Sunday, January 27, 2008

La Tierra de Leche y Miel

After a quick foray to a hot spring in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna with two American tourists who I met while diving in Cabo Pulmo, I was dropped off at a dirt road junction above the town of Santiago, BCS. I began walking up the road that led to the mountains. It was a quiet, flat dirt road, with cows and goats roaming along each side, their bells tonking in the scrub thorn trees and cactus rangeland. The only cars that passed were headed down, and although it was 20 km to the trailhead I didn’t want to wait. I was excited to be finally walking with just my pack on my shoulders and no idea what was going to happen. I had walked about ten km and finally a car came up the hill. As is the case with most hitchhiking in Mexico, it stopped for me. The ex-pat Canadian had hiked the trail before and took me directly to the trailhead with a quick stop off to buy some mangos at a rancho. The woman selling mangos, Donna Luz, was very nice and told me I was crazy to go to the mountains alone, that I would probably meet her husband Catarino and son doing trail work in the mountains, and that I should stop back at her house for some home cooked food after I came down. The trail begins flat for a few miles following a scenic scrub arroyo. The river that flows down the granite boulder strewn valley is cold and pools often to provide a respite from the hot dusty trail. The oaks and wild fig trees get bigger and more dense as the trail slowly climbs higher. Then all at once it turns upwards, steeply up into the hills, under a canopy of various trees. The gallons of water in my pack and steep climbing slowed me down to a crawl. I made it to a small mountain stream by dark and took a quick bath, and then found refuge in my tent early to avoid mountain lions or whatever else might come out in the night. It was supposedly only a few more miles to La Laguna, which is a high prairie that was once a lake, but when the natural dam burst in the 1880s the lake poured out, drying the lagoon. The trail continued steeply up, following ridgelines and sometimes plunging down steeply into a drainage with palms and huge white spherical granite boulders on its bottom. The area was very dry but cool clean water still flowed in most valleys. Up and up the trail went into larger oaks and even cottonwood trees near water. On ridges there were beautiful views of the endless untouched mountains on all sides. I was absolutely alone now with not a sound or sight of humanity. My only companions were the many birds flittering amongst the dry leaves as well as the footprints of the mules and men who must be somewhere on up ahead. It began to get dark and I had still not reached any feature or signpost or crossroad. Then suddenly I had my first encounter with someone else. I heard footsteps of someone running and suddenly a person appeared running down the trail breathing hard. He was a young Mexican man with a pit bull, semi-automatic rifle and huge knife strapped to his leg. Was this some kind of bandito poacher who would just a soon gun me down as he would a deer? After nervously chatting with him for a few minutes he confirmed that he was part of the trail crew off hunting pigs for supper. I followed him back up and soon reached their high ridge camp. They numbered about 12 persons and looked quite at home living in these high mountains. They had mules, a small pack of dogs, a big pot of venison simmering over the fire, cowboy coffee, and each one a huge knife, walking staff, or rifle. It was as if I had stepped back 100 years into the old west. Traveling incognito with them was an intern of sorts, a gringo named, Nicolas, from Seattle. Since it was getting dark I decided to camp near them and share their fire and gain protection from the pumas that were often mentioned but never seen. They were very kind and from the beginning offered me everything they had. Camp life here is much as I imagine it may have been for generations in the past. The mules whinny and graze outside the camp. The men sit quietly around the fire, playing cards on rough cut wooden benches and tables. Usually a man is sharpening his knife or tools. The three dogs sleep on the outskirts of the camp. Each one sleeps apart from another standing guard all through the night. Each dog was a mutt with varying amounts of the local tiger striped pit bull ancestry. The dogs wear leather armor to protect their neck from the tusks of the wild pigs when they attack them during a hunt. Tigresa especially showed many scars from encounters with these animals. After nightfall a tea was made from the root bulb of a grass-like plant. The tea is said to alternatively aid in sleeping as well as hiking stamina, and although it contains its share of dirt, it is very good. The next morning I hiked on to the laguna and then back quickly to go down with the trail boss, Catarino, his son Catayo, Nicolas the other gringo, and right hand man Raphael. While I had been off, Catarino had taken his intern Nicolas to a tree not far from camp where honeycomb could be harvested. Catarino’s face and hands were swollen with bee stings, but he didn’t seem troubled a bit, and after squeezing the combs with a t-shirt almost four liters of honey were gathered. We hiked back down a few miles in our smaller group and stopped at a beautiful camp near a crystal clear stream with a deep blue pool. On the way up a few days before Catarino had come across a wild bull that had frequently tormented hikers in this high valley camp. Catarino as well as a trail boss, ranger of the high sierra, is also a farmer, and vaquero. He determined to capture the bull and bring him down to his ranch. I did not witness the capture but it seemed nearly impossible to conceive. The bull was chased into a steep canyon and surrounded by the dogs and men. The dogs tired the bull by chasing him back and forth and then they attacked and lunged at his neck, their pit bull nature coming into full effect as they sunk their teeth into the skin at the bull’s neck and refused to let go even as the huge mountain beast shook his head and horns violently. This is when Catarino, the slight, unassuming mountain man himself approached the bull from behind, grabbed his tail and gave it a stiff tug. The bull then shot out a hind leg to kick the antagonist. Catarino quickly slipped a rope around the bull’s outstretched leg and cinched it tight. The next step was to lasso the bull around his horns and tie the rope off to a tree. The bull was then left tied to the tree for two days. When we returned to the camp near the blue lagoon Catarino and Catayo went up to visit the bull and convince him to return with us to domestication. I was a little dubious about how we would guide this 800 lb monster back down a steep path for 8 miles, and when I asked he only replied with a grin, “with one gringo Nicolas each hanging onto a horn.” It was not to be however. Catarino returned to camp and said, “He didn’t want to walk.” Catarino demonstrated how he took knife and plunged it into the bull’s heart and then slit its jugular vein. He reported this with the same nonchalance that he might comment on the medicinal uses of a certain plant found along the trail. The bull had been killed not just to preserve the biosphere reserve from destructive species, but for his meat. There was much work to do. We five men in the posse walked up the small valley to where the bull lay. He was a sight to behold, jet-black, lean and powerfully muscled, a thick coat of hair, and two perfect horns angling forward. We managed to somehow move him a few feet down the dry riverbed where he had died to a sandy spot. We positioned him on his back and made ropes off to each uphill leg. Catarino took his same knife and began to methodically and completely skin the animal and harvest almost every piece of meat possible. The other Nicolas and I would sometimes point at a strange organ or muscle and Catarino would explain what it was as how it was eaten. Literally every part of the meat was taken. I was a little tentative at the start, but Catarino seemed so at ease, and so skillful, we knew we were watching a master at work. The process was fascinating and I felt not queasy in the slightest, but a sense of reverence for this magnificent animal and the man who ruled this mountain preserve. I soon found myself almost inside the cavity of the still warm beast pulling hard on its ribcage at the urging of Catarino as he swung his machete down hard, quickly separating each rib at the spine as blood and bone splattered over me. From this 800 lb animal we hauled probably 500 lbs of meat back down to the river camp. A small incident on the way back to camp stuck with me. With my sore muscles straining to bear the weight of the last hunks of bloody flesh down the steep mountainside I ran smack into a spiked plant. One of the very sharp spears of mountain palm stuck straight and deep into my bicep and a furious electric pain shot down my arm. I jumped back in surprise and a small geyser of blood shot out of the hole in my engorged bicep, deep red, silhouetted in stop action against the sky. It was the funniest thing to see my own blood in that instant. I laughed out loud for a moment, from nervous energy and exhilaration, as I continued down the trail, now with one hand grasping the hole in my arm to stop the flow of blood. After completely dismembering an animal much stronger than I, with one of his huge legs slung over my shoulder, to see my own blood seemed such a trifle. What normally might have caused me to faint now only seemed a joke. I felt I now had a bit of Catarino in me. And at the sight of my own blood maybe there was even a certain ecstasy to feel just how alive I was in that instant. Bleeding was just another way to pay reverence to this land.

That night as I went to sleep near the river with the cacophony of frogs all around and the palm framed clouds sliding by, I can remember feeling different. I was captivated by this trip back in time to a place where life is the connection to plants and animals and earth. I understood now why each man seemed to always be sharpening his knife. It was amazing to feel a part of it, to bathe and drink from the same cold, life-giving stream, and cook only over the hot fire. The modern world seemed far away. The world within sight was everything, provided everything, and there was not a need for anything more. It was a feeling of contentedness and timelessness that seemed strong and clear. In the end, we came back to the city anyway, the other gringo Nicolas and I, after a few more days with Catarino and his family. Nicolas returned to his organic farm in La Ribera where he’s working for a while, and I’m now back in Cabo Pulmo, but I still feel the sore spot in my arm where the palm plant went so deep into me, and I still feel that awe of watching a man and a people so in tune with their land.

1 comment:

DM said...

That was really a beautiful story. As I read your eloquent words I couldn't help but laugh at the ironic disparagement between our two lives.

This morning I awoke at 4:15am, went to the most lavish YMCA I've ever been to, swam a little over 500 meters in a nice warm Olympic sized pool of super chlorinated water, rinsed off in one of twenty independently cordoned off showers, climbed two flights of stairs and ran around a rubberized indoor track where I kept pace with a middle-aged balding man while I tried in vain to get some energy to push myself a little harder so that I could pass him, drove home and readied myself for work, drove in my personal 4 wheel drive pick up on streets lined by dirty snow that has formed super curbs from the constant street plowing, and now sit in my cubicle where the vent above me for some odd reason blows cold air on this 20 degree day, my boss wants competitive intelligence on one of our customers, and I write myself a task list while my blackberry vibrates signaling an incoming email.