Change of scenery

I SPENT MOST of my life before age 55 in hot zones. Southwest Georgia, northeast Florida, south Louisiana and east Texas.

I know sweat, and I don’t like it one bit.

So when I leaped off the treadmill, I opted for a big — very big — change of scenery not only in moving to Mexico but in settling atop an ever-cool mountain.

We  live 7,200 feet above the faraway sea — the Pacific Ocean — and we enjoy cool weather year-round. It can get a bit stuffy in the afternoons and early evenings of springtime, but it’s a small price to pay for the other 98 percent of the year.

Sometimes we like to visit a beach, and almost invariably we go to Zihuatanejo, which is about three hours from the Hacienda down a smooth autopista* past mango and avocado trees and high mountain lakes.

That’s our favorite beach, La Ropa, in the video.

If the urge to visit a throbbing megalopolis strikes, it’s about four hours, also on a smooth autopista, to Mexico City, or three hours in the other direction to Guadalajara.

If I don’t want to fight the traffic or teeming mobs of Mexico City, but I do want a wider variety of restaurants than we have here on the mountaintop, it’s less than a three-hour drive northeast to San Miguel de Allende.

Also on, of course, a smooth autopista.

In San Miguel, we now overnight at the Hotel Quinta Loreto right downtown, wonderfully located, not elegant but quite comfy, and a big room costs about $38 these days.**

The fabulous Café MuRo is less than a block away.

Sure, you have to elbow aside hordes of Gringos in San Miguel, both those who live there so they don’t have to learn Spanish and tourists who flock there for the same reason.

But that’s a minor distraction.

Then we return to the cool mountain air.

Changes of scenery are available in every direction.

It’s dang sweet.

* * * *

* An autopista is a fast-traveling toll highway. The tolls, which can be a bit high, keep the riffraff away.

** Including tax!

Fading to black

skilletTHE TWELVE-YEAR-OLD boy walked into the kitchen on a warm summer day. It was time for breakfast — eggs and grits and ham steaks or bacon. A coffee percolator on the counter plucked away, but he didn’t drink coffee, not way back then.

The only way to get into the kitchen unless you entered through the long screened porch from the back yard was from the dining room, so he entered from the dining room.

The first thing one encountered was the old refrigerator immediately to the left. Just beyond that was a heavy, antique table covered with oilcloth. That table abutted a casement window that opened to the yard where things also were eaten at times, dinners and watermelon and apple pie.

New ImageHe was sitting at that very table one evening with his grandmother when he heard the harp music coming through the window.

He was a bit older than 12 when that spooky thing happened, and the source of the harp solo was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction.

To the right was a fireplace which was always lit on winter mornings, but this being summer, school vacation, up from Florida, there was no fire. And just beyond the table was a wall-to-wall counter, left to right, and cabinets above.

Lemonade, and tea too, would be made on the left side of that counter. Glancing toward the right, you’d see a sink and beyond that the stove where cornbread, which was wonderful with red-eye gravy, was cooked in a cast-iron skillet.

An eternal fixture on the left side of that counter was a heavy, gray ceramic jar open at the top. That jar was always full of salt that you pinched and sprinkled with your fingers.

Above the sink was another window, one that looked out not at the yard but toward a pasture for Hereford cows and the one, happy bull. That was when the boy was 12. Later, that pasture was turned into a grove of pine trees, when the government started paying farmers to take it easy.

Back to the kitchen. The wooden walls were shiplapped, as were the walls in the entire house, and there was a nice-sized pantry just to the right before you walked out the door to the screened porch. The kitchen floors were linoleum.

After breakfast on a summer morning, there were a number of  options for a 12-year-old boy. Here’s a good one:

He left the dirty dishes for Willie the maid, and walked out the kitchen door, continued about five feet to the screened porch door, and stepped down to concrete steps. There were plenty of cats, sometimes up to 25.

Granny liked cats.

revolverAbout five years later, the boy turned a .32-caliber, chrome-plated, Smith & Wesson revolver on one of those cats, a mangy, sickly one who was suffering. Gunning down a cat is not a pleasant experience, even if it’s best for the cat in the long haul.

But that came later. Today is a sunny summer morning, and the boy walked straight ahead, passing the small building on the left that had been his sister’s playhouse and then a larger building, also on the left, where his father had written short stories after World War Two. Then there was a gate.

Stepping down about foot on the other side of the gate, there were dirt ruts of a road heading left. It was a good route to walk because it was not public. It was private, though people from far and wide would come, knock on the door, ask permission, and then drive down that road to fish in the pond,

On this summer day, the boy aimed for that pond. The dirt road separated the pasture on the left — the same one visible through the window above the sink in the kitchen — from a grove of pecan trees on the right. The farm made money from cotton, corn, peanuts, beef and pecans.

The walk to the pond was not long, maybe a quarter mile, and the pond was somewhat sunken. You had to walk down an incline to the pond’s shore. The word pond is misleading.

It was a large lake though it was called a pond, and it was surrounded by towering cypress trees, many of which grew in the water itself, providing shade. Here is the experience of the pond: silence, at times broken by bird songs.

boatAn old rowboat rested on the water’s edge.

A man with silver hair and wrinkles, though far fewer wrinkles than many his age, awoke, and there was a beautiful Mexican at his side. He popped a Hershey’s Kiss in his mouth, bit down, smiled, and was soon asleep again.

The first ride

beach
On the Gulf Coast beach at Biloxi, Mississippi.

