Deep in the
Land of Ultimate
... the Old Gentile (Indian) did not flee. It was soon evident from his actions that he neither cared nor feared any one or any thing. During his talk with us, in the very midst of all the people, he squatted down, and having no clothing to remove he proceeded to relieve the demands of nature even as he kept on talking! And when he finished, he was as happy as he was relieved!--- The Journal of Padre Serra
May 20, 1769In the midst of the bone-desert lava-flow lies this oasis, the clear and lovely lake at dusk, surrounded by tule and palm trees, called San Ignacio. The mission, dating from 1786, is exquisitely designed, decorated with several irregular points atop the structure --- a half-dozen giant strawberries --- and a dozen or so round windows, spotted here and there, surrounded by faded red rings and diamond-shaped workings. There is the usual huge, wooden door, with elaborate, black-metal hinges. It's dark and cool inside.
"It's funny," I say to my travelling companions, "When the Spanish padres came up through Baja California, their first thought was always about building a mission." The Indians were perfectly content to go around eating the piñoles and sweet cactus and mescal, dressed up in their birthday suits. But the Spaniards wanted to have some symbol of their god: they wanted to clothe the land (and the Indians), so they caused to be built thirty missions thoughout Baja California. They, like the architects of Manhattan, had a definite (and intractable) edifice complex.
The missions were always the same: imposing, cool, tall ceilings --- a relief from the blasting heat outside --- but with the feeling of prison, with heavy twelve-foot doors, the black metal bars and hinges.
§ § §
The next day, as we drive west and north from San Ignacio, I start thinking about Father Junipero Serra, the first Spaniard to enter Baja California. We're going along the same trail he took, although at a slightly different speed. The father marched north from Loreto, a hundred miles below Mulegé --- from March 28 to July 1, 1769. He and his followers went by foot across some of the most parched, dry, inhospitable, burning hills, arroyos, and mountains in the world.
To read his words, one would never think that he was trudging along, with his soldiers, a few burros and Indians, and the newly appointed Governor Portola, through a wasteland. In fact, reading his entries, one would think we were on the road to Paradise. Which, romantic that he was, perhaps was true.
At San Andrés he wrote:
What we saw was a vast extent of good land, all prairies and well watered. It is an excellent site for another good mission and ranchería. On May 16th, we paused at a pleasant spot called San Juan de Dios. We found here plenty of water, pasture, alders, tules and a bright sky.
And on June 13:
The explorers sent us word about 3:00 P.M. that we may take our choice of two good watering places. The first is three leagues from here; the second is five. Both have plenty of sweet water, with abundant pasture for the stock. God be praised!
Even at those places where there was absolutely no water, he could find something of interest, such as on June 2, when he reported the discovery of "Rose Canyon:"
I have noted the beauty and abundance of flowers. To indicate the truth of this, when we arrived at our camp site today we found here the Queen of the All --- the Rose of Castile. As I write I have before me, a stem on which there are three full blossoms, several buds, and more than six whose petals have fallen.
Was he as deranged as Columbus --- to whom he bears no little spiritual resemblance? Or was he just an optimistic tale-spinner? Maybe the father had a necessary supply of bunkum in his soul, something appropriate to other salesmen that were to appear in Alta California over the next two-and-a-half centuries.
It may have had to do with the fact that if he were to report honestly on the barrenness of the countryside, it would be the end of any and all further exploration or interest from the Spanish Crown. By sending back glowing reports of verdant fields and potable water --- even hinting at a good silver mine just waiting to be worked --- Serra was making sure that his own stupendous efforts on this godforsaken peninsula would not be in vain.
Perhaps it is wrong to call him a liar. Perhaps it is best to think of him as a romantic, the Don Quixote of the desert, a man who was able to find flowers and trees and good, sweet water where no one before (or since) ever would find them. There has to be something daft, indeed, about one who presumes to walk 800 miles up the most barren peninsula in the world, claiming all the while that it is in the service of The Divine:
"I have undertaken this journey to the Ports and San Diego and Monterey, for the greater glory of God and the conversion of heathen to our Holy Catholic Faith..."
Serra's story, however, is not just one of romantic tale-telling. It has the feel, as well, of the tragedy to come. Not for the Spaniards, certainly --- they had the cross and the musket to protect them. It was ruinous, however, for the Indians, the happy "Gentiles" that the Spaniards met. For them, this crossing of paths was much as if they had met Mr. Death himself. Instead of the crucifix, it would, perhaps, have been more appropriate for Serra to carry a Death's Head on his breast.
For the soldiers, the priests, and the Spaniards who followed over the next decades were to leave behind them diseases --- mostly syphilis --- that killed off 50,000 Indians and laid waste to a whole innocent culture. In less than a century, the Indians who roamed Baja California would be reduced to 2,000 by a hideous corruption of flesh presented, gratis, by the followers of Serra. This is a priest's report from 1786, a mere fifteen years later:
The missions of San José, Santiago, Todos Santos, San Javier, Loreto, San José de Comondú, Purisima, Concepción, and Santa Rosalia de Mulegé are on the way to total extinction. The reason is so evident that it leaves no doubt. Syphilis has taken possession of both sexes to such a degree that mothers do not conceive, and if they do conceive, the fetus is born with little hope of living. There are three times as many adults who die as there are babies born.
A special gift of the soldiery, the camp followers, and the religionists of Spain.
§ § §
For that reason, Serra's descriptions of the "Gentiles" is especially piquant --- for his visit would mark the last time they would be so free and alive, so free of the European curse. Their innocence has the dark hue of tragedy because they were so eager to know these strangers, showing them their naïve way with possessions.
So many came that I could not count them. But their amiability soon degenerated into familiarity. If, in token of friendship, one placed his hands on their heads or shoulders, they would immediately repeat the gesture upon us. If they saw us seated, they would sit right down beside us. They showed an acute desire for anything they saw or fancied --- not stopping at petty things at all. They begged me for my habit. They asked the Governor for his leather jacket, his waistcoat, his pants, and in fact, all the clothes that he wore!
Excellent conceit: wanting "all the clothes that he wore." We'd be the last to think of Serra as obsessed, but he mentions a dozen times that the Indians were as naked as on the day of their birth:
I found myself face to face with a dozen of them, all grown men except two boys, about ten and fifteen. One fact impressed me, a fact which I could not believe when I read or heard it: --- they went about stark naked just like Adam in Paradise before the Sin. Thus they came among us. We mingled with them a while. But although they saw us completely dressed there was no evidence that there was the least blush of shame among them for their nakedness.
Lo! the poor Indian. And denizens of the east came to them, and would clothe them, and tell them right from wrong. And there would be nothing to fear:
I made them understand that henceforth a Padre would be stationed here, pointing him out to them and calling him Father Miguel. They and their friends should come to visit him. They should tell their friends that there was nothing to fear, for the Father would be their best friend. The soldiers who remained with the Padre would not harm them, but would do good things for them. They must not take any cattle which roamed over the open country. They should come to the Father in case of necessity, and he would do whatever he could for them. These and other things we told them, and they listened attentively, seeming to understand. Thus it appears to me that they are ready to fall into the apostolic net...
Fall into the apostolic net. The naked Heathen. Now saved by the Holy Church. Animals now saved by the bald man with the piercing eyes and the heavy cloak. "The Father would be their best friend." "There was nothing to fear." Nothing to fear.
They do not need food --- for they are big and fat! Because of their great stature, the Governor thinks they would become fine grenadiers...
They are fat and big now, big enough so that the Spaniards think of turning them into soldiers, the Army of the Cross. Lo, the poor Indian! So happy and fun loving, so curious about these interesting people from another land, men --- no women --- with their burros (how the Indians loved playing with them) and these funny shaped body-encasing, coarse materials they called "clothes." Lo, the poor Indian, who, in such a short period of time, would be devastated by the sicknesses that ran through the hearts, the souls, the blood and semen, of the holy Spaniards. It was only a century and a half later that Arthur North was to write:
The end of the Baja California Indians is near at hand. The Pericues and the Guaycuras are now practically extinct. Of the former thousands of Cochimis, perhaps a hundred still survive. Of the northern Indians there survive today remnants of the Cocopa, Catarina, Yuma, Kiliwa, Pais and Diegueno tribes, but only the first names can muster more than a hundred individuals.
Those Indians who did not die, who became part of the missions --- the few who were not murdered by the social diseases out of European civilization --- would be treated so wretchedly with scourge and rod meted out by the Spaniards that one commentator opined that the Indians would most certainly be better off dead rather than saved.
A mother with a nursing infant took a notion to let me hold her baby in my arms for awhile. And thus as I held it I could scarcely resist the desire to baptise it before giving it back to its supper.
I gave them all the Sign of the Cross, and I taught them to say "Jesus! Mary!" I do for them what I can, caress them as I may --- And thus we journey onward.
That sweet infant with such a short time to live.
§ § §
"He might as well have put the Ultimate Curse on them," I tell JD and Eve. "There aren't any of the Indians left now --- not a one. And they want to sanctify the old noodle-head, make a saint out of him. He murders an entire country of innocents --- and now they want to canonize him."
We fall to silence in the proper rhythm of the road. Silent in our drive, we drive and drive. I feel as if we were on one of The Beat's runs across America, barely stopping: a few moments here for gas, a few moments there for some water. A brief stop to eat.
