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FIRST LIGHT began to etch the rocky eastern horizon, and a rooster crowed for about the hundredth time since it had begun waking me up at three A.M. Soon it would be light enough for me to evade the chain-link cholla and other spiny cacti — no casual challenge on my route to the top of the mountain.
Crawling out of bed while Ann still dozed in the cozy back of our Ford van, I drew in a deep breath of anticipation. At times like this — at the beginning — life is full of wonder, and the sharpened edge of the unknown quickens my heart. The deep blue behind the morning stars promised a clear day, a day full of possibilities. The empty space out there somehow drew me to it. Nothing diminished my eagerness to get out and see what was around me, to learn what I could about this part of the earth. After dressing warmly and grabbing my camera pack and water bottle, I was on the way, aiming to meet the sunrise at the summit.
Except for the roosters' machismo calls, the village of San Javier, six hundred miles south of the border on the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, lay still and silent. The surrounding dry mesas stood boldly in black as the day began to glow behind them, refracted light just beginning to reveal important details that tell stories on the ground. At the edge of the one-lane dirt road, cobbles and sharp-sided stones had accumulated from both directions: some raked off by road graders, others thrown out of people's gardens, each an effort to bring human order to a harsh and resistant land. I left the road and struck out cross-country.
The gray, unshadowed light began to glow on the swollen, pleated skin of the cardón — cacti up to forty feet tall with bold trunks pointing toward the heavens. Their stubby arms jutted out or curved up, a signpost of the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. A close relative to the saguaro cactus of old TV westerns, these charismatic cacti seemed to welcome me, but underfoot and too close for comfort lurked pincushions, protruding nails, spiked trip wires, and the snakepit twinings of curled cacti with nasty barbs ready to pierce me at the slightest misstep.
Where I walked there was no trail, so I tried to be careful, and wondered, Is growing old a matter of becoming ever more cautious? I hoped not. I was forty-eight that winter and still felt the reckless indomitability of youth. Like many fools, I failed to recognize myself as middle-aged, though I had been so for some time. I didn't really like being careful, but out in that desert, greater knowledge definitely bred greater care.
This morning my yearning had to do with beginnings. I wanted to be on the first mountaintop of my Coast Range exploration for the opening moment of the day.
Beginnings are fragile things, promising, portentous, consequential, painful. But my goal seemed simple enough at face value: I wanted to stand on top of the mountain for sunrise. Deep into Baja, I wanted to sense the beginning of the day, of the trip, and of the mountains that run nearly nonstop through Alaska. By climbing to a high point of ground, I hoped to sense the power of the place, to feel its life and its history in my bones, to imagine its future, and mainly to belong there in some satisfying way. If I didn't feel all those emotions today, maybe I would on some other mountain before the end of our Baja adventure. And I knew that some of my grander ambitions would have to wait for their own good time during the nine months to come.
The arid slopes opened a bit more enticingly, and with soil and stone crunching underfoot, I moved up quickly into the spreading light. I found a goat path along the ridge. After twisting around the clutches of catclaw acacia, scrambling over basaltic rocks, and breathing heavily as I broke into a heavy sweat, I set foot on top of the mountain just before the fireball of sun pierced the horizon.
Propped against a rock and resting there after my prickly climb, I happily soaked in the scene of roughcut mesas while the light seeped down the east-facing mountainside next to me. In shades of brown, it was not a colorful mountain range, nor shapely in the sense of having sharp peaks or undulant and sensuous forms. Rather, I looked at a vast desert topography populated by domestic goats, a white cross propped on the next mountain, and a black flurry of vultures.
Though I couldn't see the ocean, this was part of the greater Coast Range. The Baja Peninsula, seven hundred forty miles long, seventy miles wide on average, is the third-longest peninsula in the world behind the Malay in Southeast Asia and the Antarctic, but it's the skinniest and most peninsular of the group. Mountains form the backbone of Baja, a seismically shifting, volcanically active land. Here, in the largest subrange, aptly named Sierra de la Giganta — Mountains of the Giantess — the view was typical, with harsh, dry country everywhere evident.
