A Visit with Choptank to Baja California

By Steve Heyneman


How did it feel to be in Baja?

I am trying to make sense out of my Baja California experience. I found it to be somewhat mystical, a common characteristic among both residents and visitors. I also found it to be simply exhilarating, also common. Here is what John Steinbeck said about how he felt about being in Baja. A man who is at no loss for words, yet could not adequately describe how deeply he felt. Instead he relied on the words of Charles Darwin.

On arriving one night on the Beagle in the Bay of Valparaiso Darwin awakened in the morning and looked around and wrote this:  “When morning came everything appeared delightful. After Tierra del Fuego, the climate felt quite delicious, the atmosphere so dry and the heavens so clear and blue with the sun shining brightly, that all nature seemed sparkling with life.” 

Steinbeck continues: “Darwin was not saying how it was with Valparaiso, but rather how it was with him. Being a naturalist, he said, ‘all nature sparkles with life’, but actually it was he who was sparkling. He felt so very fine that he can, in the charged and though general adjectives, translate his ecstasy over a hundred years to us. And we can feel how he stretched his muscles in the morning air and perhaps took off his hat — we hope a bowler — and tossed it and caught it.”[1]

That is how Steinbeck felt in 1941 and I in 2020.

I am asked sometimes how I decide what risks to take. I often request advice from those who live there or who have experience. But I am 76 and a foreigner from a wealthy country. The explainer knows little of my background I have to filter what they say in the same way as did Isabella Bird. Here is how she puts it.

In traveling there is nothing like dissecting people’s statements, which are usually colored by their estimate of the powers or the likings of the person spoken to, making all reasonable inquiries, and then pertinaciously but quietly carrying out one’s own plans. This is perfection and all the requisites for health are present…[2]

I wouldn’t say ‘all the requisites’ are present. There was that 60 miles of rocky track along the Pacific beach running south of Bahia Asunción when I was told the road was “muy malo.” But to turn back the way I had come would involve three hours of tedious duplicative travel. However, on choosing to forge ahead, I had difficulty deciding which was the right track. Was it the one which led to the left? Generally, I decided to follow the track which seemed to parallel the line of electric poles into the far distance. On my right was miles of sandy beach and the blue crashing waves of the Pacific.

Had there been a knowledgeable companion with me it would have been more comfortable and glorious. But my dog Choptank was not much of a mechanic. No other vehicle had been seen. There was neither cell phone nor internet connection. My Spanish was primitive. In the event of a mechanical breakdown, could I hike with Choptank back to where I began? Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. But then, after three hours of desert beach track, I reached the the village of La Bocana. “Where am I?” I inquired from mechanics working under a shade tree. After looking at me with some amusement, “You are in Bocana.” “Hooray, we made it!” I shouted to Choptank, sending the mechanics into a gale of laughter. And so we did.

I am asked did you write a journal? No, I reply. Then I can see the disappointment (disapproval?) on the face of the listener. One might ask, why not? Well this is what Isabelle Bird says:

It is difficult to make this anything of a letter. I have been riding for a whole week, seeing wonders and greatly enjoying the singular adventurousness and novelty of my tour, but ten hours or more daily spent in the saddle in this rarefied, intoxicating air, disposes one to sleep rather than to write in the evening, and is far from conducive to mental brilliancy. The observing faculties are developed, and the reflective lie dormant.[3]

But I have photographs. And vivid memories. After the bills are paid and the house is back in running order, perhaps I will have time to organize a proper accounting of what turned out to be the experience of a lifetime.


[1] Steinbeck, Log from the Sea of Cortez, p. 158

[2] Isabella Bird (1960) A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p. 74

[3] Bird, op.cit. p. 144

One thought on “A Visit with Choptank to Baja California

  1. Joie MacAdam-Elander says:

    I am so glad you persevered; you found, as many of us have, that arriving anywhere in Baja is worth the effort. I live in La Paz, alone with 2 cats and also 76 years old. People back in California don’t know what to make of this: I did not come here alone and it was not the plan, but life happens and I find myself in a place that makes me happy, even though I cannot leave if I choose to. This will change, so I go with the flow and live in the moment, something I have done all my life. How did Choptank get his nam?

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