PARADISE ON A SANDPILE
When the Mexican Tourist Bureau decides to produce a brochure on the glories of Baja California Sur, the bottom half of the 800-mile-long peninsula that dangles southeasterly from Tijuana to the Tropic of Cancer, it is not likely to borrow any quotations from the German priest Johann Baegert. The good father spent 17 years in Baja California and came away shaking his head dolefully, his mind full of dismal memories "of poor shrubs, useless thornbushes and bare rocks, of piles of sand without water or wood."
Two hundred years later, anno Domini 1965, turistas in growing numbers were trying to reach Father Baegert's piles of sand. They were winging down in their Aero Commanders, sailing into Baja Sur's deep harbors in sloops and yawls and power cruisers and permitting themselves to be stuffed aboard DC-6s run by that quixotic carrier, Aeronaves de Mexico. Some poor benighted few were even trying the trip by automobile, across baking deserts, rivers of rock and lava beds, and along precipitous slopes that would give acrophobia to a mountain goat, all to get to a place that Father Baegert reported was "hardly worth the trouble to take a pen and write about."
There is, of course, no disputandum with gustibus, as Father Baegert doubtless would agree if he were alive today to watch the thousands of pale-faced norteamericanos, including the likes of Dwight David Eisenhower and Bing Crosby and Shirley Jones, wending their way down the long peninsula in search of fun, sport and a sense of discovery that familiar resorts cannot provide. The priest went to Baja to save the souls of "a handful of people who...have nothing to distinguish them from animals": his description of the aborigines of Baja. From a theological standpoint, Father Baegert and his contemporary clerics were on a sticky wicket from the outset; the Indians learned about hell and then, on chilly nights, would beg to be dispatched there to get warm; they were taught that a man should have but one wife, and then went out and collected three or four more whenever the fathers' backs were turned. As a final frustration for the missionaries from Europe, all the aborigines, the saved and the unsaved, perished of the white man's diseases: tuberculosis, smallpox and syphilis.
How history does its flips and flops! Father Baegert felt that his main accomplishment in Baja California was the baptism of "the infants who were lucky enough to perish quickly before they had a chance to sin." And now there are regiments of vacationers whose idea of bliss is to spend two weeks on that same peninsula from which the pure little babies made their escape into heaven. Whatever has happened to the place?
Hardly anything, and that is precisely the point of Baja Sur. There are, to be sure, some hotels and one city ( La Paz) and a few small towns. But the dominant theme is bleakness and solitude and immutability, Father Baegert's "poor shrubs, useless thornbushes and bare rocks." Baja Sur beats back intruders. It is conceivable that Bermuda or Nassau or San Juan may become overrun and "ruined" by tourists, like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but no one is seriously predicting such a fate for Baja Sur. Through the centuries, bonanza towns have sprung up around mineral deposits, only to slip back into the sands when the veins ran out. Industries like whaling and pearling and shark-fishing have boomed for a while and then collapsed, and promoters from north of the border have swept down the peninsula full of clever schemes, only to emerge later begging for a vanilla malted. Behind them they left the trap cactus, ready to rise up and give meddlers the business at the slightest touch. The iguana runs from rock to rock, sticking its tongue out at all unauthorized personnel, and the huge cardon cactus stands parched and brown, green only at the top, dying from the ground up like an old man. The buzzards run the mortuary parlors, the coyote polices the area, and the killer whale roams offshore, seeking to feast on the tongues of other whales. No one who is fazed by the cruel realities of nature need call here.
At the very tip of the peninsula, around small habitations like Cabo San Lucas and San Jos� del Cabo, Baja Sur is at its most garish and wild, and tourists who begin to take the place for granted can be letting themselves in for awesome surprises, as did a teen-age girl who is well remembered by one native of that area where the Pacific and the Gulf of California lie in sapphire conjunction. "She was trying to learn to water-ski," the local man remembers, "and her uncle took her out in the deeper water. She was falling every 10 or 15 feet, but then she caught on and she was going real good, and she went a couple of hundred yards and skied right over the back of a whale shark." The whale shark is harmless, unless you are a plankton, but this explanation did little to calm the poor child.
The natives of the cape area are much bemused by the visitors who now are swarming down via the dozen-odd landing strips gouged out of the parched soil. Luis Coppola, an old Baja hand and airline pilot, remembers a duck-hunting trip when the boom was just starting. "I had this little Mexican boy along as a retriever," Coppola recalls, "and he was all excited about the people flying in. I'd say, 'Shut up, I'm trying to hunt,' and he'd rattle on: "But, Se�or, they are coming in with the boats and the motors and they go out and fish with a captain and two more men to help.' And I said, 'Well, this is great fishing down here," and he said, 'Yes, but they spend all this money to get maybe one martin, and you know my father? My father, he goes out and gets 10 or 15 martin in one day all by himself.' I never could make that boy understand the ways of the North American."
Nowadays it costs $65 to rent a boat and a crew off the tip of Baja Sur to chase pelagic fish, those wild wanderers of the open sea: sailfish, striped and black marlin, wahoo, bonito, swordfish and tuna. For sheer quantity of such game fish the cape is rivaled by only a few places in the world. Fish stories are cheap and often exaggerated, but the absolute measure of the fishing off Baja Sur is the fact that the area has become a sort of world headquarters for light-tackle anglers like Bing Crosby, whose idea of Nirvana is to spend half a day connected to a 200-pound sailfish by a line about the thickness of a spider's strand. Light-tackle fishermen do not flourish in areas where one or two strikes are par for a day's fishing, because too many fish are lost and the light-tackle nut must have more than the average number of chances if he is ever to see his name in the record books.
This kind of fishing deserves special categorization, like paranoia, manic-depressive psychosis and Bright's disease; it turns otherwise normal men into monsters, breaks up homes and sends healthy men to early graves. One whom it has not yet felled is W. Matt (Bud) Parr, a former rancher, businessman and World War II OSS operative who liked Baja Sur so much that he turned his life upside down to build a hotel at El Chileno Bay and make it his permanent home. Parr has done everything but strangle fish on light tackle in the water off the cape. Once he was out with a friend in a 14-foot skiff, trolling with 12-pound-test line. when a striped marlin took the bait and began tail-walking straight toward the boat. "I couldn't turn him with that light tackle," Parr says, "and the motor was dead. So I stood up in the boat to shoulder the fish out of the way, and he got me across the neck and the arm with that raspy bill and he laid my friend open across the chest." Bandaged, Parr was back fishing the next day, proving once and for all that he is a light-tackle fisherman.