We had been joking with Bernie for the past several nights that he keeps pushing back his departure date from Los Frailes so he can enjoy the benefit of multiple sending off parties, which we keep happily throwing for him, but on a Monday morning, after successfully losing the last three of his lures and taking a final swim in the ocean, he swung by our site, wrapped Val in a bearlike hug, shook hands with both Jamie and myself, and climbed into his purple Mercedes camper van and left with Osa.
Leonie said goodbye, but Sylvie, utterly distraught at losing both Osa and Bernie in one fell swoop, hid behind the tent while he departed and then ran to the beach, burst into tears, and refused to be comforted for the next hour or so.
She recovered, slightly, but it was a tough morning for her and she decided to right herself with a good hike. She recruited Leonie, and the girls laced up their sandals and Sylvie got herself a bottle of water (held, touchingly, in a little insulated carrier that Bernie had given to her) and they prepared to march off into the arroyo.
Given that Bernie had discovered a small rattlesnake taking a nap under a board at the beach the prior morning, Val called out to the girls as they departed.
“If you guys see any rattlesnakes, don’t play with them, OK? It’s a long drive to the hospital.”
And so it is, parenting in the desert.
While we lost Bernie, we had the very good fortune of picking up The Hippo while we were in Todos Santos and I was learning how to surf.
The Hippo, you may recall, was last seen in Sequoia National Forest, where it got to fourteen degrees at night, and he soldiered through some of the toughest camping we had done as our itinerary kept us in an arctic front that had parked, inexplicably, over the southwest.
The Hippo, as a result, while theoretically joining us for a sun-dappled camping trip through the southwest and into Mexico, found himself routinely waking up with frost in his tent and had to help me get the ice off ours while ducking a hail storm in Joshua Tree.
We were exceptionally happy to have him with us, doubly so when he had to literally carry me into a Ranger Station at Organ Pipe National Monument thanks to a failed experiment on my part (Organ Pipe Failure). Sadly, at one point, the exigencies of a situation at home pulled him away from us for “a week or two”, and then we didn’t see him again for a couple months.
We lamented his loss as a travel companion, and Val and I, safe in the soothing waters of the hot springs in Guadeloupe Canyon, joked that Jamie had endured the tough part of the trip and then foolishly absconded for the wine and roses chapter that was currently taking place in Mexico.
So, we emailed him as we made our way south and kept him appraised of our location, and likely direction, hoping at some point he would track us down.
We were in Pescadero, just south of Todos Santos and were sitting down to lunch after I had spent the better part of the morning getting pitched from a surf board under the supervision of Luis, an instructor at Mario Surf School.
The waves at Los Cerritos, a lovely sand horseshoe with a typically predictable break a short paddle from the beach, are marketed, rightly, as the perfect place to learn how to surf.
The day I showed up, however, they had been whipped into a lather thanks to a storm somewhere in the Pacific, and they came crashing in from the horizon, enormous, and the head instructor looked at me, looked at the waves, and said “maybe you should come back tomorrow.”
Time, not really an issue to us at this point, was on our side and we returned the next day when the breaking waves, while still apparently double their normal size, were judged to no longer mean imminent death for the novice.
I had tried surfing before, and while I would market myself as athletic with a good sense of balance (I can ride a snowboard with the best of them), I have been completely confounded by surfing. The paddling is exhausting, getting to the right position in the water is impossible to properly judge, timing the wave is a mystery, and then actually getting up and riding on the board itself requires some kind of unknowable virtuosity.
I was introduced to Luis, who watched me strip down to my embarrassing briefs as I got ready to put on a wetsuit, and he looked at me and announced “forget the suit, I think you should just go out there like that.”
Relieved at his display of good humor, I explained that he had his work cut out for him as this old man had tried, on multiple occasions, to get up on a board and despite my obviously powerful and agile musculature, had failed.
“You will get up. I promise.”
And, incredibly, he was telling me the truth. We practiced positioning and popping up on the beach, and then, too soon it seemed, he was waving me into the water with a huge blue board in tow.
