We never intended to go that far...
Maps, however, have a funny way of diminishing the actual distance between point A and point B. South Padre Island was originally our first destination for spring break, but a smattering of previous border town adventures had left me curious as to what lay beyond.
Tampico, the first major port south of Texas on the Gulf of Mexico, appeared to be the next logical spot, but a travel guide's description of this "sleepy little oil refinery town" left little doubt in our minds that it would be highly unlikely we would run into the likes of Christi Brinkley there.
(clockwise from upper left) El Mercado in Mazatlan; an accordion player in Zacatacas; the pavilion in Puerto Vallarta; the Sonoran desert at sunrise
Further reading suggested that Veracruz would be the first respite with the word "beach" attached to it. But wait ... if we were going to go that far, why not look west to the Pacific Ocean. A quick stop in Laredo to "check in", then Monterrey, Saltillo, zip through the desert to Durango, over a few hills and voila!
The exotic sound of the word alone beckoned... Mazatlan. It sure beat South Padre. We figured 1000 or so miles; fifteen hours, tops. Shoot, we'd already driven 1200 miles non-stop just to get back home to Texas from our college in Virginia. What was another thousand or so between friends. And so it was, on my last spring break from Washington & Lee University, that my friend, Tav Lupton, and I agreed that this was the only sensible way to spend a well deserved vacation from all of that hard studying. After all, we did have six whole days before we had to drive non-stop back to Virginia.
The lack of fear the average college male possesses is more than offset by an over-abundance of stupidity. We left Dallas around 4:00 PM Sunday, stopping in Waco to have a leisurely inaugural road-trip dinner and discuss what we might do first when we arrived at the beach the following morning. The "I'll drive while you sleep if you drive while I sleep" thing worked like gangbusters all the way to Laredo. I slept. Leaving the U.S. around midnight proved to be hassle-free as planned.
What a big difference one small bridge can make.
As soon as we crossed the Rio Grande river into Nuevo Laredo, we met our first "Federale" (Mexican official). It was there that we encountered our first minor snag. After three hours of being passed from one "official" to another and doling out countless five dollar bills to outstretched hands under dirty tables we came to the inevitable conclusion that, on our next trip, it would expedite things greatly if we were to carry more than a drivers license thus avoiding "additional charges".
Our next clue that our fifteen hour estimate might be more than a little off was when we finally got on the Pan American Highway, prominently marked as the major thoroughfare on our Mexican map. We're talking narrow, two-lane blacktop, no shoulders and a surface that could double as a small-town miniature golf course; and our map's telling us this is the best Mexico's got to offer. So we plodded our way through the warm spring night breeze towards Monterrey, occasionally passing one of the major modes of transportation on this "highway", donkey carts.
The first glimpse of morning light revealed virtually no traffic and unlimited pristine vistas of the Coahuilan desert. Daylight allowed us to pick up the pace, especially given the performance level of my new German-built Mercury Capri. 'Perfect!', we reasoned, 'so we have a late lunch on the beach instead of brunch'. By noon we found ourselves at the edge of the foothills, in the Colonial-influenced town of Durango, only 202 miles from the beach.
The words "Sierra Madre Occidental" meant little to us. However, our next clue that we were mobile jackasses would come just west of Durango in the form of logs ... as in, split in half lengthwise, turned upside down, laid one after another thus forming our new "highway". While these logs didn't last but a few miles, they should have suggested to us that where there are logs there are probably trees, and where there are trees there are probably mountains, and where there are mountains there are probably incredibly sharp, incredibly hazardous, turns that would slow my Capri down to a speed equal to, or less than, that of the burro carts we had zoomed by earlier in the day.
So we go humming along into the ever cooling afternoon air (wait... why is the air cool? Is there a front coming through or are we climbing?), until we come to a clearing in the now vast pine tree population. In front of us laid visual ecstasy. The majestic wall of multi-colored layers that stood in front of us formed a hazy three dimensional panorama of the mountains we would come to know as the "mother mountains of the west" or, Sierra Madre Occidental.
Two hippies sitting on the scenic lookout wall next to their Volkswagen bus (what else) assured us that, if we were going to Mazatlan, our Capri was about to bite off a fairly decent chunk of these mountains. They suggested that we simply stop for a while and share their bountiful harvest of assorted hallucinogens they proudly and openly professed to have in their possession.
