Byron Burch:  “I came down to live off the soil”
  • Byron Burch: “I came down to live off the soil”
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

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.

Rio Santo Tomas Valley

Rio Santo Tomas Valley

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.

Juan Margerum: “I heard there was somebody living in an empty house up the road."

Juan Margerum: “I heard there was somebody living in an empty house up the road."

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.

At the sight of a compañero, Pancho will cry out, “My friend! My friend!”

At the sight of a compañero, Pancho will cry out, “My friend! My friend!”

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.)

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.”

Unlike his smooth, city-smart brother, Pancho knows only the Santo Tomás Valley. “I live here all my life. I born here,” he said proudly. He is a large man, more than six feet tall, with a barrel chest and a belly to match. His greatest skill is as a hunter and hunting guide, though he is also an accomplished drinker, and some say that his steady diet of alcohol has taken the edge off his sharpshooter’s eye. Birch claimed, however, that Pancho’s aim is still true, and that judgment was based on experience, Birch having often accompanied Pancho and his hounds on hunting expeditions (Birch doesn’t shoot at anything but comes along for company). Quail, dove, rabbits, and plenty of deer are the principal prey. On these outings across the rugged terrain, Pancho wears big brown boots, a cap that covers his graying hair, and flappy green fatigues with pockets around his waist for shotgun shells; the outfit gives Pancho the vague look of some motley foot soldier and brings to mind the well-known image of another Pancho, revered in Mexican history.

Pancho is very big-hearted and very good-natured. At the sight of a compañero, he will cry out, “My friend! My friend!” and follow this with a zesty abrazo, a bear hug. Just as quickly as Pancho can burst forth with affection, however, he can succumb to sorrowful tears, such as at the mention of a departed friend or loved one. His genuine friendliness, though, is known throughout the valley, and is the more pronounced when someone offers him something to drink — preferably distilled spirits, though a cold beer will do. My friend and I had only the cold beer to offer that Saturday afternoon at Pancho’s house, and though he was disappointed we didn’t have anything stronger, his great charm lent the gift of a beer a celebratory air. We could see quickly why Birch held Pancho’s friendship dearly. (Pancho’s adobe is very close to an abandoned structure, made of cement, that Birch eventually decided to call home.)

It was some months after moving into that unadorned building before Birch wrote home to his parents to tell them where he was and what he’d done. He’s reluctant to discuss any of this in much detail, but his father, a friendly man and a concerned and loving parent, was willing to supply some details over the phone from Newport Beach. Mr. Birch first had a friend of his, a comandante with the highway patrol in Ensenada, locate his son. The officer reported that Byron was indeed in Santo Tomás and soon found that he was getting along fine and was well liked by the people of the valley. Nevertheless, his father came after him, took him back to Orange County, and had him examined by a medical doctor and a psychotherapist. There followed a brief period of time in which the wayward son reluctantly underwent hospitalization, but soon enough he had made his way back to Santo Tomás.

His father decided that the peaceful environment there might not be such a bad thing for Byron, and subsequently did not interfere with his son’s activities. Moreover, he expressed deep gratitude to Juan and Pancho Margerum for their caring for his son. The elder Birch, however, is hopeful that his son will return soon to go to college. He has visited Byron almost monthly, bringing with him food and other supplies, and in turn has received letters from Santo Tomás.

Given his complete immersion in Mexican culture, it’s not so surprising that young Birch learned Spanish fairly quickly, and he speaks the language quite easily now, having at his command an impressive vocabulary that includes much esoteric agricultural and botanical terminology. He has been somewhat less successful, he admits, acquiring the skills of a farmer. Still, whenever the subject of our conversation turned to farming, Birch’s voice suddenly filled with enthusiasm. As we sat around our campfire, several hours after my friend and I had met with Pancho and Juan, Birch told us, “I got all kinds of seeds! I planted beans, watermelons, rice, corn, cantaloupes…” and numerous other vegetables and fruit, rattled off in a list so quickly their names slipped past my memory. His problem was not so much the actual cultivation of these crops but rather in protecting them from the peripatetic cows, chickens, and pigs of nearby farms. (As if to underscore the voraciousness of the local livestock population, a couple of pigs came bustling into our campsite as we spoke; they grunted and squealed loudly and threatened to topple the stew we were cooking on our Coleman. A few anxious shouts and they scurried off in another direction.)

Though over the months Birch was able to feed himself — through his own efforts and also through the generosity of the Margerums — he soon found that he had underestimated his need for steady employment. In January of this year he was able to find a job as a laborer in the fields and orchards of the privately owned Rancho de los Dolores, half a mile or so opposite the highway turn-off to La Bocana. The rancho’s large white houses and barn, shaded by dozens of towering palms and eucalyptus, stand out as landmarks in the otherwise arid landscape of the eastern portion of the valley. (This was the original site of the famous Santo Tomás winery, which dates to the 1880s and which has since been relocated in Ensenada, though some grapes are still grown in the valley.)

Birch is one of 15 pruners employed by the rancho; there are also several drivers for the farm’s five tractors, an administrator, a mechanic, a secretary, “and a couple of drunks,” according to Birch, who quickly added that the drunks are not on the payroll. His status as an undocumented alien, an illegal worker in Mexico, has caused him some genuine concern. “The boss told me I needn’t worry, but I’m going to Ensenada soon to get the right papers,” he said, as if reminding himself to do so.

He labors from 7:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m., usually six days per week, earning wages of about 1500 pesos each week. At current exchange rates, this is less than 11 dollars, but Birch insisted that he was paid sufficiently well for his needs.

His need for food may be minimal, but his appetite for literature since coming to the valley has been insatiable. “Any printed matter I can find is a treasure to me,” he said, and then could barely conceal his frustration when he learned that my friend and I had earlier tossed into the fire that morning’s classified ads from the San Diego Union. In the last several months he has accumulated something of a library in his new home, and he often reads at night by kerosene lamp; most of his collection has come from American visitors on their way to La Bocana. And while he might not be considered well read for his age, thanks in part to these tourists, Birch has read widely. Besides Voltaire, Hemingway, and Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn is his favorite book), he’s become familiar with Burpee’s Seed Catalogue, The Sunset Western Garden Book, Darwin and His Flowers, A Grape Handbook, and the U.S. Government Gardening Guide. He has also read numerous Mexican cowboy adventure stories and sentimental romance books, and in addition has made it about halfway through José López Portillo’s 700-page Genesis and Theory of the Modern State, in Spanish.

He used to reread many times everything he had, especially the textbooks in chemistry, biology, and physics, which he allowed were so complicated that several readings were required simply to remember everything. Now that he has so many books, however, he doesn’t have to resort to rereading anything that doesn’t interest him.

Despite his hours spent reading, and the long days of work as a laborer at Rancho de los Dolores, Birch still finds time to write poetry and to sketch. But the daily fieldwork has curtailed another of his pastimes — exploring the countryside. Before taking the job, he would sometimes hike into the mountains and hills by himself for a week at a time, taking with him only a sack of corn. He now knows the geography of the region intimately, having learned the paths of the many streams flowing into the valley, the nature of the water tables that feed the streams, and other features of the land.

This knowledge of the Santo Tomás area will undoubtedly serve him well in his future plans, which include more serious farming, perhaps on the Ejido Ajusco. “I’m just a peasant worker now,” he said, “but I’m thinking of returning to school this fall to study agriculture, economics, and chemistry. I’m interested in things like soil pH, temperature zones, alfalfa, avocados.…”

If Birch returns to school, it will be in California. But as we poked at the embers glowing in the fire, surrounded by pristine wilderness, contemporary American culture seemed as distant as the Milky Way that glittered above in the dome of blackness. I asked him about the shock of returning to the modern world, and after a long pause that was filled up with the sound of water trickling downstream, he said, “Now that I’ve had a chance to be free, the thought of going back to paved roads, to sex magazines, to cars, to movies…it doesn’t bother me so much.”

Postscript: After living for about two years in the Santo Tomás Valley, Byron Birch returned to Orange County where he attended college. Today he is a journeyman electrician, and presently is working in Wyoming on a natural gas project. Many of his coworkers are of Mexican background, and Byron speaks Spanish with them on the job. He is married and has a young daughter. Though he has remained a Southern Californian, he owns a small ranch in Wyoming. Through the years he has kept up with his friends in Santo Tomás, visiting many times, most recently last October. Pancho passed away several years ago, but Juan still lives in the valley.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment