from the chapter
the Sierra de San Francisco: The Most Beautiful Dream
C.M. Mayo's Miraculous
Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the
they came from the north
When we woke Oscar was gone. We waited for more than an hour, sipping
our coffee. It was a glorious day, sun spilling into the canyon,
and we were eager to leave for the cave paintings. Finally, from
far up the arroyo, we heard the tinkle of Güero's bell.
The animals had wandered all the way back to Rancho Salsipuede,
Oscar said, when he arrived out of breath. He wiped his brow
with his shirtsleeve.
Salsipuede! That was more than three hours roundtrip.
"I walk fast," Oscar said. He conceded that he'd been
up before dawn. He tethered the two burros and two mules to the
acacia tree behind our tent. Macho de Mata gave me a withering
We left the animals at camp and began to hike down the arroyo
over boulders and rocks and crunchy carpets of fallen palm leaves.
Then we made our way up the side of the canyon on a trail so
faint we would never have found it without Oscar. In places we
had to turn sideways to ease ourselves between the rocks and
the cacti. Soon we were edging along ledges, slowly so as not
to lose our footing on the loose dirt and rubble; within inches
were sheer drops. Far below, the tops of the palm trees shimmered
silver-green. A hawk swooped by, its screech echoing across the
"That was where Gardner's helicopter landed." Oscar
pointed to a widening in the stony bottom that was bare of trees.
"My uncle Tacho was their guide."
When we'd stopped to rest, Oscar asked me about Erle Stanley
Gardner's education. "Tiene muchos estudios?" He
wondered how he'd gotten the money to travel here in a helicopter.
I told him Gardner was a lawyer, but his moneymillions
of dollars had come from the Perry Mason TV show and his
Oscar nodded, frowning thoughtfully.
Half-way up the canyon wall we came to "Gardner's Cave,"
or as the ranchers had always known it, La Cueva Pintada, The
Painted Cave, "This grand cave," as Harry Crosby describes
it, "the most painted place in the most painted part of
the entire range of the Great Murals."
Nothing, not all the reading I'd done nor the photographs I'd
seen, prepared me for the Cueva Pintada's stunning scale, its
weirdness, its seething black and blood-colored mass of animals
and birds and men. It wasn't a cave really, more a ledge with
an overhang, like a bubble between the cake-like layers of the
canyon wall. The rocky ceiling jutted out, ablaze with enormous
figures, many of them ten, twenty, even thirty feet high up the
ceiling and the rock face. To view them all fully would have
been dangeroustoo easy to to slip back off the ledge. It
was as if the Painters what wizards! had worked as
they floated in the air.
As at San Borjitas, the human figures faced front, red or black,
some bi-colored, arms stiffly raised. But here there were also
many animals bighorn sheep, deer, rabbitsall in silhouette,
fat-stomached, many of them pierced with arrows and spears. The
figures overlapped, a man imposed on a deer, a red man over a
black man, an arm over a hindleg, a head obscuring a head. This
was ritual magic, prayers of a people without the written word.
But what people?
The giants, they came from the north, said the Cochimí.
Flechas, which means Arrows, was on the opposite side of the
arroyo, at about the same height up the canyon wall. With rests,
it took us nearly a half hour to climb there.
The cave was called Flechas after the two giant red men overlaid
from thigh to face with black arrows. They made a foursome with
another pair of figures, half-black-half-red, one in a headdress,
the other without a neck, its head a triangular lump. Their arms
were raised like criminals under arrest. The larger of the two
bi-colored figures perhaps ten feet tallwas superimposed
on a leaping, open-mouthed deer. Smaller figures were scattered
among them, tiny red men floating upside down above their shoulders,
painted animals underfoota rabbit perhaps, and antelope
Here was a story lost, like hieroglyphics undeciphered. It was
intriguing but maddening, like a movie with the sound switched
off, or a novel without an ending.
I was moved by the simple fact of their presence, now, after
such a desert of years. And I couldn't help wondering, when the
painters brushed these colors into the rock, if they could possibly
have imagined the likes of me, in my duck-billed baseball cap
and waffle-stomper boots one day in the far future, coming from
a great distance for no other purpose than to see them, and admire
We were so different, and yet, this delight in seeing images,
and the urge to make them like listening to and telling
stories is woven into the very fabric of what makes us
There were five major rock art sites in the Cañón
de Santa Teresa. But it was clear to us now that we not have
the time to see them all. I'd been told at the National Institute
of Anthropology and History office in San Ignaciowhere
we'd obtained our permits and reservationsthat three nights
was sufficient. They were wrong. In any case, we only had food
and water to last until midday the next day; to make it back
to our jeep at Rancho Guadalupe by then, we'd have to camp tonight
at Rancho Salsipuede. Of the remaining three sites, we had time
to see one. Oscar said Boca San Julio was the most interesting.
We began the long hike.
The shade of a boulder was a good excuse to stop for lunch. Nearby,
a spring burbled from the rocks, chill and fresh, into a necklace
of emerald-green ponds. Water beetles skimmed their surface;
pearl-sized snails speckled the shallow rocky bottoms. We drank
the water we'd bought in San Ignacio, which was warm and tasted
These MREs were good, Oscar said. He sighed.Could Alice send
him more? How much did they cost?
Another hour down the arroyo, I fell and scraped open my hand.
When we'd found a sandy spot to sit down, Alice opened her backpack
and unzipped her first-aid kit, an Elizabeth Arden cosmetics
bag decorated with roses. Efficiently, she cleaned the wound
with an antiseptic wipe, rubbing vigorously (which hurt like
hell), then applied Neosporin and a gauze bandage which she secured
"I come prepared," she said.
What else did she have in there? Oscar and I watched as she pulled
out each item and laid it on the sand: an Ace bandage, Benedril,
bandages for burns, a triangle of cloth to make a sling, safety
pins, more tape, more antiseptic wipes, surgical sponges for
soaking up blood, a signalling mirror.
"A signaling mirror!" I chuckled.
Oscar stood up and took a small round mirror from his front pocket.
"I've got one too," he said shyly, and he held it out
so that it caught the sun.
Alice smirked at me. "You laugh."
In fact, we hadn't seen another soul in more than twenty-four
Not until mid-afternoon did we finally arrive at Boca San Julio,
which turned out to be a small site framed by leafy green torote
trees. The mural of red and black animals was dominated by two
life-sized leaping deer, their front legs arching forward, heads
thrown back in terror.
We know this much: The Painters were hunters. More than one researcher
speculates that the paintings were made at a time when game was
becoming scarce. As the first Indians swept south from the Alaskan
taiga, they found a New World teeming with animals. The largest
and slowest moving were the first to go: mammoths, mastodons,
giant ground sloths. The bones of these extinct species litter
the Americas, many of them embedded with arrowheads and charred
by ancient fires. European conquest only accelerated a long-ongoing
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