To the Border: A Perfect Example of Thatness
THE MEXICAN BORDER is the edge of the known world, only shadows and danger beyond it, and lurking figures—hungry, criminal, predatory, fanged, fanatical enemies—a malevolent and ungovernable rabble eager to pounce on the unwary traveler. And the Policía Federal officers are diabolical, heavily armed, stubborn and sullen one minute, screaming out of their furious congested faces the next, then extorting you, as they did me.
Send lawyers, guns, and money! Don’t go there! You’ll die!
But wait—deeper in Mexico (floppy, high-domed sombreros, mariachi music, blatting trumpets, toothy grins) are the safer, salubrious hot spots you can fly to for a week, get hog-whimpering drunk on tequila, fall ill with paralyzing squitters, and come home with a woven poncho or a painted ceramic skull. Also, here and there, sunny dumping grounds for American retirees—a tutti-frutti of grizzled gringos in permanent settlements on the coast and in gated communities and art colonies inland.
Oh, and the fat cats and petrocrats in Mexico City, thirty listed billionaires—including the seventh-richest man in the world, Señor Carlos Slim—who together have more money than every other Mexican combined. But the campesinos in certain states in southern Mexico, such as Oaxaca and Chiapas, in terms of personal income, are poorer than their counterparts in Bangladesh or Kenya, languishing in an air of stagnant melancholy on hillsides without topsoil, but with seasonal outbursts of fantastical masquerade to lighten the severities and stupefactions of village life. Famine victims, desperadoes, and voluptuaries, all more or less occupying the same space, and that vast space—that Mexican landscape—squalid and lush and primal and majestic.
And huge seasonal settlements of torpid, sunburned Canadians, as well as the remnants of fifteen colonies of polygamous Mormons who fled to Mexico from Utah to maintain large harems of docile, bonnet-wearing wives, all of them glowing with sweat in the Chihuahuan Desert, clad in the required layered underwear they call “temple garments.” And isolated bands of Old Colony Mennonites speaking Low German in rural Cuauhtémoc and Zacatecas, herding cows and squeezing homegrown milk into semisoft cheese—Chihuahua cheese, or queso menonita, meltable and buttery, very tasty in a Mennonite verenika casserole or bubble bread.
Baja is both swanky and poor, the frontera is owned by the cartels and border rats on both sides, Guerrero state is run by narco gangs, Chiapas is dominated by masked idealistic Zapatistas, and—at the Mexico margins—the spring-breakers, the surfers, the backpackers, the crusty retired people, honeymooners, dropouts, fugitives, gun runners, CIA scumbags and snoops, money launderers, currency smurfers, and—look over there—an old gringo in a car squinting down the road, thinking: Mexico is not a country. Mexico is a world, too much of a mundo to be wholly graspable, but so different from state to state in extreme independence of culture and temperament and cuisine, and in every other aspect of peculiar Mexicanismo, it is a perfect example of thatness.
I was that old gringo. I was driving south in my own car in Mexican sunshine along the straight sloping road through the thinly populated valleys of the Sierra Madre Oriental—the whole craggy spine of Mexico is mountainous. Valleys, spacious and austere, were forested with thousands of single yucca trees, the so-called dragon yucca (Yucca filifera) that Mexicans call palma china. I pulled off the road to look closely at them and wrote in my notebook: I cannot explain why, on the empty miles of these roads, I feel young.
And that was when I saw a slender branch twitch on the ground; it lay beneath the yucca in soil like sediment. It moved. It was a snake, a hank of shimmering scales. It began to contract and wrap itself—its smooth and narrow body pulsing in the serpentine peristalsis of threat, brownish, like the gravel and the dust. I stepped back, but it continued slowly to resolve itself into a coil. Not poisonous, I learned later. Not a plumed serpent, not the rearing rattler being gnawed by the wild-eyed eagle in the vivid emblazonment on the Mexican national flag. It was a coachwhip snake, as numerous on this plain as rattlesnakes, of which Mexico has twenty-six species—not to mention, elsewhere, milk snakes, blind snakes, rat snakes, pit vipers, worm-sized garden snakes, and ten-foot-long boa constrictors.
The joy of the open road—joy verging on euphoria. “Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had known about life, and life on the road,” Kerouac writes of entering Mexico in On the Road. “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.”