Senior Seminar, Part II
Ziegler crunched his way determinedly into the darkness, through the scraggly underbrush and over the berm in search of Laura and the soon-to-be-legendary fish.
Pam folder her arms tiredly as the fire light danced across her face. The cool night air felt suddenly hot on my face as I felt the urgent, desperate need to monitor every minute detail of the fire.
“Where are Dave and the others?” she asked.
Now it was my turn to make things worse. “They’re getting more wood. For the fire,” I answered. Pam rolled her eyes at the small mountain of sticks nearby.
“Why aren’t you where I left you?” she said, changing the subject only slightly.
El Desemboque. Our second morning in Mexico began much like the first, sans the drunken Federales. Everyone was exhausted: by the journey, by the cultural, climactic and geographical shock. The sweet sea air, however inviting, could only ionize us to a point. Nobody wanted to stir from our spot on the beach.
Why would we? Painfully blue skies, without a hint of clouds, hovered over the massive reflecting pond of the Sea of Cortez, which in turn sang its lightly-churning shore song accompanied by a choral of seagulls and pelicans. We luxuriated in our communal isolation beneath the perfectly-set-thermostat of the sun.
For the first time our little band operated completely on our own. In spite of the time spent getting to this sun-baked beach I didn’t really know these people.
Think of the young woman who played the role of Jack on Pitch Black then you can imagine Laura, except that Laura didn’t shave her head or try to pass as a boy. Wiry and tough-talking but fun.
Sue was quieter, shorter, sturdier, than Laura and as surprised as anyone to find herself on this adventure.
Barb was a dark-haired, olive-skinned girl with a brilliant smile. She was quiet; rarely injected herself into the group discussions and mostly kept to herself.
Kathy was the rule-letter-follower with long, straight straw-colored hair. Right down the line.
Vince imagined himself an intellectual stoner. I imagined he was far more talk but some of his stories were educational.
Ray was much like Kathy. Painfully honest and someone to count on in a pinch, so long as said pinch didn’t rely on deception, in any form to any degree.
Kevin played football and had probably faced a lot of “would you like fries with that” in his future.
Dave was a tall La Crosse player with a great humor. He spoke a small amount of Spanish.
After reviewing the scheduled breakfast menu, Pam made an executive decision. She headed into the village to buy some fresh eggs. The freeze-dried food could wait.
The girls on the team went together to test their most important acquisition for the trip: Dr. Bonner’s salt-water soap (that is, works in salt water, not made of). They would, they vowed, bring a smidgen of civility to the desert operation by washing their hair daily in the sea, thanks to Dr. Bonner’s miracle soap.
While it was true that the soap did, in fact, lather up in their hair, rinsing presented a different set of issues altogether. The stuff just wouldn’t come out. The girls returned from the sea embarrassed and defeated, their hair matted into Gordian knots. It would be bandanas for all, from that point on.
Our day’s objective was the summit of Tepopa, five miles south and two thousand feet up. We would spend the night at the summit. However, by the time breakfast was over the morning was burned to a stub. That peak looked very, very far away.
“Too bad we can’t take the fishing boats,” I joked.
Kevin, though, picked up the theme as a solution, not a joke. He pressed Pam to make a deal with the fishermen, growing increasingly animated at the idea.
Indeed, it seemed that every time we looked, Tepopa loomed even farther in the distance. Fortunately for us it stood directly above the sea. If we hired the boats we’d be at the base of the mountain in no time.
We pooled our remaining cash then Pam and a couple of others went off to negotiate. The haggling was challenging because of the very limited Spanish skills of our delegation but a deal was struck, to the immense relief of all. We scooped up our packs and boarded two of the Indian fishing boats.
These were wooden boats, unpainted like the fishermen’s homes, crafted narrow and long, Evenrude outboard engines clamped to the stern. Not much more than inflamed canoes, really, but everything we needed.
We raced over the waves, salt water splashing us sometimes. In the other boat Kevin became suddenly extremely animated, waving and shouting and pointing down into the water. Later he would recount (frequently) how a dolphin had swum up to him as he looked over the bow – nearly nose-to-nose.
Tepopa. Very soon the boats pulled ashore at the foot, literally, of Tepopa. As we disembarked the fishermen began to insist that we cheated them and they wanted more money. More haggling but it was short and limited to our little bit of remaining cash which must have seemed a fortune to them.
Then we struck out for the summit.
