Mike's Sky Ranch

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View North from Mike's Sky Ranch


I was first introduced to off roading in Mexico by a buddy that lived down the street from me, Rod Kunz.  Rod had been to Mexico many times and was seen as a luminary by his friends and work associates.  When he approached me and suggested that we do a trip to Baja, I immediately said yes.  I had recently purchased a brand new, 1980 turbo diesel International Harvester (IH) Scout.  This truck replaced the ill-fated, but now famous 1976 Blazer that was involved in the "incident on Agua Caliente Hill".  At the time, getting the Scout seemed to be a good idea, but in reality, it was butt-ugly, underpowered, slow and of poor mechanical quality.  It should be a clue that IH is no longer in the small truck business.  The truck had a 200 cubic inch engine made by Nissan.  The engine was robust, but underpowered.  In the words of one old-timer it "could hardly get out of it's own way".  That was true, but I loved diesels so that made up for a lot.

The objective in getting the Scout was to replace the Blazer, which was failing in every respect with only 75,000 miles on it.  It was clear that the full time transfer case was toasting, as well as several other drive line components.  At the time, the Arab oil embargo was in full force, and fuel was "expensive".  So, the reasoning was that getting a smaller diesel would get much better fuel economy and therefore would be cheaper to own.  Additionally, since we lived close to the border, we could get diesel in Mexico.  At the time, the cost was $0.05/liter or about $0.20/gallon.  You do the math.  So, after I got the truck, I got a 40 gallon tank put in place of the 15 gallon stock tank.  Once that was in place, I used to do a run to Tijuana every couple of weeks for diesel and Mescal (a close cousin to tequila, but with a worm in the bottle -- this stuff is "slightly hallucinogenic").  It was a solid plan, grounded in both good economics and logic.  And, as a plus, I got access to tons of Mescal at only a couple of buck a bottle.  At the time, Mescal was illegal in the US.  The mescal kept me and my friends in good stead.  In retrospect, it was a mixed blessing at best.

After I got the new Scout, things started going wrong within 200 miles.  By 500 miles, there was a howling noise that came from the transfer case.  This noise, while short lived, preceded the total melt down of the t-case.  I barely had time to pull to the side of the freeway before it melted and seized up.  I had the truck towed to the IH dealer, where they informed me that the t-case had developed a leak and therefore was devoid of oil.  This resulted in the melt-down.  There was no contest about the source of the problem, and the dealer agreed to replace the t-case under warranty.  That was good as the cost would have been many hundreds of dollars (this was back when a buck was worth a buck).

The wake up call came when the service representative called me and said that the Teamster's Union was on strike and since IH was a union shop, there would be a "slight delay" in getting the parts to the vehicle.   Six weeks later, the truck was still in the shop.  Finally, after 8 weeks, I got the vehicle back.  Now, at the time, this was my only transportation, so this represented a major disruption, but I car pooled with my wife and in the end things worked out.  I was certain that the shop had done a good job.  After all, they did service industrial equipment in the shop, how could it be otherwise?

The Trail to Mike's Sky Ranch

After I got the Scout back, I was approached by my neighbor Rod Kunz about a trip to Baja.  I thought that it was a great idea and after 8 weeks without the truck, I was itching to get to drive it on the dirt.  And, what better place to seek adventure than Baja?  Back then, Baja seemed to be a place of lore and mystery.  After I accepted the invitation, I went to every bookstore in San Diego seeking books on Baja.  I was totally stoked about the trip.  More than that, I was nervous with excitement.  I checked and rechecked both my equipment and the truck as the date drew neigh.  I was certain that this would be a trip to remember.  True enough, but I could never be prepared for what would happen next.  The plan was to go from Poway (near San Diego) where we lived, cross the border at Tecate, head east on Mex Highway 2 to  wide spot in the road called El Condor, then south into the mountains all the way to Mike's Sky Ranch.  We would spend a couple of days there, then return to San Diego by the inverse route.

