Bruce F Barber
“…but does he have Desert Sense?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “But so long as he remains with our vehicles it doesn’t matter.”
Freda and I were preparing for a run into the San Felipe Desert. Whereas we had. already accepted a Canadian engineer who wanted to accompany us, we were now interviewing a man with writing skills to record everything we did and found out there. Every movement, that is; every sighting, every set of tracks!
Our project was exploration for the purpose of understanding how and where local Natives had lived before the arrival of the Spaniards. By bypassing Valle Santa Clara, an access point to several local pre–Hispanic villages, we were able to concentrate on the Arroyo Tule watershed, where we expected to find artifacts that would indicate the existence of the early native campsites we sought.
My attention was directed to the region by the discovery of a mound of seashells located about a half-mile west of the Sea of Cortez. Because access to that mound was via an old Indian trail, I believed that trail might lead me to the remains of the Indian campsites I sought. Having spent years with my mother (my tutor) searching early California gold miners’ camp sites, I considered myself better qualified than most to pursue my present search.
My mother, Gael Kirkbride Shaw, was a renowned Early California Researcher who began her field of study in Venezuela, advanced to Mexico City, and eventually began her pursuit of Early American Goldminers.
Adding more excitement to my trek, there was reason to believe a large part of the trail I followed had been followed in 1540 by the first Spaniard to set foot on Baja California Norte. Talk about ‘needles in a haystack’, with that possibility in mind, I intensified my planning to allow time to search for at least one of the early Spaniard’s campsites, as well. Fortunately, the men who created and lived in the campsites I sought were notorious for leaving garbage all along their many trails. For example, a member of my search party discovered a silver goblet during one of our outings!
The first time I traveled this particular trail I swore I would never return. In fact, I labeled it the worst I had ever followed. Now, however, realizing the historical importance of it, my mind opened to it and I tried to recall its surrounding terrain.
But this is not a story about Native Americans and the cross-country trails many of them followed, nor is it a story about explorers. Rather, this article is about the Baja California pueblo of San Felipe de Jesus, it’s local surroundings, and the opportunities they provide for any and all who enjoy the desert. It is, in addition, a story about the part of life I call “The Third Career”.
***125 miles south of the international border at Mexicali.
***A locality created by the action of air and water currents around an ancient volcano.
***Never a Native American homesite, it grew out of a single fish camp located under the lee of that volcano.
***A growing seaside resort that continues to attract retirees who have discovered peace of mind and a place to meet other men and women with similar interests.
***A distant desert community where dramatic evidence describes unending stories of creation, weathering and life in the wilds of yesteryear.
San Felipe is the seat of the San Felipe Desert, a small but unique part of the Great Sonora Desert. Bordered in the west by mountains, it lays along a coastline created by the mighty Colorado River and modified by the confluence of sedimentary sands pouring down from those western mountains. Whereas its topography was originally flat—although tilted from west to east—time has eroded the surface into a gently undulating terrain riddled with a thousand thousand big and little stream beds.
The tilting continues where the land meets the sea so that its bottom causes only a gradual deepening. Landlocked, save for a narrow southern outlet to the Pacific Ocean, there are no waves—only a silent, six hour cycle of draining and filling of the world’s most prolific salt water aquarium.
But peace proliferates, too. There is a very real peace of mind to be discovered in San Felipe, one that allows involvement in almost any desired activity. Many local retirees involve themselves in knitting, crocheting, weaving, stained glass window production, painting, photography and exploration. These are hobbies, not commercial activities, although some folks undoubtedly realize an income from their handiwork.
Joyce Wisler and Suzanne Clute wrote for the San Felipe Newsletter. Time permitting, Fran Chappell accompanied us into the desert to photograph her chosen subjects. Then she writes, assembles and presents photographic slide shows about the Baja California scene during bi–weekly meetings attended by a variety of American and Canadian retirees.
Flo Trowbridge, an avid fisherwoman, collects seashells, paints, crochets and is a member of our desert exploration team. Ed Cole paints various scenes on used circular saw blades and on sand dollars. My bride of thirty–five years paints teeshirts while Barbara Vail is active on the local school board.
The point is, retirement is anything but a time for stagnation. On the contrary, it is the time to do what most of us have been longing to do for years. Can you imagine sitting in Paradise planning to do nothing, or a two month run along the west coast of Mexico? How about lounging, swimming, fishing, clamming or the taking of oysters and scallops in a seventy–five degree swimming pool?
Let’s see… we’ll need two days for research at the university, six or seven to search for the ancient ones, a shopping spree, a couple of days basking in the sun, another for lounging in the Cortez and one good day of fishing.
That’s two of the most pleasant weeks I can imagine. Included are: All the information needed for our Native American trek, five days to study pottery, wall paintings, hunting implements and, if we’re lucky, a Spanish bitt or stirrup, all the exercise I need, a two weeks’ supply of fish, six of food and fifteen nights of sleeping like a baby. But the best part is the fact that it does or can happen every two weeks of the year! Sound ridiculous? Hog feathers: You’re in the wrong line of work.
We drove (on a typical day) to a local “Cactus Garden”, a peaceful place seven miles south of town. While many men and women have been there, none but an adventurous few have ventured beyond the entrance. We drove all the way in, part of it on a road, most of it not. When we arrived at a place I think of as a nursery, we parked to enjoy the beauty of Nature at her finest.
Someone once said, “If gold is where you find it, where is silver.” The answer was, “Under the Lone Ranger.” Well, if cactus are where you find them, where are their offspring? Let me assure you they will seldom be where you expect. What’s in a cactus, you might ask? Like you and me it’s another life form, something you’ll never know if you don’t take the time to learn.
We had gone to learn about nurseries in the wild, about plants we might use for medicine and the animals that frequented the site. I detest the expression “The Barren Desert.” While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there is, in my opinion, more color, more variety, more beauty in the desert than in any other land I have been fortunate to explore. The problem, if there really is one, is far from being barren. Rather, the problem that enables understanding the local desert scene is fragility.
This place we now call desert was once a lush, tropical forest. But the mountains came, air flow changed and rainfall was dramatically reduced. Plants adapted or died and new plants evolved. As glaciers grew in other parts of the world, the sea receded and a former sea floor became the San Felipe Desert. Damage this fragile beauty and it can take a hundred years to recover.
As I stand in “the San Felipe” and talk about the King of all Cactus, I could be standing beside the same Cardón Cactus plant that the second Spaniard to come upon this land stood beside three hundred years ago. That’s twenty generations in Native American terms, and yet if I touched that plant, assuming he touched it, too, I could communicate with a man who lived and breathed in San Felipe three hundred years ago.
Have you ever touched a petroglyph or a wall painting? Have you communicated with the ancient ones? Have you wondered how and when they bathed or whether they could swim?
We drove last Sunday to a place I call “Apache Tears”. Barbara, Conrad, Freda, Flo, Fran and I… to collect the little black rocks Conrad tumbles and the women place in their gardens. Afterwards, we followed a riverbed into an S–shaped canyon. The first canyon led to a second and the second to a third. By the time we got home, we’d discovered another new place and seen more of the most glorious land on earth.
“But it’s lion country”, you might say.
“Yessir, that it is. The sum and substance–the heart–of our third career!” Lion country!