Tag Archives: Baja California

Spurred On By Necessity.

Where:  San Borja, Baja California, Mexico

When:  February 01 2014

Who: Trudi Angell, Leslie Pringle, Nacho Chiapas, Mathilde and Andrea Murillo, Tomas Murillo

Strathmore Alberta Canada is in the heart of Canadian cowboy country. Ranches and farms abound and many of my neighbours make their living from livestock.  Some even still do things the old-fashioned way by saddling up and riding out to check their cows.  Not everyone can be a cowboy though, so some have regular jobs and get to ride horses in the evenings and weekends. My friend Kevin Kemps is one of those. As a horseman with more than 30 years of experience in the saddle, he is keen on all things equine and as a kind soul he likes to help folks out. He rides for fun and informally teaches those who are interested in finding out if riding is for them.  On top of regular horse-riding activities, he and his horse participate in the Sam Steele Re-enactment Troop, riding in buckskin clothing and bringing parts of Canada’s western history alive.  When he heard that I was going to ride a mule for a thousand miles along the length of the Baja peninsula in Mexico he was very excited.

He would have loved to come along on part of the ride, but it just wasn’t possible for him.  So he did the next best thing.  He sent his spurs along for an adventure.  Now these aren’t regular spurs at all.  These are Liberty Spurs.  The rowels (the pokey things for the non-cowboy folk out there) are made from US Liberty quarters (25-cent pieces).  They already had a history, having belonged to an older rider who had passed away some years before.  When he died, he left them to Kevin so that the spurs could continue to have adventures.  Kevin lent them to me to make sure his promise to his friend was kept.

I was touched that he would do such a thing, so I wore them with pride.  It is safe to say however, that I did not wear them with much grace the first few days.  I put them on upside down a time or two, some days I did them up so loosely that they flopped around or so tightly that my feet would tingle.  Finally, I began to consistently get them on right the first time. It did take a little bit longer to learn to walk with them on though and not trip.  If you were going to be doing a lot of walking, then yes, you would take a minute or two to take them off and strap them securely to something on you or your mule so that you could access them easily when it was time to put them back on.  Sometimes though you would just be hopping off to help your mount through something extraordinarily steep or tight.  Othertimes it may be because you had to “water the desert”.  Trust me, if you ever want to build up your quad muscles, then squatting to pee several times a day over the course of a few months will do it.  Of course, if you are a “low-squatter”, you will learn rather quickly that you need a higher position when you are wearing spurs.  Nothing quite like a pointed reminder that cowgirls can’t squat too low when they are wearing spurs.  Well, they can.  But they shouldn’t.  You only need to do that once or twice to remember to adjust your position.

The other thing you need to learn how to manage when you are wearing spurs is simple walking.  It really shouldn’t be that hard to learn how to walk with them on.  After all, your feet are more side-by-side than exactly behind or in front.  How often do you actually put one foot right behind the other?  Apparently, more often than you think.  I managed to step on the spurs a number of times before I realized there is more than one reason cowboys walk bowlegged.

After the first three or four days, I pretty much had the walking with spurs on down to an art.  So imagine my surprise when on November 11, after a week of riding I stepped on the left spur while walking from where I tied my mule in the shade a few feet to where we were stopping for a very brief break.   I just about went arse-over-teakettle.  I managed to catch myself mid-fall, hoping no one else had noticed.  Of course they noticed.  So, after we all laughed, we had a little snack, then mounted back up to carry on down the trail.

We were headed north, having left the lovely town of Todos Santos.  We were back to camping after a two night pit stop to get more supplies and to organize ourselves for the next leg.  The days, and the nights, were still hot and humid, so moving slowly and deliberately was the order of the day.  Some days we were able to take a siesta, and enjoy a couple of hours in a shady place along the side of the trail.

In anticipation of a longer rest, when I dismounted for that day’s siesta, I stooped to remove my spurs.  Imagine my dismay when I realized that one of the rowels was missing.  Instead of having a silver quarter jingling in the shanks, I had….nothing. Just the two bars that it normally would have sat between.

Uh-oh. I broke my friend's special spurs.

Uh-oh. I broke my friend’s special spurs.

