Chasing John Steinbeck and Doc Ricketts
Let us go, we said, into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eelgrass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too. John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez
In the late eighties and early nineties I was fortunate to have worked in a school district that, at the time, was on a “year-round” academic calendar. That meant that rather than school recessing for the traditional June through August summer recess, tracks would rotate breaking up the traditional summer vacation such that recess would occur during seasons other than the summer as one of four academic tracks would be “off” at any given time. I was on “A-Track” so my off-track periods were late October through November, late February through March, and late July through August. The fall and spring breaks afforded me the opportunity to spend time with a group of friends, whose calendars were also flexible, in Baja California during its most hospitable seasons. My summers were for sailing, bike riding, and hiking to prepare for the Baja trips.
My friend Bob Randolph had a small casita complete with palapa on the beach known as La Gringa north of the small village of located at the coastal bay along the eastern shore of the Baja peninsula. Dave Medley and Dwight Wigley rounded out The Boys’ Pleasure Club whose Thursday night and weekend beer can sailing race/potlucks on Lake Yosemite and never-planned-more-than-24-hours-in-advance-semi-spontaneous-bicycle-rides around Merced at twilight were our primary club endeavors according to the club’s unwritten, and except on Wednesday evenings, unspoken charter.
Though inspired by rereading The Log from the Sea of Cortez but in the context of my middle-thirties, divorced, and obsessed with sailing and riding bicycles (motorcycles were to come later), there was little hesitation in deciding to abandon families, stowing boots, beer, and some other worthy provisions, lashing boats, bikes, and boards to our rigs for week or longer excursions along the coasts, into the mountains, and across the deserts of Baja. Expanding the geographical reach of the Boys Pleasure Club, along with a little re-branding, these trips became the annual spring and fall southern pilgrimages of El Club de Placer de los Chicos.
A Personal Journey of Discovery
I, like most of my contemporaries, was introduced to John Steinbeck at Merced High in my freshman English class by Mrs. Russell. It wasn’t until I was in college and had exhausted reading nearly all of Steinbeck’s
fictional catalog that I discovered The Log from the Sea of Cortez. I was aware of Steinbeck’s characterization of Ed Ricketts from The Long Valley, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flats. I believed him to be yet another fictional character, a blend of Steinbeck’s imagination and experience. It was only after visiting the Pacific Biological Laboratories on Cannery Row, a remnant of the past swallowed by the themed tourist attractions along the row of converted canneries Steinbeck made famous in his work, that I believe I intellectually grasped the basis in reality of his Doc Ricketts character.
The experiences on board the Western Flyer opened my appreciation for exploration and from that time forward I formed a personal ‘mental peg’ on which to hang my experiences on our latter day expeditions. I began to formalize my focus in teaching to value how first hand concrete experiences, in concert with previously acquired knowledge, could dramatically facilitate and expand one’s understanding of the world. It seems to me the voyage of Steinbeck to the Sea of Cortez distilled how important it is to provide opportunities and experiences in classifying and grouping information, using outlines and hierarchies to facilitate the assimilation of new information with previously learning, to gain further understanding of complex ideas, all the while developing deeper logical analytical thinking of part to whole and whole to part relationships. That was in fact the evidence I gained that reassured my effort to promote Developmental Learning as the basis for my classroom practice rather than cultivating disparate facts.
Clockwise from upper left: John Steinbeck, Ed “Doc” Ricketts, Pacific Biological Laboratories back-in-the-days of The Log, and now (Credit: The Interwebs)
Steinbeck wrote of the brief stop of the Western Flyer in Bahía de los Ángeles, our destination and the northernmost reach of his voyage, which he regarded as having a sinister feeling as though, “we were interfering with something, that some kind of activity would start only when we left.” We never once felt unwelcomed on any of our later day visits, even once when Bob flew in to meet us and four ununiformed gentlemen in a pickup with automatic weapons showed up to watch us unload his gear from the Beechcraft. They quietly left when they were satisfied we were harmless gringos, too goofy in our seeming frivolous preoccupation to regard.
