We have been on the beach at Los Frailes for some time now, and it has been lovely enough that we have become shockingly sedentary.
It’s tough to beat the price, of course, as it costs exactly nothing. The sun rises just over the point every morning to completely fill the frame of the enormous picture window in our OZ Tent, and we all wake up to various versions of dawn – orange skies, streaks of light hitting the clouds, and then the tangerine ball of the sun itself presenting a tempting gold walkway toward the horizon, out across the warm waters of the bay.
I’ll make coffee, of course, but not before taking a commando dip in the generally calm water to properly wake up.
Then, while waiting for the girls to work their way out of bed, I’ll either read or write or, alternatively, wander next door to see what Bernie is up to.
Bernie is our neighbor here, a native German who subsequently relocated to British Columbia and decided to winter in the Baja, and, thanks to the number of years he’s spent camping at Los Frailes, he’s essentially a local.
When we first got here our now highly-tuned BajaSense told us that he would likely be a significant resource for us, and this was even before the girls discovered he had a year old lab-collie mix named “Osa”.
Bernie’s appearance, and that of his campsite, was full of clues that said “I know what I am doing here.” First, there was the requisite deep tan and facial hair. Second, there was the vehicle – an older, purple, Mercedes camper van with an easily accessible spare and covered in the kind of dust that suggests no fear for a lack of pavement. Finally, his camp was efficiently laid out, spare, and had a million dollar view of the beach.
We introduced ourselves, and he returned serve, and we asked about where we might set up, any local rules that we should be aware of, and any extra considerations we might take given the kids. And, leaving a few empty palapas between him and us, we parked the truck and threw up the tent, and the girls began immediately ingratiating themselves with Bernie, largely to assure ongoing access to Osa.
Over the next few days, Bernie de-mystified the schedule of the grocery delivery truck, the location of the best snorkeling, where surf casting was permissible (and most productive) in the morning, who in town could offer internet access, and commiserated on the shockingly high cost of beer in the tiny shops in Cabo Pulmo.
The girls, further, would wake up in the morning, grab their breakfasts, and head straight to his campsite in order to start their day by rubbing Osa’s belly, a mutually beneficial relationship that kept everyone happy.
When Bernie caught me baking a cake for Sylvie’s birthday after a few days, he delivered a packet of his favorite cookies to her as a present on the day of.
Soon, the girls were constantly returning from his campsite with fresh fruit, biscuits, and the dog.
Every now and then I’d look up from a book or my writing and discover Val was gone too, having herself decamped to Bernie’s site with a beer, the kids, and a snack or two to share.
We had him over for dinner on a Friday night in order to attempt to begin to repay the multiple kindnesses he’s shown us during our stay here (he keeps an eye on our camp when we’re gone, and it could be argued that on some days he spends more time with the girls than we do) and stuffed him with curry, sautéed swiss chard, rice, and Val’s spectacular home made potato-dill naan (which we christened “chupwallas” in honor of Haroun).
The very next morning, up at around six thirty, I stepped out of our tent and went about beginning my day and heard him hooting and hollering. I wandered over to see what was going on and he pointed toward the cleaning table on the beach, were he had laid out a beautiful sierra and a fantastic looking dorado, freshly enough caught that its belly still glowed yellow.
I snapped a picture and he immediately offered me the dorado, explaining that he only ever caught what he could reasonably eat, and the sierra was big enough that it would keep him full for a few days.
It was an exceptional gift, and he showed me how to properly fillet the fish and handed me a bag with well over four pounds of meat.
Thus began our day of “dorado three ways”. I fried the fish for Leonie and myself for breakfast, and it was remarkable to be able to enjoy something that fresh. Later, for lunch, I cut one of the fillets into strips and made sushi rolls with it, and served the inaugural batch to Bernie in thanks.
The “Bernie Roll”, for those wondering, is dorado, cucumber, avocado, and finely chopped serrano chile. And it is so good that Leonie, Val and I ate so many that we ran out of rice.
Dinner was Tacos Bernie, in which I pan seared the large fillets and we served them in tortillas with a little chipotle powder (thanks, Feral!), a daub of mayonaise, some shredded purple cabbage and some salsa casera.
I then instructed the girls to leave Bernie alone in the evening, as we want to make sure he gets up and goes fishing again first thing tomorrow.
Bernie has treated the girls with a healthy mix of kindness and patience, which is incredibly valuable to both Val and myself. The two of us reflected today that, on a trip like this, you’re destined to cross paths with a host of folks who are either young and unencumbered, and therefore free to travel and adventure, or, more often than not, are older, retired, and are vital and healthy and whose character pushes them to use this time to take the roads less traveled.
And, in both cases, the people we meet keep turning out to be just fantastic with the girls.
The evening following Leonie’s birthday, I realized I had failed to return Alex and Ashek’s lovely, pumpkin-orange dutch oven to them (having used it to bake her cake). It had been too hot to hold after being swathed in coals, and so I left it by the fire table, perhaps a hundred feet from our campsite, and when I went to look for it after dusk, it was gone.
Val and I felt terrible – it’s bad enough under normal circumstances to be the fellow who borrows something and fails to return it, but out here, where the inclusion of every piece of kit and equipment is a carefully measured decision and, because of the impossibility of replacing anything, becomes disproportionately valuable, to loose someone’s tools because you simply didn’t pay attention to them made me feel like a heel.
At sunrise the next morning I checked in with Bernie to see if he’d seen it.
He shared my grief, having had a dutch oven disappear on him once, and we thought through the possibilities of where the damn thing had gone given how lightly populated and traveled our stretch of the beach was.
“You know” he said to me, “my buddy Steve, who lives in the arroyo, likes to walk on the beach and he’ll clean up after people leave and sometimes take things they leave behind if they might be useful to him. He hitch-hiked down here with nothing, so he’s always keeping an eye out.”
“Hitch-hiked to here? From where?”
“British Columbia. You’d like him, he’s a character. Anyway, I am seeing him today, I’ll ask.”
I thanked him, but mentally wrote the pot off and broke the news to Alex, who, very gracefully, urged me not to feel terrible about it.
A couple hours later, a deeply tanned fellow with a shock of white hair and a beard to match showed up at our site with the dutch oven. He introduced himself, it was indeed Steve, and he explained that he’d seen the thing sitting alone at the fire table and couldn’t believe his luck – he figured the Volkswagen full of naked, soccer-playing hippies had left it behind (the naked twenty somethings were a hit with the girls, and once they packed up and moved on we subsequently test-drove shedding all our clothes and then running full-tilt into the ocean from the tent – a good time).
We thanked him profusely, and we’d subsequently join him on the beach to chat, or share a beer in the late afternoons, and had him for dinner one night.
In return, he would show up at our campsite with tomatoes, and fresh greens, and serrano chiles, and invited us back to visit his rather spectacular casita.
Having shown up in Los Frailes with literally nothing except a good, warm coat and a change of clothes in a backpack, he had put together a lovely and pretty elaborate shelter for himself in the arroyo as it rose away from the beach.
He had built a foundation of rocks, a fire place and a kitchen, had cleared a path around the exterior, and had woven walls from palm fronds and grasses. The whole structure was located just in front of a large boulder which provided an outdoor living area, and a cardon presided over the property. It was difficult to see from a distance, and the girls loved it – they called it “Steve’s fort” – and wondered, later, why I didn’t make one like that for them.
When we told him we were leaving to head to the Pacific coast for a week or so, he presented the girls with a Louis L’Amour novel that we could read to them.
On balance, I reflected, I was pretty glad we “lost” the pot.
We were packing up our camp in the cool of dusk to be able to get moving by midmorning the next day, and the girls, as they do, disappeared completely. At some point, we heard Osa barking away and the girls laughing and decided we’d had enough work, so wandered down the beach where we suspected we’d find them.
Bernie was overseeing them as they played with Osa, they were running around like lunatics and the dog, true to her nature, was trying to herd them back to him.
We flopped down in the sand to watch the game progress, and when it became self-contained Bernie joined us, and we traded stories about our kids, and watched the sky come to life as there was only a sliver of moon to compete with the stars.
After an hour or so we realized the kids had given up on us and were back at the camp, angling to be read a story and put to sleep.
We bade Bernie good night and, on our way back to our tent, reflected again on our good fortune in meeting people while we travel.
The next morning we left Los Frailes, which, like every destination we’ve had prior, was difficult as we felt that this was one of the best stops to date. The beach itself was beautiful, and to be camped, for free, inside a National Marine Preserve with a reef you can simply wander out of your tent and walk to and, floating about in crystal clear, warm water, explore on a whim, is something else altogether.
But like every spot we’ve been – starting with our serendipitous meeting with Feral, Stephanie and Abbie months ago in Campo 5, and then RK and Cherry, and Alex and Ashek, and Jamie and Mandy, and Sally and Ramon, or the river guide kids from Colorado, or Kirby, or Leah and Nathan and their boys, it’s ultimately the people that are making this journey of ours as full as it has been.
It feels like dumb luck, but of course, it isn’t.
The process is self-selecting, inasmuch as if you’re the kind of people who are going to pack up and push off for an adventure lasting a year, or more, and consign yourself to living out of a truck while camping on beaches in Mexico, then you will meet people who are likely to think that’s a good idea, too.
You’re certainly not going to meet a bus full of guys from HR, or lawyers, or irritating young investment bankers.
So it was that once again we found ourselves leaving a place and feeling some degree of melancholy about it, and we took our time to say our goodbyes, and were sad despite knowing full well we’d be back within a week or so following my quest to learn how to surf at Los Cerritos.
And we will look forward to yet another weekend at Bernie’s, just as I expect he and Osa are quite likely looking forward to seeing Red Beauty crawling toward him on the beach.