On April 6th, I organized a 70-mile crossing of the Baja Peninsula on foot, to protest US-Canadian companies planning to open-pit gold mine the Sierra de La Laguna Mountains. It was one of the most difficult, powerful and moving days of my life. Here’s the full story.
It’s 9pm, and I am lying in the Pacific Ocean. Fully clothed. Salt water sinks cold fangs into comprehensive chafing around pits and crotch. Like being stung by 5,000 box jellyfish. Breath is robbed at gunpoint by powerful surf rolling over sun-scalded neck and seizing legs.
It doesn’t matter anymore. It just doesn’t.
It doesn’t because the pain is drowned out by a rising tide of absolute bliss. The kind of bliss generated from having just run across the entire width of the Baja Peninsula. In a day. 70 miles. 18 hours. Up and over a mountain range. Highway miles, mountain miles, sand miles. Joined by dozens, supported and followed by thousands. First-ever recorded attempt. All to save a mountain range. All to ally with wild space instead of profit. All in defense of wildness. And in a moment, it is over.
Heart thumping violently. From behind, cheers and camera flash. An indigenous drumbeat meets labored cardiac rhythms while a Mexican skyscape pulsates above burning star bonfire. My pupils feast on this hanging celestial sketchbook — of myth, of hero, of enemy, of guide—all present, all watching curiously. And so, I follow the constellated moments delivering me right here, to this sandbar of surrender. Right here, to organizing and executing a protest run in the mountains of Southern Baja California, Mexico against environmentally catastrophic plans to open-pit gold mine. Right. Here.
Local Mexican folklore suggests that the 276,000-acre Sierra de la Laguna Range is actually one giant Sleeping Indian, perhaps an elder of the indigenous Pericu people who inhabited Baja’s Southern Cape before the Spanish arrived bearing gifts of conquest. His craggy profile exposes a long nose, slumbering eyes and arms folded, navel to the sky. And dreaming.
In 1994, UNESCO designated this range a “Biosphere Reserve” due mainly to its high rate of endemic species and incredible biodiversity. With an average rainfall of 40 inches per year, the mountains supply a majority of the water for drought-vulnerable populations below. In December 2012, significant life tumult washes me ashore into Todos Santos, easily Baja’s most charming village. The mighty Sierra as its backdrop, I was determined to explore this critical habitat further. On foot, naturally. Living here for the winter months, I learn about a local resistance against plans by US-Canadian companies to open-pit gold mine in the Sierra. Eyes and heart open to street art and signage splattered across town renouncing the mining proposals.
The issue is complicated, but here’s what you need to know:
- Two large mining companies, Vista Gold and Argonaut Gold, seek permits to open-pit gold mine in the Sierra.
- They attempted in 2010, but permits were rejected due to public resistance. Locals thought the fight was over.
- With the recent financial crisis, demand for gold has increased as people are pulling money out of unstable stocks and investing in gold.
- In 2011, Mexico was added to the top 10 gold-producing nations in the world.
- The companies have renamed, reconfigured and are applying again.
5 reasons why open-pit gold mining is one of the most environmentally destructive methods of resource extraction on the planet:
- Deadly. These mines use heavy metals such as cyanide and arsenic to separate gold ore. One rice-grain of this stuff in your system and you’re dead.
- Long-Term. Mines are abandoned after 9.5 years, while residual toxins may leech into aquifers for centuries.
- Wasteful. Uncanny amounts of water and resources are used to open-pit mine. Some report 100 million gallons of water used daily.
- Not Worth it. One gold ring = 20 tons of waste.
- Don’t Need it. Roughly 80% of gold mined is used for jewelry.
I learned more and I got angry. Wheels started turning. Asking around, I connect with a leading activist group, Agua Vale Mas Que Oro, and present them with an idea: One day, 70 miles. A first-ever crossing of the peninsula on foot with as many participants as possible, through the heart of the mountains these companies propose to mine. Start on the Gulf, end at the Pacific, finishing with an event in Todos Santos.
The group was sold immediately.
