The strange world of Baja California, caught in a dozen lapidary sidelong vignettes, from Berger (The Telling Distance, 1990). Writing with the grace of nightfall, Berger knits a handful of chance encounters together with cultural and natural history to produce a crystalline, idiosyncratic portrait of Baja, in particular the southern half. These vivid fragments, culled from numerous journeys to the place since the late 1960s, conjure a singular land that reinvents itself ""like a familiar piece of music that modulates into increasingly remote keys."" At first, his forays south are leisurely, seamless expeditions in which he takes the geological measure of the peninsula--""the gulf side rugged, volcanic, burning with color; the Pacific side flat, fogbound and cool""--and meets up with an Old Baja hand who shows him some of the ropes. Subsequent journeys chronicle the author's growing protectiveness of Baja. He is concerned with the protection of the Sonoran pronghorn, the breeding whale populations, the centuries-old ironwood trees harvested for fuel. While these environmental passages are powerful, Berger seems more comfortable with smaller memorable events, lime touches of comic detail and spicings of the irrational that make his adventures real and enviable. There are impromptu feasts and fleeting glimpses of rare wildlife, visits to ancient cave paintings, the careless appeal of life in La Paz and the timelessness of San Ignacio. He witnesses a near-maximum eclipse (""like intravenous poetry,"" observes his friend) and becomes a bit of a musical celebrity at the piano. For Berger is no tourist, and he has moved beyond the scope of the traveler; he lives his place and counts a goodly number of close friends in Baja. Since in the literature there was ""no agreed-upon peninsula, I would assemble my own from available parts,"" writes Berger at the beginning of the book. Just so, and stunningly.