Friday, November 26, 2010

Race Relations

A funny event a few evenings ago in a hacienda of a small town...

I arrived just as the extended family was finishing their evening supper. The grandmother of the house was clearing the table and everyone was lingering in the twilight. I went to the kitchen sink to wash my hands before eating my plate of beans and tortillas when the grandmother noticed how dirty my tee shirt was - carrying half the desert off on my clothing. I admit, my shirt was nearly too dirty to even wear, but what else does one do?

It was too much for her to fathom, and by the looks of the kitchen, she's the perpetual cleaner type. There at the kitchen sink, in front of the tableful of family, she started screeching at the condition of my shirt and pulled it right off over my head, proceeding to scrub it on a washboard with what looked like a wire brush and plenty of boiling water from the kettle on the woodburning stove. In the meantime, before I had a chance to react to the imposed modesty of standing in my sports bra in front of a mixed group of strangers, the smallest of the group climbed over each other with words like 'she is a white person', 'like the white of an egg' and 'with chili flakes' (pointing at some freckles). The adolescent boys giggled uncomposed and the older men laughed heartily at the grandmother's unstoppable audacity. By the time one of the men stepped out and snapped a flannel shirt off the line under the veranda, everyone was laughing, even the grandmother at her own behavior. It was a good learning experience for the little kids, and frankly I doubt any of the adults had seen the white flanks of a gringa before, and I came away with a very clean, slightly lardy smelling, tee shirt. Pointellistically freckled arms and face, white as egg whites everywhere else.

Day of Rest

Happy Thanksgiving fellow Americans! I arrived in the colonial mining town of Hidalgo del Parral yesterday afternoon with one strong thought on my mind: I'd like a day of rest. No walking. Ah. a break from the blinding sun is inviting, sure, but I've got to find new soles for my hiking boots. They're completely worn through and I feel every pebble tenderly.

Somewhere between Chihuahua City and here, I've passed the half-way point. Forty-seven days to here and something between 40 and 45 days to go until Mexico City, I think. I'm nearly out of the state of Chihuahua, too, Mexico's largest. I've climbed in elevation and the area more mountainous and vegetation bigger, even shade-producing. I like it. Last night, the temperature was -4C. Nice. I need to find a map of the next state, Durango, and figure out a path to get to Durango City, maybe two weeks away by foot. I hope to find towns a bit closer together to reduce my daily distances. I'm still walking an average of 38 kilometers per day (= 24 miles per day) but there's a wide standard deviation with too many days over 50 kilometers (= 31 miles) for the comfort of my little feet.

I've noticed that I've taken on a ridiculous but necessary habit walking in the desert, that of absentmindedly sitting with my knees tucked to my chin so I can pluck the cactus thorns out of my pantlegs. I caught a reflection of myself doing this and immediately thought of chimps ridding their mates of lice. Agh! My sister would not approve! It must be done though. After walking a few steps in the brush of the local vegetation, I come out looking like a porcupine. The big spines are easy, though painful, to remove but the tiny ones are nearly invisible and can only be found more painfully. Whenever I sit for a rest, even a short rest, I de-thorn my clothing. Pants off, if necessary. How do the prickers work their way into my undies???

National Geographic Moment

We've been trained by advertising to have 'Kodak Moments' and it takes little imagination to stretch it to 'National Geographic Moments' (or maybe 'Nature Channel Moments'). I have a lot of them, walking in the wilderness as I do. Recently, in the seemingly endless desert, looking for another of Mother Nature's powder rooms, I tapped my walking sticks on the ground in a circle around my selected location to ward off snakes and other creatures. In an instant, from out of the sky, talons first, appeared the largest raptor I've ever seen to snatch a fat black rat off the ground a meter in front of me. I never even saw the rat before his demise, just heard his little scream in the clutches of the giant bird. No exageration, the torso of the bird was the size of a school child and the wingspan beyond my area of focus. Talons outstretched, we were eye to eye. He was gone with a few enormous wind-generating flaps leaving me covered in the white sand of the desert floor. I was far too startled to pee for a good long while after that experience. Wow. A nature photographer couldn't have gotten that shot in a decade of baiting the scene with fat black rats.