In my innocence, I never asked about the others that were going on the trip.  When the full group was mustered, there would be 2 vehicles and 3 motor cycles -- 7 guys total.  There was me and my passenger Roger Mohling (my next door neighbor), Louie and his friend, Rod and 2 of his buddies.

Rod and his buddies planned to leave their trucks at El Condor and pay the ranchero (ranch owner) that lived there to "busca a mis cosas" (watch my things).  Then, they would ride their bikes and the other fellow, Louie, and I would haul their gas and gear.   This seemed like a reasonable plan, until I realized that Louie had a Baja Bug (a Volkswagon bug with a chopped body and suspension modifications).  The reason that was significant was that the Scout was reasonably heavy and there was NO WAY that the bug would be able to pull the Scout out if it was stuck.  That fact would become painfully clear to me in the next few hours.

Baja bugs are small, in fact so small that I ended up taking most of the biker's stuff in the Scout.  While I had room, it did increase the weight with predictable results.  The trip took place in the winter and there had been recent rains in the mountains.  In most areas, this was not an issue.  However, in this particular area of Baja, the geology created what is locally referred to as "decomposed granite" sand which erodes easily and leaves steep walls in the washes.  Most of the trail to Mike's was over this decomposed granite, this was over 75 miles.  Plenty of places to get into trouble.  And it did not take long to for the trouble to appear.  At the first rest stop, the Mescal came out and the bottle was passed around.  I cannot speak for the others, but since this was about 9am, it was a profound experience.  I was buzzed, no doubt about it.  We secured from the stop and headed deeper into the mountains.  As the terrain rolled by both Roger and I passed be bottle.  I did not take too long before we were really enjoying the ride.  This seemed to be an easy ride.  All I had to do was to follow the bike tracks and insure that they did not leave me behind.  Of course, the bikes could go much, much faster than my heavily loaded truck.  As we made our way into the high country, there were big standing pools of water in the trail.  We made huge splashes as we charged through the mud puddles, with tsunamis of muddy water washing over the roof of the truck and down the back windshield.  How much fun could a person have?

As time wore on, due to the decreased visibility (and of course the liquor) I followed the bike tracks over a section of the trail that would not support the weight of the truck.  With the wet, decomposed granite under the wheels, the truck sunk like a stone to the frame.  Since I was the last vehicle in the troop, and we did not have radios, I panicked that the others would get many, many miles down the trail before they realized that were stuck and required assistance.  That assumption was predicated on them actually looking over their shoulders to see if were still there.  Also, since there were so many side roads, I was concerned that the group would take a track that we would miss.  Since this was before GPS and this was my first trip to the area, the thought of being lost in a foreign country was most unappealing. 

Being the good 4 wheeler that I am, I had plenty of tools: shovels (albeit a folding army trenching tool), high lift jacks, chains, etc.  So, we put on our gloves and went to work.  It took about 30 minutes to get out, but we did it unassisted.  Sweaty, but unassisted. The real problem was that the ground was so soft that it would not support the jack and the jack would sink into the ground.  We did fashion a crude foot-block, so we did persevere.  Near the end of the ordeal, the balance of the team reassembled.  They showed up just in time to watch us reload the truck.  Once we were packed, we passed the bottle of mescal to celebrate the "easy" extraction.

OK, time to go.  We got in, fired it up and drove -- ten feet -- and sunk to the frame again.  Of course, the faster vehicles were long gone by the time this happened.  So, we unloaded the tools and went to work again.  This time I decided to get smart and check out the surrounding terrain so this would not happen again.  Twice was two times too many.  I took a short jog from the truck checking out the trail and proceeded to step right on top of a 4 foot rattlesnake.   He was exactly the color of the tan decomposed granite.  He was pissed!!  I stepped right on the middle of his body and the only reason that I did not get bit was because I was half running at the time.  Once I heard the rattling, my half jogging turned into a terrified "full sprint".  This was a very close call, the closest I have ever had in all the years that I have lived in the southwest.  The snake was so pissed that he followed me for quite some distance before he gave up the chase.  By now the adrenaline from the snake had introduced itself to the alcohol from the mescal.  I was shaking from head to toe. I reasoned that being bitten by a pissed off snake when your only mode of transport is stuck to the frame in deep mud would require substantial physical exertion.  And after being envenomated, that is a very, very bad thing.  We were many hours from the border.  Gladly, that did not happen.  But, we still did have to figure out what to do about the struck truck.

As we took stock of our situation, the scope of the work became clear to us.  Ignoring the shakes, I helped Roger bring the jack to bear on the situation.  As we worked up a sweat, I heard a noise in the distance.  Soon, it became clear that someone was heading our way.  Since we were a distance from the trail, I hiked toward the noise and was soon rewarded with the sight of a well-beaten Ford pickup heading my way.  "Saved" I thought.  As the truck came to a halt, I realized that there would be some negotiating required.  Rather than gringos, the truck was filled with about 6 Mexicans, 3 in the cab, 3 in the bed.  I approached them and asked for help in my poor Spanish.  I stammered and stuttered my way through my request for assistance.  Finally, when they had enough of my miserable attempts to communicate, they announced "we are miners and we speak English!".  Good thing for me I never made any disparaging remarks in English about their heritage, although I was tempted at the time.  In a flash of insight, I realized that I had a bargaining chip that I had ignored.  The bottle of mescal proved the swing vote.

In only a few minutes these 6 fellows had the truck unstuck.  Being an American, we think toward use of tools.  I assumed that they would hook their truck to the tow line I had.  But, they were way, way too smart for that.  They knew that the ground was too soft to support their pickup, so they resorted to doing things the "old fashioned way".  I showed them my hi lift jack.  They just smiled and said that it was useless.  I knew that, at least it was useless without a big foot block.  They asked if I had an axe, and I did.  I produced the axe and they cut down a small tree, about 6 inches in diameter.  While one of them was doing that, several of the others rolled a big stump close to the truck.  They stuck the tree into the wheel and used the stump as a fulcrum.  Then, with 6 men humping on the tree, the truck sprung free of the mud.  Just like magic.  We filled the whole where the wheels were with brush and wood and dropped the truck back.  Then we rolled the stump to the next wheel and did it again.  And again.  And again.  It was easy once you knew what to do.  And had a team of 6.

I was totally impressed with their ability to use the materials at hand to solve a seemingly difficult problem.  I commented to Roger at the time, "They have clearly done this before".  In only a few minutes, we were free of the bog and back on the trail.  On cue, the balance of the team showed up just as we finished packing the tools.  As promised, I delivered the bottle of mescal to the miners and they were last seen driving away and passing the bottle.

I think the take-away lesson is that drinking while driving is inviting disaster.  But, by the same token, having that bargaining chip can prove useful in Mexico when the inevitable disaster strikes.

Once back on the trail, the balance of the trip to Mike's proved uneventful.  However, I had to *really* try to keep up with the bikes and the Baja bug.  I was still fearful of getting too far behind, making the wrong turn and getting lost.  The rapid pace would take it's toll on the Scout.

We made it to Mikes shortly after dark and all got rooms.  Mike's is an interesting place.  In the '30s, it was a get-away for Hollywood's rich and famous.  There is an airstrip there, but other than that mode of transport, it is an arduous journey.  The physical plant there was in generally good repair and they had most of the trappings of modern life.  There is a pool, an electric generator to provide lights, propane for the stove, a bar, communal dining and a dozen hotel rooms.  The generator is turned off around 10pm, and the only light is in the bar which was lit by kerosene lamps.  The food was excellent, the cook was the owner's wife and she did a great job with classical Mexican home-style meals served with beans, tortillas and rice.  The bar was fully stocked, so the team got well and truly hammered after dinner.

