Driving westward down this dirt road, one first passes a cooperative farm known as the Ejido Ajusco, where a wide assortment of crops are grown, including lemons, chilies, olives, jojoba shrubs (the oil of which is used as a lubricant in machine parts and computers), wheat, beans, melons, corn, alfalfa, and barley. Cows, pigs, and other livestock are also raised here, but several hundred head of cattle were sold recently to permit greater use of the land for farming, according to Birch.
Beyond the fields and pastures of the Ejido Ajusco, which are lush green at this time of year, lie clusters of oak and sycamore, stitched together by meandering streams. The dirt road then leads to the ruins — two crumbling walls that now are surrounded by pasture land of the Misión de Santo Tomás de Aquino, built in the 1790s by Dominican Father Juan José Loriente. Farther along, a stream weaves back and forth across the road, occasionally making travel difficult for normal passenger vehicles, though the traverse today is luxuriously easy compared to the winters between 1978 and 1980, when torrential rains transformed the Santo Tomás creekbed into a raging, destructive river several hundred feet wide. As the road continues westward down the valley, the mountainous walls on either side begin to close in so that the valley floor is less than a mile wide, and the trees began to thicken. It is among these shady groves and by the cool stream that Byron Birch decided to live.
In September of 1981, without a word to his family (his father is a commodities broker in Newport Beach, his mother an executive with a construction company in Monterey, and his sister a political science student at Berkeley), Birch set out from home with exactly nine dollars in his pocket. He told us, “I came down as naturally as I could — on foot.” He walked, barefoot, all the way from Laguna Beach to Santo Tomás, mostly along the beach, covering a distance of roughly 200 miles. As for provisions on the trip, he took with him very little, and furthermore, he stopped at a Calimax market in Tijuana and spent all of his money on seeds he planned to plant in the valley.
By the time he had reached the tiny village of Chapultepec, between Ensenada and the farming center of Maneadero, he was, he recalled with characteristic understatement, “getting hungry, so I went to the little church in the village and asked them for some food. They offered me meat, but I was a vegetarian at the time, so I didn’t eat with them. Then they gave me a hundred pesos.” (At that time, about four dollars.)
He finally did walk his way to Santo Tomás, and though he avoids making a point of the fact, the Mexican residents there recall that Birch was almost starving when they found him. “I came down to live off the soil,” he recounted, “but I soon realized, however, that that was irrational. I wasn’t worried too much about rationality — such as a house, money, those rational forms — but it wasn’t going to work because it took too long for me to grow my food.” Fortunately for Birch, it wasn’t long before he fell into the company of the Margerum brothers, Juan and Pancho, middle-aged residents of the valley whose father, a German American, had moved to Santo Tomás more than 50 years ago and had married a Mexican woman.
“I heard there was somebody living in an empty house up the road,” recalled Juan Margerum in fluent, unaccented English, “so I went up there to find out who it was. I found this kid digging in the ground with his hands, planting seeds.” Juan asked him when he’d last eaten, and Birch said it had been about a week since his last full meal. With that, Juan immediately took him home to the Margerum household. As Juan smiled at the retelling of this first encounter with Birch, his brother Pancho raised a rifle, sighted down the barrel, and — pow — pulled off a round. The bullet missed its target, one of several Superior and Dos Equis beer cans and Ron Rico rum bottles carefully placed on rocks about 60 feet away, alongside the edge of the stream. The sound of the shot echoed across the narrow valley. My friend and I were speaking with Juan while standing in front of Pancho’s home, along with several family friends and relatives. The home was actually nothing more than a shack, a doorless adobe with a dirt floor. But this impromptu gathering on a sunny Saturday afternoon was an open and friendly one, and my friend and I had been made to feel welcome the moment we drove up.
We had stopped by Pancho’s house on our way to our campsite in hope of leaving word with someone that we wished to meet with the gringo Byron Birch. No sooner had we gotten out of our car than Juan had walked up and, smiling, introduced himself. He is an open-faced, gregarious man, 40 years old, of medium stature and with thick, salt-and-pepper hair. Only recently have he and his wife Alicia returned to his birthplace to raise cattle and hunt — this after having lived in Tijuana for many years. Between the crack of the rifle and the occasional ting of a bullet finding its mark in a beer can, Juan related his story of discovering Birch.
Juan and Pancho took in the young American and a familial bond was forged at once. Birch stayed in Juan’s home for a while, and it wasn’t long before Juan was saying, “He’s my adopted son!” though there never were any legal formalities. For Birch’s part, it wasn’t long before he was introducing himself to the people of the valley as Byron Margerum (for decades a surname of some importance around Santo Tomás). When Birch recalls those early, hungry days in the valley, his affection for the brothers Margerum is his most prominent memory. He told us of Pancho’s saying, in abbreviated English, “You come here, boy. You eat, you be strong.” And Pancho himself, with obvious fondness, says of Birch, “Is a good boy, good boy.”