Across the unforgiving Sierra Madres. There is nothing soft about these mountains, unless you happen upon a view in low light that carries the eye across a widened vista.
Journal, Mayo 23
Tom fills up the car with one last tank of American gas in Douglas, Arizona as Susan bids a cell phone goodbye to her esposo. Glad to be inside the station, we savor relief from the relentless sun, as we wait our turn to pay. A faded red pickup with no tailgate drives off without paying, as the gas station attendant lets loose with a whistle at the run-away driver.
We can’t see it yet, but we know the border is close. Our demeanors shift, somewhere between excitement and scratchy angst. Present, sweaty chaos heaped upon the unknown of the next few hours. We hope our paperwork is in order. Hope our car insurance, which we purchased online, won’t be questioned. Hope the car title will be presentable. Hope, for God’s sake, we’ll get in!
The border. I tried in vain to get information on the crossing at Agua Prieta from MexConnect participants, but all anyone could say is, “go through Nogales.” Not because of anything negative about this crossing, but because Nogales was a known entity. Easy, with a good ribbon of highway that stretched south. Fast, agreed everyone. But the explorer, adventurer, and I didn’t want “fast.” (Fast would come later, as we headed home out of Monterrey.) Now, we wanted landscape. Roads that would follow the contours, not dig their way through them.
Border. The boundary that keeps out, as well as in. Hope and doom for those who would drop their machetes and shovels and risk a beating heart to trudge north. To work the work that Norte Americanos do not want to do. A line with the power to stop and return, while the Monarch Butterfly flits back and forth on its annual migration. As Mexican Wolf and jaguar creep north, into Mexico Nuevo.
Our crossing at Agua Prieta is smooth, friendly, and slooooooow. One devoted, very serious and overworked kid-clerk serves everyone’s needs. Four walk-up windows, one guy. You could stand at any window but you still waited for his face to show up. Two hours later it is our turn at the window. “How many … how much” … Our papers were in order. He speaks mas rapido. Then we hit a snag. He keeps asking a long question that we don’t understand. We guess he wants the value of our car. Eight thousand, Tom says. Not the right answer. He repeats. And repeats. We are stumped. Mas despacio, we plead. Then the word puerta. Oh! How many doors does our vehicle have? We laugh at our stupidity and make fun of ourselves. Oh sure, 8000 doors, we say. Even the Serious One cracks a smile.
We are three gringos loose from a cage, tooling down the two-lane highway, winding into valleys and through small villages full of brightly painted houses. Gigantic images of Our Lady of Guadalupe adorn retaining walls and store sides. Camposantos are gay invitations for the living to show up and commune with the dead. Come. This way. Don’t forget me, hail the bright plastic flowers!
The Sierra Madre Occidental. Steep and harsh, they lie coiled in wait for summer rains. What WAS General Pershing thinking, as he took off across the border after Pancho Villa? He was responding to Villa’s early morning attack on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916. Whether you believe that President Woodrow Wilson had deceived Villa, or that Villa had been sold bad ammunition by a Columbus businessman, Villa and his 500 men entered the Columbus streets singing “La Cucaracha” and yelling “¡Viva, Mexico!” Then they proceeded to loot, burn, and shoot up the town, leaving 108 dead. General Jack Pershing arrived in Columbus a few days later with 10,000 men and plans to pursue until capture. They ventured 500 miles into Mexico, in this, the final cavalry action of the U.S. Army. This was also the first time cars were used in a military action. It was the first time a plane was used for reconnaissance. Pershing’s elephantine army never found Villa, a.k.a. “The Jackrabbit.” After eleven months of searching, the dusty, torn troops returned to Columbus.
I try to envision columns of men on foot and horseback making their way across these mountains, and it is almost comical. Will Vietnam and Iraq evoke a similar response from future generations? I wonder at the wisdom lost, as our country continues forays into hostile homescapes, amidst questionable motives, donning spit shine boots and bunker bombs.
I have to pee. No matter that there isn’t any protected place to stop and blind corners abound. You know the feeling: Just. Stop. The. Car. Susan says no problemo. Then shows me, the champion of the quick-squat, how to pee from the car protected. What? I’m HOW old and I never knew this? I go to the side of the vehicle that’s away from the road, and open the front door and the back door. Then I sit my ass in between them, on the rubber running board, spread those legs and let’ her rip.
Alamos-bound and livin’ large. As I’m soon to observe, you peez where you pleez en Mexico!
Published or Updated on: January 1, 2003