Somewhere On the Central Coast of Baja

I will not start this story at the beginning, with the water packing, endless map checking and irritations festering among all participants about the details of a journey deeper into Baja California than most want even to consider. I won't start with the caravan of family cars, each symbolizing the fact that we own too goddamned much (for three days and 14 participants, we rented a separate van to carry food and diapers for the several of us under 2). I won't trouble you with the confusions of Mex-Insur; with the ass-numbing driving and driving and driving; with the wondering how much longer—and that's just to the border crossing south of San Diego, where representatives of two nations came to inspect our vehicles amid choking exhaust and a sun that felt as if it were a mere mile above our heads and the vague threat of violence, given the sudden appearance of so many holstered guns and uniforms—and roads that swing south and west of Tijuana along the Baja peninsula, between crazy-quilt condos on the ocean side with for-rent/for-lease/for-sale signs in English and back in the hills the hint of a life lived entirely in Spanish.

But I should probably mention one moment in all of this, just south of Ensenada, when it seemed a lot easier to drink from a hose in a Mexican gas station than to join the run on food and water in my brother-in-law's Suburban. Frame that moment for an instant and crop in tightly on the water and my mouth: it is not the last time you will see me bent double with liquid upon my lips.

If you have lived most of your life in Southern California or have lived within reach of the Southern California media—which means if you have lived anywhere in the world—you already know where at least a part of this story is headed.

But it's not the illness and bickering that attend travel I want to tell you about; you can find that pretty much anywhere. I'm not new in observing this, but it bears repeating that if you need a vacation to prepare for a vacation, you need a grave to recover from one.

I want to tell you about the ghost I met during the most miserable vacation of my life, in a small village on the central coast of Mexico, where I was attending my brother's wedding.

My brother dated many women born north of the U.S.-Mexico border, _but not one of them—not Tamara of the lean body and fat head; not Julie, the businesswoman with insomnia and a workout regimen that began at 4:30 a.m.; not any of the other countless women, some smart and decent, some as dumb as cats and just as indecent—was a match for Anna.

My brother met Anna Ramirez while surfing near San Quintin (pronounced "Canteen"), a collection of villages passing for a city about halfway down the Baja Peninsula. My brother and his friends surfed at San Quintin because, they complained, the waters off Orange County had become "sick"—not "sick" as it has come to mean among surfers, not "fabulous," "perfect" or "wonderful," but "sick" as in "toxic." If you live in Orange County, you already know what they mean; if you don't, the local chamber of commerce would be most grateful if you would ignore this part of the story.

So my brother likes to see himself as an epidemiological refugee, someone like the Mesoamericans who, terrified by the sudden appearance of man-killing smallpox in the 1530s, rushed to find safety in the heart of the disease—Hernán Cortés' army, then advancing on Mexico City. He fell similarly to Anna. She was beautiful and smart—if not formally educated, at least well-read and thoughtful in the sense that she was full of thoughts that were her own—and my brother saw wonderful portent in the fact that Anna's mother, Doris (I cannot explain how a woman in central Baja ends up being called Doris), remained in her early 50s a woman of startling beauty. Despite the dust that blew across their little rancho—from sage hills that look like any in Southern California toward a shoreline as remote as Antarctica—Doris and Anna looked like Sophia Loren, if Sophia Loren had the mind of Arianna Huffington, the business instincts of Martha Stewart, and the compassion of Mother Teresa. My brother loved her.

On a Friday afternoon, we pulled into Casa Ramirez—a three-bedroom con-block house, trailer, stable and chickens—for their wedding and a few days on the broad, flat beaches a few hundred yards away. We were stinking and testy. Shortly, Anna's father, David, quieted us by walking past with a rifle. We were in conversation, we Americans, and we shut up on account of the rifle. He stepped lightly up the horizontal pipes of the corral, like a man walking up a wall in defiance of gravity, and dropped to the other side. He slipped a noose around the muzzle of the single steer grazing there and led the pliant animal out from under the cooling shade of a pepper tree into the bright light. He walked it around a corner as if the beast were no more than a dog and then leveled his rifle as the pair of them disappeared from sight. We recoiled from the blast, which felt like a solid thing moving through our chests.

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