By Greg Niemann
Even though it’s been a quarter century (1996) since I last visited the historic Meling Ranch up in the high country of the San Pedro Martir, apparently it hasn’t changed much.
At 2,261 feet elevation, the 10,000-acre working rancho is comfortably ensconced in an oak-dotted valley midway between the Pacific Ocean far to the west and the mountain crest, topped by the 10,156-foot summit of Picacho Del Diablo, Baja California’s highest peak.
There is a 3,500-foot uphill dirt runway behind the rancho, which is also called Rancho San Jose.
The day before we arrived at Meling Ranch back then, we visited the National Observatory, Mexico’s largest with an 83-inch lens. With Ken on his motorcycle and his friend Todd and I in the pickup, we drove up the winding 61-mile dirt road which left Highway 1 at San Telmo, about eight miles south of Colonet.
Passing the Meling’s cutoff, we marveled at the pines, boulders, meadows and ponds once we entered the Sierra San Pedro Martir National Park. About a mile from the 9,286-foot-high observatory, we stopped at the ranger station, a series of domed buildings which include a small restaurant and library for the few employees before driving to the observatory at the summit.
The wind whipped unhindered
We entered the distinctive domed building and went up top, where we walked around outside holding the frail railing as the wind whipped unhindered from the San Felipe Desert and gulf far below. The view was sublime; we could look straight across to the rocky summit of Picacho del Diablo (also known as La Providentia and by other names), and down to a vast expanse of desert. Here the eastern escarpment drops vertically to the desert floor. While it was a slow, long winding drive from the west, to the east it looked like you could throw a rock and it would drop over a half mile.
You could see why they selected the site for the observatory; the nearest neighbors were Meling Ranch, 30 miles back. It would be a long time before light pollution messes up this view.
Heading down, we originally planned to take the old road near Meling’s north around the mountain to Mike’s Sky Ranch and stay there. That road had deteriorated so badly, reports stated we would not be able to get through with the pickup. Even the SCORE Baja 1,000 Race had stopped using it. Well, we’d stay at Meling’s and think about trying it in the morning.
It reminded me of another visit to Meling's over 10 years previous, back in 1985 or so. We were in my CJ-5 Jeep and were headed to Mike’s, then to Highway 3 and on to San Felipe. We stopped at Meling’s as it was just about a mile beyond the cutoff. There were a few cowboys sitting on the rustic fence out front.
After I inquired, the ranch hands assured me that the road to Mike’s was “No problema.” Just then we were joined by a woman who identified herself as Duane Barre, daughter of Aida Meling, the ranch proprietor. “You have to be careful what these guys tell you,” she admonished. “If they can get through it on a horse, they think it’s a good road.”
I laughed, but we were able to make it through, even though it was most definitely just a Jeep trail.
I recognized the same woman
In 1996 I recognized the same woman at the ranch house door, just a little older version of her. With closely-cropped hair and a flowery muumuu, Duane didn’t remember me specifically but regarding the road advice philosophically said, “That sounds like something I would tell travelers.”
The Rancho Meling Guest Ranch is not designed for walkup (or drive-up) traffic, specializing in groups and while it still has cattle, has evolved into more of a dude ranch.
The Meling Ranch was originally part of an 1834 land grant given to Juan Ignacio de Jesus Arce, a descendent of Juan de Arce, one of the oldest settlers of the peninsula. Arce was allegedly an Englishman who acquired a Spanish surname after being raised in Mexico. He arrived in Loreto as a soldier in 1698, one year after Baja’s first mission was established there.
His descendent Juan Ignacio raised cattle in the Meling Ranch area from his base at San Telmo. Later, in 1893, Texas miner Harry Johnson acquired the property. Five years previous, Johnson had bought ranch land at San Antonio del Mar near Colonet and developed the Johnson Ranch there in 1888. At his new mountain site, he built the Rancho San Jose as a base for gold mining operations in the area. He even built a canal in 1896 to transport water from Arroyo San Rafael to the nearby Socorro mine.
The ranch he built was destroyed during the 1911 Magonista revolution. His daughter Alberta “Bertie” and her husband, Norwegian immigrant Salve Meling rebuilt the Rancho San Jose (Also now called Rancho Meling). Salve Meling came to Baja from Norway in 1908 with his parents and seven brothers. Salve died in 1975; the indomitable Bertie, or “Auntie Bertie” passed away at their mountain hideaway in 1979.
The four children and 18 grandchildren of Bertie and Salve have kept the ranch in family hands ever since, some of them leaving the mountains to seek careers elsewhere. Son Phil later became a Mexican Forest Service warden and son Tom later went to work as a printer in San Diego. A nephew, Henry Jolliff, was a leading rancher in the nearby Valle de Trinidad for over 50 years.
Aida Johnson Meling Barre
At the Meling Ranch the guiding light for decades was Aida Johnson Meling Barre, daughter of Salve and Bertie Meling, and her husband Bill Barre. Aida’s daughter Duane took over the place and occasionally her sister Sonia Hughes comes from San Diego County to spend time there.
Duane escorted us to our rooms, which seemed pricey but included dinner, breakfast and the normal ranch activities. European and Oriental tourists love it according to her guest book. Here their visions of a wilder, untamed west become reality. “We get mostly package deals,” she said, and a good many of our visitors are from abroad.”
Our rooms, a double and a single with a shared bath, were simple. We each had butane lamps and separate fireplaces. There was a spring-fed swimming pool just below the veranda and a recreation room on the other side. Here tired “cowboys” could shoot pool, play table tennis or grab a book from the shelf to relax in oversized ranch furniture in front of the big rock fireplace.
Horseback riding and pack trains, quail hunting and visiting the national park provide daytime diversion taking guests past mountain-fed streams and into idyllic meadows rimmed with pine trees.
Meals are family style in the mess hall. That night it was just the five of us, we three, and Duane and her sister who was down for a visit. The barbecued chicken, wedge potatoes, refried beans, peas, salad, tortillas and salsa was filling and good. Meals were a hybrid combination of Mexican and American cuisine, with machaca and eggs, beans, toast, jam, coffee and peaches for breakfast.
Nature's own “television set” dazzles
After dinner the biggest attraction is nature’s own “television set.” There’s no story line, nor disrupting news, nor silly sitcom. It’s the dramatic black sky itself that has come alive with millions of stars so bright and dazzling it demands your attention. It’s a real “knock your socks off” display of nature at its finest.
We were regaled during dinner with stories from the sisters growing up in such a natural setting. We learned that the whole valley is a caldera of an ancient volcano. We learned about mine shafts and caves, and old childhood stories dredged from the siblings’ nudging of each others’ memories. We learned of the flora and fauna of the area – including the ladybugs.
“In fact,” Duane said, “The ladybugs have been around a long time because we found an ancient Indian petroglyph of one on a rock up by the runway.”
My interest was obvious and they told me how to get there. So, in the morning I boulder hopped across a small stream and headed for the runway. Ken had gone off on his motorcycle to determine if we should try to take his brand-new Toyota Tacoma over the road to Mike’s Sky Ranch.
I saw a rocky crag halfway up the runway on the left, the only pile of rocks on that side. High up on one rock face was the ladybug, complete with spots, about 18-inches long.
As I arrived back, Ken pulled up on his motorcycle. His report: “No way with four wheels. I could hardly get through on my bike.” So we were forced to backtrack. Those old cowboys might have even admitted to a possible “problema” this time. But I did get to see probably the world’s only petroglyph of a ladybug.
2021 Update: Aida Meling passed away in 1998 at age 83. In 1999, the road from Meling’s to Mike’s Sky Ranch was graded and became passable again with high clearance vehicles. Back in 1999 the ranch closed down for a year while family members made improvements and long-range plans. It reopened in 2000 with accommodations for 27 guests and Duane Barre Meling as manager.
In 2004 David Lang and his wife Sandra Meling acquired the ranch. They made a lot of improvements including adding a small chapel. They continue to accommodate groups and offer packages that include horseback riding and other activities.
Meling’s is still a working ranch with about 100 head of cattle. There is also an abundance of wildlife in the area and visitors have spotted deer, bobcats, quail, rabbits, pumas, coyotes and many more wild animals.
Our former hostess Duane (Ada Duane Barre Meling) passed away in 2017.
Visit Rancho Meling at www.ranchomeling.com
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.
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