Here are a few more audio sections of Metamorphosis ll: met041m, met042m, met043m, met044m, met045m. If this is your first visit to my blog you will find the first 40 sections of the book in earlier postings below.
The following is an account of a drive from San Jose del Cabo to San Francisco, with a stop in Hell…
An ice-cube shifted. My eyes darted to my freshly poured gin and tonic. I took a sip. A welcome distraction. My hand re-settled over the mouse as I looked back at the screen, the cursor hovering over the ‘Purchase’ button. Go on! Hit the damn thing! One side of me yelled. Go forth! Go where no man has gone before! The other side, the darkside, moaned: Don’t do it. You’re going to die. Either you’re going to run head on into a chrome-covered semi as big as a building at a combined speed of 140 mph or you’re going to be buggared and left to die and then to bloat and decompose in the stifling Baja sun, and then be eviscerated by a flock of vultures. No, don’t go. Be smart. Stay at home. Draw the blinds and drink.
But I had to go, there were a list of things I needed to do in San Jose del Cabo, like load the car that was gathering dust in the garage with the photographs I had hanging in a restaurant and getting them back to SF.
I hit the button. Alaska 224, San Jose del Cabo on Tuesday, February 25 at 10.40am.
The plan was to drive back alone…a drive of 1600 miles, mainly in hot desert. I’ve done it twice before, but both from SF down. It’s not an easy drive with company let alone solo, the 1000 miles of road in the Baja is mostly narrow, and there’s no margin of error with no shoulder to help you if you mess up. Cows and horses on the road are a constant threat (just recently a friend of mine totalled his rig when hitting a deer) and so are the hulking great trucks, looming in the distance, their hugeness bearing down, shimmering in the mirage (with every truck I’m reminded of the movie Duel), and then there’s always the unsettling thought that around the next corner there could be drug cartel people waiting…waiting to do whatever they want to do to a pasty white guy.
It was a week before I was due to go and I had resigned myself to going solo - after all who could just pick up and take off for 8 to 10 days on a weeks notice?
As it turned out my dear friend Su could and suddenly the trip took on a different look.
I’ve known Su for twenty or so years, ever since we met at the City Club where I was photographing a wedding and Su was the bartender. She wanted to get into the photography business and while she poured me drinks I told her about the business. That led to Su working with me as an assistant for two or three years before going out on her own. She’s a very good photographer…and a good friend…and there aren’t too many people I’d rather have with me on a long trip than her.
As my house was rented Wayne and Annelle, my dear friends who have a house on the beach, kindly invited Su and I to stay with them. Annelle is a good interior designer and Wayne knows everything that there is to know about maintaining a house that’s not on the grid, and it shows; their house is bright, colorful, immaculate and beautiful.
W & A’s. #1
W & A’s. #2
W & A’s #3
W & A’s #4
We stayed at their house which is on the coast 15 minutes from downtown San Jose for 5 days. San Jose del Cabo is a very pleasant, small Mexican town, unlike Cabo San Lucas which is 45 minutes up the coast and which is a hyped-up eternal Spring-break town. There is a vibrant and growing art district in San Jose, and it’s attracting more and more significant artists as time goes by, artists like Frank Arnold who recently opened a stunning gallery to showcase his exceptional work. Su and I toodled around town, eating a taco here, having a beer there, both of us always looking out for a photograph.
This was taken on the beach in front of Zipper’s.
One evening, on the way back to Wayne and Annelle’s, a horse corral set off the road near to downtown caught our eye. We could see men on horseback, galloping this way and that, kicking up dust, dust that hovered in the air, lit by the arena’s lights. We parked and walked in. There were ten or so horsemen in the corral all dressed similarly, in their uniform of a tight-fitting shirt, jeans, large belt buckles, a cowboy hat and boots. Twenty or so women and kids, who I assumed were their wives and children, sat in the stands. Su and I nodded hello and then sat down on the dust-covered bench a few feet away. The men on their horses stood idly in groups of threes and fours, laughing and bantering with each other although their voices indistinct. The scene felt timeless to me; it could have been a century ago, although then perhaps the women would have their hair piled high, draped with a mantilla, and dressed in gowns that thrust their breasts skyward, and the men perhaps looking suave with their jet-black, slicked back hair, and their silver studded pants, and knee-high boots. The men stopped their bantering and turned toward a pen where a bull was being led to. A man climbed the fence and straddled the pen and was now poised above the bull. He pulled tightly on the rope that was wound around his gloved hand. Although he was on the other side of the corral the tension in his body was evident. The women stopped talking and the children hushed…there was a feeling of expectancy in the air. A cry went up as the gate flew open and man and beast charged forth. The bull bucked and stomped across the corral, dust flying, but the man, egged on by the cheers and cries of admiration held on. (I cheered too but at the same time was thinking: ‘This guy is stone crazy!). But then, not far from us, the bull suddenly stopped in its tracks. Been here done that, I imagined it thinking. The moment was oddly anti-climactic. But then, with a couple of swift kicks, the bull suddenly charged toward the wall. It swerved at the last second and the man came flying off crashing to the ground out of sight below us. Fearing the worst we, the crowd of twenty, peered over the edge to watch the man stumble to his feet, pick up his hat and wave in triumph. Another roar went up (at least as much a roar as twenty people can muster) and then I watched, fascinated, as the women took off their boots, shoes and sandals and threw them in the ring. An odd but quaint custom, I thought. We stayed to watch the roping of a horse and soon after that was done Su and I left.
…and the man came flying off crashing to the ground…
…the roping of a horse…
On Saturday afternoon, the day before we were to leave, Wayne, Paul, who is a neighbour, and Su and I played arroyo golf (8 or 9 years ago, frustrated at the crazy high green fees on ‘real’ golf courses I laid out a nine-hole golf course in the dried riverbed nearby) and afterwards went over to Wayne’s place for the customary post-golf gin and tonic. Wayne said, over his gin and tonic, that there was no way he’d drive the Baja on a Sunday, saying that there are a lot of drunk drivers on the road, people who had been drinking all weekend. Su looked at me questioningly. I shrugged. ‘I’ve seen some horrible accidents,’ Wayne said. ‘Horrible,’ Paul agreed, as he poured himself another drink. Su looked over and I shrugged again. It seemed like a fifty-fifty proposition at best.
The following morning we loaded the car, said our goodbyes and headed north. We had no plan, only to drive as long as we felt like driving, to take photographs and then to stop wherever and eat and sleep. And then get up and do it again. We figured that if we took it easy it would take us five days to get to SF. Maybe longer. Although I felt excitement to be on the open road, there was, nevertheless, a nagging feeling that perhaps Su and I were pushing our luck, that perhaps we should have heeded Wayne and Paul’s advice not to drive the Baja on a weekend day. ‘They wouldn’t listen,’ I imagined them saying over gin and tonics upon hearing that we were pried off of the grill of a semi. ‘Oh, yes, we told them but they wouldn’t listen. Pass the gin.’ But with each kilometer those negative thoughts slipped away and were left in our wake.
I saw people and a bunch of vehicles ahead. I thought that perhaps there’d been an accident but as we got closer I saw that it was a military checkpoint. The dogs and guns created a tense atmosphere, and although I had no reason to worry my gut tightened as a soldier-boy asked us to get out of the car. ‘Fotografias,’ I said, when the soldier pointed in the trunk. He nodded, then he walked to the driver’s side and got in. He opened the armed rest and pushed around the odds and ends that Eric had left in there and that I hadn’t bothered to clean out. He took something out, I couldn’t tell what it was from where I was standing but it had his attention. ‘Fuck!’ I thought, what if it was a roach? A scene from Midnight Express flashed through my mind. I am going to be buggared on this trip, I know it. He turned and said: ‘This.’ A square of silver paper lay in his open palm and on it, partially melted, was a brown goo. Christ! Heroin?! I’m truly done for – I hope that they use Vaseline. Then I laughed, a tight laugh that came from the top of my throat. ‘Chocolat!’ I exclaimed.
I like the desert, unforgiving and unbending as it is. It has earned the reputation of being a hostile environment to man (the numerous abandoned, weed-infested, cinder block buildings confirm that), and rightfully so, but it’s far more than just that. The desert’s eco-system is a marvel, with a myriad of flora and fauna thriving within it, and after the summer rains its colors are spellbinding.
