I don’t know if this will be a series. I have a handful of stories I could tell from Mexico and it would seem to fit in, what with my video being half about Mexico anyway. I’m inspired to tell this story because I’m reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, about her 2,000 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. And I was reminded of the time I summited a mountain. This post is incredibly long – please forgive me! – but it’s probably my best story from Mexico.
I was new into my Mexico journeys. When I first arrived and for the next six weeks, I had been in Guadalajara, studying Spanish and living with a Mexican family. I took nine years of academic Spanish and though I could write a 25-page paper on the various literary themes in Don Quixote, I couldn’t confidently order tacos. Six weeks in Mexico made me fluent. Speaking every day, needing to get around. I even became comfortable with the subjunctive. I left the language program early, as I was getting more out of chatting with my “family” than classes. I headed into the travelling portion of my trip.
One of the first things I wanted to see was the monarch butterfly migration. My guide book listed three possible places to go – the enormously popular El Rosario and two others, each more remote than the next. I decided I wanted to avoid as much tourism as possible and chose the least-visited reserve, El Capulín. I took a bus to a small city whose name I no longer remember, and then a series of cabs to the reserve. I had to take one cab to a trade-off place at a crossroads, then wait for another cab that would take me to the reserve. When I arrived, there was a small banner with official-looking pronouncements from the government of Mexico and a small booth with a man inside, who collected my 30 pesos for entrance into the reserve.
In the popular areas, there are incredibly well-marked trails along which to hike. I was turned off by the thought of tchotchke peddlers along these well-worn trails, and throngs of tourists. Here, my guidebook said, I could expect to see stones marked with white to mark the way. I followed the stones up through the very small, very poor town until the houses thinned out to one every 100 yards or so, then stopped entirely. I came to a field that ended in a makeshift wooden fence, bound on three sides. I turned around to catch the stones again, but they seemed to lead right into this field.
In the meantime, I was seeing butterflies. Not the clouds of monarchs promised by the guidebook, but small patches of them gathered around standing water. You can see them here if you look closely (this is also my only photo from the day).
I wandered back to where the houses were, hoping to get some clues from the stones. Then back to the meadow. Then back to the stones. A woman was doing her wash and called out to me, in Spanish, asking if I was looking for the butterflies. Indeed, I was. We chatted for a bit, and then she called out two girls from her home. They were maybe 8 and 5, quiet girls. Their mother suggested they take me up the mountain. Oh no, I insisted, I just needed a little help finding the trailhead (no, naturally I didn’t know the word for trailhead in Spanish… there was a lot of fumbling). But mom basically pushed them out the door and I admitted that I wasn’t going to see any butterflies without their help. We set off.
I don’t remember exactly where they took me that was different than how I walked, but I remember feeling like an idiot for not having seen it myself. Before long, we were in a sea of butterflies. As we walked up the incline, they streamed down the mountain towards us – a river of flapping, dust-covered fairies. It was magical, truly. At a bend in the trail, they abruptly cut off, and we continued to climb, without the orange river. The brush grew less dense on either side of us, and the trees taller.
The trail also grew more steep and then steeper still. Within an hour, I was panting and sweating through my clothes. The mountain quickly destroyed me. While the little girls pushed on ahead, rapidly, without any comment, I had to stop every ten minutes and then every five, gasping for air. They patiently stopped with me, playing with sticks or drawing in the forest cover with the toes of their sandals (sandals!) The altitude clearly had an effect on me but it was also the most rigorous trail I had ever attempted. I’m no hiker in ordinary times, but way up here in the mountains, the air was thinner and I was gasping like an asthmatic.
“Perdón, perdón,” I kept saying, embarrassed, between gasps of breath. They shrugged me off and then ignored me. We’d move on for another five minutes and I’d have to choke out “esperan”, wait, while I caught my breath.
This went on for four hours. I kept asking where the butterflies were, were they sure we were on the right trail? They were sure – the butterflies were at the top of the mountain. So we kept going. And going. And stopping. And me gasping for air, but determined to see the damn butterflies. Eventually, we came to a flat area – I was so thrilled not to be climbing uphill anymore. I remember this part of the trip, though other parts are forgotten – like most of the four hours of misery going up the mountain. We walked through an area with some shoulder-high shrubs and very dark soil. The trees were not densely packed here. Maybe 20 feet we walked on a flat surface, and then the girls descended - descended – we were going down the other side. When I caught up to them and saw that there was no more mountain to go up – indeed, we were at the very top, I hollered out to them to stop.
Why weren’t there any butterflies? I asked the older girl. She shrugged and said they must be on the other side of the mountain. I pondered my options. My body couldn’t take much more of this and I wasn’t sure, going down, even a short way, I would be able to get back up again. By now it was getting on mid-afternoon. We still had to go all the way back down the mountain, hopefully much, much faster than we had come up it (surely this would be the case!). And if it got dark, we were completely screwed. It would be pitch black out here and we would likely lose the trail altogether. I was responsible for these two little girls, I suddenly realized. In an instant, they went from my trail leaders to vulnerable little things I had to return safely before dark. No, we better head on back, I said. Nonplussed, the girls came back up the mountain, while I looked around me. It was just a moment, and there were no butterflies, and I was utterly spent, but I noticed that there weren’t any higher mountains around. Everything I could see was below me. I was at the top. I had summited a mountain.
This triumph was short-lived as we started down again, and I realized it would not be so easy as I had imagined. What before had been sturdy uphill trudge became an entirely different challenge as I tried not to stumble and fall. (It was steep, I tell you!) Remarkably sure-footed, the girls would mostly run ahead, seeming to skip off the trail, while I had to plant each foot carefully on the steepest passes, tilting backwards to keep my center of gravity upright. Even with the direction changed, I still had to stop frequently to catch my breath.
As we had gone up, on the way back I was looking for white paint marking rocks or trees to note we were on the right trail. We descended for at least an hour, while I became increasingly concerned about the falling light. We walked and walked and stopped and walked. And we turned a corner where a fallen tree had left its trunk and much debris along the trail. I hadn’t seen this before.
Did we pass this tree on the way up? I asked the older sister. She shrugged noncommittally. We hadn’t passed this. I would have remembered having to climb over a fallen tree. We had taken a wrong turn somewhere and were now on a different trail, not the mountain trail, not the one that would lead us back to their home. I looked back up the way we had come. Each stumbly, careful step I had taken down would be a gruelling uphill trudge. And I had no idea how long we had been on the wrong trail, could not remember having made a choice at any time – we had seemed to me to be descending on one continuous path and yet, clearly, we had taken a wrong turn somewhere.
I consulted the girl. It was getting dark, I said, and we needed to get back home. Did she have any idea how far back we might have taken a wrong turn? She didn’t. We couldn’t do anything else, I figured, except press ahead. We couldn’t be too far from our destination, as we had been going downhill the whole time and must eventually get to the bottom. We climbed over the tree and continued on our way.
Eventually the trail we were on came to a road, clearly used by cars. Loggers, the sisters informed me. They knew the road. They knew where it ended. How far from their village? I asked. Eight kilometers, they said. Now again I had a choice. We could follow this road, a known entity. It would eventually take us to a village, though not the right one. I didn’t know how we would get the rest of the way back and definitely by the time we arrived, it would be dark. Walking the eight kilometers to their village, on a narrow highway, no less, in the dark, was out of the question.
I felt immensely the pressure of caring for these girls. It was up to me to get everyone home safely and I had to make choices that affected not just myself. We weren’t yet in any immediate danger, so this may sound melodramatic, but I felt the weight of responsibility in a way I don’t think I have before or since. The pressure of acting alone and needing to make the right choice. We picked up the trail on the other side of the road. I was hoping we were more or less going in the same direction as the right trail. We pressed on – I don’t remember for how long. The girls never complained of being tired or scared or hungry. We had been walking for six hours.
