Monday, December 27, 2010

el potrero chico to real de catorce

The nochebuena supper was ... interesting. We, along with forty or so climbers, crowded into a little dining room where we were offered turkey & stuffing or pork in sweet sauce or veggie patties. The turkey was a lot like white ham (gross) and the stuffing was basically sausage meat with raisins, the pork was equally strange. The Rioja, on the other hand, was delicious. Our first full night in the van was a treat although Henri froze in the new hammock, with no insulation underneath him. He came to warm up in bed with us in the morning and then we remembered it was Christmas. The kids ate sweet cereal to their heart's content and Wil packed a lunch for our hike. We left the compound, hung a left up the road and entered the famous El Potrero Chico. The road, which got washed out this year, slices its way through two massive limestone faces — the cliff walls peppered with cactus and the occasional joshua tree. We chose to walk in the river bed rather than on the road and followed it upstream (although it was completely dry) for an hour or so. Henri pointed to a pile of rocks that ran up the mountainside and asked if we could give it a try. We scrambled up the hill, helping each other find purchase in the rocks, getting assaulted by aloe and agave and assorted prickly trees. It was a blast. We had our lunch and then helped each other slide down. When we walked back through the canyon, little specks of colour began appearing on the cliff face — helmets of teeny, tiny climbers clinging to the wall, some of them several hundred feet in the air. Once you spotted one, casting your eyes fifty or so feet up or down would usually reveal their partner who was either catching up or holding the rope and waiting for the other to take the lead. The highest pair seemed impossibly high and, as we watched, one let go of the rock and swung in a big arc to join his partner a dozen or so feet away. The level of trust the sport demands is something else.

We got to see a praying mantis close up for the first time as it sunned itself on the side of the road. The young woman who pointed it out placed it gently in Henri's hands and we watched it slowly make its way up to his shoulder.

Back at the camp we tried connecting the colours on the cliff with the climbers' jackets now that they were earthbound. As nice and granola as this crowd is, it is not ours. They speak a language we do not understand (5-9s vs. 5-12s, simulclimbing, etc.) and that's all they really want to talk about. Many of them were in Potrero Chico for a month or more, only leaving the compound to turn left to climb and never right, to the rest of Mexico.

We had movie night in the van, the five of us in a heap on our bed. We took off in the morning for Real de Catorce, a former silver mining powerhouse that then became a virtual ghost town before it was brought back to life by some artists in the last fifty years. The road that leads to town is almost enough to dissuade you from going. Twenty-four kilometres of cobblestone road curves around the arid countryside and ends at the Ogarrio tunnel, the only way in and out of town. We'd read conflicting reports about the clearance. The difference would determine whether we fit or not. A couple of gas station attendants in surrounding towns seemed fairly confident that we'd fit. We pulled into the long line of cars waiting to go through the tunnel (it's only one lane wide) and the guy who sold us our ticket said we'd fit no problem. After him, we said no to a dozen or so vendors selling everything from pumpkin seeds to tuna (the very sweet fruit of the prickly cactus.) After the last of the oncoming traffic emerged, we followed the line of cars through the dusty tunnel. There were a couple of spots that looked a little low to me but we made it. All but two of the cars in front of us pulled into a large parking lot on the other side of the tunnel, we kept going until we came to a crashing stop as the van came into contact with the road. Luckily the bike rack frame took the brunt. We went all the way to the other side of town (about ten blocks on), then toward the cemetery where we'd read they tolerated campers. The doors into the cemetery were being locked as we got there. We tried across the street at a little hotel where Don Eduardo who was followed by a pack of dogs said we could spend the night. We parked and headed back into town on foot. The whole of Real de Catorce is cobblestone, much of it is on a pitch. We walked past the hundreds of stalls selling tacky coffee cups, tacky bracelets, elotes (corn on the cob which isn't as sweet as ours, usually smeared with mayonnaise, chile powder and grated cheese). We tried to share one but Frances couldn't manage it with her loose front teeth. We hung out at the tiny zocalo where families of Huichol indians were selling their paintings and weaving. The non-Huichol were a weird mix of what Wil calls dirty hippies, lots of layers and bad hair, incense and diablos and some crazy Swiss folk dressed in tight eighties ski suits. The town is certainly picturesque but it was all a bit weird.

The next morning we awoke to cockadoodledooing, some donkey braying, lots of dogs barking and a little pig squealing. It was heaven. We ate some breakfast and headed back through town on probably the hairiest road we've ever been on in Mexico. When we got through the tunnel we pulled over to ask some advice about this hike we'd read about, to the Pueblo phantasma (ghost town) over the mountain. One guy tried explaining the way to me but I didn't catch half of what he said. We decided to try anyway but when we passed by him again he was standing with a young guy who offered himself up as a guide. He told us he'd do it for "whatever we wanted to pay him." So off we went, up, up, up. A couple of minutes after we left a younger boy came running after us. "Your brother?, I asked. "My son", he replied! "He's ten." Up we went, over more cobblestone — incredible that this path was "paved". The hours and hours of back-breaking work laying stone after stone. We looped around the mountainside and looked around at the incredible scenery. "There's your van", he said and pointed to the little blue rectangle in the parking lot. We must have climbed a thousand feet in twenty minutes. We kept climbing, sometimes on the path, sometimes on pale tracks cut into the side of the mountain. We were all gasping for breath, the altitude keeping our poor lungs from getting the oxygen they needed. After about an hour we crested the last hill and were met with a gorgeous view of the stone foundations of long-abandoned houses and church nestled in a little valley. We ambled into the village, happy for a little downhill. There wasn't much to the town but the kids crawled through tunnels and climbed up a stone structure in the skeleton of the church while Wil and I sat around talking about how difficult it would have been to scratch a living out in this most inhospitable terrain. The desert is brutal. You have to look an awfully long time to find a place to sit down. The land is so hard— sand and gravel and pink rock, cactus of all shapes and sizes, joshua trees, agave, A spade wouldn't get you very far digging in this country.The sandy soil that isn't loose is like pumice. Riverbeds looks a foot deep in gravel. Even the birds are unfriendly, hawks and vultures coasting in the cool desert air. The only gentle thing about the landscape is the soft folds in the hills. As we were leaving, Frances approached a grate about ten feet across set in the ground and José-Luis jumped to his feet to warn her off. "It's the well." We all took turns throwing pebbles through the mesh but with no satisfaction; we never heard the pebbles hit bottom. Jose-Luis walked off and came back with a small boulder and launched it through the grate. First nothing, then a whoosh, then some cracking sounds as it bounced off the walls and more than ten seconds later, a dull thud.


Unknown said...

well YOU are no dull thud!!!!!! how exciting. i need to figure out how to get a prompt on email when a new post comes up. go guys go!!!!

ajm said...

exciting hiking (beautiful writing)!

A Friend Indeed said...

According to Wikipedia, `one of the mountains,Quemado, within the state's declared National Sacred Site, near Real de Catorce, is being purchased for silver mining by a Canadian company, First Majestic Silver Corp.” Also includes a great photo of the town from on high.
Where do we go from here?