I related the experience to a couple running a small roadside shop later in the day. Àguila Real, a Royal Eagle, the old man was certain from the description, though he thought the one I saw sounded on the small side. He told me this while preparing a small meal for me - the ubiquitous beans and tortillas - and sprinkled some cakey yellow powder on top. They keep the rattlesnakes under control, and the desert rats and other creatures, so they're a beneficial part of the ecosystem. He was rather proud of the fact that the eagles of Chihuahua are bigger than those in the US, but conceded that the mountain lions are smaller. He talked a lot about the rattlesnakes and was very interested in how many I've seen and where I've been spotting them. They're the desert's secret, he told me, and pointed to the yellow powder. Ground, dried rattlesnake. (ewwww) A cure-all for cancer, bronchitis, acne, etc. And the sac of fat on the intestines, the best medicine. Doctors, he insisted, won't accept that the simple desert people know better than they do so won't ever prescribe rattlesnake, but it works, he's certain. This time of year is good for collecting rattlesnakes because they're slower moving and not so aggressive. Catch them, kill them, skin them, dry them, grind up the meat and put it on everything you eat and rub it on your skin. His wife added that it will get stains out of clothing, too.

Mas frijoles, por favor, sin vibores.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

El Toro!

Walking ever southward, gaining in elevation, the terrain more mountainous, climbing over numerous barbed wire fences and crossing countless cattle grates... late one afternoon I passed through a penned field of cattle. Nothing unusual. They usually scurry. I had my sombrero down low over my eyes because of the angle of the setting sun. Some meters ahead of me, a cow stubbornly wasn't scurrying from the path like the rest. What a long skinny ugly udder, I thought. He half turned blocking the entire path lined with saltcedar. El Toro! Blanco! Gran! Oops on that misidentification. He half-turned again facing me. Conveniently with his head held high, he blocked the sun casting his shadow over me.

Yikes! Danger, Will Robinson. Quick: Hazards Analysis. Risk Assessment. Standard Operating Procedure (Draft). This type of thinking comes automatically after a long career in dealing with uncontrolled nuclear materials.

He snorted dust and stomped the ground stirring up a cloud of white sand. I can't outrun him, there's no where to hide. He stomped again. I've intruded on his world. My bad. At the third stomp, I leaned toward him and slapped my walking sticks together shouting 'Andele! Andele!' He stared for the briefest instance then ran off through the saltcedar. The cows and steers and calves stampeded after him all leaving me alone in a huge cloud of white dust. Huh, scared off a bull, and all without a sequined bolero jacket. Success.

Ah Chihuahua

I've finished the third segment of the journey. It will get easier from here, people assure me. Certainly as I've progressed southward, the desert is more frequently irrigated, there are more frequent ranches and hamlets and signs of life. I might only walk two or three hours without seeing signs of humanity. The desert stretches further southward, but it also increases in elevation, making the environment less harsh. We'll see.

I've arrived in Chihuahua for it's Revolution Day celebration, so everything is well decorated and the shops in the pedestrian district of the historic city center all have big sales advertised. Chirstmas decorations abound, too. Interesting that the red-white-and-green color theme of the Mexican flag are the same as for the Christmas season. It's certainly nice here, but it's a big city. The absence of noise is something I've gotten used to out in the desert; here its presence is overwhelming.

As I entered the city limits, I sat for a rest in a small shack seafood restaurant, as it was the first place I saw where I could take a break. The folks were friendly, as usual, and a fresh seafood salad made a nice change from the ubiquitous beans and tortillas. Once I explained that I'm a pilgrim, the fee for the small meal was waived for a mention to Our Lady at the Basilica in Mexico. Por supuesto! Marisco de la Playa, if anyone happens by Chihuahua, is a terrific place for restoration.

Onward toward Parral. I was told emphatically that taking the highway to Jimenez and then Torreon is the fastest way to Mexico City but I'll continue on the historical path of the Camino Real to Hidalgo del Parral and then Durango. It's not like I can walk any faster along the highway than on the sandy path through the desert. I choose the desert way once again, as the missionaries of centuries ago did. Parral in maybe a week and then Durango a few weeks following. Internet connections can be expected to be sparse again, so have faith that I'm still walking happily on the pilgrim trail. Buen Camino!

