La Ventana Stories

Welcome!

La Ventana Stories, an ongoing series of write-ups, started in December 2018, about the history and the happenings of La Ventana Bay and the surrounding region. Contributed by seasonally resident authors, look for a new story every few weeks during the windy season.

John Steinbeck in Baja (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of this story first, if you haven’t already. Onward…

The crew was anxious to port in La Paz. Their encounter with ragged little St. Lucas had been disappointing.

Cape St. Lucas had not really been a town, and our crew had convinced itself that it had been a very long time out of touch with civilization…. In addition, there is a genuine fascination with of the city of La Paz. Everyone in the area knows the greatness of La Paz. You can get anything in the world there… (and) a cloud of delight hangs over the distant city from the time when it was the great pearl center of the world.

Steinbeck noted that the La Paz pearl oyster drew men from all over the world.

And, as in all concentrations of natural wealth, the terrors of greed were let loose on the city again and again.

In Chapter 11, he recounts a cautionary folk tale about the greed associated with finding a massive pearl. The story became the catalyst for his novella, The Pearl, published in 1945, in which an impoverished pearl diver finds a huge pearl. “The Pearl of the World” promises to transform his life. It does, but not in the way one might expect.

By 1936, a century of rampant overfishing of oyster beds had depleted natural stocks to the point where recovery was unlikely. To cap it off, an unknown disease then spread rapidly through the remaining oysters, virtually wiping them out. By the time Steinbeck arrived, the glory days of Mexican pearling were over.

During several days of collecting, the crew was joined by a rag-tag rabble of young boys seeking adventure. Steinbeck rewarded them with 10 centavo pieces for specimens they collected. Even if creatures captured by these budding marine biologists were too mangled to be useful, Steinbeck paid them anyway.

On departure early on March 23, Steinbeck pondered:

We wondered why so much of the gulf was familiar to us, why this town had a ‘home’ feeling. We had never seen a town which even looked like La Paz, and yet coming to it was like returning rather than visiting. Some quality there is in the Gulf that trips a trigger of recognition so that in that fantastic and exotic scenery one finds oneself nodding and saying inwardly, ‘Yes, I know.’

What followed were many collecting stops as the Western Flyer motored up the ever-fascinating coast—San José Island, Puerto Escondido and Loreto.

We were eager to see (Loreto), for it was the first successful settlement on the peninsula (1697), and its church is the oldest mission of all. Here the inhospitality of Lower California had finally been conquered and a colony had taken root in the face of hunger and mishap.

The crew visited the tumbled-down mission.

The Virgin Herself, Our Lady of Loreto, was in a glass case and surrounded by the lilies of the recently passed Easter. In the dim light of the chapel she seemed very lovely. Perhaps she is gaudy (but) she has not the look of smug virginity so many have—the ‘I-am-the-Mother-of-Christ’ look—but rather there was a look of terror in her face, of the Virgin Mother of the world and the prayers of so many people heavy on her.

After several collection stops, the expedition motored into the deep pocket of Concepción Bay, forgoing the opportunity to visit Mulegé.

We had no plan for stopping there, for the story is that the port charges are mischievous and ruinous…. Also there may be malaria….

The northward journey continued past French-flavored Santa Rosalia. The French company El Boleo founded the town in 1884 and exploited copper mines there until they closed in 1954. The company built houses and installed the metallic Iglesia de Santa Bárbara, which is said to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1897. (wikipedia)

The Route (image source)

Perhaps the most spectacular scenery encountered in the Upper Gulf proved to be Bahía de Los Ángeles. The 25-square mile bay is surrounded by 15 islands.

The Coast Pilot had not mentioned any settlement, but here there were new buildings, screened and modern, and on a tiny airfield a plane sat. It was an odd feeling, for we had been a long time without seeing anything modern. Our feeling was more of resentment than of pleasure.

The expedition now turned its attention to the mainland coast of the Gulf, crossing just above the massive Tiburon Island, bound for the mainland city of Guaymas.

