Another post in a series of the experiences from Baja written by John Thawley. Read about some of John’s exploits on Dean’s Garage. John died in 2009. Published by permission from John Thawley, Jr.
by John Thawley
Before my marriage license expired, I spent a lot of time in Baja. I gave up on making excuses—I loved the place. The people, sights, sounds, smells, food, grit and grime was like facing a large fresh fruit salad. Even during some rough time—my affection for the land never wavered. The feeling was as close to being narcotic as I’ll ever get. I traveled with friends; I made friends along the way and on several trips I was alone. Not smart then. Stupid now.
In the late sixties/early seventies most gringos traveled in Baja with heavy four wheel drive vehicles or lightweight Volkswagen powered machines. My rides of choice favored the latter. I was given to Baja Bugs. They were light, reasonably responsive in the desert, easy to work on, and cheap. The last one I built was state of the art. Trimmed fenders ad hood, no engine cover and large tires and wheels. The back seat and running boards went in the trash. Keep in mind there was no off-road industry. Thus, the vehicle was not equipped with skid plates for engine or transmission. I carried tools, spare parts, food, water and a sleeping bag. Minimum accommodations; maximum fun.
The plan was to trailer the Baja Bug to Ensenada, unload, make a leisurely trip down the peninsula, about 100–150 miles, explore side roads, ranches, beaches, camp out and be back at work Tuesday morning. Mid-morning of the first full day I was pretty far down the trail. On a one lane sandy trail, I “was riding the berms” to gain a little more ground clearance from the smooth high center. Perfect day in every respect. A great place and time to be alive.
Without warning, there was a very loud THUNK and shudder from the rear of the car. Not good. Without thinking, I killed the engine and dropped the gearbox into neutral in one move. The center of the sandy trail behind me displayed a very even stream of oil. Not good. Seems there was a rock just under the surface of the velvet sand trail and it had created a 2-inch by 1-inch opening in the cast magnesium oil sump of the engine. On board was extra gas, oil, and several six packs of STP. Not on board something that could be used to plug a hole.
I had a pretty good idea what was behind me on the trail. Not much. I had not seen a vehicle since the previous evening. My truck and trailer were somewhere between 150–200 miles away. There were several options. Walk forward to the next rancho and explore new options—if any. Simply sit and wait. Walk back towards Ensenada—hoping for a ride to the truck and trailer. With canteen in hand I headed south. Four or five miles away was a settlement of about 6 or 8 huts. One of the very modest dwellings had some metal signage being used as structural members—beer, soft drink and cigarettes. Sometimes this is an indication of a modest general store, tire shop, travel agency, and blacksmith; more often such adornment simply means a little protection from the sun. In this case, I got lucky. A couple of men were hunkered by the door of the sad little hut. My appearance on the landscape may have been big news for me—but faint amusement to town hall. I walked up out of nowhere—sunburned, rough-out work boots, filthy blue jeans, a T-shirt covered with oily sand, and smelling like a wet goat. Inside this 10 by 12 foot bedroom, living room, shopping mall there were some crude selves attached to a couple of walls. The shelves held a pathetic, rudimentary assortment of merchandise—two 1-pound bags of sugar. Some flour. Some used rope of indeterminate length. At this point, the contents of the shelves didn’t matter. I didn’t know what I was looking for. There was a hole in a cast magnesium oil sump that had to be plugged or one skinny Texan was going to be doing a lot of walking before this little trip ended.
On a top shelf was a large blue box of Kotex. I’ve never used Kotex. Gender thing. I had a leak to stop. My crude, ugly, school bus yellow Bug in the middle of Baja had a leak. I bought the box of Kotex and walked back to the leaking Baja Bug. Gasoline flushed out the sump and with help of twigs, a screwdriver turned packing tool and copious amounts of duct tape, the offending hole got plugged with Kotex. The crankcase got filled with engine oil laced with STP and I drove back to Ensenada. From time to time, I’ve wondered about some old Mexicans telling funny stories over game of dominos and a few beers.
During the race I hallucinated a great deal. I “saw” cattle (a lot), hitch hikers and even giraffe. In the beginning this led to a lot of throttle lifting and brake pedal stabbing. Gradually, it sank in that the creatures were figments of my fatigue. If this had ever happened to me before, I could not recall it. I was embarrassed and ashamed. Thirty five tears later while visiting with Andy DeVercelly (the “bullfighter”), I mentioned my nocturnal “sightings.” Andy blurted out, “In that race, everyone hallucinated.” I checked around a little and Andy was right.
Unless you’ve been smoking lawn clippings or indulging in some non-prescription pharmaceuticals, hallucinations are primarily caused by fatigue. Long hours and continuous concentration extract their toll. By the time I reached La Paz, I figured I had been awake for at least 60 hours. This was certainly not the exception. Even combat pilots hallucinate. I had an interesting conversation with a combat pilot from the first Gulf War. He said more than once he had to be helped from the cockpit after putting in a very long stint. Said pilot revealed that some of the fighters would refuel as many as 7 times in a flight. I asked him about “seeing things” during a long flight. His answer was revealing. Not only did he and other pilots see things in flight, they encountered sightings inside and outside the cockpit.
The good news is that once the flight—or race—or whatever—is over, the visions stop almost immediately. Which, in my case is kinda sad. I really liked the giraffes.