The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea
CHUENQUE BAY, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MONDAY, APRIL 4
A solitary autobús no larger than a sand flea jams gears and belches smoke as it crawls up the mountain and disappears on the single road to civilization. That’s my bus I am watching vanish. There won’t be another bus for twenty-four hours, if at all. When instinct and years of conditioning tell me to cry out — cry, “Stop! Wait! I’m coming with you!” — why do I hesitate? I look around me at the strangers upon whom my survival now depends and I realize I am not the only one having second thoughts. Why don’t they cry out? The only thing worse than being a fool is knowing that you have fallen into the hands of other fools.
Two days of hard traveling has delivered me to this remote, uninhabited, abruptly beautiful bay south of the small fishing village of Loreto and 150 miles north of La Paz. Chuenque Bay is the jumping-off place for the Southwest Outward Bound School’s thirteen-day sea kayaking course. In the morning we will load our kayaks and paddle south along the western shore of the Baja peninsula. We will camp on barren volcanic islands and sea-locked clear-water coves, wherever there is shelter or a place to land along this jagged coastline where the mountains of the great Sonoran Desert plunge into the Sea of Cortez. Except for a few tiny fishing villages accessible only by boat, nothing human has ever dented this fortress of nature. Having prepared for this trip by taking up jogging and cold turkeying alcohol and other drugs to which my hedonistic system has formed an alliance of two decades, I have wallowed now for several days in sanctimonious glory. Suddenly I feel apprehensive; I came here seeking a simple vehicle for escape, but as I behold the uneasy specter of my new companions and speculate on their motives, I experience a sinking sensation of an actor who has stumbled onto the wrong stage.
Our chief instructor, Ernest Tapley (always called Tap), calls our attention to a phenomenon in the sky: a blinding sun that has been absolute monarch slips behind towering peaks, simultaneously illuminating a full moon that appears as dramatically as the titles on a movie screen. “Many of you may never have seen this before,” Tap says, in a sing-song voice. I study the faces of my eight fellow Outward Bound (OB) students as they bustle around the campfire, a little too ready to go.
Until today, none of us had ever met. A big part of the trip is supposed to be learning to work with strangers against a hostile environment. The students come from Washington, California, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Connecticut, New York. There are two college students, a teacher, an architect, a bank-computer expert, a nurse, a man between jobs and wives,a rich girl on the bum, and me. All have paid $450 tuition plus transportation for the opportunity of experiencing thirteen days of hardship, deprivation, and danger. The youngest is 18 and, at 42, I am the oldest. Also, according to one theory, the best. Kurt Hahn, the crusty old headmaster who founded Outward Bound in Wales in 1941, did so after observing this apparent contradiction: studies of British merchant seamen shipwrecked and cast adrift demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, it was the older seamen who survived. Hahn concluded that the younger ones lacked a feel for wind and weather, and, more than that, a faith in their own inner resources. Hahn’s first OB course offered seamen thirty days of small-craft training, athletics, hard traveling by compass and chart, rescue training, and practical lessons in why you’d better trust your fellow man. That curriculum is not too different from the ones we’re offered. There are dozens of other OB courses we might have selected — mountaineering in Colorado, sailing off the coast of Maine, backpacking in the Big Bend or Gila Wilderness, white watering in Canada, cycling in Nova Scotia — but no doubt the reason each is here goes somewhere beyond logic. There is something in this confluence of sea and desert that transcends the visceral imperative of mere adventure. In contrast to the land, the sea is a shimmering, live storehouse, a silent world of plenty, a place to be loved and feared and finally to be dealt with. The sea is the reason we are all here.
Mark, a small Japanese American who works for a large Midwestern bank, tells me: “I could have gone to Europe for what this is costing. But what could I do in Europe? Hang around a bunch of old museums? I’m not interested in seeing something someone else did.” This is Mark’s second OB course. Mark’s teeth chatter as he speaks; he zips his windbreaker to the neck and burns his fingers attempting to pour coffee into his tin OB-issue cup. “Maybe we’re all crazy,” says Frank, a tall, wire-haired young man who has LA written all over him and snaps his fingers when he talks. “Hey, man, you’re from Austin! All right! Where it’s at!” Four of the nine students are female and Frank has already connected with the prettiest, a student from Connecticut named Carla. Carla says she wants to prove something to the people back home. Barbi, a tall, thin nurse from Cleveland, replies that the only person she has to prove anything to is herself. Linda, a chubby twenty-year-old rich girl from Virginia, says she is here because it’s real, because she’s sick of people copping out. Ann, a large-boned blonde schoolteacher, believes that by exposing herself to the external pressures of this environment, an inner self will emerge, some being she has lived with but never met.
