Journey to Land’s End...and Beyond
keith harmon snow
(Published by All Nippon Airways WINGSPAN magazine, December, 1996.)
This is desert. It is 102°F in the sun
and there is very little shade. I have water but no food and I have not eaten for the four days that I have been here — in the Sierras of Baja, just north of Los Cabos. Flying down the mountain of my quest I am feeding on the energies of exuberance: My body feels cleansed, my mind is sharp and my imagination is explosively vivid. It is a psychological and physical victory. Nonetheless, my fears haunt me mildly: Will I have the strength to hike out of here? Will I recover the trail? Will exhaustion take me like fever? Fears be dammed. I strip down under the sun and tease those circling vultures. I am on a Vision Quest...
Here I am in Mexico. Well, Baja — the other Mexico. Behind me is the trip, bus wheels singing over a thousand miles of tar, Tijuana to Todos Santos — destination Los Cabos and Land’s End. The journey has transformed me. Ideas are displaced by realities, imagination repainted by experience. From Todos Santos I explore the wild continuum, meditate on consciousness, stalk the elusive insight. On our landscapes of technology, moments of insight and revelation are rare. In nature they spurt and bloom and splash.
“Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair,” wrote Annie Dillard. “A fish flashes then dissolves in water before my eyes like so much salt. Deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration; they say of nature that it conceals with a grand nonchalance, and they say of vision that it is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils. For nature does reveal as well as conceal...”
Now-You-Don’t-See It, Now-You-Do
By stubborn luck or subliminal desire my explorations often conclude on a beach where I scout the blow of whales. Forehead and neck and the back of my legs are sunburned but sightings go like this: POOO-ffff and dive. Wonder and expectation. POOO-ffff and dive. Empathy. POOO-ffff and dive. Resignation. Sometimes I jump up and wave my arms when they surface. I beg them to approach the shore. I whisper a tribute and a prayer.
When my skin gets too hot, or the allure of wholeness too provocative, or just for the challenge of it, I swim after them. I run and flit and roll with the surf. But the drop is steep and the shorebreak deadly and the surf batters me. Standing on a bluff nearby is a wooden cross with pelican bones and plastic carnations strewn at the base, a monument to one who perished off this point. No wonder the crowd: All these molecules of sand and pelicans and crabs and a lone coyote, all competing for prime real estate. Not a human being seen. My kind of beach.
Land is everywhere for sale. Town is a mile inland across fields of Spanish cowboys in turned-up sleeves, black boots and stiff-brimmed hats, who sweat to turn dust into crops in a climate of uncertain hope. There are big old trees and the shells of old trucks, cannibalized and rusty, where birds working the harvest of insects are silenced by the sputter and pop of irrigation pumps, where water flows thick and silent in dirt trenches. The farmers here toil with integrity and pride and a meager budget of wooden hoes but change looms over them like an unstated threat.
The ocean is a promise. My days at the sea are arbitrary, capricious and irrational. Waves etch the shore. Energy ebbs and flows. I absorb. I float. I snoop out the burrows of crabs. I investigate and question: Does desert end where mountain beings? Would desert agree? Someone has said that water is unknown to a fish until it discovers air, still I imagine split-tailed fish in the sea soaring from shallow to deep like those frigate birds diving in an ocean of sky. Are fins and feathers so different? I bob like flotsam in the turquoise waves. I breathe. I ponder distant mountains.
From Todos Santos to Los Cabos are beaches stocked with boaters, kayakers, wind and wave surfers, and sunny bodies. At La Playa de la Puerta I run miles with a gringo, Mitch. But a four-wheel-drive roaring down the beach with four drunken sailors spoils that. For peace of mind I sit down to read. Ed Abbey soon has me laughing.
“Jesus Christ, lady, roll down that window!” he wrote in “Desert Solitaire.” “You can’t see the desert if you can’t smell it. Dusty? Of course it’s dusty — this is Utah! But it’s good dust, good red Utah dust, rich in iron, rich in irony. So turn that motor off. Get out of that piece of iron... and walk — walk — WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!”
The Sharks at Punta Lobos
Dawn sees me walking the dusty grid of town. My friend Miguel Felix Perez passes by in a vintage ‘56 Chevy pickup with blue marlins painted on the red doors. I skirt the reluctance of yard dogs and the teeth of cactus to arrive on a ridge overlooking the wooden cross and the undertow. Below is a tidal marsh, stagnant and fecund, boiling with green algae, where fish flash in the sun like silver daggers and pelicans drift and hang and scoop them out with a splash and an up-tipped gullet.
Punta Lobos, midday, is deception. It is a fisherman’s cove down a long, sandy, dune-cut beach, with a few skeletons and no footprints, that rises to low hills of cactus. The sand betrays the comings-and-goings of boats and trucks but the cove is silent and there is only the alabaster gaze of Christ watching from a small Catholic shrine cast in pink cement. Pelicans float in the waves, glide overhead, perch on desert cliffs. They hang in expectation of a feast.
Over the saddle of the mountain are jagged cliffs and emerald pools that trap the tide, where fish dart and hide amongst the black spines of sea urchins. As with the hidden coves from San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas, the sea here gushes through caves and crevices and spouts like geysers through blowholes. Yellowtail fish rise and fall with the swells as they nibble and pick at crustaceans stuck to the walls of sea-canyons. Crabs scatter, plunging into cracks, scurrying beneath the water on slimy rocks washed by the salty froth. Midday shadows are as thin as the vultures overhead.
There are no signs of a struggle but a little crab has died and dried in the sun. A testimonial to nature’s mysteries, the final wonderful or miserable earthly act of this stunning crab was to emerge from the waves and grip this stone with a force and fervor that not even the mighty sea could dislodge. But did it then just die? Why did the tide not take it? Did no gull see it here? What was this crab thinking? Was it conscious of its imminent death? Was its final act one of cowardice or of courage? Did it die in stubborn refusal to relinquish the pinnacle of this rock against all sensibility? Did vanity kill it? Was this a cantankerous crab? A lonely crab? Was it heartbroken by the loss of a lover? Was this the final triumph of this wild crab’s will? “I will die here! My back warmed by the sun! In the cool breath of the sea! Let crab-dom remember me!”
At Punta Lobos the boats are returning. With throttles jammed open they jump from waves to sand, skidding to a stop with propellers spinning and pelicans fleeing. Toothy sharks are split open on the beach and their sleek and glossy babies spill out on the sand with wide-eyed innocence. Babies and entrails are flipped up and swallowed whole by frenzied pelicans. Migel Felix Perez weighs in the sharks, and in the back of his pickup we ride into town.
Valley of Burros and Doves
The smile on my face has begun to crack. The hoopla of weekend festivities has died and the Catholic priest has taken confession and prayed for the sinners in the church and the seĖorita in black has whispered “how nice it is to get away from Cabo San Lucas to see the real Mexico.” Longing for solitude (wilderness) or the anonymity of a crowd (Los Cabos), I am leaving on a vision quest.
On the trees in the desert, faded clothes hang to dispel the ghosts of local belief. They may belong to the Shaman living on a farm there. There is a shrine. On the altar are images of animals and Jesus, and a vase of flowers. The refrigerator rack in front tells me that the shrine is no icon to materialism, cheap and artificial, but a pillar of someone’s reality. From a mesa nearby the bells of burros and the cooing of doves ring over the valley of cactus that foots the mountains. Owls call to one another over the mice in the desert. The rivers have turned to stone and it is there that I hide a gallon of water and a can of peaches for my return. I go with water, four small cans of juice, and no food.
The mountain imposes its bigness without tact and my approach draws canyons and cliffs out of obscurity. Sunset finds me on a plateau with a heady fire and a few rough words for the cactus and the sun. Night is cold and dew settles on my sunburned face and the meteors upstage the stars. Soft, gray clouds drift over a sky of moonlight blue like petroglyphs of fish, all skeletons and bones. The place hums like a wild and passionate poem, each creature its own stanza. But it is not day’s poem, and I listen.
La Sierra de la Laguna
The moon floats over the mountains and the sun boils into the sea and the thin shadows of cactus stretch over the high desert like Spanish gunslingers in a ghost town. Vultures crest the ridge so near that I hear the wind wash over their wings as they circle and glide over the vigilant rabbits and iguanas of their hunger. Butterflies flit and dance in chaos. Hummingbirds moor and hang off my nose, humming in my cross-eyed surprise like school teachers inspecting my face for truth or deceit.
