On Christmas day of 2015, I found myself among towering pines on a high plateau in the desert. It was cold—ten degrees when I woke. I leaned over from my bed and clicked on the small propane heater to begin warming our 60-square-foot home—a 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia.
As my wife slept, I boiled water for coffee. Outside, the sun caught the highest needles of the trees making them glow white like suspended shards of ice. Under the pine, across the campground there was a family up and stirring. Two kids ran under the trees looking for wood. Their parents lit a fire.
I was surprised to see other people. For the last two days the campground and the trails of this national park had been empty and we did not expect anyone on Christmas. We were in the highest mountains of Baja Mexico— La Sierra de San Pedro Mártir—60 miles from the nearest town and a few hours from the warm climes of the coast. What would drive a Mexican family to spend a sub-freezing night in a thin-walled tent so far from the desert and coast they were accustomed to? Then again, what would make us want to spend our first Christmas holiday as a married couple far up in the mountains of Mexico?
We spent that day giving each other small gifts (a Kinder egg each) and going for a bike ride on a trail through the pines and brown, matted grass. Everywhere we went we saw families. Some had camped. Others had come for the day. They were all enamored with the patches of crusty snow on the ground. Children and parents and relatives alike picked the ice crystals up and hurled them at each other, squealing and laughing in their delight. After the ice fights each family laid out a picnic spread and had their Christmas feast.
We had set out on this winter tour of Baja Mexico to hit the reset button on our lives and allow ourselves to pare down our daily routine to what really mattered to us—our relationship with each other and with the world around us. We wanted to take this time to differentiate between what was necessary and what was superfluous. It took some time, but by Christmas we were living simply, enjoying the company of each other and the people we met, and relishing the opportunity to live outside our traditional culture, landscape, and routine.
As evening arrived, and the sun splayed into the Pacific, families gathered around fires for the night. As we climbed into our van with its own miniature Christmas tree and white lights, I realized that the same things that drove us to find this high plateau above the desert brought some of these families here, too. Novelty. Change. Simplicity. And ultimately, a renewal—a grounding in what makes us whole and happy as humans.