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The Road To El Dorado

Luther Butler

From Stephenville, Texas to Baja California, Mexico
March 7, - March 30, 2000 AD


MascoteDodge Minivan 1994 Modified for a wheelchair ramp.

Luther Butler...........Backseat Passenger (Husband)
Jo Butler.................Passenger in a wheelchair (Wife)
Luke Butler.............Driver (Son)
Sunshine................Luke's white cat

In the late 1980's my wife came home very excited. "A salesman from American Pen just gave Luke and I a lot located on the Sea of Cortez."

"Where’s that?" I mumbled skeptically.

"Baja California."

"Baja California. Mexico?" I asked.

"Mexico," she assured me.

"How did you get so fortunate?" I asked.

I was still not convinced. "Sounds like a swamp in Florida."

"No, this is a desert that fronts the Sea of Cortez."

"How much?" I asked.

"Nothing. We just have to pay a forty dollar a year maintenance fee."

"Oughtn’t to break us. What proof did they give you?"

"Here's the deed and pictures of our lot," she said.

I looked at the pictures. In one a bright blue sea lapped gently at the sandy beach while palm trees swayed gracefully in the background. "No bathing beauties?" I asked.

"No," my wife said again, "but look at these beautiful flower."

"Nice, anything else?" I was dreaming of doing some surf fishing like I did on the Texas coast.

"There's mountains," she bragged.

"Mountains by the sea?"

Again she handed me some pictures. Black ominous mountains rose in the background. "There aren't many trees," I commented.

"Two out of three's not bad."

I put the deed and the pictures in our bank box and turned my thoughts to other things. Occasionally over the years I dreamed about the lots in Mexico and stashed a little sum of money away for a trip. We faithfully paid our forty dollars each year.

On March 7, 2000, the long awaited day arrived. We were off to El Dorado! I was somewhat apprehensive, the weather station reported snow in Tucson, and there was no way around. Luke said, "I've taken off, and we're going, besides, Tucson is north of San Felipe where our lot is."

"Only a little over a hundred miles north," I reminded him. With these words I went in the house for my leather jacket. The temperature was in the low seventies.

"Do you think we can make El Paso by night?" Jo asked. Luke assured her we could.

After several dry years, West Texas dirt coated our windshield as we drove Interstate 20 with a strong north wind trying to blow us off the road. When we pulled off for gas at Monohans, a dark cloud swept westward across the horizon. Muddy streaks ran down our windshield. Since I had the leather jacket, I was forced to pump the gas while standing in a wind that like to tore me from the windswept earth.

Wet and chilled to the bones, I asked the lady who took my money, "You had much rain?"

"First in almost six months," she told me. "This will make some ranchers and cotton farmers very happy."

"Pay me, and I'll come back with some more."

"You do that," she said while she took the money for the two dollar a gallon gas.

Luke drove into blackness full of wind driven pelting rain. I reminded them about the snow in Tucson. By then the rain was letting up. We drove through El Paso toward Las Cruces under a star-studded sky. My argument next morning to go west to Columbus, New Mexico and then north to Deming fell on deaf ears.

When we reached the Kranberry Inn in Lordsburgh, I said, "While you two eat, think I'll take a walk and meet you back on the highway." Since I got a blood clot in my leg on our trip three years ago, the doctor had advised me to walk some when we went on another one.

Since the blazing afternoon sun was directly west, there could be no way I could get lost in a fairly small New Mexico town. After an hour of walking I realized the highway wasn't where it was supposed to be. Walking a little faster in the opposite direction our car was at a filling station across the street from the restaurant.

"We were about to leave without you," Jo said.

"The travelers check are in my name," I assured her.

We drove across the twisting desert road into Tucson where there was no visible snow even on the soaring peak of Mt. Lemon.

"It either melted fast, or those people back east who run the Weather Channel, don't know what they are talking about," I said.

We drove on west toward Yuma where we were to turn south into Mexico and El Dorado where a sixteen hundred-dollar lot by the Sea of Cortez awaited us!

Driving westward into the sun, that made my eyes see dim enough to make it unsafe for me to drive, we drove through giant forests of Saguaro cactus. "You pronounce it Saurao," Jo told me for the at least a hundred times since we had married in the late fifties.

"Well, since I spent almost two years growing up here, I should know more about how to pronounce saguaro than you do. Besides, there are three of us and a cat in this car, and why does it make a damn if I pronounce it with a g are a w sound?"

Luke petted Sunshine who was curled on the dashboard before he spoke. "Mother, the two of us know the correct pronunciation so why don't you leave Dad alone?" This was the first time he had taken up for me in his forty years. Not to let me gloat, he admonished me, "But dad, if you want the Mexicans to understand you, you will have speak more clearly." I was still sulking when we pulled into Yuma when gray shades of night were drawing across that lonely beautiful land so full of mysterious stories of Indians, cowboys, miners and prospectors with soldiers in both blue and gray thrown in over the years.

Next morning's bright sun found us driving south on Highway 95 toward the Gila River and the Mexican border. In terraced fields acres of irrigated winter vegetables waited to be shipped north where snow still covered the ground. Before crossing into the border town of Algodones, Luke and I talked to the border guard on the United States side. "Sir, I have a thousand dollars in travelers checks. I was advised to change it into U.S. currency before we headed toward San Felipe. The money was secure in a brown locked briefcase.

"Open it up and show me," he ordered sharply

While he counted it, I asked another question. "Should we tape our hubcaps so we'll know if someone puts drug in them?"

"We understand ‘cause it does happen. On the other hand, if you come back with packets secured in your gas tank, we'll investigate you thoroughly. Now, go back to the bank and let them advise you what to do about the currency."

First we went to an insurance agent where a very attractive lady who was proficient in Spanish and English, told me three months of liability insurance cost eighty dollars. Full coverage was over four hundred dollars.

"My U.S. insurance won't cover me?" She assured me the instance I crossed the Border my insurance coverage ended. Gambling on a vehicle costing over thirty thousand because of modifications, I took a chance by not buying anymore than the minimum.

At the bank an attractive young lady who was bilingual again waited us on. It ceases to amaze me that people without too much formal education are able to speak in two languages so fluently while a person like myself with three degrees struggles with a minimum vocabulary in a second language. Necessity must be the mother of learning for those who grow up along the Border.

"Should I cash all my travelers checks into Mexican currency," I asked.