Wild burros scare me and I scare them. The forest is sparse, dry and verdant all at once and a veil of moss hangs everywhere like witches hair and green cotton candy. The mountain swallows me up.
This is wilderness. There are no clocks, no motors and no lights. Humanity faded with the footprints and graffiti of the summit path. A big silver jet crosses the moon in silence. But the earth beneath my feet roars. Minus the rituals of humanity — like preparing and eating food — the layers of my psychosocial conditioning are shed like the skin of a molting snake. The myths of society unravel. My thoughts feed on the banquet of my imagination if I let them. I imagine the cafes and pubs of Los Cabos, the sidewalk grills of the Boulevard Marina, and a fresh, cool bath in those serpentine seas.
The Feast of Land’s End
Los Cabos is a banquet for the imagination, a smorgasbord for the rich and famous, and even for those few intrepid ascetics who wander out of the desert with the unrequited hunger of a Conquistador. It was there at Mi Casa, a small cobalt-blue cafe in an ancient house overlooking the rustic fountains and cobblestone courtyards of the Plaza Bonito, that I challenged the chef to produce the feast foretold by the hunger of my quest.
Hiking from mountains to sea I revered in the bliss of accomplishment and self-reliance and the people I met in Los Cabos demanded the prescription for my obvious joy. I snorkeled in the Sea of Cortes and drifted in the tenuous tide of the corals and lounged in the cool shade of the Plaza Bonito. But no matter the magic of the local musicians, nor the artistic perfection of the chef, no measure of modernity could account for the expansive experience of my five-day quest. Like those vultures that tracked my uncaring excursion, my thoughts circled back to the mountains.
An Ecological Self-ishness
There were no cafes or restaurants or cola machines, and no advertisements there. There was nothing selling to my hunger and after four days without food I was not hungry. It was a psychological and physical victory.
All my senses were enhanced. Scents were rich and distinct. Screams of animals were sharper, their calls more lively, their terrors more real. Coyotes howled and yelped with such vigor and frequency that I imagined them encircled about their devoured prey, singing their bloody thanks and communal passions. Birds sang louder, more solemn or sweet. Cardinals glowed redder, jays bluer.
Hummingbirds floated and darted like inquisitive fish and every encounter stunned me anew.
Iguanas hung like fixtures welded to rock, until seen, and then they ran for their lives, dropped over ledges, dove into cracks, slid and fell and skidded out of sight. Their wildness was refreshing. Like shooting stars they dazzled and disappeared with a lingering tail. But the day’s successes were not measured in quotas of iguanas or sightings of meteors. And while I encountered no other human there, I could not say that I was alone. To do so would be to identify my self as set apart or distinct from nature. I sought connection, not alienation. By “self” I do not mean my isolated, competitive little ego striving for gratification and achievement, but my ecological Self, in all its myriad relations and interconnections with the slime and the dust and the stars.
“Traditionally, the maturity of the self develops through three stages,” wrote philosopher Arne Naess, “from ego to social self and from social self to metaphysical self. Through the wider Self, every living being is connected intimately and from this intimacy follows the capacity of identification and its natural consequences, the practice of nonviolence. No moralizing is necessary, just as we do not require moralizing to make us breathe. We need to cultivate our insight.”
Thus did I seek a metaphysical Me. In sunlight I explored the woods and searched for panther and howled with the cunning coyotes. I sat like a stone Buddha., stalked roadrunners without roads, slept when sleep called. In sunlight I contemplated the boldness and determination of plants. In starlight I hollered into black valleys and shivered when echoes desert me. I tested the sonar of bats. I savored the cold mists of low clouds and the hot scents of night fires which filled the forest like an omnipotent mood. I sought my deeper Self.
The sun rose, wielded power unchallenged, set. I searched for miracles, for communion with those hummingbirds, for the questions dictated by those fiery crabs of revelation. I opened my mind and stared at the world. In the words of Annie Dillard: “The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”
I live for that moment too, for the earth’s heartstoppers, for those dazzling seconds of insight. Baja is a wild show where time is as easily marked by the meanderings of iguanas as by the revolutions of planets. The vision comes, and goes, and mostly I wait for the crack to reopen.
“If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull,” wrote John Steinbeck, in “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” “but it is fierce and hostile and sullen.”
