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Tragedy at La Pulgas

Until Highway 1 was completed, this was the last outpost of civilization

As the water started to flow back down the channel it picked up unexpected momentum.

As the water started to flow back down the channel it picked up unexpected momentum.

John and I stood on a flat rock under the hot sun holding our fishing lines. Far below us large waves steadily struck the Baja coast south of Ensenada at this place called San Juan de las Pulgas. We had escaped from San Diego on a Friday afternoon in the first week of September, 1982, for a weekend of cheap Mexican beer, good outdoor cooking, and the solitude and beauty we had enjoyed here — the two of us alone and with other camping friends — on several trips over the past decade.

On this occasion, as on those previous expeditions, there was little evidence of humanity in any direction: only the dotted figures of a pair of lobster fishermen that morning setting out in a brightly colored wooden outboard to lower their traps several hundred yards offshore. We were thus surprised when a pickup truck rolled up from out of the vacant landscape and a group of five or six cheerful vacationing young Mexicans raced down a bluff to greet us.

John and I aren’t sure about the number, for the encounter was a relatively brief though friendly one. And despite a warm round of introductions, until a return camping visit near here and a hike to this lonely location a few weeks ago, I couldn’t recall any of their names. One hundred feet behind where we had stood fishing that warm September afternoon was a square marble plaque with a small cross and an inscription in Spanish to one of them. Luis Arturo Fernandez Cabrera, 12 • 14 • 1951 – 9 • 4 • 1982, His Fellow Telephone Workers, Northeast. Tijuana, B.C.

San Juan de las Pulgas had always been a special place to me and those with whom I’d camped there. It was a refuge from San Diego suburban existence, and despite the difficulty of the unpaved road leading there from the village of Santo Tomas and the strong sense of remoteness once we had arrived at our destination, we had always felt Pulgas was within reach. In miles it isn’t too far from San Diego. The Tijuana to Ensenada trip along the coastal highway takes only about an hour, and from there Pulgas is but forty miles or so south as the quail flies. Thus, while the actual journey from San Diego proceeding without interruption could take up to five hours, we were able to think of it as being quite close.

We never ventured below Ensenada without making several stops for provisions. That day in September a year ago was no exception. After adding a case of Bohemia and a bagful of fresh-baked sweet Mexican bread rolls to our supplies, we were on our way. Ten or fifteen miles south of Ensenada we crossed through the Santo Tomas Valley and at its southern end followed the curve of the road east to the final outpost of civilization for us, the pueblo of Santo Tomas. We stopped first at the El Palomar restaurant and curio shop, a long rectangular adobe that has a painted facade depicting a gay, pretty Mexican woman above the words “Carta Blanca.” We got out and stretched, then refueled from one of the shiny new automatic gas pumps to the side of the restaurant, which had recently replaced an antiquated hand pump and, apparently, its operator of many years, a short, dark, fearsome-looking man with a patch over one eye. Until Highway 1 was completed in 1973, Santo Tomas truly was the last outpost of civilization. The paved road came to an end not far below here and after that it was only possible to creep down the peninsula on a rocky trail in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Though Highway 1 is generally in excellent condition, and other towns, some as large as Santo Tomas (population 700), lie to the south, there is still a sense that beyond here — perhaps because Santo Tomas is still within a short distance of Ensenada — you’re on your own.

On my previous trips to Pulgas, the last of which was several years before, we had almost always taken an inconspicuous dirt road turnoff about fifteen miles beyond Santo Tomas across from an abandoned one-room house. I had heard stories from fellow camping friends who’d visited this area more recently than I that this road might have been washed out completely by the heavy rains of the last few years. At El Palomar I approached a white-haired resident about the road to Pulgas fifteen miles to the south of Santo Tomas. He told me that there was no such road. I said I was sure that there was, as I had traveled it several times in years past. “No existe," he repeated. Apparently he was right, since we got the same response from a couple of other Mexicans we stopped outside El Palomar who told us of the rains and the consequent disappearance of the “good” road. With the sun beginning to fade, leaving us perhaps another hour of light remaining, at best, John and I pulled out of El Palomar apprehensive of the prospect of navigating the “bad” road in near darkness.

We started down the dusty little street, passing several Mexicans at a tamale stand, a schoolyard with a basketball court, some crumbling pink and green shacks, and finally, the last sight before the road turned westward, the town cemetery on a small rise to our left. We then began a long climb up a steep mountainside with the sun falling brightly before us. I soon realized that this road had undergone major renovations; it was much wider than the last time I’d driven it and even had a gravel surface on the first few miles following that initial ascent. Further, there were now power lines running alongside several hundred feet to the east, though they soon vanished over the hills to the south as the road ambled westward.

