(A Solo Trip Exploring the Peninsula for five months in an old Dodge van with two dogs and little else.)
How many years have I been driving around on my own? Yet, it’s hard to ignore all the public chatter about going alone into Mexico. There a just too many negatives in the conversations I’d had since May when I’d sold my homestead, moved into the Dodge and announced my intention of heading to Baja for winter. The responses had been mixed, some happily jealous but also, oh, be careful, you’re going alone? And the ever present, aren’t you scared? Yes and no. The need is stronger than the fear.
I had to get away.
San Felipe, Baja California
Driving into town, following the maps prompts kept me on track without a worry. Slow traffic, wide streets, and glimpses of the Sea of Cortez in the distance and I couldn’t help but grin. I noted where the supermarket was, or a big one that is, Cali Max with covered parking to the back of the building. (Off Hwy 5.) Town wasn’t as crazy or big as I’d imagined. Nope. Fine. Doable. Interesting. Open.
Campo Turistico #1 is on the north side of town, five minutes drive at most. No one there but for a few fishermen unloading a truck. A row of palapas, all next to each other, ten by ten shaded structures attached in a line. Not quite what I’d imagined or dreamt of – my idea had been spacious open camping, no close neighbors and all that stuff. Not here apparently. Since there was only one other camp site taken, I settled in. Leveled the van. Let the dogs out. Walked the beach. High tide. Sun. Shade. Silent. Full moon.
What an amazing first day in Mexico.
Three San Diego folks, two men and a woman, camped in their vehicles at the end of the row of palapas. A married couple in a new Mercedes Sprinter 3500 2WD and their 4×4 off road jeep driving friend with oversized tires and rooftop tent. Mindy brings over half a melon. We chat. (Why do I sometimes write about my trip in the present tense? Not sure, bear with me.) Then the questions we ask and respond to, the where are we from, where are we going, what do we do in our ‘other lives’ and then since I’m a woman alone, aren’t you worried?
Mindy though was friendly and included me in conversations with the other two men. Her husband dodged the question of work, saying he owns a ‘few businesses’ and when I raised my eyebrows, he didn’t expand. I considered being that obtuse about what I ‘do’ but at the same time, Mindy and Nori, the jeep man, were interested in finding my books online. I found them business cards before they left the next day, after Mindy had brought me pastries to go with my black coffee. She’d come over alone. She told me how she admired me for doing this trip on my own. Her admittance to being scared, of being lonely, of how could she work it all out without help, and her fears of being robbed or worse. Rape.
I had my usual response of both annoyance and compassion.
Why is it so hard for women (especially straight women) to do what they want without a man beside them? It saddens and angers me. Or am I angry at myself?
The more I travel alone, the more I appreciate nature and the random conversations with people I meet. I am not afraid. Well, at times I am but the need and desire to explore outweighs the media’s limits on what I should and shouldn’t do as a woman my age. Instead, I do my best to be open to adventures…and after having this since I was a teenager much to my mum’s horror, I’m getting the hang of it. Finally. I think.
The evening before, we’d been talking about this solo trip through Baja. A winter on the coast sounded great to me and I’d been chatting about it all, the beaches, videos I’d found online, the stories other friends told. Mindy had asked me, aren’t you scared? Simply put, my answer is No. I didn’t elaborate then but here goes: camping on my own is where I am happiest and most relaxed. In towns, in cities, surrounded by people, traffic, noise, music, talking for the sake of filling in the silence, no, that is not where I relax.
I’d been settled for too long now and was restless again. And I’d looked forward to being away from New Mexico, messed up neighbors, lawsuits, and Covid. Alone.
It’s true, I once traveled with someone. It was 1989. Steve joined me in New York City, he was a good friend from my small hometown. I was walking down the streets in the city, knowing we’d find each other somehow but since neither of us had phones or hotel rooms, it would be a challenge. I walked with my backpack clunking away against my hips when I saw Steve sitting on a bench smoking. I sat down next to him and took his smoke.
We crossed to Maine, New York, Washington; we took trains, hitched, and then stayed at random homes of the families we met along the way. It wore me out. Steve let me make all the decisions. Like I said, it wore me out. The responsibility. The constant discussions as to what we would eat that night, where we would sleep.
