to Ojai, Tecate, San Luis Rio Colorado,

and Sonaita

January 2002


other travel writing


1: To Ojai

W E’D SPENT A COUPLE OF NIGHTS in Boulder Creek, hidden among the redwoods, and then stopped off at Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola for Joe’s fabulous rye raisin bread, and at Tom and Mima’s take-out deli in Aptos, Carried Away, for lunch, and then we hit the road.

There was one surprise — there’s now an Oil Can Henry in Salinas. I hope this chain of spiffy lube parlors reaches Santa Rosa one of these days. I never miss a lube at Oil Can Henry when we’re in Portland. But we just didn’t want to lose a quarter-hour in Salinas, and we pressed on.

The familiar road south, on Highway 101, was pleasant enough, in spite of the new mini-mansion subdivisions springing up everywhere. (“Executive homes” outside Soledad, for God’s sake.) We were going to Ojai, though, and wanted to avoid the familiar routes through Santa Barbara.

So just north of Santa Maria, about two o’clock in the afternoon, we turned east, on highway 166, and found a fine new landscape. The map showed quite a big (artificial) lake on our right, Twitchell Reservoir: but its dam has apparently been breached, and the lake was quite dry. We could follow — with our eyes — the old road as it meandered along the streambed, occasionally crossing on concrete bridges from the ’20s. This is a sport I’ve always loved, finding and following the traces of an ancient road running alongside our own, like learning etymology, or atavism.

The Panza Range, northeast from highway 166, west of New Cuyama

We were driving away from the low winter sun, toward Cuyama, in a fairly wide valley, on our left low arid angular hills keeping away the Carizzo Plain, on our right the dark massive Sierra Madre. This is a fast road, though only two-lane; it’s a principle road linking the coast and the Central Valley. But there are hardly any towns or habitations to be seen until you near the eastern end, just south, and this side the ridge from, the fabled Carizzo Plain.

Sixty-five miles from the Coast Highway, and a few miles east of Cuyama, we turned south on Highway 33, and the landscape got only more impressive. This was truly a gorgeous road —thank God there are still new ones to drive in this magnificent state!
We began in a wide valley left by what seemed the sluggish Cuyama River — arid landscape, tawny terrain, with new attempts at vineyards and orchards near the settlement of Ventucopa. The sun was falling lower, throwing our shadow onto the bleak valley floor.

But soon we were gradually climbing higher, having started this road at about 2000 feet. To the left were steep jagged hills covered with yucca, coyote bush, occasional cactuses, occasional low flowering plants; on the right the wide dry-mud bed of the Cuyama River.

New plantings east of Ventucopa

In thirty miles or so we climbed to a little over 5,000 feet, the flora changing to oaks and madrones, then pines. All the time it was drawing darker, until at the summit we drove into a magnifent sunset, the clouds rose- and salmon-colored in a pale blue sky hovering over the inky profiles of sharply angled peaks.

Below us the highway traced through several hairpins and a couple of quite narrow passes. It was growing quite dark, and by the time we had descended to Wheeler Springs, apparently abandoned in the winter night, I thought of the narrow pass in the Transylvanian Alps where Vlad the Impaler built his castle: the terrain and the night were that mysterious, that attractively sinister.

Soon though the road opened down into the Ojai Valley, velvety with citrus and avocado trees. There we dined on burritos, salad, and avocados with our friends Jim and Lisa, who combine citrus and avocado farming with technical (computer) writing to make a tenuous but graceful living. And there they had found us a bed, in the Hummingbird Inn, after a day whose only birds had been hawks and crows, ravens and — humor me here — bats.

 2: Ojai to Mexicali

LOOK AT THE WINDSHIELD, Lindsey said, as we packed up to leave the Hummingbird Inn. Great, I thought, forgetting the season was long over, someone’s driven a baseball through the windshield. But it wasn’t that bad: just six or dight inches of gasket peeeled lose from behind the glass. So we set forth on the next leg.

