I hadn’t planned on stopping again until after we’d crossed the border. We’d filled the tank and used toilets at a Pemex in Hermosillo. From there it was only a few hours to Nogales, hot dusty hours stretching into desert when a burst of pain, like a metal hammer bit into my driving heel and shot like lightening up my hip.
Pedal foot I later heard it called.
I had to pull over fast.
But there were no exits on the rise of highway ahead, curving into endless sand and sky, only occasional dirt driveways appearing and disappearing between clusters of ironwood and mesquite trees. I had no choice but to turn onto one of them, slowing over the pavement edge with a thump onto the dirt where, over the mound of trees, an intersection with two more dirt roads appeared, lined with some dozen stucco houses white as bones under the sun.
“I just have to stretch my legs a minute.” Jonah shrugged.
“We can let Reggie out.” I turned under the trees, onto the slant of shade just hidden from the highway where two aloof roosters pecked and strolled, refusing to scatter as I rolled slowly to a stop.
Electricity heel to hip, I hadn’t noticed the old woman yet, watching us from her fold-out chair at the foot of a house across the road, her grape shawl clutched around her shoulders, still as stone as I swung my legs to the soft ground and sent her a smile.
She stared expressionless as a wrinkled statue under the white sun.
Suspicious, I thought.
Or should we be suspicious of her?
“Never turn on unknown roads” was the first thing I’d read about driving in Mexico. Most people said I was crazy for driving at all — friends, neighbors, students. “They’re gonna kill you down there!”
They? I’d reached the point of not telling people my plans.
“Do I have to get out?” Jonah’s white blonde hair had grown too long over his eyes. “I finally got comfortable.” He’d reclined the seat as far as it would go with his tanned dirty feet spread on the dashboard.
“It might be your last chance for a while.”
He sighed the way ten-year-olds sigh, reluctantly popping open his seatbelt and pulling his feet from the dash, searching for his flip-flops amidst the snacks and maps and receipts that littered the car floor. “I’ll miss this heat,” he said. “I actually like it, now.”
That’s when I reached for the back door to let out the dog not realizing the extreme angle at which I’d parked, and the heavy door swung open fast and hit me in the head — my head and my eye. My eye! Birds and stars. The dog leapt over my shoulder as I folded onto the back seat with both hands pressed hard against my face — seeing red. Stinging red. Dizzy. Throw-up rising in my throat. Don’t pass out! I can’t pass out!! Not here. A dreadful river of fantasies — me on the ground on the side of the road. What road? Jonah — my blonde cherub hauled into a dark truck. What would happen to the dog?
“Are you okay?” Jonah had come around my side of the car.
“I’m okay.” I can’t pass out! “I hit my head.” I managed to press out the words, still folded over the back seat, afraid to stand, afraid to move my hands from my face. “I just need a minute. Don’t worry.”
But I felt him worry, standing beside me for I don’t know how long I stayed curled half out the car like a breeched fetus. Even Reggie seemed concerned by Jonah’s side, ignoring the arrogant roosters.
I can’t let them worry, I thought, breathing slowly into my belly as I shifted upright and onto my seat, both hands still pressed tightly over my face. The nausea faded.
“Are you okay?” Jonah asked again.
“I think so. Last day adventure!” I smiled from beneath my eye patch of hands. “Did Reggie have some water?”
While Jonah went to other side of the car to fill the water bowl, I braved a look at my face in the side-view mirror, slowly peeling my hands back. A pink lump and gash already turning purple across my brow, but to my extreme relief the eye was in its socket.
Still another wave of nausea. I was dizzy again, and my head began to throb.
“I need something,” I whispered, remembering ibuprofen I had tucked in an outside pocket of the blue duffle bag.
The woman across the road cocked her head to the side, still watching us. Maybe seeing Jonah had put her at ease.
“I’m going to ask this woman about getting some ice,” I called to him. The other small houses looked abandoned, baking on the narrow dirt roads under a white-yellow sun where the old woman sat alone.
“Señora?” I waved to her. She hadn’t taken her eyes off me. “Pór favór.” I approached her, stopping several feet away.
“Sí.” Her eyes, one leery one curious, studied me from beneath her veil of wrinkles.
“Descúlpamé,” I said and explained to her what had happened. I’d stopped to stretch my legs and let the dog out, and “Me pegó la puerta del carro. Me pegó en la cabeza. Tengo miedo de manejar tan pronto, y no quiero que mi hijo se préocupa.” When I mentioned worry for my son, the woman’s face softened, wrinkles around her mouth releasing into a small smile. “Sea posíble encontrár algo de hielo, para la cabeza?” I knew ice was not something she was likely to have in the freezer, not in this town. But I had to ask.
