In Honor of Earth Day

Photo by author on drive to San Felipe.

Midnight Run to Mexico

LA—the land of sunshine, beaches, and palm trees—was only five hours away but Rachel and I had been driving since sunup. It had been four days since we left Pittsburgh on a one-way cross-country road trip. Tomorrow was the beginning of the rest of our lives, but tonight we would sleep. We pulled up to the motel and parked right outside the door of our room. Rachel and I unloaded our overnight bags and hurried out to the pool, dangling our feet over the edge. I leaned back, palms digging into the concrete, and contemplated my good fortune. Next to us was a luxurious palm tree whose crown scraped the night sky. I’d dreamed about California as this far-away, unattainable place when I was kid but here I was right within its borders. Rachel and I sat side-by-side in the comfortable silence of our five-year friendship and hours spent traversing the country together. I felt free, unencumbered by the daily minutiae that comprised life, as I had known it. I had no idea what tomorrow would bring and I didn’t care. That’s a feeling I wish I could bottle up and put in a safe. Break in case of emergency.

A week after my arrival Damani, a friend from college, invited us over to his place. It all felt so grown-up. Drinking rum punch at a pool party under palm trees in LA was so Melrose Place. We caught up, played Marco Polo and made plans. Damani mentioned that he and his best friends were going to Mexico that weekend for their annual trip to San Felipe. He asked if we wanted to go.  Rachel and I were still tired from our cross-country drive, but were feeling adventurous. The next day we asked Reyna, roommate to one of our LA hosts, if she wanted to join us.  She was down for a little adventure.

Friday we set off on a midnight run to Mexico. Between everybody’s schedules and LA traffic we decided driving overnight was ideal. We were a caravan of two, Damani’s truck and Rachel’s sedan. First stop was Ralph’s where we bought tortillas, limes, cilantro, white onion and snacks, stuffing our coolers with ice and water. We began our two-hour drive to the border. I knew we were close when we began to see yellow triangle signs on the side of the road picturing the fleeing silhouettes of a man, woman, and little girl—braids flying, linked hand-in-hand like a string of paper dolls.

“Did you see that?” I asked Rachel.

The image reminded me of that sense of foreboding I felt two years before, driving past cotton fields in the south on a spring break road trip to Atlanta. It felt antebellum. There was history on this barren highway leading to Mexico.

Just before the border, we stopped at McDonald’s to stretch our legs and use the bathroom. I got a coffee to try to perk up since it was my turn to drive. Damani gathered us so we could get our story straight when we crossed the border. Two different stories would definitely arouse unnecessary suspicion although he said we should have nothing to worry about when we got there. His concern was the checkpoints sprinkled along our path to San Felipe. “Be sure to have your IDs ready and tell anyone who stops us that we’re here for vacation. I’ll go first, then I can let them know we’re together.”

When we pulled up to the guard booth at the border, Damani paused several feet in front of us. The poker-faced man in uniform asked me a question in Spanish. Reyna rolled her window down from the back seat and answered him. She translated his question to Rachel and I, telling us to get out our IDs. Rachel passed me hers and we thrust them out the window. A few flashlight roves later we were on our way. I fastened my gaze on the taillights of Damani’s truck as we pulled off into the moonlit dark of the early morning in Mexico.

We began our crawl east over pockmarked streets, cratered like the surface of the moon. Navigating was exhausting and tricky. I’d only been driving for two years. The most driving I had done was the week before. Now here I was in Mexico, after midnight, on a road leading into the unknown. I needed my cup of black coffee to keep me awake. It had long since lost its steam, but I was still sipping it, trying desperately to suck up any caffeine I could get. If I could just drive and not have to worry about blowing out Rachel’s tires on the gigantic potholes, it wouldn’t be so bad.

We kept pushing through the night, our little caravan forging ahead, now on a cliff with the ocean to my left, the moon reflecting on the inky-looking surface of the water. I rolled down the window the smell of the ocean sharp and salty in my nostrils. There were few potholes on this strip of road so my speed was steady at about forty miles per hour. Damani was two car lengths in front. No other cars were on the road.  I fastened my eyes on the back of his truck and after awhile my vision blurred. It happened so quickly. My forehead dipped toward the wheel like it was magnetized. My neck jerked back against the headrest and as the car swerved to the right, my eyes flew open. I snuck a glance at Rachel; she had witnessed the whole thing.

“Did you mean to do that?”

“Do what? ” I bluffed, reaching for the now cold coffee, “I’m fine.” I rolled down the window some more and apologized for the chilly air.

