Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Baja or Bust

-with Marty Rudnick, Sittin In

Some folks, at the age of twenty, are off to college.  Some folks, at the age of twenty, are off on their chosen career path.  And we all know how long a gas pumping career lasted.  Some folks, probably the more intrepid ones, at the age of twenty, are planning their assault and conquest of Everest.  Not Mt. Everest mind you, but Everest brand reclining chairs, with built-in beer cooler and bong holders.  Some folks, at the age of twenty, are simply off in hilarious pursuit of the next adventure.

In 1974, at the age of twenty, I, along with two cohorts in crime, now in the Witless Protection Program under the secret identities of Johnny Larson and Rudley Martwick, planned out and executed, more or less, an intrepid, alcohol fueled road trip into the bowels of the Baja Peninsula.  Otherwise known as the Great Baja Bowel Movement of 1974.

Our vehicle of choice was a 1959 Ford short school bus.  Johnny's father had a penchant for picking up interesting and unusual vehicles.  He knew how to repair them inside and out, it was apparently a fun and lucrative hobby for him.  Out of the many vehicles that rolled through their garage Johnny managed to retain the bus as his own.  Besides taking it on a luxurious ride into the bowels of Baja, he also utilized it when he was the equipment manager for those several bands our mutual Bud, Pat, from the previous post, sang with.

Another interesting vehicle that rolled through their garage was an old black and white California Highway Patrol cruiser.  And politely enough Johnny's Dad sold it to another compadre of ours, Uncle Jack.  Besides being quite roomy it was also fast as hell.  It still had the spot lights on the both sides, but otherwise it had been stripped of all its official business.  Still, it looked official enough.  Every once in a while we'd park it a little down wind from my old house and smoke doobies as we'd watch oncoming vehicles slow down thinking we were a cop.  If that isn't situational irony I don't know what is.  It was also funny as hell.

In April of 1939, Dr. Frank W. Cyr, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York helped establish a national school bus construction standard, including the color "National School Bus Glossy Yellow."   Since Shorty, our bus, was published at auction, it legally had to be painted a different color so that it could not be confused with a real school bus in service.  Being a natural artiste, Johnny did not want to merely rip off “Further,” Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' psychedelic bus.  Instead he painted it “National School Bus Dog Shit Brown,”  in honor of his dog, whom we shall for these purposes call “Useful.”

Yeah, we Buds were having a couple Buds for breakfast.   

Shorty was the kind of bus the slow kids rode back in the day, just ask Rudley.  This was also more than apropos for we three amigos.  Keep in mind though, we made the ride quite custom.  Gone were the bench like pew type seats.  In were two incredible plush and comfy arm chairs.  Yeah, they were from Salvation Army, but so what?

They weren't bolted to the floor nor were we strapped to the chairs.  In the event of collision, we would have gone airborne.  To the moon.  Another potential side excursion.  But there wasn't, we didn't.  So there.

Besides the plush and comfy second hand arm chairs, we also had a couple coolers, sleeping bags, some snacks, a couple of dogs and an incredibly stellar 8 track tape collection owned by Johnny.  Yeah, we had music, we had comfortability and we had beer.  Nine cases of Lucky in bottles to be exact.  Come on, I mean, we were heading into a desert.  We'd need something to drink.  Besides, it was only 99 cents a six pack, under four bucks for a case.  Plus all the bottle caps had those Concentration game type riddles on top.  Always a late night favorite after imbibing 12 or 40 of 'em, some of those riddles could be stumpers.  The more beer you drank the stumpier they got.

Our point of departure was the South Bay Area, suburbia land where we three grew up.  Besides us three amigos and our two dogs, we were also taking Johnny's girlfriend to LA.  What the hell, there was plenty of room and it wasn't like it was out of our way. 

Traveling in the bus made a few road trip essentials a piece of cake.  Naturally we switched drunk drivers every so often.  This was made easy because the person next up to drive could get up and stand right next to the driver's seat.  Once a moment arrived that seemed safe the driver would take his foot off the pedal, stand up and slide out of the way.  In the meantime the new driver already had his hand on the wheel and simply slid in and hit the gas.  We'd slow by maybe 5 MPH during this exercise, essentially losing no time at all.

