By Peter Jensen
When asked what my favorite memory of Baja is, the questioner usually expects a rambling story of the discovery of a long forgotten shipwreck somewhere along Baja’s 2,000 miles of scalloped coastline or among her many islands. After all, I have been researching, documenting, and even locating many of Baja’s shipwrecks for well over 40 years, so among over 1,200 shipwrecks there is a memory or two.
Nevertheless, perhaps surprisingly, my favorite Baja memory does not directly involve a shipwreck. Nor does it involve giant fish such as riding whale sharks, basking in Baja’s timeless magnificence, or lamenting the long gone Cabo San Lucas of my youth. Stop me if you have heard this one before, it involves four 35-gallon bags of clothes, a gas station, and an archbishop.
Seeking and diving shipwrecks is a very geographically-specific endeavor, as ships more often than not pick the most inhospitable locations to drive themselves onto the edges of the sea or sink below it due to excessive negative buoyancy. Hence, most of my Baja time is spent in isolated regions, so starting in 1982 my wife began bringing gently used clothes and shoes to give away in remote villages. This tradition continues on every trip south, be it solo or with friends. Family and colleagues also accumulate these items for us so it does not take long to amass a rather substantial amount. Thus was the case on one such trip in the 1990s.
Setting out to revisit a suspected shipwreck site—which on a previous trip heavy surf had prevented us from confirming the vessel’s existence—my buddy, let’s call him Dana because, well, Dana is his name, and I set out driving down Mexico Highway 1. Loaded to the gills for a self-contained diving trip we headed for the Pacific coast near Punta San Juanico. We had only one week so intending to make the drive in two days we forwent stopping along the way to give away four 35-gallon bags full of children’s clothing, instead opting to give them to local fishing families we had previously met near the site of the shipwreck.
Arriving Sunday night, we found the Pacific Ocean flat, and the fishing camp abandoned, the nomadic fishermen having moved on. Dana and I spent the week making three dives a day locating and documenting the shipwreck, seeing no one the entire time. Since the four bags of clothes were tied to the SUV’s roof rack, they were essentially out of sight and out of mind as our evenings were spent filling scuba tanks, cooking, and doing the usual campy things one does while camping in Baja. Starting out early Saturday morning, we began the trip home with the four bulky black bags still lashed to the roof.
Northbound on Hwy. 1, with YES wafting through the speakers, we pulled into a newly opened Pemex gas station south of Mulegé that lacked pavement between the highway and the pump islands, of which only one pump was operational. Taking our place in line, we crept forward one vehicle at a time until we were next. At that precise moment in the time-space continuum, it occurred simultaneously to both Dana and I that we still had the Hefty bags of clothes on the roof rack.
Perhaps distracted by the spontaneity of the dialog, I was a tad slow when our turn came to pull forward for fuel. Just as I was easing out the clutch, a small red four-door sedan sped in from the highway’s southbound lane, cut across our bow and stopped at the fuel pump in front of us amid a spray of gravel and dirt announcing its rapid arrival. In unison, Dana and I chorused the redundant question “Did you see that courteous guy?!”….or something to that effect. Dana then proceeded to show off his command of words not commonly found in Webster’s Dictionary.
Visible through the drifting dust that settled on the sedan’s rear window were two men silhouetted in the front seats. I watched them step out of the car and then mumbled to Dana about serendipity and karma. The passenger, now stretching the kinks out of his back, was wearing a black, short sleeve, tab-collared clergy shirt – a Man of The Cloth. As the driver scurried around with the gas attendant, I sauntered over to the passenger. “Excuse me,” I said as way of introduction, “but are you a priest?” With this, he noticeably grew an inch and proclaimed, “I am the Archbishop of La Paz” then continued “and you want a blessing for the road” he asserted as a statement. From the corner of my eye, I caught Dana stepping out of our rig, able to overhear the conversation and instinctively knowing where it was going.
A business career has taught me the higher in an organization you go, the easier it is to get a ‘yes,’ and this gentleman was clearly in upper management. I replied “Wellllll, not really. Actually we have four bags of clothes we would like to donate to the Church,” neglecting to mention they were not your standard size grocery bag, to which His Grace suggested we see the Father in Mulegé just up the road. Now considering it was already early Saturday afternoon, and both Dana and I had to be back at work in Los Angeles Monday morning, we needed to expedite things so without missing a beat I answered, “It’s mainly children’s clothes. Would you be willing to bring them to the kids of La Paz?” No sooner were the words “But of course” out of his mouth than Dana enthusiastically sprang ninja-like into action slicing the ropes securing the bags on the roof rack, I opened the rear doors of the little sedan, the transfer of four bags took place in a blur, and the doors slammed shut faster than this run-on sentence reads.
The archbishop was obviously in a hurry for his driver slapped the red roof twice signaling refueling was complete, leaving his palm print in the grit. Both men quickly hopped back into the car. Through the rear window, now further obscured by four 35-gallon black bags of clothes, all we could see was a flurry of hands reaching for shoulder seatbelts. An instant later, the car peeled away from the Pemex station as though from a NASCAR pit stop. As Dana and I stood there marveling at such an incredible twist of fate, while our shins were being pelted with pebbles from the spinning tires, the driver shot forward 20 feet before angling the little red car to the right. Amid the billowing dust cloud, behind the rolled up passenger window, we saw the Archbishop of La Paz also spiral right in his seat, hurriedly making the sign of the Cross toward us…a blessing for the road.
Baja is funny in that regard. Often times without seeking or asking she gives you just what you need, and at other times, more than you ask for. And sometimes, Baja gives you both.
Longtime Discover Baja member Peter Jensen is correlating his shipwreck files into a book that he expects to publish soon. He welcomes questions, comments and contributions concerning Baja’s shipwrecks. Peter can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 2538, Palos Verdes, CA 90274.