As a small wave rolled in over the flats, I lay in wait on my board and Luis got ready to launch me into it, and as it approached and caught the rear edge he was howling at me to paddle, and I did, and he howled at me to jump up, and I did and I looked around and, incredibly, I was up on my board and riding a wave and had my balance and simply could not believe it.
I subsequently spent the rest of the morning being pitched, remorselessly, from waves of all shapes and sizes. Magically, Val caught the first ride on her phone, so there is photographic evidence of my temporary greatness.
Over the next few days, I did manage to keep my footing a couple times and even caught a few legitimate waves, and the sensation of surfing, of being up on the board and propelled forward on a wave, the feeling of the seemingly limitless energy involved, was absolutely intoxicating.
I can see how people would want to spend a lot of time looking to catch waves.
Battered and exhausted from my inaugural efforts, I plunked myself down back at camp and was settling into a plate of food when I heard the crunch of a vehicle approaching down the gravel lane, a door slam shut, and a thick English accent (to be clear, the Hippo is not English) announce “Good day to you, sir… I said good day!”
So, two and a half months and roughly two thousand miles later, the Hippo materialized and came sauntering into our campsite at Pescadero.
The girls went ballistic when he showed up and began chanting “albondiga”, the name they have given his old Toyota FourRunner, as nothing is funnier than the word “meatball” in Spanish (or more appropriate for his truck). They pelted him with questions, climbed all over his truck like a pair of monkeys, and for our part, Val and I were delighted to enjoy his long overdue company yet again.
We spent another three or four days in Pescadero, with me surfing and the girls enjoying beach days, and planning our return to Los Frailes. We were anxious to show The Hippo this gem of a beach, and introduce him around to the cast of characters we had been so pleasurably spending our time with.
And so, after a lazy and, for us, extravagant lunch at a little taqueria called Los Poblanos, we decided to convoy out of town the next day, escape the gravitational pull of the two Cabos, and spend a week back on the beach with Bernie and company.
Our visit to Todos Santos was not without its share of crises.
One day we went into town to visit the original Hotel California and, popping into a bookstore, we came face to face with our greatest fear: puppies, two of them, in a crate and looking for a good home.
For the purpose of context, Val always had dogs growing up and loves them.
I never had dogs growing up, and was more or less terrified of them for years. My neighborhood was pretty rural back then (this would be the early 70s) and while nice enough, economically just below middle class and so rough around the edges. There were lots of folks living full-time in little winterized cottages.
One summer when I was young, five or six, I took off to go visit a friend up the street and he wasn’t home, but his gigantic and very territorial Alsatian was, and the thing cornered me against a tool shed, snapping and growling long enough to ensure that I was completely traumatized by the event.
Just as my psyche was mending from this, the people who lived right next door to us decided to raise Afghans, of all things, in their unfenced backyard (an Afghan in Toronto in 1974 would have been about as common as a giraffe). I was out playing in mine and the female, her maternal instincts honed to razor sharpness thanks to just having birthed a litter of pups, charged me at full song and pulled up just short while I looked up at her in helpless terror and my Dad stared at the whole scene from the back deck with his jaw dropped.
Dad subsequently had a chat with the neighbors, and a fence went up shortly thereafter – the first and only fence in an otherwise unbroken series of yards full of trees and ponds and gardens, a real disappointment.
The final nail in the coffin for me and dogs was the house on the corner of our L-shaped road, around which my friend Shaun and I had to walk every day to get to school. The house on the corner was a tough house, there were a series of owners or renters (it wasn’t clear) who routinely had the carcasses of multiple trucks up on blocks in the drive, and their sons seemed to inevitably qualify to be schoolyard bullies.
The then current occupants had not one but two enormous shepherds, which would pace the unfenced property line angrily and bark at us as we navigated, in terror, that miserable right angle twice a day. The only thing that separated us was a modest ditch and the road itself.
They were unleashed and lived in the back of the property in two doghouses constructed of plywood scraps and roofed with leftover shingles, and from the dark entrances of these dilapidated hovels they would bolt, growling and snapping, and I would literally cling to Shaun and we would force ourselves to not run, for fear of inciting a chase with no imaginable good outcome.
After weeks, maybe even months of this, I had a conversation with my parents. As much as I enjoyed school, I was no longer willing to go because the dogs on the corner house were likely to eat me alive.
My Dad’s younger brother, Peter, who routinely got into so much trouble himself that Dad simply called him The Coon (short for raccoon), was living with us at the time and volunteered to walk along with us the next morning to gauge the depth of the problem. Shaun and I apprehensively agreed, and so off we went and, as we approached the house with The Coon trotting along a few paces behind us, our foreboding mounted with every step and we stared at the shadowy portals of the twin doghouses.
At once, the two dogs launched themselves in a straight line at the three of us, barking furiously and Shaun and I cringed and hoped, as we always did, that today would not be the day that the imaginary property line the dogs had hewn to thus far hadn’t somehow moved further toward us.
The dogs had not, however, prepared themselves for The Coon. The Coon was fearless, and moreover, courted danger precisely in the hope of finding himself in a struggle for his life. And so, Shaun and I stood, awestruck, as The Coon registered the nature of the threat and leapt past us, screaming in delight and running straight at the dogs, his arms held low and wide as he prepared to tackle and wrestle both of them at once.
We couldn’t believe it, and neither could the dogs, who were not used to any kind of resistance or display of force. As The Coon closed on them, they put on the brakes, turned on the spot and ran back into their houses, and the Coon smugly and profanely explained to the dogs what would happen to them if they dared come out. Then he sent us off to school.
That night, when my dad got home from work, The Coon relayed a version of events that more or less confirmed that the two unleashed, unfenced and pretty aggressive Shepherds did indeed seem to enjoy chasing after little kids.
My Dad thought about this, then went to the garage and got his axe, and told me to come with him.
My father is an exceedingly generous, gentle man, patient to a fault, and quite difficult to actually anger. In the very rare circumstance that he does get angry, however, he has been known to employ what my sister and I have come to refer to as “axe diplomacy”.
This involves him clearly explaining to the involved parties that they have one opportunity to fix whatever it is that is making him upset, in which case everyone will be pleased with the outcome and there will be no further difficulties. Otherwise, Dad explains, the next conversation on the topic with him will involve the use of an axe. It is extremely motivating.
We walked down to the corner house, Dad with his axe in one hand an mine in the other, and he rang the bell. The two shepherds, at the sound of the doorbell, came exploding out of their houses but, sharp enough to now associate me with some unknowable kind of danger, kept a civil, if noisy, distance.
The guy who lived there opened the door, and Dad explained to him that he lived just down the street and had a young son, seen here, who when walking to school every day was threatened by his dogs who, now that he looked at it, appeared to be big, pretty aggressive, and not on a leash or behind a fence of any kind. Dad went on to say that he hated to think what might accidentally happen to his son, or any young kid, should the dogs decide to attack.
The guy began to tell my dad that the dogs weren’t really a threat, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to get bullied into spending the money to put up a fence.
Dad thought about this, and said that was too bad, because he was going to be walking his son and his friends to school every day from now on and he’d hate to think of what would happen to the dogs if his axe accidentally fell on their heads, which would definitely not happen if they were leashed, or there was a fence.
Then, before the guy could even reply, Dad thanked him for his time, took my hand, and we walked away, never once looking over his shoulder.
The next morning, both dogs stared at Shaun and I glumly as we walked past the house on our way to school. They were anchored to the ground on long runs of chain that terminated on a very robust-looking stake.
My father, watching silently from the seat of our old blue Volvo some twenty yards behind us, moved his axe from his lap to the back seat, and drove off to work.
Dogs were, therefore, completely off the menu for me for the better part of my life, right up until I met Val and discovered that she not only liked dogs (then a fault, in my view) but, inconceivably, had a dog despite living in New York City. Doubly inconceivably, that dog happened to be a chocolate brown, purebred Shar Pei. She was named Vida.
Shar Peis are essentially a perfect argument against intelligent design, because there is no way that any being with the powers necessary to conjure up life would ever, even if losing a drunk bet at a bar, make a Shar Pei on purpose.
