Series: Gorgas Science Foundation Treasures of Nature Series
Hidden high in the Sierra de Guatemala mountain range of northeastern Mexico in the state of Tamaulipas is the northernmost tropical cloud forest of the Western Hemisphere. Within its humid oak-sweetgum woodlands, tropical and temperate species of plants and animals mingle in rare diversity, creating a mecca for birders and other naturalists.
Fred and Marie Webster first visited Rancho del Cielo, cloud forest home of Canadian immigrant Frank Harrison, in 1964, drawn by the opportunity to see such exotic birds as tinamous, trogons, motmots, and woodcreepers only 500 miles from their Austin, Texas, home. In this book, they recount their many adventures as researchers and tour leaders from their base at Rancho del Cielo, interweaving their reminiscences with a history of the region and of the struggle by friends from both sides of the border to have some 360,000 acres of the mountain declared an area protected from exploitation—El Cielo Biosphere Reserve. Their firsthand reporting, enlivened with vivid tales of the people, land, and birds of El Cielo, adds an engagingly personal chapter to the story of conservation in Mexico.
The Sierra de Guatemala etched a wavy margin along the western sky, sun-bathed browns and greens against December morning blue. The mountain was clean and remote, untouchable from the lowland course of the Pan-American Highway. We wondered what made this range different from others in northeastern Mexico.
Marshall Johnston stirred in the back seat. "You can just see the cloud forest from here, below the higher ridge."
"Oh. Yes." We were polite, if not enthusiastic.
"Frank Harrison's place is up there, behind one of the peaks."
The name, Frank Harrison, was unfamiliar. At the moment the terrain held our attention. We were fascinated by the tropical lushness of the land scape since crossing the Río Guayalejo and twisting down Galeana Canyon. It was a blessed relief from the dry scrub we had traversed since leaving Ciudad Victoria. The thatched roofs, banana and papaya trees, people on foot, people on burros, wandering domestic fowl and swine, and the ever-pervasive smell of wood smoke, this was Mexico as we remembered it. Now our destination, Xilitla, far to the south, was less a figment of anticipation.
Marshall leaned forward. "They're collecting donations to buy land before the forest is gone."
"Oh? How is that?" Marie, my wife, is quick to sense a crisis.
We looked away to the mountain again, across a sea of cane to forested slopes.
"The lumber people are taking timber out."
We waited for more. Marshall could leave a subject dangling indefinitely; we were ready to settle the matter.
"Who wants to buy the land?"
"Irby. And scientists who've investigated up there."
Mention of L. Irby Davis reminded us again of Xilitla; we were to meet Irby there before the day was over. But Marshall had more to say. The land they wanted to buy and preserve was unique: the northernmost tropical cloud forest in America, an oak-sweetgum forest with temperate as well as southern affnities. We learned that much before Marshall leaned back, pleased at our partial enlightenment.
We thought the topic was closed until, a few miles later, we crossed the Río Sabinas. A dirt road branched off to the right.
"San Gerardo," Marshall announced as a tiny settlement appeared and vanished. "That's the road to Gómez Farías, last stop before Rancho del Cielo . . ."
"Frank Harrison's place," he added when we seemed more interested in a strangler fig that was suffocating its sabal palm host.
The conversation had proceeded somewhat as reconstructed here. That was December 26, 1954, and at the time we had no reason to record our remarks in transit. We do recall, in particular, that Marshall Johnston was the first to bring our attention to Frank Harrison and his beloved mountain retreat. Marshall, then a student at the University of Texas in Austin, had been to Rancho del Cielo with Irby Davis—the premier interpreter of tropical birdsong—on a recording expedition.
Ironically, Marshall's comments were of only passing interest. Marie and I were impatient to reach the mountain village of Xilitla in San Luis Potosí state, where we would participate in our second Christmas bird count with Irby Davis and friends. This time we hoped to add the Emerald Toucanet to our bird life-list. The Sierra de Guatemala faded quickly from view and memory.
About ten years later we would again cross the Río Sabinas; this time we would turn right at San Gerardo and head for Gómez Farías, and from there to Frank Harrison's Rancho del Cielo, birds again high on the agenda. We could not have known that we soon would be engaged in much more than birdwatching, but the struggle to save the cloud forest was—again— just over the horizon.
Our first trip with John Hunter lacked what would become the typical early morning start of later years. Around 3 A.M. John would throw open our bedroom door and flip the light switch, invariably beating our travel alarm to the punch. This untimely introduction to the morning was tempered somewhat by Caroline's breakfast offering of orange juice, bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee, after which we boarded the Jeep as soon as expedient and headed for the International Bridge and an uncertain fate at the aduana (customhouse) in Matamoros.