MY WIFE’S INITIAL visit to the United States was very surprising to her. “How clean,” she remarked as we walked through downtown San Antonio on our first night, having just driven up from Laredo. I think she meant “how orderly” because Mexico is clean, but sometimes it’s not too orderly, part of its romantic, chaotic charm.

It’s not that she was some provincial bumpkin who’d never been anywhere. She spent six months in the mid-1990s in Spain doing postgraduate studies in civil engineering in Madrid. She took advantage of that opportunity to travel all over Europe in her spare time.

But she had never been above the Rio Bravo until we drove up there in 2004 a year after our wedding. Before the trip, she was fond of saying that she had little interest in visiting. Hadn’t lost anything up there, she repeated with a smirk. There was a strain of anti-Americanism in her family.

All that changed immediately when she saw Texas … and Louisiana … and Mississippi … and Alabama … and Georgia. We drove in our little Chevy Pop, which is something like a Geo Metro. No AC, no stereo, no power steering or power brakes or power windows, no power anything. It was the first car I purchased in Mexico.

We spent a couple of nights in San Antonio, strolling the Riverwalk. There was a side trip to Bandera where we ate barbecue on the main drag. It was followed down the street by root beer floats. There’s no root beer in Mexico.

We drove on to Houston, my old home town, for a few more nights. We visited with a few of my previous coworkers who were still wage-slaving on the Houston Chronicle. Then on to New Orleans for rides in the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue and beignets at Café du Monde abutting the river in the French Quarter.

We hired a carriage, horse and driver for a romantic ride. Though she has seen Paris, New Orleans made a big impression on her. We walked the sidewalks of the Garden District. We ate oyster po’ boys.

The stretch from New Orleans to Atlanta is a long, mostly boring haul. We spread it over two days, spending the night in a Holiday Inn somewhere in the sticks of Central Alabama. The best thing about that night was a fried-catfish plate at a nearby restaurant. Alabama knows how to fry catfish.

She’d never had fried catfish. She’d never had oyster po’ boys. She’d never had a beignet. She’d never had a root beer float. She was happy. And her opinion of the United States changed forever. She was in love with the food, the shopping (Target in particular) and even the people, especially Southerners.

Southern people are genuinely friendly, unlike the famous (feigned) friendliness of Mexicans who grin and hug you to death if they know you and cast you a stone-faced glare if they do not.

A Mexican’s face is a mask, and so is his smile. — Octavio Paz.

We made it to Atlanta where we stayed about a week, visiting my mother, doing more shopping, more eating, and then we headed south, mostly repeating the route north but with briefer layovers.

The trip had begun the first week in March, so the car’s lack of air-conditioning was not a problem. But we almost got nailed on the return drive in mid-March, just one day, the leg between Houston and the border at Laredo. We sweated a bit. Ironically, on entering Mexico, things cooled off. There are mountains.

My wife returned a changed woman. Before she loved only one Gringo. Now she loves them all. She wants to rent a home and stay in the United States for months at a time. She wants to eat po’ boys and barbecue and beignets and catfish every day. She wants to roam the aisles of Target with a debit card and a smile.

Other trips followed, but it’s been six years now since we’ve been above the Rio Bravo, and she’s unhappy about that. Maybe we’ll return some distant day, but only the Goddess knows when … or if.

We haven’t lost anything up there.

Winter cut & sweep

stone

I’VE ALWAYS loved stone, and now I live with it. Loved mountains too, and now I live among them. Don’t forget cool weather, and here I am in eternal cool. It’s a perfect world.*

Normally, the yard doesn’t need a cut in January. Usually, we stop in November, or rather Abel the Deadpan Yardman loses his summer gig in November. I quit mowing years ago.

But we’ve had the occasional unseasonable rain of late, and the lawn gobbled it up, deciding it was summer, and grew a bit, mostly around edges. The lawnmower wouldn’t crank, so I turned to the weed eater.

(Aside:  I saw someone with a grass blower the other day, and it was strange. Though Mexicans are always noisily blowing everything above the Rio Bravo — or did when I  lived there — a blower here is rarely seen.)

Out to the yard I went. The sidewalk is stone, and so is the Alamo Wall. The mountains soared in the near distance, and the sun was shining sweetly through the 70-degree air. I sighed. It was Heaven, honey.

But there was work to do, so I started the edging. The weed eater is electric, so no physical effort is required. Since most of the high grass was around edges, it didn’t take long. Down the sidewalk, around the property wall, under the bougainvilleas and fan palm and other stuff. Then a good sweep with an old broom.

The first winter cut and, with good fortune, the last.

A month ago, I posted First fire, last rose in which I imagined the sole rose out in yard was the last of the season. Boy, was I mistaken. After a couple of near freezes in December, the climate has returned to November’s style, and it’s wonderful. We have a number of new roses and golden datura.

And more fires have been ignited, the last being on Thursday, dead leaves from the loquat and pear trees. Fires provide the aroma of Autumn, and that’s real nice.

* * * *

Once a year I climb the circular stairs to the roof to sweep. But that only puts me atop the second story, which covers most of the house. The kitchen area is just one story, so that requires hauling a ladder to the service patio out back to ascend to that part, which is the part that most needs a sweep.

roofThis is the kitchen roof, swept pretty clean, that you see in the foreground. The tile roof farther on, left side, is the roof of the Garden Patio. Roofs of red clay tile don’t get swept. After some decades, it’s a good idea to remove them for a good shake and brushing, however. God knows what you might find. Bats probably.

* * * *

* Most of my life was spent in South Georgia, North Florida, South Louisiana and East Texas, places notable for lack of stones and mountains and an excess of sweltering heat. I’ve done a 180. Praise be, brother!