Nevertheless, besides having more off-road prowess, the FJ far and away distinguishes itself from its brethren with evocative styling. It is the past and the future all rolled up in one juicy enchilada and dipped in salsa verde. First laying eyes on it, I nearly beat my breast; it's just miraculous. Shoes wear down after repeated revolutions around this brilliant sun. It's got a dazzling white cap, a roof rack that could serve as the return track for a ski gondola, a chunky overall appearance, droopy little throwback headlights in this age of proliferating projector beams, and, of course, those frog-eyed taillights. It has a fake air intake in the hood that's all in good fun and a blocky stance with tough-looking aluminum wheels that make no sense for rock bashing. (Steel wheels are available.) The door handles are enormous, the D-shaped side mirrors have integrated spotlights, and the rubbery fender flares are endearingly daft. Oh, and let's not forget that platoon of three windshield wi-pers. The guys who drew all this up at Toyota's Calty Design Research in Southern California must have been slipping over to Tijuana for lunch. If our FJ had been painted in the available voodoo blue, the resulting commotion in Nogales might have incited the repeal of NAFTA.
For all its external character, though, the driver and occupants of the FJ must put up with certain deficiencies that are the result of this Brinks-truck-on-magic-mushrooms school of design. For example, only Elastigirl from The Incredibles could reach clear to the rear-view mirror for adjustment. And only she could comfortably enter, sit in, and exit the back seat. A shortcoming with the sun visors is revealed as they pivot around to the side glass, where they cover about half its length, and no extension is built in. The front seats might be made of easily cleaned, water-resistant fabric, but only a scrub bucket would find them comfortable for a long spell. And finally, the massive rear pillars that add panache to the exterior create tremendous blind spots; with the spare tire taking up much of the tailgate, it's advisable to order the optional rear parking sensor.
Not that driving in Mexico wasn't already hazardous enough without the blind spots. Two days earlier, when we had first crossed at Mexicali, Baja California Norte, we began to be inculcated in Mexican highway etiquette. Mexico welcomes Americans to wheel right in and spend their money; all that's needed is special insurance and a passport for U.S. officials upon return. The customs checkpoints are about fifteen miles to the south of the actual border, which means that, where Route 2 parallels the border, often within sight of it, we were free to cruise. The border cities have swelled with people since the free-trade pact of 1994, and Mexicali is a large city ringed with neat neighborhoods of recently built little concrete bungalows. Mexico's population is nudging past 100 million, and for so many Mexicans, opportunity lies to the north. It took a while before the sprawl of junkyards and marginal little businesses petered out, and then we crossed the Colorado River, which by that point is nothing more than a sandbar and some willows. Here was another city: San Luis Ro Colorado, with 127,000 people-far more than Yuma, Arizona, some twenty-five miles to the north. We would keep seeing much larger cities in Mexico.
The next step was crossing the Altar Desert, of which the first fully recorded exploration was achieved only in 1977. We hadn't expected so much truck and bus traffic on the narrow, slope-shouldered thoroughfare that is Route 2. As if to chasten us for our ambitions of rapid travel and prove there could be no room for error, fate presented us with a big rig that had literally fallen off the roadway into the sand. Darkness soon set in, leaving two more grinding hours before the junction town of Sonoyta. Other vehicles would signal with their left blinkers to indicate it was clear to pass. This seemed counterintuitive, but before long we were confidently gunning past brightly festooned doble-remolque, or tandem-trailer, behemoths.