This new road into Pulgas runs nineteen fairly smooth miles to the sea, passing hilly farmland of corn and wheat and a number of cattle ranches. A trickle of a stream snakes its way near the road part of the way, along which grow thick green groves of willows that stand out against the rolling brown fields. We sped along at fifteen to twenty miles per hour, looking down at times on the remains of the old, narrow, and rocky road and passing one or two farmers in rusty pickups driving east. We finally caught scent of the ocean breezes just as the sun was about to disappear below the few low-lying hills still blocking our path. As we closed in on the coast the surface of the road became very sandy, and I quickly accelerated to keep from getting stuck. At last the Pacific came into view, revealing a thin orange strip that lined the dark blue horizon.

Two hundred yards from the water there is a perpendicular junction in the road, one way leading to the long San Jose peninsula far to the north and the other to Pulgas three or four miles to the south. Turning left, I followed the road past the ranch of a friendly man named Morales (we could hear his dogs barking as they raced toward our car), past a small cove and fishing camp, down a steep arroyo and back up, and finally to our campsite, out a familiar narrow point overlooking the darkened sea.

John quickly lit a propane lantern and stove and, within thirty minutes, he had heated a savory dinner of leftover pork roast seasoned with onions and red salsa, accompanied by cold Bohemias and hot, buttered bolillos. We were now feeling quite contented with ourselves, having reached our destination, the last and most difficult stretch in the dark, and to be enjoying a delicious meal in this isolated and serene setting. Eventually we set up a couple of army cots and climbed into our sleeping bags. We soon fell asleep, despite the thundering waves crashing against the rocks a hundred feet away and a vague concern about waking up the next morning beside a rattlesnake.

Not a snake was to be seen the next morning, and we began the day by fixing a tasty breakfast of bacon, canned orange juice, and scrambled eggs sprinkled with twice-leftover pork roast. A little later, as the sun was beginning to burn off the morning mist, we set out to explore the terrain and to prepare for some afternoon fishing.

Pulgas did not look any different to us than it had ten years before. Directly beneath our bluff we looked down upon several layers of purple and grayish lava rock which fronted the sea. Several hundred yards north of our camp the waves crashed over a large flat area of tide pools. North of there we could see several blowholes against the cliffs spouting water twenty to thirty feet into the blue sky. Somewhere up in that direction was an eerie air blowhole that sounded like a loud horn when a big wave would force a great quantity of air through a passageway and out a small rock opening in a ridge some distance from the water. The most beautiful sight at Pulgas, however, was the hundred-yard-long, white sandy beach along a small, well-protected bay a short walk south of the promontory on which we were camped — a pleasant spot to swim, skin-dive, or just lie about on the warm sand.

John and I walked down to a rock wall along the far end of this beach' at low tide to gather up some mussels for our bait, and then returned to the campsite to get our fishing gear in order. While I worked at tying hooks and sinkers, John busied himself trying to get a yellow-and-blue plastic kite airborne. There wasn’t much wind, but after he ran up the road leading to our campsite maybe a dozen times, an air current finally took hold, lifting his kite several hundred feet high by the time we were ready to go fishing.

John tied the kite string to a nearby bush and we set out for a point at the lower end of the bay. We had found this location to be a good place to fish in the past because there were usually plenty of surf perch out there, there wasn’t much seaweed, and if a wave knocked you into the water off the low-lying rocks from which we fished, it was an easy swim into the beach. I began bringing in some small perch almost at once, while John, apparently having trouble casting because of a loose-fitting reel, disappeared somewhere to see if he couldn’t remedy the problem.

Twenty minutes or so later, after I’d landed three small and one midsize surf perch, I heard John yelling, “Hey, Mike! Hey, Mike!’’ some distance behind me. I turned to see him running my way, jumping over jagged rocks and small tide pools, holding a two-and-a-half-foot-long piece of driftwood to which he had fastened his reel. Dangling at the end of his line was an ugly brown-and-yellow fish with a sharp dorsal fin. “I think it’s a sculpin!’’ he exclaimed, lowering the fish to the ground. “Don’t touch those [dorsal] fins, they’re poisonous,” he warned me, as we worked at trying to retrieve the hook. John was plainly thrilled with his first fish of the day and particularly excited about the success of his makeshift reel support.

