The Road

     When I saw the old black-and-whites of the road, I realized how well I knew it and how much it was part of me.
     The photos show a two-lane dirt track stretching as far as the eye could see through the Baja desert. And it came back to me, the feeling of standing there, looking at the track ahead.
     No town, no gas, for a hundred miles, nothing moving, just a little wind of dry, hot air humming through the cacti and brush.
     But that road had a huge personality.
     There were parts of it that wound through dry river beds of natural gravel and you could get up to 20 miles an hour between the curves. There was also plenty of bone-rattling washboard where it just didn’t matter if you went fast or slow, everything was shaking hard.
     But most often it was a rhythm where you got into second or even third gear for 30 yards and then had to slow for a hard dip or a rock or a dry wash.
     The road wasn’t graded, just worn by old cars and flat bed trucks that we saw a few times in a day of travel.
     It was a job to drive it and it held traps that could break your axle and did.
     They were in the form of narrow cuts in the road, made by water from the rare but generally torrential storms that would sweep over the huge Baja peninsula. The cuts were narrow and clean, so they were really hard to see.
     You thought you were driving a good patch of road and would step on the gas, and only see that mean cut across the road at the last minute, just before your tire dropped into it.
     So I learned to be on constant watch for that telltale line.
     I learned to love the challenge of it, of driving a big, heavy, loaded-down Landrover over that road and still make some time, hours on end of clutch and gas in alternating pumps, right hand constantly moving back and forth between the big shift stick and back to the steering wheel in aid of the left hand as I brought the Rover left and right, trying to keep the ride as smooth as possible, hitting a rut just as it started, so the truck fell smoothly down into it, and rising out of it at an angle to find a smoother stretch on the other side of the road.
     It required full concentration, reading the road as it unwound before you, and I looked forward to the job. It took my mind off everything, just me and the machine and the road.
     One night, I misgauged a devil of a turn. It was on the way out to Santa Catarina and the road was smooth with a bank of gravel built into the outside of the curve.
     I took the turn at pretty good speed, and the darn bank of gravel gave under the wheels and, suddenly, the car was sliding on its side with a strong desert bush slapping past the open windows.
     But the bush held the car up just enough and I had momentum, so I turned the wheels down into the stream bed next to the road, and, miraculously, the car righted itself.
     We got out to check the truck and in the clear desert air we could hear the voices of our companions in the car ahead who had also stopped. They sounded so close that we thought they were 100 yards up the road but it was in fact a good mile before we finally saw them.
     Along the way, the road offered up a deeply varied terrain, from fields of black, volcanic rock to a sandy, white desert floor to miles upon miles of enormous, smooth rocks that looked like the petrified eggs of some prehistoric giant.
     The plants, ultimate survivalists, varied even within relatively small bits of terrain, from 20-foot-high conical trunks of white and light green with short black sticks of branches coming out the sides, to a graceful, multi-branched shrub that we called iron wood because I once backed the Rover into one and it was so tough it broke out the back windows.
     There were fields of Jumping Cholla that have nodules with big, mean needles that seem to grab your flesh.
     When you hit one with your shoe, the needles went right into and through the shoe and your only remedy was to grab a stick put it between the piece of cacti and the top of the shoe and holler and heave, because you might as well get the pain over with.
     The Rover had these enormous, thick tires and we learned to check after going through a field of Cholla to see if any needles had got stuck on the outside of the tires. Because if we left them there, they wouldn’t break off from continued travel, they would just hang on and work their way into the tire and give you a flat.
     Then there were the Ocotillo, with long, thin, curving arms, its thorns relatively benign and its flowers lovely.
     A couple times we hit the desert just when it was in bloom and that was the most glorious sight, fields of delicate flowers of scarlet, red and yellow all around, for miles.
     By the time we drove back the other way, after camping and fishing on the beach for ten days, they would all be gone.
     The main track is no more. It was paved over and now campers and SUV’s zoom down the highway. But the side tracks taking you down to the Pacific are still there in their bumpy beauty.
     Baja is like the land primeval, where we humans are just bit players in nature’s drama.

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