The Road to San Felipe
By Bruce F. Barber
If I had it to do over, I would stop every 10 miles, make camp and explore a 10-square-mile area before moving on to the next. You see, what some think of as boring, is, as seen through my eyes, one of the most dramatic regions in a land where drama is the rule.
Having to do it over relates to the first time I drove to San Felipe. Like most of us, I drove without stopping, and yet, I soon realized an expenditure of time along this road was inevitable. What I didn’t know back then was how much time I’d be spending. Had I known then what I know now, I’d have dedicated six enjoyable months to the project.
Starting at the beginning involves an imaginary trek 200,000,000 years into the past because a significant part of the drama played out then remains spectacularly visible today. El Viejo, for example, that blackened remnant of a volcano standing along the east side of the highway at the southern boundary of Laguna Salada was originally 20 miles in diameter.
Across the Salada, towards Mexicali, there are equally old mountains known as the Sierra Mayor. And, as we review what happened next in those long-ago days, we find cerros Kila and Machorro, the mountains forming the backdrop for the pueblo of San Felipe, spawned as a single, violent, volcano. Evidence of its violence is found hidden under the sand from city center to Fraccionamiento La Hacienda.
There is a petrified forest 20 miles west of Mexicali. West of the forest, standing in a 60-mile line extending towards Blythe, there are donut-shaped formations known as “patterned ground.” South of Mexicali, there is a branch of the San Andreas fault providing heat to power an electric plant. And, just about everything visible from this point south and east was deposited, over the millennia, by the Colorado River. Before the sand that now forms the Colorado River Delta, there was a deep ocean trench (ranging to 2,000 feet in depth) stretching all the way from Indio to Yuma and Guaymas.
Because the Sea of Cortez is an arm of the Pacific Ocean, we must think of it as the new kid on the block. And, since most rivers run to a sea, remember where Baja California came from and you’ll know why the northern Cortez is shallow.
Standing on the Laguna Salada, we look south to see the volcanic Sierra Pinta, southwest to the Sierra San Pedro Martyr, and west to the Sierra Tinaja overshadowed by the 6- and 7,000-feet-high Sierra de Juarez. The biggies, the San Pedro and the Juarez, erupted as a single block of granite while behind them, all the way to San Diego, you’ll find granitic plutons, those monstrous tear-shaped blocks of granite that arose in a semi-liquid state.
As far as the Sierras Pinta and Tinaja are concerned, they were born some 20,000,000 years ago as a scene best described as Dante’s Inferno. And here, talking about drama being played out today, their erosion rate is so visibly rapid, it gives rise to a vision of mountains originally two to three times as high as they are today.
Between these two volcanic ranges, Arroyos Grande and Jaquegel have carved their way into history. While one is 100 miles in length, the other, 100 feet deep and 200 feet wide, is like a straight-line ditch created with a ruler.
Finally, located immediately south of the Pintas, the 75-miles-long Sierra San Felipe complete the picture and, with our building blocks in place, let us return to where we began: The Road to San Felipe.
As controversial as it may be, the first humans arrived in this region some 40,000 years ago. Their struggle was dated by a succession of artifacts they dropped that bring us from those truly distant days to the present. Along the way, we encounter the Kumiyai, Kiliwa, Pai Pai and Cucapah Indian groups. We’ll center the Kumiyai at Vallecitos (25 miles west of Mexicali). The Kiliwa are hidden in a remote mountain valley 30 miles west of the Sierra San Felipe. While the Pai Pai ranged over the entire southeastern flank of the San Pedro Martir, they enjoyed a bountiful harvest from the Cortez. Similarly, with the Cucapah based along the southeastern flank of the Juarez, their fishing grounds were farther north but fish they did as described by the shell mounds they left behind.
Whereas the Cucapah and Pai Pai were farmers, the Kumiyai and Kiliwa were warriors. And, because man has nearly always banned inter-family marriage, there were inter-tribal marriages and mixed groupings of them all (for security purposes) located in every conceivable direction from each other save east.
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear to see the Pai Pai harvesting shellfish from the San Felipe shore. Sit with me at a 1,000-year-old shellmound (the San Felipe shore is dotted with them) and find the remains of obsidian they carved into arrow points.
In the Cortez, the occurrence of 10-square-mile feeding frenzies was so prevalent over the past 500,000 years, there can be no question as to how well the Indians ate. Although Indian conservation efforts are a myth, we may still look back to see an abundance of wildlife. What’s more, if you know where to look, we can still find where they harvested agave for their nets, huatamote for their arrow shafts, and gold for their jewelry.
Whether Kiliwa or Pai Pai, there is a remote mountain valley at the 6,000-foot level (directly west of Mexico’s National Observatory) where at least one Indian group lived. Signs of their presence are everywhere as are the oaks from which they harvested acorns. There is another at the 1,500-foot level south of Trinidad and a third at Cienaguita. The most amazing thing about these places, especially after a childhood of Hollywood teaching me they were savages, is to discover how much beauty there is in almost every place they lived.
Returning to the road at its termination in San Felipe, we may look east to see Francisco Ulloa sailing past in 1539, Fernando Alarcón in 1540 and, whit our attention is drawn to the desert, we may see a cloud of dust raised (that same year) by Melchior Díaz (and company).
Seated beside the highway, we witness Spaniards congregating (where the Arches are today) in 1701, Ugarte come ashore in 1721 and, in the 1740s, Padre Link arrive from Ensenada and Padre Consag in a ship from the south.
We see miners arriving from Mexicali in the late 19th century, home-steaders building the road from Ensenada in ‘87, and the Cantús (father and son) as they involve themselves first in a revolution and later in the construction of the first road to Rumarosa. In fact, if we sit here long enough, I have no doubt we may even see ourselves approach for there is nothing quite as rewarding as the story to be told… along the Road to San Felipe.