Trip Reports

Two-Lane Blacktop (12-Apr-2003-11-00):
11:00 AM local time, Saturday, April 12 (1600 April 12 UTC) 16 50 N 099 54 W. Temp. 85, Humidity 76%, Cloud Cover 10%. At Anchor in Acapulco Bay, Mexico.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

Having weathered the Tehuantepecker, Ship's Automobile Enthusiast Terry Shrode rented a car and invited the Captain along for a jaunt to Oaxaca. The car he chose was none other than the classic Volkswagen bug of our collective youth, which is still manufactured and sold in Mexico, not the new, safer version made for our older, less daring selves. We got a red one, just a year or so old, and Mr. Shrode assumed the driver's seat, applied his foot to the pedal, and popped the clutch. Then, he backed up and opened the door for the Captain. "Just wanted to see if I could do a wheelie", he said.

We headed up the coast a little from Huatulco and turned inland towards the Sierra Madre del Sur. It is this mountain range which, ending at the Gulf of Tehuantepec, creates a barrier for the barometric highs in Texas and northern Mexico that causes the winds to accelerate through the Gulf to hurricane force on the seas to the south. The effect is a venturi exactly like what we get in the San Francisco cityfront, but on a massive scale.

The road was paved all the way and in pretty good shape so that Mr. Shrode had little difficulty maintaining hull speed, and more often, planing speed. The Captain, however, having the previous evening taken advantage of the generous beneficence of the cruisers whose boat we had rescued, was feeling none too enthusiastic about the twists and turns of the roadway. We stopped in a small mountain town for gas, where it was decanted from plastic jugs, and in another for a remedy for the Captain's malaise: tacos de pollo con salsa picante, and a little hair of the chihuahua.

Proceeding up the precipitous curves and high ridges, we gained the high pass, for which unfortunately no altitude was given but let's say 6500 feet. From here we descended into a series of three very large valleys that exist at a similar altitude and have a similar feel to the high deserts of Nevada, minus the purple sage and the riders thereof. Leaving the mountains and their pine trees behind, we began to see a different display of vegetation. Although we were well south of the Sonoran desert, we recognized several plants common to that region. Among them were yucca and agave, both members of the order Liliales that includes lilies, asparagus, and the blue-eyed grass familiar to Marin residents. Different varieties of agave (the "century plant" we see in California) are used in the production of tequila, mescal, and pulque, a kind of beer. We also saw forests of saguaro (Cereus giganteus), and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.), like the saguaro a member of the family Cactaceae. There was also an acacia (Acacia sp.) with a brilliant purple flower, abundant and in bloom everywhere. Aside from the acacia, which was spectacular, I would have called the general effect scrubby, as it lacked the floral variety and striking austerity of the real Sonoran desert, while maintaining its heat and dust.

After a long (for the Captain) seven-hour drive, we entered the city of Oaxaca, which occupies a central place at the junction of the valleys. Our correspondent Hank Strauss claims that the town was named after a spitting contest, but you won't hear the Captain repeating that one. On the other hand no one is sure of the origin of the name or its meaning, but it seems to come from the Zapotec language.

The outskirts of town are scruffy and dusty but at the town square you meet a formal central park with a gazebo. On one evening Mr. Shrode and the Captain got a table on the balcony at one of the better restaurants overlooking the square. As we sipped good Mexican wine and mescal and dined on Chateaubriand, we were serenaded by a brass band playing a Stephen Foster medley of songs such as "Oh, Susanna", "Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home," and "Swanee River." Foster was one of those songwriters who sold his songs cheap and died poor. Except for the electric lights and the casual dress of the throngs strolling about the square, nothing gave a hint that one hadn't been put in a time machine and sent back for an elegant evening in the late nineteenth century. In America.

The main attractions of this area of Mexico are related to its being the cradle of the Zapotec civilization, one of the major pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico. Whether they like it or not, all these societies are grouped together under the name of a famous sailor from Europe who never even won an America's Cup. You visit Monte Alban, one of the few ruins of its type not called by an unpronounceable indigenous name. The main plaza was begun in about 500 AD, so was contemporaneous with classical Greece, and reached its zenith in about 800 AD, the time of the Vikings. It is set on a mountaintop area reminiscent of the type of acropolis found in the classical world, but it both covers a larger area and contains more impressive construction than, for example, the acropolis at Athens. The buildings are the familiar pyramidical type you've seen in photos of other meso-American cultures. They were held together by a type of mortar which I have not been able to distinguish from that which is always claimed in the history books to have been "invented" by Rome. If anyone knows why Rome gets the credit and not these folks, who obviously mixed lime and sand and water to achieve much the same effect and did so entirely independently, I would like to hear from you. It occurred to me while I looked at them that, before the invention of the arch or buttresses, the only way to make a stable building as tall as those here or the even larger ones in Egypt, was by using the pyramidical structure. Perhaps it's this practical reason and not some magic formula that determined the shape of these buildings.

The people who inhabited this space and ruled the huge fertile valleys that they overlook were the Zapotecs. There is some evidence that at the time of their greatest strength the climate was wetter and more suitable for agriculture than it is today. The Zapotecs used (and still use) the seeds of the heavenly blue morning glory (Ipomoea violacea), the active principles of which are the psychotropic alkaloids D-lysergic and D-isolysergic acids, in their religious rituals and for "curative"purposes. The result of all the ensuing hallucinations is displayed in the remains of ancient art at the ruins, but also in the present day in brightly painted wooden carvings of bizarre and surreal animals, sold as authentic Zapotec crafts. Like many of their contemporaries in this area of the world, they also practiced ritualized human sacrifice. Taken together, these practices bring to mind one of the ogres of the twentieth century, Charlie Manson, who evidently was merely born in the wrong place and time for helter-skelter.

The ride back took us on a different route through cultivated fields of agave that couldn't help but remind one of the Napa valley. The vicinity of Oaxaca is apparently the major center in Mexico for the production of mescal, although not tequila. I am guessing that the climate or soil is better here for the particular variety used for mescal, but I'm not sure where in Mexico the agave for tequila is grown.

We also saw a man making adobe bricks by hand, so I yelled out the window, "Hey, the sixties are over, dude, time to give it up and get into raising free-range lardosaurs." ADDENDA:

We're sorry that Maverick's appearance on the bit wrangler website was short-lived. This is because of the expense and hassle of getting a local HAM license in Mexico. As long as we're in territorial waters we aren't permitted to use the HAM bands without it, and although it is possible to fake it, the Pacific Seafarer's Net has been so supportive and generous that it would be unseemly to do so.

In answer to many inquiries, presumably based on fear and loathing, we plan to be back in the San Francisco Bay Area, barring further misadventures of the type to which we're no strangers, sometime between the middle and the end of June. When describing the transit of the canal I used the term "bit" to refer to what is actually a bollard, making a spelling and terminology error in one word. The canal pilots used "bitt" and that is my excuse but I'm still working on one for the spelling error. As no one bothered to correct me on this, I will keep the prize, which is two glorious days aboard Maverick, for myself.

Wild Bill Hickok was finally gunned down when his hunches failed him at a poker table in the Number Ten saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Jack McCall never said why he did it, but was convicted of murder and hanged on March 1, 1877. In an incident related only because I say it is, Slocum disappeared at sea.

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