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Canyon Roads, a Lake, and a Magical Village

23 May 2010

Jalpa to Comala, Mexico 4,409 km
 

There are more canyon lands between Jalpa and Guadalajara. By now the tired, old misconception that Mexico is a country of long, dry, flat, barren lands – like our own Texas only more so – has been thrown out and I understand that the topography of Mexico is a great deal more complex than that. To say that the landscape is turbulent is an oversimplification at best.

 

But by now I am becoming quite accustomed to riding canyon roads – the whipping turns, the hard leaning, the accelerating and decelerating. There is a thrill in the not knowing what you will find beyond the present bend and the not overly caring because you know that you have your hands plenty full with just handling the present turn. I ride along, happily reconciled to the uncertainty, wishing that I could be just this accepting of it as it appears in all aspects of my life. Then I remember my former boss, Clayton Williams, who is now a big shot with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, because he used to say that learning to deal with ambiguity is a sign of maturity. It’s a fine thing to say, I think.

 

These are canyon lands, not highlands, and in Mexico altitude decides everything. So, unlike in the mountain country of the north, here, among the rocky, barren ridges of the canyons lands, it is not cold. Even, actually, it is warm, but this warmth is precarious at best. It is thin as tissue paper and stretched too tight so that when a wind rises it tears and the cold rushes through the torn places. So it is a delicate thing, this warmth, and it seems that to acknowledge it with anything above a whisper and it might disappear. So I do not speak of it, only I make a gesture: I lower the zipper of my riding jacket and I raise the visor of my crash helmet. I do this to enjoy the sun on my face and the warm breeze on my neck. But the gods see everything and they are quick to interpret arrogance in our actions and they are ever quick to punish arrogance. So, no sooner have I lowered the zipper and raised the visor and the bright sun disappears behind one, lone, self-important cloud – the only one in the sky.

 

I raise the zipper and lower the visor and shiver voluntarily to quicken the blood in its warming course through my veins. I look up at the sun behind the cloud and I shake my head in disappointment. I want to say that it’s ironic but it’s not ironic. It’s not ironic in the same way those things in the Alanis Morissette song are not ironic, they’re just bad luck, and this too is bad luck, nothing more. But the sun behind the cloud reminds me of a story I once heard and I like it so I’ll recount it here:

 

 

Once there was a stonecutter who wanted to be more powerful than he was. One day as he toiled at his work he looked up at the sun as he wiped the sweat from his brow. ‘The sun gives life and warmth and burns my back as I work,’ he mused aloud. ‘If I could be the sun then would I be most powerful.’

 

It was a restless Universe that heard him or maybe it was a mischievous deity but, whoever it was, the stonecutter’s request was heard and it was answered and he became the sun. After this, many days went by during which the stonecutter traveled the heavens in his daily course, giving light to the land and warmth and burning the backs of hardworking men, and he was pleased. Until one day a storm cloud crossed his path and covered his face. Angry and bewildered he said, ‘I must be the storm cloud, which may go where it pleases, ravages the land, and extinguishes the very light of the sun.’

 

So he became the storm cloud and for many days he spread himself across the heavens and brought rain and darkness and destruction to the land. Until one day he came upon a great boulder that was unyielding before his blows. Almost insensible in his rage and his impotence he said, ‘I must become the boulder, which is immovable and unyielding.’

 

So he became the boulder and much time past during which he stood tall and majestic – a symbol of dominance over the forests and the creatures of the land, and he was pleased. Until one day a stonecutter came and chiseled him into powder.

 

 

By early afternoon I am in Guadalajara. It is warm here because the sun has emerged from behind the cloud and the choking exhaust of a hundred thousand idling motors heats the heavy air so that you see wavy distortions everywhere. Several times I cut the engine while waiting at traffic lights. It goes like this: while your light is green the cars trying to move perpendicular are stuck in the intersection and then, when they move past and the intersection is cleared, the light changes and the cars going in your direction make a quick dash and fill the intersection so that the cars going in the perpendicular direction cannot move during their green light. This continues all throughout the afternoon as street vendors walk among the idling motorcars, selling water and snacks and newspapers and cards for recharging the credit on mobile telephones and coloring books and toys for children and a million other random and bizarre things, and all the while the shrieks of impatient claxons ring out in a discordant cacophony.

 

It is late afternoon before I am away from Guadalajara and I arrive at Chapala near sunset. Here there is a long boardwalk and a narrow beach along the shore of the lake. There are sailboats docked and some are sailing and there are people in kayaks and sitting on the beach and sitting on benches kissing and children flying kites in the strong, warm wind coming off the water. I buy a beer and I sit on a bench facing the lake. I drink the beer and close my eyes to the warm wind and breathe in deeply the clean air from the lake and exhale deeply the bad air from the city streets. I watch the sun set and the dusk becomes twilight.

 

In the morning I meet a group of retired Americans and I join them for breakfast. They are real old-timers and their droll banter sounds like it comes out of an old movie or radio show. They tell jokes and talk about their veteran’s benefits and the way things used to be and about their ‘girls’. Someone mentions that his girl is coming from a nearby town to stay during Christmas and that she expected him to buy her a present. He doesn’t know what to buy her. Someone has a suggestion: ‘You should tie a red bow around your dick and tell her “Feliz Navidad.”’

 

That morning the breeze comes cool off the lake. I ride south, detouring onto a secondary highway that meanders through rugged hills. The tarmac is mostly destroyed here and the going is slow – potholes and fissures are difficult to avoid when you are already leaning hard and fast into a turn. In the afternoon I arrive in Colima and I find a hotel. In the night at have drinks on the patio of a restaurant and watch a group of dancers have a milonga in the plaza. The next morning I go to the small town of Comala. It is a few kilometers away down a lovely highway that is flanked on both sides by green bushes and wildflowers.

 

Comala is the setting of my favorite Mexican novel, Pedro Páramo, which also has the distinction of being the only Mexican novel I have read. It has that same mysterious, fantastical quality that you find in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquéz and sometimes in those of Isabel Allende. The small town is bright and lovely and nothing like the morose village of broken spirits from the novel. But Juan Rulfo wrote the novel in the 1950s, which was another time, and long before the Mexican tourism bureau came up with the idea of designating particular towns as ‘Pueblos Mágicos’ to bolster tourism. It felt cliché but I bought copy of the short novel and I sat at a table on the patio of a café and I read the novel while I ate breakfast beside the central plaza where there is a statue and a plaque dedicated to the author.

 

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