The Ojai Valley from the campground

It began beautifully enough, climbing out of the valley past the campground where nearly forty years ago I camped while attending the Memorial Day weekend music festival, and where I wrote the first page of my Duchamp opera sitting at a picnic table in the warm sunlight. We drove in, to see how much it had changed, but soon left, driving past the house Beatrice Wood lived in so long (now, thank God, a museum of some sort), and then descended from the pass to drive along the Santa Clara river between Santa Paula and Highway 5 — impressive groves of lemons and oranges, at first, so beautifully pruned and managed you’d say they were gardened, not farmed.

But then we turned south. The freeways ran from Valencia, which sounds sunny and Spanish but is suburban and sprawling, to Escondido, which sounds hidden but is all too evident. There was nothing to be seen but suburbs and sprawl, but I reßected that this too was farming, it’s just that we don’t (yet) eat the product.

Lindsey drove these many crowded miles, all of them, the gasket ßapping in the breeze, in two or three hours. Clear weather, mercifully not much traffic, a Tuesday morning in January. We were going to lunch, there to meet a cousin not seen since her wedding day, fifty years ago.

She was nineteen years old, the first grandchild; I was three years younger, the first grandson. As children we were friends, as I recall, though she remembers me as being scrappy. We were the oldest, though, and the younger cousins were too much younger, and she was a bit of a tomboy.

She and her asthmatic kid sister and their exotic mother had come back to Berkeley on the last ship out of Manila in those terrible weeks after Pearl Harbor. My uncle Clay had stayed behind, thinking there’d be another ship soon and having work to finish for the Bank of America. We didn’t see him again until late in 1945, when he came home yellow, thin, and broken in spirit — though he recovered, only to die too young in a car crash.

We didn’t have that much more to say to one another on this meeting, Cousin and I, and as we drove away from lunch I thought about the things that had separated us. Her Catholic mother, who never quite won my grandmother’s approval. Her move, soon after her marriage, to Los Angeles: somehow, though I went there too the next year, for my first year of college, I never looked her up.

It’s speculation for another day. We went to the Automobile Club for maps, and to buy car insurance for Mexico. We found a windshield repair place: I’ll fix it for twenty dollars, the guy said around his cigar, you’ll never get it to come loose again.

As we drove away I reflected that the other end would undoubtedly be next: why hadn’t I asked him to check it?

We spent the night in a dubious motel in El Cajon, “The Box,” a city firmly pinned down by asphalt, stoplights, and cyclone fences. But the next day, driving south through the Jamul Valley toward Tecate, it wasn’t long before I smelled horses and hay, those sweet pungent aromas that always bring saddles and saddleblankets and bitslobber to mind, and I began to cheer up considerably; I was driving back into my atavistic origins.

Tecate is a strange town, bigger than it should be, scratched out against its arid ßat landscape some four thousand feet above sea level. There’s a plaza, of course, with palms and, as I recall, sycamores, and a bandstand on which two or three groups of three or four were sitting at tables improbably eating lunch without a restaurant to be seen: perhaps they had catered it themselves.

In one corner a scrappy wire larger-than-life Santa, nearly transparent, made of wire and lights; in another an oddly disproportionate creche; forlorn remembrances of the Christmas of a couple of weeks before. But the sun filtered down through the trees, a pale watery sort of high-altitude but low-latitude sun, and there didn’t seem to be any seasonality to any of this.

We walked around killing time indecisively. I’d bought car insurance for the next twentyfour hours, but hadn’t decided on the route: take the old road east, or the new toll highway, new to me? I wondered if my cell phone would work, and stepped into one of the many storefronts that seemed appropriate, and tried to find out what I’d need, more to try out my Spanish than for any other reason.

Except for its size this might have been any cell-phone storefront, with a few display-cases scattered with Nokias and Motorolas, and a counter at the back presided over by a pretty young woman with sparkling eyes and a patient look -- that expression you hope to find in a situation bound to be baffling.

She knew exactly what my telephone needed in order to work in Mexico, but she had no idea where I would be using it, or why; and I had a great deal of trouble trying to communicate the information. Partly, it must be said, because I wasn’t sure myself. I had a hazy idea it would be good to have the option to call for road assistance -- I was recalling the trip, some years ago, from Ciudad Juárez to Agua Prieta, with a detour to Nuevas Casas Grandes, the actual reason for the trip. The last leg of that road had been mostly unpaved, often with bowlingball-sized rocks strewn across the road, not a sign of human life (or of much other life) for thirty miles at a time. (It was only after crossing into Douglas, Arizona, for a night in a motel, that I realized we’d undertaken that trip without water, spare fan belt, or tools of any kind; and of course in those days there were no cell phones.)

A tall well-built man in his forties stepped up and offered to help. He was fluent in both Spanish and English, a Mexican who worked often in the States -- he didn’t offer his profession -- and was familiar with cell-phone technology. It turned out that my American number would work in Tecate and various other places right on the border, but that we would need a Mexican number elsewhere.

Of course, though, there would be long stretches of road where there would be no service of any kind. And he was unsure of the availability of roadside assistance in any case. Still, I spent a little on a Mexican telephone number, which in the end we never used but thought might be good for reserving hotel rooms and the like.

Another excuse for practising Spanish: should we take the old road, which we’d travelled years ago, or should we splurge and drive the new toll road? Which would have more trucks, I wondered, remembering the tedium (and occasional anxiety) of driving behind a Mexican truck, unable to see around it, unsure whether his left-turn signal was encouraging me to pass, or warning me against it...

We walked about a bit more in search of a restroom, and found good clean ones at the customs office; and then changed a twenty-dollar bill into a handful of Mexican pesos; and took another turn through that curious plaza.

But it was clear Tecate wasn’t very interesting. Well, that satisfied a years-old curiosity. We headed out of town, east, on the road that had lured us here, a splendid drive east through high rocky landscape, hardly a sign of man or beast for miles on miles. I had meant to take the old road, reasoning that trucks would drive the faster new one: but soon it was clear Avenida Juarez had led me straight to the toll road, and I was glad we’d got twenty dollars’ worth of pesos, because it was considerably cheaper in local currency.

Highway 2 west of La Rumarosa

We were on a rocky plateau that seemed to lie between four and five thousand feet high, the twin divided highway curving gently among curious salmoncolored boulders, many of them perfectly spherical and as big as iceboxes, or kitchens, or small houses.

Highway 2 runs from Tijuana at its western end right along the border to Mexicali, the Colorado River, San Luis, and through the Sonora Desert, still hugging the border for the first third or so of Arizona. The new road is a divided four-lane highway, smooth as glass, beautifully paved and well laid out, with wide hairpins and frequent pullouts where you can easily park to gawp at this amazing landscape.

The view from Highway 2

What had attracted us back to this road was the memory of the great Rumarosa Grade, which leads you from an elevation of four thousand feet down a series of hairpins to sea level and below. Here the new highway, the eastbound direction of it at least, has co-opted the old road that I remembered from a similar trip a number of years ago, and down among those boulders, a hundred feet or twice that in places, are the crumpled cars and pickups and flatbeds that haven’t made the curves, some from last week perhaps, some from decades past, all left where they landed in this climate in which things change slowly if at all.

And at one spot there was a semi lying quietly on its side, its nose wrinkled a bit where it had been stopped by the sandstone bank. I doubt anyone was hurt in this one. The driver had perhaps fallen asleep, or slightly misjudged the curve, but I didn’t notice tiremarks; the atmosphere was almost benign.

Crumpled cars (detail from lower left of previous photo)

Then it’s flat desert, with an odd taqueria here and there for the truckers I suppose, until you cross a few irrigation canals and come into the metropolis of Mexicali, the capital of the state (Baja California del Norte).

Here we turned north to find the center of town: it was time for lunch. But where to eat? Lacking any guidebook and even the possibility of asking a native, and having driven around aimlessly, we settled on what seemed to be the biggest hotel. Mexicali is, after all, a political center; it stands to reason the hotel will have a dining room ready to accommodate important visitors.

