Baja Legends. Greg Niemann. San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 2002. 272 pp.; b/w
photos and maps; bibliography, index; 6" x 9", paperback, $17.95.|
If there was a Baja California edition of Trivial Pursuit, this volume would be required reading for all players. In Baja Legends, self-proclaimed “Baja buff” Greg Niemann has assembled a collection of tales about Lower California from the time of European contact through the late twentieth century. Although the book contains a selected bibliography, much of the writing is based on the author’s travels throughout the peninsula and his personal contacts with many of the “legends” over the past fifty years. A few of Mr. Niemann’s human subjects, such as missionaries Juan de Ugarte and Junipero Serra, are well known. Others, such as Baja patriot leader during the war with the United States, Captain Manuel Pineda, and Cabo San Lucas resort developer Matthew “Bud” Parr are more obscure, at least north of the frontier. Some of the stories are familiar—the Liberal Party’s 1911 “invasion” and Battle of Tijuana, for example—while others, such as the settlement by the Russian Molokan sect in the Guadalupe Valley north of Ensenada during the early twentieth century, are less so. Many places are legendary as well—the Hotel Caesar in Tijuana (reputed birthplace of the Caesar Salad), Ensenada’s Hussong’s Bar, the Tecate Brewery and the Meling Ranch in the San Pedro Martir Mountains—to name but a few. Baja Legends is part history and part travel guide, but the author manages transitions between the two formats seamlessly. There are tall tales of lost missions and legendary treasures of pirates and padres, along with descriptions of real treasures such as the cave paintings of the peninsula’s indigenous peoples. Lower California has always been a hard land from which to wrest a living, and Mr. Niemann does not spare the failed dreams of entrepreneurs, from Hernan Cortes and his pearl fishery of 1535-1536, to the colonization fiasco of the Lower California Development Company three and a half centuries later, and the schemes of any number of promoters in more recent years. The political history of Baja is mentioned through accounts of leaders such as the egotistical (some would say dictatorial) Governor Esteban Cantu and Governor and later President of Mexico, Abelardo Rodriguez. The author even includes a section on writers and historians of Lower California, including John Steinbeck, Erle Stanley Gardner, Pablo Martinez, Walter Nordhoff, and Harry Crosby. Most of the book, however, follows a north to south track, describing the peninsula’s legendary roads, ranches, resorts, and restaurants, a number of which are now gone, but not forgotten by travelers and residents alike. Along the way the author manages to debunk a few myths, including the persistent assertion that Robert Louis Stevenson resided in Ensenada and based his Treasure Island on nearby Todos Santos Island, and the claim by the now-closed Hotel California in another Todos Santos (this one near the southern tip of the peninsula) that it served as the inspiration for the Eagles’ popular song. Although full of fascinating facts and stories, Baja Legends cannot be termed a history. A comprehensive recounting of the peninsula’s development supplementing Pablo Martinez’ 1956 classic Historia de la Baja California has yet to be written. But for those interested in the historical high spots and current attractions of the other California, Niemann provides a readable introduction.