"Why?" she asked.

"I was advised to."

"By whom?"

"By advisers over the Internet."

"They love U.S. dollars," she said with a smile. "Let's cash two hundred dollars and put it into U.S. cash."

"They'll take it?"

"With open arms," she assured me.

After putting the money and travelers checks into my briefcase, Luke and I walked out the door.

"Dad, why do you carry your money in a briefcase?"

"Once in Juarez a pickpocket took my wallet from an inside coat pocket."

"They can take your briefcase."

"At least I'll know about it."

"Everyone who was in the bank knows about your money," Luke told me. "I'm younger and stronger. Let me carry it." I kept a wary eye on all that would pay for a long journey into a part of the world that was entirely new to me.

Before leaving Algodones, Luke was told to follow Highway 95 to San Juan, turn right, and take the road to Highway 5 to San Felipe. "Señor, it would have been better if you had gone to Mexicali before turning south."

"It's shorter this way," he said after he tried to buy a highway map without success.

Again we drove through immaculate fields of vegetables broken by green patches of irrigated wheat. On the south side of the Border there were changes. We had gone back into the Thirties and Forties in rural United States. Instead of modern tractors and farming equipment, these operators drove John Deeres, International Harvesters, and Cases pulling equipment used by our farmers at least thirty years ago.

The age of the equipment didn't bother me. What did bother me was that there was a strong smell of insecticides and other farm chemicals on the morning air. Unregulated, I knew the Mexican farmers were being careless with potentially harmful chemical tools they needed badly.

The highway changed into a narrow two lane paved strip of asphalt without shoulders on the road. One false move and Luke would drop into a rut that could cause the van to turn over. The road was not the only change. Houses were small constructions surrounded by rusting farming equipment and worn-out cars and trucks. To compensate for the ugliness of the houses and yards were beautiful palm trees and blooming tropical flowers.

Our paved highway turned into a road full of Mexican potholes that jarred our lowered minivan. Luke had packed the suitcases and ice chest very carefully. After we jarred over a mile of road, all our belongings were jumbled in heaps of disorganized messes.

Luke insisted on not stopping for directions. "They can't understand my Spanish," he complained.

"I know we've traveled more than ten miles." Our conversation grew heated when suddenly Federales with M16s and machine guns brought us to an abrupt stop. A youth of not more than sixteen swung his rifle carelessly by the shoulder strap. I ducked expecting the weapon to fire accidentally at any moment. We learned later that these overgrown teenagers were patrolling the highways at the insistence of the United States to keep guns and drugs from being transported from Mexico into the United States and from the United States into our neighbor to our south.

"You have any drugs?" the modern John Wayne asked.

Luke played the part of a very ignorant person. "No," he said as though he was searching for the Mexican word.

"Open your glove compartment," the neatly uniformed soldier ordered curtly. Glancing, he asked, "Tourist?"

Luke assured him we were, and then got up the nerve to ask directions. "No trouble," our soldier turned tourist guide said helpfully. He pointed to a stopped vehicle the soldiers were searching. "Turn around and follow him back five miles."

We drove into fogging dust that turned our windshield to mud again. A mile up the road, our guide was hauled out of his cab by a burly policeman who was not as kind as the soldiers had been. We were on our own again. We soon learned that it is not best to trust the directions of the natives. One thing, they are speaking in a foreign language. Number two is they have to translate kilometers into miles. Thirdly, we found that some of the natives seem to enjoy giving false information to tourista from Norte America!

At the first small grocery store we stopped at for directions, I found groceries are incidental to large supplies of whiskey, beer, and native wines. Another thing, refrigeration in rural areas is non-existent. They did have glassed containers to keep flies from buzzing the meat.

After futilely trying to make a teenage female clerk to understand me, I got out our American Heritage Larousse Spanish Dictionary which is bilingual. Carefully I wrote, "Autopista San Felipe." To me autopista sounded like a vulgar human elimination act. The young clerk beamed while she drew a small map showing that we should go up the road to San Luis where we would cross the Rio Grande before finding the road to El Dorado!

It was not long before we found the road she recommended was built for vehicles much higher off the road than ours was. A young man showed us how to get on the right road. This was my second trip to interior Mexico, the other to Monterrey, but this confirmed my belief that Mexicans are the most lovable, courtesy people on the face of this planet. Gracias to all of you except to one bank clerk.

With relief we crossed the Rio Grande at a shallow ford and soon found our way to the wonderful asphalt highway that runs between Mexicali and San Felipe. It isn't a four lane modern Interstate, but to us it was like the gold street of Heaven! We later found that the powers behind El Dorado Ranch were responsible for this modern miracle that winds between some very high volcanic peaks and a very dry desert. Gracias again and again!

Before we leave Rio Colorado, do not be fooled by stories that U.S. farmers have stopped water from flowing down the Colorado into the Sea of Cortez. A very good flow of water was flowing in March, which is before much snow has melted in the Colorado Rockies. We are sure all of the river's water is not going into the Sultan Sea of California.

Miles of flat land looking like an ancient salt flat followed us on the left while on the right tall mysterious volcanoes reared majestically into a sky unmarred by telephone wires, electric wires, or for that matter, any impediments of modern man. Civilization consisted of a black ribbon of asphalt highway winding snake like through desert shrubs reaching to the bare black lava. In some prehistoric time, Baja must have been awesome with pointed peaks shooting fire and brimstone into a smoky sky.

"Kind of reminds me of Johnny Cash's song, ‘A Rim of Fire’," I said.

"You mean the Hemorrhoid Song," Luke laughed like he used to when he was a small boy.

When it seemed we would never reach civilization, Luke pulled over to the side of the road and he and Sunshine got out for a walk. I followed. Like an explorer from the Star Ship, I walked toward the black mountains. A trail led through clumps of desert plants where the only signs of life were coyote tracks and the slithering trails of lizards and snakes. The only noise was the whistling north wind that made a coat feel good while my legs browned from a blazing sun.

Sunshine, cat like, crouched low to prevent herself from being too conspicuous. Her white eyes surrounded by white fur, darted back and forth. Far from cover, she remained motionless until Luke picked her up. We had been told coyotes liked cats - almost like strawberries on a bowl of ice cream.