There have been other moments, a week here and there, spent on a road trip with a friend, but nothing as extended at that initial travel with Steve, bless him. Since then, I tend to go off on my own, I’m happier that way.
As a twenty-two-year-old, I hitched through Wisconsin, heading north to catch a ferry across to Michigan. My destination was a tiny village along the small blue highways in the Midwest. A truck pulled over, and two men started chatting to me. Two men and myself as a young woman? I talked to them, the father and son, and with them offering a ride, but first they wanted to call ‘Mother’ and ask about dinner. I listened in as one of them chatted away, grinned, and said it was okay with her but I had to agree to come over to meet her! We ended up sharing a meal, they put me in the son’s bedroom and dropped me off at the ferry in the morning, after introducing me to the Ferry Master. Safe? Yes, I remember them so clearly all these years later.
On the whole though, I’m not very safe. I go places I shouldn’t. No one really knows where I am. I follow roads, conversations, and dreams. I have no back-up plans. I take risks. I fly by the seat of my pants and all without a safety net. I like it. Traveling like this wakes me up. Opens me up. To answer the question I started with, have I ever been scared? A couple of times. That’s all. First was when I had to get myself back from the South of France as an eighteen-year-old who’d been fired from her nanny job. I had a passport and a plastic bag of clothes. No money. No credit cards. And this was before cell phones, not that I would have called my parents, I preferred to get back and then tell them. I didn’t like to worry them! Poor buggers. I stowed away on a train, stole food, had a guard try to rape me, but I smashed him in his privates and locked myself in a bathroom on the train. That was the first big solo trip and the sense of achievement at the end was incomparable: “I can improvise. I can get out of trouble. I should keep traveling!”
And I have. Looking back, even in the last ten years of ‘settling’, I took a ferry back from Alaska and a salmon cannery down the Canadian coast, camped all over the Southwest, spent three months in Northwest, took a winter living on communes in North Carolina and Tennessee, rode my motorcycle across Wales and Ireland, studied in San Francisco, and had many other random shorter trips in the States. Not bad, not bad…
As a kid, okay, I mean when in my twenties, I just traveled without thought, it was an addiction, a need. I couldn’t sit still for more than a few months. I settled for a while but that addiction has kicked back in. I built a home, worked, settled and now the last few years, the need to explore new places has taken over. If you haven’t traveled alone before though, you’d need to ask yourself: Where are you happiest? How do you spend your days? Are you mostly surrounded by friends and co-workers? Or do you work alone? Live alone? What are your social needs in other words? Think about what stresses you out and what makes you relax. For me, time without words, yes, I know, ironic since I’m a writer, but still, empty heads talking at each other wears me out. I like silence. I like mountains. And I like the company of animals more than people. But that’s me…and then after a couple of days alone, I love to sit and chat to friends and strangers alike. I have the energy and desire to hear their stories. To tell mine. To connect. Knowing yourself is one of the amazing benefits of solo travels, you have to take care of yourself and you will. There’s no-one else. Each time, I learn new rhythms and routines that are mine, pure and simple.
But now, can I do this? After all that’s happened?
Yes. I have to.
On my third day in San Felipe, my shoulders relaxed. I had to remind myself to notice this physical release of my pent-up rage and grief. Slowing down, my days were on a new timetable now, one of coffee, walk dogs, read, stretch, make breakfast, walk or swim, nap or read, maybe then I’d drink more coffee or swim or nap or stare off across the Sea of Cortez. A busy schedule.
In the morning, I let the pups out to run the beach while I made coffee and got their breakfast together. Harold has so many pills these days it takes me a moment. I couldn’t find his bowl. I knew there were two. Two dogs equals two bowls. But nope. Only one outside the van. What the hell? I looked underneath, had it blown in the winds? Had I put it in the back? The front? Under the seats? Under the beds? Nope. I drank my coffee and wandered to the water’s edge. Another beautiful start to the day.
I looked across the sand. There was the bowl.
Had another beach dog taken it to lick clean?
I finished my coffee and whistled for Harold and Billie.
All the odds and ends I’d done over summer while living in the van on the Glorieta Mesa were making all the difference. After five years of traveling in the Dodge B1500, this year was the first time that it had become my only home. A full-timer as they say. Vanlifer. Overlander. Or as Katie calls it, Camper.
