Talking To Baja Legend Is A Lot Like History Class

By JOHN M. DERBY
April 5, 2018

Hotel owner Don Johnson is a legend in Baja California, Mexico. At 92, he remembers knowing John Wayne personally when Wayne, who was an avid fisherman, came to Baja and the town where Johnson lived, Mulege.

Johnson was subsequently invited to John Wayne’s home in California. Wayne was not the only movie star who frequented Mulege. Jane Mansfield used to fly down, and Miss San Francisco married another Californian who spent much of his life in Mulege.

Going back earlier than that, Johnson met Charles Lindberg who flew his own plane down to Mulege many years ago.

Johnson’s major attraction to Mulege was a beautiful Mexican woman who lived there. He fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, but the local piest refused to perform the marriage stating that Johnson was not a proper suitor.

Johnson did not allow that to stop him. He flew his own plane to La Paz and convinced the regional Bishop to fly back to Mulege and officiate at his wedding. He and his wife Nancy lived happily in Mulege until she passed away last year.

He said: “I couldn’t have done it without her,” referring to building his hotel and running it for all the years.

These were years before the paved road ( Mex 1) was built all the way from the border south to the tip of the Baja peninsula.

Johnson and Nancy decided they would build a first class hotel and an air strip right next to it, so that people from California and the southwest could fly down and spend a week fishing and enjoy the beautiful weather.

Johnson’s life was not without its problems, and 30 years ago, an indigenous group tried to take over the hotel, claiming it was granted to them by the government. Johnson fought a long court battle to keep the hotel, and eventually the battle ended up in Mexico City.

By then Johnson had so many friends in Mexico that his hotel had become a popular stop over for bush pilots who would fly down and land on a nearby flight line for the weekly pig roast every Saturday night.

Several dozen of them showed up at the courthouse in Mexico City and vowed that they would never return to Mexico and would spread the word to all the American pilots, not to fly to Mexico, if the hotel was taken away from Johnson.

The court ruled in Johnson’s favor and he returned to Mulege where he still lives about nine months a year, personally greeting guests at the first class hotel called Serenidad.

The hotel still has its operational flight line even though it is manned by the military to make sure it is not used for transporting drugs.

Fishermen still fly in for a weekend and although there isn’t a pig roast, there is pork on the menu. The fishing is not what it used to be in Mulege’s days of glory when it was one of the rare places in the world where the famous fighting fish called Snook could be found.

Having met Don Johnson many times in the past 20 years, it seems quite natural for him to come up to our table and sit down. He has a very clear mind and told some of his story to our guests, and then took this writer aside and asked if we would write the book of his life’s story.

It was an offer we could not turn down but since we would be leaving Baja for the summer the following week, we promised to put it on our schedule for the following fall when we return.


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