Frank, Barbi, and Linda supervise the preparation of a thin, underseasoned, meatless stew (Linda doesn’t eat meat, and anyway, there’s not any), then we gather in a circle and listen as Tap outlines the course. Tap is a taciturn, superbly conditioned, remarkably capable man of 52, a sort of wilderness philosopher with a weathered face, gentle eyes, and an easy rapport with nature. A good look at Tap’s face suggests he probably hasn’t slept under a roof in four decades. He explains that for the next thirteen days we will move down the coast, learning various skills and gaining confidence in our abilities. After the first week we’ll each do a 48-hour solo without food or equipment, and shortly after that the instructors will abandon the group to find its own way back to civilization. As each day seems harder, Tap is telling us, it’s really getting easier. “You’ll do things you never believed you could do,” Tap says, lighting his Popeye corncob pipe. “You’ll learn your own capabilities, and you’ll learn to work with others, and maybe the best of yourselves will come out. What we want you to take back is not a feeling of the ocean or the mountains, but a feeling about yourselves and others. It’s my experience that as the stress increases, so does compassion.”
Well, it’s late. Tap will have us up at first light, running down the beach. I find my sleeping bag and turn it around to shade my eyes from the brilliance of the moon, accidentally discovering that this position offers more protection from the wind and blowing sand. I lie on my back, thinking of a better me and listening to the waves against the rocks. From somewhere on the other side of the grove I can hear Barbi, the nurse, talking to Linda, the rich girl. Barbi has decided to quit her job in Cleveland and move to Salt Lake City. Linda says she can hardly wait to go running down the beach at first light and asks that Barbi please call her Meriwether in recognition of the fact that explorer Meriwether Lewis was her fourth great uncle.
Dear God, what am I in for!
History may record this as the sorriest day of my life. I hope so. I’d settle for that in a second, knowing that it was all downhill from here.
Was it only eight miles that we paddled today? All I know is that translates into seven back-breaking hours — fighting currents and three-foot swells and imminent danger of capsizing, which, miraculously, no one did. There is a hot well of pain where my soldiers once connected to my neck, and my lower back feels pulverized. I can’t turn my head without turning my entire body. My arms and face are sunburned, my lips cracked. In my haste to load the kayak this morning I failed to adjust the rudder peddle properly: for seven hours the only way I kept from capsizing was to hyperextend my left leg, which is now totally paralyzed. When our team of four singles and one double kayak beaches for the night in a sheltered cove below the cliffs of Candeleros Point, I have to be helped out of the cockpit. When I try to put weight on my left foot, nothing is there. Tap says I probably pinched a nerve. He assures me the feeling should return in a few days.
The nine students have been divided into two groups of what the instructors feel to be equal strength and ability. Except for one chance encounter, we won’t see the other group again until the last day. Our instructors, Tap and his associate, Liz Nichols, make the kayak assignments. Since I am the largest and therefore presumably the strongest, I have been assigned the rear cockpit of the double, behind Barbi, who was presumed falsely to be the weakest in our group of four. This was a mistake in judgment: Barbi could hold her own in a Marine platoon. It was Mark, the flyweight Japanese American banker, who fell behind today. The fourth student in our group, Meriwether, is surprisingly strong for a chubby rich girl. Meriwether has the lungs of a drill instructor. I couldn’t hear what she kept yelling back at poor Mark, but judging from his pained expression it had something to do with Pearl Harbor. I’m not particularly enchanted with Barbi, either. All I saw all day was the back of her life jacket and down-turned sailor’s cap, but as I implored my aching, numbing leg to execute one more hard left rudder, her whiny, nursey voice kept repeating: “You’re overcompensating again.”
But now the day has ended: despite the loss of one leg, I feel refreshingly whole. We hug the fire, finishing the pan-friend cabrilla (a sort of rock bass) that Tap caught while the rest of us were locating firewood. We study the constellations and listen to Tap’s stories about serving with the famous 10th Mountain Division in World War II. Barbi finds it necessary to bring up The Bomb. “That seems so far away,” Mark observes. Maybe so, Barbi answers, but if they do drop it, she’d just as soon be right under it. I fall asleep thinking of The Bomb hurtling down on Cleveland.