In May 1964 we were denied, also, the experience of helping to load ("pack" is a better word) John's Jeep. Since residency at Rancho del Cielo was entirely self-sustaining, one furnished all bedding, utensils, food, drink, and anything else that would be needed for a prolonged stay. If these items were not already stockpiled at the cabin, they must be provided. In addition, John maintained his "short list" of items that were in short supply; these, plus perishables, were assured of space in the Jeep. Eggs and meat were always procured in Brownsville. Eggs were meticulously snuggled into army surplus ammo boxes, the meat preserved with dry ice.
John's packing technique was an art form, with the result that every centimeter of space was utilized, and miraculously, there always seemed room to cram in anything that might have been overlooked. On our first expedition, not only was the Jeep packed to the hilt, but a mattress and a water-heater tank were also secured to the roof.
At mid-afternoon on May 2, 1964, we headed for Matamoros—John, ourselves, and John's friend Leon. The officials at Mexico customs may have raised eyebrows at our overstuffed vehicle and its overhead load, but John was a veteran at making the border crossing, and we cleared customs without argument. One way to avoid baggage search, John had instructed us, was to pack personal items in a duffel bag rather than a suitcase; we have been ever grateful for this useful stratagem.
We passed the night at the house of Caroline's sister, on the outskirts of Ciudad Victoria and 200 miles into our adventure. Elizabeth McCollum was taller, on the slender side, with more narrow facial conformation, dark hair, and hazel eyes. Mac, her late husband, had had business interests on the mountain, although they did not directly affect Rancho del Cielo.
We had reached Ciudad Victoria after dark, so the light of morning brought revelation of a sort. The Sierra Madre Oriental, a roller-coaster mass of unbroken green, crowded the western horizon, brooding over the city confined in a depression at its foot and seemingly aloof from the humanity that, like ants, constantly moved through a maze of narrow passages lined by pastel-tinted walls. For whatever imaginings the sierra might evoke, vibrant, teeming life flowed on a lower plane, intent on its own agenda.
This portion of the Sierra Madre held no real interest for us; we knew there was no cloud forest here. Rather, semiarid lowlands graduated to semiarid mountain slope, topped off in semiarid oak forest. We were impatient for birds of a tropical cloud forest.
We had checked out the birdlife in Elizabeth's citrus orchard after breakfast. The aroma of orange blossoms was pleasing, but the birds were all familiar Texas species. Obviously, it was time to move on. First, John advised, we were due a foray into town; our mission: to buy fresh produce at the market.
As the morning progressed, rising wind blew hot puffs of dust copiously along narrow streets, and shadows blended into substance. The sierra had pulled a veil of haze across its flanks and appeared to retreat from reality. Not so the market, athrob with activity, saturated with sound and smell. A typical market, one that you would expect in a typical Mexican city, it was geared to local trade rather than tourism, with an expansive roofed area of open stalls, vegetables stacked, meat hanging, and a labyrinth of small shops with garish merchandise.
Most impressive was John Hunter's shopping pace; despite his physical size and limitations, we found it diffcult to keep at his heels. Thanks to John's market-harvesting technique, we were out of the city well before noon, when shops close for a two-hour siesta.
Elizabeth had been added to our party, in addition to various fruits and vegetables, of which we remember only the tomatoes, and that for good reason.
How many times were we to take the old Pan-American Highway south from Ciudad Victoria! Never having the time to experience the fascinating life of the dry, scrubby thorn forest, yet anticipating the lushness of the forest in the clouds. Always teased by the mountains, which, though persistently filling the western horizon, shunned intimacy. Always alert on the serpentine stretch of highway up and down from the Mesa de Llera. For a few moments wonder would override stress as the road maneuvered to align "Gunsight," the precise positioning of three ancient volcanic plugs that rise unexpectedly from the valley floor beyond. Then came the hairpin turns, and gawking at roadside debris where trucks had gone out of control.
Finally, we reached a gentle descent to the Río Guayalejo, northern boundary of the Sierra de Guatemala. We were a dozen miles south of the Tropic of Cancer, but thorn forest had not yet given way to more luxuriant growth; however, as we wound through verdant foothills down to the valley of the Río Sabinas the change was dramatic: remnant patches of tropical deciduous forest competed with cultivated fields and orchards that encroached up the hillsides. Small stick-and-wattle houses with thatched roofs squatted at random; roadside stands displayed fruit, juices, honey.
