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Mule Packing in Baja

by Thalia Zepatos

I drained the coffee from my cup while the others drowned the smoking embers of the campfire. We checked our saddle bags one last time, got onto our mules and headed down the arroyo. It was our first morning in the Sierra Giganta; the central portion of the mountainous spine that bisects the length of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. We were headed for Los Pilares, a ranch that could only be reached on foot, mule, or horseback, and I was starting to feel like a cowgirl.

Each year I made a pilgrimage to the nearby mountains, snatching only small glimpses of life at rural ranchos that clung to the dry and dusty landscape of the monte. I knew that many ranch families raised cattle and a few crops if the weather was kind, and that they often went to market on foot, or by burro or mule. I was intrigued by the mountain-ranch life, and its modes of travel that seemed to fit the terrain. When my friend and compañera Esther called and invited me to join a mule-packing trip through that arid high country, I said yes quicker than you can flip a tortilla.

The trip was organized by Trudi Angell, who has lived in Baja since 1976. There's not a gringa who knows Baja better than Trudi. For years she's led kayak trips along the Sea of Cortez for her company, Paddling South. But her love of the people and the landscape of the peninsula has brought her into the mountains, too. Trudi shares this lesser-known aspect of Baja on organized mule pack trips, under the name Saddling South.

Our small group gathered at midday in Loreto. Aside from Trudi and her young daughter, Olivia, the group included Esther and me, Esther's friend Ann, a Baja resident in her seventies, and Leslie and Rachel, instructors from the nearby National Outdoor Leadership School on holiday.

We loaded our gear into a couple of trucks, drove a few miles down the paved highway and then turned onto a rough track that pointed like an arrow toward the Sierra Giganta. We negotiated the ruts in the road for over an hour until we pulled up to the mesquite fence at Rancho Viejo. We were welcomed by Tista short for Juan Bautista, a longtime friend of Trudi's who had gathered the mules from nearby ranches for our ride. We shook hands formally in the Mexican style, then sat and drank a cup of coffee. We were then ushered inside the casita where we changed out of shorts and T-shirts and into our riding clothes, long pants and long-sleeved shirts that would protect us from the scratchy brush and hot sun of the high desierto.

Then Trudi and Tista paired us up with our mules. It was a delicate process of matchmaking in which both humans and animals were sized up by temperament and bulk. Tista places a pair of reins in my hand and introduced me to Cuervo, a tall, dark mule that immediately belied my image of a little burro. Trudi would ride Pimienta, with three-and-a-half-year-old Olivia sitting before her; she wrapped a sweatshirt around both their waists to secure the child. The others were introduced to their mounts, who had names like Alacrán and Enrique. A Mexican rancher, Raul de los Santos, would assist Trudi, riding a burro called Tequila while leading Barquito (Little Boat), so named because she rocked from side to side as she walked, piled high with our sleeping bags and foam pads.

We packed our gear, adjusted the stirrups, waved good-bye and finally rode off. It was mid-afternoon, comfortably beyond the hottest part of the day. We passed through an ever-changing dry landscape. A line of bright green vegetation ahead marked the location of a desert river or spring, with date palms and fan palms outlining its course.

As we ambled along the arroyo, I picked fears and concerns off my shoulders and dropped them like a trail of crumbs behind me. I'd been a bit unsure about mule packing-what exactly would I have to do, and could I handle it? I'd harbored a nightmare vision of myself inching along on a stubborn little burro, my long legs dragging the ground on each side. Instead, I was sauntering high above the desert floor on an energetic and responsive animal. I had managed to get up on the mule without falling off and everyone in the group seemed pleasant and easy-going. We ranged from well-experienced riders to those, like me, who had only ridden a handfuls of times before. The pace was comfortable, and we formed and re-formed into conversational pairs and trios as we rode.

I rode up alongside Trudi and asked why she chose mules instead of horses. "Mules are much more sure-footed and less temperamental in the desert," she told me. "Everyone up here prefers mules for both work and riding stock." The one horse we had along on the trip, Trudi's own, confirmed her comments by acting touchy and skittish from the start.

