In the wild West the improbable is always possible
The great American road trip is an ailing form: American children now tend to measure the distances of their enormous country in terms of how many inflight movies it takes to get from A to B or Z. I meant to be a purist. We'd shun the interstates wherever possible, we'd drop the top of my two-seater convertible and open ourselves to the smell of the land, and we'd talk all the way. In my experience, the best parent-child conversations happen in the car, when you're both facing ahead and confidences can be exchanged without meeting each other's eyes.
We left Seattle before dawn on Easter Thursday, just as Condoleezza Rice was beginning to give evidence to the 9/11 Commission in Washington, D.C. Her voice disappeared in crackle soon after we left the freeway and struck west across the Olympic Peninsula on a road striped with the long shadows of Douglas firs. Moments after turning off the radio, we slowed past the huddled remains of a black bear on the roadside. This was Julia's first sighting of a bear in the wild, and she mourned its death to the point of uncharacteristic tears. She did not see, and I did not point out, the roadkill coyote, quickly followed by a roadkill deer. Washington state that morning was littered with large, dead mammals, their bodies sprawled in sunshine at the feet of the black firs.
Breakfasting at the Rusty Tractor restaurant, over maps and notebooks, full of our trip, Julia's mood perked up no end at the sight of three men sitting at the bar, all wearing plaid lumberjack shirts and all smoking pipes. "It's like a sitcom," she said. Only 90 minutes out of Seattle, we were already in that other world, so close to fiction in its appearance of exotic simplicity, that every tourist hankers for.
Because the major geological fault lines of America run roughly north to south, a coast-to-coast journey is punctuated at long, often painfully long intervals by unforgettable geographic events: the Cascades, the Continental Divide, the Great Plains, the Mississippi, the Appalachians. Going north to south, what mainly changes is the climate. Between Western Washington and Baja you travel from wet to dry, from a sopping 120 inches of rainfall a year to a parched half dozen or less. So at 60 miles an hour, you're losing annual rainfall at about 5 inches an hour as thirsty firs give way to pines, then redwoods, then deciduous live oaks, then palms, until you reach the arid southern latitudes of cactus, agave and sage.
The road took a brief eastward swing inland, through flat dairy-farming country and the to me English-country holiday smell of sundried cowpats. We passed the factory that makes Julia's preferred brand of cheese and returned to the rim of the sea. A quick break for lunch at Lincoln Beach, and we were off again, hareing through once-prosperous timber and fishing ports, now down on their luck and trying, with very mixed success, to re-create themselves as vacation and retirement communities.
Cliffs petered out into sand dunes and cranberry bogs. Julia slotted in a tape of Dick Cavett reading utterly engagingly from a horribly-edited version of Huckleberry Finn.
Half drifting down the Mississippi, half racing through Oregon, I thought of the odd couples in American mythology Huck and Jim, Lewis and Clark, Ishmael and Queequeg. Paul Bunyan had his blue ox, Babe. Thelma had Louise. Humbert had Lolita. Classic American wanderers go in twosomes across the land, where European ones, from Ulysses to Wilfred Thesiger, travel most typically alone. This sort of partially-baked notion is liable to come to mind as you bite into the fifth 100-mile chunk of the day.
With 476 miles on the trip-odometer and about 50 miles to go before the California state line, we stopped at Port Orford and checked into an amiably scruffy motel. Filling in the guest form, I was aware of the eyes of the motherly lady owner moving swiftly, surreptitiously, from Julia to me and back again. But we evidently passed the test, for she immediately began to talk about dogs to Julia and to warn me of the "spendy" restaurant up the street, which I took correctly, as it turned out as a useful recommendation.
Port Orford was a queer kind of port. In the cheap bar of the spendy restaurant, I was told that the Army Corps of Engineers had built a breakwater so ineffectual that any boat taking overnight shelter behind it was likely to be smashed to matchwood on the rocks. So the entire fleet of 30 or so crab and rock-fish boats had to be lifted in and out of the water every day with a pair of hydraulic cranes. In the quiet of the night, listening to the ocean boil and growl around the open cove, I thought that only in can-do, nature-conquering America would anyone think of maintaining a fishing fleet in such an inhospitable place. Yet I see that in 2000 well over a million pounds of fish were landed here, which must say something about the never-take-no-for-an-answer character of Port Orfordians.
