I was transporting a Toyota 4Runner from New Mexico to Mountain View and decided to take the scenic route through the canyons of Baja. Try it sometime, it’s worth it. After some exuberant offroading, the left front tire went flat with a grain-sized hole in the sidewall.
Attempts to reinflate with a portable air compressor led to the orifice exhaling in my face. I pushed a rice-shaped pebble into the hole and inflated again. A 200-meter crawl and we were flat once more. Useless. I would have to cross rim-crushing rockfalls before returning to pavement.
Rumor had it there was a full-sized spare attached to the underside of the truck. Hidden behind the rear interior panel was a bottle jack. Beyond that, I was on my own.
Without knowing what to look for, I flung everything out of the car. I cursed the vehicle, I cursed its owner, I kicked the tires and cursed Toyota and Bridgestone and the Powers That Be. But who was I kidding? All the tools for changing a tire could be laid out in front of me, and I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do.
A battered pickup full of locals rambled by and I pleaded for help in broken Spanglish. Lo siento, they shook their heads.
I pulled out my GPSMap and tried to estimate how long it would take to hike to the main road. What would I do then? Call AAA? It was high noon on a Sunday. No tire shops were open.
Sometime later, I was kicking up sand in resignation and a lone motorcycle puttered in the distance. It echoed through the canyons, growing louder until it pulled up alongside the 4Runner.
A hefty local dismounted. His pants were held up by a steel link chain and his hair was held down by a dirty cap.
I asked for help again in Spanish. He replied in English.
He called himself Demetrio and walked around the car, peering in the windows.
What are you doing here by yourself?
I had no answer.
The Sinaloa grow marijuana in these canyons, you know.
I did not know that.
What year is this, a 2008?
2010, I said.
He nodded. You must be very rich.
But it’s not my car… I stopped because it didn’t matter. Even if I had shown up in my ratty Ford Escape, I would still be very rich by his standards.
I have tools at the Hacienda where I work, Demetrio said. It’s not far, but you can’t stay here by yourself.
I couldn’t very well leave the truck either. It provided security. I weighed my options. Would my chances of disembowelment be higher if I rode away with a random stranger, or if I hung around and awaited an encounter with the local drug cartel? Was this my one chance for rescue? What if Demetrio left and never came back?
Fear of abandonment won out. I set my Garmin to record a trail of breadcrumbs and climbed aboard his bike. If I needed to make a run for it, at least I would be able to find my way back.
The Hacienda was a resort next to an olive plantation, where Demetrio had worked for decades maintaining the guest facilities. We retrieved a large red toolbox from the back of a white cargo van.
The box contained a mishmash of loose sockets and wrenches of all sizes. Like a child’s tool set, assembled from his father’s cast-offs. Odd-sized metrics, SAE sockets, stubby wrenches with half-inch drives.
I pressed the metal chest against my stomach and clung to the bike’s rear luggage rack all the way back to the truck.
We moved my vehicle to a flat patch of terra firma. Demetrio lifted the front of the car on the little jack and neatly swapped the flat for the spare.
I asked him why he was out in the canyons.
I’m going to my oasis, he said.
I want to go to an oasis too.
We left the 4Runner and headed into the canyon. Demetrio spoke over the flutter of his small-bore single.
He told me about his family. His grandfather owned the land around Carrizo Canyon. His father was Tarahuemaran. He was the youngest of thirty-five (35!) offspring. From different mothers, of course, but they all shared his father. He had never met any of his siblings. He had a 16-year-old daughter and a two year old grandson. He worried about his daughter because her boyfriend beat her. He wanted to help her but she refused to speak to him — her mother had told her lots of angry stories about Demetrio. He no longer spoke to the mother of his child and he was desperately lonely. He was lonely because he lived and worked at the Hacienda.
We arrived at a cluster of palms over a tadpole’s swimming hole. Demetrio’s oasis.
I don’t understand, he finally said. Why are you talking to me?
Why wouldn’t I talk to you?
Because you are young and rich and beautiful.
HA. At home, I am none of the above.
The rich gringas, he said. They treat me like I’m a lizard.
Given the circumstances, who was the lizard here? What does it matter when I’m stuck in a canyon with a flat tire?
Demetrio wanted to give me something before I left. It was a small white cross. He braided these out of plastic grocery bags to sell to tourists. I offered to buy it, but he didn’t want my money. He only wanted the same thing anyone wants, to feel like he was worth something.