By Gene Kira, Nov. 15, 2001, as published in Western Outdoors Magazine:
The people you find hitchhiking along the remoter stretches of the Baja California peninsula are such rewarding and intellectually stimulating "experiences," I try to pick them up whenever the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes, I'll pick up two or three in a day, and it's almost always an illuminating encounter of one kind or another.
With just a basic command of Spanish, you get all kinds of Baja information not found in guidebooks, and the insights gained on the human condition outside our Southern California cultural cocoon are nothing less than priceless.
However, I usually don't pick up just any old hitchhiker anymore. Experience has taught that most rancheros and pangueros are basically pretty similar. Plumbing the subtle depths of their personal stories--while certainly a worthy project in its own right--takes more time and mileage than a short ride down the road can allow.
In addition, there is one other type of "hitchhiker" that I usually don't stop for any longer, and that's someone standing beside the road, waving a ten-foot-long coiled plastic tube in the air. That's a siphon, amigos, and what this guy wants is gas, preferably free, because he's run out. In the old days, when gas was hard to come by on Mex 1, this was something that could happen to anybody, and you always stopped to help the stranded ranchero or fisherman, but with all the gas stations available today, that no longer makes sense. Although you would certainly stop to help someone on a remote back road, on Mex 1, these guys are just abusing the privilege, and I usually let them slide by, unless there's a family waiting there too. I'm a sucker for families.
But, what I usually look for in a hitchhiker nowadays is some kind of distinctive "character," ripe with possibilities, the kind of stuff that novels and Baja columns are made of.
One of the best experiences I ever had was picking up six cheerleaders from a major Texas university in front of a hotel in San Jose del Cabo. They wanted to visit the arch at land's end, and were afraid to take a taxi. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't get six Texas cheerleaders into the cab of a Toyota pickup. You can. It is also a fact that you can drive a stick-shift vehicle with 1.5 cheerleaders on your lap, as long as they hold their hair out of your eyes and adjust their legs properly.
There was another time, well after midnight, when I picked up a guy striding along in the desert, a full 20 miles off the blacktop. We ended up in the middle of nowhere, and I mean nowhere, at a gold mine lit up like San Quentin Prison, with armed guard towers and a landing strip for jets. The tunnel went straight down, he said, then horizontal for about half-a-mile, and then it came up inside a small volcano. The workers and their families lived inside the razor-wire enclosed compound. He said a jet landed once a week to fly the gold out to Canada, and he asked me to drop him off a good distance away, so as not to cause any problems. Right-O, amigo! No hay problema! (I marked that spot with my GPS for future reference.)
But, on one recent trip, I lucked into a particularly rich harvest of hitchhikers. First, there was a giant-squid fisherman from Santa Rosalia who became a really fascinating fountainhead of information on his chosen profession, as he talked about ideal water temperatures, hot spots, seasons, and a scary story about a guy who was almost pulled overboard when three or four big ones (they go to over a hundred pounds) latched onto his arm and wouldn't let go.
Unfortunately, there wasn't much to say about the actual catching of the squid, since it's such a simple deal. (Basically, you drive the boat out a mile or so, after dark, turn on your gas-powered lights, and handline with a big squid jig until you've got about 1,000 kilos in the panga.) What was most interesting, though, was how hard these guys work, and for muy poco dinero. They labor through the night, handlining and cleaning squid, and the boat makes about $200 for a full load, three-fourths of which goes to the owner, and the remaining $50 of which is split by the two pangueros. Some nights, you might only get half a load. That's pretty tough sledding, if you ask me, but my guy had been doing it six nights a week for eight years.
Then came the highlight of my drive, when I stopped for what at first looked to be a gypsy woman, standing alone beside the road in the hot afternoon sun, with only a bedroll for company. She looked through my open pickup window, and spoke very good English, with a clear, soft, lisping voice, inquiring if I was going as far as Ciudad Constitucion, which I was. As she settled into the passenger seat, I noticed that her bedroll was studded with small bits of cholla cactus and clumps of dirt, and her dress was torn in several places; she had been sleeping in the bush for quite a while, with almost nothing in the way of belongings or supplies.
She had been abandoned by her "honey," she said, about a month ago, and she had gone up to Huntington Beach to look for him, but the Border Patrol had caught her before she could find him, and they had taken her back to Tijuana. Completely broke, she had been living off the land and gradually hitchhiking back to Ciudad Constitucion, where she hoped that perhaps her honey had returned during her absence. She had been beaten up several times recently, she said, spitting out the window at every Mexican man we passed, and she had the scabs to prove it. Life was much easier in San Francisco, where she used to live, where people were more tolerant. But, that's okay. She would drink a little as soon as she got some money, and smoke a little pot, but not too much, and everything would be all right again as soon as her honey came home.
Then, her voice sort of croaked and dropped an octave or so, as she became more emotional and animated in the telling of her story, and I turned to take my first really good look at her. I took another look, and then a third.
With the realization that I was riding along with my very first Mex 1 transvestite, and one that seemed to be about as wild and windblown as you please, I eased down on the gas a little and calculated the number of kilometers remaining to Ciudad Constitucion, all the while wondering what kind of person "her" honey must be.
The next Baja hitchhiker I picked up that day... but oh well, that's another story.
(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")