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Reminiscence and the End Times

Salinas Outer Dune

October 12-14, 2007


A year has passed since our last pilgrimage to the Mexican playa. With vacations consumed visiting family members who relocated across the country almost a year ago, we leave this Friday at 12:30 pm directly from my soul mate's office for a short, two and one-half day getaway.

There is an unusually high volume of northbound traffic as we head toward Mexico on Arizona 85. We stop for gasoline and vehicle insurance before crossing the border. Insurance, today at $3.49/thousand for a 3-day policy, has always cost less here than in Ajo, some 40 miles back. As we enter Mexico we are surprised to find a nearly half-mile long return line waiting to be processed by U.S. immigration officers. On a Friday?

With the expanded Free Trade Zone the passports we recently acquired are not needed for this excursion. A vehicle permit, fortunately, is no longer required either -- a real treat considering the hour we used to spend in processing.

As we top off our tank in Puerto Penasco, gasoline (Magna) on this day is $6.71 Pesos/Liter. We turn on the Caborca cutoff -- away from the ugly, cancerous skyline of Puerto Peñasco and Sandy Beach -- and exhale a great sigh of relief. The ten to fifteen story hotels, monuments to city congestion from which we seek sanctuary, tower grey and menacing behind us in the afternoon humidity -- monuments to the devastating changes that have occurred in the last forty-one years.

Puerto Peñasco - January, 1966 / Click for magnification)

Map Copyright (c) Klaus K. Stange, 1966; used without permission.
(Click for magnification)

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The End Times

It is enough to give one pause. My lifetime of pilgrimages passes before me as we speed away. Forced to go further and further each year, we were driven from Sandy Beach, our first sustained destination on the Mexican playa, to "Felix" on the other side of town, and on to Espinosa's, or more correctly, Espiñosa's. In my first life we explored the great shell beaches of Black Mountain for a few years -- while they lasted -- before trekking the Long and Lonely through deep sand to Gillespie's Crossing and beyond; and when wilderness called again we moved on through Ulises Irigoyen and Al Mejas to Salinas.

Then with the ghosts of the playa (full size) calling in my second life we picked up at Salinas where first Oyster and then crab farming now flourished. With hotels popping up in the surf at Espiñosa's and along the outer peninsula to the south, the grand opulence of the twenty story Mayan Palace and planned similar excesses in the works had ruined the inner bay for miles further. Even the picturesque green private cove of Gillespie's, although suitably devoted to local piscatorial pursuits was now ruined by squalor and bulldozing,

Desemboque, today a thriving town of a few hundred with a restaurant or two and gasoline siphoned from barrels, was a wide sandy spot on the playa at the end of a new highway back in the 70's. Soledad was a dune from which local pescadores launched their boats; nothing more. Salinas was remote and undeveloped except for a salt harvesting operation at the back of Bahia San Jorge and a giant rusty mollusk grinding machine at the tip of the peninsula that looked like it had been abandoned in the nineteenth century.

So a few years ago we washed helplessly onward at the leading edge of a wave of grandiose exploitation, washed across miles of endless sand dunes, mud flats and blind backwaters, washed all the way past Santo Tomas, past Desemboque, past Rio Asunción, Rio de la Concepción and Barra los Tanques to Puerto Lobos, seeking sanctuary on first one remote playa and then another. We took up our current vigil on the outer dune, as yet reasonably private. But with the expansion of the Free Trade Zone even our own stretch of heaven will be changing in time -- probably sooner than later.

But having developed an intimate relationship with the coastline all the way from El Golfo de Santa Clara to Puerto Libertad and beyond, we still have a trick or two of our own waiting for just the right moment, and as the Outer Dune dissolves into pandemonium we will once again slip the bonds of civilization and re-materialize on one of only two or three remaining lonely playas -- the last on the Sea of Cortez. And with a little luck and the grace of God, maybe we'll be spared the loss of this final sanctuary before we, ourselves depart this earth.

Deep in thought, we roll on toward Colonia Coahuila, finally regaining consciousness as we enter the Aduana check station perched at the edge of endless high tide backwaters and mud flats opposite the ancient Al Mejas railroad stop. We once wasted a whole afternoon and evening trying to get to the playa from here in the early 70's; but the joke was on us -- there is no playa here. As paperwork is no longer required to pass inspection the un-uniformed officer waves us on as if impatient at our slowing. Soon we pass Est. El Saguaro at the end of the 1970's highway from Caborca, and a few miles further turn at the power substation built in modern times on the ruins of Colonia Coahuila. Gravel, if you can call it that, ends at the settlement of Campodonico. We continue at substantially reduced speed.

