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Dead Owl, lost pearls

“Pearl Ship in the Desert” is El Centro's greatest mystery

René Perez. Tattoo artist next door remembers his dad telling gold tales from The Owl
René Perez. Tattoo artist next door remembers his dad telling gold tales from The Owl

It’s 108 degrees in the shade. Out in the late morning sun, waves of heat pulse on my eyelids like heavy radiation. The street starts to go wavy. In the shrinking ribbon of shade beside the Greyhound Depot’s back wall, a dozen homeless guys sit slumped behind their shopping carts, waiting for the night.

Once-bustling downtown El Centro: no people, lots of heat

Me, I’m headed for Main Street, the heart of El Centro. I’m looking for The Owl Café. It’s a legendary watering hole that for 60, 70 years has been where everybody met, from ranchers, farmers, and cowboys, to lawyers, politicians, and field workers.

In The Owl, you had your choice: drinking at the long counter on the left, eating their famously juicy-greasy burgers at the shorter counter on the right, or playing cards at the back where a sign said, “Please deposit your firearms on the table before starting any card games.”

But the real reason I want to come today is that, last time, Rosa the barmaid got to talking about this area’s greatest mystery, the “Pearl Ship in the Desert.” Seems around 1615, Captain Juan de Iturbe sailed his Spanish caravel on a pearl-gathering expedition up the Sea of Cortez and into “an inland sea,” just as the Colorado River switched channels and began draining the waters of the Cahuilla basin. Iturbe’s ship was left high and dry. The whole crew had to make a forced march to Guaymas. Sans pearls.

And ever since, people have been looking for them. They say sands covered the ship, but if the winds are right, they sometimes expose it again. Where? Just west of El Centro. Superstition Mountains. Rosa would tell tall tales of grizzled desert travelers turning up in The Owl, unwrapping large black pearls on the counter and grunting “Bottle of whiskey.”

So now I want to know more. I’m sweating along Main Street, trying to remember where The Owl is. Except there’s not a soul in sight. Is El Centro’s center dying? No. It’s dead.

“Uh, do you know where The Owl Café is?” I ask this one guy on a bike.

“You’re looking at it,” he says, and takes off.

Whuh? This entrance, No. 674 Main, is totally boarded up. Nothing says “Owl Cafe.” Only sign of life is a place next door, “Inkredible Tattoos.”

I try the door. Locked. I see somebody inside. Knock. He gets up, lets me in. René Perez. Tattoo artist. His place smells of leather and oil. He’s restoring a pair of black boots. “The Owl’s been gone two years,” he says. “But I knew it. My dad would sit me on the bar while he cashed his check. Everybody cashed their checks there. Boxers, ranchers, judges. He was a tailor from Zacatecas.”

I tell him about the pearl ship. “Well,” he says. “There was this woman. Dad met her at The Owl. She said she had found these Spanish gold coins. In the desert. In Baja.” Dad said he saw them.”

Wow. That could be real evidence. Except back out in the dizzying heat, suddenly the ship, the black pearls, the gold coins, mean absolutely nothing.

“René,” I croak. “Any chance of a glass of water?”

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René Perez. Tattoo artist next door remembers his dad telling gold tales from The Owl
René Perez. Tattoo artist next door remembers his dad telling gold tales from The Owl

It’s 108 degrees in the shade. Out in the late morning sun, waves of heat pulse on my eyelids like heavy radiation. The street starts to go wavy. In the shrinking ribbon of shade beside the Greyhound Depot’s back wall, a dozen homeless guys sit slumped behind their shopping carts, waiting for the night.

Once-bustling downtown El Centro: no people, lots of heat

Me, I’m headed for Main Street, the heart of El Centro. I’m looking for The Owl Café. It’s a legendary watering hole that for 60, 70 years has been where everybody met, from ranchers, farmers, and cowboys, to lawyers, politicians, and field workers.

In The Owl, you had your choice: drinking at the long counter on the left, eating their famously juicy-greasy burgers at the shorter counter on the right, or playing cards at the back where a sign said, “Please deposit your firearms on the table before starting any card games.”

But the real reason I want to come today is that, last time, Rosa the barmaid got to talking about this area’s greatest mystery, the “Pearl Ship in the Desert.” Seems around 1615, Captain Juan de Iturbe sailed his Spanish caravel on a pearl-gathering expedition up the Sea of Cortez and into “an inland sea,” just as the Colorado River switched channels and began draining the waters of the Cahuilla basin. Iturbe’s ship was left high and dry. The whole crew had to make a forced march to Guaymas. Sans pearls.

And ever since, people have been looking for them. They say sands covered the ship, but if the winds are right, they sometimes expose it again. Where? Just west of El Centro. Superstition Mountains. Rosa would tell tall tales of grizzled desert travelers turning up in The Owl, unwrapping large black pearls on the counter and grunting “Bottle of whiskey.”

So now I want to know more. I’m sweating along Main Street, trying to remember where The Owl is. Except there’s not a soul in sight. Is El Centro’s center dying? No. It’s dead.

“Uh, do you know where The Owl Café is?” I ask this one guy on a bike.

“You’re looking at it,” he says, and takes off.

Whuh? This entrance, No. 674 Main, is totally boarded up. Nothing says “Owl Cafe.” Only sign of life is a place next door, “Inkredible Tattoos.”

I try the door. Locked. I see somebody inside. Knock. He gets up, lets me in. René Perez. Tattoo artist. His place smells of leather and oil. He’s restoring a pair of black boots. “The Owl’s been gone two years,” he says. “But I knew it. My dad would sit me on the bar while he cashed his check. Everybody cashed their checks there. Boxers, ranchers, judges. He was a tailor from Zacatecas.”

I tell him about the pearl ship. “Well,” he says. “There was this woman. Dad met her at The Owl. She said she had found these Spanish gold coins. In the desert. In Baja.” Dad said he saw them.”

Wow. That could be real evidence. Except back out in the dizzying heat, suddenly the ship, the black pearls, the gold coins, mean absolutely nothing.

“René,” I croak. “Any chance of a glass of water?”

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