We left Playa Escondida with heavy hearts on Wednesday morning, the third in a wave of departures, watching first as Feral’s old Dodge worked its way up the saddle and out of sight, then Ashek and Alex’s lovely old Rover, and finally it was our turn.
Our plan was to head south to what appeared to be a fishing camp north of Loreto named Boca San Bruno to do a couple days of al fresco beach camping before making the trip to Agua Verde to yet another secluded beach we had been told about, this one near a hot spring.
A hot spring, to our tired, weary, and richly-scented bodies, was tempting on the face of it, and doubly so because the beach near the spring was accessible, so we understood, only at low tide because you had to skirt some rock cliffs to get there by driving through what was, at least 50% of the time, the sea.
Mistakes were made, however, in navigating to San Bruno which became obvious when we arrived at Loreto, and realized we had driven a solid 20 miles too far. Back through the kinks and weaves of the mountain passes, it finally became clear to us that the road to San Bruno was quite literally hidden behind a military checkpoint, something Val managed to confirm after a conference with a half a dozen very polite soldiers while they half-heartedly searched the truck.
We cut through the checkpoint and made it, finally, to the beach at San Bruno only to find a wide bay with little wind protection and a strong offshore breeze. Val wasn’t convinced, so we finally decided to migrate to a small RV park south of Loreto, get a decent night’s sleep and some hot showers, and then play through to Agua Verde the next day.
As it turns out, we spent two nights at a spot near Puerto Escondido but it wasn’t entirely voluntary – more or less out of nowhere, Val’s back decided to misbehave quite severely and she found herself in an incredible amount of pain, having difficulty standing up straight, much less walking – she guessed that it was some sort of pinched nerve, but whatever it was, neither of us were pleased with the condition.
Mercifully, the camp hosts were a lovely Canadian couple, George and Ruth, and George was a retired paramedic, who marched straight into the local tienda on our behalf and came out with a promising-looking package of pills, a very potent combination anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxant, and pain killer.
I fed Val a pill, and the girls and I got out our books, and waited to see what would happen.
The pills worked, at least incrementally. The next morning showed much improvement, which was encouraging, so I more or less squared away the truck and got some supplies for Agua Verde and by the third morning, with Val capable of walking again, we were on our way to find the springs.
This time we were quite determined to not make navigational errors, and of course, managed to completely overshoot the turn for the hot springs by a solid ten miles. But this was no ordinary ten miles. This was ten miles of single lane gravel road that threatened to send the unwary, or simply unlucky, to certain doom in the canyons below. Sheer drops on one side, hundreds of feet of cliff on the other, and switchbacks carved at improbable angles into the hills kept Val and I on the highest possible alert, and certainly didn’t contribute to Val being able to relax and allow her back to mend.
We were finally spit out at the fishing village of Agua Verde, and established, thanks to a beach rendez-vous with some boaters from Alaska who had anchored nearby, that we were definitely in the wrong place.
Asking at the tiny grocery shop in the village was not really productive, as the woman looked at us like we were crazy when we started talking about camping and agua caliente. We studied the topographical map and Val’s intuition told her to backtrack, and so we did.
Through the mountains of madness we drove again, weaving up and over the ridges that splayed, like fingers webbed with sand and gravel beaches, into the sea below.
And then finally we found the right road, and turned in, and reconciled the very specific directions provided by our campsite neighbor from what felt like a lifetime ago in Encinitas, Joelle, with the scene in front of us. We worked our way through a town of maybe a dozen or so small buildings, passed a littler of pigs that had escaped their pen, and found ourselves in a small lot looking into a lovely bay.
We approached a gentleman who was sitting outside a small trailer with Oregon plates to confirm that there were hot springs nearby, and he confirmed this and narrated the way for us, observing that the tide was out so we’d be able to make it, and pointing to a smallish exit at the front of the lot that appeared to aim directly into the bay.
I aired down the tires on the truck and had a brief debate with myself about the wisdom of taking the truck, which contained everything we owned, onto a roadway that was available only at low tide, with my family, and camping in a place that if anything went wrong (like, say, my wife suffering a really bad back injury) would have me wait for the tide to go out and then drive a hundred miles through a road as hairy as anything we’ve been on just to get to a pharmacy.
