On the Trail

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The time is September of 2008. The place is Ojinaga, Mexico. Observing the peaceful beauty and outward normalcy of the pueblo, you could not tell that bad things are happening.

Two unusually brutal murders interrupt Capitán Benito Escalante’s weekend visit in Texas. One perpetrator, a gringo covered in his victim’s blood, is behind bars. The other is, for now, still in the wind.

As the capitán says, “Crime doesn’t stop just because the police captain is busy.” Who is the woman claiming to be the gringo prisoner’s friend? What do a box containing a fifty-year-old mystery, a man with “eyes like a cat,” and a homeless boy with a sobering secret, have to do with the murders? What does the blind curandera know?

Capitán Escalante invites you to ride, run, and walk along with him as he tries to figure it out. “Invite” might be the wrong word…his tale of intrigue and adventure will force you to turn pages until all questions are answered. When he rests, you can rest. Then everybody can take a breather on a bench in the shade on the plaza.

But not for long.

 

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A Rio Grande Affair

canyon photo by Molly

photo thanks to Molly Dumas

Some of you may have seen this post from July 11, 2013. “A Rio Grande Affair” was my first column for the Alpine Avalanche.

 

A Rio Grande Affair

 

Recently I had an opportunity to stick my toes into the Rio Grande. The river is no longer the formidable barrier it once was, and it can seldom be rafted, but the mud along the bank still squishes. Birds still swoop at the surface, turtles still dive into it, the water still moves downstream, and it still smells like damp desert. I still love it.

We have a history, this river and I. Thirty-three years ago, I saw it for the first time. It might have been its historical significance or cowboy movie memories, or the surreal beauty of the land it divides, but I had goosebumps at first sight. And I fell in love, not just with the Rio, but with the rugged, wild terrain on both sides of it.

This Florida girl, accustomed to sandy beaches, lakes, crystal clear streams, swamps, and more greenery than is healthy, fell hard for the Big Bend country—everything about it. The immense open spaces with nothing to block the view, jagged peaks, hidden forests, steep canyons, and the widest sky I had ever seen, spoke to me in a way nothing ever had.

At the time, my familiarity with Mexico pretty much began and ended with Speedy Gonzalez cartoons and of course, all those insulting stereotypes from old westerns.

I stood at the top of a nature trail at Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park. The idea of a foreign land “right over there” was even more intriguing than the famous river. From the top of the trail I could admire both sides, the mountains that stretched out in all directions jutting towards the sky, the vegetation growing along the banks, and then I spotted a man, a Mexican man, dressed all in white and wearing a wide sombrero, hoeing in a garden in Boquillas, Mexico. Ordinary, you might say, but my heart rate sped up and I got a little teary-eyed. I wanted to laugh and cry and dance at the same time. And I had no idea why.

How would I have known that I would meet, fall in love with, and marry a Mexican man? Or that my future self would learn to speak Spanish and cook Mexican food? Or, that without question, I would take in a chubby little Mexican boy and raise him as my own? If you had told me I would stay up until two in the morning making tamales with my mother-and-sisters-in-law on Christmas Eve, I would have thrown up my hands and sworn there was no way that would ever happen.

I have spent so much time in Mexico it has become as much a part of my life as my country of birth. I’ve attended weddings, quinceañeras, funerals, births, and deaths—and more dances than I could ever count. I’ve wandered its shores, explored its mountains, and camped in its wilderness. I love its people with all my heart.

How would I have known then that I would go to work for a river outfitter and enjoy the work so much I would eventually own the company? I would raft all the canyons and most of them more than once, on trips guided by some of the most fun and life-loving people I have ever had the pleasure to know. Every river adventure was different and each held its own magic. There was always something new to learn or to admire or some side canyon to explore. After sumptuous dinners and campfire conversation, we would fall asleep under a ribbon of stars or stay up late to watch the full moon illuminate the canyon walls.

It runs in my veins now, this muddy river. Who knew it would be so hard to drag my toes out of its mud?