And so began three months of tireless planning — with local artists, activists, filmmakers, government officials and businesspeople. Countless hours spent in meetings, studying maps, on scouting missions and promotional events. Wading through layers of cultural, bureaucratic and linguistic challenges, I found environmental organizing in Mexico to be an entirely different beast than back home, much more than expected. And with two hours of training daily, the days were up full up until the action.
Eve of Protest.
La Ribera is on extended siesta. Dad, aunt and I arrive a day early to this coastal village where the action starts. Quiet here, air warm and undirected. The caretaker of our rented bungalow is an eccentric, middle-aged man who had just arrived, walking from Phoenix, Arizona. Yes, walking. 1,200 miles. Talk about foot travel. A car bumbles past chased by spirals of dust as headlines blare from dangling rooftop speakers:
**Sale on Cabeza Meat, Today Only!**
**Telenovela Finale, 6pm, Canal 2!**
**Come to the Plaza and Support the 1st Annual Del Golfo al Pacifico Protest Run!**
Impressed by the promotion, I am amused at how stereotypically Mexican the word is getting out. The method works and nearly half of the town comes to the evening rally to bless the protest. Volunteers hand out cups of fruit to encourage healthy lifestyles while a relentless Zumba instructor demands I show my moves. I submit awkwardly and the crowd eats it up. The evening’s reception is overwhelming and only reinforces the painstaking work put into this action. As the activities heat up, we slip out the back, determined to get a few winks of sleep before an uncivilized wake-up call.
Day of Action.
2:05 a.m. Alarm clock doesn’t startle me because I am wide-awake. And nervous as hell. Fingernails piling up on the bedside table like poached ivory. A riotous canine symphony commences outside as soggy teens tumble drunk down the road. Invasive vines of doubt crawl into an overactive amygdala, suffocating thought. So many preparations for this day, then what if I can’t deliver? What then? I hack, hack, hack with a mental machete to keep defeatist thoughts at bay. This is not about you, Nick. It’s about the Sierra. It’s about this place, this endangered quality of wildness. Tend to Her, not to your small self-doubt.
Nothing stirs as we drive to the start. Unsure what to expect, I hold my breath as we pull up to the beach. Resembling a drug bust, headlights circle a large congregation of people while the local police chief stands firm, stroking a hearty mustache. 100 pesos for a smile. Greeting the protesters, I learn that several other runners and cyclists will be joining this section. To my surprise, two of the runners will be attempting the entire route with me. The first guy is Pedro. Short, fit and fierce. Just completed the Cabo Ironman three weeks prior. The other, Eduardo, can’t be more opposite. Thin, tall and jovial. Hasn’t experienced anything over a marathon but was moved by the unique convergence of endurance sport and activism.
“Vamos a ver. I’m just going to see how the body responds,” Eduardo remarks casually. Light chuckle. 70 miles. No biggie. Our watches round up to 3:00am and we begin. No gunshot, no sirens, no sponsors. Just animal paws clapping, hooting and hollering. Here goes nothing. Here goes everything.
To the Pacific.
Moon is sharp in her crescent curvature as our dog pack cuts through the cool evening with the rapidity of a 10K. Nerves retreat with shuttling oxygen. A local running hero settles next to me, a foot taller and a stride faster. In front, the film crew hangs from an open hatchback while Dad and several support vehicles trail behind. I realize in these first miles how far the Pacific Ocean feels. The ambitious route reminds me of a scene in Napoleon Dynamite where Uncle Rico boasts he could “throw a football over them mountains.” Are we really running across an entire peninsula? Over a mountain range?
Whose stupid idea was this?
Activity radiates from the village of Santiago’s plaza with our arrival. Police sirens wake babies and prompt heralding rooster ejaculations while a large group provides an onslaught of support. After refueling and some words from the mayor, we quickly depart and begin the next stretch of dirt road pointed directly into the Sierra’s bosom. Not a meter of pavement now until the Pacific Ocean, over 50 miles away. Assuming we make it.
Sun begins to make subtle offerings of light as we push West. The town mayor rides a bike next to me and we discuss the importance of local civic engagement on environmental issues.
“No hay una economia cuando tenemos una planeta muerte.” I say through labored breath. There’s no economy on a dead planet. Sounds funny in Spanish, but he got it. I find myself engaging in dialogue with an important Mexican government official as he cycles alongside at dawn, publicly denouncing support for gold mining in Baja. This just gets me fired up.
A circus tent of granite relief and crumpled earth provides us with a humbling approach. The unfurled ribbon of dirt ahead becomes straighter than straight, like uncooked spaghetti. I take a moment to review the group of protesters. Some have fallen behind, others looking strong. Pedro’s face bandana sets him apart as kin to the Zapatistas. Runners and cyclists. Males and females. Young and old. All of us strangers only a few hours prior, and now one mobile thought-force. One cell, one body, one agent, one resister—running, breathing, thinking, doubting, hurting, loving. All surges, bathroom breaks, sighs and sweat in the eyes compose a pedestrian philharmonic harmonizing as one. Abbey’s Bonnie and Doc were right:
“We’re all in this together.”
The road becomes tortuous as canyon walls stretch high, while a struggling creek parallels us, babbling in support. The first ranches appear and from them soft eyes of their inhabitants. Cowboy hats, weathered skin and smiles. I cringe as penetrative lights and sounds of our police escort reverberate off mountainside. The ranch family I stayed with on a previous expedition awaits my arrival and, when I see them, endorphins get ahead of my Spanish skill and I trip over words of gratitude. The oldest sister Betty decides to run with me until the end of the road, her smiles an intravenous shot of solidarity.
Covering a 50K before 8am, we finally reach the end of the road. Our support caravan gathers to celebrate as all protesters make it safely. No injuries, ahead of schedule. What lies before us is pure treachery—a 12-mile, 6,000-foot vertical climb of exposed singletrack in warming temperatures. The entire mountain section offers yet another marathon distance, this time over mountains, granite slabs, scrambling donkey trail and heat. Pablo and Eduardo are still in, but I notice fatigue. Eyes looking sunken, more serious. Salt caking on their face. Dirt in every crack and crevice. This is it. No more caravan, no more medical staff. This is where things start to get interesting.
Dad hands over my fully-loaded pack and I take a moment of mental recalibration. Smell the soul of this place, Nick. No, deeper. Take it deep into your chest. She’s alive. This place crawls and spears and pierces into sky and soil. She sprouts and blossoms and drinks and feels and fucks and flourishes and falls. She dances. And she listens. So be here for Her. Breathe your intention with every damn step up this mountain, because She knows you are here.
She wants you here.
Blessings are delivered as the forest consumes us three. Crowd now faded from view, we all look at each other and feel an obvious threshold crossing. Somebody fiddled with a dial and we now move to a different frequency. No turning back now. The ascent commences into the jaws of the great Sierra, into the spotlight of today’s protest, into a wild space that deserves to dance unmolested, free from multinational checkboxes or mutilated mountainsides. To the Dance.
Following the thread of dirt singletrack just feels right. And dangerous. Two weeks ago, someone went missing in this section. Was found three days later, barely alive. Crossing a section of anarchic boulders ahead of the others, I feel something pinching my upper calve. Looking down, a swarm of giant pink wasps surrounds my ankles, one of which is sinking a stinger into flesh. Expletives fire recklessly through the canyon. Am I allergic? Epi-pen?
Scraping the inflamed area for a pincher, I cool the swelling with rationed water. I visualize inflammation reaching eyebrows, lymph nodes, lungs closing tight. Breathe, man. You’re fine. The pain does not subside and yet my hardheadedness only feeds on such agony, grunting louder and running harder. Subsequent calve firings shuttle poison to new muscle fibers and I cringe with every stride.
Halfway up the climb, a park ranger meets us to share this final section of switchbacks, as relentless as the rising temperatures. Trail flattens out and I become shamelessly attached to the high mountain meadows signifying the end of our ascent. We eventually reach and traverse the ancient lakebeds to a ranger station tucked into a grove of Pine.
The hours and miles are beginning to stack up. Tree stump for a seat, I hang my head low, wasted from the effort. Eduardo and Pedro are nowhere to be seen as I peer back into the fields of expired bush. Standing guards of Pine and Oak indicate significant elevation change, where hours earlier we were navigating through Sonoran desert scrub. A crumbly amaranth biscuit disappears into my mouth, snagged in beard as I unabashedly huff crumbs from the plastic wrapping. Internal incinerator is burning hot, so every calorie counts.
After 30 minutes, no one arrives so I continue alone. Crossing over a mountain saddle, I laugh in utter disgust as I can now see the miles that remain. Eyes ride the back of Raven gliding down mountain flank—a vertiginous 11-mile, 6,000-foot descent meeting sandy road below and scribbling all the way to the mighty Pacific.
12 hours into the crossing and cramping becomes a permanent resident. I desperately seek a defense strategy, anything to deflect these seizures. Tonglen comes to mind, a simple Buddhist exercise of taking on the suffering of others with each in-breath. I attempt to focus on pain caused by open-pit mining, and faces of turmoil appear. Hospital beds. Crying mothers. Sick children. Dead, decaying children. An infant receives IV treatment with a hanging bag of cyanide. Cape Pygmy Owl cleans wings in a toxic stream. My skin crawls as the medicinal bark of Torote flakes prematurely, unable to heal the world with her now-noxious peel.
The meditation floods me with heavy imagery and I discard my petty hand of cards in exchange for those much more serious, a felt gravity of my Earth community swallowing the externalities of such patho-adolescent business behavior. The cramping, the circulating wasp poison, the heat, the endless miles. It all evaporates in knowing the damage to be delivered if companies mine here. Deeply stirred, pace lightens and I hammer down the mountainside with stalwart determination.
Two hours of quad-crushing downhill and a group of young Mexican students welcomes my arrival at the bottom of the mountain. Re-energized by their support, we find shade and chat about Mexican environmentalism. Stimulated by the exchange, Eduardo suddenly bursts onto the scene and I can’t be happier, as I have not seen another runner for several hours. Pedro is hours back, but moving. We hug and hobble together to the park’s entrance, fatigue fusing for a few moments.
Dad, aunt, film crew, police escort, park rangers, medical staff, volunteers and spectators all provide an overwhelming homecoming as we reach the station. Two vagrants shot at, beaten, tossed in the dirt, left for dead. Eduardo and I take refuge in a thatched hut to hide from the heat. 15 hours deep, Eduardo’s vessel is a sagging bag of hurt and mine isn’t any better. Yet, I am charged by the presence of familiar faces again and know that the worst is behind us. All that remains now is a 12-mile road of sand and rut to the highway. So after some rest, I stand, take off everything except shorts and shoes, and begin putting one foot stiffly in front of other.
The last miles take all remaining fortitude. Energy and temperament is drowning with the setting Sun. No physical mountains to cross now, just psychological Himalayans. Body screams from the top of its lungs to stop, to curl up in the bush, fetal position and just give up. Left foot damaged, definitely a stress fracture. Blisters are bored, can’t rub any deeper.
Darkness falls as the lights from my support caravan illuminate an otherwise lonely expanse of road ahead. Dad and aunt provide seamless aid, but I can only respond in gruntspeak. Eduardo is nowhere to be seen. Well beyond 100 kilometers now. As I find myself marching in defeatist surrender, a van of protesters approaches and a tall, slender figure pops out to gallop towards me. I squint and recognize that it is my friend, Meghan.
“Wow,” she says chuckling. “You look like shit, man.” Honest woman, unfiltered. We laugh, embrace and start running together. I leech off her effervescence and the pace quickens.
Finally, we reach highway lights. A handful of protesters join in for the last mile to the beach, their energy resuscitating my capsizing vessel. I can smell the barn now, and by barn I mean an omnipresent stench of rotting fish from Punto Lobos, a popular place for fisherman to unload their bounty.
Hallucinations start to illustrate a landing strip guiding this flailing fighter jet back to Earth. My imagination proves true and we are welcomed by a huge group of supporters lined with flashlights creating a finish chute. Shoes enter deep sand while a circle of drummers erupts in celebration. In an instant, the mighty Pacific crashes before me, clapping Her hands in respect. A baritone humming of shifting sands and salt spray invites me to lie in the foamy tide, to feel the force of this giant breathing body. I say yes.
And finally, it’s over. 70 miles. I am done.
Eduardo and Pedro arrive in an ambulance minutes later, all smiles and hobbles. Pedro’s knee blew up on the mountain descent, while Eduardo’s body completely shut down 6 miles to the finish. We share a long embrace for today’s effort, then make our way to the town plaza.
It’s Saturday night and Todos Santos is on fire. Tomorrow marks the start of a popular off-road car race, so tonight is their pre-race festival. Children crying, Dogs barking. Cars honking. Music blaring. Exhaust. Beers. Clusters of Mexicans piling out of restaurants. Our large protest occupies the streets and everyone stops to watch. I relish in this peculiar passing of two worlds. Foot travel meets car race. Animal meets machine. Breath meets exhaust. Heart casings meets engine cavities. Blood meets oil. I feel strong in having covered 70 miles on foot today as they prepare for a similar journey fueled on petroleum. I wish they would drop their resource-rich recreation and join in our fight, for a cause that will undoubtedly affect their families, their children and their children’s children.
An unbelievable crowd awaits our arrival — locals, gringos, media, music and performers. Volunteers hand out information about the issue while Eduardo, Pedro and I limp up onstage for speeches. I deliver a loopy 5-minute rant in Spanish to nearly 100 people expressing appreciation for everyone’s support. Eduardo brings me to tears with a speech about the brotherhood cultivated today in the mountains. Delegates and local activists speak to confirm that such mining practices are not welcome here in Baja and will receive nothing but opposition moving forward.
And no, there are no gold medals handed out.
Afterwards, during a short radio interview, a Mexican boy tugs at my shirt asking if he can have my hat. This lucky cap has been with me for years. “May the Beast be your Enlightenment” is sketched on the brim. I take off the soggy, smelly, salty excuse for a hat and hand it over. He bubbles with joy, swivels it on backwards and hands me his own in exchange. The interaction rocks me to the core as a recognition from the future — from this place, this country, this planet. You now hold a shared torch of responsibility towards defending the health of Earth and community. Now run with it.
The event swirls around us and into the night with comedians and traditional dance. I am carried home empty and shivering uncontrollably, collapsing lifeless into bed. I pull over my traumatized body a quilt stitched in squares of deep satisfaction and completion, of genuine solidarity.
And just as I shut my eyes, I feel somewhere the subtle shifting of a giant, slumbering Indian.
On April 6th, 2013, we successfully awakened thousands to the importance of wildness, to helping native lands flourish unexploited. Perhaps this is what the old folktale is trying to convey, to help us remember the sacred indigeneity of land, and to also recognize the indigenous resting within us all. I’m not suggesting a cooptation of native traditions, but rather to simply engage with the one inside us all that experiences Earth and Her creatures as soul-infused messengers speaking in a language older than words. The one who makes ravaging love to a bleeding sunset or penetrates with feeding Hummingbird into the succulent fruit of Pitaya Cactus. The one who dances ecstatic to riotous fire flicker as its reflection exposes a quality untamed within, inside some psychic chambered forest.
Whether we know it or believe it, we are all descendants of such nature-based ancestry. We are all native to this planet, to this fecund poem chanting melodic incantations of sentient song, of incomprehensible complexity and Mystery. And as we currently inhabit an era of widespread environmental collapse, let us feel fully this sanctity with the “soft animal of our bodies.” Let us experience destructive industries and shortsighted consumer habits as a raping of ourselves, an open-pit robbery of our own individual treasure. Then, when native habitats become threatened, we say no. When native seed is destroyed, we say no. When native brothers and sisters are marginalized, we say no. No. There’s no time left. So, let us fight both radically and urgently for this shared emergence.
Let us awaken the Sleeping Indian. It stirs within us all.