The Cortez Chronicles


In search of solitude in a raging world . . .

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Paradise Reclaimed

(Come Pestilence or High Water)

October 10-12, 2003


This is our first trip to the playa since we returned from Memphis, Tennessee. Packing was a bit more difficult this time because we are a little rusty, having not indulged ourselves for a year. Also, because we are packing the vehicle with items which have had to be routed out of our disorganized storage unit, where we have been forced to park most of our household goods while looking for a house. Most of the important equipment was rounded up; however, there were more casualties of the storage organization than we were at first aware. The only immediately obvious item was the water cap for our port-a-baño, which was probably lost by the time we got the equipment into storage last year. A number schemes were conceived, but in the end duct tape proved the most reliable fix, as usual.

We had rain Friday morning from the tail-end of much worse storms that hit Phoenix earlier in the week, coming up from the south. It drizzled most of the morning, then turned to partial sunshine around noon, and brings clouds as we leave town around 3:00 pm.

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Paradise Lost

By the time we reach the border we've left all of the clouds behind. The sky is perfectly clear, but the humidity is stifling even as far away from the sea as Sonoita. We are delayed about an hour obtaining visas and vehicle permit, and reach the end of the pavement and our turn off to Soledad at about 9:00 pm. But, alas the six or seven miles to Soledad are cut off prematurely by a locked gate where the road goes through a farmyard about halfway there. The closed gate is not a new problem, but the lock definitely is. We have opened this gate and closed it behind us on several occasions in the past two or three years. We never thought much about it in the past, because on one occasion the farmer cheerfully opened the gate and waved for us to pass through.

But this is different. We know we have bypassed this farm once, in 2002, so we backtrack and try any and ultimately all apparent detours. After a couple of hours, however, we are ready to concede that there is no apparent way around. We give up and retrace our path to Colonia Cuahuila, six miles back on the pavement, and head for the Salinas peninsula. As we approach the village just south of the El Socorro ranch the road takes to a narrow high lane adjacent to a fence. In the past this has meant that the main road is blocked by high water; and sure enough, there is an alarming amount of water in the road to our left. It must certainly be due to the same storms which have ravaged Phoenix in the recent past. We continue, and shortly after leaving actively farmed land we run into a massive lake in one of the low desert basins between us and the playa.

This is as much water as we have ever seen here in all of our beach-bum years. But soon we find a startling difference. The straight road bulldozed through the area about 20 years ago has been used so long that there are no longer any of the high water detour routes that were so common in my first life. In those days, there was always a way around water -- short, frequently used detours around small lakes and longer infrequently used detours around large lakes. But no such roads apparently exist here; in fact, there is no room between water and dunes to even squeeze a road where the wheels on one side of the vehicle might get wet while keeping the wheels on the other side dry.

We're stymied. By now it is midnight, and we have no choice but to give it up until morning. We camp for the night just off the Salinas road, about a mile past the village. By the time we get our tent set up and are ready to bed down for the night we have accumulated a number of mosquito and other bug bites. This is entirely unexpected. While it may seem the norm to those living in greener climes, we have never experienced mosquitoes, nor biting insects of any kind in normally dry Sonora aside from an occasional lone horsefly, which only comes out during daylight hours. We haven't even experienced no-see-ums1 in Sonora, although they have on occasion eaten us alive along the coast of Baja del Sur.

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We awaken to the sound of a bird chirping outside the tent. I don't know what kind it is, but I'll call it a "won't start" bird, because it makes the sound of a car hitting on three cylinders and dying on every crank, "erERRerERRerERRer CHUCK-A CHUCK chuck-a chuck chuck". He's a very loud bird, and seems to be bent on our total lucidity. It goes on for half an hour or so until we're completely awake, and when we finally sit up we never hear another peep out of him.

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Attack of the Killer Tomato Worms

My soul mate informs me that despite the high water just down the road from us, she has heard vehicles going toward the playa on a road behind us since daybreak, and not returning. We arise with renewed hope, pack up and prepare for departure. As we're folding up the tent we're inundated by several kinds of garden-variety leaf-worms, apparently a legacy of the recent rains. Once again, we have not observed anything like this on or near the Mexican playa in our forty-plus years of experience There are small worms and large worms, smooth worms and fuzzy worms, green worms and white worms, and especially big fat green three-inch tomato worms with the horn on the rear end. Always students of nature, we take the time to scrutinize one plump fellow. We marvel at the rhythmic arching of his length as he ruminates over rich green leaves of Brittlebush and all manner of weeds which are usually dead and dry or nonexistent.

Every one of these worms seems to have the impression that our tent is in some way edible. We get picked up and vamos for the playa in high order, consuming breakfast bars while in transit. We quickly find the road in question a short distance out of the village, but there are many dead-ends due to high water, with no way around. In the daylight we waste several hours and consume more gasoline than is comfortable, considering that we skipped filling our 5 gallon gas can the night before simply because we thought we would not need it. It is a lesson we already learned many years ago; shame on us for having to be taught again.

We continue to wander over the many back-roads of the area, and in the process observe many Saguaro cacti which have recently fallen -- cacti of some twenty feet or more in height; so many that at first it looks like someone may be harvesting them -- but we eventually decide they probably succumbed to too much water. High Water In The Lowlands - Salinas, 2003

We finally take to the dunes to get around one lake, but the road shortly comes to a very remotely placed hacienda, beyond which it ends in another much larger lake. We notice that the doorway of the adobe house has no closable door. It no doubt matters little to the owner; there is no electricity or cooling anyway. But he has a corral that looks like it has recently contained animals, a good well for water, and a small, well-kept garden containing a variety of healthy looking vegetables. About everything a person needs in life, I would say. We respectfully back away and turn around.

Still seeking passage to the playa, I get out of the vehicle to take a walk to higher ground for a better view of the area. This activity turns out to be useless. On the way back I am suddenly surprised by much snarling and growling in nearby bushes. Not knowing what to make of it I hurry back to vehicle. At the same time a pack of dogs materialize out of the brush. They appear to be friendly, but we still consider leaving to be an appropriate action. As I bear down on the throttle, we see the owner coming back from a morning walk.

We stop once again, to ask directions. He's very friendly, perhaps having not seen a soul in days. He appears to be as much as 90 years old. He's missing most of his teeth, and those he has are stained an ugly but healthy looking brown. There are swollen arthritic joints all over both hands, and his left arm is in a sling. His chest is thick on one side and very flat on the other, suggesting to me a collapsed lung. And he uses a walking stick to get around. Despite his age and physical condition, he talks with a strong voice and upbeat manner. He also smiles a lot, and acts like he enjoys every single day of life.

But yo hablo solamente un poquito Español. I attempt to ask him directions to la playa. There is a lot of gesturing and drawing on the ground with a stick as he explains that you really can't get there from here. You see, the shortcut to his house meets the primary road in the lake, and the primary road to his house also meets the main Salinas road in the lake, so you have to go way out around, allá. He waves his arm in a broad gesture, and then marks the way with his walking stick on the map we have drawn in the sand. At this point he gets excited and plunges into about 40 seconds of fast, heavy Spanish, the meaning of which I haven't a clue. He seems to be enjoying the conversation a lot, and so am I; but it is time to move on. We thank him and reluctantly bid him farewell. He couldn't possibly imagine how much I envy him.

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Paradise Regained

We head back in the direction from which we came, eventually arriving at the lake where we had earlier seen two vehicles driving through the water. This seems to be the very lake which was just beyond the old timer's hacienda from behind, but we cannot see it from here. After some preliminary investigation we elect a high road approach to getting past the water and head up over a series of dunes, following a single set of tracks recently left by someone else. Thus circumventing the last obstacle we gain the top of the Salinas entry dune. We have finally arrived at 1:00 pm, some sixteen hours late.

It has been several years since our last visit to the Salinas peninsula on April 24-25, 1999, and we wonder how much has changed. There are still crabbers coming and going by the pickup load, every hour or so. The main road seems to have been improved to a certain extent. The dunes it traverses have been, horrifyingly, graded down to gentle hills, and dirt has been dumped on the road to extend the hard surface further than we have previously seen it. We pass the cabañas, a few of which are still standing, and to the apparent end of the dune road, where there now eight or ten wooden fishing boats -- the 12 or 15 foot, three man kind with nothing but benches in them -- pulled up in the sand between the dunes for protection.

We continue driving until we reach the tide flat a mile or so from the end of the peninsula, from which the crabbing operations at the tip are visible on the backside.

Along the way, we pass a lot of buzzards hanging out in the dune above the beach at one point, a dead sea lion carcass at another. The ice plant on the dunes, we notice, is unusually green and lush looking. There is a high number of interesting birds -- gulls, sandpipers, curlew or whimbrels, and a number of long legged, long necked Great Blue Herons nesting among the dunes, but not so many pelicans as usual.

We pass a new grave at the high tide line among the first dunes of the playa. Although we find no name on the simple cross, we know by inference of the occupant's life-long love of the playa, and that his soul will rest for eternity among the sand dunes and in the normally gentle but sometimes violent surf. A finer end to the worldly flesh cannot be found at end of life. I contemplate my own demise, but know that such a reward is not the privilege of a gringo.

Surprisingly, there appears to be no sign of the house in the dunes whose driveway was washed out in 19982, but there is a junk yard containing large and small metal objects somewhere about where we thought it would be, with roads leading into it from several directions and a sign on the playa reading Basurero, "Garbage Man". A Lonely Grave - Salinas, 2003 (Click for closeup)

Retracing our path a couple of miles, we select our usual campsite directly opposite Bird Island, at about 2:00 pm, open our table and chairs, and set up our sun shade utilizing a spare room divider canvass from the aging 10x18 we gave up last year. Although a little small, it works well after we tie rope to the corners to attach it to the upright shade frame.

Things forgotten:
     Wet wipes
     Sun shade top (may be packed with old 10x20 tent)
     Broom for sweeping sand from the tent
     Lunch meat (replaced on way out of town)
     Cooking oil (left in refrigerator)
     Lunch cheese (also left in refrigerator)
     Big cooking spoon
     Cards & poker chips
     Cereal bowls

In addition, it becomes apparent during our stay that our new tent, purchased last year before our last Mexico vacation prior to moving to Tennessee, needs a rain cover.

My soul mate prepares sandwiches with jalapeno-laced mayonnaise, which we devour ravenously and chase down with water, juice, coffee (our first of the day), and cola.

All-in-all, we decide, Salinas is much like it ever was, a gentle reminder that the more things stay the same on the Mexican playa, the more they change. Having come to this exhausting conclusion, we vegetate.

5:00 pm: It has been another cloudless day on the peninsula. The heat of the day is receding, but the intense humidity is mitigated by a slight increase in wind. We set up the tent and stock it with overnight living items; then my soul mate cooks supper of beer steak and chili while I update my log.

After dark: The breeze continues, fortunately, but the dew is getting very thick in spite of it. The moon hasn't come up yet. We sit under our sunshade in the dark to avoid getting soggy, our eyes adjusting to the minimal natural light. We can still see the mottled uneven color of the sea in the dark, caused by the incoming waves, but it looks frozen in time -- we are unable to observe any of the wave motion. We observe the blinking red light of a new cell phone tower along the highway to our north; we passed it on the way in last night. We become aware of many flashes of light just over the dunes to the southeast. A walk into the inter-tidal zone doesn't help us determine the cause, but after some time we decide it's a series of small thunderstorms on the distant horizon. To verify this I take a flashlight for purposes of avoiding snakes3 and walk up the dunes behind us to gain additional altitude. It does prove to be two or three intense, individual thunderstorms on the distant horizon, probably twenty or more miles away, with lightning flashing at the rate of eight to twelve strikes per minute.

While thus vegetating, we are awarded the usual benefits of the nighttime playa. We catch sight of an unusually bright meteor, observed in the northwest sky. It comes straight at us very slowly, and is brighter than a 100 watt light bulb at 500 feet. Shortly thereafter, we watch the one-night-past-full moon rise from beneath the horizon. After the moonrise the wind subsides to a mild breeze and the dew increases, if that is possible; but the breeze holds sufficiently to prevent our being totally drenched. In the moonlight the monochrome land and seascape is like daylight except that most colors are lost. Shrimp trawlers can be seen on the distant horizon. Although their lights give them away, we cannot hear the drone of their engines for they are too far from us.

8:30 pm: My soul mate retires to her cot for a snooze, promising to be back. If it was anyone but my soul mate, I wouldn't believe her. I elect to vegetate a while longer. The evening temperature is perfect outside; my only wish might be for a bit lower humidity4. I commune for another hour or so. At about 10:00 pm the breeze drops dramatically and then shifts from the northwest to the east. The sound of the surf recedes. The humidity follows, but now there is a distinct smell of fish, apparently coming from St. George bay, across the peninsula behind us. The temperature has dropped about four degrees, too. I reluctantly give up my vigil and repair to the tent to nurse my wounds and prepare for sleep. My soul mate is sound asleep. If it was anyone but me, I would have joined her when she retired.

The first part of the trip has been 24 hours longer than expected, but this afternoon and evening have made the entire episode every bit worthwhile. I relax immediately, and dose off completely at peace with the world for the first time since leaving Rio de la Concepción on September 26, 2002. The Shadow Walker is upon us.

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The breeze from the east is just about perfect all night, although inside the tent dew drops on us from the ceiling and flicks on us from half open windows flapping in the breeze. Finally tiring of being awakened by Chinese water torture, I get up and reverse the direction of my sleeping bag on the cot -- something my soul mate did before going to bed. It helps, but doesn't completely avoid the problem.

The sun cooks us out of the tent at 9:30 am. We have breakfast of juice, hot oatmeal, and coffee. The morning weather is perfect; but it is Sunday, and after too many excuses we finally commence packing up. As we're putting away our gear we come across the fabric sunshade top thought yesterday to have been left at home. It is right in the bag where it should have been.

