On-the-road edition: California to Kentucky to Mexico

October 18, 2005

If the body and mind can endure it, crossing the landscape as I have the last two weeks is a majestic experience.

From near sea level in the bottom of California's Central Valley, heading east the land rises fast with dark green pines and firs set among perfect whitewater streams, then volcanism shatters the scene to red-rock boulders and scatterings of small, roundish junipers. Now up and down but mostly up across Nevada and Utah until you break into Wyoming's shortgrass prairie with antelope standing looking at you, and snow on peaks that are either low and close by or high and far away. And still you keep climbing into Colorado, until it's alpine and almost too cold for life and symmetry.

At mid continent, the land's broad sweep upward suddenly breaks with eastern Colorado's Front Range, and then you drop fast until decent forest appears on the slopes and there's even an occasional cornfield. Much lower there's Kansas's vast flatland prairie and around Kansas City, Missouri flatland forest begins feeling homey to a Kentuckian. Oaks, hickories, ash and maple, and the farther east across Missouri you go the more lush and green it grows, and the more it becomes pastoral landscape being violated by commercial tickytack and low-grade gentrification. I just look at the forest and fields and visualize my homecoming.

From the porch swing of my grandmother's house in rural, small-town Western Kentucky, in Calhoun, I explain to my cousin Walter Earl in his blue, bibbed overalls that my body still acclimated to foothill elevations feels like it drinks this moist, heavy, aromatic air we're sitting in. I represent with my arms the in-flowing of currents of highly charged and invigorating air into my lungs and I open my eyes wide to show my pleasure seeing this lush green forest around us, and I am not quite sure he understands, but I am family so he nods his head and grins.

By Dallas, Texas, the forest is lowering again, taking on the silvery cast of aridness, and trees are spreading out. By San Antonio things are getting scrubby, and by the Mexican border there are shrubs and savannah trees bespeaking the desert.

By Mexico I am well dazed and my body is a package of cramps and diarrheic rumblings and buzzings, but by Tampico the tropical gorgeousness of roadsides and small-hut gardens makes a blossoming soothing to see. I think I am looking out of the window the same open-mouthed way that Cousin Walter Earl looked at me: Knowing me, expecting something like this from me, but astonished to behold it all the same.

Hurricane Stanly has made southern Mexico soggy and the clouds and frequent showers and occasional downpours are hanging on. Kids on their bicycles ride down the middle of streets that are brown, rectangular pools of water between multicolored homes. A goat stands tethered in a yard, all his grass now completely submerged. It has been raining so long that people no longer seem to notice it. All things are spattered and smeared with mud and the smell of excrement smothers all. You do not know how wet rain can be until you see it conniving with poverty and overpopulation.

Outside the town of Emiliano Zapata, named for the great defender of southern Mexico's poor folk, I look across the marshland along the Usumacinta River. Silver ponds in a green sea of grass; white zebu cattle stand in the green grass and white egrets punctuate the zebu melody. Beneath gray cloud coagulations there's an advancing slate-colored rain curtain. It looks like a good rain but when it arrives its droplets are so light with warm air and luminosity that they are like snowflakes of the kind that fall only when it's extremely cold. I see this against the shining, dark green leaves of the flamboyán, or Poinciana tree, with its saucer-size, blood- red blossoms.


In Villahermosa, Tabasco, standing in line for my last long-distance bus it is good to find around me some people with profiles I know well. Smooth skin the color of rich café con leche, broad foreheads sloping backwards, long noses with humps in them, and little chins, they are Maya returning to the Yucatan with me. Their ancestors regarded receding foreheads as so attractive that parents bound the heads of their babies between boards so that their heads matured bullet-shaped, the ideal being for the sloping forehead and the ridge of the long nose to form a continuous straight line in profile.

All day we travel northward along the Gulf Coast, first leaving behind the flooding, then the luxuriant forest itself, which gradually is replaced by low, thorny scrub. This is the consequence of long, severe dry seasons. The dry- season/wet-season regimen here is the opposite of what I've just left in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Here the rainy season is just ending. The region's very dry dry seasons keep the forest scrubby, but the current fairly rainy wet season makes the scrub lush and dark green.

I know I am in the Yucatan when from out of the hacked-over scrub along the road I see two Maya men emerge carrying machetes and firewood.

In Mérida I change from a long-distance, first- class bus to a local, much more colorful and informal local bus of the Noreste line. For 90 minutes the rickety old thing navigates through little Maya towns toward the northeast.

I arrive at Hacienda San Juan one kilometer east of Telchac Pueblo too late to enter without setting off the dogs and causing people to get out of bed. The moon is full so I pitch my tent beneath the tamarind tree next to the entrance and sleep the sleep of the dead.


The dogs bark as I hike between tall Royal Palms toward the gracious old hacienda you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/travel/sj.htm. Katharine, the owner, appears on the upper balcony and invites me up for a bowl of porridge.

When I was a kid I often read about other kids in exotic places eating their porridge and I never knew what porridge was. Well, it's cooked oatmeal, but somehow I can't escape the feeling that it's something exotic just because it's called porridge here.

Katharine is a native of Bermuda who speaks a nicely clipped version of the Queen's English, but with a certain twist to it, maybe a consequence of having lived for many years in the French speaking part of Switzerland. She has other languages, too, and when the dogs make a mess she's likely to swear with an expressive ¡Carramba!

I am set up in a fine little casita with stone walls and floor. There's a solid flat roof almost above the mosquitoes I can read and write on during the afternoons, and a bath house with running water. Mosquitoes after Hurricane Stan are so bad that I sleep inside my tent inside the casita. The building sits snugly in a garden setting -- fan palms of various species, Royal Palms, Chinaberry and fig trees, Poincianas, bitter orange and lemon trees... On and on, even the weeds here at the end of the rainy season are eye catching and good to see. I throw a banana peeling from the door and it's chased to the ground by a big yellow butterfly thinking he's found a mate.

Surrounding the hacienda's gardenlike grounds are large, flat, weedy fields of henequen and citrus, and much-hacked-on thorny scrub.

At the hacienda there are only Katharine, myself, and an 18-year-old Maya fellow with the wonderful name of Darwin Chay Hu. He says his father saw the name Darwin and just liked it. It's clear that Darwin will be my secret weapon for penetrating the Maya culture around me, and it just tickles me that his name is Darwin.

Each morning I have access to a computer but we have no landlines here and no connection to the internet. This newsletter will be sent from a "cyber" in Telchac Pueblo, which costs a bit of dough, so if anyone out there wants to help defray my computer expenses please feel free to send a buck or two to my Mississippi address at

Jim Conrad
73 Lost Creek Road
Natchez, MS 39120.


Speaking of costs, you may be curious about how much this trip has cost me, in case someday you'd like to try it yourself -- maybe to come visit me at San Juan.

My seven-day, advance-purchase ticket from Greyhound, which took me from Madisonville, Kentucky to the bus station in Matamoros, Mexico, about a mile across the border from Texas, cost $74. These prices are in US dollars.

The six bus tickets bought inside Mexico cost $114, so that's a total of $188 for the whole trip.

Inside Mexico, except for the last local bus to Telchac Pueblo, I always traveled first class, so if I had been willing to travel more slowly I could have done it considerably cheaper. Luxury class was also available, with spacious seats and many amenities, as well as much fewer stops along the way, but that was much more expensive than first class.

Between buses, I never had to wait more than two hours, even though I'd made no reservations. First class service in Mexico is superior to Greyhound service in the US, probably because in the US Greyhound is a monopoly but in Mexico you nearly always have two or more bus lines vying for your patronage. First class Mexican buses are much less cramped than Greyhound's and the drivers and baggage handlers are considerably more professional. A sense of cow-herding seediness pervades Greyhound service but in Mexico bus riding is a respected institution. The only problem I have with first-class Mexican service is that they show movies I don't want to see but can't shut out.


At this writing we're expecting Hurricane Wilma, I suppose the name is spelled, to hit the Yucatan this weekend. If it's a long time until my next newsletter, that't why.


Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,