Sample text for God's middle finger : adventures in the Sierra Madre / Richard Grant.

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Boiled Vultures

The first time I saw him, he was standing in his front yard in Patagonia, Arizona, with a pack of dogs roiling at his feet and a high-stepping emu penned off to the side. Fifth-generation Arizona cowboy and cattleman, former U.S. Marine, occasional gold prospector, and a well-respected novelist, J. P. S. Brown spent the best part of forty years on horseback in the Sierra Madre Occidental -- the Mother Mountains of the Mexican West -- a rugged, forbidding, lawless region for which I felt an unfortunate fascination.

The dogs came forward and sniffed politely at my legs and he shut them away in the screened front porch of his house. He was a big, broad-shouldered, stout-bellied man in his early seventies, an aging alpha male with a bad knee, a white mustache and small smoky green eyes that were shot through with intelligence and authority. "Joe Brown," he said, extending a leathery right hand.

We exchanged opinions on the likelihood of rain and then I asked him about the emu. It was standing by the fence now studying us. It bore a strong resemblance to Samuel Beckett. "You can pet him if you want to," Joe said. "He likes affection but you have to watch him."

I went over and started stroking the emu's neck. The skin on its neck was blue under a patchy covering of feathers. The neck began to undulate as I stroked it, the eyelids lowered and fluttered with pleasure and then it made a sudden, vicious, lunging peck at my ear. I whipped back my head and let slip an involuntary oath.

"Yup, he's a feisty one all right," said Joe Brown, smiling proudly.

"Where did you get him?" I asked.

"There was a fad for emu ranching around here a few years back. When the ranchers went bankrupt, a lot of them just let their stock go loose in the desert. Most of them got killed by coyotes or starved to death. This one showed up starving for water at my horse trough and fell in with my horses. He thought he was a horse for a while but he's getting over it now. He's a good old emu."

He pronounced it eh-moo, as if it were a Spanish word.

"Does he have a name?"

"We call him Eh-moo."

I judged that the preliminary courtesies had now run their proper course and started wheeling the conversation around to the Sierra Madre. Joe Brown surveyed me from under his hat brim and listened carefully to what I had to say.

"How's your Spanish?" he asked.

"Pretty basic but I'm working on it."

"How are you horseback?"

"Not good. I've been on a horse four times in my life and none of them were happy experiences."

"Well," he said curtly. Joe Brown learned to ride at the age of three and once wrote most of a novel from a horse's point of view. "You're not going to find anyone who speaks English up there. And they're not going to wait for you to catch up afoot."

He limped over to his pickup truck, planted his cowboy boots, and started unloading fifty-pound bags of horse feed as if they were feather pillows. The truck was an old white Ford. A sticker in its rear window declared, "BEEF: It's What's For Dinner." There were low gray clouds scudding overhead and the smell of rain falling somewhere else on the desert.

Joe Brown finished unloading. He gave me another long searching look. "Let's say you were fluent in Spanish and a horseman," he said. "I still don't see how you can do this without getting killed."

"I was hoping you might have some advice for me about that. I was thinking about posing as an academic of some kind, a historian maybe, and trying to steer clear of the really dangerous places."

"Look," he said and now his eyes bored into mine in deadly earnest. "I don't know you but you're a friend of someone who's been a very good friend to me. If you go up in those mountains, what you're going to find is murder. Lots of murder. The last place you want to find is the heart of the Sierra Madre, because that's where you'll get shot on sight, no questions asked, and the guy who shoots you will probably still have a smile on his face from saying hello."

"That's the type of place I want to avoid."

"Well, stay out of the Sierra Madre then."

"I don't think I can. And I don't think it's as dangerous as it used to be."

The sky was a dark pearl color now and the first fat raindrops came spattering down. "I guess you'd better come inside," he said.

From Joe Brown's front yard the foothills of the Sierra Madre are ninety miles away. He used to fly down there in a Cessna, back in his cattle-buying and gold-prospecting days, and he is still enowned in the town of Navojoa, Sonora, for buzzing the roof of the local whorehouse while flying drunk. On the second pass, with his favorite whore beside him in the passenger seat, he managed to knock off the TV aerial so the madam could no longer watch her soap operas.

