Note: I’m away and offline this week. I’ve set up an auto-post series of this Mexican-Tree-Adventure story in my absence.
So it was that one Thursday afternoon in February 2006 I was speeding across the high plateaus of Northern Jalisco in a rental car, racing the sun to the Zacatecas border.
Like on nearly all of my Latin American road trips, I’d underestimated the time to reach my destination, specifically the time required to bypass Guadalajara proper on the depressing Anillo Periferico (“Peripheral Ring”) and to descend and climb out of the dramatic Rio Santiago gorge just North of the city. Northern Jalisco and Southern Zacatecas are a vast, dry empty-seeming land of broad valleys, high mesas, and endless rugged mountain ranges interrupted by scattered fields of agave. As the sun sank lower and lower, and I descended off the plateau, passed the Zacatecas state agricultural checkpoint and entered the Juchipila River valley, I became concerned as to whether I’d reach Pueblo Viejo, obtain route information, and find a place to sleep before dark. In Moyahua I questioned a 20-something Pemex attendant on local routes and road conditions. The attendant, who’d spent his life in Moyahua, had never been to Pueblo Viejo, a mere 10km away, but he confirmed that the road was unpaved and of questionable quality. Playing it safe, I continued on the main road 15 minutes further to Juchipila.
Juchipila is a sizeable town for Southern Zacatecas, but still a small town, with probably a couple of thousand inhabitants. It’s not geared for tourists, and lacks the helpful signs of towns on the tourist routes. I had to ask a couple of local cops on the plaza for directions to the town’s only hotel, back on the outskirts of town, and when I arrived, the place was locked up tight and deserted.
Next door was a “Llantera” or tire repair shop, with a couple of locals sitting in the shade. (Mexicans make their tires last, and almost every town in Mexico has at least a couple of llanteras.) I strolled across the dirt lot to the shade-sitters and asked if they knew the whereabouts of the hotel proprietor. One of them, a mustachioed mestizo in his mid-30’s stood up, explained that he too was waiting for the proprietor, walked back with me to recheck the hotel door, and then indicated that he believed the proprietor was off getting a bite to eat, and would return shortly. He then asked me what brought me to Juchipila, and I told him I’d come to find the Blue Piñons up on Cerro Piñones, wondering if he’d even know what I was talking about.
He knew exactly what I was talking about. “Yes, I know the owners of the land”, he said. I hesitated, surprised. He repeated, “I know the owners”, this time in English. I said, sticking to Spanish, “Do you think I should ask them permission to go see the trees?”
“It might be a good idea”, he replied, again in English. “If you like, I can take you there to meet them and ask them while we wait for this guy to get back.”
At this point I switched to English, agreed and together we headed back toward Juchipila in my rental car. My guide introduced himself as Jorge. Jorge had worked for more than 10 years in the U.S. and meeting him was to be my first experience in one of Juchipila’s biggest surprises: the average male over 30 in Juchipila has worked in the US and speaks much better English than I do Spanish.
We drove back into downtown, and Jorge guided me through a confusing maze of one-way streets. We stopped at a driveway through a small gate in the row of what I could best describe as “townhouses”, though it was really just a typical block of Mexican residential homes without any space in between, each sharing a wall with its neighbors. We stepped through the gate and into the small driveway/courtyard of what appeared to be a typical middle-class home. There were a few chairs about, and some piles of things and containers and tools and a few buckets that appeared to indicate various projects underway, though I’d spent enough time in Mexico to recognize that often times such a “project underway” appearance that one might consider temporary in the U.S. is sometimes a bit more permanent in Mexico.
Jorge greeted a man and a woman in the courtyard. The woman was in her mid-30’s, holding a sleeping blonde-haired toddler. (Like so many Americans, I’m always embarrassed to find myself surprised at seeing a blond Mexican. Juchipila was full of Mexicans who appeared “white”.) The man, also in his mid-30’s, was shirtless and shoeless, clad only in sweatpants, and holding some sort of bandage-like wad of gauze to his left armpit.
Jorge quickly told the man and the woman, without introductions, why we were there. The exchange was too fast for me to follow completely, but quickly became clear that we needed to speak with another person- apparently the man of the house- who was not there, and was in fact on his way back from Cerro Piñones. The woman recommended we see someone else down the street.
Jorge thanked them and we left, Jorge explaining that there were several residents who owned parts of Cerro Piñones, and that they’d recommended we speak with another in the meantime, who lived only two blocks away. “This guy speaks really good English”, he said. We knocked on a non-descript red door, and were greeted by a teenager. Jorge asked if his father were home and he lead us inside. The room we entered was large, high-ceilinged, and at the far end, in front of a desk with a computer, sat a man and a woman in office-roller chairs. Above the desk, covering that one wall, were about a dozen heavy-metal posters. The man who arose from the desk and computer to greet us appeared to be in his mid-to-late 50’s, and wore his long, graying hair in a ponytail. We introduced ourselves to each other in Spanish and then switched to English, which he spoke fluently with only the slightest trace of an accent. His name was Miguel Lara. Miguel quickly peppered me with questions: Where are you from? What was your name again? Why do you want to see the trees? Who are you with?
I quickly explained that I wasn’t “with” anybody, wasn’t employed by any organization or agency that had anything to do with pines or plants or the natural world in general, but that I was just an “amateur botanist” who had read of the Martinez Piñon and wanted to see it in the wild. Actually, “amateur botanist” was a bit of a stretch, but I was afraid that “ordinary guy who became obsessed with a tree and traveled a couple thousand miles to see it” might sound just a bit too loco-gringo…
Miguel seemed satisfied that I was what I said I was, explained that he was helping the woman at the desk, and asked if I could return in 15 minutes. Jorge and I returned to the hotel to find it open, the front desk manned by the proprietor’s teenage daughter, who also spoke very good English. I thanked Jorge for his help, checked myself into a room, and 15 minutes later was back in Miguel’s front hall/office/heavy-metal shrine.
