A Finger of Land on an Old Man’s Hand
by Earl Vincent de Berge
Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / Travel
Print Length: 482 pages
Reviewed by Warren Maxwell
Detailed observations of a naturalist meet beat-style travelogue in this rollicking memoir about four young men finding themselves in the Baja desert.
Halfway through college circa 1962, de Berge gathered three friends to spend a summer driving through the desolate, unpaved roads of Baja in a souped-up old jeep named Ambrosia.
Relying on century-old maps, a meager supply of cash, hunting rifles, and the unbridled enthusiasm of young men bound for adventure, they navigate sweltering months in the harsh and beautiful landscape of the world’s longest peninsula. This book overflows with romance, nostalgia, and high adventure, depicting a world that has largely disappeared in the wake of modern tourism and development. Readers are given a tantalizing glimpse of colorful frontier people and radical freedom.
“Everything away from the primitive road was as it had been for millennia. We hiked for days without seeing a human footprint or signs of a domesticated animal. Any scratch in the sand was made by something indigenous to the area.”
The four men set off with different goals in mind—de Berge and his best friend Mark are eager to test themselves, to see if they are “made of whatever it is that men are made of;” Adel is an avid gamesman, content to hunt and fish anywhere and everywhere; and his friend Brian tags along out of loyalty and wonder, having never been outside of Illinois.
Along with de Berge’s artful descriptions and personal insights, each man is rendered in a compelling portrait. Brian finds joy and curiosity in the smallest things, getting sunburned while driving through the deserts of Arizona because he can’t stop sticking his head out the window. Adel struggles with assimilating to new cultural standards, as when he pesters Mexican police over lost gun ammunition until a bar owner intervenes, warning him against antagonizing the police’s violent tendencies. De Berge and Mark are the most mature and worldly of the bunch but also go on the most reckless adventures, driving along the edge of cliffs, courting exotically beautiful latin women under the glares of their boyfriends, and an uncountable number of other escapades.
“While there are scattered military outposts, beyond the border, residents rely on good manners and mutual respect. The few who do not can be identified by how many front teeth are missing. I conclude that fists are effective deterrents to bad manners because most men have all their front teeth.”
Photographs add a flesh and blood reality to this captivating travelogue. Under the pretense of a making a photo-essay of indigenous Baja flora for a “work-study” university program, the author photographed his way across the peninsula. Appearing intermittently, these pictures complement the descriptions of landscape and character well. Stark images of plants and people (as well as of the four men themselves) are a welcome change of pace, imbuing immediacy to sections that are occasionally verbose.
The book is chock-full of cinematic scenes and quotable lines. When a disgruntled Mercedes driver honks and tailgates the four men, Brian stands on the back of the jeep and hurls a watermelon at the car. Many events are enlivened by long, riotous monologues. Mark excitedly recalls his crazy truck drive thus: “See that sweet-looking old guy over there? taint so. Behind the wheel, he’s a bona fide Evel Knievel. He considers it entertaining to dance with lucifer. He must believe he’ll never have to pay his dues. Maybe they wanna die, i dunno. But just as sure as i’m standing in front of you, the term daredevil must have its roots in Mexico. Our trip was fantastic, a ball-buster in every sense of the word.” Even casual exchanges between the men are alive with intelligence and humor, evidence of de Berge’s trap-like memory and remarkable ability to capture places and people on the page.
A riveting journey into isolated villages, desert landscapes, and the dreams of four young men, A Finger of Land on An Old Man’s Hand, stands out for its high-spirited antics, philosophical introspection and richly sculpted prose. It is a pleasure to get lost with de Berge and his friends.
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