I went exploring yesterday before finally ending up in extreme backwoods mountainous Michoacán. I knew that I wanted to go to La Barranca; I just didn’t quite understand exactly how different the painted image was from the actual reality of it nor just exactly how far away it really was.

Some Mexicans haven’t made up their mind about distances. Maybe that’s time related. Everyone in the world seems to be acquainted with that Mexican cliché, manaña. But it turns out to not be so much a cliché as a truth. From my experience it appears that both time and distance either morph or entirely lose their significance here in some parts of Mexico.

Looking east from La Barranca back towards El Ricón

Looking east from La Barranca back towards El Ricón

I had learned a week or so ago that the puebla of La Barranca produced the best mezcal in Michoacán. Copy that. Now, I never paid much attention to the whole mezcal discussion because this is tequila country. You want mezcal? Then go to Oaxaca. But La Barranca – as it was so recently pointed out – was right next door to El Ricón. Copy that. And the distillery was a big enough of an operation that I couldn’t miss it once I got to the village. Copy that. And La Barranca was supposedly 8 km from Sahuayo; or about 15 minutes by bus. So copy that.

I‘ve walked to El Ricón many times. It is a nice little 30-40 minute walk from my house. And much nicer now that the road has been paved. In the pre-pavement days, the vehicular generated dust in the dry season always seemed to undermine the very logic behind taking a walk for your health argument.

On a few of those occasions, I was searching for the legendary backtrail from the river at El Ricón up into the northern hills known locally as the Calzonuda; aka ‘The Big Panties’. And no, I don’t know why the locals call them such. And while I am sure that the backtrail exists, neither the locals living at the bottom of the hills nor my own feeble exploratory efforts have had any luck finding the damn thing.

It was there btw, while running up in these same Big Panties a year or so ago, where the three big dogs tried to eat me for lunch. It was a truly frightening experience that I covered in a previous post entitled ‘He Disagreed with Something that Ate Him‘.

So over the past few days the idea that La Barranca not just existed but produced an almost mythical and exquisitely smooth mezcal has been slowly working over me like some shivery surprise. I suppose one could say it’s a cultural thing. If you live near something that’s really cool then the onus is on you to go give it a look see.

A good counter-example might be if you live in a place like Kansas City (or anywhere in Texas for that matter) and don’t like barbeque then the entire local food culture is wasted on you. And you probably owe it to your neighbors to move. And if you’re a vegetarian then you might want to consider California as your destination. And if moving seems unappealing then don’t rule out suicide as an equally viable (albeit more long term) solution.

All my trips out to El Ricón, following the main road along the river, terminated a couple of kilometers west of the village where the road finally petered out at the river into a brushy landscape of thorn bearing scrubs, rock, and prickly pear cactus. Ahh, but there is another road prior that splits, crosses the river and heads into the west-south-west. And it is on this road that lies the puebla of La Barranca.

I flagged down the bus only to catch a ride of kilometer or two before it veered off on another road heading back east. The driver assured me that La Barranca was only 2 kilometers further up the road. I wasn’t carrying any water but I figured the big distillery that was just up the road would have water. After all, they needed water to make mezcal, the workers drank water, and a visitor from time to time probably wanted a glass of water if for no other reason but to rehydrate after a few too many complimentary glasses of their splendid mezcal.

I walked what I guesstimated from my watch as being something like 2 kilometers. But all that I could see in the distance was just more of the same road disappearing into the distant mountains. A van slowed up and stopped as I waved my hand in a patting gesture towards the ground. I asked him how much further up the road was La Barranca. He said he was going there and told me to hop in. He laughed when I told him that I was planning to walk there.

Come to find out, there is no actual distillery in La Barranca. And the puebla was still something like another 8-10 kilometers further out. And so not just was La Barranca totally not adjacent to El Ricón – it was literally at the end of the road we were on. But first we had to pass through several other pueblas to get there. La Flor del Agua was the first village beyond El Ricón. Then La Chichara. El Aguacate. Then La Uva. Barranca de Soyate. El Añil. And then finally, La Barranca.

It was somewhere around El Añil where the road more or less gave out. That’s when we crossed a boulder infested arroyo that I am sure over time did such serious damage to a vehicle’s lifespan that there would be warranty denial issues should such a claim arise. I felt like Sir Richard Burton. And not the drunken actor, you idiot. The nineteenth century explorer. I felt almost giddy, certain with the knowledge that I was trodding in a most foreign place.

We made a couple of stops. First to look at the still flopping body of a green supposedly highly venomous snake called a ‘vibora hocico de puerco’ and then we stopped to pick up a ladder which involved a perilous traverse over a 40 foot long span of a rusting and crumbling footbridge constructed in places of cracked and paper thin wood suspended 30 feet over the top of a shallow river filled with rocks. I hate heights. And bridges that have nothing to hold onto. I let my new friend, Luis go first and then followed precisely in his footsteps, not daring to look down.

The road became a muddy two-track before terminating in front of Luis’s brother, Viktor’s house. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, shit.’ I was deep in the mountains of northwestern Michoacán. Under a blazing sun, already thirsty, without water and facing the prospect of a dry, two plus hour walk back to El Ricón through quite possibly hostile country – read, dogs off the leash with a tremendous appetite for the taste of gringo flesh and now, poisonous snakes. Just what kind of fool anyway goes for a walk through the devil’s own playground, and then not thinking that there might be serious consequences involved?

