The rocky canyons near Catavina at night in central Baja are lonely and cold in late December. Mounds and hills of building-sized boulders dot an ethereal landscape eerily beautiful but desolately forbidding, especially in the dark.
We had pulled the Chevy truck off the road for the night up. We negotiated a sandy arroyo and found a sheltered lee against a wall of rocky overhang several hundred yards from the highway. Clear, cold mountain air held nothing but a million stars overhead.
A quick fire of mesquite held back the chill and the worn green Coleman stove propped on the tailgate soon had us warming tortillas, beans and sizzling chorizo (ground pork sausage) by flashlight. The big camp pot sure smelled good.
“Shhhh…listen!” hushed my buddy Brian abruptly from the other side of the truck. “Did you hear that? I think I heard something out there.” His head swiveled nervously into the darkness away from our little intrepid fire, banked against the rock wall.
We all stopped talking.
“I don’t hear anything,” said Laura nervously, also swinging around from staring into the warming flames. She tried hard to pierce the shadows unsuccessfully with temporarily blinded campfire eyes.
“Wait, I hear it. Listen.” I told them while at the same time needlessly and unconsciously motioning them to be quiet.
The smoke from the crackling mesquite wasn’t helping my night vision. But something…or someone was out there in the boulders and shrubs. And it was moving very quietly. Treading lightly.
I was keenly aware that our little campfire made us perfect silhouettes. Subconsciously, we had all huddled a little lower and blinked to focus into the cold Baja dark.
There. We all saw.
Through the smoke. Just beyond the edge of light. Ghostly gray. Dimly at first and moving cautiously.
Hatted heads. Dirty faces.
Two men. Assault rifles in hands.
I could see only their upper torsos above the shrubs and rocks. One young. One a bit older.
“Hola,” said the older one in a flat monotone. In the reflection of the fire his dark eyes took in everything.
Just three of us gringos. An isolated campsite in a rocky arroyo under the stars on a cold December night. Our truck and provisions. Exposed. Vulnerable. Crap…
I kept my own eyes on them not daring to see how Brian and Laura were doing, but their nervous vibe was easily perceived. Being the only Spanish speaker I cautiously said, “Hola Senor,” as casually as I could.
Danged cotton mouth. Swallow hard. I think I raised my hand in a meek greeting. So much for bravado. You think you know how you’ll act when someone has a gun. You don’t.
Voice betraying nothing, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” said the older figures in Spanish.
My normal wise-guy response would have been “Who wants to know?”
This was not that time. I didn’t want to say too much, but explained in my limited Spanish that we were campers and worked for a magazine taking photos of the dessert and driving back to California from Loreto.
I had both of my hands up. I would guess Brian and Laura did, too.
At first the older man said nothing. Too long of a pause. Uneasy silence. Not good. He looked and studied us with a blank expression.
Then, he and the younger man stepped from behind the rocks. Military camouflage uniforms. Boonie hats. Mexican army. The rifles weren’t pointing at us, but they were still arms-ready. My hackles and senses were still lit up.
Two army guys? In the middle of the desert? At night? My body wasn’t moving, but my brain raced through scenarios…and horror stories.
“Gringos? From California?”
“Si. Yes. Driving back to San Diego.” I pointed cautiously to the dirt and bug-caked California license plate on the Chevy truck.
In that flat Spanish he said, “I have an uncle and cousin in Chula Vista. I like the Padres “beisbol.”
He grinned tightly and he lowered his weapon. So, did the youngster.
A communal exhale. As Laura told me later, she about peed herself. I never admitted I was pretty close as well.
“We have a small camp over the ridge. I have 7 men and we work the checkpoint on the highway to the north. We smelled coffee and cooking meat, then followed it to the glow of your fire and the sound of conversation.”
He explained that they had watched us for a bit. Narcos? (drug traffic) Coyotes? (human traffic) Borrachos? (drunks). They had approached cautiously. If we were just innocent campers, they didn’t want to scare us. (No kidding)
“My name is Sargeant Ramiro and this is Private Antonio.”
The sergeant, who was no more than maybe 25 years old, revealed he was as scared as we were!
“Mucho gusto and I am sorry we made you nervous,” he said extending his hand which we all shook with relief. Antonio, smiled and shook hands warmly as well. Looked like he should be on a skateboard. Really young.
They gratefully accepted an invitation to the fire and cups of hot instant coffee in Styrofoam cups. We huddled close as the fire lit our faces and learned that they were not allowed to have fires while on duty or training.
“Military rules…” he shrugged. He sipped. Steam from the coffee held in two hands rose around his face.
In that clear high desert air in December, the wind in the rocky canyons was bone chilling.
An invitation to spoon up some burritos was not turned down. Romero and Antonio had only eaten cold military food in four days. The three of us also packed some ourselves and wolfed them down with our own coffee. I think it was also the adrenaline coming down.
Not much conversation, but smiles are smiles in any language. And everything tastes good in camp.
As we had that big pot of beans and chorizo and several packs of tortillas, we told the two men to make more burritos, wrap them in foil and take them back to their camp. Their faces brightened.
Soon, we had a little assembly line. Several dozen burritos wrapped in foil Everything into some plastic grocery bags. As we expected to hit the border the next day, in went a bottle of salsa; bags of chips; jerky; some oranges and cans of Coke.
With appreciative handshakes and smiles they trudged back out into the dark bushes anxious to bring their haul back to their own camp.
We waved as the blackness quickly wrapped folded around them. The chilly darkness did not hesitate.
Laura looked at Brian. Brian looked at me. I looked at them.
Whew! The sounds of our hearts in our throats. We all started laughing.
In the morning when we woke up, a handwritten dog-eared note left on our windshield from a stealthy visitor.
Millones de gracias, mis amigos. Bien viaje y que Dios les bendiga. Viva los Padres beisbol. Feliz Ano Nuevo. A million thanks, my friends. Travel well and God bless you. Go Padres. Happy New Year.
Seven scribbled signatures in at the bottom. A salsa smear on one corner.
We all smiled. I had forgotten the new year was upon us. A few days.
The morning sun was already chasing the vapor from our cold breaths. Time to break camp and head for the border.
The note went onto the dusty dashboard. Next to the gum wrappers and sunglasses and sunflower seeds. To be read and laughed about. For the trip. For years…