As the sun fell above the peaks to the west, I started looking for a place to camp. Before long we came upon the road to Howard Lake, where there was a campground.
The layout of the campground described a loop around a bright grassy meadow, though only one of the sites was occupied when we rolled in there. As I perused the loop for a site, however, the most menacing pit-bull ever erupted out of the one occupied campsite and made straightaway for my vehicle, which luckily both I and Peanut were both still inside. The thing was such a caricature of a stereotypical tough dog that it might not have even been believable, were it not for the fact that the beast was right there before my eyes.
This quasi-canine had an upper body like one of those cartoon bulldogs, puffy chest, tree trunks for arms; and to ambulate, all it had to do was give a simple little flick of its frontal knuckles and its body would be thrust forward with the propulsive force of a jet or rocket engine, lunging through the air like one of Gozer‘s hellish terror-dogs from Ghostbusters.
As I watched this sentinel of doom bounding alongside my car, leaping up towards the driver’s side window with the obvious goal of clipping any loosely-guarded bodyparts, it occurred to me to put the windows up- you know, so that me and Pean could survive the encounter. As we neared the rogue hound’s camp, two more dogs came screaming out from behind a decrepit trailer and into the narrow dirt road, forcing me to skid to a stop, or plow right through the beasts.
Dragged Down By the Stone
A hilariously-stereotypical caricature of a backwoods yokel emerged from behind an American-flag-clad pickup truck and called for the dogs to desist from their camp-rage and return to him. The dude, presenting himself in the standard required uniform for such characters: a wife-beater T-shirt, loose-fitting shorts, and heavy-duty work-boots, waved a benign apology for the imposition on my evening mellow, waving and smiling through a perforated dental rig. He was nice enough; but after the onslaught of canine terror, I was all set on that campground. As I drove away, the pit-bull chased my car with a fury reserved only for those bent on creating maximum carnage. The hound persisted in the chase for nearly a quarter mile, as I gunned the vehicle down the twisting dirt road that led out of there. It was an effort to outrun him, but eventually the creature receded in my rearview mirror until he was at last lost to a curve in the road. I went look for another place to camp.
“These things gotta happen every five years or so… ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one” –Peter Clemenza, 1946
Clemenza was right- it does have to happen every five or ten years; though he might have been talking about something else- I can’t remember.
At any rate, though, it’s actually only been five years since the last one; but whatever, I’ll allow it. I mean, what are you gonna argue with the Don’s right hand?
Five Years Gone
This Saturday, June 13, 2015, will be the five year anniversary of the day I broke my leg high on the upper slopes of Mount Shasta. I have been meaning, and promising, to give this story a proper telling ever since that day; and this occasion seems so apt a time to do it that I don’t think I could justifiably continue to claim any actual intent to tell this story were I to pass on this opportunity.
My relationship with Mount Shasta, the 14,179-foot premier pig of Northern California, has been a complicated one.
Just as with any long-term relationship, there’s always been a lot of love, and mutual respect; but at the same time, the shit has gotten adversarial and contentious at times, too. You know how that goes- sometimes things get said, things that can’t be unsaid. But you pick up and you get on with it. That’s all you can do. Come on- you know how it is.
In The Beginning
In the 18 years since the mountain first got on my radar (a childhood spent viewing the mountain’s outline emblazoned on the cans of a Triple-A soda franchise does not count), we have tangled more than a few times. More often than not it’s been no more than a relatively benign case of me camping somewhere on the lower flanks of the beast; or photographing it from some distant valley; or espying it across fifty miles of hazy, smoky atmosphere, from the summit of some far-off peak; or trying to sneak up on it from its back side via some or another rugged wilderness trail; or even just trying to slip by unnoticed, as I pass quietly beneath its westernmost feet on the I-5 freeway, bound for the Pacific Northwest. But on more than a couple of occasions, I have perceived my balls to have grown so large that a direct assault on Shasta’s lofty summit seemed an appropriate way to throw down.
Man vs. Mountain
Although climbing Mount Shasta is technically technical, depending on the route you choose, the degree of technical climbing required can be minimal. In fact, you can make it to the summit even if you’ve never before set foot in a pair of crampons, or wielded an ice axe. A fairly basic tutorial, wherein you learn proper techniques for stepping, moving across steep slopes of frozen snow and ice, maintaining weight balance, ascending, and descending, can furnish you with the basic skills necessary to attempt a few of Shasta’s least-demanding ascent routes. And not only does just such a tutorial come free with your climbing permit, but you’re actually required to withstand the spiel- even if you think you don’t need it.
But either way, to some folks’ way of thinking, the mountain simply demands that you climb it. Never mind what you want.
If you talk to a cop or any other government official in Mexico, you are paying him money– hands down, no exceptions, no workarounds. We will revisit this point again and again throughout this trip report.
There I Was, at the Immigration Scene
We walk into the Ensenada immigration office, which sits inconspicuously along the city’s waterfront, next to one of the several marinas in town. The customs official working there ignores us for a good 15 or 20 minutes, even though there is nobody else in the waiting area. In fact, ignoring us is the only thing the guy is actually doing. He sits there at an empty desk, flipping disinterestedly through a newspaper, with an infuriatingly-transparent and pointedly-deliberate show of utter ambivalence. He glances in our direction periodically- just to make sure we’re still annoyed; but he never once looks at us, only through.
Eventually, realizing that this dick is gonna make us sweat and fight for every word we manage to pull out of his mouth, I go up to the counter and actively (yet with the appropriate level of ass-kissery, forced politeness and faux-deference) ask for help, and he ambles over to the counter smugly, acting all put-out by my request. He speaks fluent English, though it is delivered in the expected Mexican accent. He asks what we want, even though it is perfectly obvious what we want, as I have already filled out the required immigration form and placed it on the counter in front of him; and anyway, what the fuck else could we possibly be wanting? But I humor him by explaining, in my “nice” voice, that we wish to acquire tourist visas for travel down the peninsula; and he responds by telling us, to our surprise, that this is not where you go to get tourist visas. He turns and walks away from the counter, not even bothering to follow up that last declaration with any kind of “But here’s where you do have to go to get that done” type of statement. Ughh.What a douche. King of your own stupid little fuckin’ world.
But I don’t relent. I fear this might be some kind of a set-up, like when a cop makes a stupid joke while he’s in the middle of harassing you- and you’re fucked if you laugh at him and fucked if you don’t. But I don’t see what alternative I have than to play this game by his rules, until he gets bored with cock-blocking our minimalist agenda; so I apprehensively call for his attention again, half-ready for him to whip around on me and bring the full force of his corrupt authority to bear on the situation. He is standing by the desk with his back to us, doing nothing (other than ignoring us); but after the second time I call to him he turns around slowly, visibly irritated that I am still “bothering” him.
Wow, it’s a wonder anybody ever gets any deeper into Mexico than this.
Through gritted teeth, I ask if he can tell me exactly where we’re supposed to go to get our tourist visas; and he sighs loudly and rolls his eyes, as if this is not the most logical follow-up question conceivable under the circumstances. Finally, acting like he’s doing me a favor that I don’t deserve, he refers us to a bank that’s across the highway and a few blocks down the street.
This seems suspiciously strange to us, seeing as how we were specifically given this address by an official I spoke with on the phone a few days before we left San Francisco. Not to mention the fact that this is the Office of Immigration, and the other place is a financial institution. But, figuring the guy probably knows his business, and being as-yet unaware of the pervasive, if only implicit, system-wide “policy” of messing with American tourists as a form of self-amusement, we leave the office and head over to the bank.
Giving Me a Paper Chase
The guy at the bank is very nice, and also speaks perfectly good English (Ha! I was right! Everyone speaks good English in Mexico!); but he says that this most definitely is not the place to get tourist visas, and tells us that the place we just came from is.
So we go back to the immigration office, and as soon as we walk through the door the guy gets angry and demands to know what we’re doing back there. I tell him what the guy at the bank said; and he barks back with “Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?” I explain that I am not trying to tell him how to do his job- I just want to get the visas so we can be on our way. Then he says he doesn’t know where we’re supposed to get the visas.
“But you just told us a half an hour ago that we were supposed to go to that bank down the street to get our visas; so what do you mean now when you say you don’tknow where we’re supposed to get them?”
“Well if I already told you where to go, then why are you still asking me? If I said that you have to go over to that bank, then that’s where you have to go!” His miserable face contorts reflexively into a self-satisfied grin, lauding himself for the profound wit and acuity of mind with which he is besting me in this verbal showdown.
“Well, yes, I understand that, sir; but the man at the bank was very adamant that this is where we must go to get our tourist visas processed.”
“Well why are you so quick to believe him and not me?”
It’s probably for the best that I’m not holding a loaded gun at this moment; for if I were, I would absolutely perforate this assshole’s face without further hesitation.
“Because the plaque outside the door says ‘Oficina de Imigración’, and there are forms right there on that table that are quite unambiguously labeled “Estados Unidos Mexico Visa Application!”
Wank of America
Chalk can see that I’m about to start visibly foaming at the mouth- and everything that comes with it; so he wisely grabs my arm and drags me out the door, and we go back to the bank for another round. The guy at the bank is exasperated (though not at us); and swears to us, in a tone completely void of any sarcasm, condescension or derision, that it is most definitely the immigration office up the street we need to deal with. When he sees me deflate with a hopelessness that barely, if at all, conceals my mounting rage, he suggests that we go hang around outside the immigration office until we spot one of the other employees, and then go in and try to deal with that person instead.
I Won’t Toe Your Line Today
So we go back to the goddamn motherfucking immigration office and linger outside like sketchy ne’er-do-wells, until we hear multiple voices talking inside the building (the door is open), and go back inside. Now some new power-confused douche-bag is busying himself with ignoring us; and the asshole we talked to before is still just milling about doing nothing. So Chalk, as politely as possible, gets the new guy’s attention; and although the guy is a condescending prick about the whole thing, at least he doesn’t insist that we are in the wrong place. Though he does insist that we have to pay some kind of penalty fine, for…I don’t know– being alive or whatever the fuck. But at least his little game of torment-the-Americans ends with him actually processing our visas, while the other clown from before stands there with his arms folded, watching the proceedings. And through it all, the two of them continue to just sneer and snarl at us condescendingly- making hilarious wisecracks in Spanish, and howling with robust laughter at the two stupid gringos in their midst.
Tossed in the Supermarket
Finally, after almost two hours of infuriating back and forth between the bank and the immigration office, we finally have our tourist visas, for what amounted in the end to about twenty dollars- plus some stupid bullshit “penalty” fee of another thirty or forty bucks- apiece.
So, tourist visas in hand, we at last leave the immigration office, get in the car, and head over to a nearby supermarket to make a quick stop for groceries and other supplies to get us through the next several days. While standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, I notice a TV mounted up on the wall. The volume is off; but I can see that it is another news story about that hurricane everybody’s been talking about for the past few days- the one bearing down on the Gulf Coast. Sounds like it’s supposed to be a big one.
Whatever, though- it’s not bearing down on Baja, so fuck it.
We pay for our groceries, load the car, and immediately set ourselves to getting the hell out of Ensenada for good.
As soon as I drove away from the trailhead, one of those unaccountably weird and stupid coincidences occurred. I flipped on the radio (which I almost never even bother doing nowadays), but I heard nothing but static. After a few seconds though, I could start to hear faint traces of music rising and falling amid the sea of white noise. As I rounded one bend in the road after another, this ghost music went in and out, trying to fight its way through the cacophony to my ears- like that kid from Poltergeist, flying by the TV screen then fading, as that insidious, phantasmagoric current carried her around and around that nasty little spirit world vortex she got herself mixed up in. Man…kids. I’ll tell you what- they can find trouble anywhere.
