Friday, March 20, 2009

In Search Of The Blue Piñon – Part 6 of 6

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.

Maxipinon on hillside2 Beto and I returned to the chocolate, retraced the rough road to the last junctions, and took the steep uphill fork we’d bypassed earlier, rocking and bouncing up a final kilometer or so to the top of the mesa, and turned North. As we crested the mesa top, the azules disappeared; at no place on the flat mesa top did I see an azul more than ten feet from the rim. The top of the mesa was a pleasant mix of meadows, oak stands, and groves of michoacana, and moments later we arrived at the construction site. Pueblo Viejo from C Pinones We stopped, exited the truck, and Beto greeted the crew- four Mexicans who were apparently living at the site, and a fifth who’d arrived earlier in the day by mule. The crew included the fourth Pintero brother, “Seco”, who was friendly and curious about me, and Tomas, a worker who’d spent several years working in the U.S, and spoke excellent English. Beto and Tomas proudly gave me a tour of the site. (As the tour began, a cynical little voice inside me noted that no matter where you go in Mexico these days, you will eventually wind up on a timeshare tour.)

IMG_1977 The half dozen “cabanas” were roughly 80% complete, in the form of adjoining two-story townhouses, each with a small balcony. As we walked through, I noticed sleeping bags in a corner here and there; the workers were boarding onsite.

Tomas and I chatted about his time in the U.S. He’d lived and worked in California for several years, marrying a gringa in the process. Roughly a year ago he was deported; Tomas believes someone reported him. His wife followed him home to Juchipila, but after several weeks declared that life in a small Mexican town wasn’t what she’d signed up for, and she packed up and headed home.

IMG_1975 Miguel, Beto, Tomas. It was getting hard to chit-chat in this town without hearing a border-related heartbreak story. Long solo car trips in Mexico involve a lot of time listening to Mexican pop ballads on the radio. Separation, heartbreak, and possible future reunions are overriding themes of such ballads, and when you get out of the car and start talking to people in Mexico, it seems that the same themes keep popping up over and over again.

The cabanas were coming along well, and looked to be attractive, comfortable, and in a in a lovely setting, but it was hard for me to imagine how many tourists would make their way up there. Juchipila isn’t on the way to anyplace special, the drive from Juchipila to Cerro Pinones is long and rough. Other than botanists and botanist wannabes, it’s hard to imagine how many people would plan to travel to and stay on such a remote mesa, which except for the azules, is much like dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of similar mesas in central Mexico. But the brothers Pintero clearly believed in the promise of their project; on the road to the top of the Mesa we’d passed under power lines hanging from widely spaced towers following a straight line from the valley floor up to the Mesa top. Beto had related the difficulties of getting the lines in place, sharing enough detail – including hourly helicopter rates- to allow me to make quick calculation of the costs involved in bringing the power lines to the mesa top- roughly US$100,000.

IMG_1911 Beto had one more stop planned for our tour. Back in the chocolate, we retraced the road to where it left the mesa top, and instead of descending, turned off onto a spur continuing South along the plateau. We parked and continued South on foot. The mesa top here was a series of open meadows separated by stands of oak: a sunny contrast to the shaded Michoacana forest surrounding the cabanas. We walked close to the East rim of the mesa, and as we did we we looked over the crowns of azules growing high on the slope immediately below us, and occasionally alongside a small azul growing on the mesa top, but never did an azul grow on the mesa top further than 10 feet from the rim, as if held back from the interior of the mesa by some invisible force.

View S from S Point As we walked, we chatted in a mix of English and Spanish, Beto describing to me how they harvested seeds by clipping cones, and then attempting to stop the cones from rolling hundreds of feet down the sloping side of the mesa after they hit the ground. After ½ a mile, we reached our destination, the Southern point and end of the mesa. The long view was magnificent: range after range, valley after valley (pic right.) But the near view was of greater interest: nearly the entire range of Pinus maximartiezii was laid out below us, map-like, on the flanks of the mesa. We spent a while there. Several times I pointed out a patch of piñon-looking green on the adjacent range to the West, questioning whether they might be azules as well. Beto assured me they were not. The entire range of the Pinon Azul was limited to the modest universe of our one mesa.

For a video panorama from the South point of Cerro Piñones, click here.

IMG_1986 We retraced our path to the chocolate, and started the drive down. On the long, slow ride back to Juchipila, our conversation drifted away from trees and ranged from children to Juchipila gossip to Spanish grammar to beer. Beto mentioned that he’d be drinking some that night, since this day was his birthday. His 34th.

