With Anika and the kids safely back home in Bozeman, the energy around Punta Bufeo Yacht Club (the name of our beach house, given by the prior owners) dropped discernibly. JD, Lee, Kathy and I slip into a rhythm of sleeping in, daily naps, and simple dinners followed by movies and popcorn. All of us seem to need some downtime to recharge, after weeks of travel and a house full of company, amidst making our decision to stay here, sequestered, for the foreseeable future of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
We have internet and satellite TV down here at our house, so we’re connected with the rest of the world. However, our internet service plan is “data limited”, so we have to exercise discipline and restraint in order to stretch out our allowable gigabytes (GB) through the month. It was initially set at 20GB per month, but our household of four quickly burned through that, and so we upped it to 50GB. We’re all optimizing our phones and iPads to stop using data unnecessarily, changing settings to stop Facebook from automatically playing videos in our video feeds, and stop photos and videos from automatically backing up to iCloud, etc. Calls over WiFi are possible, but consume a lot of data, so we’re reserving them for checking in on my parents, JD’s daughter Kara (who is expecting her 3rd child, our 5th grandchild, at the first of May) and other critical needs. Our satellite TV feed gives us local channels from Southern California, and national media/news channels like CNN, MSNBC, etc., so we are able to keep tabs on the pandemic and responses to it.
We work hard to put away the electronic devices, and savor the ability to simply be outside, something we once took somewhat for granted, but no longer do, particularly because we know so many other human beings across the globe aren’t able to right now. Although we acutely feel the isolation from our loved ones back in the US, and wish we could talk with them and hear their voices, we are safe here. We have daily conversations about how fortunate we are to be able, so far, to weather this storm here. For me, the blessing is visceral: the ocean is a landscape that I associate with some of my earliest and fondest memories from my youth, the images and sounds of which have always been a form of meditation for me. I am especially thankful for the ability to talk with my parents a few times a week for a precious few minutes; so far, miraculously, they are stable there at home in South Carolina. My dad’s ability to be sequestered with my mom, now 5 years into Alzheimer’s, himself with an array of health problems (which put him at high risk for COVID-19), around the clock, trying to keep their spirits high, is deeply moving and inspirational.
We have stocked up on provisions that can last us a month if necessary; we have plenty of clean drinking water from the nearby reverse osmosis plant, and an additional supply of fresh water from our well, which is drinkable if need be. We have salt water for showers and flushing toilets, and plenty of propane for cooking. The only thing that would cause me to leave would be a change in the health status of my parents or one of our other loved ones ; while I, like the rest of the world, am hoping not to confront that in the midst of this pandemic, I am resolved to cross that bridge when I come to it.
When I am able to manage my own emotions and frustrations, and return to a state of calm, non-judging observation, it is really interesting to watch our group of four people, with our different levels and patterns of interacting with each other and the outside world via our electronic devices, and different personalities (e.g., extrovert/introvert) and communication styles, cope with this isolation amidst growing concern for ourselves and our loved ones, and the world at large.
The angst over making the decision to stay amidst so much uncertainty, and watching and helping others make their own choices, definitely took its toll on me, a textbook, empathic, introvert. After being down here for a month and a half, and hosting company for almost that entire time (except the week and a half when JD and I had the flu), I was already overspent. I didn’t realize how out of alignment I was until I exploded at JD for something that was, in hindsight, embarrassingly trivial. While I can’t undo that, it was a painful lesson that failure to take care of myself hurts not just me, but those that I love most in this world. And so, I’m beginning again, this time with clearer and stronger resolve, to work every day to “put on my own oxygen mask first”, and trust that by so doing, I’ll have more to offer others.
I rediscovered the ground beneath my feet by resuming my daily practices of yoga and meditation – initially outside by the water, and later, with the arrival of the bobos (small gnat-like insects that swarm around your face), inside our truck camper. When at the shore on my meditation cushion at sunrise, our dog Pelli and another beach dog Chiquita would frequently ambush me in their morning playtime, giving me ample opportunities to smile, return my attention to my breath, and let go of agitation or the temptation to follow their playful distraction. When in my camper, invariably a flying insect of one form or another would arrive to provide the same instruction. And slowly, as I continued devoting space to sitting quietly, synchronizing mind and body, returning over and over to my breath, I began to understand the sacredness of learning to stay.
The day after Erik and his parents leave, JD, Lee and I take the boat out fishing. After trolling, unsuccessfully, for grouper, we head for a spot we’ve come to call “yellowtail alley”, behind la Isla San Luis. We arrive, and begin trolling – and it isn’t long before I hook a big fish. It strikes fiercely, and immediately dives deep, pulling out line – yellowtail! Fish ON! The tip of my rod arcs hard toward the water, and the fight begins. JD and Lee reel in quickly, while I work – pull up, reel down, pull up, reel down. This goes on for minutes, my arms growing tired as I maneuver around the bow of the boat, port to starboard, and back again. Lacking strength AND length in my arms, I position the close end of the fishing rod between my legs for leverage. It ain’t pretty, nor comfortable, but it works! After awhile, JD grabs the fishing belt, a stout piece of plastic that clasps around your hips with a receptacle like a giant “outie” belly button, that holds the near end of your fishing pole. He places it around me, while giving me a mixture of instruction and encouragement – “Don’t let any slack in the line! Tip up! Go girl!” Moments later, I get the fish to the surface – its the largest yellow tail I have ever seen, and the biggest fish I’ve ever caught! After one final struggle, JD nets it, and we land it in the boat. Seventeen pounds! Before the day is through, JD, Lee and I have caught 10 yellowtail, averaging 15 pounds each. Our fishing drought is over, water temps are starting to rise, and finally, sport fishing in the Sea of Cortez is about to get really good again – yahoo!!
That evening, son-in-law Erik reports from back home in Bozeman, Montana that he has been told not to report to work as scheduled, because he has traveled out of the country. Due to COVID-19 virus, Erik needs to self-isolate for a week. Before leaving for Baja, a mere week ago, there was no indication that he would be subjected to quarantine; however, his return to the US has coincided with the beginning of governor’s orders for home quarantines and social distancing measures. Our world is changing. Meanwhile, my sister and I begin lobbying our Dad to postpone a previously-scheduled procedure to address atrial fibrillation. Its disconcerting to delay something that could help him get off of blood thinners and alleviate a risk of stroke, but the procedure has already been postponed 10 months. Each day brings a new sense of the severity of this virus, and our societal responses to it.
Trying to preserve a sense of normalcy and fun here on the beach, Lee, Kathy, Anika and the kids, JD and I opt for a Razor ride to Los Palmas, which is an oasis in the desert of sorts, consisting of a spring head lined with palm trees long ago converted into a cattle corral. Although its hard to see a water source so trampled and degraded, water in the desert is still alluring. We load up, with Mama See (that’s me) and grandkids in Papa J’s Razor, and Anika riding as passenger in Lee and Kathy’s rig. We turn up a two-track road leading west off of MX-5, that leads into a dry wash, admiring the ocotillo and cholla cactus amidst elephant trees and palo verde. We arrive at a stand of palm trees and fencing, and take a look around. A truck camper sits adjacent to the corral, abandoned, windows busted out, sides and floor falling apart. Dried, not too old, cattle dung coats the ground. The beginnings of a cement building, along with a rusty cement mixer, sit on a small mound overlooking the site. A grave marker, denoted by a white cross painted on a rock, sits further upslope from the spring, corral, and abandoned building. Ember and Colter, happy to experience something different, run through the sand, challenging their mom to a foot race. When our tour is over, Anika and I exchange places in the Razors, and we head for Rancho Grande, our nearest gas station and source of provisions, where we order a few burritos from the adjacent restaurant, and the kids alternate bites of quesadilla and ice cream sandwiches. Making an effort not to touch anything unnecessarily, we finish by wash our hands with soap at the market’s outdoor sinks.
With each passing day, it becomes harder to ignore the stark realities of the escalating pandemic. As each of us struggles to comprehend, and accept, the national TV news and our internet news feeds, our household of five adults begins daily conversations about whether to stay, or go, while Ember and Colter continue playing all around us, in the sand, and the water. Initially, the views of our group spans a reasonably wide spectrum – some question the level of panic over a flu virus, others adamant that the government responses aren’t severe, or swift, enough. Similarly diverse is our need for information – some glued to the TV and their phones, sharing grim statistics on the looming crisis from across the globe, others disengaging, trying to remain calm. Eventually, we all agree that we feel personally safest here on the beach, where we are essentially isolated already – there are only four other people in the 20 other houses here on our stretch of beach, and we aren’t socializing with them. We are already well stocked on provisions, with little need to go anywhere except down the road for drinking water. Out our front door, we have unrestricted access to the beach and the ocean; at our back door, the dessert. It is paradise, and we feel lucky to be here on any trip down, even – and especially – this one. And yet, we also acknowledge that if any of us were to get sick down here, medical treatment is far away. We are each also struggling with feelings of obligation and longing for our loved ones back in the US, and the uncertainty and fear that if we don’t leave soon, we might not be able to return if they need us. Anika is separated from Erik; my Dad has multiple risk factors for this virus, and my Mom can no longer live alone; JD’s younger daughter Kara is pregnant, with a due date of May 1; Lee and Kathy’s kids have their hands full homeschooling children amidst changes in jobs and financial security.
We spend days discussing and reassessing our options, watching with a sense of increasing dread as the nightly news reports the exponential increases in confirmed cases and deaths, in the US, and abroad. JD and I begin to check US State Department and Mexican Consulate websites, and check in with other gringos from down here on the beach, some of whom have already returned home. What is a border closure, really? Can a home country deny entry to its citizens? Within 24 hours, the US State Department’s travel advisory shifts from “use caution” to “return home or plan to stay indefinitely.” We learn that existing US law prevents a home country from denying entry to its own citizens, although it is clear that if we do return anytime soon, we would likely face quarantine and substantial delays getting anywhere.
It becomes clear that we are all cycling through the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – in different orders, and different rates. Some of us hit our breaking point earlier than others, but over a series of days, each of us expressses our utter exhaustion and longing for someone to “just tell us what to do.” I broke first, tearfully admitting my struggle to reconcile my concerns for my parents back in South Carolina with my desire to remain with JD, given his 10-year history with chronic bronchitis and pneumonia, while preparing breakfast for our group. As my tears surfaced, Kathy gently took the spatula and continued cooking, as I walked over into JD’s embrace. Noticing that merely acknowledging my conflicting emotions aloud helped me to take the next step toward a decision, to set aside the hypotheticals surrounding my parents’ health status and focus on the need, and opportunity, to stay here, in a sacred place, with my husband. Ultimately, we decide to stay, together, and once made, I instantly recognize it as the right decision. Lee and Kathy decide to remain here with us too, and both JD and I are grateful for their company. Anika decides to take the kids and return to Montana, feeling the pull of home and hunkering down with her husband, as well as helping out where she can at work. Anika and Erik then begin the arduous process of working to change her original flights, which routed her through Denver, to a direct flight home.
Meanwhile, the weather steadily improves, returning to sunny, clear days and beautiful blue seas. Recognizing and respecting my need for exercise, I resume running out to a place on the far side of Punta Bufeo known as Miquel’s beach. My route takes me out the sandy, washboard Punta Bufeo entrance road, past the sand dunes, and onto a two-track road that crosses through the creosote and mesquite shrub-scrub, across the playa, and back through grassy foothills, where I reach a small rise where the Sea of Cortez finally comes back into view through a small, 100 foot wide break in the coastal cliffs. I follow the road down another quarter mile down to that spot, scampering across boulders teeming with isopods out to the waves, crashing on the rocky shore. It’s just over three miles to this point, a good run that is well worth the effort. This year, I’ve begun taking a swim in the water to cool off. I do so, and stand at the water’s edge as it crashes over the rocky shore. The tide is coming in quick. Pelicans fly overhead, the Mexican air force. A pair of cormorants jockeys for position atop a single exposed rock some 30 feet from shore. Along my return to the house, JD picks me up in the Razor: he has come looking for me. We go for a short ride, stopping at the top of the sand dunes, facing the Sea of Cortez, overlooking the houses on Punta Bufeo.
A few days before Anika is due to leave with the kids, a Mexican vendor by the name of Salvador arrives on the beach in his white van. Salvador has been visiting Punta Bufeo for decades, selling wares from his shop in San Felipe, garnered from throughout Mexico. He has earned a reputation as an honest, friendly, humble man, and when he comes to our beach, we make an effort to purchase something from him, even if only a small trinket. This trip, he tells us he is carrying goods straight from Mexico City – a colorful array of patterned wine, whiskey, and shot glasses; serving bowls for salsa, guacamole, and other fare; tortilla warmers; mexican blankets; keychains; jewelry; braided rope bracelets and anklets. He opens the rear and side doors to his van, encouraging us to look inside as he describes what he has, gauges our interest, and begins pulling out items for us to examine. Our entire household is shopping, including the kids, as well as some neighbors from down the beach. Before we know it, Salvador has unwrapped dozens of pieces of pottery and glassware, and placed them out on the sand to tempt us. He is continuing to retrieve items from his van, when we realize how long it will take him to put everything back, and we jovially tell him to please stop! Ultimately, JD and I purchase two wine glasses and a whiskey glass, a tortilla warmer, and a pair of small serving bowls. Lee and Kathy purchase some glasses, Anika as well. Anika allows Ember and Colter to pick out bracelets for themselves and some friends, and two glasses for their “bugaritas” – a nickname coined by Colter some years back, when he asked Anika what the adults were drinking at cocktail hour. He wanted his own “special” drink: the name, and the tradition, has stuck. A bugarita, for the uninitiated, consists of fruit juice and something fizzy, like sprite or soda water. That evening, Ember and Colter got to drink theirs out of their own, grownup-style glasses from Salvador, out on the roof!
Saturday arrives, and that morning, JD heads out early to drive Anika, Ember and Colter to the border at Tecate. Our friend Doug has generously agreed to come pick them up and take them to San Diego, where Anika will rent a car and drive the rest of the way to Long Beach for a nearly-empty flight home with the kids. As JD drives Anika to border, Kathy and I drive up to San Felipe to shop for provisions – produce, rice, beans, tortillas, and, of course, toilet paper, as we are hearing from friends and family in the states that the shortage is real. In San Felipe, we are greeted by clerks with face-masks holding bottles of hand sanitizer as we enter the grocery stores. Kathy and I return, road-weary, just before sunset. She and I reluctantly venture up the beach for a meal with friends Marty and Kim from further up the beach, as we wait for JD’s return from the border crossing at Tecate. Marty and Kim are returning home to Washington State the day after next. As we conclude our meal, I come back from the restroom to find a pair of young, 20-something American guys have taken their seats at a table adjacent to ours. They are spear fishing, and they arrived from Los Angeles yesterday. My heart begins to pound; I feel the need to leave, immediately, rising in my chest. I want to go, but social etiquette is hard to break, and so I sit quietly, attempting to join the conversation. The talk, of course, is about the virus, and our table begins to ask about conditions back in the US. The pair – I’ll call them boys – show their age as they make a flippant remark about people “losing their minds over the need to prevent grandparents from dying.” I cannot contain my temper, and turn to face them, asking if they are aware that substantial portions of the hospitalizations and deaths in Europe have been 20 to 40 year olds. They stare at me silently for a second, probably sizing me up as yet another hysterical germaphobe, before politely acknowledging that they weren’t aware of this statistic. I turn to my table, make my apologies, and express the need to leave, citing my desire to be home when JD arrives from the border. For once, I am utterly unconcerned for breaking up a dinner party.
Marty graciously pays our tab, and we bail out of the restaurant, heading for the house. JD arrives soon after we walk in, and I’m so relieved to have him back safely. Anika is en route with Doug, and JD, Lee, Kathy and I have decided to stay.
JD and I leave for San Felipe, eager for the arrival of daughter Anika, her husband Erik, their children Ember (7) and Colter (4), and Erik’s parents, Lori and John. Lee and Kathy stay behind at the beach house, cleaning up and giving us some time to reunite with the family alone. After completing some errands in town the day before, we wake early Saturday morning in our hotel room, and head to our favorite restaurant on the Malecón for breakfast: huevos y machaca (JD’s favorite), and huevos poblanos, which is essentially eggs and a dark brown, savory-sweet, rich mole sauce made from roasted poblano peppers and chocolate – one of my all-time favorite Mexican foods that I have yet to master in my kitchen. After breakfast we walk back to our hotel, grab the truck and head out to finish our errands: the bank for pesos, the propane supplier, then to the grocery store to stock up for our two weeks with family. Other errands complete, JD stays with the truck at the Calimex grocery store as I shop. On my third and final trip into the store, I am intently focused on tracking down the remaining items on my shop list, when a petite female walks up to me, calling me by name. Lori! Erik’s mom. They’re finally here!! We laugh at my surprise. We leave the store together, heading for Anika and Erik’s mini van, which Lori and John drove down from Bozeman, Montana, to Palm Springs, California, where they reunited with Anika, Erik and the kids, who flew in for the drive across the border. It’s always so exciting to have friends and family visit us down here, and arrive safely! It is especially momentous this time, being John and Lori’s first time across the border into Baja together, and their first time at our beach house.
After several rounds of hugs in the Calimex parking lot, we head for the Malecón, informing them all that there is a motorcycle festival in town, and the streets are extra busy. Colter, who loves motorcycles, is pretty excited about this! We park back at our hotel, and walk toward the barricades cordoning off the street, reserving it instead for motorcycles and pedestrians. After purchasing fresh pineapple drinks for the kids from a street vendor – a delicacy made by coring the center from a pineapple, and blending it with sweetened condensed milk – we head for a quick lunch at the Taco Factory, our favorite lunch spot. With tables sitting high above the sidewalk, it offers a panoramic view of the street and the ocean. We order a round of tacos, guacamole, beers, and margaritas, and struggle to carry on a conversation over the music blaring from a stage that has been erected in the street just outside the restaurant, for the annual motorcycle rally. It’s clear that the kids are eager to get to the beach, longing for toes in the water. The adults are ready, too. We quickly finish our lunch, get back in the cars, and head for Punta Bufeo.
The first time that JD and I had any of our grandkids down in Baja was nearly 8 years ago, when daughter Kara and her husband Nate came down at Christmas with their first-born child, Avery, who was then just barely 7 months old. Needing a break, our caravan stopped at an abandoned cement building just north of San Felipe along MX-5. The building, coated with a palette of spray paint and graffiti, was in the middle of nowhere, a remnant of someone’s long-ago faded dream. As we walked about, Kara placed daughter Avery atop one of the building’s window openings, while ducking down behind her, out of sight. We snapped a picture of Avery, seated like a Buddha child sitting atop the window sill, infant legs bent in a semi-lotus stance, eyes nearly closed – in reality, likely from the glare of the sun, but in the picture, seemingly deep in a meditative trance. It remains one of my all-time favorite pictures, of Avery, and of Baja.
Our family continued to use this building as a photo stop for the next several years; but this year on our initial drive down, JD and I found the artistic, colorful graffiti painted over with a large, boring business advertisement. What was a tapestry of color and graphic art is now reduced to a phone number for a bail bondsman! Saddened, we drove on, lamenting the loss of a tradition. However, south of San Felipe we spied a suitable surrogate: another abandoned concrete structure, this one coated in fresh, pink paint and an artistic rendering of a spiritual figure of some sort, forefingers and thumbs touching, held out to the sides, in a meditative posture. Perfect! JD and I made note of the mileage, and cajoled Anika and family to stop for some pictures on the way down.
Our group arrives at our house well before sunset. The cars are scarcely parked before Ember and Colter have changed into their swimsuits, and are running out the front door, across the sand, and down to the waves! The adults all delight in their enthusiasm, while shivering at the thought – the weather is still chilly, and most of us are in long sleeves! We enjoy a round of cocktails up on the deck at sunset, welcoming our family despite the cooler than expected temperatures, and everyone begins to settle in. Erik and his parents are staying for a week; Anika and the kids will remain here with us one week more, before also flying home to Bozeman.
Throughout their first week, it rained more than I have ever experienced here in Baja. So much so that we spent most of our time indoors, reading, cooking, eating, watching movies. JD and I, worried that our guests weren’t getting the beach experience they had been hoping for, suggested an outing to the Pacific coast, perhaps in search of whales, or just to get out of the weather. After a short discussion, we opted to stay put and savor some rare family time even if it meant more time indoors than any of us wanted. Ember and Colter, unfazed, continued to play in the water.
Meanwhile, talk of a new virus, first documented in Wuhan, China was beginning to dominate our news feeds. Back in the US, health officials and hospitals were beginning to sound the alarm about its extraordinarily high rate of spread, and a lack of capacity, in terms of hospital beds and equipment. Officials were beginning to talk of postponing elective surgeries, closing schools, and postponing or canceling large events.
Despite the doomsday predictions, which most of the time seemed just too dire to believe, we dined on fresh seafood; made pizzas, cinnamon rolls, and strawberry ice cream from scratch; played Balderdash, listened to the waves and the rain on the roof; celebrated Lori and my birthdays with a chocolate cake; and enjoyed each others’ company. Those precious few days when the sun did come out, we mobilized quickly, finding a lounge chair or simply a spot on the warm concrete to soak up its rays. We hung, and lounged in, a new hammock that we purchased in San Felipe. When they weren’t playing in the water, Ember and Colter took turns riding a mini-quad, purchased from our friends Vicki and Larry a few years ago. The last time Colter was down here, two years ago, Colter had a close call, in which he couldn’t figure out how to let off the throttle. He was headed straight for my parked car when his mom Anika, ever-vigilant despite recovering from a broken collarbone, snatched him off of the seat (with her good arm!) just in time, bringing the quad to an abrupt halt. Ever since that day, Colter has refused to ride the quad. But to our delight, this time Colter jumped on it without hesitation, riding in the sand behind our house until his thumb was too sore to push the throttle anymore. Meanwhile, his sister Ember perfected her figure-eights on the make-shift obstacle course set up by her Papa J.
One morning, with a break in the rain, we ventured to breakfast at Papa Fernandez, a small stretch of beach with a smaller cantina, named after a short-statured man, who looms tall in local legends. Papa Fernandez is also the grandfather of the children who own our stretch of beach at Punta Bufeo. Actor John Wayne was among the Hollywood elite who frequented Baja, making many movies here. As the story goes, after visiting for many years, John Wayne finally met Papa, and learned (from Papa) that one of John’s local friends and host was engaged in a legal battle, spending considerable money trying to take Papa’s land for himself. Upon learning this, John pledged his allegiance to Papa, and stopped financing his friend’s efforts. A photograph of Papa and John Wayne hangs prominently in the cantina on Papa Fernendez’ beach.
The chile rellenos at Papa Fernandez are also legendary, so our group ordered five plates, along with two orders of huevos rancheros, one order of huevos y machaca [check spelling], and cheese quesadillas for the kids. As we sat outside at the picnic table waiting for our food, I overheard what sounded like a hand-held blender through the kitchen window, which was open. I had been reading chile relleno recipes online for days, and most appeared to involve dipping the peppers in whipped egg whites. But I’d never done this, and was eager to learn. After some encouragement from JD, I walked inside, and hovered on the other side of the curtain separating the restaurant from the kitchen. I could hear three women’s voices, although I could only see one young girl standing over the large gas stove, frying matchaca and potatoes. Finally, working up my nerve, I approached the curtain, and asked in my most polite Spanish if I could watch them, and learn how to make chile rellenos. The apparent matriarch of the kitchen smiled, and welcomed me in without hesitation. She was already beating egg whites, while the roasted poblano peppers were sitting off to the side, slit open and filled generously with cheese. She looked at me, as she carefully (speaking only in Spanish) performed the steps. First, whip the egg whites until stiff, adding generous amounts of salt and pepper 3/4 of the way through. Then, fold in some egg yolks, and whip some more. Once reaching the desired consistency, gently ladle a pepper atop of the whipped egg mixture, and generously spoon the mixture on top and sides of the pepper. Transfer pepper to a skillet with several inches of hot oil, using two hands, one to hold the pepper by the stem, the other using a spoon to transfer the fully-coated pepper to the skillet. Once the pepper is gently placed into the oil, immediately flick the hot oil onto the sides and top of the pepper, setting up the batter. Viola! They made it look easy, and I was thrilled. I thanked them profusely, and nearly ran back to the table to describe the process to JD, Anika and the others. When the food arrived, the rellenos were a huge hit, as was everything else. I was positively giddy for the experience of learning in a Mexican kitchen, with Mexican women, how to prepare this food – a universal language of love.
One afternoon, just after the rain, Erik and his Dad wanted to take our Razor (a side-by-side, four-seater OHV) out for a spin in the desert. They loaded up and strapped in the grandkids and themselves, donned their helmets and goggles, and took off – headed for the nearby sand dunes and playa, which are (unfortunately) criss-crossed by dozens of one- and two-track roads from decades of being traversed by fat cat motorcycles, quads, and sides-by-sides. They returned a few hours later, just before sunset, the Razor – and all its occupants – coated in mud! Clumps of mud from the desert’s playa was clinging to every surface of the wheels, wheel wells, doors, roll bars, and roof – as well as the rain jackets and shirts of all passengers. We all had a good laugh as Anika, Erik, and the grandkids gave it, and themselves, a much-needed bath.
Harbormaster JD took the family out sight-seeing and fishing, spotting porpoise and fin whales the first trip out on the water, and touring the sea lion rookery at Isla Lobos, an obligatory stop that never ceases to impress. One day, when the boys were headed out, Anika approached JD to ask if she too could come along. Of course! She out-fished the men that day; on the whole the boat caught several grouper, and yellowtail, the start of a good fishing season.
With the weather still holding up, we venture out to a nearby onyx mine, now abandoned, but once active enough to have supplied the onyx for Marilyn Monroe’s bathtub. Anika, Erik and the kids load up in the beach house truck (a 1993 Toyota Tacoma); JD and I take John and Lori, in our Razor, Lee and Kathy come along in theirs. We park the rigs, and begin a short hike up a drainage toward a spring that serves as a watering hole for local wildlife, including bighorn sheep. JD reminds the group that bees are also attracted to the water, so we need to proceed cautiously. As we approach, we hear the sound of bees swarming; Lee and Erik move up cautiously to investigate. Ember, who is hiking with her mom, grows fearful, telling her mother that she wants to turn back. JD and I pause behind them, allowing Anika to help Ember summon her nerve. I watch silently, in amazement, as Anika works with gentle strength to coach Ember, reminding her that she has done this hike before, to trust in her ability to face whatever may come, and finally, to take a few breaths, gather her courage, and take the next step. Slowly at first, Ember’s fear begins to subside, her shoulders straighten up, and she begins to move forward. Our hiking route leads up to a pool of water at the bottom of a tunnel in the rock, long ago carved by the water. We walk up to where the water has eroded a tunnel through the surrounding mudstone, crouching and bent over on all fours, to get through a small opening to where the water has pooled. Once through, it opens up on the other side, showing that the overhanging cliff that the tunnel goes through is only feet thick at the bottom and 40 feet at the top. Its a place you don’t want to linger. We climb up the drainage on the far side, observing lots of bighorn sheep droppings, and crevices holding sparse grasses. Ember begins enthusiastically leading the group up the rock scramble, a route that she now remembers well.
Back at the beach house, Anika, Erik, Ember and Colter wander out to the reef that is accessible from our house at extremely low tides. I always love tide pooling with Anika, whose has her father’s jubilant curiosity for nature, and knows far more than I do about sea creatures. JD and I go with, delighting in finding and sharing every sea urchin, sea cucumber, brittle and sea stars, hermit and other crabs, sea slugs and various unknown (to us, at least) types of isopods. My heart melts as I watch Erik savoring this quality time with his wife and kids, knowing how rare an opportunity it is for him, a working dad who works long hours to give this family the financial security and freedom to enjoy moments just like this. Another evening at low tide, Ember shows us all how she finds sand dollars. You just have to look for a dimple in the sand, she says. Before long, we are all experts!
Our internet at the beach house is subject to a monthly data usage cap, which helped to keep us all off of our devices and tuned into each other. But, as the week came to a close, our collective thoughts began to shift to the world that Erik and his parents would be returning to. The nightly news was increasingly focused on the virus now globally known as COVID-19; schools and businesses were closing; governors were urging people to stay at home; international travel advisories were ratcheting up. Anika began to wonder if she and the kids should return with Erik, who was expected to report to work. It was becoming clear that this virus was changing life as we knew it before. Ultimately, Anika decided to keep her plans to stay with us another week, while Erik and his parents drove out. It was a hard decision, but one that we all supported, selfishly, in JD and my case, because it meant we didn’t have to say goodbye to them, yet.
John, Lori, and Erik drove out Saturday morning, making it across the border in good time, with no issues. Erik stayed overnight in Las Vegas, sequestered in his hotel room, and his plane to Bozeman was nearly empty. Lori and John made the long drive back to Bozeman in the mini van. Meanwhile, Lee, Kathy, JD, Anika, Ember, Colter and I remained at the beach house, savoring sunsets and sunrises, and the gradually warming temperatures. That evening, after saying goodbye to part of our family, Anika and Ember beckoned me to the deck. I could hear Anika telling Ember to tell me she had something to show me. I eagerly complied, and ventured to the roof, where Ember pointed at the shore. A single, black crowned night heron stood utterly still at the water’s edge, silently looking out at sea.
We pull into Loreto, the longest occupied town in all of Baja, and turn on our cell phone navigation, seeking directions to Romanitas, the RV campground recommended by a Canadian couple that we met in Mulegé. As the navigation directs us down a side street, JD suddenly slams on the brakes. An electric wire from a nearby telephone pole is hanging down at eye level as it crosses the road! Had we gone a foot further, we would have easily intercepted it with our truck camper. We make a U-turn and begin reckoning toward the waterfront as we wait for our mapping software to catch up with our diversion. We enter Blvd Salvatierra, an active shopping district that reflects the gringo population here… hair and nail salons, massage shops, upscale art and pottery galleries, Italian wood fired pizza, organic food stores, and marquees advertising “vegan”, “gluten free”, and “organic” foods. As we approach the Malecón, Blvd Salvatierra becomes Avenida Miguel Hidalgo, and the asphalt becomes terra-cotta stamped concrete. We look for Calle Romanita, and find it, signed with no entry to vehicular traffic, just as our Canadian friends advised. We enter anyway, as instructed, and with one more left, we find the signs to the tiny, but perfectly convenient, RV park. We are greeted by the host, Arturro, who tells us he has two sites left. Jockeying our rigs in between palm trees and other vans and campers, we back in and begin to get settled. At $200 pesos a night for water and sewer ($250 with electric), bathrooms with hot showers, and a washing machine, we declare it a bargain.
After a quick lunch at our campers, we head into the plaza to meet friends AJ and Kim, from Reno. Kim works with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, her husband AJ is in construction. After years of exploring the Baja and surfing its pacific coast, they built in Loreto. They are down for a few weeks with their 4 1/2 year old son Kestrel (Kes). Since leaving Reno I have seen precious few of my former friends and colleagues from USFWS, and I’m particularly excited to reunite with them in Baja! As we approach the town Plaza, I hear someone shout out what sounds like my name, and look up to notice a thin gringo wearing a ball cap sitting on a bench beneath a shade tree, looking in my direction. He stands up, smiles, and I realize it’s AJ! I shout to JD, and quicken my pace to embrace AJ in a hug. He introduces me to the older man at his side – Kim’s father! AJ and Kim’s parents are all visiting them in Loreto! We are soon joined by Kim and Kes. I manage to hug Kim in between Kes’s sustained efforts to maintain his mom’s attention, as Kim gives me a short synopsis of things back at the Reno USFWS office. I instantly feel how much I miss the many friends back there.
I tell Kim and AJ both that I’m concerned about intruding on their family time, but they insist that we are welcome. So our two groups merge and begin to stroll the streets of the plaza, toward the Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto. We enter respectfully, removing hats and sunglasses, allowing ourselves to feel the sacredness of this place. I take a moment, kneeling at a pew, and say a prayer. Although I dislike labels, particularly in this arena, I’m more spiritual than religious, but my thoughts on such subjects are evolving. Regardless, I have a deep appreciation for the teachings of love, kindness, compassion and forgiveness epitomized by figures like Jesus, as well as the sacred spaces devoted to such teachings, despite how they have been corrupted by organized religion(s).
I walk quietly back out the front entrance of the Misión, retrieving our dog Pelli from JD so that he can enter. He does, while Kim and I stand continue talking and catching up on the past year. As JD returns, a group of approximately 20 people, Mexicans and gringos, assemble across the street from the Misión’s entrance. They form a circle, and begin to pray. What begins as a quiet, humble gathering quickly turns into a loud, emotional raucous, with the group’s members clutching at their rosary beads, chanting loudly in Spanish, eyes closed, arms in the air, feet pounding the pavement. Finding it hard to talk over their voices, we move away.
We arrange to meet Kim, AJ and their families for dinner on the Malecón at Los Mandiles, just before sunset. Meanwhile, JD, Lee, Kathy and I continue strolling the Plaza, and approach a large, wooden door leading into the museum (Museo de las Misiones) next to the Misión. We find it locked, although the signs say that we are within visiting hours. We press on the door, but it is firmly latched from the inside. As we turn to walk away, a man opens it, and tells me in rapid spanish (aided by hand gestures) that the museum is closed due to the wind. He invites us to come back tomorrow. We head for margaritas across the street at a nearby restaurant, Mi Loreto. While the ambiance from the street isn’t much, we enter to find a colorful array of mexican blankets and other decor, and are served a delicious variation of a margarita, served with pineapple and orange juices, and agave syrup. We return to our campers, and nap before dinner.
We reconvene with AJ, Kim and their families across the street from the restaurant, along the walkway lining the waterfront. Our large group walks out to the pier for sunset, separating naturally into pairs. Kim and I walk and talk like old friends do, topics meandering from work and family to our own physical and emotional well-being, and the intersection of all of these facets of life. We share challenges and celebrate successes, and I am reminded yet again of the gift of true friendship, delighted to have met up with her, here. We take photos at a sea lion sculpture at the piers end, and turn back toward the restaurant. This time, I walk beside Kim’s father, whom I learn is an avid sailor. AJ has just sailed his 26′ foot Catalina from Gonzaga Bay to Loreto, a passion that his father-in-law clearly shares. I tell Kim’s Dad about JD and my newfound love of sailing, our new (to us) sailboat Vishnu, my love of the feeling of being under sail, without a motor, harnessing the wind. I tell him about the book, “First You Have to Row a Little Boat”, by Richard Bode, and encourage him to read it. He seems interested, and says that he will.
Los Mandiles is standing-room only, which is a good sign. The proprietor nervously sizes up our 11-person group until he identifies AJ, and then breaks into a smile. It’s clear that he recognizes him, and as is customary down here, AJ had come by earlier to let them know we were coming.We are seated, and although dinner takes awhile (the owner apologizes that he is short staffed that evening), we enjoy rounds of conversations over drinks, chips, and very fresh guacamole. Kim and I are seated together; she shares that it is AJ’s birth mother who is here visiting – this is only their third time together since reuniting a little over a year ago. AJ and his mom are huddled close at their end of the table; this only enhances my gratitude for being welcomed into their precious family time. Dinner arrives, a bit late, but a splendid table of chile rellenos, mole poblano, enchiladas suizas, carnitas, arroz, frijoles, tortillas. We toast to friends and family, new and old. We close the restaurant down as we finish our meal, and bid each other goodnight. Our campground is just a short walk around the corner, and we head for home.
The next morning, Kathy and I head back to the Plaza for “girl time” – pedicures at a nearby salon! Meanwhile, JD and Lee wait back at the campground for our friends Ross and Kate, who are making their way back north, and plan to stay a night or two with us in Loreto. Kathy and I, freshly pampered, meet up with them all in the Plaza, and our group heads toward a local brewery with open patio seating under some shade trees. Its hugs and smiles all around, as we swap stories of our adventures thus far over tasty beers and French fries. After siting with the group for awhile, I notice my thoughts becoming preoccupied with my parents, and excuse myself to make a phone call.
