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On "The Devil’s Road"

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On "The Devil’s Road"

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, Days 58, 59 & 60 (Return Home)

Return Home

It took us two and a half days to get from the border to our home in Santa Cruz. A stop in Ojai at my dad's house for the night was the perfect halfway point. We battled more gusty, strong, and always changing winds the entire way home. Our last day in the saddle was a total of 315 miles and that brought an end to an amazing two-month filming expedition through the heart of the Baja Peninsula.

"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

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!

From the Director: Reflections on 25% Completion

Mex 1 shoots out from under us like a black snake, wrapping around the jagged contours of the desert as if to constrict and consume it. Wildflowers explode from the hills and blur into streaks, a painter's pallet of color and life. Baja is in full bloom.

We roll into the next puebla like some knockoff Steppenwolf, waxing poetic about the heavy metal thunder of life on the road, our steel machines thirsty for oil. We're chasing ghosts that we can never really relate to, separated by the chasm of time. But we try. We're hounds on the hunt for clues to understand the past. Or are we just gringos desperate to connect with a life that was never ours? Outsiders looking for a way in?

What are we in this place? Leather gloves fraying under pounding vibration, gasolina burning around our pistons, a turn of the wrist away from oblivion? Or a couple of nerds with too much free time, way over their heads, and batting far above their pay grade? Wanna-bes with a death wish?

The people and places here vibrate with a rustic intensity, a convoluted contradiction of hard-earned experience and rural niavete. Baja is a liminal place, always on the border between progress and regress. Boom and bust. To try and capture it is a Sisyphean task. But we try.

All we can do is try.

"The Devil's Road" Main Expedition, Day 15

Middle of nowhere to Bahia de los Angeles

During our debriefing last night we realized that we were one day ahead of schedule. Not wanting to camp at Yubay for two nights, we decided to head to Bahia de los Angeles, get a hotel, shower (since we have not had one in five days), charge all of our gear and batteries, and regroup.

Tomorrow we will head out to Yubay and meet Greg and Guy to film the tinaja and surrounding areas. 

Sunset over Bahia de los Angeles.

Sunset over Bahia de los Angeles.

"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.