Chapter 2. Northern Plateau
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2003 All rights reserved.
(Shari) "Ralph and Virginia aren't up yet and neither are Dan and Sue," I comment to Bert at 5 AM. We want to be first in line before everyone else and I know the group is anxious to get rolling. Almost two hours later, I explain to the group what to expect on today's journey, highlight certain areas on the road log, and we have our CB check. We pull out of the gate right on schedule and get to the border just as the offices are opening. Things go well until I find out that Don's brakes have locked. Dan works his magic and soon we are on our way with border crossing only taking 90 minutes. I think that is a record for us. We do notice that more of the clerks speak English than previous years, which, certainly helps the process. I am always stressed at border crossings and now I can relax a bit. We really have a good time today and make rapid progress. We had logged this part of the trip last Friday on our trial run but still take a wrong turn. God is watching because our wrong turn turns out to be the best way to go around a town after all. Virginia noticed but never mentioned a word to the group of our little unplanned scenic route. When Bert says, "A policeman is coming up alongside of us," I get pretty nervous until I see he has a big smile on his face. I get out of R-TENT (our affectionate name for our 1999 36-ft. Discovery motorhome), and ask if he speaks English. His English is worse than my Spanish and I think, oh boy, we are in trouble. Bert is watching us from the driver's seat and says later that it was hilarious watching our animated conversation. I think the policeman is offering to guide us through town but I want to make sure he is going to guide us to the right town. I invite him into R-TENT and point to Allende on the map. Yes, we have communicated. Boy, do I feel success. He then proceeds to lead us down the road, his red and blue lights flashing. At the jack-knife intersection we were worried about, he stops traffic and lets us make a wide U-turn across 4 traffic lanes. You can just tell that he feels important helping us and has such a nice big grin on his face. He has a story to tell his wife tonight for sure. I too feel important because I actually carried on a real conversation with a person that spoke no English. Wow! I am impressed. Probably anyone who knows Spanish would laugh themselves silly at the way I "talked" and the words I used, but hey I DID IT. Later, at the RV park, I need to ask a woman whose car is parked in our way and if it could please be moved. "Quien es este carro." (Who is this car). Then with hand motions, I say "Aqui zu ahi". (Here to there). She goes off around the corner and 5 minutes later the car is moved. SUCCESS AGAIN. I always say, I talk like a two-year-old child but talk nonetheless. But before my head gets too big with all this success, I still cannot get across the concept that we have 15 motorhomes behind me whenever I'm first in line at an agricultural or military checkpoint. It is 4:15 PM before the last rig (ours) is parked and at 5 PM we have our first margarita party. A good day gets even better when John, Joanne, Pat, Lee, Pat, Jim, Ralph, Virginia, Bert and I all meet at the indoor pool. The water is just perfect and after a swim we sit in the hot tub before showering and hitting the sack.
(Bert) In the darkness, RV's line up behind mine for our 7 AM departure. The caravan headed to Panama will follow us shortly and we want to get through the border paperwork before them. Except for a mistyped VIN number on the Mexico vehicle permit, easily corrected and initialed by a border official, everyone completes the tasks without a hitch. But a frozen trailer brake on Don's rig holds us up for a bit, while Dan and Don jack up the trailer and correct the problem. Still, we are on our way by 9:30, driving the congested highway through Reynosa. When we break free of the city, the land opens up to the Tamaulipas brushlands: arid, relatively flat coastal plains stretching along the toll road for a hundred miles. We've got a lot of sharp eyes among our group, because even though birds are sparse along the roadside, collectively we record 42 species through the plains. Best birds are ten species of raptors including White-tailed, Harris's, Red-shouldered and Gray Hawks. An American Robin surprises me, as this is the first time I've seen one this far south on the plains. Our trip today covers the best and worst of Mexico roads: from a sleek, flat, straight toll road to a potholed, eroded narrow side road connecting the flatlands to the foothills. After settling into our campground, birders disperse while I set up for our first Margarita Party. Later a couple of us hear a sweet cat-like meow belonging to an unidentified bird. In the semidarkness and the dense foliage above us we can hear but cannot see. Six of us debate the possibilities while Charlie twists the dial on a new device that holds a thousand bird songs in its memory. Having made several tries, I suggest Clay-colored Robin because the call was sometimes interspersed with an American Robin type clucking. From the device we first hear the musical and complicated song sounding like a American Robin crossed with a canary, but then comes the sweet cat-like call and we immediately recognize it as the elusive bird above us. Clay-colored Robin it is.
(Bert) From our campsite it is a steep vertical climb with trucks and SUV's, first threading our way through a village strung out along the road, most houses vending stone and concrete ornaments, then hotels and lodges for tourists in high season, but now vacant. At 6500 ft. we pass the entrance to Horsetail Falls. Higher yet the tourist spots are more widely spread apart, interweaved with apple orchards and vacant pine-oak woodlands. We pause for a brief stop in front of "the gorge." Perpendicular rock walls rising thousands of feet on each side allow a very narrow gap for a swallow stream paralleling a one-and-a-half lane road. My auto thermometer registers 32 deg. F. and we shiver in the cold breeze whistling through the gap as we stretch our legs and watch Mexican Jays fly by. Onward and upward, the narrow pavement eventually gives way to bumpy gravel and rock. At 27 miles and over two hours travel, we stop our climb and begin our birding in the chilly morning air. On one side is Highrise, a distant vertical rock wall looming incredibly high above us, famous for its Maroon-fronted Parrots in spring, but the rare parrots remain unseen by us this winter day. Birds are sparse, but diversity is good. A flock of Band-tailed Pigeons passes in the distance and then flies over the horizon near the base of Highrise. In the brushy roadside we find Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Mexican Juncos and a strange dark sparrow that has us calling out "White-winged Junco" only to question our call when a check on Sibley shows sparse white wings for that out-of-range subspecies, not the big white wing patches that we all saw. The bird is an anomaly: perhaps a Black-chinned Sparrow with light-reflecting wings (Coen's theory) or albinistic wings (Don C. and my theory). A White-breasted Nuthatch marshals a small flock of warblers, including a pair of colorful Olive Warblers, the male fronted in the deep orange of a setting sun and the female in a more drab yellow. We continue our descent, walking along the road with drivers playing catch-up with the vehicles. A difficult Empidonax has us listing field marks and checking out books, but is eventually identified as a Hammond's Flycatcher. Later we stop at a marshy spot populated by dozens of rapidly moving and feeding birds. Flashes of red, white and black of a Painted Bunting and quick movements of rusty red, yellow and white of a Rufous-capped Warbler are difficult to photograph. I expend 40 or 50 digital photos in an attempt to freeze each of the birds into a memorable photo, but I'm not sure I stopped the action. The day's drive would have been worth it for the scenery alone, the colorful birds an added bonus.
(Shari) Never even hearing the birders leave this morning, I am able to luxuriate under the sheets and do not arise until 9 AM. Feeling fit and fiddle, Joanne and I talk and walk up the hills to the hotel and back. I finish bookkeeping and road logs and diddle the day away. Even though the temperature outside is cool, damp and windy, the view from all parts of the resort beckons me outdoors to take pictures. Across the still waters of the lake, I can see a fantastic church looming above the town. Our resort seems to be the playground of the rich from Monterrey, Mexico's fourth largest city. I have no complaints about its amenities and wish our stay would be longer. I suppose in season this place is crowded and boisterous but today it is peaceful and without the birders I have it all to myself. We have a dinner planned this evening, and the hotel sends a van to pick us up and take us the short distance to the restaurant situated next to the wave pool and water slides and overlooking the lake. The meal is very good and includes a buffet of salad, soup, two meats, beans, mixed vegetables and two desserts PLUS margaritas. There goes the diet again. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it.
