Discovering Steinbeck

We left Isla San Marcos Saturday afternoon for the 90 mile passage to Bahia San Francisquito back on the Baja peninsula, a trip that would take us 18 hours. We had a beautiful day and night to sail. The wind let us sail comfortably for 14 of those 18 hours. The other four, in the dead of night, we had to motor as the wind died out completely and the sails were flogging unmercifully. But, we were pretty pleased with the conditions and glad that we had waited a few days at Isla San Marcos for the wind to allow us to sail.

We also reattached the Hydrovane rudder and vane that we had used to make the passage down to Baja from California. The Hydrovane is a self-steering system, but it differs from our electric autopilot. It doesn’t use any power and steers based on the wind direction instead of a compass heading. It is so nice to use, as it is silent, unlike our noisy electric autopilot. And, on long passages it really is essential to have self-steering rather than hand steering for so many hours.

It was a peaceful night and we were blessed with a dark sky full of stars, as the moon was still absent. On overnight passages Mike and I take three hour watches so that each of us can get some sleep. On watch we have to make sure that we are staying on course, watch out for any other boat traffic, and make changes to the sails if the wind shifts. (If a significant sail change is needed, we wake the other person up to help.)

But, that also leaves quite a bit of time alone to enjoy the experience and do some reading. Every time we get into a port with internet access we both download more books onto our tablets. (We can certainly carry more books aboard this way!) So, one of the books that I had been reading was The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck.

I hadn’t read Steinbeck since I read Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath in school, which was a couple of decades ago. But, we had discovered that Steinbeck and his good friend, biologist Ed Ricketts, had traveled to the Sea of Cortez in 1940 and written a book about their experience. I thought it would be fun to see how similar, and how different, his experience was from ours, so I downloaded the book and started plowing through it, finishing it on our overnight passage to Bahia San Francisquito.

Steinbeck and Ricketts charted a fishing trawler out of Monterrey with a captain and small crew and headed down the California and Baja coasts into the Sea of Cortez. The purpose of their expedition was to collect samples of flora and fauna in the tide pools at different stations throughout the Sea. Although Steinbeck was a writer, he was very interested in biology and Ricketts’ research.

The book is interesting in that it goes back and forth between three main themes or topics: (1) a sometimes humorous travel log of their journey; (2) a description of all of the sea life they find; and (3) Steinbeck and Ricketts’ thoughts and philosophies on man and life, the latter of which I suspect was often their musings over many bottles of whiskey, which is inferred in the book.

Besides being entertaining, it was fascinating to see what life was like on the Baja peninsula 75 years ago. There were no tourist destinations like Cabo San Lucas, and the small towns and villages that existed were populated with the local Yaqui people (who Steinbeck refers to as “Indians” throughout the book) that lived primitively without modern electricity, running water, etc. and mainly lived off the sea. Contrast that to our own experience where even the more primitive fishing villages we have encountered have satellite TV dishes!

What I love about reading writing done in another period or about another period is when you find those things that you can completely relate to. And, there were several passages that Steinbeck wrote that really resonated with me. At the time that Steinbeck and Ricketts took their expedition, the US had recently come out of the great depression, the world was at war, and the US was about to get pulled into that war. While a different set of circumstances currently plague our country and news cycle, we related to this quote:

“One thing had impressed us deep on this little voyage: the great world dropped away very quickly. We lost the fear and fierceness and contagion of war and economic uncertainty. The matters of great importance we had left were not important. There must be an infective quality in these things. We had lost the virus, or it had been eaten by the anti-bodies of quiet. Our pace had slowed greatly; the hundred thousand small reactions of our daily world were reduced to very few. When the boat was moving we sat by the hour watching the pale, burned mountains slope by. A playful swordfish, jumping and spinning absorbed us completely. There was time to observe the tremendous minutiae of the sea…

“The world and the war had become remote to us; all the immediacies of our usual lives had slowed up. Far from welcoming a return, we rather resented going back to newspapers and telegrams and business. We had been drifting in some kind of dual world – a parallel realistic world; and the preoccupations of the world we came from, which are considered realistic, were to us filled with mental mirage. Modern economies; war drives, party affiliations and lines; hatreds, political, and social and racial, cannot survive in dignity the perspective of distance. We could understand, because we could feel, how the Indians of the Gulf, hearing about the great ant-doings of the north, might shake their heads sadly and say, ‘But it is crazy. It would be nice to have new Ford cars and running water, but not at the cost of insanity.'”

We feel a little like this when we arrive in a port that has internet access. We have become so accustomed to any bit of news and communication at the touch of a phone, that to be away from it for weeks at a time gives you a different perspective. And, when we do have that access again and read the headlines from terrorist attacks to our absolutely insane election nonsense, we can only shake our heads and are ready to leave port and be disconnected again.

Although I don’t have nearly enough knowledge or resources to examine and study the sea life as Steinbeck and Ricketts did, their exploration makes me want to take more time to turn over the rocks in the tide pools as they did. They certainly got more out of it than simply observing and counting the difference species, as Steinbeck mused:

“Our own interest lay in relationships of animal to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to a point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

But, most of all, I think the Sea of Cortez had an impact on Steinbeck and his crew, just as it has with us. The Sea has a magical quality to it. Sparsely populated, it is raw and natural. You can’t help but have a connection to nature and the Sea as a living thing. Even though we plan to see other oceans and ports of call, I hope that we will always be able to return to the Sea. As they were approaching the end of their journey, Steinbeck’s crew had similar feelings:

“Now, approaching Guaymas, we were approaching an end. We planned only two or three collection stations beyond, and the time of charter-end would be crowding us, and we would have to run for it to be back when the paper said we would. The charter at least fixed our place in time. And already our crew was trying to think of ways to come back to the Gulf. This trip had been like a dreaming sleep, a rest from immediacies…What was the shape and size and color and tone of this little expedition? We slipped into a new frame and grew to be a part of it, related in some subtle way to the reefs and beaches, related to the little animals, to the stirring waters and the warm brackish lagoon. This trip had dimension and tone. It was a thing whose boundaries seeped through itself and beyond into some time and space that was more than all the Gulf and more than all our lives. Our fingers turned over the stones and we saw life that was like our life.”

I certainly cannot begin to describe our own journey as eloquently as Steinbeck did, but hopefully I’m giving you all a picture of what our experience is like. Steinbeck summed up his expedition as: “The real picture of how it had been there or how we had been there was in our minds, bright with sun and wet with sea water and blue or burned, and the whole crusted over with exploring thought. 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.” Well, we like it too!

We’ve really enjoyed our time here in Bahia San Francisquito. The beach is beautiful, the fishing has been excellent and we snorkeled in an aquarium of fish. We’d like to stay here longer, but the forecast has a possibility of the next tropical storm making its way into the northern Sea later this week. So, we’re going to make the decision to start heading toward Puerto Don Juan at Bahia de Los Angeles, which is a natural hurricane hole with significant protection from wind and storms. Hopefully the storm will not materialize, but we always feel it is better to be safe than sorry. We’ll keep you all updated of our location.


One thought on “Discovering Steinbeck

  1. Jeff

    Katie, don’t sell yourself short on the writing skills! You’ve done an amazing job of describing your experience, and making us feel a part of it. Stay safe.


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