10 November 2015 – Featuring Margaret Reish Downing

Misadventures in Paradise: Deadpan

By Margaret Reish Downing

Margaret and Rex San Felipe

We left our home at Rancho Costa Verde, Km 52.5 at Mexico 5 (The Puertecitos Road), ready for adventure! My husband Rex and I, and our friends Nick and Christine, were headed five hours south to Bahía de Los Angeles.


A Rainstorm! What's Next


At the Puertecitos turnoff at Km 75, Mexico 5 magically changes from a vado infested road to a beautiful new highway passing by Gonzaga Bay, the first and last Pemex station for miles and the general store at Rancho Grande. Then around Km 170, it transmogrifies into an unpaved washboarded byway. A two hour bone jarring ride will bring you to Mexico 1 at Chapala. There, a new white knuckle challenge begins: holding steady while big trucks skyrocket in the opposite direction, a mere six inches from the center lane. It’s advisable to also keep an eye out for the insane bicyclists from Boston or Korea who pedal along the hills and curves of the no-shoulders highway. The final leg of the journey, the Parador turnoff, continues over a 40 plus mile paved road heading directly east to Bahía de Los Angeles. This road has been washed out here and there and contains some short detours. All that being said, the scenery everywhere you look is spectacular: The Sea of Cortez, the mountains, the forests of cacti, the shore hugging islands, the rock formations, the desert in its many forms, all astound and delight.


This Is the Middle of Nowhere...


Our journey to Bahía de Los Angeles was blessedly uneventful, and we had a fine time once we got there. Two days later, the drive back was shaping up to be equally uneventful… Then — four sharp intakes of breath as we ran over a rock a few miles before getting back onto the new highway at Km 170.


Nick looked out the back window. “Uh oh. Better stop.” A trail of motor oil blackened the road.


The Exxon Escape


The four of us bailed out of our Ford Escape. “Fxxx!” As we were to soon discover, an entire corner of the oil pan was now missing. We were dead.




Does it go without saying that we were in the middle of nowhere, with no cell phone or marine radio reception? All we could do was wait around for someone to show up.


This did not actually take long. Work crews are building the infrastructure for the continuation of the carretera, Mexico 5, to Chapala, and there are a few camps and camp kitchens set up along the way. Our first passerby was a water truck driver, who claimed that there is a grúa (tow truck) at the general store at Rancho Grande. He promised to stop there, and send the truck our way.


After standing around for a few minutes, we began speculating: What if the tow truck isn’t there? Wouldn’t a tow truck driver in these parts be very busy? What if that guy forgets to stop at Rancho Grande? How long before it gets dark?


It's Worse Than We Thought


Nick — who once owned and operated a transmission repair shop in Chicago, and who is the only one of the four of us who could say “tow truck” or “oil pan” in Spanish, volunteered to walk back the way we came, to a camp a couple of kilometers down the road. Maybe we could get some help there. Maybe somebody had some JB Weld or even some welding equipment.


Before Nick got very far, two guys headed in our direction in a road construction vehicle stopped. We found out that there was another camp two kilometers ahead. Since that camp was at least in the right direction — if the tow truck came, Nick would see it — Nick hitched a ride.


Waiting for Nick’s return, we three whiled away the time cursing (Rex), staring vacantly at the rock formations (Margaret and Christine) and explaining Nick’s mission to the occasional passerby (all).


Nick returned as the sole passenger in a 15 passenger van. The driver, Juan, is the husband of a camp cook. He offered to tow us to Rancho Grande where we could seek out the real tow truck driver.


Finally Back on Paved Road!


Tow us? With a rope he had in his van? On an unpaved road with hills and curves and water trucks coming the other way? This seemed more foolhardy than riding a bicycle on Mexico 1.


“Yeah, we can do that,” Nick argued. “We used tow ropes all the time at night in Chicago, pulling people out of snow banks. It was a lot cheaper. Cops never caught us.” Christine rolled her eyes.


Fastening the Tow Rope


Well, OK. The worst that could happen was that all of us would plunge into a ravine and be killed on impact.


So, the rope was secured to both bumpers. Christine and I climbed into Juan’s vehicle. Nick, with Rex as passenger, got behind the wheel of the Ford Escape: Safely controlling a vehicle being towed by a rope in adverse conditions requires experience!


Slowly, slowly, slowly, we made our way to the newly paved road at Km 170, and on to the store at Rancho Grande. Guess what we discovered there? No tow truck! Then or ever!


There are pay phones now at the store. Internet as well! It took me 15 minutes to learn how to make a call. Anyway, unable to contact anyone who could help us, we accepted Juan’s offer to tow us the 100 or so additional kilometers to Km 35 at Delicias. There, Rex had spotted a mechanic’s pit at Santos Puente’s llantera. There are neither tow trucks nor mechanics at Delicias, but we could deal with that later.


