Chapter 2.  Sierra Madre Oriental

© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.

Day 3 – January 14 – Santiago, Nuevo León

(Bert) A bit before 7 AM we are off to an early start as we head to the border. After crossing the International Bridge we reach the border offices and a Mexican official tightly wrapped in warm clothes - including a turned up collar and an ear-muffed hat covering all but his eyes – stands blocking our way. Concerned about his intentions, Shari alights from our RV and walks over to where he is standing. It seems he wants us to drive under the custom’s building canopy, rather than on the open side road. Obliging, I lead the larger RV’s through the building and line up on the curb beside the road, as we have done every year since our first trip across this border in 2001. The smaller vehicles park in the small parking lot and we all walk toward the offices. Over our portable radios, Shari has been telling me the officer-with-only-eyes will not let us pass. I attempt to lead the group along the edge of the buildings to the registration office, but the officer-with-only-eyes walks over to us and accosts me, loudly complaining about where we have parked. Apparently upset, he tells us we must put all of the RV’s in the parking lot. I explain that they will not fit, that we cannot back up motor homes towing cars and that the lot is too small for the RV’s to turn around. He tells us to drive forward and come into the lot from the back entrance. I tell him they have blocked the turn-around. An interpreter steps in the fray and tells me we can drive into Reynosa and turn around there and come back to the border. I object, but the officer-with-only-eyes says it is not his problem, we are now in Mexico, and we must do as he says. Facing an impasse, I finally agree to his requirements and the seven drivers of the big rigs return to their vehicles. A couple of miles into Mexico, we leave two rigs that had completed their paperwork the day before and the rest of us complete the 4+ mile loop back to the border. I again look at the parking lot entrance, knowing full well that I will not be able to negotiate the turn, but to convince the official I start into the turn. Soon another official shows up and recognizes the absurdity, and stops me just before my motor home is about to jump the curb. He says I should back up and park in the street. Apparently he doesn’t know I can’t back with a hitched car, so he watches impatiently while I unhitch the electrical cable, the emergency release cable, the two safety cables, the brake buddy and its clamp to the brake and two cables, reconnect the drive shaft, start the engine and then attempt to disconnect the hitch. Since the RV is jackknifed across the two lanes of traffic, the hitch is wedged into position and will not disconnect. Carl attempts to pull up on the hitch while I jockey back and forth on the SUV, but to no avail. We switch positions, I put on some leather gloves and after several attempts, I pop up the hitch. Returning to the SUV I have to move forward and back many times at the head of the traffic jam, now at least a mile long extending into Mexico, to create a large enough space for me to back up my motor home. I then do so and get the RV parked on the roadside. Two others follow me and one smaller rig trickily negotiates the turn into the parking lot. That leaves Bob S. still parked near the curve in the road, but fortunately there is just enough room for the semi’s to negotiate the turn. Meanwhile the officer-with-only-eyes stands watching the results of his parking request and the 2-mile line of backed up cars and trucks now stream through the narrow gap between our parked rigs and the curb. This alternative parking spot is marked with a yellow curb, is considerably narrower than our first choice and runs along a much more intensely traveled road. In spite of the substantial delay in parking our rigs, we breeze through the border paperwork in record time. I’ve spent so many words describing the highlight of my morning, I’ve left little for the delightful travels on excellent roads through the Tamaulipas brushlands, now brown with winter except for deep green cactus and yucca, and sporting many Harris’s Hawks, a couple White-tailed Hawks and a sprinkling of other raptors. I’ll let Shari relate the Cadereyta story, and jump to the end of our day. Parking at the RV park is prolonged because of the tight fit in each site, but the park is beautiful and once into our first margarita party accompanied by delicious snacks prepared by Mel and Beth, I hear many comments on how well our first travel day went.

(Shari) Some day’s events beg to be written. Today has so much that I must choose which incident I should put into words. Should I talk about the Mexican border guard dressed in black blocking our way to get our visas, the Mexican police we waved down to help us in Cadereyta or the wonderful snacks provided by Mel and Beth at our first margarita party? The first is a downer and just as well forgotten, the last is just the beginning of things to come with a group that has not needed any time to get acquainted. Therefore I will begin with the second incident of note. Bert and I knew we had to maneuver all 11 RV rigs around a “returno” - the Mexican equivalent of a U-turn - on a busy 4-lane highway. We had prepared the way by having Sue dressed like me in an orange vest, ready to wave dish towels at on-coming traffic, halting them so we can make the returno. Secretly, I am hoping for the same miracle that happened in 2003 when a policeman pulled up in front of us and asked us if we needed help. So you can imagine my delight when, while waiting for the caravan to pay tolls behind me, I see a pair of men in a police car pass us up, slow down about a block ahead of us and stop. Something is not right, since they are not communicating with us and even seem to be ignoring us. Bert asks if we should pull ahead and see if they will help. I get out and start with my favorite Spanish words, “Habla English, por favor?” Unfortunately, I am greeted with a pair of voices in unison saying, “No.” Well, here goes.

