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On The Devil’s Road: Local Filmmakers Make World Debut in Santa Cruz

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On The Devil’s Road: Local Filmmakers Make World Debut in Santa Cruz

[Santa Cruz, Calif., April 5, 2019]—Four years ago, 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 film will make its world debut at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on April 27th.

The Devil’s Road is a culmination of over four years’ worth 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.”

In early April of 2016, 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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On March 1st of 2017, the film's director, JT Bruce, and producer 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. 

The filmmakers anticipate a year of showings throughout the U.S. and internationally as they begin their film festival tour, starting at the Overland Expo in May of 2019 in Arizona.

Tickets for the premiere can be purchased at thedevilsroad.brownpapertickets.com.

Tune in to KSCO’s Off the Lip Radio Show (AM 1080, FM 104.1) on April 17th at 7pm where the filmmakers will be featured as guests.




 

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"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 28

Loreto to San Isidro

Abel was the most gracious host and honored us by agreeing to sit down for an interview. He has a very interesting life and was willing to share it with us. If anyone is thinking of spending some time in Loreto and needs a comfortable, safe, and inviting place to stay, I suggest Hostel Casas Loreto.

Our next stop was the towns of San Isidro and La Purisima in the middle of the peninsula. Both are touted to be beautiful and interesting oasis towns. The dirt road to San Isidro leaves Mexico Highway 1 at 59 kilometers north of Loreto. At first it is an easy and well-graded gravel road. Several miles later it gets worse. And several miles after that, it gets even worse (if a road could get that bad). We were maybe ten miles into the trek and had been following several motorcycle tracks nearly the entire way. As we came over a rise, staring down a boulder strewn "road" as it crossed the wash of an arroyo, we came to two motorcyclists slowly working their way out of the rocky wash.

Both guys were riding large BMW bikes and the front rider was clearly struggling. As I approached them, I asked if he needed a hand. His face was set in complete focus and had pain written all over it. Apparently, while attempting to navigate the rough roads ahead, he crashed his bike. With several broken ribs, this guy was slowly and painfully getting his bike out of this area and back on tarmac. He was tough and JT and I took a moment to reflect on our situation and the road ahead.

That 60-kilometer road was very difficult in spots, smooth in others, and everything else in between. The KLR 650s did a great job and we crested the lip of the canyon overlooking the Rio La Purisima. Water was flowing, palm trees were swaying, and crops were green and thriving. Another oasis town surrounded by dry desert and high canyon walls. Beautiful.

Typically when we arrive in a new place and will be staying for a while to film, we’ll ride through and get a good feel for what is there and what we might want to capture. We were an hour or so away from "the magic hour" so we set to find a good camp spot. We found a perfect site on a bluff overlooking the river on the other side of town.

JT set off with the camera to film and I was left behind to set up camp. Soon I realized that our ideal camp spot was not so ideal. We were harassed by just about every bug that flies. Swarms of bugs. So many you could barely see. Our only saving grace, we thought, was that nightfall was upon us and maybe they would dissipate.

The bugs stopped harassing us once the sun went down, but the minute the headlamp or flashlight was turned on, we were swarmed again. Thousands of bugs showed up almost instantly. It drove us crazy!

"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 16

Bahia de los Angels to Yubay

JT and I had a lazy morning while we finished packing our bikes. We needed to meet Greg and Guy at Yubay that night, so we set off out of town with full tanks of gas, plenty of water, and a little extra food. Before leaving town, we stopped and had lunch at Alejandrina's Restaurant and had a great meal. 

We turned off the main road onto the road to Yubay (we thought) and headed out into the desert. Soon after leaving the tarmac we got bogged down with sand. Then we were in the rocks and the going was better. After about 5 miles we began watching the GPS arrow indicator wanting to send us in a different direction. We came upon an abandoned mine and the road disappeared. We consulted the map and figured we turned off the main road too soon, so we turned around.

Once we were on the right road to Yubay, we quickly found ourselves in deep sand again. Figuring we were ahead of Greg and Guy, we decided to camp out until they arrived and spend the night right there. Greg and Guy agreed with our assessment of the road conditions and we moved camp up next to the rocks. We had a great fire, several beers and cracked open a bottle of red wine as the sun was setting. What a perfect night to relax and figure out our next move.

"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.