From an old journal, exploring remote Mexico

We set off on a leisurely hike in late morning.  David carried Chris in the baby backpack.  My pack held diapers, baby food, a lunch and a canteen of water.  We had no particular plans other than to explore the countryside, as we wandered out into the farm fields north of the small town of Ixtlan del Rio.
A farmer told us we could find the trail up the mountain by following the railroad tracks east about one kilometer.  We decided to try it. We eventually found the old Toltec pathway.  Three boys herding cattle said that the rough trail took about two hours to the top.  In the highlands, the days are warm and pleasant but not too hot, so this sounded like an ideal excursion for us.
We began the ascent under big trees, stopping often to enjoy the cool wind or a shady spot.  As we moved upward, the view of the valley changed nearly as quickly as the shifting clouds.  At one point, where we could see the ancient ceremonial site we had visited the night before, we rested for half an hour.  We took off our shoes and ate some of our bread.
A man came up the trail wearing a new gray cowboy hat, a woven bag over his right shoulder.  He asked if we’d like to walk along with him.  Martin Llanos Solis looked about 40, his face weathered and smiling.  His feet, in tire tread sandals, were heavily callused, the cracked heels hanging over. His pace was strong and regular and we barely managed to keep up with him.
Our persistent questions kept him talking.  He had been to California, Arizona and Texas as a farm laborer on the bracero program and wished to go back, but with seven children now he did not see any chance of that.  He said he lived at the top of the mountain where many others also lived.  He and his three brothers farmed land that had been their father’s.
When it seemed we were almost at the summit, Martin said it was just two hours more.  I was beginning to tire at his pace and sure he was joking.  On top, he said, we’d find an icy spring known as “the birth of the water,” pure and fine.  So we drank a little more freely of our limited water supply and happily panted onward with Chris asleep in his carrier.
I kept my eyes open for interesting rocks and found an obsidian flake about three inches long with an obviously worked edge.  But Martin insisted it was natural rather than man-made.  Perhaps he simply did not know about obsidian tools from an earlier time.  I saved the stone and saw many more chips along the steadily climbing trail but no others with a worked edge.
Our trail crossed a dirt road with tire tracks on it.  Martin said trucks used this route to carry peaches down from orchards on top.  I was beginning to worry about getting back down and wondered if we could ride in one of the trucks.  Martin thought so.  I was relieved.  The day was getting hotter as we climbed higher and our ambitions were flagging.
A man caught up with us and nodded.  He wore sandals like Martin’s, a rough woven white shirt, short pants and an unusual hat of straw.  From the wide brim hung little dangling things, all around.  He was old but walked with strength.  When he was some distance ahead of us, Martin told us he was of the Huichol tribe, a group of Indians who still lived in the traditional way in the back country north of there.  The unique hat was what to look for.  All the Huichol men wore them, he said.
Gradually, the trail became less steep.  Now, we realized that the valley below was merely a wide canyon.  The true level of the countryside was up here.  I thought we had been climbing a mountain but there was no summit, just rolling land with hills in every direction.  Far below, we could see the town of Ixtlan, and other towns along the paved highway.
At last, Martin tired of our too frequent rests to breathe or to change or feed the baby.  He went on ahead.  We’d spent about an hour and a half with him.  Shortly after that, a man came up riding a mule, followed by another mule loaded with what he told us were empty peach crates.  He said his name was Angel.  He offered to let me ride for a while.  At first I didn’t believe he was sincere.  But he insisted.  I gratefully mounted and settled into the saddle.
Angel hung my backpack on the saddle horn and David handed me our little boy.  The mules plodded up the rough path deeply gouged by erosion until we began to descend again.  Angel asked me to get down.  It had been a good rest for me
We walked on, over a rim into country covered in pine forest, the sparse dry topsoil sprouting many varieties of cactus and agave.  We had seen no houses for some time but now a few stood scattered among the trees.  A small variety of oak was common here, with leaves at least eight inches long and silver undersides.  The land grew greener and less rocky as we approached an area with cornfields, grazing cattle and more houses.
We stopped for refreshments, sodas for all of us, at a house Angel called Casa Marqueta.  Angel enjoyed telling the woman about how he’d found us trudging up the hill sweating, carrying the poor baby in our arms.  Through a doorway, I could see stored bags and boxes.  In the corner by that door, a teenaged girl patted out tortillas and lay them to cook on a small, smoking woodstove.  A girl about ten came in and asked for 40 centavos worth of salt and the same of “cal.”  The cal looked like a sort of plaster but I later learned that calcium lime is used to soak dried corn and soften it, releasing essential nutrients.