At the recently completed community-built checkpoint a young lady pulls a rope to open the gate and let us through without getting up. This is the first sign that "civilization" may be coming to the area now that it is within the Free Zone, its purpose to deny developers access to the playa without obstructing locals and turistas. She catches the gate on the back-swing without moving from her seat and shoves it in the opposite direction behind us; it closes tidily.

Half an hour later we're letting down our tire pressure. We dance to the rhythm of involuntary slapping as the sand flies eat us alive, but eventually get the job done. We are disappointed to find the take-me-to-your-leader Saguaro that has long overseen our activities at this remote juncture has tired of his vigil, his broken arm hanging limply at his side. We take the more primitive of available tracks -- that proceed through what is left of the fence and wander amid dense underbrush toward the beach. Seldom used, these will provide a much firmer and shorter final decent onto the playa than the road we have customarily used, as well as greatly reducing our chances of getting buried to our axles on the return.

Heading north on the beach, we proceed toward the Outer Dune, passing a camp of gringos quietly preparing supper -- their boat and trailer perched among the dunes at the customary entrance road. There are too many fresh tracks on the high beach, but hopefully they do not represent any real threat to our anticipated solitude. After six miles we pick our campsite in the fading twilight with a good view of Bird Island seaward and the Salinas entrance dune in the distance across the estuary behind us. We are relatively isolated here, surrounded by water except for the sliver of sand to the south.

By the time our tent has been erected it is pitch dark on this first night after new moon. Wandering into the dunes for a moment I spot the largest set of coyote tracks we've ever observed in Mexico, if that's what they are. They're laid down in a straight line over the dune from the estuary behind and cross in front of our campsite onto the beach. There aren't any large cats around here, are there? Or maybe they were made by one of those robust, mono-specific Mexican dogs, Canis Humungulous?

We're finally home. My soul mate spots three meteors as we wash down our ham sandwiches with an ice cold beer. For a time we gaze at the Milky Way and other heavenly wonders until drowsiness overtakes us, then bed down in the perfect temperatures for our first blissful rest in a year.

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We arise at around 8:00 am -- my soul mate first, setting up the stove and heating water for oatmeal and badly needed coffee. Morning temperatures are nurturing, complimented by just the hint of a cool breeze. The Bird Islands reflect snow white in the morning light. My wife reports there has been haze earlier, but it burned off as the morning progressed.

Once I am outside erection of the sunshade is our first order of business. Placing our chairs beneath in the customary manner we start our vegetation early while following our oatmeal with breakfast bars and juice.

Our tide calendar reports 8:00 am as dead out for the tide, so 2:00 pm will be the daytime cusp. Waters are blue-green and surf is visible at distant waters' edge.

12:05 pm - A modern RV pickup passes quietly on the lower beach headed north. It returns a short time later, apparently having reached the point of the outer dune and turned around. A can of sardines calls me from the grub box but I refuse it, unready for the lingering aftertaste. A pod of at least a dozen porpoises pass in the twinkling whitecaps just beyond the surf.

12:25 pm - The porpoises return, greater in numbers now, headed north. They suspend their journey for a time as if at our command, circling and diving, back and forth, again and again to feed at our doorstep very close to the shore.

Now a feeding frenzy develops a distance offshore. The water churns as porpoises splash and dive, leaping clear of the sea for half a second at a time as an unseen school of prey struggle in vane to get away; but where are the pelicans? A few seagulls stand idly in the surf observing the festivities, but where are the pelicans?

Seagulls At Surf's Edge - October, 2007

The porpoises continue their feed for over half an hour before moving on.

1:20 pm - Time stands still as it passes. My soul mate retreats to her cot for an early afternoon snooze. I get up from my own fuzzy stupor and grope for that can of sardines and a beer, optimize the position of my chair under the sunshade, and sit back down.

Bird Islands have turned darker as early afternoon sunlight now easily accents their craggy features. Gulls accumulate at surf's edge as high tide materializes before me. The sea is dark blue-green and the waves some four feet, breaking loudly at the sharp angle of the beach line.

The ocean breeze, typically, has kept up with rising temperatures, and although it is probably over 80° F. in the sun I find myself on the verge of a shiver under the rusty framed sunshade. I'm glad at this moment that I heeded my wife's suggestion and staked it down earlier. A chill finally overtakes me, but I ignore it.

I throw my empty sardine can on the sand beside my chair. I'll deliver it to the refuse sack next time I get up; it's one of the perks of living in the sand.

As I resume my vigil, a chip breaks off the hinge cap of this vintage HP-200lx palmtop. Drat! Keeping these things going is getting to be a chore, but they're still the finest handheld in existence today, bar none1.

2:45 pm - It's time to move the chairs again, but for practically the first time in my life, I don't; the warmth of the sun feels too good.