Another absolute fantabulous situation, especially for drinkers while driving, was the urination situation.  When someone had to take a squirt they'd get up and stand over by the door, ironically called the "safety exit".  The driver would then maneuver to the right lane and open the "safety exit" door.  The urinator, his arm wrapped around the safety stair pole, stood on the bottom step and let fly.  Watching the landscape quickly pass by.  You had to make sure your arm was wrapped around the pole though, there was some emergency bobbing and weaving from time to time.  We risked a gruesome death, potentially bouncing out and skidding on our back or front for hundreds of feet until we stopped, a bloody, stumpy heap of a mess of ground up meat.  But we saved at least five 5 minutes of time, so, you do the math.

Seven cases of beer later we found ourselves somewhere in LA.  In case you weren't counting, that's over two cases each.  It was epic.  We dropped Sue off, good thing she was with us or we'd have never figured out where she was going.  And somehow we managed to find our way back to the freeway, without GPS.  We weren't all that concerned with making time though, we were a living, breathing, party on wheels. Who cared whenever we got to wherever we were going, we were there already.

We crossed the border into Mexico around 10 PM and blew into Ensenada around midnight.  Good thing they sold beer in Mexico, we were running low.

Here's where those over achievers planning their Everest ascent got nothing on us as far as intrepidness and coolness is concerned.  What did we do when we three amigos blew into a new town in a foreign country after we'd been drinking caustic amounts of beer for fourteen or fifteen hours?  Why, go bar hopping, that's what.  Find more cold beer.

Somewhere in one of the dingy dives we rolled into we met Fred, Ensenada's only acid head.  He was tripping.  And Rudley was given a golden opportunity to bang a hooker, but his prudishness got the best of him and he declined.  He probably also said no to a thousand golden STD's since the only condom we had among us had had been in Rudley's wallet for about three years.  You know, the foil wrapper was in a couple pieces.  There's more lubrication on fifty grit sandpaper than there was on that rubber.

After a couple hours of debauchery in and out of the streets of Ensenada it was time to hit the road.  Johnny and Rudley hit the sack, which is probably what I should have done.  I took the wheel instead.  What the hell.  I'd been up for 20 hours and been drinking more than half that time.  Probably three cases of beer.  Of course, I was fit to drive.   In my own inebriated way I was climbing Mount Everest.

Somewhere in the wee hours before the sun came up I side swiped a concrete marker on the side of the road.  You know, one of them things that's about the size of a two foot baseball bat and marks the asphalt boundary of where you shouldn't be driving?  Makes a big noise when you hit it?  Wakes you up real fast?

The swipe sounded like heavy metal traveling at 60 MPH bashing into concrete should.  LOUD!  I quickly woke up and pulled over to the side of the two lane highway, looked back and found my two compadres still asleep.  I started to think up a story to tell Johnny, you know, like I had to swerve to avoid a rowdy pack of Aardvarks or something.  But when I got out to survey the damage, I found the bumper was barely scratched.  The concrete marker was toast, gone, powder, poof, but there was barely any paint missing off the metal bumper.  Based on the noise I figured there would have been an indentation the size of Montana, not so.  America made back when.   Or it could be a testament to the non veracity of concrete south of the border.  Sand and water with a little oatmeal?

Fortunately daylight was just around the corner, as was a little open air road side cafe.  It was definitely time for me to get out from behind the wheel before I hit something else.  Like a camel.  Or a pink flamingo.  I was starting to see some of them.  I pulled over, rousted my two companions and we ambled over to the thatched hut with tables underneath.

The motherly major domo Senora flashed a missing teeth here and there smile and handed us menus.  Here, we all found, our junior high school Spanish completely useless.  Nothing made sense.  We looked over at one of the other four tables that was occupied.  His breakfast looked great.  We pointed, nodded, smiled and held up three fingers.  Easy.  Who needs conversation?

When the plates came they were festooned with a fabulous home town rendition of huevos rancheros.  With a little more food in my belly it was time for this one to hit the sack.  Johnny took the wheel and we were off.

The excursion down the Baja Peninsula was otherworldly, with cacti looming large throughout the barren and hilly landscape.  They were the only green amidst a forever parched, bland brown background.  Mars?  The moon?  Hell, it could have been.  Our adventure meters were on high.  So were we.

As Johnny cruised down the desolate highway, he slowly became aware of a small figure in the distance standing in the middle of the heat swirled phantom dancing asphalt.  As we approached, the figure became a young girl and she was holding a stop sign.  In the middle of freaking nowhere.  Johnny stopped, and in a conversation that he simply could not have comprehended, discerned she was seeking donations for the Greater Baja Society of Potential Banditos.  Or she was just begging.   He gave her a dollar.  What could we do?  She could have had relatives hiding behind the nearby cacti.  With bad teeth and guns.  We considered it a highway toll. 

Initially the drive took us down the Pacific Coast, but after a couple hundred miles or so the highway heads inland, where it was much warmer and less colorful.  Before too long though we came across the road to Bahia de los Angeles, which sits on the Sea of Cortez.  A cousin, who wintered over in Baja many seasons, spoke very highly of the place.  We took his recommendation, veered off the main highway and within an hour we were sitting next to some of the bluest water we'd ever seen.

That first night was amazing, camping out under the stars.  And I mean, there were stars.  Millions of them.  Well, I actually lost count at 23, but I'm sure there was a cubic shitload of 'em.  More than we ever could have imagined existing since we normally viewed the evening sky from a light polluted suburban metropolis that usually shone brighter than a diamond during a night game.  At least we could count the stars at home.

Bahia de los Angeles was a lot different then than it is today.  I mean, back then there was like a gas station and a bodega.  Maybe a cafe.  Now it's a major bill fishing destination.  Hotels, motels and a Taco Bell.  I guess it's been over forty years.  Maybe it's time for another visit.

I think we only spent one night there.  We were on a mission at that time, originally planning on driving all the way to Cabo, at the very tip of the peninsula.  The next morning we drove back to the main highway and again headed south, through the middle of the desert until we came into Guerrero Negro, back on the Pacific Coast.  From there we hop scotched across the middle again, finally landing on the Sea of Cortez side late in the afternoon.  We tooled down the coast a few more miles, eventually stopping near the little hamlet of Mulege, a scant 615 miles south of Tijuana.  Yeah, you could now say we were in Mexico. Ay! Ay!  Opa!  Opa!  Arriba! Arriba!

Mulege was very similar to Bahia de los Angeles back then, only the beach we landed at had thatched huts for us to lounge under.  And so we did.  We drank beer, lounged and played some cards.  I think at this point there was some serious discussion about kicking back a bit.  Maybe not race down to the tip so we could say we did.  We could always fly down later.  Becoming lounge lizards was definitely striking a chord.

The Odyssey Begins

I think it was the second afternoon we were there.  We were drinking and lounging like we were supposed to be doing, when all of a sudden in slow motion a drunk Mexican guy weaves up on a bicycle.  The bike looked like it was right out of a Sears catalog, circa 1956.  Besides the overwhelming appearance of rust gracing the frame, it looked like it had been run over by a garbage truck a half dozen times.  Even the front wheel was warped.  As if being drunk wasn't enough, Homlito was contending with a crooked wheel.

Homey was a short, thin perdido that looked like he had his hair done straight out of the Homeless Bum catalog, circa 1964.  His hair and clothes were quite unkempt and the gray and black stubble adorning his sweaty face put him in his forties.  He was wearing an off buttoned short sleeve shirt and light weight mechanic pants.  The straw Panama hat on his head looked like it was a decade old and had been slept on recently by donkeys.  Other than that he didn't smell too bad.

When he started drunkenly rambling, it looked like half his teeth had gone wandering in the desert, the remaining ones looked like they had been bathing in tobacco swill and dank coffee for days.  We three could not understand a word.  Could have been his slurring, could have been the fact we all only had junior high Spanish to assist us.

I mean, the most effusive statement we could utter was, "Donde esta la Biblioteca?"

Or, "Tres mas cervezas aqui, por favor!"

After one of our beers and a whole lot of conversation with himself, the drunk Mexican decided he wanted to gamble with us.  We all exchanged concerned glances, like, was this guy trying to take us?  And if so, where?

He drunkenly slurred the rules of some game, none of us understood.  We hadn't a clue.  Then he started dealing, tossing cards face up to each of us, including himself.