The trip was coming into clear focus at last. What John had been telling us along the way, of the history, the people, the natural features of the land, was becoming reality. We could see it and hear it and smell it.
The terrain flattened out. The village of E1 Encino, at highway mile 55, gave access to the Río Sabinas, still several miles to the west, by a dirt road that cut the town in half. To reach Rancho del Cielo by the longer route, John explained, one turned here, continuing to a low-water crossing at the Sabinas, a steady and laborious climb to cloud forest level, the lumber yard at Julilo where the pines begin, then some four miles through forest to Frank Harrison's place. This route pulsed with recent and not-so-recent events. We would hear much of the people, their exploits and shattered dreams— and we would be drawn inexorably into the ongoing drama. But today it was to be the short route to Rancho del Cielo, through Gómez Farías.
Past E1 Encino the highway set a rather straight and level course through the river valley. Two miles from E1 Encino, John pointed to a dirt road on the right, a lonely trail vanishing toward the river. "That goes to Pano Ayuctle, Everts Storms' place," John said. "He's gone now, drowned in the river. Heart attack. That was a great loss to Frank."
We recalled names from the literature and word of mouth. It hadn't been too many years ago that Don Evaristo was hosting eager young naturalists. Frank Harrison would make frequent trips down the treacherous short trail to Pano Ayuctle, on the way to market with produce from his garden, to return with supplies for the ranch.
We were beginning to feel that John's mountain—Frank Harrison's mountain—was more than just a chunk of real estate; it was an obsession. It seemed, at the moment, quite beguiling, discreetly removed and untouched by human events, sprawled along the western horizon beyond sugarcane fields. On later trips, the range most often would be clothed in thunderheads, which rolled up its flanks in daily summertime ritual. In May 1964, however, the mountain merely shimmered in a clinging haze; the rainy season was yet to come, and the humid lowlands broiled under the sun's absolute rule.
We were distracted from our mountain musings by flashes of color at roadside, lavender-blue flower clusters of the jacaranda tree, bright scarlet of the royal poinciana; the two seemed to vie for favor. Neither species was native to Mexico, John informed us, a fact that failed to diminish our appreciation.
"Much of this area was palm bottom a while back."
We had noticed isolated trees or small patches of Sabal mexicana but had assumed they were planted exotics. I was beginning to understand that we actually had little concept of this area's appearance a hundred or more years ago. Was there any tract of palm jungle remaining? Where was the tropical deciduous forest? If the view from the highway was any indication, cultivated field, orchard, and pasture were supplanting native vegetation in the Sabinas Valley. We suspected that much land had been put to the plow even since we passed here en route to Xilitla years before. The coming of the PanAmerican Highway had been a boon for the people but a scourge to the native flora and fauna.
Actually, as John pointed out, things had gone downhill long before the 1930s. Although Indian tribes in this region of northeastern Mexico had successfully resisted the Spanish for two centuries after the fall of the Aztec empire, they were unable to turn back a force led by José de Escandón in January 1747. Spanish colonization meant new farming practices and herds of livestock.
We had reached the bridge across the Río Sabinas. This would be our first and only glimpse of the river from the highway. The water ran clear and cool under a canopy of huge cypress trees, fed by a distant spring that took water from the bowels of the mountain. It was called gallery forest, the columns of trees that lined the river banks and rose, like a gallery, above the adjoining land.
Not far beyond the bridge, John slowed the Jeep and turned right. We were at San Gerardo, little more than a wide place in the road, but the only highway access to Gómez Farías; only 12 kilometers, the sign read. Ciudad Victoria was 67 miles to the north. This would be our last highway reading, and a farewell to smooth road surfaces. At first glance the dirt road ahead did not appear threatening, and it pointed straight toward the mountains, but it would have to climb soon, for our altimeter read just 400 feet above sea level.
About five miles later, after enduring a washboard road through a landscape given over to crops and pasture, we did start to ascend. It was here that we had our introduction to apparently undisturbed tropical deciduous forest.
The forest presented an almost impenetrable understory of trees and shrubs, with taller trees protruding randomly above the canopy, as though squeezed from the press. Lianas and epiphytes added to the confusion of plant species, and we caught glimpses of that large and spiny terrestrial bromeliad Bromelia pinguin (wild pineapple), which in places covered the forest floor and discouraged foot traffic by human and beast alike. As for the trees, we recognized none of them in passing, although we had learned some of them by name in searching the literature. We had been fascinated by such odd names as eardrop tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), apes-earring (Pithecellolbium dulce), and strangler fig (Ficus cotinifolia). The latter species sprouts when a seed is deposited in the crotch of a host tree; it sends roots to the ground and eventually strangles the host. We remembered, also, that the tropical deciduous forest has various species of the genera Acacia, Cassia, and Leucaena. The presence of many compound-leaved and thorny species reminded us of the nearby thorn forest; here, too, most plants have a reduced leaf surface to offset the usual hot and dry spring season.