Nothing there.  These weren’t my spurs. They were Kevin’s special spurs.  I ruined them.  And it was only one week into a four and a half month trip.  What was I going to do?  After standing there for a few minutes imagining all the different things that would be said to me, imagining losing a friend, having someone mad at me, I took a deep breath.  I did, after all, have a few months to figure out how to fix this.  I did check around where I had dismounted, just in case the rowel had fallen off right there, but no such luck.

I sat down, ate some lunch, drank some water, then laid back in the dappled shade and drifted off into a heat-induced nap.

After that, every day that we rode, I looked at these spurs.  How was I going to fix this?  I didn’t have an answer, I didn’t know where I could find a Liberty quarter replacement rowel.  I didn’t know how Kevin was going to react.

Time and miles passed.  It was now February and we were almost 500 miles further north.

On some parts of our ride, we would hire guides who knew, or at least knew how to find out, where the old trails were.  In this case, we were riding along the same trails as the Meling Expedition of 1963/64 and we had the grandsons of the guide who led the team members of  50 years ago as our trailfinders.  Mathilde Murillo, and his brother Tomas, had brought us around the mountain Cerro La Sandia. It was definitely the roughest country we had ridden to date.  We were now at San Borja, an old mission from the days of when the missionary padres walked the trail 250 years before.

Although we chose to keep our desert mules unshod, Don Nacho preferred his mules to have shoes so that meant every once in a while they would have to be reshod.  He had brought along some muleshoes, smaller versions of horseshoes, but he needed someone who could shape and apply them.

Our guides were from a large ranching family, so they knew how to shoe the mules.  This was their last day with us, so before heading off back towards their home ranches, they tied the mules to a tree, slipped a leather band over each one’s eyes and worked together, as they had so many other times before, to file down the mule’s hoof, and attach a new shoe.

As they did this, I slipped my hand into my pockets and began to play with a lone two-peso coin.  I wasn’t sure why it was there, on the trail you learn quickly that carrying things in your front pockets is uncomfortable. It wasn’t like there was a store here that I could have spent money at, and even if there was, two pesos (about 15 cents Canadian) wasn’t going to buy me much.  There was no reason for me to even be carrying around this coin.

As I jiggled the coin, I thought of the quarter that was the rowel in my borrowed spurs.  I pulled out my Mexican coin, looked at it.  Then I looked at my spurs.  Then at the peso coin. Then at the spurs. Then again at the coin.  Slowly I lifted the spur to eye level, then I brought the peso coin up and held it next to the still intact spur. My eyes moved from the 25c piece to the peso and back.  Yes, they were just about the same size.  I cocked my head, then smiled and nodded to myself. This could work.

Mathilde Murillo making a hole in the peso coin the old fashioned way, with a nail and hammer.

A challenge, an idea, a solution.

Kevin said he wanted his spurs to have an adventure.  Well, when you travel, don’t you bring home a souvenir?  Maybe his spurs could bring a souvenir back to him.  Not something you see and say thanks for then put it in a drawer with all the other things you don’t know what to do with, but can’t throw away.  A functional souvenir, that hopefully, will make you smile each time you see it.

Earlier in the day I had been admiring the Murillo brother’s ability to be creative in how they got things done. I decided to run my idea by Mathilde. He nodded. Si, possiblemente.  Yes, possibly.

The Castro Gaxiola family looks after the mission now and as all ranchers and farmers do, have a stockpile of things that might come in handy someday. We headed over to the stockpile of surplus bits and bobs.  We found an old nail, made sure it was the correct diameter to fit just right through the hole in the shank of the spurs, then he used a hammer to straighten it.  Mathilde then used the nail to punch a hole through the peso coin.  He threaded the nail through the first shank hole, the peso coin, then the second hole.  There were still a couple of inches of nail left, so he used his pincers to worry it back and forth until it broke.  But as it was smaller than the hole, the entire repair was in danger of falling apart.  He then held the spur, head side of the nail down against one of the unused shoes and carefully hammered the head until the tail end of the nail had flattened and widened so that it was wide enough to hold the entire repair in place.

Kevin’s spurs were now fixed, and had their own story to tell.  This jury-rigged job held up for the next 500 miles of riding through the Mexican desert and is still in place today.

A two peso coin fit perfectly. Problem solved!

Where there’s a peso, there’s a way!

What I thought about:  We came up with this creative solution because we were in a remote area.  There were no stores to buy a replacement piece.  Would I simply have bought a replacement piece or even a replacement set of spurs if I had of had that chance?  How many times in first world affluent cultures do we just go buy something new because we have lost the ability and the interest in creatively fixing something?  Are we losing our ability to problem solve? 

Plein air bathing!

A Warm Welcome.

Destination. A ranch we call Timi’s Huerta, outside of San Isidro, near La Purisima, Baja California Sur Mexico.

Date. December 10, 2013

Who’s there? La Mula Mil: (Trudi Angell, Teddi Montes and myself)

Humans are truly adaptable. I live in a condo in Canmore, Alberta Canada. My home has a shower with a powerful flow of endless hot water. The second bathroom has a deep soaker tub with more than enough shelf room for any amount of bubble bath, specialty soap, scented soaking salts, candles, incense and a glass (or two) of wine. In the downstairs of the building, next to the fitness room, is a steam room. And just a few steps outside you have your choice of not one, not two, but three, yes three, hot tubs with jets and coloured lights. Nothing says luxury quite like an array of bathing choices.
That definition changes of course, when you have been riding a mule all week, cooking over a fire, and sleeping under the stars. Each night you need to find a place to camp, somewhere with feed and water for the animals, and hopefully some flat space, not too spiny, to throw down your sleeping bag. These places aren’t marked on a map. You can surmise where might be a good choice, but really, much of the information you gather is simply from talking to local people. Often the folks in one area will recommend the next place to camp.
So this night, we ride into a yard on the outskirts of a town of about 200 people and ask for directions to our recommended camp space at “the delegado’s” (mayor’s) ranch. Luckily, it turns out that the ranch we are looking for backs onto the very property we are on right now. Today’s ride is almost over, so we smile and wave and say adiós then head off to tonight’s campemento. (campsite)
The delagado’s ranch has a place for the tents and for us to cook, but most importantly, pasture and a corral for the mules. There is no running water but they do have a well we can draw from. Life is good for all concerned.
Our guest riders of the last six days or so headed out to various points in Baja California this morning. Now it is quiet here, especially if you have learnt to tune out the 4:30 a.m. cock-a-doodle-do alarm. It will be a couple of rest days for us “long-riders”, the ones heading north for another three months or so to Tecate. But it will not be all rest, we need to do some prep for the next leg of the trip. Trudi, Teddi and I will work on our various areas of responsibility. Trudi will reorganize our kitchen and prepare an order of supplies for Olivia, (our absent La Mula Mil member) to bring up from Loreto when she rejoins us after having been away for the last week. Teddi will look after the mules, making sure they are tied out in new places in the pasture during the day, then moved into the corral and fed some hay overnight. I will catch up on the group’s trip notes, sort photographs and do any sewing or patching the group gear may need. In between, we will take a bit of a breather, maybe hitch a ride into town to pick up whatever we can to make our evening meal or if our luck runs strong, we’ll time it right and get to go to the small and only-sometimes-and-rather-randomly-open “restaurante” for supper. Tortillas and frijoles (beans) are always better when someone else makes them.
While we are enjoying taking our time getting moving, the woman from the neighbouring ranch, the one we got directions from last night, comes to join us next to the tree under which we have our kitchen. In conversation with us, she mentions that her place is a little more modern than this ranch. Hers, she states with genuine modesty, has electricity and running water. We are able to plug in our electronics to recharge and even better, she kindly offers us unknown visitors a shower. She says that whenever we are ready, just let her know and she’ll flip the breaker to run the hot water heater, then 20 minutes later, we can have bathe. In an honest-to-goodness stand up shower in a house! With running hot water! Baja California Sur is in a cold snap right now, in fact, it is long john cold, so a hot shower will be especially welcome. Of course we say yes!

Such luxury!

Look! A real shower. Not a bucket of water behind a blanket!


Somehow, I get to be the first in line! I take my little micro-fiber towel and my biodegradable, all-purpose camp suds. I follow the path between the houses, sidestep the chicken coop, cross my fingers that the barking dog really is all bark and no bite, call out “hola, buenas dias!” to the gentlemen sipping coffee under the palapa and stand there awkwardly until the lady of the house leads me inside. She points proudly to her indoor plumbing. I smile, she leaves, then I strip down quickly. The house is unheated and to add to the chill, the bathroom window is open in lieu of a fan, cool air ready to whisk away the steam of my much-anticipated shower.
I step in, crank the hot water tap all the way open and step in under a drizzle of warm water. I have to dance a little jig to get all of me wet. I shampoo my long hair, wash all of my “bits” then quickly scrub the rest of me. I rinse myself off at about the four-minute mark, just as the water moves from tepid to cool. As I sluice the water from my skin, I smile to myself thinking of the kindness of this woman, freely offering her home and her precious resources to travelers she doesn’t even know. I am touched. I am warm. And I am clean. Best. Shower. EVER.

Building A Team of Leaders. November 16, 2013

On November 3, 2013, three women will begin their ride of 1000 miles along the entire length of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. What makes their trip so much different from so many other Baja riders is that they will be doing it by mule. In this five part series of articles we will not only share their challenges and their triumphs, but see how these lessons can be applied to the running of a business.

The goals of La Mula Mil (The Mule 1000) are:

to successfully recreate the Meling Expedition of 1963/64 as a 50th anniversary tribute

to produce a coffee-table book of photography and stories that overlay the two expeditions

to celebrate the people and the pueblos of Baja California and thereby promote tourism in Baja California Mexico

to raise awareness of and funds for our three favourite non-profit associations. Coins for Classrooms, Living Roots Baja and Mujeres del Golfo .

The first goal involves riding mules the entire length of the Baja peninsula. This will take around four months and cover about 1000 miles. Most of the time we will be camping out and cooking over a fire. We will stay and eat with ranch families from time to time, helping with goal number three.

Along the way, I will be doing photography and writing up each day’s travels, preparing to update social media and to write a book and possibly produce a film. 

Stated in such a way, these sound like fairly simple tasks, but they are obviously four very big goals. In order to accomplish just one of these, we would need a leader who had people willing to follow her and trust her. When you have four stand-alone goals, then you need a team of leaders. 

Trudi Angell is the jefa (pronounced hefa). She is the overall logistics person, her job is to understand where we are going and how we are going to get there, oversee the supplies and the kitchen as well as to make sure we have the right number of riding mules, pack animals, saddles and assorted gear required for a half-dozen people to get the 10-15 miles down the trail that we aim for each day. She is also co-coordinating the bulk of our “paying guests”, riders who are joining us for a few days or even a week or two along the way to experience not just the ride, but to provide some income as well. She has an office assistant working back in Loreto in her tour business that assists with this.

On top of that, she also hires the vaqueros (cowboys) and guias (guides) and arranges for any guias (permits) required for the areas we pass through.

If we have to retire an animal from the ride, which we have already had to do, she then starts contacting those in her extensive cadre of contacts that can trailer animals and haul them back to where they need to be.

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Olivia Angell’s job is to run the kitchen, provide the evening meal, monitor supplies and to make sure our paying guests are well-taken care of. This job is being done in the desert, away from stores, roads, running water and refrigeration. She needs to assess the food, and more importantly, the condition of the food, each day, making the menu plan based not on convenience or mood or preferences, but on what will go bad if we don’t use it right away. She is able to supplement our supplies by what is available at various ranches or small tiendas (stores) along the way or by using gifts of food, often queso fresco (freshly made soft cheese) that are personally delivered by ranchers that wish us well. At times we are able to join in a meal at a ranch house. Sometimes we pay for the meal, sometimes it is given. When we need something added to the larder we have to try to send a message ahead via the rancher’s radio system or with a cowboy passing by so that it can be brought in to a point further down the trail for us to pick up. One of the trickiest parts of Olivia’s job is keeping everyone’s food needs met. We at times have vegetarians, folks with allergies or gluten intolerances along. Olivia also monitors our Facebook page for queries and comments in Spanish. On top of that she has started a bilingual blog about our trip.