Gulls squawk like teenagers showing off a new stereo. The only sounds are the gulls and the scraping of tennis shoes as we jog along the rocky beach at first light. There is that surreal sky again, only now it’s reversed: the sun is an overture in orange as it scales the backside of Monserrate Island across the way, and the moon hangs like a melting wafer above the protective cliffs of our cove. Formations of rock, some as large as office buildings, squat in the clear green water. Along the beach are bleached bones, a large shark, a manta ray, a dead burro.
Before breakfast, we undergo another test by swimming out beyond the rocks to Liz’ waiting kayak, then returning to shore. There is a magic moment as we observe three dolphins leap in unison, three bodies completely clearing the water in a spontaneous ballet.
After breakfast, without being told, I adjust my kayak rudder in preparation for a lesson in sea-rescue techniques. Later, we carry our diving bags to a rocky point, wiggle into our wet suits, and enter another world. We glide effortlessly on the surface, breathing through snorkels, observing incredible varieties and numbers of fish that take no notice of our intrusion as they feed among the undersea caves and boulders. Tap and Liz demonstrate how to dive for scallops, which appear like great crusted biscuits on the rocks below. While we tread water, Tap pries open a shell and offers me a raw scallop the size of a hockey puck. It tastes salty, clean, and good. I choke on it as a wave washes over my face. When we are able to go deeper, we locate giant lobsters lurking below shelves of rock. Even inside our we suits, the water is soon uncomfortably cold — 63 degrees, Tap informs us. Tap sends us back to warm up on the shore while he spears three large fish for dinner.
Late in the afternoon Harry and Libby Frishman and some other people from the OB base camp arrive in the Zodiac, a motorized rubber raft. They have brought along a fresh pineapple and have caught a bonito to augment the feast tonight. The bottom of an overturned kayak serves as our banquet table as we dine on fresh lobster with lime butter, raw and broiled scallops, rock crabs, fish cakes, smoked bonito, and Tap’s indescribable skillet biscuits with honey. “These are the moments you’ll remember,” Liz says. Liz is one of those rare young women who find it very awkward to think of themselves as beautiful. She might think of herself as strong, or capable, or even graceful, but beautiful is something with a lot of teeth and hair on the cover of Glamour. A new Buick is beautiful. Forming a mental picture of Liz in a dress, or a bra, or carrying a parasol, or shaving under her arms is as incongruous as imagining a frisky colt pulling a Budweiser wagon. Like all the Outward Bound women I have met (the instructors, not the students), Liz seems fresh and natural, at peace with herself and her surroundings.
Tap wakes us up as soon as the moon clears Monserrate Island. He wants to get away early, while the sea is warm and calm. By 3 a.m. we have loaded our kayaks and are paddling south. It seemed cold when we climbed out of our sleeping bags, but now we discover a curious temperature reversal as a slight tail wind fans the trapped solar heat of the sea and pushes us along. This temperature reversal is especially apparent each time we pass along a cove or inlet and smell the sweet, fresh, cold air pressing down from the desert canyons. When mariners spoke of smelling the land long before they saw it, it must have been this smell.
Mark is riding with me now, in the front of the double, and we move along easily, listening to the clean sounds of our paddles and the nocturnal barking of sea lions from the direction of the island well off to our left. The moon is bright enough to read by. We land on a boulder-strewn beach with hardly a place smooth or level enough to lay out a sleeping bag, but we are too tired to care. When Tap wakes us again, the sun is already high. We can see Monserrate clearly now. It appears on the horizon as a slumbering dragon, but Tap points to a ribbon of deep blue water four or five miles offshore and tells us that we might expect wind. Using the island as a reference point, we plot our position on the chart: we are about halfway between Candeleros and San Cosme Point, on line with the southern tip of Monserrate. Eleven or twelve miles of open sea lie between us and the northern end of the island that is our next campsite. Tap leaves it to the group to decide how long we will stay here. We vote to cross tonight as soon as the moon is high.
In the afternoon Tap and Liz send us out alone to locate a stash of fresh water buried on a cove a few miles away. This is the first time the group has been on its own and there is a general feeling of exhilaration as we race our three kayaks to a promontory peaked by a tall, solitary cactus. I can hear Mark giggling as the bow of our boat noses out the two women. When we reach the cove we discover the second group of kayaks, their occupants lounging in the shade under a nylon fly, looking frayed and out of sorts. We gather from the conversation they are not all that enchanted with nature. We fill our eight one-gallon water jugs, borrow some sugar and cheese, and paddle off, feeling very capable and superior. Back at camp, we watch as Liz — assisted by Barbi, the nurse — demonstrates mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and other lifesaving techniques. You can’t mistake the feeling of camaraderie as we practice mouth-to-mouth. Is that a flash of alarm I see in Barbi’s eyes as our lips connect? A trifle compared to the look on Mark’s face as I bend my mouth slowly in the direction of his.
Meriwether wants to trade kayaks with me. Having devoted four days to the precision adjustment of the double, I resist. “That’s just another cop-out,” Meriwether snaps. Okay, okay. Long after dark I am on my hands and knees, holding my flashlight in my teeth and adjusting the rudder on my new craft.
As part of the weaning process, Tap and Liz have retired as leaders and will be mere observers from this point. Our first responsibility was to select a leader, which proved almost impossible. Nobody wanted to go first. After a lot of bickering and hedging on everyone’s part, I volunteered for today. Tomorrow will be someone else’s kettle of snakes.
The moon is nearing its last quarter, so for safety we maintain a tight formation as we cross toward the dim outline of the island. It’s hard going, but our bodies have adjusted to hard going, and, more important, so have our minds. Viewed from your living rooms in Austin, Dallas, or Houston, crossing a twelve-mile patch of the Sea of Cortez in the middle of the night sober might seem grounds for having us committed. Here it is just a trip. Like the sunburn, or the unaccountable cuts and scratches, or the stiff left leg, the trip has become a part of me, another experience barely perceptible in the rush of new things. I can feel the sea; not just on my face, but in my arms, working up my shoulders and back, running up my nose to my brain. By dawn we have covered three-fourths of the distance: already the sun is burning off the thermal haze that belts the four-mile-long hunk of volcanic fusion named Monserrate. We sit dead in the water for a few minutes, resting, passing around hard-candy fruit drops, painting our noses with zinc oxide. Barbi wants to rest a while longer, but the others vote to push on and that’s my command. A cruel mistress, leadership. Unexpectedly, a finback whale rises, blows, and sinks comfortably beneath the sea. A whale! This has barely registered before a second whale, this one about the size of an eighteen-wheeler, surfaces a few hundred feet off our bows. Paddle, m’ hardies: break your blooming backs!
The long, white, smoothly curved beach where we put in has all the markings of paradise. The water appears so clear and pure I have to remind myself not to drink it. Outcroppings of rock protect the cove at both ends, and there are ledges of smooth rock that seem custom-made for a campsite. Tap and Liz make their own camp well down the beach from us. As leader, I volunteer to dig the latrine while the others rig a nylon fly to protect our food and equipment from the sun. Later, we bathe and scrub the caked salt from our clothes. Gnat-sized flies called bobos swarm in the stillness of the afternoon, but soon the breeze will come and blow them away.
Something is rotten in paradise. At first I thought it was the bobos. There hasn’t been a trace of wind, and the tiny pests pepper any exposed skin and ring in your ears. They don’t bite, but they drive you mad. There is something else, though, something more insidious. Except for an occasional chilled criticism — “I wouldn’t do that” — neither woman has spoken to me. I speculate that Barbi is unconsciously punishing me for leadership qualities I obviously lack. The others rigged the fly backwards so that instead of sheltering us from the sun it cut us off from any possibility of a breeze. Maybe I shouldn’t have jerked it down and stomped on it. Meriwether didn’t like the way I baked potatoes. Mark, who has this mania for cleanliness and propriety (he even goes to the latrine to brush his teeth), returned from the latrine picking thorns from his hands and complaining that I dug it too near a thornbush. Nobody has been able to locate much suitable firewood or even kindling, and that is becoming a problem. When I suggested this morning that it was someone else’s turn to be leader, no one appeared to hear.
After we’ve dived in shallow water to gather lobsters and shellfish, Harry Frishman and the crew of the Zodiac arrive for supper. Seeing as how it’s easier to cook than supervise, I do most of the cooking and cleaning up tonight. Long after dark, while the others are still drinking coffee and talking around the fire, I stumble out in the dark to find my gearbag. My assorted sunburns, fire burns, aches, and abrasions are nothing compared to my despair and resentment. Right now I would trade a lifetime of this fresh air, picture-postcard personality-expanding exploration for ten minutes inside a loud Austin bar. It is so dark I am forced to crawl on hands and knees. I finally locate my flashlight, which is full of seawater. If I had suddenly been dropped on the dark side of the moon, my despair could be no more complete. I am afraid to move, afraid of what might be out there! I wait until the others have gone to their places, then I haul my sleeping bag near the light of the campfire where at least I can see how many snakes and scorpions are inside the liner. I unscrew the head of the flashlight and pour out the red gump that used to be batteries: I have brought spare batteries but there is no way I can find them tonight. I try disappearing inside my sleeping bag, but someone has dumped lobster shells on the fire and the stench is overpowering. I locate a ten-gallon cooking pot, fill it with water from the sea, and pour it over the precious coals of the campfire. “What are you doing!” three voices sing out from the dark. I lie back and attempt to concentrate on the barking of sea lions, but all I can hear is Barbi asking Mark how come he never married. I wake at first light to discover that the strings of my tennis shoes have been cut or eaten. Tap speculates that mice did it. Tell me one more time about how stress breeds compassion? The final agony is realizing I can’t quit. There is no place here to resign.
