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(part 1) We Americans have our Wild West just like Mexico has its “norte bárbaro,” and they’re the same place of course, that vast expanse of land bounded by two mountain ranges and stretching from Utah to Jalisco, Mexico. It’s home to cowboys and Indians ranging from Utes to Aztecs, vaqueros to buckaroos. Where I’m going is right in the center of it. I’ll start in my former home state of Arizona and cross the border into Mexico from there. Mexico was the first foreign country—actually second, if you count Canada—that I visited some thirty-eight years ago, along the border with Texas at El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. It seemed so weird and wonderful that I hung around for days, just soaking up the weirdness and basking in the atmosphere. Of course now I know why it seemed so weird at the time—it is…or was at least. Most of those places are closed now.
No line in the sand ever separated so much, more than just America from Mexico, but also Latino from Germanic, European from indigenous, developed from primitive, wealth from poverty, law and order from, uh…pragmatic. I can still see it in my mind’s eye—nose, tongue, skin, ear—as if it were yesterday, especially the smells, of the meat and the gasoline, somehow different from ours. Somehow it all just smelled more pungent, earthier, and less sterile. Bingo. I was hooked of course, and resolved to carry this newfound wanderhunger to a new level as fast as I could. That meant looking at the map of Mexico as if it were a secret wormhole to a hidden dimension. I even resolved to go all the way down, to the southern border of Mexico, the edge of the known universe at that time. To go beyond it was unthinkable.
For that matter, to go to Europe was unthinkable, which is what normal people with wanderlust—and funds—did on their “gap year.” In the 1970’s Freddie what’s-his-name was making big headlines with his $100 “Skytrain” flights to London, so the backpack era was on. Go to Europe, get a $250 Eurail Pass, get a copy of “Europe on $10 a Day,” and spend a summer doing the Continent, $1500 all included…maybe. There was only one problem. WTF was I going to get $1500? Minimum wage back then was about $1.75 per hour. You could get a bus from Tijuana to Mazatlan for about ten bucks then (now it’ll get you from TJ to Ensenada…maybe). So when some friends invited me to travel with them the next year to Yucatan (yep, wayyy down there), there was nothing else to say, but “Giddyup.”
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and within two years I’d wintered over in Guatemala one year and Peru the next, my farthest extent for ten years. Now I’ve been to 143 and counting, but it’s always fun to go back to Mexico. Of course back then it quickly became passe’ to hang around the border. Exotic—and cheap—Mexico was down in Oaxaca…Chiapas…Yucatan. And of course many of those areas aren’t as exotic as they used to be, or as cheap, and some of the border areas are quite nice…and interesting. Indigenous culture is always one of my main interests, and Mexico has plenty of that, sixty-plus some-odd indigenous languages at last count, one of the most diverse in the world (Papua New Guinea has over 800). If the southern biggies with multiple dialects dominate that list—like Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mayan, more than a few are found in the northern regions, particularly in the western coast and mountains extending north from Guadalajara. There’s even a healthy handful in the border state of Sonora. That’s where I’m going.
Sonora is Arizona’s sister state across the line in Mexico, or at least it was until the current Arizona governor started making the people we stole the state from illegal…so now I don’t know. Regardless the two cross-border states have a lot in common, including a city—Nogales—which sits smack on the line with a fence running through it. But that’s not the way we’re going in. So I meet my friends Dan and Elizabeth at the Phoenix airport and—after crashing for the night in Casa Grande (pronounced “Cassa Grand” in the local jargon)—we high-tail it across the Tohono O’odham (Papago) rez toward the border at Sonoita. It’s really quiet there, with hardly anything at all on the US side. The Mexican side is more or less a real town, more than I remember, anyway. From there it’s a straight shot south to Puerto Penasco (“Rocky Point”), quickest shot to paradise for an Arizonan, about an hour from the border. We’re going further south, though, to Puerto Lobos, along the new coast-hugging highway that’s now paved past Puerto Lobos on to Libertad, where there’s a major power plant…and a bus line. There are miles of empty desert the whole way.
The government has got big plans for this area, and this highway is crucial to it. The basic equation is something like: if highway + beach = development, and development + tourists = income, then highway = income. Unfortunately for the government, the Seri Indians in the area do not seem disposed to go along with the master plan, so there might have to be a detour around their area between Libertad and Kino. They have a reputation for orneriness, and apparently prefer their own hardscrabble way of life to that which unbridled development might offer. Like everything, it’s a double-edged sword. Why do we have to kill the thing we love?