The Valley of the Cirios

For accuracy I should tell you that the road trip started in Venice Beach, in a car park reserved for clients of the Bank of America. I spotted two of the Danes I’d be travelling with at a distance of one, maybe two hundred metres – los Vikingos, as they were to be known later on down the road – and hopped, suitcase and all, into the back of their four wheel drive bound for the San Diego border crossing and into the depths of Tijuana, Mexico. But my memory of the trip really begins over breakfast at Mama Espinoza’s in the small town of El Rosario, five hours’ drive south of Tijuana, because within arm’s reach of it lies the 30th parallel, where the Valley of the Cirios begins.

Mama Espinoza’s is a famous pit stop on Mexico’s Federal Highway 1, as the road turns inland and away from the North Pacific Ocean. The restaurant is nothing from the outside, and inside its walls are covered in fading memorabilia from faster times, when the town was a checkpoint on the Baja 1000 roadmap and racers like Steve McQueen dropped by for lobster tacos en route to the next chequered flag. I’d heard of the tacos, delicious in season, but the delicate idea of them seemed mismatched by the gasoline-fuelled decorations flung heartily across the room. I was here in Baja California in search of plants – cactuses that I imagined growing 20 metres tall, in great cathedral forms, right up to the edge of the Sea of Cortés. From what I’d seen so far, El Rosario was more intent on quad bikes than botany, but I took a chair at an empty table, convinced by the smell of the coffee and the huevos rancheros gently wafting over the top of the kitchen’s saloon doors.

Les ofrezco cafe? Some coffee?” asked the waitress, who was young and perhaps a distant relative of the folkloric Mama Espinoza herself. I ordered breakfast (no lobster on the menu today), unfolded a map of Baja California and began searching for green patches, signs of parques nacionales and reservas de la biósfera that we might pass on the way to the resort town of Los Cabos in the south.

On paper the great Baja peninsula looks sinewy and beige, like one long, creased limb void of freshwater, kicking out restlessly into the heavily salted Pacific. With cross-hatched mountains and a heavy network of deserts, it doesn’t seem like a place where life would plant itself, burrow down deeper its inquisitive roots and grow freely, but sometimes the toughest of lands produce the richest results.

So far we’d seen Valle de Guadalupe rear up like a hallucination of grapes and productivity from the middle of arid land an hour or two out of Tijuana – staking its claim as one of least likely wine regions in the world – and with 1,300 kilometres of road ahead of us, I guessed we’d find more botanical apparitions along the way.

My eyes had wandered over to a countertop covered with souvenirs – postcards, books, painted shells, t-shirts and hand-carved whales – when the waitress re-appeared, with breakfast held aloft. In a nod she declared the map in front of me a fairly convenient tablecloth and set down a plate of eggs down just north of El Rosario. My cup of coffee landed, intact, on an island, Isla Ángel de la Guarda, somewhere off the east coast. “Gracias, que rico,” I grinned, scrutinising what remained of Baja California amid the huevos rancheros and the steaming americano and there it was, like a divine message: Valle de los Cirios, Area Protegida.

It stretched down the leg of Baja California from El Rosario to Guerrero Negro: the Valley of the Cirios. With every mouthful of beans and salsa-laden tortilla the words sounded more alluring. The road would take us right through the heart of the peninsula and into the valley for the next 300-odd kilometres, so whatever they were we’d soon find ourselves face-to-face with some genuine cirios (Fouquieria columnaris). The idea of it sped me up from slow to rolling, and I cleaned the plate, left a tip, paid the bill and, always a sucker for road-trip reading, bought a few books about Mama Espinoza on the way out the door. The Vikings – Kenny, Henrik and Mie – were in the process of emerging from hotel rooms, finishing off breakfast, packing suitcases, tumbling into the car and, all in, we pulled the doors shut and headed off.

During the course of this road trip we planned to cover 4,000 kilometres, which necessarily meant a lot of car time. Now the stereo was playing, Kenny was driving with Henrik up front, Mie was in the back listening an audio book and I was set up with a packet of Karate-brand cacahuates japonés (Japanese peanuts, downright essential for any travel through Mexico) and Mama Espinoza’s autobiography entitled Reflections. As a storyteller, Mama has the ability to charm you with her chapter headings – take ‘Life With The Ranchero Cowboy’, or ‘Old Road, Heavy Duty People’ for instance – and pull you in with her conversation about life in this rugged part of the world.

Many types besides the Baja racers had made their way to El Rosario, as it turns out, before Highway 1 was unfurled like a great licorice rope both north and south of the pueblo. Some of them were palaeontologists, some were travellers armed with metal detectors or filming equipment and there had been many, recalled Mama Espinoza, who’d come in search of cactus and other, wilder plants, endemic to the peninsula.

