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On "The Devil’s Road"

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On "The Devil’s Road"

[Santa Cruz, Calif., April 5, 2019]—Four Santa Cruz filmmakers set out to bring a historic expedition out of obscurity. The result was a feature-length historical-nature-adventure documentary called The Devil’s Road.

The Devil’s Road is a culmination of research, exploration, filming, and post-production work to revive the pivotal work of two of America’s most prolific naturalists: Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman. While these are not household names, their research laid the foundation of scientific studies in Baja and were viewed as a link between Darwin and present-day scientists. 

Nelson and Goldman’s landmark expedition in 1905-1906 was unprecedented and completed in a time when the Baja Peninsula was considered one of the most remote and challenging areas in all of North America. They documented, cataloged, and obtained specimens of never-before-studied flora and fauna, all while trekking over two thousand miles on horseback.  The pair made a number of significant scientific contributions to Baja’s natural history, and their expedition was the most thorough and complete studies of Baja’s ecosystems. They would later spend their careers heralded as some of the most adept naturalists of their time, with hundreds of plants, animals, and geographical features named in their honor.

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It wasn’t just the early achievements of these two famed naturalists—though undeniably obscure outside of academic circles—that motivated the film crew. “It was only recently that, coincidentally enough, we learned our ‘Uncle Ed’ was the famed naturalist Edward Alphonso Goldman that worked with Edward William Nelson to explore the Baja Peninsula. I have been traveling around Baja with my family since 1990. We had no idea we had much deeper roots there,” explains Todd Bruce, the producer of The Devil’s Road, and the great grandnephew of Edward Goldman. “Baja has captivated us over the years. Nelson and Goldman’s accomplishments, coupled with our familial connection to this unique place, were driving forces behind creating the film.”

The team made a trip to the nation’s capital to pour through documents and glass plate negative photographs in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. With latex gloves, they sifted through letters between President Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson, read field notes written over a hundred years ago by Goldman, and inspected century-old photo albums and specimens collected by the pair during their expedition. The film crew was also invited by the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to film archived specimens of mammals and birds collected by Nelson and Goldman during their time in Baja.

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The film's director, JT Bruce, and producer then set out on an expedition of their own, spending two months and covering over 5,000 miles of Baja desert and coastline to retrace Nelson and Goldman’s original expedition route on motorcycles. 

The film documents their thrilling quest—by motorcycle, airplane, boat, and horseback—across the Baja Peninsula where, along the way, they observe the vibrant culture and unforgettable people, and endure the challenges of the road. The film includes interviews with biologists and conservationists that provide a reminder of how grueling the original expedition was and why Nelson and Goldman’s work was so fundamental, as well as offer insight into the precarious future of the fragile ecosystems of Baja—and beyond.

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“Much like our predecessor that inspired the film, knowing Baja on a more intimate level makes it incumbent upon us to be stewards of such a unique corner of the world. By sharing it with viewers we hope to help make a case for its conservation,” says Bri Bruce, the film’s associate producer and UC Santa Cruz alumni. “Baja is truly a magical place. There’s really no other way to describe it. I think I speak for anyone that has been fortunate enough to really witness it—stand in its deserts, swim in its oceans, get to know both the animals and the people there—they’ll see it’s worth fighting for.”

“Baja is a biodiversity hotspot,” explains The Devil’s Road Scientific Advisor Greg Meyer. Meyer is an educator at California State University, Monterey Bay, and a professional naturalist who led his first trip to Baja in 1985. He has traveled extensively throughout the peninsula, working for the Oceanic Society, Lindblad Expeditions, National Geographic Expeditions, and the BBC. “The Baja Peninsula is still one of the great wildernesses on earth and this film project has allowed us to see the changes over time and to highlight why it needs protection today.”

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JT Bruce, the film’s director, expands on the themes of The Devil’s Road:

“Our film is not just a historical documentary or motorcycle road movie. It's not a reprimand on the audience for some perceived failure to protect the environment. It's a chance to gain a wider perspective and view the trajectory that our planet's ecosystems are on, and to help people make their own decisions about how we should approach the future.” 