One tree caught our attention for its smooth trunk and coppery orange outer bark, which seemed to be peeling oflf. "That's the chaca tree," John told us. It was a Bursera species, similar to the gumbo limbo of Florida. The peeling bark frustrated epiphytic growth.
"Naked Indian," John added. We knew he was referring to the tree. There was a so-called naked Indian back home, the Texas madrone. Reddish, smooth-barked trees commonly evoke such a comparison.
Overall, the forest had a wilted appearance. New leaves had emerged in March and April, yet the rainy season might be weeks away. Somehow, the forest adjusts to this annual waiting game. The few bird calls that reached us over the groanings of the Jeep tantalized us, but the only birds in evidence were those disturbed by our approach; of course, these quickly vanished into their leafy haunts. Nor did we dare request a bird stop; we were climbing steadily now, and it was the noon hour, not the ideal time for bird or birder.
A vista opened below to our right: the lowlands, a mosaic of field and orchard and remnant patches of woodland, all steaming under the sun. Shortly, a sign at roadside proclaimed, "Bienvenidos a Gómez Farías"—a simple welcome.
The village seemed to begin at this point, laid out along this, the main and only street, following the crest of a ridge—a hogback lava formation, as attested by dark-hued rocks stacked casually in the form of barrier walls at roadside. We were informed that the street ran unpaved for about three miles before dead-ending.
Gómez Farías was Mexico removed from the tourist influence. Most of the village crowned the ridge, a few abodes clinging to either slope. Small houses of unpainted lumber or just wattle and mud were distributed in no apparent order. Dooryards were aflame with color, hibiscus, rose, bougainvillea in luxuriant bloom; mango trees towered over stands of banana and papaya. From open doorways, women in long-skirted print dresses glanced at us without expression, while barefooted children waved and yelled greetings. Less moved by our passage, dogs, pigs, and chickens gave right-of-way grudgingly. We had the feeling that we were the main event of the day in Gómez Farías, and indeed, there was no evidence of other visitors from the outside world.
We arrived shortly at the plaza, a raised square sporting a bandstand and an ancient ceiba tree (Ceiba pentandra). A few small commercial edifices and the municipal building gathered around the plaza, which was obviously the focal point of the community; however, at this time of day, little seemed to be in focus. Few people were on the street, a deficiency we could understand given the heat and humidity. A small, very road-worn and driverless bus crowded the plaza wall, waiting to carry townspeople south to Ciudad Mante at some appointed hour.
John paused at the plaza long enough for the dust to settle, and we tried in that moment to absorb the flavor of the town. We recalled what we had been told of the history of Gómez Farías and the surrounding region. Tamaulipas was very late in being conquered and incorporated into the Spanish colonial system. By the middle of the eighteenth century, few indigenous people remained in the southern part of the state; they had fled, died of disease, or been killed in the continuing struggle between the colonial world to the south and nomadic tribes to the north. Beginning in 1747, the forces of Count José de Escandon subdued the hostile elements in the region and parceled out the land for settlement; people were brought in and towns established all the way to the Río Grande.
The town of Gómez Farías, at first called Joya de San José, was established in 1836 by families from central Mexico, mestizos, persons of mixed Spanish and Indian blood. (Spanish women were slow in coming to the New World.) Small tracts of land were parceled out to 40 recipients. In 1870, the government of Tamaulipas granted a village charter, creating a free municipal government. The village was now called the Villa de Gómez Farías, in honor of the then president of Mexico. The Municipio de Gómez Farías, the encompassing entity, roughly comprises the Sierra de Guatemala.
Gómez Farías was one of few settlements in the region, isolated, with heavily forested lowlands adjacent. Only in the 1890s did development start in the lowlands. It was during that period that settlers from the United States were encouraged to come and cultivate the land.
We left the plaza with no regrets, although a sign on one of the buildings, in familiar red and white, proclaiming "tome Coca Cola," was impossible to ignore. We refrained from comment; John was now intent on putting the town behind us.
