Bahia Coyote and
Baja California Sur
Driving and camping the desert roads of Baja California Sur.
Updated June 11, 2014
I like the idea of being where I am now, in a place where roosters are crooning about, and people are selling used hack-saws and post-hole diggers and air-compressors. Actually, I am beneath that place, at the bank of the clammy-green Rio Mulegé, in the reedy section where most of the water is stagnant and swampy.
A thousand majestic date palms tower above me, the bamboo and the reeds. Twelve vultures, bold suckers, are eyeing me and two-stepping their way closer, hoping I leave. They intend to finish off that five-foot moray eel whose carcass has floated as far from the Sea of Cortez as the river could take it, before having its eyes pulled like strings by these unfortunate and hideous birds.
Twenty minutes past sundown, I am to meet Brother Hans and Father in downtown Mulegé, in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, for Thanksgiving dinner. Right now, they are paddling up this river from the mouth at the Sea of Cortez. We came to Mulegé because it is a rare desert oasis: an incident of Spanish missionaries spitting their spanish date seeds along the riverbanks of a vast estuary three hundred years ago, making of it all a shadowy place between the badlands.
John Steinbeck passed up Mulegé because it was rumored to be malarial. Most others passed it up because it was Mexico's infamous no-walls jail where prisoners were allowed to roam the streets until the bell tolled at sundown. Today, Americans still pass up Mulegé because 'what's there?', and Mexicans' because the only economy is the pleasing of a few geritol-expats, a squid-packing facility, and agriculture and ranching which faces a 10 year drought.
I am not entirely sure why Father and Brother have opted to join me, but I trust their real reasons for traveling 1,727 miles into and out of the southern peninsular state of Baja California Sur have more to do with their mutual interest in Peter Benchley's The Girl of the Sea of Cortez than the idea of long days on the road, and damp nights in roadside tents. "We all read that book," father said. "He wrote it after Jaws because of people's response to the movie."
While we salute each other with the tip of margarita glasses, an older lady across the restaurant taps a hair-dyed-red biker on the shoulder. She says, "I didn't recognize you with your clothes on." Her husband leans over and says, "Honey, wrong table," The two, in a Daiquiri stupor, cause an uproar of laughter from the biker's table. "They're over there," her husband says, pointing to our table.
The lady leans over Brother Hans and says, "I didn't recognize you with your clothes on!" We had surprised Mrs. Carlisle near the mouth of the canyon of El Trinidad when Brother Hans opted to swim across the narrows rather than take the foot-path along the ledge. She had been watching birds, which I found to be appropriate, since she had the expressions of a birdwatcher: bookish glasses, and an eternal look of spryness and elderly spunk.
curious about what these American's are doing here, asks, "How long do
you spend in Mulegé?" Husband Carlisle says, "Most of el winter. Then
go up to visit our kids for a few weeks, then Returno!" Mr. Carlisle was
talking crazy talk, ignoring our laughs and pondering Baja. The subject
of Mrs. Carlisle brought up Salvador, who led us into Canon La Trinidad.
Guides can be a pain, but there are cases where it is illegal to operate
without one, and with good reason. Canon La Trinidad hosts Northern Mexico's
most famous cave painting, and a good number of Cochimi petroglyphs. Like
Mexico's northern neighbor, Indian graffiti is kept well-protected from
spray-paint and vandalism.
Salvador, the first in Mulegé to lead people into La Trinidad, learned Indian medicine from his grandmother. He stopped his truck in the desert flats between Mulegé and the mountains, explaining the mostly lost medicine of his heritage. "This one," he says, running his fingers through the creosote, "is used as deodorant. Put it in your boots so they don't smell." We walked past a fifty-foot cardon cactus. "The pulpa is an antibiotic, but this one," he says, finding a candelia, "is a great laxative. They use this one at the Rancheros for party jokes."
Most years the canyon is a struggle, because much of it requires swimming, but the broken dams and the drought made walking between the steep red cliffs a casual affair.
