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Drawn from Prehistory

Deep within Mexico's Baja peninsula, nomadic painters left behind the largest trove of ancient art in the Americas

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Low down on La Trinidad’s wall—lit from above by the glowing rock—are two rows of small, aboriginal handprints, traced in white pigment. Higher up, dominating the space, stands a gracefully drawn buck, shaded in red pigment, its antlers branching artfully. A large fish, its form resembling that of a tuna, displays an anonymous artist’s poetic comprehension of pi-scine anatomy. Bones radiate out from a line stroke delineating the spinal column. “Look at that,” Crosby notes admiringly, “a prehistoric x-ray.”

 

There is a kinetic energy to the figures—especially the powerful buck—that recalls modernist works by Miro and Mondrian. The world has been pared to an ancient impulse: the need to pinion beauty, to create a record for posterity.

 

La Trinidad is a last stop before we make our way out to the paved surface of the Trans-Peninsular. We’re looping back to deliver Crosby to Mulege, where he’ll board a bus for the first leg of his return to San Diego. For the final stage of our journey, Steinmetz and I are crossing into country so trackless we will pack in on mules. “I’m going to forgo that hardship,” Crosby had told us. “But you must see the Arroyo de San Pablo.” To miss those murals, he insists, “would be like going to Rome and skipping the Vatican.” 

 

 

We drive north out of Mulege for an hour and a half. Then, with the 6,000-foot peaks of the Sierra de San Francisco to our east, we turn off toward the mountains. There, we pick up a gravel lane that climbs the sierra’s side and crosses narrow ridgelines; eroded valleys fall away 1,000 feet. After bumping along the bad road lit by the last rays of sunset, we arrive at road’s end: the little settlement of Rancho de Guadalupe.

 

In the darkness, the outpost—a scattering of small, rough wooden buildings—looks desolate. At 5,800 feet, 40-mile-perhour gusts of freezing wind buffet the car, rocking it. Steinmetz and I pull on our heaviest clothes and hunt up our guide, boot-tough cowboy Ramon Arce. In the dirt-floored cook’s shack next to his house, Arce kindly offers us a feast of beef-and-cheese taquitos cooked on his propane stove.

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