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The film shows a complex interplay between past and present, and weaves together themes of discovery and change while serving as an environmental call to arms that pays homage to the strange and awe-inspiring Baja California. In an exciting mix of history, nature, and exhilarating adventure, The Devil’s Road is sure to entertain, educate, and inspire. 




 

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Thank You, Sneak Peek Screening Attendees!

On behalf of the Broken Wagon Films crew, we’d like to extend a huge thank you to everyone who came to last night’s sneak peek in Oakland! You were specially selected to help us look at the film from an objective, critical perspective as we near the end of production and begin to make our final adjustments. Your input is critical in this final stage. We enjoyed the productive Q&A session, and it was great to hear from everyone what they felt were the film’s strengths, and what could be improved upon as we gear up for the film festival circuit.

We hope you enjoyed the film and the refreshments, and greatly value the feedback and criticism from everyone.

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Broken Wagon Films at the California Academy of Sciences

Last week, Broken Wagon Films’ The Devil’s Road producer, Todd Bruce, and director, JT Bruce, attended the 2018 Annual Fellows Gathering as guests at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California.

The exclusive event, which took place on Tuesday, October 9th, comprised of an evening of intriguing lectures, awards, and special recognitions. The crew was honored to have been invited among many esteemed scientists.

The Devil’s Road  Producer, Todd Bruce, at the Fellows Gathering.

The Devil’s Road Producer, Todd Bruce, at the Fellows Gathering.


Expedition Complete: Letter from the Producer

The Broken Wagon Films team would like to take this opportunity to let everyone know that our main expedition is complete. All of our team members participated during this two-month filming expedition, as well as a few additional and short duration assistants. I first must say that JT said it best: “The film is in the can!” Meaning, we have the footage needed to put together a stellar documentary, and as the director, he is very pleased with what we have been able to accomplish and where we will be in a year or so after the editing is complete.

The Baja Peninsula threw everything she had at us and we still escaped serious injury and had no significant mechanical issues. We persevered through it all: slept in the snow, got stuck in the sand, blown over by the strong and gusty winds, poked and scratched by just about every plant with thorns, swarmed by thousands of bugs, embraced by the wonderful Baja culture, and even slept with a scorpion.

Here are a few numbers for you to ponder and for your entertainment:

  • 5280 - miles driven on the motorcycles in two months
  • 29 - times the motorcycles were “dumped” or we crashed at low speeds (20 by Todd and only 9 by JT). Two of JT’s crashes were Todd’s fault! And Todd dumped his bike three times while standing still!
  • 7 - cameras used on the expedition
  • 36 - hours of footage from all the cameras
  • 8 - inches, the length of the “World Record” Nelson Trout caught by Eric
  • 530 - pounds in weight of each bike including gear, food, and water
  • 4 - people we met along the expedition that said, “You're the Devil’s Road guys! We've heard of you!”
  • 11,000 - feet, the altitude that Scott flew his plane, without a side door and with JT harnessed in so that JT can get aerial footage of the Sierra San Pedro Martir range of mountains

We look forward to sharing with all of you our stories and experiences. JT has an enormous task ahead of him to sort through and edit all that we have. When we have a working version of the film we will call upon all of you to help critique and finalize the film.

Again I would like to thank all of our sponsors, donors, and crowdfunding backers. We would not have been able to do this expedition without your support and generous contributions--in the form of mission-critical equipment and otherwise. I would also like to thank our assistant expedition contributors; Wayne Bruce, Scott and Laurie Bruce, Eric Bruce, Heidi Lewin, Bri Bruce, Jade Lewin, Gia and Eric Doughty, and Guy VanCleave. Because of all of you, we were able to secure some fantastic footage that will make this film shine.

As always, keep watching our website for updates and new items. And don’t forget to keep sharing the project with others on social media. We are very excited and pleased with what we have thus far.

