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The Old Woman of the Sea

Take 1: The Retreat

October 3, 1998

 

Their life-long love of camping, the serenity of lonely Mexican beaches, and a penchant for amateur exploration had brought them to just about every foot of coastline on either side of the northern Sea of Cortez. Among their favorites were those lonely haunts just a visa and car permit away from the throngs of Norteamericanos that overran popular resort towns like San Felipe and Puerto Peñasco. They preferred their anesthetic of sunshine, sand, and solitude without the impurities created by ATV's, sand buggies, and other gringo paraphernalia. On this particular occasion, they had spent a few days on the playa sufficiently north of Puerto Lobos to afford them the desired luxuries, and would today attempt to determine whether it was possible to drive the beach from Puerto Lobos to Desemboque, a sleepy fishing village to the north.

The couple packed a lunch and proceeded by 4-wheel drive as soon as the morning tide was low enough. They picked their way timidly but persistently along a stretch of beach littered with the treacherous remains of an ancient reef and overlooked by a low sandy bluff known as Barra los Tanques. The going was slow but very much worth the bother. On this warm October morning they encountered a rich mixture of birds, collected in the thousands at water's edge; among them more than a dozen species: Brown Pelican, Least Sandpiper, Sanderling, Yellowlegs, Great Blue Heron, American Bittern, and a number of gull varieties. They were even fortunate and pleasantly surprised to witness two coyotes scavenging the beach, approaching the surf in the brilliant daylight again and again in wide exploratory arcs.

After several hours and not many more miles they reached a formidable barrier, a beautiful blue-green deep-water estuary about a mile across. This was the mouth of Rio de la Concepción. Only a stone's throw shy of Desemboque, there was plainly no way of reaching their goal. Returning late in the afternoon, they made numerous stops along the way as flocks of birds -- those encountered earlier in the day now assembled by species -- flew overhead enroute to a night's roost at their homeland, the Pelican Islands1. As the couple watched for more than two hours, flight after flight passed in delicate formation against a canvas of deep azure.

Barra los Tanques, typical of much of the gulf coast, has its unique specialty in mollusks; and beachcombers at heart, the couple were delighted to find numerous new treasures. In particular, a deposit of ruddy seven-inch Bailer shells caught their attention, found halfway up the side of a low bank where they had most likely been exposed in the last gasp of Hurricane George just a fortnight ago. Always eager to add to their memorabilia, they stopped once again so that he could take a picture of her holding their treasures, her rich chocolate complexion vibrant in the late afternoon sunshine; and while they were at it, they snapped a picture of an ancient boat skeleton.

Arriving again at the rock-scattered stretch of coastline that separates nature's domain from man's, they noticed a large dark object high on the beach ahead, and strangely, a pair of coyotes that seemed to be attracted to it. They realized that this was something they had not noticed some hours earlier. Coyotes, of course, are attracted to all sorts of carrion; it wasn't until they actually passed between the creature and the surf, crossing her path in the moist sand, that they realized she was alive. A sea lion! And the coyotes were irritating her unmercifully. The couple turned their vehicle around, approaching to within a respectful distance, and leaped from the jeep waving and shouting. This tactic discouraged the coyotes, which quickly withdrew over the dune and out of sight into the desert. The sea lion, meanwhile, took the opportunity to head for the surf.

Anxious to shoot some video footage, the man retrieved a camera from their vehicle and set off in pursuit. With the zoom feature he hoped to achieve some relatively high-quality footage without getting close enough to disturb the creature. The sea lion, meanwhile, continued her labor toward safety almost half a mile away. Gaflump, gaflump, gaflump, gaflump. As she labored, he followed, circling well to one side and ahead until he was squarely between her and the surf. She continued for a few moments longer and then stopped a respectable distance from him. Waiting to see what he would do next, she held her head high in the characteristic pose of her species.
  The Ribs - Barra los Tanques, 1998
The beachcomber approached to within a few feet, shooting his film furiously all the while. He could see her very clearly now. She was breathing quite heavily. He realized that she was very old, ribs obvious on both sides of her body, whiskers and facial hair white with age. There were numerous scars on her body, including a great gaping gash in the back of her neck. And she was lame -- one flipper dragged behind, useless from an injury perhaps sustained in the recent storm. He stopped filming a moment to look at her without the interference of the camera. Their eyes met. He could see an age well beyond his own and feel a deeper wisdom -- a different kind of wisdom to be sure, but a wisdom of no bounds.

"Why?" her eyes pleaded, "Why do you torment me?"

Suddenly gaining a vision of his own mortality, he found himself unable to control the tears that inexplicably streaked down his face. The filming was over. He could see it clearly now. Unable to keep up with the pod, she had washed onto this lonely shore during Hurricane George, at the peak of hunger and exhaustion, ready to die; and he had brutally molested her in her final hours. Coyotes notwithstanding -- they were a part of nature's plan. In his memory he could see the dried carcasses of countless individuals that had come to this very beach before her, a place rarely visited by man. But there was no rest for her on this beach now.

Hand and camera dropped to his side as he started numbly back to the vehicle. Turning once, he paused again to cast one longing glance in her direction, then watched several minutes more her struggling, until she reached the surf and the open sea. His heart went with her, for he saw that nature had a plan for her retreat as well.

As he opened the door and bent over to get into the jeep, his wife looked into his eyes, "You're crying?"

"It's the blowing sand", he responded. He felt the gentle touch of her hand and warmed to her empathetic caress. "I'm sorry", he whispered.

"It's okay; you didn't know."

He shifted the vehicle into gear, and they moved away through the scattered rocks.

 
October 3, 1998
 

 
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1The Pelican Islands, known collectively to humans of the area as Bird Island, lie some 20 miles off the coast of Sonora in the northern Sea of Cortez, southwest of Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.
 

 
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