San Felipe's Giant Cardon
Thirteen years ago marked the 500th anniversary of the
discovery of the Americas by the privateer and opportunist
Cristóbel Colón (Christopher Columbus).
Five hundred is a nice round number. It appears only
twice in a millennia. So Spain had the notion the date
was noteworthy and perhaps some kind of celebration was
in order. The original colonies and countries that owned
the misfortune of residing in the path of the Spanish
hegemony of 1492 were contacted and invited to participate
in the commemoration. Of course Mexico featured prominently
on the list and promptly offered to unplug one of its
giant cardon cacti and ship it to Seville, Spain where
the festivities were to happen because the city was going
to be busy hosting the World’s Fair that year anyway.
cardon would presumably soar up above all the other exhibits
and admirably demonstrate how Nature originally intended
an accordion to behave –-quiet, immobile and green.
Baja California doesn’t mean much to the rest of
Mexico. For the average Mexican it is a place without
culture, full of backward people and empty landscapes.
In other words, the perfect gift box from which to draw
an offertory to best express the nation’s gratitude
for four centuries of Spanish corruption and despotism.
The project was given a high priority, which locally translated
to about a fifty-fifty chance of being accomplished. The
forest of giant cardon cacti near San Felipe was to provide
the vegetable. A fine specimen was located not too far
from the highway, but plucking it from the ground proved
to be more difficult than anticipated. A forty five foot
tall cactus is a lot heavier than it looks. Especially
after a cloudburst.
Specialists, engineers and ecologists came up with a
plan to construct a steel frame around the cactus and
to enclose its root system in canvas and a box. They would
allow the plant to dehydrate a while to stabilize its
size and then brace the trunk and limbs with steel collars
lined with foam. With the entire cactus fortified by this
system of supports, a giant crane would lift it onto the
bed of a tractor trailer which would then transport it
across the country to a ship on the east coast.
Everything went according to plan, until the time arrived
to lift the cactus out of the ground. The added weight
of the steel framework was too much for the crane’s
cable and it snapped like the G-string of an oversized
vacationer playing beach volleyball. Another crane was
summoned but became bogged in the sand a hundred feet
from the first crane.
Back in San Felipe, word got around that something was
happening behind the hills across from Poncho’s
Camp. Always on the lookout for novel and unusual forces
of entertainment, the more intrepid members of the town’s
retired demographic dusted off their sand rails and buggies,
packed their folding chairs, beach umbrellas, snacks and
beer and lit out for the floor show in the desert south
The next several days fell into the pattern of a ritual.
The cactus abatement team, now the crane repair and extrication
crew, gathered early in the morning around the half-buried
track of the floundered crane and used shovels, boards
and bits of plywood to try and create a purchase for the
machine’s rooted conveyors. Meanwhile the gringos
would decamp in a half-circle around the spectacle, unsnap
their aluminum chairs, plant umbrella shades over their
heads and from their reclined vantage, shout out suggestions
and advice to the quarrying Mexicans.
One afternoon an enormous motorhome, hyphenated at the
rear by a Wrangler jeep, pulled in and then attempted
to turn around. Deserts love that kind of imprudence.
This particular desert promptly created a soft mouth the
size of an over-inflated rear RV tire and within twenty
minutes there was a gringo echo of the Mexican crane scene.
Hubcaps, sticks and plastic food containers gulped out
sand around the bogged tire. The people in the lawn chairs
stood up and shifted their positions a few degrees, the
better to be heard by the volunteers who knelt shoulder-to-shoulder
beside the rear fender of the massive RV.
“Ya goota jack it up and fill the hole!”
bellowed one of the bystanders.
“Naw, ya just have’ta let air outta the
tires,” offered another.
The Mexicans stopped to watch for a while then returned
to their work on the crane. They weren’t going to
share any secrets.
Ultimately Spain received its giant cactus. But not
before more hurdles were overcome in the rich, timeless,
south-of-the-border fashion Mexico has perfected, including
a breakdown of the truck assigned to transport the cactus
to the east coast.
Between the embarkation from Mexico and the releasing
of the cardon from its Iron Maiden in Seville, it somehow
managed to age 1350 years. It left Mexico at an estimated
150 years of age, yet the biographic plaque that labeled
it at the World’s Fair said it was 1500 years old.
It’s true bureaucracy moves slowly, but someone
must have used a geologic calendar for the boat trip.
Expo ’92 came and went. The cactus never changed
its pose for the thousands of photographs the tourists
took. Eventually it became the consummate expatriate.
It didn’t call. It didn’t write. It didn’t
Now and then a photograph of it passes through town.
The poor thing looks a little displaced, like it lost
its passport. Or maybe it threw it away. Either way, it’s
certainly there to stay.
As it has slowly succumbed to the radical environment
change of a different climate zone and the scarring of
graffiti, it has browned and weakened. Metal cradles now
prop up several of its limbs. Holes have rotted out head-sized
cavities in its body. Still, it hangs onto life by keeping
a blush of green in some of its extremities and has even
managed to force a new birth of a limb, or something that
might have been a limb in better times.
For a different slant on the historical significance
of the celebration, read this
article by Winona LaDuke.