IF YOU HAD ASKED ME A FEW WEEKS AGO WHAT I WOULD DO IF A SCORPION CRAWLED UP MY FOOT, I would have told you that I'd move slowly so as not to agitate the little critter, then deposit it gently a safe distance away from camp. However, we humans do not always come as advertised. When actually presented with the situation, while eating a makeshift fish taco on a deserted beach along Mexico's Baja Peninsula, I emitted a shrill cry before jumping up and down and thrusting my foot into the flames of a driftwood campfire.
The scorpion vanished with a slight crackle, leaving me to explain to my buddies that I hadn't actually panicked—it was more like I'd implemented a swift form of frontier justice. They weren't buying my story, so I attempted to reestablish my tough-guy credentials by blowing a few fireballs of Cuban rum. This might have worked better if Danny hadn't wandered over to our abused rental van and announced that I'd left the ignition on again and this time the battery was completely dead.
My "buddies" amounted to my two older brothers—Matt, 37, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grassland ecologist from Miles City, Montana, and Danny, 35, an aquatic ecologist with the University of Alaska at Anchorage—and my longtime friend Andrew Radzialowski, a.k.a. Pooter, a 33-year-old chef currently working in Savannah, Georgia. The four of us were once world-class wanderers, equipped with weeks to spare but little cash; now that we're all professionals, with less time and more money, we try to pack our outings into small, highly structured slots. One day I realized that we spend more days plotting our trips than taking them, and it made me think that we'd lost our adventurous edge, that we were no longer willing to do something that basically amounts to nothing. While we'd come to Mexico on a mission—to spend the week living the perfect Baja lifestyle while driving the peninsula's length, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas—we wanted to do it without any concrete plans, obligations, reservations, or ideas about where we'd spend the night. In Tijuana we'd rented a spotless white minivan that would soon regret the day we came into its life and filled it with tents, sleeping bags, fishing rods, snorkeling gear, and coolers.
So far, the journey had gone almost perfectly, but as I stared under the hood I felt as though I'd messed up the one ingredient that a road trip can't do without. However, we certainly hadn't planned on getting stranded in the desert, so one could argue that everything was still going exactly as planned. It was convoluted logic, but it allowed me to go back over to the fire, crack another beer, and jump into a rather heated debate about which of those impossibly bright stars formed Orion's belt. By the time the argument segued into a fight about who'd had the craziest girlfriend, I'd completely forgotten about our predicament.
ON A MAP OF NORTH AMERICA, the Baja Peninsula is that finger of land, more like a pinkie, that juts out from Mexico's west coast. Its length is the distance between Chicago and New York, and in places it's less than 50 miles wide. Thanks to its narrowness, and its remote ruggedness, Baja has only one major road, the Transpeninsular Highway, or Mex 1, which runs for 1,000 miles, zigzagging back and forth as if caught in a custody battle between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.
Our itinerary was simple: In the mornings, Danny would add up how many hours of driving were ahead of us, then he'd divide that number by how many days we had left. Our average goal came out to 150 miles a day, but the actual distances we covered were heavily influenced by roadside distractions and the scant distribution of towns and their accompanying services, such as cold beer, tacos, gas, and lodging: Ensenada to San Quintín, 119 miles; El Rosario to Cataviña, 76 miles; Guerrero Negro to San Ignacio, 88 miles; Ciudad Constitución to La Paz, 134 miles.
We fled Tijuana immediately, partly because it was raining and partly because of rumors of a crime wave. Throughout 2006 and 2007, Baja was the site of a number of kidnappings and robberies committed against American tourists by masked, gun-toting gangs dressed in commando outfits. The attacks prompted a U.S. State Department travel alert in October 2007 and garnered enough media attention to have a significant impact on tourism. The number of visitors to the entire Baja Peninsula plummeted in 2007, even though the crimes have been largely relegated to the extreme northern regions, around Tijuana. I had mixed emotions about this development: There were fewer people to distract the banditos away from yours truly, but there were bound to be a lot more deserted beaches.