My job is to document the trip, taking notes along the way, as well as photographs and videos. I help track our position on the map and the Spot beacon while cataloging the visuals (photographs and videos). I maintain the log of those who are on the ride at different times, whether or not they have given permission to be photographed and have their stories used. I quietly interview people and co-ordinate our information so that we have some cohesive documents to work from when it comes time to write our book and put together a video. Our social media streams are my responsibility as well. We have a La Mula Mil Facebook page and have been using the wrrldgrrl YouTube channel and blogging platform. I also continue to monitor the Coins For Classrooms Facebook page. At this point the Facebook page is by far the most active of our streams. I have also been working with writers and other social media sites to keep information on our trip at the forefront. My responsibilities also include the Indiegogo page for fundraising and this monthly article. (Our Indiegogo campaign is now closed.) 

As you can see, each of these areas requires a confident and capable leader who is willing and able to take on a great deal of responsibility, to stand firm on their area of influence but be willing to listen to the input of the other leaders, to know when to offer help to the team co-leaders and one of the hardest parts, know when to accept input and assistance, as well as when to ask for help or space. 

On top of these things, this is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week, four month expedition in the wilderness. So we need to deal with each other not just as co-leaders, but as humans, complete with all our strengths, weaknesses and foibles. 

So how do we do this? Actually DO it, not just talk about it or quote management theories?

Good question. 

We know that we need to be able to communicate with each other and to be able to pick up the pieces of someone else’s job if they need to step away for a short or long time. So we have set-up a joint email account that we can all access. We also each have administrator privileges on most of our social media. We include each other in conversations relevant to leading the group or ask to be included if need be. 

Each Monday evening we have a 30 minute “touch base” meeting with clear rules on how we behave. We each have a few minutes to state how we feel everything is going, good or bad. We use I statements. We actively listen while the others are speaking, not use the time to formulate a response. Interrupting another person is not allowed. After we go round our circle, we will pick the topic that seems to be most pressing and offer solutions, and agree on how to proceed. We work our way through the topics until the 30 minutes are up. In our last meeting we determined that during the course of the day much information had to be repeated, especially to our guests but sometimes to each other as well. It was confusing, frustrating and inefficient. We decided that when we needed the group to know something we would call everyone together so it needed to be said just once. Well, twice actually. Once in English and again in Spanish. This way everyone, including our Spanish speaking staff, know what is happening. We also decided that being interrupted while giving information was making it difficult to make sure everyone had their needs met. We now put our hand up briefly when someone interrupts to signal that we are otherwise engaged but will talk to them or answer their question in a moment. It seems to be working when we remember to signal our acknowledgement but we do need to remember to do that! 

As to the “touch base” meeting, so far, so good, we have had one, it is my job to make sure we continue to have them and to facilitate them. 

The key component in this expedition is trust. We trust each other to do their tasks, we trust ourselves to ask for help or for what is needed and we trust that we have each other’s back. Our goal is to still be friends at the end of this.

And one of my personal goals is to go home comfortable with being a strong leader again, ready to run my business in a more pro-active way.

If you use any of these skills in your business now, or start using them because of this article, please do comment. Together we can be better leaders and build better teams. 

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Feed the Birds, Feed the Soul.

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Today I made a hummingbird feeder.

I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of days now, so yesterday I shelled out a few pesos to google “homemade hummingbird feeders”. I got lots of websites, but they all required purchasing some special components then essentially assembling the feeder. When you live in a place that has ready access to such supplies, and when you have a bit of extra cash, it doesn’t even occur to you there are other options. But I am still recovering from the flu, so instead of continuing to ride north on the 1000 mile mule ride I am on, (La Mula Mil) I am staying at Trudi’s, my friend’s house in small town San Ignacio in Baja California Sur on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico and I am watching my pesos and my energy. And even if I wasn’t, there wouldn’t be anywhere for me to buy a “hummingbird feed tube attachment as illustrated.”. 

So, I kept looking. I knew there had to be away to make one from stuff I could find laying around. Once upon a time I could have figured the whole thing out myself, but in the busyness of life, I seemed to have shut off the creative side of my brain sometime in the last few years.