A side trip to San Felipe

We had planned to spend a couple of nights at Mike's.  But, when we woke the next day, the thrill of the trail over took the call of sleep.  Most of the group were up early.  We decided to take a side trip to San Felipe on the Gulf of California.  Since I had never seen the Gulf, I was excited.  Logic took hold, and I decided to inspect the truck before attempting the trip.  Getting to San Felipe would required 32 km of dirt back to Mexican highway 3, then another 100 miles or so on the pavement to the little fishing village of San Felipe.  Given the beating the truck had suffered in my vain attempt to keep pace with the motorcycles, it seemed that a close inspection was justified.

When I started looking, I noticed that I had done a substantial amount of damage.  First, the rubber snubbers that limited the travel of the front leaf springs had been destroyed.   Clearly, they had been abused to the point that they just disintegrated.  After the rubber had fallen off, the axle had taken the stops and peened them into a mushroom shape.  In the process, the top of the differential housing (aka the pumpkin) had slammed into the oil pan of the motor, leaving a deep dent.  While no oil was leaking, it was still a disconcerting sight.  The front end seemed intact, despite the beating.  

Looking further back, my 40 gallon fuel tank had taken some heavy hits.  There was a deep dent down the middle of the bash plate, nearly 4 inches deep.  Although dented, it was not leaking.   Checking the balance of the underside of the truck, I noticed that there was a small oil leak between the transfer case and the transmission.  Looking closer, I noticed that several of the bolts that held the two parts together were loose, in danger of falling out.  Stated differently, the transmission was coming unbolted from the transfer case and was in jeopardy of falling out onto the ground.  Remember, this was the transfer case that was just repaired by the International mechanics.  The good news was I got it in time and had the tools required to tighten the assembly.  In no time, the transfer case was back in place.  All told, this was still an uncomfortable situation.  Here I was, in a foreign country, hundreds of miles from the border, with a group of guys that did not have the ability to tow me back if a failure occurred, and a vehicle that was self destructing.  Once I got everything bolted back together, we were ready to leave for San Felipe.  For whatever reason, I could not get the diesel started.  We tried and tried.  Until the battery was drained.  So we jumped the truck and continued, but to no avail.  In the end, we ended up rolling the truck down the hill and letting the compression of the engine start it.  It did work, but it was not a confidence building experience.  Once the truck was running, we left it running until we were ready to leave.

The whole inspection process was stress-inducing, for sure.  And, when on vacation in Mexico and the going gets stressful, the stressed get mescal.  

Once we were properly "prepared" for the trip to San Felipe, we got underway.  It took about 3 hours to get there, but there were no events along the way.  We got diesel there and then set about getting lunch.  Since SF is right on the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), they have plenty of fresh seafood.  We found a little cafe and ordered up some camerones en mole ajo (shrimp in garlic sauce).  While waiting for lunch, we also ordered beer.  Now, being a stupid, somewhat unworldly gringo, I stupidly assumed that beer would be served cold.  Nope, not true.  In back-water Mexico, having cold beer implies having ice or electricity.  This place had neither, I am assuming because having ice cost money and they had none.  The beer was Indio brand in a 1 liter steel can and was served at room temperature , which on this day was about 90 degrees.  Needless to say, hot beer isn't all that tasty, independent of what brand of beer.  Indio, as it turned out, was particularly foul.  The lunch was tasty, but it was not until after I ate all the shrimp that I started to question the lack of ice situation.  Gladly, we did not get sick, but there were some moments of angst.

The three hour trip back to Mike's was gladly uneventful.  When  we hit the dirt road at the turnoff to Mike's, we broke out the bottle.  By the time that we actually got to Mike's both Roger and I were blasted.  He was particularly drunk and as we will see momentarily, had some bad consequences.

