Category Archives: Travel

We’re Going to Chama, Momma, Part I

A few years before the writing of this story I made my annual trip to New Mexico to visit with my mother, brother and sister in law.  This tradition had persisted for many years and I looked forward to its renewal every late summer.  Before my father grew ill and died I would fly to Albuquerque, and from there my brother and I would drive to Kentucky and back, mostly on two lane roads.  After Dad’s passing my mother moved in with Brad and Patricia and I was able to visit all three of them without leaving New Mexico, and that was just fine with me.  My visits were usually for one week, or maybe ten days, and that time was mostly taken up by eating wonderful food, taking afternoon naps in front of football games, “helping” Brad with his forklift business (mostly by staying out of the way) and chatting with family on the balcony in the cool of the evening while watching the hummingbirds duel for mates and chances at the feeder that Patricia had hung from the overhead.  On many a visit however we would find some interesting corner of New Mexico to go and investigate, and on every such trip I found something new to amaze me even  more about that state.  On the visit introduced in the beginning of this tale we decided to take a ride on the Cumbers & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The Cumbers & Toltec Railroad is a narrow gauge line which runs between Chama New Mexico, and Antonito Colorado.  Originally the Cumbres & Toltec was part of a large web of rail lines servicing the mining operations of southern Colorado, but as that industry dwindled the railroad became unprofitable and most of it’s holdings were sold.  The stretch of track between Chama and Antonito was saved by a preservation society however, and built into the potent tourist attraction that it is today.  We decided that we would visit the railroad during this particular pilgrimage, and after spending the first few days of my trip lounging around Albuquerque we set off early one morning to do just that.

We left Albuquerque after having our morning coffee, intending to eat breakfast at El Bruno’s in Cuba New Mexico.  Cuba is a small town about eighty miles north of Albuquerque, and the drive passes through hills of gypsum, canyons cut through the soft rock by flash floods which rage towards the Rio Puerco during monsoon thunderstorms, and grassy valleys which become larger and more common as we climbed up from the Rio Grande Valley, which itself lies at 5,000 feet above sea level.  The road is good and not too curvy, and in all it took us about one and a half hours to get from Brad’s condominium to the parking lot at El Bruno’s, which put us there at about ten in the morning.  This was a problem it turned out, because El Bruno’s didn’t open until eleven.

“What do you want to do?” Brad asked me.  Since I was the visitor Brad always deferred to me, and one way or another I would defer right back to him since Brad knew the state like the back of his hand.  “Where can we eat up north?” I asked.  “No place in particular” was the reply.  We had all, with the exception of Mom, set our hearts on El Bruno’s.  Mom never did like New Mexican food all that much.  “It’s only an hour” I said.  “Let’s wait it out”.

And so wait we did, each in our own way.  Brad and Patricia took a walk, as they frequently liked to do, while Mom and I stayed in the car and chatted.  Our conversation required little effort, as Mom was nearly deaf and quite content to do the heavy lifting in any conversation by herself.  I would start out by patiently repeating myself two and three times in order to be understood, but eventually the effort would cause my mind to wander and I would make infrequent and perfunctory comments while Mom chattered on.  Eventually Mom tired of what had become an obvious exercise in futility and lapsed into the silence of her own thoughts.  We did this a lot, and mostly ended up enjoying each other’s company even if communication might be at a minimum.

On this morning as I sat in the car waiting for some of the best food in America, if not the world, I noticed an activity taking place about twenty or thirty yards away from the car under some cottonwood trees along the east bank of the Rio Puerco.  Two large nylon canopies had been erected and underneath them a team of people were busy sorting, cleaning, and bagging up a truckload of green chilis.  I had a sense that I was watching a scene which had been played out one way or another for centuries, if not millennia.  The people working there might have been Hispanic, but I am more inclined to believe that they were Native Americans.  They Navajo reservation is not far from Cuba and the Pueblos and Jicarilla Apache rez are all to be found at a much greater distance, so my money is on the Navajo.  The fact that they spoke in soft tones, if at all, and that the twist of a lip or twitch of a cheek seemed to be a part of the such conversation as I could discern lent support to the supposition that this team was probably Navajo.

The green chili that they were working on is the bedrock foundation of New Mexican cuisine, and whether you live in the south and prefer the chilis from the Hatch Valley, or in the middle Rio Grande area and indulge in the product from around Lemitar, or reside in the north and are more accustomed to the smaller yet still potent fruit of that region, the tasty and oftentimes fiery chili lies at the heart of a great percentage of New Mexico cookery.  The folk whom I was watching were generating a large amount of cleaned and bagged chilis and I guessed that they might be sold to restaurants in the area, although I could be far from the mark on that one.  No doubt the home kitchens of no bigger a town than Cuba (population 734) were fully competent to cook up enough delicious food to use up that mountain of precious green chili in not too much time.

Eventually the establishment opened and we feasted on more exceptional food than three gourmands and one reluctant senior citizen should ever eat.  We were in no big hurry, which could be said of just about everybody else in the sleepy town, and so it was probably another hour before we climbed back into Brad’s vehicle and nosed out onto the road north.

Much of the route from Cuba to Chama runs through upland hills and valleys, over a vast high desert plain dotted with natural gas pumps and the occasional casino, the Jicarilla Apache reservation on the eastern edge of that plain, and then the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  It is a beautiful drive, depending upon how one wishes to define beauty.  The evergreen trees – pines of some sort I think they were – with scant brush or lowish grasses covering the ground in the spaces between them, the flat plains with scrubby growth trying with indifferent success to cover the caliche that formed the floor of that high desert flatland, and the foothills which were clothed thickly with trees of many sorts, and streams issuing from valleys splitting the hills, all have a beauty of their own, if one is patient and willing to look for it.

And patience is a virtue in this timeless land.  Nothing moves all that fast; not the people who go through life in their own relaxed rhythm and at their own chosen pace, not the hills which have been there since time began, not the streams which have cut slowly, layer by razor-thin layer through soil and rock as they alternately rush, gurgle, and meander towards their reunion with the sea which gave them their birth.  Yes, if you come from California or New York or just about anywhere else where time is money and everything should have been done much more quickly than it was, you will probably soon be leaving New Mexico with a curse on your lips, wondering how the people here even survive.  Like the rocks and trees and waters, the people of New Mexico do things in their own time, dancing to their own drummer, and they’re doing just fine.

At length we arrived at Chama, a town of about 1,000 nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills, which offers a place to stay while you fish, hunt, ride your horse through the pine and alder covered mountains and, if you are so inclined, ride the Cumbers & Toltec Railroad.  We were too early to check into our motel, so we decided to walk around Chama, which did not take a great deal of time to accomplish.  We poked our noses into a few stores, bought Mom a doughnut (one of the true delights in her life), and then poked around the train yard from whence our ride would begin on the next day.  There was a station and the obligatory gift shop, where I purchased a sweatshirt upon the recommendation of Patricia to protect me from the high country cool of the evening and morning.  It turned out that she was right as rain.  I was accustomed to carrying little more than shorts and tee shirts on my summer escapes to New Mexico, with maybe one pair of long pants and a button-down shirt if we would be attending my brother’s very formal Episcopal Church.  Without the sweatshirt I would have had a chilly time indeed in Chama.

In a little time we had taken in all of the sights fit to be seen in Chama and set out on the road again in order to visit a valley nearby where Patricia and her family had spent many summers in her youth. The countryside in this area was gorgeous, with steep tree-covered hills and mountainsides divided by alternately broad and then again narrow grass-covered valleys, divided by rippling streams filled with trout.  The house which they had inhabited was still standing and Patricia shared many stories of riding horses, cleaning fish, and exploring the hills and valleys in ways that would make most modern parents cringe.  It sounded idyllic to me, and as I thought back upon my own growing up in the middle of San Diego, which was not a bad city to grow up in, I could see that there were a great many good things that I had not experienced in my childhood that I wished I had, and I considered Patricia to be a lucky girl indeed.

At last it began to grow late enough to begin our trek back to Chama and check into our motel.  We meandered down the road, paralleling the stream, and parted company with that waterway when we reached State Route 17 and it continued east to join the Chama River.  We had not traveled far before I looked down in the valley where I knew that the river was flowing and laid eyes for the first time on the chugging mass of the Cumbers & Toltec Railroad.  “There’s the train” I shouted, and we all looked at the black, smoking beast that was bringing several cars of tourists back to the station in Chama after an all-day run.  We quickly outpaced the train and soon came to a place where the tracks crossed the road.  We decided to shut the car down and wait for the spectacle to catch up with us.

Several other carloads of travelers had the same idea and soon there was at least a dozen cars and trucks stopped along the road.  There were no “Railroad Crossing” signs, no flashing lights, no barrier arms to descend to block the road of the careful driver or to challenge the spirit of the daredevil.  There was simply a pair of steel rails set in the roadbed over which the train would momentarily roll.  We all got as close as our individual perceptions of safety permitted and settled down to await the arrival and passing of the train.  The wait was not a long one.

In a few minutes’ time the shrill whistle of the train announced its presence, and in short order the engine came steaming up from along the river and around a bend about two hundred yards from the road.  I gasped as I first saw the black steel behemoth rolling steadily, inexorably, towards us.  The great steel cow catcher in front of the engine seemed to be as big as a car and the mass of the engine, which grew as it drew closer, looked to be huge enough to exert its own gravitational pull, and I had better stand back lest that gravity should pull me in spite of my feeble resistance under the bright metal wheels which rolled with only a whisper over the gleaming rails.  We all stood in awe as the great, lumbering iron horse chugged and belched smoke and cinders and whistled by us, seeming to glide like a phantom ebony leviathan across the road, dragging its cargo of delighted tourists behind it.  We waved at the tourists and most of them waved back, and then it was gone; disappeared behind a hill.

With the passing of the train we returned to our car.  It was now past time when we could check into our motel room and we wanted to unload our gear, relax, maybe walk a bit more and then have dinner and settle in for the evening.  Brad steered the car back through town and on to the Elk Horn Lodge,which occupied the southernmost limit of the town of Chama.  It was there that we would clean up, stretch out and enjoy our evening in clean and civilized comfort.  Or so we thought.

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I Love The Way You Talk To Me

I had coffee this morning with some friends before I went to work and one of those good people used a word or two in Spanish and French.  I speak a little Spanish and have been to France and the half of Belgium that is French speaking, and so I asked him if he spoke those languages.  “No”, he replied, “I only know a word or two, but  I do enjoy languages and find them easy to pick up.”  I told my friend that I also enjoy languages, but I can’t say that I find them all that easy to “pick up”.  As it turns out however I was not entirely truthful with my friend.  It is not just that I enjoy languages; it’s more like I am fascinated by languages.  In fact, I think languages form one of the most interesting parts of what it means to be a human being.

Many people have heard of the Hebrew story of the beginning of multiple languages.  Long ago people on earth were getting together to do something their own way instead of the right way, very much like we do things today, and so God confused their speech to put a little stick into their spokes and slow them down for a while.  The plan worked for a bit, but we soon found a way around that stumbling block and we’ve been merrily screwing things up ever since.  I don’t think of those languages as being entirely a curse however.

The Linguistic Society of America claims that there are over seven thousand languages in the world, and I suppose that if anybody should know such a thing it would be a Linguistic Society of Just About Anywhere.  This means to me that there are at least seven thousand groups of people ranging in size from the Mandarin Chinese with their teeming multitudes to the various dialects of the Sami, who together are fewer in number than my small church in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.  These various people who speak Mandarin and Sami and all languages in between each have a view of the world, or perhaps it’s more like filters which shade their views of the world, that are uniquely common to each of those groups.  That is to say that the Ibo of West Africa will see themselves, their relationship with each other and peoples around them, and the physical world in which they live with their creation story and purpose for existence that is as different from their Hausa neighbors as it is from the Yanomami of the northern Amazon.

I also believe that language is a two-way lens.  The Yanomami see themselves and their place in the universe through their own particular perceptions and they express and reinforce those perceptions to each other through their language.  Yanomami culture and survival are bound up together and expressed through their language, and they thereby define who they are and what they will peculiarly do to maximize the quality and survivability of their people group through the medium of their language, which will grow and change to meet the challenges of change which assail them as they become more in contact with a greater but sometimes subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) hostile world.

The other side of this language lens is available, although with considerable difficulty, to the outsider who wishes to gain insights into the heart and soul of what it means to be Yanomami.  All that the outsider must do to gain this privileged glimpse into the soul of the Yanomami is learn their language.  There, that was easy!  Simply use a computer program for a ridiculously hight price and within six weeks you will be talking like a Yanomami and, if you purchase the companion program for a minimal extra cost, you will also be trained to walk like an Egyptian.  In fact, I am offering this program at this very minute.  Simply call 1-800 BULLS___T and operators are ready to tell you where to send your hard earned and utterly wasted dollars, euros, pesos, rupees, rubles, and yen.  Sorry, but at this time I am not accepting the Drachma.

In fact, truly learning a language will take a great deal more work and personal investment than the average “Speak [Whatever] quickly” offer will actually provide.  There is so much more to learning a language than simply taking an English phrase (my first language, so Ill use it for an example), such as “I think it would be cool if that stinking Obama (or Bush, or Whomever) administration would melt down, get it over with, and put us out of our misery”, and removing the english words and replacing them with roughly equivalent words from some other language.  Let’s consider the case of the Tsogo language of some African Pygmies.  A literal translation of the phrase mentioned above might go something like this:  “It would be ________(Pygmies live in the equatorial forests of Africa.  They have no concept of cold, or cool) if the government of this leader who smells really bad (maybe he has an ulcer that isn’t healing and the flesh is rotting?) would dissolve into a liquified state like fat that is cooked, which in some way would kill us.”

No, it simply will not do to learn a list of words.  To learn a language one must also learn nuance; must learn to feel a word, to smell a phrase, to taste a metaphor and be moved by a simile, and thereby predict how your hearer will be moved by all of that as well.  When you get to that point you can say that you have learned a language, and I would be so bold as to say that there are not more than a relative handful on our planet who can truly say that they speak a language that they did not grow up immersed in.

But cheer up.  All is not lost.  Fortunately there are few people who expect you to become that fluent in their language.  I remember one trip that I made to the Mexican city of La Paz on the eastern side of the peninsula of Baja California.  In that city, which draws a large number of American tourists for the sport fishing that is available in the Sea of Cortez, there was a restaurant called ” Senior Frog’s”.  Beside the front door was a sign which read “We do not speak English.  We will not laugh at your Spanish”.  Beside the obvious contradiction that the sign was written in English, I have no doubt that the owners and staff of that restaurant spoke pretty good English if they wanted to.  But the point was that the tourist was in the Mexicans’ country and they should not expect the Mexicans to speak another language.  Go ahead.  Learn to count to ten, and learn to say ‘taco and ‘enchilada’ and ‘cerveza’ and ‘donde esta el bano and a few other phrases and you’ll do just fine.  In fact, they’ll probably speak English to you if you’ll at least try to speak Spanish.

That was my experience when my wife and I visited France.  My wife speaks a serviceable amount of French but I speak very little, and so much of the time she did the talking and the French people were very polite and helpful, and obviously pleased that we were at least trying.  Actually, I played a little trick on the French people.  When my wife was not around and I needed to communicate with somebody I would begin with ‘Je ne parle pas francais.  Parlez-vous espagnol?”, or “I do not speak French.  Do you speak Spanish?”  Most French people do know some English but very few speak Spanish.  Then I would come back with “Parlez-vous anglais?”, or “Do you speak English?”  In this manner I established that I am bilingual but not in French, thereby deflating the stereotype of the monolingual American expecting the whole world to learn English for my convenience.

