My recollections of this trip are somewhat at odds with those of Pappa Tomís as to the year and certain details. I suppose thatís not surprising, as a thirteen year old does not see and remember things in the same way as an adult. I am certain that the year was 1937ónot 1935óbut no matter.
As late as 1930 there was not a continuous road from Tijuana to La Paz and on to Cabo San Lucas. There were only bits and pieces of road connecting the larger towns with the smaller villages, and to some extent from ranch to ranch. However, there were stretches that were traveled only on horseback, moving goods by pack mule.
Itís difficult to imagine today, but in 1930 the peninsula of Baja California was greatly under-populated. In order to encourage growth in commerce and population, the government in Mexico City ordered that the first peninsular highway be constructed. "Constructed" is too generous a word. "Scratched" would be more accurate. They simply hired the local people to create a trail wide enough for an auto or truck, to fill in the gaps that existed in the road. This work was all done by hand, using picks and shovels, and perhaps horses or mules to move boulders too large to move by hand. Those old timers must have had a pretty fair eye for where the road should be, because when the present paved road was built, with all the aerial surveys, transits, and bulldozers, it followed almost the exact same route chosen by the men on horseback!
When this road was completed, the Auto Club of Southern California sent a party to explore and map the entire route. One of these first maps inspired our trip to Los Angeles Bay---Bahia de Los Angeles. Dad Robertson had visited there in 1892, when he was quartermaster of a coastal freighter. He had visited many places in the world, and all were rated according to how good the fishing was. Bahia de Los Angeles was at the top of the list, so this was a trip that he and Tom had wanted to do for many years. (I recently found, among my fathers things, what looks to be the original Auto Club map that we used on our trip.)
Our party consisted of Tom, Dad, and me in one pickup, Mr. MacFadden and Don Sworthout in a second pickup. Grampa Utt joined us in his beloved Model A Ford for the trip south, then continued on to La Paz. Grampa was a great admirer of Henry Ford, but he never really forgave him for discontinuing the Model A in favor of those "confounded" V-8s. In truth, the old "A" was far and away the best vehicle ever built for exploring primitive roadsóuntil the advent of four wheel drive. Itís high wheels gave good road clearance, itís light weight allowed it to go through sand and mud, and itís total simplicity made it easy to repair. I think this was Grampaís last trip in his Model Aóhe had nursed it about as far as it would go.
I remember the trip from Tijuana to Ensenada as being very long. It was exciting to reach the Halfway House, knowing that we were indeed half way to Ensenada. At that time it was the only place on the entire coast from Rosarito to La Mission. It was still an important landmark when we lived in San Telmo, but today you must watch carefully to see it at all, as the entire coast is built up with motels, condos, and homes. Something that has been lost forever is the dramatic entrance to Ensenada. The road went along the coast on a tight-rope between ocean and cliff, then without warning, it made a sweeping left turn around the point where the breakwater is now, revealing a sleepy little village on the bay. Sadly, both the road and the town have changed since then.
There was a wharf and fish cannery on the right as we entered town; where the shipyards are now. In the next block were some large government buildings-Customs, etc. The corner of First St, (now Lopez Mateos) and Avenida Ruiz was the hub of town. On one corner was Hussongís Standard Station, with the Cantina next door. Another corner had a curio store, and another had the Molina Verde Hotel and Bar. A block north on Ruiz was El Faro Department Store, and Yung Qui Market, where we got last minute supplies.
As we headed south we stopped at a little market on the bluff overlooking Maneadero Valley. There was a telephone there, connected by one wire to various phones along the road, as far south as El Rosario. Grampa wanted to call ahead to the Hamilton Ranch, to let "Miss Hattie" know that we would be there the following night for meals and lodging. I guess the wire was down, because we could not get through.
It was starting to get dark when we selected a campsite in Las Animas Arroyo, south of Maneadero. What we failed to notice was that the area had been burned a year or so earlier, leaving lots of sharp stubs of brush. In the morning both pickups had at least one flat tire. The Model A had escaped harm, so Grampa said "Iíll take the "boy" and go on ahead to let Miss Hattie know there will be six of us for dinner." Iím sure Grampa knew my name, but I donít recall him ever calling me, or any of his grandsons anything but "boy".
After starting the engine, Grampa put the transmission in gear, pulled back on the hand throttle and let out the clutch. The "A" shuddered, jumped up and down, then took off like a rabbit when he finally released the hand brake.
By mid afternoon we were out of the canyons, traveling across a sandy mesa north of the Johnson Ranch (San Antonio del Mar). The road here was quite flat and straight. We were flying along at a good clip when suddenly appeared a wash ahead of us. Grampa slammed on the brakes, then, realizing that we were not going to stop in time, he reached down and pulled back on the hand brake. Veering off the road, we left skid marks right to the very edge of the arroyo. With absolutely no change of expression, he put it in reverse, backed out onto the road, and away we went. Tom came along later, and seeing the skid marks, was able to figure out what had happened. He very diplomatically found reasons for me not to ride with Grampa anymore.
We got rooms at the Hamilton Ranch that night, also dinner and breakfast. Before we left, we patched all the tires that had been punctured the day before.
Our pickup was really loaded down. We were carrying a fourteen-foot boat that Dad had made. It rode on a rack that extended up over the cab. We carried a fifty-five-gallon barrel of gasoline, as well as the outboard motor, camp gear, and some cans of fresh water.
There were certain rules for traveling in that country at that time. First, we never passed up a chance to fill the water cans. Second, we never passed up a chance to fill the gas tanks, as the availability on down the road was uncertain. Where gas was available, it was stored in drums, which were not always real clean. We always strained the gas through a chamois to remove the water and other impurities. There were other things that I learned on later trips, such as always stopping to help anyone in trouble. And if you have trouble yourself, leave the vehicle in the roadóthat assures that no one can pass by with out stopping!
The road was little more than two ruts. What few trucks that traveled the road used single rear tires, as the rocks would have chewed up the outside duals. Parts of the road would surely seem impassable without four-wheel drive. I guess we just didnít know any better, so we managed. A good days travel was about 100 miles.
After a particularly bad piece of road, the old Jaraguay Grade, we came to Laguna Seca Chapala. This dry lakebed is table-flat, and several miles long. Tom decided this would be a good place to give me a driving lesson. I started off quite cautiously, but as it was smooth and flat, the speed gradually increased. After a while, Mac pulled up alongside, as if to pass, so naturally I speeded up some more. Soon we were racing along at the outrageous speed of thirty-five miles per hour. All was fine until I swerved slightly to miss a football size rock. We were so top-heavy with our boat that we nearly tipped over. Panicking, I overcorrected, and we nearly tipped over the other way. This seemed to go on forever, and I assure you it was pure panic. Luck, not skill, finally got us straightened out and stopped. I was quite willing to give up my turn at the wheel!
I think it was on the fourth day that we reached Punta Prieta, which had no more than three or four houses at that time. There were some corrals with very hungry looking cattle in them. The cattlemen were bringing in loads of mescal blossoms to feed them. We were told that they had only one-half inch of rain in the past two years.
Here we left El Camino Real, and headed east about 30 miles to Bahia De Los Angeles. The last ten miles or so is like a moonscape. There is almost no vegetation at all. The first view of the bay is from a hill high above. The whole bay is spread out in front of you, with a string of eighteen islands separating it from the Sea of Cortez. The water is the bluest of blue. After nearly five days on the desert, it was a very welcome sight. Maybe it is this very contrast to the desert, but to me it is still one of the most spectacular views that I have seen in Baja
We made camp south of the little village, next to a low hill near the shore. From this base camp we made day trips to various parts of the bay for fishing. Occasionally we packed gear and water for an overnight stay on one of the islands. The fish were amazingly abundant. After the first day, Dad built a large box from dry Ocotillo, bound at the corners with string, to contain the fish.
One afternoon, after a long day of fishing at the north end of the bay, we stopped at the sand-spit that forms sort of an inner bay north of the village. Our intention was to eat supper there and relax until after dark and the wind died down. We planned to try to spear some halibut in the shallow water on the way back to base camp. For spearing we suspended a Coleman lamp on a pole in front of the boat. The surface of the water had to be calm, otherwise you could not see into it. As the evening went on it became apparent that the afternoon breeze was not going to subside. Instead, it got stronger and stronger. Also it had changed direction, blowing offshore from the west, rather than from the south. We finally decided to make a run for base camp. There were four of us; Tom, Don, Mac, and myself. We stowed our gear in the boat and decided on a "plan de accion". By now the normally calm water was coming ashore in breakers three or four feet high. We pushed the boat into the water, and as soon as it was afloat, Tom got in, to be ready to start the engine when we got into deep enough water. The rest of us stayed in the water, pushing the boat out through the surf. When we heard the engine sputter and take hold we climbed aboard. Since the wind, by now a gale, was blowing offshore, we were worried about being blown all the way to Sonora in case the engine should fail. As a precaution we had decided to stay close to shore, in shallow water. This would allow us to use our anchor, and even swim or wade to shore if needed. Mac was on his knees in front, probing for the bottom with a spear handle, calling directions to Tom. Don and I were in the center, bailing furiously. It was a memorable trip, and we were glad to get safely back to camp. Dad and Grampa were quite relieved when we showed up.
