HAYLEY AND I MOVED SOUTH, trading the cold desert of Wyoming for the hot desert of Arizona. We traveled through more desert along the way, starting with the Red Desert near the Colorado border. Geologists refer to this region as an endorheic basin. Any rain that has the misfortune of falling here cannot look forward to a pleasant journey to the sea. It either seeps into the ground or it evaporates. The Red Desert is a miserly region of dry, high plains where bunchgrasses huddle against the wind.
Further south we passed through the Great Basin Desert, which splays across Utah and Nevada. Just the names of the vegetation make you want to reach for a glass of water: sagebrush, greasewood, saltgrass.
Continuing the journey we reached the Mojave, where the vegetation ‒ creosote, yucca ‒ sounds repulsive.
At the southern border we reached the Sonoran Desert, cactus country, where the vegetation inflicts pain. The names tell the story: prickly pear, coachwhip, fishhook. This was our new home. But Hayley and I were on vacation so we took the journey one step further, to the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico where the vegetation becomes frankly hallucinogenic: agaves and peyote dot the land. It’s a sere landscape, like the Levant, where one imagines wild-eyed prophets emerging from the haze, walking on mirages of water. The Aztecs have an origin story that tells of a journey from the north. I like to think that it was an exodus from the Chihuahuan Desert where a stoned pre-Columbian Moses led his people to the promised land of Lake Texcoco and set about building his dream city to honor their bloodthirsty gods.
We were looking for the modern variant of the promised land known as the beach. The closest beach, at Puerto Peñasco, was known alternatively as “Arizona’s beach” and “the armpit of the Sea of Cortez,” neither of which sounded particularly appealing. Time constraints limited our options ‒ we had little more than a long weekend and didn’t want to spend too much time on the road. The previous year we’d gone to San Carlos, which was fine but “not Mexican enough” in Hayley’s view. We pored over maps of the inland sea, continuing the Spanish tradition of seeking solace in the New World, and finally settled upon Bahía de Kino.
“It’s popular with working families from Hermosillo,” she said, “but not Americans.”
So, in early May, we stuffed our backpacks and sailed across the desert in search of the sea.
* * * * *
THE BORDER FENCE AT NOGALES was freshly garlanded with razor wire, shiny and chrome. We parked the car and walked through the baffle gate into Mexico where a long line of people were waiting to enter the U.S. A workman barreled towards me with a cart and had to veer around because I was rubber-necking. He was an old fart who yelled at me before pressing on. All I understood was the word Americano! A few onlookers laughed so I assume he’d said something like, “Great! Another fucking American wall!” or, “Do I need a fucking coyote to get past this American!” or, “Out of my way, American! I need to get these drugs to your country for a Cinco de Mayo party.”
Hayley put herself in charge of travel arrangements to Bahía. I assumed it was because she was, in her own words, “criminally cheap” and wanted to take the least expensive route. However, bus tickets from Tucson to Hermosillo were only $30 and we’d already spent that on parking in Nogales. I began to suspect that money wasn’t the issue. Hayley, a dirty liberal, could never entirely discard the notion that she was a relatively privileged norteamericana vacationing in a less fortunate country. By taking local transport, struggling with the language, and hoofing it, she was doing penance; cleansing herself for entry into the Promised Land.
I certainly felt like a penitent after ten hours of buses, collectivos, taxis, and tramps under the desert sun. The town was divided into two parts, Bahia Nuevo and Bahio Viejo. The driver waved us off in the latter and dropped our bags in the dirt. Shouldering our packs we wandered off in search of our casita. Being lost made me happy. There’s something about being a stranger ‒ not speaking the lingo and not knowing my way around ‒ that I find very appealing. Part of the appeal is the challenge, and another part is to see if anyone helps, because who wants to live in a world where people spit on strangers?
Thanks to some early-risers at a fish market we were directed to our hotel, which was hidden amidst a cluster of mobile homes. These were the seasonal haunts of nortamericanos who spent the winter here. Most of the residents had already flown home, but occasionally Hayley and I would make a rare sighting of a pale jubilado in a house dress and wide-brimmed hat, braving the sun for a peek at the boys of summer playing on the beach. Our casita was large enough for a Mormon family and the lack of furniture made it seem even larger. After dropping our packs we went out to explore the town, feeling light as air, but we were soon burdened by the unpleasant discovery that both of the town’s ATMs were out of order.
“How many pesos do you have?” I asked Hayley, who’d changed some money in Hermosillo.
“I dunno. A few hundred.”
I kicked myself for not changing money as well. At the time I thought I could get a better exchange rate than eighteen pesos per dollar because the official rate was closer to twenty.
“Maybe they take dollars here,” I suggested hopefully.
No one did. Hayley was right, this was a holiday destination for Mexicans, not gringos.