After we got back into the car, Luke and I argued if the peaks were ancient volcanoes or atolls built by ancient sea life like the Guadeloupe Mountains in Texas. After studying Baja on the Internet, I knew the mountains were either volcanoes or uprising caused by the fault line buckling and splitting. Whatever the method the Creator used millions of years ago to create this wonderful world, I like the proverbial bear wanted to see what was over the mountains. The path to the other side came at Crucero La Trinidad where Highway 3 to Ensenada came into our road. Since I had only been able to rent a condo at San Felipe for a week, we didn't expect to go anywhere but home.

There was no time for further speculation. Again a barricade of Federales closed traffic for inspection. These young soldiers had a truck with a machine gun mounted ready to give pursuit. The uniformed young men, unlike the first, carried their weapons at port ready for any unseen opposition. Each man in the living barricade had a bunker built of rocks to fall behind in case of gunfire. More to the point, one soldier sat holding a rope that when pulled would make a line of nasty spikes to spring up and puncture tires.

Stopping, Luke was asked the same questions: Where are you from? Where are you going? What are you going to do when you get there? Do you have any guns or drugs? Open your glove compartment. This time the young soldier did a very un-soldierly like thing, he reached through the window and petted the white cat resting on the dashboard before he said, "Drive on." Looking back at the stark barracks these young men lived in, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Soon on our left the magnificently blue Sea of Cortez arose like a desert mirage. In my years, I have seen the Atlantic from the shores of Rhode Island to the flat Gulf of Mexico from the Texas Coast, I have seen the Pacific from the cliff below Los Angeles to San Diego, but never have I seen anything as beautiful as the Sea of Cortez and the volcanic peaks of Baja!

A billboard, the only one we had seen in Mexico appeared, EL DORADO RANCH. We were in the middle of a desert without any signs of electricity, telephones, water, and any other of the signs of civilization, but we had found El Dorado. It was getting dark; we still had five miles to drive to San Felipe and our condo I had already paid a week's rent. We had no time to look at our find.

After we passed the arches of San Felipe, we found our condo nestled in among similar places. I had made sure our place was wheelchair accessible. After parking, I went through a courtyard protected by a sliding gate and using the key Jorge sent me, I was in a three room apartment with a large window looking over the Cortez Sea and beautiful lights of the fishing village of San Felipe. Instead of being on the water, we were on a cliff three blocks from the beach. I then remembered Jorge had told me it was a short walk to where there was a place to fish. He forgot to tell me that since much of the beach is private property, it is fenced.

The Sea of Cortez is a brilliant blue-green. Seven hundred and fifty miles long, ninety-five miles wide, it is thought to follow a fault line caused by the separation of Baja from the mainland. The Sea has advanced north three hundred miles, but don't get worried, several million years have passed. If the fault line extends northward, California is not likely to fall into the Pacific Ocean in our lifetime. Islands dot the placid waters. A few miles from San Felipe, the island is a submerged volcanic mountain with only its peak showing.

Owners of fishing boats will take fishermen out for eighty to a hundred dollars a day. A three-hour fishing trip is only thirty dollars. Every morning an enterprising fisherman rang our doorbell offering to take us out for a price. Not only did he want to take us fishing, but also he helped himself to anything he could find to eat - and take home to his starving children. He especially wanted a can of our precious Spam. Jo refused to let him have it. About the Spam, whenever we go on a trip I put in an electric grill. Jo puts in two cans of Spam that we always bring home.

Luke and I tried fishing the surf without any luck. I patiently stuck with wetting a line, but he searched for sea life that washes in with the tide. Sand dollars wash in by the hundreds along with some very colorful shells with their inhabitants still alive. We found very little debris in the Sea of Cortez, but we found very few fish close to shore, or for that matter, farther out. For thirty dollars, Luke caught a croaker. The friendly owner of the fishing boat gave him two other filleted fish.

Since it was Spring Break and the running of the Bahia 210, I was only able to get reservations for one week. We arrived on Thursday, Friday morning the condominium next to us started filling up with a fraternity from the University of Idaho. The new arrivals started arriving in rented cars from San Diego. The first carload arrived right after sunrise; the last ones arrived at four o'clock the next morning without keys and no idea where the first arrivals were partying in San Felipe. Our doorbell rang with each new arrival. Luke opened some doors, but as talented as he is at picking locks, he couldn't open all of them without a key.

Like many young college men trying to impress each other, their language was loud and vulgar. The first night, they spoke obscenities in English. After a night or two on the town, they spoke the same words in, would you believe it? Spanish. In spite of two years of high school Spanish and growing up among Spanish speaking people, these frat brothers learned enough in one night to fill their rooms with some very attractive young women. Word like punta, Federales, and the Mexican word for jail filled the very early morning air! These children far away from home were delightful neighbors whom Jo wanted to use soap on their mouths - especially at four AM!

The town of San Felipe curves around a horseshoe bend in the Sea of Cortez. On the north side an ancient volcano rises dark and majestic in the morning sunlight. Under its sheltering shadow, high on a hill, sits the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but the steps up to it were more than my legs could take. Rising under the shrine is a lighthouse gleaming white in the day, and at night its turning lights brings boats safely home. The city fronts on the sparkling waters, and San Felipe is a city with myriad businesses waiting to serve tourists and citizens of the city.

Various motels, trailer parks, condos, and some very elegant hotels line the waterfront; the most expensive of which is Misones. The newly constructed rock enclosed dock for shrimp and fishing boats to the south is a welcomed addition. Not only do the commercial vessels come into unload their catch, but pleasure boats rest in this safe harbor. Fishermen sit on the huge rocks and cast out into both the calm waters of the harbor, but into the more turbulent waters of the open sea. Luke and I found the rocks hard to cast over because our lines kept snagging on the rocks. There were a few fish around for occasionally a lucky fisherman brought in pan fish. Most of the fish caught were snagged on artificial lures.

I soon lost my interest in fishing when a small boy on a bicycle came to teach me Spanish. We found out each other’s name. He was in the second grade. He again tried to teach me his language, and I sought to teach him mine. One word I recognized was stupido. Before his parents came to get him, I said, "Yo amor tu." When his face lit up, I savied he understood me.

The children of Mexico are special. Brown skins with bright eyes, they probably trust gringos too much. On one of my walks on the streets of San Felipe, a little boy grabbed my hand. Before long there were at least six children walking in a line beside me. It was only when a father gave me a cross look that we broke our line. May the loveable children of Mexico never learn to fear Norte Americans! In San Felipe there are a group of people called, Amigos, who take up money to send Mexican children to special schools of higher learning. I met the gringo lady who is president of the local group.