Farther east in the border town of Douglas, Arizona, the foothills of the Sierra Madre are only twenty miles away and from the southwestern bootheel of New Mexico they are closer still. The mountains climb out of the desert on bony, outlying fingers and knuckled ridges, rising up into high cliffs, peaks, and battlements, with further ranges stacked up behind them in paler shades of blue. Crossed by only one railway and two paved roads, lacking a single city or large town, the Sierra Madre Occidental extends away behind those northern ramparts for 800 miles.

Or it extends for 930 miles. There are quarrels among cartographers, wild discrepancies on the maps. Where does the Sierra Madre end and a new chain of mountains begin? When the king of Spain asked Corte;z to describe the geography of Mexico, the country he had just conquered, Corte;z is said to have crumpled up a piece of paper and thrown it down on the table.

The worst mountains, the most crumpled and impenetrable, were the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Spanish authorities, like the Aztec emperors before them, were never able to bring them under government control. Some isolated mines, missions, haciendas, and military colonies were established but the population remained predominantly Indian and largely unsubdued.

Apaches terrorized the northern 250 miles. The warlike Yaquis were in the northwest and a nightmare horde of Comanches ravaged the eastern flanks every September, riding down from Texas and Oklahoma on horses festooned with human scalps, blowing on eagle-bone whistles, raping, killing, torturing, snatching up children, and riding away with the livestock.

The Spaniards and mixed-blood mestizo Mexicans who made their ranches and villages in the Sierra Madre developed a rough, violent, fiercely independent culture that had more in common with the American frontier than the civilized parts of central Mexico. Feuds and vendettas flourished. So did banditry, alcoholism, a fanatical machismo, and a deep distrust of law, government, or any kind of outside authority.

In the 180 years since independence from Spain, the Mexican nation-state has made a few inroads into the Sierra Madre but it still relies on the army to defend the small pockets of control it has managed to establish. Local power is in the hands of feuding mafias and regional strongmen who usually operate outside the law. Bandit gangs are still at large and some of them are still riding horses and mules like their cinematic counterparts in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ("Badges? I don't have to show you any stinking badges!").

The Sierra Madre Occidental still contains unconquered and largely unassimilated Indian tribes. Three hundred miles south of the U.S. border, in the early years of the twenty-first century, it is still possible to find Tarahumaras wearing loincloths and living in seasonal caves. At the southern end of the Sierra Madre are some twenty thousand Huichol Indians, most of whom are still guided by their shamans and the hallucinogenic visions they experience on peyote cactus.

The range is mostly volcanic, a southern continuation of the Rocky Mountain chain, rising up to nearly eleven thousand feet at its highest point and torn apart by plunging ravines, gorges, and the immense, steep-sided canyons known in Spanish as barrancas. Four of them are deeper than the Grand Canyon of Arizona, three others are nearly as deep, and there are six more only slightly less daunting. You can stand on the rimrock in high pine forest with snow on the ground and look down on the backs of parrots and macaws flying over semitropical jungle at river level -- a sight guaranteed to wow the passing traveler and sink the hearts of any army or police force.

The Sierra Madre Occidental was the last refuge for the Apaches, some of whom were still living free and raiding Mexican homesteads into the 1930s, and in the last thirty years it has become one of the world's biggest production areas for marijuana, opium, heroin, and billionaire drug lords. It was my bright idea to travel the length of the Sierra Madre and write a book about it.

Joe Brown hung up his hat, smoothed back his thinning hair, and limped with stately dignity across the kitchen linoleum to the coffeepot. He poured out two cups and we sat down in opposing armchairs in the front room. The house was clean, modestly furnished, and decorated almost exclusively with images of cows, horses, cowboys, and Indians.

"It's always been dangerous, it's always been an anarchy, but now nearly all the decent people have been killed or run out and all the bad guys have automatic weapons, at least in the part of the Sierra that I know," he said. "It's become the kind of anarchy that gives anarchy a bad name."