I step out into the sunshine of the plaza to call Mom and Dad. I haven’t spoken to them since we left Punta Bufeo for Guerro Negro, when I told Dad that we would likely be out of contact for awhile, because we were going to see whales. I reach them and learn that Shannon, one of the nurses at their retirement/assisted living community, has just left from her daily visit to inspect the surgical bandage on his elbow, shattered in a fall a few weeks ago.
“Shannon always asks about you!” Dad says jovially. He tells me this is the first day that Shannon didn’t have to change the bandage; the swelling is down and his incision isn’t draining as much. I breathe a deep, silent sigh of relief. His tone of voice is good, he seems simply happy hear from me. I relax a bit more. It’s the small things, I remind myself, that really aren’t so small after all. He tells me that he isn’t in pain, and I allow myself to be grateful for it.
Dad asks about our trip to see the whales. Savoring the clear phone connection, I tell him all about the experience, resisting the temptation to over-simplify and shorten the story for Mom’s benefit, as we are learning to do, especially over the past few months. I tell dad about the sparkling clean ponga and the young Mexican captain, Raul; the two Mexican women who joined us aboard the boat; our first sight of whales in the distance; the mother and calf pair surfacing right alongside us; Kathy touching the calf, then me, then JD; lingering beyond our last encounter, savoring the experience, and saying goodbye. He responds enthusiastically with “Oh Wow!” and “Yeah!”.
As I conclude my story, Mom asks simply: “How is the weather where you are?” Her question is adeptly worded to camouflage the fact that she has no idea where I am. It has been years since she and I have had a real conversation. I long for the days when I would call, tell her about my challenges at work, and she would empathize in the ways that only a mom can. She, in turn, would tell me about her latest outing with her sister Sue, and how they laughed so hard that their stomachs hurt. But Sue is gone, and Mom doesn’t remember where I live, or that I’m no longer working. Early in her Alzheimer’s journey, Mom was very talkative during my phone calls home, forgetting (or perhaps disregarding) the societal expectations that work to keep a southern woman quiet and demure. It was as if she knew that time was short, yet still had more to say, and wasn’t waiting on an invitation to say it any longer. But now Mom, a retired speech and language teacher, has largely stopped talking during our calls, other than to ask about the weather. It is the one question she asks with regularity, her way of making conversation. I know that she has not followed my story about the whales, and has no idea where in the world I am right now – even though I tell her several times during every call home that we are “at our beach house in Mexico.”
Yet it has occurred to me that her question also has deeper meaning. For me it has come to represent an opportunity to also check in with my “internal weather.” To notice and allow whatever emotion is present, while trusting that, like external weather, emotions and states of being shift, seasons change, storms come and go, clouds form and fade. Like the country music song says, “Every storm runs out of rain.” And so, back in the present moment, I tell Mom that the sun is shining here, that I am sitting outside on a park bench, taking in the sun’s glorious warm rays. I know that she really wants to know I am safe and happy; I am both, and I tell her so.
And my smile grows stronger as I realize what Dad is also teaching me: to embrace joy, and share it through story. To set aside worry about all I cannot change; to lighten up and enjoy life‘s simple pleasures; to lift someone else’s spirits, and my own, by sharing something to make us smile. Like taking a drive to the dining hall with his wife. Like stopping to talk with a neighbor who has two Scotty dogs. Like talking about his breakfasts with “the boys”, and his grandkids, and marveling at the fact that today his first granddaughter, Ansley, will be 13. Dad is helping me to live life, embrace joy, and share it with those that I love.
Reveling in the gift of a clear phone connection, I tell my parents I love them, and walk to rejoin my group. They are waiting for me, ready for more sightseeing. Lee and Kathy return to the campground while Ross, Kate, JD and I return to the Museo de las Misiones. It is open, and as we enter, it becomes obvious why it was closed to wind the day before: the museum consists of a building with a large courtyard, open to the elements, surrounded on all sides by small exhibit rooms. Today, the doors to the exhibits are all propped open; during a windstorm, this would damage the many precious artifacts, replicas, and interpretive signs – impressive in their design and detail, as well as the quality of the English translations. We pass from one room to the next, reading about the history of the missions – Loreto was the site of the first Spanish mission in Baja, although the original structure was destroyed in a fire. One of the exhibits demonstrates the process for extracting sugar from sugar cane; another displays a large, cast iron bell that once hung in the first, original mission, but disappeared, only to be rediscovered centuries later! One room has a life-sized replica of Jesus, lying on his back, crown of thorns around his head, arms at his side, legs crossed at his ankles. The wounds from his crucifixion are evident. While I have seen this image countless times before, I pause, considering anew the struggle, the suffering, embodied by this figure who simply wanted to teach us about love, kindness, forgiveness, compassion – and the tragic irony of the horrors that we have and continue to inflict upon each other in his name.
JD, Ross, and Kate, all former NPS rangers, are each impressed with the quality of the museum’s exhibits and interpretive materials. Lee joins us, and our group heads back to Mi Loreto for margaritas. We are joined later by Kathy, and we savor an early dinner consisting of delicious cocktails and a delectable meal of blackened fish, and steak and shrimp fajitas, in the ambiance of a covered canopy, a shade tree growing up through the restaurant floor, and the company of generous, attentive hosts.
After dinner our group returns to the campground, and JD and I walk to AJ and Kim’s house, across town and a large dry arroyo to the southern edge of Loreto. We arrive before Kim, AJ, and their parents have returned from a day at the beach. AJ tells us to press the call button on the security gate leading into their property complex. We do, and within a few minutes, an older Mexican gentleman in a cowboy hat drives up in a large, sparkling clean pickup truck. We identify ourselves as friends of AJ and Kim’s, and he directs us to AJ and Kim’s condominium – a vibrant, two-story prickly pear green condominium at the far end of the complex. We enter the unlocked front door to find a large, open floor plan with terra cotta colored porcelain floors, ceiling open to the outside, and covered balconies overhead. We navigate a set of stairs out onto one of the balconies, and wait while taking in their view of Bahía de Concepcion. Before long Kes, AJ and Kim, and their parents, return and we share a pleasant evening of stories before bidding them goodbye. AJ drives us back to our campground, and we encourage him to visit us in Punta Bufeo – an offer that we hope he and Kim will accept one day.
The next morning, Ross and Kate graciously offer us the use of their truck for a day trip up the long, windy, scenic route to the Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó, just outside of Loreto. It is easier to unhook Ross and Kate’s Scamp camper from their Toyota Tacoma than it is for either of us to offload our truck campers from our larger rigs, and we we grateful for their offer. JD, Lee, Kathy and I load up in the Tacoma, and head out of town. The road is beautiful, the vegetation at times verdant, buildings and homesites scarce. We arrive at the small village of San Javier, just outside of the Misión grounds. The short, modest main street dead ends in front of the Misión, where we park and head inside. We are greeted by a man standing at a guest book, who invites us to sign, providing our names, ages, and home country. There are vessels of holy water on either side of the entrance; JD and I each dip our index and middle finger into it, closing our eyes and saying a brief prayer as touch our wet fingers to our forehead, sternum, left and right chest. We slowly approach the altar, on either side of which are shelves containing an array of white candles, some lit, some not, surrounded by paintings and figurines of the Virgin Mary, and other Saints whose names we do not know. JD asks me if I would like to light a candle. I say yes, and he finds a match book with two matches remaining sitting on the railing of the altar, itself adorned with a mixture of fresh and artificial flowers. We each light a candle, and again say a prayer, and I find myself moved to tears. I look up, self consciously, to see JD looking at me with a mixture of love and wonder. I place a donation in an offering plate, consciously embracing the countless paradoxes that surround religion and spiritual pursuits. No matter what names we use for it, or how we conceive of or worship it, or the countless ways we bastardize it and deny it, I know that at its core, this elusive and varied concept we call God is, simply, love.
Stepping back outside into the sun, we appreciate the Misión’s grounds and landscaping, and take note of a man selling wares beneath the shade of a fruit tree. He has a small table, with a few bottles and some other food items on it. He is selling empanadas, pockets of flour stuffed with (in this case) either mango or papaya fruit filling. For $50 pesos I purchase a small bag of four, neatly wrapped in a clear cellophane bag tied with a ribbon, and share them with JD. They are delightful, with a crisp outer crust dusted with just a few grains of sugar, and interior of jammy fruit filling. I am reminded of the humble groundskeeper at the Mulegé Misión, and smile as the word “dulce” crosses my lips.
JD and I continue walking the serene, quiet Misión grounds, following a narrow, earthen path out toward an olive tree, reportedly several hundred years old. Along our route, we encounter a shade shelter with palm-thatched roof, beneath which another local gentleman sits beside a table bearing a guestbook, some carved figurines, and a bucket for donations. We sign his book, again providing our names, ages, and nationality, and provide a humble offering, It is clear that the locals have found a way to earn money by setting up stations along the tourist path, and we are happy to oblige. We exit the far end of this rectangular shade shelter, following the trail along the edge of a cultivated field to its end, at the foot of a giant, twisted olive tree. The tree is marked with an interpretive sign, and positioned by a modest fence. In the shade of its branches, off to the side, is another local couple, a man and woman, selling homemade wine. We respectfully decline, as we take stock of the large tree with its fat, curved branches, the bark winding and twisting around itself in an elaborate, mesmerizing pattern. An American family of three is there also: their young boy, perhaps 7 or 8, is attempting to climb its branches over the vocal opposition of his parents, who are having a hard time getting their son’s attention. JD walks over, slips effortlessly into ranger mode, and endeavors to educate the child about the tree’s age, and the impact that his footsteps can have upon this historical specimen. The parents appear to welcome the help managing their hyperactive son, and begin asking JD questions. I smile as I silently walk away, allowing him to share his gifts as I walk back to a spot beneath a large shade tree, where I sit quietly taking in this sacred space.
We reunite with Lee and Kathy out front of the Misión, enjoy a quick lunch, and make the drive back to the campground. That night, reunited with Ross and Kate back at Romanitas RV Campground, we feast on orzo and sautéed vegetables – a team effort by Kathy and me, cooking separately in our kitchens, then combining the ingredients into the finished product. Standing in JD and my camper, I serve each plate, passing it through the slot in our camper’s screened door, food truck style, to Kathy, who carries each plate to our guests who are seated in folding chairs near to the ground between our campers. Lee, Kathy, and I listen as Ross, Kate, and JD swap ranger stories. At some point in the evening, a stray dog approaches us, silent and quite timid, but determined. She is skin and bones, with a beautiful copper red coat. We offer her water, which she laps up quickly; within moments, she throws it up, clearly having consumed too much, too fast. She barely moves from the spot she has selected, on the ground in the center of our circle of camp chairs, at our feet. We offer her food,but she seems more interested in simply being in our presence, accepting the attention we are lavishing upon her. Our dog Pelli remains in our truck, either unaware or unconcerned. There are so many stray dogs in Mexico, its impossible to save them all, but as we found with Pelli, sometimes one just seems to find you, and if you make them yours, you’ll have the most loyal, grateful companion you could ask for. JD decides to name this newest stray “Koko”, thinking it might become Pelli’s other half. We leave food out for her as we retire for the night; when we wake, the food is gone, and Koko is too.
We leave the next day for our return trip to Punta Bufeo, eagerly awaiting the arrival of JD’s older daughter Anika, her husband Erik, their children Ember and Colter, and Erik’s parents John and Lori on March 7. As we make our way north of Loreto, the Bahía de Concepcíon comes into view on our passenger side. We peer over the guard rails (where they exist), staring in wonder down at the calm, lake-like, aquamarine waters, marveling at the many shades of blue from the shallows near shore (cerulean, sapphire, aegean, arctic) to the depths out toward center (teal, ocean, azure). As we pass the entrance to El Requesón, JD and I exchange brief, silent glances; the beach isn’t visible from the highway, and we keep going. But I can feel a sense of longing rising within my chest. Playa El Coyote comes into view, far below the highway; we spot the palapa where we stayed some nights before, and take note of more swimmers in the water than the wind would allow while we were there a few days ago. I begin to count down the last remaining beaches along the Bay – Playa Escondida, Posada Concepcíon…. JD and I discuss the water, how still it is, how inviting. Ahead of us, Playa Santispac comes into view, a large sandy beach with ample paplapas, two restaurants, and at least a half dozen boats – motor boats and sail boats – anchored in the bay. We brought daughters Anika and Kara’s stand up paddle boards with us, hauled all the way from Montana, for conditions JUST like this! We weren’t able to use them on our way down, the winds and sea were too rough. JD looks at me, asking if I want to stop. I hesitate for a fraction of a second, then shout “Yes!” just as we approach the entrance.
