John Thawley was a good friend and a gifted writer. Among his more memorable exploits was his participation in the 1967 Baja 1000. He collected quite a bit of material about the inaugural race, but not quite enough for a book that I was slated to put together. I do have a lot of images, stories, lists, and maps. The short sidebars he pinned were particularity well written; anecdotes of personal experiences from one of the most hostile motoring environments on the planet, one that just happened to be within easy striking distance of Southern California.
Baja California in the day was a completely different place from what it is now. A raw, untamed desert with few restraints for the motorized adventurer. In the early ’70s I went down to San Felipe with friends. We camped on the Gulf. I remember a few things about the outing. Cokes were really cheap, the tide would go out so far you couldn’t hear the surf, and one day coming around a dune on the beach were two sand buggies, flat out, disappearing as fast as they appeared down the beach. Cool.
Not all of John’s stories are from the race. He recreationally would venture down to Baja for a potentially life-threatening adventure, which was more often than not what he got. Here are a couple of stories. More to come.
Thanks to John Thawley, Jr. for his permission to publish JT’s stories. Please don’t republish without permission.
Broken Tie Rod End—No Problem
By John Thawley
One afternoon I was pretty far down the Baja peninsula—alone (stupid) in a Baja Bug. The day was perfect. We were motoring South on a smooth, sandy one lane trail. The view of the Pacific was stunning. Quarter of a mile away, a vehicle was slowly moving towards me on the trail. There were plenty of places to pull off and I didn’t give the situation much thought. As we closed on each other at turtle speed, I sized the vehicle as a fiftyish GMC pickup. The right front wheel was tracking straight; the left wheel was splayed out and dragging in the sand. Big time. Instant diagnosis: broken tie rod end. We stopped nose to nose. Mental inventory told me I didn’t have much on board for the situation. By the time I’d unbuckled and stepped out, a young Mexican was out of the truck and opening the hood, the old six cylinder just kept clicking and knocking away. He yanked the dipstick out of that old tired six and showed it to me. No oil. None. Nada.
In those days, my Baja box contained oil, STP (God awful viscosity), gas, water and a great deal of stupidity (traveling alone). Oil and STP were administered until most of the clicking and knocking went away. By the time the oil gauge was showing a steady 10 pounds of pressure, my supply of lubricant was depleted. I eased my way under the front of the truck—and yes, indeeddy, there was a broken tie rod end down there. Any fix I could implement wouldn’t last a hundred yards. When I straightened up, the young Mexican was standing there offering me Tecate. He was smiling from ear to ear. I took the beer from him and offered thanks. Then I dug out a cold Budweiser for him. We shook hands and laughed. With my sedan off the trail, the young Mexican moved the truck by and saluted as he passed. The broken tie rod end was of little concern. I admire a man who has his priorities in hand.
Canyon of Death
By John Thawley
South of the fishing village of Puertecitos on the Sea of Cortez side there is a canyon near Oakie’s Landing. If it ever had a name it has been banished. No one will speak it. Death will surely happen. The canyon is narrow, rock filled and thoroughly intimidating. There is no passing for several hundred yards. A very capable companion and myself were going through this stretch one morning, north to south. We each had a Baja Bug. About half way through “the tunnel of death,” we came upon a young couple that had managed to drop one front wheel of a VW bus over the edge of a dry wash bank. It was evident they’d both been crying. In addition having one wheel hanging in very thin, clear air, they had stalled the engine, couldn’t get a restart and had “worked on it” with no luck. My partner and I went to work and several hours later all was well.
The young couple gave each of us a beer and opined that if we had not come along, they would have surely died. We were thanked profusely. My partner ended the moment when he crushed his empty can and told them thanks were not necessary—the only reason we stopped and helped was that they were blocking the damn road.