The road climbed, the air cooling as we ascended, and soon we were surrounded by jagged mountains. The views of the peaks around us were spectacular but I had little opportunity to take it in as the twisting and turning road demanded all of my attention. Oncoming traffic would suddenly appear, sweeping around a corner, forcing me to drive too close to the precipitous edge for my liking, and although I always expected it it nevertheless always surprised. And then the Sea of Cortez suddenly appeared below, its brilliant blue a stark contrast to the red-brown and grey of the mountains we were leaving. For a while we drove with the sea off to our right, catching sight of crescent-shaped beaches with their brilliant white sand that framed the bays. Crude wooden huts lined them, facing out to sea and I could see grownups sitting in the strip of sand between the huts and the sea looking on as children played in the shallow water. It looked idyllic, so simple and uncomplicated, and I wondered if they knew how lucky they were.
We spent our first night at the Serinidad Hotel in Mulege. I’d stayed there 10 years ago and had enjoyed it then. It was known as one of the best hotels on the Baja. But the intervening years since my last stay had not been kind to it; our bathroom door was buckled and splintered and the smell of a sewer wafted up from the sink drain. The ceiling fan turned in a warped circle looking as though it was about to come loose, and the air-conditioner made so much noise that it was impossible to sleep with it on. The Serinidad had become an aging queen of hotels.
We got up before daybreak and were on the road within minutes. It was still dark and so I drove cautiously, lest a cow or a horse should appear in the headlights. As the daylight increased so did our speed, and soon the cardons, silent sentinels of the desert (some of the largest cardons have been measured at nearly 70 feet high and weigh up to 25 tons, these very slow-growing plants are also extremely long-lived, and many specimens live well over 300 years) were a blur. Su and I hardly spoke, comfortable not to, our comments limited to one or two words. ‘Coffee,’ I said. Su nodded. ‘Pretty,’ Su said, when the sea appeared off to our right. Blue. Flat. Incongruous it seemed…out of place with the desert alongside side it, but welcome nevertheless.
We reached Santa Rosalia in the early light of day.
…Su, in the early light of day…
Santa Rosalia is an oasis in the desert. A delightful town. The French founded the town in 1884 and exploited copper mines there until 1954. While they were busily exploiting the copper mines they were, however, also busily building lovely portico fronted houses that line the grid work of streets. Later the Mexicans put their own stamp on the town with their use of bold and playful colors.
We parked and walked around, one eye on the architecture the other looking for a cup of coffee. The search for the coffee took us on a circuitous route, and we found ourselves on the town pier where we took a couple of photographs.
Finally we found a coffee shop. A poster on one of the walls of Emiliano Zapata caught my eye. What a great name, I thought.
‘My new name is Emiliano Zapata,’ I told Su. She nodded.
‘Really,’ I insisted. ‘I’ve lived with my name too long. It’s time for change.’ Su nodded again.
After a plate of huevos rancheros and copious cups of coffee we got back on the road and pressed on into the unknown. We drove into the Desierto de Vizcaino. For hours we drove on roads that were straight and featureless save for the dry desert that stretched for miles around; a road that I forgot but one that left an impression. My weary eyes traveled from road to temperature gauge and back again, then I’d watch as the miles clicked over. Time no longer mattered…only distance. Flying insects smacked into the windshield leaving a smear of clear, viscous fluid where they had met their demise, we drove through a cloud of black flies and there was a rat-tat-tat! as they struck the glass. In the numbing mile after mile sameness my mind emptied replaced by idle thought. Do Buddhists go on road trips, and if so how can they justify the carnage? And what’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when it hits the windshield? It’s ass? While we were climbing into some mountains the trip odometer clicked to 500 miles; we were halfway up the Baja. To celebrate we got out on a plateau and stretched our legs.
We reached Guerrero Negro and after a quick up and down the main drag we split. Santa Rosalia had spoilt us, Santa Rosalia was the yin and Guerrero Negro was the yang. The only thing worth looking at in G.N. were the lagoons and salt flats and they were out to sea. If I lived here I’d pick up and move up the road to Santa Rosalia.
Wayne had said that we should fill up with gas in G.N. as the stations were few and far between from then on. Navigator Su, who was head down, studying the guide, said that there were plenty of good-sized towns on the map and that our half tank of gas would get us to one of them okay. Knowing Wayne as I do I should have filled up, my gut said that we should, but then again we’d survived the Sabbath Death Gauntlet, and so maybe he was wrong about this? We ploughed on into Desierto Central, a desert different from the Vizcaino with its odd, alien looking Boojum cacti pointing to the sky.