We pull in to the long, sandy approach road leading to the entrance station, and I hop out, running back to Lee and Kathy’s truck to ask if they’re OK with delaying our return by another night. They are, so JD pulls forward toward the shoreline to scout available palapas and campsites, while I stop at a building adjacent to the welcome gate, identified as the office. No one is there, so I walk to join the others at the trucks. There are perhaps 15 palapas on this long stretch of white, sandy beach, and every configuration of rig, from several 50 to 60-foot luxury RV motor coaches, to small, weathered sedans with well-used tents pitched nearby. We drive the full length of beach, and select one generously-sized palapa in between two large motor coaches, with enough room for both of our rigs. As we are getting set up, a Mexican vendor approaches, selling hammocks, woven porch swings, and sombreros. Although we don’t need anything he’s selling, my heart goes out to this man and how earnestly he is peddling his wares. We decline, and he walks on down the beach.
Camp chairs set up, our gringo neighbors in the motor coaches welcome us to the beach. We pull out the stand up paddle boards, and take turns inflating them using the hand-held pump. What a workout! We are grateful to have four people taking turns. Finally, boards inflated, Kathy and I don our life jackets, and carry the boards some 50 feet out to the water’s edge to find a not-very-inviting red algal bloom lapping at the shoreline. It is continuous along the entire beach, so there is no going around it, only through. We push it away with our paddles, which is only marginally effective, and mount our boards. And we’re off – paddling out amongst the boats, in the general direction of an island less than a mile off shore. We staying close to each other until we’re confident in ourselves, then begin to spread apart and explore the utterly still waters of the bay. I head toward the island, while inspecting the water beneath my feet – it is murky, speckled with millions of hay-colored droplets that could be fish fry, or another algal bloom, I’m just not sure. Whatever it is, it is throughout the water, as far as my eyes can see, and continues as I paddle along. Convinced that the water’s visibility is not likely to change anytime soon, I lift my eyes to the island out in front of me, and others behind it. As I approach the island, an osprey takes flight and passes 75 feet in front of me. I look in vain for signs of its nest; finding none, my eyes scan the numerous cardon cacti dotting the island’s surface. Pelicans are perched at the shoreline; seagulls fly overhead. I am tempted to circumnavigate the island, but it would take me out of view of Kathy and our boys back on the shore for quite awhile; I acquiesce and turn back for shore. I reunite with Kathy, and tell her I’m going to take the long way home, so I can paddle up close to some of the sailboats. I challenge myself to identify the parts of their anatomy: mainstay, mast, mainsail, jib, spreaders, boom, bow-pulpit, boom vang, main sheet. I admire their lines, their woodwork, their simple elegance at harnessing the wind. I wonder about their captains and crew. From where do they hail? Where are they going? How long will they be at sea?
Slowly I paddle back to shore; Lee has purchased shrimp and banana bread for us, from another one of the many vendors walking the beach. It is delicious. Our foursome sits in our chairs, reading and watching more boats come into the bay for the night. A large, yet graceful motorboat, hailing from San Carlos arrives, and drops anchor. JD’s interest is piqued, as he knows friends from there. After awhile, the captain and crew disembark, heading for shore in their dinghies. JD follows them in his binoculars, noting that they headed into a restaurant further down the beach. He proposes we follow, and see what we can learn. We walk to the restaurant, and find a large group assembled around a table, enjoying beers and cocktails. JD asks if any of them know Steve and Linda Holder, also from San Carlos. Initially, they look at each other, somewhat puzzled. They repeat the names to each other, and back to JD, before one group member says, pointing across the restaurant, “You see that girl there? She knows Linda Holder VERY well!” As they begin to laugh, their companion walks back over to us, and confirms that yes, in fact, she knows Steve and Linda both. JD explains that the Holders are old Park Service friends – Steve also married JD and me. Small world! JD swaps stories and we take a picture for them to show Steve and Linda, to remind them who they met at Playa Santispac. Unfortunately, we neglected to get their names or a copy of the photograph!
Back at our campers, we have cocktails as we watch yet more yachts come in. We particularly note a sailboat, perhaps 35 feet long and an impressive mast towering many feet above most others, coming in under motor, with seemingly only one person aboard. The lone captain stands atop the bow, no shirt, hands calmly and confidently clasped behind his back, taking in the water and shore. How is he maneuvering such a large sailboat alone? I stare in amazement. JD notes that he is adjusting the motor from a compartment in the bow in order to drop anchor. No matter, it is still impressive, and the captain knows it. We commend his skills as the boat slowly, gracefully, comes to a stop.
We enjoy a beautiful sunset, and as dark falls, JD notices something different about the waves as they gently lap on the shore. Venturing out to the water, he reports back that there is bioluminescence in the waves!! The phenomenon is due to the presence of marine plankton – dinoflagellates – and a chemical reaction within their cells that causes the ocean to sparkle and glow at night. We have only seen this phenomenon once before in Baja, on the shore at Punta Bufeo, several years ago. Wherever, whenever it occurs, you can expect a surreal, nearly psychedelic experience, that most first-time observers will struggle to believe. We stand at the waters edge, kicking the waves up toward the sky, exclaiming with glee as the water instantly comes alive at the site of each disturbance, studded with luminous blue-green diamonds raining back down into the surface of the pitch black ocean, and spills out onto the adjacent sand beneath our feet. Over and over and over we kick, as if to convince ourselves this is really real! Lee finds a bail bucket, plastic, gallon milk jug in a nearby ponga anchored on the shore, with its top cut off, the handle still attached. He hands it to me; I playfully scoop water out of the waves, tossing it high into the air, squealing with delight as the water from my bucket crashes back down into the surface of the ocean, exploding each time into iridescence even more magical, if its possible, than the stars above.
Following a majestic few days camping at Ojo de Liebre, and going out to visit the Gray whales nursing their young in the protected lagoons of Baja’s Pacific coast, we head further south along the Baja Peninsula, crossing back over the to the Sea of Cortez. We plan to stop for a few nights in Mulegé, unanimously described lush, palm oasis in the desert, as well as a popular tourist destination (and retirement spot) for many American and Canadian gringos. We pull into town just before sunset, and navigate the narrow city streets (once again, our truck campers are among the largest rigs on the roads) toward our destination, Huerto Don Chano RV Park, recommended by Ross and Kate, now several days ahead of us along their southbound route down the Baja Peninsula. We find Don Chano’s on the far edge of town, close to the sea, and are directed by the host to two spots on opposite ends of the modestly-sized, well-shaded RV park. After parking, leveling, and opening up our truck campers, we inquire among the other campers about a place to eat. We learn that we have just missed the weekly pig roast – bummer! – but are given a dinner recommendation within walking distance. We stroll a sidewalk along Calle Playa, paralleling the Mulegé River as it flows out to sea, following the sound of live music playing classic rock. Before long we arrive at a small, outdoor bar with a live band and lots of gringos dancing. We stay for a beer (or two), then continue along our route to our dinner destination, arriving at last light.
We enter the restaurant, located on a point on the north bank of the Mulegé River as it empties into the Sea of Cortez. The place is humble, equipped with a gravel/sand floor and unpainted plywood walls, a palm-thatched roof, and a total of maybe six white, plastic, sets of outdoor tables and chairs, draped with festive, colorful, Mexican blankets. A small but seemingly well-stocked bar, adorned with festive string lights, beckons us in. We are the only patrons. No wait staff greet us, but the lights tell us the place is likely open for business, so we help ourselves to a six-top table beside a large window looking out on the water, less than 10 feet away. Within minutes a waitress comes to supply menus and take our drink orders. We enjoyed a great meal of camerones rancheros, tacos de pollo, tortillas arroz, and frijoles. Only the margaritas were a disappointment – made with Fresca or limeade, not sure which, but we have since learned this is a popular (but not particularly tasty) version of this drink on the Baja. We walk back to our campground in the dark, and bid each other good night. JD and I wake and walk to Lee and Kathy’s camper; we find them drinking coffee, and learn they have already eaten breakfast – a man selling hot (well, warm at least) tamales stopped by their camper soon after sunrise! A great start to the day.
After pondering our options, our group opts to head further south for Loreto, by way of Hotel Serenidad, on the other end of town. Our friend Ross (the scout) has reported they serve “legendary” margaritas there, and encouraged us to stop and explore this former haven for Hollywood movie stars “back in the day”. We do stop, and find Ross’ report to be wildly accurate – the best margaritas we’ve had in quite awhile! After a splendid lunch of fresh guacamole, chile rellenos and camerones Mulegé (a local variation on Veracruz), we decide to stay the night in the RV campground immediately adjacent to the hotel. The Hotel is quaint, beautiful, delightful. After our meal, campsites secured, we linger by the outdoor swimming pool, just a few feet from our lunch table on the covered outdoor patio, beneath the palm trees. I lay back onto the porcelain tile lining the pool, opening my eyes to the brilliant blue sky above, with tendrils of feather light clouds, and my ears to the mesmerizing sound of wind tussling through the leaves of the palms. I could sleep here for days. That evening, we return for a “light” dinner, of shrimp skewers, chile rellenos and margaritas. The food is delicious, I think possibly the best I have had in all of Baja.
The next morning, we inquire at the hotel front desk about a taxi to take us to Misión de Nuestra Señora Santa Rosalia, and an historical prison, now operated as a museum. As I complete the taxi request, I am again delighted to be getting so much Spanish practice, as the further we go southward along the peninsula, the less English is spoken by locals. Our taxi arrives, and within 15 minutes drops us at the Misión, situated high upon a hill top overlooking the Mulegé River. We are immediately greeted by the groundskeeper, a thin, tan, wiry Mexican man who is watering the modest, but immaculately kept, landscaping. He speaks no English, but clearly regards himself as our appointed tour guide, and wears a laminated identification badge around his neck that seems to substantiate his role. He stands close by as we read the welcome signs, then respectfully bows his head as we turn to enter the sanctuary. We walk toward the altar individually, each at our our pace, each stopping to sit for a moment on one of the pews, some of us bowing our heads in prayer.
We emerge and walk the grounds. Our guide is exceedingly soft spoken, gentle, humble, yet insistent. He takes us to a nearby vista, overlooking the silver and date palms lining the river corridor below. From high atop the overlook, he points down to the water coursing through the river, and says simply “dulce” (translation: sweet). His eyes and voice convey immeasurable gratitude for this abundant fresh water source, the largest I have seen anywhere on the Peninsula, such a gift of life for this desert landscape. We tip him as we leave, heading on foot across the top of a small masonry dam that also serves as a pedestrian bridge to the other side of the river, leading into town. Stopping a few times for directions, we make our way to the prison, also located on a highpoint on the opposite bank of the river. There, we are greeted by two volunteers, from whom we learn that the prison was the oldest on the peninsula and housed both men and women. It operated under an honor system, in which convicts were released daily into the town to work, with the expectation of returning each evening. Dangerous criminals, particularly murderers and rapists, were not granted this privledge. The honor system was effective because if you violated any rule you were sent to a much more bleak prison, where many inmates died. I neglected to write down the exact date, but I recall our hosts telling us that prisoners were detained there until the early 1970s!
We did our time at the prison, and left on foot, wandering back down into town, where we purchase a few souvenirs at a local fish and tackle shop. We stop for lunch, and secure a taxi back to the hotel, where we retire early amid plans to head to Loreto in the morning. I am growing excited for the prospect of meeting up with two friends of ours there, from Reno – also seasoned travelers in Baja.
Along our route southward from Mulegé, we stop for a night along the sandy beaches lining Bahía de Concepcíon – perhaps my favorite landscape in all of Baja thus far. Beautiful blue, aquamarine waters lapping sandy “biological beaches”, meaning the sand is derived from seashells that have been pulverized into tiny pieces over the millennia, as opposed to sand that is derived from stone. We approach the first beach, Playa Santispac, to find a Caribbean-like scene: a semi-sheltered bay of brilliant aquamarine water, palapas was palm-thatched sides and roofs, and… sailboats – lots of them – anchored out in the bay!! I’m simply enchanted. I ponder their occupants, their stories. Where are they from? Where are they going? How long have they been at sea? Could JD and I – would we – ever attempt such a feat? How elegant their shapes, lines, colors, bobbing in the water. I think of our little 19 foot sailboat, Vishnu, back in Montana. Our weekend of American Sailing Association (ASA) sailing instruction at Flathead Lake. I hope we will continue to learn the art of sailing. It mesmerizes me.
But Playa Santispac will have to wait, as we we are headed for El Requesón, recommended by a Canadian couple that we met in Mulegé. They assured us that each beach along the waters of Bahía de Concepcíon is beautiful in its own right, with a different feel, different personality. We find this to be the case – each beach that we pass IS beautiful, and while some have no human structures at all, most have at least a few palapas, whereas some are also equipped with restaurants, even houses. Most of the beaches that we pass are filled with people. We pull into El Requesón, finding the entrance paved as described, for a short stretch, before the pavement gives way to sand. Meanwhile, the winds are picking up fast. The approach road takes a sharp left turn as the vegetation opens up to a full view of the water, and a long, narrow spit of sand leading out to a small island fringed with mangrove trees. The beach is smaller, further from the highway and generally more remote than the others, with less facilities. Nice in every respect, and but also popular, with few palapas, and seemingly less room for two more truck campers like ours. We stop at the lean-to shelter comprising the host station, and ask if he has a palapa for rent. No, he says, they are all taken. With daylight waning, we opt to backtrack to one of the other beaches we passed, and see what we can find for the night.
We spy a vacant palapa at Playa El Coyote, just a few kilometers back up the road. We navigate over, staking claim to the palapa by the shore, the edges of our truck tires within four feet of water. Few if any places in the states would allow parking and camping in such close proximity of the shoreline! While I am thrilled by the novelty of it, the amazing view right beneath our feet, my stomach tightens with the knowledge of the impact that so much traffic is having on these precious sandy shores, the habitat that is being disturbed or lost. But, knowing that Loreto is still hours away, and accepting that this is not only allowed but customary here, we park our truck in tandem with Lee and Kathy’s along the shore, and claim the last remaining palapa on the beach, at $200 pesos (roughly $10 US) per truck per night.
Despite the winds, which are strong enough to make siting outside unpleasant, we hunker down inside our four-sided palapa. The water is just barely visible through a waist-high, rectangular window. Kathy and I sit in our folding camp chairs, talking about our mothers. Kathy is still in the early stages of grief, having lost her mother just barely a month ago. My mom’s dementia makes her feel painfully distant, even when I’m right beside her. I have been grieving this for years; however, as we talk, I notice and tell Kathy that the intensity of my grief is less – when they come, the waves no longer cripple me, bringing me to my knees in tears. Rather for now, at this moment, it is bittersweet – I can hold sadness alongside of profound gratitude for what was, is, and will be. This realization nurtures my faith that I am learning to be resilient enough to lean in to love, and let it go, wholeheartedly. I don’t want to close up my heart as a result of the excruciating, at times debilitating pain that comes with death. Rather, I want the acute awareness of that pain to pry my heart open further still, not shying away but rather, leaning in fully to each moment spent in the company of those that I love – savoring it fully precisely because I know that it will not last forever.
As Kathy and I talk, JD and Lee take a walk on the beach, and return with a warm pizza! Apparently, an entrepreneurial Mexican man who owns a bakery in town periodically delivers baked goods to the beach. Cinnamon rolls on Fridays! Too bad it’s Wednesday. But meanwhile, we’re happy – pizza delivery at our doorstep, for $10 US! We are delighted. I can’t remember a warm(-ish) pizza ever tasting so good. We retire early to our campers shortly after eating. JD helps me edit and finish our blog entry on Jose, and we head to bed, spooning as we listen to the waves just inches beyond our truck tires, out the camper window. The wind is howling through the canyon above our heads, but I sleep peacefully in his arms.
JD and I wake at first light, and he asks if I want to get up to watch the sunrise. I respond with an enthusiastic yes (he isn’t usually an early riser), and he gets up with me. We walk northward on the beach until we are able to get a view of the sun coming up on the horizon. While walking we discuss possibilities for a Razor (OHV) ride with Lee and Kathy; as we stop to take in the view, I gently ask him to be quiet while we watch the first glimpses of the sun emerge over the mountains far on the other side of the bay. He heeds my request, allowing me to wrap my arms around his waist. He often says I would crawl inside of his skin if it were possible, as I work to seal any gaps between us as we embrace. Punta Bufeo hoodie pulled up over his yellow “Fins and Feathers” ball cap, I nuzzle my head into his chest, eyes facing the sun rising over the water. As the first rays of sunlight hit the water, he remarks quietly, simply, “diamonds on the water”. I smile, silently as the orange rays of light give way to pink and red, encircling the sun.
We decide to head south toward the gray whales at the recommendation of our friends Ross and Kate, who have done the scouting for us, having left Punta Bufeo a week or so prior to allow JD and me to recover from the flu. A week or so after Ross and Kate’s departure, we are joined by friends Lee and Kathy, who have driven all the way from their hometown of Chesterton, Indiana in a mere four days. Kathy, having lost her mom a few weeks prior, is grieving; the day they arrive is also her mother’s birthday. We hug each other tight and are happy that they have chosen to come rest with us awhile, after the long and emotional journey through helping a beloved parent leave this world.
After a few days, we load up our truck campers and prepare to head south. Before we leave, I make one more phone call to my parents to check in; a few weeks ago my dad took a fall, breaking his elbow. After a brief scramble, my sister flew home to see dad and mom through the surgery to install plates in his arm. Dad made it through, again demonstrating the appropriateness of his family nickname, “the energizer bunny” – for his endurance through countless health struggles of his own, and now as primary caregiver for my mom. When I call, dad answers in an upbeat tone, telling me jovially that he is “supervising” while Betty, the caregiver that we hired at Thanksgiving, and mom make the beds in their house. My heart lifts to hear the lightness in his voice: the man is in a sling, having suture bandages changed daily by nurses, unable to drive, home bound with his wife of 50 years. And yet, he smiles. He laughs. He somehow manages to find something to enjoy most days, and share it with those around him. He is teaching me so much about resilience, love, devotion, service, and the roots of happiness.
I tell dad of JD and my plans to go see the whales; he listens eagerly, clearly excited for us and our adventure. Dad, who nurtured my love of nature as a child, taking me camping and sharing his National Geographic magazines with me, asks me to send him pictures. I tell him I will, realizing once again that he is asking me to help him live vicariously through me. Mom, who is listening but no longer capable of tracking most conversations, waits for a lull and asks about the weather “where you are”, the one question she asks with regularity, adeptly phrased in an effort to conceal the fact that she doesn’t know where I am, although I tell her every time that I call home.
The route from Punta Bufeo south on MX-5 to its junction with MX-1 at Lake Chapala is now paved all the way. This means a journey that took us some four hours last May can now be completed in less than an hour! We arrive at the turnoff for Bahia de Los Angeles in a mere 80 minutes, and continue onward on MX-1, now taking me further south than I’ve ever been on the Baja peninsula. JD has been down this road before, on his transcontinental motorcycle trip to Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina, some 11 years ago. Meanwhile, I savor every mile of this new landscape. The Baja desert is verdant – Cardon, Cirio, mesquite, Palo Verde, Ocotillo (or Palo Adan? I still am not sure), organ pipe and Old Man’s beard and cholla cacti cover the hillsides with myriad shades of green. Desert mallow dots the roadsides with vibrant shades of apricot, interspersed with stands of glorious purple lupine. There is water in the normally dry lakebed of Lake Chapala. Eventually, the road turns west toward the Pacific Ocean; we cross into Baja California Sur, and enter the small village of Guerro Negro, where we enjoy a late lunch of lobster and margaritas, at Marios.
While at lunch, we get a phone call from Ross, and firm up our whale watching plans. Ross recommends that we head for Ojo de Liebre, so we hit the road again. Some 20km south, we find the turnoff. After a short stretch of pavement, the road turns to gravel, then well-graded dirt. We pass a sign declaring simply: “Zona de Neblina” – zone of fog (a new Spanish word for me!). The vegetation transitions from cirio and cactus to flat, sand dune topography. After many isolated miles, we approach a manned guard station, where we pay $10 to enter the federally protected area of Ojo de Liebre. We ask the security guard if we are headed toward Ojo de Liebre; he says with a smile, and hand gestures, “si! Derecho, decrecho….” (yes! Straight, straight….).
Initially, upon leaving the guard station, we drive through an impressive array of saltwater ponds and canals lined by berms and heavy machinery, at the edges of the water are piles of accumulated salt, some several feet tall. I learn later that this is the site of the largest commercial saltworks plant in the world. We continue straight for some time, and at long last the Pacific Ocean comes into view, as we approach the El Vizcaino Whale Sanctuary. Turning right, we approach a second guard station, clearly signed as the Mexican Home of the Gray Whales. Another security guard, shirt bearing the name “Leonardo”, welcomes us. For a mere $10/night, we can camp here, anywhere along the next 3km of dirt road paralleling the lagoon.
We drive to the end of the dirt road, admiring the well-kept campsites and signs indicating “do not drive off road,” “do not throw trash”, “camp only in designated campsites”, and “no entry, closed for restoration”. This place is obviously well loved and maintained, with pride. The palapas are generously sized, and swept clean; the campsites are similarity large, flat, well signed, and all within clear view of the water. The sacred waters which serve as mating, breeding and calving grounds for these North Pacific Gray Whale mothers and their calves has imparted a sense of stewardship upon the land, as well.
We reach the end of the road, turning around at a “whale safari” tent camp that does not appear affiliated with the original establishment that we paid at the entrance station. We select a site, level and large enough to accommodate both trucks. Across the dirt road separating our campsite from the water, an osprey sits proudly perched on a road sign a scant 3 feet off the ground, holding a partly-devoured, bloody fish in its talons. One of JD’s favorite birds. A good omen. After setting up camp, we take turns scouting whales surfacing out in the waters before us. Before we settle in for the night, we take a walk out to the shore at sunset for a closer look at the whales. In addition to several spouts off in the distance, we see several whales “spy hopping” – a term used to describe when whales orient themselves vertical in the water column, and raise their head several feet out of the water, like a telescope emerging from a submarine from below the depths. As the evening light gives way to total darkness, we turn back to head for camp, we hear a band of coyotes striking up a chorus of howls in the hills above our campsite.
Overnight, a light drizzle of rain and some fairly strong winds has brought cooler temperatures. We wake to clouds and a light drizzle. JD offers the idea of using today as a travel day, heading toward Mulegé, and possibly on to Loreto, then returning back here en route to Bufeo when the temperatures warm. We emerge from our camper to float the suggestion by Lee and Kathy, and find them already up, sitting in their camp chairs, scouting whales through their binoculars. They report seeing dozens of spy hops, and multiple dozen spouts – a virtual whale playground out on the water. However, acknowledging the chill in the air, they are flexible and willing to return in a few days, hoping for warmer weather. We slowly pack camp, and prepare to leave, taking note of several pongas heading out from the dock. Whales continue surfacing, spy hopping, even breaching out in the lagoon. We take turns shutting off our trucks to sit quietly and watch them through binoculars. It’s clear that none of us wants to leave.
As we drive toward the exit, JD and I decide to stop at the front guard station, to inform our decision about whether to stay or go. We park, and walk into the adobe building serving as the guide station, ticket booth and restaurant. Upon approaching the ticket booth, we learn that for $50 each, we can go for a 2-hour tour, leaving in approximately 30 minutes. We decide to go for it, paying our fee, then heading back to the campers to don extra layers of clothing for the cool boat ride.
Walking the pier out to the docked pongas, Kathy, who is prone to seasickness, jokingly says she feels like she is walking the plank. We laugh as we approach the boats behind a Mexican family of 6, including a little girl perhaps 5 years old, adorned with a pink bow in her jet black wavy hair, which perfectly matches her pink life vest. She is talking rapidly to her parents and siblings, obviously excited about the adventure she is about to have.
We find Captain Raul, who welcomes us aboard his sparkling clean ponga. He is maybe 25 years old, and speaks no English. Lee, Kathy, JD and I are joined by two Mexican women aboard Captain Raul’s boat. As we get underway leaving the dock, one of the two women enthusiastically begins to make conversation with us, asking first if we speak Spanish. JD motions to me, saying I do, and I clarify “un poco” (some). She gives me a big smile, and says she speaks “a little” English, so we should be fine. We all laugh, and begin to tell one another where we are from – Lee and Kathy are from Indiana, JD and I from Montana. I ask her “de donde viene?” She is from Guerro Negro, the nearby village.
The excitement in our boat is palpable as we get out into the bay. It isn’t long before we see a whale spout, then another, paired off, 100s of yards in the distance. Before long I have counted at least six different pairs of spouts within view. With my naked eye I can see that the two pongas that left the dock with us, which are traveling together because they contain a large school group, have a pair of whales between them. I point this out to the others in my boat, and conversation slows, as we look longingly. Captain Raul sees this, but continues his course, clearly intent on where he is going, away from the other pongas. After a few minutes, he slows the throttle, signaling that we are getting close.
It isn’t long before a mother cow and her calf surface nearby, much closer this time, between 10-20 feet off of our starboard side, moving slowly toward the stern. The first indication we have of their presence is the mother’s head suddenly rising out of the water, and the near simultaneous sound of her forceful exhale, through a pair of nostrils (“blowholes”) located just back from her snout, sending a spray of water (and other fluid I’d rather not think about!) into the air, and onto several of us. Her calf, perhaps a third her size, emerges just after, on the far side of its mother, further from our boat. They inhale, and make a shallow dive beneath the back of our boat, disappearing again into the sea. Even our Captain was caught off guard: he looks at us, smiling, hand to his chest, revealing his surprise, and his delight. He has found them. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that they have found us.
We collect ourselves, somewhat, amidst excited laughter and rapid banter. We still can hardly believe what we have just seen. Captain Raul, now confident they are here, reaches over the side of the ponga, dropping his hand in the water and splashing it around at the surface.
Kathy touched one first.
The young calf, seemingly lured by the Captain’s splashing, surfaces parallel to the ponga on our port side. Kathy, who has remained seated thus far in an effort to ward off motion sickness, calmly reaches over the side, her fingertips gracing the calf’s back for a few miraculous seconds, before it again descends below the surface, out of sight.
I touched one next, scrambling to the port side of the boat along with the Mexican woman, native of Guerro Negro, who had brought her friend with her to see the whales for the very first time. The young calf again emerges alongside of the ponga, this time coming from stern to bow, emerging and exhaling just as it got close enough to touch. I looked down directly into it’s pair of blow holes, as I reached down to caress it’s head. It’s skin was soft, dense blubber, giving way to the pressure of my touch. I was spellbound.
As I returned to sit beside JD, who had been filming and working to counterbalance the boat by placing his weight on the starboard side, he asked me – did you get to touch it? I said enthusiastically, yes! He smiled. Then he said, longingly: “I want to touch one so much I can’t stand it…” I could see, and feel, his yearning. I want it for him, too.
The mother and calf remained nearby for some time more, the young calf teasing us with its curiosity, and would approach the boat, then dive just deep enough to still be seen beneath the waters surface, yet well out of our reach. JD and I joined the Captain in splashing our fingers in the water’s surface, hoping to attract their attention.
And then, suddenly yet as if on cue, the mom emerged off of our bow, heading again toward the port side of the boat. JD scrambled over to the port side, with focused intent. I instinctively grabbed the back of his life jacket as he leaned over the side toward the water; it appeared for a moment that the whale might be just out of reach, but I encouraged him to lean further still. He did, as the mom raised itself still further out of the water, allowing JD to make contact. His hand caressed its spine for some 3-4 feet of its length before she dove again, out of sight. JD sat back into the boat, awestruck. I hugged his neck, sensing his emotion. I could see him choking back tears. We looked up as Lee asked him “how was it?” to which JD responded simply, “wow.” Lee caught the entire encounter on video, memorialized forever.
As JD moves back to his seat next to me in the boat, our group sat in reverent silence for several minutes, looking out onto the water, which for the moment, was also quiet.
Then, some 100 feet off of our bow, the calf emerged again, this time remaining at the surface with its mouth 3/4 of the way above the water, I assume so that it’s eyes were positioned above the water, making it possible to get a clearer look at us. The mother whale wasn’t visible initially, but then surfaced behind the calf, seemingly lifting it up and helping it to remain buoyant with her mouth. After several minutes, the mother whale became totally still, she too suspended, floating at the surface of the water. We hear the Captain tell the Mexican women that the mother whale is “sleeping”. JD and I had read about this pattern just the night before; although it isn’t thought that whales actually sleep, they are known to rest for periods of time, just as this one was doing now. Meanwhile, her young calf seemed more active than ever, surfacing and diving around his mother’s mouth, repeatedly bumping into her. One of the Mexican women, the more talkative of the two, laughingly says to no one in particular, in halting English: “baby says ‘Mama mama, wake up, no sleep, play!” I nod, responding, “es la verdad por todos las animales!” She agrees.
As we continue watching this display, one of the other pongas approaches, circling around behind the mother and calf pair. I hear a young child saying repeatedly “Hola, hola, hola, hola!” I look closer and see the little Mexican girl from the boardwalk, with matching pink hair bows and life jacket, waving enthusiastically at the whales. Both of our boats sat quietly watching for a few minutes more, until Captain Raul motioned to the other ponga, instructing them to move away. They did, slowly, and headed in the direction of the dock. Our boat remained some 30 minutes more, until the waters again grew quiet, and judging by the distance of the nearest spouts, it appeared the mother and her calf were slowly moving away.
Once again I took notice of how quiet our boat and it’s occupants were, sitting perfectly still reflecting on what we had just experienced. I quietly took stock of my own emotions: I was so thankful for the experience, not yet ready for it to end, hoping for one more glimpse of those magnificent gray whales. Then, after a moment, it was clear that was not to be, and I turned back to face our Captain, placing my hands together at my chest, palms touching, and bowed my head in thanks. He smiled and nodded in appreciation and deep understanding, then apologized humbly before starting the motor, and turning the boat toward home. I turned to face the bow, and as I sat quietly looking out on the water, I felt my yearning give way to contentment, my heart full with gratitude, a feeling of having enough. And over the rest of the boat ride home, I considered how life, and love, is like that: excitement at the anticipation and then the novelty of the encounter, the thrill of shared experience, yearning for more, holding on not wanting to let go, followed by a slow acceptance that eventually, we must.
These gray whales were curious enough to spend two hours in our midst, when some hundred years ago, our species was hunting theirs to extinction. The preserve at Ojo de Liebre was established in 1972, the year I was born, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. And now, the lagoon waters that used to run red with the blood of mass slaughter form a place of refuge for them and for us, a place where we humans can be graced and reminded, if we are lucky enough, by these mysterious, beautiful, humble, resilient creatures of the sea.
(Note: the day of our last (and first real) blog entry, I came down with the flu. It took several days to recover, so we’re behind on blog entries. I’m also learning this blogging app and software – I ended up needing to re-type this entry, as I thought it had posted but apparently lost it somewhere in “the cloud”. So, please bear with us, as we get into a writing/posting routine!)
Crossing the border in late January, we were fully loaded: the total length of our F350 truck, cab over truck camper, and tow behind trailer is an impressive (some would say outrageous) 48 feet. Had we been aware that some travelers towing RV/trailers have been denied entry at the tiny border crossing of Los Algodones, being directed by Mexican border officials to back up all the way to the US and seek entry elsewhere, we would never have attempted it.
But ignorance is bliss, and we gained entry without incident (other than my needing to purchase another Mexican tourist visa, because we crossed a day earlier than planned, and the one that I had paid for and printed out online bore the next days date). As we entered the narrow, 2-lane street leading from the border crossing into the town center, gringos and Mexicans alike stared in wild, wide-eyed wonder at our rig. One gringo, sitting at a restaurant for desayunos, shot us a wide grin, giving us a thumbs up as he shouted over the rumble of our diesel engine: “Road Trip!”. We grinned back, nodding. As we lumbered on down the road, looking for the dentist’s office, we nervously checked our width, length and height against the available clearance. Finally, at the west end of town, a set of branches from a tree extending over the street from an adjacent plaza forced us to turn off the main street. We continued on for a few blocks, before finding a place to park.
After appointments with the dentist ($180 for two sets of X-rays and cleanings), and a tasty lunch of tacos de camerones y pescado, we loaded up and prepared to head out of town. Our height-induced detour had taken us away from the main route out of town, and we weren’t exactly sure of our next steps. As we sat in the cab of our truck, finally pulling out the paper RandMcNally map as our electronic versions weren’t working, a local man noticed our uncertainty, and approached. “De donde quiere va?” he asked. “A la San Felipe,” we replied. We knew from experience that most Mexicans aren’t familiar with Punta Bufeo, our actual destination, where we share a house with friends on a remote stretch of beach some 90 miles south of San Felipe. Within minutes, speaking only Spanish and augmented by plenty of hand gestures, he had us on our way.
South of Los Algondones, there are two routes to MX-2. Our local guide recommended one, our map, another. After a short moment of indecision, we decided to go with local knowledge, making a U-turn in a well-used turnout overlooking the Colorado River canal. Southbound, paralleling the east bank of the canal, our rig took up every inch of the narrow, potholed, scarcely paved road leading us out of Algonodes toward home. Further down the road, windows down and enjoying the sunshine despite the road dust, as we approached a stop sign in the midst of a tiny village, we heard the telltale signs of a flat tire. Inspecting our side mirrors, we found the afflicted tire on our trailer, passenger side.
JD searched in vain for a spot to pull over, out of the main lane of traffic. Finding none, he pulled over what inches he could on the compacted, earthen road, still occupying 3/4 of our lane. To our left, across the street, was a small shop of some sort, boarded up and seemingly abandoned. To our right sat a rusty, dilapidated but maintained mobile home, well-weathered by decades of wind and dust, surrounded by chest-high fence made of a mixture of wood and barbed wire. Within the fence was a barren, wind- and broom-swept yard, containing two playful, yet scrawny dogs and several piles of scrap metal and other seemingly miscellaneous objects. Other than a man coming up the opposite side of the road on a rusty, dilapidated bicycle, there wasn’t another human in sight.
We got out of the truck, walking around to inspect the damage. The tire was flat for sure, with no obvious culprit. As we began hauling tools out of our trailer, JD noticed a bicycle leaning against the fence in front of the trailer, immediately beside the passenger door to our truck. In our (my) haste to get out and check out our tire, we had left truck windows down, and wallet/purse easily within reach of a passer-by. Our German Shepherd Pelli, who travels behind the passenger seat in the extended cab of our truck, is anything but a guard dog. JD asked me if the bicycle was there before; I said no, and began to walk up to investigate while JD crawled under the trailer to begin securing the jack. As I approached the bike, a smiling, wiry-thin older man exited the fenced yard, approaching me with a mixture of mild concern and genuine interest. I smiled back, gesturing and pointing to JD, and our obvious flat tire. He nodded with understanding, walking with me back to the site of our problem, where he stood with me at JD’s feet, which were the only part of him visible from beneath the trailer, where he lay on his back, fighting with our jack, which was not cooperating.
JD explained, from beneath the trailer, that our hydraulic floor jack had no lift – it would only raise the trailer a few inches, not nearly enough to get the flat tire off of the ground. Being under the trailer, it was impossible for our Good Samaritan to read JD’s lips, and it was evident he did not speak much English. Speaking some Spanish, and relishing any opportunity to practice (even a flat tire), I worked to translate for him as JD slid out from under the trailer, covered in the dust of the earthen road. The man nodded with understanding, raising his finger and saying “momento”, as he hastily retuned to his house. Within moments, he was back, carrying an old, completely rust-covered, screw jack. JD chuckled with appreciation, as the man apologized somewhat for the condition of his offering, while suggesting (again with ample hand gestures) that we needed some water to lubricate it. He began ladling some water from a barrel situated just outside of his fence on the jack, while JD located some motor oil and offered it as a better alternative for greasing the jack’s moving parts. As we worked to get the screw jack functional, the man returned again to his yard, bringing us back several pieces of cardboard for JD to lay on beneath the trailer, to protect his skin and clothing from the rough, rocky, dirt road.
While JD retreated back beneath the trailer to secure both semi-functional jacks, the man continued inspecting our situation, and asked me if we had a shovel. We did – no experienced traveler of roads in Baja travels far without one – and I went to retrieve it from our trailer. When I returned, our Good Samaritan explained that we needed to dig out the ground beneath the flat tire, given the state of our jacks. At least in this instance, an earthen road was working to our advantage! I started to dig, but our Samaritan friend would not have it, and gently (but insistently) took the shovel from my hands and began to chip away at the well-compacted, well-traveled, dirt road beneath our feet. JD, upon securing the jacks as best he could, emerged from beneath the trailer and finished the digging. Upon getting a scant inch of clearance, JD was able to remove the flat tire, before digging out a few more inches of the earthen road surface to gain more clearance to install the replacement tire. Finally, after many minutes of effort, success! Old tire gone, new one in place, we were back in business. We celebrated with high-fives, and shouts of joy, thanking our Good Samaritan profusely for his help.
As JD and I began cleaning up our worksite, our Good Samaritan again retreated into his yard and house. When he retuned, I offered him some pesos for his time and labor, thanking him repeatedly. After some initial, humble yet gracious resistance, he accepted the money, while producing a large bag of fresh oranges, from his fruit trees, for us! I smiled and shook my head incredulously, attempting to say, in my broken Spanish, that it was we who should be giving him gifts, not the other way around! After a few moments spent clarifying that I was not rejecting his gift, only humbled by his generosity and kindness, he understood, while insisting, with a smile, that we take his offering, which of course we did. I asked him his name: Jose, he replied.
Tools and flat tire returned to their places, Jose seemed satisfied, readily accepting our handshakes and my hug, calling us “amigos”. As we prepared to leave, we asked him if we could give his dogs some treats from our dog Pelli’s stash. He agreed; as we reached over the fence to present them to his dogs, it seemed as if they had not encountered dog biscuits before. Nonetheless, with a little encouragement from Jose, the dogs quickly recognized our offering as food, and devoured them. Jose seemed pleased, and thanked us.
As we retuned to our truck and got underway, arms extended out our windows waving goodbye to Jose, JD and I were reminded of a song that frequently served as our guidepost these past few years, as I slowly arrived at the decision to leave work, and focus on living a slower, simpler life. I found the song on our iPhone, and played it as we continued on down the road.
It was early one morning Playa del Carmen That’s when I first met Jose He had a 12 foot Schooner A 3 foot cooler Full of the catch of the day And he was wrinkled from grinning From all of the sun he had been in He was barefoot, cerveza in hand He said “Gracias senor”, when I paid him too much for All of the Snapper he had Now I told him my friend it ain’t nothing In the best broken Spanish I knew I said I make a good living Back home where I’m from He smiled and said Amigo me too
He said I fish and I play my guitar I laugh at the bar with my friends I go home to my wife I pray every night I can do it all over again
Somewhere over Texas I thought of my Lexus And all the stuff I work so hard for And all the things that I’ve gathered From climbing that ladder Didn’t make much sense anymore They say my nest egg ain’t ready to hatch yet They keep holding my feet to the fire They call it paying the price So that one day in life I’ll have what I need to retire
And just fish And play my guitar And laugh at the bar with my friends And go home to my wife And pray every night I can do it all over again
And to think that I thought for a while there that I had it made When the truth is I’m really just dying To live like Jose
And just fish Play my guitar Laugh at the bar with my friends Go home to my wife Pray every night I can do it all over again
Wouldn’t that be the life? Wouldn’t that be the life?
Cancer. From diagnosis to death was a matter of months, and by November of 2015, she was gone. My mom’s sister and best friend, the aunt who was like a second mother to me, whose name – Sue – my mom frequently used to call me, sometimes by mistake, sometimes as a means of showing her affection for us both. As I prepared to return home to South Carolina for Sue’s funeral, my dad and sister insisted that it was also time to confront mom’s struggles with memory. In the months that followed, a diagnosis: (likely) Alzheimer’s. The ground beneath my feet began to shift.
From the moment we met, JD and I began planning for me to “retire” early. Having completed a distinguished, 33-year career with the National Park Service, he understood my dedication to public service and conservation. Yet, he never hid his hopes that I would one day be ready to prioritize our time together over my career ambitions.
That day came sooner than we expected. As I continued my work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) – an agency, a mission and a workforce that I will forever love – mom’s confusion, anger, and denial, and my father’s isolation, grew clearer with each visit back East. As Thanksgiving 2018 approached, my father proposed a family reunion in Montana, where JD and I had recently purchased a house, and JD’s two daughters Anika and Kara live with their families. My sister Patricia and I recognized this as Dad’s yearning for one more big adventure, possibly sensing that he and mom may never be able to make that sort of trip again. It was miraculous, momentous – my parents, Patricia, her husband and three kids all arrived safely; we – 16 in all – feasted on turkey and cornbread stuffing; visited the Museum of the Rockies, learning about dinosaurs and the northern lights; and visited Yellowstone National Park, where niece Mackenzie and nephew Wyatt trudged with JD and me through knee-high snow to watch gray wolves through spotting scopes, standing silently, reverently with eyes closed, as they howled. Despite the winter temperatures, my father enthusiastically joined JD and his girls for a Montana State University Bobcat’s football game. Back at the house alone with mom, I savored this quality time, choking back my tears as she pleaded to go home, fighting to hide her confusion and fear from me, and herself. We sat on the edge of my bed, gently affirming our love for each other and talking about how hard it is to be on opposite sides of the country from each other. I was also trying, at Dad’s request, to gain her acceptance to hire an in-home caregiver. She said she’d think about it, and insisted we drop the subject.
Less than 48 hours after landing back in South Carolina, Dad suffered a retinal stroke, and was advised never to fly again. Meanwhile, another friend of ours was dying of cancer. Mitch was just a few years younger than JD, and played on JDs softball team. Our lists of friends and acquaintances who had died prematurely, or were otherwise suffering from incapacitating illness, continued to grow. Slowly, steadily, the many varied reasons I had been holding up for continuing to work, and postpone quality time with JD, my parents and our families, weren’t good enough anymore.
Early in 2019, it felt like the universe was compelling me to change course. Mitch had died, a few days before Christmas. During the federal government furlough in January, we received an unsolicited, solid offer on our Reno home, creating possibilities I could not see before. As we discussed what we would do with our time, JD offered to take our camper and park it in my parents’ driveway. When I flew home to visit again in February, mom had no memory of her sister’s Sue’s death three years prior, or visiting me in Montana a mere three months ago. On an overnight trip to Litchfield Beach, where we spent our summer vacations when Patricia and I were children, mom tearfully asked dad and me to take her home the first morning. She nonetheless rallied, indulging us for two days, walking the street markets in Charleston and strolling the beach with me hand in hand, before again insisting that it was time to go. As I drove us home, my exhausted dad sleeping in the backseat, mom turned to me and asked, sheepishly: “Have we eaten?”. We had, just an hour before. Back at their house, she pointed to a photograph of my 12-year old niece, Ansley, and asked me: “Is this you?”. She was slipping away. Who knew what she would remember when I saw her next, or how much time we had until she would no longer know us at all. My soul cried out to me: “Now. Now! NOW!”. On my return home to JD, I told him that it was time.
And so, I resigned from the USFWS at the end of March 2019, declaring my need to focus on time with JD, my parents, and our families. The outpouring of understanding and support that I received from my superiors, staff, and partners was humbling, beyond my wildest imaginations. Yet, as enthusiastically summed up by my dear friend and mentor, Ted, when I informed him of my choice: “love wins!”. And so, with the help of numerous generous friends, within a week of my last day at work, and two months after JD’s shoulder surgery, we managed to pack our Reno house into a Uhaul. On April 6, we were headed to Montana, and by late April, we were headed back south to our house in Baja, with friends Bob and Kit, who had almost single-handedly packed our U-Haul in Reno. It was there, on the Sea of Cortez, that JD and I fell in love – so it was fitting to return there to decompress and take stock of the present moment.
We lingered a month in Baja before starting our cross-country drive to South Carolina to my parents. Along our route across the desert southwest, we listened to Craig Childs’ “House of Rain” on audiobook, tracing the origins, places, and fates of the ancient puebloans. Camping, hiking and star-gazing in Gila Cliffs National Monument, Chaco Canyon, and Mesa Verde, we pondered the meanings of home and place, family and tribe, ceremony and ritual, celestial migrations. We visited several of JD’s friends from his early NPS days, including Rick, the friend and mentor who hired JD into the agency; Patty, from the glory days at Grand Canyon; Phil and Memi, NPS friends from days at Petrified Forest; Pat, from Grand Canyon and Alaska; and Jim, another distinguished NPS friend and mentor who is still suffering from a head injury in an ATV accident years ago. With each reunion and farewell, we savored the bittersweet juxtapositions created by re-living the reverie of youth with old friends.
We arrived in the hot, humid south just in time for the heat of summer, pausing in Memphis to see Fred and Taffy from JD’s days in Yosemite; in Knoxville for visits with with Carolyn’s cousin Brad and wife Kathy and other friends Stan, Chrissy and Joan, from college and graduate school years; Peggy, Pat and JR from my days at the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Valley Authority; and Kyla, Leigh, Gary and Molly in Asheville, North Carolina – friendships spanning college, graduate school, and my first job with the USFWS in Asheville. JD and I made it to South Carolina for my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Dad had made all the arrangements himself at a local restaurant, footing the bill for 30-some friends and family. Dad, ever the story-teller and entertainer, thanked mom for their 50 years together, and shared poetry to convey his gratitude for his life and marriage, children, family and friends. Mom, to our joyous amazement, navigated the room with aplomb. Not surprisingly, just days later Dad succumbed to exhaustion and a nagging cough, rushed by ambulance to the hospital where he spent weeks being treated for pneumonia. I credit JD’s jovial bedside manner, honed from years as a medic, with my dad’s amazing recovery. Although I had no doubts, the six weeks we spent with them last summer strongly reinforced my decision to resign.
Upon leaving the Carolinas, JD and I spent the rest of the summer working our way out to the Atlantic coast, up through the Great Lakes, and back to our new home to Bozeman, Montana. Truck and camper fully loaded, we visited our sisters – my sister Patricia in Ohio, his sister Gail in Michigan – before arriving back in Montana in late August. We spent the last days of summer and fall settling into our house in Bozeman; with the long-distance help of my boat-builder cousin Brad, buying and restoring a long neglected, 19-foot O’Day Mariner sailboat that we named Vishnu, and learning to sail; hosting and reconnecting with some more of JD’s NPS friends; attending the annual rendezvous of the Association of National Park Rangers, of which JD is a founding member; and, most of all, treasuring time spent with JD’s daughters and their families, and being grandparents to their amazing children. As the year came to an end, we celebrated mom’s 80th birthday; completed a return trip to South Carolina for Thanksgiving in which all of my first cousins were in the same place for the first time in some 20 years; and my dad’s 78th birthday on New Years Eve. And increasingly, JD and I resolve each day to savor every minute – because, one way or another, we know that one day, our time will also come to an end.
Therefore this blog. One of my (Carolyn’s) passions is writing. It helps me to capture memories, while challenging me to play with words and language until the experience is worth sharing. And those of you who know JD, and have followed his earlier travel blogs, can rest assured that he will find a way to keep you entertained. Many friends and family have asked us to keep in touch with them, and this gives us both a platform to do that – we plan to take turns posting updates here. As for the blog’s title, it reflects our belief that, indeed, we are lucky enough. To be alive. To live near the mountains and the sea. To love, and be loved. We all need to believe, and take time to recognize, that there is still good in the world. This is our attempt to capture, savor, and share some of ours.