San Pedro Martir---1939


Leigh Robertson

The summer of 1939 I spent at Point Mugu with Tom, Dorothy and Dad. Tom had been ill for some time, so he felt he could recover more quickly if he stayed away from the pressures of Sinaloa Ranch.

Dad soon had us organized into a boat building crew. The result of our labor was a twenty-foot boat, decked over in the bow, with sails and a centerboard. I think it was Rae’s suggestion to christen her the "Hyar-and-Thar". (If you are too young to have followed the adventures of Li’l Abner in the comics, you wont appreciate the name!) This sturdy craft was to serve us well in the years to come.

In early August, Grampa Utt picked me up for a trip to Baja. He had embarked on his project of planting trout in a number of streams on the Sierra San Pedro Martir. * It was his practice to take various of his grandsons on these trips. We spent the first night at his home on Lemon Heights, near Tustin. We spent a day preparing camping gear, then on to Escondido to pick up my cousin, Ted Deaver.

In Ensenada, we picked up last minute supplies. These included about a half case of eggs, a wheel of Mexican cheese – queso cotija, and a seed bag full of Mexican bread – pan bolillo. (Seed bags were made of very heavy, tightly woven cotton fabric, being equal in size to a one-hundred pound burlap beanbag.)

Since this was to be a trip by horseback and pack mule, special precautions had to be taken with the eggs. Grampa had us empty most of the contents of the dry food containers – oatmeal, flour, rice, and beans. Then, we started putting in the eggs, each one separated from the other by a cushion of oatmeal, or whatever. In this manner we layered the eggs all the way to the top. In three weeks of bumping along on mountain trails, nary an egg was lost!

Grampa had developed cataracts in both eyes, and this was to be his last trip before having surgery. He really did not see very well, so he had Ted and me do most of the driving, even though we were not licensed.

In those days the pavement ended about two blocks south of Hussong’s, so it was a long day to the Hamilton Ranch, near present day Colonia Guerrero, a distance of about one hundred and ten miles.

Darkness was rapidly approaching by the time we reached the area we know today as Camalu. Grampa decided to camp overnight at Aguaje del Burrow, a spring about two miles east, at the base of the hills.

He had me stop and he took over the driving, as he alone knew the way. So, off we roared in the way Grampa did most things – impulsively, and at full speed. He said, "Boys, you know my eyes aren’t too good, so you watch for boulders, cactus, or anything else that gets in the way." So, we frantically yelled warnings to him as we raced through sandy washes, over sagebrush, and around numerous large objects. It was an exciting ride to say the least. If Disney could duplicate it, I’m sure it would put all other rides to shame. (An "E" Ticket Ride!)

At that time, Grampa was using a packer and guide named Claro Martorel. Claro lived near the ruins of the old Santo Domingo Mission, up Arroyo Santo Domingo. Claro was from a large family that dated all the way back to the days of the Mission. He and numerous brothers were all in the cattle business, with ranches scattered throughout the foothills of the Sierra. We came to know several of them later on, during the time we lived at San Telmo.

Claro informed us that he would need a couple more days to round up his stock, as they were scattered in the hills. I realized later on that was his way of saying that he needed time to beg and borrow stock and saddles from friends and family.

Since we had extra time on our hands, Grampa decided to drive down to Santa Maria, a distance of twenty miles or so. This is a beautiful sand beach just south of San Quintin. At that time the Pismo clams were so plentiful you could dig them out with your hands at low tide. Just inland from the beach was a fresh water lagoon, which Grampa had stocked a year or two earlier with bass from Sinaloa Lake. He wanted to check to see how they were doing. We did see a few fish feeding. We slept, or tried to sleep, in the dunes near the beach that night. I have never seen so many mosquitos – swarms of them, like a black cloud. We crawled deep in our bedrolls, stuffing extra blankets and clothes in the opening, all to no avail. Ted and I got up and went down to the water, wading in up to our waists. That did keep them off half of us. It was a long night. It would be more than forty years before I had a mosquito encounter nearly as bad.

The Hamilton Sisters and Grampa

For some reason we got a late start the next day. After about twenty minutes, Grampa announced that he was taking over the driving again. He had arranged with "Miss Hattie" Hamilton to be at her place, a guest ranch, for lunch. It was clear that the way Ted and I were driving we were not going to make it in time.

Most of the road on that stretch was on a slightly elevated roadbed that was to have been a railroad leading to the flourmill at San Quintin. Because of that, it was straight, with no major obstacles, other than cows and burrows. So, once again, we became observers, calling out warnings of livestock in the road. We touched most of the high spots in the road, careened around various animals, and arrived in time for lunch. In retrospect, that may well be the only time in recorded history that a grandfather became impatient with his grandsons for driving too slowly!

We spent that afternoon at Claro’s getting our pack outfit organized. We used three mules, each with a box suspended on either side of the packsaddle. In those days kerosene was a very common fuel for lamps and stoves. Kerosene came in square, five-gallon cans, two cans to a wooden box. It was these boxes that we used, in place of the native, "alforja", made from cowhide. Each pair of boxes had to be packed so that they had equal weight, so that the packsaddle might stay in place on the mule.

Next morning, we set off on the trail, which followed the bottom of the Santo Domingo arroyo to the very base of the mountain. About mid-afternoon we went through the "Mal Paso", or bad passage. The bottom of the canyon was filled with huge boulders and the canyon walls too steep for us to climb up and around. The trail twisted and turned along the edge, dodging boulders and trees. In one spot it was so narrow that the packs became lodged between boulders. The mules had passed this way before, and knew how to cope. They would rise up on their hind legs and then lunge forward. In this manner they got themselves free to continue up the trail.

About noon on the second day we passed a nice, little ranch called San Antonio de Los Murrillo, at the point where La Zanja arroyo joins the Santo Domingo. They had many fruit trees and a large garden. From this ranch on, the arroyo is called San Antonio.

Mid-afternoon we arrived at camp. The last half-mile or so of trail was fifty feet or more up one wall of the canyon. We could look down into the pools and see literally hundreds of trout, almost like a hatchery. This stream was the only one in all of Baja that had native trout at the time Grampa started his project of transplanting these fish to various other streams on the mountain. His first plant was in 1929. He went again in 1934, and found his experiment to be successful. He had gone each year since then, finally stocking all the streams.

Our camp was alongside the stream, under some large oak trees, at about thirty-five hundred feet elevation. We spent two or three days there, fishing until we were tired and hot, then swimming, then fishing some more. I soon realized that at the rate that I was losing flies I would not have enough to last the whole trip. One day I snagged my fly in a willow limb hanging over the water. I decided that I could climb out and retrieve it. When I finally reached it, low and behold, there was a second fly not six inches away. Someone else’s loss was my gain.

About a half mile upstream, the mountain rose abruptly. The water came down about two thousand feet in a series of cascades and falls. The trout had not been able to migrate beyond this point. At the very bottom a fifty-foot waterfall dropped into a large, dark, pool. My brother, Alan, and Jack Deaver had been here the year before. They tied a rock to a sixty-foot fish line and were not able to find the bottom.

Grampa, fishing in the Santo Domingo River, near our camp, below the first waterfall.
The fact that he has a 5 gallon can in his hand tells me that he is collecting fingerling trout to be transported to another location.

Upon breaking camp, we rode downstream to San Antonio de los Murrillo, then followed La Zanja for a short distance before striking off to the north, over some low ridges to Rancho Santa Cruz, owned by Esteban Martorel. This ranch is located at the base of the mountain. There is a nice, flowing spring on the hillside above the house that irrigates a number of fruit trees. Farther down the hill is a water hole about forty feet across. This always seems to have ample water for the cattle and horses. This is an overnight stop for the herds from Santo Domingo and San Telmo as they are moved up to the meadows around La Grulla in the summer, and down into the valleys in winter.

The next morning we set off on the steep trail up the mountain. Two hours of riding brought us to a large grove of oak trees and a small trickle of water. This place is well named – El Descanso, (the Resting Place). We watered the animals and rested in the welcome shade for a half-hour before tackling the steepest part of the trail. From El Descanso to the first plateau is very steep, being worn four feet deep in places by the hooves of countless cattle and horses that pass this way each year.

Grampa wanted to see if the trout had migrated downstream from where he had planted them in La Zanja several years earlier. So we left the main trail and headed off through the tall brush. It was slow going, and finally Grampa sent me on ahead to find the stream and select a campsite. I found a nice flat area above the stream, with many nice pine trees for shade. By now, I had learned that the first thing to do in camp was to make a fire, so Grampa could have his hot water. He never drank anything but hot water. Using a fallen branch I swept a bunch of pine needles into a pile, clearing an area around it. I soon had a nice fire, and I also soon realized I had not cleared well enough around it. My fire was starting to spread, and soon the whole country would be on fire. I was stomping desperately when Claro arrived with the mules. He got a bucket off the pack and a few quick trips to the stream brought things under control. I felt mighty foolish. When Grampa arrived he looked from the charred ground to the bucket to me. He surely knew what happened, but didn’t say anything. I guess he thought that I had learned my lesson. He was a very wise man!

The next day, Grampa had Ted and me hike up stream, fishing along the way, to get some idea of how the fish were growing, in size and number. We were to continue until we came to a flat area with lots of pines where the main trail crosses en route to La Grulla. We hiked, fished and scrambled over boulders until we came to a flat area that seemed to fit Grampa’s description. There was a trail crossing of sorts. We waited quite a while, but no one showed up. Finally we decided to cook some fish for lunch. As we were preparing to build a fire, I heard a faint voice above the noise of running water. We looked up to see Claro on the rim high above us. It seems that we had stopped a mile or two short of where we should have gone. When we didn’t arrive, Claro came downstream looking for us. We followed him back to the pack train. After lunch we continued on to La Grulla. I think Grampa was just a little annoyed with the greenhorns.

Camp at la Grulla was located under some large pines, on the edge of a huge meadow, which was the principal summer pasture for the cattle. The elevation is about sixty-five hundred feet. Nearby was a camp where the cowboys stayed and a corral for the cows that were being milked to make cheese.

Ted and I rode out one day with the cowboys to look for calves. These were herded back to the corral for branding. We tried our hand at roping, but much to the delight of the vaqueros we didn’t manage to put a rope on any calves.

Grampa decided that we must eat a rattlesnake, so Ted and I went in search of one. We found a large black one. These black rattlers are found nowhere else but on this mountain. We wandered around in the trees and brush until we found one, which we shot with a .22 rifle. The snake was cleaned, skinned and cut into steaks, then simmered for a couple of hours. Finally it was browned in a frying pan. It was very tough, with not much flavor. It seemed a lot of trouble for a few bites of something that was not that special.

Just below camp was a large, deep, dark pool. A small stream from the meadow flowed into it, then out to join other trickles of water to form, finally, a nice size stream. Grampa said there was a huge trout in that pool, which he had been unable to catch. I think it was trapped, the stream being too small for a large fish. I approached the pool very quietly and dropped a fly on the water. The fish came to the surface one time, but did not take the lure.

Next day, when Ted and I returned from fishing downstream we found Grampa was fuming. It seems that some other campers had arrived, and they had caught his fish, using a live frog as bait. His indignation was not at the fact that they caught the fish, but that they had used live bait instead of a fly, as any true sportsman should.

The first half-mile or so of the stream was sandy bottom, choked with willows and brush. Grampa told us that all the trout in that area were large, and offered us one dollar each for any fish under nine inches that we could catch there. Now, Grampa was not only wise, he was frugal. To my knowledge, none of his grandsons ever collected on that offer.