Specimen collection on the voyage of the Western Flyer began along the eastern coast of Baja beginning at the southern tip of Baja at Cape San Lucas then proceeded north along the western shore of the Sea of Cortez up to Puerto Refugio on Isla Ángel de la Guarda, the nautical midpoint of their voyage and the relative conclusion of their mission of specimen collection before returning to Monterey. The book details their six-week marine expedition made in 1940 from March 11 – April 20 where Steinbeck was accompanied by his friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist, and his four man crew, Tony Berry the captain, “Tex” Travis the engineer, and two able seamen, “Sparky” Enea and “Tiny” Colletto. Though there is no mention of her at all, Steinbeck’s then wife Carol was also on the voyage.
In 1951 The Log from the Sea of Cortez was published and was remarkable in that it was Steinbeck’s first non-fiction work which coincidentally laid the basis for understanding the emerging discipline of ecology, the branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms. It seems to also give rise to his desire to reflect on what was a changing nation and world with the publication of A Russian Journal, Once There Was a War, Travels with Charley, and America and Americans. Not bad for a 1962 Nobel Prize winner in literature. Here is his acceptance speech, worthy in these days of uncertainty to think about: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1962/steinbeck/25229-john-steinbeck-banquet-speech-1962/
Ecology, this new way of connecting the varied life forms to their environment and the effects of competition for resources and survival about which Steinbeck lays out in The Log was greatly informed by his collaboration with Ricketts. But the work is also as much a book chronicling Steinbeck’s relationship with and his high regard for Doc Ricketts as he illustrated their thoughts on philosophy, science, culture, society, and politics. This was to become the well from which Steinbeck’s subsequent fictional and non fictional writing would spring. It is widely viewed as Steinbeck’s personal favorite endeavor.
When I first read The Log it was my introduction to citizen science as from Steinbeck’s perspective; his fascination by his friend’s understanding of the complexity of intertidal zones and his, Steinbeck’s, ability to write sublimely about the natural world and our human interface as Rickett’s secretary. Just as Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and John McPhee have informed my construct of the West, Steinbeck opened my thoughts of the concept of Baja and direct experience. The Log’s narrative went beyond the dry taxonomic classifications of organisms found in an environment, broadening the scope of observation to include the interaction of organisms with one another and their environments along with the impact of the observers on these processes. Can the whole exist without the parts? Do the parts exist disunited from the whole? Questions of that sort and some beer drinking provided the perfect philosophical latitude and longitude as the waning days, absent the distraction of electrically powered devices, left us open to emulate “Western Flyer contemplation”. All that was missing was the bobbing of the casita, anchored on terra firma.
It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again… from The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1)
Los Chicos de Club del Placer In Pursuit of Adventure
Finding our trips to be without a pretense of regard for science I couldn’t help but quietly view our experiences through the lens of the citizen scientist, unburdened by formal nomenclature, but with appreciation for some organization, to look beyond the pursuit of activity and recreation to try to relate to purpose of expanding understanding of the natural world as did the voyage of the Western Flyer some fifty years prior.
We had no urge toward adventure. We planned to collect marine animals in a remote place on certain days and at certain hours indicated on the tide charts. To do this we had, insofar as we were able, to avoid adventure. From The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
I suspect we achieved something of an inverse of the Western Flyer’s 95% observation to 5% adventure ratio finding brief opportunities to observe 5% of the time while “adventuring” the other 95% of our stay. The only marine animals we collected, we ate. Those we observed we respectfully admired.
The 812± mile trip south was generally a two day affair where stops in Baja at a variety of humble communities were made. I do remember one non-stop, pedal to the metal trek when Dave, Dwight, and I drove through the night to meet Bob who would fly down after our arrival. I wasn’t sure if he just did that to impress us or if he really did have a major deal in the works that would keep him from joining us for the drive…
On another occasion, after a late start from Merced, we made a stop in LA to spend the night in a vintage Silver Streak at a trailer park on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. This after picking up the keys from Bob’s attorney in Beverly Hills whose “Silver Streak getaway” it was in which we stayed the night and whose primary residence where we picked up the keys was just across the way from (Aaron 90210’s) Spelling Manor. I guess Bob was a major wheeling deal maker…
The next morning, and on other subsequent “non-major-wheeling-&-dealing” trips south, we were off to San Diego for the last reliable tank of gas which would then be followed by another 12-14 hours traveling on Carretera Federal 1 as the real adventure was to commence.
