Baja is a chaos of sand and light and mountains and dogs. It’s deliciously dry, like Colorado in summer, with a bit of breeze to make the Bougainvillea sway. The sun rises over the ocean and shines back into our sandy arroyo, making long shadows from the creosote and palo verde. In the distance the mountains are jagged, white limestone, receding in gray layers toward the desert interior. There are huge stands of old-growth Saguaro, their trunks thick and woody and wide around as a mature sycamore. In town dogs are under every parked truck, beside every shop front, in every street and on the beaches. They all seem to be sleeping, or just waking up.
We stay high on an acantilada above the second arroyo and make a daily ritual of watching the sun rise and set from beneath a sagging pergola. Arroyo is an addictive word. Round and deep, it lends itself to lore. It comes from the Latin arrugia, which means essentially a gallery of tunnels in a gold mine. The only gold on this trip comes in the form of Jose Cuervo. But the arroyo sparkles at dawn and dusk, beckoning us to the edge of its emptiness.
One morning we follow a serpentine road up the chalky walls of the Sierra de la Laguna, through miles of evergreen oak and thornscrub, past the smoke stacks of El Triunfo’s abandoned silver smelters, and down into the dry pacific coastal plain. We are in search of bikinis, which Sara says exist in plentitude in the beach town of Todos Santos. We nickname our little car the Huevito because it looks like a little egg. We find bikinis, then the beach, and while we surf the local surf god backs his F150 into the Huevito, denting the door and ripping the trim off.
When I return to get money for beer he’s standing there. I bend to look at the damage. “It was me, man,” he says with a Mexican surf bra accent. “I wanted to let you know, ‘cause, you know, it’s the right thing to do. Karma, man.” he says. “How much you think it will cost?” I guess about $800. “I got 1200 pesos,” he says. A hundred bucks. He hands me the folded bills. “I guess my dogs won’t eat for a week,” he says. I try to give 200 back but he won’t take it.
On the way home we crawl over topes, Baja’s ever-present speed bumps. El Huevito’s gas light comes on. There’s nothing around but dark desert. Baja’s mountain towns are asleep. We coast the downhills, hurtling over small arroyos. They all seem to be named for some terror — Puente Perdido, Puente Viboras – a far cry from those gold-filled arrugias the Spaniards envisioned. But isn’t that the draw of an arroyo? Secret and sunken, its sandy darkness is a mystery.
Maybe that’s Baja’s message for the new year. 2013 is empty as an arroyo. There’s no telling what it holds. We can choose whether we want to see snakes or gold, or nothing at all. We can be drawn to its edge, to its emptiness and its sparkle.