Berrendo Canyon

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico
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berrendo canyon

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Berrendo Canyon


Canyons are like the crow’s feet that light the eyes of a smiling face. They encourage immediate friendship and you want to explore the source of their amusement. But like all relationships, the exploration can be a lot of work.

The Canyons of Berrendo, about a hundred mile round trip from San Felipe, don’t resist easy friendships. An ordinary pickup truck with under-inflated tires and a modicum of good luck can make the trip. But that part of the acquaintance is just the eye of the weather. The real camaraderie begins when camp is established and you stand at the mouth of a rift that simply will not collaborate with your vehicle. It wants more immediate contact, the personal touch. So with walking stick in hand you tap and leap across boulders and stones, following the alluviated rend that winds between the granite fault blocks that tilt up on either side of you. As you push onward into the deepening cleft of Berrendo’s smile, you are greeted by the open hands of blue palms, the nod of tall grasses and the wink of eddied water that trickles down from the rising ground under your feet.

There will be a box canyon or two where Berrendo cradles you in silence. These are nature’s filters. They arrest the bovine search for sweet vegetation and invite the intrepid hiker to tiddly-wink their bouncing backpacks across a series of staggered monoliths. But soon enough the canyon offers another stretch of sandy wash and you can afford the interval to wall-gaze and admire the blue palms that coif the upper ridges.

The going isn’t particularly difficult if you are only a little goat-footed. A good set of hiking boots or rock-climbing shoes are highly recommended. There are some steep rock faces. There’s no worse feeling than sliding down a boulder on bald trotters toward an angry braid of dead palm fronds, their shark-toothed ribs waiting at the bottom to embrace you.

Vegetation in this local canyon is varied. Dwarf palms, blue palms, cholla, barrel caci, cardon, aloe, agave, mesquite, palo verde and an assortment of blooms litter the ravines and upper canyon slopes. The occasional drainage through arroyos would appear to be the ultimate spectator’s parade for this wide range of foliage. Bring along a good camera. They won’t move if you don’t.

Most mountain ventures are dry-camping excursions. When there is water it is further up the canyons, where rocks form a scrimmage line against vehicles. And although potable water may be only a mile or two from where you are camping, schlepping it between its source and your tent on a hot day would probably be a fair analog to an hourglass. Perspiration would cause you to drain the canteens in pace with the distance covered and you’d arrive back at camp with the containers in the same condition as when you set out to fill them –empty. So it is a good idea to bring along enough water for drinking, cooking, dish washing and showers or sponge baths. Two to three gallons a day per person should suffice.

Of course when there is substantial rain, dry-camping magically transforms from a curse to a fervent wish. Arroyos become torrents. Anyone foolhardy enough to pitch a tent in a wash will quickly be introduced to the business end of a flash flood and unless their father was a salmon, the mistake would likely cost them their life. Spiders don’t spin webs across active drains. Learn from Nature.

The space/time of canyon terrain is something that undermines clocks and wrist watches. Night claps over you like a black bell jar with astonishing speed. That’s because the western horizon is now a thousand or more feet in the air. For every degree of stony arc that eclipses the sun, you have to subtract about three and a half minutes from your day. This has to be factored into your firewood equation. If you are a night owl, stockpile a lot of firewood (collect dead wood, of course –there’s always plenty on the sides of a large wash). And avoid building what locals smilingly call gringo fires, conflagrations that evoke historic city names like Rome, London or Chicago. Conserve wood with small fires and don’t complain about the cool nights -simply pull your chair closer to the flames. No need to make a Parsee ceremony of it.

Bye and bye, after a day’s hiking and the long darkness of an early sunset, you’ll feel the irresistible tug of Morpheus on your eyelids. Trudging to your tent and climbing into your sleeping bag, you might groggily thumb on the penlight to glance at your wrist watch. 8:20 PM. Your body’s cryptochrome proteins, integral to your internal circadian clock, are being reset to the rhythm of mountain time. You’ve stepped out of the artificial world of TV tubes, incandescent lamps and neon signs and have wandered, not so wide-eyed at the moment, onto one of Nature’s inviolable paths. It’s not a regression. It’s simply the body recovering a misplaced memory. A perfectly natural and painless process, providing the guy in the tent next to you doesn’t snore.

You’re not likely to encounter much in the way of four-legged wildlife. Big-horn sheep and pumas simply don’t want to be handed real estate pamphlets or have their ears tagged. And they are shy of cameras, probably because of all the bad movies made about them. The approach of an unbalanced (in every sense of the word) biped telegraphing echoes like discordant canyon whale songs gives them plenty of warning to vacate the area. You’ll see lots of tracks and feces. Puma prints the size of a spread hand. But unless you stay downwind and plant yourself on a plinth for a very lengthly vigil, your chances of a National Geographic byline are pretty slim.

The upper limits of Berrendo Canyon almost wholly dodge the influence of horse, spur and cow. Here wild grasses grow to basketball player height. No beer cans or cigarette butts tattoo the sand. And the dull detonation of quails exploding into the air is a regular event. It is a place where normal human activity is inexcusable, one of the few ecosystems left that asks only for observation. Anything else is a transgression, a self-made box canyon filter that separates us from an incredible natural richness, just beyond our tools


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