Dinner was great, as was to be expected.  And, after we chowed down, we hit the bar where the drinks continued to flow.  By lights out, Roger was totally non-functional.  I helped him to the room that we were sharing where he proceed to blow chow on his bed.  And the floor.  And in the bathroom.  This is when I learned that the only thing grosser than barfing yourself is having to watch somebody else barf.   The smell from all the mescal was something you would have to experience firsthand to truly appreciate.  Sadly, since he had decorated the room I was staying in too, I got to experience the added ambiance with no recourse.  I was in no mood to clean up his mess, so going to the bathroom during the middle of the night required careful navigation between the puddles of puke.

The Fateful Return

The next morning, Roger was a mess, both literally and figuratively.  Very, very dehydrated and totally hung over.  And, in all honesty, I wasn't feeling all that sharp myself.  When the balance of the group heard of my nighttime travails, they laughed and laughed.  Roger dry heaved, they laughed.  When were getting our stuff out of the room and packing to go, I asked him if he was going to clean up his mess.  His reply was to drop a $20 bill into the puddle and hike out the door, dry heaving and gagging on the way.

Since we both were in nasty shape, the bottle stayed in the cooler all the way back home.  But, despite my more sober behavior, the trip home did not go as expected.  The plan was to go from Mike's back to Valle de Trinidad and get diesel and gas.  Then, from there, we would head back into the mountains and take the long way back to Laguna Hanson and from there back to El Condor where we would load the bikes into the trucks and head from there to the border.

The trip to Valle de Trinidad went without a hitch, though there were many gags as we rode out the bumps.  I was scared that Roger was going to decorate the inside of the Scout with his provably pungent puke.  Fate was kind to me, at least in that regard, and he managed to hold it down.  We got a full 40 gallon tank of diesel in Valle de Trinidad.  And the truck started the first time, so I felt pretty good.  At least as good as one could feel given the hung over state we were in.

As we headed back into the mountains, the road got rough.  The return route was different from the arriving route and the trail was substantially tougher with huge ruts and boulders in the road.  Having *kinda* learned from the damage caused by the excessive speed of attempting to keep up with the bikes, I  attempted to keep the speed under control and accepted that they would leave me behind.  That was good because about 10 miles from Valle de Trinidad, I heard a scraping sound.  The sound spooked me and I immediately came to a halt.  I got out to take a look and much to my dismay, I found that the fuel tank was starting to fall off.  It had not fully separated from the frame, but it was real, real close.  I am sure that if I had continued for more than a couple of seconds more, it would have fully dropped into the dirt tearing hoses and connections as it went.  It soon became apparent that the full tank would present a problem.  Fuel is about the same weight as water and 40 gallons is about 300 pounds, excluding the weight of the tank.  Inspection showed that the nuts on the mounting bolts had come loose.  One had fallen into the dirt some distance back.  The other was loose, but still attached.  We managed to jack the tank back into place and cross thread some spare nuts onto the bolts.  The spares from the tool box were the wrong thread pitch, but the correct diameter.  That was ok with me since they went on hard, they would also come off hard.  Or better yet, not come off at all.  Once I got it snug on all the mounting bolts, I took the hammer and peened the threads to prevent them from coming loose.

Given that this was about 10am and we were both hung over, the panting and straining to get the tank back in place was particularly cruel.  As we were loading the tools to get underway, here comes the balance of the team to "help".  By now, conspiracy theories were running through my alcohol addled brain.  I was sure that they had watched the whole thing from the brush and only approached after they were *sure* that there was no work to be done.  I can't be sure, but the though did occur to me.

By now, given all that had happened, I was totally nervous.  My new vehicle with only 5,000 miles was self destructing underneath me.  And we still had nearly 100 miles of tough trail to get to El Condor.  I made a note to myself that I should immediately investigate any odd noises.  So, with that in mind, we headed deeper into the mountains.  As we rose in elevation, it got substantially colder; cold enough that we had to roll the windows up (hey, I am from San Diego, that means it is cold).  As gods of mechanical fate would have it, the combination of the noise of the diesel and having the windows up prevented me from hearing the next calamity until it was too late.

