By Graham Mackintosh
Less than a mile off the highway just south of Cataviña, and close to the campground and runway at Santa Ines, there’s a humble cabin inconspicuously nestled into giant boulders overlooking a palm-studded arroyo.
A stately spreading elephant tree provides morning shade. A narrow recess in a huge granite boulder supports a wooden beam to suspend a shower bag. A larger recess makes a great sheltered place to enjoy a campfire.
The location offers fantastic views of the Cataviña area, especially looking north towards the road to Mission Santa Maria and the dramatic granite and basalt ridges beyond.
Apart from the view, those seeking comfort and utilities will not be impressed by the simple 12 x 16-foot structure. There’s no electricity, water or gas. Forty yards away, a three-sided screen of cardón ribs encloses a pit toilet – which has recently all but collapsed.
Built in 1985, the cabin has been a quiet and welcome haven for many a Baja traveler, and has been the subject of a book: Baja Outpost – the guest book from Patchen’s cabin (published by Sunbelt). The book recounts the stories of scores of Baja travelers enjoying the cabin while heading to or returning from their own adventures.
And for almost 25 years, Marvin and Aletha Patchen’s cabin has been a major part of my Baja experience. My name is the one that appears most in the log. I wrote large parts of three books there. The awesome Cataviña night sky and rugged unspoiled desert views were wonderful inspiration. But the greatest inspiration came from the kind and adventurous spirits of cabin builders Marvin and Aletha Patchen.
Many longtime Baja aficionados will be familiar with their 1981 book Baja Adventures by Land, Air and Sea. From their first off-pavement experience in 1953 to their explorations with early ATVs, amphibious vehicles, canoes lashed together, a converted trawler, an assortment of trucks, planes, and helicopters… or through just plain old hiking and four-wheeling, the Patchen’s trips to Baja go way back.
Way back to Marvin’s time in the Marine Corps during World War II when he took to enjoying Liberty across the border downing cheap tequila and tacos.
After the war, he met Aletha at Pasadena City College where both were studying music and English.
Marvin went on to spend most of his working life in publishing. He was a contributor and advertising director for a range of magazines including Motor Life, Trailer Boats Magazine, Trailer Life, Rod and Custom Magazine, Plane and Pilot Magazine, Popular Hot Rodding, Four Wheeler Magazine… and later he launched his own publication, Aero Magazine.
Reviewing and testing boats, vehicles, and planes became a major part of his life… and whenever he could, he would head south to conduct trials in the mountains and deserts of Baja, often with Aletha and their two children when they were older.
Marvin was an experienced and accomplished “bush pilot.” He was always ready to fly to Baja and take part in search-and-rescue operations. He provided air cover for various races… if he wasn’t himself a participant behind the wheel.
Aletha was right there with him in most all his various new interests. Both were active in the early Baja 500 and 1000 races. In 1968, with Marvin flying cover, Aletha’s Jeep made it all the way from Ensenada to the finish of the Baja 1000 in La Paz—the first ever women’s team to complete the race.
Their love of Baja and the simple joys of the desert led to frustration with deadlines and other requirements of the publishing world.
“All I wanted was time to slow down… and to hike, paddle and Jeep at a slow pace without a schedule. I didn’t care if we had to feed ourselves by gathering clams and fishing in the Gulf and live in a lean-to.” –Baja Adventures by Land, Air and Sea
Always delighting in sharing that love, and never having enough room in his plane for family and friends, and all the camping gear they’d like to carry, the cabin was conceived as a solution. But over the years as the Patchen’s circle of friends grew and more and more people stopped on their way north and south, the burgeoning visitor’s logbook recounted one fascinating and informative adventure after another.
In the old days you might find half a dozen vehicles parked there and quite a gathering of folks enjoying one another’s company. Now you might camp a week or two and not see anyone… but occasional visitors like myself do check on the cabin and add to the log book, still glad to have a quiet place for the night and maybe shelter from the elements.
I’ve enjoyed the relative cool of the insulated cabin when summer temperatures exceed 100 degrees. I’ve seen rain coming down in sheets from the roof and have had to dig a trench in a downpour to lead water away from the door. I’ve scraped ice off my windshield in the early morning. And I remember returning after dark, soaked and cold from a hike to Mission Santa Maria, and thanking my lucky stars to have the cabin to warm myself and dry out.
Marvin passed away in 2011. I helped scatter some of his ashes there on the runway and around the cabin.
In truth, the Patchen cabin could do with a little TLC. That will be on my agenda after the summer. As well as fixing the outhouse, the north wall needs some stucco and one of the windows facing east is boarded up, evidence of a recent break-in.
The Patchen cabin has been broken into two or three times, but there isn’t a lot to steal except Baja maps and posters, plaques, old furniture, candles and shelves of books and magazines. And it’s a constant battle with mice. Once sleeping on the large sturdy bed I woke to the realization that a rather active mouse was sharing my sleeping bag with me… a disconcerting experience for both of us.
Lately, I’ve been more inclined to sleep in my vehicle or pitch a tent, sometimes inside the cabin. It’s a rare trip I don’t spend at least one night there, checking to see if I need to place more mice pellets in the cupboard.
More than once the military have pushed out one of the smaller windows or poked a camera inside to be sure it’s not a cartel warehouse.
To me, and to many other Baja travelers, it’s not just a mysterious humble cabin, it’s a place of warm memories, and a place to celebrate the generous, adventurous lives of the Patchens.
Marvin and Aletha knew how to race, and they knew how to take it easy and enjoy the unhurried pace of wilderness campfires and camaraderie beneath the stars. I count myself blessed to have enjoyed their friendship and to have benefitted from their writing and explorations… and their magnificent little cabin.
Graham Mackintosh is a Baja author and adventurer. He has written four books on Baja: “Into A Desert Place,” which recounts the tale of his two-year, 3,000-mile hike around the coastline of the Baja California peninsula; “Journey with a Baja Burro,” his tale of hiking the rugged mountainous interior of Baja; “Nearer My Dog to Thee,” where he spends four months with his dogs in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir; and “Marooned with Very Little Beer,” recounting his two months kayaking and hiking Isla Angel de la Guarda, the second-largest island in the Sea of Cortez.