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A Field Guide to Getting Lost in Baja
Elise Craig | Photo: Brett Walker | November 11, 2015
After a brutal year, an S.F. photographer and his girlfriend escape on a Mexican adventure.
Brett Walker and his girlfriend, Katie Gong, were 12 hours into a drive down a dirt road in Baja when they finally stumbled onto a tiny Mexican village. Gas was low, and they hadn’t seen another car in hours. They were just hoping that they were in San Juanico, a town marked with a gas pump on their sketchy map. They weren’t.
Locals directed them to a house where an older woman siphoned gas from a 55-gallon drum into their Toyota 4Runner. “Someone told us you really shouldn’t do that,” Walker says, “because you don’t know where the fuel is coming from. But when it’s 11 at night and you’ve been driving since 11 that morning, you take what you can get.”
That’s the way Walker and Gong travel: They don’t worry about itineraries, reservations, or even showers—they’re into adventure. So much so that when they started dating, they made a pact that every time they went on vacation, they would already be planning their next trip. The Baja sojourn came at a particularly tumultuous time for Walker: His marriage had ended, he’d just quit his job of six years as a barista at Four Barrel Coffee, and he was about to open his own coffee shop, George and Lennie, in the Tenderloin. So he and Gong decided to take a break and spend a week road-tripping through the Baja peninsula. They built a bed in the back of Gong’s SUV, dropped $1,100 on off-roading tires, and gathered recommendations from surfer friends. They weren’t worried about the fact that most of their destinations would be hard to find even with Google Maps.
The couple left the city at 10 a.m. and by 11 p.m. were eating tacos just south of Tijuana, where they picked up Highway 1 and headed south past Ensenada, then southeast through San Ignacio and across the peninsula. At night, they slept with their truck hidden in brush off the side of the road. “The tactic is always to look inconspicuous,” Walker says. They came out on the gulf at Santa Rosalía, then headed down the coast past Mulegé to a lightly touristed area where they rented a grass hut on the beach for $6.
When they hit Loreto, Walker and Gong changed course, following a hidden dirt road back across the peninsula and through the town where they’d gotten gas to Scorpion Bay—a paradisiacal spot they’d heard about. They spent the day in the 70-degree water before heading back to the gulf at San Felipe, where they sprang for a hotel room on the last night of the trip. “We’d been bathing in the ocean for a week when we found it,” Walker says. “We were so dirty it was gross.”
In their week on the road, Walker and Gong didn’t make it to all the recommended spots, but they’re not worried—as part of their pact, they’ll be back in December.
DO THE TRIP
Route: I 580 to I 5 to Federal Hwy. 1 to Loreto to some random dirt roads, back up 1 to Federal Hwy. 5, up through Mexicali to Ca 111 to I 10 to I 5 to I 580.
Distance traveled: 2,400 miles
Days on the road: 7
Dollars spent: About $900
Accommodations: Las Palmas Hotel and the custom-made bed in the back of the 4Runner.
Provisions: So many tacos.
Cell service: Surprisingly, yes. The couple had access to Google Maps for the duration.
Necessities: Pesos; an 800-watt converter to charge phones and laptops; camera equipment; a map; and four BF Goodrich Baja Champion off-roading tires (seriously important).
Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco