Miraculous Air: A Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico by C. M. Mayo
Most of us think of the Baja Peninsula as a vast, sprawling, empty, underpopulated space on the Pacific Coast with hundreds of miles of desolate beaches. To a great extent, that's what it is. For many, it's a place to avoid, except perhaps for the resorts on the extreme southern tip - Cabo San Lucas, San José del Cabo and Todos Santos - a thousand miles south off the U.S. border.
Here's a book that won't exactly change that impression. However, Ms. Mayo is quite an explorer as well as quite a writer and she does a great deal here to give character to all that empty space. She's obviously not deterred at the thought of climbing into a jeep and taking off into parts unknown, sometimes accompanied by her sister, sometimes on her own. And what she gives us in Miraculous Air is a beautifully researched account of the history, geography, ecology, oceanography, the folklore, the wildlife and the incredible fishing in this vast area. We read of cave paintings of people who lived in the area some 10,800 years ago. And along the way, we meet a few quite interesting and memorable people.
The vastness of the area is always a surprise. It takes two hours, for example, to fly a jet the 700 mile length of the Sea of Cortez. And Ms Mayo writes of driving to Bahia de Los Angeles at the north end of the Sea of Cortez from the U.S. border. It looks like no distance at all on the map but it's a twelve hour drive. The distances don't deter the surfers however. On a good weekend three or four hundred Southern California surfers will fly down to Cabo. The planes are all full and the car-rental agencies sold out.
As Ms. Mayo remarks: "As late as the 1980's, for instance, much of the land between San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas was an unrelieved desert shore of thorn and scrub. Today there are rolling green carpets of golf courses and landscaped drives."
Back in 1973, when the Trans-Peninsular Highway was opened, Cabo had a population of 400. Now the population is many times that number - plus, of course, all those tourists. And it sounds like there's a real mix of people there, along with the many visitors. As well as the cinder block houses and the dust and dogs of a typical Mexican puebla quite a few extremely wealthy people have palatial homes in the area. We read of a European prince who has a luxury home surrounded by a huge orchard of fruit trees with an emerald green lawn sweeping down to the ocean. And I like the style of the other well-heeled resident who flew in Elton John to play piano at his birthday party.
Todos Santos, which is a mere speck on the map I examined, seems now to be a burgeoning art community. It probably has a long way to go in attracting a lot of artists but the process appears to have started. As one interviewee remarks: "There are people here who will tell you it's become gentrified and yuppie." When folks start using those sorts of words you know something's happening.
The Baja is an area that seems to have been visited or invaded or exploited regularly for hundreds of years, by all kinds of people, including invading armies of various nationalities, pirates, missionaries and Japanese fishermen. Today's invaders, in the south at least, are Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood and no doubt there's a MacDonald's in there, too.
Apart from its abundant - but threatened - fishery the Baja is not an area that is very productive of natural products. Dates, wine, olives, figs, goat cheese…. As one rancher puts it: "We have everything that is in The Bible."
The oceans are a different story. This was once the world's biggest fish trap, as one author describes the Sea of Cortez. He writes of fish pileups when the sea would suddenly erupt into a boiling curtain of silver, up to a mile long and two or three feet in the air, as the sardines were literally driven out of the water by schools of migrating game fish.
Then, in the early 1960s came the Japanese with their long-lines, some of them thirty to sixty miles in length, strung with thousands and thousands of baited hooks. A lot of this exploitation seems to have been corrected. And the Sea of Cortez is still rich with fish, but not to the extent it was.
A trip to Laguna San Ignacio sounds like an interesting proposition with whale watching being the prime attraction. Actually touching a whale is the big aim for all the tourists and they seem to spend many hours trying to do just that. As far as I can tell no one quite made it on the trip that Ms. Mayo describes. But just being a foot or two from a creature that's as long as a four storey building is tall is impressive enough.
Just as an aside, I was surprised to find that Tijuana is "the most visited city in the world." Evidently there are seventy-two million legal crossings a year between San Diego and Tijuana. People with friends, family, jobs and property on one side or the other constitute a large percentage. The rest are tourists, most of whom are headed for Avenida Revolución, a shopping district touted by The Tijuana Handbook as "famous around the world."
In my humble O:Damn good one! If you're planning to visit the Baja, don't leave home without a copy. Also, don't wait too long. According to Ms. Mayo, the Baja is undergoing great change. By 2010, for example, it's expected there'll be 34 new golf courses, 17,000 new lodgings and 23,000 new marina births.
P.S. C.M. Mayo - who doesn't appear to have a first name anywhere that I could find - also has a website that's worth looking at if you want to follow up on her other writings. It's www.cmmayo.com
Miraculous Air - A journey of a thousand miles through Baja California, the other Mexico By C. M. Mayo
By C. M. Mayo
The University of Utah Press, 2002. 356 pages
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback