Sometimes we can create a memory so profound in beauty and unique in the way it measured and made us that it becomes an oasis among all our other memories. A Finger of Land on an Old Man’s Hand is Earl Vincent de Berge’s paean to such a memory, when four young men journeyed to Mexico’s Baja California “with no greater goal than adventure in a forgotten desert.”
The time was the summer of 1962. The conveyance was a used jeep with a homemade cabin and electrical problems. The men had little money. They planned to eat what they could fish or hunt (usually rabbits and quail). Their chances for success seemed frail, but they lasted the whole summer, following roads that seemed little more than goat trails, fending off bandits (twice) with their nerve and wit, making friends with the owners of small ranches, and cementing their own friendships.
What makes this memoir special is the writer’s ability to make the most of his “(recollections) in tranquility.” He can characterize a thing or person with a single line. Pelicans “seem to fly in profound rapture with eyes and brains focused on an ultimate truth somewhere to the left of infinity.” A person whose life has trickled to porch sitting, “looks like a man who knows he is old and that death growls behind him like an impatient dog.”
Some notable anecdotes include getting stranded in a landscape where running out of water “is a death warrant,” learning to mine gold in a camp with an arrastras, traversing a dry lake “amidst dust devils spinning mindlessly.” Many of the passages are exciting and some, such as where the author describes wildflowers, are exquisite.
The narrative lags only where he recounts philosophical discussions which, because they are by jejune, young men, aren’t very interesting. Otherwise, De Berge’s book is a highly readable, fascinating account of an adventure in a land now lost to time.
Also available as an ebook.