The allure of Baja California has always been tied to its separateness. Separated from Alta California—that is, the state of California—by a contentious international border, and from the rest of Mexico by the Sea of Cortez, Baja has developed a distinct identity that you can only feel if you escape the centrifugal force of its polar party cities, Tijuana and Cabo San Lucas.
The Bruce family of Santa Cruz do not need to be sold on the magic of Baja. They’ve been going there regularly for decades, and their abiding love of the place is the guiding spirit that animates the new documentary The Devil’s Road: A Baja Adventure, which makes its world premiere at the Rio Theatre on April 27.
The Devil’s Road is an adventure story that takes the viewer along for the ride down nearly 800 miles of the Baja peninsula. Filmmaker J.T. Bruce and his dad Todd Bruce (the film’s producer) made the trip on a couple of rented motorcycles. Their mission was to follow a 1905 expedition by American naturalists Edward Nelson and Edward Goldman, who covered Baja top to bottom to catalogue the peninsula’s unique flora and fauna. To tie it all into one nice thematic bow, the Bruces learned that they were in fact related to one of the naturalists.
Drawing on both what Nelson and Goldman learned, and the Bruces’ own travels, the film delivers about as complete a portrait of Baja as you could expect in an under-two-hour documentary. The Devil’s Road wraps its arms around the history, ecology, economy and culture of Baja, visits with many of its people, and chronicles alarmingly rapid changes brought about by population growth and climate change. If you’ve ever wanted to get to know Baja California better, this film is a full meal.
“Baja has pretty much formed me,” said Bri Bruce, sister of J.T. and daughter of Todd, and the film’s associate producer. Bri joined the expedition as it traveled south, and at one point participated in a horseback outing tracing the very path that naturalists Nelson and Goldman took more than a century ago. “It was really an incredible experience,” she says. “I kept asking myself, ‘Am I in 1905?’”
With an eye toward the work of Nelson and Goldman—the latter of whom the Bruces knew as an ancestor in an old family photo before they learned he was a celebrated naturalist—The Devil’s Road strikes a mournful tone when it contemplates the rapid changes that have consumed the Baja peninsula. Working in the immediate post-Darwin world of natural science, Nelson and Goldman catalogued and identified scores of species of plants and animals, some of which bear their names in their present-day scientific nomenclature.
The world that the naturalists discovered in Baja a century ago is disappearing, thanks to pressures brought on mostly by development and climate change.
“Baja has boomed over the course of the last century,” says Bri. “A hundred years really doesn’t seem like all that long ago. Things can change so quickly on a year-by-year basis. When that whole region is seeing these intense boom-and-bust cycles, you’d be surprised how much can change in just a few years.”
In that sense, The Devil’s Road emerges as a snapshot of a Baja utterly changed since Nelson and Goldman, yet still in the throes of that change. The broad transformation taking place in Baja convinced the Bruces that their film had to have a wider scope of vision than their own relationship with the region. “I don’t think initially we set out to get that big complete portrait,” says Bri. “But we realized that we couldn’t just follow one string of the narrative without telling the rest of it. It was so intertwined.”
Still, the film is a family story. The Bruces trace their lineage back in Santa Cruz several generations, but their connections to the Baja peninsula are no less profound. J.T. and Todd Bruce covered more than 5,000 miles on their motorcycles going up and down the peninsula, and while much of it was fueled by a sense of discovery, there was a deep familiarity at play as well. Bri Bruce says she has been traveling to Baja regularly with her family since she was a baby. “The saltwater from the Sea of Cortez runs in my veins a little bit.”
‘The Devil’s Road: A Baja Adventure,’ directed by J.T. Bruce, plays Saturday, April 27, at 5:30 p.m. at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $15. devilsroadfilm.com.