This trick worked very well, and as a bonus one day when we were in the beautiful city of Beaune I used it in a wine shop.  The owner, it turned out, DID speak Spanish.  She was excited because she rarely got to use that language and I was excited because I could carry on a normal conversation with a French person.  I also hoped that she would be so pleased with our conversation that she would give me a nice discount on some burgundy wine but, alas, that turned out to be a vain hope.  As it was, this was one of the highlights of our trip.

As an interesting side note, a few years later I once again found myself using Spanish in a northern European city.  This time it was Amsterdam, and that city is lousy with beggars.  I would usually brush them off in Spanish, saying “Siento mucho, pero no hablo Ingles”.  It usually worked but one time the person with his hand held out slipped effortlessly into perfect Spanish and continued with his appeal to separate me from my hard earned dollars.  I found this immensely funny actually, having my bluff called so smoothly, and so In plain English I said “If you can beg in multiple languages brother, you can get a job.”  The beggar suggested that I do something with myself that is physically not possible and I walked away enjoying a good laugh at the whole thing.

I know a word or phrase or two in seven different languages, and I can say that I relish every opportunity that I have to use any one of them.  And that’s well and good; I only have to complete my learning of those languages and add to them over six thousand, nine hundred and ninety three others to get to where I want to be.  No sweat!  Actually, that would take an eternity to accomplish.  Fortunately, I believe that eternity is exactly what is before me.  After I leave behind this earthly veil of tears I rather suspect that my afterlife will be populated by men and women of all languages still speaking those languages.

People who think of afterlives and things like that frequently believe that there will be some sort of heavenly language, a great Esperanto in the sky, that will linguistically unite us once again into one big happy family, but I certainly hope not. I want to know the Yanomami in their own language.  I want to know a Native American from Gipuy by learning to speak Tewa.  I want to — well, you get the picture.  Such a thing would take an eternity to accomplish, but then we would have an eternity to accomplish it.  I would consider that to be beyond-time well spent.

A Walk On The Beach

The day dawned wet and blustery.  All night long the wind howled around the corners of our hotel at Cannon Beach in Oregon, while the rain was hurled in great sheets against our window and upon the roof.  I had walked along the bluff overlooking the beach the night before and could hear the waves being flung against the shore by the winds that presaged the storm that would later accompany my fitful sleep throughout the night.  I have not been a good sleeper in my later years and frequently spend large parts of any given night revisiting old daydreams or creating new ones, trying to get my mind off of the fact of my sleeplessness so that maybe, just maybe, I will drift off to sleep.  That night was such a night, but the surge and play of wind and rain with their power, which men covet but which is only possessed by nature, sang to me a lullaby that loosened the grip of wakefulness and carried me away to a sleep which lasted until almost nine in the morning.

We lingered at breakfast until after ten.  Our master of the breakfast bar had a wonderful French accent, and when he recited the morning’s complimentary offerings he said “croissant” in that special, fluid French way, and it made me ache to order one just reward his accent.  My gluten sensitivity would not have shared my attraction however, and so I stuck with the ham and eggs and potato and cheese casserole.  I did, however, accept the offer of a well mixed mimosa.  My wife and I took our sweet time at the table after the European style, discussing this or comparing that, and at length decided that it was time to begin the day’s other activities.

We began with a short drive along the coast which ended up in the town of Cannon Beach.  We parked behind a store in an old, historic building with stairs that bowed, floors that rippled, and walls that leaned.  Inside were a thousand items from nuts and soap to beds and art.  I don’t know who in the world would go to a ramshackle building in an overpriced tourist town to buy a bed, but I have to take it on faith that such things happen.  We probably spent a little under an hour there during which time we saw all that we wanted to see and then had to make another plan.  I had wanted to walk on the beach for months while we were waiting for our little vacation and had packed a poncho and big rubber boots in case I got the opportunity.  Now seemed like a great opportunity.

“Let’s drive back to the hotel and I will put on my gear and meet you downtown for some lunch” I suggested, and my wife readily agreed.  We returned to the hotel where I exited our car and went to put on my gear.  My wife returned to town to continue browsing in shops and looking at things that I had little interest in.  I quickly pulled on my boots and slipped the poncho over my head, and soon I was walking out of the door with the better part of a mile between me and my wife.

The first reality which hit me was the wind.  It was not particularly cold but it whipped my poncho around like a torn flag on a pole.  I grabbed at the sides of the poncho from within and held it close to my body.  There was little rain at the moment and so the buffeting of the wind was the only really inclement weather that I felt.  I walked across the resort complex behind our hotel and found a stairway that led from the bluff down to the sandy beach.

The stairway dropped down between two high walls to a grove of either high shrubs or low trees which ran along a level stretch of the sandy bluff which was about halfway between the top of the bluff and beginning of the actual beach.  The branches and twigs of those plants formed a skeletal umbrella under which I walked for a short distance, the leaves having long since dried up by the cold fall temperatures and blasted inland by the Pacific storms that have hammered the coast this year.  Emerging from under that ethereal umbrella I passed over a path between tall stands of beach grass and finally came to the edge of that level middle stage of the bluff from where I could see the broad expanse of Cannon Beach.

The sand of the beach was wet from the waterline to the base of the bluff, partly from the rain which had fallen the night before and partly from the previous evening’s high tide.  Beyond that sandy beach lay the Pacific Ocean, which was that moment making it clear that this immense body of water is anything but pacific, or peaceful.  The waves were large and coming in one upon another, as if they couldn’t wait to end their transoceanic journey and return to the serene pelagic depths from whence they were stirred up and hurled against dry land.  The crash of breakers, the chop and cross-currents of rip tides, and the last, exhausted yet still powerful flow of each surge as it crawled up the sands of the beach toward where I walked in my impotent puniness all reminded me that I am of little account when weighed against the power and splendor of the mighty ocean.

I began my walk along the beach towards the business district of Cannon Beach just above the high water line of the churning surf.  The unobstructed wind was blowing great patches of sea foam loose from the forward edge of the surging surf and propelling them like large cotton balls across the wet sand.  The wind was even snatching up wet particles of sand and blowing them in low waves across the beach to where they collided with the grass-covered sandhill of the bluff, to begin replenishing what was ripped away by the storm in the night before and returned to the sea.  Looking out to the west I saw the vague green of the water and the white of the foam as the waves crashed forward, but beyond that no true horizon met my view.  The sky was gray, the sea was near gray, the light rain which has begun again to fall, blurred whatever lines of transition remained until the nature before me spoke of a cold, neutral personality; it didn’t care if I lived or died, loved it or hated it, feared or respected or ignored it.  It existed in power and mystery behind gray veils, and I could think of it as I liked or not think of it at all; it was of no consequence to the sea.

I continued my walk and at one point my boot sunk four or five inches into a place of very loose sand.  I simply walked through it and in a step was back on more solid ground.  It occurred to me however that nature as its secrets, and the vision of a pit of soft, loose sand swallowing me up and of my disappearance from among the living sent a tingle up my spine.  I have never heard of such a thing happening, but could it be because those whom the Earth swallows up, it never gives back to tell the tale?  No further soft spots clutched at my boot heels for the rest of my walk as I continued towards where I knew the center of town could be reached.

Just before the stairway that leads off of the beach and into town was reached however I came upon a place where the now-rocky bluff jutted out to meet the churning surf.  Every other time that I have visited this beach the stretch of dry sand between that bulge of rock and the water’s edge has been wide enough that it has not even been noticed.  On this day however the water met the rock, and I was walking through pools of seawater fed by the advancing and receding edges of the waves.  I felt no concern from the tongues of seawater which licked against my boots, but I could not put out of my mind the vision of a rogue wave gathering speed in the churning water off to my left, building its strength to lurch onto the beach, engulfing me and finishing the job that the sand pit started but failed to complete.  I knew that the odds were greatly against such a thing, but all the same felt relieved to complete my traverse around that rocky point and continue my journey, now nearly complete.

I passed the first stairway off the beach, the one which led directly into the center of town, and pressed on to another path a hundred yards or so further to the north.  That part of the beach hosts the stream bed of Ecola Creek, which usually snakes across the sands of the beach and ends its short journey in the waves of the Pacific.  On this day a swollen and determined Ecola Creek slammed into an equally swollen and determined ocean, and the currents which danced a mad minuet could be traced by the wavelets and ripples on the surface, showing with surprising clarity where the form of the creek refused to yield its integrity to the immensity of the ocean.  My eyes were fixed on this wonderful dance as I first gained, and then climbed, the pathway which led upward and off the beach.

Once I was safely out of the wind-driven drizzle and under a covered pavilion next to a sculpture of a whale I texted my wife to see where we would meet.  It happened that she was no more than half a block away at a very nice restaurant, where I quickly joined her, shucked my poncho, and soon was warming up with a bowl of soup and a cup of hot, black coffee.  It was a perfect end to a perfect walk on a cold, wet, gray, windy, and perfect day on Cannon Beach.

Camping in Wonderland, Part IV

     There were many camping trips in which I engaged following my release from the Army.  I have already written of one of those trips; the trip to Minaret Lake with my oldest friend Wes.  That trip came early in my new civilian life and was among the best of my life.  One year later Wes and I decided to hike out of Yosemite, up the north wall of that amazing canyon and onto the more or less level high ground which our hiking guide book said that we would find up there.  We attacked the trail in mid-morning but by noon we seemed to be nowhere near reaching the top of that twisting, tortured, switch-backed trail.  Wes and I decided that life is too short to waste on such energetic endeavors, so we returned to the valley floor.  

     Resting in the shade by my car, Wes and I scanned the book in search of another place to camp.  We didn’t want to stay in the valley with the million-plus other tourists and vacationers, but we didn’t want to drive somewhere else either.  Wes noticed that there was a trail which extended up the east end of the canyon, beyond the general tourist area, where it began to climb up into the Sierra Nevada mountains.  That path followed the Merced River to the string of falls and small lakes that could be found up there.  That path appeared to be a road commonly taken and we were interested in a road less travelled.  Looking at our map we noticed that if we veered north from where the shuttle bus ended it’s route into the eastern end of the canyon, around the misnamed pond of Mirror Lake, there began a sort of path which followed a creek the name of which I forget which flowed out of a smaller canyon which climbed back up into the mountains too..

     This was no formal trail, but others had been this way and a sort of path could be seen among the rocks and trees which lined the creek.  I don’t know how long we walked; it didn’t seem like a very long time but these things become cloudy when a person is disconnected from their clock and enjoying nature.  It couldn’t have been more than an hour or two because we reached a good place to camp with a good deal of the day left before us.  Our camp was by a pool at the base of a ten or fifteen foot waterfall, beneath a tree which had dropped a thick bed of leaves over the years, which gave us a soft place to pitch our tents.

     This spot was enchanting.  The falls was beautiful and the valley secluded.  Few other hikers came by that day or the next.  Water birds called ‘dippers’, or ‘water ouzels’, would fly into the creek and walk along the bottom eating insect larvae, tadpoles or small fish if they could find them.  We marveled at those birds.  The only negatives to this campsite were the squirrels which quickly gnawed through Wes’ pack to get at the food items within before he could hang the pack by a rope from a tree limb, and the white noise from the waterfall.

     The white noise was an interesting phenomenon.  I paid little attention to it during the daytime but at night, after we had sipped a bit of our backpacking staple of cheap bourbon whiskey, and smoked a joint or two, the strangest sounds could be heard emanating from the noise made by the constant splash of water falling ten to fifteen feet into a pool.  As I lay in my tent I could hear everything from people talking to ten speed bicycles clicking to police sirens, and all of this several miles from any possible police sirens or ten speed bikes.Like everything else in life one gets used to it, but it did detract from a good night’s sleep.  Wes and I hung around that camp another day fishing (with better luck than we experienced at Minaret Lake), reading and relaxing, and then returned to my car and from there to San Diego.

     That was not my last foray into that part of Yosemite however.  One year later my best traveling partner, Joe Medina, and I were driving around Northern California visiting friends and camping out here and there and I mentioned the place where Wes and I had camped earlier.  That sounded good to Joe and so we pointed his Volkswagon bus towards Yosemite National Park.  We parked the bus near the visitor’s center and stocked up on food at the little store that is maintained there.  A short shuttle ride later we were standing in front of Mirror Lake and ready to walk eastward into the wild canyon at the rear of the park.

     The trail was a little busier than it had been when Wes and I had camped there the year before, but it was still very quiet  as we walked further from the tourist area.  We reached the waterfall where Wes and I had pitched our tents before but the day was still young, so we decided to push on.  Climbing the steep bank over which the creek was falling was not too difficult a project and upon reaching the small plateau which gradually narrowed and rose as one walked further east we recognized instantly a perfect campsite.  Two logs lay perfectly situated on the ground to provide seats in front of a fire.  We brought stones together to make a fire pit in front of those logs and pitched our tents on the soft soil nearby.  The bank over which the creek fell was just enough of a barrier to traffic that only a few hardy hikers passed by our camp, and they mostly just waved and walked on.

     Our area seemed to have hardly been camped in at all and so there was no shortage of dry firewood littering the floor of the forest.  We had small gas stoves to cook on, but a fire in the morning to brew coffee over and a fire at night before going to bed is something which makes a camp a camp.  We were as comfortable as could be, and even being twenty two year olds and restless as that breed tends to be, we were very content to explore around our camp a little but mostly sit on those logs and talk about things that I couldn’t possibly remember today and probably wouldn’t interest me now anyway.  They were interesting and speaking was effortless then however, and we spent the rest of that day and most of the next doing just that.

     There were however three occurrences which added a little spice to the trip.  Early the next morning I was forced out of my tent by the need to take care of some urgent business.  Even in such an idyllic setting of nature one still must answer when nature calls.  Taking the toilet paper and a collapsable shovel I looked around until I found a small log lying on the ground which looked as if it would serve for latrine duty.  I dropped my drawers and positioned myself comfortably on the log, and proceeded to add another log to the forest floor.  About midway through this process I heard a ‘snap’, and my attention went into high alert.

     My first thought was that Joe might be sneaking up on me with his camera.  We were young males and that kind of humor was (and remains) common to that set.  My second thought was a bit more dire.  Bears frequent the vicinity of Yosemite, usually on the valley floor where there are trash cans, picnic baskets and coolers to pillage in search of the crap that we humans usually like to eat.  But the bears have to come from somewhere, and eventually return there when the garbage is gone, so I wondered if I had chosen to take my ease on some sort of bear highway.

     That is a thought that will pinch things off in a hurry but I knew that it would be foolish to move an inch, so I just sat there bare to the world, waiting to see if a bear would come along to ruin my day.  In a minute or two I heard soft rustlings in the leafy carpet of the forest floor and a large brown shape loomed from behind a boulder.  “This is it”, I thought, “Smokey’s revenge”.  The shape did not have the rounded bulk of a bear however, and as my panicked vision cleared I could see that my visitor was a deer.  I don’t remember if there were antlers, so I couldn’t say if it was a buck or a doe.  All I cared about was the fact that it didn’t have claws and teeth and a very bad attitude.  The deer and I stood and sat motionless for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes at very close range.  Slowly the deer ambled off towards the remote east end of the canyon.  I quickly finished the business at hand and returned to the safety of our camp where Joe and his camera were still snuggled comfortably in his tent.

