Hidden beach. Some landscapes are impressions. Distant memories that evoke a powerful sense of place. There are no photographs to prove they exist, maybe a lost sketch in smudged pastels, but years later you wake up in the middle of the night thinking of them.
We were running late in a place that didn’t keep time. The light of the day had been spent exploring the gulf coast of Veracruz. I don’t recall the exact details of the day. Perhaps we climbed among the ruins of La Antigua, where Hernan Cortez first landed on the continent. There was an ancient ceiba tree there that refused to die. Since before memory, it grew until the earth could not bear its weight, and then it leaned over like abuela resting herself on the ground. Where she touched, new roots drew strength from the Mexican soil. It had been lounging like this through the plaza for centuries.
Or maybe that was the day we sat in a mahogany forest sketching the understory, taking care not to sit on a coral snake, who most certainly would prefer to be left alone between the tree roots. We sat silent with charcoal in our palms while the living forest created a symphony around us. Creatures unseen sang. Suddenly there was the percussion of a distant tree breaking to the ground, the weight of epiphytes looking for a free ride finally being too great a burden. We were taught in the tropical forest you are in earshot of one million trees. The number seems too round to be accurate, but large enough that the drum of treefall was more likely than not.
It was after some magical day in a foreign land, we got a late start for our night’s camp. We were already hungry and a bit drained from the tropical weather when we piled into white vans, which had seen more Mexican miles than anyone could imagine. We misjudged the distance down the coast and slowed our pace as night fell. The coastal road was barely marked. The gravel road leading up the bluff overlooking the Gulf of Mexico was completely unmarked. Coming into camp in the dark on unmarked roads is terra incognita.
We couldn’t call ahead and notify the camp of our delay because this hideaway in 1990 had no phone. Reservations were made by sending a messenger out weeks ahead to sort arrangements. We pulled up to a flat-roofed block building in the forest after 9:00 on a tropical May night. A few lights went on, and several men came out to greet us when they heard the vans. They knew to expect us, but had not started dinner since they didn’t know when we would arrive. I was ravenous from the day and the drive but there was nothing to do but unpack and relax while the cook got to business.
The main building was more of a shelter. The best part of it was open to the jungle on three sides and contained a scattering of picnic tables. There were rooms in the back but I never determined what they were for – perhaps dorms for the staff. The kitchen was in a separate building some paces off the main building. The camp was lit by the minimum number of incandescent bulbs. They provided dim light for human tasks. We were a feeble tungsten beacon against the darkness of the jungle and the brilliance of the universe.
Wisely, someone had built stairs on the back of the shelter. While dinner fried, we climbed on top of the flat roof. The camp was large enough to create a break in the canopy, giving an open view of the tropical night sky. The day had been sweltering and the night was still warm and moist, but up here there was a breeze that blew off the gulf and made it through the trees. Even with the humidity of the tropics, the night was clear. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and it had been some years since I had seen a dark sky. There is nothing to make one feel a small spark in the universe than to marvel at billions of stars in the dark sky. Awe inspiring as it was, I also felt sadness at how long it had been since I’d observed this simple view of nature. It is even sadder how many people never get away from civilization on a dark night and let their eyes adjust to the heavens.
In due course, dinner was prepared and we went below to eat. The fish had surely been swimming offshore this morning. It was delicious and meager. I never knew if the camp was misinformed about our number or if our ravenous American appetites didn’t belong in this land, or if the fishing boats had just had a bad day and that is how life went on here, but there were just a few bites of róbaleño to be had when I could have devoured the platter. I remember no other food—perhaps some local tortillas.
The odd thing is, it didn’t matter. The few bites were savory and staved off any real hunger pains. Besides, I wasn’t going to starve. And it fit with the gestalt of the place. In place of dessert, we American visitors sang a capella whatever folk songs we knew. Five-hundred miles away from home, indeed.
Still sticky from the day, we climbed down the bluff to the feature that gave this camp its name. Descending treacherous steps cut into the rocks we came to the cove and Playa Escondida. The gibbous moon in the east reflected on the Gulf of Mexico. Warned there was a rip current, we stayed where we could stand. The gulf was salty and warm compared to what I was used to in June, but was a salve for the heat of the day. I am a sinker in most water, but here the salinity exceeded my own primordial chemistry, and I could float in the moonlight. When we stroked the water and rose up from the surf, dinoflagellates lit up the water with phosphorescence. The moon, the surf, the Milky Way — there is so much light in the world that we do not make.
Our berths were small cassetas, down a path in the woods away from the gulf. There was no movement of air there save what our own bodies stirred pushing through the night steam. I decided to leave the casseta to the large hairy Mexican spider, who had bivouacked in our baño. With the pillow from the bed, I climbed to the clearing and laid down on the concrete of the roofdeck. I was young enough then that hard ground or a hard deck were reasonable accommodations. There was a breeze from the gulf and a canopy of stars to cover me. I slept in a foreign land under the night sky.
Even if I weren’t programmed to wake at daybreak, the spider monkeys in the treetops made sure I knew it was time to get up. Waking up to monkeys going about their morning routine when you have never done so is confusing. I didn’t know what was happening. Surfacing enough that my eyes could focus, I watched the rambunctiousness above me.
Certain that sleep was over for me, but hours before there would be food, I grabbed my notebook and headed to the bluff. Sitting on a high landing, I watched the sun as it climbed higher over the gulf. The breeze still blew landward and a flock of frigatebirds played off the thermals. Their wings were enormously long. The males had bright red throats while the larger females had white breasts. They floated barely moving, save for a twitch of a forked tail. I was humbled remembering how accomplished I felt a few hours earlier floating in the salty gulf. I sat entranced, thinking how their navigation of the world was so vastly different than mine. Still I hovered, soaring in my brain, wind in my face, salt in my hair, feeling that some landscapes are perfect just the way you find them.
After a breakfast of huevos rancheros, we packed the vans and headed out. What can the power of a place be, which you only visited for 12 hours thirty years earlier? A place that you are unlikely to see again, even if it still exists. Aldo Leopold wrote, “it is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it.”
The first landscape that teaches you are a foreigner in the world, that there was beauty before you and will be beauty after you and you are just passing through, is one that stays with you. These landscapes don’t need to be revisited. They don’t need photographs to trigger memory. I cannot say I agree with Leopold that it is best never to revisit a wilderness, but in the case of this landscape I agree there is no need.