JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
SPECIAL ON-THE-ROAD EDITION
issued from Jim's Aunt's house in
Calhoun, rural western Kentucky, USA

April 2, 2017

*****

FRIDAY, MARCH 24
Early this morning I sneaked through the Rancho's front gate, feeling guilty about leaving the dogs Katrina and Chichan 'Cho', knowing how disoriented they'll feel with their pack leader gone. But, I have traveling to do.

On the bus, the closer we get to Mérida, the drier and browner the landscape grows, looking like the dead of winter up north, but really hot. In Mérida, sitting in a park waiting for my overnight bus's departure, a young woman with her boyfriend sits beside me while I'm reading, and feels moved to tell me what beautiful blue eyes I have. In this land where nearly everyone has dark brown eyes, blue eyes are special. My eye color hasn't been noticed until recently because of the thick glasses I had to wear before my eye operation. I'm surprised by how nice it feels to have someone suggest that something about me might be pretty.

"Do you see everything with a blue tint?" the girl asks.

SATURDAY, MARCH 25
Awakening at dawn heading west just beyond coastal Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, at the very bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, it's gratifying to see all the greenness here, so unlike the parched Yucatan.

Friends had expressed concern about my traveling through Veracruz because there's been violence here in the news. Through the window I see why there's been trouble: There's money circulating out there. Oil platforms just offshore, long stretches of coast smelling oily and sulfury, enormous refineries and associated undertakings, and in the towns that used to look hangdog and pleasant, now there's one bank after another, and the streets are clogged with new cars.

For the next three or four hours the highway slowly curves toward the north following the Gulf of Mexico's southwestern coastline. In the old days there wasn't much more here than weedy ranches, marshes and small towns, but now large commercial plantations are moving in. Just west of Coatzacoalcos extensive plantings of oil palm and banana alternate with ranches and broad pastures with grazing cattle and marshes. This gives way to enormous acreages of pineapple and sugarcane, some of the latter irrigated, and the fields appear in all stages of the production cycle. Farther north and about an hour south of Veracruz city, plantings turn to Orange plantations. Streams are mostly choked with Water Hyacinth and Water Lettuce. In what's left of the forest, the most eye-catching presence is the Silk Cottontree, Cochlospermum vitifolium, small, gangly trees with thick stems, leafless at this season, but the flowers like big, golden tulips. Wood Ibises fly over marshes and Crested Caracaras perch on trees' lower branches watching for their next meal.

All afternoon I await my next overnight bus reading in a pleasant, tree-lined pedestrian alley between two three-laned streets in front of Veracruz's ADO bus station. Among trees planted along this walkway are the usual Coconut and Royal Palms, Ceibas, Oleanders, Frangipanis or Plumarias, Benjamin Figs and -- a surprise to me -- Neem trees, which back on the rancho we grow for their medicinal value.

SUNDAY, MARCH 26
At dawn, having just arrived in coastal Tampico 400kms (250mi) by air south of the Texas border, in the state of Tamaulipas, I'm on another bus heading west, inland, to Ciudad Valles, San Luis Potosí. It's a fairly flat landscape dedicated to cattle ranching and large fields. At first, just beyond Tampico, the fields are of Grain Sorghum, or Milo, a member of the Grass Family looking like knee-high Corn, or Maize, but where the corn's tassels should be there are large, dense panicles of pea-like, brown-turning grains. The crop is grown where there's almost enough rainfall to grow Corn, but not quite. In some places the fields are vast. Farther inland a few cornfields turn up, already harvested, and from the looks of a few missed plants this year the Corn could have used more rain. A few Sugarcane fields turn up just before Valles, and there are orchards of Orange trees. The Corn and Sugarcane indicate that the farther west we travel here -- the closer we draw to the Eastern Sierra Madres Mountains -- the more rainfall there is.

This is a pleasant landscape to travel through. The ranches and little towns -- Ébano, Tamuín -- give the impression of being neither poor nor rich, just so-so, and the people seem happy enough. I see lots of shadetree socializing in front yards and little parks and roadside kiosks and taco stands.

