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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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"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 14

Cataviña to the middle of the desert

All ten of us set off to see some of the sights on Nathan's ranch. The ranch, La Bocana, is located where three rivers converge. We saw two ancient "rock circles" built by the native Baja California peoples thousands of years ago, and found basalt rocks that were chipped to use as cutting tools. We found puma scat, swam in the pool of water in an oasis, and photographed several rock art sites. What an experience and well worth the difficult road to get in and out. 

Cave paintings at La Bocana

Cave paintings at La Bocana

We then set our sights on Calamajue. This is a small bay that was used as a ship landing to offload supplies for the miners in the area and to load shipments heading back to Guaymas or Ensenada. Coco's Corner is well known to those in the motorcycle and adventure crowd and was a confirmed stop of ours. A short consultation with Coco made it clear that the road to Calamajue would not be doable on these bikes unless we were "loco." So, another finely planned adventure was aborted and we were forced back out to the highway and continued heading south.

A short drive on a side road to find a good camp spot turned out shorter that we expected as we hit deep sand and I dumped my bike again. We decided to camp right there for the night. The wild flowers were in full bloom and we slept among a flowerbed of blue and purple flowers. 

Coco points to "The Devil's Roa" sticker we gave him during our preliminary expedition to Baja. Thank you, Coco!

Coco points to "The Devil's Roa" sticker we gave him during our preliminary expedition to Baja. Thank you, Coco!

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 13

El Rosario to Cataviña

We were off quickly with a full day's filming schedule ahead of us. Our first stop was to take the 22-kilometer road out to El Marmol. This is an old abandoned onyx mine. It was being worked when Nelson and Goldman came through, but did not see it's hey day until the early to mid 1900s. The rock was said to be the finest in North America and was shipped to many parts all over the world. It is also the site of the only schoolhouse built of onyx. Now in ruins, it is clear to see the onyx walls and construction still standing tall. 

We attempted to take a side trip to Agua Dulce along the old El Camino Real. Now it is a private ranch, but in 1905 it was the only fresh water around for many miles. The "road" quickly turned into a sand pit and we made the decision to abort that attempt.

On the return to the main road, I dumped my bike at a slow speed on a small hill and it took both of us to right the heavy bike.  

While in the Sierra San Pedro Martir, we met Nathan, a young biologist and guide. He offered for us to stay at his cabin when we came to town. Arriving at his family's restaurant was a whirl of frenzied activity, as there were seven other people also invited to stay at his cabin. All of these folks were photography enthusiasts and two were Nathan’s friends we had met in the mountains.  

In a flurry, we left to his cabin "just twenty minutes away." Not knowing where we were going and just following the truck in front of us was not a good feeling for me. But, I trusted Nathan and the group was enthusiastic. It turned out to be twenty miles on the worst road I have ever been on. The sand was the worst. As the sun was setting, it was getting harder and harder to see the tracks in front of us. We finally made it, and I only dumped the bike 5 times compared to JT's one.  

Nathan's cabin sits on an 8,000-acre ranch and we were promised a tour that would be like no other in the morning. We all sat around a big fire, made burritos, and drank beer, tequila, and mescal. We crashed in the bunk beds in one of the many rooms of the cabin. 

Nathan, local Catavina resident.

Nathan, local Catavina resident.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 12

San Quintin to El Rosario

Without a room for the night, we were forced to sleep in the parking lot. The three hotels in the area were full for the night and as it was near dark when we arrived, we were not going to head back into town to find lodging. We woke with all of our gear soaked in dew and commotion about the area. Our only salvation was to quickly pack up and head south (without coffee or breakfast).

We arrived at Mama Espinoza's Restaurant an hour later and were immediately greeted by Elvira Espinoza (Doña Anita's daughter) who now runs the restaurant. She was very gracious and invited us to stay and enjoy the festivities with "This is your house, too!" We were told there was a benefit motorcycle ride the day before and today was an opportunity to give the town’s children beans, rice, and a toy. Many of the children and their parents showed up to receive a gift.

We were able to interview Elvira with interpretation help from her grand daughter, Michele. This is a wonderful and big family that does so much for the community. We met many family members that travelled from as far away as Ensenada and Tijuana to participate in the communal event.  

Shortly after, we headed out of town with the hopes of following the Nelson-Goldman route up the arroyo to find the camping spot they called "the cave." It was a popular spot where the "teamsters" would stop while delivering supplies to the local mines. We were thwarted by cultivated farmland that seemed to not allow us to get to the road into the arroyo. So, we changed course and went to a known campsite our family has always referred to as "Crash Dummy Car." When JT and Bri were young, we would always camp here. It was well off the highway, secluded, and the side road ended at an old overturned car. They loved to throw rocks at it, for the sounds they made were enjoyable.

We had a great evening to film and camp under a full moon. 

Interview with Elvira and Michele Espinoza of Mama Espinoza's Restaurant.

Interview with Elvira and Michele Espinoza of Mama Espinoza's Restaurant.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 11

Sierra San Pedro Martir to San Quintin

It was cold last night. Sleeping among the snow patches at 9,000-foot elevation usually is not considered to be a warm and pleasant experience.

The moon was nearly full and at this altitude it looked bigger than ever. It was brighter, too. The giant log we threw on the fire had completely burned up and left a perfect bed of coals to restart the fire when I woke. I really did not want to get out of my sleeping bag. I grabbed the camera and went for a walk as the sun was rising over the mountains and spreading across the snowy landscape. It was quiet, the air crisp, and if I closed my eyes I would swear that I was in the Sierra Nevada.

This range is a separate island extension of the Sierra Nevada that broke off hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Jeffery pine, granite rocks, juniper, and other shrubs are all the same. Camping next to us were three young biologists and photographers that were there to photograph and study the environment. So we took full advantage to grab an interview and get to know these three men. One was a marine biologist, the other was a guide, and the third was a herpetologist that specializes in animal rescue where roads are being built. All were very knowledgable about the fauna of Baja California. 

As we were organizing and getting our riding gear on, I noticed a nail sticking out of my rear tire. With a 60-km drive to the nearest town, I was weary about pulling the nail out. My mind quickly went back to the repair seminar that JT and I received from Bob Davis of Davis Moto Works back home in Santa Cruz. How to fix a flat tire in the desert was highlighted, and eventually all the tricks came flooding back into my head. A swift pull with the pliers revealed only a flesh wound. Lucky for us, no air was leaking and we were on our way. 

After a quick stop to drive to the top of the mountain to see the observatory (it was closed and no tours were being conducted) we took a few photos and pointed the front tires down hill. JT and I enjoyed a family tradition of a snow cone! This time it was Baja style: Margarita! 

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to finding a California condor to film. We think we got film of four soaring out over the edge of the mountain range, but they were too far away to confirm. Either way, with only 30 condors here in Baja, the odds were against us in getting a glimpse of them.  

We closed out the day at the Old Mill Hotel and Restaurant in San Quintin.

Looking for California Condors in the Sierra San Pedro Martir mountain range.

Looking for California Condors in the Sierra San Pedro Martir mountain range.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 10

Mike's Sky Ranch to Sierra San Pedro Martir

Last night three older dirt bike riders came into the rancho after an attempt to get to the observatory. They made it within tree miles of the paved road to the national park. Their assessment of the condition of the road was that it was extremely rutted, very rocky, and seriously steep in areas (and did I say very rocky?). To attempt that road on our heavily ladened bikes (more than twice the weight of theirs) would be "nuts." So, we made the command decision to take the long way around. The risk was too high to attempt it. 

Sierra San Pedro Martir Observatory

Sierra San Pedro Martir Observatory

We set off with the rest of the Bruce detachment back to Mex Highway 3, then off to Ensenada, then south to San Thelmo where we turned east to head up the 100 km road to the national park. In all it was a 250-mile day in the saddle. Rounding one curve, we almost ran over a very large (at least a meter long) rattle snake. What an opportunity to get some great photos of the snake. JT used all of his camera attachments and implements to get the right shot. 

We arrived at the national park entrance just before dark, picked out a campsite, and did the mad scramble to collect firewood to build a fire. With snow patches all around, we were very cold and got the fire roaring in record time. The temp had dipped to 2 degrees Celsius and was dropping fast. It would be a cold night again. 