The fiery sphere of sun was doing its incandescent job, and with a dusty shine down below it illuminated the dome of a church, a three-story stone bastion of faith built by Indians long ago at the direction of Spanish missionaries. I tried to imagine those people, who had lived all their lives in wholly adequate houses of stick or thatch, suddenly confronting orders to cut, quarry, and haul rocks that might have weighed a ton in order to build this smooth-walled, high-roofed mission for the worship of a brand-new god.
Three centuries later it still stands as the centerpiece of the village of San Javier, made up of thirty houses or so from this vulture's-eye view. The church is considered a healing mission, so icons of body parts, such as little painted arms and legs and hearts made of wood, are left there in hopes of milagros — miracles.
Beyond the mission, the town's ditch system outlined small fields of onions with a border of green. The modest irrigation network was also built by Indians under the supervision of Spanish missionaries. One of the oldest irrigation systems in Baja, it predates by far anything now functioning in the United States. A canopy of olive trees planted by the padres lined the main waterway.
The town was waking, and even from eight hundred feet above I could hear the cry of babies, the murmur of women's voices, a single, gruff shout of a man, the tinkling of a goat's bell, the crow of a rooster still at it, and always, always the barking of dogs. The sounds built as the minutes passed — now the chopping of wood, the laughter of children, the cranking of a reluctant pickup, the rattling bounce of a capable truck on the washboarded road — all told, an audio microcosm of humanity on the earth.
The sun now beamed on the whole village, heating it up in a process that wouldn't quit for many hours. Even there — way out there — the new light glinted off a bright red sign that advertised Tecate beer.
I descended quickly, making tracks back to the van, where Ann had prepared a breakfast of oatmeal. Not just any oatmeal, and certainly not the soggy mush of minute oats, her recipe included organic apples, raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, and nutmeg. As in all matters of food, Ann takes a healthful breakfast seriously.
"What did you see?" she asked.
"The sun and the mountains," I synopsized, following with only the briefest elaboration. "Tell me about what you wrote," I countered, knowing that she was refining the last chapter of her book about the history of America's wetlands, worlds away from the aridity we faced at this end of the coastal mountains.
"I had time to read over only a page or two. But look, let's catch up later. Trudi's due here any minute now. How's this for lunch?" Ann displayed a hunk of cheese, an apple, and two slabs of bread we had made in a covered skillet on our stove. Having consulted a phrase book, she made an irresistible offer with a tilt of her head: "Te gustaría almorzar conmigo hoy?" Would you like to join me for lunch today?
Because Ann grasped only a bit of Spanish and I knew none at all, I required the help of Trudi Angell. But even if I were bilingual from birth, I still would have needed Trudi's help for what I wanted to do in the Mexican mountains.
With a name of circumstantial elegance, this woman had come to Catholic Baja in 1976. Quickly it became a part of her. Slowly she became a part of it. In Trudi, I knew I had found not only the guide I needed to help me learn about this foreign place but also the exact kind of person I was hoping to meet on my journey — one who loves where she is on this earth and lives with deliberate care for her place.
"I was twenty," Trudi recapped, straining back through many good years as we bounced over a washboard road in her veteran truck. Ann and I had left the van at a site where we could camp for the night and crowded onto the front seat along with Olivia, Trudi's delightful only child. "My boyfriend back then taught ocean kayaking and led trips out of Mulegé. He worked for NOLS — the National Outdoor Leadership School." NOLS offers courses in outdoor skills and trains people to become teachers for outdoor programs.
To skip the intervening quarter century for the time being, let me just say that Trudi and her partner, Douglas Knapp, now ran trips of their own in a business called Las Parras Tours. Knowing of my interest in the remote mountains of Baja's interior, she had agreed to take Ann and me on a three-day excursion to get the flavor of the Sierra de la Giganta and to see people on the way. "Here's our first stop," Trudi said, stepping on the brake and allowing our dust to overtake us. "Rancho los Dolores."
