By Gary Graham
Born April 4, 1928, Tom Miller and his brother Chuck were raised on Coronado Island, California, and shared a passion for fishing. Although Tom became a wordsmith and Chuck a dentist, they both became skilled with very light lines – 4- and 6-pound – and set several World Records, never losing their love of saltwater fishing.
So when the telephone rang in late 1977, I lifted it out of the cradle t0 hear, “Hey buddy,” the voice of the unmistakable effusive greeting of my Baja buddy, Tom Miller, WON columnist, author, and noted Baja enthusiast.
“The Mexican Government has given me the assignment to survey the fish camps in Baja Norte from Guerrero Negro to Ensenada. So I’m leaving next week. Do you want to ride shotgun? We can squeeze in a little fishing along the way?” Tom and I had enjoyed several trips to Baja together, so without hesitation, I replied, “Count me in!”
On the appointed day, Tom arrived at zero dark hundred in his 4WD Subaru wagon, which didn’t have any room left when I had loaded my tackle and gear. So off we went to the next stop, the border. In those days, “Customs’ Roulette” was not an option! Everyone got a red light; everyone went to secondary for an inspection!
Soon we were traveling down Mex 1 – with Tom talking a mile a minute. Ever the storyteller, one of Tom’s Baja stories led to another. I listened entranced, and time passed quickly. Soon we had passed Ensenada and the turnoff to La Bufadora; we stopped to have our travel permits stamped at the dusty immigration office in Maneadero. Now, it felt like the trip had officially begun!
As usual, our next stop was Mama Espinoza’s place in El Rosario.
“In the early years, her kitchen was the last frontier,” Tom declared as he drove down the winding snakelike road toward the village of El Rosario (about a quarter of the way down to Los Cabos).
“Since long before the road was paved, Mama Espinosa has fed lobster burritos and omelets to travelers at her kitchen table in El Rosario. She has dinosaur fossils that her husband found in this canyon over the years,” Tom continued, gesturing toward the rocky hills.
As we dug into our plates of steaming lobster burritos at Mama Espinoza’s, the Señora herself plopped down in a chair at our table, telling Tom that she had sold all his books he had left on his last trip. But, of course, Tom had more in his car, and he promised to replenish her supply. Her attention then turned to me, and she asked, “Have you seen my Guest Book?” When I shook my head no, she brought it to the table and opened it up.
“Visitors have been signing this book since the 1940s,” she proudly explained. As I thumbed through the dusty, yellowed pages, it was like reading a “Who’s Who of Baja Travelers: “Earle Stanley Gardner,” “Ray Cannon,” and “Roscoe “Pappy” Hazard” were only a few of the names that jumped off the pages at me.
I was very proud to add my name to the esteemed signatures in her Guest Book. Eventually, however, after staying longer than we should, Tom and I thanked her and left.
That meal and Mama Espinosa drew me back to her kitchen over and over again as I traveled Mex 1 until she left this earth.
After that, we traveled through the southern equivalent of California’s San Joaquin Valley, where cardboard shacks lined both sides of the highway, homes of workers who were transported in rattletrap busses back and forth to work in the produce fields surrounding San Quintín. Later that evening, at our campsite near Punta Prieta, Tom and I sat watching the mesquite branches as they slowly burned down to glowing coals. Finally, Tom turned to me and asked if I knew about the Huntington Beach Firemen’s “secret white sea bass spot.” I answered that I had heard rumors about such a place.
“Well,” he disclosed, “we are going there on this trip, but it must remain a secret!”
“Where is the place? What is its name?” I asked.
And, once again, he began telling me a story about a group of firemen and friends, including Del Marsh, who had been coming down several times a year to catch HUGE white sea bass from the beach. According to Tom, they brought a freezer full of squid for bait, then used the same freezer to haul their catch back home. They carried a generator to keep the freezer running; basically, fishing around the clock and catching 50 plus pound WSB, often several at a time!
And, of course, not stopping at the one WSB story, Tom told a wealth of Baja stories that continued well into the night until all that was left of the campfire were a few glowing embers.
After some seriously strong coffee the following morning, we headed forEl Tomatal. The beach still had bits and pieces of onyx scattered about – all that remained of the enormous blocks of onyx that once had been hauled from El Marmol, an old quarry a few miles inland, down to the beach one at a time to the waiting ships.
But we were here seeking the spotfin croaker and surf perch bite, not onyx.
After satisfying our urge to fish in the suds and catching enough fish for dinner, we headed down a barely discernible dirt road toward Tom’s promised WSB spot.
Tom’s 4WD Subaru performed well as he maneuvered it along the dirt track, weaving between various obstacles that included cactus and boulders as big as the car. Other than a few jackrabbits and one lone coyote, we didn’t see another living being as we continued down the shoreline with the Pacific surf on our right and Mex 1 only a few miles inland on our left.
After about 10 to 12 miles of dirt road, the sandy beach ended and turned into the rocky coastline of Morro Santo Domingo. With the surf crashing, the only visible signs of life were sea birds darting to and fro along with other long-legged birds scampering around, pecking in the sand as the waves receded, exposing their dinner. Tom stopped the car. He flung open the door and announced we had arrived. This was our campsite!
In the mid-70s, Miller introduced me to Ray Cannon. Cannon’s tales of Baja California published in Western Outdoor News stimulated Tom’s lifelong interest in Baja. Later, Miller chronicled his own travels in a four-wheel-drive vehicle after Baja California’s 1,000-mile Mexico Highway, also known as Mex 1, was completed in 1973. When Cannon died in 1977, Tom was thrilled to be asked to take over the Baja column for WON. He continued the column until shortly before he passed away of lung cancer in 1993.
The Baja Book, A Complete Map Guide to Today’s Baja California with Elmar Baxter; self-published by Baja Trail Publications. The original book was tan and had a plastic binding so it would lay flat. This book contained the first commercial use of Space maps from NASA Earth Resources. Photos with overlays in a mile-by-mile road log of the highway and side road of the entire peninsula of Baja California and Baja California Sur…1974
The World of the California Gray Whale. A small paperback book describing the different whales and other sea mammals found off the coast from Alaska to the tip of Baja California Sur…1975
Angler’s Guide to Baja California, with many drawings and photos of fish found in Baja California. Illustrations by Charles Larson. Published by Baja Trail Publications, Inc…1979
There is also a 1982 updated version of this book.
The Baja Book II with Elmar Baxter Published by Baja Trail Publications, Inc…1979
In 1986 Updated versions of The Baja Book were published.
Eating Your Way Through Baja California This was a guidebook to the large and small restaurants along the Baja California peninsula…1986
The Baja Book III with Carol Hoffman Published by Baja Trail Publications, Inc…1992
Mexico West Book: A Road and Recreation Guide to Today’s West Coast of Mexico (Paperback, 1992)
Baxter said the “Baja Book,” which was the first motorist’s hand guide for Baja, has sold more than 200,000 copies.
Along with his now-deceased wife, Shirley Miller, and his partner Baxter, Miller started a newsletter, Mexico West! which grew into the Mexico West Travel Club with a membership of more than 2,500.
Shirley and I were also close friends, often sharing our memories of Baja, and remained friends until her death.
Like Tom, my road trips to Baja began soon after Mexican President Luis Echeverria Álvarez cut the ribbon in a ceremony held at Guerrero Negro in 1973, celebrating the joining of the two sections of the 1,000-mile trans-peninsular Highway, Mex 1.
(To be continued next month)