“My God sweetie – look what I found!”
Sylvie’s head peeped over the huge granite boulder that separated our tent from the small pool that was fed by a hot spring at the head of the Guadeloupe Canyon in Baja, and that formed the remarkable oasis where we were spending Christmas.
“What is it Dad!”
“Presents, presents everywhere!”
Her eyes widened as she took in the parcels arrayed over the slabs of stone, surrounded by flickering lights. Every synapse of her five year old mind fired simultaneously, and she bolted back to the tent to rouse her sister.
“Leonie! Leonie! Aqua Moose found us! There are presents! It is Christmas after all!”
The Roving Bugs are in Mexico, and as luck would have it (and I feel we’re owed a little bit of decent luck after the weather we endured to make it here) we are in some kind of ridiculous nirvana that we only even heard about two days prior to crossing the border.
We decamped from the rugged (perhaps even trying) conditions of Sequoia National Park to head to Los Angeles, where we planned to stop at both Front Runner to say hello to the folks there in person, and swing by the Wet Okole shop in Costa Mesa to pick up some rear seat covers (we have their seat covers on the front seats of Red Beauty, they are fabulous and indestructible, and realizing the girls were going to completely destroy the rear seats we called them up and ordered a set for the back).
Luckily, one of my college roommates lives in LA and has a small guest cottage out back, and I called him from a diner in Lake Isabella to let him know he’d be hosting us for a night. He graciously consented, and we could not have had a more enjoyable impromptu reunion with him and his family.
Sadly, however, our arrival in LA coincided with our temporary loss of The Hippo – an issue in The Great White North forced him to pause this leg of the trip and fly home to resolve. The girls ranged from confused (“Why isn’t The Hippo having dinner with us?”) to distraught (“But we got him A CHRISTMAS PRESENT!”).
We had a great visit with the folks at Front Runner (read about it here) and another great stop at Wet Okole (read about it here). Great products sold by good people, which is a nice and increasingly rare combination.
As we pulled away from the Wet Okole shop and nosed our way south, Val and I realized that from here on, we really had no plan other than “Christmas in Mexico” which, as plans go, especially for a holiday that is as significant as it gets for the kids (and, really, us too) is pretty vague.
We figured we’d camp out north of San Diego for a couple of days to resupply and organize a few critical US-based last minute issues before pushing on, which, thanks to a pretty random sequence of events, led us to a little corner of heaven in Baja.
Pointing at a map, Val said that Encinitas looked pretty nice, was outside San Diego, and would likely have a decent public library. Libraries have become much more consequential to us in our wanderings, as they generally have wifi, comfortable places to sit, plenty of outlets, the ability to print things like insurance documents, and have whole kids’ sections to keep the ladies occupado while we do our responsible adult stuff.
Was she ever right. After the spare and hardscrabble environments of the deserts, mountains and valleys we have spent the past couple of months in, the overwhelming lushness of Encinitas, both literal and metaphoric, had us intoxicated with joy.
It seemed like everyone was tan, and fit, and happy. Surfers wandered on and off the beach all day long, every day, joggers labored the hills on Route 1 past us in the sunshine but cooled by the ocean winds, and hordes of cyclists rode in burgeoning pelotons up and down the highway. Oranges and lemons hung from the undersides of trees. If there had been apples instead of avocados, this would have been Eden.
The library sat overlooking the whole town, a lovely modern structure with a battery of windows set into concrete that forced you to drink in how lovely it all was, no matter where you positioned yourself. We got our insurance organized for Mexico, we sent in a small ocean of documentation to the folks in New York State who oversee homeschooling (imagine having to explain, in a pithy monotone, what your kid is learning on a trip like this), took care of some bills, and on the way back to camp even got Red Beauty’s oil changed.
Val snuck out to the local Target to sew up our shopping for the girls, then had to figure out where to hide their presents with every square inch of Red Beauty already accounted for (thanks to Front Runner, their toys were transported in anonymity in a South African ammunition box on the roof. Santa should look into these things, they’re great).
And, while standing in line at the park entrance one morning to renew our camp permit with my beard at Maximum Ridiculousness, wearing my increasingly tattered Guy Who Lives In A Pickup Sweater now peeling apart at the seams, I overheard the couple in front of me talking about their plan to head into Baja in a day or two.
I pulled off my Sunglasses Of Great Suspiciousness to try to look less vagrant.
“Um, did you guys say you were headed down to Baja?”
