Traveling Companions

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At 5 a.m. the two depart for the torturous drive out to the lagoon.

"There was about four inches of clearance, and boulders were slamming into the floorboard when these old shit-box vans would just blow by spraying rocks and laying down a dust cloud that lingered long after they were gone," says Doliber. "On the map it didn't look that far away."

The map lied. It is easily four hours of concussive jolts that rattle bones and strain ligaments no matter how slowly you proceed.

After several miles of rugged washboard through twisting and turning desert arroyos, the road opens up and you can see to the horizon. There is nothing there.


Any contrast of color has been vacuumed out of the earthen landscape.

The sky is blue, but everywhere else are skeins of dun-hued dirt, rock, rubble twined and flattened like tawny cords of baked terra cotta laid out in a single khaki plane. No cardons, ocotillo, yucca, cirio, palo adan or agave. The eyes take in nothing that lives or breathes. When your vision adjusts, you notice occasional feathering along the roadside. Salt bush, no more than a couple of inches off the deck, does not soften the vista in the least but rather adds one more tannin-stained element.

The road, rippled as badly as the worst tank track and twice as hard, rises inches up off of the desert, a hemp-colored levee stretched out to a vanishing point where it then continues forward.

Once under way again, you notice panels of blindingly white snow off to the side, which in fact are salt deposits upon the arid lagoon's floor. Remnants of water collect and gather in aquamarine pools that jar the eye and promise to strangle the thirsty.

The air is dry enough to snap.

And the sense of God's wonder is overwhelming.

Even here, man's handiwork is evident, kidding the visitor in this expansive-skied baking sheet.

Attached by electrical cord to a metal rod buried in the desert floor is a car door. In red paint someone has written: "Welcome. Whale watching trips. The best guide. Ask for Chema . . ."

Incomprehensible, yes, but this desert hardpan ends at the Pacific Ocean.

Doliber and Stricklin roll into the first of several fish camps. Plywood, corrugated aluminum, wire, rope, all these fundamental materials have been pulled together into sheds. There are rectangles for windows, but pressboard substitutes for panes. Glass is mostly found in trucks. Trucks that run are outnumbered and surrounded by trucks that don't. Trucks that don't run are outnumbered and surrounded by truck parts. Fenders, bumpers, cabs, flatbeds, axles, upside down, buried in sand banks, collected in walls, abandoned where they stopped, dismantled and discarded, the rusting hulks are everywhere and peppered with whale bones.

You'd think something large had been detonated.

Chema, who takes visitors out for the three months -- January through March -- that the whales are in the lagoon, fishes the rest of the year. He negotiates a price, then equips Doliber and Stricklin in neoprene boots and life jackets, and just that quickly the men are in Chema's panga and out into the lagoon. For the next several hours the men glide among the gray whales, mothers and calves.

Beginning with a neighbor of Chema's in the mid-'70s, the gray whales initiated meaningful contact with the human race. Mothers and calves approach the small fishing boats, gently rising out of the water and allowing themselves to be caressed. There is no comparable experience between mankind and animals anywhere in the world.

The sea-weary Doliber is undeniably moved.

"Until that day with Chema, I'd never hugged and kissed a whale. Stunning. Too good to be true at first. A couple of guys and Chema in an 18-foot outboard with whales all around the boat, craning to get a look at us, waiting to be petted."

The tide is out when they return, but the boots make the hike through a quarter-mile of lagoon muck painless enough.

"It's a very human experience," says Doliber. "They approach you. They are curious and seem friendly by nature. The mothers nudge the young towards the boats, towards the humans as if there is something to be gained or learned from the experience. People respond in a motherly manner, with gentle caresses. You can't help yourself. There is wonder and awe at the sight of these huge creatures."

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey