We clear the border at Agua Prieta in time for lunch. We’re feeling pretty good about our progress.
“If we book it, I think we can still hit Chihuhua before it gets too dark,” I say optimistically, slurping on a pork and salsa verde taco. Actually I know Chihuahua is a stretch, but my elation at returning to Mexico is as good as a pair of rose colored glasses: even the potholes and the smell of sewage make me feel at home.
Leaving town to sail across the desert enhances my feeling of elation. From the tiny ranchos to the mica glittering in the desert rocks: Mexico! In a van! Blasting “87 Southbound”! The highway unrolls before us like a grey ribbon, devoid of traffic. I roll the window down and leaned my head out like a dog, smelling the dust and creosote, overcome by a sense of wild freedom.
We come to a screeching halt behind a double trailer semi. At first I think it’s broke down, but when I peer around I can see two more semis in front of it. An accident maybe? We sit for about twenty minutes before an investigation seemed mandatory. I climb down out of the van and walk into the middle of the highway. Semis and buses stretch as far as I can see: at least a mile of stalled traffic. Maybe more. The cars and trucks are piling up behind us as well. I get back in the van and dig for my book.
After another hour, Rich and I decide to walk up the line of trucks and find out what the deal is. After hoofing it for half a mile with no sight of the end of the line, we give up and ask a bus driver, who’s standing in the middle of the road talking to a couple of truckers in cowboy hats.
“Do you know what’s going on?”
“Snow on the mountains!”
Snow. Of all the pratfalls and dangers I had imagined during the long hours I’d spent planning our road trip to Mexico, snow was not high on the list.
“Tienes prisa?” asks a trucker, with a twinkle in his eyes.
“No, actually” I say. They all laugh.
By the time the line starts moving, the sun is setting behind the black sierras and a chilly wind pummels the van. We crawl along, inching toward the looming mountain pass. I can see the trucks ahead of us crawling up the slope, a never-ending train of groaning semis moving at a snail’s pace, headlights shining on ice.
Suddenly I’m eight years old again, riding shotgun in our Chevy van on a pitted two-lane highway.
“Dad I need to pee!”
He grunts in exasperation.
“Do you have any idea how long it took me to get around all those trucks?! If we stop now, they’re all going to pass us and I’m back to square one! I’ll have to pass every single one of those pendejos again. Just use the pee pot!” He gestures toward the back of the van in irritation.
I’m eying the chamber pot, which is wedged into the boot by the sliding door. We haven’t stopped in six hours, and the metal pot is full to the brim with pee, almost sloshing. I protest.
“Steve!” My mom says threateningly. With a dramatic thirty-second sigh, my dad lurches the van into a wide spot by the side of the road and we sputter to a stop. I leap out and run into the bushes. When I return to the van, he’s counting the trucks as they roar past.
“Eight…Nine…Nine trucks! Nine trucks! We’ll never get around them before the next pass! Oh wait, no…Ten….Eleven…” Grinding his teeth, he jerks the steering wheel before the door is even shut behind me and we’re back out on the road, jammed between two deisel-spewing behemoths. The trucks are almost loud enough to drown out Steve’s strangled curses.
Springing back to the present, I feel like issuing some strangled curses of my own as I gauge the size of the mountain against the number of trucks and our overall speed, which is about two miles an hour.
“We’ll be lucky if we make it over the pass before dawn,” I mutter to Rich, who has his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road. Federales are regulating the flow of traffic and letting trucks go up the mountain in batches. They finally wave us through, and we begin our rumbling ascent: the air is filled with the sound of belching, grumbling, groaning trucks. The slopes are white with snow, but the road has been hastily covered in sand.We crawl halfway up the first grade before they stop us again and we wait. By the time we’re moving again it’s dark. The sky is lit with stars and the road at the top of the pass shines with black ice. I eye the semi in front of us and try not to think what would happen if one of the semis behind us started to slide.
When we come around the bend at the top of the pass, we can see down into the valley below. Traffic is also stopped in the opposite lane. Miles and miles of trucks and busses and small pick-ups lined bumper to bumper up the winding, shoulderless road. People huddle around camp fires beside their trucks, and I can smell warming tortillas and meat roasting. Well Dad, I think, you wouldn’t have hated everything about this.