The woman turned to me and said that she sure did. I started to explain what we were up to, and to make a long story short, it so happens that Joelle and her husband Steve were on their way down into the Baja for a month, taking their completely refitted Westfalia 4×4 camper van into all sorts of unknown and beautiful places.
And, while I was in the midst of shamelessly mining Joelle for information, ideas, and suggestions, the park ranger said “Hey, Tacoma dude, bad news I have to move your campsite today because someone has a reservation but 126 is open.”
Of course, site 126 was awfully close to site 125, where Joelle and Steve (and vicious guard-terrier Otis) were camped.
Val and I stopped by their van that afternoon with our Baja Almanac, a fantastically detailed map that Val got maybe ten years ago when she kayaked the Sea of Cortez with NOLS.
It was then that Joelle suggested that we cross at Tecate, and that a decent first stop for us would be some hot springs in a canyon accessible by an unimproved road along a dry lake bed on the backside of the Parque Nacional de Constitution 1857. In the absence of a better plan, or really, any plan, Val and I located the canyon on the map and decided that it would be Christmas in the Canyon for us.
In an attempt to return the favor of having shared their experience, we invited them to our site that evening to enjoy a campfire and a drink or two, and found ourselves talking late into the night about just about everything under the sun. What extraordinarily good luck to run into such a great couple, and we agreed that we would keep our eyes wide open for each other over the next month.
The next day our Pendulum of Fortune swung the wrong way, more or less. We finished up the last of our errands (propane, gas, shoe glue) and in the late afternoon made our way to the far side of San Diego to get us to within an hour or so of Tecate. Having enjoyed good luck at America’s Best Value Motor Inns before, we found one just off the freeway in more or less the right spot as the sun was setting.
By God it was a dive. As in, I thought about getting the axe from the truck, just in case.
But we were there, the girls were exhausted, and moving on would have been a gigantic pain so we toughed it out, and dulled the horror of our surroundings with a box of wine, which in turn led itself to me turning in a parody of some completely ridiculous interview of a male model Val had stumbled upon online before trimming my beard (thanks, C-Clamp) so I would look less unsavory at the border.
The next morning, the day before Christmas, we woke up early, fueled at an IHOP (“What makes it “International”, Dad?” asked Leonie) and started driving to Mexico.
It was a pretty day, warm, and the road to Tecate wound up and through the mountains that form the spine of the Baja peninsula. We made our last stateside phone calls to our parents, and the call with my Mom, especially, was emotionally resonant – Christmas is a big deal in our family, the one holiday we’ve always done our level best to be together for, and here was her number one son struggling to talk to her with crummy reception on his way into Mexico with, of all things, the grandkids.
Val and I were ourselves filling with some kind of amorphous, building anticipation about the crossing. It was not dissimilar from the sense of being halfway up the first hill of a roller coaster – the clicking of the gears dragging you up the hill heightening your sense of thrill and danger, the only thing visible on the horizon being the crest, but nothing else, and you’re left with nothing but your imagination to construct the path beyond.
And, imaginations carry us to both places of comfort, and places of fear. A lot of people have a lot of strong opinions about the relative safety of travel in Mexico currently, and a lot of people didn’t hesitate to share those opinions with us.
I was personally certain that we were statistically better off in Mexico than, say, simply driving on the New Jersey Turnpike but with the actual crossing no longer months away, but moments away, doubt found its way into small seams in my mind.
What would happen when we got to the border? Would we really find this damn canyon and the hot springs? We don’t even have pesos, and it’s Christmas Eve. Is this the best idea we’ve ever had? Or the worst?
We pulled into Tecate, and after all of the fretting and planning and suppositions, it was hands down one of the least difficult border crossings we have ever had. Red Beauty got a green light from the customs folks at gates, meaning that without so much as even displaying our passports, we were through and into Mexico. The stop signs in downtown Encinitas were more fraught.
As we pulled through, I found myself nervous because it was simply so fantastically uneventful. A customs guy waved at us, and we pulled over to talk to him. He said hello in perfect English, and explained that he wanted to check out the truck. He did ask, perfunctorily, if we had any liquor on board and as I started rattling off the composition of our stockpile (three different reds, Val’s preferred sauvignon blanc, Guinness, Canadian Club, and what we refer to as “emergency vodka”) he waved his hand to make me stop talking.
He ended up being a huge help, telling us where to find parking, where to get our tourist cards, where to find a bank, and how to get to Highway 2 in order to travel east toward Mexicali. And that was it. We thanked him, got our cards, got them stamped, topped off the gas tanks, and started driving east out of town in search of the hot springs, with a palpable sense of tension relieved because, after everything, nothing happened.