Every night during our stay at La Grulla we had lightning, thunder and rain. We had a large tarp strung between trees for shelter. I preferred to make my own shelter. I had a canvas that I put on the ground, then folded back over my feet. Using some willow sticks and the flap of my sleeping bag, I had a tiny tent – snug and dry.

Claro had spent much time in animated conversation at the cow camp. It seems that he had to return two borrowed saddle horses. He cheerfully announced that he had obtained one in return, and would try to get another at the next cow camp – only one days ride – walk away. So, Ted and I took turns riding and walking the next day. At camp that night, Claro did negotiate for a second horse, with the added bonus of some fresh venison.

Claro Martorel and Grampa

With a Mule Deer

The following day we rode to Camp Contentment, Grampa’s name for the campsite near the headwaters of La Zanja. As we were approaching Camp Contentment, Grampa pointed out a tunnel that had been put through the ridge on the west bank of La Zanja. It had been dug for the purpose of diverting water from La Zanja into the Valledares arroyo; there to be used in Mr. Young’s Valledares mine. For some reason the project was never put into operation.

By now, Ted and I had learned the routine of packing and unpacking the mules. The most important lesson was that Grampa’s ever-present camp chair was last on and first off. I’ve never seen a chair quite like his. The wood frame collapsed into a bundle no more than four inches square and about three feet long. The seat was canvas, suspended by the short front legs and tall back legs. It was very comfortable, but we only dared to sit in it when Grampa was out of camp.

To break camp, we would load the pack boxes, trying always to balance the pairs. Then we hung a box on each side of the packsaddle. Bedrolls were folded in thirds, rather than rolled, so they could lay flat on top of the pack. Each pack was then covered with a canvas to keep out dust and rain. We tried our best to tie the pack down, but Claro was never quite satisfied with our effort.

Arrival in camp also followed a routine. Get the camp chair down, letting Grampa place it where he wanted it. Then the kitchen boxes were placed alongside the chair and a fire built directly in front of it, then a bucket of water within reach. This accomplished, we left Grampa to heat his water and make preparations for the next meal. We would help Claro unsaddle the animals, putting hobbles on two or three horses before turning them out to graze. The mules never seemed to stray far from the horses.

Another evening chore was to prepare the now rock hard pan bolillo for the next day. This we did by sprinkling it generously with water, and wrapping it in a damp cloth. By morning it was soft enough to heat and eat.

Grampa left most of the fishing to us, but at Camp Contentment and San Antonio he moved his chair down by a large pool, where he would sit and cast his fly. At San Antonio he caught and released a hundred or more trout from one pool.

It was now time to do the task that we had come to do, namely to move trout from La Zanja to Arroyo San Rafael. We set out to catch small fish – not over six inches. We made sure not to keep any fish in any way damaged from the hook. We put thirty fish into four five-gallon honey cans. Honey cans were used because they had a larger opening than other cans.

We departed in the afternoon and spent that night on one fork of the Valledares. I remember the last hour of the journey as being very rough. There was no trail, and it was pouring rain. The animals scrambled over rocks, crossing and re-crossing the stream, which by now had become a small torrent. Grampa got up several times in the night to put fresh water in the cans. Without changing water, the fish would have run out of oxygen.

We set out early the next day, stopping for rest at Melling’s Pasture, another of those oak groves with considerable water seepage. In order to get fresh water for the fish we had to scoop out a hole in the mud, creating a little pool of water deep enough to dip water from.

We reached Concepcion, the ranch of Tom Farlow, at noon. He was not there, but the house was open, as all houses were on the frontier. A traveler in need is welcome to use what he needs from the supplies inside. We borrowed a little sugar, leaving Tom a note. Sad to say, this system would not work very well in today’s world.