We’d been driving for 8 hours, not freeway hours where you can put the car on cruise and sit back, but a hard 8 hours that needed one’s attention at all times. I was getting punchy, my mind had become mush.
‘Car companies are getting hard up for names, seems like,’ I said.
It took Su a few seconds to murmur: ‘Hmmm’.
After all there was no hurry.
‘Why Ford Focus? Focus what?’ I said. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Hmmm. Right,’ Su murmured, humouring me.
‘Why not Ford Feces? Or the Chevy…Chevy… Enema?’
Su chuckled. ‘Nissan Skidmark.’
‘There you go,’ I said. ‘What happened to names like Mustang and ThunderBird…’
‘Right. Now it’s the Catera. What the fuck is a Catera? Or the Charade…or…or…the Brat! Please.’
‘Hecc, hecc, hecc-hecc-hecc,’ I laughed, like Butt-head, something that Paul, back in San Jose, had got me doing. ‘Or Chevy Chlamydia. Hecc, hecc, hecc-hecc-hecc.’
‘The guide, that was written 4 years ago, says that a Pemex station was being built-in Catavinia when it was going to press, so it’ll be built by now. I figure it’s seventy miles more, Emiliano,’ Su said.
I smiled. ‘Doesn’t it have a nice ring to it? Emiliano Zapata. Yes, that’s my new name.’
I looked at the gas gauge. No problem, I thought, we’ll make it easily. Which was a good thing as we’d just blown through Rosarito and its gas station. Although getting gas would have been the smart thing to have done but smart wasn’t on the menu. Besides I have a Deathwish. I figured that we’d just about make it, and I liked that – taking a chance - pushing the envelope and all that. Hardly life-threatening stuff I realize, but the South Pole has already been reached and so has the top of Everest.
The boulders of Catavinia appeared and so Catavinia was just around the corner. Perfect timing as the gauge was on zero. The Cataviña Boulder Field is a strange landscape, the hills and valleys are covered by smooth, rounded rocks, ranging in size from marbles to boulders the size of buildings. They were shaped by the wind, blowing like airborne sandpaper across the desert for millions of years.
There was no gas in Catavinia, ony a rusted hulk of a gas pump in front of the hotel. Houston, we have a problem.
‘Shit!’ Su hissed. ‘We should have got gas when we could have.’
‘Let’s go in the hotel and see what’s what.’
What a dumbass I am, I thought as I climbed the hotel steps, and it was I. I had violated one of the major rules, maybe the rule, of driving the Baja; get gas when you can. I tried to keep my eyes from showing my panic as I asked the lady behind the desk where we could get gas. She said that gas was being sold out of drums on the roadside on the way out-of-town. We bought 5 gallons, enough to get us to the next gas station, and after taking a self-timer shot of the two of us next to a huge cardon we continued on. Oy vey.
Su and I talked about driving the last 650 miles to SF. We were now far enough up the Baja to make SF by the following night, and although it would mean a long day today and a longer one manana that’s what we decided to do. But first things first – we were both hungry. We weren’t too far from Mama Espinoza’s in El Rosario, and seeing as Wayne had said that it was regarded as one of the best restaurants in the Baja and had said that we should stop there we figured we should. After the best tortilla soup that I’ve ever had we hit the road again.
The Pacific appeared to our left and as it did the terrain again changed, the land still arid but signs of desert gone.
Having to drive through a succession of small coastside towns, each one similar to the last, slowed down our pace. The setting sun relentlessly slammed into the one-story ramshackle stores that faced the Pacific, the shoddy construction used was made evident in the strong light but so were the vibrant colors that they were painted. Finally we got on the toll road to Rosarita where we were to spend the night in a trailer that belonged to one of Su’s friends. It was dark by the time we pulled to a stop in front of it, fifteen hours after we’d left Mulege and the Serinidad Hotel.
The alarm was set for 4.30am but when I woke up around 3.30am and heard Su moving about we got going early and were out the door by 3.50am. Tijuana lay ahead.