That afternoon I waded into the surf to fish. The water was a little cool, but since my clothes were wet, I put my shoes, wallet and shirt on the beach and went swimming. The tide was out. On the Sea of Cortez the tide goes out a long way, sometimes almost a mile, and then when it comes in, it comes in very rapidly. Looking around from my swim I saw a young Mexican man carrying my possessions. Knowing I would be in a bad situation without my wallet, I began to plead with him to leave my possessions alone. He dropped my things and rejoined his wife and children. Reaching the beach, it dawned on me that he was not stealing my things, but he was carrying them to higher ground. After I collected everything, I went to apologize. No sooner than I said, "Gracias, señor," than he let me know he spoke perfect English.

A graduate of the University of Mexico, he had a degree in architecture. The only thing, he wanted to return to San Felipe. Since there was not enough work for him to do in the field he had studied for, he was selling insurance. The two of us visited for at least an hour before he gathered his family and went home. Before he left, I thanked him again for saving my possessions. My mistrust of a Mexican was embarrassing, but how does one tell a person that prejudices are so hard to overcome?

Puertecitos is about forty miles south from San Felipe. Since we had heard about some interesting things about this town, including a very cheap piece of property for sale, we loaded up and went. This was our second day on the Sea of Cortez. Luke didn’t seem anxious to find his lot at Dorado. Perhaps after he saw the desert it was located in, he realized it might not be such a big deal.

Forty miles didn’t seem like a long trip – perhaps an hour if we drove real slow, less than an hour if we hurried. It wasn’t long before we discovered that no one travels forty miles along the Sea of Cortez unless they have a vehicle with a very high wheelbase – and a vehicle they don’t care to tear apart when they hit potholes. When IMS in Farmington, New Mexico made our vehicle, they dropped the floor so Jo could easily get her wheelchair into it. The van took the road very well until we crossed the Arroyo Hutamote, then conditions deteriorated. Even though the van bottom consists of a sheet of very strong metal, we were sliding over pavement that threatened to tear the bottom out. Now I knew why a very desirable piece of property listed on the Internet was so cheap. We couldn’t get there!

After we turned around, we found a dirt road leading to the beach. Before long we entered a gated community. In Mexico, gates into property are ropes strung across the road. A Mexican lowers the gate after he decides you are safe to let in. Along the beach was a row of brick houses that in the States would be priced in the $90, 000 range. Farther down the beach, the building looked like a giant had crushed them.

Luke and I went beach combing. Farther out past the breakers a row of large fishing boats roamed with fishing nets out. Just before the low water tide line, a long gill fishing net was strung out along the beach. When the tide came in a boat would pull the trapped eels in for sale at the local markets. After hiking a mile, sand dollars started flowing up with the gentle tide. These dollars were twice the size of those we found on the Texas coast. It only took a few minutes to gather a bucket full. After my gathering, I saw a large shell shaped like a Spanish helmet. Looking in it, there was something guarding a bunch of eggs. Without anymore investigation of what I’d found I walked toward a family sitting on the sand. The man was a gringo from Los Angles who was spending a week away from his fireman job.

After he told me he had spent summers and holidays when he was growing up in this family owned home, Luke came from his walk down the beach. He sat and played with the large shell, and opening it, he said, "Dad, there is an octopus in here. She’s guarding her eggs." Turning to the fireman, he asked, "What happened to all those houses at the south end?"

The fireman answered, "A hurricane got them. The owners are still trying to settle with their insurance company."

When we got back to the van, a family from Colorado was setting up camp. It took me a little while to find out he was a geologist from Colorado School of Mines. He told me he had discovered this beach while sailing down the Sea of Cortez. Noticing a row of locked bathrooms I asked how a person got to use one of them. "Pay twelve dollars like I did."

Without going to the expensive facilities, I started getting two fishing poles ready. Luke went to turn the octopus lose before I could cut her up for bait. Before I could fish, three teenage Mexican youths drove up in a battered pickup. "Señor," the oldest one said, "you must pay twelve dollars to fish here."

I argued. "Isn’t this a public beach?"

"No, señor, my father owns much land around here. You are on his property."

"We are only going to be here a couple of hours."

"You leave before sundown, the cost is only six dollars." After I paid him, he gave me a key to one of the dirtiest bathrooms on earth.

The two of us fished. Luke and I caught stingrays or skates. I caught a large eel and after deciding it wasn’t electric, I took it off and cut it up for bait. My large salt-water reel and pole was in a holder. The smaller rod and reel I held firmly in my hand. With the sun dropping toward the western mountains, the tide started rushing in. A fish struck my staked-out line. Turning to throw the held rod and reel on sand I turned back to find my other rod disappearing in the rushing tide. The water was a little cool for swimming, I am seventy-years-old, and I wasn’t dressed for swimming. At the last minute I dove into the waves and caught my pole. A large fish broke from the hook, but wet and a little cold, my fishing equipment was safe.

With darkness coming we said goodbye to a beautiful beach and headed for San Felipe. In the middle of the desert we came to a Mexican restaurant that was a little more primitive than some I’ve eaten at in the States. The food was being prepared assembly line style in view of the customers. Two or three small children played on the floor. A white pup with black spots entered, and like a vacuum began to hog all the meat that the cooks had dropped. No one from the sanitation department rushed in and – the food was delicious. More important, Montezuma’s revenge didn’t strike.

The next morning, before we at last headed for El Dorado, Luke took the van to have a low tire fixed. Having nothing to do, I went for a hike across the desert. The deep sand road wound through desert plants toward the black, volcanic mountains. Nothing moved against the azure blue sky except one lonely black crow. When it lit on a desert willow, I went to investigate. The mutilated carcass and intestines of a freshly butchered cow blocked my path. Around the animal all kinds of garbage stretched across the land. I was in San Felipe’s garbage dump. This was the way the town and cities of Baja disposed of their waste. No burning, no burial, the garbage deteriorates under a cloudless sky.

Reaching the tree where the crow was perched, a second bird joined the other one. Perhaps they were tending a nest, but March seemed a little early. Unlike the tidy crows found in the United States, these two had feathers out of place which gave them a frumpy look. How could being a little over a hundred miles from the United States make seedy characters out of very neat birds? Something made them let their feathers down, could it have been the national drink, Tecate beer?