It should only have been about a three-hour ride from Concepcion to the San Rafael, but Claro could not find the way. It seems he had not been there, to a ranch called Garret’s Camp, for thirty years. Since the ranch had been abandoned for nearly that long, the trail was all grown over with brush. Grampa was quite upset, naturally, as he knew his fish were suffering. Finally, just about dark, Ted and I were left to make camp on our own with the two mules carrying the camp gear. Claro took Grampa and the mule carrying the fish to find a spring that he knew was nearby. I learned in later years that this was arroyo Los Pinos. Grampa spent the night caring for the fish. He scooped out a small pool in the sand and emptied the fish into it. There was not enough water flowing in or out for them to escape. About half of them had died before they got fresh water.

Since our camp was dry, we had no water for cooking. That sort of limited our options. We had brought two slabs of bacon on the trip. Grampa never let us use more than two slices each at a meal in order to make it last. Ted and I reasoned that since that was to be our meal and there being only two of us instead of four that we were entitled to a slight increase in the ration -- like six slices each! Naturally, bacon, eggs, and cheese left us more than a little thirsty, which created another problem. We had only about a half canteen of water each, and we did have sense enough to know that might have to last well into the next day.

Just as we were starting to stir around in the morning, Claro arrived. He had located the trail only a couple of hundred yards from where we camped. We packed up and rode to where Grampa was watching over the fish. We carefully corralled them and put them into the cans once again. About an hour later we released them in the stream.

My brother, Alan, and cousin, Jack Deaver, had helped Grampa release fish several miles upstream the previous year. As a result of these efforts there are several miles of productive trout stream today. I have enjoyed fishing various places on the stream on a number of occasions over the years.

Having accomplished our mission, we headed back for Santo Domingo immediately. Part of the time we rode on the old Johnson Ditch. I’m not sure when this ditch was built, but I think early in this century. Mr. Johnson was an engineer and rancher from Texas who was one of the real pioneers in this part of the country. He had discovered a deposit of placer gold in and area that had no water with which to wash the gold from the sand and gravel. So, he built a ditch from near the headwaters of the San Rafael to his mine – Socorro. This ditch, built entirely with hand labor using picks and shovels, stretched for a distance of twenty-two miles, in places clinging precariously to the steep face of the mountain. The gold played out after a few years and all has been abandoned for a long, long time. Never the less, the scar of the ditch is plainly visible today, winding along the north end of the mountain. Indeed, the observatory road today passes by Socorro and crosses the ditch. I would guess that few people passing that way today have any knowledge of the events of so long ago.

We camped one night at the abandoned buildings of Mr. Young’s Valledares mine. Next day, we climbed out onto a plateau that stretched for miles. This entire area was a forest of desert Juniper. I could not have dreamed that ten years later we would be coming here to cut fence posts for the ranch at San Telmo. A Juniper post will last nearly indefinitely in the ground without rotting.

From Santo Domingo we headed for home, making one overnight stop in the area of Arroyo Seco. This was one of Grampa’s favorite places to hunt quail. We bagged enough for supper and he assured us that we were in for a real treat. He labored long over the fire preparing his specialty. Finally, he lifted the lid and sampled his masterpiece. He made a wry face and said, "Well, it was supposed to be quail and dumplings, but it’s more like duck and doughballs".

That trip and that mountain have always been special to me. I have been back many times – by horseback, by pickup truck, and even in a motorhome, and it is always special.

I think that everyone should have a place in their mind that is their very own, a place where the air is pure, the trees grow tall, the streams run clear, and the night sky is overflowing with stars. Then, when the world is a little too crowded and life a little too complex, you simply throw a saddle on your imagination and ride off to your own place.

For me, the San Pedro Martir has always been that place.

Leigh Robertson

Special thanks to Terry for digitizing this for me.

Note: The fotos were taken by my cousin, Jim Deaver, in 1941

Postscript to Terry, who typed the original version of this story;

Terry – The trip we made together in 1992 was the best ever! I’m so happy that my girls wanted to go, and proud of the way you handled it. I was just delighted to be able to show you the places that were special to me, to see that you felt the same way I did about it. Love, Daddy

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