“Puede usted ayudar mi, por favor?” I ask as they listen intently.
“Yo necessito ah, ah, returno” as I point ahead of me and draw a U-turn on a piece of paper. “Vamos a Allende.
“Allende?” repeats one of the men who by now has gotten out of the car.
Aha, I think, he understands the town we head for. So I continue asking if he can help me with the U-turn. “Ayuademi con returno?”
He says a bunch a words I do not understand expect “guia”. I assume he is asking me if I want him to guide us. Boy, do I ever! So I animatedly answer and almost shout, “Si!”

Neither man responds, but are still smiling and even giggling at my painfully slow Spanish. I suppose I had better offer a tip. “Yo doy a propina.”
The man’s eye’s light up as he repeats, “Propina?”
“Si,” I say as I nod my head.
“Cuantos?” he asks me.
Oh boy, I’ve forgotten the word for 50 pesos. I decide to write 50 on a piece of paper. This gets the two men talking to each other a mile a minute. The first man retorts in English 15 or 50. I again write 50. They talk among themselves again and ask for 100. Oh boy, what now?
I say “No.” and to make my point more emphatically I point to his chest when I say “hombre” and say “Anos proximo hombre ah ah ah (I am trying to remember how to say ‘gave it to us’) libre.”
“Libre?” he asks in a serious tone.
“Libre,” I respond again seriously nodding my head - yes indeed he did it for free.
“OK”, he says.
I joyously skip back to R-TENT-III and tell Bert and Sue. I tell Sue to give him a tip when she and Bob make the turn and then go back to the police car and say “Once casa rodante da a propina.” I want him to understand he is not to get any money until the last, 11th, rig goes past.
Well, he leads us to the returno, stops traffic while we all cross the four lanes and head 180 degrees back. That was a well-spent $5.00 and the rest of the day is just wonderful.

Day 4 – January 15 – Cola de Caballo and Highrise, Nuevo León

(Bert) At 7 AM we begin the climb, starting from our campground on lake Presa Rodrigo Gómez, at an elevation of 1585 ft. I have detailed directions from the previous times I’ve run this route, but we have a deviation right at the start. A disruption in the road forces us onto a narrow dusty dirt trail meandering between resorts and estates fenced high in stone walls on our right and dusty woodlots on our left. At this early hour no one is about and I wonder whether we are on the right tract, but frequent “Desviacion Carretera Nacional” signs guide us. After 1.5 mi. we are two or three blocks from where we started, but now heading uphill again. We pass a small waterfall the pours under the road and sprinkles the pavement, then leads to the Cola de Caballo falls, a famous tourist attraction. At openings in the forest canopy we see the mountains towering on each side. Most dramatic are those sheer rocks that rise perpendicularly for 500 to 1000+ ft. camera.GIF (1399 bytes). On others the bright sunrise highlights the folds in the mountains, clearly seen on this crisp cloudless morning. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) Birds flit by as we continue climbing without stopping and, from the car window, I identify Crimson-collared Grosbeaks – females since they are green, not red – and numerous blue and gray Mexican Jays. By 9 we reach Highrise, the highest point in the road at an elevation of 7100 ft. and about 30 miles from our origin. I’m glad I have on extra layers of clothes as I step out into the 32 deg. air. At this stop we find Acorn Woodpeckers flying between pines, a Rufous-crowned Sparrow poking in the grass and our first look at an ooh-and-aah bird, Painted Redstart, an aptly named warbler, as it flits through the branches of a leafless tree. At stops down mountain we add to the list: Brown-backed Solitaire, Russet Nightingale-Thrush, and Yellow-eyed Juncos. Judy S. finds a Townsend’s Solitaire. We’d seen a Sharp-shinned Hawk earlier, but now watch two accipiters fighting in mid-air and Cooper’s Hawk seems the more appropriate call. An empidonax flycatcher presents an identification challenge. I conclude it is a Cordilleran, but later on reflection and studying the field guides I think at least one of the two we saw was more likely Pine Flycatcher. Near the tiny village of San Isidro – where at least four in our group buy freshly baked pies from a street vendor – we bird along a mountain stream surrounded by oak woods. Judy and Tom report a Bridled Titmouse, but when the rest of us reach their viewpoint, all I see is Black-crested. Yet Tom’s description suggests there must be another bird and soon we also see the more dramatically black-and-white patterned Bridled Titmouse – a nice contrast of the two similar species. Turning around and looking on the other side of the road, we find Phainopepla and Black-chinned Sparrows. At the edge of La Cienega, I stop my car to look at a perched kestrel, but someone from another car radios about a yellow bird near the kestrel that I can’t see. Soon we all pile out and discover a myriad of birds in the grassy fields and apple orchard, highlighted by Hepatic Tanager, Dusky-capped Flycatcher and Audubon’s Oriole. Bob B. points out a Black-headed Grosbeak. Just as we about to exit the village I see two ravens and hear them calling. The ensuing discussion is finally settled when I play back a recording on my iPod of the matching call of Chihuahuan Raven. I’ve not before found these ravens at such a high elevation – 4653 ft. – but Howell’s book states that they occur up to almost 9000 ft. The last part of our downhill trek takes us through the Desviacion again, but this time it is clogged with Mexican tourists heading in both directions with cars, pickup trucks, buses and motorcycles, a barely moving traffic jam for a mostly single lane path. camera.GIF (1399 bytes). Two pickup trucks spin their tires trying to climb the steep slopes and not wanting to catch a flying stone projectile I hesitate at the bottom, but impatient drivers rev their engines and careen past me, raising more dust and adding to the confusion. We survive and a bit later return to our campsite in time for our planned Welcome to Mexico dinner.