We went on with Angel, farther than I really had the energy to go, arriving at a town called Rancho Rosa Blanca.  There were other ranchos nearby, Angel told us.  Just as we came to Angel’s home, a rain began to fall.  He invited us into the two-room house and introduced us to his wife Geronima.  Their home had uneven swept earth floors and no windows.  The walls of stuccoed adobe bricks met a solid roof of corrugated metal, with some parts made of traditional Spanish tile.
The first room served as kitchen and dining area.   At one end stood a wood stove and shelves and cabinets holding clay pots, dishes and a few pans.  Around the small wood table stood five handmade wood chairs. They used the larger back room for storage but had a ladder to a sleeping loft, with one large bed and a hammock that Geronima said was for their baby.  I asked her where the other children slept.  She said, “We are poor people.  Not everyone has a bed.”  I took this to mean some slept on mats on the floor.
A friend came by and he and Angel talked business while we conversed with the kids in the shadowy interior.  The daughter who was eighteen enjoyed holding Chris.  When a neighbor woman arrived, Angel told her David was a teacher and that we were very rich.
Soon a very wrinkled old woman walked in and David jumped up to offer her his chair.  She shook her head and said, “Oh, no.  I’m just stepping inside for a few minutes because I got cold walking up the trail.”  She sat down without ceremony on the pile of firewood, tucking her long wrinkled skirt tight around her legs as if to keep them warm.
After a while, Geronima put two plates of rice on the table she had covered with a clean white embroidered cloth.  To David and me, Angel said, “Eat your food.”  We brought out what we had with us to share, splitting our four rolls.  I made sandwiches of our can of sardines, pouring on all the extra oil, then got out our apples and cut them up also.  Angel greedily ate one of the fish sandwiches by the stove while we ate our rice.  I sensed that our food was a rare delicacy for him and though the hot rice was a meager meal, I ate it happily.
I asked Geronima to boil some water so I could mix some milk powder for Chris.  Riding in the arms of the oldest daughter, he’d had a complete tour of the house, yard and surrounding area including meeting most of the neighbors.  Everyone was amazed to learn this large, plump child was only six months old.  Most had guessed he was at least nine months.
After some urging, Geronima ate one of the fish sandwiches.  “Fish, fish,” she exclaimed several times.  We finished our rice and left the other two sandwiches and the apples for the family since they seemed so delighted with what we had to offer.  I only wished we’d brought much more.
At that point our concern shifted to getting back down to the valley.  It was late in the day.  We had no flashlights and walking down the trail would mean many miles of rough going on foot, nothing anyone would want to try in the dark.  Angel assured us there was no problem.  A truck would be leaving around four.  We had no watches but it seemed at least that late already.  We felt anxious, but Angel had more to talk about with his friends and there was little we could do until he was ready to show us where to find the trucks.
David had brought the camera, another reason Angel concluded we were rich, no doubt.  He had plenty of time to take lots of photos of the family and some of their friends, one in which I was holding their baby.
When we finally did arrive at the place where the trucks were loading, none of them was anywhere near ready to go down the mountain.  The small pickups with staked sides were all taking on a full cargo of small hard peaches from the surrounding orchards.  None of the drivers was excited about taking on the added weight of the three of us.
Angel walked us around, talking to four or five drivers, telling them of our plight and what nice people we were.  One of the pickups was missing a wheel and David pointed out a burro heading down the road to Ixtlan with the wheel and tire on its back, most likely to be repaired.
We walked to the upper end of the road where a driver unloaded boxes of peaches from a group of burros that had come down.  He said he could take us and would leave in an hour or so.  Angel suggested we would be welcome to stay the night with his family.  I thanked him but explained we had nothing to keep us warm, no food for the baby and none for ourselves.  And besides, we’d already paid for a hotel room in Ixtlan.
By that time, I was most concerned about feeding Chris.  David went down to the store on one side of the large central open area that served as the plaza at Rancho Rosa Blanca, to get a can of juice to put into Chris’ bottle.  While he was gone I sat on the steps of a large but unoccupied house and talked with an old woman.  She said she had lived in Rosa Blanca more than forty years, and that it had not changed much in that time.  She knew every person in the surrounding country by name, “and much better.”
Her face, like that of Angel’s mother, was deeply creased and weathered, her long, gray hair braided and covered by an old fashioned shawl she wore around her shoulders and head.  She wanted to know what life was like in the United States, what food we ate and what we fed our baby.
Martin had said that at times hunger came and the men went down to the valley to find whatever work they could.  After I told the old woman how beautiful it was there in the mountains, said, “Yes, but sometimes we have nothing to eat.”  We had seen very little food stored in the homes, few provisions, and not much in the little store.
I asked about the deserted house.  It belonged to a widow who was away.  “She goes often, out into the hills for several days.”  It had been drizzling lightly, but now the rain came down hard.  I and the old woman went into the widow’s house to take shelter, a home of two large rooms with a tiny kitchen shed behind, sparsely outfitted but with a fine treadle sewing machine, closed and covered, occupying a prominent corner.  Each of the two beds had an old wood frame and a set of rusty springs covered by woven mats rather than a mattress.
The wind blew and it grew colder.  We found some ragged clothes and put them on, then sat on the bed.  Chris had been a perfect boy all day but now he was angry, hungry no doubt, and I wished David would hurry back with the juice.  I held Chris close in the cold.  We had no more milk powder and I’d not seen any canned milk in the store earlier.  With no electricity, of course they had no cold case and nothing fresh to sell.
The rain came down harder.  Then a rainbow appeared over the nearest hill to the east and grew ever more brilliant as the sun beamed under a cloud.  The old woman left me.  I watched the rain carry little rivers down and around the truck, then had the brilliant idea of throwing the two dirty diapers onto the porch rail to get them rinsed out.  It occurred to me that the road could become to muddy and slippery in the storm and we might have to spend the night here.  If we’d had any way to stay warm, it might have been tolerable.
David came back with cans of fruit juice.  I fed one to Chris who devoured it hungrily.  About the time the rain ended, the old woman came back.  Just at that moment, Chris threw up a little.  The woman was quite concerned but I told her he drank his juice too fast so it was probably just air in his stomach.
David pointed out an old man passing along the lane, wearing a multicolored, flowered shirt and a wide brimmed hat with little things dangling from the brim.  I asked the old woman if he was an Indian and she assured us that he was a Huichol.
I asked the truck driver how the cargo was coming.  He said, “Fifteen more minutes and we will go.”  What a relief to know we would not be spending the night here, especially because we had so little to feed Chris now that I was no longer nursing.  Of course, the people here had been mystified why I had stopped breast feeding as it is the only option for mothers here.  I gave the only answer I could hope to have them accept.  “It is our custom.”  If only we’d come prepared, it would have been a marvelous adventure to stay longer.
As we walked down to the truck, David pointed out a man sitting on another porch.  Dressed all in white, he sat in a doorway, his angular face turned to watch as he gazed at us with fierce, immobile intensity.  His penetrating black eyes imprinted an unforgettable image in my mind.  He wore a wide brimmed hat similar to the other Indians except his was hung with little dangling mirrors.
When the loading was done and all the decisions made, David was in one truck and Chris and I sat in another.  Waiting in the truck cab, I watched the country people with their animals and children, returning in what remained of the daylight from their day’s work on the land.  The journey down the mountain began under clearing skies that soon grew dark as we slid, bumped and swayed down the rutted, muddy road.   It rained again, with lightning in the west.
I asked the driver what he knew about the Huichol people.  He said their lands begin about ten kilometers beyond Rosa Blanca.  They are very amiable people who prefer to stay together and live in houses scattered in the forests.  Some speak Spanish very well, but as yet there were no schools in their territory.
We had to stop to help pull another truck out of the mud.  That gave David and me a chance to compare notes and feelings of excitement and fear. We could see the lights of Ixtlan, Jala and other towns far below.  The driver said it would take about three hours. It was 9:30 when we drove into Ixtlan, all of us tired, dirty and hungry.
Chris was sleeping soundly, his weight pulling on my tired body as we shopped for enough food to make a dinner of bread, hard-boiled eggs, sardines and bananas, a dinner Angel’s family would have seen as a wonderful luxury.  After shopping and eating the next morning, we packed up to leave the hotel.
David spotted an old Huichol man coming along the street.  It was the man in the flowered shirt we’d seen the night before in Rancho Rosa Blanca. David remembered the cataract in one of his eyes.  I spoke to him.  He remembered us and said that indeed he was a Huichol.  I asked if we could take his photo and he agreed.
We left Ixtlan and drove through beautiful green countryside toward the city of Tepic.  Above the green valleys, clouds hung like gray curtains over the highlands we had visited, guarding them from the eyes of the curious.  Behind that veil of cloud, we now knew there was another world, another country up on the high plateaus and back in the pine forests where kind people welcome strangers and where the Huichols are at home.


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