A tall, blond-haired young man sat on a log before a small fire this cool and still February night in the Santo Tomás Valley, some 30 miles south of Ensenada. He had joined my friend and me at our campsite in a small clearing, surrounded by the large, dark forms of a grove of old oak trees. Overhead, a blanket of stars shined clearly against a black, moonless sky. The trickling sounds of a nearby stream droned hypnotically in the background, broken only by the chirp of a bird or the sharp yelp of a coyote. His name was Byron Birch and this isolated and serene valley was his home.
Almost two years ago, when he was 18 years old, Birch had left his home and family in Orange County in search of a simpler life among the Mexican peasants and farmers who live and work along the Rio Santo Tomás, which is usually not much more than a small stream as it winds through the valley on its way to the Pacific. Today he is well known and well liked among the people who live in the area, and he lives as they do — laboring in the fields, hunting, farming, and subsisting primarily on frijoles and tortillas.
My friend and I, who had come to the valley for a weekend of camping, had left word earlier in the day with some of Birch’s Mexican friends that we were interested in speaking with him, and we indicated where we would be camped. That same night, without warning, he approached silently out of the dark as we were preparing our dinner on a Coleman stove — a lavish stew. His sudden greeting had startled us, but Birch quickly introduced himself and put us at ease with his gentle and friendly manner. He wore light-colored corduroy pants, a plain blue Mexican shirt, and moccasin-style shoes. With his curly hair, bronzed face, and sturdy physique, he appeared more to be the archetypal Southern California surfer than peasant farmer. And as a matter of fact, he was a surfer, living in Laguna Beach with his father and contemplating enrollment in college when he decided that “I wanted to live an artistic life. I was interested in happiness through artistic expression and I felt that an unstructured society was very supportive of this. In work, I was more concerned with sensual rather than material rewards. I thought it would be possible for me to go to Mexico, be an artist, find a home on the riverside [of Rio Santo Tomás], grow my own food, and live harmoniously with the people.”
As he recalled these thoughts, Birch leaned in toward our small campfire, which provided little warmth against a night chill that didn’t seem to affect him, despite his being coatless. He then placed a Mexican bread roll, a bolillo, directly on the fire’s red coals. Periodically during our conversation he would pick up the hot, partially singed roll, take a good bite out of it, and place it back on the fire. This he did without a trace of self-consciousness, as if this peasant custom, and others he’s acquired, had been a part of his upbringing. My friend and I offered him something more substantial from our dinner, but he politely refused.
As Byron Birch explained his journey from middle-class suburbia to rural Mexico, his story took on shadings of a pilgrimage, a transformation of the spirit as well as of landscape. He had been to the Santo Tomás Valley, he said, a year or so prior to his decision to make it his home. He’d gone along with several high school friends to surf the coast of northern Baja, and in the course of the trip, they had passed into the valley. They headed down a dirt road leading to the ocean, but because of the severe flooding that year, 1980, they couldn’t get through. “I was interested in the valley because of the river,” Birch told us. “I suppose I might have gone elsewhere, but this seemed like a practical choice. The houses around here [including some one-room, abandoned adobe structures] were spread far apart, and I wanted to live by myself on the side of a river. I had peaceful thoughts about this place.”
Anyone who has ever visited the valley, particularly the sylvan region toward the sea, will understand Birch’s attraction to the area. After passing the lower littoral of Todos Santos Bay and Punta Banda, just below Ensenada, Mexico’s Highway 1 winds through hilly countryside, past some small ranches, for about 15 miles. Then, at a sharp turn preceded by a road sign warning curva peligrosa, the expansive Santo Tomás Valley, perhaps 1000 feet below, dramatically comes into view. The vista from this precipitous bluff, looking south, allows a panorama of the great arroyo as it extends some three or four miles across to another steep mountain border. At the base of this lies the quiet village of Santo Tomás, little more than a store and some scattered adobes. To the east, the valley stretches for roughly ten miles before the hilly boundaries merge into the Sierra de Juarez mountain range.
The two-lane Highway 1 curves dangerously down to the valley floor, where, almost immediately, one sees the dirt road Birch and his surfer friends had followed, veering off to the west. This dusty, bumpy road runs about 20 miles to the Pacific and La Bocana, a little fishing camp and residential colony for a few Americans. La Bocana, incidentally, was the setting for Los Angeles Times writer Jack Smith’s popular book God and Mr. Gomez, which recounted Smith’s efforts to construct a vacation dream home in Baja, enlisting the help of the Almighty and of the delightful Mr. Gomez. (Birch is acquainted with Sr. Romulo Gomez, as well as with every other Mexican in the western part of the valley, and Birch reported to us that Gomez’s oceanfront general store at La Bocana was destroyed by the high tides and crashing surf of the recent winter storms.)