The East Cape,
Hell, I Knew It Was Paradise
by C.M. Mayo
C. M. Mayo, an El Paso,Texas, native and long‑time resident of Mexico City, taught economics and international finance at ITAM in Mexico City before turning to literary pursuits. Her collection, Sky Over El Nido, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and she is the founding editor of the bilingual (Spanish/English) literary journal, Tameme. Her travel journalism has appeared in Business Mexico, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The story below is excerpted from her new book, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico (University of Utah Press, 2002). It is from the chapter, “The Sea is Cortés.”
Ray Cannon wanted to see a dying dolphinfish. It is an uncanny sight: once hooked, its silvery blue back turns an iridescent green, its flanks saffron with bright blue polka-dots, while its fins blush peacock blue. But the dolphinfish – also called dorado or mahimahi – is not an easy thing to kill. After a typically acrobatic fight, when the some thirty pounds of twisting, leaping rainbow of a fish is finally subdued, the fisherman must club it, and then once the fish is brought on deck, he must club it again. (“And when we say you need a ‘club,’” advise the authors of The Baja Catch, “we're not talking about 10 inches of broomstick. For big dorado, you want something on the order of a kid's metal baseball bat, or better.”) When, at the Rancho Buena Vista Lodge, Ray Cannon made his request known, it was Bob Van Wormer who was enlisted to assist.
That was how the two first met, here on the East Cape in 1957. Cabo San Lucas was just a ramshackle village with a fish cannery then, its one hotel – the Palmilla, out on the dirt road to San José del Cabo – but two years old; Rancho Buena Vista, fifty miles up the Sea of Cortés near Los Barriles, was its sole competitor. Ray Cannon didn't get to see a dying dolphinfish – as it turned out, all they could hook that day were sailfish. But a friendship was formed, which deepened as Cannon continued to fish, photograph, and write about the “biggest angling news scoop of half a century.” Rancho Buena Vista Lodge – one of a number of Baja California hotels and airlines that, over the years, would host Cannon for his PR services – began to fill up with fly-in sportfishermen. By the time his book, The Sea of Cortez, appeared in 1966, Rancho Buena Vista's reputation as one of the premier sportfishing resorts in the world was shining bright. Ray remembered his young friend “Bobby” in his book. And Van Wormer, now a snow-haired paterfamilias, owner with his Mexican wife Chacha of three East Cape resort hotels and the peninsula's largest sportfishing fleet, remembered Ray.
“Ray Cannon...” he said, and a look came over his wrinkled face like a little boy's on Christmas morning. We were sitting on the patio of his Hotel Palmas de Cortez, just up the road from the fabled Rancho Buena Vista. A band was playing ranchera music as his guests – American men mostly – snaked by the buffet of enchiladas and chicken mole. The air felt like a lazy embrace, warm and salty; moonlight fell on the water below in a sweep of silver.
On nights like this, Ray would sit on the porch and tell jokes and stories. I’d seen his picture on the jacket of his book, The Sea of Cortez: an old man in shapeless, water-stained khakis and a captain’s hat, cigarette clenched in his mouth, hoisting a giant black snook by the gills. Ray had been a bit player in Hollywood; later, a director and producer; and then he left it all to fish and write about fishing. A flicker of interest had been awakened north of the border by Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez; but it was Ray’s magazine articles and glossy coffeetable book chock full of fish stories that brought down the first wave of big-spending tourists. As an industry, Baja California's sportfishing had began with him.
Bob chuckled. His was a round Dutch face with hooded pale blue eyes. He was in his seventies now, looking back on a lifetime. The surf lapped the shore below with a soft shush; forks clinked against plates, men's voices hummed in conversation over the drums and guitars of the ranchera band, yet I could hear clearly every word that he said.
“Herb Tansey owned Rancho Buena Vista then, he was the one who put up Ray Cannon. They were great friends. Tansey was an ex-captain for Trans-World Airlines. He was the sole survivor of a crash in Shannon, Ireland. He lost his leg, spent a year in the hospital. But with the compensation from TWA, he bought Rancho Buena Vista. My brother used to come down, and he would tell me how great the fishing was.”
Bob didn’t get down to Rancho Buena Vista until New Year’s of 1957. At the time, he was working as an aircraft mechanic in San Diego. A farm boy from St. Joseph, Missouri, Bob had seen some of the world during World War II, when he was stationed in North Africa and India. But Baja, that was something else.
“God!” he laid both his hands flat on the table. “Jeeeeee-ZUS! Miles of beaches!"
Bob came right back and stayed to work for Herb. It was an idyllic time. Bob was young, unmarried, a man who liked to fish in a place where the fishing was fantastic. His welding and handyman skills, not to mention his English, made him a valued, in fact the most valued, employee in a resort that thanks to Ray Cannon’s publicity, had become the biggest business on the East Cape.
But Herb Tansey, the one-legged pilot, liked to drink. Late one afternoon in 1959, after hitting the bars in La Paz, he got in his plane with his friend Arty Young, to fly back to Buena Vista. He got lost; soon it was dark. He flew around in circles until he ran out of gas and crashed on a mountaintop near the little mining town of El Triunfo. Bob was the one who went to retrieve the bodies.
“It was a miserable sight, just pathetic. He and Arty had all these liquor bottles in the back that broke when they crashed, so they were covered with liquor. But it was amazing, the people didn't take anything. Wallets, rings, I found everything on their bodies. I took Herb’s wallet out of his pocket. And they had the payroll for Buena Vista, it was all there in a paper bag. I had to take it out and count it in front of the mayor. I hired a flatbed truck to cart the bodies out, and since we had to drive over washboard roads, I had to get six Mexicans to sit on the back of the truck to keep the bodies from rolling off. I buried Herb in front of his house at Buena Vista. He’d said to me, ‘I love this place and these people more than anything in my life.’ I could write a book about the parties he used to give. He’d have open bar. The Mexicans loved that guy! I’d never seen so many people cry at his funeral. The cab driver who helped, going back and forth with all the business about the funeral, he would not take one penny.”
Slowly, Bob shook his old white head. “That's why I fell in love with this place: the people. Hell! I knew it was Paradise.”
After Tansey's death, Rancho Buena Vista was sold to a retired U.S. Army Colonel named Eugene Walters. The first season went well, but when it ended Colonel Walters wanted to cut Bob’s pay in half. “So I left. But then when things started rolling again, the colonel wanted me back, offering me the moon and green cheese. I said I’d go back if he offered me a five percent cut. It was a gentlemen’s agreement. I worked there for several years and he never paid me my commission. So finally, I left. Then what do you know, I get a letter from Ray Cannon. He said, ‘Bobby you are really part of Rancho Buena Vista.’ In other words, you go back home, boy. I got the same letter from the colonel’s son. Two letters arrived on the same day, go figure! That night the colonel came by. I told him, ‘I don't see any future for me here.’ I’d been working my you-know-what off and they just used me all those years.”
But it was then, free of Rancho Buena Vista, at the age of forty, that Bob began to build his fortune. In 1965, he married Chacha Ruiz, the daughter of a local cattle rancher. A few miles down the coast they built a resort at Punta Colorada – “the roosterfish capital of the world” – catering to fly-in sportfishermen; then, on land where Chacha's family had grown corn, the Hotel Palmas de Cortez. Soon the Van Wormers were the moghuls of the East Cape, with a third hotel, a Pemex gas station, a trailer park, a fleet of sportfishing boats, and family of three strapping sons.
“I laugh about it now,” Bob said, “but I was bitter when I left Rancho Buena Vista. Goddammit! I'd worked in good faith. I went right ahead though, I became successful, and maybe six or seven years later, I thought, that was an education! An education in the School of Hard Knocks. It cost me, but it was cheaper than what I would have had to pay to go to Harvard Business School. And Harvard Business School, none of those places could have taught me what I needed to know about running a hotel in a place like this.”
Ray Cannon came out to Punta Colorada soon after the hotel opened and he and Bob took some underwater photos of the swarms of roosterfish – big, exotic jacks with a spikey comb-like dorsal fin, rare everywhere in the world but the southern Sea of Cortés. “Once in a while Ray would make a courtesy mention of Punta Colorada. But Rancho Buena Vista was the place, and the colonel was keeping Ray happy.” Ray came back and forth for quite a few years, staying at Rancho Buena Vista mostly. Then in June of 1977, he died suddenly in California, of a brain tumor.
Bob was getting ready to go to the funeral when he stopped in to see Colonel Walters. “I’d been away from Rancho Buena Vista for some years by then and I’d gotten over it. The colonel didn't want to get on an airplane because he’d fallen and hurt his hip badly. But he felt guilty about not going to Ray’s funeral. He just talked and talked about the old days. I said to him, ‘You know, I’d rather remember Ray the way he was. I get so sick of funerals. They’re the biggest bunch of crap I ever saw in my life. Wouldn’t you rather remember Ray with his big belly sticking out, his captain’s hat?’ And the Colonel said, ‘by God, I'm glad I talked to you.’ I said, ‘Don't go. Tell your son to represent you. You remember Ray the way he was, not in a box.’”
Bob looked off into the distance. A stand of palm trees inked out the stars. “That was the last day I saw the colonel alive. He died three or four months later.”
Louder now, insects chirped and sawed. The dishes had been cleared, and the waitresses were gathering the tablecloths, ghostly pale in the moonlight.
We would meet again in the morning.
The clomp clomping woke me at six a.m. Men’s voices, laughing, “hubba hubba,” clomp clomp a-clomp. I slid open the door and stepped out onto the balcony. The sun had not yet pushed above the horizon; the sea was molten silver and the sky ribboned with red and flame yellow, like a sky for the Apocalypse. The men made a line like a rabble of an army, marching with their fishing gear along the sand, then out onto the wooden pier, clomp and clomp. “Up and at ‘em.” They slapped each other on the shoulders, heh heh. And they kept coming in groups of four, two, six, three, clomping out and then into their skiffs that would take them to their boats – the yachts that were anchored a ways out, white and waiting like belles on a dance floor. The skiffs roared as they went slapping across the water.
Back inside, I pulled the pillow over my head and tried to sleep, but “hubba hubba,” clomp clomp, the engines bagpiping away, they were still coming: the grand parade of the American billfighters.
When they were gone, the sun was up and the sea was blue, that impossible, painful blue.
“It feels so good,” Minerva Smith had told me. Well, I thought, maybe for her. I wasn't interested in plowing out into the hot sun, wrestling with a fish I wouldn’t kill. My father didn’t fish either, but he’d been out off Cabo San Lucas with friends. Several times they’d hooked a marlin that already had one, even two fish hooks dangling from its bill. All this fishing: that’s what I wanted to know more about. I met Bob Van Wormer in his restaurant for eggs and toast and coffee.
Catch-and-release, I ventured, it sounded like the sportfisherman's new mantra.
There was nothing new about it, Bob said. Back in 1957, he’d hooked his first marlin, fought it, and let it go. He said, “I don't think I’ve ever killed a marlin.”
“This year at Punta Colorada,” he said proudly, “was the 30th annual International Roosterfish Tournament. Unless you think you have a record, everything is released. Thirty fishermen are out there for three days and they don't kill more than five roosterfish." The guests liked the catch-and-release policy, he said, because then the fish could fight again.
True, he admitted, there was the occasional sportfisherman who needed a little education. Not long ago, someone hauled in twelve roosterfish. “I said, ‘Goddammit, what’d you do that for? Why so many? You bastard! You do that again I’m going to report you!’ It was some gung-ho diver with a speargun. He says, ‘Well, there were so many it was like shooting fish in a barrel.’ Shooting fish in a barrel! God! Dammit!”
