Camping Compadres Part I: Otto My Friend

During our travels we all meet fascinating people who inspire us to be better through their words and deeds. In the first of this three-part series written by long-time contributor, Gary Matos, Gary tells us about his time with Otto who was going through a personal battle of his own.

After two decades and more than 30 trips down the Baja peninsula, Gretchen and I have a mental scrapbook of people and places that is burgeoning with memories. Some of the people we have met are starting to dim like shadows. Their features becoming diffused around the edges. Others continue to burn bright as stars. Otto is a Northern Star.

Like so many trips to Baja before in our Four Wheel Camper, we decided to take a pause in Bahia de Los Angeles. The April sun was comfortably warm and the Sea of Cortez calm. We needed a few days to bury our toes in the sand between sunrises, siestas and sunsets. But first, hot showers and a reliable Internet connection was tugging at us. We landed at Camp Archelon and parked our camper in the last sandy spot available on the beach. It did not take long to meet our new neighbors—Otto and his wife Karen. There was a noticeable peace, joy and cooperation between them that only years of companionship can exude. Certainly something special.

Within an hour, they were giving us a tour of their Sprinter van, which Otto had painstakingly built-out only months ago.  While describing the build process and some of the unique features his voice slightly faltered. He slowly inhaled and then apologized:  ‘I need to take my time while talking. I have ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease.’ Little did we know that this was his farewell tour of Baja—a place he always wanted to experience with binoculars in-hand.

The next two days were spent doing chores and tidying up our rigs. A path between our campsites began to emerge. We walked the beach together in the mornings and enjoyed happy hour in the late afternoons. Just getting to know one-another better. Otto and Karen spent the first half of their life in South Africa before moving to Canada. Distancing themselves from political unrest, while providing a better life for their children was a win-win. We found out they were accomplished scuba divers and experienced underwater wonders around the world. Their love for the outdoors and animals was as natural as breathing. Although now, breathing for Otto was getting harder.

We asked them if they would like to join us at La Gringa—now that we smelled a little better and had made our obligatory contacts back home. They happily agreed. We were also joined by a German couple who were traveling the US and Mexico in their DIY Military-based Overland Vehicle. We made a fun and eclectic team on the beach.

La Gringa Beach, a mile-long spit dividing wetlands and the Sea of Cortez, was a paradise for Otto and his smile was infectious. Life below and above the surface was teeming with fins and wings. A visual fiesta especially for an amateur ornithologist. The warm bay waters were soothing to the body on a hot day. With plenty of sunshine, our personal and vehicle batteries got a deep charge. There was plenty of laughter and goodwill.

I remember one particular evening where Otto and I enjoyed a beer behind the flickering warmth of a beachfront campfire. The slap of the tide water and sounds of gulls became white noise as I listened to his journey. I learned about the migration patterns of birds and his particular interest in raptors—eagles, hawks, ospreys, kestrels and more. He told me about his diagnosis and the first symptoms—a change in speech and the diminishing muscle between his index finger and thumb. He described how the disease would progress until eating and breathing would no longer be possible. I heard about the highs and lows of socialized medicine in Canada. He shifted gears to past road trips and those that still lingered on a bucket somewhere. And we laughed about how he charged my camper batteries from the Canadian Power Grid (his van) days before. His only charge to me was an IPA beer—one of the few borderline luxuries Otto still indulged in. When the flames were done, so was our conversation. I remained alone in the silence overwhelmed by the wisdom, humility and courage I had just witnessed. Bright was the Northern Star in a dark Mexican sky.

On our last day at La Gringa we enjoyed more paddle-boarding and I finally closed the cover of a long overdue book. Otto and Karen went for a walk to glass more of their favorite birds. This is how he wanted to spend his limited daily energy.  While packing to leave, we understood how Karen’s strength, care and love for Otto was his fuel. Like a choreographed dance, she served breakfast as the last tub was loaded and the awning retracted.

It took us several hours to move up the peninsula to Carlos Fernandez Beach where we found an escape from the heat under shade structures. Our journey together was coming to a close. We would caravan with them to the border in case any help was needed.

We said goodbye at a gas station near the border. All of us knew it would be the last time we would see Otto. The 10 days we spent together went by quickly… probably even more so for Otto as his time was on a different standard. Somehow, tears were held back until we got into our truck. Otto and Karen left for Route 66 in Arizona, Niagara Falls and Churchill Canada—three more sights on his bucket list. He was able to check off the first two. We kept in touch through email and Instagram. The pictures always had a common element. Two people simply making the most of life.

After six months and 10,000 miles through three countries, the van that Otto built, and himself, needed a rest. Otto passed away on January 21, 2024. I know he is soaring at greater heights today sharing wisdom and wit with those who preceded him.

About Gary Matos 9 Articles
After many years in fast-paced industries, Gary and Gretchen Matos stepped out of work and into the outdoors. They reside in Sisters, Oregon at the knee of the Cascade Mountain Range and enjoy hiking, kayaking, dual sport motorcycling and exploring the backroads. During the winter months they like to cross country ski or read a good book by the woodstove. Although they have traveled extensively abroad, their passion for Baja California - the people, geology and history - have kept them coming back for over two decades. They have owned several Jeeps and pop-up campers and have taken over 30 trips to Baja. Their current vehicle is a RAM 3500 Diesel with a FWC Flatbed Hawk Camper.

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