     Later that morning a couple of parties of hikers came past our camp.  The first was a middle aged man and woman who simply waved and walked on.  That is usually how I liked it when I camped in the wilderness; I didn’t go to the woods to hang out with people.  The second party was different though.  Two guys, roughly our age, with German flags sewn onto their backpacks.  This told us clearly that these were two guys who would bring interesting stories into our camp.

     Pius and Rene were indeed from Germany; from Munich, or “Muenchen” to be exact, and with the customary German fondness for precision they insisted on being exact.  We offered them coffee and rolled a couple of joints, and within an hour’s time we were fast friends.  Pius and Rene were students traveling abroad during the summer, and this was a time in America when more people would still hitchhike from coast to coast with little fear.  It was far from a perfect time, but two white guys with short hair and no beards had a good chance of traveling in America by the seat of their pants in relative safety.  We spent a couple of hours with our two new friends, learning about them and their home as they learned about us and ours.  The time came for Pius and Rene to move on, and we exchanged addresses.  Oddly enough we were visited by Pius and Rene later that month at the house I shared with three other friends.  I have not made it to Germany yet to repay that visit.

     My last outstanding remembrance of that camping trip came later in the afternoon.  It was a warm day but not uncomfortably so, and there was a nice breeze blowing which cooled things down to a very acceptable level.  I had a can of deviled ham and some crackers and prepared to enjoy them while sitting on the bank over which flowed the creek into the falls.  From that vantage point the view was stunning.  Not a single evidence of human activity could be seen from that spot, and the whole of the Yosemite Valley opened up before me.  The sheer walls of naked rock stood in their frozen permanence while the carpet of tree tops in the valley below swayed and rippled like tall grass in the wind. 

     Like every other stoned slacker of my age in those days I had read Carlos Castaneda’s books about a Yaqui sorcerer in Mexico with whom he allegedly spent time doing a research project.  The first of the books which emerged from this project was entitled “A Separate Reality”.  Many are doubtful of the academic seriousness of his books or even the existence of the focus of those books, Don Juan.  Nevertheless those books were read voraciously by those of us who were comfortable living in our own separate realities, and I sat there trying to see the entire valley as a living, breathing organism.  That effort failed miserably but the beauty of the simple, three dimensional here-and-now valley was deeply impressed into my memory.  I finally picked my stoned self up and retreated to our camp, where our campfire coffee and reconstituted freeze dried food and another snort or two of whiskey completed our evening.

     We broke camp the next morning and retraced our path to Mirror Lake in time to catch the shuttle to the visitor center and have a late breakfast there.  We left Yosemite to continue our rounds of visiting friends in the north and I have never returned to Yosemite since.  In a way I don’t have to.  The diving birds, the waterfall, the deer, the breathtaking views of the valley, Pius and Rene; all remain in my mind as if it was yesterday instead of forty years ago.  Part of the pleasure of retelling this story lies in the fact that I get to relive it  That is a blessing indeed. 

 

Camping in Wonderland, Part III

     Wes and I recovered quickly from our arduous climb to Minaret Lake, and after a short while of sitting under the lone tree that was close to our camp we decided to get busy.  We were both hungry so we lit a fire in the rock fire pit that we had built. The nearby stream seemed to contain clean snowmelt off of the white stuff which crowned the nearby peaks and so we scooped up a couple of pans full with which to cook up some of our freeze dried dinners.  It was probably beef stroganoff for me, and as I recall the finished product did roughly resemble beef stroganoff.  I certainly remember that it tasted wonderful, but then sitting in paradise at 9.800 feet eating food cooked over an open fire, I could have eaten the sole of one of my K-Mart boots and liked it just as much.

     Wes suggested that we explore the valley in which we were camped and so after cleaning up our mess we began to poke around the area.  One of the first things that we noticed was that even at 9.800 feet mosquitos lived near water.  And they were big suckers, too.  While not as numerous as I’ve seen elsewhere, these guys were on steroids.  As we walked along the lake shore the little vampires rose up and attacked like kamakazis.  They would bite anywhere, including through denim jeans. I had completely failed to take mosquitos into account and was therefore defenseless.  Wes had a small amount of a commercial insect repellant in his kit but it was nearly gone.  I could see that Wes’ repellant wouldn’t last long even if he was the only one using it, and it didn’t seem right that he should suffer more because I neglected a pretty basic tenet of camping.  I declined his offer to share and continued slapping at the little monsters, leaving bloody splotches on my arms, face, and jeans.  

     At one point we jumped over a small stream and mounted one of the rounded rocks near where the trail rose up out of the valley below.  Lying on the ground on the other side of the boulder was the remains of a camp which did not appear to be more than a week old.  We could see where the tent pegs had been driven into the ground, where the campfire had been, and where the garbage still was.  Up next to the rock were two large black plastic bags with all manner of cans and paper products and uneaten meals and, most amazing of all, empty bottles of one of the cheapest and nastiest pop wines on the market at that time.

     Wes and I stood there looking at the mess with disgust and astonishment, and did not hear the sound of the horse’s hooves until the beast hove into view over the same rise that we had surmounted earlier that day.  Seated atop that horse was a forest ranger who was making his rounds.  I believe that the ranger saw us before we saw him because he never once gave us the impression that he connected us with that pile of trash.  I’m certain that he could read the disgust on our faces as plain as day.  

     “Good afternoon boys.  How is your day going?” he asked.

     “We were doing fine until we saw this mess” was my reply.  “What I want to know, beyond why somebody would leave this crap in a place like this is how they got it here at all.”  When every box, can and bottle in that pile war full it would have amounted to a lot of weight.

     “They probably got it here the same way that I got here.  Usually a party of hikers will be met by someone with a pack horse who will bring their supplies in here.  It doesn’t happen a lot and usually they clean up after themselves, but this is not the first pile of shit that we’ve had to haul off of the mountain.  Someone will be back later to pack that stuff out of here.”   I couldn’t help but wonder how somebody with the resources to have access to a pack horse would stoop to drinking that increadibly nasty wine, but they were clearly bottom-feeders so I left it alone.

     “What kind of camp have you set up?” the ranger continued.  We showed him our camp in the distance and described our equipment and plan, which was limited to exploring, relaxing, fishing, and maybe a little reading.  Wes and I were both avid readers.  

     “The only thing bothering me is that I forgot mosquito repellant” I commented in an off-hand way.  The ranger scowled and said “They’ll eat you alive.”  He reached into his saddle pack and retrieved an olive drab can with a spray nozzle on the top.  “This will keep the little bastards off of you” he said as he tossed the can to me.  The can was classic government issue.  As I wrote earlier it was olive drab, with some code of letters and numbers denoting what item number it was in some catalogue somewhere, and written across the can was INSECT REPELLANT in black letters which blended into the deep green of the can.  I gladly accepted and sprayed myself down, and as I handed it back the ranger smiled and said “Keep it.  I’ve got plenty.”  I don’t know what was in that insect repellant but I am certain that it had a plutonium base.  The mosquitos never bothered me again on that trip.

     The ranger told us that someone would probably be back the next day to clean up the mess and waved goodbye.  We returned the wave and continued with our exploration of the valley, which was in fact more like a shelf.  We jumped over creeks, waded gingerly through marshy ground, and eventually came back to our camp.  The day was creeping into evening, and shadows from the cliff behind us began to advance across the valley floor.  Wes began to fiddle with his very light weight, collapsable fishing rod and other gear while I laid back against the tree with a book.  We could cook dinner in the shadows of evening but it would be hard to read or do much else, and that is pretty much how we spent the rest of that day.

