Bertram Goodhue’s first publication in his early 20’s, A Somewhat Sojourn South of the Yellow Rio Grande was a small journal recounting his explorations of Mexico, it’s people, and it’s Spanish Colonial architecture at the turn of the century. At the age of 27 it was time for an adventure south of my own.
Early morning, the day after Christmas my friend, Don loaded up his 4-wheel drive Pathfinder with water, as I made sure we had plenty of film. We then departed for the border. Don drove while I navigated from the Sanborn map, given to us when we bought insurance to cross the border. We made Laredo before daybreak, only to get stopped on the Mexican side of the border by customs agents, “where are we going, and why?” As it turned out, a few extra dollars on the side was the answer they were looking for. We then plotted our course west to Monterrey along a road lined with Spanish daggers once known as the Camino Real between Monterrey and San Antonio- Santa Anna’s route to his infamous date with the Alamo.
We rode west in the early morning twilight and as we crested a hill outside of Monterrey, the sun rising to the east bathed the snow dusted Sierra Madre over the city in a warm golden light. Stopping only briefly for exploration of the large Baroque Palacio del Obispado (The Bishop’s Palace), we moved west- then at Saltillo, turned south down the long spine of the Mexican Plateau, with the Sierra Madre Oriental on the east and the Sierra Madre Occidental on the west, we made our way among the blue agave and corrals of live cacti that decorated the arid hillsides.
Stopping only once for some roadside cabrito and Mexican beer, we made San Louis Potosi by late afternoon. As navigator, I referenced my Sanborn map for a bed for the night. Not satisfied with the charming city in which we found ourselves, I selected a small village on the very edge of the map- Real de Cortorce, named for the 14 Spanish soldiers slaughtered by Chichameca warriors back in the 18th century.
As daylight waned we headed into the frontier on a small paved road; that, soon turned to unpaved, then turned onto a slight gravel rut directed west to the darkening Sierra Madres. Soon, the road began to wind past stone ruins; ruin after ruin after ruin. As we fell into the shadow of the mountain, our path abruptly ended. There, at the base of the mountain the road, the road disappeared into a mineshaft.
Anxious to make our destination before nightfall, we were confused by the people, vehicles and baying donkeys gathered, but not venturing further. Suddenly, headlights appeared from the darkness and a bus emerged followed by a few old trucks overflowing with humanity. We were then signaled forward. We drove, and drove, deeper into the mountain, passing haunting candle-lit shrines flickering in the darkness. After what seemed an eternity, we emerged from the mountain- just in time to witness a glorious sunset washing over an ancient hillside village; a sliver town built in 1772 at 9000 feet overlooking vast canyon lands of the western frontier- we had arrived in old Mexico, a scene that appeared to be unchanged for hundreds of years.
Before we could gather our wits, our car(as though highly magnetized) was covered in children, “Americano, Americano!”. For a few pesos they would take us to a place to stay for the night.
Although, excited by our unexpected discovery, we were suddenly faced with the reality that this rustic and remote village was no place to drop a bedroll- especially as the temperature dropped as quickly as the sun did. Nonetheless, we slowly followed the cacophony of children, careful not to roll over any stragglers. We were soon knocking on a primitive and sandblasted door within a rustic stone wall, quandering all the while if we had made a terrible mistake. “Well, Hellooo!” a bright & cheerful voice greeted us. Quickly, we were ushered inside as Gary, the proprietor, who had moved there with his boyfriend from California to retire in paradise, now guided us through his charmingly restored courtyard villa- lavishly decorated and filled with flowers and song birds.
After a cerveza and pork torta next door (actually there was no door), Don and I retired to our boveda domed suites for the evening; tired, a bit dusty, but looking forward to tomorrow. So far, ancient Mexico was the unexpected adventure we had hoped for.
(To be continued)
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