And then, I nosed the truck out onto a rock shelf and aimed for the cliffs that hung out over the northern point of the beach, and started inching forward.
We made it, following ruts and tire tracks and other indicia of prior passage, skittering across stone beaches and crawling over rock and through tidal pools. Presently, we came across a modest but well-established campsite and introduced ourselves to Kirby, his friend Larry, and Kirby’s extremely eager collie, Kina.
Kirby had been visiting the Baja and camping here near the springs for some incredible span of time, 35 years or more, so we soaked up the information he had about the beach and made our way at his direction to a worn little palapa at the mouth of a dry wash at the north end.
Val and I noted the direction of the prevailing wind, northerly, confirmed by the weathered and leaf-bare faces of the trees and scrub that faced the bay, so set the tent up in the lee of a rock and anchored the sloped face of the tent to the northeast to protect us.
And then we made our way, with the girls galloping ahead, to the springs, which themselves were visible only at low tide and established on a spur of land that joined the center beach to a smallish island, hosting a very territorial osprey, who was at that moment having a dispute with a couple of vultures.
The girls chased after crabs and snails, and Val and I splayed out in the warm sands as hot water bubbled up from beneath, and enjoyed a can of beer and the hot water and the mountains, islands, and beaches along the bay, all making for a spectacular backdrop. The springs were, Val reported, soothing her back, and the two of us decided that this was about the nicest place we had been so far, wishing we could import all of our missing friends to it somehow.
Once we were warmed to the point of nearly overheating, we made our way back to camp and enjoyed a lazy meal of scallop ceviche, which I had prepared the day prior, the girls scrambled around the nearby hills, Val moved into the tent to do a little reading, and I perched on a chair to use the very last of the daylight to do a little reading myself before the sun retreated behind the mountains behind us, and caught myself primarily staring at the ocean, watching the sunset, and cradling my book in my lap.
The wind picked up incrementally, until at some point I realized I was having difficulty simply holding the pages in my book open. Oddly, too, the wind was coming from the exact opposite direction I would have expected (and all the vegetation had indicated) – it was coming down from the mountains in gusts, and heading out to the sea in an almost perfectly southwest vector.
I got up from my chair and called out to Val, asking if she thought we should guy the tent out differently.
Prone, curled into her bag, she looked up from her book to answer me, and at that very moment a gust of wind barreled down from the cliffs behind me, knocked my chair over and out toward the water, and caught the tent flush on the broad front panel so powerfully, it lifted it completely off its stakes and quite nearly pitched it over with Val inside it, looking for all the world like some invisible giant had delivered a perfect uppercut to the structure.
I ran to the tent, where Val, shrieking, had miraculously scrambled to her feet, caught her balance and was standing, in obvious pain, holding the front of the frame up against the force of the westerly gusts. I jumped in to relieve her, and saw the source of our problem – the wind was so strong that it had forced the frame back onto itself, and one of the aluminum stays had bent to the point that the polymer joint it attached to sheared completely off, so the only thing holding up the right side of our tent was, at this point, Val and her wounded back.
Our indestructible four season tent had effectively just snapped in two, at dusk, a windstorm was starting, my wife was incapable of walking, and I had no way of getting us off the beach because the tide was in. Oh, and the kids were running around out there somewhere.
“Hey guys” I said to my suspicious little ducklings, who immediately took note of my I am panicking but doing my fatherly best to avoid conveying that panic to you, my two young children, voice.
“Here’s the thing. I need to get the tent sorted out, uh, so why don’t you just stay in the back of the truck and don’t leave until I tell you to. In fact, don’t leave the truck at all unless I come to get you. To repeat: you are not allowed to leave the truck.”
With that, I shut the door on them, and raced back to the tent.
It was dark out, a clear sky showing an extraordinary number of stars and constellations which might have been interesting to me save for the fact that the gusts of wind had increased to the point that they were galloping, invisible fists racing down from the hills and pummeling our camp with brutal efficiency, trying to shove everything we owned into the sea.
I was clambering in ten directions at once, looking to stow every piece of gear we had that didn’t weigh at least twenty-five pounds, running around the perimeter of the tent to drive the stakes back in that the wind was plucking free, apparently at will, trying to comfort Val, and trying to figure out how the hell I was going to repair the snapped tent frame.
We quickly established we couldn’t just move – while I ran the beach to see if there was any area that offered more shelter, the wind had more or less pinned us down, and trying to get the tent, and our gear, to any other location would not only take forever, but we didn’t see how we would be able to tear it down and erect it again in this storm.
Like unfortunate invaders below a battery on a beach, we were effectively trapped in our terrible location.
I had bent the frame more or less straight back from the grotesque curve it had assumed, and I had a zip tie holding it tenuously in place but both of us knew it was a matter of time before a gust would knock the aluminum stay out of place and collapse the tent again. With the bushing snapped cleanly off, there was no obvious way (read: duct tape) to rejoin the two pieces in a manner that would stand up to the dry squall that had murderously set upon us.
Working quickly, with the wind howling and the sand getting whipped up into my eyes and my nose and fogging the light from my flashlight, I spun the tent around to get the angled portion into the wind.
I then drove as many stakes as I could into the ground, and moved the biggest rocks I could find to lash the guy wires to, having to repeatedly upgrade the rock sizes as I watched, with incredulity, the wind snatch at the tent and move twenty and thirty pound boulders.
I put as much of our stuff into the tent as I could, trying to add weight to the windward side.
The gusts were powerful enough that they drove the canvas into the frame with sudden, sharp, snapping noises, the sort of thing you expect to hear when a sailboat first unfurls its jib into a strong wind. The interior of the tent would expand and contract dramatically as the walls tried to keep up with the huge changes in pressure between the interior and the exterior of the tent.
Val lay in the center of all this maelstrom of movement and sound, in pain and further agonized by her inability to help, holding a light shining on the failed frame while I tried to figure out how to fix it .
I began talking to myself in a sort of platonic dialogue, “Well, can I use another part of the frame, hmm, no, because it is all critical, can I then perhaps use one of the awning poles in here…” and so on while Val, I am sure, exercised every bit of restraint and patience on her part to not yell “FIX THE GODDAMN TENT RIGHT NOW.”
Nothing happens without tools, I thought, and I dove headfirst into the bed of the truck and grabbed a box of bolts, my drill and an assortment of bits, and a ratchet set. I got back into the tent, trying to time opening the flaps between gusts because they were so strong I was worried I wouldn’t be able to close the door again, or they’d simply be peeled off and disappear into the night, and laid them out in the pool of light made by my headlamp.
While I puzzled through a solution, every frame member strained under the duress, every velcro tab cracked and hissed in an effort to stay together, and the snapping and booming of the material as it whipped about made me genuinely nervous, suddenly, that we might all end up in a tent in the water, getting blown out to the sea in the dark.
I quietly zipped my knife into my pants pocket as I came to grips with the thought that there was some possibility, however small, that I would have to actually cut my way, underwater and in the dark, out of the tent.
Then the frame solution hit me, and it turned out to be pretty straightforward. I drilled a hole in the body of the failed bushing, and a matching hole in the frame spar. I took a bolt, some washers and a lock nut and screwed the frame into place, and then adjusted the zip tie so that the wind would really had a hell of a time knocking it loose (or, if it did, it would have to be blowing so hard that we’d be in all kinds of other trouble – hence, the knife).
I got the kids out of the truck and into the tent, gripping their hands tightly to keep everyone on their feet for the duration of the twenty foot scramble. We stuffed them into their bags, and all piled into the middle, and lay on our backs and listened to the bellicose cacophony of the storm.
We sang songs, we talked, and the entire time my eyes were wide open and my ears tuned for any minute variation in the noises that assaulted them that might signal some kind of new risk or disaster befalling us.
The girls, maddeningly, while certainly evidencing some level of fear at the strength of the storm, simply fell asleep within a half an hour. Val and I couldn’t talk over the amount of noise, so we twined our fingers tougher and listened, and hoped for the end of this mess.
The gusts started in the trees and the bushes and cactus in the hills – you could hear the distant hiss and rustle and murmur, like a train coming to a station located somewhere above us – and then, in maybe twenty seconds, maybe a minute later, the gust would race down the hill and through the arroyo and burst out, repealing the northerlies, throwing sand and shells and small stones into the side of tent so that it sounded like it was raining, pelting hail, and the cloth would strain furiously against the frame of the tent and billow inward into us, and then it would stop.