The city is sprawling and seems to lack a center — or, rather, its center is under a good deal of reconsideration and reconstruction. One principal street would obviously lead back to Highway 2, or perhaps even coincided with it: it was a four-lane street, dusty, lined with what seemed to be factories and an occasional big-box discount store. And there were occasional signs, small and discreet, pointing off to the center of the city. So we followed them, drove twice around what must be planned to be a tourist and convention center occupying a dozen acres or so, and found an improbable driveway leading to the hotel’s wide, open, dusty parking lot.

Outside the side entrance to the lobby two casually uniformed men stood by a card table. They looked at us curiously as we approached, and one held up his hand, palm out, to stop me as I drew near the door. He said something I didn’t catch, and when I said lo siento, no hablo español, he motioned that I was to empty my pockets into the tray on the card table. We were being frisked. We submitted good-naturedly, and he grinned when he saw my pocket-knife, drawing it — closed! — across his throat and arching an eyebrow.

No, no, I said, miming a pistol to my temple instead, and he smiled, and gave me back my pocket stuff, and we went in. There weren’t many of us in the place, an open dining room adjacent to the hotel lobby. No one spoke our language, and we didn’t speak theirs. I don’t recall what we had — a Caesar salad for me, I think — but it was enough to keep us going to dinner-time. We smiled our way past the relaxed guardians at the door and unparked and drove on.

Along the north side of Highway 2, driving east out of Mexicali.

Leaving Mexicali the highway dips to the southeast, crossing a corner of irrigated truck-garden land we neglected to include in the Gadsden Purchase after the Mexican War -- I don’t know why: that border acquisition bears looking into. Much of that area was apparently taken to guarantee a railroad route from Texas to the Pacific Coast, and it’s been nothing but trouble for our authorities ever since. We were heading for the Colorado River, the border between Baja California and Sonora (as it is between California and Arizona), which we crossed about 3:30 in the afternoon, losing an hour in the process as we slipped into Mountain Time.

The Colorado, seen through the bridge rail at San Luis

The sky was magnificent, a heavy overcast exactly reflecting the river’s course between dull skies behind us, mounting clouds ahead. The bridge was new since our last trip here, or at least its brightly painted yellow-ochre rails were. We paid the slight toll — a quarter or so — and headed into town, a good-sized one, San Luis Rio Colorado, to find a hotel for the night.

3: San Luis Rio Colorado


We used the same technique, driving up and down the main street — Highway 2, here called Avenida Obregon. One hotel was clearly the newest and presumably the cleanest, and I decided for once to spare no expense, and we drove boldly into its parking lot, and I strode manfully into the lobby, and summoned up once again as much Spanish as I could invent on the spot. This time, though, the deskman spoke very good English, and booked us into a nice clean modern quiet room on the back wing of the hotel, with a balcony overlooking the central garden and pools.

The Hotel San Angel from our balcony, San Luis Rio Colorado

The hotel seemed sparsely peopled; no one swam or used the spa; the bar off the lobby was closed. We were welcomed in the restaurant, though. In fact, once again, we were about the only people there. It’s funny: from Mexicali to San Luis we’d seen plenty of evidence of the prosperity NAFTA has brought to this part of Mexico: factories, nicely paved roads, streetlamps, ambitious commercial centers. But the economy has collapsed: the public spaces seem empty; there aren’t many cars on the road; the hotels and restaurants are clearly hurting.

Dinner was good, though I don’t recall now exactly what it was — I’m sure I had chicken in molé sauce, because I like it, and you don’t get it that easily up here. It was a hell of a lot better than it had been years ago in Nuevas Casas Grandes, where we ate in a dubious storefront, and the waitress had sauntered, on hearing my order, to a Sears Roebuck chest-type freezer from the 1960s, and rummaged about, and finally brought up the unwrapped frozen carcass of a plucked and presumably drawn chicken which she carried aloft back to the kitchen, to replace, I suppose, the already thawed one I would soon be eating.

The next morning we took a saunter about town, or at least our quarter of it. San Luis is laid out on a severe grid of perhaps thirty or forty streets in each direction, perfectly flat, the main street the highway, a block south of the border, and the rest of the town south of it, and bisected by a north-south street.

In Tecate we’d sought telephones; in Mexicali, car permits; here we relaxed and simply marveled at the strangeness of it all. It reminded me of the Tijuana of forty years ago, gaudy and poor-man-plain by turns, hardware stores next to yardage shops, the former full of galvanized buckets and boxes of nails and chains, the latter bright with Mexican oilcloth and coaltarcolor shirtcotton. (Those compound words are for you, Ann.)

Avenida Obregon, San Luis Rio Colorado, sunset

Once again, as if we’d never experienced it before, we were struck by the difference the light can make in the appearance of the most ordinary things. The previous evening had given us a splendid sunset, the sky that curious bluish pink that seems to happen so much more readily in the south, a color that softens the intensity of the sunset and brings out blues and purples in the painted walls. Somehow the contrast of cool blues and vibrant reds is cancelled; each extreme moderates its opposite, replacing contrast and animation with warmth and sensuousness.

By day, though, there was simply sunshine and shadow, white and black, and the only modulation of the light was what came from the prevalent fine-grained dust, inescapable in spite of the recent asphalt paving of so many of the streets. There are very few trees -- only a few, almost always on the shaded north sides of the few buildings that rise above a single storey, and are set back any distance at all from the sidewalk. There is a central plaza offering some green by way of shrubbery and trees, but it was distant, and we didn’t feel like taking the time to explore it. We had a number of miles to drive if we were to make Magdalena by nightfall.

We stepped into an office across from our hotel to renew the car insurance for another day — that’s how it’s handled in Mexico, a day at a time — and to inquire about the need for car registration. Again the language barrier. Two young and pretty girls, still in their teens, were working the computer behind the oldfashioned waist-high palisade separating their desks from the public, and they processed our papers readily enough, but I couldn’t figure out how to ask for the information I wanted.

On the wall behind them, though, was the framed diploma of their boss, who had received a degree in philosophy at the local university. I could see him sitting at a desk in an adjacent office, apparently at his leisure, and in a bit, his curiosity probably aroused by my exotic brand of Spanish, he thrust a friendly face around the corner of his door, wished us a good morning, and stepped out to see if he could help. Alas his education had not extended to English, and we contented ourselves with a little small talk. Que tipa de filosofia, I asked, gesturing toward his diploma; hoping I was asking what field of philosophy he’d studied; Todos, he forthrightly replied, All. And we left it at that, and checked out of the hotel, and hit the long next stretch of road, through the Sonora Desert to Sonaita.

The Sonora Desert east of San Luis Rio Colorado

This is a subtle stretch of road, through flat desert, decorated with groves of saguaro cactuses, punctuated by occasional ranges of angular peaks. The road is well paved now -- quite improved since our last trip here! -- but remains only two lanes, dipping and curving at times but easy to drive. We had filled the tank in San Luis -- another occasion to be grateful we’d changed a bit of money; this seems to be cash country once away from the hotel -- and had only the little border town of Sonoita between us and the next hotel, probably in Magdalena.

The saguaros! There are times you can hardly keep from laughing, not derisively, but with pleasure, at these oddly anthropomorphic cactus trees, standing by the hundreds, each a very respectful distance from the next, some only pillars eight feet tall or so, others with all sorts of improbable appendages. They’re the classic cartoon cactus, the one you used to see with a sleeping Mexican underneath, the one Snoopy’s country cousin keeps as a pet.

They inescapably bring Giacometti to mind -- his strong patient attenuated standing figures, I mean. They stand out in their sandy field watching us impassively as we rush by: they seem much the wiser, patiently waiting for their Godot, while we speed on from one silly station to the next. They live sixty years, I’m told, before they sprout so much as a button, yet some have several arms and ears and God knows what projecting from their standard-issue yet always idiosyncratic trunks.

