Jul/Aug 2009 Travel

El Camýno Mezcal

by Gez Devlin

Photo by Gez Devlin

Sects 'n beasts

Sierra Madre, Michoacan, Mexico

We drove west into the stegosaurus sunset. The caldera glowed fire embers behind Jurassic ridges, monsters rising out of jagged shadow rock, warning—beware of bandidos y perros, eso es el camino de mezcal.

The last town before nada is Tuzantla, and it has one hotel. Late at night people were still out, trying to cool off. One corner of the main square had a sideshow that a travelling fair must have abandoned. A dozen kids were seated at a wide booth playing bingo for brightly illuminated kitchen ware. "Dos gorditas, veinte dos," the man-at-mic crooned, while young eyes scanned cards.

The angry bugs and furnace heat denied Izbella and I another night of vagabondage and sent us perspiring to the open doors of Hotel Las Rosas, all thorns and no rose. Reception was a pitted crimson hut inside a parking garage, ground floor of three. Un Hombre grande lumbered slowly toward us, silently. In the same manner he led us upstairs to unlock his premium suites. Prices ranged from twenty dollars to eighty, the more expensive rooms came with alleged aircon, fans and vistas. No charge for ant colonies and odors.

Hay muchas hormigas! (There's a lot of ants.) I stared at their columns patterning stained tile.

Seeeee senor.

His baritone replies were a soft calm chorus, he almost sounded proud.

El aire no funciona. (The aircon doesn't work.) I pressed on.

Seeeee senor.

Esta muy sucio. (It's very dirty.)

Seeeee senor.

Esta oloroso. (It stinks.)

Seeeee senor.

Tiene sankudos, van a comernos. (You've got mosquitoes, they will devour us.)

Seeeee senor.

Hay una descuente con todo este? (Any reductions?) I tendered the prophet in my pocket and asked for a "deity discount." El senor looked unimpressed at my crucified and blood stained, little plastic Jesus.

No senor. El jefe siempre dice no. (The boss always says no.)

We were leaving when Miss Masochism suggested we look at the cheapest room. If they were charging eighty for a bug fest bano bed I really didn't have the nasal stomach to see what twenty gets you!? The gentle giant opened up an inner room, no outside window, but stink free and almost clean?! Si Senor, we'll sweat aqui.

Outside fresh tortillas wafted from the neighboring Tortilleria early. The wiry hotel owner advised us to drive back to Morelia and take the new road to the coast, it's quicker, safer, no bandidos, no cliffs to fly off. No mezcal either I bet. We wanted the anti-tequila, the raw ferments of blue agave cactus and pulques that stream out of Michoacan.

At the only gas hole we got similar counsel, ten cuidado (watch out)!

Onward, into banditland, into arid dino-scapes and vast high altars of agave. The beginning of the mezcal highway is a pot holed camino, a poison arrow aiming into parched, brown peaks.

We drive slowly to take it in. Nopales cactus shimmer out of thirsty earth, drout defiant paddles of green. Sentinels of death loop overhead. Two hundred yards beyond the brow of a hump a colony of vultures were flapping down on carrion, scrapping for flesh, tearing in. We halted fifty yards away to watch the beast feast.

Out of the searing heat it came screeching, vaulting toward impact. The thundering coach shook our van, swerving out of control past gringos and chewed critter, it burnt rubber plumes, fishtailed wildly and roared on to splash mirage pools. The buzzards almost got a banquet to follow their appetizer. Mile one of el camino mezcal is marked by a dead dog and reminders that we're next.

Into the kiln, no shade, except for the odd bus shelter occupied by a stray buro. Scrawled ads for Mezcal appeared low at the side of the road, red arrows pointing between agave fields. We pulled over and killed the motor. What stunned most was el silencio—total. Turn where you wish, sound has interred.

Tiquicheo, last single street village before the great Sierra Madre. Buildings made rainbows, people were still, but their eyes were not, gently warning—welcome to the edge. Izbella poked deep into a grocery. Amid roots and dirt she found five gallon jugs of agave pura. Sample shots slugged, we filled up old bottles at two dollars per liter. The register was stacked with cash and its operator armed. There was a Jesus above the pesos, hanging from the cross by only his left arm.

