By David Kier
One of Baja California’s biggest promoters from the 1960s until her passing in 2002 was author Choral Pepper. Choral Pepper’s books and magazine articles kept her readers motivated and inspired to go outdoors to make their own discoveries. Those that could not travel were kept fully entertained by her writings.
My awareness of Choral Pepper came about from reading about her and seeing her in many photos in mystery novelist Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1967 adventure book, Off the Beaten Track in Baja. Choral and husband Jack Pepper wrote for and published Desert Magazine during the 1960s. One day, Mr. Gardner dropped in on the Desert Magazine office in Palm Desert, California, and invited the Pepper’s to join him and his crew on an upcoming Baja expedition. Erle Stanley Gardner explored the desert southwest and Baja California when he was on break from writing and reviewing scripts for the Perry Mason television show (Gardner created the character Perry Mason).
Gardner took care of all expenses for these expeditions and that included using helicopters to reach places and see things nobody has seen since the primitive Indians lived in the remote Baja California mountains. Giant cave paintings that few knew of outside of the mountain ranchos were publicized. They continue to be a major income source for the local economy nearly fifty years later.
While riding in a helicopter, Choral spotted a large painting at the top of a 100-foot cliff. It could not be seen from the canyon floor. On board the copter was Mexico’s national archeologist, Dr. Carlos Margain who insisted the site be known as “Pepper Cave.” Choral vowed to have such an honor would require her to actually go to the cave, which she and J.W. Black did by climbing up the cliff face. The helicopter pilot and Dr. Margain watched and took photos from across the canyon.
Desert Magazine had many great Baja California travel articles from Choral and others. Choral continued to write for the magazine after she and Jack split-up and after he sold the magazine. Her 1973 book, Baja California: Vanished Missions, Lost Treasures, Strange Stories Tall and True was a fantastic motivator for me (then in high school) to research and write more about the missions. Choral inspired me to search for the mysteries of Baja’s past, and to someday meet this interesting lady. Choral had reminding me of my own mother who also could mix class and camping with ease.
The next 25 years found Choral Pepper traveling the world and writing many books, and painting art too. However, Baja California retained a special connection with Choral (she liked to be called “Corke”, with a silent e). Choral’s last home was a condo in Coronado, California with a view south to the coast of Baja California. This is where I met her after an exchange of emails because her popular Desert Lore of Southern California book publisher asked her to revise the 1973 Baja missions and mysteries book and she knew of my passion in this subject. The Baja mission book revision was postponed as Choral’s health deteriorated. Some of Choral’s writing will find a home in a new book I am currently working on about the Baja California missions.
In May 2001, Choral asked me to read the following to my guests at the Viva Baja celebration:
Dear Baja Buffs,
Behind his back, I call David " the new Erle Stanley Gardner." His love for Baja shares the same dedicated clarity and eagerness to share it as did Uncle Erle's. I am fortunate enough to have been one of those recipients in both cases. Erle shared it with his books. David shares it with his Viva Baja adventures.
I have reached a stage in life in which there is more to look back upon than forward to. It is not depressing. What I have to look back upon was so filled with adventure, learning and beauty that nothing in my limited future could surpass it. There are very few places in the world that I did not explore during my exciting years as a nationally syndicated travel columnist after selling Desert Magazine, but of all the places in the world, Baja stands alone. Not just because it was more isolated in those days (places like Yap and Zamboanga were isolated, too), but because there is a spiritual quality about Baja that seeps into the very soul of those who respond to it. Everyone doesn't., but you who are here at David's Viva Baja event tonight know exactly what I mean. We Baja buffs share a space foreign to superficial types unaware of the peninsula’s unique nature, mysterious history, and tantalizing lore.
During my early days of exploring the desert, I found that the public can be induced to respect such back country areas as Baja -- not by rules and regimentation, but by education. And the education begins by making its history exciting and adventurous. When someone goes looking for a lost treasure, for instance, they are forced to thoroughly research the area. They aren't just spinning wheels over meaningless, empty land. With knowledge, comes respect.
You all who participate in David's Viva Baja are doing your part to insure a secure future for Baja. I salute you and would love to be sharing this evening with you. Sometimes when you are out there trampling through dry, rock-studded arroyos or watching the moon rise above a cardón forest, send a thought to me. I'll be sharing it with you in spirit.
Choral requested that her manuscript, along with the collection of photos and letters from her Desert Magazine Baja trips, be passed on to me. It was in this collection that the letter from Walter Henderson was found, providing directions to a “rock-pile” he found in the 1930s while exploring northwest of San Felipe. Research performed by Henderson seemed to indicate the rock-pile was the lost 1541 grave of Spanish explorer Melchior Diaz, the first European to walk into California. Baja is indeed a land of adventure and historic wonders!
To see many of the photographs from the collection, visit the Choral Pepper website.
David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler and the co-author of 'The Old Missions of Baja and Alta California 1697-1834. Visit The Old Missions website.