Sunday, February 22, 2009

"The Forgotten Peninsula" (1961), Joseph Wood Krutch

Why does the year's shortest month always seem so long? That's a philosopher's question that refuses to be answered simply. Here in Atlanta, the weather's a crap shoot. It's either too cold or, teasingly, surprisingly warm -- the first yellow flowers appeared on my front lawn overnight last week. They're sure to be smothered by March's cold snap and blackberry winter.

The only solace in February, really, is its brevity; imagine how long winter would seem if the month had a full supply of thirty-one days.

Now's a good time to think warm thoughts, or at least read about those magical places near the tropics where the weather is considered more a state of mind than something to survive. In 1959 the author and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch made a return visit to Baja California, the peninsula to the west of Mexico bordering the Sea of Cortez. The result was his 1961 book, The Forgotten Peninsula. Krutch, who lived in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, called himself "a collector of deserts"; he was in awe of the variety of plants and animals he found in the arid regions of the North American continent. Even as an experienced adventurer, he found the Baja's desolation and remoteness a challenge, best dealt with some humor:

"Even properly equipped, the traveler inclined to say, 'I'll
be in San Ignacio or Mulege or what-not next Tuesday'
had better remember the oriental story of the pilgrim who,
when asked where he was going, replied, 'To Damascus,'
and refused to add 'God willing.' As a punishment for his
impiety he was turned into a frog and spent nine years in a
puddle by the roadside. When at last he found himself
restored to human form and met again the mysterious ques-
tioner he replied to the reiterated inquiry: 'I am going to
Damascus or back to the frogpond.' There are not many
frogponds in Baja but one could easily find oneself stuck
twice in the same arroyo."

I discovered his writing through a battered copy of A Desert Year, which I read during one of my first February trips to Tucson in the early 1990s. Although the march of time (and progress) was rapidly changing the landscape of the Sonoran desert then, I was still able to see much of the beauty and uniqueness of the land that had so captured Krutch's imagination. Of course, my initial trips into the desert involved much use of a Dodge van and a rented, shiny-red two-door Neon, with frequent stops at the ubiquitous Circle K markets that spring up like cactus roses in the wet season.

I did manage, eventually, to get to Organ Pipe National Forest and Joshua Tree, places where the Milky Way galaxy is a real, astronomical phenomenon and where it did get truly, beautifully, dark. It's a rare treat in these United States of Kilowatt Hours.

This vast emptiness was disappearing quickly back in 1959, after centuries of desert solitude. Krutch's final chapter describes, with some regret, the hotels and airport strip being constructed at the tip of the Baja ("eight thousand feet; obviously intended, ultimately, at least for jets," a companion informs him). Soon to become a wintertime haven for the footloose and fancy-free 1960s jet set, Cabo San Lucas is now the site of rock festival and spring break, where rocker Sammy Hagar meets you at the dock and personally escorts the visitor to his own Cabo Wabo Cantina. So it goes.

Krutch himself was aware of this dilemma between the demands of nature and the wants of civilization. It's a question that dogs man endlessly; one observer of Krutch's writings has called it, simply, "the right question." Krutch wrote: "Has anyone even raised the question of how populous, how mechanized, how complicated, and how abundant a society should be if what we want is not numbers, mechanization, complexity, and abundance for their own sake, but the best life possible for a creature who has the needs, the preferences, and the potential of the human being?"

In 1959, still, there was desolation and mostly-uninhabited Baja, with native flora and fauna. The Forgotten Peninsula traces the region's natural, political, and religious history with an expert eye toward irony and, eventually, resignation to encroaching progress and its economic benefits. As always, the secrets of a wilderness discovered are likely to disappear once the secret's out, but Krutch seems to be describing Baja just before the marketplace and time's march changed it forever.

I opened the book to a chapter entitled "Seeing it the hard way" and was charmed by the easy way Krutch -- who was 66 in 1959 -- battled obstacles natural, mechanical and cultural in his Baja pursuit. Here is his description of his entry into the Baja country fifty years ago this week. February, it seems, has always been a good time to travel south.

"It was February 27, 1959, a little less than two years after
my first introduction to Baja. Our company assembled at
San Diego; we ran the 120 miles to Mexicali in a little over
two hours and we were in Mexico by mid-afternoon. The
first twenty miles of paved road crosses farming country,
irrigated from the Colorado River, and not very different
from the lower Imperial Valley of which it is an extension.
It is part of the ancient delta, relatively prosperous and
"developed." Then the population thins rapidly, poverty
begins to take over, and soon the road, though still well-
graded and paved, is running through some of the dryest,
most barren and rugged country anywhere in Baja. ...

There was acre after acre of purple sand verbena, and of a white
evening primrose perhaps four inches in diameter, growing
close to the ground. The Mojave in California is perhaps as
nearly incredible in one of its best years, but I have never
happened to be there at such a time and this was the most
magnificent display of desert flowers I had ever seen. Now
and again it would thin out, then recover its profusion,
though perhaps it was never again quite so astonishing as
over the first fifteen miles south of San Felipe.

We had already said good-by to paved road, not to come
upon it again for six days and 650 miles. Though the sandy
road out of San Felipe continues fairly good for fifty miles
we saw no car upon it and no human being until we came
to the tiny sport-fishing camp at Puertocitos. Just south of
Puertocitos the moderately good road gives out and during
the next few hours we averaged only about twelve miles per
hour despite a truck made for rough travel and capable of
absorbing a good deal of punishment.

'All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is
unhappy in its own way.' So runs Tolstoy's famous pro-
nouncement and one might borrow the formula to state an
equally profound truth: All good roads are alike; every bad
road is bad in its own way. We were to meet all of the latter
in the course of the trip and several of them during this
second day, including the terrifying sort which consists of
all but impossible grades strewn with boulder-sized rocks
and clinging to the sheer wall of a canyon whose bottom
lies hundreds of feet below. They are also, just to cap the
climax, barely one car wide."

Reading description of desert, mountain, or jungle as well-written as this is a great tonic for the mid-winter blues. Whenever I get the urge to visit the Sonoran desert (or until I decide I've had enough of raking leaves, and just move to the desert and rake the sand in my front yard) the writing of Joseph Wood Krutch will do just fine. I'll probably miss the February jonquils, though I'll enjoy the winter's cactus roses.


Anonymous said...

Nice one!

Anonymous said...

Yes, this was a great one. You seem to shed light where the lights are dim.