Mexico started for me in the juice of a $2 pata de mula, a local giant clam served raw in the shell mixed with peppers and chillies. I had walked across the border at Otay, south of San Diego, hired a car in Tijuana and driven as fast as I could down Highway One (basically a continuation of the fabled Pacific Coast Highway), leaving La Frontera, the 70-mile border zone, as soon as possible, stopping only to slurp the clam.
Once the casinos, druggy scenes and hotels that look like office buildings melted away, boojum trees lined the highway, some like giant upturned forks, tines speckled with creamy flowers, others bent into cartoonish curlicues (the tree’s name, bizarrely, comes from Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Hunting of the Snark”). The air was light and clear.
I had been in California for a month, working and enjoying a house-swap holiday with my family. Now it was time for a short solo mission, and I wanted to explore a bit of inland Mexico. The 760-mile long Baja California peninsula that runs west of the mainland has seen its share of drug violence, but I reckoned the hinterland was probably safe. A map revealed a national park high in the sierra. The turning off the highway, an hour south of Ensenada, popped up just after San Telmo, a village where you can still buy individual cigarettes.
Driving east into the chaparral with the setting sun behind me, a turkey vulture described circles in the sky, and the scent of Mexican elderberry drifted through the vents. I had no phone reception. Even after 30 years on the road, an unplanned trip into nowhere stills yields a thrill.
The decent metalled road to the 157,000-acre Sierra de San Pedro Mártir national park rises quickly to 2,800 metres. The peninsula’s highest mountain, 3,096-metre Picacho del Diablo, etched sharply against a Hockney-blue sky, presides over a desert to the east as parched as the Empty Quarter. In the park itself, miles of sugar and lodgepole pines, white fir, incense cedar and the rare San Pedro Mártir cypress abut granite boulders and alluvial deposits scattered over hills and mesas. It’s the perfect, stillest place to hike, crushed vegetation releasing a half-lavender, half-basil scent. A coyote leapt for a kill, a peregrine dived and marmots squeaked to warn others of my approach. From certain points in the park – which is largely devoid of people – you can view both the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific.
A man at the Mexican consulate in San Diego had told me I had no chance of glimpsing a California condor, reintroduced to the San Pedro mountains in 2002. But I saw, close-up, a huddle of ten, each well over a metre tall with the bald necks of vultures and a touch of the prehistoric in their physiognomy. They were alarmed neither by the car, nor by me.
The altitude, the dry, clean air and the lack of radio interference mean that this particular sky is among the clearest on the planet. Park visitors can tour the National Astronomical Observatory, the most important star-gazing site in the country. Note: the kit within does not consist of long, thin black things; the largest telescope has a lens 2.1 metres wide.
Heading back at dusk, I made for a sign I had noted on the way up pointing me to Rancho Meling. Bumping down a track just as the candelabra cactuses were opening their pale green flowers for the night, I eventually parked outside the main ranch building. When I pushed open the screen door, a smiling proprietor approached with her hand outstretched. It was a good moment.
The 10,000-acre Rancho Meling lies 190 miles south-east of Ensenada at the foot of the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. It’s a working ranch. A hand bell clanged for breakfast, lunch and dinner, summoning cattlemen from fields to kitchen. I was the only guest. The gauchos, all young, smiled shyly at me but otherwise kept to themselves, rising from the table to pick out their sombreros and slouch off to make hay. The generator hummed for half the day only and there was no menu in the refectory-style dining room. This was inland Baja California, a region unrecognisable from the coastal strip. The journey to Meling was as much historical as geographical; a voyage to a place where the old West never died.
Ari Meling, who greeted me so warmly, is the great-granddaughter of Salve Meling, a Norwegian pioneer who made good in Mexico at the turn of the last century. He married the daughter of a post-forty-niner who had pitched up to pan for gold. The couple found this remote and fertile valley floor and raised cattle, bringing workers up from the coast. Chancers and prospectors started to drop by in the 1920s, and the ranch began its dual life as both a farm and a simple hotel, continuing today in the same homespun style.
The main buildings at Rancho Meling are constructed of roughly hewn stone in classic hunting-lodge style, the red ceramic-tile roofs held up by oak beams. Outlying accommodation blocks are simple, porch-fronted and one-storey, strewn unobtrusively around the grounds and offering magnificent views of the sierra. The whole setting exudes a heady mix of desuetude and artful design. The owners have placed rusted donkey ploughs around the entrance to the simple chapel and assigned secondary uses to expired 1942 Chevys – as tool stores, for example. A wooden sea trunk stencilled A. Hagstrøm stands guard outside the dining room, quail skitter across a scrubby hinterland of manzanita and chaparral ash, and someone had trained one of the dogs to head a football. On Friday two families arrived from Mexicali and set up tents on the lawn for the weekend. Otherwise little happened. I felt as free as the Canyon wrens.
I swam in the pool, rode a horse accompanied by an amiable gaucho who smoked throughout, and inspected an antediluvian volleyball court and a basketball post with a ring, if not a net. Meling’s inland elevation helps with the heat: and anyway the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula is cooler than the other one. At night, the stars made a pointillist canvas. Up on the sierra you sink into the past and hope the future never comes.