In the early 1980s, after having been a journalist for fifteen years, my life took an unexpected twist. I left my job, left my wife and children for another woman, loaded her and her two teenaged daughters into an old Airstream trailer, and took off for Todos Santos, a little farming and fishing village on the Pacific coast of Baja. It was supposed to be a year off, but in many ways we never came back.
Todos Santos has always been a magical place, known for witches and wizards, spirit animals, miracles. Four of us bought a haunted house, an old sugar warehouse known as the Casa Dracula. We were advised to have it exorcised, but decided the spirits were friendly and for the most part kept out thieves. Every once in a while, though, someone would break in and we could see signs that they'd been digging for the gold said to be buried in the walls. On the second floor was an enormous safe emblazoned with the name of the building's original owner, Antonio Dominguez. When we returned from a trip one year, the safe was gone. How? It must have weighed thousands of pounds yet there was no evidence to show how it had been removed.
After my partner Susan Atkinson was lost in a typhoon, we set up a memorial to her in the backyard: a little yellow casita for relicts, decorated with whale and dolphin bones, seashells, bougainvillea, and a plaque with her favorite Spanish phrase “Que Siga la Fiesta.” Nearby we planted a wild fig tree, a royal poinciana, a guava, and a grove of yellow bamboo. A crimson-flowered San Miguel vine festoons the old brick wall behind it. All the plants are flourishing without any special care.
A lot of time has gone by but we still return each year from our various corners of the world to pay our respects to Susan and the other spirits who inhabit the place. There are new partners, new children and grandchildren to add to the mix. And the Casa Dracula lives on as it did before we got there and will after we leave. When we're asked about our plans for the place, we smile and say: “Just to keep it from falling down.” We're only custodians, after all.
I guess it was inevitable that I set my new novel, Paraíso, in this place. A novel needs all the magic it can get. In the book, the town exists pretty much as it did when we first arrived—the fact that it is now known as “Carmel South” goes unacknowleged.. Many of the characters who were around back then live on in its pages: Jefe, Pancho Clamato, Felipe Reyes, El Farolito. Some of them are actually still around, God help me. But the villain, Marco Blanco, has been transmogrified into the violent, angry chilango who seized Garth Murphy's ranch out near the surf break and is still squatting there.
Last year, the town faced two major threats to its legendary tranquillity: a gold-mining project up in the mountains behind it that would have wrecked the aquifers that make the oasis what it is, and a 4000 unit tourist development hard by the fishermen's launching beach. It has beaten back the gold-mining project and as of this writing the angry fishermen have barricaded the beach so construction vehicles can't get through. Todos Santos is turning out to be even more magical than we'd thought: the Little Town that Could.