Pat and Sharon
Baja Sur, Mexico
Last spring, our friends Rick and Heather Knight called us with an offer of adventure. They are long time mule aficionados, and they proposed that we join them on a mule packing trip in Mexico’s Baja Sur. It so happened that when Pat and I were at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko last winter, Pat picked up a video at the trade show, entitled “Vaqueros Corazon” (Cowboys of the Heart). It turned out that the trip they were proposing was to visit the very ranches and ranchers featured in the video. It seemed like fate, and what the heck—we usually aren’t SO busy at Thanksgiving time.
Pat with dos mulas
Sharon, nose to nose with Queen Latifa
Heather with Ratoncito
Bule and Rick saddling Alissana
Our daughter and son (and their families) would be doing most of the work in our absence, and they urged us to go. All summer we shared our plans with, actually, almost anyone who would listen to us. A number of people asked us if we were worried about the narcotraficantes who are disrupting Mexico. I had to admit to some concern, having just read “God’s Middle Finger” about a gringo’s travels in the central Mexican mountains. Rick had recently visited Sonora, where he said he had stumbled into an abandoned drug encampment, and he assured us that it is perfectly safe. With that reassurance, we said sure. I added “Travels with a Baja Burro” to my reading list.
Of course as the date approached, we found ourselves buried under more and more work and responsibility. We have been working for seven or so years to place conservation easements on our mountain ranchlands. It was really looking like the closing date would likely be set for the time we were to be gone. The closing date was iffy, however and our daughter Meghan told us, “Go, before your heads explode!” We signed multiple powers of attorney to Meghan, (Rick’s comment: “Good choice”) and boarded the plane.
We met up with Rick and Heather at LAX in Los Angeles. Since there are only two weekly flights to Loreto, our destination, Rick pointed out that four of the other gringos who were planning to mule trek had to be on our flight (two others were ex-pats who winter in the Baja). “See if you can pick them out,” he challenged me. One of the items on our equipment list was “brimmed hat” so I looked around, and sure enough, there were some folks wearing brimmed hats.
I approached them and said, “Are you with ‘Saddling South’?” They allowed as how they were and soon we were exchanging our bona fides. They were great people, which was fortunate, since we were about to spend eight days and six nights with them.
In Loreto, we met up with our outfitter, Trudi Angell—an American who has been guiding tourists in her “Paddling South,” (kayaking), “Peddling South,” (bicycling) and “Saddling South” (mule trekking) business for over 20 years. She is a well-known and popular person in Loreto and other parts of Baja. Her business brings employment of one sort or the other to many local people, and it was clear that her personal friendships with Mexican families is key to her successful business and to helping bring outside income into the community.
Pat and I are experience riders, but our time with mules is limited. Rick and Heather have mules, which they frequently use for riding and packing. The other six gringos were not riders, but were experienced outdoors recreationists, and were game for the trip.
Our guides were four Mexican cowboys who work with Trudi. Chema is her right hand. Our lead guide was Bule, 73 years old, and the packers were Che and his son, Jorge. They tended and saddled and unsaddled the mules and made sure the cinches were tight whenever we approached a steep ascent or descent, which was several times a day. We were fifteen riders, 18 mules and two burros.
We set out west from a ranch near Mission San Javier, one of the early Spanish missions in the area. As we approached our first climb up a really rocky ascent to a mesa, I was astonished that the mules were expected to climb what looked to me like a vertical rock face.
Baja California is a long peninsula on Mexico’s west coast. Its coastlines are famous for kayaking, sport fishing, whale watching and water sports such as snorkeling. Its rugged dry interior is largely uninhabited and mostly wild country. I live in Wyoming, where I am used to wide open spaces with little interaction with people. In the Sierra Gigante mountain range, where we rode, we never encountered another human being, aside from the ranches we were visiting with Trudi. We also didn’t see an electric line, roads (except close to the coast) or even jet contrails overhead. Cell phones didn’t work and we learned that the radio tower that some of the ranches depended upon had been taken out by the recent hurricane. We were truly in another world.
Trudi's dog Lucky, with Trudi
Greg, Trudi, Steve, Claudia & Karen
Pila (water reservoir) near Mission San Javier
Fighting roosters readying for the festival at San Javier
Heather, Pat, Rick and Tom
first morning at dry camp
Cattle grazing free range
(the only ones we saw)
Che and Jorge packing the mules
Memo, Luis, Dora, Chuy, Dario, Luis Carlos, Sipriana
Our hosts at El Jarillal
Sipriana's outdoor kitchen
Altar in Sipriana's home
Chema playing the guitar
Dario showing his horsehair braiding to Trudi and Rick
Most of us
leaving El Jarillal
Greg encountered the local vegetation
Tom with pack burro
Chema made the sawbuck
Descending into San Andres
Jesus, rancher at San Andres
He has two dogs named Chama
Silvestre welcoming Trudi (and us) to Los Pilares
Silvestre leads us through hurricane damage to the lower ranch
sunrise at Los Pilares
Ancient petroglyphs near Los Pilares
Andrea, Western cowgirl
Karen at rock corrals
Vineyard at Santa Isabel
Traditional water jug
Rancho El Horno
Rancho El Horno
Lucky, Che and Trudi in Trudi's office
Mule at sunset
photos by Pat and Sharon O'Toole