We stopped in La Rumorosa at a smallish grocery store to pick up some water, fresh produce, and a stack of still warm corn tortillas from a bin at the register. From there, the map indicated an absurdly twisty road ahead, and past that, the (hopefully marked) turn from the highway onto the gravel road along the foothills toward Guadeloupe Canyon.
We paid the $2 toll to get onto the road through the pass (not after some confusion) and found ourselves driving, without any kind of advance notice, on one of the most incredible mountain roads either of us have ever been on. The road was both dangerous (a Gordian mess of cutbacks and blind corners and cliffs which, occasionally, bore the sobering wreckage of vehicles that had plummeted) and remarkably beautiful, with a geology rather unlike anything I had ever seen.
It was as though someone had taken the signature granite boulder stacks of Joshua Tree, multiplied them so that they occupied mile after uninterrupted mile, and created mountains thousands and thousands of feet high with them. And then gave an espresso shot and a marker to a three year old and made the resultant line the road through them.
We will, without question, go back to travel that pass again if only to remind ourselves how incredible it is.
Moving on from La Rumerosa we began what I expect will be the norm for navigation and travel for us: a healthy and equal blend of paper maps, intuition, and fear will be used to get us places. The GPS, so magical in its precision in America, stays in the glove box.
Val kept an eye out for the right off the highway that would lead us to the canyon, and reassuringly, spotted it more or less where she expected it to be. We began heading due south on a badly rutted, intermittently-paved road and the washboard, while navigable, was unpleasant enough to have Val direct me off-road into a sandy path perhaps 20 yards to our left, which appeared to be part of an off-road race course.
The track was packed enough that I didn’t even bother to air down Red Beauty’s tires, she had plenty of traction, and we churned along between 20 and 30 miles an hour with no real drama save for the fact that we were totally alone in the desert, had absolutely no idea where we were going, and were placing the location (and potential success) of our Christmas squarely in the hands of strangers we met while camping in Encinitas two days prior.
Val had guessed, plotting our course against the map using a business card as a ruler, that we probably had to go thirty miles to get to the spring. Ten miles of travel later, we saw a small sign at the side of the road that said “Hot Spring 19 mi”. Impressive.
Incongruously, we passed a huge plantation of olive trees, which I recognized only thanks to some time spent years ago in Italy. Presently, we saw another sign that indicated we should turn in, westward, toward the foothills in the park to get to the springs. We had not seen a single other vehicle or person since we had turned off the highway.
Our running joke became that we would get there (wherever there was) and someone would ask us if we had a reservation.
The road became increasingly challenging, the scenery more spectacular, and it felt almost warming to see the plants that have been our companions for the past few months – robust ocotillos, many coated in vibrant green leaves, barrel cactus and palo verde and mesquite, and swaths of chollas with their needles almost glowing in the acute angles of the late day sun.
We pushed on, ultimately coming to a fork in the road with several signs that indicated various campsites and, most encouragingly, a spray of palm trees visible on a ridge in the distance. With the sun beginning to fall close to the ridge lines of the mountains, we were anxious to get to camp to not simply set up the tent, but we had presents to wrap.
We drove left, keeping an eye out for any indications of hot springs or a camping area, and with no idea what to expect. The mesquites grew bigger and bigger, and the palo verdes began to show thicker trunks, all suggesting the rare and steady presence of water.
After several steep, bouldered drops and climbs, and after working our way through a very shallow, very clear ford, we knew we were close. We pulled up a roadway with a small sign that indicated an office was ahead, and as the sun began to set, we pulled into a grove of enormous, black-trunked palms and a broad-shouldered fellow walked out to meet us.
“Hi there guys,” he said, leaning in to my window. “You have a reservation?”
The broad shoulders and equally broad smile belonged to Oscar, who worked alongside his father in law managing the campsite at the Guadeloupe Canyon hot springs. Val and I stepped out of the truck to stretch our legs and explain that not only did we not have a reservation, we had only learned about the springs from some people we had met a few days ago and were kind of hoping that we were in more or less the right place.
“You’re in the right place” he reassured us, and pulled an iPad out of his pocket. “Let’s just make sure that I can get you in here, we get a lot of folks coming for the holidays.”
Luckily for us, Oscar keeps a more or less insider’s camping spot unlisted so it tends to be open for walk-ins. Doubly lucky, because as he began to show us around, Val and I realized that we were in an absolute paradise.