Making our way through Tijuana as quickly as possible delayed stops until Ensenada or Punta Colonet. On one occasion, just south of Punta Colonet, we headed east to Rancho Meling, a legendary stop for endeavoring thumper and dual sport riding tourists and wannabe racers traveling the famed Baja 500 or 1000 routes. We spent night at the Rancho located at the base of the Sierra San Pedro Martir Mountains. To get there, at about 140 km (86± miles) from Ensenada you come to the small village of Ejido Diaz Ordaz where you turn left when you get to the signs for the Observatorio Astronomico Nacional and the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir, the actual reason for the detour. Drive another 50 km (30± miles) east on a paved road until you get to the Rancho Meling entrance then turn right down the dirt road about 2 km (a bit over a mile). You have arrived.
There we enjoyed horseback riding, great food, cold beverages, and a failed trip to the Observatorio. We aborted our effort to visit the observatory because we were stuck behind a broken down flatbed with sacks of cement, a mixer, and other materials bound for the observatorio on a very narrow single lane road. After watching the three members of the truck’s crew getting the truck started, running around to remove the rocks from behind the tires to keep the flatbed and cargo from careening backwards downhill, stalling the truck again, then running back to replace the rocks behind the wheels to keep the truck from, once again, careening downhill… We witnessed this at least half a dozen times, even getting out to help with the rock toting to prevent careening into Bob’s Suburban sending both vehicles and rock toting occupants from careening downhill. But BOLA called and we safely backed our way down the mountain, engine and brakes intact with no careening, intending to return to the observatory another day.
Next stop along the way would normally be in San Quintín, some 600± miles from home. Here I recall we stopped for a delicious lunch of fresh langosta (neither a lobster or a prawn) at the The Old Mill. San Quintín had by that time become a multinational corporate agricultural region and destination for Americans to live part-time. Historically, People inhabited this area more than 10,000 years ago. Later they would be known as the Cochimi Indians. They learned how to live and survive on native plants, fish and wild game. In the more recent history, a British owned company had an idea to grow wheat that they would then transport by railway. Nearly a hundred English colonists bought tracts of land, planted wheat and built the gristmill. In the 1880s a train track was being laid, meant to hook up with the Southern Pacific RR in California. But the idea of wealth from this venture began to fall apart as a severe drought devastated the first harvests and the colonists abandoned San Quintin by 1900. There is said to be a 17-ton, six-wheeled locomotive underwater at the mouth of the bay. It must have been one heck of an accident and a story in its own right. Downright recalls to me the history of the Owens Valley and the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. (Source: The Baja Storyteller by Martina). Baja, like the Owens Valley, is filled with stories of boom because of vast resources and bust the result of over exploitation of resources and the people or the miscalculation of climate in terms of sustainability. Tourism, The Old Mill, and modern agriculture, however, are testimony to the resilience of the people and resources of Baja. Same for the East Side except for the agriculture part.
A mere 65 miles further when bypassing San Quintín involved a stop at El Palomar and yet another fine meal would give us a chance to stretch and “freshen up” while fueling up for the final remote stretch to BOLA. While we were anxious to arrive at Bob’s casita in LA Bay, lingering at the stop in El Rosario de Abajo was perhaps one of the most “spiritual” in the sense that the history of this area was revealed to us in a most visceral way. As you can see below, there is an abundance of moisture in this area, the result of favorable weather/climate influences of the Pacific Ocean. It is the site of the two earliest Dominican Missions founded in 1774 the Misión Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario de Viñadaco that would be relocated along the Pearl River. (To learn of the history of area please refer to the following link with photos by David Kier: https://www.discoverbaja.com/2014/08/19/the-spanish-missions-on-the-california-peninsula-19-nuestra-senora-del-rosario-de-vinadaco-1774-1829/ )
As we investigated the adobe ruins along the Pearl River that empties into the Pacific we noticed a disquieting reveal beneath our steps of hundreds of bones of human remains that had been exposed by recent flooding along the banks of the river. It gave us pause to think of the hardships faced by the indigenous people upon the arrival of the missionaries.
In 1790, Padre Luis Sales wrote the following:
“In the year 1774 we were given an order to explore some territories in which to found new settlements and to establish the conquest of the heathen, and this in spite of the fact that the Franciscans had explored the locations indicated by the King and reported them as useless. Nevertheless, whether because of rains or the freshets of the arroyos, or other circumstances which I omit, a place with many heathen, called Viñatacót, was found, which served for the foundation of a mission named Nuestra Señora del Rosario, and it has turned out so prosperous that today it is one of the richest settlements, supplying much grain to maintain the neighboring Indians.”