When Luke got back from town, we drove north toward Jo and Luke’s $1,600 lot on the Sea of Cortez. Turning west toward the mountains we soon found houses and trailers in among creosote brush and thorny cacti. There was no sign of modern conveniences. We drove until the road ended and went back to a community center where a half dozen senior citizens lounged reading books, drinking soft drinks, and a few, playing pool. After engaging in a friendly conversation, I found all these people were retired people from the West Coast States and inward to the Rocky Mountains. One couple told me the winters were better than Montana’s.

It took Luke and I only a few minutes to find out these settlers in this desert had solar panels on their houses. Propane fueled generators supplemented their need for electricity. They had built cement cisterns and above ground tanks to hold water trucked in from San Felipe. Their skins brown from an ever-present sun, these people had found a lifestyle they enjoyed in one of the driest deserts on earth. Far from home, they found a land almost free of man made pollution. I agreed that it was worth it to breathe without sinus drainage blocking my airways.

Before we went to headquarters by the beach we looked at a house built of bales of hay. With a good coat of stucco and a paint job, the dwelling looked very livable. "It takes very little air conditioning or heating," the owner told us.

A salesman told us he would lend us a compass, give us the longitude and latitude and if we wanted to walk over ten miles, we could look at our lot.

"Can we build on it?" Luke asked.

The salesman explained, "El Dorado Ranch is a leased part of the Ejido Plan Nacional Agraio that the Mexican government created to resettle homeless people from Mexico City. The homeless people took one look at their vast 200,000 acres of desert, built themselves some shacks that are adequate for the warm desert, and leased the rest to American Pen which in turn gave promotional lots to its retailers. Whether or not the company intended to cheat, the lots it gave are in a section the Mexican government reserved for a wildlife refuge."

Luke asked, "Then can I camp on it?"

"For a price you can camp in the camping area. Would you be interested in upgrading your lot and buying in closer to the Sea? El Dorado Enterprises out of Colorado Springs bought out American Pen."

After he heard the price, Luke refused. I spoke up, "Look, I’ve been paying $40 a year for a number of years."

"Oh yes," the salesman said, "the association uses membership fees to pay rent to the owners."

"Don’t we get anything for our money?" I asked.

The salesman signed a membership card and said, "Make yourself at home. You can use the beach, clubhouse, tennis courts and such. By the way, Pat Butler, the owner, will be here tomorrow. Come by and meet him."

Again I held a fishing pole in my hand while Luke beach combed at least a mile into the Sea of Cortez at low tide. Still it wasn’t mañana, and except for the stingrays, the fish didn’t bite. At least it didn’t cost us anything to fish.

The El Dorado restaurant and bar was worth at least one year’s membership fee. The section we enjoyed most had no roof. Partially heated by butane burners, while we ate we watched stars shining like they used to in the Southwestern United States until our air got so polluted. With a Mexican band playing while more active senior citizens kicked up their heels on the dance floor, it was all worth while. Twice we ate in the restaurant, and the quail at about seven dollars was delicious. The company was even better. With several hundred people in a foreign land, we were like a big family seeking news from home.

Mr. Montoya from Santa Fe stands out clearly in my mind. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he and I attended Albuquerque High, me in 1945, he in 1960. Neither of us graduated. I dropped out after flunking my afternoon classes because of a job; he was expelled for being different. His mother put him in a Catholic high school from which he graduated and then graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in architecture. After staying out three semesters, I graduated from Durango High, Colorado and went on to earn three degrees. Mr. Montoya and I spent over an hour remembering the times spent in ethnic gang fights. Our parting words were, "It was a wonder we lived."

The owner of our condo, Jorge, and his wife arrived from Glendale, California on our third day. Except for a Spanish accent, he and his wife were of fairer complexion than Anglos. Exiles from Castro’s Cuba, they traveled Europe until they started managing their property in Mexico. Why they didn’t stay in Mexico, I will never know.

There are three main ethnic groups in Mexico. Six per cent are the white Spaniards whom many descended from the Normandy group that produced conquers like William the Conqueror and much of the royalty of the European kingdoms. Also in the white group are descendents of the French who twice ruled Mexico. The first time to rule was after Napoleon conquered Spain, and the second time was after heirs of Napoleon took Mexico over while the United States fought its bitter Civil War. A number of Norte Americans from the United States have moved to Mexico, gatherings of them can be found in retirement colonies. Some are snowbirds who leave at the first signs of spring.

The second and largest ethnic group are the descendents of Spaniards who married Indians before women from Europe came to Mexico. This Mestizo group, Amerindian-Spanish, makes up sixty percent of the population. Brown of skin, proud natives of Mexico, the Mastezoes have fought constantly to free Mexico from foreign rule. Good workers, industrious in their own way, they are the shopkeepers, schoolteachers, government workers, farmers, and general laborers of Mexico. Free and independent, they work well when they are left to do things in their own way.

The third and the most independent group are the Indians. The Amerindians make up thirty per cent of the population. Free of foreign blood, they seek to live their own lives. Many of this group still live in isolation on land they inherited from their ancestors. Too many of these simple people have lost their small farms to big landowners. Unable to adapt, they have been crowded into big cities where many of them are forced to live at a poverty level little better than the homeless people in the United States.

Before we left San Felipe, Luke and I hiked toward the volcanic mountains. I had heard tales of pools of water in these arid mountains where big horn sheep, coyotes, and other wild animals drank life-giving water. Stopping at a house to ask permission, we met a lady from California. Her U.S. husband worked nearby. When her son who was in the eighth grade came out, we asked him to go with us.

Bilingual, citizen of the United States and Mexico, a football player, hopefully his is the type of person who will help unite our country with its southern neighbor.

Filled with the mystery of setting off into the unknown, we followed a graveled wash toward our destination. Desert shrubs and large cacti of all species surrounded us with a thorny forest that one would not want to walk through in the dark. Along the way we found abandoned shelters that had once been places of human habitation. The desert preserves well so it was hard to tell how long ago these ruins had been built. One place still had the remnants of a garden. In all this serenity there was no quietness. The noise made by vehicles making trial runs for the Baja 210 was deafening!

Although we saw no animals except one jackrabbit, there were numerous tracks. A few horse tracks occurred along with coyote tracks, but there were numerous tracks somewhat like goats, but there were no signs of these animals. When we reached civilization we were told there are many mountain sheep in the area.