(Shari) The manager of the hotel is marvelous and so very helpful. I am worried about the "returno" (U-turn) we have to make at a congested area in town. He goes along with us and blocks traffic from both ends so that our long string of vehicles can make a left turn from the right lane on the 4-lane boulevard and not be bothered by traffic. Too bad Dan was unable to give him the tip I had planned to offer him. We only travel 120 miles today, but it goes slowly. We climb up and wind alongside the foot of a mountain and into the Santa Rosa Canyon. I do not think I have ever seen high mountains covered with mesquite and live oaks. Oftentimes I look back on a curve and see the whole caravan slinking its way behind us. Traffic is fortunately light and we can enjoy the spectacular scenery as we go. The few times we get stuck behind a slow moving vehicle, we help each other pass via CBs. Poor Don makes a dent in a Pemex sign at one of our stops and it takes awhile to negotiate payment of damages, since no one at the station speaks English. We settle at 330 pesos, which is a bargain and we hightail it out of there. We arrive at the junction in the road where we are supposed to turn left and find a pull off. Unfortunately an overpass is there and we are unsure of the route. We tell people to turn right and wait for us, but 4 rigs follow us into Never Never Land. God is with us again today, because only a mile down the road is a returno and a much needed Pemex. After gassing up we meet the rest of the group at a closed Pemex parking lot. Unbelievably it takes a long time to park, probably because there are too many choices. Finally everyone is parked, some go off birding to find some sparrow or another and I, with a glass of well-deserved wine, visit with those who remain.
(Bert) Two days ago, on the way into this campsite at Santiago, Coen and Brenda found a Bat Falcon perched on a utility pole. They refind it this morning and Brenda takes photos. This bird is about 100 km north of the known range as drawn in Howell & Webb. After all the birders get back to the RV's, we head south along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Oriental. While we roll through the relatively flat plain, the mountains loom high to our right, much like the drive south of Denver paralleling the Rockies. Later we turn west, toward a pass through the majestic mountains. On closer approach they are a folded and creased dark green shag rug extending vertically to exposed rock cliffs. Still closer as we wind through the pass, I feel like an ant crawling through the feet of a herd of elephants, the peaks rising so high I miss the tops while craning my neck within the confines of the RV. The lower elevations are a vertical thorn forest of mesquite, prickly pear, Century cactus and other arid denizens. Somewhat higher are Live Oaks and at still higher elevation, a few deformed pines. Healthy-looking goats graze on the sides of road at a few places and we pass several one-house villages, but mostly the mountain view is raw nature, untouched by man except for the narrow, unshouldered two-lane road winding ever upward. "Scenic" is an understatement; "awesome" is a better fit for describing the panorama. On our slow descent into Mexico's Northern Plateau, we encounter a forest of Joshua Trees, tall palm-like cactus trees. Arriving in mid afternoon, the high desert is 44 deg., apparently unusually cold according to the natives. After parking our RV's we drive along the highway north, searching for a Prairie Dog town known to harbor rare Worthen's Sparrows. We find neither the Prairie Dogs, nor the Worthen's, nor the juniper stated to be their preferred habitat. But we do add a few species to our trip lists, most notably Ferruginous Hawk, Cactus Wrens, and Mountain Bluebirds.
(Shari) Juan Gonzales is his name and he is the patriarch of a family of circus performers. He is the grandfather of the young boy who speaks English to us and he says, "Mi casa es su casa" when I ask if we could park on his land next year. I tell him, "Muy amable," (he is very kind) and he kind of blushes and says thank you. We found this place as we were coming home from an afternoon outing. As we approach the lone store, a gaggle of kids pour out and we try to speak to them. Either our accent is unintelligible or they are shy as soon the mother or aunt comes out and tells them to show us the circus tent. They take us to the large tent and we are invited inside to watch the practice. Some 8-12-year-old girls are climbing a rope. An older man (the grandfather) is whittling away on some wood and others are just watching. The day had started very cold and foggy but by 11 AM the sun came out and we were ready to do something. Joanne, Jodi, Don S., Sue, Dan and myself piled into Don's truck and took off to find the birders. Unsure of which road they took after arriving at Galeana, we decided to drive through the town and maybe find the Mercado or an interesting church. Instead we found a whole carnival and decided to eat our packed sandwiches before we ventured out onto the streets. I can't seem to pass these places up without buying something, and I bought two pillowcases for $2.00. They were neatly machine-embroidered by the seller who is expecting a baby in March. I tried to tell her that my daughter is also expecting in April but for the life of me could not think of the word for daughter. Instead I left with just a "Gracias."