“How much will you charge us?’ we asked Juan. He shrugged, the answer we expected. We badgered him into naming a figure: “Quinientos.” (500 pesos) “OK” I agreed. “Don’t worry — I’ll give you more than that.” (That is, if we reach Delicias without hitting a vado at an angle and overturning onto the desert, dying on impact.)


Our caravan made slow but steady progress toward Delicias. By now it was raining, adding the possibility of skidding to the list of potential mishaps. Sometime later, we arrived at the entrance to Rancho Costa Verde at Km 52.5 and untied the tow rope. Now Juan could drive Nick to his car which was down by the beach. Nick could at least get to Delicias on his own steam and drive us wherever we had to go next. Juan returned and hooked up the Escape once again for the final leg to Delicias.


By now, Rex had learned how to operate a vehicle being towed by a rope in adverse conditions. We finally arrived at Santo’s llantera, alive. We paid Juan, our salvador, who then drove north to San Felipe because he was running out of gas! When I had asked earlier, he claimed he had enough gas, but I guess I should have asked him enough gas to go where?


Rex and Nick Supervise New Oil Pan Installation


Since the llantera is right on the highway, and Santos was unreachable until the next morning, Nick and I went to the poblado police station to ask the baffled cop on duty to keep an eye on the Escape. Then it was back home, where Rex was able to get in touch with a San Felipe contact who was in Yuma, and could buy some motor oil and order a new oil pan — as well as pick it up after the weekend, when he would be going back to Yuma for a meeting.


The new oil pan did not actually make it into our hands until the following Tuesday afternoon.”It’s Mexico.”


The next morning, commandeering a guy who had done a little work on cars from the Rancho Costa Verde staff, we went to the llantera. Nick talked him through the repair process. Success! While in San Felipe later on, we found the Escape needed additional repairs. Subsequent visits were required: to a muffler shop and to get the tires balanced, leading to the discovery that the front brakes might not last much longer. The brakes were therefore replaced. Now there is the matter of a mystery “harmonic vibration which becomes pronounced when the SUV is driven above 65 miles an hour, which has so far eluded diagnosis.


I could use some extra money down here in the South Campos, especially with all these car repair bills. I’m looking into taking some classes in Bakersfield at TOWPROS, whose slogan is: “Towing Professionals Teaching Future Towing Professionals”.


“Grúas Margarita” –What do you think?




10 Responses to “10 November 2015 – Featuring Margaret Reish Downing”
  1. Carolann

    Amazing … Allstate well that ends well,

    • Carolann

      All is well that ends wrll

  2. Linda Houston

    Oh Margaret,

    So sorry for your ‘adventure’ or rather ‘ miss’ad….. So many of your pictures reminded me of familiar family experiences. You sure do tell it well! Thanks so much.

    Looks like I need to bone up on all I have been missing on this site! Have been meaning to but now know I am missing some great stuff.

    Hope car does well and heals soon. Linda Houston

  3. rose

    Driving from Ohio to San Felipe alone!!! Hope my experience has a happy ending like the others.

  4. Rad Crews

    Years ago, before the Gonzaga road was paved, a buddy and I took a long trek south in my ol’ reliable 66 Chevy truck, “Red”. On the return, about halfway between Gonzaga and Puertocitos, we lost all the coolant. Along with having our fillings knocked loose, the radiator had vibrated to the point of wearing a hole in the bottom. We were dead, out of water! Within twenty minutes, a caravan of three trucks heading south stopped. One, a mechanic took off to his camp for a torch, while we removed the radiator. Returning shortly, he brazed up the hole, and offered a rubber shower clog as a suitable mount to prevent additional wear. A local resident woman, offered burritos, Tecate, and a two gallon container of coolant. Burritos: free, Tecate: free, Coolant: two dollars – only what it had cost her. Mechanic: Ten dollars. Yes, $10 US! Total down time – About 1 1/2 hours.

    Compare this experience to the time I was stuck on the CA 405 northbound with a broken connecting rod. Pre-cell phone days, I was out there for over 5 hours, with thousands of my fellow citizens wizzing by.

    People ask if I’m scared to go to Mexico. I reply, “No, I’m scared to go back!”

    • Margaret Downing

      What a great story! You should publish it!

  5. Kat Hammontre

    Enjoyed your story; thanks for sharing.

    • Margaret Downing

      Thanks — your story about being stranded in the desert overnight earlier this year might top it, though…

  6. carolyn richardson

    Informative and quite entertaining article Margaret! (Well, entertaining for the reader, although I’m sure not all that entertaining to you participants!) Most important, glad you all made it back to ‘civilization’ safely and your vehicle home more or less in one piece. Thanks for sharing your misadventures with us!

    • Margaret Downing

      You are welcome! My usual misadventure in Baja involves hotels with no hot water…

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