Wednesday, April 27, 2005

It's hard to imagine now

So here I was in 1975 on a smoky Mexican bus with fringed curtains on all the windows, swaying through the state of Chihuahua. Chihuahua is the Mexican equivalent of Texas, abounding in parochial ignorance, criminal violence, and unexpected beauty. It was Pancho Villa country, where there were still some old men sitting beside the roadside beer-and-taco shanties looking like they could have ridden with the great robber-general in the sacred days of the Revolution, and may well have. The Mexican Revolution past grows more romantic as it grows more remote.

We had a pretty good bus driver; he stopped at stop signs and railroad crossings, and did not race with trucks. He sat stately at the wheel, and perhaps somewhere in his mind was a remote cultural memory of some lay of horsemanship and prowess, "... el Cid rode down into Burgos, a hundred his banners and spears, and on his left the ravens took flight," Our driver drummed his fingertips on the steering wheel, and the ravens drifted down into an arroyo off to our left. But our driver frowned when he saw a real vaquero gallop his horse and wave; cowboys were happier than bus drivers. (Random free-association: Gorky said he once observed Tolstoy when the great man thought himself alone, and Tolstoy bent down and inquired of a lizard in the path, "are you happy, lizard?" After a silence he continued, "for my part, I am not.")

The people I was with were going to see the crumbling adobe ruins of Casas Grandes; it was the greatest city in this desert about a thousand years ago.
We arrived at the town nearest the ruins; it was a strange place, full of Mormons who came here from Utah a hundred years ago. They lived in brick houses like you might see in Nebraska. English ivy grew up their walls, but copper mallows grew in their flower gardens. The younger Mormons spoke their English haltingly and slow, searching for forgotten words.

A circle of vultures played, soaring and diving around the crest of a small knob hill.

The remains of the mud city were extensive, and impressive, reminding me, for no good reason, of Hadrian's Villa.
One of the the students on the tour, a guy in his 20s, noticed a conspicuous white flower growing in a crack in a wall. I had a reputation for knowing all about wild plants, and he asked me what it was. Jimson weed, I said. Datura wrightii. I could tell he recognized the word datura. This was back when Carlos CastaƱeda's books were popular. Most readers were unsure if they were novels or if they were "true." In any case, I knew it was true that the student should not do what he was thinking of doing. So I said "It's poisonous. The stuff could kill you."

I could tell he didn't believe me. The teachings of Don Juan were stronger than mine.

We walked about the ruins for a couple of hours. Whoever was explaining the ancient city was making it deadly boring, an archeologist talking about styles of broken pots, and settlement phases. It was a beautiful day, and I wandered off into the maze of mud walls. I didn't see the guy who asked about the datura plant get back on the bus. Apparently a friend helped him on and off the bus for the return trip.

He was absent from my wife's next class. He was blind for three days. But he reported, of his trip, with apparent satisfaction, "I could fly just like a goddamn bird."

It's hard to imagine now--words I often find myself repeating to my daughter, about the sixties and seventies.

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