Once in awhile we could see the mountain pass that was our destination. Unfortunately we had started out too late. The sun was starting to go down behind the ancient volcanic peak. Afraid of being caught by approaching darkness which comes abruptly and by 6:00 P.M. in this area so close to where Rocky Mountain Standard time changes into Pacific Time. Without giving it any thought about finding our way back to the friendly house where the Van was parked, we had to follow our tracks to civilization.

Telephone service in Mexico is carried on through microwave stations located on high mountains. This means of communication is very adequate for businesses and government use, but it is very inadequate for private use. Numerous public pay phones are located all over Baja, but getting another party on this service is almost impossible. We found that these pay phones were one-armed robbers that very seldom paid off. The best thing to do to make a call is to find a public company and pay them to make the connection for you, or where they have them, pay to use the internet. In our three weeks in Baja we never stayed in a facility that had phones in the room.

Not only is telephone service almost non-existent for the general public, there are very few national or international newspapers. The natives subscribe to newspapers that are worse in reporting news than the local paper in my hometown. Most motels have television in the rooms, but these stations get no more than two stations in English with Spanish in subtitles. We never found a television station that broadcast anything but reruns of United States films and a few national TV shows. One native told me that the citizens of Baja have very little communications with the outside world.

Gasoline can be bought at government franchised Pemex stations. There is no competition. There is no use looking for a Texico or an Exxon. Pemex gasoline is the only brand sold in Mexico, so use it or walk. The government sets the price, and when we were there, Mexico gasoline was higher than United States prices. There are different grades of fuel so you can choose the one that works the best in your vehicle. The nice thing is full service that includes windshield washes. In spite of everything else, watch how much gasoline is put into your tank and keep a running account of how much the total should be. Since you have to convert gallons to liters and dollars to pesos, some operators will cheat you. Before you drive into the station, figure how much fuel your tank usually takes, do a little arithmetic so you know how much you should pay, and then refuse to pay if the price is not right.

Restrooms in most service stations were very modern and cleaner than in the States. A few places charged a small fee for usage and toilet paper. In San Felipe everything was very modern, but on the Pacific side in the mountains two toilet facilities consisted of a very rough piece of plywood set across a concrete opening.

Every morning I took a walk along the beautiful beach that closer to town was open to the public. Walking down streets leading to the beach, large mother dogs with teats red and raw from suckling ran out to bark. None of them offered to attack nor were they friendly enough to pet. Occasionally a male dog made his appearance, but never were there any pups following the mother dogs. I shall long remember the large teated dogs of Mexico – and wonder what happened to the pups.

Before our van pulled out of San Felipe, I must tell about one of the nicest ladies I ever met. Gloria and her sister cleaned and changed the linen not only in the complex we stayed in, but also in several complexes close by. Gloria was the mother of a first grade boy who was a perfect loveable boy. Not only did Gloria clean our condo, she did all the grocery shopping and laundry for us. She knew where the bargains were, and she made sure we didn’t pay more than we should. Her and Jo became close friends, and I will ever be grateful for the kindness she showed not only Jo, but toward Luke and I. Jo finagled a jar of the best wine and several pounds of shrimp Luke and I intended to use for bait. Jo immediately boiled the purchase. Since I am the only one who will eat this delicacy, I got a large jar and pickled shrimp in wine. This delicious food lasted me a week until Jo and Luke made me throw it out by using some very strong language!

The morning came when the sounds of racing cars drove us out of San Felipe. Since so many people came in for the Baja 210 race, our reservations were up. On Thursday morning, Luke and I packed the van, Jorge and his wife and Gloria came to tell us goodbye. While Jo and Luke took care of last minute things, I took one last sad walk through the loose sand of San Felipe. The bright sunlight sparkled on the water, a gentle breeze blew, and I said a sad farewell to the friendly fishing village by the Sea of Cortez.

The noise of big racing motors was deafening. The natives gripe about the noise, but they do nothing about it. Big automobile and parts companies from all over the world pour millions into San Felipe to let them test their new products. The desert is perfect for these trial runs that bring much publicity. Some of the supporting rigs that accompanied each racer represented a large amount of money.

We had planned to stay a week and go home. Luke and Jo asked if I would like to go to the Pacific side of Baja and drive to the end. With Sunshine on the dash, we went through the arches of San Felipe for the last time and set out on a new adventure. Like an early Spanish discoverer we began a new journey. This time I would see what was on the other side of the mysterious black volcano mountains.

The highway cut through El Dorado. All three of us were sad that our lots had turned into mirages far from the beautiful Sea of Cortez. "Want to stop by the office again? Perhaps we can get a late breakfast at the restaurant," I said hoping to ease Luke’s pain. He declined the offer.

Before we got to the turnoff where Highway 3 intersected our Highway 5, we had to go through the soldiers’ inspection again. This army camp had buildings. Also they had vehicles with mounted machine guns. The soldiers were so busy searching a busload of spring breakers that they only gave a passing glance. "May I take your picture?" Jo asked.

The young soldier grinned with appreciation. It must be a very lonely life for these older teenagers to be stuck so far from civilization. On the other hand, we had paid good money to come to this land of sea and sky. Without Jo, Luke and I would have camped gladly.

If you make this trip and you have to stop at the military checks, remember these soldiers are where they are at the request of the United States Government for your protection. Do not take the seriousness of these young men’s job lightly. The week we made our trip, drug warlords brutally killed the mayor of Tijuana by shattering his car with a rain of bullets. Transporters of illegal drugs can become very violent when they are stopped. Be cautious about making sudden moves while you are under inspection. Most of them know only a few words of English so make your answers short and to the point. Also, if you sit in the back seat protected from view by tinted glass, keep your hands in view. And, until the inspection if over, help keep the fright out of your thoughts by saying a little prayer. Above all, don’t take this as an opportunity to be smart. Say as little as possible, use your best manners, and in all cases when weapons cover you, get through the inspection as quickly as possible.

Ahead of where we turned to the left on Highway 3, there is a place named Chinero. Around 1860 AD a group of Chinese had sailed up the Sea of Cortez to San Felipe. Not having vehicles to reach jobs in California, they decided to walk. In this desert, all but a few of them perished. Chinero was named to commemorate where most of them died.