     After cooking and cleaning up, night fell upon us like an onrushing train.  Wes and I pulled out our half-pints of cheap bourbon whiskey that we had brought and drank a swallow or two before turning in.  I shed my shirt and jeans and crawled into my mummy bag.  Even in mid summer the nights can be pretty cool at 9,800 feet, especially with a wind blowing off of the showpack even higher up.  I felt perfectly comfortable lying in my bag on a thin foam pad in my little tent.  The darkness was as nearly pitch black as it could be, especially as I was cut off from the starlight in my tent, and there were almost no sounds apart from the occasional rustling of the grasses by a light wind.  I lay there awake for a short while, alternately nervous in the unfamiliarity of near total dark and near total silence, and utterly relaxed in those same phenomena.  I was reflecting on that duality and the next thing of which I was aware was the light of a new day penetrating the nylon of my tent.

     After leaving my mummy bag and dressing quickly in the chill of the morning I emerged from my tent and immediately got a fire going.  I knew that Wes wouldn’t be far behind me and coffee would be needed on an emergency basis.  I took a nip of bourbon to get the blood moving and then went to get a couple of pans of water from the nearby creek.  By the time I returned Wes was sitting on a rock close to the fire pulling supplies out of the pack which we had hoisted into the tree the evening before.  In no time at all we had breakfast and coffee prepared and ate one of the finest meals ever cooked.

     After putting our camp in order we prepared for our first adventure of the day.  Behind us rose the 800 foot cliff which I previously described and at that height, nestled in a bowl created by the confluence of the cliff and the Minarets, lay Cecil Lake at 10,400 feet.  The book that we brought with us said that there was a steep trail which led over the top of the ridge and sure enough, we found that trail.  Steep, however, was an understatement.  The climb was as close to vertical as one could get without going hand-over-hand, and near the top that’s just what we did.

     The payoff, however, was worth every exertion.  Cecil Lake lay cradled in its stony crib with little more than rock, ice, snow, and water making up the scene.  The starkness of the environment had a severe beauty and Wes and I simply sat for a while admiring it.  Broken rock had tumbled down the steep sides of this natural bowl with little growth of any kind poking up from between the jagged stones.  The lake had a fifteen to twenty foot ring of ice extending from the shore towards the center of the lake, with the ice-free bulk of that center even more blue than Minaret Lake below.  The picture was stunningly beautiful.  Rising from our rocky perch we carefully crossed over to the other side of the bowl, disturbing marmots who somehow lived in that sterile-looking place.  Climbing the bank on the other side we gained the rim to look out over a vast scape of mountain peaks, most of them at a lower altitude than we were, which stretched west across the Sierras towards Yosemite and beyond that the great central valley of California.

     After taking in the view for a good long while we retraced our steps and returned to camp.  We had taken a couple of hours to climb the cliff and return and we wanted to try our luck with fishing in Minaret Lake.  Our gear was as simple as we could make it, but we had enough to try bait, lure, and fly.  Unfortunately, none of them seemed at all tempting to the fish.  We would switch baits, we would move to other spots, we pulled in our lines and then returned in the evening, and nothing worked.  I suppose it’s possible that there weren’t any fish in that lake at all.  I don’t see how they could have gotten there in the first place, but as I have heard elsewhere, “Life finds a way.”  We finally threw in the towel and broke down our rods and stashed our gear away.

     The trout dinner which we had expected had to be substituted with more of the freeze-dried food that we had packed in with us, and we were eating that at a faster rate than we expected.  The exertion of the climbs on both days, the general exhilaration of being so far into mostly unspoiled nature, and the fact that we were two twenty-one year old men with serious appetites, combined to make us literally chew our way through our supplies a lot more quickly than we had intended.  Taking stock, we saw that we had enough for one more day, but we would have nothing for breakfast the morning after that.  Our path back may have led downhill but it was still eight miles, and neither of us relished that long of a walk on an empty stomach.  In the end we decided that we would have a good breakfast the next morning and break camp.  I was beginning to fear that my mosquito repellant was running low anyway (it wasn’t really.  It lasted for two more camping trips).

     The next morning we made up the coffee and a larger than average breakfast, and lounged in our camp until the sun was well up.  Wes and I took our sweet time folding up our tents and rolling up our sleeping bags, and when we were packed and ready shouldered our packs and bid goodbye to Minaret Lake with as much melancholy as it was possible for two young men with their lives ahead of them to muster, and then we set out on the trail back to Devil’s Postpile.

     My car was untouched and waiting as we trudged into the parking lot.  Wes and I quickly stowed our packs in the trunk and fired that Mercury up.  In very little time we were on the road, and pulled into a restaurant in Bishop ready for a real meal.  I’m certain that we smelled like a garbage dump when we walked into that squat & gobble cafe but that didn’t bother us at all.  If it bothered anyone else they didn’t share their displeasure with us.  It was about two in the afternoon and since it was between lunch and dinner we decided to eat both.  I am sure that I put five pounds of food down the hatch and Wes might have eaten more.  All that remained was about nine or ten hours of driving and we would be home, clean and fed again and lying in our own comfortable beds in our own homes, with refrigerators full and the noise of the city around us, a million miles away it seemed from the pristine beauty of that jewel of the wilderness, Minaret Lake.

     

Do You Know The Way To Veracruz: Part III

Wes and I stood outside the gate to the port of Veracruz for a short while and finally realized that taxis don’t usually come there unless to bring a fare. I returned to the big building to ask if there was a bus or some other form of transportation which would be able to return us to the city. After a difficult exercise in overcoming a language barrier I learned that buses came and went at shift change but not during the day. The man at the counter told me that we could get a taxi at the old stone fort which was about a mile down the road. I remembered seeing that fort on the way to the port and thought then that it looked like it would be an interesting place to visit. Now it looked like we would indeed be visiting it,

We began to walk down the road towards the city, jumping into a ditch from time to time to avoid the trucks carrying cargo to and from the port. Wes and I both picked up medium-sized rocks to launch at dogs if they should menace. The line between a Mexican stray and a Mexican pet can be a little blurry, and although Wes and I both like dogs we didn’t necessarily feel like being bitten by one. Or ten. The precaution was unnecessary and soon we were walking into a broad area in front of the fort which contained parking for cars, a taxi loading and unloading area, and several outdoor concessions which included one business selling tacos, carnitas, and more to the point, beer.

We ordered our food and beers and took up a couple of seats at a long table under a large canvas tent-like top. Soon the food and beer were in front of us and we wolfed it down in a few minutes. We had not really noticed how hungry we were. While we sat at our table we had time to get a good look at the stone fort, or ‘Fortaleza’. The polygonal building is massive, made out of huge carved stone blocks and standing a good twenty or thirty feet high. Wes and I decided at that table that we would spend a day enjoying Veracruz and then return home. We wanted to purchase our airline tickets – we had experienced all of the Mexican buses that we cared for – that day so that we would be certain to be able to get home. That would turn out to be a rare bit of good sense on our part.

But first we wanted to get a look at the Fortaleza. We bought our tickets and began a walking tour of the building, and it is huge and extensive. We walked in hallways built within the massive walls; in some places five or six feet thick. The fort was begun by Hernan Cortez at the beginning of the conquest of Mexico and it was the last Spanish foothold when Mexico rebelled and expelled the Spanish in 1825. The walls were lined with maps, drawings photographs, and historical notes in both Spanish and English. Wes and I were fascinated and stayed there longer than we had planned. At one point we did feel a little nervous however. One display of photos with their historical explanations concerned the capture of the city in 1914 by U.S. Marines and Navy personnel as part of a complicated affair involving German arms shipments to the Mexican government in the midst of a revolution. On the wall were several photos of Mexican soldiers and civilians defending their city as the battle waxed and waned through the streets and from behind buildings. Wes and I began to feel a bit uncomfortable as we stood with a group of Mexicans looking at the exhibit. We wondered just how gringo we looked.