Arriving in Guaymas on April 5, Steinbeck noted:

At La Paz and Loreto, the Gulf and the town were one, inextricably bound together, but here at Guaymas, the railroad and the hotel had broken open that relationship…Guaymas seems to be outside the boundaries of the Gulf.

On route to a few remaining collection points before the Western Flyer would need to motor quickly back to Monterey at the end of its charter, Steinbeck and crew encountered the Japanese shrimping fleet, consisting of a 10,000-ton mother ship and 11 dredge boats of 150-175 feet.

They were doing a very systematic job, not only of taking every shrimp from the bottom, but every other living thing as well. They cruised slowly along in echelon with overlapping dredges, literally scraping the bottom clean.

Steinbeck would be dismayed to learn that fishing practices such as this continue today. Many marine ecologists doubt the Gulf, famously dubbed “The Aquarium of the World” by Jacque Cousteau, can continue to sustain it rich biodiversity. The Gulf is home to 950 species of fish, 100 of which are found nowhere else. The world’s most endangered marine mammal, a small porpoise called vaquita, lives in the Upper Gulf. At present, only 7% of the Gulf is protected and 0.5% is devoted to “no take” zones.

John Steinbeck

(Author’s Note: from Edible Baja Arizona “In the 1940s, shrimp trawling emerged; foreign fleets maneuvered up the Gulf with bottom trawlers in their wake, scraping up eight inches of ocean floor to find just one fish. The bycatch rate for these trawlers continues to hover around 85 percent—that is, for every 100 pounds of seafood caught, 85 of it is left on a boat deck to die. Virtually all the Gulf’s sandy bottoms have now been dredged by Japanese and Korean trawlers….” )

As the Western Flyer rounded the Cape,

…a crazy literary thing happened…there was one great clap of thunder, and immediately we hit the great swells of the Pacific and the wind freshened against us. The water took on a gray tone….

The real picture of how it had been there and how we had been there was in our minds, bright with sun and wet with sea water…. Here was no service to science, no naming of unknown animals, but rather—we simply liked it. We liked it very much. The brown Indians and the gardens of the sea, and the beer and the work, they were all one thing and we were that one thing too.

John Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1962. He died in 1968 at age 66.


Details about Lorin’s two recent books—The 13: Ashi-niswi (2018) and Tales from The Warming (2017)—are available at lorinwords.com

John Steinbeck in Baja (Part 1)

In 1940, author John Steinbeck took a breather from writing fiction—he had just published Grapes of Wrath (1939)—and ventured on a six-week, 4,000-mile expedition down the Pacific Coast of Baja and into and up what is now more commonly called the Gulf of California. Steinbeck and long-time marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts leased the Western Flyer, a 76-foot sardine boat out of Monterey.

The result was a work of non-fiction, The Sea of Cortez (1941)—a 600-page pioneering treatise focusing on the intertidal or shoreline (littoral) ecology of Baja. Steinbeck published The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a more accessible preface to the much larger work, in 1951.

Here, in this two-part article, we focus not on marine invertebrates, but Steinbeck’s philosophical musings and observations of Baja in this pre-WWII era.

Pulitzer-prize winning author John Steinbeck had a “thing” about Baja. Born in Salinas, CA, in 1902, the Salinas Valley, Monterey and the Pacific Coast—about 25 miles distant—would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. The location also sparked a deep and abiding interest in marine biology, enhanced as a young man after he took a course on general zoology in 1923.

His first major success came in 1935 with Tortilla Flat, stories about Monterey’s paisanos. Two of his best known and most powerful novels followed: Of Mice and Men (1937) and Grapes of Wrath (1939). And there were dozens more including Cannery Row (1945) and his monumental East of Eden (1952), the saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family history.

In 1940, however, Steinbeck took a breather from fiction and ventured on a six-week, 4,000-mile expedition down the Pacific Coast of Baja and into and up what is now more commonly called the Gulf of California. Steinbeck and long-time marine biologist friend Ed Ricketts leased the Western Flyer, a 76-foot sardine boat out of Monterey.

