JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Special on-the-road edition issued from
Calhoun, Kentucky, USA

April 12, 2015

ONTO THE ROAD
My six-month visa for Mexico expiring, I had to leave the country. Therefore, on Wednesday, April 1 (April Fool Day), at 5:30 AM, I bought a ticket from Río Lagartos to Mérida, on a bus whose battery was dead and would not start. Still, by that night I'd made it to Mérida in time to take the next bus to the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz, traveling all night and most of the next morning. The next bus carried me to Xalapa (sometimes written Jalapa) a couple of hours to the northwest of Veracruz, still in Veracruz state. Twice during that middle-of-the-night trip I was awakened by my ears needing to pop, for we were gaining altitude, and barometric pressure was dropping. The top of my water bottle popped off as well. Xalapa stands at about 4600 feet (1400m).

From Xalapa, a local bus took me up and up to chilly Las Vigas, where I bought a bottle of water, bananas and hot, fresh tortillas, and hiked out of town into a large pine forest I'd noticed while scanning the area on Google Earth. Here I set up my tent inside Veracruz's San Juan de Monte State Park, on the northern flanks of the great volcano called Cofre de Perote. Las Vigas's elevation is given as about 7965ft (2428m), while that of Perote is 14,282 feet (4,282m). Therefore, the woods to the south tilt upward to Perote, and where I camped was a bit above Las Vigas. I didn't climb much higher because I didn't want snow and howling wind among bare rocks. The piney woods south of Las Vigas were cool and resin-smelling, where the only sounds were soughing breezes among the pines, and birds, and that was exactly what I needed.

*****

SAN JUAN DE MONTE ECOLOGICAL RESERVE
For three days and nights I camp beneath the pines reading, thinking, and soaking up quietness not found in claustrophobic Río Lagartos. We're above the clouds covering the Gulf lowlands to the east, so days are cloudless and the air is sparkling and clear. Daytime temperatures range in the 70s (24C), and dawns are chilly, around 42 (5C). Nuthatches and titmice flit in the trees, birds not seen in the tropical lowlands. It's another world here, and it feels good.

APPENDIX:
Additional pages resulting from this visit to San Juan de Monte:

At first, I don't understand the topography. Heading south into the forest, and upwards, you can't see the volcano because of the trees. The immediate landscape consists of narrow, round-topped, steep-sided ridges formed like tilted, choppy waves on water. Valleys are deep but dry. Sometimes the ridges fork, sometimes merge. The bedrock is black and filled with tiny bubbles. I'm climbing up old lava flows issued by the volcano; the rock is basalt.

Keeping to valley bottoms, reticulating dirt roads and trails create a maze. On the day I return to town to buy food, I thought I could remember the way I'd entered, but I couldn't. Still, it was mostly a matter of returning back downslope, so I exited the forest only about a mile from where I was aiming. An old fellow and his grandson were planting corn on  a steep slope freshly dug one shovelful at a time.

At fist they seemed afraid of me and didn't want to talk but then they whispered among themselves, put down their tools and came to the fence greeting me with smiles, handshakes and a fairly formal welcome to their field. They seemed relieved to learn that I was only lost, and then the old man launched onto a long talk about another gringo many years ago coming knocking at his hut one night back when they were putting up the power lines. That gringo also was lost, looking for Las Vigas. The grandson smiled in a way saying that telling such stories was exactly what his grandfather liked, and the story was a rich one, with many digressions and footnotes.

Country people here in the central Mexican highlands look different from those in the Yucatan. These highland people are mostly indigenous but instead of the Maya long nose and sloped-back forehead, they're flat-faced. Instead of the Maya pale brown, café con leche skin, they're blackish reddish. Their eyes strike me as being farther apart than the Maya's, and their lips are more distinctly delineated. Maybe these highlanders are less given to joking and playing pranks, too.

I camp during nights with a full moon. Slender, curved stems with tufts of pine needles at their tips cast shadows on my tent's canopy. During much of the night, whip-poor-wills call. They're not the whip-poor-will species of North, though they say the same thing, WHIP-poor-WILL, with most emphasis on the WILL. But this species' voice trills, while the northern species' is pure and sharp. I don't have my books with me so I can't identify them, but that's OK. I just listen to the Whip-poor-wills in the night beneath moon shadows like Chinese etchings on my tent top.