(Bert) The subtle sound of a bent branch signals our ears to turn to the silent wings of an owl just as it banks above our heads and escapes over the trees to the other side of the sharp curve up Mount El Potosi. John, Don C. and I snap instant memory photos of our 3-sec. encounter. Then, on the opposite side of the row of trees, Pat, Jim, Virginia and Wally get a surprising view of the owl swooping across their windshield and then disappearing into the thicket. John and Don run uphill around the curve to try to refind the owl, while the others pile out of their SUV. Not to be refound, we stop to retell our brief encounter, compare recollections and open our field guidebooks to see if we can identify the owl. Its large size, rounded head and spotted appearance eliminate most owls. The pine-oak open forest habitat and the geographic location here on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Occidental at 7500 ft. elevation reduce our id to only one species: Spotted Owl. The rare owl caps a morning of rather slow birding. Few birds linger on the mountain after a forest fire destroyed the habitat, further deteriorated when local natives removed the charred pines and oaks. Now only in the hollows of curves bent into the mountain do the trees provide a canopy over us. Elsewhere we have a clear view of the valley below and the other barren mountains dozens of miles away. We climbed the hand-crafted rock road for 6 miles from the base, to an altitude of 8900 ft, stopping frequently, but typically only finding one or two birds at each stop. At 10:30 I decide to turn our SUV's around rather than climb for another arduous 12 miles to the 12,500-ft. summit. For me, the owl made the ascent worth the trip and a few other species - Hutton's Vireo, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Mexican Chickadee - added to the treat. Those that hesitated at the challenge of the steep sharply rocked mountain road or who had a later-than-7AM start this morning stayed to bird in the valley below. Perhaps they made the better choice, for they certainly encountered many more birds at the lower elevation (~6600 ft.) valley. Coen and Chris found the much-sought-after Worthen's Sparrow, as well as Scaled Quail, Greater Pewee and Bridled Titmouse. After we make the descent, Chris shows us the Buff-breasted Flycatcher and Cassin's Flycatchers he found earlier. Later we stop for a closer view of a hawk perched in a lone oak. Its dark belly band matches Red-tailed Hawk, but its deep rufous underparts certainly mark it as a rare dark form, which I later find in Clark & Wheeler is called an adult Western rufous-morph Red-tailed Hawk. On our trip back to San Roberto we stop at a likely Worthen's Sparrow location Coen had identified earlier, but after spreading out and searching the area, we see mostly Black-chinned Sparrows instead. Although birding seemed slow today, collectively we found 66 of the 107 species Howell lists in his bird-finding book, plus an additional 16 species not listed, including the Spotted Owl.
(Bert) A long travel day in terms of distance is matched with a superbly built highway. Divided four lanes, concrete, smooth, straight and posted for 70 mph, this highway is only matched by one other I've taken in Mexico and that was a $1/mi. toll road near Cancun. Here it is libre: a free road. Heading due south from our position in southern Nuevo Leon, we trek through the rolling plains of the mile-high Northern Plateau, a semi-desert populated by ten thousand Joshua Trees for every person. The dense stands of Joshua Trees - twisted like Saguaro cactus, tufted like palms, spiked like yucca - are impressive enough that they would warrant National Forest or National Monument status had they been in the U.S. Except for the vegetation, the drive reminds me of the Great Basin in the U.S., a broad valley surrounded by distant mountains. We cross into the State of San Luis Potosí and bypass Matehuala. East of the city of San Luis Potosí, we ride a swallow roller coaster highway in the foothills, overlooking the smog-shrouded metropolis. Entering another Mexican state - Guanajuato - we bypass Dolores Hildago, named after the famous man who petitioned for the onset of the Mexican Revolution, and then south into the picturesque colonial town of San Miguel de Allende: three hundred ten miles today, but not a tedious drive.
