The Cortez Chronicles


In search of solitude in a raging world . . .

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Encounter in Paradise

Salinas Outer Dune - Memorial Day

May 25-28, 2001


It has been an exhausting two months since our last visit to Salinas. In that time we've been under continuous on-the-job pressures and fought our way to and from work in a city polluted with people and motor vehicles as the weather moved from an extended spring into a record setting series of scorchers. The only relief is an occasional evening rain shower. But that's not nearly enough; we are compelled to let go our plans of anonymously disappearing into Las Vegas throngs for a weekend, drawn by the allure and rejuvenative properties of a lonely encounter in the true solitude of the Sonoran playa.

Having packed the jeep the night before, we depart at 6:00 PM on Friday, immediately after work. We pass through a new U.S. military checkpoint just past Why, stop for gasoline and insurance at the border, and cross at 9:35 PM. There has been much traffic on the highway, and there is a lot more in Sonoyta.

A coyote crosses the road as we leave town, an omen that with the last metropolitan area behind us we will soon feel the relief we are seeking. Through the biosfera many plump kangaroo mice cross the highway, as well as a fat bullsnake. It is a couple of days past new moon, and a sliver crescent guides us from low in the sky; the moon will be set before we arrive.

Clearing the Sonoyta-Caborca cutoff, we are surprised to find there are Mexican federale checkpoints both before and after the regular Aduana check station at Al Mejas. They ask us a few questions, which we have trouble answering due to the language barrier, check the contents of our vehicle, and invite us to proceed. We do. Letting our tires down to 18 pounds just before reaching the beach, we arrive at 12:00 midnight.

The Soledad beacon light flashes above us as we pull cautiously up the dune and into the compound. We pass a lone hombre half sitting, half-standing in the open doorway of his pickup staring down into the night surf. Another sleeps in a hammock suspended from the supports of one of the makeshift buildings. We pick our way between the buildings and descend the inner face of the dune. Picking our way around fishing boats and mooring ropes to the playa, we head up the beach to the northwest for a few miles, periodically checking over the dunes on our right for any sign of the Salinas outer estuary. Once our headlights fall on the permanent Salinas fishing camp across the estuary, we retrace our path somewhat less than a mile to secure a campsite well insulated from local fishermen. Thus, we have hopefully rendered our camp not only out of reach, as it is on the outer dune, but also invisible, so as to avert any curiosities which might eventually result in more visitors to this shoreline. We turn out our lights and shut off the engine at 12:20 AM; until we leave this heaven on earth, there will be no further light or noise pollution.

As anticipated, the starlight is profuse. The temperature is a perfect 75 degrees, with a slight breeze from the east and low humidity. The tides will be strong for now, about 17 feet, but will grow weaker with each passing day.

We erect the tent and are settled in by 1:30 or 2:00 AM, a long day for those who got up at 5:00 AM, but well worth the trouble. Temperature and ventilation in the tent remain perfect overnight. Initially, I sleep in my birthday suit, my soul mate in her skivvies. Overnight, the temperature drops to around 72, and I pull my open bag over me before morning.

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My soul mate awakens first to catch a beautiful sunrise. It starts with a beautiful bright twilight, which gradually gives way to subtle blues and pinks -- almost like a sunset in reverse, only more gentle. The friendly Pelican Islands materialize a brilliant white off the coast in the morning light. A pair of local resident small birds set up a gosh-awful squawking when my soul mate emerges from the tent. The squawking doesn't subside even though she sits very still in the shade just outside the door of the tent for a long while. Resuming her activities, she sets up the stove and then returns to awaken me with a sunblock rubdown.

Eventually, I emerge from the tent. There is a nice morning breeze, which will keep us cool until at least noon. We vegetate in our chairs, sitting in front of the tent until there isn't enough shade left. The squawking continues as we put coffee water on to heat and then set up the sunshade.

Breakfast consists of oatmeal, chicken-noodle soup, and coffee. While eating, we come to realize the birds continually complaining at us, Sandpipers, have a small nest in the sand a few feet from our campsite. In the nest are two speckled eggs. We must be very careful not to over-excite these feathery parents.

(1:00 PM) The first pelicans of the day, about twelve in number, glide southward high overhead. We occasionally hear the drone of a distant vehicle struggling up or down the distant Salinas access road across the estuary, but cannot see them from where we're camped unless we stand up and pick our line of sight through the dunes behind us. As usual, there is no one on our beach as far as the eye can see in either direction. My soul mate dozes in her chair for half an hour or so, then gives up and retires to her cot as I rummage in my knapsack for a pair of fresh "AA" batteries for my palmtop. As I return to my seat a group of dolphins are passing by very close to shore, headed south. With my activity notes caught up for the moment, it is my turn to succumb to the sandman, who calls relentlessly in the warmth of the afternoon.

(2:20 PM) I open my eyes to the visual rhythm of a sine wave streaking across the sky -- a flight of pelicans gliding silently and effortlessly overhead -- higher, lower, higher, lower...searching for a juicy tidbit in the surf of the cresting tide. A favorite song plays in my head. It is, indeed, a lazy afternoon, but if you listen real close you cannot hear the grass as it grows, for there is only sand. And if you look real close you'll find countless microscopic shells of myriad species that have gone before us, all perfectly appointed in every detail, and all smaller than the head of a pin. This to the backdrop of a constant, yet ever-changing chorus of breakers singing their glorious music -- calling, calling. This is why we come to the playa, why we cannot wean ourselves from Mother Nature.

I ponder a couple we once knew; the lady collected those tiny shells. Fast friends, they were, who introduced us to the Sonoran playa and accompanied us on countless forays to distant and secluded shores for 35 years. During our childrens' teenhood and other life tragedies they were always there, providing stability and keeping us in touch with the playa. Then they abruptly moved to Oklahoma, never to return to a solitary existence on a lonely shore far from the people and pollution of the city. Theirs is now a laid-back existence in a small Midwestern town of her childhood; still, how could they do it? It has been ten years now. She has not been well of late, and is as much at risk at home as away but unable to venture too far from medical attention. He has been under a strain as caregiver. Yet, they do travel to visit family, and we see them every year or so. Although I can't put myself in their circumstances, I cannot help wondering if a few returns to a lonely playa would free them of their bonds. What is more important than quality of life and spiritual healing?

(3:20 PM) My soul mate emerges from the tent to prepare a delicious lunch of crab salad sandwiches. I peek at the nest in the sand over my right shoulder. The mother Sandpiper has finally settled down and is diligently minding her sandy nest. She sits quietly, her body spread wide to cover the eggs. I stand up to go see a man about a coyote and she immediately jumps back into flight, resuming her squawky diversion.

(6:00 PM) The heat of the day is receding quickly, the weather returning to absolutely optimum conditions. The light breeze that has stifled discomfort during the afternoon continues to benefit us by keeping insects at bay. More pelicans, followed by a single tiny, hard-flapping bird -- a regular on the playa whose identity is unknown to me. Although neither of us has developed a real appetite yet, my soul mate begins preliminary preparations for a supper she planned before we started the trip -- spare ribs.

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Sentries Of The Surf
  Pelican Sentries, their namesake islands visible on the horizon - Salinas, 2002
The stately pelican holds a legendary position in the lore of the playa. Consummate fishermen, they appear more closely related to a pterodactyl than to a modern bird. More visible on the Vermilion Sea than most wildlife, their habits tell us much about the daily cycles of land and sea creatures whose destiny is linked to the sea. Pelicans divide their day into a number of separate activities according to the tides. On the tidal flats and near low ebb they stand in lapping surf, watching, waiting, staring wistfully seaward with necks erect and beak thrust downward, almost parallel to the neck. As the tide turns inward they take to southbound flight in single file. High and in small numbers, they glide on invisible winds, wings flapping only occasionally to sustain flight. Still overhead as the tide advances, they drop to a lower, "V" formation, gliding effortlessly on the slightest breeze, their wing tips close to touching. As the first waves cover the tidal flats, carrying fish populations hungrily devouring rich crustaceans and microscopic life born by the nurturing sea, their numbers continue to increase. For a few more minutes they perform a systematic search, northward then southward. Then, returning to single file they drop into the classic sine wave feeding flight, watching for schools of fish from higher, individuals from lower. Occasionally one or more leaves the pattern in a headlong kamikaze plunge toward the water, a noise spike on the oscilloscope of life, to re-emerge a moment later, a tasty morsel in grasp. Tipping head and bill upward, lunch turns in beak, slides down pouch and neck, and is added to the day's catch. He then returns to formation. As tide crests, converting the flats to ocean bottom, the modus operandi of the pelicans changes once again. Gliding now in single file strings of dozens less than a foot from the waves, they hold hands in flight, motionless, frequently passing so close to the water that portions of a string disappear behind waves for many seconds. During the last few hours, some individuals light in isolated social groups of up to a few dozen to rest on the water like ducks, occasionally bobbing for food, then return to a passing flight. Then after the tide turns outward, the pelicans complete their communion by returning to a stately vigil in the surf, waiting, watching -- growing in numbers as the tide recedes from one or two to dozens, and eventually to many hundreds.

