I looked at the millions of shells and the waves and the signs of life and of death, more and more intensely focused on the absolutely stunning detail in every inch of sand. I told time by the endless push and pull of the tides under the Sun and Moon. It was intoxicating. The Gulf of California holds tens of thousands of species, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the global ocean. I wanted to take in as much as I could.
(This is a longer post; as usual, feel free to just look at the photos.)
The four-hour drive between Tucson, Arizona, and the Gulf features some odd geography: wide, flat plains abruptly punctured by serrated mountains. Drab-green bushes and spiky ocotillos dot the plains like freckles on a face.Tiny shrines pop up every mile or so, lone crosses on steep hills or boxes big enough for a handful of people. Past the border, a low and broad volcanic shield of dark rock, the Pinacate Peaks, looms over the western horizon. Three peaks crown the shield; smaller cones poke up from the slopes like barnacles on an overturned boat. NASA thought the area resembled the Moon closely enough to train Apollo astronauts there.
The mountains and familiar saguaros of the Sonora eventually fall behind, leaving plains and dunes of cream-covered sand and barbed-wire fences. We’re approaching the water.
Puerto Peñasco is a town of around 60,000 at the tip of the long, thin Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortéz. Called Rocky Point in English, it thrives on fishing and tourism. My mom, her husband and I are headed to a strip of beach houses on the edge of town that wealthy Americans rent out for weekends. My mom’s friend Charlie and her family are coming, too.
It’s a beautiful place, and a beachfront house is a luxury I’ve never experienced. We immediately walk across the road to the beach. The tide is low, exposing a couple hundred yards of sand that’s sculpted into waves, as if the sea’s motion had been petrified just before we arrived.A horsed man with a moustache and cowboy hat ambles up and down the beach, leading a group of about half a dozen other horses. His son is perched on the last of the bunch. The horses’ fur is ruffled and their owner’s pace is slow, matching the lack of energy in his and his son’s blank faces. They offer rides to faster-paced beach-goers. One American boy, maybe 9 or so, sprints to them and insists in shouted English they follow him toward his family.
I don’t know how long it’s been since I had no Internet, no phone reception – heck, not even a clock. It’s not the life-changing purge you might expect, at least not yet. But it’s different. Losing the news is odd for a reporter. The U.S. could plunge into civil war and I wouldn’t know much about it until next day’s paper (Take that, CNN!). I make my mom laugh when I say this must be how daily life must have been a couple of decades ago. Sunrise fills the sky and windows with pink and orange.A group of brown pelicans is called a pod, but I want to call it something like a troop, because they fly together like fighter jets in formation. Ten or so glide swiftly above the water this morning with hardly a wing beat, all level and in a row. They ramp up and down together like a roller coaster train on its track. The leader swoops up before plunging straight down into the water, piercing the surface with its hefty beak. The followers trace the same arc right behind. Smaller groups split off and continue their tandem hunting. It’s mesmerizing.The water is clear and cool, taking on a glassy, bluish-green hue with more depth. The tides come in and out as if the ocean were breathing with planet-sized lungs.
On the way into town, men in cowboy hats recline beside tables holding jars of amber miel — honey. The town, or at least the touristy boardwalk, is splashed with every color, with shelves of T-shirts, hats, pants, knick-knacks, silver and beaded jewelry and bags. Primary-color signs advertise fresh fish.
Calls of “Amigos!” and “Almost free!” come from every side as smiling men and women try to steer us into their restaurants or shops. Mexican radio plays from passing cars. Lots of Americans drink beers and tote cameras (I only do one of those things). Almost all of the first-floor windows are barred with twirled metal. Every block or two stands a demolished or abandoned building.
Later we spend a couple of hours walking to and from Estero Morúa, the Morúa Estuary, home of thousands of birds and their food. The beach on the way is a place of stark, almost desolate beauty. By the time we reach the cove, the small waves in the exposed sand near the house become dips several feet wide.
A pale, marble-sized object sits on the sand among shattered shells: an urchin skeleton, hollow and delicate as an empty robin’s egg. Tiny pinpoints etch a 5-pointed star pattern on its surface. It’s light enough for the wind to blow it out of my mom’s hand; it breaks. Beautiful and temporary, that’s the beach. Amazingly, we later find a second, even smaller one. She nests it in a palm-sized scallop shell with a bed of sand. We don’t drop that one.
Few people can be seen in any direction. A massive dune crossed by tire tracks looms behind a towering hotel or condo building of beige concrete and green glass, easily the tallest thing for miles and completely out of place. It looks empty.
As we walk back to home base along the surf, the sand’s surface reminds me of parts of Mars. Tiny craters surrounded by little mounds hint at unseen worms and look like miniature volcanoes. The worms, or whatever they are, leave curving, twisting tracks a few millimeters wide, like tiny, dried-up river beds.
As the sun sets and the tide comes in, a pod of hundreds of pelicans recreate the morning’s tandem flying, following each other up and down as the leader swoops toward the water’s surface. I haven’t seen many flocks as big.
Lots of wind on the last morning, as if the sea is trying to blast us back home.
Troops of pelicans, flocks of sea gulls and individual ospreys hover almost in place in the wind, tipping their wings up and down occasionally to edge forward. They then angle themselves to the side and zoom backward before turning back to their original angle, halting and starting again. High waves toss below, with translucent green water curling into tubes that tumble into the sand.
Crossing the border, on the other hand, takes at least an hour, probably longer. Women, children and men walked between the two stationary lanes of traffic, hoisting up tamales, tortillas, jewelry, wreaths, cotton candy, brushes for cleaning windshields or statues of turtles and monkeys holding cans of beer. Merry Christmas, I suppose.
Thanks for reading and looking.