He had found this fish in what he was sure was an ideal fishing hole several hundred yards to the south of me. The new location was on a steep plane of rock that extended well out into the ocean relative to the general outline of the coast and then dropped off suddenly into deep, turbulent waters. John’s hole resembled a well — about a twenty-five-foot drop straight down from a broad ledge into a small pool, which was shielded from the churning surf by a narrow rock formation jutting out from the cliffs. To the right of this spot was a long, narrow channel of water angled to the north, bounded by the shoreline and an inaccessible flat rock outcropping that was mostly submerged by the great swells breaking a short distance away. Just to the south the cliffs rose still higher to perhaps seventy feet and dropped off precipitously into thrashing whitewater.

I soon joined John over there, hoping to land something other than the bite-size perch I’d snared so far. After wrapping the thick tongue of a large mussel around my hook, I carefully fed my line over the ledge into the dark hole below as the spray of a large wave shot up to cool my hot face. Almost instantly there was a sharp tug on my line, promising a good-size fish. When I had reeled my catch more than halfway up the rock wall, a handsome buttermouth came into view, and on successive lowerings of my line I pulled up a shiny, flat, dark-blue fish and then a brown rock fish, all big enough to be filleted. John had indeed discovered a bountiful fishing hole and we couldn’t help starting to think about the dinner that awaited us that evening.

About this time we saw a cloud of dust in the distance moving steadily along the southbound road toward us. It was an old pickup truck and, judging by the staccato bursts from the engine, we determined it was being driven by Mexicans, or at least running on Mexican Nova or Extra petrol. We paid little attention to the approaching vehicle, though, engrossed as we were now with our fishing. But about ten minutes later, without warning, five or six Mexican men — it seemed like many more than that after a half day of complete solitude — came charging down the bluff some distance behind us whooping and laughing, carrying with them several tall, clear bottles of Corona Extra cerveza. They appeared so suddenly that, for a brief moment, I thought they were bandidos. For whatever reason, possibly because of the Coronas they had been drinking, they were in very high spirits. After several como estas, rnucho gustos, and saludos they handed John and me a bottle of their private stock and we began to converse jovially. They were all young, in their late twenties and early thirties, and were adorned in long baggy pants or bermuda shorts, and most were shirtless. A couple I spoke with said they were from Mazatlan enjoying a week-long vacation; the others apparently were friends or relatives of theirs who resided in Tijuana.

We next showed them some of our catch and invited them to fish with us. Several of the Mexicans were fascinated and amused by the fishing device John had fashioned, though we very soon noticed some of the contraptions they had brought with them were hardly less inventive or primitive. Our Mexican friends quickly busied themselves with trying to collect a catch of their own. One positioned himself virtually on the edge of a sixty-foot vertical precipice to the south of us. Another lowered his line into the hole John and I had found so rewarding, smiling and clutching a Corona in his other hand as his full, bare belly absorbed the warm rays of the midaftemoon sun. A couple of others disappeared to the south, apparently looking for other fertile fishing grounds. A short, black-haired man went to work picking mussels in a tide pool to the north of us that was fed by a narrow offshoot at the entrance of the channel.

John and I continued to reel in fish, mostly perch and buttermouth, prompting shouts of approval from our companeros and, further to celebrate a catch, another offer of cerveza. The Mexicans weren’t having much luck, so after a while John and I resolved to share what we’d pulled in with them that night. Shortly after this, I saw one of the Mexicans out of the corner of my eye running down the slope behind us at a full sprint toward the water. “What’s he doing?’’ I cried out to John, who was fishing some fifty feet to the north of me. “One of them’s fallen in!’’ he shouted back. We dropped our poles at once and ran 150 feet to a broad ledge near the entrance of the channel where the Mexican who had burst past us moments before was now standing. Out between the steep rock walls of the narrow channel the mussel gatherer — Luis, I later learned — was bobbing in the water, fully clothed. “Don’t jump in!” John yelled to me. Though I immediately appreciated the grave danger and wanted to help, I wasn’t about to leap into the swirling waves fifteen feet below us.

Having fished along the northern Baja coast many times in the past, where channels like this one abound, I had imagined almost this precise peril several times before. This channel was particularly terrifying because of the way in which the volume of water would change so rapidly and dramatically with each wave that flowed through, causing the depth of the channel to rise and fall as much as ten feet within seconds, and creating, in turn, a -ferocious undercurrent that would reach way beneath the body of rock across the channel from us.