It’s easy to see the supreme being coming up with the idea for the sleek and majestic Doberman, or the goofy friendliness of a Lab. But nobody would intentionally take something more or less the size of a pit bull, give it literally three times more skin than it needs, a purple tongue, make it a finicky eater, carpet it with hairs so sharp that they stick into your skin and agonize you like a sliver, and finally, make the thing smell like a mephitic combination of corn chips and a bathing suit you forgot to take out of a plastic bag when you were at the pool a week ago.
If you did this, you would have Vida, the Shar Pei.
Vida became what we referred to as my step dog, inasmuch as she was an immutable part of the deal when it came to Val to being my wife.
Despite the weight of history and experience working against her, Vida grew on me – partly because she was so loyal, partly because she was so affectionate with me, but largely because she was so extraordinarily odd.
She wouldn’t eat Purina Dog Chow but enjoyed a fresh mixed green salad from time to time, and would beg for cantaloupe. She was hopeless at basic dog games, would not fetch or lift a paw, and didn’t really seem interested in other dogs, preferring to spend most of her time sleeping on our most expensive furniture. She guarded the apartment with two or three gruff barks when there was a noise at the door, then kept an eye on things from the safety of the underside of our coffee table.
And, of course, she looked ridiculous, making people stop dead in their tracks in order to drink in her rumpled, knotted visage, her two dark eyes peering out and radiating total disinterest in her environment (save, of course, for those elements of her environment that involved cantaloupes, or a comfortable sofa).
My revenge was to have Leonie, who adored Vida as much as the dog feared her.
Given that Vida was one never-ending tactile experience, what’s not for a child to love? She pulled Vida’s skin, grabbed fistfulls of her lips, rolled on her incredibly course fur, and got her to eat anything she was eating (except dog food). Leonie feasted on Vida in every sense of the word – she chased the dog, rode the dog, stalked the dog, fed the dog, teethed on the dog, and cuddled the dog all day long for two and a half years.
The dog put up with her with nary a complaint.
However, amidst the sylvan bliss of a summer vacation at a good friend’s house in the country, the inevitable thing did happen, and it was essentially heartbreaking.
Vida fell ill just before we left for the trip and couldn’t quite shake it.
The old girl was getting on and was already well beyond the boundaries of her life expectancy (she was pressing roughly 150 years old in human terms), but was doing generally well enough that I don’t think we’d either even internalized the possibility that she wouldn’t be around forever.
And I had grown to love that ridiculous dog to pieces, we all did, and Vida loved us right back.
In the middle of the night, she lay at the foot of the steps that led to our bedroom and the sound of her labored breathing woke me, and I in turn woke Val. Val quietly placed her hands on Vida as she lay there, and, as if drawing comfort from the touch itself, her flank heaved and she left us with a great, last, sigh.
One thing that is rending whenever I think back on it: as weak as she was, Vida would make a point of heading out to the pool with the kids every day that week, and would pick a spot to lie down where she could keep a clear eye on Sylvie, then just six months old, who we would park on a blanket in the shade most mornings.
Vida was, literally, guarding her family even as death was upon her.
I buried her the next day, clawing my way into the ground with a pick and a shovel in the miserable heat of an August afternoon, each spade full of earth doubly heavy with its invisible load of grief.
That night we all put stones over her grave at sunset and said goodbye, and it was sad but good. She was in a lovely spot, in the shade of a big tree, had lived about as well as any Shar Pei probably ever has, and spent her last days in comfort and dignity.
As a guy who not only never had a dog growing up, but feared and avoided them, I will say that one of most difficult things I’ve done in memory was throw that first shovel of earth over her.
Six years later, in a bookstore in Todos Santos, the moment they saw a crate with the puppies in it, Sylvie and Leonie dropped to the floor in order to come face to face with them, cooing at them and letting them gnaw their fingers.
Leonie clearly adored Vida when she was with us, while Sylvie was simply too young to properly remember her. Yet, somehow, as though she can sense that there was something magnificent for her to love that was stolen away from her at a young age, Sylvie loves dogs, unequivocally, universally.
