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CROSSING THE LINE – The Mexican Guide – Part 2

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When he put it that way, there is no room for racism.

Around the Trono Blanco campfire, we put together an order of operation for our trek north. Joe would be waiting for us at a motel in San Bernardino County (the largest county in North America), or out near Nye County Nevada (north of Las Vegas), or in Mohave County, Arizona (keep La Migra guessing — Chewie would tell Jose’ where to go at our departing; they had a few contact phone numbers well disguised, just in case). Dan and I would join our El Tigre. Simple so far. We would follow our guide’s lead – our custodian knew the three friends he was to usher north would accept us, no problemo. This Moses of a man or maybe Harriet Tubman would not take money for his services from any of us. We would take ample water (nearly a gallon per person per day, daytime temps in the 80’s, and then some more Chewy had stashed along the way. This way we could easily share with other groups out there and in aqueous need). For most crossers entering the U.S. their guides usually restrict the amount of H2O carried to a deadly low gallonage due to the weight problem and the fact that the little party of illegal aliens must move fast. We would travel at a fast tortoise pace. Dan and I would also be, according to INS, illegal aliens.

I do not like the phrase, illegal aliens, but it is a standard description. “Undocumented Immigrants works. I prefer crossers or paisanos heading north. Much less derogatory, for Pete’s sake crossers have an El Capitan’s worth of climbing over dangerous terrain and through knarly chaparral, past angry pit vipers, debilitating scorpions, and ruthless bandits, plus terrible events like heat stroke that can scar a person for life. All this to get toEl Norte.

Right or wrong is not my call. Getting to know these brothers and sisters of the earth as we went toward the North Star, sharing skimpy meals on the move, talking about their economic poverty back home and a corrupt government not doing nearly enough to uplift an always sunk in the quick sand economy, hiding in the dirt from all kinds of predators, well, our choice to go with this caravan was the right thing to do. And Chewie would lead us to the promised land.

Who was this man? I remember reading a quote by Molly Higgins, that 1970’s rock diva, stone kin to Lynn Hill, Beverly Johnson, Barb Eastman, “I love the way I feel, elegant, strong, sure as a cat and fast.” This was our El Gato. He was always ready to go. I’m not sure we were.

Photo by Mike Brumbaugh

In a day we would “go,” to begin an ordeal we could not duplicate on any mountain face. This experience would be our inner mountain. We would walk and crawl together and share the fandango, one for all and all for one, to face one another and look into the eyes of what comes.

Joe winked at us as he drove away. We were at “the fork” in the dirt avenue leading out, high noon, the place our mystic snuck up on us two days earlier as we tried to figure out how to get unlost on our way into the dome. Following our leader to his casa we walked with our light gear (basically empty packs, a shirt and sweater each, also much of the gear Chewie brought during our camp out and climb). We would meet the rest of the company the next day. Our time spent at the adobe abode was a classic afternoon: lunch of beef jerky, taco chips, and Cholula hot salsa, some of his green chilies eaten like a carrot, queso cheese and beer. Then siesta inside his basic clay walled, but best ever Ramada Inn.

Evening brought our chef to life as we put his and our culinary skills to work. Chewie and Dan butchered a chicken, hung the bird up by her legs to drain the last of the blood which Chewie used in his garden to fertilize his last of the season chili peppers and tomatoes, then laughed and plucked as they made up jokes about headless pollos and people who acted headless. Being the deep thinker and cuentista I took notes.

Small fire in his chimenea on the patio. Dinner of roasted chicken strips, grilled tortillas and onions and garlic, queso, salsa, and beer. Simple but ample. Clean up with three eager to serve-one-another partners was faster than drinking a Snappy Tom.

Tequila came next. Actually mescal. “Tequila is made from one species of maguey or century plant, in one region of Mexico — Guadalajara. Tequila is the ciudad in that state that this liquor is named after. Mescal can be made from many different agaves. To grow the agave takes over five years to harvest, and it takes a long time to distill this drink and make it . . . (Chewie used the Italian hand gesture — fingers tucked together at the lips — for excellence).”

Chewie sat next to his Bell Jar of signature Distalado de Agave and the human skull — to represent the holy day, Los Dias de los Muertos. He lit a candle now placed inside the calavera set on a mantle of stone called an ofrenda. Our friend put some taco chips and salsa next to a small shot glass full of his mescal, and a cup of water (“Many of the saints do not drink tequila.”). The alter and skull icon were, to Chewie, a type of muse alive and active in the spirit world. He was seeing his family and talking with them, introducing us as “familia from America.”

We drank and talked, ate more chips and salsa, imbibed Tecate cerveza, and listened on Chewy’s boom box a radio station out of Mexico City: Mariachi tunes, and nuevo cancion, or new song music. We then began talking over our journey.