Shortly after we got on the toll road the tone was set for the bizarre two hours to follow. ‘What insanity this is…a strange road…middle of the night’, I mumbled to myself as we accelerated down the on-ramp. ‘What drives us to do such things?’ I was still half-asleep, and although I had spent just about every waking hour for the last two days in the car it now felt strange in my hands. In fact I felt strange to me. That aside I had to concentrate on what I was doing and get up to speed, driving too slow would be just as dangerous as driving too fast. And so I found myself careening down an unfamiliar road at four in the morning while white-knuckling the steering wheel in a death-grip.
‘Whoa!‘ I exclaimed. A white arrow on the road pointing toward us appeared in the headlights. Then another flashed by. My eyes flew open wide and I sat bolt upright. ‘What the…?’ When I was working for TWA many years ago a woman who I had dated, and her boyfriend, were killed when a drunk hit them head on going the wrong way on 280. I flashed on that as I frantically looked for cars up front and behind us to see if we were going the right way…or not.
‘What’s going on?’ Su, who was been hunkered down in her seat, asked.
I told her and she sat up and peered ahead.
‘It’s okay, there’s a car coming up behind us. Jesus! Sometimes this country…,’ I said, shaking my head.
We drove on. The road gently dipped and rose, it hugged the coast and the view of the sea to our left in the muted early light was stunning. But I was too on edge to take it in.
‘There’s the wall, Emiliano,’ Su said.
The wall. It looked confrontational. It said KEEP OUT! in no uncertain terms. Arrogant…I thought. How would I feel if my neighbour did that to me?
The look of it keened the edge of my tense and dark mood.
‘Tijuana ahead,’ Su pointed.
I nodded. Looks can be very deceiving, the lights of the city in the distance sparkled, reminding me of the lights of Aqaba seen from across the Gulf of Eilat in Israel. As we plunged down into the city in the murky light, Tijuana’s true colors now showed themselves. There was a grimness that hung in the air, and the way that people moved in the streets seemed to say that to stay still meant danger. Was I projecting because of what I’d heard about Tijuana? Maybe.
The traffic came to a standstill. As Su had gone through the border a few times before I asked her if she was sure that we were where we should be and she said that she thought so. She didn’t sound convincing and so to make sure that we were I tried to get the attention of someone next to us. But no one would even look at me let alone talk to me. Finally an American wound his window down on Su’s side. He laughed when she asked him if the traffic was headed for the border. ‘Where else would they be going?’ he said, before winding his window back up again. We needed to turn left but the cross traffic stubbornly blocked the intersection and wouldn’t allow traffic to turn. We moved inches at a time. Despite the early hour it was already hot, and exhaust fumes spewing into the warm air didn’t help. The polluted air hung heavy sucking the colors from around us, reducing everything to a monochromatic sameness. It was every man for himself – there was no quarter given. Finally, after more than a half hour, we turned the corner. But things didn’t improve, we only moved a hundred yards in the next thirty to forty minutes. On a bridge that straddled the road up ahead were two signs, one above our lane that said: ‘San Diego’ , and another above the lane next to us to the left, that was also jammed, that said: ‘Tecate’. The lane to our right was empty of traffic with only the occasional vehicle going by. I watched enviously as the odd car or bus whizzed by and then disappeared up a ramp a hundred yards or so further on. We were about to come to a barrier between the two lanes when Su suddenly sat up straight and yelled: ‘Turned right! Get in that lane!’ It didn’t seem right to me but figuring that Su knew what she was doing I swerved over, barely missing a bus that flew past, its horn blaring.
‘Oh, no! What have I done?’ Su uttered, her hand to her mouth.
‘What?’ I cried in disbelief.
‘I can’t believe it. I can’t see in this light…I…I thought the sign… Shit! Shit! Shit!’
We fell silent. I was speechless as the implications sunk in: we’d just spent over an hour in the worst traffic and now we had to find the tail of it and do it all over again.
The road led us up a ramp and over the bridge and then down into heavy traffic that was headed in the direction of the city center. Although I had a sinking feeling that I was destined never to leave Tijuana I told myself to be cool, that Su feels bad enough as it is without me ragging on her.
‘I am so sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’
‘That’s okay. It’s good material for my blog.’
