In June, 1998, I was mapping the three-hundred-mile route of the 1769 expedition that founded San Diego in the company of significant Baja California aficionados: explorer-writer Graham Mackintosh, publisher Lowell Lindsay, and photographer Bill Evarts. It was our second night in Arroyo de Valladares, ninety miles southeast of Ensenada and twenty miles from the Pacific, our camp near the spot where the expedition's padre, Juan Crespí, buried Manuel Valladares, his valued helper and a convert from far-off Misión de San Ignacio.
The day had been something of a triumph. In a morning's hike, we'd located the pass that must have been used by the 1769ers to make the difficult transition from Arroyo de San Antonio to that of Valladares. We celebrated by resting in a grove of giant yucca, then trekked three hours back to camp and the first water we'd seen all day. I had carried only a quart with me-shame on me, a greenhorn mistake-and I got to camp so dehydrated that my legs and lower back went rock-hard with cramps. I drank water nonstop, but remained in excruciating pain only partially relieved by lying flat on my bedroll and willing myself to relax. That ordeal began at five in the afternoon, didn't subside until long after midnight, and all the while I lay there con ojos cuadrados, 'square-eyed,' as the locals say.
My comrades turned in for the night and I was soon desperate for anything to take my mind off pain and boredom. I indulged in male fantasies, necessarily older male fantasies, thinking of the young women who have, over the years, frequented the coffee house where I and a group of old friends hold daily meetings. (One of our ringleaders, Russell Forester, no saint himself, gives me a hard time about my shameless ogling of young women. Ogling-and even having the nerve to chat them up.)
I lay there on my bed of pain and thought, "All right, daydreams are one thing, but how does one visualize a real-life 'Older Man, Younger Woman' affair?" I turned the question over and over and every answer seemed ugly, impersonal, materialistic, every relationship a shared embarrassment leading to a dead end. Turning to other things, I tried to commune with the past, tried to summon the spirit of Manuel Valladares, abroad in the moonlit canyon-but it was a handsome young woman who stepped from the shadows. "Older Man," she said, "I am Paloma. I heard your question-and your answer. Don't be so sure. Let a Younger Woman tell you how it was with her."
Well, I wasn't
fooled. Plainly, I'd called her up; she was a product of pain and fantasy.
I imagined myself mouthing her words, she the puppet, I the ventriloquist.
I blinked my eyes, but, open or shut, I had no power over her-quite the
contrary, she captivated me. I hung on her every word and expression as
she sat like Sheherazade and spun a tale so hypnotic that I moved into
her world and became a participant in its provocative affairs.
In the morning, my visitor was gone but her essence lingers to this day and her story is engraved in my head. I took it home with me, like it or not, and wrote it down because I had to. Wrote it down as an Old Boy whose idle inquiry had launched a spellbinding journey. "Fiction," I'd always thought, "is the calling of others." Until this. Until Paloma.
Out of Baja