A few months previously, Joe Brown had won the Lawrence Clark Powell award for his lifetime contributions to the literature of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, mainly in light of his first novel, Jim Kane, which was filmed as Pocket Money with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin, and The Forests of the Night, the best novel ever written about the Sierra Madre with the arguable exception of B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The more Joe Brown talked, in that gentle, husky, authoritative voice, the more I wished he was an ignorant drunk sounding off in a bordertown saloon.

"In San Bernardo, which is just a very small town in the foothills, there were twenty-six young men that I knew killed in one year. The bus, the old rattletrap local bus, was getting held up about once a month. This was in the mid-1980s. They would rape the women by the side of the road and strip the men of all their belongings and clothes, including a couple of Americans who were up there bird hunting. Now it's even worse. People are getting killed up there now for no reason at all, because some drug guy with an automatic weapon is drunk or bored and he wants to see how his new gun shoots."

At that moment, for some unaccountable reason, my pen leaped out of my fingers and clattered on the floor between us. He paused while I reached down and picked it up, then took another swig of coffee and continued.

"They can't have social gatherings because there's always trouble. But what happens is that people go mad from the isolation. There was always a couple of them on the loose when I was up there, just wandering around, eating grass, and killing people because they got the idea in their heads that they were good at it, that it was their destiny to be a great killer of men. There's this idea in the Sierra that you're not a man until you've killed a man, like it was with the Apaches, and now you add alcohol and cocaine and AK-47s into the equation..."

I thought he was exaggerating, making bold, forthright, unsustainable declarations like that sticker on his truck. Much as I love beef, it isn't always for dinner. I also thought his information was out of date. Joe Brown stopped going to the Sierra Madre in the 1980s and my scattered reports indicated that things had calmed down since then. I knew of American botanists who had traveled safely in the northern Sierra, although one group was robbed at gunpoint and a woman in the party was raped. I had been to the Sierra Madre myself but only in the two small areas where it was safe for tourists to visit.

In the early 1990s I spent most of a summer in Álamos, Sonora, an old colonial town in the foothills with a winter population of expatriate Americans. That was where my fascination began. The mountains loomed above the town and stories would come down of the latest killings and vendettas between the drug mafias and also of lost gold mines, buried treasure, mythical beasts, bandit gangs, the gigantic canyons that lay deeper into the mountains. There's no law up there, people kept saying. They made it sound like a remnant Wild West and, like Marti;n Luis Guzmán riding that train during the revolution, I gazed up there with a mixture of dread and yearning.

Then I took the train into the Copper Canyon country, the other part of the Sierra where tourists travel freely. I gawped at the barrancas and found my way into some remote Tarahumara huts, skirting marijuana fields along the way, meeting a cantankerous old gold prospector on a mule, suffering a mild but persistent vertigo because so much of the landscape was vertical, and generally wandering around in a state of wide-eyed confusion and wonderment.

Sitting there in Joe Brown's front room, I tried to explain to him how raw and alive I had felt in the mountains and how consistently baffled and intrigued I was by the things I saw there. In Álamos there were big, healthy marijuana plants growing in the tree wells at the state judicial police headquarters -- the very agency charged with fighting drug cultivation in the area. I knew some judiciales were corrupt, but were they actually growing the stuff, too?

"No, no," one of the locals said. "They sit out there on the front steps and roll their joints and throw the seeds into the tree wells and Mother Nature does the rest."

"But they don't pull out the plants. They're right there for everyone to see."

"They will pull them out but what's the hurry? Look, the buds are nearly ready."

In the raucous, accordion-driven, cocaine-fueled cantinas of Álamos and Batopilas, a small town at the bottom of one of the deepest barrancas, I drank with a succession of extravagantly costumed drug traffickers -- ostrich skin boots, gold chains, silk cowboy shirts, white straw cowboy hats -- and discovered that nearly all of them were devotees of Jesús Malverde, a nineteenth-century bandit who has been claimed as the patron saint of Mexican narcotraficantes, although stringently denied by the Catholic Church.

