A stubborn protrusion formed of sierras, deserts and canyonlands, Baja California, unlike its sister the Sea of Cortez to the east, refused to be engulfed by the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The Peninsula of Baja California, 230km east-west and 1300km north-south, and the Sea of Cortez, of almost identical proportions, balance each other out like the two halves of a yin yang.
Intrinsically linked, caught in a rhythmical dance of thermal winds, the two are like forbidden lovers allowed only to share their breaths.
The result of their bitter love affair is an ecosystem like nowhere else on earth. Unable to use the saltwater that laps its coasts like liquid fire, Baja’s landscape perseveres, dry, arid, and unforgiving, save for a few oases.
Only recently split in two by a paved highway spanning its length, Baja’s thorny coasts remains relatively inaccessible to mere-mortal 2-wheel-drive vehicles.
Birthed as bubbling magma below the surface of the very bottom of the ocean hundreds of millions of years ago, and slowly raised up by the planet’s restlessness, the topography here is truly ancient.
Freed from its immense deep-water pressure, the land breathes and expands, cracking and eroding as it does. The erosion is further precipitated by the elements. In some places, salt crystals seep into the earth and expand and contract with the desert heat. In others, torrential rains careening down the slopes take any loose sediment with them.
To a charging river, entire sections of highway are considered “loose sediment” All these and still more incredibly powerful elemental forces have sculpted, and continue to sculpt, the face of the peninsula, at snail’s pace, for millions of years.
While this is true of almost anywhere on earth, the peninsula’s face remains bare.
Landscapes of Baja
Other landscapes on earth might have been made-up with forests young and old, or grasslands, or even ever-morphing sand dunes. Baja’s every feature is left almost nude, powdered only with a dust-green shade of cactus, allowing our human imagination to replay millions of years of drawn-out creation into instants.
The bareness of the landscape allows us to see life from the wavelength of a rock: ancient, strong, unhurried, and yet metamorphosing, ever-evolving, and plastic. At this speed species are born and die in moments, flash floods are razors that slash canyons into our dry skin, and cacti have lifespans shorter than that of forearm hairs. At this speed, the post-storm blossoming of a flower is a blessed micro-event that could easily go unnoticed if it weren’t so full of grace.
Once very much attached to mainland Mexico, an undisturbed continuation of the Sierra Nevada, Baja started to slowly drift away into the Pacific, taken by the earth’s epidermal currents, about twelve million years ago. At the time, dinosaurs were long gone, apes not yet human, and strange mammals roamed both land and ocean.
Then, the friendly grey whales which now famously inhabit the Sea of Cortez and multiple bays on the Pacific coast would have been but one of an incredibly diverse species of cetaceans, and would have been striving to survive amongst what we would now perceive to be enormous and ferocious sea monsters, such as mega toothed sharks.
Today, the peninsula remains volcanically active and continues to stray further and further from the landmass of the Americas at a rate perceptible only to well-tuned seismographs. Hurricanes continue to sweep its shores ritually every year. But now a new sculpting force has entered the formula: Us.
We have sprinkled the land with a few cities connected by a growing road system, we have started tapping deep into the flesh of the desert with wells that promote large-scale agriculture, and we have pulled the waters of the ocean to dry its salts upon the shores. Compared to the rest of the planet, it seems our growth here mirrors the speed of the desert: excruciatingly slow.
Because of this, the skies in Baja continue to be some of the most astounding on earth, the nearest light pollution being San Diego. And yet, we have still managed to change the landscape here faster since 1900 than nature has since creating the Mastodon.