The house was adobe brick and could have been ancient. An outdoor kitchen enjoyed the shade of a thatched roof and the privacy of walls made by weaving sticks together. Trudi and a prancing Olivia were greeted by hugs from Maria Luisa Veliz, Maria's mother, and her mother-in-law, who was quite old and wrapped tightly in a dark shawl. They all stationed themselves near the hornilla, a clay-bottomed wood-burning stove that smelled delicious with warming tortillas.
The women's dresses — beautiful florals — were spotlessly clean, there in a smoke-puffing kitchen with a floor made of dirt. Was this how they always dressed? Or were they spruced up for us? Some things — a lot of things — you just don't ask.
They welcomed Ann and me with smiles and did not hesitate in their animated Spanish conversation with Trudi. They gave her a bag of homegrown oranges and grapefruit. They chatted about the fields, the weather, the road, whatever. Trudi offered Ann and me an abbreviated running commentary, leaving out most of the news but still giving us the gist of their everyday chat.
That was fine, but all the while I couldn't help but wonder how their lives in these remote mountains related to the larger world. How was the civilization out there pressing in on them? Not knowing how to get a grip on my question, I finally asked Trudi to inquire, "How have your lives changed in recent years?"
Suddenly they all fell silent. They had to think about this. Eventually, haltingly, a consensus was reached and cautiously expressed. "We used to be very poor. We had no cars at all. Now we are wealthy in comparison."
That was it. I could see how these good-spirited women felt. They liked their cars, of course. We all do. But I wondered: As the commercial culture tentacled out to these people, what was happening to their land? How were the changes affecting their families?
Leaving the women and their conversation, I wandered alone into a patchwork of fields ranging from very small to an acre. Several men — fathers, sons, and grandsons — hoed weeds, thinned onions, and tinkered with irrigation flows from a gravity system that diverted water out of a spring, shunted it through a concrete sluiceway two feet wide, ran it into a cement cistern plugged with a hand-carved block of wood, and then dropped it into a stone-lined ditch feeding the furrows of the irrigated fields. This system — from gravity flow to wooden plug — struck me as appropriate technology. It had survived continuous use for several hundred years. Unlike the salt-poisoned, selenium-laced, leached-white soil and noxious weedlots now common in big western irrigation systems and factory fields elsewhere in Baja and in California, the plots that these men tended looked good. They looked as if they could produce for another few centuries, maybe forever.
For all its differences, the workday scene reminded me of generations-old photos of subsistence farming by my own ancestors in the Appalachian Mountains. The men wielded long-handled hoes and broad-bladed scythes, all hand tools. The midwinter light at those lower latitudes rubbed a golden cast into everything it touched.
Old Enrique Veliz, with a thick, white mustache, white shirt, black pants, and soil-covered sandals, smiled at his family and leaned on his hoe.
"Enrique, podría tomar tu foto?" May I take your picture? It was one Spanish phrase I had been able to memorize.
"Sí. No es problema."
"Your garden, it's beautiful," I offered in English with a sweep of my hand and a smile.
"Sí." He nodded. I wanted to know more about how he did it.
"Do you rotate your corn and onions year by year?"
"And how do you fertilize the fields?"
I waited a moment in quiet appreciation of my welcome. "Gracias," I offered, and retreated toward the house and the women.
I was impressed by these rural Mexicans' friendliness, a manner I noticed perhaps because of unfriendliness I'd encountered elsewhere. As I walked back, it occurred to me that they probably didn't even think about it. It was simply the way they were. Well, at least so long as Ann and I showed up with Trudi Angell.
With this window to life in the mountains of Baja cracking open a bit, we reboarded the truck and rolled on a little farther.
"So, your boyfriend worked as a kayak instructor and guide," I said to Trudi.
"Yes. I signed up as a student, and we paddled on Conception Bay. I loved the water. I loved the place."
As with most people, it was the sea, not the mountains, that had drawn Trudi Angell to Baja.