As the sun settles deep in the afternoon sky, the sentries of the surf return to high southbound flights of increasing numbers and frequency reaching a crescendo of hundreds in sight at any one moment. Then at dusk the southbound throngs are replaced by a few northbound flights of thousands high over open ocean, all in "V" formation, determined to reach Bird Island1 and sanctuary by dark.

The sunset, meanwhile, provides a spectacular backdrop of orange, red, gray, white, and blue. As the sun recedes on the horizon melting into a pool of colors, the majestic Pelican Islands follow it slowly into gray oblivion. I take several pictures, and then the show is over. We finish preparing for supper and eat in silence, engrossed in our own memories of the late afternoon's display. The ribs are delicious.

Our Sandpiper parents-to-be have quit minding the nest for the time being. We theorize it is because the eggs no longer require protection from the sun. They now busy themselves doing whatever prospective bird parents do in the cool of a summer's evening, always remaining close; but the scoldings continue from time to time. Finally, in the last meager light of the evening, we are able to observe their return to keep the eggs warm during the night.

The moon is well overhead during the early evening reducing visibility of stars to normal, but you can see the dim glow of Puerto Penasco at 45 degrees off the coastline to the north, as well as the blinking of the Soledad beacon to the south. Frequently it is impossible to distinguish the faint light atop Bird Island, and this is one of those evenings.

The mindless dune-sitters of Salinas cabana proximity, this being Saturday evening, are perched in the dark atop the peninsula's highest dune a few miles to the north. No doubt drinking beer in their vehicles late into the evening, their headlights beam pointlessly into the night, blinding them to any of their surroundings and providing the brightest point of light on our horizon. But when you're camped on a tranquil sea and surrounded by natural beauty it's easy to look past such ugly scars of civilization. After all, you can't get there from here.

We sit there in the dark listening to the surf and watching the undulations of the effervescent sea in the dim moonlight until close to midnight, then reluctantly prepare for sleep.

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We awaken momentarily at dawn to see the beginning of another gorgeous sunrise, then sleep peacefully until about 8:00 AM before starting our day. The Sandpiper parents are taking turn guarding the nest. They take parenting every bit as seriously as do humans. We realize there is an organized community watch -- perhaps a dozen or two individuals in all -- squawking, attacking from overhead when they feel a threat. This morning, before we even emerge our tent, a group of six or eight individuals attack an unsuspecting passer-by, a gray bird of twice their size that has had the audacity to fly overhead. They bring him down just outside the south end of our tent, dive bombing, attacking with beaks and claws. The hapless creature flops about on the ground trying in vain to avoid their blows and finally manages to escape with his life at the price of a substantial loss of dignity.

The tide is on its way out, with a few hours to go. My soul mate fixes a scrumptious breakfast of eggbeaters, hash and toast, which I gratefully devour like it was my last meal.

With a modest increase in the wind it becomes necessary to rig a center pole to keep the fiberglass rods which support the top of the sun shade from inverting, which allows the fabric of the top to flap violently in the wind. This has always been a weakness of the design, but aging has weakened the rods, worsening the problem. Without anything of sufficient length we are forced to improvise. After some analysis we come up with a plan. If we can find a stick of sufficient length, maybe it can be supported by stringing two sets of ropes across opposite corners at the top of the metal frame and directly under the fiberglass rods. The ropes are put in place. We scavenge the area and find a piece of cholla driftwood about 3 feet long and an inch or so across that is crooked, but probably straight enough to do the trick. Once cut to length, each end is reinforced with a wrap of duct tape. One end containing a natural notch is put up against a fiberglass rod at the center of the shade where it meets three others. The other end is set against the ropes where they cross, and more duct tape is attached to keep it from slipping off the ropes. Voila! A perfect design! It works well enough that we resolve to keep the stick for reuse on other trips. With this activity, the minimal chores of housekeeping, and frequent vegetation, the morning is gone before we know it.

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The Phantom Titmouse

There is a small animal, that inhabits the Salinas and Soledad areas, which we have never seen. I call it the Phantom Titmouse. The Phantom Titmouse comes sometime during the night, leaving tracks around the tent and vehicle. His tracks are small, consisting of 3/8" circular toeless depressions scattered about half an inch apart in the sand around the base of the tent and vehicle wheels. The distinguishing characteristic is that they are often laid down in a tight pattern of almost a foot in width. Seldom are tracks visible leading away from our camp. I think the Phantom Titmouse is the master of the playa, second to none, except possibly Sandpipers. This morning the Phantom Titmouse has made his usual visit and vanished long before we awakened.