Of course it wasn’t okay. At worst this becomes the bloated and decomposing part of the trip – and at best it adds a couple of hours to an already long day. Oy vey. It was quiet in the car as we drove around looking for the border traffic. We finally hooked up to the end of border traffic that snaked through the surface streets of a dilapidated neighbourhood. The line might have been long, and might have moved agonizingly slowly, but at least it was stiflingly hot, now that the sun was up.
I looked down at the temperature gauge.
It was on red.
‘What’s wrong?’ Su asked. I pointed at the gauge.
Just as I was contemplating pulling off to the side of the road the gauge flickered back to normal, but although back on normal I had an uneasy feeling about it. And on top of that my bladder was sending me a message that I’ll be needing a bathroom soon.
A man suddenly appeared and stuck his hand in the open window . There was a gouge out of the top of his hand a half-inch deep and three or four inches long that showed his tendons and whatever the hell else there is that deep. It was grotesque, the worst looking injury that I have ever seen…especially that close. ‘Jesus! Get that away from me!‘ I cried. Normally I’d have given the guy a buck and wished him the best but I was too on the edge to act normal. I hit the up button.
The temperature gauge flickered toward red before settling back down again. ‘Christ! I don’t need this,’ I said under my breath. ‘I really don’t need this.’
‘Su, would you mind putting on some music? Something light…please.’
She picked up a San Diego station where a talk show host was talking about a video clip he’d seen on YouTube of a bullfighter who had slipped and how when he went down the bull’s horn went through his throat and came out of his mouth.
‘What next?’ I muttered. Was this real or was I trapped in a Twilight Zone episode.
I drummed my fingers on the wheel. The traffic was only inching along. I was impatient to get out from under the sun and into the shade of a bridge up ahead as the temperature gauge was edging toward red again, plus, without the air-conditioning on, it was hot in the car.
‘What’s going on up there?’ Su asked.
‘I don’t know. It looks like a cops convention.’
‘Why under the bridge?’
There were twenty or so white-helmeted cops under the bridge with their motorbikes parked close by. Why here? Why not at the police station? The scene looked foreboding, although everything seemed pretty negative at this point…but a feeling pervaded that something big was going down.
But I had other things to think about…like, is this engine going to blow? (the temperature gauge was flickering into red again) and like, when am I going to be done with this fucking nightmare? I had no choice but to keep going as there was no room to pull over even if I wanted to. We inched out from under the shade of the bridge into the bright and hot sun and turned left up a ramp and onto a multi-lane road.
I could see the immigration building in the distance. I finally felt that we were making some headway. But my need to go to the bathroom had stepped up a notch. What do people who regularly travel across the border do if they need to go to the bathroom? Or do they not drink anything for a couple of days beforehand? Or maybe they have some sort of tube device attached to their deals that I don’t know about? If they don’t maybe there’s money to be made? I’d get the gadgets made and the vendors who walk up and down selling coffee and pastries could sell them? Coffee! Pastries! Urine-o-Bags!
We finally reached immigration…the Holy Grail. The temperature gauge was on normal, I hadn’t wet my pants, and we’d reached immigration. Allelujah!
For no reason I had guilt written all over my face as I looked up at the immigration officer. He peered down at me, his eyes deep-set, dark and with bags, looking like he’d been looking at porno on the computer for too long. He smiled revealing stained teeth that had big gaps between them, two of them pointed. He looked like a vampire. I smiled at him like a simpleton. Search me. Take me away and give me the full anal inspection.
But he waved us through. We were back in the USA. We peeled off at the first gas station, peed, refueled and left.
‘Coffee? Emiliano,’ Su said.
‘I can’t. Not yet.’
I had to put some mileage between me and the border, it was a psychological thing, and it wasn’t until we crested the Grapevine and started down on the valley side that I felt far enough removed from the madness we’d left behind.
‘Look. Denny’s’ I said. And there below us was the ubiquitous sign that never looked so good.
Although not a regular stop of mine today I needed Denny’s. Someplace ordinary…dependable…simple. I needed to sit in a booth and be served lots of coffee and a plate of eggs and pancakes…a Grand Slam…by a slightly overweight waitress whose uniform was just a bit too tight, who wore white, crepe soled shoes, who had a pencil stuck in her piled hair, and carried a brown, plastic coffee pot.
We eased ourselves in to a booth.
‘Coffee?’ Marge asked.