The result was a work of non-fiction, The Sea of Cortez (1941)—a 600-page pioneering treatise focusing on the intertidal or shoreline (littoral) ecology of Baja. Steinbeck published The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a more accessible preface to the much larger work, in 1951.

This exciting day-by-day account of their expedition combines science, philosophy and high-spirited adventure—providing a much fuller picture of Steinbeck and his beliefs about humans and the world. In addition, the book provides interesting and valuable insights into the history of Baja just prior to the outbreak of World War II.

Continue reading “John Steinbeck in Baja (Part 1)”

The Coral Reefs of La Ventana Bay

Below the vast blue mirror of Ventana Bay lives a variety of flora and fauna, what the locals call “silvestre” or the “wild”. At the core of this diverse ecosystem are the rocky coral reefs that dot our beautiful coast line. While our predominantly finger-based coral may not provide as colorful a display as seen in coral colonies throughout the Caribbean, these shallow, rock-based reefs provide a critical habitat for a diverse array of life that have called Ventana Bay “home” long before we did.

Baby fish or “juveniles” seek protection and sustenance in these shallow reef systems and adult turtles come in for rest and nourishment. Slow-growing coral colonies are nurseries not only to fish, but to crustaceans, star fish, sea urchins, clams, sea anemones and a host of other critters that hold a symbiotic relationship with their living host. Mary Sim, a local snorkeler living in the area since 1987 and a full-time since resident 1998, recalls in one snorkel session, “logging over 95 varieties of fish on one reef.” Continue reading “The Coral Reefs of La Ventana Bay”

Discovering the Great Cave Murals of Baja

Jesuit Padre Joseph Maxiáno Rotheax gazed in surprise and wonder at the ceiling and back wall of the underside of the huge cliff. Staring back at him were a series of life-sized or larger than life-sized human figures standing with arms outstretched, feet wide apart. They were virtually neckless. The heads of many were decorated with several forms of headdress. Most of the figures were neatly split down the middle—one side painted in reddish pigment; the other in black. Some were depicted as having been shot with one or more arrows.

Most of the Monos appear to have been wounded with arrows—another common feature of the cave paintings. The best archeologists can surmise is the obvious—these are battle scenes. (San Borjitas, Photo by Lorin Robinson)

In addition to these apparitions, the cave contained simple but lifelike representations of mammals, birds and sea life. Based on evidence of extensive overpainting and faded pigments, Rotheax assumed the drawings were of great age.

Two beautifully rendered deer. In addition to human figures, the caves are festooned with mammals and marine life. Note the overpainting and fading indicating great age. (La Palmarita, Photo by Lorin Robinson)

Rotheax’s visit to this painted cave in the Sierra de San Francisco mountains of central Baja took place on an unknown date in the late 1760s, shortly before all Jesuit missionaries to the peninsula were recalled when the order was expelled from Spain. He had heard from Cochimi natives he served in San Ignacio of many caves reputedly painted by a race of giants who had migrated to the region from the north centuries earlier. Since many of the paintings are 20-30 feet above the floors of these cliff overhangs, known in Spanish as respaldos, the Cochimi believed that they could only have been created by giant artists.

His native informants claimed their people had nothing to do with the drawings; that, as far as was known, they were there before the Cochimi came to the region. They had no idea what they meant or how they were made. Continue reading “Discovering the Great Cave Murals of Baja”

Fact-checking the “Gustave Eiffel” El Triunfo Chimney Story

Fact checking has become a major industry. The focus is primarily political as legions of fact-checkers try to ascertain the “truthiness” of politicians’ pronouncements. But, other “facts” need checking, too.

In my recent article The Eiffel Chimney & Mining Museum of El Triunfo, I parroted the common wisdom that French engineer Gustave Eiffel—he of Eiffel Tower fame—designed El Triunfo’s iconic 10-story high chimney, built in 1890. But, despite numerous citations to that effect on-line, the reality is that Eiffel’s involvement in the design of the chimney is questionable.