Sure enough I finally found a website. It had a hand-sketched plan for making a hummingbird feeder from found items. It did call for the use of a power drill, which I definitely didn’t have access to, but that’s ok, it was only for going through plastic, I knew I could hack that myself.

So, I rooted through a pile of bottles in the yard until I found a couple that had an indented ring near the bottom, (which will be the top really) so that it would be easier to securely hang it with string. I then found some string in a basket near the plates in the kitchen. (Isn’t that where everyone keeps their string?) I had previously stumbled across Trudi’s stash of plastic ware in the unused oven that serves as a support for the two burner propane stovetop (remember, this is small town Mexico-everything gets re-purposed here!) so I had a small clear plastic container with a tight fitting lid.

I was a bit stuck on the red required to attract hummingbirds. I didn’t have any food colouring, which shouldn’t ever be put in the nectar anyways, it’s bad for the birds. I didn’t have a red felt marker to draw designs, which is just as well as I do girly-girl drawings like flowers and hearts about as well as Charlie Brown flies a kite and is likely the real reason I didn’t become a teacher. Well, that and I didn’t go to university.

Then I remembered that I had a red plastic bag from goodness knows what purchase in what airport, but I figured I could cut it into strips with the little tiny thread scissors I have in my sewing kit.

Now all that was left to do was to come up with a drill substitute. No worries, I was working with plastic, so instead of using a keyhole spade to cut a hole in the container lid wide enough to accept the mouth of the drink bottle, I drew a circle the exact size of said mouth and used my knife to cut an X inside of it so I could work the mouth through then trim off the excess plastic. As you can see from the picture, I didn’t get it in the exact centre, so those of you who know me are already laughing at how barmy it is driving me that it is not perfectly balanced.

Now that I had the hardest part done I moved into the kitchen and heated up the awl on my pocket knife. Well, it’s not really an awl, but it is a Phillips screwdriver head, so close enough for this project. I stuck it in the flame of the propane stove then pushed it through from the top of the lid to the bottom. I wiggled it as it went to make the hole a little bigger. The awl gets really hot, you should avoid touching it with your thumb knuckle. As per usual, I learnt that the hard way, but luckily I was right next to the sink so I could stick my thumb under the cold water.

I made four holes in the container lid for the hummingbirds to sip through, that’s why I wanted the pointy bits pointing into the container so they couldn’t get caught up in them. Then I flipped the whole contraption upside down, so that I could make a hole in the drink lid for the nectar to get through to the clear container. You have to heat the awl even hotter to get through the heavy plastic of the drink lid. Make sure you are still near the sink so that when you accidentally put your finger on the awl you can quickly put it under the cold water to cool it down. Just saying… then again, you are likely not as clumsy as me and either didn’t repeat the earlier mistake or burn yourself the first time even.

Once all the melting of plastic (and burning of flesh) was done, I poured in half the nectar I made yesterday, screwed the drink lid on tight and poured the other half of the nectar in the clear container. Next was the trickiest part, flipping the bottle over so that the nectar would drip into the clear container and pressing the lid of the container on firmly so that when it is hung up it all stays together. I almost did it the other way, yep, almost picked up the container of nectar and turned it over to push it onto the feeder. Luckily I caught myself in time and avoided a “d’oh” moment and a big sugary, ant-attracting mess. I had considered putting all the nectar into the bottle then squeezing it into the container part when it was all assembled but thought that I had a pretty good chance of squeezing too hard and somehow blowing the lid off and making (say it with me!) a big, sugary, ant-attracting mess.

So, then all that was needed was to tie the hanging string around the bottle, add some red ribbons and voila! Hummingbird feeder!

I found a nail already in a beam in the palapa outside the kitchen and managed to hang it up without falling off the chair. Around the area I also added some “flowers” I made from the red bag to further increase my chances of attracting some beautiful flying jewels. 

Then I sat back and enjoyed the rest of my coffee. As I sat there, I ruminated on how much I have always enjoyed making crafty kinda things, and how little of it I have done in the last decade or so. Somehow the fun stuff in life slipped away, replaced by work stuff. Today I rediscovered that joy. Is my feeder “pretty”? No, not really, but I made it myself, it cost me an hour of time and a half cup of sugar. And it will give me hours and hours of pleasure while helping out my feathered friends.