Listen to the author read this essay. Thanks to John Grahame and Radio Sunnyside for this recording.
It began like this: our family made an epic journey through the colonias of northern Mexico, past irrigated fields and wood-and-metal shacks, surrounded by burros and horses, goats and chickens. These homesteads were nestled against earthen berms, the only barriers against canals of fetid-looking water. Outhouses twenty feet from the shelters drained into God-knows-what watershed.
We drove through tiny border towns, where schoolgirls in white blouses and pleated plaid skirts walked home in groups of two and three along dirt roads. The main roads, paved long ago, were punctuated by makeshift speed bumps. Signs read ALTO in all shapes and hues from faded red to dark maroon. Posted at these stops on Sunday afternoons, men and women in white uniforms collected donations for charity.
At makeshift fruit stands – ancient pickup trucks with tarps shading the produce – men in hats sold pineapples and coconuts, mangos and asparagus, or shrimp and corvina.
And the pace, the slowed pace. Stop for ALTO every fifty meters, stop to donate, stop for a taco at a roadside stand. Wait for meat to cook, wait for a plastic tray of shredded cabbage, pickled carrots, sour cream and lip-tingling salsa to be brought out. Wait for a Fanta or Coca Cola to cool your palate.
Drive behind a vintage tractor past orange groves and palm trees, past beautiful houses sided with pink stucco, and fantastic iron gates protecting long driveways, surrounded by fields of produce. Finally, as the diminishing Rio Colorado gets used up, drive past salt flats that extend as far out to the eastern horizon as we can see. Past those flats, past volcanic grey mountains was San Felipe.
We thought we’d never get there.
We’ve been making this journey for about ten years, nearly every spring break, and a few other times in between. In this place, time is the only luxury: time to tease apart the tangle of emotions that clogs my everyday life, time to paddle a boat on clear deep water and time to note the changing light.
I need a big horizon and a clear schedule to manage my inner life.
This journey is a pilgrimage, though I didn’t know it at first. I didn’t walk for a hundred miles on my knees. I didn’t beg for rations at the doors of homes along the route. And still, I travel from wretchedness to bliss.
But this time I had a run-in with a boat the day after we arrived. I despaired. First of all, it hurt like hell. Then I spent the better part of my afternoon and evening in a clinic, getting four stitches. (I tried to think of them as gold stars.) My foot swelled up from the impact. And to add insult to injury, I couldn’t go boating or take a shower for the rest of the week without risking infection.
I sat on the beach, displayed my wound at appropriate intervals for the grandchildren (borrowed ones, not mine), and tried to read. The gnats were awful this year. A sarong draped around my head mostly kept the nasty creatures at bay. Nonstop fanning also worked. We huddled like refugees inside casitas or tents when it got really bad.
I fixed our broken tent zipper against the gnats one afternoon. Another, I washed my hair, bent over the shower drain to keep my foot dry.
One day, a super-pod of dolphins turned the water black and roiling for hours following a huge school of fish up the Sea of Cortez, an event on par with some ancient biblical tale.
In the evenings after dinner, when the gnats were asleep, musicians played around the campfire. Bottles of whiskey and tequila and beer were drunk. Marshmallows were dropped into the ashes, or mashed between squares of chocolate and half-crumbled graham crackers and offered to the grownups for a quarter or ten pesos. The crowd spoke Spanish and English somewhat interchangeably as the company changed, and a couple danced in the fringe of darkness as a waltz came around on the playlist.
In the end, what happened is this: all the pleasures that were missing from this trip combined with the joyful moments of our other journeys to create a packet of bliss that I could carry home. All the snapshots, all the sounds and smells got woven into a pilgrim’s garment to sustain my faith for the next trip.