first southern thumb

Editor: my Ear and hitch partner – Alyssa Conley
Her YouTube page

“What a nice place to be buried,” she said, “among all the trees.”  Brightly colored adobe tombs wink in dappled sunlight on the jungled hillside facing a yellow strip of beach and the rolling Pacific. Wreathes of ribbons cascade over headstones next to homemade wooden crosses commemorating 3 months of life. Marble books are left open to pages with inscriptions of faith or adoration for loved ones lost.  A sunny yellow abstraction explodes next to a concrete mausoleum covered in broken shards of mirror. The shriveled long dead roses contrast the massive purple plastic blooms.

It was a nice place to be buried but we’re not dead yet. Though it might be soon. So buy the ticket, take the ride and laissez les bon temps rouler. We stick out our thumbs north.

It only took two different trucks for our entire trip across central Mexico – from the beaches of Puerto Vallarta to the cool hills of San Miguel de Allende. On the friendly truck of Mexico, I can only say: they may be uncomfortable but at least they’re slow.

Our first truck was a delightful old boy deadheading an empty rig to Guadalajara. He was sitting on the only seat and he shook his head in amusement as we tried to maneuver our bags into a comfortable seat in the cramped cab. We were not helped by Aly’s 15 hula hoops or my bag of 28 books but everybody has their little addictions. With wild gesticulations and a solemn voice, he told his story of crossing the border – three days without food or water in the desert, the bones of the unlucky bleached along the path. But he shrugged off the danger. He didn’t like the States anyway.

This was the most achingly slow part of the entire hitch. I look with longing whenever we passed over the long straight highway, almost empty of traffic because of the obscenely high tolls. The trucks stayed on the old road that wound through the hills that added hours to the journey. We groaned through the switchbacks and whenever we’d get stuck behind an overloaded inching truck, our driver would huff and puff in frustration. At the slimmest of openings to pass, he’d gun his rig into the other lane, throwing his head back with a guffaw as we cheered him on.

He made Aly laugh with his spitfire Spanish stories while I stared out the window at the eagles floating over the scrub and the many headed cacti, inverted green chandeliers. The dusty towns were broken up by the momentary jewels of the plazas –  red sandstone churches and old men playing guitars, the bright colors of the senoritas in full blossom.

As we approached Tequila, the spiky blue-green agave plants grew along the road, following the contours of the land in curving lines. The jimadores worked the fields, tending the plants with generations of wisdom untouched by modern farming techniques. They make the careful decision when to begin the backbreaking harvest, aiming for when the sugar has ripened but before the seeds have spirited it away. Then many hands hack it out of the ground for the dozens of distilleries lining the road through town.

At the first signs of Guadalajara’s sprawl, we bid a fond adios to our driver and have him drop us at one of the speed bumps that pepper the highway. They’re a hitchhiker’s dream, slowing the cars down long enough to read our handmade cardboard sign and check us for signs of sanity. I’ve never hitchhiked with a companion before so I’m delighted at how much easier it is with Aly to watch my back and help evaluate the rides. We trade tricks of the road to help pass the time, contemplating an illustrated “Guide of the Thumb.”

“There’s a good lesson for Mexico,” she says. “The rides pull over fast so we can afford to be choosy. We lost a lot of hours because of how much slower the trucks go on those lousy roads. During the day, trucks are a bad bet but they’ll run all night. I think we only have enough light now for one more ride so let’s wait for a truck.”
“You’re right. We shouldn’t have set our expectations so high – hoping to make an 8 hour drive in one day.”
“So it goes,” she says. I nod and turn to the highway with our sign.

The truck driver who stopped twanged our radar with imprecise words about his route but the sun was setting and we needed to cross the city. As we got in, he asked for both our passports and I went into bad cop mode. “Absolutely not. There’s no reason to see that and I’m ready to get out if he doesn’t like it.” I kept my hand on my mace until we figured out he was actually a good bloke, if awkward and taciturn – a family man with photos of his kids next to pinups of blonde porn stars and a calendar of the Virgin Mary in her blue robes. He just wanted to make sure he wasn’t picking up fugitives.

When it was my turn to stay awake with him while Aly slept in the back, he’d stop for piss breaks to disappear behind the truck and come back  with the coke sniffles. I don’t know why he hid it from me. After 18 years on the Baja to Mexico City route, I’m sure he knew how to use his stimulants well. The only time he scared me was when he pulled over to “pee” again with the cruiser of a federali parked only fifty feet up the road waiting for speeders. I thought that was pushing his luck. The federal cops aren’t nearly as crooked as the local boys but that’s no reason to do bumps right under their nose. Until we drove by and I realized that the cop car was a cardboard cutout.

He dropped us at a truck stop at 4 in the morning, only 50 kilometers from our destination but on the far side of a fair sized city. We chugged coffee until dawn while Aly canvassed the few cars that stopped for gas. It took a couple of cold hours to finally find a ride but it wasn’t bad because we had already resigned ourselves to a long wait at a lousy spot.

It made the appearance of our angel all the more holy – a smile as big as his cowboy hat and a heart as big as his trailer of BMWs (I know it’s a lousy line but you do better after hitching all night on bad coffee). He fed us granola bars and boomed forth with his enthusiasm. He loved Mexico “I tried Texas but it didn’t take.” He loved his wife (Into the phone he cooed, “Yes, mi amor. Muchos besos mi amor.” But most of all he loved rock music. The sun came up to an invigorating blast of Dark Side of the Moon followed by  Heartbreak Hotel. He beat the steering wheel to Crazy Train and motioned for us to listen closely to a solo by Axel Rose. He wished us ‘buena suerte’ at the highway’s off-ramp and we walked into the most beautiful city I’ve seen in Mexico, San Miguel de Allende.

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Lex Pelger

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