Chewie was like an Outward Bound instructor, not telling too much about our future and our tasks. Just enough, like hors d’oeuvres before a fine meal, to quicken our senses and taste buds, to prepare us for the feast — trials — to come. My ex wife, Lynlee (Mi esposa, equis, es una chicana), her grandpapa when we were at his casa for dinner, would pull out his fine bottle of expensive Fundador Spanish brandy, as a celebratory get-our-taste-buds ready for the meal exercise. Chewie explained we would follow the path of the javelinas, much like following the trail of the Apache Indians two hundred years ago before there was a border.

Photo by Dierk Sittner

Our Geronimo hedged on the specifics of our course, saying “Daily I will tell you our objective.” Simple, just in case we get stopped by the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Border Patrol, and taken to headquarters; there tied down in a chair and a shook up bottle of carbonated club soda laced with crushed hot chili peppers shot up our noses. “Where’s the mota, esai?! Chewie: “It is better to not know and have this extremely painful burning-like-fire nasal enema than to know something and have to spit it out.” I have never been tortured. Have you? I think Chewbacca had snorted this curse.

We talked about the brotherhood of desert dwellers. We listened to more arias of Mexico. We sensed the music of silence. How was Joe doing on his journey? Chewie looked north and said, “A thousand souls are out there, walking into El Otro Lado, like ants on their appointed mission.” An owl hooted. A coyote barked. A small scorpion was on a stick we threw into the embers of his horno. Chewie mentioned a species of this arachnid in Mexico that can kill a human in fifteen hours. “Alarcan can live over twenty years, reflect ultraviolet light, . . . they are a vital part of natura.” We were at an ecotone in thought where human nature and wild nature met. We all knew the next few days would be one ecotone after another. Adaptation a way of life. Adaptation always finds a way through.

We slept the sleep of visionaries, and our dreams reflected this truth. I had images of being chased by La Migra, outsmarting them by hiding under bushes. Dan was plagued with a nightmare of owls harassing us in the night. Chewie had high def videos of being a shepherd guarding and guiding his sheep to fine pasture.

Next morning at dawn we rekindled our small fire, pulled out our bag of Guatemalan coffee, and enjoyed the start of a new day. Chewie was very firm on enjoying his coffee without discussing what came next. Manana thinking. Breakfast burritos, more taco chips and salsa.

“OK, now we work.” We gathered the empty one gallon milk jugs we would fill up with aqua and take with us in our empty packs. We laid out the necessary pantry that was light weight and yet substantial, items like beef jerky, granola bars, tortillas, salsa, chillis, a bottle of One A-Day Vitamins and chocolate covered coffee beans to chew on, some energy drink and electrolyte water additives packs I think we called ERG, and a small supply of cheap tequila, “In case we have to negotiate out there.”

Chewie had a lightweight but extensive first aid kit that was really impressive. Dan asked, “You know how to use this stuff?” “I once went to EMT and WFR schools in California, and apprenticed under a Mexican physician. I will tell you about Dr. Jaimie later.” Little did we know about his curandero — natural healer — skills, but we would soon be witness to some amazing ethnobotany life saving magic. This Don Juan of a meztiso also had six large burlap sacks like serapes he said we might need.

“I got these from the Ensenada fish processing plant, Empacadora Mar.” (they smelled of piscado) Huh? He would say no more about these jute bags. Dan, “When I go to Ensenada I visit Hussongs Cantina or Papas and Beer, then go to Rosarito Beach, to hell with that stinky market!” Me, I enjoy studying the variety of ichy sea life brought in, my dad used to go to Baja a lot to fish for marlin and tuna. But what were we going to use the burlap vests for?

We were ready to depart. Our ride came at . . . we had no watches. Chuwie, “There are no clocks in the desert. Only the sun and the moon and the Zodiac.” As had become our habit, we three amigos talked little, just a few grunts and facial nudges. We were learning to communicate without words, an ancient language known to those around the world who were in communicado.

Our driver, Chuwie only described as “Our Taxi,” took us to the La Ramarosa gas stop for water, and a prayer by the priest we met there. I thought, we will need a lot more than a “Bless you mijos” and “Tengo cudados” to get us through this outing! We drove along Hwy. 2 toward Mexicali, then turned north. No more was said about our location..

There was more dust than air on this paseo, and after several course corrections we came to a cul de sac and the rest of our entourage popped out from behind some agaves: It looked to me like a family, mom, pop, and young daughter maybe age ten.

¿Qué Pasa?!

Oh Gawd. Here we go.

Photo by Rob Pizem

Our pal continued to greet and hug his uncle Martin’, aunt Ultima, and niece Gabriella. He then spoke quickly in Spanish and pointed his head our way. The taxi driver, speaking in pocho English, said “No problemo, Preston and Daniel, all is bueno. You two muchachos are very, how do you say, especial to Chewy.” The quad came over and we shared greetings, only Gabby, her official nic name, spoke English. With very little fan fare, Cabby said “Adios” with handshakes and driving away sung out “Vios con Dios!”

¿Listo muchachos!?¡Vamos!

