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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Between the desert and the sea

May 21, 2024

Baja was a magical place when I was growing up, where great ships had foundered, and blocks of onyx and whale skeletons emerged from the sand, and the creatures of land and sea ruled.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

On our trips into Baja, our family traveled ever south. As one area built up, we drove further on down the great peninsula under California.

We first camped in the dunes at Punta Banda, on the vast bay of Todos Santos, just south of the city of Ensenada and about 70 miles below the U.S. border. To get to our spot, we drove down the beach at low tide in an old station wagon with fake wood panels.

My father would create a set of tracks up into the dry sand by making repeated runs backwards in the two-wheel-drive station wagon. Punta Banda was a long skinny strip of dunes that stuck out into the bay, with a lagoon behind it and the great Pacific out in front, where there were lots of fish biting on sand crabs.

I first went there when I was just six weeks old.

So you could say the salt sea air, the days of sun and wind, the surf and the fish, they were in my blood.  But, as Americans built houses on the dunes, we moved on, driving further south.

It was about an hour to the beach near the town of Santo Tomás where we took a dirt road that followed and forded a creek on its way to the coast.

Soon we took another leap to San Quintín, 100 miles further south, to clam for pismos when the tides were super low. By then, we had a light-green Land Rover. And then we jumped another 100 miles or so, over three mountain ranges, on a dirt road that was the main highway down Baja.

Along the road, someone had stood up against a bush the dried, white carcass of a cow, as we saw it, with some country humor. It served as a landmark to find the cutoff onto a rough dirt track that ran 40 miles to the beach at Santa Catarina.

The long beach of sand, with strands of kelp detached from the beds offshore and great flocks of seabirds, included a disintegrating pier. Half-buried in the sand were dense oak beams, a foot square, loaded with copper spikes, that came from a sunken ship.

And emerging from the beach sand here and there were great blocks of onyx, almost a meter in length, that came from an inland mine. We figured they were cargo from the ship that sank, maybe, or flawed pieces that had been rejected. On the road into the beach were old mining machines, rusted entirely, with gears and flukes that were partly eaten away in the salt wind that blew off the ocean almost every afternoon.

At the north end of the beach, between the broken-down pier and the rock point, was some good fishing, corvina and perch mostly. At low tide, we took mussels off the rocks on the point to bait the hooks and then, as the tide came in, we waded into the surf to cast the lines.

When we arrived, after dusty days of travel, the first job for me and my sisters and later their children was to gather driftwood from the beach to feed the fire that would sustain us for the week, for warmth in the chilly evening wind and to fry the fresh-caught fish and boil rice and vegetables. We set up the stones to ring the campfire behind a towering bush that broke the onshore wind.

The old man and the sea: Walt Girdner. (Bill Girdner for Courthouse News)

The days were long, starting as the sun peaked over a ridge to the south. I went out for a morning swim and when I got back, there was normally a blackened pot full of coffee that we made by first boiling water in the pot, dumping about four tablespoons of ground coffee into the water and, after it steeped, adding an eggshell that we believed made the grounds settle.

The coffee was strong and delicious after a swim in water that came here via the Alaska Current.

We got to know the valley pretty well because, during the long stretches when the tide was out, we went on desert hikes. On the other side of the ridge to the south was an abandoned set of fishing huts, with some tar paper clinging to the frames made from the dry ribs of saguaro cacti.

The huts had not been used for many years and the bases were enveloped in sand. But people had lived and died here in this place where there was no water and no one for miles around. A small cemetery stood on a mound nearby, fenced in by vertical posts of dried, twisted cactus rib with two horizontal lengths of the same.

Within those bounds were maybe eight oval shaped piles of stones the length of a body. Each had a wood cross at one end. But closer to the huts, down on the sandy soil at the bottom of the bluff, was a single, much smaller pile of stones, a little over a foot in length, with a small cross at one end.

The old and the very very young had died in this peaceful place at the base of a ridge made of sand and gravel, partly shielded from the ocean wind that blew in from the cold ocean and then rushed inland to replace air rising in the heat. A place between the vast blue Pacific and a desert garden that stretched away inland, over dry creek beds, hills and lava plateaus.

Where the desert meets the sea, Santa Catarina. (Walt Girdner for Courthouse News)
Categories / Op-Ed, Travel

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