All About Miguel
Miguel Lara was born in Juchipila. In 1959 at age 9, his family emigrated to the U.S. Miguel quickly mastered English, did well in school, and built himself a typical middle-class American life, working for Teradyne for 18 years. Sometime in the last few years, he had returned to his hometown with his two Mexican-American teenage sons, Miguel Jr. and Jose, the teenager who had greeted Jorge and me at the door. Both sons were university students in Guadalajara, and Jose, who was majoring in biology, was home on break.
Miguel Jr. and Jose are both bilingual and hold dual citizenship, but it was apparent that Jose was a bit more comfortable with Spanish. Miguel Sr. actively encourages both sons to maintain and improve their English. While at school, all email correspondence with their father is in English, which Miguel Sr. diligently checks and corrects.
Miguel supported himself in part by teaching science and English at the local high school. He asked where I was staying, and when I told him, asked if the proprietor’s daughter had checked me in, describing her age and appearance. When I indicated that yes, it was she who’d checked me in, Miguel said, “Yes. She’s in my class. I’m going to flunk her.” I objected that I’d found her English pretty impressive, but Miguel was un-moved. “She’s lazy, never studies worth a damn.”
Neither Miguel Sr. nor Jose volunteered any information concerning a mother or Miguel’s marital status, and during the first hour or so we were together I didn’t ask.
Miguel, Jose and I sat together as I explained my interest in and research on the Martinez Piñon. Miguel had never heard of Ledig nor his bottleneck theory, but he was well-informed about the tree and its history. He claimed that the tree had been known to Spanish explorers and settlers long before Rzedwoski, at least as far back as the mid-16th century. He referred to mountain on which it grows always as “Cerro Alto Piñones”, never just “Cerro Piñones”. According to Miguel, the land was divided up by 11 separate private landowners, of which he was one. Over time, Miguel and several other landowners had worked diligently to ban cattle grazing and improved seedling regeneration, but conflicts still existed with some cattle-owning landowners, as well as adjacent landowners who allowed their cattle to wander onto Cerro Piñones. Miguel and the other “tree-conscious” landowners were actively working with the Mexican government, receiving limited grant funds for their efforts at conservation and regeneration.
While discussing the topography of Cerro Piñones, I pulled out my copy of Lopez-Mata’s map. Miguel glanced at it briefly and quickly pronounced it inaccurate, pointing to a swath on the North slope of the mesa where the map indicated Martinez Piñon, and remarking that none of the trees grew that far North.
As we talked, Miguel reached up and pulled a Martinez pine cone off a shelf and handed it to me. It was the largest, heaviest pine cone I’d ever seen, the size of a pineapple, with thick wooden scales. After a bit more discussion, Miguel offered to show me some seedlings he was growing and some cones he was drying out for seeds. We rose from the desk, and Miguel and Jose led me from the front room into the rest of the house.
The Lara home was in the middle of a years-long expansion and restoration. Throughout the house, it was unclear where indoors ended and outdoors began, or whether one was walking through garage, home, or nursery. As we walked through the various rooms and open spaces, Miguel share with me endless details of this never-ending project: the third floor he’d added himself, the temporary bedroom for a sometime visiting American friend, who’d left his vintage pickup parked in what appeared to be another bedroom, the next-door nephew who’d destroyed one of Miguel’s load-bearing walls in the course of his one home-improvement project, and whom Miguel had sued to stop from causing further damage…
In the open space that could best be described as “courtyard”, Miguel had a tray containing several dozen Martinez seedlings. Roughly 3” tall, the seedlings were a light blue-green color and delicate to the touch. Miguel’s seeding and replanting efforts have had mixed results; he’s generally been able to germinate 25% of what appear to be good seeds. When planting seedlings on Cerro Piñones, aspect and exposure appear to be the most important factors: with south-facing seedlings in the sun, he’s experienced a near-100% mortality rate. When planting on shady north-facing slopes, more than 50% of seedlings have thrived.
The next room, an open brick-walled chamber 10’ x 20’, nearly the entire floor was covered with Martinez cones being dried for seeds. As I picked up and handle various cones, seeds literally spilled out onto the floor. I marveled at the size of cones and seeds, taking pictures of Jose holding a cone for scale. After all this time thinking and wondering about this rare tree, I was finally crouched in a sea of its giant cones, sifting through its rare, priceless seeds.
I knew when I’d planned the trip that I was coming at the wrong time of year to collect any seeds. Martinez piñon cones, like all piñon cones generally ripen sometime between August and October. I’d hoped, but didn’t expect, to come across a few seeds while scrambling around Cerro Piñones. Yet here I was with seeds all around. I’m ashamed to say that at that very moment, my first thought was whether and how to pocket a few.
Miguel rescued me from temptation: “Go ahead and take a few seeds if you like. Maybe you can try growing a few at home.” I gathered a dozen or so and popped them in a pocket.
Our tour of the Lara home continued with long explanations of past and future renovations. Finally we ascended a ladder to the roof, which commanded a beautiful third-story view of Juchipila and the surrounding valley. It was only a few minutes after sunset, and the early dusk light was perfect for pointing out landmarks. Miguel identified several, but only two stuck in my mind. To the south, only about 5 kilometers distant, Miguel pointed out two low buttes rising from the middle of the valley. Called Cerro Las Ventanas, it is the location of an archeological site that according to Miguel, has never been seriously excavated, is under government protection and requires permission to visit. Finally, looming above the valley, at the southern end of the mountain range to the West of the valley, Miguel pointed out Cerro Piñones. It looked high, distant and rugged.