Thanks again,

Todd Bruce
Producer, The Devil’s Road

 

 

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 30

Scorpion Bay to Comondu

San Juanico is the official name for this surfing and fishing village. The locals’ lives are spent around fishing and the gringos all are there for the surfing. During our visit, overlooking the bluff at the best surf spot around, known as Scorpion Bay, there were only three surfers in the water. Back home in Santa Cruz to have clean, head high waves that one could ride for half a mile with only two other surfers would be absolute paradise. I can see the attraction to this place.

Bikes on bluff overlooking Scorpion Bay (San Juanico)

Bikes on bluff overlooking Scorpion Bay (San Juanico)

"The Comondus" is how most gringos will refer to the two towns of San Jose de Comondu and San Miguel de Comondu. Both lie about a mile apart and are settled in a beautiful canyon with high lava and basalt rock walls. Goldman wrote that while standing on the wall edge overlooking the valley of these two towns is "one of the most beautiful in all of Lower California." Date and fan palms are widely abundant, crops of various vegetables are grown, and orchards of many varieties of trees seem to be happily growing in this well watered and fertile place.

Inside Mision San Jose de Comondu

Inside Mision San Jose de Comondu

It is a very sleepy and slow paced town with not much going on. When we arrived at the mission site, there was a group of children on a field trip. That seemed to be the most excitement the town had seen in a while. Nelson and Goldman wrote very little about this beautiful oasis town even though they spent five days here. In 1905, Nelson writes that date palms were scattered irregularly along the stream in a thin line through the vineyards and fields. Today the entire bottom of the canyon is a thick forest of date and fan palms. Several years ago the forest was subjected to a fire of strong intensity. The scorch marks reached to the tops of most trees and left a healthy fire scar on each tree. I suspect that it was a controlled burn to remove debris and litter dropped from the trees and to burn the dead hanging leaves of the fan palms.

While waiting for our next move and giving ourselves a break from filming in the harsh light of midday, we met and talked with two dirt bikers that rode into town. Greg and Eric had split off from the same group that we met in La Purisima. Both these guys were from Washington State and were quite the characters. We swapped motorcycle stories, learned about each other and our families, and mostly talked about how beautiful Baja is.

While we were all sitting on the side of the cobblestone road in the shade of a young ficus tree, another gringo approaches us from around the corner holding a map. He seemed glad to find someone that spoke English. Then he was glad that someone could tell him where he was. After that, his disappointment began to show. He was carying a single page map of Mexico that had a VERY small sliver showing Baja. He was using that to navigate from Cabo to San Diego.

I pulled out our map and showed him that he was 2 1/2 hours from where he needed to be (which was back were he had come from) and that no other road north was a viable option considering his vehicle and choice of navigation methods. This poor guy from Pennsylvania saw no humor in the matter and walked away with a curt "Thanks."

We camped that night a few miles out of town, well enough away from the water and the bugs, and just off the road so as not to be bothered by the noise of the traffic. Four cars drove past us that night. All of them slowed a bit (most likely they could see the flames of our fire) and then slowly drove off. One even gave us a little honk, just to say hi!

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 25

Mulege to Loreto

JT and I found a nice little beach next to a small community of gringo homes just 8 or so miles south of town to spend the night. As usual, last night was a bit chilly and as soon as the sun came up we were warm and ready to get moving. I had some time to blog, drink coffee, and relax as JT came to life in his sleeping bag. I love the Sea of Cortez and the Bay of Conception. Peaceful and embracing.

With the last of the filming needed for Mulege, we drove into town to secure the last glimpse of this spectacular and inviting pueblo. JT struck off by himself, so as to be unencumbered by my "tagging along.” This was an agreement we came to a while ago and it works well...I think!

While in the plaza and catching up on my blogging, I kept noticing and saying hi to an American couple that was walking about. They looked lost and after the 6th or so lap, I asked if they needed any help. They were looking for their lost friend and hadn’t seen her since last night at midnight. They were worried and were heading to the police department.

I finished my work and JT arrived when I noticed the "lost friend" walking down the street, fitting the couple’s description. As it turns out, she was never "lost" and her friends just mistook her actions (getting up early to go for a walk and to get breakfast). We all had a chuckle.

