Hitchhiking the Sierra Madre
Best case scenario: I’m arrested.
Worst case scenario: My head washes ashore in Acapulco.
There’s something about riding in the bed of a pickup with seven passengers, a dozen bags, a hundred pounds of honey and around $30,000 worth of assorted drugs that really makes you question your immediate future. Especially when the pickup’s well-armed driver treats every one of the Sierra Madre del Sur’s hairpin turns as an opportunity to meet Jesus.
So maybe there’s some wiggle room here. Best case scenario, I’m thrown clear of the pickup just before it flies off the mountain and explodes in a frenzy of rusted steel and cocaine.
This was mostly my fault. Hitchhiking along one of Mexico’s more notorious highways is precisely as safe and predictable as it sounds.
But let’s backtrack just a little. A friend and I had spent the previous night at a lodge in San Jose del Pacifico, which is the kind of one-burro town that flourishes in backcountry Oaxaca. The village straddled a remote stretch of Highway 175, the only paved road between the capital city and the coast, and it consisted of a few huts tucked among the pine trees that clung to the steep mountainside.
If you haven’t heard of San Jose del Pacifico, you’re not alone. Many people who drive through it or were born there haven’t heard of it either.
There may have even been a small tienda, but like many rural stores, hours of operation and availability of goods were highly suspect. We would have never found the lodge had an odd, wandering Spaniard not given us a lift. He had that “always-seems-lost-but-probably-isn’t” vibe that Europeans develop when they wander Mexico for too long. They’re looking for something, but they can’t remember what any more.
The point was that we were in the middle of nowhere and we had places to be.
Namely the beach, which was a good three-hour drive over and down the Sierra Madre del Sur. There were no bus stations nearby, so I figured we’d wait on the side of the highway and flag down a public bus. Keep in mind this is totally routine in this part of the country.
What I hadn’t foreseen was that every bus and collectivo would be packed beyond capacity.
I had failed to take into account that it was almost Easter and everyone and their chickens were headed somewhere else. On our trip up to San Jose del Pacifico, the man next to me had fashioned a seat from an overturned bucket. I still maintain that man was a genius.
We waited on the side of the highway. The sun rose higher, and every passing bus was still full. I lay down on the side of the road and used my bag as a pillow, because why not? Just because you’re hopeless doesn’t mean you can’t relax.
After a few hours of comfortable futility, we were joined by a couple from Mexico City whom we’d met the night before. He was nice and she wore a skirt, which turned out to be exactly what this highway party needed. Within five minutes of her smiling at passing traffic, an aging, faded-black Isuzu truck pulled over. For thirty pesos a person, the driver and his family agreed to haul us to Zipolite, charmingly nicknamed “the beach of the dead,” thanks to the powerful riptides that tend to make swimmers dead.
I didn’t love the idea of spending the next three hours in the back of a pickup, especially as I had recent history with this particular mountain road; I’d almost gone over a cliff a few weeks before in a malfunctioning Volkswagen. Desperation, however, is a powerful motivator and I felt better knowing that two of the driver’s young children rode with us in the bed.
Misery loves company related to the man responsible for keeping you alive.
The driver’s young son clung to the cab and sported a sinister black leather jacket in spite of the soaring temperatures. He was probably twelve, but he looked like he really knew his way around a butterfly knife. His youthful demeanor was hardened by a permascowl that I normally associated with Eastern European gangsters. As I’d soon find out, he came by it honestly.
Thirty minutes into the bone-jarring ride, the driver pulled over to let his youngest child vomit; the constant sequence of hairpin turns was pretty rough if you were a baby or had a stomach.
There wasn’t a shoulder to speak of, the road was much too narrow for that, so we just stopped in the middle of the highway while the baby projectile vomited out of the cab. Our chauffeur stepped out to stretch his legs, which gave me my first good look at the man. He was middle-aged but lacked the soft paunch that haunts so many guys his age. He glistened with enough gold chains, bracelets, and rings to impress Mr. T. and he tied his jeans and black Polo together with a stylish snakeskin belt. Something told me this man wasn’t growing corn for a living.
Juan, or so he called himself, swaggered over and spoke to us in the English he’d picked up while working in Michigan.
“You smoke?” he asked, moving his thumb and forefinger to his lips.
“No,” I said.
He looked angry and fished a plastic bag filled with many smaller bags of cocaine from his shirt pocket. In the United States, his Polo could have put a down payment on an SUV. He tried again.
“How about this?”
“Wow,” is all I could think to say as he fingered the merchandise. His wife and children looked on with approval. Juan then opened a nearby cooler filled with buds of marijuana as thick as your wrist and as long as your arm, provided you were Shaquille O’Neal.
The cooler alone was worth a couple hundred shares of Microsoft.
Samples were brought out for us to admire as cars drove around us – remember, we were still parked in the middle of the highway. With no regard for passing traffic, Juan proudly demonstrated his wares. Nearby, a road crew paid us no mind as they cleared a small landslide.
After what seemed like far too long, Juan leaped back in the cab and resumed his vehicular assault on the narrow road. The fact that we were climbing higher into the mountains only seemed to encourage his disregard for human life. As the scrubby mountain trees blurred past, I started to wonder how much of his own stash he was consuming.
And this was right about when the mechanical issues started.
The truck began to squeal, shudder, and groan on the tight turns – turns with no shoulder and a significant drop on one side. To counteract the truck’s mechanical protest, Juan cut the engine, although he never stopped driving; he merely gave the motor a break and navigated the road with raw muscle. At one point, he turned around and shouted, “It’s the brakes. They don’t work so well.” Adding to the fun, he pulled over from time to time to point out embankments over which cars had vanished. Juan may have been filled with confidence, but he inspired little.
Eventually we stopped at a roadside tienda where Juan turned down my offer for a soda and insisted on a beer. This was not a request – Juan did not negotiate with tourists.
At the same time, we picked up four other travelers and what looked to be a hundred or so pounds of honey. I could have warned them, but I figured blame could be spread more evenly among greater numbers. In spite of the cramped quarters, I welcomed our new companions and their presumed culpability.
For lack of space, my friend Adam had to sit on top of the weed cooler, which meant he was perched dangerously above the lip of the truck. One curve flung him into the driver’s son, nearly knocking the hardened child over a cliff. I can’t imagine that would have gone over well.
Dirty, shaken, and parched, we finally reached Zipolite, a mostly-unknown beach town with a reputation for being a little stabby.
Still, it was beautiful, undeveloped, and you could get a room five feet off the beach for ten dollars. A couple of restaurants, one bar and none of the Cancun or Aculpulco crowd. It was the perfect place to relax after a ride like ours, but Juan was not finished with us yet.
Rather than drop us off, he turned into a palm-lined street and parked outside of a large, gated home. Juan got out of the truck, put a large pistol into his waistband, and produced a second, much larger bag of cocaine. He sauntered into the villa with no explanation given or needed really. As his wife changed the baby’s diaper on the hood of the truck, expensive sports cars entered and exited the gates. I was unsure if I should hope for Juan’s return.
Regardless of what I wanted, he returned with a lot of cash and proceeded to drive us to a hotel where he insisted we book a room. Having spent enough quality time with Juan and his delightful family for one vacation, however, we just walked away. He yelled after us, calling out threats that I considered to be quite sincere, but we just kept going.
Fifteen minutes later, as I felt the sun on my shoulders, the sand under my feet and watched the Pacific roll violently into the horizon, I realized that I was neither arrested or dead. Unless, of course, I had died and the afterlife was a nude-optional beach in Mexico with plenty of cold drinks on deck.