While packing up I inadvertently set a cot down on my toe. The five ounce cot wouldn't have mattered, but ours are aging, and this one was missing a plastic insert from the end of the aluminum tubing frame. The sharp edge cut nicely into the index toe of my right foot just beyond the main knuckle. Oh, well!

As we continue packing a number of pickup loads of crabbers go by on their way home. Sunday morning is the end of the week for them, and when we wave they not only return our waves but frequently cheer and hoot as well.

Reluctantly, we head down the beach, passing four Snowy Egrets, beautiful white long legged, long necked birds in a group at water's edge, standing up about three feet tall.

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Sucked Into The Surf

It is a treacherous business, driving the playa. Plow too high in the upper deep sand, and you risk overheating the engine or over-flexing the tires, both common reasons for vehicle failure due to overwork in the temperatures of the southwest. Skate too low on the firm moist blade of the lower beach line, and you risk capture by the sea. Before we reach the mouth of the estuary we pass a pickup and trailer that sailed by our camp earlier in the morning. In his effort to stay on the narrow, hard packed lower beach where driving is easiest and the engine runs cool, he has gotten too close to the surf and has been sucked into the water.

The lower beach is hard packed only as long as it is properly drained. Once you get even slightly into the surf, such as a spot from which a wave may have receded just before your wheels hit it, the water content is high enough to make it completely unstable. With the additional lubrication provided by the water, the light sand, which in water weighs only a third of what it weighs when properly drained, becomes bottomless5. Vehicle Lost In The Surf - Salinas, 2003 (Click for magnification)

Even with four-wheel drive, it is easy to wind up in the surf; and once the vehicle is there, the situation is usually hopeless. On the tilted beach the first wheel to drop into the surf will sink sufficiently to cause a heavy drag, turning the moving vehicle slightly toward the water despite the best efforts of the driver. A second wheel will then drop in, causing more drag, and suddenly the vehicle is sitting in about 3 to six inches of surf. Within a few more seconds the wave action has massaged the almost floating sand from under the heavy wheels, and the vehicle is sitting on its frame. At this point, any power applied to the wheels will simply dig them in until they have dropped completely out of sight. At that point, all attempts to extricate it from the surf will fail, short of a winch attached to a vehicle of 2-3 times its weight so that it can be towed out of the surf like a dead weight, tantamount to lifting it vertically from its watery grave.

Once the salty water has entered the engine or reached the electrical wiring it is doomed and will deteriorate whether removed from the surf or not. If left there it will be a rusty hulk within a month, and in a year or two will be reduced to an unrecognizable tangle of rusty metal, completely disappearing in a few more. As compared with complete and permanent submersion, the oxygenating properties of dipping in sea water are thousands of times worse.

But getting back to this crisis, the frantic crabbers are attempting to tow the lifeless pickup from the surf by human power -- young men in their prime throwing their backs and body weight into the mix -- and with a light pickup with tow chain; but predictably, it isn't budging. Their tow pickup is too light by a factor of three or four, and human power provides such a small portion of the needed force that it isn't worth the bother. We know from experience that our vehicle is also too light; and when it comes to back-breaking work we are no spring chickens anymore. We know that at best we would be sorely unsuccessful in rescuing their vehicle, and at worst we could easily injure our own vehicle or ourselves. We painfully decide not to get involved, passing them behind the first row of dunes, our hearts aching as we pass. We have seen this too many times.

In the flats behind St. George Bay we pump up our tires in the lowlands before circumventing the largest lake in order to gain the clearance we'll need to take the newly forged highroad around. Pumping up our tires seems to take a little longer than usual; perhaps the recently new tires are a little larger, or perhaps the electric pump is beginning to go bad.

Now that we have the key, we have no problem getting past the standing backwaters. On the way to the pavement we once again marvel at how green everything is with the grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs that have turned from their normally gray dead look to a deep lively green. It looks to us more like Nebraska. In over forty years we have never seen the Sonoran desert looking like this!

We breeze back up the road, finding only a ten minute wait at the border, but still arrive home later in the evening than we would have liked. We have our visas and vehicle permit, which will enable us to return for the next six months without border and Aduanal check station delays. It's been a wonderful re-introduction to the playa after a year in Memphis, and we're glad to be back.

October 10-12, 2003


1Culicoides guttipenis, also known as Biting Midges or Sand Flies, are small enough to pass through normal insect screen and are a common problem when camping too near mangroves. It is not unusual to get hundreds to thousands of bites before realizing they're biting, often resulting in a low fever for the victim.

2Reference: Sanctuary El Niño Style, March 27, 1998.

3Sidewinders, a rattlesnake without rattles named for the way they move along like a rolling corkscrew, are the most common along the playas of Sonora and Baja California.

4This is a gross understatement.

5This phenomenon can be observed simply by walking along the beach into and out of the surf, noticing as you go when your feet sink and when the sand bears your full weight without giving.



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