The Cortez Chronicles


In search of solitude in a raging world . . .

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The Apparition

(Salinas Outer Dune)

October 07-10, 2006



A Gentle Sea, Salinas - October, 2006


It has been twelve months since our last, disastrous return from the sands of the Salinas Outer Dune, and the sirens of the playa grow louder in our psyches with each passing day, offering badly needed sanctuary from the hardships of city life. Arranging a four day weekend, Saturday through Tuesday, this year it has been necessary to sandwich our respite between the move of my soul mate's employer to a new more central location and the first birthday of our newest grandchild. To this end, Tyler fest will be celebrated two weeks from tomorrow in a park near our daughter's home.

Car permits are no longer required to go to Salinas or anywhere north of San Carlos, but we're still required to get a tourist visa for any stay longer than 3 days. The $21.00 per head tourist fee is still required, so we elect a maximum six month visa. We celebrate; discontinuation of the car permit requirement saves us nearly an hour at the border.

Take-Me-To-Your-Leader Cactus, A Landmark on the Outer Dune Highway - November, 2003

Arriving at Take-Me-To-Your-Leader corner at about 3:30 pm we stop to deflate our tires and temporarily, at least, entertain the notion of moving our spare from under the rear end to the roof of the vehicle to avoid dragging it in the sand. Rounding the corner to head on toward the beach, we observe the tracks of a previously unnoticed ancient road branching to the left through the remains of what was once a fence.

"Someday we'll have to find out where that goes," my soul mate comments.

At this moment we have no idea how soon her words will come true. Due to our experience of a year ago -- mired to our axles for twenty-four hours and a day late returning to civilization -- we are somewhat apprehensive about traversing the quarter mile between our primitive road, where it emerges from the dunes, and the high tide line. It is an area of deep, lightly deposited fine sand that is soft and treacherous when torn up by other vehicles. But on this day we needn't worry.

Approaching the playa, flat land gradually gives way to moderately heavy dunes, and at the foot of the last steep grade before the beach we are greeted by unexpected high water. Despite our considerable experience the full moon has surprised us once again1; this is apparently the last gasp of the narrow eight mile long estuary that creates the Outer Dune -- the estuary that we thought this road took us far enough around.

We return to Take-Me-To-Your-Leader and turn onto the primitive tracks my soul mate identified only a few minutes earlier. They meander generally south for a few hundred yards and then turn southwest and roughly follow a new fence -- featuring wooden posts -- directly toward the beach. But the nice thing about this track is that it is much more navigable and much more scenic than the main road because it has never seen a blade.

We bounce along through rich flora of Ocotillo, Saguaro, Chain-Fruit and Teddy Bear Cholla, Palo Verde, Ironwood and Brittlebush, our vehicle rising and falling over ground made uneven by the entrapment of sand in tangled roots. It is much slower going for a time, winding left then right until we almost seem to have turned completely around. Shortly, however, we come to a moderate slope overlooking a narrow beach line. Although the slope contains more sand than we have traversed thus far, it is not cut up like the entrance at the main road and proves, as we expect, quite solid for our decent. Partly due to lack of traffic and partly due to the anchoring effect of roots of the prolific vegetation, roads of this kind are seldom as soft as those through the dry backwashes of a playa. It is a great new road, and with the experience of a year ago we are relieved to have found it.

Whale Pelvis, Outer Dune - March, 2001

At the beach we are greeted by a familiar friend -- the recently lost whale pelvis that we have photographed on many occasions over the past fifteen years. It still looks way too heavy for humans to move without special equipment, but has been gradually moving southeasterly for many years under the powerful hands of tide and surf.

We pass our old entrance road only a stone's throw from where we emerged. It looks more torn up than ever. An old axiom crosses my mind about traveling the Mexican backwashes: If you ever feel a need for a different route, one already exists.

Solidad passes to the rear view mirror as we proceed north in the inter-tidal zone. The previous night's tide has been quite extraordinary; it has washed all the way to the dunes at the top of the beach. The Outer Dune gradually flattens in the five or so miles we proceed north, and after a mile of relatively little foliage we know we are close to the end of the peninsula. We turn around at a point where the surf has been washing over into the estuary behind and pick our way back south a short distance to a nice high spot that will protect us if tonight's tide proves higher than last night's2.

We set up camp in grand silence and eat as twilight overtakes the afternoon. The full moon peeks over the eastern horizon before it is dark enough to worry about seeing the food in our plates, and a gentle, perfect breeze responds.

The light of a distant vessel glows dimly on the horizon while the flashing beacon of Solidad stands vigil like a watchful parent. The distant glow of Puerto Penasco calls from the sea, but no-one responds. My soul mate spots a meteor in the sky to the south, an omen of the blissful sleep to come. Except for Isla San Jorge3, barely visible in the moonlight, we are alone on Outer Dune.