"These mountains are a bitch to get through, maaaan ... 'specially at night. Hey, wanna just lay back here for a few days?" one of them suggested.
"It's awesome here, maaan. We were thinkin' of takin' off into those mountains on foot for a week or so. Wanna go?" the other chimed in.
Obviously these guys were not on spring break from anything. While they served notice as to the perils of driving through the mountains of Mexico, particularly at night, Tav and I quietly agreed that as wasted as they were, walking in broad daylight could likely be a serious challenge for them.
Suddenly it occurred to me that, while we had no desire to partake of their offerings, simply being in close proximity to these two could land us in a Mexican prison where large sweaty men could enjoy our still-young, slender bodies for many years to come, while the guards took turns driving my Capri to and from work. So we wisely left this breathtaking pit-stop and continued our trek towards the beach, now just a little over 120 miles away. It was starting to get dark (O.K. - so we would have dinner instead of lunch), but how bad could this road be anyway? Heck, they were just a couple of smelly, stoned hippies and we were a couple of highly educated college students.
One crisp turn after another led us through a maze of what could have easily served as an elevated practice ground for the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. With each smooth swing of the steering wheel my Capri and I were slowly developing a rhythm, getting a groove, gaining confiden .... WHAM!
The look in the pig's eyes as his face swooshed past my driver's window is one forever etched in my memory bank. If a pig's face could speak, he would have said, "What the hell are you driving up here in these mountains at night for?" But pigs can't speak, so he just let out this unbelievably horrific animal screech as the front half of his torso zoomed by me, much like that of an angry truck driver, horn blaring, in the oncoming lane.
We stopped only to discover that this wasn't just some ordinary pig. No. This was some massive mutant Mexican mountain pig-beast that had caved in the left front quarter panel of my Capri before expiring, dispensing the majority of his blood on my hood and windshield as a souvenir. We had two quick thoughts: 1) go knock on the nearest door (none in sight) and explain in concise English that we had mistakenly killed the county's breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next six weeks or, 2) hit and run.
Opting for door #2, a few slow hours later we slid to a stop in front of the Pemex station near the end of the mountain range, drawing an immediate late evening crowd of on-lookers to view the massive blanket of dried blood that now covered my bright yellow Capri. They began talking in rapid, high pitched voices.
Our brains, now exhausted, were spinning. 'Are there phones back up in the mountains?'
'Did we kill these people's dinner too?'
'Was Deliverance ever dubbed into Spanish, and did it make it's way to this town?'
As these and other pertinent questions raced through our minds, we decided the best course of action would be to play stupid ... something we had now grown quite accustomed to. "No speaky de Spaneesh", we responded to their direct inquiries. Finally someone turned a hose on the front of the car and the crowd slowly dispersed. After paying handsomely to have two small boys smear remoistened blood around the windshield with dry rags, we began our final decent towards the ocean.
Around midnight Dallas time the dim lights of Mazatlan came into view as the smell of salt-water now fully engulfed our nostrils. Thirty-two hours after leaving home we were finally in a position to relax on a beach and check out the babes that most surely awaited us. I climbed out of my Capri and firmly slammed the door to proclaim our arrival, much the way an explorer would plant his flag on new-found soil. Unfortunately I slammed it a bit too hard, imploding the partially rolled-up driver's side window into the front seat. We would now be traveling minus one window for the remainder of the trip.
I decided to place quick call to my family, collect of course, just to let them know that I was there (I had told them where "there" would be, hadn't I?) and it was off for some well deserved ice-cold cerveza.
"Hey, dad. Just wanted to let you know we got to the beach safely..."
"Right.." he slowly replied in a tense, disturbed voice before clearing his throat. "Tell me again where you said you were going, son .... now, just exactly where are you, right now ...."
"Uh, Mazatlan, it's, uh ... just across the desert... do you have a ma..."
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING DOWN THERE I THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING TO SOUTH PADRE AND THEN YOU SAID A LITTLE FURTHER INTO MEXICO SON ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MI...."
"dad ... DAD... it's O.K. We're here, uh, safe and sound ... it's ... O.K."
