In the late 1940s, the pavement of Mexico Highway 1 ended not many miles south of Ensenada. The smooth macadam road abruptly came to an end, forcing the occasional travelers headed south onto a hard-packed rocky dirt road which loomed out over the plain and eventually ran down the spine of the Baja peninsula.
It was 1948 and my footloose dad took us to perhaps find a remote beach upon which to set up camp. The adventure really began when the pavement ended just past Colonet. Today the current highway continues from there for miles as straight as undiluted bathtub gin as it enters the fertile San Quintin Valley.
Heading into the wilds of Baja, my dad eased the old 1936 Oldsmobile off the pavement onto the dirt and soon we were rolling and bouncing alongside the naked red earth, kicking up enough ochre dust that our progress could be monitored by anyone miles away.
A tire was an automobile’s most vulnerable part, especially so in those early days before steel-belted tires became an off-roader’s best friend. The frames and structures of those pre-World War II cars were much stronger, but the rubber weaker. Fenders were so solid you could get mad at your beast and kick it hard, yielding little damage but a sore toe. But we who drove those older cars learned how to change those older tires. Because it was inevitable that we would. So it was with us on this rocky road. Pow! A tire blew and we wobbled to the side.
As soon as the fine, graphite-like dust had settled like drizzling rain all over the car and upon the neighboring countryside, Papa, Mama, and all us kids piled out of the car.
He Stopped To Help
Shortly after we had stopped, while seemingly miles from the nearest soul, a car approached from behind us through the dissipating cloud of billowing dust. The car pulled off the road and the Mexican driver got out to render assistance. I’ve never forgotten that simple friendly gesture through all these years. In the States a person who has been eating dust for miles would be more than happy to take advantage of the situation and zoom past, possibly even giving a finger salute as well.
But not in Baja.
His newer car looked out of place on that windblown plateau. And the man was too well dressed to be a local campesino. He sported long city-type pants and was wearing a suit jacket. His shoes were polished. We all thought he looked quite dapper. He was clean-shaven, had an angular face, and his dark eyes surveyed the scene before he addressed my dad in English.
He then nodded recognition to the rest of us. Seemingly not concerned about dust on his clothes, he pitched right in to help my dad change that tire.
We kids stood by the roadside with Mama and watched. Then the man bent down and his jacket opened. The motion revealed a leather holster strapped to his shoulder. And a pistol, a real gun, was inside the holster!
I quickly nudged my brother Fritz and gulped, “Look.”
“I see it,” he stammered.
My older sister Camilla joined us and saw what had our attention. “Maybe he’s a robber,” she whispered.
Now we three were scared. We couldn’t tell Papa because the man was with him. And Mama was farther off the road, keeping the younger kids out of the way. We stood back, unsure of what to do, and strained for that occasional glimpse of that frightful but tantalizing, for-real, pistol.
We were whispering some brave ideas like, “If he tries anything, you hit him with this rock and I’ll jump on him and try to get his gun.” But deep down we knew we wouldn’t do anything.
The strange urbane-looking man and papa finished the hot, dusty, chore, stretched, laughed, and slapped their hands clean. “This calls for a nice, cold martini,” the stranger said.
“Don’t we wish,” my father laughed.
“Come over here,” the man said, walking to his car. He opened the trunk of his car to reveal a compact custom-made mini-bar. A dozen or so bottles were snugly secured into the contraption along with glasses, mixing spoons and even an ice container.
A Roadside Martini!
So there, on the side of the dusty Baja road, the two men saluted their handiwork with a chilled martini, much to the surprise and delight of my father. “My name is Benson. Guillermo Benson,” the stranger said. “I’m the owner of Benson’s Bar in Ensenada.”
As the two men forged a friendship that would endure for decades, we kids slowly realized that just because Benson packed a pistol didn’t make him a threat.
Our earlier bravado quickly and thankfully turned to relief.
We talked about our plans. While he was just escaping the rigors of his business for the day, we had set out to explore the San Quintin Valley area. We almost got stuck in the soft sand on the trail leading to the old English cemetery, a stark scene where some of the English colonists who settled in the area perished. Lured by lofty prose penned by hackers hired by the International Company, some 200 settlers from England were devastated by a drought in which not an inch of rain fell between the years 1892-1896.
Most survived to escape that dry and barren plain, but those who died there were interred, their graves marked by simple wooden crosses that still signify a chapter of Baja history.
Later that day Benson joined us as we stood on the old pier in San Quintin’s inner bay. Today the only remains are a few rotting wood pilings that rise above the surface of the water. In its memory, the name “Old Pier” graces a small hotel/restaurant on a hill above.
Fishing With Firecrackers
Then as we walked out on the pier a school of small fish swam below us. Benson chuckled and said to us kids, “Watch this.” He produced a few firecrackers that looked to be the size and shape of dynamite. He lit one and dropped it in the water.
KERPLOW! went the charge underwater and little fish came flying up out of the water landing at our feet dazed and shocked by the explosive. It was quite a demonstration and impressive to us awe-struck kids who saw another feat of magic performed by this guy Benson.
Once he left and we bade our goodbyes, we continued south and found a very private place, at the north end of the broad, sweeping Santa Maria beach. We set up camp about where the Hotel Mission Santa Maria (formerly Pinta) is now. During that week we caught and cooked lobster, fish, and large pismo clams. It was an idyllic respite in was then a very remote area.
We had ventured beyond the end of the paved road and I had found a virtual paradise. While it would be years before I would explore all of the Baja California peninsula south of that San Quintin area, the seed was planted. That trip was the catalyst that stirred my Baja wanderlust.
On maps and even globes, I noticed the Baja peninsula loomed large, yet the San Quintin area was still far to the north. There was so much more to the south that called for my exploration and scrutiny. Yes, at an early age I was hooked. I had developed a case of Baja Fever.
My great grandfather Bascom A. Stephens was one of those San Diego- based writers whose 1890 lofty reports helped lure settlers to the area. Quoting one of his articles, he called it “land of sunshine and silver, of fruits and flowers, of grain and gold, of gems and jewels, of the walnut and the wine, of the olive and the orange, of banana and tobacco, of fish and fowl….”
Well, it’s obvious he exaggerated “just a wee bit” in his zeal as visitors were to discover. We too realized little of his promises, but we did find a wonderful remote beach, and we found sunshine and warmth as evidenced by the people of the peninsula, most notably that mysterious and fun-loving traveler, Senor Guillermo Benson.
A side note from the author: While I don’t condone drinking and driving, or blasting fish in an unsportsmanlike manner, it was almost 70 years ago and to this little kid, it was quite an adventure!
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit Greg’s website.