Desert Life

The amount of activity in the desert is remarkable. People insist I should be firstly scared and secondly bored by walking alone through the desert. They just don't understand it. While it's a little off-putting to walk for six, seven, eight hours or more without ever seeing a sign of humanity except for the distant high tension lines that link Juarez with Chihuahua, a lot is happening in the desert that neither bores me nor frightens me.

There's a surprising variety of vegetation. At times, there are naked sand dunes with only a few sticks of vegetation poking out here and there. Other times, the dunes are covered with scrappy, prickly ground cover. Large pads of cactus grow tall or broad but never both. Within a short distance, there will suddenly be a veritible forest of scruffy, prickly saltcedar bushes that hold the dunes in place. Everywhere except in the denuded sand dune areas, big balls of rabbit sage hold onto the sand by one small stem, like the knot in a balloon.

The desert is strongly animated, too. Most entertaining are the sudden dust devils that spout up instantaneously with a puff of wind. The sand is whipped into a mini funnel cloud that races for some irratic distance setting aloft a handful of tumbleweeds that bounce in the air above the dust like beach balls above the fans at a rock concert. The windburst ends and the tumbleweeds fall to the ground in a few bounces. Within minutes, it seems, another dust devil whips itself into life somewhere else in the forward perifery.

Animals abound even in the heat of the day. Hares and jack rabbits are most common, but it's fun to see the fat ears of a desert fox bouncing above the dried grasses blowing in the breeze. Coyotes, as well, but they always stop and stare at me in a rather suspicious way until I pass. As much as people keep insistig that the snakes are all gone for the season, every day I see rattlesnakes, though they're not threatening in any way.

While the snakes are silent, there are a half a dozen different bird calls audible often. The sandhill cranes still follow me, invisibly flying above with their noisy squalk draw my attention upward.

As I head southward, the knee-high grasses more frequently erupt around watering holes fed by wind-operated groundwater wells. Consequently, cattle and horses often punctuate that horizon. The cattle vocalize their opinion of my intrusion but the horses are always curious and gallop in broad circles around me, whinnying playfully. That's a beautiful sight.

I'm not so suited for the desert climate, but it's enjoyable to walk through and really get to experience it up close and personally.

To the Halls of Moctezuma

Life in a small desert town, way off the beaten track:

Leaving Villa Ahumada with the sullen news that the next inhabited place was over 50 kilometers away, I knew I was in for a hard day of walking. The pueblo of Moctezuma is not on my map and the good nuns at the convento were only vague as to it's location except to say that it's not on the highway, but several kilometers to the east. I can add that spotting the low earth-tone adobe buildings from any distance is a challenge in itself. Maybe it would be easier after dark, if they have any lights on.

Late in the afternoon, sunburnt and parched, I saw an approaching cloud of sand that signifies a pickup truck crossing the desert floor. The driver, Arturo, stopped close to me and let the dust settle before introducing himself. He heard from the sisters in Villa Ahumada that I was heading to Moctezuma and thought that I might use some help finding it. Stepping up on the sideboard outside the driver's door, I accepted his assistance for those last few kilometers. If he was following a road, I couldn't discern it. Tumbleweed and scrappy saltcedar were all I could see among the cactus. Nonetheless, appearing from the sand was a village of sorts - thirty or so adobe huts, some connected, some isolated; some newly stuccoed, some melting back into the sand. One of these huts had a shack in front with a notice that it's the community tienda. This is where I was to ask for the key to the church, according to the instructions of the nuns.