At length we had seen enough of the fort and flagged a taxi to take us to the airport, where we purchased two of the last five tickets available on that flight for the return trip to Ciudad Juarez the next afternoon, and then returned to our hotel to settle up there as well. We then counted and pooled our money and set out to enjoy what had turned into being a vacation as well as an adventure.

We began the rest of our stay in Veracruz by walking to a rum shack on the waterfront which we had seen the day before from the trolley. Seated outside we began drinking rum and cokes, but the drinks became progressively more rum and less coke. I was twenty eight years old at the time and for the last ten years had lived anything but a temperate and sober life, so I could soak up a good deal of rum and remain functional. Next to us was a Mexican boy of about ten years of age who was selling coconuts. When a customer came along he would neatly lop the top end of the coconut off with a machete and send them on their way refreshed with the milk of the coconut. I purchased a coconut and asked if I could try to knock the top off myself. The kid agreed and I whacked away with the machete but failed miserably to even dent the shell. I returned nut and machete to the boy and he took off the top with one clean, effortless swing. Wes told me he was certain that I would cut my hand off and under the circumstances it was probably a miracle that I didn’t. I poured my rum into the coconut and drank the mixture of milk and rum with a straw. Soon after that Wes and I wobbled out of the rum shack in search of someplace to eat dinner.

We found a restaurant not too far away which featured foods from all over Mexico. There is much more to Mexican food than tacos and enchiladas. I don’t remember what Wes ate, but I had red snapper in a local red sauce with all the trimmings. While we ate we enjoyed a mariachi band which would circle the room, playing for anyone who would pay. My weak grasp of the Spanish language precluded my following their lyrics fully, but it sounded as if they were sort of a comedy act as well as singers. They seemed to be making fun of their patrons, but in a good natured way. Sort of like a celebrity roast, but less nasty. The patrons were laughing uproariously at some of the lines, and the singers worked hard to keep a straight face during their performance. After finishing our meal we walked for a while on the downtown sidewalks and then returned to the hotel bar where we sat nursing drinks for another hour or two before retiring for the evening.

The next morning we awoke early and hung over. It was a Sunday and most places where one might get a breakfast were closed, including the restaurant at our hotel. We exited the building and walked towards the center of old Veracruz, but still found nothing but closed businesses. Upon entering the large plaza in front of the old cathedral we lapsed into tourist mode, examining buildings and fountains and grassy miniparks with bleary eyes. As we walked through the plaza we saw a sight which caused hope to surge through our addled brains; a cantina boasted a sigh which said ‘Abierto’, or ‘open’.

A little hair of the dog which bit us seemed like good medicine so we veered to the right and made for the cantina. As we approached it our spirits soared even higher, for another sign announced free tacos for paying customers. This piece of luck cheered us greatly and we sat down at an outside table and ordered beer and tacos. Our order came straightaway and we dug into the rolled tacos with gusto, washing mouths full down with the cold Mexican beer.

After a short while of eating with abandon I happened to look over at Wes. He had been looking pretty green since he had crawled out of his bed that morning and now he looked a little greener. “What’s wrong, Man?” I asked around a large mouthful of half-chewed taco. “Do you know what we’re eating?” he asked, putting down his half-eaten meal. “No, and I don’t really care. It’s pretty good whatever it is. You should have seen some of the things I ate in Vietnam” I told him, although I really had no idea what I had eaten at some places in Vietnam. It could have been just about anything. Wes unrolled his half-eaten taco and showed me the white, honeycombed substance within. “It’s tripe.” I looked at the filling of the taco and sure enough, it was tripe, or ‘menudo’, the lining of a cow’s stomach. That is a very cheap bit of meat, which is why it could be given away for free. “I don’t care” I said with my best machismo, and finished my taco. I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat another one however.

A young Mexican lad was watching this drama from a short distance away from our table. I have no doubt that he’d seen this all play out before and knew the probable outcome of two gringos eating menudo tacos. After a few moments of seeing our hands remaining wrapped around our beers and not venturing close to the tacos he approached our table and asked in pretty good English “Are you going to eat those?” “No”, we answered in unison. “They’re all yours” said Wes, and the kid gathered up the tacos to go and eat them somewhere else, happy to have a free breakfast. This left Wes and I with our original problem; where could we get something to eat?

Just about as we were finishing our beers the answer to our dilemma came walking across the plaza. An old man carrying a basket of shrimp was approaching our table and we called him over. The shrimp that he was carrying was fresh, caught and cooked in some manner that very morning. The little sea bugs were still in their shells but were ready to eat. We bought a half-kilo of them and ordered two more beers, and for the next half hour popped those shrimps out of their shells like peanuts and feasted on them. Slowly a pile of empty shells grew on our table as we plowed through our stash of still-warm shrimp.

That breakfast held us over for the rest of the morning, and we did not eat again until we arrived at the airport as the sun was beginning to set in the afternoon, We counted up our money and found that after our taxi ride to the airport and dinner at a restaurant there, we had just about ten dollars left. Our taxi from the Ciudad Juarez airport to the bridge over the Rio Grande took all but about two fifty of that and the El Paso bus to the gates of Fort Bliss, where an old friend from our neighborhood was stationed, just about cleaned us out. A call from our friend Benny’s quarters to my brother resulted in two bus tickets back to Albuquerque where we would strap on our tool belts and begin making some money again in construction, but that is a story which must be told at some other time.

Do You Know The way To Veracruz: Part II

The airport in Veracruz, like many airports in the world, is well away from the city itself. This makes sense as most airplane accidents happen on takeoff and landing, and having large machines loaded with aviation fuel fall out of the sky onto populated areas is a very bad idea, as the city of San Diego learned in 1978. Wes and I recovered our backpacks and boarded a taxi to run us into the city. We told the driver that we wanted a clean hotel but not resort grade, and he took us to a hotel right on the waterfront that matched all of our requirements. We checked into our room and then stepped out to get a good look at Veracruz. Wes and I both fell in love with what we saw.

Veracruz is a very old city. It began its existence when Hernan Cortez landed there and began the Spanish conquest of Mexico. But Veracruz is a new city too. Being one of only two major ports on Mexico’s east coast and being the closest port to Mexico City, the commerce taking place in that city insures that a very modern infrastructure of banking, communication, transportation and the like is available to service those commercial needs. Veracruz is also a major port of call for the cruise ships which ply the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. When those ships are in port, passenger loads of from two to six thousand will be available to debark from the ship and sample the food, drink and souvenir offerings in the city. Much work went into making the city as clean and attractive as possible so as to not scare off the tourists before they dropped impressive amounts of cash into the pockets of businesspeople large and small.

Wes and I noticed a set of very narrow steel tracks running down the middle of one street near our hotel and asked a vendor of fresh fruit juices if it was a working trolley. This was a somewhat difficult task as that level of communications tested my language skills, but the vendor’s limited English and my limited Spanish sufficed to get the job done, and we learned that indeed the trolley ran every day and if we would wait there a few minutes we could board it on its next pass through the neighborhood, I purchased my usual favorite drink, a pineapple/mango concoction which the vendor whipped up on the spot, and Wes got something for himself. We then sat on the curb to enjoy our drinks and wait for the trolley.

Before we finished our drinks we heard the ‘clang, clang’ of the bell as the trolley approached our position. It was still around a corner so we couldn’t see it, but we arose from our curbside seats so that we would be ready to jump on when it passed by. At last the trolley hove into view and I watched its approach with admiration and anticipation. The trolley looked like something out of a Disney movie. It was spindly but not fragile. Low side rails and thin roof supports left a great deal of open space so that the traveller did not feel enclosed at all. The body of the trolley was fairly light in weight which matched the small, thin steel rails set into the asphalt and cobblestones of the streets upon which the trolley ran. It was painted in the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag with golden pom poms dangling from the edge of the roof all the way around. The operator saw us waiting and slowed the trolley down so that we could jump aboard. We noticed later that he would stop for an elderly tourist, a senora getting on or off with little children and/or packages from shopping, or a young senorita under any circumstances. The rest of us had to time our step to board the still-moving trolley.

