By Graham Mackintosh
For a fascinating glimpse into a way of life
that has hardly changed since the early years
of Spanish settlement in Baja, consider joining
one of Saddling South's mule trips into the
Sierra Giganta mountains out of Loreto.
In early April, I joined a group of five Germans
as they mounted their patient and sure-footed
mules and boldly headed into the red, rugged
canyons of the Sierra, on a trail barely visible
beneath a swaying carpet of floral color.
The trip leader was Trudi Angell who I had
first met back in 1984 while I was struggling
on foot down the coast between Loreto and La
Paz. She had appeared leading a Paddling South
Kayak trip along the same stretch of coast.
"The leader of the kayak group, Trudi,
was a quiet-spoken California lady. She clearly
knew her trade and every inch of the coast...Sitting
by the firelight, she marked on my map, every
problem, water-hole, farm and fish camp. What
a stroke of luck meeting her."
From Into A Desert Place by Graham Mackintosh
Her "Paddling" expertise is clearly
matched by her "Saddling" know-how.
On the trip she is ably assisted by three dignified
and kindly Mexican guides. They were real cowboys,
having been born and bred in these mountains;
as had their fathers and grandfathers before
them. They aren't just employees of Trudi's,
they are clearly respected friends, for she
spoke fluent Spanish, translating their fascinating
and informative comments for the benefit of
A trailside encounter with a rattlesnake led
to one of the guides asking, "Have you
ever heard a rattlesnake sing?" As we shook
our heads, he explained that " rattlesnakes
sing in the summer just prior to a rainstorm.
When you hear this guttural hum, you know it
will soon rain."
It was a privilege to hear the wisdom of the
mountains and learn of the many uses of the
desert plants. Strips of cardon, we were told,
are placed on wounds because of their antiseptic,
antiscarring, blood-coagulating properties.
And when clumps of cholla are roasted and sliced
and placed on embedded cactus spines, the spines
are speedily and cleanly drawn from the flesh.
We were informed about plants that make food
teas, and what medical conditions they alleviate.
One night, cozy by the campfire, after we’d
all enjoyed copious amounts of tea from a herb
called poleo, we learned it was reputed to be
a particularly efficacious aphrodisiac!
The isolated ranches were a delight to visit.
We invariably were received with unaffected
warmth and hospitality, fed like kings, and
enthusiastically shown whatever we asked to
see. Collections of arrowheads and Indian artifacts
were proudly brought out; we saw how goat cheese
was made, and how the flesh was cut and dried;
and how horse hairs were twined into a thick
and powerful rope. Most amazing of all, we saw
how leather was tanned in vats of skins, using
the bark of the Palo Blanco tree as the tanning
agent, and then turned by absurdly simple tools-nails,
broken drills and knives-into the most exquisite
saddlery and leather work. One horse-owning
member of our party was happy to part with $50
and buy a rare pair of polainas, or strap-on-leg
Sometimes we slept in tents by streams and
campfires, sometimes on beds made of woven rawhide
straps, sometimes we were in deep-set, tumbling
canyons, sometimes on ridges watching the blue
Gulf glisten 20 miles distant. As well as being
an incredible journey into the Sierras, it was
also a sojourn into the hearts and minds of
people whose simple ways owe more to the traditions
of 17th century Spain than that of 20th century
One night, around the fire, after the ghost
stories had been told, we heard how making tequila
had once been a popular pastime before the government
outlawed the practice. One of the guides related
the sorry tale of his grandparents who would
habitually embark on wild, week-long binges
with the evil distillate, then sober up briefly
before succumbing again. Certain of the destructive
effect of this on their lives and livers, and
wanting to draw the appropriate moral from this
tale of self-destructive excess, I asked how
old his grandparents were when they died. "Oh,
he was 97, and she was 106." I took another
sip of that aphrodisiac tea and pondered how
it is wise to remain open-minded when contemplating
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