The Call of Baja (Visiting Granville King)
The Call of Baja
The Turtle Expedition joins Granville King in Search for Baja Treasures
Author: Gary Wescott / Photos: Gary & Monika Wescott
Granville King is an ornery Cuss. What makes him likeable is that he knows it: He’s proud of being an ornery cuss. Despite his mean streak, we’ve grown quite fond of the old desert rat. Monika and I have a lot in common with Granville. Neither he nor The Turtle Expedition have what you’d really call a “home”. That is, everything we own has wheels on it. The four (not to forget Superdog), of us have also developed somewhat of a neutral position for such things as flush toilets and microwave ovens. (Granny has never forgiven me for forsaking my old manual typewriter for a word processor.) We can spend hours sitting around Granville’s camp, sipping dark Bacardi whilst debating the pros and cons of rattle snakes, coyotes, magazine editors and other such vermin.
Very few people actually know how to find the Desert Fox, and since it’s a known fact that he shoots every third visitor, the number is ever decreasing. His little encampment is located approximately 743 miles south of the border on the ragged cliffs overlooking the Sea of Cortez. (Actually, you just drive until you feel you’ve gone 743 miles and it puts you in about the right place.)
With us being on the road all the time, we only get to see Granville maybe once a year, and with our lengthy South American trip laying ahead, we wanted to pay him a visit before left the continent. In any case, the new Turtle III needed some shake-down time, and there’s plenty of “shake” on the road to Mr. King’s museum of four-wheel drive artifacts.
Granville has often spoken and written of the remote Baja Backcountry, where unexplored canyons still horde vast treasures of gold and colonies of beautiful maidens with lovely names like “Rosita, Choncha and Nancy” calling out to backcountry travelers in the night. We have learned to take his word as truth. For a fact, historians will mostly agree that when the Jesuits were banished from Baja by the Spanish thrown in the 18th century, they stashed a booty somewhere on the peninsula worth about $800,000,000 (eight hundred million dollars) in today’s world. As for the lovely nymphs who call out in the night, those of us who frequent Baja have heard them. If you say you haven’t, it is only testimony to their cunningness.
About the only sane way to reach these remote and hidden canyons is by ATV. Of all Granville’s collection of vehicles, including a VW bus, two Jeeps, a rolled Dodge pick-up, a 4×4 van and a Cadillac, the one he makes sure is always running is his little Yamaha three-wheeler.
Mountains of Gold and mystical Maidens???? This had the makings of an Adventure. We stopped by the Honda headquarters to pick up two of their new FourTrax 300’s, which we loaded on a Zieman F-711 Side Loader, the newest model in the Zieman Lightline series of ATV trailers. Our choice of the Zieman F-711 was not without reason. The side-load feature is ideal for the 4-wheeled ATV’s. You drive on one side and off the other. Knowing in advance the rough roads we would travel was reason in itself for using a Zieman.
Making sure we had packed a box of Milk Bones and a bag of pork skins for Superdog, we headed south, crossing the border at Mexicali to follow Mex. 5 down to San Felipe. It was shrimp season, (we sort’a planned it that way), and we arrived in this little fishing town just in time to gourmandize a pound or two of the thumb-size variety. Popping up the top of The Turtle III, we made a quick street-camp down by the docks where the shrimp fleet ties up.
Morning brought an abrupt end of the pavement, and we had a serious choice to make. The new road south was under construction. (Has been for the last decade.) The new old road has always been our favorite. Its sand base is soft and it sort of roll-coasters across the desert. We’d never actually taken the old old road, but that’s where the stacks of white rocks encouraged us to go.
We want to make it perfectly clear, should you ever consider venturing south of San Felipe, take the new road, if it’s open, or take the old road, but do not take the old old road unless you’ve recently had all your fillings checked. The many numerous side routes heading east across the desert, which have been made by locals in their attempts to escape the old old road and get back to the old road. We finally had enough sense to follow one, but not before we had shaved off the right rear taillight assembly on the Zieman crawling through an arroyo. The Ancra ratchet tie-downs holding our FourTraxs on the trailer were put to their ultimate test, and if we had any reservations about the performance of our duel 4-Way Stabilizer shock set-up on The Turtle III, they were absolved.
At length, about 741 miles south of Mexicali, we spotted the litter that is Granville King’s castle. While Superdog and I got reacquainted, Monika aroused Granville from his siesta and got him to turn his hearing aid on. As fortune would have it, the third visitor had come through about a month before. We were safe.
Hospitable person that Granville is, he suggested we set up camp in the arroyo just over the sand dunes from his place; we’d be more protected there if the wind came up, he said. We expressed some concern about the flash flood problem in the arroyo, but Granville assured us he’d never seen the water over three feet deep! Despite the ominous black clouds hovering over the mountains, he said it never rains this time of year. Superdog was in canine heaven, with fourteen new tires to lift his leg on. He couldn’t reach the spare on the back of The Turtle II, but I caught him eyeing it more than once.