Arturo let me off once he was sure I could see the village and then took off in a cloud of dust. In the village, which has no 'center', some ladies came out to greet me. Gringa! Peregrina! then, Pere-gringa! laughing at their joke. There only thing more surprising than seeing an American woman in their desert village is seeing a pilgrim. There was no way they would let me sleep in the cold church. One of the ladies - Dora - arranged with a neighbor - well, they're all neighbors, really - and cousin - they're all somehow related, too - and widow for me to sleep in an extra bed. Dora's a good cook and fed me well and plentifully... all of the households I've been in make their own tortillas, both flour and corn types, and beans and some type of beef and vegetable soup. I was taken to meet all of the women in the village, stopping for coffee and cookies often, and even to an outlying ranch where the kids were learning roping skills. The village boasts a kindergarden and both primary and secondary schools. Dora was from the village but had moved to Chihuahua city for ten years. She moved back a few years ago so that her children could run around outside safely instead of being confined to the city streets.

In the evening, many of the village men came traipsing by Dora's home to meet me. One elderly man spoke a few words of English and insisted that I correct any slang he might say, as he wants to be able to speak 'perfect English'. For what and to whom I didn't get. Another old man bound to a wheelchair with a trucker's cap embroidered with the words 'Rock Out with your Cock Out' went into soft tears telling me of his devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and scribbled a note for me to bring to her in Mexico City. I have to believe he doesn't know the meaning his cap bears.

I've been invited to return on March 19th when they celebrate their village patron, Saint Joseph. A big fiesta, I'm assured, even the Bishop will come from Juarez. If I'm back this way around then, I'll be sure to return. Three kilometers from the highway and with no shops or other offerings, not many people make their way to the warm and gentle people of Moctezuma. Lacking a stamp, the ladies each signed my credenziale to make sure my stop there would never be forgotten.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Walking across the Interior

A quick message from cyberspace...

I had no troubles crossing the border on foot, in fact because of the escalating violence in the Juarez underworld, I was alone at the control point... not many are entering Juarez these days. I was quite quickly whisked away to a convent of elderly nuns for my night´s stay. Reminiscent of my days with old women of Ukraine, my name was immediately diminutized - in Spanish ´Anita´ instead of the Russian ´Anushka´- and I was fed a huge meal, constantly having my ribs poked and comments made that I´m too small to walk such a great distance.

It took a while to walk out of the bustling city, but once into the desert, I was rather alone. My options are to walk along the divided highway with it´s noisy tractor trailers and frequent military control points or to walk across the open desert. This I learned rapidly: the desert is made of sand. Sand makes for a herculean task for the calves. I don´t mind walking on the sand, and can add teranchula to the list of wildlife I´ve witnessed, and when my legs scream out, I walk along the road to the frequent and uncomfortable toots of the truckers. I feel like I´m altering the ecosystem with the amount of sand I carry off stuck to the coating of perspiration and sunscreen, but I suppose since I wash it off daily I´m only transfering it a bit southward. It´s a big desert - nearly the size of Germany - so how much damage can one little pilgrim do by shifting the sands a bit?

Pueblos are few and far between. I´m trying to cap a day at 50 kms but have to work with what´s available. I don´t wish to sleep out in the desert - spiders and other creatures of the night - so when I approached an isolated ranch (one where I could see women´s and baby´s clothes hanging on the line to dry) I simply asked if I could be accommodated. No problema. Cool.

Back in Las Cruces, photos were taken with a few of the folks who received me with open hearts. I´m really quite pink from the sunglass line to the neck of my tee shirt and on my arms and hands, except for the straps from my walking sticks. Goofy. The winter pilgrim look of the season.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Arrived safe in Juarez

This is the pilgrim in training (pit) reporting Winter Pilgrim has safely crossed the border into Mexico with no problems or conflicts. She doesn't think she will get close to a computer for a awhile and wanted people to know every thing is going well and she has lots of stories to tell. She was spending the night at a convent of retired nuns near Juarez, Mexico.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pushing the Limits

Finally, I've found a computer to update this blog, sorry for the silence... I'm writing this from a public library in Las Cruces, just a few days' walk from the Mexican border...

Many adventures have happily befallen me since leaving Albuquerque yet I've come to the conclusion that while the smallest sliver of a segment of the body of pilgrims would be interested in walking this camino, it's really well-suited to bicycling pilgrims. The desert is big; the rest stops distant. Two days back to back, 37 miles of desert walking. THIRTY-seven. Thirty-SEVEN. That's 60 kilometers each of those two days... no interim rest stops... high desert... and just my luck (ugh!) unseasonably high temperatures! No clouds, no trees, no shade whatsoever. Deep gullies, canyons, gulches, dusty dry creekbeds. Hard going. The missionaries avoided this western side of the Rio Grande for the more desirable 'Jornado del Muerto', 96 flat, waterless miles a distance from the eastern bank. In modern times, though, much of the Jornado del Muerto is privately owned and fenced off, so I walked along a deserted old paved ribbon across the desert south of Socorro.

Exactly midway between Socorro and Truth or Consequences (that's really the name of a town), is the Santa Fe Diner and Truckstop. How fortunate for a pilgrim on foot. The gracious sheriff of Socorro County had helped me find accommodation in Socorro and worked with me on the possibilities of walking south. (Lacking a stamp for my credenziale, he glued in an embroidered sheriff's badge!) He called ahead to make sure I could stay the night at this sole oasis and everything was blissfully arranged. How could I possibly walk 37 miles in one day???? Necessity breeds action. I left a good hour before the break of dawn - Orion right there where he should be in the moonless sky above and slightly to my right. I pressed onward in the rugged terrain unable to avoid crushing the innumerable scattered shed exoskeletons of giant grasshoppers, many in the process of being shed. Their unpredictable leaping - like fist-sized popcorn - is a bizarre form of entertainment. Darting desert hares, small rabbits, migrating sandhill cranes, rattlesnakes, lizards, enormous beetles, roadrunners, and coyotes also animated the desert scene. With few places to sit and rest, and no shade anyway, there was no option but to keep walking. Eventually, first Venus and then Cassiopeia took their rightful places in the sky ahead and slightly to the left and soon enough, the bold Milky Way dropped to the horizon directly in front of me marking my destination. Once fully dark, the light from the merest crescent of a moon was overpowered by the number of stars. I was distracted from the sky by the night howls of coyotes and the sound of two javelinas (peccaries) battling (or mating?) frighteningly close by. I swung the beam of my flashlight in the direction of their grunting and tusk gnashing, then quickly doused it and refocused my attention on the sky. Over my right shoulder, the enormous Big Dipper sat directly on the silhouette of a distant western mesa, like a pot on a stovetop. Thankfully, not long afterward, in the distance I saw the lights of the diner and truckstop and nearly ran the last two miles. (The old paved road is equipped with milemarkers for error-free calculating.)

This oasis is full of character. Several vintage 1930 railcars are lashed together in the desert to make a fine cafe with a menu much more diverse than a standard truckstop - who ever heard of fresh made hummus on a truckstop menu? - pool hall and giftshop/general store. There are a few adobe huts at one end kitted out as fully equipped guest rooms. They were expecting me. My feet ached constantly, but once I took off my boots, the pain was excruciating for a good half hour, but the warmth of the conversation with Salem the owner and Julie the waitress and a few other diners was a terrific balm. The interstate highway parallels the old desert road and intersects at this diner, so on foot I was isolated, but at this oasis, I was hardly alone.

Another day of the same - with an old hermit named Rex homesteading midway to Truth or Consequences who happily refilled my waterbottles from his deep well, and I was out of the difficult part of the New Mexican segment of the Chihuahuan Desert. Here's the great reward: Truth or Consequences took it's name in the mid 1950s as part of a radio program contest; previously, it was known as Hot Springs. Three dollars gets you a half-hour soak in a great wooden tub of 103-degree natural hot spring soothing water. Oh how my feet loved that! As much as my feet liked it, my sunburnt arms, neck, and face needed frequent showers of cool water. On bicycle, the 74 miles between Socorro and Truth or Consequences could be done in one day fairly easily; on foot, I don't think I'd enjoy it a second time.

oh, and after the general moratorium on watercolor painting on the Native lands (they prohibit it without special permits) and the long long walks taking all of my time and water, I haven't gotten too many more paintings to show. It'll be a bit hectic crossing the border, but afterwards, I hope things will become a bit more routine again. Still loving the pilgrim life!