"Son, don't you know how DANGEROUS it is to drive in Mexico! ANYTHING, could happen. You have your MOTHER worried sick.... Now you tell me everything's O.K., huh ... tell me?
"Oh sure ... sure, dad... no problems, really."
The beer didn't taste quite as good that night. It was a safe bet that Mazatlan would not a have crackerjack body shop that specialized in Mercury Capri repairs for a fraction of the cost. My thoughts drifted back to my mother ... sitting, worrying. Mother... Mother Mountains, a gianormous pig's face, blood - lots of blood .... It was, however, the thought of dad walking out the front door and seeing the new car that he had purchased for me to get to and from college that prompted me to order another Carta Blanca.
The next four and one-half days would serve as a foundation for numerous south-of-the-border outings yet to come. The culture of a people so foreign and yet, logistically, so close left me in awe. We pick up chickens at the super-market; they string up chickens from their necks in open-air markets. We go crazy for football and baseball; they go crazy for soccer and bullfights. With such little time, the thought of chasing bikini clad babes was immediately put on hold, partly because we didn't really see any (really!?!... had no other college girls had the same idea we had?), but mainly because I realized I had become truly mesmerized by a land and its people and I wanted to fully immerse myself.
Mazatlan provided me with many firsts. My first bullfight, first taste of pico de gallo, first completely open air restaurant, first Modelo beer, first look at the Pacific Ocean, first taco-al-carbon (we now call them fajitas), first afternoon under a palapa and my first trip to a real Mexican market, (nothing like those border-town wanna-bes).
Saturday morning came in a flash and we both agreed that an early start through the mountains would put us in Monterrey around midnight, landing us back in the states well before sunrise. This would allow us more than ample time to get back to Dallas for Easter dinner with our families.
Intense sun baking our heads for four days must have dulled our memory of just how slow going the mountains really were. We finally re-entered the desert at sunset.
The Sonoran desert truck-stop meal laid before us (under $5.00 total) was the largest single table of food for two I have ever encountered... ever. We have no idea what we ordered but everyone stared and laughed as they kept bringing out one tray after another of incredible food. Enchiladas, steaks, chili, soup, potatoes, rice, guacamole, tortillas, lots of beans, and other stuff we'd never seen before. Being college students with bottomless pits, we scarfed it up in a hurry and then, feeling fairly miserable, headed out into the, now cold, desert night.
Tav was sound asleep as we approached the outskirts of Monterrey. We had learned on the drive down that Mexico wasn't big on highway signs, much less street signs. Once again, we missed the bypass that circumvented the town and would have dropped us directly onto the Pan American Highway. I tried desperately to see where we were but, with no lights, no signs and not a soul in sight, things looked bleak. My goal was simply to stay on a major road and hope we eventually found downtown.
The effect that Mexican truck-stop enchiladas, steaks, chili and lots of beans, especially Mexican beans, can have on your digestive system is quite profound. With one window now down-and-out we felt free to relieve ourselves, at all times, of any unwanted excess buildup. (Truth be told, we actually felt that way before we lost the window). There, cruising into town with my partner asleep, I did. But this wasn't just some ordinary gas. No. This was floating death, lethal enough to wake Tav out of a deep sleep. He comes to and starts screaming at me, and I start looking at him and laughing, and then he starts laughing, and then he looks forward, and suddenly his face freezes, and then mine freezes as I realize there is no longer any tire noise and...
Mexicans have always held their military heroes in the highest esteem and, to this day, still find it necessary to construct statues in the center of major thoroughfares to give them their rightful recognition. They begin this process by digging a hole about six feet deep by thirty feet in diameter. This ultimately gives them ample room to form a grand pedestal from which the dignitary, usually weilding a sword, mounted on a horse with one front leg raised, can perch. We now know that, in the early stages of construction, it's considered a waste of government funds to place any barricades or lights around this man-made crater since everyone in town already knows it's there. Everyone except us, that is.
There we sat, dazed, in this incredibly foul smelling car at 4:00 AM in Monterrey, Mexico looking at a wall of excavated dirt now surrounding us. We peer through the open sunroof and look up to see the edge of the highway from whence we just came, some six feet above.
