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?

 

Gringo!

cowboy at river

 

When selling river trips, it was common to be asked about our neighbors, The Mexicans. Typical questions: “What about the Mexicans?” “Will we see Mexicans?” “Are they dangerous?” “Are there bandidos?” “I’m bringing my family; is it safe?” It was laughable since people were calling from cities far more dangerous than anywhere in the Big Bend area. They pictured it as wild and lawless, but to those of us living there, it was heaven. And it was home.

We gave free geography lessons in addition to prices and trip itineraries. Many callers didn’t understand that if you’re on a river that serves as a border between two countries, the “other” country will be adjacent to said river. Hello, people? Get out your maps! I grew up on the east coast, but even as a little kid I knew the Rio Grande separated “us” and “them.” It would take living by the river to understand the ways in it which it draws us together much more than it separates us. But I digress.

During the early days of owning Big Bend River Tours, my husband was busy running Restaurante Garcia in Paso Lajitas, Mexico. Except for driving an occasional shuttle, he didn’t have much to do with BBRT. In spite of this, he knew all the guides and they knew him. This was because his restaurant served authentic Chihuahuan Mexican food, prepared when you ordered, and served hot and mouth-watering.

One morning a group came to sign in for their half-day river adventure. In those days of higher water, the trip went from Grassy Banks to Lajitas. We stopped along the way to serve a snack and did it right. It always surprised and delighted people. I think they expected us to hand out packets of peanuts or cheese crackers. Instead, we set up a camp table with a tablecloth and served various cheeses, fruit, crackers, cookies, chips, and dips. Customers loved it.

This group was more concerned about seeing Mexicans than most. It frustrated these visitors that we had no control of our neighbors or the wildlife and couldn’t promise they would see either. Nor could we swear how either would act if we did see them.

“We normally see ducks and birds—” I began.

“What about Mexicans?”

I headed into my spiel about one side of the Rio being the U.S. and the other side being Mexico. It was possible to see a Mexican, I explained.

“What do they do if they see us?”

“They usually wave.”

“Do you ever have trouble?”

How do you explain to a man from Houston or Louisiana or any other faraway place that these “foreigners” are peaceable country folks? They’re our friends and neighbors. Sometimes we marry them.

Eventually the group got onto the river. I’ve forgotten which guides went, but there were two or three. When the trip returned, the customers were ecstatic. They’d had a blast. They met a Mexican man! And he had a horse! The kids got to sit in the saddle! The entire party was ridin’ high.

After the customers left, the guides told me quite a story. They had the snack set up on the Mexican side, after much cajoling and assuring the timid bunch that they stopped there all time and never saw anyone. Their customers had just served their plates when they heard hoof beats. In the distance, a man on a horse was galloping towards them calling, “Hah, Gringo! Aye, Gringo!”

The customers panicked. Women and children peeked out from behind the men. The guides explained that they tried to stay cool and keep everyone calm, but this stranger kept on coming and calling out “Gringo!” He wore a cowboy-style Mexican sombrero and looked one hundred percent mexicano, no mistaking it. The horrifying thing was that a bandana was tied over his mouth and nose, bandido style.

The cowboy came to the edge of their lunch camp. He yanked off the bandana, shook out the dust, and jammed it into the pocket of his jeans. He jumped off the horse with a “Ya, Gringo!” and strode towards them with spurs jangling. A woman screamed and people began scrambling into the rafts. The cowboy held out his hands in frustration, asking the guides in Spanish why they didn’t recognize him. It was my husband.

They had a relieved laugh and he accepted a cold drink and was introduced to everybody. He charmed them in his quiet way and with his big brown eyes and totally broken English.

“Why did you keep yelling “gringo?” someone asked. “It scared us.”

“Oh, Gringo—he my horse.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Mecca

Storm_Retreating_over_Mexico

 

This week’s Alpine Avalanche column is dedicated to Manuel Galindo ( April 28, 1973-July 2, 2010)

Finding Mecca

 When I first took my love to have and to hold, I didn’t realize I’d also taken his family. We married in June of 1983, and before the summer ended, my new husband said, “I want you to put Manuel into Terlingua School.” He referred to his ten-year-old nephew, a little boy I didn’t like much who lived in Paso Lajitas, Mexico with his grandparents. Paso Lajitas is directly across the Rio Grande from where we lived in Lajitas, Texas.

“But the school teaches classes in English, not Spanish,” I blurted because the little ragamuffin didn’t speak English.

“That’s the point.”

“Oh…”

I agreed to enroll the little scalawag because I knew it’d be good for him to know English. Then I said, “He’ll have to be responsible for getting himself up, fed, dressed, and across the river by seven in the morning. Do you think he can do that?”

“He can if you help him.”

“But he lives across the—” Oh, crap. “You want him to live here, with us?”

Yep, that was the bottom line. Great.

 I didn’t dislike children, but it was difficult to relate to them because I didn’t have any or want any. If they were someone else’s, cool. But if this grinning, always-dirty little boy came to live with me, that would mean having a child, wouldn’t it?

One day when the kid waded across the river just to say, “Hola, Tia,” I asked him if he wanted to go to Alpine. I figured if he was going to live under my roof and go to school, he needed shoes and clothes, and he was growing on me… just a little.

Of course he wanted to go! He was excited and echoed “Alpine” with wonder, as if we were discussing a trip to Mecca instead of an itty bitty town in the middle of nowhere.

This was in the days before the 24/7 Border Patrol checkpoint between Terlingua and Alpine. It was there but it was rarely open. We sailed past it and I felt no guilt. I was transporting one small, innocent boy, not a ton of drugs or vicious members of a cartel. And I wasn’t going to leave him or find him a job; I was bringing him back.

My first big lesson: everything is bigger, brighter, and more astounding through the eyes of a child. The mountains became taller, more rugged and stark, and the long-distance vistas far more impressive because of a little guy who could hardly sit still. He leaned forward, alert, and exclaimed over everything: boulders, plants and trees, mesas, naked peaks, sheer rock faces, a red racer crossing the highway, and even cows.

His mouth dropped open at the first glimpse of Alpine from Big Hill. It must have seemed large to a child from rural Mexico. Seen through his shining eyes, the town did seem Mecca-ish. It glittered. There were stores, restaurants, paved streets, a college, and lots of houses—and a train! Oh my goodness, the train. How had I missed all the fabulousness?

During Manuel’s first time ever to eat in a restaurant, we devoured “hamburguesas y papas fritas.” Judging by the look on his chubby face, the burgers and fries outshone all the other meals of his previous ten years.

After lunch came clothes and shoes. His eyes were wide at the selection, the sheer numbers of things. He seemed unable to decide, so I chose for him, holding up each item. If his expression was happy, I bought it.

Then I took him to a five-and-dime type of store and told him to pick out a toy. After an hour of intensive up-and-down the isles research, he chose a helmeted man on a motorcycle. He handled it cautiously and gave a heartfelt, “Gracias, Tia.” Then he admitted that nobody had ever given him a new toy.

On the way home I suggested he take it out of the plastic package but he didn’t want to. He admired it as you would an award in a case. And he gazed at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. Then I caught him at it. He grinned and I smiled and we fell in love.

Manuel became my son and I became his mom, although those roles would take a few more months to establish. It wasn’t all fun and games and dime store toys, but to this day, when I think of that little face gazing at me, the world glitters. Mecca, it seems, is only a ten-year-old boy away.

 

 

México, Done Badly

The first time I went to Mexico it was to Ojinaga with a young man who worked with me in Big Bend National Park. I have forgotten his name, but let’s call him Jerk. It fits.

I was stunned by the scenery along Highway 170 to the point that I didn’t realize the danger barreling my way. Jerk yapped about this and that—boring—but those huge rugged mountains and canyons and cliffs beyond counting were too spectacular for words. The land looked wild and uncharted, as if no human had ever set foot there. A muddy river I already loved wound through it, looking like liquid gold in the waning light. For a few minutes it was on fire and then the blaze began to fade. I was headed to a foreign country with a man who had no respect for its customs or people, and I was oblivious, writing poetry in my head.

After we got past Mexican customs, we drove through Boy’s Town, the red light district. I wasn’t shocked by sex for sale, but it was a seedy part of town, and I thought it was disrespectful to take a first date there without at least a prior discussion. In Boy’s Town you can buy any kind of fun you want. That’s fascinating and all, but it was not exactly a tourist destination. Maybe it was, but it wasn’t what I wanted to see. That was clue number one about Jerk, but I missed it because I was, after all, in México!

I knew there were ladies bars. Women are welcome in those. They tend to be clean, have live music, and in general are nicer than men’s bars. Yes, there are still bars where women are not allowed. It was behind the times even back in 1981, but it was not my country. And in 1981, there were plenty of places in the U.S. where women were either not allowed or were discouraged. So I didn’t take it personally.

We went first to a ladies bar and drank Dos Equis. The music was great and there was dancing, but that bar didn’t suit my friend. I think he craved trouble, but of course I didn’t know that yet.

“Let’s go to another bar,” he said, and I was naïve enough to agree. 

We walked a while, looking in shop windows and trying to read signs. I loved the foreign-country feel of it. Then Jerk ushered me into a dark, cave-like place. Truthfully, I was not paying attention because I had been gawking at the dark-skinned, handsome men that were everywhere. Surely they are one of México’s best assets.

Jerk was boring, had no manners, and didn’t like to dance—three strikes. Strike four was coming right up.

It took two seconds to realize we were in a wrong bar. It smelled of cigarettes, sweat, stale beer, and urine. Even if women had been welcome, no woman I know would ever drink there.

Los Tigres del Norte blared from a jukebox, but you could almost hear the collective sucking in of air when a woman entered the shady land of “no women allowed.” The rough-looking bartender glared. The female behind the bar with him was a prostitute; I knew it as instinctively as I knew I wasn’t welcome. She glared too, but I thought it was sad more than anything. Women need to stick together, but it was the wrong time and place for a speech.

“We should go,” I said. I don’t like to be where I’m not wanted, but double that if I don’t speak the language. And I had nothing to prove.

The bartender growled something I didn’t understand, but I’m sure it was unpleasant.

“No; sit down,” Jerk said. “They have no right to refuse service to you.”

 Oh, but they did. Instead of sitting, I went back onto the street. If I’d had a cell phone that would’ve been the last I saw of Jerk.  

Looking back, it was a rich experience. Even then, I knew it was. How many women have been in a sleazy Mexican men’s bar? I got an eyeful and a lot of writing mileage. Even headed home with Jerk at the wheel, the night sky above those mighty mountains was a wonder. 

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?