A tale of tequila sunrises and Coyote John
by Sam Tezak
Brown smoke curdled and ran up our front windshield. Outside, the ink-black shadows of night swallowed the Mexican desert scape, and only the stars and the moon bared themselves with some familiar likeness. And beneath all this, a 2006 Toyota Sienna, our “Golden Bullet,” smoked and suffered on an unknown highway. The van stunk of feet and booze.
Fully sloshed on urine-colored tequila, I stumbled out of the car. How the fuck did we get here? I wheeled around, eyes grasping at the stars. Almost 24 hours before the breakdown, my five close friends and I cuddled up in a sweaty motel room in Yuma, AZ after driving 16 hours through three different states. The five of us shared two beds and woke up in that dank room early the next morning ready to cross the border into Baja California, Mexico.
The following morning we began our drive. The border fence tattooed the horizon line. On the American side: 230,000 acres of farmland, miles of green that span the periphery, the third-largest producer of vegetables in the United States. On the other side of the 700 mile steel fence is Mexicali, a border municipality of 1,000,000 people and one of the most polluted places in Mexico. It is the hub of some of the largest maquiladoras, or manufacturing operations in a trade-free zone, that includes Nestle, Coca Cola and Mitsubishi, and it is an absolute whirlwind to drive through. Bright lights, big city with a whole slew of potholed streets, loud neon signs and blaring horns, a grand masquerade: the advent of our trip. From the twisting roundabouts that mine through the lush green rows of Yuma’s industrial farms, we could not begin to estimate what lay beyond the international barricade. We could not have seen the disintegrating plaster shops, the mangy stray dogs sniffing out the streets in packs, or the thatched palapas staked one next to another, bit by sea salt and sand. We took full advantage of our southern neighbor’s open container laws and cracked the tabs of Tecate tall boys.
We found our way to the fray of the city and onto Highway 5, half drunk on Mexican beer and adventure. The drive, fueled by beer, cigarettes and lemon juice in our hair passed almost as listlessly as the trash other cars tossed out the window: bottles flying at 80 kilometers an hour, shattering, then glistening on the pavement like lost pocket change.
In between our ribbon of road and the Sea of Cortez, salt flats stretched white beneath a paling blue sky. Five-and-a-half hours in, we pulled over at a taco stand, a desolate foundation of rubble built up beside the salt water, where we ate fish tacos for 10 pesos and smoked grubby joints. We said adios and accelerated under the hot teardrop sun, pulsing towards our first destination. By our second stop with the military we had become accustomed to these chocolate chip uniforms shaking down our soccer mom vehicle as we pissed in the desert and talked shop. “¿Tiene usted mota?” they asked as they motioned smoking weed with their thumb and index fingers. “No, sólo cuarenta latas y tequila” we replied gesturing slugging back booze. They bummed stoges or stole them and sent us on our way with the same instructions: keep going, 20 miles away you will hit the next highway.
Little did we realize that the Mexican conception of a highway in the Baja peninsula is far removed from our American suburb understanding of a highway. As the swollen sun began to hang down in the west, the ragged road dissolved into rocks and dirt. After boozing for the past day, the cacti-hemmed track presented a sort of off-roading for naïve passengers. We raced along the desert, climbed out of the sunroof and sat on the top of the car maniacally bellowing “Faster!” and “Slower!” while clinking bottles. The high was strong—being young and stupid never felt so good.
But the road kept going, our tires eating up miles and spitting them up behind us. We could no longer see either stretch of salty blue, and we tried to outpace the looming night by going faster, tearing the road with the teeth of our car. Phones off, our Garmin pinned us smack in the middle of the peninsula, but could not locate the road. Our old school maps were of no use either, and this weight of night in the desert began to set on our responsibly drunk car owner.
“Guys, let me drive, I’ve driven off-roading before, guys!” “Okay, I’m not that drunk, I’m really not drunk, drunk—left! Fuck, I told you to go right! Let me drive! My mom is going to be so pissed, where’s that tequila?” “Are we out of cigarettes?! Let me drive! We are going to find cigarettes now!” “I’m a much better driver drunk than you’re sober!”
For 26 miles, we paced the Mexican desert on this godforsaken highway with this backseat driver from Hell swigging tequila and vehemently yelling about his alleged knack for off-road driving while impaired in his mom’s mini van. (Rest assured, he didn’t take the wheel). By the time that we reached a Federalis checkpoint, he had the gall to propose the police to swig tequila with us. They respectfully declined by stealing a pack of cigarettes from us.
Grateful that we were not frisked, manipulated or jailed, we made it out onto an asphalt highway, expecting to make our first stop by midnight. But the Golden Bullet had other plans; an hour later the car shuddered to a stop in the middle of the highway, smoking in transmission blood. That night we pushed the car off into the shoulder of the road and slept underneath a city of stars, drunk and unsure of our whereabouts.
