Imagine California more than 150 years ago. Until Spain recognized Mexico’s sovereignty in 1821, California was a Spanish colony. This colony was separted by two missionary factions. In the North, Alta California was governed by the Franciscan missions and to the south Baja California was under Frandiscon mission rule. But the young sovereign Mexico soon had its hands full when a perhaps overly zealous US President James Polk seemed bent on fulfilling our nations manifest destiny pushed Stonewall Jackson, Zachary Taylor and a talented group of junior officers which included Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee into Mexico. U.S. Troops battled their way through Mexico until they occupied Mexico City and thereby setting the stage for the Mexican Cession of 1848 when Alta California and Nuevo Mexico were ceded to the United States — a condition that ended the war.
As the cliché aptly dictates, ‘the rest is history.’
Modern day Alta California, or the 31st state to join the union, is the fifth largest economy in the world. But southern California, a significant contributor to that position, is an unlikely oasis smack in the middle of a grand desert — unable to sustain itself with local water sources. Thus, the on-again, off-again rival with Northern California and the other Colorado River basin states — many of which, ironically enough, were part of territories negotiated from Mexico.
Water is life. And while I certainly didn’t need to span half the globe to find evidence of this notion, it hit me harder than I ever imagined as I skirted the border of Namibia and Angola while trekking Kaokoland and the African nomadic tribe of the Himba. And then seeing how water is also death as the mighty Zambezi spilled and spilled its bounty into the flood plains of Mozambique and Zimbabwe forcing people to migrate and spreading disease along the way. We see it when the media makes it news. But until you really see it and see the people does it move one into action.
But here in California, we’ve somehow negotiated not only the state from foreign hands, but the water that we need to stay alive. Except we’ve negotiated that from our domestic brethren and neighbors. Fortunate to turn the tap and have the magical elixir quench our thirst instantly, this seemingly basic American privledge disappears once you cross that line once drawn by the missions which now is a wall separating the United States from Mexico and California from Baja California.
My around the world odyssey also took a turn when I crossed that line and entered Baja, California a few short years ago. On a rough yet beautiful road that parallels the pristine coast along the Sea of Cortez from Puertocistos to Coco’s Corner through the Sonoran Desert, I found myself out of water. With temperatures north of 100 degrees fahrenheit, the often rocky and washboarded road eventually caused my shock to blow — overheated, overworked and over done. Sandy washes caused me to dump the bike. And my overworked body was nearly dehydrated — and there were no services, no taps, no convenience stores along the way. Exhausted and spent, I was saved by the one-legged man known to all as simply Coco.
I often wonder what Baja California would be like had it been part of the Treaty of Guadalupe back in 1845. For more than 150 years it has remained wild, beautiful and host to wildlife that reaches the tops of its mountains to the coral reefs of the Sea of Cortex and the surf-pounding waves of the Pacific. And while its natural beauty is compelling on its own, the dolphins, whales, lizards, turtles, rays, birds and more all make for a fragile ecosystem that is in serious jeopardy.
The road from Puertocitos to Coco’s Corner — I’m told this is being paved today. I hope not.
The road often not forgiving.
The man only known as Coco.
Recent changes in Mexican law have opened the door for foreign ownership and development. And if not tended to with commitment to care and conservation, Baja, and what makes it so endearing and seductive could die. And that’s why I spent my Saturday morning viewing amazing photographs and listening the words of the photographers that shot them at San Diego’s Natural History Museum.
Ralph Lee Hopkins has been shooting nature for more than twenty years. Leading many photo adventures with National Geographic’s Lindblad Expeditions, Ralph has traveled the waters from Alaska to Baja – and along the way touched whales, swam with dolphins and observed from afar the amazing polar bears. While the beauty cannot be denied, Ralph isn’t shy to share those photographs which are not so beautiful — photographs of places where human intervention and development have left open wounds and irreparable scars on the face of our planet. Ralph has teamed with WildCoast, a non-profit that aims to protect and preserve coastal ecosystems and wildlife in the Californias and Latin America.
This is just one of the amazing photographs of Baja California you’ll see at Baja – the photo exhibit featuring Ralph Lee Hopkins at the Ordover Gallery in San Diego’s Natural History Museum.
While Ralph’s photo work focuses on the ocean, sea and coastal areas of Baja, Saturday’s exhibit and talk also included work and stories by