steaming tea?!

Sorry, I digress…

Mentally willing the wind to die down seemed to be working. There was a noticeable shift in the intensity. It lightened a little. We made the decision to go for it. The kayakers offered us their moral support, which we quickly stowed, ready to use at a moment’s notice. The canoe was righted and carried to the water.

Away from the beach, the sea seemed calmer. our little craft bobbed on the waves as we paddled out toward the tip of the smaller island. We knew once we cleared the point, the wind would be much stronger. And so we paddled.

A Mistake?

Approaching the point of the island, we could see the white water on the other side. This was going to be fun! That’s not really what I thought.

Clearing the point, we hit the waves head on. Just keep paddling! That was the only thing on my mind. Just keep paddling. Don’t think about if we had made a huge mistake.

The wind blew steady, but it was not as strong as the day previous. The waves were probably 3 to 4 feet, and fairly regular once we cleared the maelstrom of current and wind on the point.

But it seemed a lifetime before we made any forward progress. The island off to my left didn’t seem to move. We were paddling our brains out and going nowhere. Some people live their lives that way, but that’s an article for another time. This is drama, folks!

Gradually the island receded. We were moving ahead! Just keep paddling and ignore the waves breaking over the gunwales. Just ignore the salt spray in your eyes. And just ignore the burning in your shoulders.

Two miles across the channel seemed to take forever. I’m not sure how long it actually was, but probably a couple of hours. But we could see our little campsite, and the tent and truck, and it came closer and closer. We were in the clear!

Road Trip to Baja
Back to camp safe and sound

Lessons Learned?

We slept late that morning, and had a good laugh about the whole silly ordeal. What the hell were we thinking, heading out on the open ocean without food, or safety provisions, far from civilization in another country? I mean, what the hell??! This is what stupid teenagers do, not 37 year old grown (maybe not so much) men!

Thank God a group of friendly kayakers decided to show up at the same island at the same time. I may joke about them, but they were there when we needed help. They probably told a great story to their friends back home about the two gringo morons who got marooned on a desert island.

I have a habit of starting out on a road trip without considering all the “what ifs”. I’ll do stuff like calculate my fuel so I have enough money for gas. I work out a bit of a budget and make a packing list. But I tend to go with the flow when I’m on my road trips. What comes will come. That’s not always the best approach, as you can see. I mean, I’ve been lost in the desert due to my lack of planning, so lesson learned? Probably…?

Home From The Road Trip

Back home and a year or so later, we were sitting around with my new girlfriend Heather and chatting about our past road trip experiences. Ean and I talked about the trip to Baja and went into great detail. We told Heather about being visited by a platoon of armed soldiers walking on the beach one day. Then we mentioned the drive and visit with our friend Gabrielle. And we told her about our misadventure to the Isla Coronado.

At this point, she looked at us in shock. I knew my standing with her went up a few notches after telling that story. “What men! What brave, hardy men you must be”, I thought she thought.

But no. I read that one wrong too.

“What is wrong with you?” she demanded. What?…

“You lie under a canoe together all night, trying to stay warm, and you don’t even spoon?!”

Ean and I look at each other, shocked. “No! Of course not! We’re guys!”

I think Heather was crying from laughing so hard. “You spent the whole night freezing your asses off and never thought to lie together for warmth. How dumb are you!?”

I felt a bit sheepish, but Ean had the perfect response.

“If we had spooned, I might have gotten aroused. Then I would have had to kill myself.”

I think we need to go on another road trip together, Ean. But this time, let’s leave the canoe at home.

Our route to Isla Coronado
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11 months ago

Thanks for the paddle down memory lane. It was an adventurous trip. I’m up for another excursion. Next time we’ll take tide charts and provisions in the canoe, ie. tequila.

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