A Cherished Trip to Baja: Mom, Daughter and Dog on the Road

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Baja in full bloom. Heather Mills photos.
Baja in full bloom. Heather Mills photos.

An Unforgettable Mother, Daughter, Dog Trip to Baja

By Heather Mills Messner

Josie inside Pepper's custom camper shell.
Josie inside Pepper’s custom camper shell.

I learned to drive a semi-truck at the Gunnison County Fairgrounds from a steer wrestler in the wee hours of the morning one year during Cattlemen’s Days rodeo.

Countless trips across country hauling horses to competitions with a one-ton dually and a 26’ horse trailer, at times with a baby and toddler, I felt I was up to the task to drive the Baja Peninsula.

Welcome to Baja California!
Welcome to Baja California!

Back in those days, I dreamed of taking off from Colorado, driving down the Baja with my husband and children.

My then-husband couldn’t wrap his head around it. He had bigger plans; Indonesia, Paris, Morocco — which he has since taken our children since our divorce.

All I wanted was Baja. The idea never left my soul, and over the years, it crept to the top of my conceivable, and practical, list of things to experience.

Time for Baja

In the fall of 2018, I asked my daughter Josie, a freshman at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR., to drive the Baja Peninsula with myself and the family dog, Piper, over her Christmas break.

With my son away on a year-long study abroad in Japan, I longed to spend time with my daughter.

I questioned whether a 19-year-old, having flown the nest, would want to embark on such a trip with her mother. Surprisingly, she did not hesitate and agreed to make the 1,800-mile journey from Colorado, cross the Mexican border and head to the southern tip of Baja to El Pescadero, BCS.

Josie and Piper enjoying beach time at Playa Cerritos.
Josie and Piper enjoying beach time at Playa Cerritos.

Our family discovered Pescadero years earlier on a spring break trip to Baja.

The small coastal town, an hour north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific side, is bordered by the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains and home to one of the best beginner surf breaks in Baja at Cerritos Beach.

A mere 6 km south of Todos Santos, which was founded by missionary father Jaime Bravo in 1723 and is now a thriving multi-cultural tourist destination boasting art and music festivals and claiming to be the home to the iconic Hotel California — we’d fallen in love with Pescadero.

New Year’s Day

We planned to leave New Year’s Day, but a surprise visit from an old surfer friend prior to our departure resulted in a custom-made camper shell for my Dodge Ram pick-up, which we affectionately call Pepper.

Leaving the snow globe and negative-20-degree temperatures of Gunnison, delayed only a day, we departed on Jan. 2.

Our itinerary was loosely defined only by the need to get Josie to the airport in San Jose del Cabo eight days later.

Anticipating who-knows-what with the border crossing into Baja, we had our ducks in a row. Mexican car insurance, a health certificate for Piper, no forbidden items in our possession . . . and of course, our passports.

In two days’, time, we arrived in Yuma, Arizona, mid-afternoon and decided to camp for the night and head for the border crossing at San Luis Rio in the early morning.

Baja camping on the Sea of Cortez.
Baja camping on the Sea of Cortez.

As we arrived at the checkpoint station around 8 a.m., we were surprised to be the only vehicle in line. The two attendants, one male, and one female, lackadaisically questioned us about the contents of the vehicle; if we had any food, any clothes, besides our own.

The man asked me to roll down the back window thus revealing Piper, our border collie/heeler cross. I had my documents in hand and was prepared to thrust the papers at the border agents. Instead, they stepped back, hands in pockets and said, “Go Ahead.” Josie and I exchanged glances, attempting to process this statement. “I think we can go, Mom,” she said.

Josie strikes a pose in San Felipe.
Josie strikes a pose in San Felipe.

We were in Mexico 

Astounding how quickly the environment changed from America to Mexico. Clean streets and tidy buildings turned to dirt and dilapidation. After changing dollars for pesos, we drove south on Mexican Federal Hwy. 5 toward San Felipe.

Music blaring, we offered big waves to the Mexican people we passed along the road and were met with big smiles.

Back on the road the following morning, within 10 minutes, amidst massive chunks of pavement washed away from flash floods over bridges spanning arroyos, the highway suddenly ended in a blockade.

Backtracking, Josie noticed a cairn at the entrance to what appeared to be a well-traveled dirt bypass road.

We angled Pepper onto the route, which I soon realized was the most sustained, treacherous off-road driving I’ve ever encountered — peppered with boulder-strewn washed out descents, blind accents, and corners, twisting forks in the road which I was left to evaluate while somehow Josie slept.

We rarely encountered an oncoming vehicle, and three hours later, I was ecstatic to be reunited with the pavement.

Traveling along the highway again, we passed a sign saying San Felipe, 84 km.

“Wait a minute, Mom,” said Josie. “We’re going the wrong way.”

I was confused. Somehow, we were traveling northbound.

“We’ve been here before!” I slowly realized after passing the cairn on the opposite side of the road. We had gone in a complete circle. It was a wrinkle in time.

We turned around to follow a semi-truck and stopped a surfer dude coming the opposite direction to confirm our route. Four hours later we arrived at our destination, Guerrero Negro.

The year before, I made a solo pilgrimage to Magdalena Bay to visit the gray whales’ calving grounds. The Bay at Ojo de Liebre promised a similar experience, and I hoped to share it with Josie.

Whale Tour

Female gray whale just out of reach.
Female gray whale just out of reach.

The following morning, we embarked on the whale tour with a retired French couple and our guide, who explained the history of Guerrero Negro. Established in 1957 and named after an American whaling ship out of Boston, Black Warrior, which wrecked in the lagoon, the town is primarily known for having the largest salt mine in the world, which produces 7 million tons of salt per year.