The things I’d done included:
Screens on the side and back doors. A lifted bed for more storage underneath, a blessing/curse that bugged the hell out of me over the next five months. A kid’s orange wooden school-desk with drawers for my folders and books. Yes, always reading, researching, and writing. With all the water bottles I can carry 15 gallons which ends up feeling like too much weight but it’s for one person and two dogs. The canvas canopies over both sets of doors were the best improvements. Using pvc pipes and connections to brace the doors from swinging closed on a windy day, they work as shade and even as a cooling breeze funnel, most pleasant. Infront of the passenger seat, I stacked all the pet related containers, foods, medicines for Harold, toys for Billie, extra bedding etc. The end result was easy access to their things and an extended platform like bed for Harold. Not bad.
Covid-19 though. Well, there is that: Death, sickness, a global pandemic, an economic shit show, and yes, closed borders. I had, and still have–months later and on the road while I write this–a hard time rationalizing my attitude to Covid. I’m here, traveling. How does Covid spread? One person to another. Am I then a carrier? A part of the ongoing problem? I figure, hope, that no more than if I’d stayed in New Mexico. I’m alone much of the time. Vaccinated. Boosted. Solo. On the road. In my van. On huge empty beaches. Mask wearing in stores. Yet. Yet. Yet. Is it enough? I hoped so. I planned on being careful.
A Subaru pulled up at Campo Turistico and out stepped a woman in flowing skirt, long hair, wide smile that touched her eyes. I watched from within my van as she unpacked a basic camp kitchen, a bottle of wine, and a chair. On top of her dusty car was a green sea kayak, strapped down with other boxes of I didn’t know what. No tent. She didn’t set up much of anything but walked around, smiling, obviously happy to catch the afternoon sun after driving. Her grin was inviting. I let Billie out, my ambassador.
“I’m Ladelle”, she called out to me.
Not usually happy to share campgrounds, this felt a bit different so I introduced myself and the dogs as she unpacked a few things. Passing me a mug of wine, she chatted about this being her second time to Baja and how she owned a condo near Loreto but didn’t like the community there, too many Ex-pats, not her kind apparently. (This irony strikes me repeatedly over winter, we complain about how busy everywhere is, yes, me too, and yet here we are, a mix in that tourists like us are both part of the problem and of the economic solution.)
“Can you help me unload the kayak?” She asked after we’d chatted a bit about her trip the year before, remembering her first impressions. “Carry it to the water?”
Campo Turistico is on a rocky small beach, rough underfoot. Harold tripped more often that not given his meds were messing him up. There was no way for her to get this eleven-foot hard-shell kayak across the stones alone. A couple of younger fishermen in jeans and barefoot were heading out in a panga (small fishing boat), while a woman with a plastic bucket scoured the beach for mussels. Seagulls called out to each other as another boat returned. It was warm with bright blue skies and not a cloud to be seen. Perfect.
Ladelle paddled away along the shoreline towards the Malecon. I was more than content to stay put. I was giving myself time to adjust, letting the local setting seep into me, overhearing conversations in Spanish, listening to their radios, the smell of salt in the air and the taste on my skin after swimming, eating simple meals under the palm fronds of the wobbly palapa. I needed little else.
Another no-drive day. Perfectly happy in the van, under the palapa, walking the small beach with my two, reading, I even wrote for a while which always puts me in a good mood. I set up the Goal Zero 500 power pack for the laptop, settled down at the kid’s desk, and edited a collection of short stories. Time drifted by. My only distractions came from listening to seagulls, dogs, roosters, a few cars, the engines of the pangas, and muffled voices calling back and forth.
Bob, a local Expat, told me where to find groceries, water, to fill propane tanks, find banks. He described the best route to take into town since Google didn’t know these streets or the local dogs. He told me how he had been in the area for few years. He and his wife had bought into a Campo south of town. The best way to describe it is that locals own the land on the oceanfront and lease out small lots or homes to foreigners. Anyway, Bob had lived there until recently when his wife needed to be closer to town and clinics and the such. They now rented a place above the campground for a few hundred a month. He was most happy with life. I envied him but glanced at my van, thinking, we’re doing just fine.
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