Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rancho Abandonado (Short Fiction)

The problem was there were supposed to be two of us on this Baja adventure; me and Billy Vargas. His wife found a note from his girlfriend in his truck, all hell broke loose and she threw him out of the house two days before we were supposed to leave. I figured he would go anyway, the sort of ‘to hell with her’ thing but he backed out completely. It really didn’t change my list of camping stuff except the food and booze.

Two years before, in 2013, I had made a great little trip up into the Gigantas west of La Paz but that time I didn’t have time to do anything but sightsee – I wanted to get back up into the canyons, into the really rustic ranchos way up there away from the villages. I wanted to meet the people, get a feel for the mountain life and learn more about that little corner of Baja Sur. I took some shore fishing gear in case I dropped down to camp at San Evaristo, lots of candy for ranch kids, all the survival stuff for a solo trip in the back country.

One of the joys of living and working in Cabo San Lucas is that there are so many interesting things to see and do close to the tip of the peninsula. As assistant food and beverage manager for a major Cabo exclusive resort, I can’t take large chunks of time off so little trips like this make it all worth while for me. Olivia Minjares, my live-in Mexican girlfriend is a city girl from Monterey. She’s shift manager and bartender at the pool bars, would rather have hot pokers in the eye than sleep on the ground up in the pucker brush of the Giant mountains.

I topped off the gas tank in El Centenario and near San Antonio I took a right and headed for the canyons. Some times in late October like this trip the mountains are a jungle but much of that greenery comes from hurricanes and very little from rain squalls that come ashore or weather systems from mainland Mexico to the east. Only one small hurricane has brushed this area in the last seven or eight years and every living thing is suffering from the drought conditions. I heard many of the ranchos have been abandoned and the rancheros have had to move, lock stock and barrel, down to the villages.

Our resort’s RO desal plant is running to keep up just like the other 20 or more resort systems in and around Cabo. The barrios in Cabo and San Jose are mostly on ration while the governor is hard pressed to find the pesos for more pressas, reservoirs, since the last two new and improved dams were built at San Lucas and Comondu.

I got up early, made good time over the 200 miles or so to the turnoff so this first day I would have seven full hours of daylight to scout around, make camp, enjoy the full moon and mild weather of the last days of October. The dirt road into the mountains was well traveled but anything but picturesque – sere and sorry cardon and scrub acacia, garbage and a lot of drab sameness for the first 20 miles or more. The little villages I remembered from my last trip had not changed in any way that would give me reason to stop.

Finally spots of green began to appear in the mountain creases, garbage thinned out and some of the lomboy and San Miguel were leafed out in places. My map showed most of the water, the canyons, the ranches were to the east toward a large mesa so I made that my general direction. When I found a good place I drove a short way up an arroyo, stopped to check the truck, have a sandwich and a cold beer.

As I drove higher into the mountains I began to hope that hurricane Inez last year, which grazed La Paz as it crossed from the Pacific, over the Sea of Cortez to the mainland, had given this area a much needed gift of rain. Once I passed Soledad I could see a dozen canyons worth exploring off to my right as I motored closer to San Evaristo and a view of Isla San Jose. I chose one with a well defined ramal and picked my way up the canyon with the wind at my back, a cold beer between my legs, my Sirius radio still finding tunes for me to suit the azure skies.

Locked out! Just as the canyon greened up and narrowed near the top, a big padlock and chain on the gate brought me to a disappointing reversal while I wondered if the rancho was occupied or not, why the lockout? Never saw the place and probably never will.

The next canyon would take me up a road past Primera Agua; many of the palo verde and acacia were greened up and healthy, the San Miguel was in bloom here and there with a touch of Yuca vine blazing yellow flowers dotting some of the Guaymuchile. Saw some quail cross the road that gave me hope of water and people at the rancho if there was one. There was a ranch there and I could see the place from the gate. No lock here so I honked my horn and had a beer while I waited to see if I could get an invite. Not a sound except for some more quail and the wind whistling through the palo verde.

I left the truck and walked up to the house while shouting hello. Not a sound, nothing, so I walked a short distance beyond the main house, past a couple of small stick corrals, a pila and a series of drainage pipes and culverts. The air was alive with the whirring of the pods on some huge palo escopeta trees behind the house. Near the pila I could hear wasps and bees down inside so I climbed up the rock stairs to peer into about three feet of water covered with moss, bees and a dead sparrow.

I knocked on the door of the main house but I knew I wasn’t going to get a welcome shout from within. The door wasn’t locked so I pushed it open to peer into the dim interior – abandoned, empty. Just too far to haul water, just not enough money to pay for water even if trucks could and would delivery it from a reliable well close to the rancho.

I drove the truck through the gate and closed it. Don’t know why for sure; who or what was I hoping to keep in or out? Well, it was only for a night and my plan was to leave the place exactly like I found it. Parked behind the house near the pila, had a beer, another sandwich and dialed up some tunes that would be a counterweight to a cheerless reminder of the end of a clan unable, after seven or eight generations, to stay put any longer using what they could find up here. Perhaps they were resigned and reconciled, if not satisfied, back in Soledad or Trinidad fashioning hand made masks and costumes for the kids for Halloween.