From John’s vantage point somewhat farther to the north he had witnessed how Luis was so quickly placed in this deadly predicament. An unusually large wave had broken just outside the mouth of the channel, sending water gushing up a slowly inclined smaller channel off to the right, perhaps Five feet wide and forty feet long, which emptied into a large tide pool. Luis was standing near the top of this side channel in less than one foot of water, collecting mussels with his back to the ocean. The water from this wave rushed past him slightly above his knees without disturbing his balance, but as the water started to flow back down the channel it picked up unexpected momentum, knocking him over and carrying him swiftly out toward the main channel. He frantically sought to grab hold of several rocks as he was swept along, but the wet, algae-covered surfaces would not afford him a grip. The backwash gathered increasing force and volume as it flowed downward, leaving Luis perhaps twenty feet from the nearest rock and practically in the middle of the main channel’s entrance at the end of its powerful course. All of this happened in perhaps ten to fifteen seconds.

To this point he did not seem to be badly hurt; John observed him actually swimming a few feet out of the channel the moment he was again under his own power before a small wave threw him back. When I arrived, Luis was treading water and looking directly at the three of us, expressionless. Soon a couple of the other Mexicans had joined us there. “Swim out!’’ directed John, pointing toward the sea with his arm. “Afuera!” one of the Mexicans shouted. Luis, strangely enough, never made a sound. A Mexican moved close to the edge of the rock we stood on as though he was thinking about diving in to rescue his friend, but then took a step back. We looked nervously around us trying to find something we might quickly throw to him — a rope, anything that would float — but saw nothing.

Some large waves were now swelling not far outside the channel and the reality of this horrible situation and our helplessness in the face of it were becoming clear. In desperation I pulled off the T-shirt I was wearing and told John to give me his and the belt he had on. I was tying these together hurriedly when a large wave buried Luis for what seemed like about ten seconds.

When he finally surfaced in the churning froth before us, he was near the far side of the channel, no longer looking toward us and doing all that he could just to keep his head above the slashing currents. Another wave struck moments thereafter, and, in a near-unbearable spectacle, appeared to pull him beneath the rock ledge on the opposite side of the channel. When he came up this time he was very nearly drowned, unable to raise his chin up from his chest. Just before Luis was again covered by another blanket of water his right arm flew weakly up into the air.

Three or four minutes had now elapsed since he had first been swept in. The next sight of him he was in a dead man's float with his head face down in the water near our side of the channel. Below the surface we could see the brown boots Luis was wearing and across his lower back was a deep red gash.

Our makeshift rope now stretched maybe fifteen feet but was quite useless by this time. We realized if there was to be any chance of reviving him, we would have to get him out of there in the next several minutes, but those minutes soon slipped by. We stood, all of us stunned, on the rock ledge above, following the slow southward drift of his body through a small passageway at the end of the channel and out into the steep open coastline. In a few more minutes the currents started to carry him farther away from shore. Seeing this, one of the Mexicans grabbed his fishing pole and cast several times off the high cliff attempting to hook the clothing or flesh of his companion.

All of us, huddled together in a pack now, moved along the edge of these cliffs for several hundred yards trying to keep the body in sight. The Mexicans had been unable to find any rope in their truck and wanted to know whether we had any type of rope at our campsite. We didn’t. Meanwhile, one of the Mexicans had carefully made his way down the cliff to a ledge perhaps only fifteen feet above the water, where he tied our lifeline around his waist. Though the waves here were just as large and the coastline just as foreboding, at least a swimmer would not be trapped between two rock walls. Several of us urged him not to attempt this, as we had yet to find any place along these cliffs from which one could hope to swim ashore.

Most of us now walked away from the cliffs and found a seat on the rock bluff behind us. We sat still there in complete silence for a long while, perhaps close to two hours, with only the steady drum of the waves beating the coast in our ears. The sun was dropping now and the air soon grew cool against our shirtless bodies. A couple of the Mexicans followed the continued southward drift of Luis’s body, though it became increasingly difficult to see his submerged form, and they finally lost sight of him.

The Mexicans gradually disappeared up the slope to their truck, and not long afterward John and I separated and set out for our campsite. About an hour later we saw the headlights of the Mexicans’ pickup coming in our direction from the south. As they passed about 200 yards to the east, we looked one another’s way and signaled with a slow nod. We expected them to be back early the next day, possibly with Mexican police, but when we had packed our things and were prepared to depart Pulgas late the following morning, no one had yet arrived. We considered hiking down the coast several miles to search for the body ourselves, but decided to pull out, leaving that depressing job to Luis’s companions.

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