The highway winding through the rugged mountains to Ensenada is a two lane paved road. It was adequate, but our van jumped and shook in places where the highway was filled with potholes. I understand it is never wise to believe that a road is good until you travel it. Sudden rain can cause floods of water to wash the paving away. During the time we were in Baja, we saw no rain – nor except for potholes, very little sign of any moisture. Steep, rocky mountains covered with cacti describes most of the route to the Pacific.

Since it was almost lunchtime, Luke and I thought we would buy take- out food at the large restaurant at the junction to Crucero de Trinidad. Surrounded by white concrete like fence at least three feet thick, we walked into a courtyard. The only thing open was the toilet facilities that were guarded by a man collecting thirty-five cents in U.S. money. He gave us a piece of toilet paper and some soap to wash our hands.

Along the way there were interesting things that had we had the time, we could have spent at least a week sightseeing. At Valle de Trinidad there is a clinic and school ran by the Seventh Day Adventist out of California. Heroes de la Independencia was one of the other villages we would have liked to visit. The only place we stopped was at a small restaurant to get a hot feast of meat wrapped in a large tortilla. A Mexican young lady acted as cashier, cook, and bottle washer, but I never ate a better meal in Mexico.

The scenery changed greatly by the time we reached Ojos Negros. We were in a valley cutting through some very high mountains that towered over 10,000 feet into the blue cloudless sky. Cattle grazed along a stream. Early crops were up good. On the gentle foothills of the towering mountains, farmers had disked the ground and planted wheat and other small grains as far as their tractor could safely go.

There are a number of gold and silver mines north of Highway 3. I was told that among pine trees there is the largest working gold mine in the world. It would take a vehicle higher off the road than ours to reach it. As far as pine trees, we never went above an elevation high enough to produce anything but the spreading pinyons with edible nuts still intact.

Early darkness of the early evening hour of between five and six p.m. was closing in by the time we finished our journey of 120 miles. Ensenada is a large city with a very good harbor. Manufactures in San Diego moved to this Mexican City when the California city’s workers went union about twenty or more years ago. This metropolis with mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west, is a sprawling giant.

Luke soon found the shabby little motel where we had reservations. Since the door was too narrow for a wheelchair, we started looking for another place to stay. The next place we stopped at had been freshly painted and paint fumes choked like a chemical factory. We drove southward toward Maneadero. Luke stopped to ask directions. None of the places where we stopped suited us. The doors in some were too narrow for a wheelchair. Some of the buildings had steps a wheelchair couldn’t navigate.

In pitch black of night, Luke turned westward toward a bay. After driving along water, we approached lights. Baja Country Club loomed out of the darkness. A magnificent white building with over a thousand rooms and condos shone out of surrounding palms and tropical plants. Both of us hurried into a magnificent lobby. I knew this was going to cost us at least one of our hundred dollar traveler’s checks. After some broken Spanish and English, we were charged the huge sum of thirty-five dollars!

On the Sea of Cortez, the March weather had turned to spring with temperatures reaching eighty by noon. On the Pacific side, the temperature was a cool forty-eighty without any heat in the large mansion. By this time a clerk who could speak English had appeared. After we told him we were cold, he gave us a small electric heater.

He explained, "March is our off season. Most of the year we are concerned with keeping cool instead of hot. This place is cooled by a chilled water system. It is too expensive to try and switch to heat."

Luke who has been in heating and cooling for a number of years thought about the situation while we rolled Jo and our luggage inside over sidewalks luxuriantly cutting through the dense tropical plants. Taking only a few minutes to plug in the heater and make Jo comfortable, the two of us went searching for food. We passed banquet halls capable of seating several hundred in luxurious surroundings. We found a bar and restaurant where one man was cook, bar keeper, and dish washer. In a short time we had a very good take out plate for each of us.

Very chilly, after eating I turned the shower on hot and warmed up. The small electric heater took the edge off the cold beautiful room that was bigger than three of our bedrooms at home. We went to sleep in luxury. After Jo turned off the one available television station, a sizzling noise awoke us. The cord to the electric heater burnt in two pieces.

Early morning sunshine shone on a world of blue sky, bright flowers, and the waves of the Pacific. Luke was far down the beach looking for seashells while I dragged out the electric grill and set it up on the patio. When the frying of eggs and bacon was at its best, an employee dressed in black and white walked by. You can’t hide sizzling food, so with a smile, I said, "Buenos diaz." He smiled and walked on by.

After Luke spent an hour showing the manager how to use hot water heaters to heat rooms, we left this tropical cool paradise and were on our way to La Bufadora! This tourist attraction is at the top of a very steep climb up a mountainside. Taking advantage of the natural attraction, vendors have set up their wares in permanent stalls. Some of the articles offered for sale were spectacular.

Since the view of the famous blowhole is not wheelchair accessible, Jo sat in the van at a spot perched dangerously close to a cliff where the ocean beat against rocks thousands of feet below. I thought about her fear of heights, but she seemed content to take pictures of the large Mexican sea gulls that flew around dropping their calling cards. Sunshine came off the dashboard for a quick look at this strange world. One swoop of a dozen or two sea gulls and she was ready to find a hole. The white deaf cat doesn’t like or trust gulls.

Luke and I climbed steps to where we could see the famous La Bufadora. The name sent thrills up my spine! LaBufadora is a cave that extends back into the cliff. The tide rushes into the vacancy of the hole and compresses air in the cave. When the tide recedes, LaBufadora spews a column of frothy water hundreds of feet into the air. This blowhole is supposed to be the world’s largest. The best way to see it is like some children were doing. They leaned as far as they could out over the guardrail, then when LaBufadora shot its wad of water, the children were thoroughly drenched! Never mind, the wetting brought more thirty-five cents to use the bathrooms to change into dry clothing. The Mexicans at LaBufadora are enterprising, but they do hand out toilet paper and soap.

When we left the blowhole, we stopped for a takeout meal of lobster. This delicacy was fit to die for as we made our way southward up, down, and around some very steep mountains. The reason natives tell why the one main highway of Baja follows up the steep mountains instead of following the more level sea coast of the Sea of Cortez is that the Spanish priest, who first traveled this rugged land, preferred the cool mountain breezes over the hot muggy air off the inland sea.