We paid our peso or two and found seats near the rear of the carriage. The trolley chugged at one or two miles per hour and we relaxed as we passed through shopping areas and residential neighborhoods, past piers where the cruise liners tied up and along the sea wall, called the ‘malecon’ (pronounced MALL-A-CONE with a long ‘A’), where everyone gathered on the summer evenings to walk along the waterfront, enjoying the cool ocean breezes and beautiful view of the sparkling Caribbean stretching out to infinity in the east. At several points along the way we jumped off to poke our noses into shops or collections of stalls and booths selling just about anything that one can imagine. We bought a couple of the tiny (by American standards) street tacos and some fruit on a stick, and hopped back onto the trolley when it made its next pass through the neighborhood. The operator of the trolley waved off our pesos as we reached to pay again, recognizing us from our first ride. We proceeded in this manner all the way around the loop which brought us back to the point where we had begun our trolley ride.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the streets of Veracruz and along the waterfront. We could not see the commercial seaport very well, although the derricks and cranes on the horizon showed us where it was. We would go there the next morning first thing. We decided to have dinner at the hotel, which wasn’t great but wasn’t bad either, and visited the hotel bar for an hour or two afterwards. After that the culmination of twenty four hours on a bus and the better part of a day flying to and exploring Veracruz caught up with us both and we turned in early to get rested up for the next day, since we had no idea what that day would bring.

Morning came and we were out of our beds and dressed in a flash. This day could possibly be the craziest day of our lives and we could hardly wait to begin it. After breakfast at the hotel we caught a taxi to the port, and soon we were standing in front the broad gate which opened into the Port of Veracruz. Wes and I had no idea where we should start asking about work on a freighter so we gambled that you just went up to a freighter, found the captain, and asked. Probably I let myself be influenced by reading Moby Dick and too many Jack London novels. None of the freighters in port had a captain with a large beard, a jagged scar, and an artificial leg carved out of whalebone standing on the fo’c’sle looking to hire rookie seamen for one three hundred and sixtieth part each of the profits of the voyage. In fact, we never laid eyes on a captain of anything that day.

The big, hulking freighters were tied up at the docks, and the gangways were down connecting dock to deck. There were no guards or any other official-looking people regulating who went up the gangway onto the ship but we were reluctant to just walk onto the ship in search of its captain. Dock workers were loading and unloading cargo but we weren’t allowed to interfere with them, so we located a large building and went inside to look for a harbormaster or whoever ran the place. Inside we found a small counter with nobody present behind which were doors which led into the interior of the building. To the left was a row of rather worn chairs in front of a dirty window. Wes and I went to the chairs and I moved one around a little which caused the metal legs to squeak on the floor. I reasoned that the noise might alert somebody to our presence. I don’t know if my stratagem worked or not, but soon a man appeared in the doorway and moved over to the counter. He looked surprised to see us.

“Buenos dias, Como estan?” “Buenos dias. Habla usted Ingles?” “No, no lo hablo.” The man did not speak English, and so this deal would have to be done in Spanish, which ensured that it would take a lot of time to get it right. At first the man had no idea what I was trying to communicate, and then he thought that we were merchant seamen looking for a particular ship. Finally I made it clear that we were two young American men with absolutely no experience at all with working on ships who wanted to sail somewhere. He never really did get the part about Saudi Arabia and the oil fields. Once he understood the main point however he motioned for us to wait and disappeared through the doorway, returning shortly with another man in tow. This person was dressed a little better and in general looked a bit higher on the food chain. I felt like I was buying a new car.

“So, Guillermo say to me you want work en un barco, uh, on ship, but you no work before?” “Yes” I said, and in the best Spanish I could muster continued to say “we work hard. Building houses. We know hard work, but never on ship.” At least I think that’s what I said, although I could have said “My mother’s tool belt shot fifteen birds” as far as I knew at the time. Eventually we both felt like we had the conversation right and he told us that the chances were not good, but to wait. Both of the men retreated into the interior of the building, probably to have a good laugh at our expense, and reemerged shortly to let us know that we wouldn’t be shipping out from their port.

It had not occurred to Wes and I that we would fail to find work on a ship in Veracruz and now we had to regroup. As I wrote earlier, I must have filled my head with romantic notions of ships always being shorthanded and having to shanghai sailors to fill their duty rosters. The reality appeared to be that there were plenty of capable sailors available and the rosters were all full. Wes and I thanked the men for their time and assistance and returned to the dusty yard outside of the building.

At that point we had no idea what to do next. The only reason for coming to Veracruz was to get on a freighter and forget the unpleasant world that was behind us, and that plan now looked like it was going nowhere. I looked back at the ships tied up along the dock with their gangways wide open and unguarded and said “Come on Wes, Let’s go and see for ourselves.” “No, man” Wes responded. “We don’t know the rules here. You know how you are always saying ‘remember where you are?’ Well then, remember where you are.” “I know man, but I just traveled a couple thousand miles, and a bunch of that on a Mexican bus, to do this and I don’t want to bag the whole thing without one more try” I handed my money belt and a pocket knife to Wes, retaining a small amount of money in my wallet. If I got into a bind I could try to buy my way out of trouble with the smaller amount of money which I kept on me. I would make the case that it was all I had. Failing that, Wes could come to my rescue with the bulk of my money. “Wait here” I said, and began to walk up the gangway.

The clatter of my shoes on the metal stairs seemed as loud as a snare drum to me but did not seem to draw anyone’s attention. I reached the deck and saw nobody in the passageway which ran along the side of the ship. I began to walk toward the bow of the ship, looking in the metal doorways as I passed them with the hope of seeing somebody to ask about the whereabouts of the captain. There was nobody in sight as I emerged into the open area of the front part of the ship. I don’t know nautical terms, and so you must be patient with me, dear reader.

As I looked around I saw a man bent over something on the next deck above me. I considered calling to him but then decided that a personal touch was needed, so I sent to the metal stairway which led upwards to that deck. When I got there the sailor began to straighten up as I walked towards him. It seemed like he had removed something from his shoe. “Excuse me” I said. “Can I ask you a question?” The man jumped a little, surprised by my presence. He was a brown person of slight build, who gave me the impression that he might hail from somewhere in Southeast Asia. He also didn’t speak a word of English or Spanish. He did seem to understand ‘KAP EE TAN” however and held up a hand for me to wait. The sailor disappeared and five or ten minutes and later returned with a ship’s officer of undetermined rank or ethnic origin who was more familiar with English. “Are you the captain?” I asked. He answered in the negative and I continued. “I know that you are busy, but I wanted to ask if you needed any hands to work on your ship for the next cruise.” It took the officer a moment and some clarification but eventually he understood my question. “No, we have all of the hands that we need. We don’t hire people right off the deck anyway; we usually go through the harbormaster shoreside and only use skilled hands.” “Is it that way with the other ships?” I asked, and he nodded in the affirmative. “I think so. We can all find skilled hands when we need them, and as far as I know we all do it pretty much the same way.”

I hung my head for a moment, trying to think of any other angle I could pursue and also letting my disappointment show, just in case the officer took pity on me. Neither approach bore fruit. I thanked the officer and returned down the stairs and down the gangway to a waiting Wes. “No luck” I told him. “It looks like this is as far as we go.” Wes handed back my knife and money belt and we began to walk back toward the gate through which we had so recently and eagerly entered the port. The old plan was now finished, and the next order of business was to make a new one. We decided to find a place to have a little lunch and a couple of beers and figure out what we should do next.