Occasionally you’ll see one in an advanced stage of decay, apparently lifeless, good for the nesting birds, and as a reminder (as if we need it) that no life lasts forever. And ultimately they fall, and their bodies lose their skins, leaving an oddly latticed hollow structure, a long impractical basket of latticed ribs collapsing slowly into the sand. Slowly, like the cars gradually rusting away below the Rumarosa grade: for this climate is a preservative, though harsh.

just off Highway 2, south of Sonaita

Two hundred kilometers to Sonoita, an easy two hours; and here we thought we’d have a bite, but nothing looked terribly attractive, and after a huge buffet breakfast at the hotel we weren’t really hungry yet. So we heaed south, for Highway 2 inexplicably avoids the next sixty miles of border country: you have to take a long deour, ultimately arriving at the main north-south toll highway leading from Nogales, on the border, down through Hermosillo to Mexico’s west coast.

We would not drive north on that road, though. I was leery of crossing back into the States at so major a crossing, thinking of the traffic jams we’d heard about -- and the roadblocks and inspection points we’d been seeing ever since Mexicali, none, providentially, stopping eastbound traffic, only those headed west.

We drove past another of them as I was reflecting on this: a long line of trucks, and the occasional car, parked off on the roadside like a pioneer wagon train, stopped on the shoulder of the highway, and finally backed up behind them even, on the highway itself, drivers standing out in the sun exchanging desultory conversation, probably used to this, or at least philosophical about it.

We would make Magdalena by four or five, and spend the night there, and then head on tomorrow for Bisbee, where my father spent his childhood, and then drive on up to Albuquerque. It was a good plan, but as I was congratulating myself on it we went round a gentle curve, topped a slight rise in the road, and saw the checkpoint ahead.

I knew it would be there somewhere. You’re allowed to drive feely in a tourist zone twelve miles wide along the border. Beyond that you have to have a permit for your car. I think the reason is to keep track of vehicles moving back and forth between the United States and Mexico, more to lessen the traffic in stolen cars than to control the flow of goods.

We stopped; I opened the window and said Buenos dias señor; he asked for the car registration; I gave it to him; he perused it, his expressionless face slightly darkening, and slowly gave it back: No es bueno, he said, pointing at the expiration date. Our car registration had expired a month ago.
I know it’s expired, said the woman we have handle such matters in our family; I renewed it by mail in plenty of time, but the renewed document hasn’t arrived yet.
I was incredulous. I’d made a point, when preparing for the trip, of asking if we had our vehicle registration — it was about the only matter I had taken care of. And our clerk had assured us she had put it in the glove compartment. But it’s expired, I said; it is not, she replied. Explain this to the man, she said.

I tried, God knows I tried; and he patiently maintained that the paper had expired in December, and finally he suggested I talke to his commander in the office, so I turned the car around and drove a few hundred feet in the wrong direction on the one-way road to a small low office, and walked in, humility and expired document in hand to have another try.

To no avail. The young woman who assisted an imposing commendatore explained my position to him, but he countered with perfect logic: he needed a valid document; I didn’t have one; he couldn’t let me proceed. So we turned around and drove back to Sonaita, undetained, thank God, at the traffic check, where we were waved through by smiling soldiers who doubtless knew why we were going back so soon.

Sonaita, Sonora, looking northeast about noon; house on street being paved


We stopped again in Sonaita: I wanted to buy a bottle of special tequila for Patrick. The town is essentially a wye: one leg from San Luis; one leading south; the other north into Arizona. Desert on two sides of the wye; a small residential area, maybe six or eight blocks, on the third. A desultory plaza with a monument of some kind. A couple of taquerias. And a very big general souvenir-merchandise store.

You’ve seen these, probably: glassware, baskets, leather-and-wicker chairs and tables, chandeliers, bulky pine furniture, ironwork of various kinds, many tiles. And a big tequila section, every bottle of which was alarmingly expensive. A bulky young couple from Iowa, I think it was, inspecting the prices, couldn’t help gasping. Maybe the prices are in pesos, I said hopefully. We checked: nope: U.S. dollars. We got a coffee at the taqueria and headed into Arizona.


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March 12 2002