(12:35 PM) White caps are visible today, and the surf is stronger. The wind, which has provided greater than expected cooling power all morning is beginning to deliver random waves of hot, then cool air. The Pelican Islands have taken on the characteristic mid-day shadows that give them their character.

An empty juice can gets away from me and is carried by the wind toward our bird nest. Mom and Pop are scrambling. Although I would normally pursue the can, I elect to leave it alone to avoid upsetting them any more than necessary. Rolling and tumbling, it passes within two feet of the nest. The birds hold their own until the last minute, then split the scene in indignation. Once the can is well past the nest, I retrieve it via a circuitous path. By the time I have retrieved it, Mom -- or is it Pop? -- has returned and is settling on the eggs once again.

The tide has been coming in now for about three hours; the first flight of south-bound pelicans, a [modest] 16 in count, glides by a few feet above the surf. But increased wind calls for different measures. Half a mile or so down they join a larger group headed north, and the 40 or so pass by us again in the opposite direction. As I lounge in my chair struggling against the effects of a large breakfast, my soul mate gives up and retires for a siesta. Breakers - Salinas, 2002
(2:15 PM) We pick up our chairs and head for the surf for our little game of dare-the-breakers. Establishing our position, we settle in just out of reach of the breakers to see who will pick up and run first as the incoming tide progresses. Ultimately we retreat several times until the tide sneaks in behind us and we have to wade to safety through two feet of water. Tiring of this, we sit in our chairs studying surf and sand for prize shell fragments which appeal to our esthetic senses. For a little while we have been children again.

Back from the surf and games, and prompted by increased squawking during another consultation about a coyote, I take a short walk on the small high estuary tidal flat behind us. From the number of squawks, I suspect that the flat is full of nests. I study it for some minutes and then move cautiously forward when I am sure I have spotted three locations. But Mother Nature has different ideas. Within fifteen minutes I have covered about a third of the flat and seen several places that look like they could soon be nests, but no Moms or Pops, and no eggs. I return, satisfied that Mother Nature is far smarter than I.

(3:45 PM) We are back under the shade; my soul mate notes that the heat of the day has never materialized. The difference is the wind, she points out. But tent and sunshade are holding up well with minimal tying down. While we would prefer slightly less wind, we are grateful for the perfect temperature.

We sit for a long time engrossed in the heavy breakers and thrashing surf. The sea, like any woman, is beautiful when she is angry. The afternoon is partially overcast with high poorly defined clouds, which are easily penetrated by the sun. In the distance the Pelican Islands, which in the early morning are pure white, the color of bird dung, have changed to a misty gray.

(5:00 PM) A single gull is spotted flying north overhead, quite unusually the only gull seen during the two and a half days we are here. The tide is almost up to the stick I had stuck on the beach earlier next to a large crab hole; we decide to stake out the spot and watch for the crab to come out. After about 45 minutes it becomes patently obvious the crab is not going to cooperate. I retrieve the camera from the car and try my best to capture the angry surf, which doesn't happen either. I get a few pictures, but as usual they are mediocre. We watch the surf for a while, but our attention gradually shifts back to the small artistically worn shell parts in the sand around us. We set about studying and picking them up, which leads us off along the beach for a few minutes. Eventually, we return to the chairs and our campsite, pockets full.

On a coyote run I find half an eggshell of the kind our Sandpipers are incubating. There is no evidence whether it has blown in, is the remainder of a feast enjoyed by the gray bird of recent persecution fame, or is a result of our midnight arrival and disruption of the natives. It's a speckled shell somewhat smaller than a Banty chicken egg. I guess we'll never know.

I try in vane to capture a picture of our Mom or Pop sitting on their nest, but every time I pick up the camera, the bird jumps into action and soars the area for ten or fifteen minutes. Next I try to capture the nest with the two speckled eggs in it. Once again, it is not nice to fool Mother Nature. My camera dies. Out of batteries, I give up.

(7:00 PM) My soul mate looks at her watch and leaps up to start supper. Before we expect it, the sun is going behind the final blanket of dusk clouds. A quick supper of canned beef stew is prepared and we consume it before the sun has settled over the Bird Island.

The wind has subsided a little. As dusk settles in, it is obvious that we have once again been successfully deprogrammed from the wicked ways of the city by Mother Nature and the Salinas playa. We are ready to stay forever, and after a good night's rest will be able to return to civilization for a week or two -- but never for as long as we will be required to tolerate. For now we simply look forward to the evening at hand. Moon & Dusk - Salinas, 2002

We watch the sunset until total darkness, but with the wind kicking up again we retreat into our tent at about 9:00 PM, listening to our AM radio until after 11:00. AM radio is a favorite Sunday night entertainment on the playa; only there do we seem to be able to pick up many of the old shows of the 50ís -- from distant unknown sources which do not seem to exist in the city.

The evening and night are cooler than before, but still perfect for sleeping. With the wind in our ears, we're "conched" by midnight. Wind continues hard most of the night, but not strong enough to bring down the tent, with two or three complete pauses of about 10-15 minutes. Each time we are briefly awakened by the stillness.

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Monday, Memorial Day

We arise at 7:45 AM to an unconventional breakfast of ravioli, chicken noodle soup, oatmeal and coffee. We steal a brief walk to water's edge. The crab we monitored near high tide yesterday has cleaned house again this morning, apparently before sunrise.

With that, the commune is over; all reprieves are gone, and it is time to pay the Sandpiper. Our ice has run out overnight, but we will have cold water until we get home. We must be back before evening in order to avoid hardship. Work awaits us on Tuesday morning. There are aging parents, children and grandchildren to check on, bills to be paid, traffic, angry drivers, and traffic jams. We set about packing the jeep. We must be out before the tide overtakes the beach we came in on.

Our Sandpiper friends continue to squawk at us all the way through packing. Before leaving we discover a 2nd bird nest a hundred feet to the south of us. We leave our campsite at 12:30 PM, pumping up our tires 3/4 mile past Soledad. We still have about seven miles of primitive road, but it is all hard-packed.

The first few miles of pavement provide great relief from the prior four miles of washboard; yet we are heartsick. Not ready to give it up, we take the turnoff marked "Se Vende Ostion," the first left after the Aduana checkpoint. We aren't looking for oysters, but a last foray of exploration. We'll try to make it to the beach from here. The road traverses a low area infrequently flooded by the backwaters of Bahia de San Jorge. There is much evidence that water has been here, but the tracks are completely dry now. The road ultimately splits into a number of lesser tracks, all of which end at one or another deep inlet channel, all dry. Disappointed, we return to the main road, reaching the main Sonoyta highway at 3:00 PM.

Forty minutes later, approaching the famed kilometer-post 32, we're once again stricken with the urge to postpone our return to the human gridiron and responsibility. We dip through the ditch and plunge through the gate onto the eastbound gravel road. Long in love with the Gillespie highway2, we have always yearned to spend some time in the lush growth between the granite mountains. This afternoon we will endeavor to pick a prospective campsite and thus facilitate an eventual return on some future trip.
miles partial
0.0 Highway at kilometer-post 32
4.0 4.0 Abandoned ranch with brick buildings, stone walls
7.0 3.0 Gillespie highway; turn right toward mountains
8.0 1.0 Fork on left; turn right at intersection after about 6 car-lengths; returns to main road after about one city block

Camping is possible anywhere from here on. The main road continues to the southeast; and the terrain and flora are very pretty beyond this point. We are aware of an occupied house against the mountain about a mile to the south, so would probably camp further on. We lose about two hours in this diversion, and put our spare can of gasoline into the tank before returning to the Sonoyta highway.

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Re-Emergence of Reality

Arriving in Sonoyta, we become acutely aware of the legacy of Memorial Day travel. The border wait starts at the south end of Sonoyta as we come into town. We take a side road to get around the main clog at the intersection with the east-west highway, but wind up waiting to get on the highway before the bridge. We turn off again one block from the highway and jog left another block. Here we find the local policia are holding up highway traffic to let cars in off our street on about a 2/3 basis, no doubt due to the notion that most of the side street traffic is Mexican nationals. We get through in record time, only to start our real wait as soon as we get into our own lane on the main highway -- even before crossing the bridge. Just around the curve north after the bridge we find traffic being split into two lanes by the policia. From here on, itís two lanes all the way to the border. Too late we realize the right-hand lane is moving faster because the policia are splitting it again for three lanes crossing the border. All in all, it has wasted two hours, the time we spent on the Gillespie highway.

Finally, at the new U.S. military checkpoint just south of Why, we wait another ten minutes only to be waved through at that checkpoint, but we note that some cars are being pulled off and torn into. We get away from there at 8:10, and have used up the remainder of our newly-gained tolerance for congestion before arriving home after 10:00 PM.

May 25, 2001


1Bird Island is, among gringos, a common name for the Pelican Islands.

2The Gillespie highway is a four-wheel drive road that runs from kilometer-post 32 on the Sonoyta - Rocky Point highway to Gillespie's Crossing, a few miles north of the Aduana checkpoint on the Puerto Penasco - Caborca highway. A scenic road featuring deep wash crossings and heavy sand, it meanders between granite mountains to an active gold mine and across a coastal plain to the old Gillespie house, a stone structure on the playa near a beautiful green cove.



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