Jonah came over to us, tail-wagging Reggie following at his heel, and I introduced them.
“Ana María,” the woman said. “Siéntase. Siéntase!” She motioned to a second fold out chair leaning against a kiosk beside the road, and as Jonah opened the chair for me to sit next to her, two large men stomped out the front door of the house. The first mustached and shirtless, with jeans and bare feet, and behind him a stockier version with short spikey hair and unbuttoned dress shirt hanging over red basketball shorts – both in their thirties, I guessed, both frowning.
“Todo bién?” The first clenched his fists.
“Mis bebés.” Now, the old woman really smiled, one of her crooked front teeth missing on bottom. The two men were youngest of her ten children, I found out, and had been alarmed to hear their mother speaking with an estranjera. But after a few words their menacing faces relaxed.
“La cuidamos mucho, sabes?” They were protective of their mother, whose pride glowed in their attention. Then, she ordered them to bring keys for ice, whatever that meant.
“Sacan los llaves para hielo,” she said, and the men disappeared back inside, while I waited with la vieja in the sun, Jonah squatting on a cinder block next to us, Reggie spread on his belly back in the shade of mesquite trees where we’d parked, the roosters standing lazily by his side.
The son with a mustache — Miguél Luis, had put on a Nike T-shirt before coming back out jingling a ring of small keys, which he brought to the little kiosk by the road — a white box the size of a small toll booth with a metal door that clanged loudly when he lifted it, just two-thirds up.
“La tiendita mia.” The woman sang. The small kiosk was Ana María’s little store where she sold sodas and candies and helados. Inside was a scarce supply of those items, a few packs of Marlboro cigarettes, a small freezer, another folding chair, some coins in an open cigar box — presumably her cash drawer, and an unplugged fan. “Cerramos hoy.” She was closed today, she said, but normally opened in the afternoons, when the sun started to fade and people were out. I imagined her sitting in that little booth gossiping with neighbors por los tardes.
“No vá.” Miguél Luís announced the freezer had been unplugged and disappeared inside the house again.
“No te préocupes,” the old woman reassured me.
I told her I was a teacher and had summers off, and that’s why I was able to travel.
She immediately wanted me to teach her grandchildren English. She had sixteen grandchildren.
Miguél Luís reappeared with a huge block of ice dripping from both his hands.
“Una toálla!” His mother yelled at him, and he moaned, quickly in and out of the house again with ice block now wrapped in a yellow dishtowel, which he handed to me.
And we sat there, me holding the heavy brick of ice on my eye with both hands, Jonah bouncing stones down the dirt road, the old woman and I sharing stories.
I told her about the women I’d met from Guádalajára. They’d taken a ladies’ weekend at the beach in Sayulita where they found me drinking margaritas, watching Jonah surf.
Three widowed, one divorced, they all made fun of the one friend, Sandra, still trapped with a husband — encárdelada con su marido. By the end of the day they’d invited us all to stay with them.
“Ven!” They cheered. So, we drove to Guadalajara, and for three days those ladies showed us around the city, took us to friends’ restaurants. We met their neighbors and kids and cousins.
Ana María told me about her many children and grandchildren who almost all lived close by and helped with family business, except her oldest. “El mayór es ábogado en la ciudád.” He was a big city lawyer. She shined.
I was telling her about Barras de Piáxtla, the small fishing village where we’d stayed north of Mazatlán, and how sad I was to leave Mexico, when a kid about Jonah’s age, maybe a year or two older, rode up barefoot on an old black beach cruiser with a large woven basket tied to the handlebars.
“Pepito!” One of my grandchildren, Ana María announced.
“Acabaron todos,” he said, threads from his green cut-offs hanging over his scabbed knees.
We sell sandwiches to the whole town, the grandma explained, spreading her arms as if to embrace the entire pueblo. “Pepe los venden, sí Pepito?”
The boy smiled uneasily before she told him that was it for the day and he rode off again, down the dirt road in front of us, which led to a tunnel under the highway, she told us, and the bigger part of the town where Pepito lived, and where his mother was waiting.
“Renté la casa mía a unos estudiántes a cobrar el viaje.” I’d rented my house to some college students to afford the summer trip, I told her. I wanted her to know I wasn’t rich, to put her at ease, I guess, to encourage common ground between us.