We stay outdoors in the perfect evening temperatures until about 10:00 pm, then get up from our chairs, move the vehicle to higher ground, spread our bags on our cots and call it a night. I lie there in total bliss for a few moments, then arise momentarily and step outside for one last look at the advancing surf. When I return my soul mate is already sleeping like a baby. Settling luxuriously back into my nest, I listen to the surf for a short time, drift on the melodies of a coyote chorus and eventually settle into a deep, satisfying sleep.

Next Nav


I awaken late to find my soul mate already outside in the cool morning air. We erect the sun shade early enough to avoid most of the discomfort of working in the rising temperature and settle under it with a breakfast of granola and fruit bars, V8 juice and coffee.

There is a small amount of ancient reef shelving directly below our camp actively being picked over by gulls and pelicans in small numbers. Five or six shrimping vessels rumble on the distant horizon, and an outboard or two churn by half a mile off shore.

Camp Salinas - October, 2006

After breakfast, coffee, and another cup I lazily dig out our aging video camcorder and shoot a few close-up moments of Bird Island, then stow it and return to my vigil. Two coyotes wander by on the as-yet narrow mud flat, keeping a safe distance.

"That reminds me," I comment out loud. "Did you see the coyotes scavenging on the beach below us last night?"

My soul mate nods the affirmative and points to a flight of pelicans gliding by in single file. Their numbers increase as Ibis and Sand Piper join the gulls at surf's edge.

"What's that? Porpoises?"

"I don't think so," my soul mate volunteers; "they appear less visible than usual and don't seem to be surging to the surface in the usual manner. But there are a lot of them!"

In their lead is a rather large school of silvery sardines -- on the shy side of six inches in length -- jumping in unison toward the shallows of waters' edge and away from unseen maws gaping below the surface.

The conversation lapses as quickly as it began, and I amuse myself by watching the antics of crabs scurrying high on the beach and scavenging close to our sunshade, in and out of their holes. As I shift my gaze back to surf and horizon I realize there are many, many crabs all over -- lower on the beach and in the tide pools, too, that I hadn't noticed earlier. It is the way of the playa; all one must do to acclimate oneself is relax the mind and open the eyes.

A cloudless afternoon passes with blinding speed, buoyed on by a perfect breeze as my soul mate snoozes to my perennial note taking. Suppertime surprises us and we respond with another round of sandwiches. We'll dig out the fancy stuff maņana.

Before moonrise my soul mate spots a meteor against the Milky Way. There is a small amount of very distant lightening on the northeastern horizon, and then -- the full moon. So bright it is for a second night that we have no need for artificial light even inside our tent.

Next Nav


Up early this morning, we have much to do in addition to soaking up the myriad amenities of the playa: Namely, the systematic and complete consumption of all of our relatively untouched perishable food items. Getting right to the task at hand my soul mate prepares a breakfast feast suitable for royalty: egg beaters, hash, pancakes, toast, juice, coffee, and a second round.

Stretching out on the now under-sized beach chair, I lean back to make more room for my swollen belly by wriggling the rear legs of the chair deeper into the sand.

"Ah, that's better."

I lift my cup and take another sip of coffee. As I do so my gaze moves inexorably to the surf and then the sea itself.

"Those large things we saw yesterday afternoon -- they're back today. Look at the way their tails come out of the water; not rhythmically as they swim, but occasionally. Watch for -- there's one now! Wow; the whole tail is exposed! a huge one, maybe two and a half feet across."

"Whales!" My soul mate responds; "not porpoises, but some sort of small whales!"

"Yeah! See how the swimming habit is different; they're not as visible at the surface when they're going by, but once in a while one will kick its tail in the air and wag it back and forth!"

Having had our thrill for the day, we lapse into a lazy siesta, and with a caressing breeze and our over-stuffed digestive tracts vegetate contently most of afternoon.

The hours pass, and although there is barely enough breeze to optimize comfort in the increasing temperature, the weather seems near-perfect for the Mexican playa, sometimes known for its extremes. In the late afternoon there is, for just a fleeting moment, insufficient air movement to keep the insects away. It reminds us of our vulnerabilities and then passes -- leading into another evening of perfection.

For supper my soul mate prepares another banquet, a hot meal comprising the bulk of what was originally intended to be two separate meals. We have chicken, beer fried steak, fresh vegetables, and our remaining perishable breakfast supplies. It is truly a mystery to me how she can take ordinary food and make a feast on the beach that is fit for a king.

During the meal our conversation turns inevitably to time, the flame that burns the souls of all gringos on the Mexican playa. It is a commodity more precious than water. Tomorrow is the day we must pack up and vamos. We fleetingly entertain notions of staying a day or two longer, but come to our senses -- as we have responsibilities at home.

We linger over supper. The weather has daily been perfect for living and sleeping, with just enough breeze to thwart the heat of an afternoon sun and keep insects away in the evening. Even the few crawling ants do not seem to be biting. The first 36 hours were completely cloudless, and the last 36 have been just as good, with only distant thunderheads low on the horizon.

Next Nav

The Salinas Estuary
Stand of Saguaros Across the Estuary, Salinas - October, 2006
Estuary North, Salinas - October, 2006
Estuary South, Salinas - October, 2006

Next Nav


We finish supper, clear up and wash the dishes. I walk up the dune at our backs for a last view of the estuary behind us. My soul mate remains in our camp, picking up after the meal and putting vulnerable items in the vehicle for the night. While facing away from the beach a sudden feeling comes over her that she is not alone. She turns warily -- in time to see an ancient, grizzled-looking beachcomber plodding slowly by at the edge of the tidal zone. He looks neither right nor left; his gaze fixed on the sand before him. He has a bag slung over his shoulder, and a walking stick in one hand. His face carries the wrinkles of countless years in the sun, his color is that of dark boot leather.

She calls out, "Buenos noche, senior!," but he doesn't look up from his course. She watches him plod along for a moment longer, until his form suddenly dissolves in the twilight. She blinks, wipes her eyes and takes several steps forward in an effort to regain the image; but incredibly, he has vanished before her eyes. A coyote slinks toward the surf a hundred yards further down the beach, reminding her that it is still early enough for good vision. Dumb-founded, she feels the individual hairs stand up on the back of her neck. She glances around the campsite, searching, then stares for another minute or so at the spot where he disappeared, and reluctantly turns back to her work.

Salinas - October, 2006

A few minutes later I return from my jaunt to hear a recounting of the incident.

"It was probably Don Burgos4," I suggest.

It isn't the first time my soul mate has experienced the supernatural on the lonely playas of the gulf, and it probably won't be the last. Her spirit is as free as the coyotes whose voices serenade our sleep; she is in touch with the psyche and the unspoken; she remembers from the womb. And souls cavort freely here in the timeless playground of the playa. It is as much a part of this world as we are of ours.

With twilight upon us we set our chairs facing the beach well in front of camp and sunshade in order to gain the most optimum view sky and mud flat in the darkness anticipated before the emergence of a nearly full moon. In response, many meteors pierce the pincushion of the heavens. In addition, we spot three satellites -- including one that revolves south to north. Airplanes cannot be avoided in this modern world; we notice two -- if that's what they are -- that are unusual in that they flash only once or twice in their path across the whole sky, separated by two or more minutes of darkness rather than only a couple of seconds.

The warm evening gives way to a perfect night, cool to not below 65 ° F. After moonrise we move into our tent and play a few hands of cards before dozing off to our last night of coyote songs and distant surf. It is a music that I would give anything to be able to hear every night of my life.

Next Nav


We pack up after a breakfast of instant oatmeal, juice and coffee. In preparation for the struggle to reach a solid road bed from the deep sand of the playa we move the spare tire to the top of the vehicle. We'll put it back under the rear after escaping the dunes.

As we're nearing the end of our task we become aware of two pescadores drifting slowly on the incoming tide. Once in the shallows, the men secure their boat and approach. Their prop is broken and they need a ride down the beach to Solidad to get assistance. When we leave one of them jumps on the back bumper, holding onto the luggage rack as we bounce down the beach. The other stays behind to watch their boat and maybe guard a significant catch. We bid our rider farewell at Soledad. He thanks us and we exchange names; his is Enrico. I wish him "bueno suerte," and we get on our way.

Back at our new exit road we have no trouble negotiating the sandy, wind-packed slope. At Take-Me-To-Your-Leader we set our aging electric pump to the challenge of under-inflated tires, move our spare back to its mount under the rear end of the vehicle, and then wash up and change into fresh clothes for the refrigerated trip back to civilization. As we approach the border a pair of coyotes bid us farewell from the security of a roadside Desert Broom.

October 07-10, 2006


1Puerto Penasco is sometimes capable of two 23-foot tides a day at full moon, and this turns out to be one of those times.

2As a matter of experience, the night tide is almost always the higher of the two; however, there are rare cases as captured in the Tide Calendar for the Northern Gulf of California where the reverse is true.

3Bird Island.

4We've run across more than one grave on this lonely coastline, but this comment refers to Senior Alberto Burgos, buried in the dunes off Pothole Beach. In his 95 years of life he was a grand spouse, father, friend & companion, according to the plaque at his burial site on Pothole Beach, and his spirit wanders freely along the playas of eternity where he spent his life. Ref: Adventures: A Walk On The Wild Side, 10/21/2000; Excursions: 10/19/2000. Article not yet posted.



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