THE ROAD IS CALLING . . .
Baja California has long been viewed as mysterious, rugged, and formidable. It’s been a place of both fascination and danger for as long as it’s been known to human beings. Early explorers chased extraordinary tales, missionaries attempted to colonize the land, and scientists studied the new and strange plants and animals.
The Baja California Peninsula in Northwestern Mexico extends over 775 miles, separating the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California. For much of its history, it existed only as a myth, described as a terrestrial paradise. Early conquests by European explorers and missionaries eventually gave way to a new wave of explorers: scientists set on studying the unique lifeforms of the region. These initial efforts would be pivotal in declaring Baja as one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, home to endemic species found nowhere else.
In 1905, two American naturalists set out on horseback across the Baja California Peninsula in a time when it was considered one of the most remote and challenging regions of North America. Their 2,000-mile expedition was the first of its kind to span the entire peninsula and complete a comprehensive survey of Baja's unique flora and fauna. Zig-zagging from coast to coast across the desolate interior, Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman, two of Baja’s most prolific naturalists, documented, cataloged, and obtained specimens of never-before-studied flora and fauna. Their research culminated in a number of significant scientific contributions to Baja’s natural history, and their expedition was one of the most thorough and complete studies of Baja’s ecosystems. They would later spend their careers heralded as some of the most prolific naturalists of their time.
Viewed as a link between Darwin and present-day scientists, Nelson and Goldman’s work has largely fallen into obscurity. That’s why, over a century later, Goldman's descendants return to Baja to retrace the steps of this landmark expedition, reviving the work of these original naturalists and documenting the changing nature of this strange and beautiful landscape.
This group of modern-day adventurers set out on a 5,000-mile journey on motorcycles, a 21st century upgrade to Nelson and Goldman's horse and mule pack train. Meticulously dissecting the original expedition's route using Nelson and Goldman’s maps, the challenges immediately become clear.
Much of the 1905 route is nearly impossible to follow today—many trails have been lost to time, and Nelson and Goldman would routinely travel cross country through dangerous and impassable terrain. Undeterred, the crew continues as faithfully as possible, using the advantage of modern means of transportation. Interviews with experts and field scientists provide a constant reminder of the grueling journey the original expedition underwent, and why their work was so fundamental.
Using Nelson and Goldman's historical photos, they track down locations and visit points of interest to construct modern recreations, offering a unique comparison that exemplifies the changes—or lack of them.
Throughout the peninsula, the crew searches for rare species of plants and animals noted in Nelson and Goldman's work. Some species have nearly reached extinction, then rebounded. Others bear Nelson or Goldman's name, or were first described by them for science. And still some species that appear to have left the landscape for good, evade the crew. Along the way they face the dangers and unpredictability of the road, take to the air by plane for a new perspective, surf the waters of the cape region, visit offshore islands by boat to tell the unique story of each, and ride horseback through the Sierra la Laguna mountains to truly put themselves in the shoes of a 19th century naturalist.
None of this is possible without truly becoming immersed in Baja's culture. The crew meets Mexican scientists, hospitable and vibrant locals, and are even greeted by old friends. But underneath Baja's unwavering friendly and peaceful demeanor, many Baja Californians hint at a darker story that threatens their home and way of life.
Realizing that the Baja of Nelson and Goldman's time is truly changing, and in many cases for the worse, the crew encounters the results of overfishing, destructive resource extraction operations, unchecked growth, the excesses of tourism, and blatant pollution. The ecosystems Baja was once lauded for are on the brink of collapse.
Nevertheless, the crew captures stories of hope and aims to understand what we can learn from early explorers in creating a path forward.
In an interplay between past and present, The Devil’s Road is a film about discovery and change, and acts as an environmental call to arms that pays homage to the strange and awe-inspiring Baja California.