Along the trail, I started to notice small passages cut into the bush – estuaries off the main river of our trail. I peeked down one at one point to see what they were. Someone had cut into the bark of the trees and was draining sap, which collected in a small plastic cup affixed to the tree. I was thrilled – this meant we were close to civilization! These sap traps were meant to be collected routinely – and surely no one would put them quite far from their homes, if there were plentiful trees to be found elsewhere. Reenergized, we kept walking. More and more outcroppings appeared, each leading to a tree with a little sap cup. But as we continued, the trail narrowed, the brush pushing in around us. Eventually, I had to hold the brush back for the little girls to pass through, crowding behind me. Eventually, we came to a tree dead in our way, seemingly the end of the trail. Its little sap cup was nearly empty, obviously drained recently. It didn’t seem there was a way to go forward, and back led all the way back to the logging road. My heart sank. It was getting on evening now, and the forest was buzzing with activity – insects waking up from their sleep. I knew we were close but also that we were running out of time.
And the truth is, I don’t remember this part. Sure, it would make a better narrative if I made something up, but I don’t remember what we did. Maybe we doubled back and came upon another trail, maybe I pushed through uncleared shrubs. Either way, I remember a clearing. We had been descending all this time and continued to descend, until we had left the shrub behind and were walking in a clearing, trees here and there and the ground a soft brown mix of slowing decaying material. And then, in the distance, a fence. As we neared it, I almost shouted for joy. It was the makeshift fence that marked the meadow near the village. We had made it! I turned excitedly to the girls, who were walking by my side now. We made it! I yelled. We’re almost there! They didn’t seem concerned. In fact, I was marked by their unchanging expressions our entire time together. They seemed unbothered by my frequent rest stops, unconcerned about finding our way down the mountain, unimpressed that I had saved us from certain doom.
I helped them over the fence and we trudged down the mountain, my exhaustion setting back in and taking the place of panic. Their mother greeted us at the door warmly and invited me into their home. I couldn’t turn down a bowl of chicken soup and tortillas, which she baked right on the top of her rounded iron stove, heated by a wood-burning fire that filled the one-room kitchen-cum-dining area with acrid brown smoke that made me choke and stung my eyes. Still, I wolfed down the bowl and tortilla and wished for more, but absolutely would not bring myself to ask for seconds.
They insisted I spend the night. No, I protested, I really need to shower. We have a shower, they scoffed. No, I wouldn’t impose on you. Nonsense, they said – by the time I returned, the woman’s husband had arrived and we ate together at their small wooden table – you must stay with us. No, no, I said, I really must go. There aren’t any taxis this time of day, they said. I was getting distressed at this point. I had no reason to doubt their hospitality and good intentions but it was starting to dawn on me that I was all alone out here, a young woman, and no way to get back to town. I felt terrible for being scared but scared nonetheless.
Eventually, it was decided that a friend or relative would take me into town in his car. I gave the mother 300 pesos (about $30) for the trouble of her daughters. I didn’t know how much was appropriate, but it was very clear she expected money and also quite clear that I should pay. I would never have found the trail without those girls and, though the day didn’t turn out like I expected, I had certainly relied on them for much of it.
The friend with a car arrived, I said my goodbye, and hopped in the back, hoping that everything would just be fine and I could trust these two strange men into whose car I was hopping, naively. Could I do the same today? I’m not sure. I was riding high on the brashness of my college years where everything was safe and everyone was protected. I got in the car also because I had little choice. I didn’t want to say with the family and I had no where else to go.
The men drove me into town, as promised, and dropped me at a much more upscale hotel than I had been staying at. I didn’t care. I paid them 150 pesos for their trouble and checked into the hotel, regardless of cost (I don’t remember what it was, but much more than I had been paying for hostels up until then). My room had its own bathroom, another rare luxury for me in my Mexico travels. I showered, and the water was filthy as the mountain ran off me. Within seconds of getting into bed, I was asleep.
For a long time, I said this was one of the worst days of my trip. It was gruelling, physically and emotionally. I didn’t even see the damn butterflies – I thought the river of orange on the way up and the small gathering in the meadow were previews of the glorious gathering to come at the top of the mountain. If I had known there were no butterflies at all to be seen at the top, I would never have gone. But with time, this story has become to me a great adventure story. The fabulous and strange times I had in Mexico. The kind of wandering and discovering and failing I don’t get to do much of anymore. In my memory, it has become a great day.