Even with the boat ride we had to push hard up the mountain in order to reach our objective for the day. We grew hot and tired but moods remained high. As we moved from the scrub and cactus to the boulders, rocks and cactus of the mountain we donned jeans for protection. This was a smart move as we soon became intimately familiar with our Tepopa nemesis: the Cholla cactus.
Imagine the evil offspring of a genetic experiment merging a Kiwi fruit with a Porcupine. That’s the Cholla, if you took a hundred of those nasty needle-encrusted balls and linked them together. Fun fact: the Cholla needle-ball segments enjoy nothing better than to leap from the main plant and then embed as many needles as possible into a passing mammal at the slightest touch. They consider this the height of fun!
Walk past a Cholla and so much as brush a single needle from a single Kiwi-shaped segment and the entire segment leaps onto you and digs deep with as many needles as can reach your skin. Of course the needles point in every direction like a tiny cartoon world encrusted with an oversized missile defense system, making the little balls of pain very challenging to detach.
You want, very, very much, to grab the thing to pull it off but no. That would make things much worse.
Denim to the rescue.
I discovered that the fabric could be pulled away from the skin and, with a lot of pain and careful effort, pop the suckers off of the leg. Terrifically easy, as well, to impale one’s hands while trying to rescue some other part of the body.
Several of us tangled with the Cholla on the mountain. The wounds weren’t serious, even though it felt like a Lilliputian Ballistae attack.
Just below the summit some of the group had had enough for one day. There was some serious heated about our objective and what, exactly, would qualify as ticking that particular box. Ultimately it didn’t matter. Three refused to continue.
The rest of us finished the boulder-scramble to the summit as the sun swooned towards the horizon. The view ran on forever in a blaze of dusk’s over-saturated colors. At the summit is an old ammo can containing the signatures of all the previous Seminar kids who had reached that same point. We happily added our names and dates to the list then returned to the balance of the team.
We spent the last bits of light clearing a sort of bivouac in a flat-ish area on the side of Tepopa. I kicked so many Chollas clear of the camp that my boots had a beard of needles. We camped cold that night – no signal fire to the rest of the Seminar people.
Sargento. The Sonora desert looks differently depending on your perspective. From above, it looks sparse and bare but from the ground you see that the vegetation is actually thick enough to make it difficult to see any distance. There is one place, at least, where the green is not an illusion and it was our next objective: a straight-up, no-nonsense hike from our camp site on Tepopa down to a little oasis named Sargento.
We learned a bit from our lazy morning the day before so we picked up the pace early to put some of the mountain behind us before the sun found us out.
Thanks to the fishermen, this was our first day of serious hiking and we were hot. We discussed the possible techniques for extracting water from a cactus. One thought was to suck on the meat of the plant.
Vince pulled out his Bowie knife and carefully sliced open a cactus standing about four feet tall. Inside was white and juicy. Everybody sampled a chunk and agreed that it tasted exactly like a raw potato. Not yummy but it would be suitable in an emergency.
One of the items on the grocery list for our team was Wiler’s, a drink mix which went in our IV bottles to cover any lingering peanut-oil flavor. It really made a difference.
Not much chance of getting lost on this leg: go South and downhill until you reach the sea. We grew increasingly hot and tired. The distance never seemed to shrink.
Then we broke through the forest of cacti to find ourselves suddenly running to the water.
I hate to say it but we acted just like every lost-in-the-desert movie: we ran, shedding gear along the way then flung ourselves into the water with a huge ruckus. It wasn’t planned but we could not in any way resist.
The Sargento area is a tiny dot on the Sonora coast. It has a dab of actual greenery, a small estuary, some terrific sand dunes and a speck of an island that is connected via sandbar at low tides. I suppose it bears mentioning that between Bahia de Kino and El Desemboque, a distance of some 60 miles, there is effectively no population.
Three different modules awaited every team at Sargento: marine biology, island survival, and solo. Every team would pop in for a module then move out to a different location. All but one. We had drawn our Sargento modules in a block, keeping us at base camp for an extended stay. What could go wrong?
Pam drilled her angry laser-eyes into Ray and I but the only response to her question was more fire-crackling. I was about to (provide a weak, partial) answer when Ziegler walked back from the water’s edge.
In his hands were four salmon. Four juicy, fresh-from-the-sea salmon that we had been charged with protecting. We had failed and would now go (even more) hungry as a result.
A defeated Laura sulked to the fire and then slumped to the ground.