“If there are any who still believe the good nineteenth-century doctrine that progress is inevitable, Baja is a good place to come for instruction. Progress isn’t inevitable or continuous, and it isn’t always progress. The aborigines progressed through Christianity to extinction. The mining interests dug silver out of the bowels of the earth and turned it loose into the world which it may or may not have profited. Now men come down from the north to take out of the sea the fish they will probably not eat and certainly do not need. Why do they (and why did we) come? What are we looking for?
…We come to see the world; and there is still a sizable minority who find the vanishing world, dominated by nature rather than man, one of the things most worth seeing. But in a world which sometimes seems to consist entirely of dilemmas we also are creating one. If too many of us want to see the unspoiled natural areas, we will spoil them”. Joseph Wood Krutch, The Forgotten Peninsula, 1961
San Diego, Two weeks Ago
It’s just starting to get dark when Shane stops by the boat for a chat. He joins me in the cockpit and we drink a beer, chat about dock politics. He and Charlie, a girl from England, signed on as crew for a southbound sailboat. Neither had ever been sailing before but both are “rich in time”, and so chose to answer this skipper’s call for crew (no experience necessary) as a way to get to Ecuador and Panama, respectively. Shane is from Olympia, Washington, and as we sip Modelo Especiales, he tells me that all is not well on board. I go back and forth, on the one hand trying to reassure him that new experiences have a tendency to feel sketchy and out of control, and on the other expressing sympathy for some of the genuinely questionable situations they have been through. They’ve only been on board two weeks (of what promises to be a three-ish month voyage), but already they are seriously considering bailing even though they have already handed over fairly substantial, and now irretrievable, sums of money. One night, their skipper failed to meet them on the beach with the dinghy at the agreed upon time, and so Shane and Charlie were left to find a place to stay for the night.
Charlie joins us and the two newbies compare notes on things they’ve learned about the unusual community they have inadvertently joined. I’m not exactly a veteran cruiser myself, but I’ve been well exposed to the scene, as fringe as it might be in the remote parts of the BC coast. We laugh as she recounts her first experience with the dreaded dock-talker.
“I was stuck,” she shakes her head, her eyes wide, “he just wouldn’t leave. I had no answers to his questions, and still, he shuffled back and forth on the dock in his immaculate boat shoes, admiring this and asking about that”.
I let her in on my recently refined technique for cutting these encounters short.
“Keep your knitting handy,” I tell her, “if merely looking busy doesn’t cut it, start bemoaning the elusiveness of the perfect gusset”.
They invite me to go out with them after dinner. They’ve spied a bar nearby that looks promisingly divey. Shane’s hooked up with a girl from LA, and she’s driven the couple of hours down the coast to see him. She’s tall and loud and intimidatingly gregarious. She’s wearing short red shorts, heels and a blouse with puffy sleeves. We pile into her station wagon for a ride down the street to the bar. She puts on techno music and then launches into a story but the music is so loud that I can only see her lips moving in the rear view mirror.
The bar is impressively divey. There is a smell, and the walls are covered with framed photos of no one recognizable having a really good time. A couple in their sixties shuffle dance around in an open space between the bar and the tables, hold each other with one arm and their drinks with the other. At the beginning of every song that comes on, LA girl and Shane tease Charlie.
“What about this one?” they are incredulous. She just shrugs and smiles, laughs along at her cultural ignorance. At least she’s got an ocean as an excuse – the songs all sound familiar to me, soundtracks to corner bars everywhere, but I have no idea who sings or that it mattered.
I have a friend who moved to LA after high school. I visited her last year and in the middle of a city of ten million I witnessed her isolation and listened to her stories of urban struggle. She’s an artist, a diorama builder and stop motion animator, but in lieu of work doing her art, she worked at a doggy day care. I comment to LA girl that it seemed a hard place to find or create community. Her objections are fervent, and as proof she launches into a series of stories about the regulars at the German themed bar she works at, where all the waitresses wear Hollywood versions of traditional German costume.
“I love Los Angeles,” she tells me, “it’s got everything for everyone, anything for anyone”.
Baja California, Since Then.
We’re fifteen degrees off course, but I decide to put off jibing over the jib for another twenty minutes. Experience has taught me two things: first, that in this matter, everything will be ok for another twenty minutes; and second, that eventually I will have to jibe back, so to “get it over with and jibe” doesn’t mean that I will be able to sign off from jibing duty. The wind pushing us along is not warm, but every morning the sun rises a bit warmer than the day before, marking our slow southerly progress. Tonight, the full moon colours the water white and the boat is full of moonshadows that dip and sway with the boat as we rock our way down the west coast of Baja California.
In a couple of hours I’ll wake John up and crawl into my bunk until morning, but for now the night is all mine. To the west, the lights of two ships bob along the horizon. I watch the red and green beacons advance on each other for twenty minutes before they pass and carry on their separate ways.
The dunes stretch for miles into the distance. I’ve talked myself down. I’m ready to be disappointed. Surely, I think, they can’t be as smooth and soft as they look from here. I’m prepared for invisible thorns and coarse sinkiness. Then I’m into them and I’m all wrong. I run up and slide down the perfectly silky ripples, warm and sculpted. My footsteps cascade away from me, a series of small innocent avalanches. Every dune I’ve been on until now was a disappointment.
We reach the outer beach, turn and walk towards a small gathering of houses at one end. When we’re a few hundred metres away, a truck comes down from the road and drives past us onto the beach, chased by a dog going flat out across the sand. They carry on for a mile, turn around and drive past back onto the dirt track through the village. We wave.
In the evening, I take my camera in the dinghy. For an hour I follow three small grey whales around the bay, try to guess where they’ll next come to the surface. I’m looking for the perfect photograph: tail flukes against the setting sun. I row ahead and wait, drift gently, hold my breath, until the sound of their great exhalations breaks the silence. I breathe around in circles with these great mammals until all the light is gone and my feet are cold.
There is little wind and so slowly we rock along. Ahead the sea is turbulent where just below the surface thousands of fish swarm together and above, hundreds of birds take turns diving into the mass. We arrive into the centre of the frenzy at the same time as a pod of pacific white sided dolphins who leap into the air and slap the water with their tails; food never looked so fun. The dolphins stay with us for half an hour past the fish ball, playing in our bow wave, modest as it is. They roll effortlessly there just below the surface, turn on their sides to look us right in the eye before bursting forward for a breath. In the last rays of the day, they seem to breathe liquid gold.
There is no one living at the fish camp on Isla San Geronimo right now but dish soap sits in the outdoor sink and there are binoculars perched on a windowsill. Mostly, though, things are broken and scattered and the dog looks hungry. She’s happy to see us, in the belly-to-the-ground-tail-between-the-legs way that Mexican dogs learn to accept as happiness. She leads us around the island, running ahead, looking back. At the tallest point, she runs ahead across a small dune and flushes a hawk out of its spot in the rocky outcrop. On the windward side of the island, she scares the elephant seals off the sandstone rock flats then barks at the incoming waves, following one after another all the way to shore.
I leave the others at the dinghies and start to run. I don’t run for long – it’s hot and too soon I get tired – but for now it feels good to stretch and shake my legs after a few days of restricted motion. I follow the path along the edge of the cliff to the point where it turns inland and starts to climb. Less than an hour later from the peak I can see the coast stretch away on both sides of the island. I’m all alone up here, and it seems as good a place as any. Every ten or fifteen minutes, I look up from my book about the Chinese cultural revolution to watch a vulture catch a ride on an updraft or a fishing boat round the cape into the bay. Indeed, I think, anything for anyone and everything for everyone.