Chapter 3. Central plateau
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.
(Bert) The laser beam straight 4-lane highway penetrates the unpopulated Northern Plateau, a mile-high flat desert circumscribed with distant purple mountains. We pass through the first of several Joshua-tree forests. Estimating not less than 10 trees to the horizon per linear foot of highway, times a few miles per forest, it is easy to assume we are seeing several million Joshua-trees. At 15-30-ft., these are the largest of the yuccas. Unlike other yuccas that resemble pineapple leaf clusters on large single stalks, these are multiple branched, the arms of Joshua in the desert. An hour into our drive south we descend several hundred feet, affording a view of a distant mountain clipped at the top by a white cloud streak and at the base by dense fog that shimmers like a silvery lake. Briefly, the sun breaks through, casting a golden aura across the flat desert landscape highlighting the yuccas sometimes adorned by ravens, caracaras and hawks. The yellow clusters on the cholla shine like Christmas tree lights on prickly stalks. The sun again hides behind the gray clouds and it isn’t until afternoon before the skies clear. Here, dozens of miles from any population base, our cell phone rings and Shari talks to Wisconsin – another sign of how much technology and modernization has improved in Mexico. Birds are sparse, at least from the perspective of a vehicle traveling 55+ mph, but I see a few surprises, including a Greater Roadrunner at mile 248, and a flock of White-faced Ibis on the road to Dolores Hidalgo. Just as we are thinking we will make an early arrival into San Miguel, we misread our travel log and pass a right hand turn that would have taken us around the city. Instead we plunge into the snarl of a congested city and within minutes I radio back to the trailing caravan that they should stop and turn around anywhere they can. Fortunately, half of them have not yet reached the intersection and the rest turn about with minor inconvenience. Not so for me. In the midst of city traffic Shari and I detach the tow car and attempt to find anywhere to turn around. When asked, a shop owner watching the melee can offer no suggestions except to continue into the city. One block farther a police officer on foot sees my huge vehicle approaching and concern spreads across his face. I say, “Returno” and he motions forward and to the right. In front of me is a large sign depicting a bus with a bold slash through it. I get the hint and turn right. Thinking I could maybe back up here at the “T” I hop out and talk to the cop again, but he shakes his head no and gushes a flurry of Spanish, the most important of which I understand as “Todos ala derecha.” After several more curves left and turns right, I’m on a wider street that seems to be heading out of town. In fact it is and I soon meet up with a highway that resembles the one on which we should have turned. Shari gets out of the car and we look at our computer screen to see the GPS-tracked map showing where we have just traveled. We deduce that if the rest of the group waited at the turn, they must be to our right, and if they continued onward, they must be on our left. Shari turns right in the SUV while I wait for her to radio back. She locates the caravan and when they return to me Shari blocks oncoming traffic so that I can make the tricky turn onto the highway. I now recognize where I am and continue leading the group, but Shari is still confused and makes a premature turn and ends up being on the tail end of the caravan when I lead the group into the campsite. Fifty feet into the driveway and in the midst of a sharp right turn I see two workmen have pulled up the rounded rocks of the driveway resulting in a deep hole adjacent to a high pile. I wait while they flatten the road in front of me, leaving the caravan behind me backed up into the street. Alas, in time we all are parked in our sites and the last hour of our day’s travel becomes another storyteller’s tale.
(Shari) “Bert, can’t you turn around here?” I ask for the fifth or sixth time. It seems I missed the turn to our campground and we are headed into the congested city with narrow cobblestone streets. The farther in we go, the worse it gets. I do not know what it is with men, or maybe it is just my man, but he cannot seem to stop and/or ask for directions. I plead with him and yell at him, but until he gets himself in a bind, it does no good. As soon as we missed the turn, I wanted to immediately stop and ask someone for help. But no, we barrel ahead. Luckily, the rest of the caravan can recover better than we can. I feel so sorry for Judy and Ken, since theirs is a relatively new rig and this is the first trip that Ken has practice maneuvering it. They are directly behind us. We tell everyone over the CB to find a place to turn around. Meanwhile, traffic is stopped behind us, while we unhitch. Bert tells me to drive ahead, and this is when I start wondering why he can’t back into this or that side street. Of course I have no concept what it takes to back a 41-foot motor home with a 50 degree turning radius. People are looking at us and wondering, “What in the world?” I am looking and also wondering, “What in the world?” I find a street with a parking place, having the intention of parking and stopping 20,000 cars to help Bert back and turn, until I realize that it is a one-way street and I am going the wrong way. I try to park, but as luck would have it, some man wants to park his truck there. So, I have to back out of the street into the 20,000 cars. By now Bert is way ahead of me. As we get deeper and deeper into the city, I wonder how we will remember the turns when we finally do turn around. I just keep following Bert, right and right and up a little wider street with few cars. The going is slow because of a gazillion of those horrible pointed cement topes so high that even a car goes thud as its rear wheels go up and over. It seems to go on forever, but soon we see a highway. Now, where in the world is this highway? I get out of the car and into the motor home and Bert and I ponder the GPS map sitting on the dashboard. I see the green dot that indicates where we are and I see the blue line that indicates where we should be. They are only 50 feet apart. Which direction should we turn onto the highway? I decide to turn right while Bert stays back to wait. I am now wondering where our caravan is located. Did they get into camp? Did they get stuck? Are they lost? Are they mad? I only have to go two miles when I see them all dutifully lined up waiting like really good students in a class. They see me coming and cannot understand how I managed to come from the opposite direction. I say, “Don’t ask.” I lead them back to where Bert is, get them to pull over again to stop while I hop out of the car to stop traffic so that Bert can make the left hand turn. Now I am in the car without a log or a GPS, Bert is in the motor home and cannot see the log and the GPS and we have to lead the caravan into the campground. Luckily Bert now remembers the way and leads us in. The turns are tight but finally we are camped, gather for social hour and go down the street for fajitas and nachos with Ken and Judy and Bob and Sue. If it were not for that little incident, the day would have been just a boring drive down a 4-lane road averaging 50 miles per hour. By my standards, I am only allowed a finite number of wrong turns. It is too bad I had to use one up so early in the trip.
(Shari) Guanajuato (pronounced “wan-a-WA-toe”) is my favorite Mexican city. If ever I chose to live in Mexico that is where it would be - a clean, beautiful, and intelligent city with a low crime rate and a moderate climate. At over 6000 ft., it rarely reaches above 85 degrees. Today is a rather chilly day - only reaching 62 - but it is sunny and dry. Half of our group boards a bus at 7:30 for the almost two hour drive to this city in the hills. For the next 11 hours we are royally shown the sights by our driver Manuel and our guide Aleandro. After a panoramic view of the city looking down onto the square and jardín, we go to the mummy museum. The families of dead people buried in the cemetery are charged a fee and if they have not paid that fee in five years, the bodies are dug up and put on display. I had heard this practice had stopped, but Aleandro says otherwise. The bodies are remarkably preserved (they still look like skeletons) but I feel rather funny snapping a picture. . Somehow it feels like I am invading their privacy or dignity, especially if I put myself in their shoes, so to speak. Judy R. and Tom are usually off birding rather than sightseeing and are often the last to get back onto the bus. We joke that if Tom and Judy are present and accounted for, we must all be present. Once we almost left them until Charlu missed Tom and Bert missed Judy. Cathedral, silver mine, some shops are just a few of the sights we take in before we finally arrive at the main square. To get there, we must negotiate a network of tunnels. These tunnels are the reason we decided to take a tour, rather than drive ourselves. Two years ago, Bert almost got hopelessly lost in this labyrinth of rock. Prone to floods, the city fathers diverted the river to underground tunnels, and now the old canals and riverbeds are roads. It is a unique experience to drive for over two miles through this confusing network of twists and turns and one-way streets. We are dropped off at the square for our lunch and then we women rush five blocks to the market. Sandy and Charlu refrain from buying anything, but I get a T-shirt, and a poncho that I do not need. Sue gets a rug, and Judy S. gets a rug and more. The men just tolerate us and are thankful we are on a tour with a schedule to keep. From here we walk to the Rivera museum, where the famous Mexican artist was born. Two floors of the house are devoted to his paintings from early sketches and still life’s, to his more modern cubic period. Judy R. tries to buy “Freda,” the movie that just recently came out about his life and girlfriend but to no avail. She does get two things, but for fear some reader may be the anticipated recipient, I will refrain from saying what she choose. It is after 5 PM, we are very tired and the ride back to camp is quiet. I know Bert and I catch a few winks; I suspect others do too.
(Bert) Guanajuato is a city where superlatives apply easily. Our tour through the colonial city today is replete with history, architecture and culture, so much that picking highlights for a short journal entry is unmanageable. I suspect Shari will describe the mummy museum, easily the strangest museum I have ever seen. Skipping that topic, my first view of the city is perhaps the most lasting impression. Manuel drives our bus to a lookout that offers a panoramic view of the brightly colored houses, ornate churches and theaters, university buildings, markets and parks that form a collage below us and spread up the hillsides - an artist’s delight, a camera’s magnet, an eye’s entertainment. A city where laws prohibit new buildings and renovation is ongoing, centuries of history are on public display, dating to the colonial times when the Franciscans founded it in 1548. Pride in his home shows as our guide Aleandro describes the city and its inhabitants, including President Vicente Fox who just happens to fly over the city in his helicopter as watch. We visit a hacienda , a high walled castle-like edifice surrounding a silver and gold mine operation, an industry that brought incredible wealth to a few – those that resided in the beautiful European styled homes we see today – and brought early death and deplorable conditions to the poor miners. We hear of the Insurgents lead by Miguel Hildalgo, a priest turned revolutionary leader fighting to free Mexico from Spanish rule in 1810, and of another revolution a hundred years later as the people still fought for control of their own destinies without influence of the U.S. and Europe and a Mexican dictatorship. Looking at the city, I have to use my imagination to see the rivers that once flowed through the haciendas and along the Venice-like canals between buildings. Now the water is diverted underground around the city and the canals have been converted to underground tunnels through which we drive, a maze of groundhog burrows crisscrossing helter-skelter and a tourist’s nightmare for navigation . After lunch near the city’s center, shopping in the markets, touring Diego Rivera’s house and art museum, by the time we are back on the bus to San Miguel I’m exhausted.
(Shari) Four other women and I depart the campground this morning headed to the Gigante. The first experience in a Mexican grocery store can be daunting, but soon we realize it is not much different than in the states. You pick things off the shelves, put them in your cart and pay at the checkout. The grocery here is very much Americanized anyway; the only place in Mexico I have seen Cheddar cheese and one of the few that carries fresh milk. I allow 60 min. to peruse the aisles before we meet again at the exit. I fill my basket with fresh fruits, Mexican snacks, unfamiliar cheeses, bottled water, tasty pastries, those hoagie type rolls called boillas and Kahlua. Now we are set with goodies. Not much goes on for the rest of the day. Most everyone is off doing their own thing. I had wanted to visit the town of pottery, but before I know it is 4 PM and too late to go off 20 mi. or so. Each caravan is unique and this one is something else again. Everyone is so considerate and so willing to try new things so early on. They also got to know each other very fast. No need for mixers with this group, that is for sure. When it gets dark, it also gets cold. I try again to pay our bill and am told to come back in the morning. Tomorrow we leave at 7:30 AM and, when I mention this, I am told not to wait until the last minute to pay. That gets my shackles up because this is the fourth time I have tried to pay. Fat chance a Mexican 7:30 AM means an American 7:30 AM! We will see.
(Bert) A brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher frequently perches just outside R-TENT-III while I catch up on journals, bird sighting entries and digital photo transfers to my computers. A leisurely day, a free day without scheduling, I see other birds around the campsite while I complete my tasks. In a grassy corner, Clay-colored Sparrows and Inca Doves feed on the ground but when spooked they quickly take harbor in the fruit trees. Groove-billed Anis stay at the higher branches and Canyon Towhees curiously explore the tires of the RV’s. At lunchtime the Vermilion is again nearby, this time checking out its reflection on Bob and Cindy’s car and posing in the mirror long enough for me to take a photo . In late afternoon as we sit outside talking to others, hearing about their day’s activities – pottery shopping at Dolores Hidalgo, replacing springs on a 5th-wheel, grocery shopping, touring the San Miguel downtown – I get a report from Ron on the birds he found at the jardín and city lake: mostly U.S. species, but a few new to the list, including American Avocet and Verdin. Several birders have seen hummingbirds, but I think Cindy is the only one who has identified any. She noted Violet-crowned and Broad-billed hummingbirds, and together we match her field notes on a third species, agreeing that they fit Blue-throated Hummingbird.
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