Fish in a barrel: this was “the world's greatest fish trap,” as Ray Cannon wrote in The Sea of Cortez, with “acres of roosterfish,” “mile long schools of migrating totuaba,” “teeming swarms of Cortez grunion,” and of all class of marlin, sailfish, jack and snook and bass and grouper and sardine and tuna, “massive aggregations,” “hordes,” and “throngs.” Most spectacular of all were the “fish pileups,” when the sea would suddenly erupt into a boiling curtain of silver, up to a mile long and two to three feet into the air, as the sardines were literally driven out of the water by schools of migrating game fish.
“Back then you could spear grouper,” Bob said, “cabrilla, pargos, there was such an abundance of good eating fish.” But in the early 1960s, the Japanese came in with their long-lines, some of them thirty to even sixty miles long, strung with thousands and thousands of baited hooks. “So many marlin and sailfish were taken that by 1969 and 1970, their average weight was down to only thirty-five pounds. That's how little they were. The Japanese were selling all that sashimi. And the Mexican government was helping them!” Bob’s face was livid. “We raised hell! The hotel association here and in Cabo San Lucas. Finally, the authorities in Mexico City realized what was up and so the billfish started recovering. We got that turned around. Last year was the biggest marlin fishing season ever.”
And the other fish?
Well now, that was another story because of gill netting, shrimp trawling, and spearfishing. Industrial netting and trawling had been going on in the Sea of Cortés for more than fifty years. I’d read a bit about that in Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez. In 1940 he and his friend the marine biologist Ed Ricketts had gone aboard a Japanese dredger to cadge specimens from the tons of “trash fish” the fishermen would discard after having picked out the shrimp. Horrified, Steinbeck and Ricketts watched as the fishermen tossed mountains of dead and dying animals overboard – manta rays, sharks, tuna, anemones, pompano, small tuna – into a cloud of clamoring gulls swarming like flies off the stern. That the Japanese were doing this, and that the Mexican government would permit it was, Steinbeck railed, “a true crime against nature and against the immediate welfare of Mexico and the eventual welfare of the human species.”
Bob agreed. And now, having overheard us, one of the guests, a bearded man in a baseball cap, approached our table and introduced himself: he was a doctor from Anchorage, Alaska. The same thing was happening there, he said, Japanese and Korean fleets out with nets, sterilizing miles of ocean. “We've got this area called the Donut Hole between Russia and Alaska. It’s illegal to fish there but it went on anyway for years, until they went out with helicopters and filmed them.”
Bob nodded vigorously. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, there were the Mexicans living in fish camps on isolated stretches of coast and on the islands who worked with SCUBA gear and spearguns. “All your yummies – cabrillo, pargo, snapper, grouper – they're one tenth of what they used to be. One tenth! There’s no one to monitor these fishermen, to check what size fish they’re taking. They’ll take these tiny little fish for these tiny little fillets, so the fish can’t grow and reproduce.” The Mexican fish and game authority, PESCA, did not have the resources to police the entirety of the Sea of Cortés. Bob had offered to help: “I told them I would gladly have one of my sons patrol the area, for free, not one penny.” But PESCA wasn’t interested.
“Ninety percent of it is gone already! Gone!” Bob wiped his mouth and lay his napkin by his plate. “What's it going to be like in ten years?”
His question hung there in the air like a ball thrown up with no one to catch it. The doctor from Alaska had left. The other guests were all gone – fighting the fish.
