I am a hopeless romantic and I always put my dreams first: the romance of the open road; the girl you marry for life; the dream of a life lived on my terms; following my destination and inner need for happiness, that is me, sort of.
In the American mythology of the West, freedom can be found across the border in Mexico. Crossing the river as a last resort, as an escape from the constraints of the conformity of life, or the law for that matter, is what you do as an American outlaw, outcast or a beer swilling kid on spring break.
In the early nineties I found myself drinking Tequila in the little western town of Boquillas, a stone’s throw away from the Mexican Border in Texas. My buddy, the German writer Stefan Nink, was balancing on his chair, his boots perched high on a piece of sandstone slab, his hat set deep, almost touching his nose. Dusk was settling in here in this little, dusty, one-horse town, the sad notes of far-away Norteño music washing over us while the Tequila was taking hold.
Stefan and I were on assignment and were researching a story on the Mexican America Border for the German magazine Globo. The working title for the story was “From Mexas to Texico“. We were following the Rio Grande river or, as it is known in Mexico El Rio Bravo del Norte, from border town to border town and so, we got our first taste of Mexico. Both of us felt like modern day desperadoes and we were pretty full of ourselves. Like crossing into Mexico and back was some kind of achievement and we deserved a prize for it. We were young, and cocky and we enjoyed the novelty of our assignment as much as the fish tacos with hot sauce that we devoured with gusto.
As so often happens in life, one thing lead to another, and a year later we got sent back to travel into Mexico proper. This time, our assignment focused on Baja California, the 1200 km long desert peninsula stretching south from San Diego all the way to Cabo San Lucas.
Our Tequila consumption was somewhat kept in check by my young wife who joined us on our drive south. In those days, we owned a Dodge Minivan which we kept in a garage in Chicago. I drove the van south across the border through the slums of Tijuana into a stark desert land of towering cactus, empty beaches and wild mountains full of gorges adorned with Indian rock paintings.
Our first trip into Mexico, like most first journeys, is the most memorable of all our Mexico trips to me. One time, shaded by elephant trees, cardon cactus and the bizarre bojum Trees we pitched our tents while a cold fog from the coast wavered in. We build a fire and listened to the old cowboy songs that Stefan played on his little battery powered disk player. At night coyotes howled while hunting rabbits and other unlucky critters as we slept buried in our sleeping bags.
We drove across a rutted track to the Laguna San Ignacio where we had arranged for a boat tour to see the calving whales. The US Tour company Baja Expeditions operated a remote wilderness camp there. We waited at a primitive air strip to meet the guide. Tourists usually flew in from San Diego and a plane was just arriving as we turned up in a cloud of desert dust. I will never forget the stunned faces of the people exiting the plane in the middle of nowhere when they saw our dust-streaked minivan with Illinois plates.
One guy walked up to us and said: “How in the lord’s name have you gotten here with this car? And why are there footprints on it?”
In those days I had the tendency to climb up on my cars to get better vantage points for photos. I guess I did not clean my shoes before doing that. These pristine American tourists, fresh from their luxury hotel room, could not fathom the thought of driving into a remote part of Mexico on their own.
Years later, my wife and I would travel all across Mexico by car. We published many books on Mexico, produced magazine stories and calendars. Eventually in 2004, after George W. Bush won a second term as US President, we bought land in a quiet fishing village south of La Paz on the Baja Peninsula, not far from the places we had explored with Stefan in 1991. We built a house there as an escape from “Gringolandia” and have been using the place as our winter home ever since when we are not traveling.
After so many years of photographing Mexico, having met so many wonderful people and made friends there, we still enjoy photographing in Baja California. Much has changed: the roads are better; the towns and cities have grown; and there are more amenities and better shops. Gone are the days of donkey carts and desperadoes crossing the border. Baja California is a modern region but there are still many remote pockets of Old Mexico hidden in its mountainous hinterland where hopeless romantics like me search for the old soul of Mexico.
About the photographer: Christian Heeb is a Swiss/American photographer based in Bend, Oregon. A lover of big open spaces, Christian is best known for his images of Native American people and the landscapes in which they live. He has published over 200 coffee table books of his photography, countless calendars and numerous magazine articles. When not photographing on commission he leads photography tours and workshops worldwide. www.ccophoto.com