After four or five cards were dealt face up he cried, "Aye Carumba," in disgust and tossed down a US Dollar.  Apparently he lost.  We looked at the cards and had absolutely no idea what he was doing.  Face cards meant nothing.  Neither did little ones.  Fives?  Sixes?  Sevens?  Who knew?

He dealt again.  The same thing happened, different cards.  After he dealt a few more times and lost all his money, he tried to give us his less than scrap metal for value bike as payment for his imprudent, drunken gambling debts.

We politely declined, and he left, somewhat offended.  I mean, what were we going to do with his only mode of transportation, that he probably stole just before arriving at our play area?   We were four dollars richer and confused as hell.

"What just happened?" we muttered to each other as we drank another beer.  We stayed that night, but the next morning we decided to heave ho.  We had no idea what that drunk was up to.  It could have been simple incoherent innocence, or the conspiracy theorist in each of us was multiplying and dividing.  Just what the hell was he really up to?

It was somewhere along here in the story line that the bus started to hiccup.  Hiccup?  Every so often the engine would sort of gasp, and then emit a little bit of burnt oil smoke.  What made the situation a little less tenable was the fact the engine compartment access was inside the bus, right between the driver and the steps to the "safety exit".  So every time the bus hiccuped we'd get to inhale a little blast of smoke.       

While Rudley and myself were less than useless, like one of the dogs, Johnny was reasonably adept at minor mechanical ailments.  But this was becoming something beyond his ability.  Especially when his only tools were a screw driver and a plastic fork.  We definitely decided we were going no further south, we only hoped now we would be able to make it back to the US.

And so we limped along.  We were doing 30 MPH now instead of 60, it was taking a lot longer to get anywhere.  It was a lot hotter too without a little open window air conditioning at 60 MPH.

The going was slow but OK for a while, but then we started to burn up roughly a quart of oil every ten kilometers or so.  It was getting tough.   We could only go roughly 50 miles on one tank of oil!  Hell, with a 26 gallon gas tank and getting 12 MPG, we could go a hell of a lot further on gas than oil.  Something was definitely wrong with this picture.  We stocked up on oil every chance we could, but somewhere in the middle of the desert we ran out.  No mas.  We were then about 300 miles south of the border.

We held a meeting and every one was present.  It was decided I'd hitch hike into the next town, get some oil and hitch hike back.  The boys would stay and guard the beer.  Hey, this is beginning to sound like De ja vu, only this story happened first.  I ambled out of the bus and stuck out my thumb.

Now, somehow my Scandinavian and Irish heritage conspire and usually allow my skin to get quite dark in the summer.  I know, more irony.  Lazing about the Sea of Cortez for a week didn't help this affliction.  I was dark, Mexican National dark.  I was darker than some of the natives.

I would say that eighteen to twenty vehicles filled with US adventurers much like ourselves passed me by.  Didn't even look at me.  Maybe we should have made an articulate sign.  Finally the first Mexican that came along stopped and picked me up.

It was about a twenty mile ride into town, which I am now guesstimating was Punta Prieta, about 200 miles south of Ensenada.  I gathered up a half dozen quarts of oil and hit the road back.  The same thing happened.  Not a single US adventurer gave me a first look.  Finally a pick up truck with a young Mexican couple stopped.  I hopped in the back.  They gave me a couple mangoes.  I definitely got the hint I no doubt looked, with my dark complexion on, quite native.

When I got back to the boys they were outside sweltering.  Apparently they had been inundated with some sort of flying bugs just sitting there idle.  They had to roll up the windows, which made the bus an oven.  It also didn't help the odor, which by this time was becoming really ripe.

Besides the engine oil hiccups, there were a couple nice big sea shells inside that we had bagged.  Ordinarily that wouldn't be a deal, but we had neglected to remove the living mussel or organism inside.  Hence we had a few simmering shells that were just beginning their odorous ascent.  Oh yeah, we were traveling with a couple dogs too and had been essentially living and sleeping in the bus for a couple days.  The odor from  otherworldly intermittent gas emissions was embedded in anything fabric.  Spent beer and refried beans.  It was getting beyond ripe.  Only, you know, we didn't know because we were swimming in it.