The next day, we got an early start, around 11:00 am. That’s early in Baja! Granville was hesitant about leading us into any of the really remote areas, but we convinced him our Honda FourTraxs could go anywhere. We rode south for a time. The Hondas skimmed over the washboard road, their soft tires and long-legged suspension absorbing all but the biggest potholes. After a few miles, we turned west and began working our way up an unnamed arroyo. As we continued, the wash gradually closed in on us until we were riding between towering cliffs. Occasionally, we slowed to crawl across boulder fields or over ledges; drop-offs that would become raging rapids if the darkening cumulus circling the ride tops decided to empty their bowels on us. Granville seemed unconcerned, almost trance like, following some unseen compass in his mind. We stopped near an interesting rock formation for coffee, and he pointed out the place where Superdog I had met with a puma and lost.
Monika and I were positively amazed with the Honda FourTraxs’ performance. They could go anywhere! Neither of us had ever ridden an ATV before but their nimble suspension and clutch-less five-speed transmission made us feel like pros. The four-wheel drive model, which Monika rode, seemed to be only a slight advantage in the rough stuff. At one point, we came to Deadman Rock, a narrow passage Granville was sure we’d never get through. To his surprise, as he lifted and hand walked his three-wheeler up the sluice box, Monika had discovered an alternative route around through the boulders, here after known as “Monika’s Gap”. There had been no sign of hidden canyons full of gold nor even the whiff of a Siren’s perfume. At length, we reached a maze of arroyos, none of which were passable even with our Hondas. Working our way up a side hill, we were able to reach the ridge crest above us. Below and to the west, the vast desert stretched out to the distant cliffs of yet another mountain range, separated from us by a sea of palo verde, ocotillo, and mesquite. We stopped for lunch, parking our ATV’s on the faint tracks of an old gold mining trail, so long abandoned that good size trees had grown between the ancient wagon tracks.
Now we rode diagonally across the alluvial plain, following first one dry wash and then another until we reached the desert floor. Being a couple of days’ hike from the nearest road was a good feeling. Already we were wishing we had brought sleeping bags, tents and food for more than just a day. And what was that? —-A voice from somewhere—-or nowhere—- was calling, “stay, stay, stay, —-“. Must have been the wind.
After several hours of skirting the base of the range we had crossed, we came to a major arroyo where we turned east again. Shadows were growing long, and rain clouds were beginning to bunch for the afternoon assault. We crossed water many times. Though this was a major desert route, recent flash floods had obliterated all tracks except for those of resident coyotes and deer. Poking our noses in to side canyons, we were ever alert of signs of treasure. The best we found was a vein of quartz. The irresistible call of the Baja Sirens was hidden in the absolute silence of the desert. A black raven followed us from turn to turn, and there was a feeling of being watched by a thousand eyes, each pair holding their breath as we passed.
Following the ever-widening arroyo. We rode east toward the glistening blue Sea of Cortez. Pellets of rain occasionally “ticked” against our helmets, prompting us to glance over our shoulder from time to time. Reaching the arroyo’s mouth and the wide-open white sand beach, we sped north for nearly an hour, slowing only to inspect a tide pool or climb over a rocky point.
The sun had just dropped behind the purple mountains when we ascended the last dune and pulled up in front of Granville’s camp. As I shut my Honda off I remembered thinking, “This thing is more fun than any horse I’ve ever owned, and I don’t even have to tie it up!” In fact, the distance we had covered would have taken two long days in a saddle. We had made the mistake of letting Granville try our four-wheelers during the course of the day. He firmly announced that he’d never get on a three-wheeler again and was already figuring out how much trade-in he could get on a FourTraxs.
Rain came lightly at first, and then in driving sheets. The three of us retired to the warm comfort of The Turtle III for dinner and talk of the day. Superdog was out on a rabbit hunt. A south wind whistled across the desert and snaked up the arroyo in which we camped, whipping through the brush and buffeting the truck. We studied the maps, and Granville suggested other canyons we might explore. The possibilities were endless.
During a lull in the rain, the Desert Fox retired to his little trailer on the cliffs. I walked down to the beach, following the water line to see what the storm had washed up. A yellow moon occasionally found a hole in the clouds, its light sparking off the wet sand to dance among the whitecaps of the Sea of Cortez. Standing there in the cold salt air, I could well understand why Granville King has chosen his solitary backcountry lifestyle.
The Call of the Baja sirens was clear and taunting this night; “stay, stay, stay”— they sweetly pleaded. And then, from across the dark water, I heard the Call of Adventure. It came from far away; from the jungles of the Amazon; from the snow-capped peaks of the Andes; from Tierra del Fuego. The voice sang of beautiful rain forests and warm Caribbean beaches; of spectacular fishing and unexplored back roads where herds of soft-eyed llamas graze amidst the Incan ruins. It was a Call I had often heard, but this time more enchanting. This time we must follow. The Turtle Expedition is on its way to South America.