The four women were roughing it for a week on the Baja California peninsula, riding mules, sleeping under stars, pursuing private interests.
One was digging for old grinding stones called metates, another was busy with her flower press, a third had brought a sketchbook and paints. The fourth--a neighbor of mine--had been invited along at the last minute. It was her first such foray; she was hoping to forget urban worries and deepen her tan.
Two days south of the border, the flower-presser turned to my friend and asked: "But why did you really come . . . I mean what do you do ?"
With no stock answer, my pal scanned the terrain and saw a distant patch of white.
"I collect skulls," she announced and walked away as if drawn by a prehistoric find. The sun-bleached cow skull she lugged home from the trip rests on a brick wall in her garden. It has been joined by a so-called Texas longhorn, a pelican skull and a trumpet fish skeleton.
Relief for Travelers
This impulsive brand of collecting has rewards. It relieves the traveler of having to seek out specialty shops, then haggle over the price of dolls or silver spoons.
Any collection or hobby adds focus to travel. It gives special purpose to shopping and museum trips. It evokes questions and conversations from strangers of like interest.
If friends know you collect owls or snails or stamps, they remember that as they travel. You'll receive mementos even when there is no occasion.
When I dabble in the out-of-doors I keep an eye out for things to scavenge for my Less Is Less collection. These are objects in nature which are less in size, less in value, less hard to find and take less room in a duffel bag.
Most of this collection consists of pretty rocks and shiny shells, many no more than half an inch in length.
Unlike kachina dolls or pre-Columbian figures, my collection requires no insurance. It's too common to tempt a thief. The only scare came one cocktail hour when I had filled a brandy snifter with some of the tinier shells and placed it on an end table. In mid-conversation, a guest reached for a handful as if they were snacks. Hastily, I interrupted.
From island stops on a whale-watching trip, I plastic-bagged about 20 objects of immeasurable worth to bring home for my godchildren: an imperfect pelican feather, half of a crab shell, five vertebrae of a less-than-great white shark, rocks that might have been Indian tools but probably weren't, spindle shells and a skull, which our shipboard naturalist identified as that of a young dolphin.
I invited my godchildren--whose mother was the fourth on that all-woman Baja California spree--to take turns in dividing the treasure. All went peacefully until the 12-year-old chose the skull.
"But I'm the skull collector," protested his mother, who had not been asked to play.
He smiled, but held firm. It rests on a desk in his room and remains a bone of contention.