(Shari) Awakening to silence, I realize the birders have long gone. Only Mel and Beth and Bob and Sue are left in camp. I unbury myself from the paperwork that I have not done in days. At noon, I put my camera in my backpack and walk around the beautiful grounds of the resort. At the reception desk, I try to pay my bill, and the girl at the desk wants to charge us $35 per night instead of the $19 quoted on my contract. This happened yesterday and I thought I had straightened it out. Unfortunately she does not speak English so here goes again. Finally she calls someone and all of a sudden the charge is $19. Yes! I pay and continue on my walk soaking in the view of the calm silvered lake surrounded by high green mountains. At 6:30, a van picks us up for dinner. We enter the restaurant and I find that we are seated in the outdoor patio area. The plastic sheets that surround the open areas do not do an adequate job of keeping out the cold and we are freezing. I see one of those tall gas heaters and ask if we can have two of them. One of them is lit in a “Mexican” short order the other is not lit until we are halfway through our dinner. The dinner is good with three choices of salad, three choices of typical Mexican meats, soup, tortillas and flan. Sandy, Ron and I walk the steep hills back to the camp, with Carl and Bert following, all enjoying the stillness of the night. The rest take the van. Before calling it a night we check out the beautiful Olympic indoor swimming pool. I am told the temperature of the water is about 90 degrees and the accompanying hot tub around 110 degrees. Not enough time to enjoy this beautiful place!

Day 5 – January 16 – San Roberto, Nuevo León

(Shari) The BIG party next to our rig never materializes, thank goodness. But apparently the boy tent campers made so much ruckus that Tom went out to “Silencia” them at around 2 in the morning. We pack up and leave this morning, getting out at 10ish. I have arranged with the management to help us with the returno. They promptly arrived at 9:30 and must wait for us to get ready. We drive about two miles and I remember that I forgot to put the car in park. I quickly scamper out, push the lever up and we start out again. Five hundred feet later, we hear on the CB that our brakes are on. OH MY GOSH, I FORGOT TO PULL THE LEVER FOR THE TRANSMISSION DISCONNECT. Bert quickly stops and I hop out to pull out the lever. I smell burnt something for sure. What can we do in the middle of a busy road with a caravan behind us but to go on and deal with the problems this afternoon after we stop for the day? Throughout the day, all I can think about is when Cindy forgot to do the similar thing. Her car started on fire and was totaled. I am sick to my stomach about it all day and am unable to enjoy the spectacular scenery through the canyon, up the mountain and onto the plains. My stomach twists and turns with each twist and turn in the highway. Bert wants me to take pictures, but my white knuckles do not want to separate from the handlebar next to my chair. Finally we stop. The car starts, goes forward, goes backward, stops, and does not make any funny noises. I know I have God to thank for that one, since I certainly prayed all afternoon. We are parked at an abandoned Pemex station next to a busy highway. I had forgotten about the truck noise. For once I am glad that Bert snores, for I have earplugs along. We enjoy a 5 PM happy hour with Bert conducting a bird count off. For you non-birders, that is where he shouts out the birds in their respective categories and he records what and how many people saw. Not too interesting for us SOB’s (spouses of birders) but we are used to it. We enjoy the pineapple and apple pies that Judy and Ken and Charlu and Tom graciously share with the group before the sun sets and it gets too cold to sit outside.

(Bert) The climb through the Sierra Madre Oriental is breathtaking, this time moving through with our RV’s on a nicely paved, if narrow, road. “We should be counting the curves; I bet there are more here than the Alaskan Highway, ” I comment to Shari. Partly because of the canyon’s passage through the mountains, but mostly to switchback the elevation, I turn the steering wheel through more miles than drive straightaway. On the sharper curves, Shari snaps photos of the caravan behind, while those near the rear photograph the convoy ahead. I keep R-Tent-III in third gear - out of six - for 25 miles, traveling at a comfortable pace, yet climbing constantly. At 4500 ft. elevation, the brushy oak habitat transitions into long-needled pine. We continue to climb. Almost no one lives in these mountains until we reach the colorful village of San Pedro de Itubide, wedged in Santa Rosa Canyon with houses perched at multiple elevations on either side. Soon we see even higher mountains in the distance, a wedge-shaped reddish one on the right and the rounder, more distant, yet higher mountain on the left – Cerro El Potosí – Mexico’s 14th highest at 11,995 ft. Near the highpoint of the road we stop at a Pemex to stretch our legs and share the excitement of the last few hours. From here we continue west, but on a straight road that gradually descends into the Northern Plateau of Mexico, stopping at Entronque San Roberto for the night. Half the group leaves again in three cars to explore the dusty flat brushlands, finding Cactus Wrens, Curve-billed Thrasher, Red-shafted Flicker and a large mixed flock of Lark Sparrows and Lark Buntings. Later, we gather under the roof of an abandoned gas station for snacks and drinks, swapping stories about adventures recent and past, including a funny story from Judy S. about the confusion of language and customs when traveling in another country – in her case, Australia - even if it’s English.

Day 6 – January 17 – Cerro El Potosí, Nuevo León

(Shari) This third night in Mexico is at what I call “the worst campground of the trip.” camera.GIF (1399 bytes).  It is just an old abandoned Pemex (gas station). An agricultural check is 200 ft. to the north and it is on a very busy highway with trucks, trucks and more trucks. These trucks have to slow up to go through the check and use their air brakes that make all sorts of sounds. Plus it is in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. When I awake I make muffins and invite those “left in camp” over for muffins and coffee. Before we know it, it is noon. Later I see Bill & Ilse and Beth & Mel take off separately to explore on their own. Sue, Bob and I stay home to watch the camp. Later we walk up to a vendor selling copper pots, but find them way too expensive. The birders come back and tell us of a good day. Ah, shucks! That means we will have to include this stop on another trip.

(Bert) In the last of the warm afternoon sun – it broke 60 deg today, starting from freezing - we circle our lawn chairs and I ask, “What was your best bird today?” Carl answers, “Vermilion Flycatcher, because I think I have a good photo of it.” Although we had seen others, the one to which Carl refers was brilliantly vermilion and posed often for us in a farmyard on the road to 18 de Marzo. Looking over the fence, we must have been at that spot for an hour because we kept seeing many birds, most at close range especially when one by one we kept getting spotting scopes from our cars until we had six lined up. We were able to study the color pattern of the undersides of the tail of an Ash-throated Flycatcher, the contrasting white malar stripe on Cassin’s Kingbird and the white foreheads on the Black-crested Titmice. Back to the original question, Sandy answers, “Buff-breasted Flycatcher.” I readily agree with that choice, as we had several opportunities to see one of these, an Empid more colorful than its drab difficult-to-distinguish cousins. Within a mile of the base of Cerro El Potosí, the bird was in the same apple orchard where I saw one in 2003. Ron’s answer is Rufous-capped Warbler, a yellowish bird with a harlequin face of rusty red and bright white. camera.GIF (1399 bytes) Ron pushed through thick brush and cactus until the lurker popped into the open long enough for many of us to get a clear view. Although maybe not their favorite birds of the day, Judy S. was quite pleased with the Clay-colored Sparrow she identified, as was Judy R. with her Pyrrhuloxia. Refreshing sweater weather – after a very chilly start - bright clear skies, a walk through the high desert, lunch at picnic tables beside the turquoise waters of La Laguna de Labradores and a close up view of imposing Cerro El Potosí added to the pleasure of the day.

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