Boojum Man

In The Baja, The Tentacled Giants Await--Part 2 of 3.
By Kevin Franklin

"BOOJUM--DEAD AHEAD!" I chirp into the C.B. Like a 30-foot-long unfurling tentacle of some submerged gargantuan squid, a mid-size boojum breaks the horizon of the Baja desert.

Out There After we spy the first specimen, dozens reveal themselves from the gravely soil.

People describe boojums as looking like giant hairy carrots or fantastically twisted telephone poles covered in spikes. The Cochimí Indians of Baja called them milapá, but with the introduction of the Jesuit missions, most of those Indians died off from a host of European diseases--thanks for the blessing, Padre.

Having little nomenclature competition, the Mexicans took to calling them cirios, Spanish for the tall candles which they sometimes resemble, write Jeanette Coyle and Norman Roberts in A Field Guide To The Common And Interesting Plants Of Baja California.

The name "boojum" comes from the first gringo scientist to describe them, Godfrey Sykes. In 1922, Sykes was exploring the deserts of Mexico when he spotted these curious plants through his telescope. Having read The Hunting of the Snark and Lewis Carroll's reference to a boojum as a "mythical thing found in desolate far-off regions," Sykes called out "Ho, ho, a boojum, definitely a boojum!" writes Robert Humphrey in The Boojum And Its Home.

While not exactly mythical, boojums are found only in the Vizcaíno Desert of Baja and a small section of mainland Mexico near Libertad, Sonora. Boojums frequently reach a height of 60 feet, and I know of one topping out over 86-feet high. The trunks often contort into spindly curves and twists. When a half dozen arms follow suit, it makes for a plant that appears more likely to come from a child's finger-painting class than the Mexican desert.

Boojums are related to ocotillos, and, upon close inspection, the "hairy" part of the hairy carrot description turns out to be small, sometimes leafy tiny ocotillos.

Our two-truck caravan is traversing the west coast of Baja south of El Rosario, and we'll be in boojum country for the rest of our trip. Intermixed with the boojums are cardóns, which look like saguaros on steroids. There are no saguaros in Baja, and a close look reveals the cardóns are taller and more massive than saguaros and have fewer pleats in their trunks and arms.

Through this forest of exotic plants, we make our way from the Baja Highway 44 miles south of El Rosario toward the Pacific beach and a fish camp called Puerto Catarina.

Puerto Catarina served as a seaport for an onyx mine and village called El Marmol 50 miles inland. The onyx was shipped to Tijuana to be fabricated into bookends, chessmen and other tourist kitsch. Many an onyx elephant migrated through this hot, dusty valley on its way to a Michigan coffee table. The mine has long since ceased operation, and the road deteriorated, but according to Tom Miller's The Baja Book, you can still see the action of the soda springs alongside an arroyo forming onyx near the now-abandoned village.

However, we are ocean-bound and headed in the opposite direction. The first half of the 40 miles of road is in good condition. This gets us to Santa Catarina, a small inland hamlet. Two miles farther south, the road forks. The right fork heads more directly to the beach and we follow that. The track soon becomes rocky and steep, but not too much of a challenge for a decent four-wheel drive. After three hours of dirt road and a dusty playa, we reach the beach.

A half-dozen ponga boats dot the windy beach. A lone fisherman sorts through his gear as we approach. He directs us to a good campsite a half mile down the beach at the base of a fresh-water estuary.

There are dunes here that protect us from the wind, and the estuary is a magnet for birds. Moorhens, mallards, grebes and a heron work the murky water for their evening meals.

Later in the evening, a pack of coyotes surrounds us from a distance for a soulful evening howl. It's a strange serenade, but a fitting one for this place of exotic plants and onyx elephants. TW

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