The Yucca Department
Bruce F. Barber
It was 8:15 Sunday morning. I was working at my computer when Bob Mater drove up. “Mornin’ Bob,” I hollered as I went out to meet him.
“Mornin’, Bruce. Wanna go to the ranch?” he asked.
“When?,” I inquired, reflecting upon Freda’s presence in church.
“Now,” he replied. “Gloria and I are leaving as soon as I get home. Pepe and Imagene are going. You don’t need to bring anything except your drinks.”
“O.K.,” I said, thinking of the task ahead. “I’ll get ready and we’ll take off as soon as Freda returns.” It was an unusually hot and humid morning. By the time I completed my task I was wringing wet and a cooling shower felt great. Freda returned as I was towelling off and we met at the back door where,
What’s this?” she asked, pointing to the ice chests and picnic basket.
“Bob came over to invite us to the ranch,” I explained. “I’ve packed sodas, beer and munchies, and I have a snack prepared for breakfast, which we can eat on the way. Actually, as soon as I load the car, I’ll be ready to leave. By the way, it was 110 the last time I checked the thermometer. It’ll be about 85 at the ranch.”
“Okay, give me a few minutes,” she relinquished with a grin as she headed for the stairs. I think she’d planned to spend the day in her hammock, reading.
The Ranch, I thought. What a super place. Nestled at the 3,000-foot level in a small mountain valley, the Ranch was the property of Aurora and Alberto Dosaquez, a couple about our age who’d moved from Mexicali 10 years ago when Alberto felt a growing population closing in on him. They had raised eight daughters and a son. The girls were all married now and long-since gone from home. The boy, 21-year-old “Gilberto”, was still at home, however, and as much a part of the ranch as anyone or anything else on it. Although he’d worked in Indio and Los Angeles, he’d returned to the ranch to be where he could be his own boss and do what he enjoyed most: farming.
Father and son had begun the clearing of land, even before the family had moved from Mexicali. They removed trees, bushes, cactus and rocks. They built the house and prepared the soil for what was to become their principal growing plots for both home-use and a commercial enterprise. They erected fences, horse stalls, and a smallish barn for hay and grain storage before building another small house as an income property. As the seasons passed, they prepared additional land until they were satisfied with the acreage they had under cultivation. Today, these self-styled farmers are reaping a magnificent harvest from apples, beans, chiles, corn, peaches, zinnias and roses in addition to cattle and horses.
With a full appreciation for outdoor living, friends of ours stumbled on the place during one of their camping trips, and an immediate and warm friendship was begun. Now, three years later, Freda and I had been invited to the place we’d heard so much about and longed to see and experience. Finally, at 9:45 on a Sunday morning, we piled into our car and ‘headed for the hills’.
We turned at El Chinero to drove west along the highway to Ensenada. The desert from “Chinero” to the escarpment is as interesting a place as one could imagine in a 30-miles-wide space. I often think of this part of Baja California as a nursery where we pass distinctly separate “departments” in which varieties of each plant species are on display. First, along the coastal plain, the “Ocote Department” with its two distinct varieties of Ocotillo with micro climates controlling their individual bloom.
Climbing Borrego Pass, we enter the “Cholla Department,” where thousands of these spiny plants are on display. Stopping at the summit, we take time for a breakfast snack and to photograph “Picacho Del Diablo” rising majestically some 10,000 feet out of a dry lake bed. It is a view reserved for those who enjoy such magnificent desert scenery: A 30-miles-long panorama of former sea floor towered over by mountains bleached white by a relentless sun.
San Matias Pass presents a 1,500-foot climb between mountains. To the south stand the formidable Sierra San Pedro Martir. To the north, the Sierra de Juarez lined as it is with those incomparable canyons we know as Santa Isabel, Guadalupe and Cantu where the ancient ones lived and left their incomprehensible marks for all eternity.
Now, as we approach the tiny hamlet of San Matias, we find ourselves in the “Biznaga (Barrel Cactus) Department”, but these plants, these “yellow tops”, are different from the “red tops” so prevalent in the valley below. And here, too, we begin to see a smattering of the delicious, edible-fruit-bearing Tuna Cactus.
Two miles west of San Matias we turned towards Mike Sky Ranch and now we are in the “Yucca Department” where, at the 1,500-foot level, we have escaped the desert’s oppressive heat. Here, a gently rolling rock-strewn land is spread with its beautiful mountain flora alive with a broad array of fuana.
Climbing into these ancient mountains we transit from the desert plains we know so well, to a new domain where mountain lion, bobcat and deer are commonplace and the hustle and bustle of the city are far behind. The ever-present yucca are all around us in every shape and stage of life and afterlife. Hidden here and there in their shadows are an interesting variety of Cholla including Bottlebrush and Teddybear, and even an occasional long-quilled, red-topped barrel.
The rocks we passed were sculpted and, occasionally, adorned with piñon pine. The area is well-weathered with exposed volcanic ridges scattered about. We cross riverbeds whose sediments lie at the bottom of the Cortez more than 75-miles to the east. Steep-walled canyons rise above us while, scudding along above them, towering nimbus clouds burst forth into the more dramatic cumulonimbus and, here and there, sheets of rain were discernible in the distance. It was a beautiful morning when motoring along that lightly washboarded roadway was a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of.
Our arrival at the ranch found Bob and Gilberto chopping wood, Pepe and Imagene exploring the upper orchards, and Gloria already at work in the kitchen. Aurora was visiting a daughter in Los Angeles and Alberto had gone to Valle Trinidad for feed for his livestock and seed for a new crop.
Freda went to the kitchen to help Gloria and I, with camera in hand, headed for the four corners of the ranch. Along the way, I encountered four cameramen from Mexicali who were doing a series for a magazine. I saw some of their work before leaving the ranch house and truly envied its quality. We exchanged greetings and stood for an hour comparing notes on the beauty of Baja. What these young men didn’t know about Baja’s wall paintings wasn’t worth knowing. I was humbled by their detailed descriptions of places I hadn’t yet discovered. Suffice it to say, we have a date for an October meeting at the Rumarosa where, with camera in hand and climbing shoes ON, I fully expect to return with stories as vivid as theirs.
Returning to the house, I met Alberto as the eight of us prepared for carne asada, paella, corn on the cob, baked marinated chicken, a garden-fresh salad, guacamole, corn tortillas piping hot from the stove, and cool, refreshing beer in the shade of a grape-covered arbor. Our conversation ran the gamut but centered on living in the country where this humble man and woman found a lasting happiness and had chosen to spend their remaining years …far from the madding crowd, miles from metropolis, and light-years from the hustle and bustle of a confused world.
Here, at this beautiful mountain ranch, we found friendship, an outflowing of warmth, and an appreciation for the mysteries of life as genuine as the day is long.
Here, at this beautiful mountain ranch, we discovered the real beauty of the Yucca Department, which goes far deeper than those pleasant scenes the camera records.
Here, at this beautiful mountain ranch, we rediscovered the backbone quality of the Baja California we’ve known and loved so much. And, finally, at day’s end, hating to leave but knowing we must, we prepared to return to our own Shangri-La.
“Cuando regresan (When are you coming back)?,” asked Alberto, as we turned to walk to our car.
I thought for a moment and then, speaking for the two of us replied, “Mañana, con permiso. Mañana is soon enough for me.”