“I thought San Carlos wasn’t Mexican enough,” she said upon our return to the hotel ‒ which thankfully we’d already paid for ‒ “but I think this place might be too Mexican.”
On the plus side we were the only gringos in town. A scant two hundred miles from the border we felt almost as out-of-place as we did in Patagonia. After some searching we found a restaurant that accepted credit cards.
“It might cost us, but at least we won’t starve,” I said.
We ordered two plates of fresh-caught fish, seasoned with garlic and served over rice. It was a simple meal but one that found me several times leaning back in my chair to allow the flavors to finish seducing my palate. We quenched our thirst with several beers and decided right then that Bahia de Kino was just the right amount of Mexican. This was more than confirmed when the bill arrived: eighteen dollars.
“Imagine how cheap the street food is!” Hayley said with wonder.
We found out the next day when we had the good fortune of running into an OXXO employee who was willing to part with some of his pesos. He offered an exchange rate of eighteen to the dollar, which suddenly seemed like a bargain, and we made a beeline for the food carts.
A few steps from the beach and shaded by a large and friendly awning was the best little clam shack in the Americas. Before we settled into our plastic chairs the patron, a woman who seemed bemused by our arrival, showed us the varieties of mollusk that were available that day, freshly caught from the bounteous waters of the Sea of Cortez. She also informed us that they didn’t serve beer but if we wanted cerveza ‒ or tequila or rum or whatever ‒ we could just walk up the street to the liquor store and purchase our own refreshment. Within a few minutes we had started on a six-pack and a basket of chips and salsa while awaiting the arrival of a dozen chocolatas. These large clams, chocolate in color, came to us as twenty-four appetizers served on the half-shell with salsa and a choice of lime or hot sauce. The entire meal cost five dollars.
Feeling satisfied and flush with pesos we strolled the beachfront shops, all within view of the pier where young boys launched themselves into the sea under the calm gaze of pelicans. Dense rows of ticky-tacky shacks sold a variety of shells: shell necklaces, shell bracelets, shell lamps, shell key fobs, animals made of shells, inner tubes shaped like shells, and jars full of shells. So it was no surprise that a plain wooden box caught our eye. Hayley opened it. Inside was a two-foot wooden penis. Continuing the grand tradition of bad decision-making by intoxicated Americans in Mexico, I bought it. Hayley thought it would make a fine gift for one of our gay friends, so the shopkeeper rolled it in several folds of newspaper and handed it over with an expression of utter boredom.
We spent the next few days popping in and out of the water and sampling all the food on offer. I was reminded of a revelation I had while hiking in the Grand Canyon. After three days marching along the Tonto plateau with a full pack I’d begun the final sweaty slog back to the rim. As I reached the parking lot I seriously considered chucking my pack, my shoes, and my desire to ever hike again into the dumpster for good and all. Reduced to a desire for nothing more than the essentials, I thought, “The French are right to place so much emphasis on food!” Thirty years later I was of the same mind. All of my best travel memories involve food: that pot au feu in the Dordogne region of France; the tender filet with shaved truffles in Pula, Croatia; the painful, paradisal hot pot in Chengdu, China; that other filet in Argentina with chimichurri sauce… As my girlfriend says, “Considering how much you love food, it’s a wonder you don’t weigh 300 pounds.”
And then it was over. We’d spent our time in a calm eddy and now it was time to rejoin the current. I switched off my brain as we retraced our steps back to America. On the bus to Nogales I nodded off while counting cacti. Then we came to a stop and everyone got off. All the luggage had been tossed on the side of the road and a uniformed man was yelling at the passengers to claim their bags. We found our packs in the careless pile and followed the rest of the passengers into a small building that contained a machine that would be familiar to anyone in an airport. Hayley and I fed our packs into the baggage scanner and waited. I watched as my bag was pulled aside and a stocky official held it up.
“De quién es este?“
Then I remembered the penis.
I smiled sheepishly and stepped forward. The official, who already knew at least the outline of what I had in my pack, couldn’t suppress a grin as he called over the rest of his squad. They gathered around as layer upon layer of newspaper was peeled back until the polished shaft was revealed. They took a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship before one of them held it up to my face.
“Esto es tuyo?”
Still smiling with my mouth tightly closed, I nodded. Suddenly Hayley blurted out, “It’s for his mother!”
Everyone looked at her.
“Por su madre?” the official asked, confused.
I’m not sure how she thought that would make things better, especially since the situation was already comical. The guards proceeded with their job, tapping the wood to make sure it wasn’t hollow (and filled with drugs), before handing it back to me and wishing me buen viaje. For a lovely instant I was standing in a foreign country with an enormous cock in my hands, surrounded by smiling sunburnt men who patted my back with friendly, calloused hands. I felt, perhaps, in a small way, that I’d helped mend the frayed relations between our two countries.