A round, sunburned questionably Mexican man approached my truck and spoke in American English. I couldn’t immediately place the accent.
“Where are you from?” the man asked in English.
“New York,” I replied. I bit my tongue. I figured his enthusiasm was because a solo gringa (me) driving a big white truck showed up in a dusty country gas station. So he isn’t Mexican—a displaced American instead. I had come across many Americans who were in Baja California, but most of them didn’t work at gas stations like this one in Mulegé.
“Oh! I know people who live upstate in New York. I’m from Minnesota,” he said, smiling.
“I need air in my tires. Are there tanks here?” I said, changing the small talk to real talk, and the bitterness was subtle, unintentional, and direct. The Mexican roads had been majorly curvy, full of potholes and loose goats and cows and horses and donkies and mules and bicycle riders at every (unseen) turn. I drove, and I stressed. During the drive I wondered, What the hell am I doing here? Later, when the truck’s tire sensor started going off—low pressure—I started to doubt my need to travel through Baja at all.
I had pulled into the first Pemex gas station I encountered after the tire pressure gauge went off.
He pointed to the air compressor tanks, and I drove up to them and got out. He walked over, too, and before long, I started to get earfulls of his life story between shots of air I was putting into the tires–
“Used to be a chemist”
“I have a house in a small town south of here”
“I can wash your windows”
I wanted to roll my eyes, but I didn’t. I hung the air tube and got back into my truck.
“My own formula,” he said as he sprayed from a bottle, then started to wipe my side mirrors. “See?” he asked, wiping his dirty finger on the mirror. “I made the formula. No streaks! Works better than what you get at the store.”
“So what are you doing here,” I asked, confused, but less irritated. “Why aren’t you selling it if it’s that good?”
“I wash windows because it’s service,” he said.
My curiosity peaked. My annoyance disappeared.
His attention turned back to my tires. “Rock back and forth. I’ll look to see if anything is sticking out, anything that might have caused your tire to lose air.” As he talked, I rolled my truck back and forth. I became more and more relaxed as Minnesota man kept talking, talking, going to the other side of the truck, checking tires, talking.
“Probably just the altitude change,” he finally said.
I wondered if I should tip him, but decided to return in kind by asking him for more his story: “So how did you, dood from Minnesota, wind up in Mulegé? Seems random. And remote.”
He took out a window squeegee and started working on my truck.
“Service,” he said again, pausing. “I’m an alcoholic. I come to the gas station to volunteer to help out because it’s part of my program.”
“I think that’s great,” I offered, noticing how he said that but didn’t look me in the eye.
“This is where I need to be,” he said, then meeting my gaze.
Another man approached. He was more sunburnt and definitely Mexican. He stuck his hand through my open truck window, showing a hand full of handicrafts—shells with pieces of copper resined to them. “200 pesos,” he said in Spanish. “Your purchase is a donation to the program.”
I told him no and slowly started to roll my window up, thanking Minnesota man again for the help with the tires and clean windows. The gas station left an impression on me. What kind of place was Mulegé?
Two weeks later: I hopped over the edge of the small rock wall, went a few steps past the small concrete office building, and then stopped. I was at a campground in Mulegé, one on the bank of a river that flows out into the Sea of Cortez.
I had driven further south, then east in Baja California. I camped on beautiful beaches on the Pacific Ocean. But I was averse to what I found: Americans. LOTS of them, some parked with 5th-wheel luxury motorhomes on the coasts, others pouring out of bars and hotels in Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos. Baja Sur, all the way down on the peninsula, felt like being in Los Angeles. And I didn’t go to Mexico for that. What was I doing there? I wanted, like in any of my travels, to follow my wanderlust to somewhere authentic. I had thought about the gas station, and I decided to go back to Mulegé, the town of 8,000, located near it.
The Mulegé campground was full of low key, rag-tag Americans and Canadians with pick-up campers—Fords, not 5th-wheels. I got to know other overland campers, and I was surprised to learn that most of them had the same trajectory that I had: they, too, had gone south in Baja, but left because of the showy-ness that American tourists there had. They were turning the place into another version of a chic-beach resort. “But
Mulegé never changes,” all the campers said. “It won’t become another America because that’s just not how things work here.” I found out some campers had been coming to town for nearly 30 years. We swapped tips on solar panel usage and beaches on the Sea of Cortez where the water wasn’t too cold, where you could find cave paintings. Locals from
Mulegé drove in with cars full of vegetables and baked goods, greeting people by name, politely interrupting these conversations. The roads and
Mulegé are the only Mexican things I’ve encountered this trip, I joked often. Everything else seems pretty out of place. The campers and locals always laughed.
But how did things work here?, I wondered.
I retraced my steps and stuck my head in the door of the office. I was planning to buy another two nights at the camp site, and a young-ish boy who worked at the campsite, was in the office. I went in to pay and then—
“Hey, can you get me some grass to roll a joint?” I asked.
He looked at me with a momentary lapse of incredulity and then he jumped up. “Of course, of course!” he said, approaching me, reaching into his pocket. “Want me to get it for you now?”
“Whenever,” I said. “Just let me know how much I’d owe you,” I said as I started to saunter away. He knew that I was in a campsite by the back, and I knew that he would show up when he showed up.
I went back and sat under the palapa, a structure made out of palm. The sun was strong but the shade was nice under the palapa. I started to eat some lunch when Camper Boy appeared with a nug of weed the size of a grapefruit in his hand. His bowl was the size of a banana. He sat down and started breaking up weed to pack it.
Well shit, I thought, putting away my food. I thought now equaled whenever, but this was Latin American time, so now could be two days or five minutes ago. I figured his (over)enthusiasm was because the solo gringa (me) was actually paying him mind. I thought his (immediate)attention was cute.
He passed me a bowl and as I smoked, I asked him, “Are you from Mulegé?”
His eyes darkened. “No. I was born in San Felipe, north of here, but I got into some really bad stuff in Cabo. I got sent here to work for my uncle.” He paused. “I was an addict. I only smoke weed now te lo prometo. I promise you. And my life is better here anyway.”
I was struck by this. I thought about Minnesota man at the gas station. I thought about two other campers I had met the previous day. They were in recovery, too. They told me that they came to the campground in
Mulegé year after year because they said they felt safe there. I thought about my traveler sixth-sense for authenticity. Mulegé, the small, dusty town where nothing changes and nothing has changed in years (everyone kept saying), was special.
“Bien hecho,” I said to Camper Boy, offering my fist in a friendly and affirmative bump.
He looked at me with surprise and appreciation in his eyes. He returned the fist bump. “Gracias,” he said, getting up to leave.
Later, I was on the bench under the palapa. I had my writing notebooks nearby, open, still trying to articulate the prescriptive quality of a place like Mulegé. What made it different? And importantly, how did this place stay the same? I paused, took out my phone to look at pictures I had taken at the museum in Mulegé, a former prison with infamously no doors. It was in operation from the early 1900s till the 1970s, when the highway was built. Previously, the dusty town had been completely isolated. I learned the only doors that were in the prison were the ones that held in the crazy and violent. The majority of prisoners, who had been shipped to Mulegé from the mainland of Mexico, left their cells to work in the city an at the blow of a conch shell, returned to their cells. Many prisoners had family members who arrived to be with their loved ones, and their descendants populate
I put my cell phone down. Once more my thoughts turned to Minnesota man; the man selling shell art; the women campers in recovery; Camper Boy. I thought service, recovery, prison. I thought about how many Americans I had encountered in the south of Baja chose to bring their lifestyles to Mexico. I thought about how Mexicans from the mainland wound up in Baja California. I thought about my own displacement, re-arranged travel plans, tire trouble that brought me to Mulegé.
And I knew that, although unexpected, I wound up exactly where I needed to be.