It’s good to be back at sea, or so I tell myself as we paddle at an easy pace four miles to the opposite end of the island. By watching the frenzy of the gulls we locate a school of yellowtails feeding near the surface. In a few minutes we have all the fish we can handle. They must go twenty, twenty-five pounds each. We are moving to the southern tip of Monserrate to escape the flies, but when we arrive about noon Tap is concerned about the cloud buildup over the mainland. Our choices are to camp here and hope the weather holds or use our remaining six hours of light to cross over. Barbi, today’s leader, calls for a vote. We’re unanimous for heading back to the mainland.
Now begins the most arduous journey of all. For a back-breaking, mind-gutting seven hours we paddle against a current so strong we dare not miss a stroke. It’s open water and high swells all the way to Agua Verde Bay. After about five hours we can barely detect the tall lighthouse-shaped spiral of rock that guards the mouth of the bay. Like a good leader, Barbi passes out pieces of candy.
The trick is to occupy your mind. If you watch the mainland you suffer the illusion of going nowhere. I devise a game: I pretend that I have been shipwrecked for six weeks and now there are only a few more hours to go. What’s a few more hours? Watch the yellow blades of the paddle. They throw water in your face, laughing and saying don’t you think I know that trick? Think of cold glasses of beer. Think of how much fun all this will be to write. Think of The Bomb. Another hour passes. The lighthouse-shaped rock looms much larger. Sun almost gone. “We’re getting there!” Meriwether shouts. By God, so we are! With a strange detachment, I watch my paddle dig deeper and faster, reaching out with a mind of its own. As I plow into the calm waters of Agua Verde Bay, I heard Tap shouting for me to slow down. I sit dead in the water, allowing the current to turn me about, realizing for the first time that I’m easily fifty yards in front of the group. Tap is sucking on his Popeye pipe, dog tired just like the rest of us, but grinning like Mother Victory herself.
Harry Frishman and the people from the Zodiac are waiting for us on the beach. Tap calculates that we did twenty miles today. Harry thinks that’s a record. We shake hands all around, then work together to pull the loaded kayaks to a high spot on the beach. Barbi is already organizing dinner. I know it’s against the rules to drink from the water bottles, but my tin cup is buried at the bottom of my gearbag: I lift a half-full bottle to my lips and drain it. Barbi, bless her heart, pretends not to notice this transgression. I believe today is Easter, but I’m not sure.
Tomorrow we begin our forty-eight-hour solos. Duck soup, I’d call it.
Eighth and Ninth Days
Years from now, when I want to recreate the meaning of the word peace, I will think of this experience. A phrase from a song, I believe by Cole Porter, keeps passing through my mind: alone together. Make it two words. Alone. Together. After all these years, it makes sense.
We were each permitted to pick our own solo site. Mark selected the mountains; Meriwether, Barbi, and I chose the sea. We discussed what was proper to take with us — a gallon jug of water, of course, a book of matches, a sweater, the cotton liner of our sleeping bags, which could be used as shelter from the sun. Barbi wanted to take her notebook, but Meriwether said this was a cop-out and the rest of us agreed. Meriwether wanted to do her solo naked, but Tap suggested that this might be misunderstood by passing boats of fishermen. Carrying along any type of food would be considered a serious violation of the spirit of the solo. The solo is for fasting and meditation.
My place is a small inlet of volcanic boulders, tidal pools, and steep cliffs pocked with caves. I select the largest cave as my headquarters and hang a dried starfish over the entrance to give it personality. The Starfish Hilton. The cave opens to a sort of ledge or porch several feet above the high-tide mark. From here I can see the lighthouse-shaped rock we used as a guide to Agua Verde Bay, and beyond that streaks of deceptively calm water darkening around the base of Monserrate Island. Storm brewing, mates! The second group is probably camped on Monserrate: I’m glad I’m not with them. A large school of dolphins passes close to shore; a gull hovers, looks, and dives like a torpedo bomber, then reappears from the sea with a yellowtail struggling from its bill; a frigatebird, its crooked wings a holdover from the time of dinosaurs, intercepts the gull in flight, robs its supper, and soars straight up with hardly a movement of its wings.
Jumping from boulder to boulder, I explore the beach. When you look closely, there are many traces of man — a badly tangled section of nylon fishing line, a hand-carved club used no doubt to beat in the heads of sharks, even a can of American-brand charcoal lighter fluid with enough fuel remaining to start tonight’s fire. God helps those who help themselves. I gather what I judge to be plenty of firewood, then scoop out a place in the rocks and sit writing in my notebook. Certainly I agreed that Barbi’s notebook was a crutch. But I wasn’t about to put my notebook on any referendum.
I pass the first night feeding the fire, watching the movement of the constellations, and dozing on my bed of rocks. I underestimated my need for firewood, and by the time Gemini, Auriga, and Orion have revolved beyond my horizon, and Scorpius has fully spread over the southern sky, the wood has been reduced to a heap of coals and I am too cold to sleep. I wrap my cotton liner around my shoulders, move closer to the coals, and wait for dawn.
Twenty-four hours into my solo…feeling spacy but good. Plenty of water remains. Who cares about food? A small boat passes close to shore; some fishermen wave, I wave back. The sun is high and hot. I sit by a tidal pool, a tiny private aquarium where little sea creatures abide for my benefit. Using a sharp rock for a blade, I pry loose a spiny sea urchin and cut it open. I remember eating a sea urchin once in a Japanese restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. I remember eating in a lot of places. I remember in great detail. I remember a great deal. How long, I ask myself, since I’ve gone ten days without a drink? It must have been the ten days before my first one. I’ve already cinched up my belt to the last notch and still my jeans hang loose around my hips. I cool off in a sheltered pool, then return to my cave for a nap.
By late afternoon a cold wind from the north is whipping up the sea. I move my camp around the point, where there is better shelter and more firewood. After gathering an enormous pile of wood, I pass the night watching it disappear. I wonder about the two women down the coast, and about Mark, somewhere up in the mountains. I remember Tap telling us that the temperature can drop thirty degrees in a thousand feet, and wonder if Mark remembers. The bright orange star in Scorpius in Antares, one of our brightest neighbors — just 391 light-years away, sharing our loneliness. Now it seems clear why man has always thought he was the center of the universe. What else can a poor soul believe?
An hour after the sun has cleared the mountains, I can see the Zodiac coming for me. They’re going to ask how it was, and I’m going to try to not act too smug when I tell them I’ve done time alone before. I once did three weeks alone on a shell bank in the Gulf of Mexico. It damn near drove me crazy. I was finishing a novel and for several days after my return I called my family and friends by the names of characters I had invented. But forty-eight hours is not even enough time to contract a decent hallucination. With a stick I write in the sand PASO AQUI.
Meriwether and Barbi don’t look too hot, and Mark looks like he spent a week in a haunted house. Pots of soup and coffee bubble on the grill. Tap and Liz pass around cans of jugo de albaricoques (apricot juice) as the debriefing begins. Mark says he almost froze to death the first night: for reasons he hasn’t quite understood himself, it didn’t occur to him to build a fire. Meriwether says that her longing for food overcame her fear of being alone. Barbi has experienced grave misgivings about moving to Salt Lake City. She doesn’t know anyone there. She describes her solo as “lonely,” something like her apartment in Cleveland. “The trouble with living alone,” she says, “is there’s no pattern — no reason to get up in the morning.” Liz solicits my impressions of the solo. I tell her that I have decided to worship the sun, except of course at night, when I will worship the fire. Barbi gives me the kind of look she might give Charles Manson.
This will be Tap and Liz’ last day with us. In a couple of hours they will load their kayaks and head back toward Chuenque Bay, 23 miles up the coast. This is the beginning of what they call finals: from here on, it’s just the four of us. We divide up the food and water, then wave as Tap and Liz disappear, literally paddling off into the fading sun. In what daylight remains, we ready our equipment and dive for clams in the clear, sandy shallows of Agua Verde. Mark squeals with delight as he captures his very first clam in waist-deep water. We open some clams with our knives and eat them raw with a little lime juice.
Meriwether and Barbi decide that we will celebrate the beginning of finals with a feast of beans, clam chowder, caramel-flavored pudding, hot chocolate, and coffee. Mark, who has been elected to lead us back to Chuenque Bay, quickly acquiesces. I calculate that this meal will require about 20 per cent of our remaining supply of eight gallons of water. Nobody is impressed with these statistics until I hoist a water jug and drink down a couple of quarts. “What are you doing!” everyone chants in unison. So I tell them: I am having a drink. It may be my last for a couple days, but I’m having my drink and by God enjoying it.
I drag my sleeping bag far down the beach. Long after dark, I can hear my companions muttering. When Mark wakes me at dawn, he apologizes for “that little misunderstanding last night.” I shake his hand and tell him to lead on.
Strange how in moments of crisis the brain reveals its storehouse. We’d been fighting the sea for a couple of hours when, without even realizing it, I called for the mutiny.
When we paddled out of Agua Verde Bay this morning, Mark and me in the singles, Meriwether and Barbi in the double, we were met by a chilling wind from no discernible direction. The others had bundled up in their orange-hooded windbreakers issued by OB, and as we swung wide around Point San Pasquel and the wind rode straight into our teeth, their billowing windbreakers made them look like three tiny floats in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Our plan was to rendezvous with the other group six or seven miles up the coast at a place not on the map — a place called Verne’s Cove. But as we ventured into the open sea it became obvious we’d see more than we bargained for before we saw Verne’s Cove. It was my craven opinion that we better hug the shoreline, even though this contradicted the generally accepted principle of a straight line being the shortest distance between two points. Meriwether was for paddling straight across, guiding on the tip of what she took to be an island. My old eyes took the island to be a peninsula. Since neither an island nor a peninsula showed on the map, Mark decided we would split the difference. Not that Mark’s decision carried much weight: in another ten minutes it was apparent that we were being swept out to sea. By now the wind was blowing so hard we could barely hear each other shout. If I had brought my paddle up more than chest high, the wind would have snatched it out of my hands.
Mark had fallen far behind, which made it difficult to follow his lead; but we didn’t dare tread water now. Yet Tap had drummed it into us that good survival technique depended on appointing one leader and following his decisions. There had been a splendid example of this wisdom one afternoon when Liz’ kayak suddenly capsized in calm water off Monserrate. Liz did it on purpose (“I needed to pee,” she told me later), but we didn’t know this at the time. We all turned immediately toward the craft in distress — exactly as we had been trained to do — but became confused when Barbi and Meriwether started barking conflicting orders. Tap had also said something else. He had said in times of crisis a new leader may emerge. In a medical emergency, for example, it would be only natural to listen to Barbi. Banking problems, consult Mark right off. Without bothering to analyze the appropriate calling for this emergency, I shouted for everyone to paddle like hell for the nearest point of land: by now, this was a slice of beach a mile or more in the opposite direction. I knew they couldn’t hear me, but they couldn’t mistake what I was doing. I was paddling like hell for land. For what seemed like two hours (it was probably closer to one) we hit that paddle like we never knew we could.
Waves taller than our heads came straight over the bow, lashing against our sunshades. I couldn’t see Mark at all, and all I could see of the double was occasional orange flashes as the women dipped between waves. When we had battled close enough to shore to feel some protection from the cliffs, I slowed my stroke to allow Mark to catch up. Gradually, I could feel the wind at my back: when I feathered my paddle out of the water, I could feel it pushing me. It was like having a sail. Our position to the wind and the land changed every several minutes, but a pattern had emerged. When we rounded a point and faced another open body of water, we paddled straight for land. And when we had fought to about the center of the cove, we relaxed and allowed the wind to carry us around the next point.
An hour later we beach and I verify our position with three passing fishermen who are wisely hugging the coast. They’ve never heard of Verne’s Cove, of course (that’s the OB name; the place isn’t indicated on any map), but judging from the other landmarks it has to be just around the corner. We all veto Mark’s plan to carry the kayaks partway overland, and twenty minutes later we see Libby Frishman waving to us from a deep-set white cove. Libby has rigged her fly like a giant flag to catch our attention. Our instincts have already turned us toward a grove of palms — they’re the first we have seen in days — and then when we see the fly and then see Libby waving, we know another battle is won. This time there are no congratulations as we beach our canoes and go through the ritual of lunch. Libby tells us that the other group is stranded on the island. The Zodiac has gone to the rescue, but they probably won’t make it across today.