(Shari) Over 300 miles seems like a long day, but in actuality the road is super and we make good time. Tonight is dinner out, and I had announced that we were taking the bus into town for anyone that wanted to join us. Ten of the group take us up on our offer and at 5 PM we head to the bus stop, catching the bus to Centro for 3 pesos. San Miguel de Allende is the best town in Mexico that I have ever visited. We are given a special treat because today is Sunday and the square is full of folks on an outing. A stage is set up in front of a gorgeous church and vendors selling balloons and toys wander among the people enjoying the evening. The scene puts a smile on my face and I cannot help to thank God for my good fortune. I am in a beautiful place with wonderful people doing something that I enjoy. I love this job. We find a restaurant and we each order from the menu. All the food looks delicious and I hear no complaints over the jovial talking going on about the long table. The square is still crowded after dinner and some of us walk around for a while, while others catch the bus back. Another good day in Mexico!
(Shari) How long do you think 155 miles would take a caravan to negotiate? Believing the road to be fairly good, I decide to have a departure time of 11AM. That will give us plenty of time to get our e-mail and grocery chores completed. Fine, but after only 30 miles down the road, things start to slow down. One of us has brake issues and he and the tail gunner pull off at a Pemex to solve the problem. Soon the caravan comes to a small town that unfortunately does not have a bypass and 14 rigs wiggle and squirm the narrow streets following signs pointed to Celaya. Little do I know things can get worse. We want to bypass Celaya and, in hindsight, we do, but we get into the biggest most horrendous traffic jam I have ever seen. It takes us two hours to negotiate two miles because of road construction. Signage in Mexico has some things to be desired and oftentimes signs are lacking. Fortunately traveling at one mile per hour makes it easy for me to hop out of R-TENT and ask directions, oftentimes repeating my questions to two or three people before I find someone who speaks English or understands my question. The good news is that we never made a wrong turn. The bad news is that it takes forever in traffic that took lessons from the kamikaze school of driving. Three lanes of traffic are squeezed into two and no one is polite. Big semis as well as little Volkswagens push their way forward, disobeying street signs, stop signs, and just good manners to get ahead. Finally we see a sign that points us right. Unfortunately, three lanes are coming at us on a two-lane road (one of the lanes would be going our direction). I ask a clerk at a store to help us with the traffic but he says the traffic will not stop. So, I get out and stop traffic in order to plow our way through. Once we get through, it makes it easier for the others to travel onward. To make a long story short, we do make it without incident, but arrive at camp in the dark at 6:30 PM. The tail gunner gets a bit turned around and does not come in until 7:15 PM. Virginia and I have been waiting on the highway with a flashlight to stop traffic and lead him in. We are getting used to taking our life in our hands and standing in the oncoming traffic lane to stop it. It definitely is a day for margaritas and as we enjoy them the tension eases. Soon we are laughing about the day, glad it is over but not overly annoyed.
(Bert) Only 150 miles today, but tedious: just the opposite of yesterday. Anticipating a much easier drive and certainly shorter timewise, we take a 11 AM departure to allow us beforehand to see a bit of the San Miguel de Allende, shop for groceries and get e-mail, the later being unsuccessful. A brake problem on Don S.'s vehicle separates us from our Tailgunners and Don, so we take an early lunch, barely into today's trip. My respite is finding, with Don C., a Crissal Thrasher in the treed fencerow of the field adjacent to where we are parked. After lunch, narrow, broken-surface roads trim our top speed at 30-40 mph, topes in numerous small villages bring us to a crawl and a 2-mile traffic jam in the heart of Celaya halts progress completely. The main boulevard through Celaya is under construction, as is a bypass, and the diverted traffic is unpoliced, unmanaged and unmoving. When we finally free ourselves of the jam, we continue slowly southward, still in Mexico's Central Plateau. But after about 80 miles, the countryside is more rolling and we can begin to see where the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental close in on the Sierra Madre del Sur. After a hundred miles we begin a serious climb, winding through a great natural pine forest. At one point Shari measures 7700 ft. altitude on the GPS, but we climb yet for another hour. Much later than we expected, we make the difficult perpendicular entry into the RV park, with Ralph, Virginia and Shari halting traffic so that we can make a wide turn. By the time we've brought in the caravan, the traffic has backed up for a half-mile or more. Tailgunners Dan and Sue, separated somewhere along the route by a wrong turn, show up about a half-hour later. Our much-anticipated Margarita Party proceeds in the headlights of R-TENT. Snacks and beverages fuel animated conservations about the day's events, all of us happy to have finished the long day without mishap.
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