Yet again, I was amazed. Beto had taken a whole day to guide a stranger who’d showed up the night before all over the mesa, and on his birthday no less. I shared my surprise at his graciousness and asked him to let me buy the beer for his party. He declined gently, saying, “No, my friends will buy it. Don’t worry about it. I know how it is, when you go on vacation, and you really want to see something, how tough it is if you don’t get to see it…”

IMG_1998 And there it was. The real surprise of my adventure wasn’t the beauty of the azules or flavor of the nuts- though these had exceeded my greatest expectations. The real surprise was that a flaky American speaking lousy Spanish could show up in a remote Mexican town, a town in which people knew America, and had worked and experienced all sorts of challenges and discrimination and heartbreak there, and that a dozen people and two families would stop everything on a moment’s notice and assemble a plan and a vehicle and a guide and resources to help that gringo realize his vacation dream for no payment but the knowledge of a favor done, and that the guide would do so on his birthday no less.

We returned to Juchipila, had lunch, stopped by the copy shop to collect my new copy of Perry’s The Pines of Mexico and Central America (total copying cost: US$11.00) and finally returned to Moro’s house, where Beto generously augmented my collected seeds with a bagful of “float-tested” seeds, (Good seeds sink in water) before bidding me “Que le vaya bien”.

IMG_8357 Back in the luxury of my rental car, once again racing the sun across the high plateau, I thought about how so much of Mexican history has been defined by foreigners coming on hunts for treasure. Cortez, Maximilian, Walker- all sought treasures of one sort or another, with results ranging from spectacular to disastrous. The treasure I came for- a bag of pine nuts- was on the passenger seat next to me. The treasure I didn’t expect- help, guidance and friendship extended to a stranger- I’m reminded of whenever I walk into my kitchen at home, and see the Martinez seedlings growing on the window sill, their soft bluish needles lit up in the afternoon sun. (pic left = Twin B with 3 year-old seedling.)


KanyonKris said...

Wow. A unique adventure and good story. Thanks for sharing it.

Twin B is a cutie. And I hope to see the azul sapling, if it's OK with you.

Chris said...

Loved the story, Watcher. Thanks.

Chris in Portland

Watcher said...

Thanks guys, glad you liked the story.

KKris- definitely. I’d love to show you the seedlings. I also brought back one of the monster cones that you’d get a kick out of. I live right near the zoo; maybe if BST dries out again in the next week or so we could meet for a ride up by my place and you can check them out before /after.

Dale Hoyt said...

Your experience in Mexico echos one I had many years ago. On a collecting trip/honeymoon my first wife and I got lost in Mexico City. We were driving around in an industrial district, stopping and looking at a map, trying to find a way to get to Michoacan. A guy pulled over and asked if we needed any help. We explained where we wanted to go and he says (in perfect English): "Follow me." I thought we were just a little lost, but we followed him for 45 minutes and many miles north of Mexico City. He signaled for us to pull over at a restaurant and we followed him in. He had led us to the entrance of a turnpike that went to our destination. And then he asked us to have dinner with him! We talked and ate - he worked for Nabisco and had spent a lot of time in the US. And then he refused to let us pay anything for our meal. This was just one of the many occasions where Mexicans went out of their way to be helpful and friendly. Viva Mexico!

KanyonKris said...

With your comment as evidence, I take it you have arrived home safe and sound. Selfishly this means to me: up-coming stories about Costa Rica!

Anonymous said...

Watcher, this was really an amazing story. Is it true? How could everything work out so beautifully?

Seriously, you should redouble your efforts to publish this story to a wider audience - it has all the elements a cerebral audience needs.

I've been to Mexico many times, mostly in the south (Michoacan, Oaxaca, Puebla) collecting beetles. I have many wonderful stories and experiences from those many trips (that I hope are not yet over), but nothing so bold and reliant upon a cascade of unplanned successes as this. Congratulations on achieving your dream of seeing the pinyon azul!


Watcher said...

Ted- thanks for the kind comment/ congrats. It's 100% true. The whole adventure really kicked into high gear my interest in trees and plants in general, and left me with an inordinate fondness for things Mexican- especially people!

I have yet to visit Puebla or Oaxaca, but was fortunate enough to spend several days in Michoacan, mostly around Lake Patzcuaro. I loved the colonial towns, the countryside and the cool pine forests. It's a charming part of the country that many of us Northerners are unaware of.

Gwalchgwyn said...

Great telling! I stumbled across "In Search Of The Blue Pinon" while surfing for seed sources for these and other rare Northern Mexico Pines of the fascinating Pinon group. I appreciate your interest especially in the details of plants. Well written!

northplainswalker said...

Enjoyed the blue pinon article. I first became aware of the species after reading Jesse Perry's trip account to the region in American Forests magazine in probably the late 70's or very early 80's. I contacted Jesse for some help in a pine identification from the Chisos Mts. of Big Bend Natl Park. We corresponded a number of times, a very gracious and helpful individual. He sent me a number of pine samples from his Mexican trips and included was a cone of Pinus maximartinezii! I purchased his book when it was published and was honored to find myself as a citation, pretty neat way to always remember his help. Would love to make the trip to see the trees in habitat.