Guadeloupe Canyon is fed by springs at its head, which nourish the stands of palms and lush vegetation and flowers that ring its terraces. Roads lead up either side, off of which campsites have been established with tables, palapas for shade and a grill for cooking. Most extravagantly, each campsite has its own private pool, built out of the native granite of the valley, that is fed directly by the springs which have no perceptible mineralization or the smell of sulfur that was so prevalent at, say, the Miracle Springs in California.
There were mud baths, and waterfalls, and showers, boulders to climb and a thousand potential hiking routes.
So, for a little more than half the price of the America’s Best Value Motor Inn in San Diego, Val and I found ourselves laying on our backs, soaking in 105 degree water, with the sun down and cool wind coming down from the mountains while Orion began his eternal hunt on eastern horizon in front of us, accompanied by thousands of stars and the band of the Milky Way.
The girls were out of their clothes and into the tub in about ten seconds, so we were even granted the time and space necessary to mix drinks (me) and wrap their presents (Val).
Christmas was going to happen, and it was going to be all right.
(No) thanks to my father, who to the complete horror of my mom will happily tell complete strangers that he worships Ra, the Sun God, I have a habit of re-creating holidays and the stories behind them to the girls.
I was working in Paris one year, just prior to Easter, and brought some chocolates home to Leonie, including a number of intricately crafted chocolate starfish, shells, and walruses.
So the night before Easter Sunday, I told a skeptical three year old Leonie about the magical Easter Walrus, who flew in his Airbus from France to Brooklyn at night to give all the girls he was fond of chocolate representations of himself, all while Val rolled her eyes.
Of course, the next morning, there were chocolate walruses everywhere and, in Leonie’s mind, my credibility was at or near 100%. This caused havoc in the local playground, where the other kids would tell Leonie about the magical rabbit that left chocolate eggs everywhere for them, and she would roll her eyes and patiently explain to them that 1) she had never heard anything more ridiculous than a rabbit that laid chocolate eggs and 2) she knew for certain that a magical walrus flew from France to give her chocolate statues of himself and his ocean friends.
Christmas has equally fallen victim to my scheming and, as far as both my girls know, Christmas is a magical time when deep from his cave in Winnipeg, the enchanted Aqua Moose starts his flying station wagon around the world to deliver presents to all the young children who believe in him (and who leave him snacks of pita chips and hummus).
So one of the big concerns the girls had coming in to Christmas this year was how, exactly, Aqua Moose was going to find them if they were in Mexico (“If you can’t even get the internet here how will Aqua Moose find us?”).
I promised them Aqua Moose would be able to find Red Beauty and our new tent.
Sylvie looked at me in concern for a few minutes.
Christmas Day began with the sun rising and sending early, warm fingers of light on the canyon wall directly visible from the huge window of our tent, and I lay for a few extra minutes in my bag as the rocks glowed red and orange and yellow in front of me.
I climbed out and retrieved the two duffels that Val had stuffed with their presents and their stockings, which this year, comprised the two largest hiking socks I have. I laid them out on a slab at one end of our pool (which I had drained the night before so we could refill it in the morning with fresh, hot water) and set some little lights out that were a gift from the guys at Front Runner.
And, just as I was laying out the last of the presents, I heard the zipper on the tent and knew one, or maybe both of the bugs was on their way up.
I placed the last one just as the glorious, tangled mess of Sylvie’s ringlets popped over the edge of the rock to see what I was up to.
“My God sweetie – look what I found!” I cried in excitement.
Later, after the kids had opened their presents, their shrieks of delight coming louder and louder again as the improbable Aqua Moose somehow knew exactly what Monster High dolls they had been pining away for, and we cleared the shredded wrapping paper out of the pool and replaced it with soothing, hot water and enjoyed a family soak, Val and I gazed at each other with the kind of satisfaction known only to parents who have managed to improbably deliver to the expectations of a child.
Val had gone over the top to get the stuff they wanted, secret it away in the truck, and get it wrapped up. We took the kids, on a gamble, to a place we’d never seen or even heard of, and it was instantly their Shangri-La.
Sylvie floated to me, nibbling on a square of chocolate that Aqua Moose had thoughtfully left in her stocking.
“You know what, Dad?”
“I wonder how Aqua Moose got your socks to make into stockings?”
“Well, obviously he parked his station wagon and snuck into our tent and found my socks.”
“I knew it! I knew I heard hooves in the tent last night!”
Merry Christmas, everyone.