Mid afternoon and we were off going God knows where. Temperature in the seventies, perfect conditions for a cross chaparral ultra marathon.

He led us down what he called a goat trail. Our guide did not swear much, but here he said, “You are now cabrónes!” Gabriella snickered and his uncle slapped us on the back with a silent roar. Tia said something curt to our guide, then laughed. By early evening we may have traveled five miles. Chewie said, under a mesquite tree, “Here we wait, sleep if you can.” Dan, “I was so charged up I think if I had light bulb and put it in my mouth it would of glowed from the electricity I felt.”

Steve McQueen once said, “I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than any city on earth.” I think we were close to Nowhere, but were we on the Mexican side, or U.S?

We were nudged awake sometime around midnight I think. We had crossed The Line, or were at the arid jungle ecotone. 5.9 thin splitter on a steep face my ass crack. We were in the middle of a right of passage task right out of a Joseph Campbell course on mythology. We had become Odysseus but at that moment all we could think about was being quiet, relaxed like our guide, one with the earth. From here on in we would be on silent running. Stealth defined is to stay alive in this cat and mouse chase.

Our Big Cat would lead the way, each of us in line being careful were we stepped. The shrubbery was thick but not that thick we could not weave through. The flora and terrain reminded me of my Southern California backyard hills, the scrub and barrancas that we played in, even at night chasing the great horned owl on it’s hunts, trying to keep up with owl. Chewie said we were following a trail he had used before. At daytime when we rested he would explain where we were, future way-points and approximate mileage each day, but he would not say anything about our destination, just in case we got caught.

In a low whisper, “We will be walking mostly north but in many directions, also back tracking, and at places we must cover our foot marks. Mi familia knows how. You two will learn.” Along our route we would be forced to cross Border Patrol roads, and drag lines or sections of roads that La Migra smoothed out so as to detect foot prints. Our jaguar, “We will float over their roads like ghosts.” Gabby thought that was funny. The only thing I found funny about our situation was the absurdity of it all. But Dan and I were game for this gig and our compai had mucho confianza in all of us. He was humble but moved like the wind. Or, as Ultima put it, “Like Chewie walking on water.”

Chewie, short for Jesus! We three northerners on our previous rock climb wanted to know what Chewie stood for, but never asked. Our pocho Spanish had not made that connection, especially since upon our first meeting, Chewie stylized his name with the great Wookie in Star Wars. So we went with this handle.

We walked on in silent running. Jogging often in a crouch. In the distance we heard helicopters. At trail junctions we swept out our tracks. Javelinas on the march. I was wondering how our third pal was doing on his American part of the trip. Chewie brought us up short. No sound.

Martin’ walked forward, then motioned us to follow. We had met up with another small group, and as Chewie discovered what was up these three amigos had been left by their coyote to fend for themselves, no water or food, bad feet blisters and only the North Star and Big Dipper to steer by.

Our doctor went right to task on the blisters, even with little moon light. Out came his med kit, his scissors to cut away the flaps of bloody skin about the size of an entire heel, some peroxide to flush the wounds, antibiotic ointment, moleskin and white athletic tape. A rather simple procedure if you are close to your car, but being who knows how far in Aztlan territory. . . Our feet, like tires on our cars, are where the rubber meets the road. Blow out a tire and you stop. Blow out the sole of your foot and you stop.

Our physicians assistant type who “studied medicine at the Mexican school in Montemorelos, often working alongside Dr. Jaimie” (no last name given, none asked for!) had a marvelous touch. Our new compais we watered and fed. They – Juan, Pedro, and Tony — could not stop thanking Chewie. Dan and I ate some chocolate covered coffee beans, drank copious amounts of water, the Mexicans ate tortillas and chilis, drank some of the energy drink, and we were ready to go, lined up and marched on . . .

Dan and I tended to bring up the rear, Gabby generally was right in front of us. Now with our nuovo tres amigos they fell in behind us and that was that, each of us covering the others footsteps so to keep our numbers a secret.

Sometime around Three AM, I think, Chewie asked us to circle up. He explained we would be coming upon the corner of an American rancho where dogs sometimes barked. He pointed out a small hill still lit up by our sinking fast moon and explained we would split up and circle the hummock, to confuse any La Migra who might be in the neighborhood. Chewie, “There are dirt roads on the northside and south la mesa.” “Tengo cudado!!!” Our guide and new three went left, mi familia went right. An hour or so later we bumped into one another, so quiet and so accurate were our paths we could of done a square dance dos—a—do in perfect unison and harmony.

Then the serenity went to hell.

A dog yelled at us. Then another. Sounded like hounds. Shit. Now what Great Wookie, pull a rabbit decoy out of your firy sombrero? I still do not know what Chewie did, or did not, but we crept out about as fast as cartoon character Speedy Gonzalez could scoot, and it sounded like we were on the farside of the dogs territory, once again free.

The journey continues . . .