*****

CROSSING THE BORDER
Last Wednesday morning at dawn I bus into Matamoros, across the Rio Grande River from Brownsville, Texas, after spending the night busing north from Tampico on the coast. I've always enjoyed walking the couple of miles through town to the International Bridge crossing to Brownsville. But nowadays you hear about so much violence here on the border that this time I had to think about it. Still, as soon as it's light enough, I start walking, and have no problems.

However, things have changed. Some people seem nervous about my passing them. Army installations are in places they'd not been before.

At the International Bridge, the line of people crossing into Browwnville snake out of the big customs building, up the bridge and into Mexico. I've never seen as many US customs agents or such long lines. I'm told that often the lines are much longer.

I strike up a conversation with the fellow in line before me, a retired, 54-year old former employee of a big maquiladora, maquiladoras being big factories just inside Mexico from the US border, in nearly every respect US undertakings, other than that they are in Mexico and so don't have to pay such high wages. My friend supplements his modest retirement income by frequently crossing the bridge and buying large numbers of toy trucks from a certain merchant, then selling the toys at a higher price across the river in Mexico. He says he gets along just fine that way. Most stores in Brownsville near the International Bridge sell clothing, new and used, jewelry and electronic things.

The agents at the end of the line seem tired and hassled, and don't seem to like my looks -- the only Anglo within sight, deeply tanned, and of an age when a gringo should be coming back from Mexico in a big RV, not with a dusty backpack. The fellow who searches me pours my vitamin pills into his hand and looks at them suspiciously. But he can't argue with my passport. I feel sorry to anyone who loses his or her passport.

*****

NORTH INTO SPRING
Heading north from Brownsville, first you must pass through a number of checkpoints. Sometimes the checkpoints are as casual as Border Patrol officers watching off to the side as passengers line up to enter the bus. Sometimes officers enter the bus and go down the aisle checking everyone's documents. During one check they take off a hard-luck-looking white guy, the only other Anglo on the bus except me, handcuff him, and lead him into a big room of officials. One time, just north of Harlingen, they stop the bus, have everyone get out, and eight uniformed officers stand around us fully armed with automatic weapons, legs spread apart, arms crossed, watching us as if we're vipers. They've always had checks and checkpoints, but not nearly as many armed officers standing around while one or two did the work. I don't remember them being so heavily armed, hard looking, and generally fat.

Despite the militarization of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, or maybe in harmony with it, great, green fields of corn up to knee high grow in straight, even lines along the highway north. Also several large plantations of enormous wind turbines have appeared here since last I passed through. Then darkness comes and I can't see the land until the next morning when I'm heading east from New Orleans on I-10.

Here it's that soft moment in spring when most tree leaves have just unfurled during the last week or so, the leaves still untattered and unblemished, and presenting an infinity of shades of pale, yellowish green. Dandelions are in their puffball stage. It's all a kind of lush softness, even tenderness, I haven't experienced for years.

A cold front is moving south and we pass through several brief but intense rains. They're spring rains, as I remember they should be in these parts, even as in the Yucatan it's the hottest, driest time of the year.

At the bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, during a two hour layover, I luxuriate in a slowly approaching storm, its low thunder and dark slatiness coming every closer. The multi-hued green woodlot across the parking lot at first is animated with nervous breezes, then the leaves go limp and quiet, and then... You know how goes, I hope. Even on the asphalt parking lot, raindrops splash with such a lovely form and silveriness.

The next morning, Saturday morning, at 3AM, Greyhound drops me in Evansville, Indiana, on the big Ohio River. My next connection is at 1:30 PM, so I have ten and a half hours of waiting. It's a cold morning and the bus station is closed, so I wrap myself in my sleeping bag and doze in a bench, wondering what others do in that situation, when they have no sleeping bag. Only one policeman comes and awakens me with a shout from several feet away, but he's OK with someone with a ticket out of town, and leaves me in peace.

Evansville at dawn is discovered at an earlier stage of spring than I'd seen farther south, of course. Here dogwoods are just beginning to open, and though some trees already bear leaves, the oaks are only issuing their catkins, before the leaves come out. Tulips are beautiful but the azaleas aren't yet blossoming.

That's the stage of spring I'm in this Sunday morning, where I've taken my last bus of this trip, to visit what's left of my fast dying-out family. You'll see what I find in Calhoun, in western, rural/small-town Kentucky, in the next Newsletter.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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