The route up the coastline on the Pacific side would have been blocked in places by steep mountains meeting the bays that cut into the interior. On the Sea of Cortez side, a route could have been more easily constructed along the beautiful inland waterway. If this route had been used, there would have always been the necessity for routes to the villages along the western seacoast. Highway One that ties the southern tip of Baja to the state of California was not paved until the 1970’s. Before that time only adventurers using rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles, airplanes, or ships could make this trip we were making in a van totally unsuitable for dirt roads. Even with the paved highway, most of the side roads to various ranches, coastal bays, and small villages are still rough and almost impassable.

The farming we had seen so far was mostly feed for livestock. Once in awhile a field of long edible cacti appeared on shelves in the mountains. The closer we got to San Quintin the large valley opened up into a flat desert. Enterprising farmers from both England and the United States have tried to capitalize on the aquifers and pump irrigation water out of the underground lakes. A group of Englishmen who came here in the late 1800’s starved out. Their remains lay buried south of San Quintin. This group did some amazing things like drive pilings into the bay so they could build a highway to where ships could dock and carry their produce to far away markets. All that remains of this forgotten highway are the pilings in the bay.

More recently, large agricultural complexes from California have supervised native landowners on how to use large pumps to bring gushing irrigation water onto the arid land. Now from December to April, miles of vegetables grow to feed people in the frozen north. More permanent, fine groves of olive trees and vineyards stretch along the highway.

This tremendous farming operation is bringing wealth to the landowners. Thousands of Indians are transported to the area each year, and for three dollars a day, they do the hand labor that is back breaking. Because sanitary toilets are not provided for the workers, their fecal material has occasionally contaminated the vegetables and caused outbreaks of food poisoning in places as far away as Michigan where school children were fed delicious strawberries grown in these winter gardens.

Besides the contaminated food that very rarely causes problems, another bad problem is occurring. As giant streams of water are pumped out of the aquifer, salt water seeps in from the bays and causes the fresh water to become so brackish that drinking water from wells is made unusable. The big commercial growers plan to stay in one place no longer than twenty years and then move on southward. Perhaps drifting desert sand will reclaim this productive farmland.

San Quintin has a tourist bureau. Luke and I wanted to do some night fishing so we asked for the name of a place near the water. The manager spoke perfect English and was very courteous. He gave us the names of two fishing camps located about eight miles west of the pavement. The dirt road he told us to take was straight out of hell. Irrigation water had run out of the field and stood in large puddles. What should have taken twenty minutes in the light of evening turned into over an hour in pitch dark. While I am at it I have to tell about the Mexican fences. Most are one wire strung very loosely. I think the wire is meant to be a marker instead of a means of turning animals.

Finally we arrived at Old Mill. Strung out along a small cliff, the rooms were adequate and fairly cheap. The owner and operator is a Mexican who speaks perfect English he learned as a boy when he helped his father run the motel. He and his wife have a well-stocked restaurant and bar, but since we had a good supply of food in the ice chest, I hooked up the grill and cooked outside.

Luke and I climbed down a trail to the beach and started fishing in a bay that was calm and free of obstructions. From darkness covering the water we could hear thousands of animals or birds calling to each other. Since we weren’t catching anything and the March air was a little cool we went to bed. Turning on the TV we hoped to watch the one station in English with Spanish subtitles. Suddenly the noise of the generator stopped and everything went black. Rural electricity has not arrived in Baja.

The next morning I walked along the shore and fished while Luke looked for shells. We soon found out where Canadian geese winter. The bay was alive with them. Fish jumped among the birds, but they were farther out than we could cast. About a mile from the motel we found the pilings left from when a bridge stretched across the shallow bay. It must have taken a great deal of work to put the wooden poles in for we could hardly see the other shore. When we got back to the motel, Sunshine was having one big catfight that Luke promptly stopped. If Luke ever gets married and has children and takes care of them as good as he does his cat, he is going to be one good father!

Taking a very cold shower and dressing we loaded Jo up and were on our way. Both Jo and Luke wanted to spend the night at Guerrero Negro then get up early and go to Scammon’s Lagoon and watch the gray whales give birth. When we got ready to leave, the owner came and visited with us. When he heard we had come in by the north road, he told us to take the south one instead. This time we drove on a smooth thoroughfare that hardly shook the van at all. If we had had time we would have gone back and told our first guide what we thought of him.

After we left the farming country we were once more in desert mountains covered with large Cardon cacti that are much bigger than Saguaro cacti of Arizona. The rocky mountainsides had so many interesting plants that we had to stop a time or two and look at them up close.

Perhaps this is a good time to tell you about the Baja Highway Route 1. Most of the pavement was in place. Water from the highway caused a long green stretch of plants growing along both shoulders of the road. Baja cattle find this good grazing, but occasionally a truck or car collides with one to the animals with disaster to both animal and machine. Since the animals graze at night, if drivers must drive by light from headlights, they should do this very carefully. Preferably all traveling should be done in the daytime.

Large trucks constantly use this road. Some haul cargoes of livestock. We saw cattle along with some burros and one load of swine. NAFTA has greatly increased the freighting business with merchandise being hauled both ways. Truckers have been caught with drugs mixed in with their goods.

Like in the States there are various road signs warning drivers of dangerous curves, dips, dips that may contain water, steep grades, and school zones are some of the most common. The one sign Luke learned to stop for was, "TOPEZ" which warns of speed bumps in the highway. Taller than our road clearance, the van slid over each aggravation at most cities and towns on the Peninsula. We noticed that there was a muffler shop located after each of these bumps. One thing the bumps do is slow down incoming traffic.

Attesting to the number of accidents along Baja roads is that little memorials are built for each occurrence of a death. Luke irreverently called these, "Dog houses." I’m thankful that one didn’t have to be built for one of us.

Among all the beautiful mountains and old volcanoes between San Quentin and Guerrero Negro, there is one that really stood out. A cone shaped peak, the sides are covered with rocks about the size of cannonballs. Perfectly round, these rocks are almost identical in size and shape. I wondered if these rocks were shot out of a volcano mouth in some distant past. The Creator must have been in a playful mood the day He created this particular creation.

On the north side of Guerrero, we found one of the government owned Pinta motels to stay in overnight. Luxurious, spacious, the rooms tastefully open on a square plaza filled with a garden of tropical plants. The price of a room was about seventy dollars which is a little high for Baja, but that night, the price was worth it for a cold night wind was blowing and there was heat! One of the courteous employees helped us carry our belongings into the beautiful tastefully decorated rooms

Published or Updated on: March 1, 2000 by Luther Butler © 2008
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