After driving around trying to find the road to the prison museum, we passed the fire station. The firefighter outside the station was wearing a T-shirt that read "Branciforte Fire District" so I slammed on the brakes to stop and talk with him. I gave him one of my patches and told him that his shirt came from my hometown. His English was not good, my Spanish is terrible, and I don't know if he understood me. Regardless, it reminds me how small the world can be!

The Mulege Prison was completed in 1909 and was in operation until 1974. Interestingly, it was the only prison in Baja that was built with no bars. The prisoners were free to go to work every day, but had to return at 6pm. If a prisoner did not return, the others would go and find him.

Our original plan was to head over to San Isidro and not come into Loreto. Nelson and Goldman skipped Loreto completely so as to spend time on the Pacific side of Baja. We wanted to visit the Mission San Javier that resides west of Loreto and in the Sierra La Giganta in a beautiful oasis valley.

The Hostel Casas Loreto opened up their doors to us and we decided to stay two nights. Parking was not an issue as Abel (our host) told us to park the bikes inside...next to our room. 

Bikes inside Casas Loreto hostel. Thank you, Abel!

Bikes inside Casas Loreto hostel. Thank you, Abel!

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 25

San Jose de Magdalena to Mulege

This little pueblo in the mountains is so tranquil and beautiful. The river runs all year around and the arroyo is dotted with palms, homes, and small crops. Very picturesque and well worth the short drive.

Every Saturday the Serinidad Hotel in town sponsors a "Pig Roast" for guests and locals. Many private pilots fly in for the event from the States and it can bring as many as one hundred people together for dinner and margaritas. We decided to attend the event if for no other reason than to film a pig roast.

The headlight on JT's bike has stopped working. I noticed it as we drove into town. So, while at the beach, I set about to attempt to fix it. I removed the bulb, which was still good. I checked the wiring, which all seemed normal. I removed the seat and side plastic casing, looking for a fuse, but could not find one. I then removed the tank to follow and inspect the wiring. No issues there. I was stumped. I told JT that it must be a short somewhere and I suspected the handlebar switch. It was a different switch (not a standard factory Kawasaki part). JT fiddled with the wires on the handlebar during our last ride of the evening and got it working. Now I have to dive into it to fix it properly.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were met by the owner, Mr. Don Johnson. He was a gracious host and sat to talk with us for a while. Does anyone know of a good autobiographer? He is looking for one. Anyway, he told us that because of a low turnout, he would not be roasting a whole pig, only ribs. We filmed anyway and the food was excellent and we enjoyed the atmosphere. Thanks, Don!

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 24

San Ignacio to San Jose de Magdalena

We wrapped up our filming in San Ignacio this morning by climbing the bluff above the town in an attempt to re-create the famous shot of the mission that Goldman took in 1905. Today, the trees have grown to such heights and buildings have been erected so as to completely impede any view of the mission. We found the other location of the second photo to be the same. I guess that is called progress!

An attempt to recreate Goldman's 1905 photograph of San Ignacio.

An attempt to recreate Goldman's 1905 photograph of San Ignacio.

We saddled up and headed for Santa Rosalia. The short drive put us in town for the noontime rush. The taco stands in town were full and we were left to wander around, looking for one that had two seats for us. Next we set about filming the old El Boleo bakery, the church that Gustavo Eiffel designed, the mining operation, and the old mining ruins. After a full afternoon of filming on a busy Friday, we were ready to get out of town.

Bikes near the historic El Boleo site in Santa Rosalia.

Bikes near the historic El Boleo site in Santa Rosalia.

That night we camped at a spot we found in May, just off the road to San Jose de Magdalena. As I set up camp, JT headed out to explore the nearby town of San Bruno and film. We had a great dinner of beef tacos with salsa verde and broccoli cooked over a fire. 

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 23

San Ignacio

Today we decided to head out to the Sierra San Francisco to try to find the Rancho Santa Ana. Nelson and Goldman went through the area and there is a picture (somewhere) of Goldman cinching up the saddle of a horse in front of the ranch. We wanted to get our own photograph to compare with their photo.

