David's Foray

2 July 2017

La Sierra de Juárez

 Linda is in the States for the monthly check of oil and sparkplugs that the medical trial in which she is enrolled requires. In her spare moments she is fighting with the insurance companies, whose opacity and inefficiency has long since ceased to astound but increasingly frustrates and angers. [Don’t the guys in Washington get it? I have a three-page screed ready to pound out, but I’ve decided it is better I spare you the reading of same, and my blood pressure the writing of it.] Linda is also haranguing various airlines, in that gentle and most politic fashion of which she is a master, for having once again screwed up the requested, promised, and confirmed wheel chairs to whisk her through the airports and customs.  [Note from editrix: no pictures for this, as you  can imagine....]

Our brief phone conversations also inform me that she is heart-to-hearting with friend Jean Carpenter, filling shopping carts at Trader Joe’s, several Goodwills and Savers, and the Kingston Free Library (aka Transfer Station, aka Town Dump). She traveled north with a full Vera Bradley bag and an empty suitcase for just such a binge. [Editrix: Ditto from above]


I’ve taken advantage of four days of bacheloring to head north into the Sierra de Juárez, the mountain range between the Valley of Oaxaca and the Gulf coast, intending three days of hiking and birding at altitudes that Linda does not now generally find comfortable. I tried this expedition the last time Linda went north, but the very unusual monsoons forced me back on to pavement and back to our warm dry house in Santa Cruz Etla. This time the weather reports looked good (dry days, wet evenings, dry nights – it IS the rainy season, after all). I reserved two nights at the cabins near Ixtlán and figured I’d find something else for the third night. At the airport, once Linda had cleared security [Editrix: i.e, they didn't take away my knitting needles]  ,  I drove off in the pitch dark pre-dawn and headed for the sierra.


These mountains make themselves felt pretty quickly when one leaves the Valley, which is at 1500 meters, about the height of Denver. After only 20 kilometers of corkscrew driving I had climbed to La Cumbre de Ixtepeji at 2800 meters (la cumbre literally, means the summit; in actuality, the pass). It was just barely beginning to grow light.


Ixtepeji is an indigenous community, and their land is part of the Sierra de Juárez Forest Preserve. The community runs some eco-cabins about seven kilometers in from the highway along the summit ridges. It was still just barely dawn, and I had six or seven hours to fill before my cabin would be ready at Ixtlán. It was far too early to register at the Ixtepeji entrance cabin on the highway and pay my 20-peso road-usage fee, but not too early to start up the well-maintained dirt road toward the cabins. The plan? Spend a half day hiking the trails and birding and pay on the way out. But I hadn’t gone more than 500 meters when I realized a revision was in order. Since we had risen at 3:45 to get Linda to the airport, and the headache I’d awakened with after my four hours of sleep had not been cured by the change in altitude, as I had hoped, nor by the reverse slalom that had addled my head on the quick climb from 1500 meters to nearly 3,000, what I needed to do was nap. I reclined the seat, settled my head on our Michoacán pig pillow, and cracked the windows enough for the mountain sounds to lull me. I have no recollection of the next hour and a half.

Then, awake, and with the headache somewhat abated, I inched along the road, stopping wherever I saw a trailhead. At each I parked and walked until the path got too steep, up or down, for the remnant thumping in my head or for my lungs that were still adjusting to altitude. But, in fact, I quickly forgot both.

Gorgeous morning light filtered through the cloud forest of gnarled grey encino-oaks, orange-skinned madroños, and a variety of towering conifers, most of them garlanded with bromeliads and epiphytes. The sun refracted on last night’s raindrops clinging to the tips of leaves, turning them to diamonds that sparkled in the breath of a breeze. In the forest’s upper story a group of Steller’s jays chased me for a few hundred meters. A strong-billed tree-creeper, the size of a crow but with a brown streaked head and chest and cinnamon wings and tail, foraged its way up a fir tree until it lost itself in the heights. Here and there clumps of wild flowers added notes of red, blue, or yellow. Along one stretch of the road, giant maguey cactuses crouched in the tangled understory. There were squirrels, both black and reddish brown, and on flat rocks along the trail neat piles of the detritus from well-munched pinecones.


I took a bunch of pictures that will undoubtedly not come out. I’ve been in forests like this before, and the enormity and depth and texture and overwhelming greenness get lost when you reduce them to two dimensions and try to package them in a tiny frame. I always forget that while the human eye can see simultaneously both emerald ferns in deep shadow and moss-draped encino-oaks spotlighted by the sun, the camera, at least any that I’ve ever held, can’t. It either blacks out the shadows or washes out the bright spots, or both. But with digital, now that I don’t have to pay for film, even though I know it is futile, I always try.  [Sure enough, the photos all failed. I’ve posted one forest scene, a bromeliad, and a red something flower just as proof of presence.]


Ixtlán is on the main highway to the Gulf through the Sierra de Juárez, just past the village of Guelatao. These mountains—part of the Sierra Madre Oriental—are named for Benito Juárez, the Zapotec Indian from a poor mountain family who became president of Mexico. He was born in Guelatao in 1806 and baptized in Ixtlán.

His intelligence and drive, and some lucky breaks and the patronage of some people of means, enabled him to move to the city and attain a first class education. He married a white woman in Oaxaca who had strong social and political connections, became a lawyer, then a judge, and eventually head of Mexico’s Supreme Court. When in 1857 liberal President Comonfort was forced to resign, the rules of succession made Juárez president. He held the office during the eventually successful war against the French invaders and their Emperor Maximilian. Juárez was known for his commitment to civilian democratic rule, diminishing the power of the Church and the military, and his respect for the law. His most famous dictum, Respeto para el derecho ajeno es la paz (“Peace is respect for other people’s rights”) is engraved on his monumental statue down the hill from us on la carretera (aka, the Pan American Highway), and well as on the book that Deborah’s mermaid-librarian is reading to the fishlings and octopusettes just outside our back door.


The town of Ixtlán is small. It is basically a collection of houses grouped on one of the less steep slopes of these mountains. It could not be reached by road until late in the nineteenth century, and the road, even today when it is paved, is not for the faint of heart. What one goes there to see, in addition to the spectacular landscape, is its church, with Juárez’s tiny baptismal font and its extraordinary collection of ornate gilded Baroque retablos that that speak of great wealth. The explanation has to do with insects, namely the tiny cochineal scales that infest certain nopal cactus paddles and secrete an incredibly intense and colorfast red die. The dried insects were, after silver, Mexico’s second most important export during the colonial period. Naturally the trade was rigorously controlled by the crown. I should have written, ‘was attempted to be controlled.’ Little isolated Ixtlán became a center of illegal cochineal production, with sacks of the dried insects leaving the town on burro trains, jobbed to illegal wholesalers, and smuggled onto ships to Europe. Much of the red cloth produced in England and the Low Countries in the eighteenth century had its color’s origin in little Ixtlán. And the profits from this trade built and decorated this church.


Today the cochineal trade is mostly gone, and the indigenous community in heavily forested Ixtlán produces wooden furniture. It also runs an eco-lodge, Ecoturixlán (www.oaxaca-mio.com/ecoturixtlan.htm), with a dozen and a half comfortable cabins, extensive territory with trails to explore, several “adventure facilities” (a zipline, a rappelling cliff, a cave for exploring), a dining hall, and a young, pleasant, knowledgeable staff. I spent two comfortable nights there and enjoyed both the conversations and several interesting hikes.


By the way, neighboring Capulalpam, which is even smaller than Ixtlán, boasts a similar church that also has several reputedly gorgeous retablos courtesy of the cochineal scales. I didn’t get to see them because over the several hours I spent in Capulalpam the church never opened. Its hours were nowhere posted, the sacristy did not respond to raps on the door, and the town offices hadn't a clue.

A sign by the Municipio listed the town’s four restaurants, though not their addresses, and though I eventually located them, none of them were open either. Neither was the fenced park, a kilometer out of town on a heavily rutted road, that houses a monumental stand of sabina (a kind of cypress), nor the Centro de Medicinas Tradicionales. By me, although Capulalpam has recently been designated a Pueblo Mágico, it has not yet learned to act like one.


Eventually a street vendor directed me to a little comedor across from the town’s five-stall market. The señora and an older daughter served me a nice amarillo de pollo with rice and beans and a pitcher of agua de mango while her several younger children romped and giggled with the two blond kids of a French couple, the only other tourists in town, who were eating a similar lunch at the comedor’s other table.

[Editrix: I  did a lot better on the food end: dinners with Jean Carpenter were wonderful homemade things and a couple of lunches out were just fine, thank you.]


[As I write this, late Saturday afternoon July 1 at the table on the covered portion of our front porch terrace, suddenly it is hailing. I glance at the computer clock: it’s too early for rain to be starting. But as I look up ice balls the size of olive pits are pinging against the copper gutters and flinging themselves into the grass, trampolining up again like little white grasshoppers. A thick, straight shaft of lightening strikes the mountain to the west and a half second later thunder crashes. That was close! Another jagged bolt flashes to the south, somewhere in Viguera; two seconds until the thunder. Over the Viguera hills, Monte Albán, and Atzompa, the sky is blue. Now all at once we are in a cyclone: rain sheets down near horizontally from the east, and then just as suddenly from the west. The rain is so dense that I can barely see the trees along the road. Thick columns of water pour down the rain chains. I go inside to check the house windows. All but one of the bedroom windows is closed, and I’ll mop there when it’s over. I see that the cats have taken refuge, Vilu under our bed, Mitsiú hiding behind and below Linda’s hanging dresses; Qalba snoozes unperturbed. I run back to my computer on the terrace. The sky is blue; the few white puffy clouds are not moving. There is no wind to stir the lantanas or the zinnias. Only a slow drip, drip on the rain chain and the rapidly drying tiles on the uncovered portion of the terrace attest that there even was a storm. Total elapsed time: 9 minutes.]



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