We are now on our own wild goose chase. Like Captain Ahab, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Fr. Serra --- we must have a touch of that romantic travelling beatitude in the heart. We drive, and drive, and drive ourselves some more. The land no longer is a part of us --- but a great, wheeling scenery forever falling behind.
We are going home, and our minds are already home, and the desert is no longer with us, but something to get through so we can be done with the trip, get back to our lives, return to whatever we were before, whatever we'll be after Baja. We drive and drive, the sun behind us, the sun to the side of us, the sun going down, the sun gone, the night sky blaring with a thousand stars. We pass back through Guerrero Negro, San Quintín, Cataviña, Rosario de Arriba (Get-Up-and-Go Rosary!), Santo Telmo, Ensenada. We are On The Road, in one of those endless journeys that leaves you dazed and befuddled, but you don't want to stop, can't stop, will not stop. The journey becomes its own creature, it moves us on its own, we cannot be rid of it.
By midnight, north of Ensenada, I see that they've planted great stands of redwoods on both sides of us, alongside the "cuota." Huge forests of giant redwoods, crowding in on each other and on us --- towering over the sides of the road, thousands of them. "How in the hell did they get these trees all the way down from Alta California? And how in the hell did they get them to grow in this desert?" I wonder. The great, dark trees all about us, climbing up the hillsides, hanging over each other, and the road. Huge trees, tall and wet, surrounding our lonely road with shadows of darkness.
We are in the footsteps of Serra, Portola, and Bægert, de Galvaz, Cabrillo, and the mad "filibusterer" William Walker --- who sailed into La Paz a hundred years ago with forty-eight men and proclaimed himself ruler. All of us delusional. We all see this barren land and make of it exactly what we most desire --- superimposing on it Paradise: filling it with sweet waters; hiding in its hills mythic silver mines; mythic rivers filled with creatures that can spawn huge, black pearls; planting --- as one might plant divinity --- great stands of towering redwoods.
I, like everyone else, have imposed a dream on this sere country that accepts all fantasies, all the while satisfying few. It is no accident that the peninsula commences to the south at a place called El Arco --- the arch, a magic arch, formed by the sea out of solid rock. The word, in Spanish, also has the connotations of rainbow, the sign of good luck, and prosperous journeys.
It is no accident, as well, that the peninsula concludes in Tijuana, another kind of arch to the country to the north, an arch of La Migra --- U.S customs and immigration. Tijuana and the border, too, collect our dreams, places of wild passions, fantasy nights, exotic and drug-filled lusts, the ultimate dream of all the caged, Anglo-Saxon men --- a place with no restraint, no laws, no ties to bind.
§ § §
I don't tell my two companions about the stands of redwoods passing us on either side. I won't let them know until we get safely through the border, beyond the Land of the Visionary Madmen, away from the Californes --- the mythic wild women of unbound lust and huge size --- into the Land of the Pragmatic they call North America. I will not reveal the depth of the vision until we make the last miles home, out of this bone-dry madhouse that stirs us with its grand lack of fecundity, with its plethora of visions. We do not brake for hallucinations.
We --- all of us seers who journey to the south (and there have been far too many of us) --- should not be frightening the innocents, those who lack the romantic lunacy of the Don Quixotes of Baja. We must protect them from the dreams that have stormed us on our journeys: visions of gods, visions of salvation, visions of tall, kind, trusting Indians (stark, staring naked). Visions of passion, visions of wide, white, open beaches, sweet, turquoise waters pouring out of a bone-dry and dusty earth, and --- not the least --- visions of huge, wet, dark, towering, ever-so-quiet, redwoods. Apparitions out of the Land of Ultimate Projection.
Baja: the last refuge of such innocence --- the last hope of the servants of God, as well as the servants of lust which are, most probably, grown from the same root-system. Even the original inhabitants were not spared such lunacy. With all their sensibility about the foods of nature and the shelters of stone, the Indians also were gifted with a touch of the Baja Head Balmies. As Fr. Bægert reported, (certainly the most acute and stolid observer of the land, good burgher that he was):
some of my parishioners believed themselves to be descendants of a bird, others of a stone which was lying not far from my house, while others dreamed of something different along the same lines.
Each dream in turn was more absurd and more foolish than the other. Each dream. More absurd, more foolish --- than all the others. The Truth of Baja. The land of the visionaries and madmen; and, ultimately, the lunacy of all of us.--- C.A. AmanteaREFERENCES
- Observations in Lower California, by Johann Jakob Bægert, S. J. University of California Press; 1952.
- Dario, The Journal of Padre Serra, translated by Ben. F. Dixon. Don Diego's Libreria, San Diego, California; 1964.
- The Forgotten Peninsula, by Joseph Wood Krutch. University of Arizona; 1986.
- The Magnificent Peninsula, by Jack Williams. H. J. Williams, Box 203, Sausalito, California; 1987.