It is a strange thing riding up to a rancho in the middle of nowhere and asking a ranchero to take a picture of their ranch. We both felt strange but the young man agreed, though he seemed a little indifferent.

Next we set off to get to the salt flats on the way to the Sierra Santa Clara. Goldman spent a few days in this region looking for antelope. Having once been abundant, Goldman stated during his 1905 visit that they were then very rare.

We got to the edge of the salt flats and JT sank his bike into the soft muddy sand at the perimeter. It was a long and muddy walk out to the salt encrusted areas, but JT was able to get some great shots.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 21

To Goldman Peak

Edward William Nelson bestowed (in my mind) the ultimate honor to his respected colleague, naming a prominent peak after his friend and partner, Edward Alphonso Goldman. This peak lies just north and east of the Santa Gertrudis Mission and slightly north of the 28th parallel of latitude. Nelson described it as being near 5,000 feet of elevation. 

The crew, consisting of JT, Todd, Greg, and Guy headed up one of the old mission trails (one branch of the El Camino Real) toward Goldman Peak. This trail was built during the mission times and was, in spots, well worn and well engineered. We passed many species of cacti, saw numerous species of birds, and had some amazing views of the surrounding mountains, canyons, and geology. We passed two areas where the forefathers of today's local rancheros had built stacked rock walls to keep in or out their stock. 

On the return trip we somehow got separated. JT and I were in front, followed by Greg, then by Guy. JT and I arrived at the last significant geographical feature along the trail and decided to wait for the others. Greg arrived a few minutes later and we waited for Guy to arrive. After 20 minutes or so in the sweltering heat, Greg offered to stay behind and wait for Guy and suggested that JT and I head back to the mission, our vehicles, and more importantly, water! 

Greg stayed back for another 15 minutes and waited for Guy before he became concerned and decided to hike back up the trail and begin a series of loud yells in an attempt to get Guy's attention. Several yells later, Greg heard a reply. Too far off in the distance to understand the meaning, he continued up the trail. Rounding a corner, Greg intercepts a local caballero (cowboy), Alonzo, who was riding a mule while out checking on his cattle.

Alonzo had not seen Guy and the two began to look for any sign of our lost amigo. They tracked footprints in an arroyo that the trail crossed and started to follow the size 10 tracks until the sand gave way to gravel. A plan was devised and they decided to split up sending Greg back up to the trail and down to the mission. Alonzo was to follow the arroyo and the two would meet up at the mission. Alonzo assured Greg that all was well as he has spent his life in these mountains, could track just about anything, and had rescued many gringos from near death. 

Soon after parting, Alonzo found another footprint of Guy's and not more than a meter away was a fat, coiled rattlesnake. His worst fears began to well up inside him as he feared that our friend Guy may have also crossed paths with this desert viper. The terrain from then on was not conducive to tracking a single person wearing vibram-soled walking shoes, but Alonzo pushed onward expecting the worst of outcomes.

JT and I had been been at the mission for nearly 45 minutes when Guy strolls into the compound without a care in the world. He never saw Greg, but admitted that he heard yelling and at one point, yelled back, but could not figure out the direction or the message being yelled. The canyon walls tend to play tricks on sound when in the bottom of an arroyo

Concern gave way to a new plan. I would hike back up to the last known location for Greg and see if I could find him to give him the word that Guy was OK. Minutes later Greg walked into the compound and clearly was relieved to see that Guy was alive and unharmed. Alonzo rode in 15 minutes later and was also relieved and proceeded to tell a story about a woman that was bit by a rattler several years earlier and needed a helicopter search and rescue to get her to safety. 

We had the most lively conversation that night while sitting around the campfire. We told stories of the day, joked about what Greg would have to say to Sandy (Guy's gal) about loosing him, and about the adventure we had on the way to Goldman Peak.

Scientific director Greg Meyer in a giant cordon.

Scientific director Greg Meyer in a giant cordon.