The Pelican (Bird) Islands in Late Afternoon - October, 2007

3:15 pm - The islands have turned dark except for eastern slopes that still catch a little sunlight. Ever-present Cerro Pinacate looms shrouded in distant haze some 100 miles to the north. The receding sea is dark green with white caps sprinkled across its surface. Hissing pulsations of the moderating breakers awaken my soul mate, and she rejoins my vigil.

I stand up, pick up my sand covered sardine can and take it to the refuse bag. I can't help noticing that it has attracted no ants -- another perk of living on a clean, unmolested beach.

4:04 pm - It's feeding time. I look up from my work to catch a flight of five pelicans in single file headed north low over the outgoing surf. Sometimes they disappear completely for a moment behind a wave. Only a few inches from the surface, I wonder how they avoid dipping their wingtips into the water. An individual turns abruptly downward, diving headlong into the sea, resurfaces and tips his beak upward to slide a tasty morsel down the long throat, then rejoins the flight. More follow -- six birds, then four. Two hundred or so gulls materialize from the south, and the hundred already accumulated at surf's edge join them in flight.

It's feeding time for us, too. My soul mate begins supper preparation in anticipation of a premature evening. This meal is simplicity itself -- beef stew from a can; but due to our surroundings, no doubt, is as satisfying as it is quick. By 5:00 pm it is all done and put away, and we are left to contemplate the declining wind on full stomachs an hour before sunset.

The Narrow Salinas Estuary Near High Tide - October, 2007

Whitecaps begin to appear over a large portion of the lower beach, announcing the pending appearance of exposed mud flat below us. As the water recedes from the estuary behind us we notice the seagulls which remain like so many stranded jellyfish. Sitting motionless, like white isosceles triangles, they appear to be nesting on the wet mudflat -- sitting rather than standing, as in surf. Could it be? We must look into their nesting habits upon our return.

Dusk overtakes us as we concentrate on the magnificent sunset. Clouds have apparently gathered just past the horizon; their gorgeous crimson linings spread out as an interrupted flat line on the horizon for some time after the sun disappears. A sliver moon turns yellow, orange, then red as it drops below the horizon a few minutes later. The breeze dwindles with the twilight. We sit in total mental and physical relaxation for some time, studying the stars and listening to the singing of distant coyotes, and then retire to our tent.

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Arising late, we wolf down a breakfast of oatmeal, coffee and breakfast bars, and commence packing immediately. It's another gorgeous day on the Salinas Outer Dune, with just the right breeze; but we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep2.

Packed up, we head down the beach on the narrowing strip of moist sand left by last night's tide. The gringo fishermen that were camped at the entrance to the main road are long gone, their legacy reminiscent of the dragging of semi trucks around their campsite. No matter; there appears to be no waste, so it will all be gone with the next blow.

We continue to our own exit, roar up the slope and glide easily onto the tracks. There is nothing finer to drive on through deep sand than a delicate pair of old tracks -- an untraveled byway. Soon we're pumping up tires under the watchful eye of the take-me-to-your-leader cactus, and then we're off on a mad dash to the border -- arriving at about 4:15 pm.

Thanks to fear mongering since 9-11, we spend four hours waiting in line at the border. Despite this inconvenience, the mood is light amid a circus of street vendors and extraverted, half smashed, gringos. Just the thing we needed; how nice!3 By the time we clear U.S. customs it is 8:15 pm . . . and we have miles to go before we sleep2.

October 12-14, 2007


1The HP200LX is richly appointed with a set of full functionality applications that out-perform anything on the market today -- including Windows and desktop PC software -- from the standpoint of completeness of functionality without sacrificing efficiency of use by the addition of unnecessary bells and whistles: Configurable database and Phone list, Lotus 1-2-3, Quicken, Appointment Calendar, a deluxe RPN Calculator, World Time, Word processor, Stopwatch, System Macros and more. Oh, yes, and for anyone not familiar with it, the 200LX is 1" x 3" x 6" in size and has a more usable "qwerty" keyboard than anything twice its size.

In addition, it is fully MS-DOS compatible, has an 18 line x 80 character display which, unlike modern color laptops, is easily readable in full direct sunlight; and it lasts 20 days on two "AA" cells without charging. Yes, it's fully internet, email, and network compatible with available shareware. And the OS is so solid that mine hasn't been re-booted in years -- compare that with any version of Windows. Backup? Everything is on flashcard, so there's no such thing as data loss. Still, I copy mine in total to my desktop at lest once a year. I've lost HP-200LX data off my desktops in the last twenty years, but never off my 200LX.

But considering the age -- 18 years out of production -- I now keep two so that I don't have to go without it even if I break something by dropping it. The necessity to repair is based only on age; nothing ever happened to it during the ten years of service contract. And there will be replacement parts available on the web for many years to come. Like the Eveready Bunny, the 200LX keeps going, and going, and going . . .

2a|2bThank you, thank you, Robert Frost!

3Thank you, Tom Lehrer.



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