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In Baja I learned the secrets of fording streams, digging clams, growing pot

Fisherman's knot

Gregg sees the Baja peninsula as the only frontier he’s ever known, in the sense of being a land that still attracts frontiersmen, people with nothing to lose.
  • Gregg sees the Baja peninsula as the only frontier he’s ever known, in the sense of being a land that still attracts frontiersmen, people with nothing to lose.
  • Image by Catherine Kanner

A couple of months ago a friend of mine named Gregg wrote from North County asking if I could spare a week to camp and fish with him in Baja. Gregg is a teacher, thirty-seven years old, with a capillary-red nose and a beard more white than black, and with a head of gray-brown hair at just that point of thinness that he likes the way he looks in a hat. His wife is a sort of miracle worker, a slender Barbra Streisand, who single-handedly anchored the home with rich Victorian furniture, then kept it afloat by waiting on tables, and buying Gregg’s clothing at the Salvation Army. “Folk person” is the phrase that came up several times last year when Gregg’s department chairman, and others, tried to expel him from the faculty of the junior college where he’s employed, and it probably refers as much to his folksy wardrobe as to his style of teaching, which is looser than an old flannel shirt, and about as comfortable.

Since Gregg’s semester break didn’t coincide with the free time his two daughters had from school, his wife agreed to stay home with the kids, who detest camping trips to Mexico anyway. She said she envied his going away for a week of fishing, and during that week itself, Gregg said more than once that he believed she’d really meant it. For my part, I was eager to get him in the proper mood for telling every detail of his days as an Air force bombardier, when he couldn’t urinate in a B-52.

The camping site was about six hours down Baja’s Highway 1, and we drove it on a Sunday morning in Gregg’s station wagon, a white Volvo. Once we got untangled from the border towns, with nothing but broken clouds and the zebra-colored highway ahead of us, Gregg settled down to sweet country driving. You could see he likes to drive, that it relaxes him. He hung his hands on the wheel and seemed to let the car itself choose the lane of least resistance. We passed through country that reminded me of Ireland — low green hills whose soil broke at every crest and ridge to show an underlayer of stones; the houses against the hills looking (in Julian Mazor’s phrase) quaint and a little poor, but painted a totally un-lrish color — polished turquoise. The fences, of course, were made not of slate or stone, but of straight, dry sticks such as grow in the desert, and which never lose their look of stricken dryness. Every spare acre of the valleys had been planted with new wheat and alfalfa to take advantage of the winter’s rainfall.

Teacherly Gregg explained it all to me, hardly letting a kilometer slide by without some remark on the land and the sights. He wants to write a book about this country, when he gets the time and (he says) the confidence, and I think he could be a vivifying historian. He sees the Baja peninsula as the only frontier he’s ever known, in the sense of being a land that still attracts frontiersmen, people with nothing to lose. Although the Spanish discovered Baja long before the rest of California, they never civilized it. Even the tenacious Jesuits lost their hold. There was simply too little rain to sustain agriculture in the long term. When Junipero Serra was made father-president of the missions in Baja California, he ignored that land entirely, establishing missions in the more hospitable north — and this from a man who personally delighted in hardship, who scourged himself, sometimes during a sermon, and who for years sustained an ulcerous wound on his leg as an emblem of man’s travail and life’s mission.

“All kinds of life out there,” said Gregg, looking up to the boulder-strewn hills, which to me seemed about as luxuriant as rumpled cardboard. “Just take a Buck knife — you could live out there for months.”

I groaned. “Come on, Gregg.”

“Oh yeah, ” he said. “Nuts and berries? Hills are full of ’em.”

I laughed. “But look at this car!” “What?” he said.

I do like Gregg. His daydreams are so unself-conscious. Here he imagined himself in the hills with nothing but his Buck knife and a jock strap, whereas in reality he was driving a station wagon that he had fitted with new shock absorbers to counter the weight of equipment we were hauling. The stove alone had a butane gas tank the size of those you see on travel trailers. And just in the way of personal effects, Gregg had brought two suitcases of clothes, three pairs of shoes, rain slickers, Coppertone Sun Screen, a Crown Colony jar that had been emptied of oregano and filled with dusty, filigree buds of homegrown pot, a packet of red Zig Zags, two suits of long underwear, and a leather case packed with an automatic SLR camera with a thirty-five millimeter lens, plus a telephoto (which never got used). I’d brought nothing remarkable except for a pair of double-thick woolen slacks from L.L. Bean which my mother had given me at Christmas, and which feel like a blanket for a sick horse (not that I've ever worn one). When I told her the pants were too damn warm, she said there was no such thing.

Gregg had told me that our camping site would have no water or electricity and no communication with the nearest town, and so I could see the need for some of the stuff we’d brought. But finally, when we had passed the last town and were fording a stream, and could hear the water sloshing at the car, I began to have that tentative, expectant feeling of adventure, though my idea of adventure is throwing a party and waiting for the guests to arrive.

“;Hola!” said Gregg, getting out of the car and walking with outstretched hand toward a small group of men, village elders, who were standing in the shelter of an unfinished cinder-block house. Still on our way to the campsite, Gregg had stopped to greet some of the people he had come to know on previous trips. The four men stood unmoved, calm, dignified, each of them holding a cigarette, watching Gregg hustle up to them. I don’t know why I felt so intensely embarrassed — I guess because I didn’t know how the men would react to Gregg and me — but I did understand just then why Gregg’s little daughters don’t like these camping trips. At their age, everything is embarrassing.

The men unfroze and gave us warm handshakes. We chatted a minute in Spanish, and although mine is much better than Gregg’s, I didn’t say much, but hung back slightly to look things over. One of the men was obviously the leader. Later I learned that this was his house we were standing in, one of the few around that wasn’t made of wood and tarpaper. He was wearing a pale blue suit and a white shirt, tieless, and his overcoat was perched on his shoulders like a cape, which made him look aristocratic. His name was Agustin. Next was Chuey, a broad, powerful-looking man who seemed well known to Gregg. He asked about Gregg’s wife and children, all by name, and Gregg asked about his. The third man was tall and thin as a Mexican fan palm, and I didn’t catch his name, or remark him in any other way. But the fourth turned out to be Gregg’s favorite — an abalone diver whose name, in rough translation, was Shorty.

Gregg had told me his story on the way down. Shorty was from somewhere in the deep interior of Mexico, but had come to Baja to escape the law. He had beaten a man with a chair so brutally as to get himself sent to prison for several years, and shortly after his release had found the man he’d beaten and finished the job, shooting him dead. Now Shorty lived alone almost two miles from the village, which itself was twenty miles from the nearest municipality with a court and a jail. In appearance he wasn’t so formidable. His face and hair were Dylanesque —he had the look of a worried angel — and his clothes made him look like a cartoon hobo. He wore an old sports coat with the sleeves rolled up to his wrists, a nondescript sports shirt, dingy slacks, and track shoes with pink, luminescent stripes. I guessed he was my age — late twenties — but his hair was graying and his front teeth were gone. He was the sort of man many Americans meet in Mexico, find useful for a time, and quickly forget. The first time we tried to shake hands, he came at me with the brotherhood-power handshake, which we fumbled while he looked quickly away.

I saw that Gregg treated Shorty and the rest of the men with equal politeness and respect, although he realized the social distances among them. Of course I would expect Gregg to be egalitarian, but I couldn’t help suspecting that his attitude, however noble, was helped along by his scanty knowledge of Spanish. My own knowledge is basic but solid — I can carry on a conversation in Spanish but not an argument — and it didn’t take long to realize that Gregg was blind to most shades of meaning in his own conversations. And I almost envied his blindness. It forced him to be plain and just, and pay no attention to the murky things people say about one another, especially when they joke.

Gregg had brought a new shovel to present to Shorty, who needed one for digging clams near his house, and when he pulled it out of the car and gave it to him, Chuey said, “Where’s mine?” which produced a nervous laugh from most of us, but not from Gregg. He nodded, smiled, and with a carefree wave, climbed back in the driver’s seat.

We arrived at our campsite just before dusk and had barely enough time to raise the tent, fish for our dinner (halibut and perch), filet and cook it, light the Coleman lantern, and read awhile before falling into the restive sleep of vacation’s first day.

