Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles
through Baja California, the Other Mexico
C.M. Mayo < Publications < or Shop <


TOC ::: Todos Santos ::: Sierra de San Francisco ::: Bahía de los Angeles ::: Tijuana ::: Bibliography
Excerpt from the chapter
In the Sierra de San Francisco: The Most Beautiful Dream
From C.M. Mayo's Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico.
The giants, they came from the north

When we woke Oscar was gone.
We waited for more than an hour, sipping our coffee. It was a glorious day, sun spilling into the canyon, and we were eager to leave for the cave paintings. Finally, from far up the arroyo, we heard the tinkle of Güero's bell.

The animals had wandered all the way back to Rancho Salsipuede, Oscar said, when he arrived out of breath. He wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve.

Salsipuede! That was more than three hours roundtrip.

"I walk fast," Oscar said. He conceded that he'd been up before dawn. He tethered the two burros and two mules to the acacia tree behind our tent. Macho de Mata gave me a withering look.

We left the animals at camp and began to hike down the arroyo over boulders and rocks and crunchy carpets of fallen palm leaves. Then we made our way up the side of the canyon on a trail so faint we would never have found it without Oscar. In places we had to turn sideways to ease ourselves between the rocks and the cacti. Soon we were edging along ledges, slowly so as not to lose our footing on the loose dirt and rubble; within inches were sheer drops. Far below, the tops of the palm trees shimmered silver-green. A hawk swooped by, its screech echoing across the canyon.

"That was where Gardner's helicopter landed." Oscar pointed to a widening in the stony bottom that was bare of trees. "My uncle Tacho was their guide."

When we'd stopped to rest, Oscar asked me about Erle Stanley Gardner's education. "Tiene muchos estudios?" He wondered how he'd gotten the money to travel here in a helicopter. I told him Gardner was a lawyer, but his money—millions of dollars— had come from the Perry Mason TV show and his pulp novels.

Oscar nodded, frowning thoughtfully.

Half-way up the canyon wall we came to "Gardner's Cave," or as the ranchers had always known it, La Cueva Pintada, The Painted Cave, "This grand cave," as Harry Crosby describes it, "the most painted place in the most painted part of the entire range of the Great Murals."

Nothing, not all the reading I'd done nor the photographs I'd seen, prepared me for the Cueva Pintada's stunning scale, its weirdness, its seething black and blood-colored mass of animals and birds and men. It wasn't a cave really, more a ledge with an overhang, like a bubble between the cake-like layers of the canyon wall. The rocky ceiling jutted out, ablaze with enormous figures, many of them ten, twenty, even thirty feet high up the ceiling and the rock face. To view them all fully would have been dangerous—too easy to to slip back off the ledge. It was as if the Painters —what wizards!— had worked as they floated in the air.

As at San Borjitas, the human figures faced front, red or black, some bi-colored, arms stiffly raised. But here there were also many animals— bighorn sheep, deer, rabbits—all in silhouette, fat-stomached, many of them pierced with arrows and spears. The figures overlapped, a man imposed on a deer, a red man over a black man, an arm over a hindleg, a head obscuring a head. This was ritual magic, prayers of a people without the written word.

But what people?

The giants, they came from the north, said the Cochimí.

Flechas, which means Arrows, was on the opposite side of the arroyo, at about the same height up the canyon wall. With rests, it took us nearly a half hour to climb there.

The cave was called Flechas after the two giant red men overlaid from thigh to face with black arrows. They made a foursome with another pair of figures, half-black-half-red, one in a headdress, the other without a neck, its head a triangular lump. Their arms were raised like criminals under arrest. The larger of the two bi-colored figures —perhaps ten feet tall—was superimposed on a leaping, open-mouthed deer. Smaller figures were scattered among them, tiny red men floating upside down above their shoulders, painted animals underfoot—a rabbit perhaps, and antelope and deer.

Here was a story lost, like hieroglyphics undeciphered. It was intriguing but maddening, like a movie with the sound switched off, or a novel without an ending.

I was moved by the simple fact of their presence, now, after such a desert of years. And I couldn't help wondering, when the painters brushed these colors into the rock, if they could possibly have imagined the likes of me, in my duck-billed baseball cap and waffle-stomper boots one day in the far future, coming from a great distance for no other purpose than to see them, and admire them?

We were so different, and yet, this delight in seeing images, and the urge to make them — like listening to and telling stories— is woven into the very fabric of what makes us human.

There were five major rock art sites in the Cañón de Santa Teresa. But it was clear to us now that we not have the time to see them all. I'd been told at the National Institute of Anthropology and History office in San Ignacio—where we'd obtained our permits and reservations—that three nights was sufficient. They were wrong. In any case, we only had food and water to last until midday the next day; to make it back to our jeep at Rancho Guadalupe by then, we'd have to camp tonight at Rancho Salsipuede. Of the remaining three sites, we had time to see one. Oscar said Boca San Julio was the most interesting. We began the long hike.

The shade of a boulder was a good excuse to stop for lunch. Nearby, a spring burbled from the rocks, chill and fresh, into a necklace of emerald-green ponds. Water beetles skimmed their surface; pearl-sized snails speckled the shallow rocky bottoms. We drank the water we'd bought in San Ignacio, which was warm and tasted of plastic.

These MREs were good, Oscar said. He sighed.Could Alice send him more? How much did they cost?

Another hour down the arroyo, I fell and scraped open my hand. When we'd found a sandy spot to sit down, Alice opened her backpack and unzipped her first-aid kit, an Elizabeth Arden cosmetics bag decorated with roses. Efficiently, she cleaned the wound with an antiseptic wipe, rubbing vigorously (which hurt like hell), then applied Neosporin and a gauze bandage which she secured with tape.

"I come prepared," she said.

What else did she have in there? Oscar and I watched as she pulled out each item and laid it on the sand: an Ace bandage, Benedril, bandages for burns, a triangle of cloth to make a sling, safety pins, more tape, more antiseptic wipes, surgical sponges for soaking up blood, a signalling mirror.

"A signaling mirror!" I chuckled.

Oscar stood up and took a small round mirror from his front pocket. "I've got one too," he said shyly, and he held it out so that it caught the sun.

Alice smirked at me. "You laugh."

In fact, we hadn't seen another soul in more than twenty-four hours.

Not until mid-afternoon did we finally arrive at Boca San Julio, which turned out to be a small site framed by leafy green torote trees. The mural of red and black animals was dominated by two life-sized leaping deer, their front legs arching forward, heads thrown back in terror.

We know this much: The Painters were hunters. More than one researcher speculates that the paintings were made at a time when game was becoming scarce. As the first Indians swept south from the Alaskan taiga, they found a New World teeming with animals. The largest and slowest moving were the first to go: mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths. The bones of these extinct species litter the Americas, many of them embedded with arrowheads and charred by ancient fires. European conquest only accelerated a long-ongoing process.

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