Chapter 2--A Whole New World (1964)

Baja Bernie - 11-19-2006 at 11:01 AM

My first trip to La Salina Del Mar was with Art in his old beat up 1951 Ford pickup. It was a dull red in color; the right headlight was broken, and it had been driven quite aggressively. It carried battle scars from front to rear. It was one of those vehicles that always, without question, was given the right of way. Trash that covered the passenger’s side of the truck had to be removed before I could get in. This revealed a large spring sticking out of the seat on the passenger’s side. Art laughed and made a crude remark as I gingerly seated myself around the spring. We were off on my first adventure into Baja. I had been to Tijuana a few times but this was to be a trip to the ‘interior’ of Baja.

Our first stop was at a local market, in San Diego, where Art picked up a case of frozen chickens. The guy in the store knew Art and what he was going to do with the chickens so he gave him a 30% discount. We also bought a few green onions and some chicken livers, these and some Mexican rolls proved to be our entire stock of food for our two-day trip.

In 1964 the first thing you saw after crossing the border was a squatter’s camp that was home to hundreds of people. It stretched from the border gate, west along the border road, to about where the ‘PRI’ offices are now. A depressing sight! It consisted of shacks built of cardboard, old tires, and anything else that would help keep the weather out. The entire camp existed in a sea of mud and stagnate water. You rapidly realized that you were in a very different world. Kids were playing soccer with the ball sliding off into the mud. The camp had evolved as wave after wave of people from the interior trekked to Tijuana looking for a better life! The sheer number of squatters absolutely overwhelmed the town’s ability to deal with the squalor. Finally, with the help of the Federal Government, the squatters were forcibly removed to a more sanitary and healthy location.

Down the road a bit we stopped at a liquor store that was just across from the old City Cemetery. Art went in and asked the owner for ten (10) cases of Corona beer. Corona at that time only cost a dime a bottle. Art shuffled through his wallet and handed the guy a discount card that entitled him to 10% off—so we got 11 cases for the price of 10. I loaded the beer in, on, and around the already overloaded pickup while Art chatted with the owner.

As we dropped out of the hills, just north of Rosarito, Art pulled over next to a very old Indian man. He wore old threadbare pants with an old dirty blanket thrown over his slight shoulders; he wore old tire tread zapatas (sandals). He was carving a chunk of wood into what was beginning to look like an eagle. Art introduced me to the old guy. Then he and the Indian talked for a while. You should understand that he didn’t speak much Spanish and the old guy didn’t speak any English—and very little Spanish. A lot of the Indians could barely understand the official Mexican language. In spite of this both men seemed to really enjoy each other’s company.

Eventually, Art picked up a small wooden whale and tossed it in his the truck. In payment he presented a pound box of lard to the old guy for the carving. They gave each other an ‘Abrazo’ (hug) and we were off. Art noticed my confusion and explained that lard was a basic part of the Mexican diet and that it was very expensive and hard to find in Baja.

As we neared to Rosarito Beach Mac started sounding like a guy from the ‘local chamber of commerce’. He began to extol the virtues of this dusty little town. The entire city was west of the current toll road and counted a mere 10,000 to 15,000 people of whom almost half were retired Americans. If you needed gas or booze this was your last chance until you hit Ensenada. Avenida Juarez was the only road south.

Driving down the old coast road in that old beat up truck with McLaren was a fascinating learning experience. It was just like being in school and getting a crash course on the history and people of this part of the world. It seemed as though he knew everyone we passed and they obviously knew that old red truck and its laughing driver.

Art never drove more than 45 miles an hour and most of the time we were only going about 20. We were always in third gear with the motor lugging down so badly that it seemed to be on the verge of stalling. When I asked him why he drove so slowly he just laughed and said, “That way you can see what’s happening! That’s the way the old truck likes to be driven—just slow and easy.”

As we approached K-58 he pulled the truck off the highway and we bounced down onto an old, dusty rutted, dirt road. He announced that this road led into Campo Lopez where we would find two restaurants that served lobster tacos. He claimed that they were the best tacos in the whole world. Placing the truck in low gear we slowly made our way down to the first restaurant, which proved to be closed. A young man came by and told us that the place down on the point was open. We thanked him, backed up, and proceeded very slowly down the hill. It was here that I learned why Art always drove so slowly. His brakes were so worn that they were unable to even slow his truck!

Campo Lopez was, and still is, one of the most beautiful spots along the entire coast. It falls down and away from the highway and ends at a point where the Pacific Ocean crashes with white foam over the rock-strewn beach. The restaurant (no name) sits on a small bluff with a 180-degree view of the pounding surf. A large and lonely old palm tree reached for the sky right next to the, small unpainted, building. We were pleased to find that it was open and ‘Paco’ said he would be happy to fix us some langosta burritos. He popped the lids on a couple of Coronas and told us that he would be back in uno momento. He was wearing the typical Mexican beach attire, a pair of cutoff Levi’s, a straw hat, long, shiny black hair sticking out, and a broad white smile.

Enjoying my beer, I looked around and found the place to be quite clean in spite of the dirt floor. There were windows on all four walls that afforded us an exceptional view of the ocean on three sides; the fourth opened onto a hillside where numerous goats were eating everything in sight. Somehow it didn’t surprise me that the windows contained no glass. An old wood burning stove dominated the room and the tables, two, were accompanied by benches that consisted of upturned coke cases with wooden boards for seats.

When we asked Paco for some burritos we received the sign, most people who have spent any time kicking around Baja have seen it, the hand in front of the speakers face with the thumb and index finger lightly touching. It is usually given with a verbal uno momento (in a minute). A couple of beers later we wandered down to the beach and found a young boy hauling a small, green and almost white boat up onto the rocks.

Laughing, he told us that Paco had just returned from his lobster traps with lobster for our comida. No way can you get lobster fresher than that!

Returning to the restaurant we found Paco rolling great chunks of white lobster meat in huge flour tortillas. He placed them, four at a time, into a large black cast iron skillet. They were covered in bubbling butter. When they turned a golden brown he served each of us two burritos. Estupendo! (Wonderful!) We each had six burritos and a couple more beers. Amazingly, the total tab for a dozen lobster burritos and eight beers came to $5.00 US. One dollar for the food and four dollars for the beer.

Rolling on down the highway we passed “La Fonda’s” and turned inland to La Mision. To get to La Salina you had to go into La Mision, turn right, cross over a small stream, and then climb up a bumpy dirt road that just hung on the side of the cliff. At the top you turned south and traveled about 1½ miles to the lagoon. Here you turned right and the next thing you saw was ‘Rancho Benson’s Bar’ overlooking a beautiful, wide, white beach and the blue-blue Pacific Ocean. That was all there was to La Salina del Mar the first time I visited it.

Backing up for a minute before we crossed that stream we stopped off at the orphanage, which consisted of two old white washed adobe houses. Most of the windows were cracked or broken and one of the doors sagged on its hinges. The houses served as both a home and as classrooms during poor weather. Most of the instruction was conducted in the shade of a huge old tree.

When the kids heard Art’s truck they came from everywhere, running, stumbling, and running some more to meet that beat up old red pickup and the guy who drove it. They knew Art always had chickens aboard and he usually had several bags of good used clothes, which he had collected from friends. The way they acted you would have thought that McLaren was Santa Claus.

When we entered the bar, Senór Benson and his son greeted Art with great affection. They nodded politely at me and then ignored me. Art ordered vodka rocks and I asked for a cold beer. We got vodka no ice and a warm Corona. Art visited with them for a while and then we headed for his lot. At that time there were NO houses or trailers in camp. The main road was just a dusty track through a field of those tall weeds with the pretty yellow flowers. I don’t know their name but the goats won’t even eat them. We only had about 200 yards to go to get to his lot. It took us over an hour to travel that short distance. He would drive 20 feet and the truck would become stuck in the soft sand. Art would take a pull on his beer, laugh, and direct me to, “Dig her out, boy.”

This happened so many times that when we got to his place it was all I could do to pop a beer, lean against the fender, and rest.

Later on we started using short lengths of rubber conveyer belts to keep from getting stuck! We brought down four 30-foot lengths of belt that we laid out, butted end to end along the road. Once the rear wheels of the truck had crossed onto the second set of belts we would drag the first set of the belts to the front of the truck. This process was continued until we got to Arts lot. This tedious process was always necessary because he always had his truck seriously overloaded! No! Letting air out of the tires never helped.

I rested through a couple of beers while listening to Art carry on about what a beautiful lot he had picked. He bought the first lot and built the first house in La Salina del Mar. It’s the two story ‘A’ Frame that sits on the largest lot in camp.

We unloaded all of the building materials, tools, and beer before we started to settle down. It was getting close to dark so we lit a Coleman lantern and had another beer as we watched the sun slip into the Pacific.

I’ve been watching that sun slide into the ocean for over 30 years and I have never gotten over how beautiful and final it is when it sinks.

Climbing into our sleeping bags we were soon settled in for the night. I lay there for while listening to the silence broken only by the waves crashing upon the beach. It seemed like only a few minutes passed before I awoke with the sun in my face and Art snoring in my ear. He drowned out the sound of the surf.

We had breakfast, green onions; cold fried chicken livers, boleos, and a beer. Don’t get the wrong idea; McLaren never carried water to Baja until after the house was built. What a way to start the day, just sitting in the sun and listening to the surf.

I worked clearing the lot, while Art told stories of Baja. He didn’t really work very hard but his stories were first class.

He told me how he had met Jack Speer while he was working in downtown San Diego as a Police Sergeant. As the story goes they met while Jack was wandering around the city apparently lost and somewhat under the influence of demon rum. Instead of taking him to jail Art took him back to his motel. A friendship formed which was to last far beyond Jack’s founding of the Campo at La Salina. He brought Art to La Salina, before the subdivision was even started. It still has not been completed over 30 years later.

When Art picked the location for his lot he and Jack threw stones to the four corners of the lot to determine its limits. That’s why McLaren’s lot is so much larger that the standard lot in camp. Jack started selling (leasing) lots for $200.00 down and $25.00 per month for 30 years. That was the going price for a front, ocean view, lot from 1964 until about 1970.

We worked, wandered on the beach, drank, and dreamed until it was suddenly time to return to the real world. Before we left I stacked the beer, building materials, and tools. We covered them with a tarp. You might return in a week or a month but you never had to worry. They would still be there when you returned.

On our way back we stopped in Rosarito Beach where Art bought five gallons of Oso Negro (black bear) Vodka. I told him that I thought we could only take a quart apiece across the border, he just laughed, that funny laugh of his and said, “Just watch.” He proceeded to pour all of the vodka into an empty five-gallon water bottle. Placing the bottle in the corner of the bed he threw dirty clothes over it.

When we got to the border the Customs guy asked him if he had anything to declare he just smirked and replied, “Just some dirty clothes.” He did that for many years before he got caught and had to pay a very hefty fine.

P.S Campo Lopez is now surrpounded by modern homes and it is almost impossible to even see the place from the road.

Matt's (Mateo) family have had a place there for a very long time and he still visits 'home' often.

The 'A' Frame that was such a landmark has just recently been demolished to make way for one of the new things that so many folks now call a beach home.

[Edited on 11-25-2006 by Baja Bernie]

FARASHA - 11-19-2006 at 12:04 PM

Thank you, interesting an inspiring reading Bernie!
Can see the whole scenery before my eyes. Goes into my Dust Collection!

Eli - 11-21-2006 at 05:53 AM

Thanks for bringing this back Berine. Your timing was excellent; As I was reading it yesterday, the APPO protesters and PFP Police were battling it out on my street. No big deal really, but still, there was no way I was going out there than. So it was an excellent moment to return to Baja and to visit a momet of your innoncence.

[Edited on 11-21-2006 by Eli]

It's a good thing I decided to read the rest of the story

Dave - 11-23-2006 at 02:19 PM

Originally posted by Baja Bernie
The guy in the store knew Art and what he was going to do with the chickens so he gave him a 30% discount.

Great stuff, Bernie! Keep 'em coming.

Mexitron - 11-24-2006 at 10:10 AM

Thanks for the look back Bernie...sounds like some good times!

Great story....

Juan del Rio - 11-25-2006 at 09:12 AM

These were taken in the late 70's:

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Rear of lot

Juan del Rio - 11-25-2006 at 09:14 AM

La Salina Ocean ViewX.jpg - 26kB

View from the beach

Juan del Rio - 11-25-2006 at 09:15 AM

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Juan del Rio

Baja Bernie - 11-25-2006 at 12:58 PM


that was the A Frame that will be talked about throughout these stories.

That was Ramon the Bartender's dog--OSO was his name..................Ramon still works at the Cantina. The brick house was owned by Sam who also appears in the book.

FARASHA - 11-25-2006 at 01:14 PM

Excellent now also with photos - along with the stories, this is going to be a great thread!!
Thanks for the Photos!!!

Mexitron - 11-25-2006 at 02:11 PM

Bernie--something I remembered from staying at the A-frame a few years ago--my friends and I were sitting out on the big patio overlooking the beach and we could see a light coming towards us in the sky from the south. As it got closer it appeared to be a hang glider with a flare. It circled over the La Salina Beach for a few minutes then the flare disappeared. A minute later a truck came down the beach and picked up a man(who we could now see because he was in the truck's headlights), but no hang glider was to be seen. The presumption was that the hang glider dropped something off to the guy on the beach. Any ideas?


Baja Bernie - 11-25-2006 at 02:44 PM

Would not surprise me. For a while we had boats running on shore between us and the trailer park to the north and dropping bundles to the waiting trucks. That was/is why the Mexican Navy has their 'swift' boats lying just inside the mouth of the Marina.
I believe I have a story in one of my books about different ships coming ashore in La Salina over the years.