She just looked at me. I was relieved she didn’t ask again. I looked in the rearview mirror; Reyna hadn’t said a word so she must have been knocked out during the whole incident. At least we were on the side of the road with the mountains, away from the ocean. The thought of having to call Rachel’s parents to tell them about an accident circled through my brain. I had only known Reyna for a week, I couldn’t imagine having to share news of an accident with someone’s family who didn’t even know me. I silently thanked God for watching over our little caravan as we drove deeper into Mexico.

Potholes and lack of sleep were threatening to ruin what seemed like a good idea hours before.  We continued to pick our way toward San Felipe. My scare woke me up; it had the opposite effect of the coffee. As we got further in, we ran across our first checkpoint. I was familiar with sobriety checkpoints in the U.S. by police in neat uniforms, handguns holstered. In Mexico the checkpoints were different, waifish teen soldiers manned them, wearing too-big, olive-green uniforms belted tightly at the waist. They had shoulder-strapped machine guns pointed to the ground, fingers trigger-ready.

Our routine, set at the border, remained the same. Damani led the way, leaning out of the driver’s side window of the truck, pointing to our car and then pulling up and waiting while the soldiers asked us for ID.

“Show your IDs,” translated Reyna. We dutifully passed them out the window. I mostly avoided eye contact except after they reviewed my ID so they could see my face. In the meantime, I glanced at this kid’s boots and at his hand holding the butt of the gun, and hoped he was sure of himself. What would happen if I said the wrong thing? I imagined a hail of gunfire in the side of the car Godfather-style and then pushed the thought out of mind. He let us go and we continued on.

As the road rushed beneath us, the deep dark of early morning surrounded us.  I imagined our convoy from a view in space, little toy cars on a track whose end we didn’t know. I felt inconsequential in the grand scheme of the universe, but it was oddly comforting. I thought of my mother at the kitchen sink humming a song and washing dishes. She would be asleep right now; under a dew-heavy early morning sky in Maryland, in the world, doing familiar things that I could conjure up at any time.

We finally arrived in the coastal town of San Felipe at sunup. The landscape was the color of sand. Pastel-colored advertisements lined the buildings on the side of the road.  At a small roadside stand, we bought a couple of freshly caught fish and a case of Tecate. I spied a fresh orange juice stand, and bought a jug for two dollars. Drinking that juice I felt plugged into the earth, happy to have the sun beaming on me under a canopy of sky in a place I had never been.

Once at the campsite we drove across the sand as far as we could and parked. On one side stood a rocky expanse of mountains, and on the other the tranquil blue of the Gulf of California. We picked our way across the burning sand, and stripped down to our underwear and hit the water. I walked into the calm water up to my shoulders wishing I could swim. Everyone else frolicked, slicing into waves emerging on top, drops of water hanging like crystals in their hair. Afterwards, we sunned on our towels inviting the bronzy glow of summer skin. It was so hot the air clogged my nostrils, but it was a dry heat not the swampy heat of summers in Maryland. I sat at the edge of the water to keep cool, my legs stretched before me as the surf rolled up my thighs.

That night we all pitched in to cook dinner. The guys grilled the fish, and warmed the tortillas.  We women sliced the limes, then chopped the cilantro and white onion. We ate with our fingers chasing each bite with a lukewarm swallow of beer. The flavors were foreign to me. Growing up, tacos were hard corn shells filled with ground beef, cheese, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce. They were good but this was different, the ingredients simple.

After dinner we sat around the campfire and chatted. I shared how good it felt to have said yes to this trip. As I gazed into the flare of wavering light in our fire pit I marveled that this was my life. I was out of the U.S. for the first time. In college, almost everyone I knew had taken a trip to Europe. The farthest I’d ever been was Utah, and that was back when I was a kid. Now I was in Mexico, and while there were more tourists than locals on the beach that day, it felt good not to be in an insulated hotel somewhere.

When it was time for bed, we carved sleep pits into the sand with our bodies, laid a sheet in the hollow and formed a slumber circle. Under a midnight blue, star-studded sky, I slept in the cool embrace of sand lulled by the crash of waves.

The next morning the sun woke me at first light, blooming blood-orange behind my eyelids. Eyes shut; I lifted my chin to the sky and let the sun warm my face. The rhythmic lull of the Gulf, rolling up the sand then receding back into the watery depths, made me want to lay there forever.  I stretched my heels maneuvering the sheets to my ankles and then gripped the still-cool sand with my toes. As a little girl, I preferred bare feet, and the soft scratch of grass on my soles. Now I realized I had always been to Mother Earth. On that short trip I lived off her, and in return she took care of me. Gulf waters massaged away my fatigue. Fish nourished me. Sand was my bed. Rays of sunlight were my morning alarm. Mexico was the beginning of my new life, one whose path was just beginning to unfurl.

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