Botanical distinctions are the first thing to go. "When you're done with the peaches, please pass them to the next table," says Teresa, the assistant cook, as she serves us a stainless steel bowl filled with canned pears. It's been happening in these waters since Vizcaino. When he sighted the biggest island off the west coast of Baja, he named it Isla de los Cedros after the jack pines that fringe its summit. Strange things happen in the Baja Triangle.
[quoteright]Walt, who is sitting at my table, is whiling away the idle time with chess problems. He had an inner-ear operation some time ago, which left him with what he calls "special effects." Lines, such as the ones on the chessboard, go wavy now and then. But now that we are inside the Baja Triangle, he can't find a wavy line to save his life.
He probably saved our lives the other day. We were ashore on West San Benito and had been drenched in a downpour. Sopping wet, we went back to the beach early. The skiffs were gone and weren't due back for hours. We might have caught our deaths if Walt hadn't had the inspiration to rummage around in the nearby trash midden for lifesaving gear. The trash midden of a Mexican fishing camp is about the last place in the world you'd expect to find a tennis-ball can, but find one he did. Then he found a short piece of garden hose. "Perfect," he pronounced, "it still has the coupling on it." The garden hose was even less likely than the tennis-ball can. There's no water on the islands except what the fishermen bring over from Cedros in five-gallon cans, let alone gardens.
Walt inserted the cut end of the hose into the can and aimed the open end of the can at Finalista, our mother ship, which was riding at anchor perhaps a mile across the water. "Used to play trombone in high school marching band," he explained, putting his lips to the coupling.
The improvised trumpet made a sound like the Loch Ness monster calling out to a mate that would never come, raucous, soulful, insistent. He did it a couple of times more until he got the hang of it. By that time, we could see a skiff being lowered and heading out toward us. By the time it beached, Walt had already mastered three notes. He kept on practicing in the skiff as we skimmed across the glossy water. "You never know when it might come in handy," he told me, relaxing his embouchure, "like for signaling to whales."
This lunch, Rosie is sitting across the table from me. She's a fraillooking sixtyish woman, with lipstick too gaudy for her, and it departs here and there from the lips proper. Rhinestone-studded harlequin glasses and a schoolmarmish pucker complete the effect. Ashore, she hikes around over jumbled volcanic rock in transparent plastic galoshes with high heels. Her sun shade is a rain hat made of the same plastic, with red plastic roses on the brim. She's the diametric opposite of rugged in a rugged place.
I never noticed her watch before. It doesn't have numbers on the dial just some kind of funny looking figures in red. I'm cocking my head to one side like a puppy at a clarinet recital, trying to get a better look - a bit too obviously.
"Would you like to take a look at my watch?" Her smile would sweeten a year's production of diet soft drinks. She unbuckles the wristband and passes the watch to me. I can't help blushing. Each hour is a couple locked in a different sexual position. "Isn't that nifty?" she coos, eyes atwinkle. "I saw it advertised in California Girls and I just had to have it."
Rosie is a crusader when at home. In her Southern California home town, the subdivisions are encroaching on the parched hills and canyons, destroying the habitat of the local wildlife. But she isn't concerned with just any old wildlife. Her special concern is the town's rattlesnake population. Every day, she goes down to the Planning Commission with a placard reading SAVE THE RATTLESNAKES and hangs out on the sidewalk in front, pamphletizing passersby. They call her "Rattlesnake Rosie." I wonder if the Planning Commission knows about her watch.
Paul hates spending all this time between islands. The boat makes only about twelve knots even when they pull out all the stops on the two big Caterpillar tractor diesels, so we spend a lot of time cruising on a thousand-mile trip. Paul is big on flying. "You could run this same kind of cruise," he says, "make all the same stops, and spend even more time ashore botanizing, if you used a seaplane instead of a sport-fishing boat. Like a PBY." I ask, "You know anybody who's got a used PBY for sale?" Paul is a real oddball. He's the only person I ever heard of who moved from the Bay Area to the Midwest.
"Maybe I could buy the Spruce Goose from Hughes." "Hell, why stop at Baja? With the Goose, you could take parties to the Galapagos in the time it takes this boat to go between islands." "I could tack on Easter Island and Pitcairn's, too." "And put Eric Lindblad out of business." "No, he's still got the Land Rover trips across the Sahara." "You could still put him out of business. Get used halftracks and put Afrika Korps caps on your drivers. Make 'em talk viss a Cherman ekzent. Stop overnight at Fort Zindernouf. If you can't find it, build something that looks like it." Where in God's name am I going to get used halftracks?" "From the same guy who sells the used PBYs." I notice that Hank's watch is identical to mine.
Hank is talking with the naturalist down at the aisle end of the table about the salt trade. Cedros Island, which we have just left, is the transshipping point for all the salt from the world's biggest saltworks at Guerrero Negro near the mouth of Scammon's Lagoon. It was built by Daniel K. Ludwig. When Hughes died, Ludwig was the only American billionaire left. The salt comes over to Cedros from the mainland on barges. They look like pyramids of diamond in a metallic blue sea-setting.
The ships that come from Japan to take on the salt cross the Pacific in fresh-water ballast. Before loading the salt, they pomp out their ballast into cisterns on the island. It's the only source of fresh water in these parts. The naturalist is talking. "So they take the water out in Japan and leave the salt behind, then ship the water 8000 miles across a body of saline solution we call the Pacific Ocean to a place where they take the salt out, leaving the water behind. Then they take the salt and ship it 8000 miles back across this body of saline solution to Japan. If that isn't fucked up, I don't know what is."
He says "fucked up" a little too vehemently and realizes it. He looks down the table to where Rosie is sitting, opposite me. Even Walt looks up from his chess problem to see what's happening. All eyes are riveted on Rosie. She just flashes a cherubic leer back at the naturalist. I'm sure he doesn't know the secret of her watch.
A tense silence ensues. I try to save the situation. "That sure is a nice-looking watch you have there," I say to Hank, laying my left arm out on the table so he can see that mine is identical to his. A little laughter is in order. It takes him only two seconds to get it. "I like yours, too," he says. "You want to trade? I just got mine at Christmas, and it's already gone haywire." What's wrong? "The calendar advanced two days yesterday. Today's the sixth of February, but it jumped from the fifth to the seventh." Jumped? I look at my watch. Mine says today is the seventh, too. It was a Christmas present, like his. What's going on? An icy finger of dread traces a cold path down my spine.
I look out the window of the galley to see the dark mass of Cedros glowering hull-down on the horizon. We're heading south into the heart of the Triangle. There are no wavy lines now, anywhere, not even in the sea. Anything could happen now, at any time, without warning. A tingling in the nape of my neck alerts me to a new presence. Someone is standing at the aisle end of the table. I turn back and look. It's Teresa.
"You done with the peaches?" she asks.
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