"I went home to Calistoga, California, but couldn't get Baja out of my mind, so I bought a Klepper — a kayak you can take apart and fold up for shipping. When I came back in 1978, NOLS needed help. I bounced around in the desert looking for watering holes and campsites, scouting out trips for them. After that I ran logistics for a few years, driving the truck and dropping off water and food. It was a good introduction to the land. And to the need for water. The best part came at the end of the season, when a few of us loaded the kayaks and took a six-week trip of our own.
"Then, in the winter of 1983, I thumbtacked five-by-seven cards up at the recreation equipment co-op in Berkeley. The cards said, 'Kayaking in Baja.' People called, so I gathered up a few more Kleppers and started doing trips for a hundred dollars a person. My partner and I rented a place, and in 1984 we ran seven trips, some of them all the way from Mulegé to Loreto. I guided everybody myself. Now we offer sea kayaking, whale watching, mountain biking, tours to missions and cave paintings, and mule-riding expeditions into the mountains."
Wondering why Trudi liked Baja so much when brilliant watery green mountains such as the Sierra Nevada beckoned so much closer to home, I asked, "What do you like about it here?"
Her eyes and face came alive, and she did not hesitate. "The openness. The wildness. Riding on a mule in the desert and discovering an oasis is a wonderful feeling. And I like the people. Especially in the mountains. The older people are part of the land here. We'll run into a cowboy dressed up in the traditional garb of a deerskin cuera — a wraparound leather jacket — and I feel like I'm transported back a hundred years. You can't get that feeling in the United States, certainly not in California."
"And you like living in Loreto?"
"Yes, but our dream is to move up to the mountains. It's one of many dreams you have when you're out here. In Loreto, it's nice, and the people are good. But it's changing. The great landgrab has started, with big business rearing its head."
I immediately pictured the posh resorts of travel magazine ads. "And this isn't the style?" I gestured to her truck and to the dusty route ahead of us.
"No. People are using the word ecotourism, but they don't know what it means. Uncontrolled fishing is depleting the Gulf of California. Roads are opening up remote areas. The whole package is an awful intrusion, and the tourists don't get much out of it. I know because I've seen that business; I've seen how it operates. The big resorts bring in their own vans to bus clients back and forth, so the tourists don't meet the people or see the land. Now they're talking about opening casinos. But no one needs this place to play slots and blackjack. They could do that in Tijuana."
"Tell me, Trudi," I said, shifting the subject as we hit a rut in the road, "how do you know all these farmers and ranchers up here?"
"It's taken years, but once they understand what I'm doing, it's easy. Once they get to know you, they're quite friendly."
Trudi omitted that her reputation preceded her. When I arrived in Loreto and inquired as to her whereabouts, an English-speaking shop owner had said, "Sí. Sure I know her. She's famous. You just go down here and take a right and cross the dry wash and take another right," and so forth. Explaining some of the referred-to fame, another friend had told me that Trudi hires Mexicans to lead her tours. She uses local taxi drivers for her shuttles. She drives local people to the hospital when nobody else can. She loans money to local families so they can start small businesses. She does what very few gringos do when they go to Mexico.
Excerpted from Pacific High by Tim Palmer. Copyright © 2002 Tim Palmer. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Prologue: Between the Sea and the Sky
Chapter 1. Into Baja
Chapter 2. The Volcan and the Mexican Desert
Chapter 3. Borderlands and Refuges
Chapter 4. Rising Above Los Angeles
Chapter 5. Mountains and Fire
Chapter 6. A Dream of Condors
Chapter 7. The People's Mountains
Chapter 8. The North Coast
Chapter 9. Kalmiopsis to the Columbia
Chapter 10. Olympic Odyssey
Chapter 11. The Island of a Different Nation
Chapter 12. Northward by Boat
Chapter 13. Glaciers to the Sea
Chapter 14. The Ultimate Mountains
Chapter 15. Across the Icefield
Chapter 16. To the Ends of the Earth
About the Author