David drove, and his mother Carmela rode shotgun, stiff-backed and silent - maybe because her son's CD of thumping, electronic Latin dance music was vibrating the compact car around her.
“This music doesn’t bother your mother?” I asked Patricia, who sat with me in back.
“No, my mom doesn’t mind at all.”
“It would drive mine up the wall,” I said. I didn’t mention that it was doing that to me. It was nice of David to drive, and I thought it would seem ungrateful to complain. I tried to tune out the music.
The Chihuahua desert was as stark as I’ve described it in the novel I'm writing.
Studying the scenery didn’t help. The Chihuahua desert was as stark as I’ve described it in the novel I'm writing: creosote, sand, mesquite, sand, yucca, and sand... miles of prickly drab, topped by cirrostratus-whipped sky. The distant hills struggled to look mountainous, as if the desert wanted to rise to more than it was: a place not to get caught on foot without water.
I'm sending my fictional Lopez family across this forbidding terrain as they flee the Mexican Revolution. The repetitive landscape might tempt anyone to revolution, even if it would change nothing. Death might seem change enough.
I had feared meeting robbers on the highway.
I had feared meeting robbers on the highway. But they would die of boredom waiting for an American like me to come along with payoff-money in her backpack. Even Mexicans were scarce on that lonely road.
We stopped at a short lineup of faded businesses – the only notable crossroads between Juarez and Ascensión – to eat at an unremarkable café. During the previous day’s long drive to her daughter Sara’s house, Carmela had sighed, “I’m bored.” So now, as we unfolded from the car, I asked her, “Are you bored?”
“Yes.” She laughed.
Inside, we ordered burritos. Mine tasted too salty.
“How is it?” David asked.
“Pretty good,” I lied.
He looked skeptical. “It’s a little too salty,” he said.
The frankness of David and his mother made me wonder whether all these years that I’ve thought of my Mexican grandmother as a complainer, I might have been misinterpreting a culture gap. Dare I suggest that the desert might breed a culture of complaint?
After lunch, we drove to the nearby military checkpoint, where half a dozen young men in khakis manned a small shack. Such checkpoints have been around since long before Mexico’s drug war. I wondered if there were soldiers posted at this very spot during the Revolution, which had officially started the next day 101 years ago. A soldado asked David to open the trunk, but didn’t look inside our bags. Maybe a baby-faced driver, rocky-faced grandmother, and two petite middle-aged women signaled little threat. I imagined a dangerous but lucrative life as an angel-faced arms smuggler.
We passed fields of twiggy bushes dotted with sloppy tufts of cotton.
A couple of hours later, we passed fields of twiggy bushes dotted with sloppy tufts of cotton. A truck passed, cotton bolls pressed against its wood slats, trying to escape. We’d reached Ascensión, the farming town I’ve adopted for a scene in my novel where one character gets beaten and nearly shot. The real Ascensión grabbed my attention in 2010, when hundreds of village vigilantes attacked and killed two teens suspected in a rash of kidnappings. But when we arrived, the town looked too drowsy to kill anyone.
The real Ascensión looked too drowsy to kill anyone.
In the plaza, whitewashed trees rose from just enough trampled grass to keep the dirt from flying away. Men leaned over shoeshine kits and candied apples. Aging cowboys tended to Saturday’s hard work of sitting silent or muttering. A barber in an apron leaned against his shop, waiting for customers or nothing. The silence traveled out to the fields and across the desert, where there was no one to hear it.
The labyrinth of adobe ruins gave the nearby city its name: Casas Grandes, or “Big Houses.”
Another hour of driving took us through the city of Casas Grandes, and onward to the labyrinth of adobe ruins for which the city was named: Casas Grandes means “Great Houses.” Its Indian name is Paquimé, a settlement that thrived from about the tenth century to the fourteenth century. It was one of several large communities built by Anasazi-type people, the “Ancient Ones" usually associated with the American Southwest.
Paquimé may once have formed part of a symbolic circuit. I’ve been to Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Chaco Culture, the major Anasazi ruins of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico: North, West, and East. Paquimé lies to the South. On maps, the four ruins form a cross, perhaps marking the four directions so important to ancient farmers. I felt as if I were completing the last leg of a quest.
Paquimé’s ruins looked melted instead of toppled.
The main difference at this fourth site was that the buildings were made with poured adobe, while those at the other sites were made of stacked rock. So Paquimé’s ruins looked melted instead of toppled. It’s apartment complexes undulated in waves of pale, rose-tinted clay flowing against the warm blue afternoon. They rose higher in the center than at the edges. This earth goddess was returning home: head high, shoulders defeated, hands crawling back into her mother.
Some of the rooms had eroded down to just three feet high. “I picture teeny tiny people living here,” I joked.
“They probably were tiny.” Patricia didn’t laugh – maybe because she’s four-foot-eleven.
In the burial chamber, dividers delineated even smaller compartments where bodies were bundled into fetal positions for their return to the earth.
In the burial chamber, bodies were bundled into fetal positions for their return to the earth.
The Paquimé people might have descended from nomadic tribes who originally traveled across the Bering Sea Land Bridge from Asia during the last ice age. Yet they weren’t nomads themselves, but farmers who lived off the same land for generations. Their ghost town was quieter than Ascensión. Still, I imagined a bustling community: children playing, women hauling water, men working the fields, elders and priests arguing about politics and religion, athletes playing ancient soccer on the rectangular field — a symbolic game of life versus death.
We couldn’t see the river, just its strip of cottonwoods and other trees turning gold-green with the slow turning of desert seasons.
The ruins stood near the Rio Casas Grandes, the river my fictional family follows on their journey. As they prepare to cross the water, they see soldiers at Paquimé. We couldn’t see the river, just its strip of cottonwoods and other trees turning gold-green with the slow turning of desert seasons.
The Revolution left its mark at Paquimé, on a pile of earth called the Mound of the Heroes. That’s where revolutionary forces buried their dead after the Battle of Casas Grandes in 1911. Carmela sat on the steps to rest, even though it wasn’t allowed. When I saw her coppery Indian face atop the mound, I felt that maybe she was a descendant and had a right to be there.
The dead were still there, lying beneath her, their complaints silenced long ago.
(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)