I read aloud, to anyone in the car who’d listen, from what Mama had to say about the cirios:

“During the old days,” she began, “the heavy duty Americans, scientists, writers, rock-hounds and many others came looking for cactus. Dr Humphrey came from the University of Arizona in the first Volkswagen van we had ever seen, a white one; the first to come down on those dirt trail roads. He found the tallest Cirio plant or “boojum”, like many people call them. Dr Humphrey found one 72-feet tall. The Cirio is one of the most fascinating plants of Baja, and has brought so many cactus people here…. It occurs in a 150-mile wide east/west corridor, from just below El Rosario to the north of Guerrero Negro. It is a tree of rare shape, and it survives in one of the harshest climates in the world. When the plant is small, the Cirio is roundish looking, much like a carrot that is growing upside down. But there are forests of these weird looking trees encountered from here to the 28th parallel, and they are found nowhere else in the world, except for a very limited area in Kino Bay, Sonora, Mexico.”

My head had been in the book for an hour, but it would stay firmly plastered to the window for the rest of the day because, looking up, I met the gaze of hundreds of silent giants. We were surrounded – on all sides – by the cirios.

In person, the cirio is greater and more mysterious than any description I’ve found to date. The word “carrot” is too domestic and “candle”, as the Spanish cirio implies, is too reserved. One moment we were driving through a desert, but at some point we crossed into cirio country and the shift was as tangible – and abrupt – as that. It felt eerie moving through the valley, looking out, with the cirios peering back in. The pitch of the road was on par, and at times slightly lower than, the terrain off to either side, and I felt our presence being monitored by these towering trees, all huddled like co-conspirators within a geographically short distance of one another.

The American naturalist, Joseph Wood Krutch, had taken similar tracks through Baja California years before, when the roads were unsealed, and he wrote of how the cirio (or boojum as he tended to call them) “dominates the landscape and imposes upon it an air of dreamlike unreality. If one is reminded of anything, it is either of the imagined surface of some distant planet or of one of those reconstructed scenes from a remote geological era when there were no real trees, only huge club mosses and horsetails magnified to gigantic size.” The forms they take on are wild and delirious: “some thick, some thin; some unbranched, some branching crazily as though at random; some lifting the branches upwards, some allowing them to droop and curl fantastically,” Krutch said. Outside, we could see cirios in all these shapes and sizes, no two exactly alike. In fact, the landscape was so oddball that Kenny was moved to pull the car over, and with some exclamatory words in Danish we all jumped out.

It was the first stop of many we’d make in the Valle de los Cirios. The solitary world of the desert engulfed us, and we were each drawn off in separate directions to think about, or so I figured, our own place in the universe.

The desert – at large – has a way of emphasising esoteric questions, and making the answers to them feel more straightforward or just more evident. That day, the presence of the cirios added another layer of urgency for me, perhaps because of their rareness, or isolation, or the fantastical silhouette they cast against the parched earth and too-blue, too-cloudless skies. I’d dressed in quite an ad hoc manner that morning – halter neck floral dress, black socks and R.M. Williams boots, an unnaturally bright green jumper with a toucan embroidered on it, and a Panama hat – but as I walked deeper into the desert those pre-dawn, non-fashion choices gave me a real sense of security. I stuck out. The allure of the desert has caught many, and could pull me on forever, but at least today there would be no getting lost.

A cirio is not a cactus, although over the years they’ve captured the hearts of many who profess to be “cactus people”. They are spiny trees, which in their adolescence tend to be bottom-heavy, but with time develop a skinny main trunk, tapering towards the top. Some branch, others remain singular and all of them are covered in short, leafy stems that sprout from the trunk and give the cirios a soft, feathery appearance from afar. Up close it’s not easy to shake hands with a cirio, because their gentle perimeter is armed with a coating of finely disguised thorns, which grow at the point where its leaves drop off during rainless spells.

Cirios certainly rule over their country, but the valley around me – as a whole – was full of life, finely adapted to survive without the essentials. The cirios I met, and circled around in dizzy wonder, were growing right alongside flowering agaves, bent towards 200-year old cardón cactuses, or draped, widow-like, in grey-green Spanish moss. There were fragile nightshade flowers just waking and, within a radius of one metre in any direction, an incredibly rich survey of cactus species, small and big. A hawk looked on from its nest, some 15-metres up, where it shared with the cirios a vast, stationary view on the peninsula and its secret histories.

Cirio country ends as sharply as it begins. We were back in the car, crossing the 28th parallel into Baja California Sur, where the borderlines somehow aligned exactly with the dwindling and eventual disappearance of the cirios from the landscape.

As we sauntered into Guerrero Negro, and stopped for lunch, I felt a little lonelier for their absence. I could tell you now what I didn’t know at the time: theories on where the cirios come from and why they’re restricted to Baja Peninsula and Kino Bay; that they flower, creamy-yellow, at this time of the year in Mexico; and are pollinated by hummingbirds that themselves have found a way to survive in the desert. I could tell you that the American plant hunter, Godfrey Skyes, gave the plant its common name, “boojum”, which he shrieked when he first saw their silhouette in the early 20s, thinking of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “The Hunting of the Snark”. The literary boojum is a creature thought capable of vanishing people, and as I ate my guacamole and clung to the restaurant’s patchy wifi – shooting messages off to the mainland – I understood how that legend could be kept alive by the cirios.