The narcos wore scapulars of the mustachioed bandit around their necks and took their loads of marijuana, heroin, and Colombian cocaine to Malverde shrines to get them blessed for safe passage north into the United States. Hit men went to the shrines to get their bullets blessed, so they would fly straight and true and lethal.

At Satevo, a village not far from Batopilas, I went to an old white cathedral built by the Jesuits. At the nave was an effigy of Christ lying horizontal in a glass box and both his eyes were covered by blue Smurf stickers. I asked around. Why does Christ have these cartoon stickers over his eyes? My question was met with shrugs or stony silence. No one else seemed to find it odd or noteworthy. Finally an old woman set me straight. "We covered his eyes because Our Lord has seen enough suffering."

Joe Brown liked these stories. They made him laugh and brought back memories. "Sometimes I really miss it down there," he said. He poured more coffee. I told him about my encounters with Tarahumaras, seeing their caves, being served a bowl of goat stew with the uncleaned guts floating in it, watching them run a hundred mile footrace in sandals cut from old truck tires. The Tarahumaras are generally agreed to be the greatest long-distance runners on the planet, and in one of those bizarre, surreal paradoxes that Mexico is always throwing at you, they are also one of the drunkest tribes on earth, getting utterly smashed on fermented corn beer once or twice a week, often for two or three days straight.

"I remember coming up on these Tarahumaras once and they were roasting a rat over a fire by the side of the trail," said Joe Brown. "They had it on a stick and its tail was hanging down and the tail caught fire and it started scorching the meat and they didn't care in the very least bit. The fare is a little bleak, to say the least, but that's going to be the least of your problems."

Now we were getting somewhere. He was talking about my travel plans as though they were actually going to happen. "I read somewhere that rat tastes better than squirrel," I said. "And a lot better than boiled whole vulture, which is supposedly eaten in the Sierra Madre during lean times and also considered a cure for venereal disease."

"Well, I've never been served vulture but it's a terrible rudeness to refuse the food that someone offers you," he said. "That's the kind of thing that gets you started on the wrong foot and can end up getting you killed."

He rose with stifled pains and opened a kitchen cupboard. He pulled out a large plastic Coke bottle with a handwoven rope handle and poured out one shot of a clear and slightly oily liquid.

"This is what they call lechuguilla, the bootleg tequila of the Sierra Madre," he said. Joe Brown had given up drinking twelve years ago, having worked up a habit that reached four bottles of whiskey a day, but he still enjoyed watching other people drink.

The lechuguilla had a green, spiny taste with a strong burn and the first swallow seemed to lift up the back of my brain and send it skidding across the top of my skull. "Suffering gods, what proof is that?"

He poured a little into a glass ashtray and set fire to it with a cigarette lighter. "It's pure alcohol," he said. "If you're ever offered lechuguilla straight from the still, take only a little sip or else your throat might get permanently damaged."

I asked him where he got the stuff and he said that Oscar Russo, the nephew of his ex-partner, had gone back up into the Sierra and started up the family cattle ranch again, along with the lechuguilla still.

"If Oscar is up there again, it probably means the drug turf wars have calmed down, at least temporarily," he said. "He might be able to get you in and that's the only way you're going to be able to do it. The rest of the Sierra is not like Álamos or that Copper Canyon country. You can't just turn up there. You need someone from there to take you in there under their protection."

"Do you think Oscar Russo would be willing to do it?"

"That's for him to decide. Bringing a stranger into the country might put his life in danger, especially a gringo. But I'll get in touch with him and see what he says. If you get up there, say you're researching cattle and ranching and the history of the area, and whatever you do, don't mention drugs. If they mention drugs, don't show any interest. And if you can't make friends with the people there in twenty minutes, get out immediately."

"Any other advice?"

"Learn Spanish and learn to ride a horse."

Copyright © 2008 by Richard Grant

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Sierra Madre Occidental (Mexico) -- Description and travel.
Grant, Richard, -- 1963- -- Travel -- Mexico -- Sierra Madre Occidental.