(Outside of Guadalajara, in Nayarit, in western central Mexico)

Every day that week I would wander out behind the edge of the garden’s irrigated area to stand on a narrow strip of dry, reddish-gold dirt at the edge of the whitewashed stucco. The wall of the building – indeed, the entire area of the compound – defined the crest of the high, steep hill. If the compound had been built to face outward, it would have commanded a sweeping view of the rugged desert terrain on all sides. Instead, the brick, tile, and stucco of the buildings and walls faced in, to the cool and watered restful gardens, fertile and green under the hot Mexican sun.

Each day, standing on the edge of the desert landscape, I would make my way to a little patch of crumbling adobe-brick wall to sit on the dusty, sun warmed bricks. I’d sit and study the scrubby hills, well-grown with a mix of desert plants. I recall prickly pear cactus; small, spiny bushes; the sage I knew from my father’s home of Yakima, Washington; dry and brittle pale-yellow tumbleweeds, still anchored to the earth; the spiny urchins of yucca, arrow-leafed explosions in the dust.

The hills – nearly mesas – overlooked a basin, angling, arroyoed, steeply down. Eventually, I had to show this special place to my father, this little corner of a gringo’s idea of Mexico. We were staying at this place because he was teaching at a conference with one of his colleagues, a man whose family I later lived with for a month in the city, in Guadalajara. My father, it should be noted, speaks Spanish fluently and in my youth his professional relationships with colleagues in several locations of Latin America brought our family to many places in that part of the world. Reflecting, I think it’s possible I had already lived with them in their lovely house on the heights overlooking the city – but I don’t know for certain. Perhaps this conference and that visit took place the same summer.

At any rate, my father indulged my desire to show him the corner overlook and expressed his appreciation and admiration for the view as I’d hoped he would. To my surprise, and possibly to my concern, he suggested we should climb down the steep and rugged slope through the desert flora, and with that, he began to navigate down the near-vertical hill. I have an image in my mind of his short-sleeved white button-down shining in the sun, as he carefully stepped down the scree and dust amid the cactus and brush.

Sadly, I cannot recall with any accuracy my emotional state right then, but I sure did follow him. My dad’s innocent and adventurous curiosity has always frightened me a little bit so I think it’s possible that I was feeling some filial embarrassment as I worked my way down the slope in the hot, hot sun. My father’s physical vigor and appreciation for exertion and exercise have never been traits I shared with him, and so I believe I probably became cranky as we worked our way down into the valley. I’m certain, for one thing, that we had no water.

I don’t recall the details of the descent beyond the start. Eventually we arrived in the valley, a broad floor in which substantial numbers of small to midsize rocks had gathered. I think there must have been a road, but I don’t recall it in my visual memories of the scene. What I do recall with unusual clarity was the surreally isolated cinderblock building a few feet up the other side of the broad bowl of the valley. In my mind’s eye, it’s a perfect cube, unpainted and windowless, slanting upward in perspective from my vantage point below it. I don’t see a sign or any indication of the building’s purpose. There are no cars or indication of human habitance other than the building itself and its’ closed door.

Terrifying me, my father walked up to the building’s door, and with me right behind him, opened it and walked into the fluorescent-lit space within.

My reluctance and fear were wholly overcome as the building’s refrigerated chill spilled out on me at my father’s side. We walked into the spare construction, and I collapsed into a metal folding chair at a metal folding table. The building’s minimal decor consisted of posters and vinyl pennants advertising varieties of Mexican beer. There were five to ten of the lightweight metal table-and-chair sets I currently occupied ranged widely around the sparsely populated room. My father was gleeful to have stumbled on a cantina like this in the middle of the desert – I was grateful for the air conditioning and the possibility of some cold mineral water or a Fanta or Coke.

He was mildly perturbed at my peevishness and went off to the bar to get a beer for him and my drink, whatever it might be. Understandably in hindsight he took his time at the bar, speaking amiably with the barman and a customer or two and thoroughly enjoying himself. I, of course, was ever-more irritated, as only a preteen on the verge of adolescence can be, my thirst certainly adding to the edge of my emotions. In the end, he finally returned with something for me, for which I’m certain I did not express appropriate gratitude. I don’t remember the walk back to the compound, or however we got back.

Over time in my memory this has become one of my favorite experiences, one for which I am deeply indebted to my father. I find a great deal to admire in his actions in this anecdote, even as I might wish we had actually brought along water for a hike in the desert rather than trusting in fate’s providence.

One thought on “La Cantina

  1. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say this event is a true one, i.e., that it happened to Mike.

    First, I feel it more likely than not that the first in the series would be true. Second, although I am not that well acquainted with Mike’s life, family, or habits, it seems reasonable. He spends a year in Switzerland, a year in this and that part of the U.S. Why not Mexico?

    By the way, nice writing!

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