First 'Bug' in Baja

In February 1954, our Volkswagen was showroom-new. The lovable, blue "bug," El Carito, was as adventurous as we were. Mexico was a favorite destination from our Long Beach, Calif., home, but this time we chose an unprecedented trip: the then-unmapped route to the tip of the Baja peninsula, more than 1,100 miles.

Should I have been concerned? Perhaps, but with supreme confidence in my husband, Fred (a partner in a foreign-car garage), and my own love of exploring, I was as excited as he. We estimated the trip would take a week. Fred removed the rear seat. Food, water, gasoline, clothing, and sleeping bags were packed in the back and into the trunk, along with Fred's Speed Graphic camera and long strips of canvas to provide traction in sandy ruts.

At the checkpoint 12 miles south of Ensenada, the officers said we'd never make it to Cabo San Lucas. But with an eloquent shrug of shoulders and lifting of palms, they allowed the "loco Americanos" to proceed.

A deteriorating paved road ended in another dozen miles near Arroyo Seco. We simply chose the tracks that bore most directly south.

We camped near Rosario, and by noon the next day pulled into a tiny settlement. Asking for a meal, we were invited to share fresh meat butchered that morning. Fred - but not I, an animal lover - pronounced the burro steaks "delicious."

Those who have flown to Cabo San Lucas or driven the paved route, completed in 1973, can only imagine paths that disappeared at the edge of a wash and the maze of braided, boulder-strewn, and steep-pitched ruts. One day a fine red dust, whipped by a tail wind, locked us in a pink cloud.

About 400 miles into the trip, a stretch of soft sand pulled the wheels suddenly into a rock that crushed a torsion bar and the front bumper. That effectively sealed the front trunk with the tools inside. Fred leaned his six-foot frame to the task and manhandled the VW off the rock. We drove on but couldn't open the trunk until we came upon a family stalled by a flat tire. Fred borrowed a wrench, removed the VW's bumper, and retrieved our tools. We shared some refreshment with our benefactors.

After crossing 90 miles of Vizcano Desert, a vast, flat expanse paved with small brown stones, we topped a ridge and looked down on the verdant valley of San Ignacio. Its spring-fed streams, date palms, and village of about 1,500 surrounded the Mission of San Ignacio, founded by Spanish missionaries in 1728.

From here we headed east, across the peninsula, on our first "real road," a 49-mile stretch to Santa Rosalia. On the outskirts were the remains of a 19th-century copper smelter and rusting rail cars once used to carry ore.

We asked for sleeping quarters at a small grocery, and the proprietor guided us to an ancient "hotel." A bare, 25-watt bulb hung from the high ceiling in our room. Within moments, it went out. The diesel-powered generators shut down at 9 p.m.

On our way the next day toward Mulege, we stopped at a little farm and asked permission to refill our canteens. As we left, true to Mexican protocol, the whole family lined up to shake hands: father, mother, older to younger children. First asking the father's permission, Fred gave a pocket knife to each boy. I offered the women their choice of decorative combs, and their gratitude brought tears to my eyes.

Today's Mulege has modern accommodations and traffic, but when we arrived, the oasis and estuary were untrammeled gifts of nature. Snook and lisa swam in larger numbers than veteran fisherman Fred had ever seen. The chugging motor of our Beetle sent wild ducks aloft in a sun-darkening cloud. In Baha de la Concepcin, hundreds of sting rays in wing-tip precision evoked the ballet of a Blue Angels flight. At low tide we dug a meal of clams and plucked oysters from the trunks of mangrove trees.

On our way again, a flying rock broke open the VW's battery, releasing the acid. Fred coasted us down a steep hill to get the engine to turn over, then drove nonstop for the next 120 miles. At a tiny village, we bought a battery. It was the wrong size, but Fred adapted it to El Carito.

Darkness was falling as we neared La Paz. As anyone over 40 knows, early VWs had no gas gauge. A reserve tank held about a gallon. We crept up hills and coasted down with the ignition off. Fred drained the Coleman lantern and the gasoline stove into the tank. Somehow, we made it. We pulled up, exhausted, at La Perla Hotel about 11 p.m.

In the morning a small crowd gathered to meet us. A distinguished gentleman stepped forward and welcomed us in excellent English, explaining that he had just been appointed the Volkswagen distributor for all of Mexico. Delighted to find one in La Paz, he ordered our car washed, checked, and filled with gasoline. We let him demonstrate it to the crowd.

It had taken 7 days, 18 hours, and 45 minutes to drive the 1,145 miles from Long Beach to La Paz. Cabo San Lucas, our original goal, still challenged us. We drove the 116 miles in another five hours.

Time had run out for me. I had to get back to my job, so I flew back on a DC-3. I encouraged Fred to stay on for the local Mardi Gras, but he said he'd be lonely. As I flew out, he started driving home.

His return trip took 64 hours and 10 minutes of driving time. He couldn't wait to get back to develop his film and recount with me the triumph of El Carito, the first "bug" to creep, crawl, leap, and limp all the way to the tip of Baja - and back.

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