La Barranca. The end of the road. The entrance to Luis's brother's house.

La Barranca. The end of the road. The water-crossing, the gate and entrance to Luis’s brother, Viktor’s house.

But not to worry, as Luis was planning on returning back to Sahuayo in 4-5 hours so it would be just a simple matter entertaining myself and staying out of trouble while Luis did whatever it was Luis was out there to do. I ended up having a pretty good time.

Open air kitchen. The porch and the view to the west

Entrance to the open air kitchen containing an adobe wood-fired stove. The porch and the view to the west.

If you click on the photo above to zoom in then you will see a trace of smoke coming out from between the eave of the roof and the crumbled wall. There was a delicious pot of beans on the fire and Viktor’s wife had just returned from a 20 yard walk where she gathered some fresh cactus paddles from which she was going to make a nopale salad. When I first arrived at their house, the first thing Viktor did was to pour me a glass of his homemade mezcal. He said it was pure and straight from the still. It was smooth, tasty and quite strong. Probably something like 110 proof.

Luis's brother, Jaime in front of his house. It's a steep walk a little further up the mountain from Victor's house.

Luis’s brother, Jaime in front of his house. It’s a steep walk a little further up the mountain from Viktor’s house.

Now, maybe you are beginning to realize from some of the photos that this is unelectrified country. So picture the most primitive part of Appalachia that you know, but subtract out all of the broken down cars parked out front sitting up on cement blocks, then sprinkle in a few cacti, change the language, and add a bunch of exotic fruit trees. Oh, and lose the crack habits, make the people way friendlier and give ’em nicer teeth. And now it all starts to look somewhat vaguely familiar doesn’t it?

Fresh deer birria cooking in Jaime's kitchen.

Fresh deer birria cooking in Jaime’s kitchen.

I sat up on Jaime’s porch for an hour and talked to him and his wife. She asked me question after question. She seemed somewhat convinced that I was a bit slow (as in stupid) because I didn’t understand all of her words. And she was a bit suspicious that I didn’t have a woman. After all, I was in Mexico. There’s lots of women in Mexico. So why didn’t I have one? She demonstrated faultless logic on both counts.

Air-drying deer meat at Jaime's from a deer killed the day before.

Air-drying deer meat at Jaime’s taken from a deer killed the day before.

So no electricity means entertainment is very limited; like watching venison strips dry slowly in the sun. Actually, that was a rather tasteless joke for which I apologize. Rather, spare time in a place as rugged as La Barranca is back- filled doing work. Sitting on the porch all day staring into the mountains seems like a sure way to go crazy and starve to death all at the same time.

A view from Jaime's house to the west. The kitchen is on the left and the house is on the right.

A view from Jaime’s house to the west. The kitchen is on the left and the house is on the right.

This is about as rural as rural living gets. But there is plenty of food. What they grow and don’t eat, they sell or trade to get the other things that they need. I promised them that I’d look into the cost of a solar panel. She asked, ‘By when?’ And I told her to give me a week.

We drove back into town and I discovered that Luis lives unsurprisingly just 4 blocks south of me and more or less on the corner of the same cross street as me (Melgar). I met his wife and one of his daughters and bought a liter of his brother’s finely distilled ambrosia. He gave me his phone number and I told him I’d drop off one of my cards with my phone number on it.

The big avocado tree in front of Viktor's porch.

The big avocado tree in front of Viktor’s porch.

PS – On my way back down Melgar Street about 5 pm on my way home I stopped in to find that my parrot buddy, Mateo was almost birdnapped that same afternoon. The small grocery story where he lives is just a block from my house. Anyway, I find him out of his cage and 3 women are passing him around, petting him, and all yacking at the same time about how just 5 minutes earlier 3 boys on a motor scooter tried to make off with him in his cage.
I’ve come to like this bird very much. He is very smart. And he seems to enjoy my visits. Marta tells me that he is now a year old and that he was captured wild as a chick in the nearby northern Pacific state of Sinaloa. It’s just as well that the sisters’ are going to put a small chain to his cage as it would sorely vex me if Mateo was ever stolen and I had to call in a favor and put a bounty out for the little bastards that stole him.

Another footnote on the subject of pet parrots. About a year ago, Loren down the street somehow got sprung (open cage door?) but somehow a week later managed to get himself recaptured – the family had put up wanted posters with his photo – and he got put back behind bars. On a philosophical note, just why does the caged bird sing anyway?

Mateo being comforted by his owner, Marta after his near ordeal.

Mateo being comforted by his owner, Marta after his near ordeal.

PPS – I ran into my friend, Pancho in the Mercado this afternoon. In the course of the conversation I told him about the cool time I had in La Barranca, about how I just couldn’t imagine not living in Mexico, and that a reoccurring nightmare was getting deported back to the US. I told him that I’d rather go underground first and become an American version of an Mexican illegal alien. He laughed and told me not worry. He said if it came to that he’d adopt me first.

I love these people.

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