Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Baja Legends

Before there were expensive hotels and 873 ways to spend money in los Cabos, the peninsula was made up of a few sleepy little fishing villages. These little towns had grown up over a few hundred years of foreign traders traveling from Europe to the Far East and back. San Jose was a major water stop for the ships returning from China and beyond and became a favorite spot for pirates and privateers to lay in wait for a prize. As the Spanish missionaries worked to spread their faith, missions were established all the way up the Baja. Whaling ships were active for several decades in the waters around the Baja peninsula but the whalers took their oil back to New England and left nothing behind. The pearl industry changed La Paz into a small city but after the pearls were gone, the city became quiet for many years.

Then in the 1940’s, over 400 years after the Spaniards found the Baja, things changed. Somehow a few adventurous souls (with way too much time on their hands) discovered that the Baja Peninsula had the most amazing fishing they had ever seen. Guys like Bing Crosby and John Wayne to name a couple of them. As they spent more time here the need for services became more apparent. Rustic hotels were built with landing strips that could handle small planes. Places like the Rancho Buena Vista which was started in the mid 50's. Later the money started pouring in so the rich could enjoy Baja along with the rest of us. Of course after there was money here the folks that figure out ways to get some of it followed along. That is in a nutshell how we got from there to here. We've gone full circle: the pirates have returned. Read this in your best Johnny Depp pirate voice: "Take all you can get, give nothin' back. Arrrrrr"

Also during these last 70 years or so, Baja was discovered by another type of person: the Adventurer. These were the people that had no interest in financial gain from the Baja but found the land completely enchanting. There were many but one I’ll tell you about is Jimmy Smith.

I met this character at my café several years ago. There was this fellow sitting outside dressed in coveralls, sporting a handlebar mustache and smoking like each one might be his last. When I saw him I thought, “Here’s a guy with a story” and I wanted to know what it was. After introductions we started chatting aimlessly and got to know each other a bit. My instincts were correct; he was as interesting as he looked. I learned that he lived in Los Barriles and I hoped I would have another chance to hear more of his story.

It turned out that he had to visit the bank next to my Café occasionally and he would come in for coffee. I took time whenever he was there to visit and was never disappointed. As a natural course of events we told each other how we came to be in the Baja and he told me the most amazing story about how he met his wife. I won’t re-tell his story here but go HERE to read it. Even if you don’t have a single romantic bone in your body, you’ll come away wanting to propose to your wife all over again.

According to everything I know, Jimmy started traveling the Baja in 1953 on a Triumph Motorcycle. There were few actual roads back then: more like connecting trails between ranches, arroyos and wilderness. He stopped in San Ignacio for gas and rest for a few days. This turned out to be a major event in his life as he met his future bride there. (READ the STORY!!)

Later on, Jimmy started coming down in a small airplane, eventually married Guadalupe and became a resident of Baja California Sur. His exploits include finishing 2nd place in the first Baja 1000, doing “airvacs” in his bushplane and insulting Erle Stanley Gardner who was a famous author back in the day. In fact, Jimmy referred to him as FA which I assume stands for "Famous Author." I can't for the life of me imagine what else it could mean. After the "incident" it was told that "FA" was furious and refused to call Jimmy by his name instead addressing him by the nickname, "Grinning Gargoyle."

He started writing at some point and his book “The Grinning Gargoyle Spills the Beans” is a classic read. It’s full of great personal stories including the story of meeting and marrying his wife. If you can’t find a copy, contact me.

The last couple of times I saw him at the cafe, he was carrying on about an abandoned motorhome, and overdue rent and going to jail. If I can ever piece it all together, I'll post the story.

Jimmy died a few years ago but his memory lives on. I hope he wasn’t the last of his breed.

Follow these links for good reading about and by Jimmy.
Aticle by Gene Kira
This one by Gene was written after Jimmy's death
Baja Racing News article, includes The Courtship of Guadalupe
A letter from Jimmy to author Daniel Ford about Harvey Greelaw
The Buena Vista Volunteer Fire Department by Jimmy
Pelona the Cow by Jimmy


Anonymous said...

I remember Jimmy Smith...I remember visiting him and Lupe in Tiajuana after the birth of their first child. We were there with my brother Dave Deal. They were fast friends all through the years and before his death, Jim cam to stay with David and his wife for some medical treatment. Sadly, David passed away about 5 years after Jim. David did the cartoon artwork for Jim's book. They were both pilots and loved Baja...hard to believe they are both gone...or ...are they flying around looking for a spot to land near San Ignacio?

. said...

Thanks for that. Jimmy was truly one of a kind. There was a table of local San Jose guys that were at the coffee shop every morning. Between them they had over a hundred years in Mexico. I wish I would have written the stories I heard. Sadly they are all gone now.