"You hear coyotes last noche?" Coco asks as he turns off his engine. "They circle you van!" The sparkle in his eye indicates mischief, or maybe he's just wincing at the blazing sun rising over the mountains. Hobbs and I give each other wide eyes, and Coco laughs through jagged teeth, his belly shaking. "So, where you go today?"
We've been at Coco's Corner less than 12 hours, and we're feeling like we've been dropped into a dusty junk yard version of the bar scene in Star Wars. Last night we arrived well after dark, reaching Coco's slapdash gate like a finish line after a long day of driving and a grueling 20-mile rock crawl. We were granted entrance by one of Coco's cohorts, and pulled up alongside a tiny travel trailer with a flashlight waving wildly through its book-sized window.
"What you want?" we heard from inside the trailer. We soon realized the ragged voice belonged to Coco, and we told him we were looking for a place to camp before rolling on the next morning. "You buy cerveza, you camp free," Coco replied. "No charge. Everyone camp free. Is what I do." Confused and relieved, we bought two cans of Pacifico from our gate cohort, who brought out the cans from a small shack that reeked of motor oil and cats. Despite exhaustion and a general lack of clarity on our location and safety, we slept soundly through the night.
The next morning, I wipe the dusty haze off my glasses and squint into the distance, although there's not much to see. We're surrounded by rugged brown hills and bright blue sky, the ground randomly sprouting with boojum trees and cardón cactuses. There's not much to hear, either. The soft rush of desert wind is only interrupted by Coco's regular hollering at a few men who are disassembling a trailer home. Are they his... employees? friends? hostages? We never quite figure that one out.
Coco sees we're awake and drives his dusty red ATV over to greet us. As he approaches, I see he's missing the lower third of both legs, handmade leather pads strapped to the end of each stump. He says they were specially made for him so he can continue to walk, albeit at a height of approximately four feet.
Well-versed in the art of small talk, Coco quizzes us on our travels thus far and our future destinations. We unfold our crinkled map to show him our tentative route, at which Coco scoffs at its inaccuracies. "These maps, always wrong," Coco mumbles. He takes a shaky hand to the map and shows us a more direct yet unmarked route.
As we chat more, we learn that Coco was one of the first motorcycle participants in the Baja 1000, later serving as a designated stop along the race. From there the storyline becomes fuzzy, Coco meandering in and out of English with "pero" peppering every few words, but we catch that he's been there 35 years, has no plans to leave, and is seeing a dwindling number of visitors each year.
We wrap up the conversation when a woman approaches us with a plate full of breakfast burritos filled with potato, cheese and sausage. "Para Usted," she says politely, her weathered and gentle face looking right into mine. I thank her deeply and put them, wrapped in a paper towel, in the van for a mid-morning snack.
"Before you go, you sign my libro," Coco states without the upward inflection of a question. This libro of Coco's is a fascinating and puffy roster of every vehicle and its passengers that have passed through his gates. He has nine libros total, the other eight filled to capacity with his notations and doodles, going back to the mid-1990s.
The three of us sit at Coco's roundtable, a giant cable spool turned on end, which sits under the canopy of previous visitors' souvenir t-shirts, underwear and bras. With explicit instructions to "write you full name and where you born - not where you live - where you born," I dutifully fill in the lines with LAURA GABRIELE HOBBS, FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS, USA and ERIC ANDREW HOBBS, FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS, USA. Coco takes the book back, making a shaky drawing of our van next to our names, apologizing for his "bad write" due to his enfermedad.
Coco's ailments seem vast and not unthreatening. He lost both legs to the ravages of diabetes, and he travels to Ensenada regularly for heart and circulatory issues. I ask if he's ever been married. "Muerta," he states simply. "I go on walk, she go to bed, she never wake up. Thirty-five year ago. No problema. I like to be alone."
We pack up the last of our supplies and winch our belongings into place - a daily routine we've developed to counteract Baja's incredibly jarring roads. Coco insists he lead us to the right road, since nothing is marked and all roads look the same: dusty white and lined with scrub and cactuses. He throttles his ATV out of his compound and onto the road, skating along the washboard and creating a massive cloud in his wake. After a mile or so, he stops and waves us ahead. "Fourteen kilometer," he says. "Then you be on good road."
We thank him for his hospitality and tell him we'll be back some day. With that, he waves goodbye and zips off, disappearing into the cloud of dust. Fourteen kilometers later, our road is indeed good, although we think it's been good all along.
Next time, the final conclusion of our Mexican - and American - adventures.