The trail was rough, rougher that we had expected, so we were behind schedule.  All of us did not want to be on the trail after dark, so we were driving with the objective of covering ground.  Since the road was rough, there was no such thing as a "flat section" of the road to get the feel of the vehicle in a normal circumstance.  Soon, it became apparent that something was wrong with the steering.  I stopped as soon as I figured this out and went outside into the cold mountain air to investigate.  Much to my dismay, I discovered that the shackles that hold the front leaf springs to the frame had come unbolted.  The end of the spring set was flapping in the breeze.  The only good news here is that the hardened bolt that went through the spring was jammed in the assembly and therefore had not fallen out.  This was an act of luck, because had that happened, we would have been truly fucked.  I did not have a spare bolt and certainly did not have a hardened bolt.  That would have required covering the 60 remaining miles of very rough trail with a damaged suspension and impaired steering.   Gladly, that was not the case.  So, Roger and I got the tool and the hi lift jack out and went to work getting the axle re-alligned to reinstall the shackles and bolt.   Getting the spring set in the proper orientation to allow the reattachment of the bolt was a major pain and took us perhaps 20 minutes.  It was cold, our fingers were numb and sore.  So where were the others, anyway?  I did find a nut of the correct diameter, but again the thread pitch was wrong so I cross threaded it on and peened the bolt. Guess what?  Once that bolt went in and the nut was screwed on, who came down the trail but the balance of the team wanting to know if they could help.  Hmmmm.

By now, my threshold for "adventure" had been greatly exceeded.  This ceased being fun several hours earlier.  Now, I was wondering if the truck would hold together long enough to get us back to the border.  The others in the group though the whole thing was funny as shit and could not stop laughing.   We broke for lunch at Laguna Hanson, but the cold put a damper on the beautiful scenery.  We gobbled our food and hit the trail, heading north.  By now, I was a nervous wreck.  I just wanted to get back to the good old US of A intact.  No more close encounters with snakes.  No puking partners.  No more mechanical failures.  But, alas, there was one final insult to be dealt.

After many hours of travel, I could finally see the power lines that paralleled Mexican Highway 2 in the distance.  There were only a few miles of trail between me and the redemption of asphalt road.  As we rounded the corner, the trail dropped into a narrow arroyo with a bank of decomposed granite on one side and a barbed wire fence on the other. In the middle of the trail was a young Mexican girl herding a small group of cattle.  There were several cows, a couple of calves and one very big bull.  The girl turned as she heard the rattle of the diesel engine.  I slowed because I did not want to spook the herd, so I hung back until she gave me the sign to pass the group.  She moved the cattle nearer to the barbed wire fence, leaving me a path between the cattle and the embankment.  I increased my speed slightly to pass the herd, not wanting to spook them.  As I passed the bull, he looked me in the eye through the window and then swung his head aggressively, slamming his horn into my driver's side door.  The thud of horn on sheet metal forced me to put the pedal to the metal and get out of there.  At that point, I was sure that he was going to attack and was not all that concerned about her keeping her herd together.

The group was waiting for me at El Condor.  Once I brought the Scout to a stop, I jumped out and started ranting about the damage the bull had done to my door.  The hole was about the size of a quarter and 3/4" deep.  Not deep enough to impact the operation of the window, but it peeled all the paint and primer off the metal.

The guys thought that this was the funniest thing they had ever seen.  They laughed and laughed.  They laughed until they cried.  After the anger subsided, I had to admit it was pretty funny.  It was less funny when I had to explain it to my wife after my return to San Diego.

The balance of the trip home was uneventful.  That was fine with me.  My fun quotient had been exceeded anyway.  My Mexico ticket had been punched and it would be several years before I had enough nerve to return.  Again with Rod and again with catastrophic "adventures" in store, but that is another story.


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