Within seconds we hear a voice from above, followed by more voices. Then a man, fully clothed, jumps down into the hole and starts talking rapidly in this high pitched voice, just like the one we had heard a few days before at the Pemex station, and begins pointing to us to get out. Then others, a dozen or so more, follow. Did they know anyone back up in the mountains outside Durango? Was Deliverance ever shown in Monterrey? Did these guys sit up nights, taking bets on which unsuspecting passer-by would launch his vehicle into the pit next?
Here we all are - packed in this hole, standing between the wall and the car when this one guy, speaking to everyone else but us, starts pointing to the bottom of the car and then pushing his hands up into the air in a raise-the-roof motion. Surely he wasn't thinking of..... At that moment, the others bent down and began to lift the car, first to their shoulders, then over their heads, passing it slowly to the next guy, much like a drunk college coed being passed around a rock concert, until all four wheels were back on the road. We offered money but he, speaking for the rest, adamantly refused.
They disappeared into the darkness as quickly and quietly as they had come, giving credence to the notion of guardian angels, a concept fervently embraced by traditional Hispanic Catholicism, and now embraced by me as well.
Examining the damage, we realized that, being on the right side of the road, we had smashed up, no... really smashed up, the right front side of the car. We started driving only to find that now the car sort of hopped rather than rolled, allowing us a top speed of about thirty-five miles per hour. We looked for an open gas station but realized that everything was closed. Of course they were, this was Sunday morning... no wait ... this was Easter Sunday morning. Perfect!
We eventually found the Great Pan American Highway and made the next one hundred and forty miles to Laredo in just under four hours.
Donkey carts passed us.
Wilbur, the good-ol'-boy left in charge of the only open service station in Laredo took one quick look and mused, "What th' sam hill you boys been into anyway?" Nevertheless, he agreed to take his best shot at it. About an hour later he re-emerged and said, "O.K., hare's th' deal... Ya bent th' frame an' I cain't do nuthin' 'bout that. One wheel's a settin 'bout a foot back from th'othur 'n cocked off t' th' right. So I takes yur right wheel and lines it up 'gainst yur left. Now if you turns left, it ain't gonna go much a nowheres, but if you makes a hard right, you's liable ta flip-n-roll but I figures you's goin' straight back t' Dallas so ya' ain't got no turns no-how".
It is possible that Wilbur was born and reared in the small house next door to the station and never ventured off the block. Still, we had little choice but to take his warning, as well as his repair. To his credit, his assessment was remarkably accurate. A full turn to the left was barely enough to reap a twenty degree turn, while a slight twist to the right sent the car careening off the highway.
The sun had just set as we turned into the driveway of my parents house, just a slight twist of the wrist as it was a right turn. I could see my extended family seated at the dining room table, a place generally reserved for such special occasions as Easter Sunday. I saw my father's initial smile slowly reduced to a quizzical squint, followed by the inevitable slow push back from the table as he made his way to the front door.
To this day I am amazed that after nearly twenty one years of stunts just like this one, my father had still not fully homed in on the scope of my capacity to be a complete and total moron on any given moment, day, week, month or year. I have never asked him for I fear I know the answer, but it is my personal belief that before he went to bed that night, he formally apologized to my mother and to God for his participation in helping to create me.
Yet, he got up the next day and went about the ever too generous task of finding me another car to get back to Virginia. That was, and still is, my father's way.... and it is a good way.
These days I go to Mexico every chance I get but I see that we are rapidly headed towards one world. Tequila is now the drink of choice in the USA while McDonalds reels 'em in all across Mexico. Man is always enamored by that which he or she cannot readily experience, but it is my hope that we will never become so homogenous that we lose that which separates our two countries and forms the core of who, and what, we are.
A few years after our initial trip I took a similar car trips with others friends to Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo. It was there that I met two girls who collectively represent Angelina... stories for another day. Yet the song stands as a simple testament of all that is good about the mystery of Mexico and the complexity of divergent cultures.
UPDATE: "Highway Of Death"
After reading the above story, some have actually had the audacity to question the truth of it all ... imagine that. It is, for the record, all true. Perhaps this recent article I stumbled across in the San Antonio Express will serve as a second independent source (and no,I didn't write it). Click Here to read.
She tried to speak in my language
I stumbled through hers
I had so many thoughts
but couldn't find the right words....
Angelina, yo no puedo olvidar Angelina
Angelina - words and music bt Tom Faulkner