It must have been the high-pitched white noise of the shotgun tree pods that fooled me because it seemed as though the first Halloween ghosts to appear in the canyon just materialized before my eyes. A mama goat and a kid must have walked down from above somewhere to see who was back at the ranch. They were anything but skittish, coming right up to me where I was busy building a double fire pit with a small windbreak for the night’s meal and comfort.

Both animals were all the colors goats come in. The mama walked with a limp and when I noticed her strange gait I saw a wound on her right rear leg that slowed her down a bit. I pulled a small tin pot from my cook kit, filled it with water and watched as they drank it. Just moments from their surprise appearance I began to ache with each nudge and bleat – these left-behinds would want me to help them, save them, shepherd them away to a place of everlasting fresh food and cool water.

What did I bring for them? Candy. Cokes and candy for the kids – the other kids. I had some bread, some tortillas, a couple of fiber bars. I broke all that out and while they were deciding what was edible another little lost ghost came forward uninvited; a small tan puppy who must have been running with these two scrounging around for anything chewable and a little water probably from a dying seep further up the canyon.

Who could leave these little guys to die? Maybe these animals were off foraging when the family was finally all loaded up like the Joads, everything they ever owned piled high in a pickup or two. Maybe they honked, banged on a kettle with a stick, waited for them to appear as long as they could before closing the gate behind them.

Somehow I don’t see these families like Mexican Bedouins, moving from camp to camp with the seasons but I have more questions than answers. Do they leave hoping one day to return or are they completely resigned to a total change in how and were they live? Do they all have grant deeds to their ranch property tucked safely in a tin box in the front of the truck? How much rain would it take for them to think they could live up here as before? Perhaps the wonder of all this is that they were able to hang on so long; flood and drought and terrible winds, pestilence and blights couldn’t run them off for nearly two hundred years.

The wind died when I was cutting up some raw spuds, opening a can of beans for the animals. Big birds must have seen my truck and activity at the ranch because in the waning light several buzzards went to roost in the big trees. Just at dark two Great Horned owls joined them in the big escopetas – to them, human activity means the promise of food. Mascots and fowl and livestock, gardens, bring insects and rodents, dead or dying, together.

I laid out one small steak, some pinto beans and tortillas for my dinner, set the rest aside for the animals. In the morning I would backtrack to Soledad, buy some more food and water. I’d leave the rest of my water for these three or whatever else might show up. I made a nice fire, we all had a big meal and I put down my sleeping mat and bag for a restless night. The hooting owls sounded like they were with me right beside the fire while the goats kept a good distance from the fire. The puppy stayed close to me and growled at unseen critters, real or imagined, outside the circle of light.

No Holloween dreams or nightmares. Those would come later, back in my bed in Cabo. Watching these animals die, wondering at their incredible endurance, seeing them finally succumb and then being torn apart by the scavengers.

In the morning I loaded up, put the food and water down for the animals and got out of Dodge while they were eating and drinking so they wouldn’t follow me to the gate. Had a great breakfast at a little place in Soledad, bought more provisions, checked the mileage for my circle trip back through San Juan de la Costa and felt I had plenty of gas for the trip.

El Bosque was almost a town and everything was a bushy green. I took a canyon to the north and this time found a rancho full of laughing playing kids, lots of livestock, chickens, peahens, goats and dogs. This time the family invited me in and after the cokes and candy, beer, platicando, chit chat, they invited me to stay the night. Here, at Segunda Agua, the gardens were lush with melons and chilis, coffee and sugar cane, mangos and sidra.

That night, comfortable on a cot they loaned me, on the gallery of the main house, I couldn’t help but wonder if the abandoned ranch was ever this alive and green and wonderfully inviting. I was very glad I carried on, revised my travel plans to find the other side of life up here. Now I could imagine my future dreams about the trip would be sprinkled with brighter visions – children laughing, climbing trees, chasing goats and chickens, lush greenery everywhere and big, wet drops of life-giving rain.

Before we said our goodbyes I asked Camillo, the ranchero, if he thought he would ever run out of water. He said never, because his gran, gran bisabuelo, his great, great grandfather, who settled this place had the magic eye for water, had passed up dozens of green mountain creases before he settled here.

Only the survivors can tell such tall tales. 

George Bergin retired with his wife Lynda to La Ribera, a small village at East Cape, Baja Sur in 1996.  A former insurance executive in Las Vegas, Nevada, George’s love for the desert, outdoor living, drew him south to roam the Laguna Mountains, fish and write books, short stories and news items for Southern Baja California periodicals.

Vacationing in Baja California for thirty years, George learned more than what bait to use, the best lures -- his curious nature took him deep into the local culture until he was ineluctably drawn to live full time in what he sees as his own private desert playground.

Send opinions on articles/stories to:

Note: This story was originally published here.

No comments: