Saturday, June 13, 2009

Riding Illegally into the Badlands of Old Mexico

Deborah Voorhees

PASO LAJITAS, Mexico - Scribes have long romanticized thedesolate beauty of Mexico's Chihuahuan desert with itsconquistadors, banditos and dark-eyed maidens.

So, as we set out to conquer this land, we decide to travel as they did - close to the earth - not as interlopers in aclimate-controlled vehicle. Besides, where we are heading, theBadlands of Mexico, not even the all-terrain Suburban can go. Our selected mode of transportation: the horse.

This three-day trip, packed by Lajitas Stables, marries twoextremes: the rugged and the pristine. It's for those who want tosee Mexico away from the resort hotels and from other tourists, forthose who desire to wander among its people and countryside.

Our ride begins in Paso Lajitas, Mexico, just south of the U.S.border town of Lajitas, Texas. Here, most of the 20th century dissolves in an instant. Dirt streets are lined with humble flat-roofed casas made of adobe, stone and concrete. Most have running water and electricity, but clearly a few, with nothing but mother earth for floors, are too primitive for either. The long-crooked arms of the ocotillo fence in pollos, cabras andcaballos (chickens, goats and horses).
The Rio Grande, which divides the two towns, has long been used as a crossing, dating to the conquistadors. Its hard limestone bottom makes it ideal for artillery wagons and such.

After our group's guides - veteran vaquero Onorio Orozco and 16-year-old wrangler Mesquite - match the guests' riding skills to the appropriate horses, we head out of town into the sparsely populated back country of the Chihuahuan desert. Here, barbed-wirefences are a rarity. The ground is hard and rocky and looks sunstripped, an opal color, rather than earthy, and the dust stirs at the slightest breeze or movement of the hooves.

We ride up and over the rocky hills of the desert, past abandoned haciendas to the dry creek bottom of Las Mangas, where we weave through squat limestone canyons. The walls are so brittle it's as if this arid land has robbed them of moisture. Limestone sheets along the floor of the creek form periodic tinajas, catchbasins for water, where the horses drink.

For miles in every direction, all is raw and barren, seemingly uninhabitable. Yet, a few Mexican families continue to eke out an existence. At times, hillsides are so blank it's easy to assume they've been strip-mined, but it's just the lay of the place. Not ablade of grass exists from extreme overgrazing and draught. A cow eats a worncotton T-shirt.

Little grows other than tuffs of mesquite, creosote and sage, and smatterings of purple prickly pear and ocotillo. Even the turkey vultures, eerily absent, seem to know this place is void of life and consequently of death. As if to prove us wrong, a dot of yellow flits by. The butterfly looks lost in this dry desert.

Equally out of place, growing almost flat to the ground, is a clump of yellow flowers. Senor Orozco, the head wrangler, dismounts and picks a petal. Offering it to everyone to smell, he explains that it's Lemoncilla, a plant used to make a lemon-flavored tea.

As we move on, we learn of a Mexican legend right beside us. The blond Mesquite started riding at age 4 and began training horses just three years later. A U.S. citizen, she lives on both sides of the border and speaks both languages fluently. Since taking this wrangler job, she has been renting a room in Lajitas, but she still stays occasionally with her mother, a nurse, who has been allowed to live among the Mexican people because she gives them needed medical care.

Sitting astride her feisty stallion, Mesquite explains that Mexico can be very old-fashioned. Girls spend their days tending to household duties, not riding horses. Mesquite not only doesn't stay close to home, she breaks broncs. On most days, she can be found racing her horse across the

"People I don't even know will stop me and ask if I'm Mesquite, "she says.

Legends, old and new, make this place all the more unique: stories of hidden Spanish treasures, Comanche and Apache raids, and the hunters and gatherers who inhabited this place long before the Spaniards came to conquer.

Tres Boquillas, one of the stops of the day, is an Indian site with metate holes, which archaic Indians used for grinding grains. Later tribes created wonderfully clear pictographs of running horses. The paint used in these bright-red images is probably a mixture of water, an iron-based mineral called ocher and then a type of binder such as urine, blood, honey or egg whites.
Other sites on the ride have piles of broken rock and charcoal-colored earth, marking where Indians cooked sotol, which is said to taste sweet like cabbage.

As the sun drifts downward, the evening light turns the dull, lifeless colors of the desert into rich purples, reds, oranges, golds and yellows. On this first night we sleep on the grounds of a modest ranch, where the horses can be corralled.

On the rancher's covered patio of his cement hacienda are three spent golden shells, probably from a .22. About 50 yards off, up on a rise, sits an untouched Tecate aluminum can. To the house's westare healthy rows of corn.

Behind it, on top of a rocky rise, is a capilla, a doll-size chapel, with a wooden cross and corrugated-tin roof. Inside the concrete structure are spent candles, a box of matches and a framed image of the Madonna. These miniature chapels dot the countryside. It's not uncommon for vaqueros, in dusty jeans and sweat-stained cowboy hats, to pause from their chores to pray for safe passage, for rain, for the sick or for any such thing.

After Senor Orozco shoes a couple of the horses, he prepares a supper of pork, tomato and green pepper as Mesquite makes a chocolate cake in a dutch oven. We eat by the light of a propane lantern, shortly afterward falling off to sleep exhausted from the day.

After a breakfast of Mexican egg burritos, fruit and yogurt, we mount and head out on a 20-plus-mile ride to the town of San Carlos, or Manuel Benavides - maps use the latter, locals the former. We start down La Mora trail, which locals say has been traveled for at least 200 years. It's hard to argue differently when hoof prints have actually been embedded like fossils in the slabs of limestone.

This worn trail leads us into the San Carlos mountains and the Badlands, both formed by ancient volcanoes. Ash - with layers of gray, purple and red - created the Badlands' narrow canyons and its other-worldly formations. Some resemble castles and Moorish temples; others are more lunar in shape. Regardless, nothing grows in the ash, which at times is as fine as baby powder.

Lunch time takes us to one of the miracles of the desert. The wetness of natural springs invites tall cottonwood trees to pop up like mirages. In this spot, the trees' gnarled roots form a perfect circular dam that stands a good two feet off the ground, looking like something out of a Tolkien fantasy where elves, sprites and fairies should light. After watering the horses, we fill our bottles where cool spring water flows in a steady stream as if from a faucet.

From under the shade of the cottonwoods we can see far in the distance, the Chisos and Sierra del Carmen mountains as well as a notch in the horizon from the magnificent Santa Elena Canyon. In the foreground is an abandoned limestone ranch house and corral -the perfect spot to eat our steak burritos with avocado slices.

Senor Orozco points to a white speck just south of the mountains and explains that that's his ranch.

"I've traveled through all this land, but not on a pleasure ride, rounding up cattle, " he says.

After lunch we head out to ride around the San Carlos mountains made of lava. Intruding between the deep purple rocks of La Morapeak are tall limestone fingers with crevices situated just as the holes in an organ's pipes.

Little time passes before the afternoon sun turns our newly found water hot. While it still provides the body what it needs, the mouth longs for something cool. Some riders begin incessantly discussing anything cold: snow, mountain creeks, Colorado wintermornings.

Later, Senor Orozco tells us about the "Mexican walk." In this country, horses aren't for hobby as are many of their northern brethren. The animals must work cattle and often are the only form of transportation. In fact, Senor Orozco, after finishing his job at Lajitas, rides horseback 25 miles home across the desert.

Mexican ponies are taught with a strong hand to have a fastwalking gait. The training process is evident as Senor Orozco tames the skittish mare he's riding. Repeatedly, he takes a thin piece of leather and snaps it on one side of the neck, then the other, letting it know the slow "gringo walk" just won't do.

About 4 p.m., our thirsty, dusty crew spots a long line of cottonwoods far off in the distance. This means water! Our supply is low and almost as hot as if coming from a simmering pot. Spring-fed San Carlos creek, unlike the dry creeks we've been traveling through, flows with real water over rocks and boulders of limestone.

All along this amazing site is the town of San Carlos. Built here because of the water source, the town seems close enough to touch, but things always appear closer than they are in the desert, making it all the more miragelike. We keep moving closer, but the town remains evasive.

About an hour later, we finally reach this pristine, sleepy village. Most of the streets have been modernized with concrete, but some are still cobblestone. The casas, modest but meticulously kept, are made of real mud adobe or concrete or limestone. Most of the yards have a good sampling of fruit trees, gardens, horses, goats, chickens. Compared to Paso Lajitas, the town looks quiteprosperous.

A dark-eyed nina with long-unsculpted locks peeks through herscreen door as the desconocidos (strangers) pass through town. A couple of ninos in bleached white T-shirts peer from behind the side-yard gates. Senors and senoras stop their chores to watch, albeit subtly. They come to their windows, doors and gates. Some smile, some are expressionless. A girl in a thin blue dress shyly giggles as she flashes a stranger a grin.

Unlike tourist destinations, no one has anything to sell. There are no mercados, only a small drugstore for locals to buy everything from fruit and vegetables to ice cream.

At the end of a cobblestone street is our destination: Gloria'sBed and Breakfast, a pristinely kept casa with a veranda wrappingaround it. A true slice of paradise, with its terraced garden of bougainvillea, roses, yucca and a water canal. Gloria, the owner, also grows watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and chile peppers, as well as pecan, peach and mimbreo trees. The latter, similar to the apple, is stewed for making jams and such.

The home, with its picturesque view, is circled by hills, mountains and mesas on all sides, and is a stone's throw from the spring-fed creek. From here are lots of places to hike: Indian caves, old mines, the ghost town of Mina Grande, the mine of MinaDos Marias and the canyon of San Carlos. The Sierra Rica mountains also are close by with their pines and oaks and trees that smell of cinnamon.

As we stop our horses, Gloria, in a brightly colored dress, greets us with ice-cold, hand-squeezed limeade. This honey-sweetened delight goes down quickly with our thirsty bunch. Inside her meticulously kept place are photos of her on the film set of "Streets of Laredo," but the most impressive site for this crowd are the oversized bathtubs in which to get squeaky-clean.

Most nights, dinner is served on the veranda, with starched, bone-white tablecloths, but a sudden high wind and the threat of rain causes everyone to grab the vases of bougainvillea and race for shelter. Still, nothing could spoil the gourmet Mexican dinner of mole chicken, spicy cactus, guacamole, beans, rice and flour tortillas, handmade just before they're passed out. After dinner, the winds have gone and, for all the wrath-of-God theatrics, barely a spit of rain hits the ground.

Gloria opened her B&B because San Carlos is her childhood home. After living on both sides of the border, she decided this is the place for her.

"The pace is slower and less stressful, " she says. "Just to live is so expensive in America."

She knows her venture is risky, considering she's in such a remote spot. But she also knows if the right people find out about it she'll do fine. It's perfect for anyone wanting to get away from it all. Gloria knows that better than anyone.

"Here, I can retire, " she says. "If my business fails, I can live off my fruit trees and garden. If I can't afford it, I don't need electricity."

After dinner, some relax on the now calm patio while a couple of us head into town to take one of Gloria's helpers home. There the husband, sitting at the kitchen table with the glow of the TV in the background, is quick to apologize in Spanish for the slightly cluttered table, explaining his wife has been working all night.

We stay only a moment, then head into the town square with its white gazebo. All along the way, homes are lighted and mariachi music reigns. Gloria explains this party atmosphere with a simple statement: "It's Saturday night."

In the square, the town's people have gathered for a Baptist revival and fiesta. "There are not too many Baptists here. Any excuse for a party, "she says.

Nov. 1-5, she says, is the big Catholic fiesta. People from the small ranches and towns all around bring their babies to bebaptized. "There will be dancing everywhere, cockfights, horse racing andlots more, " Gloria says.

Not much has changed since Gloria was a 14-year-old.

"I remember sitting right there on that bench. I wasn't supposed to have a boyfriend yet, " she says. But a boy she liked came to court her. "My uncle took me home right then. Oh, I cried and cried. They were very strict back then."

Now with a 14-year-old daughter of her own, Gloria says she too has to be strict - but perhaps she wouldn't take her home. "Some of the ranch families are still that strict. Here, you have to be strict with your girls. Boys, they can do anything, but not girls."

And apparently the people are strict with their women, too. Only men are allowed in the cantina. Mesquite explains that only a woman selling herself would dare go in, and she would be shunned by society.

In the morning, Gloria fixes us a huge Mexican breakfast with garden-fresh watermelon on the veranda. Afterward, we slip into shorts and sandals for a hike up San Carlos creek, which runs over a bed of limestone rocks and boulders. On the towering canyon walls ferns grow where springs trickle down.

A limestone enclave has a constant mist raining down, and just a little farther up, low to the ground, is a shower of springwater, warm from volcanic activity. This is a tropical sub-climate, surrounded by cliffs with sotol, mesquite, yucca and prickly pear pushing through the canyon's rock sides.

At one point, way above the creek is an Anasazi-style ladder leading to a niche in the limestone walls. Inside is a santos witha candle for worship. There's an old Indian site here, too.

Later in the morning, we head back into the Chihuahuan desert toward the town of Paso Lajitas, understanding full well why Gloriahas decided to stay right here. Next trip, we plan to stay awhile longer, too.

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