In Ciudad Valles at the central bus station I change into hot weather clothes -- the air-conditioned buses here always are too cold -- and hop onto the little white city bus waiting at the station's front entrance. The city bus carries me downtown to a second-class Vencedor bus station where I buy a ticket with the destination listed as Micos. On the west side of Ciudad Valles, finally I see them: Gray-silhouetted against the blue sky, a wall of jagged peaks, outliers of the Sierra Madres. You can see a map showing this general area, known as the Huasteca Region, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170402mp.jpg

Our little bus rumbles past ranches and sugarcane fields heading straight toward the mountain wall. On a Google Earth shot of this area you can see the road I'm on and Micos's location, with Ciudad Valles showing up as a big gray splotch at the picture's lower right corner, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170402mq.jpg

In that picture our highway is the thin, gray, zigzagging line connecting Ciudad Valles with Micos. You can see that Micos lies on the mountains' eastern side, at their base. Notice the slender, green item wandering from Micos southward on Valles's western side. That's the river El Salto, and you can see how it cuts right through this outlying mountain chain. As it does so, it descends from higher elevation in the west, to the Gulf lowlands we've been traveling across this morning in the east. As the river descends, it flows over many rapids, or cascadas.

Just a couple of minutes after the bus begins straining upslope through the valley the river has cut, the bus stops and the driver points to a sidewalk-like trail he says leads to the valley floor. Already I can hear the roar of rushing water in the valley below. The valley's northern slope is an impressive wall of limestone, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170402rx.jpg.

That outcropping is especially interesting because the exposed beds of limestone are nearly vertical. Of course originally they were horizontal, at the bottom of a warm body of water, but the unimaginably powerful tectonic forces that raised the ocean floor to form the Eastern Sierra Madres nearly flipped these strata.

The sidewalk-like trail's top soon becomes a series of zigzagging concrete steps, at the bottom of which a man asks for an entrance fee of about 80cents US. Then I'm shown to a shady campground next to the little river, where I set up my tent and begin a two-day stay, paying about $1.60US per night. You can see one of my camping tickets at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170402tk.jpg

You can see my tent next to the river -- more like a stream here than a river, though in the rainy season I'd probably be underwater here -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170402tt.jpg.

A shot of a typical stretch of knee-high cascades is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170402cc.jpg

MONDAY, MARCH 27
It's a hot, cloudless day spent in and around the tent immersed in the sound of rushing water just below the bank next to me, Brown Jays and Great-tailed Grackles cavort noisily above me as I do lots of reading on my little Kindle. On Sunday the area had swarmed with visitors, maybe a hundred or so, almost too many for this small establishment, but on this Monday more workers turn up for duty than visitors arrive. You can see a boatman picturesquely readying boats for visitors that don't show up this day at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170402c1.jpg

Micos is operated by the Ejido Platanitos, Platanitos being a little village just to the east, and an ejido being a kind of collective found all through Mexico. The ejido consists of land owned jointly my members of a community. Ejido officials assign parcels of land to members, and then the members treat that land as their own property, though the land reverts to the community under certain conditions. Micos is operated by ejido members whose assigned land form the park. The ejido is an ancient indigenous system protected by the Mexican constitution. The Mexican government helps ejidos get started, lends money for special projects and provides many other forms of help, but the ejido fails or succeeds according to its own efforts, and luck.

Here indigenous people are known as Huastecs. Their language, Huasteco, is of the Mayan Family of languages. This morning on my little transistor radio a station was broadcasting in a native language and if that was Huastec it didn't sound like the Maya I'm accustomed to in the Yucatan, though it was full of choppy, clucking sounds like Maya. The Wikipedia page for Huasteco describes it as spoken by about 200,000 people living in rural areas of San Luis Potosí and northern Veracruz. The language and its speakers are also called Teenek, a name that has gained currency in Mexico and international usage in recent years.