"Which American president, elected with the slimmest majority in history, immediately took the country on an imperial war against a nation rich in mineral assets?"
Julia, on conversational autopilot, said, "George W. Bush."
Actually it was the 11th president, not the 43rd. On a doubtful pretext, James Polk went to war against Mexico in 1846-1848, winning three-quarters of a million square miles of territory for the U.S. and so fulfilled the great catchphrase of the 1840s, that it was America's "manifest destiny" to stretch from coast to coast, from the Gulf Stream waters to the redwood forests. A thousand miles north of the present border, we were already in what used to be Mexico before the Invasión Yanqui.
California had been a pushover then, with only about 6,000 white inhabitants, most of them connected with the string of coastal missions, each as big as a small town, that stretched from San Francisco down through Baja along the Camino Real. The missions were largely the work of the 18th-century Franciscan priest from Mallorca, Junipero Serra, who tyrannized the Indians under his rule while saving their immortal souls. It seemed appropriate to Good Friday morning to remember that the state now known to all the world as the capital of hedonism was once a severe Catholic hierocracy.
The redwoods began almost as soon as the state line was crossed mostly hundred-year-old youngsters planted between the gigantic rotting stumps of felled trees 10 and 20 times that age. Past the dull city of Eureka, the road bent away from the ocean and swooped through the forested mountains of Humboldt County a fast and brilliant ride that felt like flying. We stopped to eat at a Hansel-and-Gretel-like clearing in the forest named Phillipsville and sped on down through live oaks, horse farms, vineyards and ominous, stifling heat. At Willits, in Mendocino County, where we pulled over for a drink in an air-conditioned cafe, it was 90 in the shade.
One could feel the magnetic pull of the Bay Area from 150 miles away, as traffic thickened in the standing heat. Route 101 looked like a greenhouse-gasworks. Julia was lost to a tape of "Treasure Island" on the stereo system.
The Golden Gate Bridge had been near the top of her list of attractions on the trip south. In the event, only the uppermost part of the rust-red southern tower protruded above a roiling, sunlit bank of fog. We rumbled across, nose-to-tail, with visibility down to about 20 feet.
"It's not fair," Julia said.
"It may be a sign of climate change," I said. For this fog was summer fog, sucked in from the sea by the baking hinterland, and eerily early for Easter. Stealing through the murk, we talked about how carbon dioxide lets light in but won't let heat out a subject on which Julia, who had an ace fifth-grade science teacher named Doc O, was better informed than me.
By dawn on Saturday, the fog had taken possession of the downtown streets: the coast road would be viewless. So we ran south through the low-rise white boxes of Silicon Valley, past the campus of Stanford University, nursery of the billionaire child-graduates who engineered the digital revolution, to the sprawl of San Jose, in welcome sunshine. With Julia now an expert map-reader, we struck out for Carmel on the coast.
The twisty, up-hill, down-dale road over the cliffs from Carmel to San Luis Obispo is said to be one of the most spectacular drives in the United States. But the fog was back that morning, and apart from a freakish sunbreak over Big Sur the view was of pebbly gray tarmac fading into nothingness a few yards ahead. For 130 miles we plowed through this nebulous and speculative world, peopling it, unpeopling it, fiddling like gods with its probable geology, until at last the sun broke through on the disappointing reality of Morro Bay.
But San Luis Obispo, a few miles on, was not disappointing.
"It looks like Mexico," Julia said, admiring its wealth of faux pink adobe. The city looked like a toddler's birthday cake, elaborately tunneled by mice. Father Serra's godly activities along the coast had inspired a riot of Victorian "mission-style" architecture in California and the Southwest, and San Luis Obispo consisted of almost nothing else. We parked the car and ate an extravagant lunch in a building whimsically reminiscent of an old Spanish church. In the floor-to-ceiling mirror by our table, I saw how we looked: two whey-faced tourists from the far north among the permanent tans of the Southern Californians.
Santa Barbara, 120 miles south (120 miles had come to seem no more than a lick and a spit), was the home of our friend Trish Reynales, whose house was somewhere up among the small canyons, where the town backed onto the Santa Barbara mountains to the north. We drove slowly through jasmine-smelling streets of high-walled gardens bursting with spring greenery. In every driveway, a Porsche or a Mercedes, and in some a Porsche and a Mercedes. Yet in dry Southern California wealth is most eloquently expressed in terms of water consumption, and the walled gardens, like miniature tropical rainforests, were a truer measure of Santa Barbara's riches than its expensive cars.
For like L.A., Santa Barbara's an artificial oasis, watered from afar by an ingenious system of pipes, tunnels, dams, aqueducts. Left to itself, it would be sagebrush and cactus, but American capital and hydro-engineering wizardry have made it greener than wet Seattle.
In the neighborhood Italian restaurant that evening, Kirk Douglas, looking frail but vital, sat at the next table. Obeying the Santa Barbara social code, we strenuously pretended not to have noticed.
Next morning, Mexico-bound at last, we tiptoed through the house in the dark, trying not to wake our hostess. The quarter-moon was still bright in the sky as we sped past the lines of paling surf on the beaches. On a weekday at this time 101 would be a parking lot, but everyone was sleeping in on Easter Sunday and the road was empty. In that gray and muggy twilight that usually precedes intense heat later on, I fed the car into the delirious tangle of Los Angeles freeways, with Julia calling out instructions at my side. Following the example of the locals, we hurtled from freeway to freeway at a steady 85, collapsing the epic city into a space shorter in time than that of the average English snarled-up market town, until, speed-shocked and jittery, I took the Long Beach exit and we emerged on the sedate and pretty Pacific Coast Highway leading to San Clemente. How civilized the stoplights seemed each allowing one pause to look about and take in the ocean.
Julia said: "What exactly does that pedal on the left do?" I explained the clutch. She went on to quiz me about the lights, signals, windshield wipers, and the cruise-control I've never dared to use.
"What's this about?" I asked.
"That's a strangely Los Angelean thought. How long have you been thinking it?"
"All morning. I've got it figured out. What I'd really like is a convertible green Bug. Or maybe silver. Or blue."
At San Clemente we joined the automotive hell of Interstate 5, sandwiched between 18-wheelers whose drivers appeared to have forgotten that it was Easter and they should have been at church. I prayed that the Catholic truck drivers of Mexico would have better memories. From the suburbs of San Diego, Tijuana appeared in the distance as a hilly, blue industrial haze.
"Mexico!" Julia said, as one might say "Samarkand!"
What Julia saw was Spanish everywhere on road signs, hoardings, storefronts, vans, the classroom language springing suddenly into three-dimensional life.
"Playa beach. Camino road. Abarrotes . . . Ceda el Paso . . . Cuota . . . Alto. Alto! Alto!" Alto means Stop.
We took the fast seaside toll road that runs along the commercial strip from Tijuana to Ensenada, past neo-Moorish lotes, condo blocks that offered American retirees a bargain taste of waterfront paradise beginning at $2,899 down and $320 a month, hotels with deterrent signs saying "Welcome Spring-Breakers," dusty lots piled with fresh-from-the-kiln Aztec pottery (now I know where all those monster planters come from). The Baja Peninsula, richer than mainland Mexico, floats high on the U.S. tourist dollar. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in La Mision, where Julia, blushing furiously, tried out her first phrases of beginner's Spanish and beamed with pride when she received a Spanish answer.
Beyond Ensenada, the road became a narrow, serpentine blacktop where I had to slam on the brakes to let a tumbleweed twice our size roll past at a good 20 mph. We were waved through the military checkpoint that had northbound traffic backed up for a mile and more; a ritual exercise, meant to introduce some slowing friction to the stream of prohibited substances that pass this way into the United States. I doubt if the cartels are much impressed by the checkpoints, which mostly consist of soldiers bouncing vigorously on the trunks of cars, and standing back to watch how the suspension goes up and down.
Our road, the road that had kept me awake at nights for the past couple of weeks, was a turnoff a mile short of the village of Santo Tomás, which followed the Santo Tomás River down to the sea. I knew it was 19 miles long, and I knew it was rough. At the top, the most conspicuous building was a prosperous-looking tire-repair shop. With just 4 inches clearance over the ground, the car wasn't designed for Mexican minor roads, and I took it at walking speed down this bumpy adventure of blind bends, ruts, rocks and red dust.
Somewhere down near the sea an Easter party was coming to an end. Ruinous pickups, cram-full of teenagers in an elevated mood, swayed toward us at racetrack speeds, then slammed on their brakes to better enjoy the hilarious out-of-placeness of our car. Honking through the bends like Mr. Toad, I thought that if I were a soccer mom in an SUV I'd love this beautiful and eventful country drive, but my sentimental attachment to the exhaust system kept us to a wary crawl.
Barging shyly through families of plump cattle and horses with their foals, we reached the ocean at La Bocana, a cluster of wonky houses, mostly built of driftwood, and a litter-strewn sand berm across which the last few pie-eyed revelers were stumbling to their trucks. Three miles to go. The road, more or less level now, and graveled, snaked around the cliff-edge to a bluff cove, terraced with plywood shacks that overlooked 30 or so open fishing boats, riding to their moorings among the rocks and kelp in a stiff offshore wind. Past the last shack was a scarred sign saying "Termina Camino Rural." I've been on lots of journeys, but none has finished with quite such satisfying decisiveness as this official End of the Road.
Though the end was also the beginning of a pint-sized compound of sturdy tiled pink-stucco bungalows set among palms and flowering cacti, a five-table cantina and a triumphal mission-style arch, housing a church bell, and grandly titled Real Baja. "Resort" is the wrong word for Sam Saenz's charming, imaginative and as yet rather unsuccessful attempt to divert the flow of Yanqui money from the highway and down the long rattletrap road to Puerto Santo Tomás. Stubborn dream would be a better term: Real Baja stands cheek-by-jowl with the fishermen's shacks of real Baja, holding out the promise of an alternative, service economy, powered by U.S. dollars, not pesos. Sam Saenz believes in trickle-down, but to get the trickle you first need the flood, and so far nearly all that's come his way has been an intermittent dribble of American sports-fishermen, drawn here by stories of trophy catches among the reefs.
He came out to greet us, ebulliently as well he might, since Julia and I were his only guests apart from an Oakland couple who were camping nearby in a tent. Black-bearded, built like a skinny welterweight boxer, his skull wrapped in a red bandanna under a slouch hat, Saenz put us in his largest house, designed to sleep 10, which echoed with the busy noises of the sea beneath.
Sam Saenz joined us at the end of dinner. He was a Mexican American who'd returned to his ancestral roots after working in the California aerospace industry for 30 years. Born in Texas, one of 14 children in a family of migrant farm laborers, he'd been drafted in the Korean War and gone to Michigan State University on the G.I. Bill. A passion for fishing and diving led him to visit Puerto Santo Tomás in 1964. He'd been involved with the place ever since.
"I can't explain it. It hit me like a bomb. I just wanted to be here."
Laid off from the MX nuclear-missile program in 1990, he moved to Baja to live full time, and to put his engineering skills to use in the village, drilling wells, installing a solar-powered electrical system, hauling stones from the hills to build cottages for visitors. Had it not been for those 19 miles of lumpy, tire-gashing dirt road, he'd have been very rich indeed by now.
Remote? With Americans gadding around in high-riding 4WD off-roaders, Puerto Santo Tomás hardly qualifies as remote: If we could make it in our car, it isn't remotely remote. But I shouldn't complain: Nothing flatters the vanity of the tourist so much as arriving at an "unspoiled" place a few days ahead of the crowd.
Saenz explained the racial system that had vaguely troubled me at dinner. Little dark Maria was an indígena, her pale husband Francisco a mestizo. The indígenos, from around Oaxaca and Yucatán, did much of the low-paid work in Baja, lured from their homes 2,000 miles away by jobs in service, agriculture and fishing.
"They are hard workers, too. They give good value."
So the indígenos here were like Mexicans in the United States. For the next few days, I watched Francisco, always in a freshly pressed shirt, hang out with his friends around the squinny-eyed pickup that served as their mobile club and bar, while his wife, her face an anxious knot, labored in the near-dark of indoors, laundering, sweeping, cooking and mothering their impish son, Luis. I saw Maria as the woman, broken by her cargo of flowers, in Diego Rivera's "The Lily Vendor," and Francisco as the squarely planted male feet and crescent forehead visible behind her.
"The locals here, they've all worked in the U.S. as illegals," Saenz said. "Like Francisco and Maria. But they don't want to learn English while they're there. They have no need: Their boss is Mexican, they work on a Mexican team . . . They live in Spanish. Then they come home."
"Like expats everywhere," I said. "Like Brits in Saudi Arabia, or Americans in Japan." It's a thorny subject, this, especially since the publication by Samuel ("Clash of Civilizations") Huntington of his latest jeremiad, "The Hispanic Challenge," which argues that Mexican immigration "threatens to divide the United States into two peoples" and represents a dangerous assault on "the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream." The Puerto Santo Tomás pattern of temporary exile and return may be more significant than Huntington and his like realize, and won't be reflected in the gross estimates of illegal immigration to the U.S.
After dinner, Saenz fired up the portable generator in his yard, got on his computer, and let Julia send an e-mail, via satellite dish, to her mother to say she'd arrived safely. With no television, no phone, no mains electricity or water, Puerto Santo Tomás is on the Internet (which is how I found it), and Sam Saenz has his own Web site: www.puertosantotomas.com.
"This is summer wind," Saenz said. "It never used to be like this. In the mornings, the bay should be flat calm in spring."
The entire rainy season, from October to March, had brought just 2 inches of precipitation. In the river valley, the water table was dropping fast.
"It is a crisis for us. This summer, we will be in bad trouble."
Always the same story, of the wrong weather. From the shrinking snowpack of Western Washington through the unseasonable fog and heat of California to the drought of Baja, something was up with the climate, and people were rattled. Lately, even the Bush administration has been making rattling noises, and in February this year a suppressed Pentagon report warned that imminent, catastrophic climate change would lead to famine, floods, riots and nuclear warfare. "Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life . . ." Living with your own weather, it's tempting to chalk up the weird seasons to random climatic variation, but on a continuous drive like ours, through 17 degrees of latitude, the ominous, small symptoms of climate change are unignorable. It's said that the seeming gradualness of change in its early stages is fatally deceptive, that when the tipping point is reached disaster will unfold with the speed and force of a global avalanche.
Walking in the wind that shouldn't have been blowing, in the company of an 11-year-old with the world before her, I thought of those long, hot summers that famously precede major wars all picnics and village cricket, before the unknowing villagers find themselves crouched in some trench in Flanders, waiting for bullets with their names on them. Are we at that stage yet? Not improbably.
Later, I took another walk with Rachel, one half of the Oakland couple in the tent, a plant ecologist who gave me some idea of the fragile complexity of what I had seen as undifferentiated chaparral brush. As she put names to the species around us lovely names, like pickleweed and coyote melon, Mormon tea and mallow I imagined them frizzling to extinction on the hillside, leaving a last few, spiny xerophytes to subsist on bare shale. Two inches of rain this year. How many if any next?
At least the fishermen were still in business. In winter, they dive for sea urchins, whose roe is prized in the Japanese sushi trade. In summer, they fish offshore for albacore tuna, while the maze of inshore reefs provides a year-round supply of crustaceans, rock- and bottom-fish. NAFTA has been good for the fishermen, enabling them to export their catch from airports north of the border. Ross Perot's endlessly repeated line, in the 1992 presidential election, was that the effect of NAFTA would be "the giant sucking sound" of American jobs migrating south to Mexico; a happier effect is the flappy, slithering sound of Mexican fish catching flights to Tokyo from San Diego International Airport.
The village of terraced shacks on the bluff was an all-male society, where the fishermen lived with khaki dogs who were kissing-cousins to coyotes. Wives and children lived back in Ensenada (and in some cases much farther away) where the women had jobs and the kids went to school, showing up in truckloads at the village only on major holidays. So the men were hardly less separated from their families than the Mexican construction workers who labor on building sites in Seattle, sending money home each week to relatives they mostly see in creased photographs in their billfolds.
The fishermen tended their boats and tiny, dry gardens. One had painted a striking mural on the wall of his shack a biblical scene of tall men in robes, out for a stroll in ancient Palestine, titled, in big black letters, HOMBRES DE VALOR. The artist was a recently reformed character, now a passionate born-again Christian. His work was evidently intended to be a somewhat wishful-thinking picture of Puerto Santo Tomás and its diligent menfolk, sans their ever-ready bottles of Pacifico beer.
They had found for themselves an extraordinarily rich patch of sea. When another American family arrived in the village, we split the cost of hiring a fisherman named Lionel to take us out on his panga. I gave up fishing years ago, but Julia was avid to catch something. The trip cured her. The moment the anchor was down, off a reef a little way out from the shore, she was into a big one. Then another, and another, and another. With three rods out, the entire floor of the boat began to fill with writhing red rockfish, ocean whitefish and calico bass. It was too easy, even for Julia who, fearing she wouldn't get a bite, found herself ankle-deep in whoppers. She palled of catching them, I got bored of photographing them, and it was a relief to step ashore and make a gift of the haul to Maria.
NEXT MORNING, as we loaded up the car and faced the drive up the long dirt road to the highway, Sam Saenz was supervising the unloading of a truck laden with rocks. He was about to add another pink house to his collection. At 71, he had an enviable belief in the future as properly befitted a man whose youngest child (in Ensenada with her mother) was just eight weeks old. Tourists or no tourists, he was determined to build his Real Baja, with its neat Anglo-Spanish pun of "real" and "royal."
As we said goodbye to him, I realized suddenly why it had been our great good luck to light on Puerto Santo Tomás as our destination. For it was a distillation of the spirit of the West Coast. Sam Saenz, stubbornly building his little city by the sea, was kin to all the dreamers-into-being of unlikely Western cities, from Junipero Serra to Bugsy Siegel, the megalomaniac creator of Las Vegas. Absence of water, absence of a natural harbor, absence of population have never deterred the Western Platonist with a vision. Pipe the water in! Crane the boats in and out of the sea! Only build, and the people will come! Throughout the length of our coastal drive we had passed through city after city raised in defiance of natural circumstances by someone of Saenz's ingenious and optimistic temperament.
And so it was with Puerto Santo Tomás' peculiar social fabric. Here was the migrant culture of the West, boiled down to its essence. Everyone, mestizo and indígeno alike, was from somewhere far else, drawn here to make a killing from the sea or the river valley. The impermanent shacks of the village were exactly like the mining and logging camps that were the first Western towns, and whose here-today-gone-tomorrow air still lingers in so many towns of the modern West. The asymmetrical society of men without women took one straight back to the West as it was in the 19th century.
As I suggested to Julia, Western-born, in Puerto Santo Tomás she was looking at a mirror of her own regional past. The image in the mirror was tiny and stylized but essentially true. Look at this village in Baja now, and you can see Washington, and Oregon, and California then the camps, the men, the riches to be exploited, and someone in a broad-brimmed hat nursing a vision of how this improbable and obscure place is going to be the next big thing.
Two days later, I dropped Julia off in Los Angeles, where her mother was visiting and from where they'd fly back to Seattle, and drove home alone, across the Mojave Desert, over the Sierras, through Nevada and California. Not far short of the Oregon border, I stopped for a beer at a tiny townlet in a wilderness of sage that had a post office, a tavern and not much else. Its name was Likely.
Likely. No better name exists for the settlements of the far West than this word, pregnant with ironic shades and dubieties. "Having an appearance of truth or fact," says the Oxford English Dictionary: "apparently suitable," "promising," "handsome" (as in "likely lads"), "probable." Its own self-contradiction is built into the word, as in "Not likely!" or "a likely story." Likely would have been the right name for L.A. or Santa Barbara before they took off, and the likely became proven, at least for now, at least so long as their supply of water holds out. Likely, CA, despite its fine and friendly bar, has so far been largely disproven. Puerto Santo Tomás is a present Likely, its coming future still a gleam in one man's eye.
There's always been a strong element of the provisional about the West, and never more so than now, when likeliness is harder to calculate than ever before.
What Julia will see if, as promised, she takes this marvelous drive for herself in 2015 when she's 22, is anybody's guess: Cacti among the ruins would be my cheerless forecast, but I have a terrible record as a prophet and ardently hope that she will prove me wrong.
Author Jonathan Raban's books include "Waxwings," which comes out in paperback this week. A stage version of "Waxwings," adapted by Julie Beckman for the Book-It Repertory Theatre, opens on Oct. 7 at the Seattle Rep's Leo K. Theatre.
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