The wind blew furiously all night, gusting from all directions. We could hear pots and pans rattling off across the desert. Dad was sleeping on a canvass cot, and he was tossed onto the ground. In the morning we gathered everything and moved into an old adobe building. One room had four walls intact, but no roof. We stretched a tarpaulin over the top and tied it to the two pickups, one on each side. This gave us some shelter, but the sand still sifted into everything.
When we awoke on the second day of the storm, we saw our boat about a half-mile offshore, drifting toward open water. It had somehow broken itís rope. Tom rushed into the village and negotiated with a fisherman and his son who had arrived a few days earlier, all the way from Loreto, in their dugout canoe. They took off immediately, running downwind with their sail. They managed to catch up with our boat, but we had no way of knowing that at the time. They had found a sheltered shore and cave in which to wait out the storm. The wind blew all the next day, but the following day was calm, and about noon the fishermen returned our boat to us.
When Grampa saw the boat drifting out to sea, he decided the fishing was over with, so he took off, to continue his trip south to Cabo San Lucas. This caused him to miss the two major events of our trip. I forgot to mention that he had stopped in San Agustin, south of El Rosario, to pick up an acquaintance from other trips, a young man named Enrique Smith, to make the trip with him, to serve as guide and helper. In the area of San Agustin, on the new highway there is, or was, a restaurant called Tres Enriques. There is no doubt a connection here.
Up to this time we had been catching an abundance of fish by trolling. This also allowed us to explore the shorelines of all the islands. Some of them had tiny natural harbors, created of stone deposited by the sea.
The native fishermen told us of a place where we could expect to catch large fish near the bottom. This spot was just off the northern end of the largest island, called Smith Island. About two hundred yards offshore was a large rock, or small island. It was in the channel between these two islands that we were to catch literally thousands of pounds of fish in the next few days.
Dad Robertson, Arthur McFadden, and friends
Dad had come well prepared for this kind of fishing He had a supply of huge hooks, six or eight inches long, a roll of steel piano wire for leaders, and a number of very heavy hand lines, each about 200 feet long. Mac and Don had rod and reel equipment. We trolled as we traveled to the fishing hole, catching enough Spannish Mackerel to use for bait. The smaller ones were used whole, and the larger ones split down the backbone.
We used heavy weights to get our bait to the bottom, then pulled it up about five or ten feet. Dad told us to let the fish have ten feet or so of line when we felt a little pull. Then we gradually took up the slack; finally, reaching down as far as possible, we set the hook with a quick hard pull on the line.
The fish we caught on the bottom were giant sea bass, estimated to weigh several hundred pounds each. This is not a game fish, but shear size gives them lots of strength. They tire quickly however, not like a marlin.
We had to let them run, slowing them as best we could. As we started to run out of line, someone else would tie an empty, sealed, five gallon can to the end of the line. The can was tossed overboard, and soon disappeared for five or ten minutes before bobbing up again some distance away. We then retrieved the can and started over again. Sometimes we had to repeat this exercise two or three times before the fish could be brought up. When they did come into view, it looked as though the bottom of the ocean was coming up.
We had two five gallon cans for buoys, and at one point both of them were overboard, with a third fish on another line. Dad quickly took up a section of false bottom from our boat, and it soon disappeared over the side. All three of those fish were landed.
Don and Mac were not faring too well with their swordfish tackle; it was just not strong enough to horse those monsters off the bottom. They lost a lot of fish. Tom brought in a large one that had some of Donís tackle in itís mouth. That was just too much. They set their poles aside, and joined the "hand-line" crowd!
These fish were much too large to bring into the boat. We shot them, to be certain they were dead, then lashed them to the sides of the boat. Later we dragged them out on the beach nearby to be cleaned, getting them down to a size we could stow in the boat.
On our way back to camp the first day we stopped at the little village to give the fish away. Everyone was delighted to get it, saying they would dry the meat in the sun, so as not to waste any. Tom arranged for the native fishermen to come out with us the next day to help bring back more fish.
When we returned with the next load, the people were somewhat less enthusiastic about taking it. It seems that they had run out of salt to use in the drying process, and were reluctant to buy more. We hated to see the fish go to waste, so Tom went to the little store and bought fifty kilos of salt to give out with the fish. When we left for home a few days later, every clothesline, fence, and rooftop was covered with fish drying in the sun!