The Final Push to the Bay of LA
Obtaining fuel was one of the trickier transactions to make in Baja in that era. There were places where you could fuel up at a Pemex station, the only official (federal) outlets where you could purchase fuel in Mexico. Sin and Magna Sin were the two choices. The unleaded gasoline was called ‘Magna Sin,’ roughly translated: “without Magna” which was supposed to be free of magna, presumably lead, and have an octane rating of around 90. Forewarned, we brought additives to protect the recent model of vehicles we used. We also experienced a two tiered pricing phenomenon for Magna Sin of alleged, at best, but likely unknowable, octane rating. The Chicos del Club Placer, with toys in tow paid a slightly different price than locals. Generally a few pesos mas. That wasn’t quite the same experience when fuel of complete uncertainty was purchased on the side of the road siphoned from a barrel or jerry cans from the back of a beaten up pick-up truck. The law of supply and demand was not lost on the local mobile fuel supply entrepreneurs at whose mercy we were.
Before heading east across and then south along Carretera Federal 1 down center of the Baja peninsula we had to consider the remoteness of the terrain and whether there would be fuel at the turnoff to BOLA just beyond Cataviña or just before Punta Prieta near where Hwy 12 takes off to the east towards Bahía de los Ángeles. Our hope was at least there would be some relief offered by enterprising entrepreneurs, since the Pemex station at Cataviña was rumored to be closed. We were faced with the following calculus: It was roughly 150 miles from the Pemex in El Rosario to what was likely fuel of unknown origin at Punta Prieta and another 50 miles to Bahia de los Angeles. In my new 1992 Chevy CK-2500 pickup with a fuel capacity of 34 gallons and a rating of 12 mpg combined city/highway we had a distance of 408± miles between fill-ups. If we were traveling in Bob’s new 1991 Suburban, it had a 40 gallon capacity with a 13 mpg city/highway rating for a 520± mile range. Pedazo de pastel, right? But considering we were towing a boat, along with bikes, boards and other gear and with our passenger weight, in the mountains, a 30% reduction in fuel efficiency didn’t seem unreasonable. The challenge was on… It was LA Bay or bust!
The uncertainty of fuel availability in Cataviña or Punta Prieta didn’t stop there. Another variable in our calculus was that uncertainty followed us to BOLA because there was no Pemex station there either. But Bob’s experience in LA Bay put us at ease as he knew that an entrepreneurial spirit reigned among the locals who would very likely be able to provide us with enough fuel to explore and get back to El Rosario. It seemed to be in their best interest to find a work-around the federal control over the distribution of gasoline. So in acknowledging the invisible hand of supply and demand, we weren’t too concerned as we could always trade one of our toys for a gallon or ten of fuel of unknown octane and origin. We were banking on the invisible hand because the round trip from El Rosario to LA Bay and back was 588 miles. Considering we had an optimistic range of 408 miles in the CK2500 and 520 miles in the Suburban that would leave us with -180 miles to explore in the pickup and -68 miles in the Suburban. This was, however, without considering our gross weight and the terrain effects on mpg. Even quantum mechanics, given my humble understanding, can’t reconcile negative miles of travel. There had to be fuel in BOLA! Perhaps Guillermo could hook us up…
Driving in Baja was also an interesting exercise in interpreting intent, namely with turn signals. On many of the winding ridge routes where a quick glance down the canyons below revealed the rusting remnants of poorly negotiated curves, we would find ourselves behind a vintage quarter-ton pick-up with at least three tons of goods stacked precariously and towering above the bed and cab secured by, well that was generally undetermined. It was apparently common place for goods to be transported in such manner on the trans-peninsular mountainous portion of Highway 1 in Baja. Since my experience when using a turn signal was to indicate my intent to make a turn, it was, with caution I learned, when a turn signal ahead of us was used it may be to indicate the intent to turn or an invitation to pass. You might imagine the consequence of misinterpreting the intent of the driver of a sluggish vintage overloaded truck ahead. And that’s if his turn indicators functioned. The risk/reward coefficient of passing was in direct proportion to the angle of repose.