The next morning we woke up, guzzled liters of water and waited for a car, passing the time by throwing rocks and attempting to push over 20-foot tall cacti out of sheer boredom. For two hours, the only souls we saw included a train of RV’s that ripped down the middle of the highway road, a military vehicle that stopped to frisk our bags, and dune buggies that tore down the asphalt: gone in a breath. Finally, while the heat began to settle into our skin and we ran around shirtless and shoeless with nothing more than gallon jugs of water and a meager stock of Marlboro Lights, a man in an old pickup truck slowed to a stop. We told him the situation and he unhitched his trailer on the opposite side of the highway without any explanation. Our proverbial good Samaritan promised us he would be back in an hour and would tow us into town. We waited, scaling the rocks that shouldered the road. An hour went by and so did another, time slowed and we tanned, sitting at the hands of Fortune.
Four hours later, our first responder’s truck rolled up without any explanation as to his whereabouts or why it took so much longer than he originally promised. He and a friend got out of the car and smashed their Tecate cans and we conceded to be towed to Bahia. Excited to be leaving the forest of cacti, we strapped the minivan to the back of the trailer. And off we went, 60 kilometers an hour on a winding highway, a road so ragged that at certain points we watched as sections of the flood-ravaged highway crumbled into 15 foot drops. This was no Cabo.
In town we met the local mechanic, a man named Sami. He sat on a plastic chair in the shade watching a small television and sipping on glass-necked Pacificos. Our transmission was ruptured, leaving us stranded in a beach town in Mexico for the next nine days. The mechanics agreed to fix it in two days but, as we would quickly find out, this would not go according to plan.
For nine days, we sat on the beach and drank the town’s tequila supply dry. We ate carne asada and pescado tacos, burned through cartons of cigarettes, drank Jumex with the remainder of rum, and cracked beers at 7 am to watch the sunrise. A local fisherman, Angel, took us out on his boat. We buoyed around the sapphire waters fishing for yellowtail tuna and watching whales breach, dolphins arc and split the surface and sea lions play in the water beside an island rock plastered white by bird shit. Life moved slow as we snorkeled with a pole spear, thrusting its barbs into unsuspecting fish. Life moved slow as we walked three miles into town, hoping to hitch a ride in the back of a pickup. Life moved slow as we ate acid and swam in the sea, walked the beach for hours, and climbed up steel ladders in a forgotten lighthouse tower that reigns over a forgotten bay in Mexico. And life moved slow as we danced around a fire, guzzling tequila and playing in the inky sea with dinoflagellates. We waited and waited at the mercy of the mechanics, the weather, our dwindling cache of pesos and the kindness of strangers.
During one of the first nights we sputtered back into camp, ready to have a fire. We stumbled through the game trails behind our palapa, wrenching split wood from other dilapidated and deserted palapas whose structures were splayed like wooden ribs. Out of the desert wind, a voice surfaced from beneath our drunken Spanglish ramblings, “Hey now, don’t do that. This wood here is still salvageable.” A lanky, bronze-hide man with salt and pepper hair capped by a straw hat stood before us. He introduced himself as Coyote John. In our bleary-eyed drunkenness he appeared as a sort of desert sage as he told us about the hurricane that shook the bay almost a decade before, leaving shredded palapas and devastated infrastructure in its wake. He lectured us to find our firewood elsewhere and sulked back into this graveyard of half-eaten palapas, scorpions and cacti. Nervously, we joked and stumbled back to camp to pitch dead roots onto our cardboard fire.
Coyote John became an emblem for our trip and our group mindset on being stranded in the middle of the Baja peninsula. He became one of many strangers who looked out for us, whose very presence kept our spirits alive and well (though I’m sure the booze and blue sea contributed significantly).
The next morning, Coyote John limped out of the brush as I sat with my feet half sunk in the sand, half bit by the chilling licks of the sea. He dropped a clatter of lumber beside the sleeping bags and stalked towards my lawn chair. The old man spoke with a Clint Eastwood drawl, and his conversation seemed ongoing and effortless. He spoke to us about eating magic mushrooms in the Mexican desert and filming what he thought was a police chase, he told us about helping a man kayak around the world, and he confided in us that a few years ago he was caught up in a wake and flipped several times, lost his gear, and ended up on a far off shore with two beautiful naked women from New York and Paris. Coyote John was here by himself, his Westfalia and two kayaks. All the Americans in town knew exactly who this lone man was, but I didn’t get a sense that anyone was close with him.
One man followed Coyote John around daily as the wily kayaker planned to launch his kayak into the Sea of Cortez for a three-month voyage. Each day when we asked our old neighbor if today was the day, he would go to the fringe of the sea and the frays of the sand and wait a moment as if looking it in the eye, and turn around shaking his head, “Maybe tomorrow.”
Coyote John always had a story to tell and amidst this hairy situation, listening to his seemingly endless adventure grounded us in our transient position. The man made transience his abode and thrived in the uncertainty of each day, eyeing the waves, toeing the sand and bracing the West Wind. On our last day, we saw our friend off. His ship set on the film of water. The man who followed him all these months followed him once more, trying to persuade him to stay with a beer and ceviche. Eventually they embraced. The old man set to leave port, the water licking his toes, ankles and calves. As Coyote John blended into the horizon it felt as if an era had passed on this beach in this bay, somewhere in Mexico. We could live here a bit longer, ebbing and flowing in this house of tides.