I’m “home” in Aurora, Colorado, tonight, in my favorite place to write in this room I share with Richard at Fisher House: sitting upright in bed, with my back resting against a pile of pillows and my legs stretched out in front of me, and Richard snoozing at my side.
Yesterday morning I woke in La Paz, in Baja California del Sur, Mexico, where clouds of bougainvillea blossoms hang over courtyard walls, hooded orioles chatter at Anna’s hummingbirds, and the desert air smells of both the tar-and-orange-blossom
fragrance of creosote bush and the salty tang of the turquoise waters
of the Sea of Cortez.
It was the last morning in what was a magical week spent on Isla Espiritu Santo, “Island of the Holy Spirit,” a place that I’ve imagined visiting since I first heard its name more than three decades ago. It is as extraordinary as that name, a stark desert island of tan and red volcanic cliffs dotted with tree-sized cardon cactus and spiny desert shrubs, an island that falls straight into a sea whose waters shade from turquoise near shore to ultramarine in the deepest parts and teem–a word I don’t often have the chance to use–with life from coral-pink colored coral to whale sharks as long as school buses. (That’s Ensenada de Ballena above, a bay named for the whale-shaped rock at its mouth.)
I went to the island with a small group of writers and friends outfitted by Baja Expeditions, one of the pioneers of the practice of ecotourism, conserving nature and culture by teaching tourists and locals alike to love a place without loving it to death. (That’s our camp on the beach below, with the sleeping tents on the left and the dining and cooking tents on the right.)
It was a week of waking to the sound of waves lapping the shore by our cozy tents and pelicans thwocking the water as they dove for sardines just a few yards away, of kayaking azure swells as loggerhead turtles surfaced nearby, of snorkeling among baby sea lions eager to play, of hiking to shelter caves inhabited by the Pericu people who lived where the desert meets the sea for 12,000 years, until the Spaniards brought their diseases and livestock. (That’s a Pericu pictograph below, a bird-symbol which our guide, Pedro Lopez, a young native of La Paz who is as passionate about his home place as he is knowledgeable about its history and natural history, speculates may represent a turkey vulture drying its wings in the sun.)
It was a week of being surprised by flying fish bursting out of the water in front of our kayaks like stars falling upwards, of marveling at dolphins arcing next to our panga (a deep-bodied skiff the local fishermen use to handle both the big swells of the open water and the shallow bays), of watching the dappled backs of enormous whale sharks as they fed on microscopic plankton, of listening to canyon wrens’ descending trills from the cliffs above the tents in the morning and great horned owls hooting at night.
A week of delighting in the clouds of butterflies hovering over a wild garden of pink mallow and purple desert lavender and rock iguanas sunning on warm cliffs, of discovering the damp streak of a dry waterfall that thunders with spray in the annual rainy season, of seeing the crystal-clear sea boil with bubbles as a school of thousands of fish circled, of watching magnificent frigatebirds kiting overhead on pointed black wings as cormorants dove to chase colorful reef fish and brown pelicans rocked on the waves.
We snorkeled, we hiked, we paddled, we fished and dug for clams, we laid around in the sun.
We ate three fabulous meals each day featuring fresh seafood and regional cuisine by Tonio, our cook, a fisherman on the island for more than 20 years, helped by his camp crew. (That’s our guide Pedro below, clowning around with a bonito just caught by one of our group. We had bonito tacos with fresh-roasted pasilla chiles that night, after margaritas and baby octopus ceviche for happy hour and before a postre–dessert–of fresh papaya slices and dulce de leche cake. No wonder my jeans are so tight.)
Oh, and we wrote. We wrote daily haiku, we wrote field notes, we wrote short essays, we wrote stories and poems and book proposals. We wrote to think, to dream, and to set a course for the New Year. We wrote our way into the practice of writing as a way to understand Life and our place in it. We wrote our way into feeling inspired, empowered, and to knowing our voices.
We left the island gr
ateful for the time where the desert meets the sea, grateful for the warmth of the camp staff and the group of strangers-become-friends, grateful for the wonder of mangroves and seaweed, sailfish and sardines, cactus and wild figs, sea turtles and ospreys soaring overhead.
I left knowing I had fallen in love with the island named Espiritu Santo, Holy Spirit, an island full of the spirit of life itself in all its glory, from the tiniest wildflower managing to thrive in the harsh volcanic soils that receive just four inches of rain a year, to the immense whale sharks that feed off its shores. I left vowing to return, to share the magic of its meeting of aridity and abundance with those I love.
Yesterday morning in the pastel light before dawn, I flew out of the La Paz Airport, trading tropical breezes, tree-sized cactus and leaping dolphins for snow and city streets. The wonder of my time on that magical island buoyed me through the long lines as gloved security personnel searched every piece of luggage and patted down each passenger, through the hours spent packed in crowded jets, through the demands of U.S. Customs and Immigration. When I finally escaped the secure area of Denver International Airport, I fell in love all over again with the two smiling faces waiting for me at the barrier: Richard and Molly.
Today we spent the day hanging out, just the three of us, basking in the joy of being together. Richard was practically giddy–he kept Molly and I laughing. She filled me in on his week: his appetite, his napping, and how pleased his oncologist, Dr. Klein of the VA Hospital, is with the way his blood counts are holding steady. I told them stories of the island, La Paz, the group, the workshops, the sea. “I want to take you there,” I said.
And if all goes well, I will. But tonight, as Molly flies home to San Francisco and Richard snoozes next to me, I know that whatever comes, I have all I need. I’m lucky to have experienced the magic of Isla Espiritu Santo, and lucky to have come home to the everyday enchantment of my life here.
Thanks to all who have buoyed me on this journey.