And, as she becomes more focused and articulate, she engages in a more or less constant dialogue with us about the fact that we don’t have a dog, which is a crime, and how soon can we rectify this?
On the beach at Los Cerritos a man had a puppy that, if it was a day over a month old, I would be shocked. Sylvie homed in on it like a missile, and Val and I had to eventually pry her away from it. Halfway to the car, she stopped cold in the sand and glared at us, refusing to move.
“What is it, dove?” I asked.
“You”, she accused the two of us, her face twisting into a mask of pain and grief, “do not even love puppies!”
With that she burst into tears, wailing in agony, inconsolable and refusing to speak with either Val or myself for the next several hours as she processed the horror of having us as parents.
Val was able to eventually talk Sylvie through the dog situation, as she has every few days for the past couple of years: while Val loves dogs too and wants a dog, there is no room for a dog in the truck. A dog would really limit the places we could go and things we could do, and someone would always have to keep an eye on it. Training a puppy is not in the cards. We need to get the right dog, too, the right size and breed and temperament, ideally a female. We can’t just get every puppy or stray we see.
All these things are said to Sylvie, who nods thoughtfully, and then says “So, then, are we getting a dog tomorrow?”
The girls don’t really involve me in the conversation, as they view me as the gruff old coot who will simply roll his eyes and say something ridiculous like “where the hell are we going to put a dog in the truck?”
Of course, as if to continue to infect the girls with unbounded puppy cravings, once we pried the girls out of the bookstore in Todos Santos and returned to the campsite, we discovered that the owners had not one, but two, puppies running around their courtyard.
It was a complete disaster.
And, generally, I can’t see how we’d fit a dog into our lives right now.
But, late at night the last few days we were camping on the beach at Los Frailes, I would watch the girls run over to Bernie’s site to say good night to him, and give Osa a vigorous belly rub.
Osa would then trot after them as they returned to our tent, sit and watch them brush their teeth and climb into their sleeping bags. Then she would curl herself up at the door of our tent, one ear cocked to surveil the noises and potential dangers of the night, guarding them as they slept.
For my part I would watch Osa, now an accidental ambassador for all dogs and the sanity of dog ownership, quietly and instinctively protecting my girls as they slept, and suspected strongly that the risk of us owning a dog had just dramatically increased.
Just don’t tell Sylvie.
“Are those New York plates?” I heard a voice ask, and Val countered with “They sure are – we’re a long way from home.”
With that, we began a conversation at the beach with a couple who it turned out were staying at a lovely house in Cabo Pulmo, taking a week away from the rigors of winter in Montana, and learned that the gentleman making the friendly inquiry, Sal, was an expatriate New Yorker himself.
Over the next few days we came to look forward to the company of Sal and Lena, as they would come down to the beach to lie in the sun, snorkel the reef, and toward the end of the day we’d cajole them back to our camp for an enjoyable happy hour in the shade of a palapa.
Sal himself was also a refugee from working in the city in finance, so the two of us had more than a few things in common, and we happily compared scars. We discovered Lena was an ultra marathoner, which explained her highly visible level of fitness, and which permitted me the enjoyment of reminiscing with her about training for the Ironman (all the little things, like the absurd tan lines, what trail shoes you prefer, and of course, nutrition, which means recalling just how good a flat, warm paper cup of Coca-Cola tastes after you’ve been running for twenty miles or more).
The two of them inexplicably made our happiness and comfort a huge priority.
They went to the trouble of bringing us fresh tomatoes and avocados, deposited a cooler full of beer and, perhaps more luxurious, ice cream, at our camp one day, lent Val a spare pair of flippers to snorkel with, Sal brought his brother and girlfriend by when they came to town so we had a legitimate beach party with real guests, and finally, they insisted that we join them for dinner at their place on their last night in Cabo Pulmo.
Not wanting to completely embarrass ourselves, we all (including The Hippo) decided we’d at least do them the favor of sprucing up, and so took a shower at the local well which completely delighted the girls (nothing like having buckets of water hauled up out of the ground and dumped on you by your dad). We even put on clean shirts for them.
Sal and Lena had spent that afternoon fishing, successfully, so we walked into their beautiful place and were confronted by a menu that included not just an enormous fresh salad and stuffed peppers, but handmade tamales (it turns out Lena, on top of being a woman of science who taught the girls bone identification, makes exceptionally good tamales) and huge, beautiful, fresh fillets of bonito.
My mouth watered involuntarily when I saw the fish, and I raced out to Red Beauty to get what every self-respecting person who has lived in a pickup truck for seven months would keep handy: nori sheets, a tatame mat, wasabi and some high quality soy sauce.
Sal poured us all generous glasses of wine, distributed cold beer to the willing, foisted ceviche upon us, and produced a watermelon for the girls, while Lena presided over the tamales and salad and found herself the recipient of a pile of pictures that the girls were busy drawing for her.
To top everything off, and to the delight of the ladies, an extremely lucky dog was pacing about the kitchen, having been pulled off the street by Sal and Lena while they were driving into town earlier in the day.
As it turns out, they apparently have a soft spot for strays of all stripes.
We were in some kind of crazy alternate universe, I thought, sitting at the curved bar behind the kitchen as I put down a cold bottle of Pacifico in order to free up my hands to cut into the fish in order to make a roll of bonito, avocado and cucumber.
Dinner was a long, lazy, fabulous series of courses, and we sat at a big table on real chairs and ate off real plates. Our wine glasses were made of glass. We could see, too, thanks to the electric lighting. We talked and talked, and before we knew it Leonie was fast asleep on the sofa and Sylvie was off in a corner trying to figure out how to hide the dog in the truck.
And, just as we were trying to get out the door and free Sal and Lena up to pack, they demanded we take all of their unused food which, on the face of it, made sense given they were flying out the next day, but the sheer abundance of the offer was singular.
The Hippo and I were thus joyfully convoying bags of vegetables, a chunk of watermelon, a half a case of beer, and, by my special request, all of Lena’s remaining tamales, out to the truck.
We finally left close to midnight but it was another tough goodbye, as we realized how much we’d come to enjoy Sal and Lena’s company over the past week, and it made it seem all the more natural for us to consider the timing of our own departure from the beach.
Steve came by our camp the next morning to say hello and check on the lizards.
The girls had caught a couple of the small, lightning-fast, sand-colored lizards the day prior and named one of them Captain Ramon, but in tribute, named the other one Sidekick Steve.
Steve’s timing was perfect, as we had just cut up a fresh cantaloupe and had plenty to share, and we told him there was some risk that we’d be moving on in the next day or so to head up to Los Barriles or environs.
This team of Roving Bugs has been on the move for over seven months, and there are a few things on our to-do list that would really benefit from the attention that can only be provided with some degree of structure.
Practically speaking, that means that Val and I have been contemplating staying still in one place for maybe a solid month or so, in an actual town, one that can offer things like hot water and soap and electricity and internet connectivity.
Val wants to take formal Spanish lessons, as, frankly, so do I, and there’s a book I’d like to write (how hard can it be to write a decent novel in a month?).
In trying to see how all this would actually happen, we came to the conclusion that it may make sense to look into renting a small casita somewhere, or at least get to someplace fixed where there are some basic level of amenities and there is a corner where Dad can tiptoe off to with a drink and his computer and seek to actually put pen to paper and not have to worry about coyotes or rattlesnakes.
It’s not clear where that place is, and it would have to be cheap as chips, but the truth of the matter is that Los Barriles stuck us, when passing through roughly a month ago, as just big enough to have everything we might want, just small enough and off the map enough to have not been completely picked over by moneyed gringos, a nice beach, and enough development to give us a decent shot at finding a modest place to spend a month.
So we’ll be leaving Los Frailes, this idiosyncratic and beautiful little spot, to venture northward with The Hippo and poke around Los Barriles to see if we can find a little spot to call our own for a stretch.
But saying good bye to Los Frailes, and all the folks we have spent time with here over the course of the past month, will once again turn out to be the hardest part of our travels in the Baja.