Down either side de la calle we met cold reception in baking heat. A friendly eye was the exception and the projected mood was, we eat gringos for desayuno. We stopped at the Pastelleria and so did the two men that had been following us. I put in our order and noted that up on the wall was another Jesus crucified minus an arm? I pointed this out to Izbella and she said, "Haven't you noticed? Jesus is missing a right arm on every cross in this town!" I hadn't, but nothing much escapes the painter's eyes.

We turned to leave, one of the escorts moved in closer, I saw a gun in the small of his back. "We shou- shouldn't've come here." Iz stammered. Right then I pulled the cross out of my shirt pocket, a subconscious defence, as one might prepare for vampires. The gunmen looked shocked and withdrew in an instant. Then I saw it, too, I held up the damaged crucifix for all to see.

I'd been trying to fix my "discount" cross to our dash while the buzzards scrapped over el perro. When the bus came hurtling and skidding toward us I jolted and snapped off the messiah's right arm.

Awed eyes followed us back to the van, we'd transformed from prey to prophets. To the escorting congregation, I made a parting abridged sign of the cross, being careful to touch my left shoulder but not my right, "En el nombre del Padre, Hijo y Espirito _______."

This is how schisms start, in desert outposts, long hot days betwixt barren vistas, bouts of mezcal mayhem flare and arms get broken off Cristos. The next day memories falter and the amputations are witnessed like fresh stigmata or virgins' tears. In the unbearable heat of worship, a sect is born. As we left Tiquicheo two pick ups packed with federalis trundled into town. Cold cervezas-at-wheel slid quick.

First barren mount of many loomed high in front of us, up and up, southwest into unrelenting fire. In full glare the windscreen was a griddle and we were rose meat roast. At one shorn off vista I pulled over all sweat sodden and Izbella warned me that I had salt-back, my green shirt dyed white from sodium leaching. She proffered Lays chips and liquids before deliriums set in.

The Western Sierra Madre's awesome desolation is broken only by valiant cactus, buros, bandidos and lone huts near summits. The bandidos arribba were driving wrecks and easily outpaced. The huts came with rib exposed starving farm animals, and sold rotting fruit and vegetables, overpriced gasoline and varietals of the ubiquitous mezcal. Taste tests revealed no discernible difference between their gas and distilled agaves.

There were crosses all over the mountain where drivers had careened over the edge down precipitous slopes. We were lucky to have crossed the barren range before nightfall, it's then the ledges swallow most. At dusk we passed through a haunted village in the foothills, choked with swirling dust and bbq smoke, populated by a cast of caspers. An hour on we'd made it back to the coast y la bella bahia de Zihuatanejo.

A hidden magnet drew us straight to the jungled guest house by the lagoon, el Rincon del Viajero. A pair of feral dogs was dancing together over the footbridge, in a twirling tug of war for a scrap of discarded tunic. There are thousands of wild perros roaming free in Mexico and this pair's gentle playfulness demonstrates domesticity is not every dog's dream.

It was good to feel the cool sea breeze again. Right then, beside our van, a big black mutt head butted the grill of a speeding truck. The brute was dead on impact and lay in his own blood puddle. I dragged him out of the middle of the road to prevent further splatter. Mile end of the Mezcal highway is marked by road kill.


Dead Dog Epilogue

Over the next three days we witnessed the bloating of Fuego in front of Mali's guest house, and on occasion inhaled the horrid odor. Fuego had to be killed to get his nombre, they named him "Fire" posthumously. Mali called the city several times to dispose of the ballooning carcass, but this is Mexico and as a native she should have known better.

Three nights after the passing of Fuego, we were on the roof terrace sampling cactus water, and taking in the midnight twinkles above the bay. From our perch we saw Mali's Alaskan beau and his amigos blancos stagger across the lagoon bridge, and then totter uneasily around the feasting maggots. One of them got a gas can out of their jeep and doused the deceased. A flame at that point would have burned the beast, then the overhanging trees and all the adjacent buildings right after. Our side of tinder row was in imminent danger!

An older mujer passed by and questioned the squabbling inebriates. Under pressure they dragged el perro muerto across the road, through the drought stricken thicket and into an orchard. Pyro urges got the better of them and flames came ranging in every direction. The drunks scattered squealing like piglets with a wall of fire crackling behind them. It was an arsonist's dream scene.

The city does not come out for corrupting canines, but they do show up for cremations gone wild. It took six fire engines and a lagoon to quell the blaze. If not, los borrachos del Norte would have to explain why half of Zihua was in the sky. The head of the one armed Jesus was poking out of my shirt pocket; I could have sworn I saw a tear drop.


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