Reno looks at me over his bowl of clam chowder.
“Over above Evaristo there, up the arroyo to the right of town, you know, there’s a spot where you find geodes like tubes instead of spheres, like they normally are”. He shakes his head and grins. “It baffles the heck out of me, how they form that way. I’ve thought about it a lot, but for now it goes on the list of things I don’t understand”.
Outside, the wind whistles through the rigging and blows the boat from side to side on the end of it’s anchor chain. Steve and I sit across the small table from Reno and his wife, Cathy. The pot of chowder and a plate of warm soda crackers sits in between us. The clams were collected a few miles away, off the north coast of Isla San Francisco. Reno shows me the shells of the different clams and explains how to find them.
“And it’s best to go when it’s calm,” interrupts Cathy, “On windy days, the shadows of the wind waves along the sandy bottom make the clams nervous so they close up and you can’t see them.”
I scrape the bottom of my wooden bowl, try to imagine it’s me who spotted the spot, took the breath, dove down deep. Even in imagining it, I can’t quite bring myself to dig my fingers down into the sand to grasp at something unseen, unknown, alive.
I had been skirting the crystal white edge of an abandoned salt pond, pink with algae and neglect, when I paused to look up from my careful route finding towards the west. From a distance, he could have been an old Mexican goat herder or fisherman. His silhouette, straw hat and slow progress, is as of this landscape as is possible. Our paths converged beside the old lighthouse on the point where we shook hands and stood looking out across San Jose channel. He had a pair of goat horns slung with string across his back, a twenty litre plastic drum in one hand.
“You must be our new neighbour,” one of his front teeth is capped with gold and his skin is sun weary.
I nod. “We’ve been invited for dinner on your boat,” I tell him, “your wife is making clam chowder”.
None of us here are of this place – me least of all. Despite four months over the last two years spent travelling through this peninsula, for me it has lost none of its strangeness. Everything about it is foreign to me, from the ever present sand to the fact that it hasn’t really rained in two years. Compared to the places I call home, at first this desert feels so empty. Without the dense greens and dark soils from which I have been taught things grow I find it hard to believe that abundant life is possible.
On the table in front of us, Steve arranges Reno’s arrowhead collection in neat rows on the placemat. He tells us he only finds two or three every year, mostly on the ridges and high places of the islands scattered throughout the southern Sea of Cortez. The twenty ancient artifacts kept casually in a basket on the cabin tabletop, shuffled out of the way for bowls of chowder and glasses of beer, represent a lot of miles walked by one man and a lot of years lived by a people long since gone from this place. A few are perfectly formed – carefully napped stone gives way to a point on one end, to grooves for binding on the other.
“When the basket gets full, I make him sort through and put some back to make way for new finds”. Cathy picks through other treasures on the table, pieces of coral and bone.
Over dessert, Cathy apologizes for being antisocial. They were up celebrating late the night before, she explains, with a different Steve from a different boat.
“I finally finished my book,” she tells us, kicking vaguely under the table where the manuscript is apparently packaged and ready for distribution to publishers.
“When we quit cruising and built our cabin in Montana, I pictured snowed-in winters when I would finally have time to sit down and write about our adventures.” Cathy shakes her head and looks at Reno. “But we have never stayed in the cabin for the winter, we kept coming back down here. So I just had to write it here on the boat”.
Reno doesn’t respond; he’s busy digging in the galley. He comes back to the table with a bowl holding four or five marble sized balls covered in small black specks. He has been experimenting with making candy from different cactus fruits and seeds. The ball is tasty, sweet and sticky and the seeds make a satisfying crunch.
“I’m not much of a sailor,” Reno tells us. For him, he explains to us, it’s a convenient lifestyle, one that allows him to live the way he wants to live. They truck camped for a couple of winters in between boats, but, he laughs as he tells us, “the only places we could go were places where the roads went”.
There were no roads to the small island in the south pacific where they wrecked a previous sailboat more than twenty years ago. With no way off, they stayed, Cathy for three months and Reno for a further two. There’s no question it has good potential, but I worry that such a life has too many good stories for a book to be read by people in winter armchairs. People struggle to write books about one year of adventure, let alone forty.
The next day, Steve and I take Reno up on his offer of a hike to an old gold mine. The mine village (which I hear as “the Mayan village” for the first ten times it is mentioned and has me seriously confused) hasn’t been lived in for at least thirty years. Pieces of heavy machinery are scattered in between roofless houses and crumbling goat fences. We all lean over the opening of a deep well as Steve throws in a rock, ears cocked for the distant splash.
Our route mostly follows an old arroyo. It’s hard to believe no water has run down these canyons for many months, the undercut banks and uprooted cacti suggest more recent raging torrents. Resilient as it may be, the desert does not absorb impact well. It’s history, though bleached white and drained of any residual moisture, stays visible and readable until the next time people try to live here, until the next big rainfall.
We’re not lost, exactly, it’s just that every arroyo looks much like the next and when the guiding landmark is one low reddish hill among many, it’s easy to see how one can get confused.
When we reach the top of the mine hill, Reno points out features along the facing mountain range – ranchos and palm oasises, roads and anchorages. This is a place he knows, better by far than any place I know anywhere. He explains that they used to go further north, but “now they just get so busy around here doing this and that” that they never move much more than twenty miles north or south from this place now. He’s spent more years in this small piece of the world – the boundaries of which we can basically see from the very hill on which we stand – than I have been alive.
We walk back to the boats along the beach. I pick up a few shells to carry with me. As we sit on the beach to take off our boots, Reno hands me a tiny pink shell, so thin the light shines right through. “Now that’s a keeper,” he tells me.