After two hours, we came to El Palmarito, an abandoned rancho in a clearing surrounded by palm trees, where we made camp for the night. The corral served to hold our animals, and Raul gathered food and made them comfortable after Barquito ran off and was fetched in a comic chase. We gathered scrap wood for our campfire and feasted on roast chicken and potato salad. It was a night that called for sleeping out, and we laid our beds under a star-encrusted sky.

We rose before dawn to the smell of hot coffee, ate a quick breakfast, and saddled up to make time before the heat of the day. Arroyo Santa Isabel, a dry riverbed, was a mule highway through scrub-covered desert. Esther pointed out the cholla, barrel cactus, and pitayas as we passed. Then we entered a forest of cardón cactus. Some of the giants were fifteen feet high, their massive heads and stocky arms festooned with delicate white flowers. Hawks and peregrine falcons played the updraft along the cliffs as we approached, then dove closer to investigate our group.

We continued at a comfortable pace, stopping in the shade of an occasional grove of Palo Verde trees to wander off for a quick pit stop, eat an orange, or share dried fruit and nuts. We carried bottles of water and small treats in our saddle bags, hand-tooled by local saddle makers into a perfect combination of utility and beauty.

Midday was announced by the pungent odor of hierbabuena as it toasted under the hot sun. We continued on through palm groves and oases, where the mules bent their heads for a quick drink in the green rivers. Soon after we reached Los Pilares, a ranch named for the pillars of columnar basalt striating the giant wall that points like a road sign to its gateway. We tied the animals under the shady trees near the river and waded up to the casita to greet Doña Ester and her sons. "You'll love Doña Ester," Trudi had said that morning. "She's eighty-seven, more or less, but no one really knows for sure. She lives with her bachelor sons- they're in their sixties."

Traveling with Trudi is like going with one friend to visit others. Fluent in Spanish, she conveys a deep respect for Mexican tradition and an appreciation for the crafts of the ranchers. In a circumspect fashion, she has found ways to share the income of her work with the local community: she hires mules locally rather than buying her own and pays the ranchers to come along as mule wranglers. She encourages artisans in remote places by bringing foreigners to admire and buy their work and has trained young people from the area as local guides. She had proven herself a friend in these parts the only way it can be proved-over time.

Doña Ester welcomed us with a report on the mountain lion that had killed a pig on their ranch a few nights before. The Doñas's wiry body glided between the wood fire she kept tending inside the cookhouse and the outdoor sitting area under a palapa roof where we gathered. The oldest son, Silvestre, brought out some of his fresh farmer's cheese to sprinkle on our tostada lunches. We returned to the flowing river to set up our camp, and then Trudi pointed the way to a swimming hole that swallowed up the rest of our afternoon.

The next day was Mother's Day in Mexico. Doña Ester's second son, Salvador, walked the fourteen miles from Comondú early that morning to observe the tradition by singing "Las Mañanitas" to his mamå. Silvestre took us into his shadowy workshop to see the saddles he made and the ropes and lariats he braided in complex patterns. One style was made by weaving eight different lines together; Rachel asked intent questions and then tried her hand at the weaving. Silvestre's shy smile indicated his approval.

Early the next morning we packed up and rode to Rancho Monte Alto. I tightened the chin strap on my borrowed straw hat, nudged Cuervo past the others and galloped full speed down a long straight-away. I'd never ridden so far, so fast, and I loved it! Then I turned and raced back to the others, just for the joy of flying along. Once I had questioned whether three days of mule packing would be too much; now I was ready to sign up for the two-week journey to the cave paintings and far-flung ranchos.

The only consolation in heading for home was the news that we were stopping for the midday meal at Chari's (short for María del Rosario de los Santos de Romero). She is a famous cook in the sierra, and we consumed the feast with gusto while sitting on the ranch's wide palapa-roofed terrace surrounded by potted plants and flowers. Little Olivia switched into Spanish upon sight of Chari's son Juanito, and they galloped around after each other on horses fashioned from sticks with strings for reins. We could only convince ourselves to leave by tucking more of Chari's sweet bean burritos into our saddle bags.

Two by two we returned the mules to their ranches, then took our seats in Trudi's pickup truck. After only a few days, the sight of the truck was rude, its ride bumpy and inelegant. For more than a hundred years, the only way to travel these mountains had been on foot or by saddle. In a way, it still is.

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