 

Tamales for Christmas

tamales

It was a month before Christmas, 1983. I was sitting in a hole-in-the-wall café in Ojinaga, Mexico with my husband of five months. We’d been to a dance in Lajitas, so it must have been two or three in the morning. The place was clean and the food was mouth-watering, but it was not like a restaurant in the U.S. Not like any restaurants I’d been in, anyway. It was humble, with seating for twelve if you pushed it. Nothing matched as far as the décor went, but the most striking thing was that instead of an all-out “Christmas is coming” theme, there was one straggly bundle of tinsel hanging in the window. Other than that, it was business as usual.

“I hope you don’t make a big fuss about Christmas,” my cowboy said, as if he’d been reading my mind.

As usual, I didn’t know where this was going, so my comment was, “I love Christmas.” I was enthusiastic because I did love it and still do.

“Okay; but do you make it a big deal?”

“Well, yes!”

He said, “I hate it.”

I tried not to panic. This was just one more way in which we were as different as the high country of the Chisos Mountains and the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. Together those two make an astounding national park; better together than they would be separately. I had high hopes for us.

“Christmas makes me think of all the poor kids who get nothing,” my husband continued. “How can anybody believe in Santa Claus? And what a cruel thing it is to tell children about an imaginary old man who brings gifts.”

This handsome hombre was totally ruining my buzz. Then he said, “We’re not going to tell that lie to our children.”

“Now wait,” I said. “Our children will not be poor. Why can’t we have fun with them? I’ll show you how much fun Christmas can be.”

“I have never been given a new toy.” He spoke as though he hadn’t heard a thing I said. “Not once in my life.”

By this point I was biting back tears. “What did you get at Christmas?”

“Tamales,” he said, “If we were lucky enough.”

* * *

Our first Christmas together was spent in San Carlos, Mexico, my new husband’s hometown. We stayed with his sister and her family, but we were in and out of so many houses I lost count. Many of the people we visited were relatives, but I seldom caught the connection in the introduction. I was included in everything, no matter how lost and foreign I must have seemed to them. I was becoming adept at smiling and pretending to know what was going on.

I had lobbied the cowboy until he accepted the fact that I was going to take little gifts for our nieces and nephews. My Christmas spirit was not to be deterred, but I did tone it down a notch.

I gave my sister-in-law a few decorations for her table and windows. It was not much because I didn’t want my husband to be uncomfortable. When he saw his sister’s face light up, he smiled at me. I believe she still has those things 31 years later.

Every time I have ever been in Mexico I learned something of value. That year I learned that Christmas does indeed come “without ribbons. It comes without tags. It comes without packages, boxes, or bags.” (Thank you to Dr. Seuss). Of course I knew that already, but I came to understand it on a more gut level. I took it to heart.

That Christmas was the first time I heard the familiar tune of “Silent Night” with different words, beautiful words. All I understood was: “Noche de paz, noche de amor,” which means “night of peace, night of love.” I believe those two things are what we need more than anything, every night and every day of the year. I believed it then and haven’t changed my mind about it in 31 years.

Strangers hugged and welcomed me everywhere I went. I was offered empanadas and bizcochos until I thought I’d explode. At night we bundled up and watched the stars and breathed in the clean, cold air. We shared tamales with our family because we were “lucky enough” to have them. We laughed and had fun. Children ran around, joyous to be alive no matter any other thing.

This Christmas, I wish you everything your heart desires. I hope you are full of joy and if you are, please spread it around. We live in a world desperate for love, peace, and joy. I hope you are “lucky enough” to share tamales with people you love.

“Did You Bring Anything From Mexico?”

musico

 

At the Border Patrol checkpoint between Terlingua and Alpine I have often been asked, “Did you bring anything from Mexico?”

“No” is my answer, but the question surprises me. Why do they assume I went there? Terlingua, while close to Mexico, is still not Mexico.

The last time I was asked that question I thought: I’m lying. I have so much from Mexico no one would believe it. But my Mexican treasures are in my heart and soul, not in my truck.

I have memories that begin early in 1981, when I first looked across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park and into a foreign land that looked the same as the place I was standing. While it seemed the same, I knew it wasn’t, and I felt the lure of the differentness of it. I longed to go there. What I couldn’t have known then was that my life was about to become so intricately woven into Mexico that it would be as much a part of me as the USA.

In an earlier column I wrote about my first trip to Ojinaga. It was not great because of the person I was with, yet it was still wonderful. I enjoyed the multitude of bright colors, the foreign look of the architecture, the cobblestone streets around the plaza, and the tiny stores and restaurants that are infinitely more fascinating than our superstores.