I may not have been a fan of sportfishing, but I really liked Bob – Don Roberto, as his employees called him – his good old boy Air Force talk (“goddammit”), his generous and genuine affection for the people, both Mexican and American, of the East Cape. Bob was someone who had integrated – married a Mexican, had a family, built several businesses here. Most Americans (and Canadians) I knew in Mexico were temporary residents barricaded into the local expat community. In Mexico City, for example, there was the Union Church, the Newcomer’s Club, the American School, and so on; they would eat at McDonald’s, shop at Wal-Mart and watch CNN and the Disney Channel on Cable TV. North Americans here in Baja California had their cliques and clubs too, like Jeff Klassen hobnobbing with American sports stars and rock royalty, the retirees in their trailer parks, artists hanging out at the Caffé Todos Santos sipping their smoothies. They might have a few Mexican friends, they might even speak passable Spanish, but to integrate: that was another order of existence.
In fact, Bob had started out speaking Spanish to me. When I’d first called him on the phone, Roberto, as he called himself, went on talking with me for a good ten minutes before we both realized we could switch to English. And it was the damnedest thing: he sounded exactly – not a trace of an American accent – like an East Cape fisherman.
So did his boys. I’d spoken with Bob Junior, bartending at the Hotel Palmas de Cortez – his English was fluent, though thick with a Mexican accent. While Bob and I were having breakfast, another son, Chuck, stopped by with his baby daughter Julia, a little bundle of pink with tiny gold earrings. Chuck spoke Spanish with his father and Bob cooed at the baby, “¡Qué preciosita!”
The Van Wormer family name could take its place alongside names like Fisher, Ritchie, and Wilkes, true-blue bajacalifornios all. And yes, of course, Bob had heard of Thomas “Captain” Ritchie, that legend of nineteenth-century Cabo. He’d read all about him in the book by J. Ross Browne.
“Ritchie,” he said, drawing himself up, “was a very prominent person.”
Like Captain Ritchie with his big wooden house-cum-hotel on the beach at Cabo San Lucas, in his neck of the woods Bob Van Wormer had built a house that was without question the largest and most spectacularly appointed. It stood off to one side of the parking lot of the Hotel Palmas de Cortez, grand and columned, like a cross between a suburban bank and a Greek temple. Bob gave me a tour: great expanses of white shag carpet and pearlescent onyx, black lacquer furniture, mirrors and Italianate bric-a-brac, the rooms arrayed around a central nave fitted with a pool of darting bullet fish.
For years, he and Chacha had lived in a room in the hotel and saved their money, Bob said. All the while Chacha would clip pictures from magazines, dreaming of how it could be. And there she was, deep in her gleaming, creamy white kitchen, a handsome woman with tawny skin and brush-like orange-blonde hair, sitting at the counter eating a bowl of menudo.
“Aqui tiene usted su casa,” she said kindly. This is your house.
And the tour continued around to the front door, above which was a tabletop-sized stained glass medallion window. It depicted the state of Missouri and the cape of Baja California Sur spanned by the Gateway Arch of St. Louis, from his hometown of St. Joseph to hers, Los Barriles. Below were a stalk of corn and a cardón cactus; leaping over the Gateway Arch was a bright blue marlin.
“Our family crest,” Bob said. He’d designed it himself.
But if their house was Chacha’s dream house, the Hotel Punta Colorada, “roosterfish capital of the world,” was Bob’s. This was the hotel they had built after Bob left Colonel Walter’s Rancho Buena Vista. It was a half hour drive down the coast on a washboard dirt road: a good, solid sportfisherman’s lodge, quiet in the early afternoon. Inside it was cool and dark. We ate lentil soup and stewed chicken. Bob told me more stories, about a pet lion they’d had to give to the zoo in Santiago, and about a beggar he’d seen during World War II in Calcutta, a blind man entirely covered with coins. We talked some more about Captain Ritchie.
Afterwards, I asked if I could take his picture. We went outside onto the patio overlooking the sea. Bob scooped up a gray kitten and held it close to his face, that round, smiling Dutch face. The sea behind him was dazzling.
My photo didn’t come out; alas, the negatives on that roll were all blank. But I can see that photo in my mind, as clear as if I held it now in my hand: Bob, the blue.