by Marshall Chapman
A week ago (June 6), I happened to be sitting in the back seat of a Ford Expedition barreling down a cobblestone highway in north central Mexico at speeds hovering around a hundred miles per hour. This particular highway spans the desert floor between Federal Highway 57 and the Catorce Mountains. The Ford Expedition was big and black with blacked-out windows, fancy chrome-plated hubcaps, and chrome-plated dual exhaust. Other than the Alabama license tag, proclaiming “Sweet Home Alabama,” everything about this vehicle screamed Drug Cartel.
As our driver—an American expatriate from Mississippi—explained between swigs of tequila, speed makes for a smoother ride when traversing cobblestone. His logic made perfect sense to me! Once you reach a hundred miles per hour, an automobile tire skims across the tops of cobblestones, rather than taking in every bump. This approach also allows for a quieter ride, which was a good thing, since David Olney’s “Red Tail Hawk” was playing on the car’s stereo. The combination of speed and the Zen-groove of Olney’s song had me feeling like I was floating through space and time.
Once in the mountains, we swerved around one hair-raising switchback after another (there were no guard rails) as we climbed to an altitude of nine thousand feet. There we passed through the Ogarrio Tunnel, which leads to the old silver-mining town of Real de Catorce. The dimly lit underpass, built in the late 1800s, is about two kilometers long. It only accommodates one-way traffic, so we had to wait our turn as two guys with walkie-talkies talked to two other guys with walkie-talkies at the other end of the tunnel. Fortunately, I had brought along my Bobby Johnson-signed football, “Miss Piggy.” So while we waited, we tossed the football, much to the amusement of some locals.
My eight-day excursion was filled with many firsts. At Taninul, a hotel and spa in the jungle near Ciudad Valles, I took my first mud bath and swam in my first sulphur pool. When I first saw the slimy green pool, I said, “Oh, look! The pool’s out of order.” Little did I know. Once you get past the rotten-egg smell, heaven awaits. The vibe of the hotel, which boasts “the longest hallway in Mexico,” reminded me of a tropical version of that hotel where Jack Nicholson stayed in The Shining.
“If we come across a bartender named Lloyd,” I said to my traveling companion, “I’m outa here!”