(A note of explanation: This now obsolete travel account was written perhaps 15 years ago. The trip itself was in 1987. The story for many years had a home on a University of Texas computer which very recently was taken out of service, and without much warning. So I decided to put it here. Photos related to this story can be found here.)
We drove over the pass into another valley in northern Mexico, still between rumbling trucks, the looming bumper of an 18-wheeler filling the rear window of our Subaru; ahead of us and behind us were diesel trucks plunging through the Mexican desert in a discordant rising and falling full cry of gear changes, like wildly trumpeting elephants in a runaway circus parade.
We escaped into a roadside turnout overlooking the valley, and the juggernaut crashed past. I was suddenly immersed in silence, and oversized scenery. The landscape, viewed from the vantage point of the mountain passes, appeared rough, vast, and ancient. The highway was the only trace of twentieth century inevitability, ribboning with a pulse of noise and steel through mountains tumbled in geologic time. The traffic was visible from afar, by day by columns of smoke, diesel plumes, and by night by the endless trail of the truck headlights. From a distance the highway was the only sign of life in the immense shambles of the desert.
An old Mexican I once knew told me of a place called Real de Catorce, where time stopped a hundred years ago, a lost city accessible only through a one-way tunnel at the end of a narrow road high in the Sierra of San Luis Potosi.
Real de Catorce, "mining camp of fourteen." Who--or what--were the fourteen? Nobody knows. Some say they were bandits who two hundred years ago robbed the silver caravans which came filtering down the long rocky narrow shin-splinting desert mule trails of the North to the City of Mexico.
The bandit camp became a mining town. By 1900 twenty five thousand people lived there. Then in 1910 the bandoliered armies of the Revolution came, rode horses into the drawing rooms of the mining barons, and rode away wearing beaver hats and homburgs, leaving behind smoke and splinters and bloodstains on the walls. Everybody left. The silver mines were shut down. The pumps rusted and the mine shafts filled up with water. There are a few people still living there now, in the ruins. Mexican pilgrims still visit the town because of its widely revered icon of St. Francis.
"Where are we now?" Kay asked, looking up from the Mexican highway map. We gazed at the ancient cobblestone road, not shown on the map, that diverged from the highway and disappeared into the distance, toward a range of high and forbidding mountains. "This has to be it," I said, guessing.
An hour before we had seen a 20 foot tall promotional billboard: "Penetrate the legend of the ancient colonial city of Real de Catorce--30 minutes." A big arrow pointed up the road to the west. Time and distance. Mexico.
The cobbled road was patterned like tile and consisted of millions of individual jolts, and our old Subaru rattled and bucked. The disintegration threshold of the car and complaint threshold of the passengers seemed to be about 15 miles per hour, so we rolled encased in our drumroll tattoo of tinclatter, slowly up into the desolate mountains at a bone-breaking snail's pace, for another hour. Finally we came to a tunnel. We paid an attendant a few cents and he waved us through. The tunnel was a mile and a half long. We came out in a big dusty parking lot. Most of the town of Real de Catorce was on the stony hill above us. We were now at an altitude of 9000 feet. The air was thin and cold
It was about noon and the sky was becoming pale with the dust of the rising wind. The town appeared rusty red, dull yellow, purple, and brown, the colors of the rock of which it was built; the colors of the hard and eroded stone mountain behind the ruins of the buildings.
Driving the walled narrow precipitous alleys was like driving up and down rocky arroyos. We found a way to a small hotel near the center of town and parked on the plummeting street with a rock under the front wheel and unloaded our stuff. The wind sandblasted our faces as it flung us through the door of the inn, a small lodging house which had a central courtyard open to the sky, where rough rock steps led to our second floor room. The room had a massive rough hewn wooden door and no lock. The windows closed on the inside with heavy wooden shutters. The beds were hard cotton mattresses on plank bed frames, with thin, insufficient blankets. The occasional suggestions of the world we had left on the other side of the tunnel--the room's feeble electric light bulbs, and downstairs, a toilet and a bathtub--surprised me like unexpected memories.
We walked forth into the windy streets which unpredictably faltered and petered out in the face of brute geology. The sun had disappeared; a faint, yellowish light filtered down through the blowing dust, and the violent wind plundered the town's abandoned stone rooms, creating a profound bass vibration that came to came to us as temblors through the soles of our shoes, a wind that would have to be measured on the Richter Scale. Doors and shutters banged in the distance like remote warfare; brittle static swarmed in our ears from the crazed hysteric whirr of the wind-blurred tatters of car-lot style plastic pennants left over from some fiesta half a year ago. The flag of the municipio struggled on its rope with the noise of cascading popcorn.
We walked a block and came to the massive town church made of dark and weathered stone, which overlooked the street. Wind-eroded stone saints prayed from outdoor niches in the walls, and rust-brown rock statues of the apostles stood guard on the roof. The wind roared louder and we sought refuge within.
Once our eyes got used to the dim light we discovered that the church was full of people. Workmen on high scaffolding were painting new gold stars on the blue ceiling of the nave. A young couple kneeled and placed candles at a shrine which displayed a large statue of St. Francis, which we had learned was renowned throughout Mexico for answering prayers of the faithful. A short spiky-haired man with five children and a dog blew in, noisily, and disappeared with his brood into a room behind the altar, and after a while came back out fiercely sweeping the floor, driving the dust like particles of heresy back toward the doors. His children played. The dog sat down and yawned, scratched, and went to sleep, out of the way in the north transept.
The spiky-haired man swept up to us and started telling us about the church. He was Don Pepe, the Sacristan. What he told us was hard to follow. He spoke of the current carpentry work, the church founding, and the mighty works performed in the name of St. Francis all in the same breath, as if they were contemporary events. "This guy" I was thinking, "is simple-minded," but later I realized that I was wrong. Perhaps my mistake was inevitable. Don Pepe's world was bounded by his church and his empty town, and over-arched by his anachronistic faith. He was overflowing with church facts, which emerged from his lips with reverence and amazement, as if the words themselves were miracles. He encouraged us to take pictures and offered to use our camera to photograph my family; Kay and Eve and me before the main altar. Then we took a picture of him and his children.
"I want to show you something, come here, in here, this way" he insisted, and we followed him through a door to the left of the altar.
"Look." he said. He held out his arm in a sweeping gesture. We were in an enormous room which was nearly entirely covered with small paintings on sheet metal, each one about twice as big as a license plate. These are called retablos, offered here as testimonials to miracles mediated by St. Francis. Each one has written on it a short description of some calamity, and its miraculous alleviation by the saint, and a painted scene related in some way to the story. The retablo is usually painted by the person offering it, but some are done by village artists who specialize in religious sign-painting.
We went up to the wall and started reading the obscure and colloquial little stories on the retablos, little devout true-life Christian fables, from what is now another place and time. Most of the paintings are beautiful. The effect of thousands of them on the walls in an 18th century church is strange, certainly unlike any art gallery I have ever been in, or for that matter any church. It reminded me of the kaleidoscopic clutter you will see on the walls of the office of a Texas junkyard. The absolute devotional quality of these things seemed out of sync with the scrap-metal patchwork exuberance of the chapel wall.
The stories on the retablos were laconic, credulous and biographical, now forgotten moments from thousands of lives. The mother of a man condemned to the firing squad gives thanks to San Francisco that the sentence was commuted to 20 years. The painting showed a man in a cell with his head bowed. Another one had a picture of a mule, plowing, with thanks that the animal was healed so that it could return to work in the spring of 1943. Innumerable grandmothers cured of a swelling, or a "stroke of blood" or blindness. Five thousand windows to another world. Don Pepe was happy for us to take photos.
Pleased that we liked his church so much, he then beckoned us to follow him to another room, behind the altar.
"Look at this." We looked. We were in a room full of statues, all life size, standing, facing the same direction like an ancient crowd frozen, some in horror, others in beatific piety, beholding the crucified Jesus who looked down at them from a giant cross propped up against the wall on the other side of the room. They were all illuminated in the thin dusty air by the light of a high eastern window. This was a storeroom where the saints and apostles were kept. All the images in the church except St. Francis and Our Lady had been removed from their shrines and niches and put in storage on account of the renovation work. The statues were all hand carved wood, naively realistic and painted pale and luminous religious flesh tones. Mary Magdalene stood exotic and sensual and beautiful with red lips and a wig of long black human hair. Jesus was agonized and contorted and bloody, naked on the cross except for a lavender satiny loincloth. "Daddy, is that man dead?" my daughter asked.
Don Pepe asked us to sit in the "throne of St. Francis," a straight-backed decorated wooden armchair, while he said a prayer for us and sprinkled us with holy water. I felt we would have good luck. We thanked him warmly for the tour, as he escorted us forth from the hidden rooms of the church.
The building is about two hundred years old. The original dome, which was 15 or 20 feet higher than the present one, caved in in 1800, killing several worshipers. The church was rebuilt more conservatively.
The image of St. Francis was moved here a hundred years ago from an elder church at the outskirts of town. All of the statues looked ancient. Nobody seemed to know when the St. Francis or any of the other figures were carved, or by whom. Don Pepe could care less, where the statues came from. He acted and spoke as if they were alive, and moved them around with easy familiarity, like saintly, physically handicapped in-laws. We were startled when he removed Mary Magdalene's hand, which was detachable, for us to admire; it was as like unexpected intimacy with an amputee.
When we left the church the wind had died down some, but the rarified crepuscular air smelled of dust and the sky was somber. We went for an evening walk, out to the other church, the older one, surrounded by a graveyard and a fortress-like wall ten feet high. A man bringing plastic flowers for the dead unlocked the great iron gate and let us in.
"How old is this church?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know. It's very old. It's older than the parish church" meaning the one in town.
We left the man to his devotions--he had come to pray at a fresh grave. We found out later that his 12 year old son had drowned in a flooded mine a week before.
The light inside the austere old church was a sort of pale sea-green, dusty and splendid. Faded banners decorated the aisles. The church was empty. As we left, after half an hour, the man who opened the gate was still praying, his lips moving silently, gazing past us, unseeing, toward the scarred, eroded lion-bodied sphinx mountain. From the graveyard you can look down on the distant desert floor, a mile below.
The next day we got a guide, Arturo. He closed up his curio shop after we bought some things there, and attached himself to us and began showing us around. He found some horses for us to rent, and we rode out on a trail to the original mine in the area, a low-headroom hole pickaxed into the rock two miles from town. The "Discoverer" mine. One day in 1794 a prospector stopped to fix his dinner. He built a fire in a circle of stones, and molten silver ran out of the rocks and puddled under his pan of tortillas. So we were told.
There is not much to see at the mine itself, but the ride had a desolate beauty. A panorama of total ecological devastation has a certain sobering emotional appeal, a crazy sort of grandeur.
"It's the goats" Arturo said. "The goats have eaten everything up, except for the cactus and the magueys." The hungry Spanish goats had been there for 200 years, gnawing everything down to the roots.
Arturo pointed out a nearby mountain where Huichol Indians come on their annual pilgrimage halfway across Mexico, on foot, to gather their sacred peyote cacti.
"They have been doing this always" he said. "We sell them goats to eat when they are here. We can see their fires at night, in the distance, and smell the goat meat. We hear them chanting sometimes."
We returned from our horseback ride past fields enclosed by prickly pear cactus and giant agave, living fences whose owners are dead. We saw only one human soul on our ride, a man carrying a bucket of "agave honey," that is, the sap of the agave used to make pulque, a Mexican village beer that has to be drunk in the precarious moment between the completion of fermentation and the onset of rot. The old gentleman was dressed picturesquely and we asked he would pose for our cameras. "No," he said, firmly, and changed the subject, asking Arturo how his family was. Arturo, pulled away from our world back to the one he had grown up in, filled the old man in on the health of his aunts and cousins.
Back in town, Arturo took us to the old mint, which is abandoned except for an art gallery in an ill-lit bare room, which contained an exhibit of his, Arturo's, photographs. Arturo was the town photographer. He was a man of the modern world, unlike Don Pepe, and seemed to be doing well as a tourist-oriented small businessman. He was energetic and likable, and for his services we paid him the week's wages of a miner.
He took us to the old cock-fighting arena, a secret tiny stone amphitheater, a sub-compact coliseum hidden behind the door of what looked like an ordinary house. We sat in the spectators' seats. We visualized crowds of gentlemen betting silver reales on their favorite gamecocks.
This slice of the illicit past had become too unimaginable. It was getting dark. We went out into the cold mountain air and walked on a little farther to the western edge of the town, a hilltop overlooking a distant twentieth century, and watched the sun go down as the great bell of the church, made of silver, tolled behind us, Don Pepe pulling down his loud peals of faith, hauling on the long bell rope.
I remembered the room full of statues, almost alive in the dusty atmosphere, illuminated by a cathedral light, and frozen by some ancient shout of faith. Don Pepe could live there, protected by his simple belief. I felt like the rest of us better move on.
Don Pepe gave us some retablos when we left Catorce.
"I don't think we should take these," we said.
"Take them. We throw the old ones away anyway. We have to have room to put the new ones up."
So now, many years later, I have one on my wall. It shows a group of six kneeling women holding candles and one man holding his hat, facing a tall robed figure with a halo who appears to be standing three feet off the ground on a cloud the size of a pillow. The saint's hands and feet are bleeding. The earth is orange and the sky is pink. The caption says "All of us together give this retablo for the miracle St. Francis of Catorce performed, saving my husband from dying of a strong bloody vomit. --(name illegible), of Salitrillo, San Luis Potosi, 1944"