Unfortunately, this is a “fact” that’s difficult to check for lack of original source material. One of the most persuasive citations in favor comes from a 2008 report to the Geographic Society of America outlining an archeological study conducted in El Triunfo:

“El Triunfo, like other mining communities, utilized some of the most advanced industrial technology of the 19th century, including La Ramona, 35-meter-high smokestack designed by Gustav Eiffel, renowned engineer and designer of the Eiffel Tower….”

But no primary source material was cited.

Two readers—both of whom have studied the history of the chimney—let me know they have been unable to find any support the claim. And a sign posted on a fence surrounding the base of the chimney—placed there as part of the recent restoration project—calls the Eiffel story a myth.

“Although we don’t know specifically who designed it, we do know that it was NOT Gustave Eiffel as a local myth has had it for years; there is no record of the structure in the Eiffel archives in France.”

If the story is not true, an interesting question remains: who created the myth and why?

A Brief History of the Founding of La Ventana (II)

Introduction

In Part 1 (see Part 1 here),  Cortés landed on Cerralvo, and named the island Santiago. Vizcaino tried to found a settlement here. Now, a century later, we meet Francisco de Ortega who visited our bay three times. Evidence suggests he landed here, befriended the Indians, and reported on their customs. An ingenious and politically astute person, he carried a new machine to aid in the search for pearls. Ortega and crew were marooned when their ship broke to pieces on the rocks north of Punta Gorda.

Part 2 —   The Voyages of Francisco de Ortega to La Ventana Bay  1632-1636

Kcuhc and Ykceb left camp at dawn. They had work to do on a trail to Cerro del Puerto (Pericú sacred mountain west of El Sargento). They hiked up a narrow arroyo past red-billed colibrís  (hummingbirds) feeding on the blossoms of a plant hanging from the arroyo’s south wall. On the opposite side, abejas (bees) worked on honeycomb inside a rock alcove.

At a mojón de roca (rock cairn), the trailblazers climbed to a ridge where a giant, old, gray-top cactus stood. Its multitude of tall columns towered high above their heads. They had used rebanadas (slices) cut from young gray-tops to treat stingray wounds. But the tribe was in awe of this old gray-top. It was one of several natural landmarks created by Niparaja throughout the Cunimniici  (Pericú word for mountain range, the Cacachilas and others of Baja Sur) to guide them to water, shelters, and sacred sites. The ancestors had left other landmarks on the sides of giant boulders: images of animals, humans, hands, and geometric figures.

Old Gray-Top Cactus Marking Trail to Cerro del Puerto

 

Landmark on Boulder in Cacachilas above La Ventana

 

 *****

A century after Cortés’ voyage to the Baja peninsula, Martín de Lezama, an accountant in Mexico City, and son-in-law of Vizcaíno, wanted to try his suerte (luck) in California. After the Viceroy of New Spain, the 3rd Marquis of Cerralvo, approved his plans, Lezama hired carpenters and shipwrights, and took everyone to a place on the Pacific coast with good access to timber to build his ship. However, after the Crown ordered the Viceroy to halt further exploration of California until he could determine if colonization was advisable, Lezama found “the inhospitable land and the many mosquitoes,” not to his liking. He abandoned the project, and returned, leaving everyone else stranded.

Continue reading “A Brief History of the Founding of La Ventana (II)”

The Eiffel Chimney & Mining Museum of El Triunfo

Update: despite numerous citations to that effect on-line, the reality is that Eiffel’s involvement in the design of the chimney is questionable. Read here an updated “fact-check” of this article – Lorin.

Here’s a trivia question that’s likely to stump all players: What do the most famous landmark in Paris, the Statue of Liberty and the 115-foot high smelting chimney looming over El Triunfo have in common? The answer—Gustav Eiffel, the famed 19th architect and civil engineer whose best-known creation is his tower in Paris. It’s not widely known, however, that Eiffel had a world-wide reputation and designed structures all over the globe.