¡ BOLA Finalmente!
We survived the challenges of fueling, tolls, road surfaces, driving customs and behaviors, while never being stopped to pay a mortida tribute. But we did witness a shakedown of sorts by what appeared to be Sisters of the Unorthodox Crowdsourcing Order (Hermanas de la Colección de Dinero Poco Ortodoxa Charities) for the destitute, ill, and orphaned would on occasion, interrupt otherwise open roads. Once there was a menacing looking group of un-uniformed gents with semi-automatic weapons supervising the roadblock. I’m sure they were there for a twofold purpose: Protection as well as extraction. Needless to say, we generously donated to the cause of the orphans despite the unorthodoxy.
LA Bay, like much of Baja California, has a predominantly arid desert climate. At the north end of the bay lies Punta La Gringa and to the south is Playa Rincon. There are sixteen islands off the coast. On the eastern horizon lies the Isla Ángel de la Guarda separated from the other islands by the Canal de las Ballenas. The islands stretch all the way across the gulf forming a natural barrier against the tidal flow, consequently creating the optimum food balance for the urchins and anemones, shellfish, small fish, sardines, belocams, sea lions, mantas, dolphins, barracuda, sharks and ultimately ballenas (whales). To the terrestrial west are the Sierra de San Borja responsible for the occasional hot, dry winds known locally as “chabuscos” or “westies” whose velocities can go from zero to over 50 knots in a matter of minutes. These winds provided plenty of power for our sailboards, but great frustration for bike riding, sailing the O’Day, or hiking. On one occasion, arriving in the spring, no sooner than unhitching the O’Day and dragging it down to water’s edge did we hear a loud crash as the sailboat had been blown over, on the trailer, bare-masted and sadly thereafter, bent-masted. Fortunately Bob’s casita had a propane refrigerator and beverages were always chilled.
On days when the winds weren’t savaging we would take the 17′ O’Day sailer or 12′ Zodiac inflatable out to investigate the flora and fauna of the bay and islands. The terrain around Bahía de los Ángeles provides nesting grounds for many species of sea turtles and birds, among the birds, elegant terns, Heermann’s gulls, brown pelicans, osprey, Anna’s hummingbirds, and a number of corvids. I learned from the local Museo de Naturaleza y Cultura that the waters contain all but about 10% of the known species of aquatic life common to the Sea of Cortez. The most common game fish is yellowtail (jurel), a type of sport fish that lives off the shore of California and Mexico. Yellowtail from this region of Baja can grow up to five feet long and can weigh up to 100 pounds.
Above Bob’s casita was a fresh water cistern on the aluvial slope that provided water for the kitchen and bathroom by way of gravity. To preserve the fresh water supply, we would take a five gallon bucket to the water’s edge to provide a salt water “boost” to flush the toilet. Apparently salt water had no effect on the little used septic system. One fine morning as I was dipping the bucket to provide the casita with abundant capacidad de descarga del inodoro, witnessing a glorious sunrise, I had to wade out perhaps 15 meters for a sufficient depth to dip as the tide was out. Gaze fixed on the sunrise, it wasn’t until I bent over to dip that I noticed the seafloor in my immediate vicinity began rippling. Soon, the seafloor for as far as I could see was erupting. I swear there were thousands of rays, presumably Mobula Munkiana, commonly known as Munk’s Devil Rays I’d likely disturbed. In true cartoon fashion, my inspiration for escape was none other than Wile E. Coyote…
Top to bottom below: Los chicos anxiously awaiting the catch of the day, Rafael cleaning the catch of the day, and anxious pelicans waiting patiently for the spoils from the catch of the daty…
We would often feast on tacos de pescado and other delicacies from the gulf. On days we would enjoy the catch of the day, the pelicans scurried to enjoy the spoils of, on this day, sea bass. Other sport fish from the region included snapper (pargo), grouper, sierra, bonito and the occasional dorado. Non-sport fish like hammerhead sharks, triggerfish, barracuda, mantas, moray eels, sea horses, remoras, angelfish and many others exist in abundance.
Clockwise from upper left: nesting osprey, a shoreline pelican parade, indifferent finbacks, lounging pinnipeds, frolicing pilot whales…
There are colonies of California sea lions near Isla Coronado known locally as Smith Island, and another south of Punta Animas, a clear water white sand inlet. The bay is also famous for its whale sharks that arrive in the warmer summer months. Other mammals include elephant, fur and harbor seals, sea lions, as well as finback, blue, gray, and humpback whales, pilot whales, orcas, and dolphin. Reptiles we observed included gila monsters and speckled rattlesnakes along with arachnids including scorpions, Baja recluses, and leaping spiders all of which kept us on alert.
Clockwise from upper left below: ironwood, cordons, bujums, chollas and various other prickly friends, Anna and her clutch, two flowering desert blossoms employing pollenizing strategies that occupy Queen Anna and a variety of other insects and birds, a legit desert wash along a hearty riparian zone, and a rock you’d think twice about sitting on…
Terrestrial plants include a variety of cacti, shrub, grasses, flowering plants and other succulents adapted to the arid climate. There is a difference of 16 mm or 1 inch of precipitation between the driest and wettest months. The variation in annual temperature is around 13.1 °C or 55.6 °F. We generally enjoyed mild temperatures in the 60’s (F) in March and November. It in fact it rained for several days on one of the trips.
Agave, barrel cactus, ocotillo, yucca, and boojum trees (alleged to be the inspiration for Theodore Geisel’s illustrations) cardons, cholla (known as O. molesta for good reasons: always keep a pair of pliers on hand to extract their nasty barbed spines), prickly-pears, elephant trees in the lowlands, Manilla and Guadalupe palms near springs, and Jeffrey pines and aspen at elevation. Mangroves exist in some of the island coves.
The village of LA Bay was approximately 7 km from Bob’s casita on the beach. A few restaurants, Guillermo’s and Las Hamacas, our favorites, a small market or two, a school, tortoise research station, ice plant, a couple of hotels, a liquor store (go figure), campgrounds, and museum pretty much made up the infrastructure in those days. Residents were sprinkled about in the hills about and above the village. Though I haven’t been back since, I understand the town has undergone many improvements that may or may not have resulted in benefit to the lifestyles of the locals.
Village life top to bottom: Guillermo’s, local sportfishing with Rafael, the road into town, Bob arriving by air, LA Bay from up by the spring, Dwight pedaling by the school, Casa Diaz on of the earliest BOLA hospitality businesses appealing to the sport fishermen and Baja racers. (Credit: Tj)
Recreation was in great supply. From mountain biking up to the copper mines in the hills south of La Gringa to island exploration in the Zodiac and hiking around the village and up and down the beach made every day a new opportunity to explore the variety of life, land and seascapes.
It’s appropriate to introduce my companions on these Baja Daze excursions. In the world of personality classifications, we all fit the Type A archetype: Type A and Type B personality hypothesis describes two contrasting personality types. In this hypothesis, personalities that are more competitive, highly organized, ambitious, impatient, highly aware of time management and/or aggressive are labeled Type A, while more relaxed, less ‘neurotic’, ‘frantic’, ‘explainable’, personalities are labeled Type B. (Wiki)
While you may think the behavior of four “alphas” would be ripe for conflict, our experience was quite the opposite. It must be that the slower pace of life had a “Type B affect” on us. I also suspect that having a regard, in fact a respect for what each of us brought, was the foundation for enjoying mutually satisfying experiences on these adventures. Bob, Dwight, and Dave are are driven independent business men whose appreciation for aesthetics and creativity is equal to their drive for success in their respective enterprises. Dwight and Dave are builders whose artistic flair runs the gamut from the subtle to the conspicuous, at times eccentric and always interesting. Bob’s business is in paving solutions that feature ecologically friendly products and he had a marvelous generosity for sharing his little slice of Baja. I, on the other hand, taught upper elementary students at the time. I believe my contribution to the enterprise was an unfailing enthusiasm for new experiences that captured the imagination of mi amigos. That and I was grappling with the end of a marriage and the recent illness and death of my parents. I wanted to escape and perhaps escape was just as tantalizing for my compadres, but for perhaps different reasons…
I just know that to this day, those times spent in Baja have lived within me and have provided me with a lasting faith in my relationship with the whole of life, the known and unknowable, as Steinbeck wrote, “Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is in all things–plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and expanding universe all bound by the elastic string of time.” My personal credo can be summed up as, the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is in all things…
Typical of our exploration was a day spent in search of a fabled manilla palm oasis en route to Mission Borja. The search gave us the opportunity to hike up a wash for miles after the wash became impassable in the CK-2500. It didn’t take long to figure out that our 1.75 inch knobby equipped bicycles were no good in the sandy wash either. We don’t think we found the oasis. It was a good hike though.
Not deterred by an unsuccessful/successful hike, we forged onward on another day in search of one of 26 missions established in Baja in the eighteenth century. San Borja was a Spanish mission established in 1762 by the Jesuit Wenceslaus Linck at the Cochimí settlement of Adac, west of Bahía de los Ángeles. Before becoming a mission, the future site of San Borja served as a visita or subordinate mission station for Misión Santa Gertrudis. The construction of buildings was begun in 1759. A stone church was completed during the Dominican period, in 1801. Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misi%C3%B3n_San_Francisco_Borja
The mission was abandoned in 1818, as the native population in this part of the peninsula disappeared. Hmm, I wonder how that happened. A few structures and ruins survive under the protection of caretakers.
We spent the night camped in the gardens of the mission. We did not see any of the members of the 8th generation family still caring for the mission on their property. It was a quiet evening with the moon illuminating the setting as clouds would pass by dropping a gentle rain providing the rhythm for contemplation, and a mystic visual feast. Another feast that evening… Right-out-of-the-can beef stew.
On another excursion on another day into the hills above Bahía de los Ángeles in the San Borja range we found an arroyo with cave paintings. We later learned these were the cave paintings of Montevideo. To reach this arroyo, we took a dirt road signed for Mission San Borja which goes south from the village a few miles west from Hwy 12 into Bahía de los Angeles. In two or so more miles a side road vered east and just beyond was a dry wash crossing with a short grade. The side road distance from where the intrepid CK-2500 could no longer progress to the painted cliff site was just a short hike.
Check out the link below to learn more about murals found throughout the Baja peninsula. https://scahome.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Proceedings.28Harman.pdf
I’m pleased to learn that some measures are being taken to preserve what remains of the history and ecology of the Bahía de los Ángeles region. In 2007 Mexican President Felipe Calderón in cooperation with the nongovernmental organization Pronatura Noreste, Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Areas, the Global Conservation Fund (GCF) and others established the Bahía de los Ángeles Biosphere Reserve to protect the unique ecology of the region. It covers an area of almost 1500 square miles (387,956 hectares) and includes a portion of the Baja coastline, all 16 islands, numerous smaller islands and islets and the Canal de Salsipuedes and Canal de las Ballenas. The reserve protects a diverse marine population including many endangered species including whale sharks, fin whales, California sea lions and five species of sea turtle. The reserve is within the UNESCO “Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California” Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bah%C3%ADa_de_los_%C3%81ngeles
Though the Village Was Quiet the Bay Was Alive!
I have many fond memories of the times spent in LA Bay hiking, biking, horseback riding, and sailing, but to have witnessed a feeding frenzy on the bay northwest of Isla La Ventana in the Canal de las Ballenas was one not soon forgotten. Since on that day I did not tote my camera along, memories are all I have. I recall a few trips in the Zodiac to investigate some of the nearby small islands across from Casa de Roberto on La Gringa. On this day, upon pulling into a cove on Isla Ventana and beaching the inflatable, we noticed a peculiar semicircular arrangement of hammerhead shark heads on an otherwise undisturbed beach. We figured local fishermen had cleaned their catch in the cove and left the heads to be discovered by unwitting tourists like us to be spooked, just as Steinbeck had noted earlier a suspicious feeling of being watched and unwelcome. Under the watchful yet indifferent gaze of a large number of gila monsters and other reptiles lounging on the rocks surrounding the beach we bid our deceased shark friends adieu dismissing any untoward intent by our hosts, deciding to check out Smith Island. On the horizon in the distance we saw what must of been hundreds if not thousands of seabirds, gulls, pelicans, and osprey, congregating and diving. Upon drawing closer to the disturbance we noted the surface of the bay roiling and not just from the exuberant bird activity. Feathers, oily water, and a stench filled the air along with menacing shadowy figures below the water’s surface.
The apparent cause for the avian invasion was the migrating presence of untold masses of small feeder fish, nourished by the phyto- and zooplankton of the upper epipelagic or sunlight zone in an area of the bay between Punta La Gringa and the smaller islands north of Isla La Ventana where a deep channel lies beneath the surface of the bay whose denizens have hefty appetites. I’m not sure whether the arrival of the massive schools of fish was due to a specific occurrence like weather, the biological urge to reproduce, or the upwelling of colder nutrient-rich water from the deep channel to initiate the familiar nutrient-plankton-fish food web. It could be the frenzy was stimulated by the chaotic currents that flow vertically as well as horizontally in the bay or some other of the myriad natural causes. Hence the citizen scientist can only speculate. Whatever the cause, the birds seemed appreciative as they gorged upon the diminutive delicacies. What was most impressive were the several lurking Hammerhead sharks, huge mantas and other large dark masses swirling about in the depths. That caused me some concern seated in what was little more than an aquatic balloon with three other equally concerned members, bird poo and stench of regale notwithstanding. The uncontested rule of nature, “The big ones eat the little ones…” stimulates the imagination into wondering what other mysterious surface and subsurface predators were prowling these deeper waters of the gulf. You may note that my “risk” genes are not highly evolved.
After what seemed to be an hour of continually darting, weaving, and dive-bombing the unsuspecting waterborne morsels, the birds eventually tired or exhausted the day’s fare and withdrew for a rest on the neighboring islands. The beaches and rocky outcroppings became carpeted with reposing pelicans, gulls, and similar flying kindred compounding the layer guano. I don’t believe I’ve ever witness and assemblage of the diversity and number of animals in a particular place and time at once engaged in serendipitous collision of forces of nature.
Since I have no evidence of the frenzy we watched on the bahia, I did find this brief video on YouTube from Los Angeles (CA) that resembles the scale of the birds we observed without the other larger sea borne predators that were present. Imagine being in the open water in an inflatable within yards of this phenomenon…
The Midriff, as this region in Baja is known and as I’ve noted is home to an extremely wide variety and richness of plant, animal, insect, and fish species, including all of the usual suspects for an arid desert bound by the Sea of Cortez, plus a large roster of other “weirdo” critters satisfying the species hunter seeking to add notches to his or her lifetime list. At LA Bay as many gringos call it, the most beautiful moment on most days comes at sunrise when a resplendent golden hue casts over the terrain or at sunset when the village lies deep in the shadow of the surrounding Sierra de San Borja and the islands and hills across the bay are bathed in an otherworldly magenta-lavender light, not unlike alpenglow in the Sierra. This is seen nowhere else in Baja.
As I sit recalling and writing of those singular experiences in the company of friends in an exploration of life, like that of the crew of the Western Flyer, exempt of concern about “matters of great importance we had left [that proved] were not important,” I am reassured that in the direct relationship among a small band of like minded, yet completely independent companions, on a journey of discovery, a wealth of understanding may be obtained.
Our own interest lay in relationships of animal to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again. Ch. 21 from The Log From the Sea of Cortez
I often think of Baja. And as it is a thought, a memory, it is also a feeling and a knowing. I hope to travel there on the moto in the not too distant future. I don’t know that I will capture the feeling that lies within me from those first encounters. It would be nice to be once again joined by El Club de Placer del Chicos for they are as much a part of those thoughts, memories, and feelings that I know came to me at a very important juncture in my life. For this they have my eternal gratitude as does this place, a living thing that is a part of me and I will forever be a part of Baja. As Steinbeck understood, “…all things are one thing and that one thing is all things… And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it…”
The use by date has since expired from one of my prized mementoes of the last trip down to Baja*. It is in need of refreshing…
Claimers & Disclaimers:
All photos are mine (Tj) unless otherwise credited. All others are ripped from the interwebs with lame attribution.
All recollections are subject to natural age related memory loss or confabulation, a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world. People who confabulate present incorrect memories ranging from “subtle alterations to bizarre fabrications”, and are generally very confident about their recollections, despite contradictory evidence.
If it hadn’t been for remodeling and locating my photo album of Baja in the process of the shuffling about of the various contents of our home and the current Covid-19 crisis requiring age related social distancing and homesite hunkering I might have foregone this post. That I’ve been idled (READ: not infected!) by the CDC’s recommendation to avoid our invisible friend, there may well have resulted a few subtle alterations in my recall as the apocalypse rains down. I assure you, anything appearing to be bizarre was accurately recalled if only somewhat exaggerated…