And then it would burst back the opposite direction as the prevailing wind caught its balance and chose to counter-punch, and the tent would be buffeted again, the other direction, and we were given no quarter.
By about ten thirty, we had endured well over two hours of this, and it got worse and worse, and then it stopped and I was so exhausted that I fell into an anxious sleep, hoping that we had finally seen this storm through.
At two in the morning I snapped awake because it sounded like a rifle had gone off, and realized the wind had returned and the fabric had clapped against the frame and it nearly snatched the tent off its moorings. I crept outside and redid, as best I could, the dangling stakes and the slack guy lines and noted that if it was possible, the wind was now blowing harder than before.
I took a glance skyward to make sure the stars were still there, for the only thing that could have possibly made our situation worse would have been rain. Orion showed himself fully and clearly, so I went back to worrying about the wind.
I moved the truck as close as I possibly could to the tent and roped it to the bumper at three different points, figuring that it would at least give us better odds of salvaging our situation if the wind did actually snap the guy wires and rip out the stakes.
I double-staked every corner and piled rocks, again, on each one.
And then, staring into the wind and then the sea and realizing that I had now exhausted just about every possible option we had to protect ourselves or improve our situation, and that the only thing left to do was wait and hope we’d make it, I took a bracing mouthful of tequila and yelled (louder than I thought because Val heard me through the storm and reminded me of this the next morning) “ALL RIGHT MEXICO, LET’S SEE WHAT YOU’VE GOT.”
The wind blew all night, even into the sunrise, and the girls slept deeply and Val was claimed by exhaustion and I was awake the entire time.
In the morning, with the gusts finally abating, I stepped out of the tent and surveyed the beach.
Wary of the calm that greeted me, I put a pot of water on to boil for coffee.
Like a mirage, Kirby came by from his camp south of us, tailed by the lolling tongue and mottled fur of Kina, and I walked over to him to say hello. He ran a hand through his shock of white hair, and we stood across from each other, quietly, like two guys who have just climbed out of the smoking wreckage of a bus and unsure how exactly to start a conversation.
“Well that was a son of a bitch” he finally announced, and then enumerated the amount of damage the wind had done to his site – ripping down tarps, throwing axes and poles into the side of his camper, chairs and tables overturned or thrown into the clutches of old mesquite trees.
“Please, Kirby, tell me that this isn’t normal. That it isn’t coming back tonight.”
“Nah. Damn, that was something. All-time I would rate that an eight out of ten. And I am including hurricanes.”
Later that afternoon Val and I lay in the hot spring and drank a cold beer and looked back on the cove as a sea lion worked around the perimeter, patrolling for fish. The osprey continued to renovate its nest, returning from the mainland to his small island outcropping with sticks and large grass blades.
I had spent the morning obsessively redeploying our tent into what I felt was the most secure spot on the beach, rebuilding an old fishing palapa, weaving palm fronds into place and using a tarpaulin, climbing ropes, rocks, and anything and everything I could lay my hands on that I thought might protect us from the wind. The tent went underneath, and I guyed it out to the corners of the palapa that themselves had been cemented ages ago into place by itinerant pescadores, and after many hours I stood back and inspected the result of my handiwork. I was pretty confident that even another eight out of ten wouldn’t threaten us.
In the meantime, the girls swam, and collected rocks, and hermit crabs, and found urchins, and puffer fish and a sea cucumber and pulled out their markers and paper and made dolls.
Alex and Ashek showed up, apparitions themselves in their trusty Rover and marveled at the lovely little beach and the proximity of the hot springs while we, like nervous survivors, told them about the wind whilst constantly glancing at the hills, as though it was still waiting for us, and we needed only to speak its name to send it back into a rampage.
Their presence was a delight and a comfort, and they posted themselves just down the beach from our tent.
Of course, that night, it was calm and clear and beautiful and just cool enough to warrant a social campfire, and we traded stories on the beach until we felt the exhaustion from the prior day build itself into an undeniable compulsion that had us burrowing into our sleeping bags.
The four of us slept as deeply as we had in memory.
The wind didn’t blow all night, not even a whisper.