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  • CK Byrne

Adventure in Baja

The week of January 13th, there was a new moon. When the moon is new, it is on the same side of the Earth as the Sun, so it doesn't interfere with night photography. Coincidentally, I had an unusual 4 days off in a row (and I wasn't scheduled on Saturday until 3pm), so I decided it would be the perfect time to get far out of town and take some serious dark site photography.

After consulting with Windy.com, it became obvious the entire southwestern United States would be covered in clouds that week. All my go-to spots (Mojave, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Joshua Tree...) would be overcast. Then I noticed Baja Mexico would be clear. As this had been on my bucket list for some time, I jumped at the opportunity to go south of the border.

I headed out around 1AM, timing it so I would be crossing the border into Mexico around sun-up ensuring I would be driving through Mexico in the daylight. It was my first time entering Mexico by car (an interesting experience if you've never done it.. lol) but I passed through the checkpoints with little delay.

Arriving in Ensenada around 9:30am, I continued driving. It was still about 5 hours to Punta San Carlos, but I wasn't sleepy in the least so I ventured on. Knowing cell service would be nil where I was going, I downloaded the Google Maps before leaving coverage.

About 3 o'clock, I checked into Mama Espinoza's Motel in El Rosario but still wasn't sleepy (even after driving 12+ hours) so I continued on to my destination.

About 3 miles out of El Rosario, I turned off of the main highway onto a dirt road. This isn't unusual for me; most of my favorite locations include unpaved roads and trails. I continue westward towards the coast. The landscape is truly beautiful with towering cacti and the occasional abandoned, deteriorating shells of structures. The "road" isn't that remarkable. Dirt, "washboard", and rocks much like you find in the Mojave or remote areas in Nevada. I'm a tad nervous because some of those rocks look awful sharp and only a year ago I blew out a tire in the Mojave returning from a night session of photography. Also, my navigation app is frustrating me. About 6 months before, Google Maps updated; and now the default orientation is North always at the top. This is fine for street grids and such, but when on winding trails, it can cause more headaches than it's worth. After 20 miles on the unpaved trail, Google Maps totally screws me over. I come to a spot where there are trails going in multiple directions. I am told to take a "right" but that could lead to any of three different trails. I proceeded into a river bed, still following car tracks that aren't uncommon in these remote areas. But about 100 yards into the arroyo, I realize this is not where I want to be. The tracks end in a thicket of dry bushes and I see no trails going forward. I turn the car around and within a moment, the nose of my Jeep is pointing downward into the creek bottom. I've turned right into a sandbar with VERY lose sand.

I immediately go into "snowdrift" mode. Growing up in Colorado, I'd faced countless snowdrifts, and gotten out of every one. Rock slowly back and forth, never gunning the engine... a few back-and-forths and I should climb out of here in a jiffy. But sand doesn't compact like snow does, at least this sand didn't. With each iteration of back and forth, the car just sunk deeper into the sand. I'm still not too worried. The sun is an hour or so from setting. I'll dig out a couple of trenches in front of the tires and roll forward out of the hole. No worries. I hop out..... dig dig dig dig dig dig dig..........nice easy sloping trenches forward. I can see the bottom curve of the front tires.. so they should drop nicely the inch or so and roll forward into the tracks with no resistance.

I get back behind the wheel. The sun has set and it's now getting dark.

Easy, Charles... easily press the car forward... it moves... and SINKS. I press a bit harder on the accelerator and almost immediately the wheels spin uselessly. I HATE AUTOMATICS!! Now begins the night-long chastising of myself. WHY did I settle for an automatic? I know better!

Again, I get out and start digging out the tires. This time I will extend the tracks to the back wheels as well. One hour turns into two... into three... digging out sand that seems to fall back into the trenches as soon as I dig it out. Soon I'm exhausted from pulling sand and getting it far enough from the car that it doesn't settle back into the trenches I'm digging.

My arms are aching.

I look up. Well, I certainly succeeded in finding the dark sky. The stars are splendid. Unlike most areas where stars stand out on a black background, here it seems there are more stars than blackness. I'm seeing more stars than I've ever seen, and it's disorienting that Orion is higher than usual. My heart leaps as I realize I'm looking at the star Canopus, which I've never seen before! It's the 2nd brightest star in the sky and is rarely visible in the United States because it sits so low on the horizon. It's breathtaking! If not for the sand pit holding my car, this would be a spectacular night. I take a moment to set up a tripod and a camera. I take some photos of the incredible night sky.


The thought snuck into my mind of all those clickbait websites I've visited with "fateful last photos".... "... their body was never found, but a camera was, with these photos...."

Yeah. I'd like to say I was facing adversity with the confidence and stoicism of James Bond. But in the words of Red from Shawshank.... "I wish I could tell you that, but [this] is no fairy tale..."

I began to worry. As the hours passed, the lack of anything resembling human presence gnawed on my conscience. Once or twice I heard something resembling a car or truck in the distance, but their lights must have been 10 or more miles away. When one finally seemed to approach in a somewhat close distance (who knows? it could have been miles away) I jumped on the roof of my Jeep and tried to shine a powerful emergency light in their direction... s.... o... s..... over and over. No luck. The lights disappeared around an unseen turn.

I likewise spent awhile honking s...o...s... with my car horn.. sending out signals to anyone who might hear the echoes off the distant mountains. I even dowsed nearby bushes with gasoline and ignited them hoping someone might see the flames. I made sure I chose lone bushes that wouldn't start some huge wildfire... but again... no luck. There was nobody to see the fires but me.

So I came to realize my survival would depend on me and me alone. I began digging again. As I kneeled beside my car, I saw what prevented me from getting lose last time. Even with the high clearance of the Jeep Patriot, I had high-centered myself on the sand. So, now I would have to dig out all the sand beneath the car. I pulled out my survival knife and began cutting branches from bushes (the ones I hadn't torched), and tried lining the trenches I had dug. Perhaps the tires would "catch" on the branches.

Still no luck. And with every attempt, the car dug only deeper into the sand.

At about 4 AM, I had been up for nearly 30 hours... hours of driving and digging. My arms and back were cramping from exertion. I dragged myself into the drivers seat and collapsed for a couple of hours of sleep.




Sun rises over the arroyo.




The sun rose and I reassessed. Looking around, I realized just how deep the river bed was. Twenty or thirty foot walls rose above me to the north and south. Someone could drive right along the ridge and still not see me. It was time to huff it. I grabbed my camelback, a bag of jerky and climbed out of the arroyo. I began walking along the trail I *should* have taken in the first place. It was painfully obvious how much better this road was, but little good that did now.

I don't know how many miles I walked. Basically I put one foot in front of the other...step after step after step. I had no idea the exact measurement of the distance to the highway, but I had just driven it, so I knew it was a huge distance. When I got home I measured it on Google Earth. 20 miles as the crow flies, but as it twisted through valleys and hills, I have no idea. Fortunately, I didn't have to get all the way back to the highway.

Along the way, at one point I finally saw a beat-up white pickup truck maybe a half-mile distant. I yelled, screamed, and waved my arms

"Ayudeme! Ayudeme! Por Favor! Ayudeme!!!" Just as he was about to turn away, I saw the brake lights come one. He stopped and got out of the truck, looking in my direction. As much as I tried to run, the best I could muster was a trot. I reached him. Through the smattering of Spanish I know, I learned his name was "Caesar". He spoke no English, but I was able to communicate my dilemma through broken Spanish and lots of pantomime. He nodded and waved me into his truck. We drove to the ridge overlooking my car and I showed him where the car was. He nodded. "No quatro y quatro?" Sadly, I had to admit no... even though it was a Jeep, it wasn't 4-wheel drive (again kicking myself in my mind). He drove into the arroyo and assessed the situation. We then walked back up to the ridge where there was a dilapidated shack with a collapsed roof. We gathered wooden planks and took them back into the arroyo. Even those weren't enough to give my Jeep traction. I asked if we could go somewhere with phone service and call a tow truck. "No entrada." Tow trucks won't venture into an arroyo. He disconnected the trailer he was hauling and positioned his truck behind the Jeep. Taking a rope, he crawled under my car and attached it. He would try pulling my Jeep out of the rut.

On the first attempt, the rope snapped. He retied it and tried again. This time I watched as his rear tires spun and sank quickly into the sand. Now he was stuck too.


Caesar's truck ALSO stuck in the sand...





I went up to the shack again, and grabbed some longer planks while Caesar dug some sand from his tires. His truck was 4-wheel drive. Hopefully he would have better luck than I. We placed the planks under his tires and he got right out. Now back to my predicament. As he tied up to my car again, I dug out more sand and put the planks under my tires. I'm sure Caesar didn't expect to spend a couple of hours helping some Gringo out of a ditch that morning, but he was truly a God send! Finally, as he pulled with his truck and I eased on the accelerator of the Jeep, it leapt out of the hole! Thank GOD!!! The entire night of worst-case imaginations flooded my mind as I realized I would once again return home. I wouldn't be some forgotten victim of the desert! I made a dash for the solid trail, not wanting to stop in the sand again, and almost forgot I was still attached to Caesar's truck. LOL Fortunately, I saw him waving his arms to stop before the rope was taught!




The hole that held the Jeep for the night







Caesar was in every way an angel sent by God. I not only thanked him, but gave him a healthy financial reward. If I had a million dollars, I would have gladly given it in thanks!

As I drove back to the highway, those sharp rocks that worried me so much on the way in didn't seem quite so menacing. I will take rocks over sand any day, now! I made it back to Mama Espinoza's, paid for another day and crashed!






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