The San Felipe Cardon of '92

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

San Felipe's Giant Cardon

Thirteen years ago marked the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by the privateer and opportunist

Cristóbel Colón (Christopher Columbus).

Five hundred is a nice round number. It appears only twice in a millennia. So Spain had the notion the date was noteworthy and perhaps some kind of celebration was in order. The original colonies and countries that owned the misfortune of residing in the path of the Spanish hegemony of 1492 were contacted and invited to participate in the commemoration. Of course Mexico featured prominently on the list and promptly offered to unplug one of its giant cardon cacti and ship it to Seville, Spain where the festivities were to happen because the city was going to be busy hosting the World’s Fair that year anyway. Yamaha 750 near the Giant CardonThe cardon would presumably soar up above all the other exhibits and admirably demonstrate how Nature originally intended an accordion to behave –-quiet, immobile and green.
Baja California doesn’t mean much to the rest of Mexico. For the average Mexican it is a place without culture, full of backward people and empty landscapes. In other words, the perfect gift box from which to draw an offertory to best express the nation’s gratitude for four centuries of Spanish corruption and despotism. The project was given a high priority, which locally translated to about a fifty-fifty chance of being accomplished. The forest of giant cardon cacti near San Felipe was to provide the vegetable. A fine specimen was located not too far from the highway, but plucking it from the ground proved to be more difficult than anticipated. A forty five foot tall cactus is a lot heavier than it looks. Especially after a cloudburst.

Specialists, engineers and ecologists came up with a plan to construct a steel frame around the cactus and to enclose its root system in canvas and a box. They would allow the plant to dehydrate a while to stabilize its size and then brace the trunk and limbs with steel collars lined with foam. With the entire cactus fortified by this system of supports, a giant crane would lift it onto the bed of a tractor trailer which would then transport it across the country to a ship on the east coast.

Everything went according to plan, until the time arrived to lift the cactus out of the ground. The added weight of the steel framework was too much for the crane’s cable and it snapped like the G-string of an oversized vacationer playing beach volleyball. Another crane was summoned but became bogged in the sand a hundred feet from the first crane.
Back in San Felipe, word got around that something was happening behind the hills across from Poncho’s Camp. Always on the lookout for novel and unusual forces of entertainment, the more intrepid members of the town’s retired demographic dusted off their sand rails and buggies, packed their folding chairs, beach umbrellas, snacks and beer and lit out for the floor show in the desert south of town. Giant Cardon near San Felipe, Bajja

The next several days fell into the pattern of a ritual. The cactus abatement team, now the crane repair and extrication crew, gathered early in the morning around the half-buried track of the floundered crane and used shovels, boards and bits of plywood to try and create a purchase for the machine’s rooted conveyors. Meanwhile the gringos would decamp in a half-circle around the spectacle, unsnap their aluminum chairs, plant umbrella shades over their heads and from their reclined vantage, shout out suggestions and advice to the quarrying Mexicans.

One afternoon an enormous motorhome, hyphenated at the rear by a Wrangler jeep, pulled in and then attempted to turn around. Deserts love that kind of imprudence. This particular desert promptly created a soft mouth the size of an over-inflated rear RV tire and within twenty minutes there was a gringo echo of the Mexican crane scene. Hubcaps, sticks and plastic food containers gulped out sand around the bogged tire. The people in the lawn chairs stood up and shifted their positions a few degrees, the better to be heard by the volunteers who knelt shoulder-to-shoulder beside the rear fender of the massive RV.

“Ya goota jack it up and fill the hole!” bellowed one of the bystanders.

“Naw, ya just have’ta let air outta the tires,” offered another.

The Mexicans stopped to watch for a while then returned to their work on the crane. They weren’t going to share any secrets.

Ultimately Spain received its giant cactus. But not before more hurdles were overcome in the rich, timeless, south-of-the-border fashion Mexico has perfected, including a breakdown of the truck assigned to transport the cactus to the east coast.

Between the embarkation from Mexico and the releasing of the cardon from its Iron Maiden in Seville, it somehow managed to age 1350 years. It left Mexico at an estimated 150 years of age, yet the biographic plaque that labeled it at the World’s Fair said it was 1500 years old. It’s true bureaucracy moves slowly, but someone must have used a geologic calendar for the boat trip.

Expo ’92 came and went. The cactus never changed its pose for the thousands of photographs the tourists took. Eventually it became the consummate expatriate. It didn’t call. It didn’t write. It didn’t even email.

Now and then a photograph of it passes through town. The poor thing looks a little displaced, like it lost its passport. Or maybe it threw it away. Either way, it’s certainly there to stay.

As it has slowly succumbed to the radical environment change of a different climate zone and the scarring of graffiti, it has browned and weakened. Metal cradles now prop up several of its limbs. Holes have rotted out head-sized cavities in its body. Still, it hangs onto life by keeping a blush of green in some of its extremities and has even managed to force a new birth of a limb, or something that might have been a limb in better times.

For a different slant on the historical significance of the celebration, read this article by Winona LaDuke.

San Felipe's Giant Cactus
San Felipe's Giant Cactus
San Felipe's Giant Cactus
San Felipe's Giant Cactus
San Felipe's Giant Cactus
Click on any thumbnail to enlarge.
Above is the abatement project.
Below is the poor giant as it looks today in Seville, Spain (Jan, 2006)
Valley of the Giants
San Felipe's Giant Cactus
San Felipe's Giant Cactus
San Felipe's Giant Cactus
Cardon Cactus