SONORA, MEXICO — Driving south over The Line and into Sonora, the small crosses and ornate, sometimes gaudy nichos erected for the dead, the dying, and the lost along the Mexican highways suggest that this place is dangerous. There is a theory, pushed in American literature, movies, and popular mythology, that this vague sense of chaos and danger is what draws us Yankees to Mexico—especially those of us who grew up in the Southwest after it was civilized.
The argument can be made that Mexico, specifically Sonora, with its simultaneous reputations for lawlessness and repression, its obsession with death, its strange, haphazard infrastructure, and its ubiquitous, Third World poverty, is still today what the Western territories were during that brief mythological time of the frontier.
Perhaps its such a sentiment that allows presumably decent Americans to behave like scoundrels once they cross The Line. And surely it is a similar, albeit unconscious, belief that caused people to scoff and worry when I told them that I was planning to tool around Sonora for few days in, of all things, my car.
I was searching for a place, one that I had in my mind but I wasn’t sure still existed. I was looking for a fishing village on the Sea of Cortez free of frat boys passed out in the tamped-dirt streets, a kind of squalid paradise, with all the beauty of the gulf but unencumbered by gulag hotels and barking sycophants selling ceramics, sombreros, and T-shirts.
The most famous and popular gulf destination is Puerto Penasco, Rocky Point, a dusty gringo colony— each front property in Arizona. It’s all parasailing, jet-skis, cult-of-the- body bikini strutting, college kid dance clubs, and drinking, and drinking, and more drinking.
I wondered if Sonora and the quiet, glassy Sea of Cortez had more (and less) to offer. So, colleague Jim Lamb and I decided to take a weekend to try to find out if this is true.
The most beautiful women in Arizona live in the small border community of Nogales, that’s I think a well-kept secret.
The 20-something Latina who sold us our Mexican insurance (about $35 for liability for three days, sold at small firms throughout the city— highly recommended) was so poised and lovely that I considered scrapping the trip altogether to look for an apartment and a job.
But we crossed the border and immediately knew we were in a different country. Nogales, Sonora, Mexico: a city of about 500,000 people, most of them poor. The streets are loud and crowded. Smells come in fast, from enticing to abhorrent in seconds. There are children everywhere, many of them in Catholic school uniforms. The traffic is an organic jerking beast rather than a system of controlled stops and starts. Outside the city, Mexico’s Route 15 opens up,moving through many small roadside villages, green drainage valleys, and miles and miles of desert scrub.
The open land in Sonora is not significantly different from the open land in Southern Arizona, an aesthetic continuity that is about the only reminder that the extreme north of Mexico and the extreme south of the United States used to be the same place. Everything else is different.
The air often smells like fire. Now and again I looked to the side of the road and saw a small inexplicable brush fire burning. Often a wizened old man would be standing nearby. On the most remote stretches of the highway, and every point in between,we saw large ornate nichos—roadside shrines—that must have taken days to build.
The road to Caborca is lined with corrugated tin shacks with plastic water tanks on their roofs, cacti, wild horses, wooden crosses, and the Virgin of Guadalupe painted in green, red, and yellow on hillsides and boulders. This is why I wanted to drive in Mexico. Driving on the main thoroughfares of the U.S. it’s nothing but the same signs over and over—no mystery, no fear. But you rarely risk running out of gas. And if you get hungry, there’s going to be something you recognize at the next exit for sure.
A midsize city about 100 miles from the Sea of Cortez, Caborca is a typical Mexican desert city, with its sparse central zocalo, its disastrous roads, and its mostly modern amenities. We stayed the night in a hotel, the pool overflowing with about 50 swimming and splashing kids and the courtyard full of families sitting together late into the night.
We watched Roger Clemens win his 300th game, the Spanish- speaking announcer talking so fast that all we could recognized was his constant Yankees, Yankees, Yankees. We had the best drink in the world, a michelada: a beer in a glass packed with ice, the bottom third filled with lime juice, and the rim salted like a margarita. The next morning,we woke early and set out for our destination, what I hoped would turn out to be the place I was looking for: El Desemboque. Federal Route 37, a terrifying, jarring two-lane trip to the gulf, the air getting fishier and heavier as we got closer. This is far off the main path, a place you have to be looking for to get to.
We pulled into the village, its roads just deep sand extensions of the perfect white beach. Shacks, houses rigged together from found items, discarded fishing nets, lined the tiny roads. Children stopped playing and stared as we went by.
A boatyard of single-file fishing dingies, ancient trucks pulling the fish-heavy boats up from the shore to the village. A stray dog fished languidly in the shallow, calm gulf. We parked and walked down to the beach. There was a kind of quiet there that made it seem rude to speak. The water was warm, the clean beach empty as far as we could see through the humid hazy morning. The only sound was lapping water, and sometimes a sharp laugh from the village children playing around our car. This is the place I was looking for.
But what do we do now that we have found it? Where are we going to sleep, eat. Can I get a michelada here?
Then we realized—Rocky Point is only 100 or so miles north through the desert. We could be there in a few hours…Have a few drinks, stay in a nice hotel, look at the girls… . Everything is a trade off, so you might as well embrace it all.
Originally published in the Green Valley News