Steinbeck sold Baja short. Baja is lush in so many ways: lush adj 1 a: growing vigorously esp. with luxuriant foliage b: lavishly productive: as (1): fertile (2): thriving (3): characterized by abundance: plentiful (4): prosperous, profitable 2 a: savory, delicious b: appealing to the senses c: opulent, sumptuous.
Baja is also rich, as in the riches of the “penniless man with much love and happiness.” But it is the fierce and hostile and sullen Baja that calls me back, like a lover or a challenge.
As a witness to the blood red sheen that often glazes the Gulf of California in the light of rising or falling suns, I am drawn by the awe and wonder for which Conquistador Hernan Cortez, conqueror of Mexico, dubbed this the Vermilion Sea. The big water dividing Baja from mainland Mexico is a “poor person’s Galapagos” and like the islands and bays of the Pacific it boils prolific with sea serpents and terrestrial beings.
“The estuaries we paddle on the Pacific are protected by uninhabited barrier islands. No roads, planes or boats,” says Colin Garland, founder of Raven Adventures, whose Baja excursions can be tailored toward education, kayaking, climbing, wildlife and photo safaris, or adventure leadership training. Combining education and philosophy with thoughtful wilderness experience, Raven Adventures (U.S.A.: tel/fax: 508-724-3530) is a leader in responsible ecotourism.
“There are deep channels close to shore and dolphins and whales swim right outside your tent,” says Garland. “Sea crossings depend on the tides and the cycles of the moon. We hike volcanoes. Track animals. We’ve seen whales and dolphins giving birth. You can literally stand in a foot of water and have dolphins slide right up to make contact. I had a gray whale push her babies up to the surface and bump my kayak. This huge ecological process was going on long before humans arrived and it will last long after we leave.”
The early missionaries marooned in zealous exile at the tip of the Baja California peninsula soon met the same fate as the savage Conquistadors and the Pericue Indians. Later, the 20th-century visionaries who named it Los Cabos, Spanish for The Capes, foretold with uncanny clairvoyance that the stark desert and untamed sea would someday be transformed into a postmodern playground for thrill-and-pleasure seekers sporting ten-gallon wallets and five-star success stories.
A testimony to late-20th-century Western Civilization, Los Cabos offers a litany of wonders from paragliding to glass-bottom boats, from swimming pool bars to desert excursions on horseback. The golf courses can be challenging. So can the pretty people hustling the alleys and boulevards. And while there are no sharks in the swimming pools, the surfing, according to several self-described experts I met, can be plenty big and scary.
Los Cabos is legendary among the spring-break college crowd as the “Hell-raising capital of America” and what the billiard and beer halls lack in grace, the restaurateurs cook up with imagination. Sassier joints offer the saintly breakfast miracle of levantando los muertos — resurrecting the dead — for the mourning mass repenting the sins of Fiesta.
“If you knew you were not going to be into fish for two or three hours a good big breakfast would be the thing,” wrote Hemingway, who hooked some 52 marlin in the summer of 1933, when 11,150 were taken. But he certainly wasn’t writing about Baja’s Bisbee Black and Blue Marlin Jackpot Tournament. Held with pious regularity at the end of October, the Tournament inspires fleets of professional fisherman and sometimes inebriated sailors to disembark the land, with million-dollar dinghies and electronic sonars, in pursuit of gilled specimens worth a half-million dollar bounty.
“Cabin cruisers with the most sophisticated gadgets can’t even find the fish,” says Art MacKenzie, outrigger-turned-whale-watcher. “Fishing has taken its toll and out of fear for its life, the industry is threatening to switch to catch-and-release.” MacKenzie guarantees sightings of gray whales most of the year. For those species of tourist seeking sunset-and -erpent dreamscapes from shore, the verandah at Whale Watcher Bar is a favored vantage point.
And too, there are the many bon-appetite Bistros with wines as expansive and dry as the desert backdrop, or as cool and full-bodied as the ocean frontage. There are white-mission and bell-tower hotels, quaint and tranquil, and hikes in the wild as treacherous as the undertow at certain Los Cabos beaches. Lovers stroll the gardens and plazas where Aztec and Mayan gods, turned to stone and draped in bougainvillea, stand solemn and silent. These are some of the many faces of Los Cabos.
Chances are, if it exists, you will find it here. And if it doesn’t exist, someone is sure to create it — for a price.