The stones at the canyon's exit seemed intentionally placed, and father asked about a petroglyth, "what was it for?" "This was a marking to other Indians. These people were semi-nomadic. These markings told the other people what was in the canyon, if it was a good place to be, if they were welcome there." We passed a diamond cholla, which hosts the longest spines of any of the painful cholla. "The roadrunner uses this one to trap snakes. When they are sleeping, he makes a cage around the snake, and then he can kill him because the snake will not leave."
At the site of the Trinidad deer, Salvador explained the history of the Cochimi, the role of Cortez and the missionaries, and how the Indians 'disappeared.' "Did the Indians make tequila?" I asked. "No, that was the Spanish." The Tiquila tribe is attributed as the inventors of mescal, the rough-hewn ancestor of tequila. It was Jose Cuervo who refined the process into tequila - a specification of region and agave type.
said, "The Indians had their own thing. They had the mushrooms and the
Later, when Hans asked about the geometric shapes of the fish, the whales and the painting that looked like an anteater, Salvador said, "Nobody knows. Maybe it was they were crazy on peyote or mushrooms. " This one," he said, pointing to a drawing of an odd-looking man waving his hands in the air, "is cardon-man. We don't know but we think they had a myth about the cactus coming alive at night. "Mexican boogie-man," Brother Hans said.
drew in on a narrow, sandy closure in the canyon. I heard that sound I
knew from movies, "pi-tah-pi-tah-pi-tah."
"Rattlesnake," I said.
"Rattlesnake!" Father and Salvador closed in.
"You want me to catch him?" Salvador said.
"No," I said, thinking this is why I don't like guides, because they think they have to act like a guide.
He picked a stick off the ground and jutted it in from the snake. It fanged the stick, and Salvador lifted it off the ground, letting it wrap around the stick. "Now you can really see this snake," he said, passing the hissing serpent around our faces. 'Probably tastes like chicken,' Vance would have said. Or turkey.
turkey dinner wasn't the first time we spent surrounded by Americans.
When we arrived in the town of Mulegé several days before, we opted for
a cantina which was hosting a fund-raising event for Mision Santa Rosalia
de Mulegé, the local Mission and cultural center of town, which was in
obvious disrepair. The restaurant owner had said, "Tonight is special
night for the patrons of Mulegé. You can join them with a special Mexican
meal, or have our normal menu." We opted to eat with the patrons.
Dinner was served, and speeches were in order. We looked over the display of sewn ornaments of baby Jesus' and handwritten scrolls, and a dessert plate without any desserts. And at the sight of the winnings, we decided to drive off, to the southern edge of Bahia Conception. We ended up at the southern end of Bahia Concepcion's coast, crossing a muddy road to the mangroves, where we set camp, played Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, and finished a bottle of Hornitos.
It was a good time to untie Sonora, and explore the mangrove shallows. I put on my headlamp, and shoved off into the dark. Mangroves hold a special place in my heart; their awkwardness, their housing of strange creatures. Like the shady place beneath a banyan, or a David Grisman Quintet ditty, they are tangled, confusing, subtle and hip. At closer inspection, the mangroves are cities in miniature; one-way streets of fish, and crabs, and reddish egrets bobbing their heads - the yellowish interplay of light in the leaves is Brooklyn's flickering neon.
What in light-muddled night assumes an eerie bioluminescence, is in complete darkness, magic. Hans and I understood little about the flagellate plankton that glow bright green when slightly agitated as a way of scaring predators. But days later, when we settled our campsite at a palapa in Bahia Coyote, we rolled our kayaks off the sand, out into the quiet Cortez, and north, to Isla Piedra, and on its Eastern shores.
Where there was no light in a clouded sky, we saw our way by the 'cities' of plankton bursting green as they hit the rocks, the shoreline, the bottom of the sea. When a cloud of green burst six feet wide on the sea-floor, it meant we had startled a ray, and when a dozen zigzags shot into the air, we had propelled a squadroon of ballyhoo into flight.
jumped into Hans' lap.
"I got a fish in my boat!"
Plankton, which means 'wanderer' or 'drifter' in greek, actually refers to any plant or animal which is at the mercy of the flow of the tide. A fish with weak fins, as a jellyfish, as the microscopic animals and plants which make up the variety of plankton-types, we are at the mercy of the dark, and the light of these microscopic wanderers.
We drift along the edge of an island we cannot see. It is a Hayao Miyazaki world, undescribable on film or television. The speed of a fish in panic is impossible to see correctly in daylight, even for scuba divers, who lack a top-side perspective. When something bigger than a ballyhoo comes trailing along the coast, its tail of green light extends four feet behind it, and when it's startled, its destiny into the deep is only put in quotations by a streaming biolume.
Bahia Coyote is a bay within a bay within the Sea of Cortez. Within this bay are several islands, all of them are quite distinct from the one we are circling now. Brother and I opted to visit the lot of them. We double-dry-bagged utility ropes, carabiners, snorkeling equipment, water bottles, a few stashes of food, camera equipment and life jackets into the dry-holds of the kayaks.
It was five-thirty in the morning, and I could have been foaming at the mouth, because the sea was already beginning to stew winds funneled from the northern-exit of Bahia Conception. The three miles to Isla Guapa lent itself to high enough winds that most of the time, I could hardly see Brother Hans as his boat dipped under the white caps. When he did rise, he was grinning. Certainly, he felt that same sense of being free as I did. In a small boat in a big sea, you have a lot of places to go, without any traffic signs or traffic to keep you in order.
Isla Guapa, which unlike the other islands in the bay, is not protected against the open Bahia Conception, and without this protection, its black rocks are bare - no vegetation, nothing living except the pelicanos who paint it white. This gives it somewhat of an ominous look, given there is no shoreline.
bend around the back-side of Isla Guapa, where we are protected from wind,
and find a nook to lodge our boats against. Wading along its southern
coast, Hans finds a series of concave lipped-ledges. He says, "Follow
me," hoisting himself onto the ledge and bouldering out of site.
"This is great for learning how to climb, because if you fall, you just fall into the water."
Hans teaches to replace fear with reason and calm. "See that foothold, it looks sketchy but its not. Now place your weight outward and grab along that ledge."
I did this with some hesitant success, and after one fall into the sea, I followed Brother Hans around the bend. "This is where we climb up," he said. I followed him. For a climber, this short boulder-effort is a walk-in-the-park, for me I see plenty of jagged rocks below my feet.
"One of the things about climbing," he said, is
that climbing up is much easier than climbing down. You first." "No way,
can't do it," I said.
"Of course you can."
"What if I just climbed a little lower."
When I jumped off a rock into the sea in an abandoned island in Mexico, I knew why we came here, and why Hans made me jump. He followed with a splash and said, "Hey, we're in Mexico!"
It is remarkable, how, despite the relative obscurity of a place - Isla Guapa, home of the blue-footed booby and endangered osprey - man-glass appears anywhere, even here. It is shameful, but representative of Northern Mexico in general, where trash is everywhere, anywhere you go. Relative cleanliness is deceptive; because trash is mostly just visual environmentalism. We have our white-trash throwing their Pabst's on the roadside. The Mexicans have their Mexican-trash throwing their Dos-Equis in the ditches.
Whether or not someone is there to clean it all up or not, the Sea of Cortez is still being raped, and the Colorado River a dying river, despite how many clean-up crews are working their shores. Most of environmentalism is obtuse at best from the vantage of home, but travel objectifies it; makes the smallness of the world apparent; the influence of man clear, and the purpose of it all in bold-type. To see something with your own eyes is to understand something in a way that no book or painting can imagine, no photograph can cover, no song can turn alive.
Carl Sagan once wrote of discovery, "When you make the finding yourself - even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light - you'll never forget it." Those television sportsmen do it because they are still in love with man's basic desire for sport: to run, to challenge oneself, to compete and to hurdle oneself into the air. This thought startles me, as Brother Hans and I leave Isla Guapa for Isla Bargo - sport is man's closest tie to nature. In our modern world, it is our only common tie to it. It is impossible to love sport, and not love the idea of conservation.
The wedge-shaped Isla Bargo is rich in plant and bird life, and like many of the others, hosts a giant osprey nest at its helm. On the southern edge, where days before we had snorkeled along the shore with Father - triggerfish, skates, a pufferfish, surgeon generals and all sorts of damsels - we were now just paddling along its cliffs, looking up and looking for anything nesting above us.
As we did this we pondered the flat islet-peak, and decided to paddle around to the northern white-sandy shore. Up to a peak of the straggly sour pitaya, the pink-flowered Pitayita, the barrel-shaped Biznaga and even the columnar old man's cactus, which features a grayish-white 'head of hair.' At the broad flat midsection of the island's peak, there are several stands of chain link cholla and a few cardon cactuses.
The green of a cactus is much brighter than the green of trees - almost lime - and against the white sand of Isla Bargo, there is an elegance to this place; the elegance of simple lines and broad strokes. From this view of the entire bay, the canyons, the mountains behind them, the open sea beyond the bay, the dolphins in the deep, we stood there in silence. It means much more to drive to a place than to fly it, I thought.
I remembered the girl from the office a few days before: She leaned over my desk and said, "So, gonna be roughin' it in Mexico, huh?"
"Roughing it is when a golfer loses his balls."
"I just don't know how you can be outside where it's so dirty."
"Kim," I said. "See those vents up there?"
"That's circulated air from all those other departments. Can you imagine the kinds of diseases they have in accounting. Their perversities and sicknesses? You don't know where they were last night, and you're breathing their air."
"You know that dust is 80% human wastes? Indoors is sick. Cities breed disease. You should get out sometime. Fresh air."
Our flashlights found the white bags long before we got to them. We didn't know what they were or why they were there. Only that this, the isolated Pacific coastline north of El Rosario, is no place for piles of white bags. Brother Hans felt the bags and mentioned that they were moist. Father noted the small piles of black pebbles on the ground. "They are drying whatever is inside. These are some sort of special bags that let the moisture permeate out."
The flashlights caught the sifting machines on the rock-beach below the cliff; just a wooden frame and a mesh wire. Father said that he had seen men sifting the rocks hours ago. Crabs, I thought, this was a crab fishery. Jade, Brother had argued, having heard that divers off the California coast hunt for jade. Later that night, to wash pots in the ocean, we climbed down the cliffs and onto the black beach of black rocks, where there is darkness upon darkness even with the flashlights. "Do you notice," I asked Hans, "that the large rocks are farthest from the waterline, and the smallest against the breakest waves?"
We gathered these stones in our hands and let them spill back into the tide - the sound like an instrument. Every rock had its color - the blacks, the greys, the beiges, the ochres. Baja's history was right here, rolling up on the shore. Father said, "this is what they are bagging. The pebbles." "Ornamental pebbles?" Hans was thinking out loud. "You could make quite a living at this," he said. "I don't think so," said father. "I think this is supplemental income," I said. "This isn't someone's career."
In the morning, Father and I made coffee and looked at the sifters, examining their simplicity - the way the larger stones would separate from the smaller pebbles. A pair pulled up to the cliff and greeted us. "You have any beer?" they said. I said, "we have water. You want water." "Si." I offered them my canister as they began to haul white bags up the cliff, resting for a few minutes between each load.
We tried to communicate with them about the contents of the bag, "Pescado?" "No, Senor." It was futile, of course, and so I drew an aquarium - a square, some fish, and some pebbles.
Senor. Si," he said as I pointed to the pebbles. Aquarium pebbles.
"How much do you get for each bag?" Father asked.
"You want to buy?" the Mexican asked, used to Americanos asking the prices of things.
"No, how much they pay you for each bag?"
"Ah, Senor. Seven dollars."
Seven dollars a bag. Not bad. "But the demand can't warrant much. Otherwise
they wouldn't be hauling these bags one-by-one," we said, driving the
dirt road to the Transpeninsular Highway One.
We were playing Charles Mingus on this unusually clear day; the view of the volcanic tablelands was brilliant; coastal volcanoes, and islands of them to the north. Some time ago, the crust of the earth which floats on a bed of fire, shifted here - the pacific plate pulled its way from the North American plate, creating a rift which allowed the Pacific to flow into what is now the Sea of Cortez.
This created Baja California - a uniquely odd and thin Peninsula of land which extends south from San Diego for eight-hundred miles. This, the northern edge of the great Vizcaino Desert is but sandstone, shale, and conglomerate deposited in a basin: A product of an age geologists call the Cretaceous. The black rocks, however, come from that series of oceanic spires that begin somewhere north of San Quintin and follow, more or less, our route onto land and into the citrus plains of Baja Sur. The volcanos were also a product of the stretching of Mexico; as if the belly of the Earth were split here. Unlike the paler rocks, these were produced in a single spout of flame. The limestones and sandstones formed over the millennia; deposited silt in what was then underwater.
officials, I thought, passing into the Southern state of Baja Sur. In
Tijuana, and five minutes into Mexico, the Policia had fired up their
sirens and signaled us out. "Oh, Shit," Father said as we reared to the
side of the road. The two of them began to whisper about how your supposed
to take their offer to the police station. The officers, with their snazzy-jelled
haircuts and uncut black uniforms said,
"You speak Spanish?"
"None of us speak a word of Spanish," I said.
"You realize you are speeding?"
I was driving 45 mph. "No sir."
"Have you ever been pulled over in Mexico before, sir?"
"May I see your registration, please?"
I didn't have my registration. I said, "Absolutely," and gave him some paperwork from my last maintenance tune-up. He looked over it carefully, or at least that's what he thought we thought. I already knew what was coming. "I can give you the ticket here, or we can go to the station," the officer said, "but if I give you a ticket here, I can't give you a receipt." "We'll just pay for it here," I said, imagining my car-keys thrusting into his eyes. "Six hundred pesos." I gave him sixty dollars. "That's sixty-four dollars," the officer with the large head and poofy-jelled hair said, "enjoy your stay in Mexico."
Although brother and father would rant for some time about 'what's right' (taking the offer to go to the station), I figured that the politics of corruption are for Senor Fox, whose status in Baja California is that of hero and corruption-killer. Three unfinished bottles of tequila, some limes, some pears, some avocados, those were for us. The infringements that disciples of power enact toward us is a matter of punishment of time. Six hundred pesos is nothing next to thirty-days in Jail in Sinaloa, or years of courtroom battles in California because some fuck decided to enter your life into the legal system.
Now, at the border in the salt-mining and whale-tourism town of Guerrero Negro, the Officiales in yellow-chemical suits sprayed the truck with herbicides and said, "You have any contraband? Fruits? Vegetables?" "Yes!" we said, opening the cargo door. "Here's some tomatoes," I said, giving him the contents of our cooler. "And limes, and pears. Oh and here's some oranges. You want our avocados too?" "I think I see another pear in your cooler," the Official said. Hours south, past fields of red-rock volcanic lava-tubes, distant volcanoes, and the palm-lined citrus town called San Ignacio, we stopped at a datil stand to buy palm dates.
Small ratty dogs followed us to the stand, where weathered men were playing Backgammon and sipping Tecate. The store owner threw rocks at the dogs, and issued them to leave us alone. Hans said, "never throw your date-seeds out the window. Bring out everything you bring in." Pulling away, the store owner picked a few more stones for her dogs and they yipped and jumped. People, and the way they treat their animals, is a tell-all of their own lives. We passed Volcan Tres Virgenes, the third largest peak in the Baja's, listening to Miles Davis' and John Coltrane's Flamenco Sketches. When we passed a zone of knobby pencil cholla, and the high notes kicked in on the piano, I looked over at Brother Hans, and back at Father, none of them talking. I realized that home is not a run-down house in LA with a palm tree and a grill, or even a fireplace and some snow - but a collection of family, together wherever that may be.
Along the way we happened across our third overturned truck. This one hadn't been so lucky, considering the black ash surrounding its hull, the ambulances. The chassis may be Mercedes or Freightliner, "but," said Father, "the weight-load is sometimes four times capacity. The truck just buckles under the pressure." Overturned trucks are commonplace in Baja; northward freight is a tight business, deadlines are tough to meet, roads have tight curves; a recipe for disaster.
stopped at a Federale outpost,for questioning. A shrimpy sport said, "You speak Spanish?"
"Absolutely not a word."
"Open your trunk."
"Nice backpack," the federale said to my brother.
"How much does it cost?"
"Two hundred pesos?"
"Two hundred dollars." He examined it with his counterpart, looking at the straps, and the way the cumberbund was fashioned. I respected the admiration, because it spoke of their tough desert training, and respect for quality.
the local Policia, the young Federale is motivated not by corruption,
but by adventure. The shrimpy Federale said, "you want to learn some Spanish?"
"Yeah," Hans said.
The boy hung his hands below his chest and said, "Chicas. You like Chicas?"
His pudgier comrade with an AK-47, who was watching a fly, took a moment to pause and say, "Chicas," he said. "Chicas." North of Guerrero Negro, we followed the tangled system of unused roads to the sea and left the truck in the road. Brother and Father walked north, into miles of white-grey dunes. I began to set camp before following their footsteps along the sea, where dunes spilled into a slender bay - part of a system of lagoons that bear the annual migration of the once extinct-bound gray whale.
Like the elephant seal, once slaughtered to the brink, the gray whale is a triumph of Mexican environmentalism. I walked for a mile before finding Father on the top of a dune, where we walked across another half-mile of sub-quicksand; a kind of happenstance of the tides which left a consistency of wet mushroom. I found Brother Hans some time later, sitting on a dune. He said, ""There are four elements here.sand, wind, sunlight, and philosophy. Watch this." I followed him to a crescent dune where he inserted his hand at its base and dug out a handful of sand. A few particles of sand began to fill the gap, and in a matter of minutes, the entire dune began to readjust itself until the rim caved in and reacquainted itself a few inches lower.
This is history accelerated, a model of geology, and everything they taught me about in physics," Brother Hans said: limestone had deposited in these broad, flat coastal plains in times of flooding, and loosened in a constant Aeolian depth of time to form stretches of barren dune-lands.
walked along the shore, the three of us, until I stepped into a sand that
quivered and shook like jello. "Uh, I am afraid this is quicksand," Brother
Hans said. "We better watch where we step." So instead we walked the rest
of the way along the dune-ridges. At night, we cooked for hours as the
mist of the sea turned into a deep fog. Everything turned to black, so
we opened the truck doors, played Ennio Morricone's soundtrack 'The Good,
The Bad, and the Ugly' at high volume.
The inherent creepiness of this album was enough to scare us out of our being frightened, of being in the middle of nowhere, so we finished the last of our bottles of tequila. In the morning, in a thick Pacific fog, we packed camp and headed north. Everything was green here - the goofy datilillo's, which extend above everything, and the coastal agave's were in full bloom, the sands were covered with Checkerblooms and Devil's Claw and yellow pricklypoppy, a carpet of yellow and violet.
the immigration checkpoint north of Guerrero Negro, we were waved by a
triplet of Officiales. "Immigration papers," one said, peaking in the
back window of the truck.
"Oh, shit," Father said.
"We don't have any immigration papers," I said.
"No immigration papers?" the officialle looked angered. "Okay, park your car, go in that room over there."
We complied, and seated ourselves in a dimly lit, gray room filled with forms and stampers. I have always been prejudiced against people with stampers, ever since going to the library. "So, you have no immigration papers?"
I said, "they are supposed to give us the papers at this checkpoint. But nobody gave us any."
The Officiale was not happy. He was droopy-eyed, and looked more Spanish than Mayan, which meant he was probably imported here from Mexico City. Punishment for poor service at a higher post, perhaps?
"This is very bad," he said, stamping papers with his stamper like he was the most important man in the world. And not just stamping, but thrusting his stamper on the paper with the force of a psycho with a knife.
expression on Father and Brother's faces suggested they thought he was
"What do we need to sign?"
"You need to fill out this form, and this form, and you need to go to Guerrero Negro and pay the bank 180 pesos for each of you today."
That would come out to a total of about sixty-three dollars. The amount sounded familiar. Looking at our passports, the Officiale stamped some more papers, and sent us on our way. I told Father that we already paid our immigration fees to some corrupt cops in Tijuana, and that we weren't going to pay again.
Northward, we passed again through the canyons of El Rosario, where a plentitude of white bags had been freshly stacked along the highway. Later, passing the modern vineyards in the pine and scrub backlands south of Ensenada, we saw them, the truckloads of white bags headed for the United States, still dripping with seawater.