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 5

Laguna Hanson to El Alamo

The wind started howling sometime during the night and didn't let up even after we'd gotten out of the mountains. In the morning, bitter cold wind cast ripples across Laguna Hanson and the overcast sky caused the water, shore, and rock formations to all blend together in a washed out grayscale. We briefly considered boiling lake water to make it drinkable, but abandoned that idea after considering it's murkiness and the thousands of cow pies scattered around the shore. Wind ruled out any on-camera interviews we had planned. Bushwacking cross-country through sage brush on the 650s brought us full circle around the lake and we forded multiple creeks, sloshed through mud puddles, and fought stretches of sandy road to make it back down into the valley. 

"The Devil's Road" Director JT Bruce

"The Devil's Road" Director JT Bruce

Back on pavement, the ride to El Alamo was quick. Nine miles on dirt road finished the side trip and brought us to a nearly empty village that sat just down the hill from the hulking ruins of a hugely productive gold mine, now abandoned. Looking for a way around fenced off dirt roads, we motored up a hill to find some viewpoints and poke around abandoned mine shafts before heading back to town, jumping a fence, and hiking up to the main structure of El Alamo. This thing was massive, and held the rusted, broken machinery of a stamp mill, used to crush gold ore for extraction. The most well-preserved aspect were the piston housings, blocks of iron marked with giant capital letters "UNION METAL WORKS - SAN FRANCISCO, CAL."  As the sun was setting, we rode another 20 miles south and pulled off Mex 3 to make camp. Maybe the wind will leave us alone tonight.

"The Devil's Road" Expedition: Days 1, 2, & 3

MARCH 1st (DAY 1)

We woke to a beautiful and chilly day in Santa Cruz to start our two-month trek into Baja California. Bill Sylvester (a retired fireman and friend of ours and one of our adventure consultants) showed up to send us off. Our friend Eric Doughty and his 5-year-old daughter, Gia, accompanied us for the ride through California. All went smooth until we were swallowed up in the greater Los Angeles traffic and the trailer started to wildly fishtail. A slower speed, faster speed, or use of another lane did not help. It was on the second safety stop when we found
that the nut holding the ball onto the hitch has loosened and we were millimeters away from catastrophe. Tragedy adverted!

We arrived at the Potrero County Park (San Diego County) at about 9:30 pm and went about setting up camp, starting a fire, and cracking open a bottle of whiskey. Even though it was very windy and a little chilly through the night, we slept great.

Camp at Potrero County Park (San Diego County)

Camp at Potrero County Park (San Diego County)

Campsite at night or arrival. 

Campsite at night or arrival. 


MARCH 2nd (DAY 2)

A sunny and warm day greeted us and allowed the needed time to pack. We spent the morning organizing, packing, and finalizing any last minute storage issues and drove the bikes to the town of Campo for fuel and a treat for Gia. We are surprisingly calm and excited for the journey ahead. Baja is a magical place for us and we both always feel at home when we are there. Can't wait.



MARCH 3rd (DAY 3)

The wind was blowing hard this morning when we woke up. The area looked like a garage sale, our stuff strewn about from the wind. A whole roll of paper towels was flapping in the wind as one end wrapped around a tree. After a quick breakfast and several cups of mocha, we packed the bikes were sadly saying goodby to Eric and Gia.

We didn't make it but a mile down the road when we had our first blunder. My Sena camera fell off my bike, hit my foot, and slammed onto the pavement while accelerating to 30 mph. The case blew apart, camera parts flying everywhere as JT and I madly tried to keep the other cars from running over the parts. We think we got all of them!

Today was as much about working out problems as it was about getting the filming started. JT forgot to put the locks on the top box as he drove off and nearly lost them. I just about dumped my bike twice while standing still! Our phones are not working. The GPS coordinates appear to be about a mile and a half off. It was all trial and error while figuring out how to use our Sena 10c cameras.  

We had a great ride along the Ruta de Vina. A beautiful road that winds through Baja's wine country and the Guadalupe Valley. This route was the road that Goldman took in 1906 at the end of their expedition. The pair took a steamer from La Paz to Ensenada once the expedition was complete. Nelson continued on to San Diego via steamer and Goldman took a stage coach from Ensenada to Tiajuana through the Guadalupe Valley.

Valle de Guadalupe, Baja's wine country.

Valle de Guadalupe, Baja's wine country.

Ensenada is a huge city. In 1905, there was only about 1,000 people living here and life centered around the waterfront. Now, the city thrives on the shipping industry, tourism abounds with the cruise ship bringing thousands of visitors daily, and one could find just about anything you desire here in this bustling and sprawling community.