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Spurring, reining our inner yahoos

There's still something of the untamed frontier in Baja that urges on the cowboy spirit. Just keep it quiet, will you?


La Mision, Mexico — In THESE UNITED STATES, CERTAIN CONDITIONS USUALLY apply when you intend to sit on a horse that is not your own. You sign a release form, you answer a few questions about your experience and intentions, you agree to forswear wanton galloping. Usually, you accept an escort. If you're in Los Angeles, you probably pay $20 per horse per hour.

In Baja, it goes like this: My wife and I stroll along a stretch of sand between Rosarito Beach and Ensenada at about noon on a day of blue skies and salty breezes, approaching vendors of jewelry, candied apples and plastic sharks. A teenager on horseback sidles up to us like a scalper outside Dodger Stadium, but taller.

"You wanna ride on a horse?" he says.

"Yes," says my wife, with the conviction of one who was once a teenage girl with a vast Breyer collection and a twice-weekly riding habit. The boy offers $10 per horse per hour. I try to talk him down, but he's heard Mary Frances' voice. The game is up.

So the boy leads us over to a pair of brown beasts with white markings on their long noses, mumbles their names, guesses the length of our legs as he adjusts the stirrups, then holds their bridles while we hop up. Once we're on, he and his 10-year-old helper wave us off, and we amble north, our fates now bound up with those of Dorado and Alisan, our path a meandering line in the sand amid the gliding pelicans and loitering gulls.

For 16 years, we've been escaping to one rental house or another on this Baja beach, for the simple thrill of easy and under-regulated living that brings thousands of Americans south every week. We come for the glassy wave faces at dawn. (Well, 8 a.m.) The melting of the morning marine layer. The cactus-covered hill above the toll road. The soccer game at the south end of the beach, where the Mexicans tend to hang out, and maybe a football game to the north, where the Americans do. The kids building sand castles. The dogs unleashed.

We walk, run, bodysurf, fling balls and disks, and retreat to rest on damp towels or shaded decks arrayed with thrift-store furniture. Then there is the riding, which usually means a choice among skinny, bedraggled creatures with quirky personalities. I've seen a horse, overheated or just bent on mischief, wander chest-deep into the sea with a clueless novice rider aboard, the reins limp in his hands.

And I have been thrown. It was the strangest sensation, as I hurtled over the horse's head and through the salty air, to realize how deeply cliches seep into our lives. Get back on get back on get back on, my inner voice insisted in a stage whisper, even before I hit the sand. (And so I did.)

Until calamity arrives, it's the easy, heedless life.

This has always been the trade you make in Baja: less order for more raw landscape, less convenience for lower prices, less supervision for, well, less supervision. The unhappiest Americans down here (except, perhaps, for those who get caught holding guns or drugs) are the ones who somehow imagined that this frontier would be tidy and cheap, convenient and undeveloped. There is no almuerzo gratis.

Anyway, we keep coming. We've probably spent 60 days on this mile or so of sand and tumbled rocks, if you lump the weekends together. (One burglary, no meaningful car trouble and no sustained intestinal crises, since you ask.) By the time we were aiming north to recross the border on that Sunday afternoon, post-jog, post-surf and post-horses, the place had worked its rustic magic again, and my mood was as pacific as my muscles were sore. But lately, I do wonder if we're weekending on borrowed time.

There is the whine of two or three personal watercraft on the mile-long beach, which we neither saw nor heard in the old days. We also didn't see the ultralight aircraft -- "weed whackers with wings," as one of our gang put it -- that now cruise slowly up and down the coastline about 50 feet overhead. Mary Frances and I were still in saddles last Saturday, in fact, trotting along a silent, empty stretch of sand at an exhilarating 8 mph or so, when a whine arose and several squat figures appeared in the distance. It was a fleet of all-terrain vehicles, racing toward us in supposedly motor-free territory.

Fortunately, the horses were used to this nonsense and barely noticed. I paid closer attention. As the ATVs drew closer, we could make out their ringleader: a burly, bald, tattooed and sunbaked Volkswagen Beetle of a man, at least 300 pounds, skittering at us across the mud like a B-movie villain.

He could have been Mexican or American. Either way, he makes a perfect poster boy for the riddle that is Baja yahooism. Some strain of it lies in us all, or we wouldn't be down here. Allow it to advance unreined, and soon you won't be able to see dolphins or hear gulls for all the roaring engines and wafting exhaust and minefields of beach trash and such.

Try to erase yahooism altogether, on the other hand, and you end up with a beach like Bolsa Chica in Orange County, where you pay $5 to park, your dog is banned from the sand, your beer is contraband and state park rangers chase you away when the clock strikes 10 p.m.

As the ATV ringleader neared us and passed a group of resting personal watercrafters and their idle machines, he raised a thick fist in salute or defiance, I couldn't tell which.

You give some people a little freedom and they behave like children, leaving messes wherever they go. Our empty, silent beach was suddenly neither, and we were startled and disgusted, of course. Then we brought our horses back in, pausing now and again so they could drop vast amounts of manure and urine into the sand.

What's that? Looking for a tidier wrap-up? Go north, young man.

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