The other exciting event was the discovery of buried treasure! One day when Tom was walking back to camp from a salt-water bath, he saw a round object on the sand. It turned out to be a silver Peso. He scratched around and found several more nearby. Camp really came alive when he placed them on the table!
We gathered shovels and Dadís wire-mesh collapsible lobster trap for sifting the sand. We worked until we were certain we had found everything that was there. Returning to camp, we took stock of our bounty. There were two hundred and eighty-four silver Pesos, as well as some copper coins issued by the Las Flores Mining Company, which had operated in the area in the late 1800ís. These coins could be redeemed in the Company Store. The latest date on any of the Pesos was 1894. We had fun speculating on how the coins happened to be there. The location was the remains of an old building, probably a warehouse, near the shore. Now, in 1884, this would have been a pretty good sum of money; more than a mine employee would reasonably be expected to accumulate. So, we deduced that it was probably stolen, then hidden in a safe place, to be retrieved later. Obviously, whoever hid it there was never able to come back for it. Died? Murdered? Jailed? Or made to walk the plank of a pirate ship? Quien Sabeówho knows?
Leigh, Tom, Dad, Arthur McFadden
Anyway, we stowed the treasure in the bottom of a bag containing our tire chains, and put the bag casually under the seat of the pickup.
By now it was time to start home. We broke camp, packed everything in the pickups, and lashed the boat on itís rack above the cab. On the first night we made camp just east of Punta Prieta. We discovered a broken front spring on our pickup. We limped in to Punta Prieta the next morning, to get acquainted with the owners of the ranch, Dick Dagget, Sr. and Jr.
The elder Dagget was a legendary figure, having owned and or operated many mines in the area, as well as being a cattleman. Dick Jr. was running the ranch at this time. He turned out to be a good man to know, as he could fix almost anything. He assured us that he could fix our spring. I wondered about this, knowing that the nearest parts store was four days journey away. Watch and Learn! I was about to learn some important lessons in skill, ingenuity and improvising. These skills are vital to survival in remote areas, and helpful to survival anywhere.
After removing our spring, he started searching through his "bone pile" of discarded vehicles. He soon found a spring the right width, but too long. Since it was the main leaf that we needed, he had to cut one end, then roll that end into an eye to fit the shackle bolt. This he did using his hand-cranked forge, hammer, chisel and anvil. The last step was to re-temper the spring, to make it strong. This he did by heating it to a cherry red, then quenching it in oil. The rapid cooling makes it hard. Tempering steel is really a fine art, as cooling too rapidly makes it brittle, and too slowly leaves it soft. He did have coal for the forge, but assured us he could have done the job with charcoal, made from local mesquite. I was quite amazed by watching all of this, and Iíve had many occasions to do some improvising myself.
While the work was going on in the blacksmith shop, there were serious business negotiations taking place. Dick Sr. had expressed an interest in Dadís boat, wondering if he would be willing to sell it. Dad pondered that, and agreed, saying the boat should be worth forty dollars. Mr. Dagget only wanted to pay twenty dollars. Tom, Mac, and Don, realizing that the return trip would be much easier without the boat, got Dick aside, gave him the extra twenty dollars, swore him to secrecy, and told him to pay Dad his price. Everyone was happy---a triumph for diplomacy!
I only remember a couple of things about the rest of the trip north.
As we were descending the long grade south of El Rosario, we were stopped by a pile of rocks in the road. It seems that someone had spotted a vein of turquoise and set to work digging a mineshaft right in the middle of the road. It was rock from his shaft that blocked the road. The miner seemed quite indifferent to our problem. Once again, diplomacy prevailed. He agreed to let us move the rocks off the edge of the road, thereby widening the road enough to let us squeeze past. That gives you some idea of how little traffic there was on the road at that time. We always referred to this as the turquoise grade, and to this day it is still called La Torquesa. The last time I went through, there was a large commercial turquoise mine in the area.
When we stopped at El Rosario, we were told that someone had reported soldiers to the north, checking for firearms. One of the residents offered to safeguard any rifles that we might have if we didnít want to risk losing them. I realize now that what we did made no sense at all. The men decided to leave my .22 caliber rifle and one larger rifle. We kept two larger rifles--Tomís .303 Savage and Macís 30/06. Obviously, getting caught with four rifles would not have been any worse than getting caught with two. Anyway, we did not encounter any soldiers on the road, and Tom was never able to retrieve the two rifles. Live and Learn!
I can make very few claims to fame, but I believe it is safe to say that no American living today can say that he visited Bahia de Los Angeles at an earlier date than I did. Few, if any, had the added excitement of discovering buried treasure!
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