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Imagine yourself aboard a Manila galleon, one of the Spanish treasure ships that, once every year in the mid-1700s, made the trip from Manila across the wild Pacific Ocean on the prevailing westerly winds, then scooted south to Acapulco on the California Current and favorable winds.
Storms have driven you a bit north of the standard route. As the galleon turns south you catch glimpses of a rocky, surf-washed shore overtowered by huge conifers. The pilot turns the ship's bow out to sea, for he sees whitewater and spume ahead, indicating that a reef runs far out into the ocean from the shore, posing danger to the galleon. Soon the water turns muddy, and huge driftwood logs, with roots as big around as whales, bob in the waves. You suspect that large rivers flow into the ocean here. You want to land at an estuary to take on fresh water, but the pilot counsels against it, reminding you that several galleons have sunk off this coast since the Manila trade began.
Suddenly a huge headland emerges from the fog. Cape Mendocino. You're back on the regular galleon route. Steep mountains loom forbiddingly off the starboard bow. A few leagues further south, cliffs give way to sand dunes-still overtowered by those huge trees, some of which you estimate must be more than 50 brazos tall.
After you pass a large sandy hook reaching far into the ocean (later named Point Arena) the galleon once again runs along a shore of rocky cliffs. Sea otters watch you from the safety of kelp beds and sea lions bark from offshore rocks. You pass a rocky headland sheltering a secure harbor (later to be known as Bodega Bay) and shortly after sail past Point Reyes, with its white cliffs (that werelikened to the cliffs of Dover by that notorious pirate, Francis Drake). Just south you note a muddy discoloration of the water. Surely a large river must flow into the ocean through a gap in these steep headlands, but the pilot points to the unbroken wall of cliffs and a white line of the surf and says it's impossible. He refuses to risk the ship by sailing closer to shore. Yet it is here that in 1769 a land expedition led by Gaspar de Portola discovers San Francisco Bay, the greatest harbor on the coast, and in 1775 your acquaintance Manuel de Ayala will brave the entrance and moor in the vast protected waters off
beautiful Angel Island.
Now, the forest-clad mountains retreat from the shore. Coastal terraces are covered with meadows of lush grass, studded with oaks, pines, and cypresses. Occasionally, you spot herds of deer and elk. Lagoons, marked by swarms of waterfowl and shorebirds, interrupt a grim line of cliffs.
South of Point Año Nuevo, where huge elephant seals loll on the beaches, the shore recedes at "Santa Cruz" to form a vast bay with a long crescent of sandy beach. At its southern end a rocky headland, covered with pines and cypresses growing almost to the water's edge, shelters the bay. The sand here is so white you think at first it must be snow. Surely this must be the port of Monterey described in his logs by Sebastian Vizcaino 150 years ago.
South of this bay there is no safe anchorage for a hundred leagues or more. Tall mountains rise straight from the sea, their southern slopes covered with meadows and oaks. As the galleon scuds ahead of the wind, every sail set and drawing well, the mountains give way to rolling hills. You see miles of sand dunes, a few almost as high as mountains, before you reach Point Conception, the most notorious cape on the coast, a place of fogs and storms. But you're lucky and have the wind and current on your side. Racing past the dreaded rocks, you suddenly find yourself in a changed world. A golden sun shines above a cobalt-blue sea, highlighting the white sands and tawny hills of the shore and setting off the chain of Channel Islands in dark relief against the sea. You can clearly see the large domed huts of the natives on the bluffs. As you sail past San Miguel Island (where Juan Cabrillo, the explorer, died and was buried more than 150 years ago) the natives approach the galleon in their canoes, hoping to trad
e fruit and meat for fish hooks and trinkets.
Sailing between the islands and the shore, you note that the landscape becomes drier, more barren; scrub and chaparral rather than forest cover the seaward slopes of mountains rising from the sea. The air is warm, the light fine and clear. A large plain opens up to the east. Grass and cactus dominate the vegetation of the coastal terraces, but here and there copses of oaks and pines interrupt the open prairies.
Every few leagues, the line of cliffs is broken by freshwater lagoons. From the heaving deck of the galleon, you can just make out the tops of the tule and willow thickets, and see the line of thick-trunked sycamore trees marching down to the sea along stream and river banks.
Soon you sail past Point Loma and stop for a few days at the sheltered harbor of San Diego with its long sand spit. Rumor has it that this will be the sight of Alta California's first presidio and mission to be established by the Viceroy of Mexico. Just south of here, the pilot tells you, the land turns very dry. You've reached the desert shores of the California Peninsula, and the pilot turns the galleon's bow seaward. From here to Cabo San Lucas you will sail far out to sea, to avoid the hidden reefs of this arid shore. And then, 2,000 miles south of San Diego you will reach Acapulco with your treasure ship.