Monday, December 14, 2009

There is something special about having a machine gun pointed your way

The drive from Albuquerque to Tucson initially follows El Camino Real; the Royal Road of the colonies of Spain that stretched from the Valley of Mexico north to the southern part of what is now Colorado. First traveled in 1598 it extended Spain’s New World holdings far to the north, but unlike the wealth that was generated by Mexico, little came from that expansion. There was nothing to be found then along this route and today there is little more than Indian casinos, alfalfa farms, half empty reservoirs and a stark beauty that truly reaches its pinnacle in slanted winter light.

Food is a big part of every trip I take. On planes it boils down to the class I’m sitting in; Business is a nice filet mignon and Economy is a sad little salty pile of chicken and noodles. In our car though we have mastered the art of eating on the go, and this is in no small part due to the fact that My Lovely Wife also carries the appellation of Sandwich Queen. We even have a food preparation kit in the door of our car – cutting board, cheese spreader, sharp knife and napkins. Each trip includes a stop at a store for sandwich fixings; today it was Prosciutto, Swiss and Hot Pepper cheeses, cracked pepper turkey, croissants and mayonnaise. Trust me when I tell you that there are few better moments to be had than those behind the wheel, paper plate on your lap staring out the window at gorgeous scenery while stuffing your face with a sophisticated sandwich and getting croissant flakes all over yourself. If there is a heaven, sandwiches and SUV’s must be a part of it. Lunch preparation starts once we get past the last of the traffic at the city limits.

We passed several thousand Snow Geese wheeling above an impoundment near the invisible town of Bernardo. The lower Rio Grande valley is the winter home to many thousands of ducks, geese and Sandhill Cranes in a region that stretches from just north of Albuquerque south to Texas. The highest concentrations can be found at Bosque Del Apache NWR where the legions of waterfowl are mesmerizing as they come in to roost after a day spent foraging on the farms that line the river. Beyond the birds though, the drive just grinds on until you exit the Interstate at Hatch and take a state road cut-off that will deliver you to I-10 at the town of Deming. Hatch is a great little burg, built entirely around the growing and marketing of its famous Chiles. Driving through town you see them hanging in ristras and drying on the tops of the tiny stores along the main street, patches of dark ruby red on an otherwise gray tableau.

We always stop in Tucson mainly to visit with family but also because it provides a nice break that falls just about midway between our home and the beach. The drive could be done in one day, but not the way we do it, getting off at noon and quitting just after dark. Instead it would require a much earlier departure and a lot more driving and neither of us has ever felt it was worthwhile. Not to mention the fact that we’d be sacrificing an excellent dinner and a great visit. Dinner and a bottle of wine put away, we retired to the guest cottage to get some sleep. Sometime after midnight I woke up to a horrible screeching outside the window. I assumed Barn Owl since that is their calling card. But once the screeching ceased, the bird changed its vocals into a “hoo hoo” that you’d expect from a Screech Owl or one of the cousins. I made a note to do some research and went back to sleep once the racket had subsided. In the morning my cousin asked if I had seen the mess it left. Normally Owls leave pellets – little furry balls they regurgitate that contain the indigestible parts of their prey. Skulls, bones and tails. No pellets this morning, rather a whole lot of matter that came out the other end – the patio looked as though someone had kicked over a can of white paint. Vocalizations notwithstanding, only a very big Owl would be capable of leaving us such a calling card. Barn Owl I’m sure.

Off the next morning to our first stop – Green Valley – for a little food shopping among America’s elite retired. They have a great Safeway and we always stop and stock up on the supplies we need for a week of vacation. Green Valley is one of those classic Southwestern retirement towns, although it differs in that it’s a big series of small developments instead of one giant one like the various incarnations of Sun City. It’s a real community with actual citizens and none of them are less than 100. This makes shopping quite interesting because you have to check your attitude at the door and expect to stand around in aisles while little blue-haired ladies berate the store staff for the lack of some product that everyone sold in Akron. From the dedicated golf cart parking to the really long lines for the shot clinic, the Safeway in Green Valley is a short documentary film depicting where we’re all headed.

For the third time in a row I somehow managed to unload our stuff on the belt of an Express Lane and for the third time in a row the checker told me not to worry about it. It’s an interesting error I make, it’s almost as though the collective reduced reasoning function of the ancient clientele somehow infects me. This never happens in my real life, only at the Green Valley Safeway. It might also be that all the lanes are empty and the sign designating “Express” is not very clear. I don’t know, but for some reason I keep making the same mistake year after year. We always compensate by apologizing profusely and bagging our own stuff, something I doubt anyone else does having made the same mistake. Maybe next year I’ll get it right.

Lunch had to be bought a second time as I had managed to forget our supplies from the previous day and our small cooler when we pulled out of Tucson. Didn’t matter – the Capacola I bought was far more appealing than the Prosciutto and the bread was less flaky than the croissants. Sometimes good things spring from blunders. We gassed up across the street from Safeway, having dodged the guy in the Lexus who felt the need to creep across three exit lanes in the parking lot in order to avoid having to wait for me to go by. The gas pump at the Chevron was one of those with a limit - $75 – which meant two separate credit card swipes and a re-iteration of my zip code. Who picked $75 as the limit? If the card is stolen, and the thief happens to know the zip code of the owner, is $75 more palatable than the $87 it took to completely fill my car? Another mystery of modern life to ponder.