First of the season to put hands on a whale in the lagoon.
First of the season to put hands on a whale in the lagoon.

Passing the iconic salt factory, our guide professed that only the male gray whales were currently in the bay. They were smaller and not as social as females.

After an hour of chasing down the elusive males, our boat captain received a call on the radio and revved up the engine. As we approached the other tour boats, we could see the large females frolicking, fins and tails breaking the surface as we coasted toward them.

Leaning over the side, hands outstretched, I said to Josie, “Coo to them.”

Our Captain suggested they were likely yearlings returning to the lagoon after being born in the Bay. He said it seemed as though they were accustomed to the pangas. The coy females toyed with us, keeping themselves just out of touch.

Finally, one female, distinguishable by a basketball-sized white spot on the front of her tail fin, swam close enough for me to meet the gaze of her curious and gentle eye.

She hovered under the surface before raising her enormous head to my extended hand.

I stroked her smooth leathery skin and looked her straight in the eye. Moments later she returned to allow Josie the same affection.

It felt like a dream, unworldly, to physically and emotionally connect with these elephants of the sea.

In the van back to the hotel, our guide said, “You know, you are the first to touch a whale in the lagoon this year!”

Sudden Engine Failure

Climbing to the overlook in San Felipe.
Climbing to the overlook in San Felipe.

That afternoon, we drove east, traversing back across the Peninsula toward the Sea of Cortez. Josie was in the driver’s seat when suddenly Pepper’s engine died.

“Mom! What do I do?” Josie exclaimed.

“Switch me, quickly!” We deftly made the switch as I shifted the truck into neutral and let it roll slowly back down the hill and onto the shoulder.

A small red car pulled up behind us. A Mexican man walked up and immediately offered assistance in pushing the truck off the road.

He spoke enough English to introduce himself as Eduardo and explain he and his family were on their way home to La Paz. I could see his wife in the passenger seat holding an infant.

He suggested I ride with them into Santa Rosalia to find a mechanic.

In my mind, a brief panic ensued at the thought of leaving the truck unattended until Josie walked directly up to me and said, “Mom, you need to hitch a ride with them into Santa Rosalia.

I’ll stay here with the truck and Piper. Go. I’ll be fine.”

I tried to hold back tears as I sat on the center console of Eduardo’s Honda Civic with his teenage daughter crammed alongside me in the front seat and his wife, baby and toddler in the back.

I had just left my daughter on the side of the road, alone, in Mexico, close to dark — on a Sunday.

Saving Grace

On the way, Edwardo handed me his cell phone and said, “This is my father, Manuel. He lives in Santa Rosalia. He speaks good English.” He handed me the phone and I soon realized that Manuel was our saving grace.

Following his direction, we drove to various auto shops, most of which were closed, until we finally arrived at a secluded dirt side street. Pulling up, we found a man leaning against the front porch, one leg cocked, apparently expecting us.

Edwardo rolled down the passenger window and the man approached. He leaned in and, after a brief conversation, we drove away.

“What did he say?’ I asked.

“He will come and look at your truck,” Eduardo confirmed.

Driving the 34 km back to the truck, I prayed my daughter had not been accosted, abducted or killed. As we rounded the final bend in the road, the truck came into view and I saw Josie playing with Piper. She greeted us with a big smile and wave. I’ve never been so happy to see her beautiful face.

“Not a single person stopped since you left, Mom,” she assured. “It’s all good.”

The mechanics arrived not far behind. They checked the engine, crawled under the truck with a hammer, banged on the undercarriage and instructed me to key up the ignition.

My girl and I on the road!
My girl and I on the road!

Pepper started right up.

They told us to drive into Santa Rosalia and go directly to a hotel. Thanks to Manuel’s interpretation, the following day, Pepper got a new fuel pump for 3,500 pesos and would be ready by 2 p.m.

Josie and I packed our things and waited on the porch of the hotel. At 3 p.m., Manuel called and said the mechanic was on his way.

No More Fuel Guage

“I told him to be sure everything was good with the truck for you girls!” he explained. The only problem ensuing from the repair was that my fuel gauge no longer worked.

I didn’t question the mechanic as we were desperate to get back on the road. I told myself I’d just be sure we’d always have a mostly full tank of gas.

After driving a couple of hours, we arrived at the oasis of Playa Buenaventura on the Bahía de Concepción. Grateful to be out of the hustle and bustle of Santa Rosalia, camping in the quiet seaside cove setting was a breath of salty fresh air.

The following morning, back on the road just after sunrise, we made it to Pescadero in 7 hours. Josie reluctantly made her flight out of San Jose Del Cabo back to Portland, a mere 24 hours after arriving in Pescadero.

People might be wary of venturing on a road trip down the Baja, especially a mother and daughter. Despite getting lost, breaking down, terrible roads and a language barrier, Josie and I created memories that will last us a lifetime.

Fulfilling a long desire to drive the Baja, I was not disappointed with the adventures that ensued. The challenges, comradery and epic experiences will go down in my history as one of the best trips of a lifetime. Having faith and the confidence to handle any situation which arose helped guide me on this journey.

Heather Mills MessnerHeather Mills Messner is a freelance journalist and the Managing Editor of AIFE magazine. Her news and creative non-fiction stories have been published in The Chronicle of the Horse, The Gunnison Country Magazine and AIFE and numerous small press publications. She is a mother, professional horse trainer/instructor, and former international river guide and Outward Bound Instructor. Please visit www.aifemedia.com.