Also today on the radio I listen to local news in Spanish, and am struck by the amount of local crime reported for this weekend, including murders. In this area crime is less drug related than it is poor-on-poor. Especially problems are caused by roaming groups of young men. One caller to the station reported that in his community a speed bump, or tope, had been built so ridiculously high that cars had to practically stop and cross diagonally, one wheel at a time, during which process gangs would attack, and officials would neither assign officers there nor lower the tope.

Here at Micos the area is protected at night and I feel safe.

But, all day I think about the situation, especially in the context that yesterday it was so nice seeing so many local families and groups of friends enjoying themselves doing simple, harmless things. It was a whole day in harmony with the gentle and unanswerable who-cooks-for-youuuu? cooings of White-winged Doves in the trees all up and down the river. As population pressure increases, resources diminish, and money for public works dries up for one reason or another, won't there be more and more crime? Will the time soon come when family outings like these will become impossible? Back in Mérida, my ophthalmologist was from Tamaulipas and when he heard that I was coming here he told me that his father was a hunter who always had hunted in this area. However, for the last few years he's quit, as have most hunters, because of the danger of roving bands of thieves. He said that wildlife was making a comeback here, because hunters have stopped visiting these mountains...

TUESDAY, MARCH 28
In mid morning, back at the bus stop atop the sidewalk-like trail, the moment I enter the little bus back to Ciudad Valles I know I'm in trouble: My shirt is wet with sweat and this bus, unlike the old rattletrap who brought me up here, is a new bus with sealed windows and the air conditioner is on full blast. For half an hour I freeze, and by that afternoon I'm feeling a cold coming on. I find a little park in downtown Valles and read most of the day, as the sneezes come ever more frequently and the throat itches ever more persistently.

FRIDAY, MARCH 31
Wednesday and Thursday passed in a numb, feverish blur. On Wednesday morning I walked across the bridge from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico into Brownsville, Texas, USA. Thursday was spent Greyhounding across northern Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee, eating nothing, thinking nothing, going with the flow, but keeping in mind that once my mind started functioning again it'd be awakening in Trump America, and one reason I'd come north is that I want to see what it's like here now. The headlines filtering to me on the rancho in the Yucatan make it sound so crazy. This curiosity keeps me going.

At five minutes past midnight on Friday morning, I'm in Nashville, Tennessee with enough interest in food to step into the cold rain outside the bus station and walk to the little market across the parking lot. But, as usual, they just have the overpriced sugary drinks and plastic-like semi-digestibles.

Except that there's one plastic bag of greasy, over-salted toasted tortilla chips so I ask the price. The shop owner, a fellow shouting into a cellular in a language I can't identify, scans the package, quotes a price far too high for me to agree to, but before I can put it back he breaks into English and says, "But I can't sell it to you buddy, because, look here... " He shows me the expiration date, which was less than ten minutes ago, March 30. The man ceremoniously carries the bag across the shop, opens the door, and throws it into a trashcan, in the rain. I thank him and leave, taking the wet bag with me.

I think the guy, seeing what I look like after days of travel with a cold, with my sunburned Yucatan skin deeply furrowed by years of Yucatan sunlight, thinks I'm one of those folks living beneath the bridges not far away, scrounging for food. That's what I like to think, anyway. Back in the station, the moment I sit down a black guy in a tattered white T-shirt says, "Hey man, how about giving me some?" We go halvers and he seems pretty happy about that.

So, here's how it looks to me right now: With Trump, not much has changed up here for us who all along have stuck to the fringes of things. This Trump thing is just in clogged-up minds awash in endlessly repeated headlines on fifteen-minute cycles in an ocean of ads and preaching. That's not to say that it's not dangerous. The message is that the fringes remain, and at the fringes, with a little luck, it can be OK.

Blessed be the beat that throbs below all this, blessed be the inarticulate and the unbeliever, and blessed be unexpected kindnesses in unlikely places.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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