Traveling Companions

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"Baja. It might not be the land of opportunity, but until recently, maddening crowds used to be sparse."

Doliber is of a like mind.

"I liked the Baja when the only Anglos you met were hippies and strange guys in big trucks who came to the Tropic of Dirt to misbehave in ways that have become unacceptable at home," says Doliber. "Baja was, and in some corners still is, like America in the '50s when drunken driving was appreciated and considered a skill. You know, drunk driving takes practice, and I've never hit anything bigger than shrubs and little old ladies. The Baja was a place where barroom brawls were not the exclusive property of biker gangs and college kids, and pissing in the bushes was not an offense if your back was turned."

Doliber concedes that he has not been in a bar fight in the Baja any more than the kayakers have discovered new islands. He is simply nostalgic for the traveler's mirage, the image that brought him to the Baja in the first place.

That image certainly did not include packaged eco-tours, something more readily associated with the likes of Cabo San Lucas and easily avoided in the past. But now team leaders were taking planeloads of freshly garbed tourists into the outback, leaving Doliber and Stricklin picnickers who have just discovered a long line of ants in the potato salad.

Doliber acknowledges that part of his response is simply NIMBY (not in my back yard) on holiday.

"I didn't want those people in their brand-new safari gear in my Baja," admits Doliber. "The combination of self-righteousness, alternative lifestyle, Eddie Bauer field dress headed to San Ignacio to commune with nature in the form of a barnacled encrusted gray whale I felt I was on a first-name basis with, just set me off my feed."

If he sounds misanthropic, it is perhaps because he has the passion of a convert. Such is the power of the whales in San Ignacio that Doliber went from total indifference to sending checks to environmental organizations purporting to save these grays from industrial development.

Doliber, at first, was a reluctant visitor to the Pacific lagoon fish camps outside of San Ignacio.

"I have worked the sea and find little romance in the notion," he says.

Recalling one of his earliest voyages, he says the crew members were almost all drowned when a Russian trawler nearly crushed them off the coast of New England. Worse, there was no money made on the trip.

"At the end, my pay was two large codfish and a couple of haddock. No money, just a piece of the paltry catch. You find any romance in that? I worked the offshore lobster boats on the continental shelf, and on one of those trips we also came home busted because the water turned warm, and 10,000 pounds of lobster along with a few tons of crabs died. Absolutely the worst smell I've ever been exposed to. Everyone got sick."

The sharp angles of Doliber's initial skepticism were chipped away on the approach into San Ignacio itself. The road through the desert winds past the Three Virgins volcano and alongside 20-foot-high, magenta lava flows. Atop these columns of volcanic rock, elephant trees -- bent, stunted things, with limbs seemingly too thick for the body, some pale, others mahogany, whose bark peels on the trunk in curled sheets -- grow out of the cooled basalt magma.

From this parched landscape emerged a vision of 100,000 palm trees planted by Spanish missionaries and nurtured by a spring that feeds a river.

"Just the sight of San Ignacio from the highway was a visual high after the surrounding desert drive," says Doliber.

Literally an oasis, San Ignacio contains the Baja's most graceful zocalo, or town square, where six massive laurel trees shade a tiny park. A bank, a dry goods store and a mission with four-foot-thick walls cozy the square where kids and specimens of canines chase. The church, lovingly maintained since 1728, is presided over by a statue of Saint Ignacius Loyola who is equipped with a broom.

On the west side of the zocalo, Marible Transvina Arce sells her date bread and date custard pies at a little open-air stand. Like much of Mexico, requests for coffee produce pleasant conversation, a cup of hot water and a bottle of Nescafé with a teaspoon.

"Another dusty little burg with spare dirt and smoldering rubbish," notes Doliber, "but there was knockout vegetation, and obviously San Ignacio had a soul of its own."

Cheered at their prospects, Doliber and Stricklin spend the night eating and drinking at Tota's, where the owner produces his own jug of tequila and continues to pour freely until everyone is too blind to see clearly the red, yellow and green checked tablecloth. Operatic arias fill the restaurant's stereo until the weeish hours.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey