John Wayne’s Biggest Belly Flop

You said what to John Wayne? 

“I told him it was a belly flop, not a dive.”

We met Steve by chance on a beach on the Bay of Concepcion. Part of me thinks that life would be much more wonderful without having met him.

My heart is heavy often as I look back on the people Steve introduced us to in some of the most remote parts of the Baja Peninsula. 

But the larger part of me is grateful that he showed up when he did.

Life is like that if you step back and give it enough space to breathe. Life reveals in retrospect the impact of the things you now do and every so often the ripples of repercussions for those around you. 

Like John Wayne. 

Who tells John Wayne, The Duke, that his leap into the pool was more of a belly flop than a dive. 

Steve does. 

Steve is not a storyteller. But the storyteller in me sensed that Steve had some wonderful stories from his life. He had been coming to Baja since the 1970s when it was truly the Wild West of John Wayne films. 

Over forty years later and the peninsula is still wild. Mexicans on the mainland look down upon the two states of Baja (Norte and California Sur).

Even the Mexican government has, at times, made laws for all of Mexico that had little to no impact on Baja because the government had been so careless to forget it existed in the first place. 

This is the kind of place Steve remembers, now in his 42nd year of visiting. 

John Wayne, among many of the Rat Pack and handfuls of celebrities from the 1960s and 1970s, used to fly into the small fishing village of Mulege.

There was a small airstrip just on the outskirts of town and a hotel on the top of a hill that overlooked the Mulege River.

Sportfish were abundant in the Sea of Cortez at this time.

Every now and then images appear in social media posts of people recalling the massive catches that their fathers or grandfathers once caught in the sea.

Jacque Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez the world’s aquarium and he spent many years basing his underwater explorations out of La Paz. 

This is the Baja of Steve and his friend John Wayne. In the 1970s Steve was a pilot for a fish buyer in the Pacific Northwest. This naturally led him to fly into fishing villages in Baja such as Mulege, where he would come in contact with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. 

The old hotel still remains on the hill just east of the town of Mulege. It is in ruins now.

But if you allow your imagination to stretch its legs a bit you can still hear the clanking of martini glasses and Steve’s voice telling John Wayne that he just flopped on his dive to impress some beautiful celebrity. 

John Wayne became fast friends with Steve. And there are more stories I never thought to ask about.

After all, Steve wasn’t a storyteller. You had to pry these stories from him. 

And others, like the time he almost married a Mexican but his plane was late and the woman ended up marrying another pilot instead.

Or the time he bumped into a billionaire who he knew by first name (you’d know who I’m talking about but I can’t say publicly) and just casually spent a few days hanging out in La Paz. 

No, you had to draw stories out of Steve.

And I was patient in questioning him because I didn’t want him to think I was writing a book about his life (or even this post, to say the least!).

He didn’t like talking about himself. This was one of the biggest and most admirable traits about Steve that I respected. 

And it was core to over twenty years of his past in Baja. 

After leaving the season of fish buying, as Baja opened up and roads were built to forge new industries, Steve remained passionate about the people of Baja’s southern state, Baja California Sur (or BCS).

So when the piloting was done, he still made trips to Baja. 

He traveled to places like Mulege, which were literally on the beaten path as Baja’s HWY 1 was built to run vertically through the peninsula.

But he also traveled to places like Datil and San Jose de Comondu and to the most remote “ranchitos” (“little ranches”) tucked away in the driest mountains of the peninsula. 

When Steve’s job stopped calling him to Baja, his heart kicked in and did the calling instead.

By the time we met Steve, he was a legend.

But after spending several weeks following him around as he visited with friends and community leaders in dozens of small villages and towns across BCS I realized that he was more than a legend.

 John Wayne is legendary as an actor. Pick your favorite movie and say your favorite line in the grittiest Duke accent you can.

You’ll never forget that line, regardless of whether you hear yourself saying it or John Wayne himself. 

But Steve is more, for being less than famous.

I imagine John Wayne wanted to be friends with Steve because he wasn’t afraid to come out and tell him that his dive was more of a belly flop than a dive.

Steve shot straight, the way John Wayne did in his movies.

His words and actions always hit the mark, the same as John Wayne’s. 

But the impact Steve has had on the people and communities in BCS has inspired what will amount to far more than legend.

We were driving through San Juanico on a dirt road where a man in a wheelchair flagged Steve down as we were passing. The man said no intelligible words, but Steve spoke to him with warmth and dignity.

When we passed he rolled the window up and told us that he helped custom design that wheelchair for the man several years back so that it could withstand the dirt roads of the town. 

In La Purisima, we stopped at an old hotel to see if one of his friends was home. Instead, it was the son, now an adult, who greeted Steve with a hug and thanked him for the years of support for his family. 

In San Jose de Comondu we were grabbed off the street and pulled into a home where we were lavished with fresh oranges and colorful flowers from a woman who Steve has been bringing yarn to for years.

She sews craft and sells them, her only income since her husband has long since passed away. 

In La Paz, we joined Steve at a small warehouse where there were piles of old wheelchair parts accumulated. The organization there would use old wheelchair parts to build custom chairs for Mexicans who would otherwise be left behind in society.

In Mexico, if you are physically disabled and cannot work you will spend your days on a couch or bed somewhere. 

That day we were introduced to a young man who happened to be visiting. Through a translator we learned that over fifteen years prior Steve had helped fit and build a wheelchair for him.

He later went on to finish school and entered college. There he excelled and eventually became a professor himself where he is now working with a team of students to build robotic wheelchairs for other Mexicans. 

The list goes on of people we met who you knew were genuinely impacted by the 42 years Steve has committed to this part of the world.

Each year he drives his truck down to BCS loaded with whatever he was told was needed in the communities he would visit. 

“I never bring anything the Mexicans don’t ask for,” he told me about the loads he’s brought down over the years.

This was another profound reason I appreciated Steve and recognized him as more than legendary. 

He brought books for children, in English so they could use them in their schools, and toothbrushes. He had notebooks and trash bags full of yarn and sewing materials. 

Whatever the people in these small towns and villages asked for, Steve found a way to bring it into the peninsula. 

I asked Steve if he ever gets pulled over in Baja, since he has driven hundreds of thousands of miles through the peninsula at this point. 

“Sure I do,” he said. “But it’s mostly because the police know me and want to hear what’s going on lately.” 

We spent three weeks with Steve. And in that time he only took Christmas and New Years off to relax.

Most of us come to Baja for the beaches, the water activities and the beautiful scenery everywhere.

Steve comes for the people he has befriended, those he has served in simple capacity since the day John Wayne bellyflopped into the pool in Mulege.