Travel Stories: With her marriage on the rocks, Catha Larkin headed to Baja's Sea of Cortez seeking "a bit of the blue"
11.02.10 | 11:10 AM ET
On the morning of our 15th anniversary, I sat down at the computer and found 163 emails to another woman in a secret email account my husband had unwittingly left open.
“Go on, take the money and run,” advised one friend.
“He was getting up in the morning with the children,” my mother-in-law offered.
“You’ve got two kids,” said my younger brother, whose memories of our own parents’ divorce were no less complicated than mine. “Deal with it.”
In the dark of one of those early, bitter nights, our son, almost 4, woke up afraid. “Mama!” he cried out, “has the rain stopped? The rain is crushing the roof!” At 15 below, water in its liquid state could fall only in a dream, but the metaphorical downpour was real. I sat by his side, singing until his nightmare lost its power and his tears dried up. “Mama,” he asked, “when does love end?”
I, too, wept into my pillow, and also hurled expletives at wedding photos, clutched old anniversary cards to my breast, and, yes, broke the requisite pretty blue vase. Yet I found no perspective there, no clearing. The only thing I knew with any certainty was that I had neither the might nor the means to talk sensibly to therapists or lawyers or, most important, my husband. What I needed was time. Space. What you might call a bit of the blue I seemed to have lost.
My friend Gretchen, world-wise and still single, suggested Baja. She also offered to tag along.
“You sure you want to hang out with a weepy, pissed-off wreck for a week?” I asked.
“My dad took off when I was three,” she reminded me. “I lived through weepy and pissed off, and I had no help from JetBlue, that’s for sure.”
Gretchen researched possible trips, and within a few days a glossy sea kayaking brochure arrived in the mail. The radiant couple who ran the outfit promised “azure-blue waters and magical land forms.” “Playful dolphins.” “A star-filled sky more beautiful and luminous than one could imagine.” Big surprise they’re still married.
Before I left, I dropped in to our neighborhood bookstore. Too disoriented to worry about small-town gossip, I bought a copy of “After the Affair,” the only title on the self-help shelf dedicated to my particular problem. The book was practical and optimistic—infidelity can make a marriage stronger!—and, after I read it, I gave it to my husband, suggesting he track down the author and enlist her help.
“I’ll try,” he said.
And so, after arranging for my mother to come help with the kids, I boarded a plane for Baja.
It took a while to stop crying. Through ticketing and security. Borders books. Starbucks. While we waited for our connecting flight to Loreto, Her Name tailed me. Shouted from loudspeakers. Echoed in parents’ calls after dart-away children.
By the time we met our guides at a romantic little hotel in downtown Loreto, I wanted to slink off to bed and disappear until the “time heals all wounds” guarantee took effect. But no, we needed to learn how to pack our bags first. Our lead guide, Gary, ran down the list. Snorkel gear. Check. Rubber, seam-sealed “drybags.” Check, check, check. This was unexpectedly soothing: the whereabouts of kayaking equipment, at least, I could account for. “This trip is fully self-supported,” Gary said. “We carry everything we need.”
In the morning, we loaded into a van and headed south to Puerto Escondido. On towering cordon cacti, vultures hunched, wings spread, living totem poles. The Sierra de la Giganta mountains leaned into us from behind, and yes, they were gigantic, as well as red and ruddy. I pulled out my sunscreen. Protecting my skin from premature aging had suddenly taken on fresh urgency. I bet She didn’t freckle.
A few miles down the road, we pulled into an abandoned condominium development. Sloping toward the water lay a gray slip of a beach. We loaded our kayaks, a herd of hot pink, Gatorade green, fluorescent yellow, and Tootsie Pop purple. To scare away the stingrays, we shuffled into the water, then bellied up to our boats.
“It’s still early,” Gary said as we pushed off. “The wind typically doesn’t pick up for another hour.” Most winter days, Baja’s wind is fierce. On top of the regular stiff midday breeze, a wind known as El Norte also makes cameo appearances. At speeds up to 35 knots. You don’t want to be in your boat for long then, we were told. But if we moved swiftly, there’d be no problem. “We paddle as a group for safety reasons,” Gary said. “It’s also frustrating to be left behind.”
He gave a shout and we were off, floating on the Sea of Cortez.
I did my best to stay busy in Honeymoon Cove, dragging kayaks onto the beach, unloading drybags, rummaging through sunscreen and hats, turning over stones, fingering shells. But multitasking on a lovely sliver of white sand with an audience of lounging eco-tourists is just plain weird after a while. So I spread out and, in the fog of noontime sun and jetlag, drifted. There we were, in sleepy mind’s eye, my husband and I, packing tents and first-aid kits. Plotting our path on topo maps. Fiddling with the campstove. Zipping our sleeping bags together.
Shaking off the sand, I reached for a wet suit and wriggled in, a hot, unbalanced mess. Snorkel and mask secured, I stumbled into the water. There were sergeant majors and parrotfish, blennies and gobies, black urchins, angelfish, and pumpkin-colored stars. Beyond the cove, currents threshed up half-buried life and luminous sand. Out farther still, around the cliff and into open ocean, I kicked away and drifted in the space of turtles, dolphins, and whales.
That night, after forcing good cheer through looping, tequila-fueled, get-to-know-you games, I crawled into my sleeping bag. We’d taken turns wearing a wig of glacier-blue curls and gold-rimmed Elvis shades, shedding our stories while in disguise. The Mistakes I’ve Made. My Crazy Family. The Afternoon We Fell in Love. I kept my mug full of water and my mouth shut.
Rather than share a tent, I spread my bag under the stars at the edge of the water, scorpions be damned. I wanted to be alone for what had become a nightly routine of startled awakenings and disturbingly detailed wide-screen imaginings, complete with close-ups, dialogue, and lots and lots of action.
Deep breath. One. Two. Three. Good. I looked at the pictures of our children. Better. Then I pulled out my journal and started writing. Pages. Who’d have thought you could find sorrow in a sea cucumber? Wrath in a Frisbee?
In the dark distance, the blue whales sighed. Slowly, their rhythmic, gusting exhalations took me in. I woke up with my face in the sand, my sleeping bag in the sun. I’d actually slept. “Water’s smooth as glass,” Gary announced, filling our mugs with hot coffee. “Every once in a great while we get a spring like this. You,” he said, “are lucky.”
In the morning, tents and drybags snug in our kayaks. I squeezed into the tandem in front of our guide Carlos. Beneath our boat, schools of angelfish and sergeant majors accordioned in cobalt, black, and yellow. We paddled. Then drifted. Paddled. Drifted. If we’d been sharing a boat, you could’ve said we lost our bearings, swung off course. The island hummed in the morning sun, and the birds were wild: blue-footed boobies, pelicans, and osprey flung themselves into water and air. A few yards to the south, a sea lion, obsidian shine, lolled on its side, sleeping. We got swamped. Who doesn’t? By the shore, a rare green sea turtle surfaced. Dolphins darted about. And then, way out there, a blue whale, 100 tons, the biggest creature on Earth, breached and dove, searching. It, too, had traveled thousands of miles to escape the cold.
After lunch, sitting next to a tide pool swirling with sea anemones, Rob shared that he had divorced not long ago (not his idea) and that he’d just endured a third surgery for brain cancer. Susan talked about quitting her husband of 30 years and the tedium of looking for an apartment. Gary said that he married Sue within six months of laying eyes on her, and they were still in the same boat, so to speak, 17 years later. When asked if she’d marry, Mariann, the lithesome sun-kissed guide who looks just like Her, said, “Now why would I do that?”
The day before we paddled back to our van, Gary took us on a natural history walk. We set out over a limestone cliff hanging over the sea. For a while, we scratched for fossils while Gary explained that 25 million years ago, two tectonic plates had shifted, pushing part of Mexico west and clearing space for water to move in.
With his pocketknife, Carlos chopped pieces of barrel cactus on a flat rock. His mother boils the meat for four hours with sugar to make dulce de biznaga, Mexican cactus candy. The result is a local staple, chewy and sweet, with a brown sugar flavor. Carlos handed each of us a piece of the raw meat. It was grainy and honeylike and moistened the tongue and mouth. Qualities not to be undersold, Gary said. On average, Baja gets only two inches of rain a year. Except sometimes. Not long ago, a hurricane had brought down more than a foot of rain in half a day, recasting entire beaches and ridgelines.
“This beautiful place,” said Gary, waggling a finger at the mountains and sea, “is a landscape formed by natural disaster and catastrophic events.” I felt a first tremor of possibility, that in a geological blink of an eye, an unstable marriage could be reshaped, more rugged and expressive for its faults and shifting contours.
I slept in the last morning, and made a quick journal entry before packing up. Just a list. Gretchen was there. And Gary, accidental aphorist with spot-on timing. Fresh ceviche. Sea lions. Osprey. Rob, who’d already planted his tomato starters back home, even though, he said, it was early. The distant warmth of my husband’s chest. The whales, of course. And that the water they swim to come winter—if you look at it long enough—shines black and green, silver and blue.
On the way out of Loreto, I bought a fist-size bag of dulce de biznaga. And then, nine days closer to spring, I headed for home.