I spend the remainder of the afternoon talking with Libby, who helped found the Southwest Outward Bound School in Dallas in 1971. It used to be called Texas Outward Bound, but the staff changed the name and moved their headquarters to Santa Fe two years ago. The school still has strong ties in Dallas: many members of the board of governors, including the chairman, live there. Since OB is a nonprofit organization, it depends heavily on donations and the goodwill of the business and education communities. A few OB students, especially in summer, are young people with personality problems. There are cases where judges have sentenced kids to OB. Many of the instructors are wilderness nomads whose only mailing address is the OB headquarters. Some are graduates of OB, or of the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming (which Tap helped found), and most have worked as ski instructors, professional mountaineers, or members of rescue patrols. Harry Frishman, who grew up with the Sierra Club in California, was a climbing guide and avalanche forecaster before joining OB seven years ago. Climbing a tall mountain is Harry’s idea of a day off. Harry’s father was a doctor in Long Beach before he gave up his practice a few years ago to teach skiing in Colorado. Libby tells me: “I guess if you were trying to define an Outward Bound instructor, you’d say it was someone who would think nothing of hitchhiking from Asia to Europe with twenty-eight dollars.”
We decided not to wait for the other group. We did fourteen miles, following the coast, then crossed over to Danzante Island and located a small secluded cove exactly where Tap described it. Beautiful! Clear water and a beach so white it stings your eyes. A green cabin cruiser flying an American flag has also anchored here for the night: an abrupt call-back to civilization. How I wanted to hoist our martini flag and see if her captain abides by the international code of civility! From the cliffs above the cove we can see the entrance to Chuenque Bay, no more than two miles away.
Barbi tells me I’m putting too much water in the beans, and I invite her to go to hell. My Outward Bound spirit is wearing thin. Meriwether is sitting on a rock, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I can see her smile. Meriwether and I talk about literature and about good restaurants in San Francisco where she’s going to meet her boyfriend. She can hardly wait to tell him about this trip. Mark, deadgame to the end, is trying to break a stick to put on the fire. The stick is too thick to snap across his knee, so he places it on the ground and jumps on it. I suggest to Mark that he employ the services of a large rock — meaning use the rock for leverage — then watch in awe as Mark lifts a rock that weighs nearly as much as he does. He staggers over and drops it on the stick, which sinks into the damp sand. For the first time in days I laugh. It’s a laugh of appreciation, of compassion, even of love. How can anyone not love Mark? Kurt Hahn, the OB founder, used to describe his own pleasure at watching the daily improvement of his wilderness novices, of observing, as he put it, a student “shed the misery of unimportance.” Mark looks at me through his thick glasses, slowly comprehending that I’m not laughing at him, but at all of us. I am about to demonstrate when Barbi freezes me with a surgical look. She stoops beside the rock and directs Mark to do the same. “One, two, three!” Barbi says, and together they lift the rock shoulder high and drop it again on the stick.
It must be the excess of clean living: I’m high on something! I can hardly contain the feeling of conquest and accomplishment as I paddle the two miles into Chuenque Bay. We did it! Whoever could have doubted otherwise? Tap and Liz are waiting to greet us as we beach our kayaks. They are openly pleased and proud. We clean the mud from our boats and haul them to a secure place on the rocks, then clean our equipment in tubs of fresh water. Tap has caught a giant sea turtle for tonight’s final feast. I regret that I can not stay, but then I really don’t want to stay. Whatever it was I came here to do is done, and stretching it out now will only weaken it. I shake hands with each member of my team (the other group won’t arrive for several more hours), then ask Harry Frishman to give me a ride to the bus station in Loreto. I just have time to catch the daily bus to La Paz. I am loading my gear in the pickup when Barbi calls me aside.
“I don’t want you to leave without telling you something,” she says, struggling to maintain that hard nurse register. Okay, I’m listening. “You remember that day you…French-kissed me…when we were doing mouth-to-mouth?” I nod that I recall, though not very well. “I just want you to know…on that day I lost every bit of respect for you.”
“A joke in bad taste,” I apologize. I open the pickup door and climb in, but Barbi hasn’t finished.
“Bad taste!” she says. “It wasn’t just the sexual thing. It was…it was a very serious situation. You were joking about something you knew nothing about. Your joke could have cost someone’s life.”
Well, it didn’t. We’re all alive. I don’t know about the others, but I’ve never felt better. My arms are blistered, my leg is still numb, my hair feels like seaweed, and my skin would take the paint off a battleship, but that’s all cosmetic. There’s only one me, and while he may win no prizes, I can live with him. When you think about it, that’s not such a bad feeling. Six hours later I am sitting at a sidewalk cafe in La Paz, a trifle dizzy from two beers. It’s truly a difficult decision, but I think I’ll order another.