We limped the twenty miles back into the town I just left and landed at the only garage in town.  We spoke to the only mechanic in town.  Sort of.  You know, junior high school Espanol?  And it sounded like he had failed junior high school English.  Somehow we communicated.  He looked over the situation and discerned that probably a couple pistons were blown.  That and a head gasket.  We had figured the head gasket was blown, that much was obvious.  Otherwise we probably would not have been eating smoke for miles.  But the pistons?  That sounded like a foreign mechanic trying to take advantage of some young Americans.

It was a little disconcerting too.  Half the town, about fifty people, had gathered about the bus, eying us and everything inside.  I mean, our smelly, rumpled sleeping bags probably looked like swan down comforters to them.

And then the mechanic asked us if we'd ever seen this certain kind of fish fly.  Like, fish swim, dude.  Birds fly.  Why are you asking us this?

It turned out the low quality fuel in Mexico had burned out the head gasket and a couple pistons.  The mechanic was right.  But we didn't know that then.  I spent about twelve dollars calling my mother in San Diego on the town's only telephone, a hand crank type radio unit.  Ah, those exciting days before cellular.  I spoke to her briefly, we just wanted someone in the states know we were stranded in the bowels of oblivion.  Just in case.

And then we explored our options.  We thought about ditching the bus, taking it out on some deserted dirt road and blowing it up.  I have no idea why.  Then we'd hitch hike to America.  I already had some experience with this.

Somewhere within this desolation exploration, Johnny ran into a US adventurer who had forty feet of stout water ski rope.  He didn't have a vehicle to tow us, but he had some rope.  Soon thereafter a couple of Mexicans in about a seventeen foot flat bed truck happened along.  For forty bucks they said sure, we'll tow ya 200 miles to Ensenada.

Let me tell you, that was some couple hundred mile trip.  No beer this time.  Once the rope was tied and taut, we were about twenty feet behind the flatbed.  Which also had a three foot high wooden corral around the bed.  Which contained one damn ugly llama.  Or alpaca.  Or camel.  One ugly beast, whatever it was.

Probably dinner for them.

Being tied up so close behind our tow vehicle left Johnny essentially without a view.  Except for that damn llama.  Which spit on our windshield almost the entire journey. 

Good thing there were three of us.  With Johnny behind the wheel we other two derelicts were on either side of the bus with our heads out the window.  We were his eyes and would let him know when turns were coming up and how sharp they were.  It was an intense four plus hours.

We landed in Ensenada around ten that night, and rather than paint the town again I think we all passed out.  In the bus.  The next morning we bought about ten quarts of oil, figuring that would get us across the border.
Keeping in mind my previous mention of the growing odor inhabiting our surroundings, it had only increased it's unholiness by the time we were encroaching on America.

Fortunately it was relatively quiet early in the morning and the line was not too long as we hiccuped, burped and smoked along.  An odorous, smouldering shit brown hunk of rolling metal.  We looked like a prime smuggling operation, all the smoke being a diversion.  We figured we'd be tossed and turned, blasted and burned, every article and stitch subject to scrutiny.

We slowly hiccuped and limped right to the finish line, Shorty letting out one last gasp as we stopped for the border guard.

The guard approached the driver's window and stopped about a foot short, a grimace of disgust enveloping his face as he covered his nose.  He stepped back and emphatically waved us through.  He didn't utter a word.  We could have brought all the drugs in the world back with us.

From the border we limped to my mother's home in San Diego, where we all had our first shower in a week.  A very soupy and soapy Rudley magically removed a foreign tick from his leg. Which had to be infinitely better than trying to rid himself of a foreign STD.  We also discovered one of the prime contributors to our monstrous smell condition, the sea shells.

We had forgot all about them, and by this time whatever had been inside them was now only a very formidably smelling ooze.  At least it was now easy to pour out of the shell.  Rinse with water.  Repeat.

We all flew back to the Bay Area.  Johnny and his Dad returned a couple weeks later and fixed Shorty.  They brought real tools with them.  Shorty since went on a number of other memorable adventures and currently rests peacefully up in Skykomish, Washington.  We're all happy we didn't blow him up in the deserts of Mexico.