Attempting the summit of the 18,500-foot volcano Citlaltépetl, in the off-season, without a guide, without crampons, ropes, carabiners, or even an ice axe, was just too far above my crazy threshold. Alone without gear was the only choice I faced, sadly, because I was unable to find anyone purporting to be a guide willing to lead me up, at any reasonable price. The two guide services in Tlachichula were boarded-up for the off-season, because summertime is warmer, thus, the glacier on Citlaltépetl is less stable. Add to that, solid afternoon thunderstorms were forecast for 10 straight days, and who wants to be clinging to a mountain with thunderbolts dancing around?
In spite of all the desire to try for the peak, I settled for a moto ride up the steep and dusty dirt road to the village of Hidalgo, which at nearly 12,000 feet, is believed to be the highest altitude “community” (however that is defined) in North America. I am pleased to report, Hidalgoans were a welcoming group, most living well in cozy wooden shacks. As a native culture existing in splendid isolation, Spanish was their second language, as it is mine. Needless to say, our simple conversation did not solve the world’s problems.
A little crestfallen from not having even attempted the summit (and to be honest, maybe even a little relieved), I descended from the glaciers, down through pine forests, across rich agricultural lands, and through several charming towns. Then, a sense of free fall along a serpentine route, past rock walls and perilous cliffs, through tunnels and by dazzling heights, into the steamy jungle valley at Orizaba City, in the state of Veracruz. It was a day riding from the sight of glaciers to the humidity of a jungle, over a vertical loss of about 8,000 feet, in about two short hours. It’s rather amazing if you absorb it; Mexico is a vast and diverse land, indeed.
Orizaba City is a place of only a few tourists, the little metropolis working class yet vibrant, the sort of place where most of us Idahoans would feel at home. I ended up renting a whole apartment in a little neighborhood for nearly two weeks, within walking distance of most everything. I became such a regular at a few locales, they even began calling me by name. The pleasures of simple living, like washing my own clothes in a sink with a built-in porcelain washboard: the satisfaction of churning and squeezing, the dirt, grime, and sweat transferring to the clear water, turning it to brown, and rinsing and repeating, then hanging on a line to dry. Visiting street markets, the produce as fresh and delicious and real as any one could find, then carting it all home to prepare plates for less than $1 per meal.
I didn’t really want to leave Orizaba, but leaving is what I do. I packed the bike up again to return to the mountains, southwest bound. Zipping out of civilization again, the magic of the road returning as I weaved my way up steep, winding paved roads, waiting for that perfect moment to gun the throttle and dart around slow-moving trucks, always searching for that critical balance between prudence and bravery.
If you are wondering, I don’t carry paper maps, and I don’t have a GPS. All I’ve got is an app on my cell phone, which of course only works when there is a data signal. Not surprisingly, not long after passing Zongolica, I got lost, again. There is a vast network of winding gravel roads in the back country and no road signs. “No signs” should be anyone’s first sign that the locals aren’t seeking to help outsiders get around. When I stopped to ask for directions, in my best Spanish, with the sweetest tone of voice, most people would just turn on me, or walk away. It dawned on me later that they might only be fluent in an indigenous language, and if they know some Spanish, they certainly didn’t want to help me. Along the rough dirt roads, I would wave as always, but people would not smile, would not wave in return. One man even threw an empty plastic bottle at me. Not much later, a kid threw a stick my way. I just kept moving, staying alert, always ready to race off at any sign of real trouble.
There’s an old saying: “You are not lost until you’re out of gas.” Indeed, I was not out of gas when I finally (finally!) found the town of Tehuipango, perched high on a mountaintop. There, as darkness fell, I found the most austere hotel room cheerfully decorated with colorful but nearly limp balloons, for 150 pesos (about $8). I crawled under the handmade blankets and slept warm, dry and safe.
The next day, after passage over wet, sinuous roads, through cool, cloud-covered peaks covered in a dense rain forest, I landed in Huautla de Jiménez, a towering city in the state of Oaxaca, consisting of narrow, bustling streets and literally hundreds of concrete structures seemingly bolted to the mountainsides.
I arrived into Huautla like I arrive almost anywhere: With no expectations. I couldn’t have been standing around the central plaza for more than an hour, downing cups of the most delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice, when a native man asked me to give him a ride up the mountain. I shoved my big yellow dry bag back on the seat, threw down the rear foot pegs, and he piled on. Clinging to my shoulders, him pointing and shouting “directo, derecha, izquierda!” (straight, right, left!), we weaved our way up narrow, rough concrete paths constructed over what are surely 25% gradients, to a little neighborhood high above. At one point, the path became so narrow and so steep, I had no choice but to gun the throttle, but spazzed a bit in the most narrow section, clipped the side, we ricocheted off, and both nearly went over the cliff’s edge, motorcycle and all. My heart nearly exploded in my chest!
Just over the crest though, heart still pounding while helping him off — yet still flowing my way in my almost semi-conscious state — I stumbled into the home of a Shaman. A slight, elderly woman from the Mazateca culture, with the most captivating eyes, accompanied by a beautiful and rather brilliant Shaman apprentice speaking superb English with a haunting Russian accent. It was here that I learned of Huautla’s “hongos,” the legendary medicine woman named Maria Sabina (1894-1985), and the healing power of “the journey.” After some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, and admittedly under the spell of the young Russian woman, we made an appointment for a “ceremony” the very next afternoon.
It is here that I want more than anything to convey to you, dear reader, the magnitude of eating those 10 hongos and experiencing the magic of that ceremony. To even attempt any words risks diminishing the experience. All that I can offer, with all my heart, is to say it was some sort of commune with the Divine. My brain was somehow rewired. I remember wanting everyone I ever met to know those sensations, as the greatest gift I could ever share.
Much later that night, coming down from that “journey,” walking aimlessly in a state of incomprehensible awe, a powerful thirst came over me. I bought a large bottle of some artificial orange drink, then sat down on a bench near the church. An indigenous woman appeared, looking not a day under 100, frail and dirty, a dead bird plopped in her cloth bag. She was mumbling something, I could not tell what, so I offered her a swig out of my bottle. She sat down with me, side-by-side, our eyes locked as we passed that juice bottle back and forth, her lips quivering as they wrapped tightly around that bottle top, big gulps, her face revealing the most perfect pleasure and gratitude.
The next day, I rested and reflected in my cool, damp little cabaña. After regaining my strength, I packed the bike and departed for the long, tortured descent from the highs of Huautla to the lowland metropolis of Oaxaca City.
The magic of Huautla should not stay in Huautla. I departed as a changed man. For the better, there is not a doubt.