But she was at ease, I realize now. I was trying too hard.
What a shame we didn’t have time to see the town, she said. “Débes ver la iglesia!” Ana María was excited we should see the church. Then, she invited us to come back and stay in her house during Fiesta de los Reyes — “el perro también.” The dog, too.
“Todo el mundo viene!!” Everyone, from all over Mexico came for her tamales, she boasted. She made hundreds of them.
In that magical moment, the Sonora desert seemed close enough to return. Only two days from home, really, nothing compared to the miles we’d driven that summer, and my international driver’s insurance would be good for six months. For a brief, dreamy moment, the week after New Year’s seemed doable.
“Es difícil imaginar,” I finally said. My head was feeling better.
“Are we gonna go soon?” Jonah, sweet and patient as could be, didn’t understand more than twenty words of Spanish, and we’d been chatting there nearly an hour.
Before we left, I insisted on buying something from her little store — some chips and a two-litre of Coke.
“Cool — we’ll have Mexican Coke,” Jonah said.
The old woman hugged me goodbye. I towered over her, reaching down to embrace her small body, and her purple shawl came free revealing the Sponge Bob T-Shirt she wore beneath it. She saw me notice it, and we both laughed. “Se ordeno regresar!” She demanded again that we come back for a real visit. “Fiesta de los Reyes!” She followed our car to the middle of the road, waving as we turned onto the highway. “Bién viaje! Cuidase!”
From there the white yellow desert stretched ahead of us, small towns soon vanishing into rearview, and the rose-rocked terrain unfurling endlessly north. Mesquite trees disappeared along the road, tangles of ironwood giving way to small cacti — prickly pear and pitaya dulce, until finally the giant saguaro stood all around us, wild, regal arms reaching to the hot sky, like a prayer, like a dance.
When we’d first crossed the border into Mexico from Arizona, I was shocked at the hundreds — thousands of wild saguaros growing for miles around the highway. In Arizona, the desert had been bare, nothing but strip malls and tract housing spotting an empty landscape, for miles and miles where magical fields of saguaro used to live. They’d been everywhere, I learned, cut one by one, sold to landscape private homes for as much as ten thousand a pop.
“They took all the trees and put’em in a tree museum,” I sang. “Charged all the folks a buck and a half just to see’em!”
Unlike that day we’d entered Mexico when I’d driven as fast and far from the border as I could before having to stop for gas, today I found myself slowing toward Nogales, finding excuses to pull over — let the dog out one more time, have one last smoke. Really, I just wanted to stay in Mexico. It wasn’t the border crossing that scared me, I realized. It was the States. Something felt metal and caged about it, like a giant open-air prison, even though the border crossing itself felt like some kind of car party — six or eight lanes with a dozen or so vehicles lined up waiting in each, mostly Mexicans, windows down and music playing, smiling with us while we all danced in our seats, waiting for our turn at the immigration booth.
We still had a few freeway hours ahead before the motel in Phoenix where’d I’d prepaid a room for the night. And as we approached Tucson, I wondered how a Mexican woman would do in Green Valley or Sahaurita, if she hit her head and needed help. What would she get from an old white woman sitting on her porch in southern Arizona? Not an invitation to stay for Christmas, I imagined.
“El peligro mas grande en Mexico es los Estados!” I thought. The most dangerous thing about Mexico was the U.S.
Every myth I’d heard about the dangers of driving in Mexico seemed truer for Mexicans driving in the States. “Lots of car accidents!” I laughed, turning onto interstate 10, imaging how any Mexican would feel surrounded by trucks at 75 mph on a six-lane freeway for the first time.
“I wonder how many flowers would be on the roads here,” Jonah said, “You know, if we left them for people here like they do in Mexico.”
Most of the highways we’d driven in Mexico were well-decorated with flowery memorials, but they were also well-paved, two-lane roads with drivers who obediently used the left lane for passing only, and didn’t speed up or slow down, like they do in the States, to compete or control a faster car trying to get ahead.
“I miss Mexico,” I said, at least a few times those first hours in Arizona.
Reggie put his face on the armrest between us. He might never again be as free as he’d been on that trip, weeks on beaches where he came and went as he pleased and learned the streetwise ways of pets versus packs.
Like saguaro pulled from la tierra, we returned to our fenced lives where, occasionally, a hot wind like the rose rocks of Sonora reminds me of La Vieja, Santa Ana, and all those stars waiting in the desert for my return.