This was the routine for the next five days: We caught fish, cleaned it, fried it in a skillet with Puritan oil, washed it down with Tecate beer or, in Gregg’s case, Herradura tequila, and slept it off. For variety we baked a fish and steamed some clams and boiled some lobsters.

I caught on pretty fast that this was, above all, a fishing trip, and my only choice was to fish or read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I had brought in case of boredom. I decided to fish. When my brothers and I were in Little League, our father bought a fourteen-foot fiberglass boat with a black, recalcitrant Evinrude engine, which nobody but him and God were allowed to meddle with. I say God because Dad was always standing over the engine and calling on Him to damn it, which apparently He did. Anyway, Dad tried to teach us to fish, and I have forgiven him for it. He was only trying to be a pal, the pathetic fallacy that strikes so many fathers when their kids suddenly turn finicky and critical, and maybe there is something fundamentally good about teaching a child to carve a vomitous squid and prod an inky blot of it onto a hook and drop it overboard, out of sight. I know that I and my brothers have all grown up to have a tolerance for nausea that is almost existential.

The thing that was great about fishing Baja with Gregg was the way he put his whole heart into instruction. Maybe this was because he seemed so eager to do what he was teaching. Every morning he was casting into the surf while I was still brushing my teeth. I saw Gregg in a new way, as one who wanted to be kept from thinking about himself, and who had found that fishing did the trick. He went to it for a kind of relief, like lightning to a weather vane. “Just watch me,” he said when he started to teach, and then he lost himself in the activity, giving himself no time to brood about what he was doing, or snag himself on a bit of irony. Showing me how to rig a sinker on my line, he said, “This is the fisherman’s knot. See that? Only kind of knot that doesn’t put stress on itself.” Then he watched me tie it and that was it.

Gregg often announced secrets to me — the secrets of doing things. The secret of fording a stream is to drive through the spots of shallow water, because the water indicates where the ground underneath is hard. The secret of steaming clams is not to add any water to the pot, but to let them cook in their own juices. The secret of growing pot is to eradicate all the male plants in a patch, which induces the female plants to bloom like crazy. I believe he was always talking about secrets because he saw his own experience as just so many blunders, and his life’s work was to learn from them. He’d taken up fishing because he had nearly killed himself trying to scuba dive. Sixty feet underwater one day he’d lost his air and tried to drop his weight belt and rise to the surface, only to have it tangle in his own nylon line, which he tried to cut, but dropped his knife, and ended by thrashing his way to the surface and finding himself somehow still alive, gasping for air on the deck of a boat.

Since then he’d certainly turned into a good fisherman. Apart from some lucky hits I got (I was always out of patience, and casting and recasting into the sea whenever I didn’t get a bite right away), it was Gregg who knew where to cast for the big ones, and who, rather like a teacher, was willing to outwait all the fishes in the sea until they came around to investigate what he had for them.

The weather turned foul on the second night. The tent grew humid as a locker room, and for a while it looked as though we’d have to spend a couple of days inside it. Our stores included two and a half cases of Tecate. I said, “Hey Gregg, it’s straight out of a Hemingway story.” And he said something obscene.

Undaunted on that first wet morning, we took our cane poles and the Crown Colony jar and drove about half a mile up the coast, to a beach that faced the white-capped Pacific. We parked above some sandstone cliffs, like the ones above Black's Beach, and walked down to stone outcroppings that were exposed by the low tide, and which looked at a distance like great fallen trees.

I can’t forget how spectacular that day became from the moment we stepped onto the rocks. A dozen intensities of light had broken through the clouds at various distances, so that looking along the coast in either direction you seemed to catch sight of a dozen scenes at once, some dark, some lighter, some clear, and some blurred with rain. To our left, where the waves broke into sunlight, the ocean had turned the color of a swimming pool, and beyond this was a tall, guano-covered rock, where a few dozen black cormorants were sitting in even rows on a slope like keys on an adding machine — if that isn’t too farfetched.

The sea life on the rock we fished from was more abundant than any I have seen in California. Most of the rock was covered with mussels, which were flinty under our boots, and made a crunching sound like morning snow. Most every place else were sea anemones, which were all drawn up into misshapen mud pots where the tide had exposed them, but in the pools were full-flowered, showing tentacles of acid green. A kind of moss or seaweed was growing in such green patches that I could imagine sheep to be grazing them, and when I got down on my knees to examine the plant, it looked so fresh and clean that I got this crazy idea of eating some myself. I didn’t go through with it, but I did get the point of Japanese food.

A hard rain fell now and then in the afternoon, and we had to run for cover in some caves at the base of the cliff. Gregg said later that these had been his favorite moments of the day — waiting in the cave, smoking, and not saying much, just watching the rain pass over. But for me the best moment came when we left the beach and trudged up a gully to the top of the cliff, rushing for cover against another storm, and reaching the car just as a blast of wind hit us in the back, then turning, a little out of breath, to see everything — the ocean and the black rocks — and realizing that for a while, at least, I had lived as fully in my eyes and my hands as I usually do in my brain alone.

The next day was rainy again. We rose at the usual hour and did some useless casting. Gregg was discouraged. He’s the sort whose unhappiness turns into a sort of broadcast silence. This can be tiresome if it becomes your task to coax the unhappiness into speech. But on the other hand, it is just as easily ignored. And I ignored it.

The only kind of therapy on a fishing trip is fishing. And so we drove up the coast again to scare up some action, but found no more than rain. The two of us were standing under my umbrella, the surf washing up to our feet, while above us a couple of villagers crouched on the edge of the cliff, cackling.

“Look at that,” said Gregg, screwing up his eyes at the onlookers. “They’ve never seen anything as crazy.”

“Fuck ’em,” I said. “I’m going for marlin,” and I cast as far as I could, landing my hooks and sinker on a rock about the size of a putting green.

After half an hour it was harder to ignore Gregg’s misery. He was wet and hadn’t caught a fish; and here he was probably thinking that I was having a miserable time at his treasured fishing spot. But for all of that he looked as good as a Kool advertisement, with his red watch cap and his green sweater, and his cigarette looking long and just lit. I know I have a moral obligation not to see beauty in terms of a magazine ad, but it isn’t easy.

Luckily, an interruption occurred. From far down the beach, two figures approached. One of them was Shorty. Gregg hailed him like the Messiah sent to deliver us from bad fishing, and Shorty himself seemed pleased to have come upon us. I wasn’t ready to trust him, though. I don’t know why. Almost immediately, it was settled that Shorty would take us clamming later in the afternoon, then Gregg suggested we all share the lunch he had packed. 1 had no idea where we would sit to eat it — we were standing on wet, bare rocks — but Shorty seemed to take command by picking up the bucket with the food in it and starting up the cliff's trail. We followed, heads down against the wind. Before I realized where we were going, we'd already arrived at the shanty belonging to Chuey.

Acute embarrassment set in. We with all our gear and heavy coats, with most of our appreciations set by advertisements, were barging unannounced and uninvited into one of those shacks I had only seen from the window of a car or train. Somewhere a dog was yipping. We left our gear by the water barrel and the clothesline in front of the wooden awning, and then stepped under it while Gregg called out for Chuey.

The first to appear was a teen-age girl wearing well-pressed slacks and a disco blouse. This was Chuey’s daughter, Marta, who laughed when she saw us and ducked inside to bring some chairs. Chuey came out, zipping up his coat, and greeted us as casually as though we were standing in a pastry shop. We sat under the awning and passed around our hard-boiled eggs and cans of Tecate. Two teen-age boys, whom I guessed to be Chuey’s sons, appeared briefly, then split to leave Chuey to do the talking.

After a minute, Chuey invited us all inside and showed us to seats at the kitchen table. I trailed along, feeling welcome but wary — like that bird that picks the teeth of the hippopotamus. Of course, I had no reason to feel that way; everyone else was acting natural. But uptightness is my natural state of mind, and I have noticed that it often increases one's power of observation.

The kitchen was about the size of a dorm room, but with a low. black ceiling. The room next to it, separated by a lace curtain now drawn aside, looked mostly taken up by a double bed with a smooth, white spread. Sprigs of artificial flowers had been stuck here and there among the rafters, and an Air France traveling bag hung by the door.

Marta disappeared into a room beyond her parents' bedroom next to us, and reappeared at the very instant our plates needed clearing. Her mother, meanwhile, had heated tortillas and frijoles, accepting our thanks with a smile and no words. Almost everything in her kitchen — the table, drainboard, and open cupboards — was underlaid with oilcloth of brilliant pink and blue. The colors almost glowed under the dark ceiling, and the picture of us gathered at the table was like van Gogh's Potato Eaters — but painted during his late, colorful period.

Chuey’s wife, whose name I didn’t catch, kept her dishes and silverware in a rack that had once been part of a dishwasher. From her spot in front of the stove, she could look out the front door to her right, or out the porthole to her left, and never be in doubt of what the dogs were barking at. Once I caught her looking at me, but then her gaze went instantly to Chuey, and stayed there a long time. She was wearing nice slacks and a sleeveless cotton blouse and deep-red lipstick. I couldn’t think of a word to describe her then, but now it occurs to me that she was solid, like a Mexican coin. Chuey did most of the talking, about lobstering and so forth, but his wife could not resist saying that the family owned a permanent house in town, with electricity and potable water. She also asked after Gregg’s wife, whom Chuey called “an excellent woman.” Shorty left us to start some chores at Agustin’s house up the hill. I gathered that he makes his living from odd jobs when he isn’t diving. And I suppose that showing us where and how to clam was one of his odder jobs. We found him hauling sand at Agustin’s, which he seemed glad to leave off doing. He led us to a beach that was strewn with loaf-size rocks, barely covered by the tide. It was raining so lightly that you couldn’t feel the droplets, but could see the targets they were making everywhere on the still water. Shorty, in his slacks and track shoes, waded in and started pulling up the rocks in the lee of a boulder, working his way down to the sand and pulling up the first clams while Gregg and I were still as dry and uninitiated as priests. Gregg took to the clamming. I’ll say that for him. He certainly felt a lot more sympathy for Shorty than I did. He was squatting right next to him, digging at the cold rocks and trying to work as hard and as well as the Mexican, which was the last thing I wanted to do.

Later, when the bucket was filled. Shorty carried it back to the car. Then all of us drove back to camp, where I hoped Shorty would leave us alone, but didn’t. He rigged a fishing line with a hook, rock, and a beer can, and walked with us out to the windward point. I happened to be wearing Gregg’s parka, which looked like an astronaut’s suit next to Shorty’s coat. I found Gregg’s pack of Kools in one of the pockets, and since Shorty was standing right next to me, Fishing, I offered him one, which he accepted. He was completely comfortable (he ended up catching a perch), and I was completely phony. In the first place, I don’t smoke. And here with so many sensations around me — the surf was building and we had to keep an eye on the end of the point for waves that might reach us — all I could think of was trying to bridge this distance between Shorty and me, and feeling it was impossible. Were we using him? How could I deny that he was our lackey? How did he see himself?

“Believe me?” said Gregg, who’d just come up behind us.

I focused on him. “What?” “Remember I said when we were driving down that fishing is the ultimate. ...”

“The ultimate what?”

“I forget what I said. ” He wet his lips. “Anyway, my point was that you don’t have to catch fish to find out what’s important about fishing.”

I looked at Shorty, who was looking at the sea. “Right,” I said. “The Zen of fishing. You should be governor.”

“I should be governor,” Gregg repeated, eyes uplifted. “Me. Never in a million, million years.”

That afternoon Gregg and Shorty finished the liter of tequila, and at dusk the three of us blazed into Chuey’s house to give him some of the clams. It was instantly decided that we should have a fresh clam cocktail. As darkness closed, Chuey put two kerosene lamps side by side on the kitchen table, and while the rest of us sat in chairs (with Chuey’s wife and daughter lying on the bed, side by side). Shorty split and gutted the clams.

