Into a Desert Place: A Talk With Graham Mackintosh | Travel | Smithsonian
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Into a Desert Place: A Talk With Graham Mackintosh

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In 1979, a 28-year-old Englishman named Graham Mackintosh visited America. He rolled west to California and, on a whim, slipped south across the border. He was stunned by what he saw, a wild land of sun, sand and sea that would dramatically change his life: Baja California. Mackintosh spent a month here with just a backpack and, to start, $150. He hitchhiked and walked and went as far south as Cabo San Lucas. Mexican locals astounded him with their hospitality while the bewildering, undeveloped landscape captured his imagination like no place had before.

“What’s over those mountains, I would ask [the locals],” Mackintosh later wrote in a travel memoir Into a Desert Place. “'Nothing,’ was the usual reply.”

Many adventurers have received this answer to the same question—but adventurers know better. Mackintosh returned home. He took up a teaching job, spent evenings at the pub, had a few romantic flurries—but he couldn’t forget Baja and those distant mountains. At last, he chucked everything, abandoning the life path most of us follow to go staggering after a dream. He went back to Baja. He took a backpack, a fishing rod, a tent, a few other necessities and even a clever contraption for turning seawater fresh—and he began to walk. Mackintosh would eventually trace by foot the entire peninsula’s coastline—3,000 miles—while falling entirely in love with the land, the abutting sea and the region’s people.

Today, in many a gringo’s vacation home on a beach in Baja California, Mackintosh’s book Into a Desert Place resides on the shelf. It has become something of a cult classic in the expat community. Even in the Mexican community, Mackintosh is legendary. In remote and rustic fishing camps along the shoreline, a few of the older fishermen still remember a red-haired Englishman who tramped through 30 years ago, asking for water from the well, kindly declining their invitations to stay the night, and finally disappearing around the next point.

Today Mackintosh lives in San Diego and has written four books about his travels through the peninsula. He returns to Baja regularly to camp wild and enjoy the same scenery and stars that people centuries before us did. Like thousands of travelers, he still loves Baja California like no other place, even though parts of it have changed dramatically over the past three decades. I talked with Mackintosh earlier this week about Baja then and Baja today.

“I remember Cabo in 1979,” he says. “It was a village, and I just camped on the beach. I don’t think you could do that today.”

Cabo San Lucas, at the very southern end of the peninsula, has exploded into a hive of glitzy malls, unsightly resorts, cocktail bars and egregious golf courses. Many travelers build so-called adventures around places like Cabo, but Mackintosh no longer visits Baja’s cape.

“It’s a tragedy,” he says. “It’s not the real Baja that I fell in love with. I don't go to Baja to go shopping or stay at hotels. There are adventures to be had everywhere and most involve seeing no one.”

He also avoids similar sprawl that has spread like infections at several hotspots along the Sea of Cortez coast, including the beaches south of La Paz, around the town of Loreto 150 miles north and near the northern gulf town of San Felipe.

“But you can still get lost out there,” Macktintosh says.

One of the author’s more recent adventures was the month he spent on Isla Angel de la Guarda, Guardian Angel Island. With 50 gallons of water, he took a boat ride to the island, made a base camp and considered himself blissfully marooned. At times, Mackintosh speculates, he was the only person on the 42-by-10-mile slab of rock, and for three full weeks he saw not a soul. But he did, he says, spend a week with company—poachers who kept busy fishing and stocking huge ice boxes with lobster, sea turtles, all manner of fishes and various bottom dwelling invertebrates destined for Asian markets.

“These guys are an ecological disaster but the nicest people,” Mackintosh says. He camped with the illegal fishermen and even witnessed suspicious midnight exchanges between them and other people who motored their skiffs to the beach and “rattled and banged their luggage around for a while before leaving.” Questions aren’t to be asked about such activity in Baja, where drug trafficking is a profession for many, and Mackintosh looked the other way. He describes his time on the island in his most recent book Marooned With Very Little Beer.

In 1997, shortage of beer was not a problem for Mackintosh. He received a sponsorship from the Tecate beer company and, with a burro named Misión for a companion and beer bearer, he walked the spine of the peninsula, visiting many of Baja’s old Spanish mission churches along the way. The mountains of Baja are a different sort of experience than the coast. The wanderer finds remote ranches and cowboys in hats and chaps instead of crusty fish camps and shirtless fishermen in sandals. Water remains the greatest scarcity but is easily had at any inhabited site. Usually it’s drawn from wells and is clear as Lake Tahoe and as safe to drink as the cleanest tap water.

Baja's missions can be spiritual experiences, whether one is pious or not. Several are located in stunning oasis canyons of date palms, mangoes, avocados and figs, and the old buildings themselves are beautiful sanctuaries, cool and silent inside while the blazing sun scorches the country just beyond the immediate jungle. Mackintosh's mission-to-mission walk would be the focus of his second book, Journey With a Baja Burro.

Between 2003 and 2005, I developed my own relationship with Baja. I walked wilderness coastlines, hitchhiked along the dirt roads, lived largely off of speared fish and, in many places, certainly walked in Mackintosh’s footsteps. Some people even asked if I was him. I spent 10 months in all backpacking in Baja California and was moved by the same beauty, hospitality and solitude that so affected Mackintosh 20 years prior. As he recalls that first visit in 1979, Mackintosh could just as well be narrating the impressions of a thousand other hikers, kayakers and cyclists who have been spellbound by wild Baja.

“I got all these great rides with interesting people, whether in cars or boats or airplanes, and people invited me out fishing and we had lobster feasts on the beach and I could camp anywhere under these amazing stars, and I thought, ‘This is paradise,’” he tells me. “When I was alone in the desert it was like a religious experience. It wasn’t scary at all and was so much better than what I was going back home to. I felt so free, like I could just grab a donkey and go walking into the sunset and enjoy this place as it was supposed to be.”

And thankfully, beyond the globalized tourist traps, he still can. We all can.

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