Eiffel Chimney, El Triunfo

Eiffel’s wrought-iron tower, completed in 1889, is the most visited attraction in the world with almost seven million tourists ascending to one of three levels on the 1,063 foot structure in 2015.

The Statue of Liberty was a joint effort between France and the United States intended to commemorate the friendship between the peoples of the two nations. The French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi created the statue itself out of sheets of hammered copper, while Eiffel designed the statue’s steel framework. It was dedicated in 1886 and remains one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks.

In contrast, the towering “La Ramona” chimney in El Triunfo is little known outside of Southern Baja. Continue reading “The Eiffel Chimney & Mining Museum of El Triunfo”

A Brief History of the Founding of La Ventana (I)

Part 1 —  Early Visitors to La Ventana Bay

Time: 10,000 years BCE.     Location:  The bluffs above the shores of present day La Ventana and El Sargento.     Sea Level: 300 feet lower than the present.     At dawn’s first light, the men followed a  well-worn path east through grasslands to fish and gather sea food from the shore.  They arrived at sunrise, and two youths floated rafts a short distance to the island to hunt for seals and turtles.  The women finished gathering the last of the acorns from the live oak woodland where they had camped for the past moon.  While they crushed them between metate and mano, they discussed moving camp  to the base of the mountains where  pitahaya were ready to harvest.

A young girl approached the small band’s oldest and most respected member, and asked her a question:  where did our people come from?   The elderly woman repeated the story she had learned from her mother:  Many winters ago to the west, just before dawn on the shortest day of the season, Niparaja descended from the sky on the three stepping stars that mark the hunter’s waist.  He stood on Cerro Del Puerto, our sacred mountain,  and created all that we need to survive. Pericú is the name he gave us. It means The People.   [Niparaja = Pericu deity,   Cerro Del Puerto = highest peak  west of La Ventana (4134 ft.)]

*****

Location:  Pericú gathering place a day’s journey north of Punta Gorda.     The Pericú women gathering seeds on a knoll above the shore stared in disbelief.  A gigantic raft had just drifted into the bay.  It made the balsas their men propelled with double-bladed paletas look like twigs floating in a tide pool. One woman sounded the alarm.  [ balsas =  rafts made by binding reeds or  light tree trunks together,   paletas = paddles ]

Pericú Women — Sketched by George Shelvocke, an English privateer who visited the Cape Region during the early 18th century.

 

Fortún Ximénez, and his fellow  mutineers dropped ancla and went a tierra in the mythical land of California, first imagined in a popular 16th century novel. They were the first Europeans to set foot on the Baja California peninsula.  Some would  be the first to die there. [ancla = anchor,  a tierra = ashore]

The Spaniards came ashore to find water. When they saw the women, they knew  they would find una fuente  nearby. The sailors whistled and joked as they approached the group who watched the extraños with apprehension.     [ fuente = source,    extraños = strangers ]

This will be más fácil  than slitting Becerra’s throat and commandeering the ship, Fortún thought to himself.  Cortés had sent Becerra  to look for an expedition that had vanished without a trace. Fortún was an exceptional pilot, but he didn’t like taking orders. He preferred looking for the island of pearls described in the popular novel. For many Spaniards in 1533, that was evidencia enough that it existed.    [ más fácil = easier,    evidencia = evidence ]

The Pericú men appeared without warning.   What they saw angered them.  Arrows were already nocked in their bowstrings.  But it was the strings of pearls around their necks that distracted the sailors. They missed the signal the Pericú leader gave to kill the crude intruders.  Before Fortún could react, una flecha pierced his heart, and twenty of the crew would soon be muerto. The survivors escaped to the ship. They sailed home with tales of pearls that spawned new expeditions, some that would never be heard from again.            [ flecha = arrow,  muerto = dead ]

Continue reading “A Brief History of the Founding of La Ventana (I)”