Gregg was so drunk that you could see him straining to keep his eyes wide. And Chuey, certain that Shorty was just as drunk, watched him like an antique dealer with children in the store. After a while it was apparent to me, but not to Gregg, that Chuey and the others were jiving Shorty. “Drunk and crazy — that’s you, Shorty, ” Chuey and his wife would say. And then to me and Gregg, “Shorty’s drunk. And everybody knows how crazy he is.”

All this while Shorty smiled and shook his head, holding each clam against the chuff of his hand and cutting toward himself with a boning knife, splitting the clam’s lips and breaking open the shell, shucking the meat, and finally spilling the juice carefully into a little bowl, not losing a drop, and sipping from time to time on a beer.

Best clam cocktail I have ever had.

Two days later we left. Gregg was exultant from having landed two white sea bass on the last morning, a Friday. “It’s an eagle,” he said. “The eagle of the sea.” The fishes’ heads and dorsals were starry blue, and their bodies white as foam. A small group of villagers came by to admire the catch, and one of them said he’d bring Gregg some black abalone before we left.

Shorty came to watch us break camp, escorting a couple of boys who were interested to see us. He rigged them fishing lines like the one he’d done for himself a couple of days before, and then he sat down with us and shared the last meal. I happened to be standing at his side when the car was all loaded and we were about to climb in, and Gregg turned to insert a hundred-peso note into Shorty’s sports coat, the chest pocket. Shorty gave the slightest nod, but you couldn’t tell if he was acknowledging the money, or letting us know that he was trying to decipher whatever Gregg happened to be saying that moment in Spanish. Maybe, too, he felt my eyes on him.

He asked for a ride back to Chuey’s place, and sat on the front seat between us. On the road, Gregg stopped for the villagers who were bringing the abalone. Seeing Shorty in the car, one of them said, “What’s that fucker doing in there?” And Shorty replied, “Me — I ’rh headed for the States,” which got a laugh from everyone but Gregg.

During the drive home, I asked Gregg if he had any idea of the way the villagers treated Shorty.

Gregg looked sideways at me.

I said, "They treat him like something between a clown and an outcast.” And then Gregg blinked as if some bright idea had just turned visible. A while later he said that Shorty might be just the man he needed to bring his book to life. He’d thought about basing the book on Chuey and his family, but it was Shorty, after all, who incarnated the spirit of the place — the frontier that protects no one but the outcast. “Just about everyone who comes here from the interior is on the lam from something,” he said, and then kept quiet for twenty minutes. “Okay,” he said suddenly. “That’s what I guess I’m going to do. That’s refreshing. I think this trip was just worth it.”

What with the sea bass that morning, and now an idea for an unwritten book, Gregg seemed ready to be asked about the B-52. I waited till dark, when the beer was nearly gone and we were driving through the hills north of Ensenada, almost home.

“Haven’t I told you that?” he said.

“A little,” I said encouragingly.

Gregg said he hadn’t expected to become a bombardier in the Air Force, but was willing to go along with the training. His mind was, anyway. He had little trouble learning the combination-lock procedures by which the bombardier arms the bomb, transforms an impotent missile in a nuclear warhead. But his body refused to go through with it. He found himself unable to urinate on the plane, which was normally aloft for twelve to eighteen hours. An Air Force psychiatrist conducted long, suggestive talks with Gregg about the pleasures of being at ease, of walking in the woods, for example, utterly free.

Soon Greg was being sent aloft again, his only duty on the training mission to stand in the navigator’s booth, where the urinal is located, and let himself go. Three months of training passed, and Gregg finally came to terms with himself. He truly wanted to conform, to do his duty as proscribed by the military, and so he found that his body could function as long as the place carried conventional bombs, which arm themselves by means of a tiny propeller at the back of each one, the propeller turning as the bomb drops through the air, arming the explosive at the eighty-sixth revolution. But he swore that if ever he were called to fly with nuclear warheads, in a war situation, he would head for the jungle. In this way he completed his duty in Vietnam.

I said, “Then you were a bombardier who was physically incapable of starting a nuclear war. ”

He thought about that overstatement, and said, “Maybe that’s right. But I ... I did get into being a bombardier. I mean, there were parts of it I liked, and got good at. I’d say I was probably — no, I’d say I was the best in my squadron at celestial navigation.”

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