On that trip I saw the inside of a males-only bar—not pleasant but also riveting in the way that forbidden things are. The sight of drinking, gossiping, singing, card-playing men cutting up and cutting loose and then yanking their heads up in surprise when I came through the door is forever burned into my memory.

The aromas coming from the restaurants and outside food vendors are enough to make you fall in love with the country even if nothing else appealed. In addition to the sizzle and pop on the hot grills, there are chilies stuffed with cheese, tortillas that melt in your mouth, and sticky-sweet, hot sopapillas or pan dulce. Fresh, ripe fruit in season is offered for sale: peaches, pineapple, mango, or watermelon cut up and served in cups or impaled on a stick. Don’t get me started on the big, fat, mouthwatering Mexican avocados.

Music spills out of cantinas or is performed on the street by mariachis in charro outfits or by solo musicians wearing blue jeans. Either way, who can resist it? Whether it’s a heartfelt ballad that makes you want to cry or fall in love… or if it’s a melody that makes you want to dance, sing out loud, or laugh with joy to be alive, music is one of the country’s best assets.

More than anything, I felt drawn to the smiling, friendly people who are everywhere. They gather on the sidewalks or in the plaza, exchanging news and gossip and hugs. They meet to play checkers, sing, share a cerveza, dance, or watch people. I was captivated by the “unfamiliar-ness” and the “same-as-me-ness” of them. They are beautiful, generous, open-hearted people. So I guess it was inevitable that I would fall in love with one of them.

I was warned. “He grew up differently than you.” “You went to college; he never finished grade school.” “You don’t speak the same language.” “The newness will wear off.” All of those well-meaning people were right and they were dead wrong. None of that matters when you’re in love. Who needs to talk when our deepest expressions of love have nothing to do with language? And who can’t make themselves understood to someone who is trying, with everything in them, to understand?

It’s true that I went to college and he had to quit school after fifth grade or starve. But he taught himself more by living than I ever learned by studying. He’d never heard of Shakespeare, but he could hand-dig a well, shoe a horse, make killer food, ride and rope, walk all the way to Odessa from the Rio Grande, build a sturdy wall with nothing but stones and a strong back, work hard all day and dance all night. That is only the beginning of a mile-long list.

I’ve run out of column space and never even got to mention Mexican folklore or the beaches, jungle, and mountains, or the ranches, train and bus trips, or Cuidad Chihuahua, Guadalajara, Tlaquepacque, or Mazatlán. But there’s always next week.

Did I bring anything from Mexico? No; nothing that would interest Border Patrol. And yes. Every single thing it had to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Rocky Adventure

hot springs canyonHot Springs Canyon, Big Bend National Park, TX

 

Back in 1981, my girlfriend Kay and I were camping in Big Bend National Park. We decided to rent a raft and float through Hot Springs Canyon at Rio Grande Village. We had never rafted, but we were assured it would be easy, the river was gentle through there, and “anyone can do it.” How hard could it be?

We lolled along, letting our fingers drag in the muddy water. The warm sun and cool breeze of a March morning were perfect accompaniments. Birds chirped and chattered and raised a ruckus in the green growth along the bank. They darted out to dip at the stars sparkling on the surface of the Rio or hopped along the shore picking at this and that.

Kay and I talked about the joy of living, even temporarily, in a place where nature ruled with such magnificence. There’s no bad view in Big Bend National Park. No matter where we camped, when we came out of the tent in the morning, we were stunned by some newly revealed cliff or peak or twisted rock formation. Or the sun would glint off something, making it shine or giving it a color it didn’t have before. It was so beautiful it made our eyes fill with tears and our hearts with wonder.

“Doesn’t it feel as though we’re the only humans to have ever been here?” Kay whispered with reverence as our raft entered the little canyon.

I agreed but my comments were hushed by the sudden shrill descending notes of a canyon wren. The sound was like nothing we’d ever heard. We didn’t know what it was but it was pure magic and not even surprising, given where we were.

To make a long story into a short column, I’ll just say that we were enamored of everything: the gentle downstream pull of a river that smelled like clean dirt, the bumpy-walled canyon, the peace, the blooming wildflowers along the shore, and the subtle lure of the foreign land drifting by next to us.

Suddenly we heard the loud sound of water pounding against stone. Never mind the assurances that it was easy and safe. Every scary whitewater tale I’d ever heard crowded into my brain. Then my relentless imagination kicked in and dragged me away with it.

“Rapids!” I screamed.

We panicked and paddled as hard as we could for the closest shore, which happened to be Mexico. We stood gasping and glad to be alive.

An old man crashed his way down an animal path and stood on the bank next to us. I spoke the only Spanish word I could remember under pressure, “Hola.”

He grinned and lifted his sombrero. “Buenos días.”

I returned the grin and felt stupid. I’d taken three years of Spanish in high school and one in college and “Hola” was all I had to offer?

There was laughter in his dark eyes, so he had evidently seen our mad dash to shore. That was embarrassing in any language.

In the manner of a true gentleman, he asked if we had a problem with the raft. What he said was, “You problem boat?” His English was not great, but it was better than my Spanish. I had a head full of his language, but it was as though I’d lost the password I needed to access that part of my brain.

Using a mix of English, mutilated Spanish, and mime, we explained that we’d heard cascading water ahead and were afraid to move forward.

He listened intently, nodding his head as we explained. Somehow he kept from laughing at us. “No is bad. You see.” He began walking and indicated that we should follow.

The “death-defying rapids” were a bend in the Rio where it widened and became shallower for a few yards. The rushing water tumbled over rocks and pebbles and caused the loud whooshing noise we’d translated into a dangerous waterfall. Well… I had translated it. My friend was innocent. I had failed to keep the reins on my imagination and it galloped away, turning a minor change in the river’s direction into a deadly obstacle.

Our Mexican friend wished us a good day and went on his way whistling. We walked back to our craft.

“That was stupid,” I admitted, “and embarrassing.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Kay said. “Maybe someday we’ll write about our adventures, real and imagined.”

Yes. Maybe someday we will.

 

 

 

 

 

Truck Lights

I mentioned before that I married a liar. Tall tales weren’t enough; he loved to scare me with ghost stories, too. One time we were on the desolate, bumpy road that connects San Carlos, Mexico with the Rio Grande. It was pitch black except for our headlights, and they weren’t cutting it.

In the distance lights appeared and my husband asked, “What do you think that is?”

“It’s probably another truck.”

He looked over at me. “It’s not.” Then he explained that it was a truck, but it was a ghost truck.

Groan.

He launched into the story. I knew it was futile to try to stop him.

“Over there,” he indicated the right side, “is a canyon, and up that canyon is a ranch house where a family of four used to live.” He looked over at me to see how he was doing.

“Go on,” I said, wanting to get it over with.

“A rancher owed money to a mafioso and the bad guy set out to collect. He had firearms and a couple of thugs with him. He was headed this way when he saw the rancher’s truck ahead of him.”

He stopped our truck and worse, turned off the headlights.

“I don’t want to sit here in the dark while you try to scare me to death,” I said, but I might as well have saved my breath. He was not going to be deterred from telling his story.

“The mafioso’s thinking was muddled by the bottle of mescal he and the thugs passed back and forth but, at the same time, he was revved up on cocaine. He pulled up behind the family and began tapping their bumper. When the rancher didn’t stop, one of the thugs fired a bullet meant to get his attention. Instead, it killed him. The truck began careening and within a few seconds, it veered off the road into a ravine and smashed against the giant boulders below. There were no survivors.”

Ahead we saw the lights again. They appeared to advance and retreat, advance and retreat. Size-wise they were a mismatched pair. I felt my throat close.

“I guess you’re going to tell me the lights are people with lanterns looking for their heads,” I said.

He laughed. “No. The lights are ghost lights from the truck that still lies at the bottom of the ravine. The old rancher is trying to warn others. I never said anything about people losing their heads.”

“I was thinking of an old tale I heard as a child, but I don’t remember exactly how it goes. People were looking for their heads along some railroad tracks, but I don’t recall how they lost them.”

“You’re not much of a storyteller,” he commented.

That was not true, as he would learn. The problem was I didn’t have the command of Spanish I needed to tell a long tale. I understood the language better than I spoke it.

“I’ll tell you one,” I said, never a woman to shrink from a challenge. I then recounted the old horror-tale-legend I’d heard repeated all my life of the escaped convict with the hook for a hand.

I knew how to describe the couple at lover’s lane, but I didn’t know how to say “convict” or “hook”.  “Hand with a hook” was easy to mime but “convict” was another thing. I had to approach it in a round-about way, describing a prison, only to learn that “prison” in Spanish is prisión and “prisoner” is prisionero.

It took me so long to tell my tale of terror that we were at the river’s edge when I ended it. I didn’t think my husband had understood the story; he had a glazed look on his face.

“It would be a better if I could tell it in English,” I said, embarrassed by my long and impassioned attempt to tell a simple five-minute story.

He shrugged. “I know that one anyway.”

“Why didn’t you stop me?”

“Because you tell the most entertaining story I’ve ever seen told.”

I wanted to tell him I had more where that one came from, but since I couldn’t’ say that, I said simply that I had more.

He smiled sweetly. “That’s okay.”

I took the hint.

 

“I See Witches”

When we married, of course it was about being in love. But it was also a merger of two stubborn storytellers, an English-speaker and a Spanish-speaking champion of the art. For his part, read “liar.” I couldn’t trust him for a true take on anything. I couldn’t even ask him what the weather was doing. I had to go look for myself.

One time we were bouncing along beside San Carlos Creek (in Mexico at a pueblo of the same name) in our old Jeep Wrangler. The top was down and the staticky music from the Ojinaga radio station was blasting. The sun was warm but not hot, and it was one of those “you can see Guatemala from here” types of days. Our children were safe at his sister’s, and we had the world to ourselves.

Our trip had started out a little rocky because the liar claimed he could take me to see the entrance of Santa Elena Canyon without going on the river to get there. I had only visited the exit of the canyon, so I had no clue his statement was true. Also, I hadn’t fully grasped the concept of the land on both sides of the river being interconnected in every way except legally. The river had carved its way through the desert, but I’m firmly convinced it was showing off, not trying to start a war.

The point is this: when the liar said he could take me to Santa Elena by driving, I said, “Prove it, because I know you’re lying.”

Game on.

The road was sometimes little more than a path but the countryside was picturesque to the nines. We had to move slowly because of the occasional cow crashing out of the brush, herds of goats crowd in front of us, or squawking chickens crossing the road. Meeting another vehicle was a tight squeeze.

We came to an overlook under a majestic cottonwood. The liar pulled the Jeep up to the edge of the arroyo and said, as if reminiscing, “I’ve seen witches in this creek.”

What? That did it for me, but I played along. “When was that?”

“The first time it happened I was a kid,” he said. “Some other boys and I were playing in the mud and we saw three witches. We thought they were chasing us.” He laughed as though it had been no big deal, silly boys.

I was speechless. I didn’t know if he was pulling my leg or if he believed his nonsense. His expression said he believed it, and I’d heard some weird things from his mother and, well…from the whole family.

I should’ve known better, but I couldn’t help but ask, “You said the ‘first time.’ Have you seen them other times?”

“Oh sure, I saw them again, but it was scarier when I was a kid.”

I was married to this man. That was what was scary.

I’ll say this, though. He did prove he could take me to Santa Elena Canyon by road. And by hiking, but he had failed to mention that part.

As the years passed, he stuck to his witch story. I felt him out about it now and then to see if he’d admit he was pulling my leg. My nieces and nephews, and even my own children, backed him up. My daughter never claimed to have seen witches, but she took it in stride that others had.

I always tried to give her the straight scoop, and I told her as firmly as I could that there were no flying witches in San Carlos or anywhere else, no matter what anybody said. She would roll her eyes, shrug, and run off.

A few years ago we were in back San Carlos, and I made a sarcastic comment to her about the possibility of us seeing “the witches.”

My daughter said, “I doubt it, Mom. The weather is wrong for them.”

Aye Dios. Her whopper-telling dad had passed the lying gene on to her.

“I don’t see what seeing witches has to do with the weather,” I snapped.

“Mom, you do know that ‘witches’ are what the old-timers in Mexico call ball lightning, don’t you?”

Sure. I knew that.