One final mountain scouting expedition in the Baja high country gets into the heart of Mexican ranch culture and inspires me to fight for what remains wild and free in all of us.
“It’s entirely conceivable that life’s splendor surrounds us all, and always in its complete fullness, but veiled beneath the surface, invisible, far away. But there it lies, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If we call it by the right word, by the right name, then it comes. This is the essence of magic, which doesn’t create but calls.” – Franz Kafka
I hide my peripheral glances across the wooden table as orange peels fly from his knife like bubbly shavings of pastor pork from the spit. My clumsy laboring yields a negligible pile of citrus confetti unmatched to Martin’s work.
I am tucked into a lesser-known canyon on the east side of the Sierra de Laguna Mountains in Southern Baja, Mexico. Through the process of organizing a campaign against open-pit gold mining plans here, I was invited to a meeting on the beaches of La Ribera with CONANP (National Park Service) and several community organizers. Following the meeting, two officials agree to drop me at the foot of the Sierra. The plan: Stay the night near the trailhead, run up and over the 25-mile, 7,000ft vertical mountain section the next morning and get picked up on the west side in the afternoon. This eastern ascent is the only piece of my 70-mile trans-peninsula project I have not yet covered.
A dusty, lonesome road from Santiago delivers us deep into the heart of the Sierra. We arrive at the quiet Mexican ranch in the afternoon. Simple rural setting. One large longhouse with a palm veranda. A young, healthy woman tends to soiled clothes with levity, to combat soggy hours of work ahead. Her daughter weaves freely around us guarded adults with fluorescent orange sweatpants and a smile reaching both ears. A crack in the door exposes an elderly woman lying nearly lifeless on the bed. 90 years old. Ancient and tired. Then Martin arrives. Dark skin. Eyes piercing, a mustache thick, black as coal. Hardship written in cursive wrinkles. He sits silently next to me with a bucket full of oranges and begins to shave peels for making dulce. I offer to help him with his task, so we sit together and we peel. We peel for hours. Breaking the silence, I ask if he knows much about the gold mining operations here in the Sierra. No, he says. I share what I know and he responds without flinching.
“Well of course I’m against this activity. You need not tell me facts and figures to know that this is wrong and bad for us all.” And that was that.
Martin was right. It’s simple. We don’t need scientists and studies and soil samples and prodding and poking to tell us what our hearts already know. My new friend had it all figured out. Forget the figures. You take, take, take from this beautiful place and you poison water and earth and we will all pay. Simple.
With oranges bald, I slip out to explore the cool evening on foot. Continuing up the animate canyon, eardrums feast on cosmic alchemy as a building crescendo of symphonic sentience subsumes Sun’s retreating heat. Granite warriors above drape lavender scarves around their shoulders to soften the intimidating relief. Deeper, deeper, deeper, richer, richer, richer the evening colors transition. My mind, my heart and my thoughts follow suit.
An active commute unfolds on this tortuous mountain road. Herds of Cow, a lone black Horse, a gang of Goat. Bat weaves through stagnant air braiding a fabric electric, frenetic and free. As fading light persuades me to return, Fox trots out from under spectating Ocotillo to paint Mystery into this hanging moment. Zorro. Breath pauses as our eyes unite for a sand-grain second. Quickly, Fox melts into the enveloping dark of this soul-saturated stage, triggering the explosion of an impatient full moon bearing witness to this exchange, to this Sacred Dance. I return.
Scalding orange peel tea is poured following our light meal, while a fire cackles nearby—black pot bubbling, frijoles on simmer. This ranch runs entirely off the grid — solar-powered, composting toilets, water drawn from the river. An old laptop is dusted off and Martin proudly inserts the Chronicles of Riddick. You haven’t lived fully until you’ve heard Vin Diesel’s voice dubbed in Spanish. The combination of awful cinema and a long day’s work leaves everyone tired and unamused. Martin and I retire to our cots outside while the women disappear into the thatched hut. An anarchic flickering candle inside pairs with sweet whispers seeping through wooden walls. It is as if the very indigenous heart of Mexico, of Earth, of perhaps the entire Cosmos rests here in this very hut, in this very moment, in this throbbing glow through ancient ribcage of Palo de Arco.
I drift into the domain of Dreammaker with this image. Smiling.
Rooster and Kettle form a duo of pre-dawn Mexican folk melodies to pry open groggy eyes. Osiel appears in a cot adjacent me. Similar in age, tattered black jeans, over-sided boots, ripped red shirt. Missing front tooth. Short on words, but very friendly. Today marks day 1 of a 4-day shift for him up in the Sierra to register recreating backpackers. He agrees to show me the route of the upper elevations. After multiple cups of instant coffee, Osiel and I disappear silently into the mountains. A copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang pokes out from within my small pack to keep me pointed in the right direction.
The ascent is faster and more beautiful than I anticipated. Lush. Waterfalls. Huge slabs of flowing granite. A series of climbs invites us to exposed ridgeline and sweeping views of mountain erosion. Anomalous blankets of cloud moderate morning heat while a swift ascent lifts us 5,000 vertical feet into the upper zones of lounging Oak, Pine and Madrone.
Sun reaches high towards Jupiter and we too extend upwards, entering the great Laguna meadows. Midday light sparks ablaze these majestic pockets of golden fields, contrasting with a perimeter of Pine. Mind paddles through a cluster of granite island tombstones, adding texture to this prehistoric lake environment. Citrus flavored Butterflies wrestle in the thousands, reminding us to lighten body and thought. Just two bushy-tailed Foxes pawing down the path, each step inviting us a bit closer to a known, primordial wildness.
Osiel and I finally reach the ranger station. An older ranger with a 2-pound mustache and 10-gallon hat greets us with a round of cold, smoky coffee. We sit on stumps in bleaching sun, laughing and sharing our respective mornings. 3 hours, 40 minute climb to the Valle?! Puta madre, es rapido. Pinche Gringo got lost up here the other day. Not much activity otherwise, the ranger reports. Eventually, I say farewell to my new friends and begin the familiar 12-mile, 6,000-foot vertical descent to the west entrance. I float down this 2-hour section with supreme ease, reflecting on all that has happened—successful protest meeting, an incredible stay with the Mexican ranch family, full linguistic immersion, the day’s gorgeous 25-mile mountain crossing. I arrange to have a park ranger pick me up at the west entrance. Seamless connection. Bliss.
This Saturday, I will attempt to incorporate this section into a larger 70-mile protest run from one coast of the peninsula to the other. It’s never been done before. (Updates on Twitter and Facebook) Yet, following this soulful encounter, I now feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility. A deep, deep kinship with these people and the more-than-human community here, all dependent on the health of this range, this water, this land.
And so it is.
Bat. Fox. Goat. Lizard. Ociel. Martin. Pitaya. Ocotillo. Vista Gold Inc. Vin Diesel. Agua Vale Mas Que Oro. Madrone. Orange peel. Argonaut Gold. Granite slab. Raven. Cape Pygmy Owl. Betty. The Gulf. The Pacific. All part of me. I am the Sierra. We are the Sierra. We are the paintbrush tail of Fox blending into mountain dusk. We are the cyanide-poisoned aquifers caused by open-pit gold mining operations. We are citrus tree roots indiscriminately drawing from arsenic-laced water, bearing toxic fruit peeled and sold at market. We are distanced executives twirling their gold wedding rings, waiting impatiently inline at Starbucks undisturbed as their machines sodomize and desacralize faraway lands, people, cultures and species. We are Bat bobbing left to right, up and down, searching for the answer, for the Way. And we are the glowing Heart of Earth beating, chuckling, whispering softly in our ears the way forward.
We are the Destroyers. We are the Creators. We are the Resistance. We are all of it.
We are exactly what we have been waiting for.