Backpacking a rural road in Baja yesterday, I looked up to see an 8-foot ostrich trotting my direction. I sat on my backpack in the track and the bird walked up, and peered into the shudder. I rose and it fled the opposite direction to a grateful pursuing owner with a lasso, who insisted, “Be careful, the big bird eats gringos, and thank you for saving them in the next town.” So, I looked west, and headed for these hills…

Baja Mexico’s most rugged area is the south cape where rears the Sierra de Laguna mountains I have viewed from afar for many years. Three days ago, I started afoot up them from the Pacific Ocean.

The road to my invented trailhead, such as it was, was taken by thumb. I walked an hour before the first battered pickup approached and stopped. I was surprised to land in a rolling grocery store with food crates and the grocer making a weekly round to the mountain ranchos. In short supply myself, I bought five bucks worth of stores until the 35 lb. pack brimmed and I ultimately alighted at last call in Rancho La Aguaje. Ahead, across a stream, rose a mule track into the Sierras.

The track wound steeply for hours through a succession of canyons and cross-streams. Initially, every hour at these crossings, sat little rancho of thatched roofs and dirt floors with small numbers of cows, sheep, and goats hung with clanging bells to locate them, plus the chatter of chickens, dogs and children who emerged to see the walking gringo. They threw me oranges from trees and provided water.

There are a couple ways to take the Sierras. You can attack them with a foreknowledge of what’s ahead and gut the rises at speed to reach temporary crests and rest on the descents. Or, you can acquiesce to these powerful mountains and trudge with head bowed like a burro, which is better if you don’t know how far the zenith is. This was my case. The route wound steeply up and around many peaks with cascading waters in a strange blend of desert, subtropical and then alpine flora. It was sunny, blue sky and 80 degrees with a trail of sweat on my heels.

The top of the world in southern Baja is a dry sub-tropical meadow where the switch from up to down, curiously today, was marked by a 5” thick line across the road. It was made only hours before by the biggest diamondback rattlesnake that I had missed. I sat on my pack to study it, and abruptly a man in rags with a long handle axe rushed at me with purpose. There was no escape from this quick, barefoot man and understanding he was a simple rancher protecting his property, I burst in Spanish, ‘I walk the mountains alone.’ He leaned the axe against his side and extended an empty right hand that I shook with relief. After an explanation of my purpose he declared, “You must meet Pedro, the father of these Sierras, who was born here, his father too, and his grandfather.” The farmer threw the axe under an organ-pipe cactus and we started afoot down for a kilometer to Rancho Cieneguita that was the only one on my map atop the mountain.

“Pedro!” shouted my escort at a dirt entry. Two kids came running out a stick house but retreated to a wrecked car to peek wide-eyed through the window at the gringo with a purple windbreaker and orange backpack. Now the dogs and chickens parted for Pedro, a jet-black Indian with shaggy hair and wiry body, who strode up and shook my hand with an index finger arthritically crooked into a trigger.

Soon we hunkered with cups of steaming coffee in the front yard that served as our earth blackboard. With a stick I scratched the earlier snake track and Pedro whistled it was 6-to-7 feet long. Each adult then drew various signs but mine of a sidewinder’s truncated crawl took the prize of open mouths that a snake could move sideways to its eyes and ‘fly off’ the ground.

Pedro was born on this rancho 88 years ago, his son at his side was born here, his two sons at his side the same, and their two sons. The latter two kids eventually left the car to come sit by me with busy hands working as erasers after each person drew in the dirt. No one could read or write but each knew the Sierras well and the family offered to guide me to a cave of petroglyphs by the first Indians centuries ago. The described cavern was 10-feet tall and the drawings about 3-feet high. This was a rare opportunity that tourists pay 50 bucks for that thousands of other tourists have seen, but likely none had viewed these petroglyphs near the Cieneguita Ranch. However, the path to the cave was 3 kilometers in the direction I had come, and I couldn’t physically make the trek. Pedro understood having once made the transpenninsular hike, and said that I was the first American to follow him.

As we scratched in the dirt, the kids, eight and ten-years-old, crept closer until each rested a toe on my boots. Soon they inched a brown foot on each boot and I asked them, ‘You don’t have any fear?’ They replied, “No,” and that was my cue to rise and leave. I stated a need to press on at sunset and hefted the pack thinking that one day on this spot these great-grandsons of Pedro would tell their sons about the day they stood on the feet of the American walking through the Sierras.

I started down the mountains on a better track now and in five minutes came across a Senora and her little girl pushing to jump start a red pickup with a young husband pounding the steering wheel. Golden now, I took a place aside the girls saying I knew Pedro and we pushed till the engine coughed to life. I continued hiking steeply down, mindful of rattlers and in the dark almost brushed the horns of a black cow. I was relieved minutes later when a dozen other cows with bells round their necks were trapped ahead on the track between the mountain and drop-off and trotted ahead a kilometer, halted until I caught up, and ran ahead again and again to scare off rattlers until the night cooled and the danger vanished.

A puma track had been scratched in the dirt earlier and Pedro had sighed not to worry since there were ample calves and lambs for dinner. Nevertheless, I descended the mountain a distance before cracking a tin of tuna, not to walk in lion country with fish on my breath. As backup, I stuck a disposable camera with flash in my breast pocket to scare any big cat as effectively as a small-caliber bullet.

Midnight and miles down the mountain under starlight, I pulled off the trail and camped with a rock pillow under a waving Socorro cactus. At daybreak, four grunting feral pigs scolded me awake and I packed and followed their tracks down valley soon to be passed by last night’s grinning family in the red pickup with two fat cows in the bed for market. Hours later, I reached a sign in the road announcing Los Naranjos (The Orange Trees) Buddhist Retreat. I ambled up their side track to a wire gate with a Spanish Beware the Dog sign and wheeled to persist down the great canyon to the Sea of Cortez.

The valley widened a few hours later and the road flattened toward the trans-peninsular highway that runs the length of Baja. The terminus, 38 miles from the Pacific origin here among a handful of butterflies, was nondescript, and I threw out a thumb for a ride to a nearby hot spring shown on my map. I rested, drank from the spring, washed my clothes, and fell into a surprise delirium for a half-day from something foreign in the water. I awoke refreshed and shouldered the pack with relish for the next hike.