Journey with a Baja Burro. By Graham Mackintosh. San Diego, CA: Sunbelt Publications, 2001. Map, full-color photographs, bibliography, 351 pages. $17.95 Paper.
Reviewed by Diane Larson. A San Diego County native who majored in history at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Diane Larson earned a teaching certificate in History and English at the University of Washington. She has been a writer and editor for over twenty years, half of that time as a freelancer.
In Journey with a Baja Burro, Graham Mackintosh chronicled six months of travels on foot with his burro, Mision, one thousand miles down the spine of Baja California, heading from mission to mission. Mackintosh began the trip in October 1997, 300 years after the founding of the Loreto mission, the first permanent mission of the Californias. The winter of 1997-98 also happened to bring El Niño with its atypical rains—meaning mud and flooding, balanced by more drinking water and fields of wildflowers.
Mackintosh had fallen in love with Baja California a dozen years earlier, when, as a notably unadventurous teacher in England, he had set out to prove to his unemployed teenaged students that one didn’t need wealth to have the adventure of a lifetime. For two years, he walked alone along the 3,000-mile Baja California coastline. The journey changed his life. He recorded his adventures in Into a Desert Place. In 1997, he returned to Baja California to deal with unfinished spiritual business.
For Mackintosh, Baja California is a sacred place, and walking evoked his spiritual quest. Mackintosh examined his perspectives about what is important in life. He came to value great but simple things: the beauty of nature, the hospitality of strangers, the bond that he felt with his burro. He conquered his fears, realizing that they were exacerbated by loneliness, and was able in his mind to poke gentle fun at the absurd “quest for security” of caravans of RV travelers.
Once, when Mackintosh feared that he and Mision were lost, he was ecstatic to figure out their location: “Some men might need flashy cars or flashy women or flowing wealth to find happinesséI was delighted just to know where I was.” (p. 126) Mackintosh spiced his account with moments of humor—here, a quotation or a chapter heading; there, a wry observation about Mision’s behavior—or his own.
Finally, he realized what his “real” goal of the journey was: not to get to a physical place but to “return to that state where all things were fresh, all things possible, and I could walk in simple contemplative contentment, happy with my lot and living for the moment.” (pp. 265-66) Although looking forward to going home to San Diego, he had come to feel that “the comforts and routines of city life seemed particularly scary and empty” (p. 346) compared with the spiritual depths he had reached on his journey.
As he walked, Mackintosh often pondered religion and spirituality. He is skeptical about organized religion, believing that Christianity has veered far from the teaching and practices of Jesus. He decried the Inquisition, yet he seemed oddly uncritical of the manipulative methods used by the missionaries to convert the “savages” of Baja California.
Mackintosh also was at times unquestioning about environmental practices in Baja California. I wondered how he reconciled his impassioned plea to save a lagoon for gray whales with his undoubting acceptance of the killing of mountain lions that threaten livestock. Nor did he bat an eyelash at the environmental destruction caused by mines operating on Baja’s east coast. These contradictions seemed glaring for someone so prone to self-examination.
Mackintosh did reflect at some length upon the conflict between his desire to journey down Baja and the fact that, in the years between his two adventures, he had made a commitment to family life by marrying and having children. Leaving his family behind created significant marital strife.
Mackintosh also detailed the inevitable mistakes made and frustrations experienced on any journey, particularly a solo one. He learned that, when in doubt, he should follow his intuition. He also was inspired by observing the perseverance of wild animals despite the obstacles they faced.
Journey with a Baja Burro contains many nice descriptions of the plants, animals, and minerals of Baja California. Unfortunately, the book is riddled with dozens of syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, which distract the reader. Most frustrating for the reader is that the map is not up to par: A half dozen of the missions that Mackintosh visited are not marked, nor are the two states of Baja California. Ultimately, though, the book serves as a fascinating historical account of the establishment of Baja California’s missions, and as the record of one man’s quest to challenge himself physically and spiritually.