We always use the commercial exit in Nogales to cross into Mexico. It’s fast, it’s easy and you don’t have to drive through town. I exited at Mariposa Road and climbed the hill that led up to the border and coming down the other side I was faced with the unexplainable – a back-up of cars leaving the US. Now I am completely accustomed to sitting for untold hours trying to get back into our fair land, but a delay in leaving was a new thing for me. I got in line and waited, trying to discern whether the two sun glassed guards knocking on the windows of the cars were Americans or Mexicans. Neither made any particular sense, why would Americans care why we were leaving? And since when did Mexicans care about us arriving? We poked along until it was our turn for an interrogation and we rolled past without a hitch – they were indeed our fellow countrymen but they didn’t want to talk to us. The reason for the slow down instantly became apparent – a serpentine roadblock of Jersey barriers arrayed in such a way to force you to slalom through at 2 miles per hour. It occurred to me that this might be their response to a recent shoot-out here in Nogales; drug runners trying to drive right though the checkpoint. Well, no one was going to drive right through this bottleneck, and I’ll say it was quite a challenge to simply creep through with my 22 foot long car. After five or so zigzags we were on our way.

A friend of mine asked me the other day if we were worried about the recent violence in Mexico. I’ll admit that I think about it, but it seems pretty abstract and there have not been any problems of note on the roads we take or the cities we visit. It’s a border town thing up north and a Sinaloa thing down south. The region in between has been pretty quiet and in driving along it became apparent why – every intersection on the way out of town was manned by a battalion of Mexican infantry and a host of Federales. They were stopping and questioning every car with Mexican plates, and they waved us right through. Travel in a country where the military is trying to control the roads is an interesting thing – completely and extraordinarily strange for Americans who are lucky to see an Army convoy on an interstate – and quite disconcerting. I’ve never had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the back of a black Humvee pointed at me before, and it was instantly obvious that if someone with a load of weed came careening down the road, he was going to open that thing up without a moment’s consideration for everyone else around him. Now that is a sobering thought. We drove on past the sandbag bunkers and soldiers standing around with no particular thing to do.

Getting your car into Mexico used to be a paperwork challenge. The process was created to keep track of cars going in lest they be sold for a profit down in Quintana Roo in a transaction that didn’t involve a cut for the government. Nice thought, but a process that relied on carbon paper and manila folders wasn’t controlling anything of that sort. We used to get a sticker for the car and then peel it off when we got home in spite of the dire stories of Canadians whose credit cards had been charged thousands of dollars in fines for not checking in with the agents on their way out of the country. Over the course of the years the process became more and more simple, and today there is no process for your car as long as you stay within 300 miles of the border. Beyond that I’ve not tested the system. Now you stop, practice your Spanish with the Immigration guys and walk out with a stamped visa. What often took hours now takes minutes.

I’ve been driving in Mexico for almost 20 years now and it’s become pretty easy for me. On my first trip I forced My Lovely Wife behind the wheel – I was simply too scared and unsure of the rules of the road. Now, it’s just another day in the car and compared to the chaos and mayhem I see every day in China, it’s almost boring. 250 miles straight south through the Sonoran Desert, a trip that’s only broken up by a meandering bypass of Hermosillo where the biggest threat are the gang of silly young men at the stop lights who first insist on washing your windshield and failing that stand there banging on your window demanding the money they would have gotten had you let them climb on your hood.

The desert here is even more barren than that in New Mexico and Arizona and only things of interest are the tiny roadside “towns” that have sprung up around a government checkpoint, shrine or crossroad. A Carne Seca stand, a place to have your tires repaired or maybe a Pemex station, nothing to see and no reason to observe the government’s notion that the speed limit on this 4 lane highway should be reduced to 24 miles per hour. You look, you make sure a truck driver is not crossing the road and you barrel on. If there happens to be a speed bump, you do slow down because Mexican speed bumps are fully capable of ripping the bottom off of your car. And besides the Cruz Rosa is usually standing by these hazards collecting money. You give them a few Pesos because in this hard land you never know when those karma points are going to be called in.

As the geography becomes more and more raw and tortured you start to watch for a big mountain dead ahead and a series of volcanoes on your right, the latter being formed as this little piece of the Pacific Plate jammed itself under North America. When these two landforms align you’re almost there, seventy-five miles out of Hermosillo, San Carlos is just up the road. On today’s drive we began to see the devastation of Hurricane Jimena – scoured desert washes, a couple of ruined bridges. The highway itself was reduced to two lanes for a bit as the other side was simply gone. We made the turn off of MX15 and headed towards our landmark – the twin peaks of Tetakawi Mountain and our little home away from home. Another day on the road had come to an end and not at on a cold airport jet way but at the end of a rutted road that led to whitewashed buildings on the beach bathed in late winter tropical warmth and smelling of Bougainvillea.



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