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A Walk on the Wild Side : After 3,000 Miles, Seven Pairs of Boots Traipsing the Rugged Baja California, Englishman Is Believed to Be First to Conquer It in a Grueling Two-Year Trek

July 10, 1996|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — If ever a movie is made about Graham Mackintosh and his historic walk around Baja California, sure to be included is a scene involving the diminutive red-headed Englishman and a rabid burro.

Mackintosh, sunburned and sweat-soaked, stumbles into a remote fishing village. The locals are startled but walk out to greet him.

They are their usual hospitable selves but warn Mackintosh of danger, should he continue his walk.

He has been warned before.

But this time, the danger is not from impassable cliffs or crumbling canyons, snakes in the grass or lions in the shadows.

The danger here is a deranged donkey, foaming at the mouth, terrorizing villagers, chasing fishermen down the beach.

Mackintosh asks why nobody has shot this dangerous beast. The villagers look at one another and decide that the Englishman has a point.

Two Mexicans don cowboy hats and grab their guns--dilapidated rifles from another era--and another motions Mackintosh to board a skiff.

The bold hunters shove off, landing a few minutes later on the burro's beach.

Mackintosh doubts the existence of such a creature but has his camera ready, in case.

"We walk into the brush, calling this animal, and sure enough out steps this black burro," he recalls enthusiastically. "And it charges straight at us. The guys are looking down the barrels of their guns and I'm looking through my camera, waiting for shots to ring in my ears so I'll know when to [take the picture], and this burro is getting bigger and bigger in my viewfinder.

"Finally, I turn to see why they hadn't fired, and there is nobody there! These guys are running back to the boat!"

And so follows Mackintosh, splashing through the water and eventually jumping to safety inside the little boat.

From there, the not-so-bold hunters, noticing that the burro has stopped, open fire, dropping the rabid beast, making the beach safe for Mackintosh to continue his journey down the coast.

*

Mackintosh is believed to be the only person to have walked around Baja California. The two-year trip was completed 11 years ago, in four grueling stages during which he covered most of Baja's sun-baked and often forbidding coastline.

The first stage was from San Felipe to Bahia de Los Angeles, the second from Ensenada to Laguna San Ignacio, the third from Bahia de Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas, and the fourth from Laguna San Ignacio to Cabo San Lucas.

He estimates the distance he covered--he wore out seven pairs of boots--at about 3,000 miles. He walked across some of the most brutal terrain in some of the most intense heat on the planet.

His accomplishment earned him celebrity status among Baja aficionados and in adventure circles.

The book he wrote upon his return, "Into a Desert Place," (W.W. Norton & Company, $14) is treasured by many in that it looks at Baja through the eyes of someone who, in a way, has become part of Baja.

A former teacher in England, Mackintosh, 45, now lives in San Diego with his wife, Bonnie, writing articles on Baja, leading tours into Baja and entertaining schoolchildren and travel groups with slide presentations on his now-legendary walk around Baja.

As for the movie, Mackintosh says he has sold the rights to his story to a production company specializing in, well, off-beat flicks.

"The way this film company works," he says with a laugh, "they'll probably get a black lady to play the part of me."

*

At a recent slide-presentation, Mackintosh is explaining to about 70 viewers in the Discover Baja travel club office the events leading to his journey. His first visit, in 1979, was supposed to be a mere border crossing so he could check out Tijuana but it turned out to be an extended hitchhiking trip the length of the peninsula.

It was from atop a mountain overlooking scenic Bahia de Los Angeles--about 400 miles down the 1,000-mile peninsula on the Sea of Cortez--that he fell in love with Baja.

"And at the top of the mountain there, I heard a voice in my head saying, 'You are going to walk around Baja and you're going to write a book about it,' " he recalls in his British accent.

"And I'm looking up saying, 'Whoever is saying this knows nothing about me. I'm not going to walk anywhere; I don't like walking to the store.' So I thought I'd go back to England and forget about this thing."

But he couldn't forget.

"I kept hearing this voice: 'You are going to walk around Baja and write a book about it.' It was like I was really being called. I didn't believe in this type of thing but it was like: 'This is my destiny; I have to do it.'

"So I bought a backpack and take my first-ever hike across the Moors [range] in England. I'm walking across the Moors and I say, 'OK, Lord, if I'm really being called to do this, show me a sign. As I said that, all these sheep appeared in front of me saying, 'Baahaa, baahaa.' That convinced me that I should do this trip."

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