It’s All About the Journey
I rounded a bend and the music suddenly came to the fore, emerging from the ether, static-free and clear as day. It was “Wheel in the Sky” by Journey. Even though I’ve heard the song six fazillion times, it still took me a second to positively identify it, since it busted in in the middle of the guitar solo. During the moment when my mind was trying to place the song, my primary thought was “Is that that song I can’t fucking stand?”; but then it clicked into place and I corrected myself: “Oh no, the one I can’t stand is ‘Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’. I like this song.” So I left it on until the end of the song, at which point the airwaves plunged directly back into undecipherable static again. I hit “scan” to search for another station.
The radio looped the dial five or six times before landing on a station with a clear signal. I caught the last few words of the deejay, as he went ludicrously far over-the-top, as deejays always seem to do, in an attempt stir up excitement in his listeners over the rodeo in Redding that was coming up in a week and a half. Then he stopped talking; and what happened next?
The intro bass and drums of Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.”
Now seriously- how the fuck can that ever even happen? It wasn’t like it was three-fer Thursday or anything like that; and anyway this was a completely different, random radio station than the one that had played “Wheel in the Sky” a couple minutes earlier. I remained dumbfounded for a few moments, then dug the iPod out of the center console. Time to take care of this music situation in a more active, hands-on manner.
The Long and Rutted Road
In an earlier post from this trip report, I described a series of insanely-frustrating, pervasive runoff channels with which I’d had to contend on my drive in to the trailhead two days earlier. Cutting diagonally across the road at obscenely short intervals, and several inches deep with raised edges of dried, rocky dirt, these ruts had chopped my driving speed down from 30 mph to 5-10 mph, and persisted for a good 8-10 miles.
Now my plan was to, rather than drive back over that 8-10 stupid miles of bumpy ruts on my way back out to the Sacramento Valley, instead cross the national forest from east to west, which would require more than 100 miles of off-road driving.
When I turned onto the road (M2) that would take me across the wilderness, I was instantly met by the same exact kind of cross-cutting ruts as those described above. “Fuck“, quoth I to self, “I don’t know how many miles of this shit I can tolerate- but whatever, the ruts will probably only last a few miles, right?” I proceeded onward.
I Scaled the Frozen Mountaintops of Western Lands Unknown…
Thank god for 110-song Rush shuffles, because as it turned out, these nasty ruts persisted for the next 35 miles. After awhile I decided to measure the interval between them: 60 yards. A rut every 60 yards for 35 miles. I’ll do the math for you: That’s over 1,000 of these goddamned things that I had to drive over, each one requiring an almost dead stop to get over without banging up the undercarriage of my Rav4.
I thought of that scene in “Meet the Parents” when Deniro and Ben Stiller are racing each other back to the house, and every time a traffic light turns green, they each gun their cars up to full speed and start flying down the road at 70 miles an hour, neck and neck, only to have to then almost immediately jam on their brakes 100-yards later as the next light turns red, sending the passengers in both vehicles lurching violently forward, to hilarious effect.
…Dog and Man Alone…
This was not the least bit hilarious, though- not to me, anyway.
So in this manner I lurched my way over that miserable 35 miles of profoundly lonely, entirely uninhabited, and rarely-traveled 4WD mountain road, wrestling these diagonal ruts in the road for control, edging along the brinks of sheer cliffs, swerving around boulders, downed trees, and other random road debris, and splashing across one rough-and-tumble creek crossing after another. The drive was aesthetically gorgeous, but it still fuckin’ sucked beyond belief. There are plenty of equally scenic roads around this state that aren’t infected with interruptive runoff channels like these every handful of yards; so it was hard to find and appreciate any kind of silver lining about this- it was just a trial of my sanity, and little else. And due to my impatient nature, I couldn’t bring myself to just drive slowly in between each rut, lest I spend the next day and a half on this road. So it was unmellow as hell, just like that scene from the movie- but as I mentioned above, entirely without any mitigating comic value.
That said, it wasn’t all bad- I did get to hear three different versions of Xanadu as I made my way across that shitty-ass road.
…Searching For the Lost Can of Booze
But then again, I could have listened to three versions of Xanadu anyway, wherever I was; so fuck it.
I needed a shot of whiskey; but I knew the bottle was buried deep in the bottom of my backpack; and I really didn’t feel like tearing the car apart to unpack it at the moment.
We stop for lunch at a seaside bar in Rosarito Beach, and enjoy the warm breeze as we sit on a deck drinking Mexican beer and looking through the slats at the foaming tendrils of broken waves flailing directly underfoot. The waitstaff all speak fluent English, and so I brazenly declare that my sister has over-emphasized the need for a Spanglish dictionary. *clink* We’re in Mexico!
Rosarito is the first town you come to after Tijuana when driving south down the coast of Baja; and although it is most definitely set up for and promoted to American tourists, once you get outside of the central tourism zone, the highway through town is lined with dilapidated shacks that many of the locals call home. Simple rooms made of concrete or adobe, no more than 12 x 12 feet square, and many with absolutely no roof– they just sit there baking in the pitiless, dry, and relentless afternoon sun. And on rainy days- well, that can’t be all that convenient. So not even twenty miles south of the border and I’m already witnessing the worst poverty I’ve ever seen outside of Jamaica.
We spend the night at this ramshackle little campground called Playa Saldamando, a dozen miles north of the city of Ensenada. The spot, perched atop a seaside bluff with sweeping ocean views, was recommended by my sister, who has been down this way before. Despite its proximity to the ocean, the place is kind of a shit-hole: rutted access roads with huge potholes, campsites of impenetrably hard, uneven ground peppered with disconcertingly-mysterious animal holes; but nevertheless it meets our needs for our first night abroad. And anyway, without it we would surely be paying some idiotically-overblown tourist rate for some stupid-ass fool’s hostel in Rosarito, where Mexican staff members would try as hard as possible to make sure that we feel as little as possible like we are outside of our quasi-comfortable nation of perfection- because that’s what most American tourists want as they travel the world: just enough of the new, foreign country to convince them that they have actually visited and therefore “experienced” a remote culture, but not so much as to actually expose them to any of the threats, inconveniences, or other anti-amenities associated with an actual worldly experience.
By all means, give me a cheap-ass parking lot purporting to be a campground, complete with painted rocks and digits on posts, and I promise I will fill in the rest. I know how to do this- I’ve been at it for a long time.
You Can Check In Anytime You Like…
Without first acquiring an extended tourist visa, Americans are legally prohibited from going any further south on the Baja peninsula than the city of Ensenada, which is about 70 miles down. “Fortunately”, you can get these tourist visas in Ensenada, for twenty-five-ish bucks (but you can also get them in San Diego before you even cross the border, which I would highly recommend). Un-fortunately, the process (at least from my experience) is, for no good reason, an unspeakably maddening pain in the ass, thanks to widely-pervasive apathy and institutionalized corruption, and the troublesome fact that no two Mexican officials seem to have the same idea of what the law is in any given situation.
…But You Can Never Enter
That said, the process of getting a tourist visa in Ensenada does provide an invaluable tutorial in how to keep one’s cool in the face of gun-wielding Mexicops/soldiers trying to provoke you into giving them a reason to fuck you over and throw you in jail over nothing. Because believe me- you’re gonna need that skill once you get a little deeper into the country. So, if you’re the type of person who is likely, even at your own grave peril, to lose your nerve and snap when faced with a futile and contentious standoff with powers of authority, better to find that out here in Ensenada, before you’ve really committed to Mexico, than after you’ve dropped far enough south that turning tail and making a run for the border is no longer an option.
Then again, I am most definitely that type of person, and I kept going past Ensenada; and I did eventually make it back stateside, albeit barely- and not on my own timetable.
Anyway, so yeah- if you can make it through the immigration paperwork process without assaulting a government official, then you should be fine in Mexico, more or less. That said, I wouldn’t advise choosing your course of action in any given situation based on the fact that I got through a similar situation more or less in one piece. I make a better cautionary tale than a role model, for better or worse.