We had enjoyed a relatively smooth road surface through town as far as the plaza, but beyond that the red dirt became rock-infested. That was only the beginning. Before the road curved upward to the right—soon to dead-end—John took a left turn, downhill. This was the inauspicious gateway to the mountain settlements and Rancho del Cielo. Now, as the Jeep crawled downslope, we overlooked a valley wedged between the Gómez Farías ridge and the serrated mountain front, where woodland was ever yielding to cultivated fields and a scattering of farm dwellings. It was an idyllic scene when viewed with detached interest, but we were not suddenly suffused with inner calm; rather, a nervous excitement mounted as we realized that we were now fully committed to the adventure.
Descending rapidly, Jeep and passengers bounced past the community spring, largely deserted at midday, and rolled onto a flat stretch. We had reached bottom. This spot was destined to become known, to some of us, as Lucas's Bottom, for the house of Lucas Romero, Frank Harrison's helper, sat no more than a stone's throw beyond the road. We paused while John looked toward the house.
Now at a standstill, we felt the full impact of the heat. It was surely more than 100 degrees, with no breeze. A haze filled the valley basin and distorted the features of the mountainside ahead.
Lucas was not to be seen. He would have heard the Jeep and come out, John reasoned; probably he was at the ranch. A middle-aged woman appeared at the door of the house: Lucas's mother-in-law, a troublemaker. She was reputed to be a bruja (witch). John grunted and shifted gears to four-wheel drive.
We had dropped from 1,000 feet of elevation in Gómez Farías to probably less than 500 feet at Lucas's Bottom. Now it would be all uphill, I thought with some misgivings as the Jeep lurched forward. We climbed slowly, penetrating, almost imperceptibly, the mouth of a long canyon. We had left all evidence of human activity, embraced by bushes that crowded roadside, shaded by trees that intertwined branches overhead. A dry, boulder-strewn ravine on our right awaited the rainy season. There were birds, unseen, teasing us with snatches of song. We knew the hoarse croaking of the Elegant Trogon, but other sounds were foreign to our ears and usually fragmented by the grinding, crunching efforts of the Jeep. A morpho butterfly, large and blue, appeared alongside, then moved ahead effortlessly, buoyantly, catching splashes of sunlight on iridescent wings.
Birds and butterflies were but minor distractions from the trials of the trip. The roadbed had deteriorated badly. The Jeep's progress was never straightaway; tires nudged through drifts of loose rock, slipping and sliding as John struggled to keep on a general heading; meantime, the Jeep's underparts slammed bottom with disturbing regularity. As passengers, we were bouncing up and down, lurching backward and forward, and weaving sideways, seemingly all at the same time. Marie and I were in the back seat, Elizabeth wedged snugly between us. Confined as we were, we absorbed one another's bodily shocks, an exercise for which we were ill-suited. Marie, in particular, must have felt mistreated. She was slender, at five feet ten inches, while I carried more padding, at about 180 pounds on a six-foot-two frame. But Marie would have been the last to complain; she has a strong German disposition and red hair (well, auburn), from the Scotch influence.
"We do have springs?" Marie's voice rolled with the motion of the Jeep. Oddly, she was laughing.
I hoped John had not heard. "We started out with springs," I tried to whisper. "I haven't seen any drop off."
My remark received what it deserved: no response. I made no further attempt to make light of the situation.
I was so absorbed with my own concerns that it never occurred to me that Marie was enjoying every moment of the trip, from John's generous pontificating to the sights and sounds and smells of the countryside; this I learned at a later date. Rough roads were no novelty to Marie. Her father had been a beekeeper, and as a child she had ridden with him as he trucked the back roads and pastures of the southwest Texas brush country, tending his bee yards. I, on the other hand, had a strictly urban background and expected highways and byways (at least by the year 1964) to show some semblance of a paved surface.
I was increasingly apprehensive. We had no precedent for this experience, and I had been too naive to question the possibility of conquering a substandard mountain mule trail in an overloaded Jeep station wagon.
"You just relax," Elizabeth said. "Yield to the motion."
I glanced at her; she was smiling faintly. Elizabeth had been here before, but this was a different trip, I reasoned. If she had sought to reassure me, her words had little effect other than to discourage further comments on my part.
In reality, we were traveling more than a mule trail. This was the main, and only, route to the settlement of Alta Cima, in a wide valley on the edge of the cloud forest, and a few mountain villages beyond. Understandably, however, most traffic was by foot. Lumber company trucks of World War II origin (British vehicles used in Burma) patrolled the one-lane mountain roads almost uncontested, and then only sporadically. Few outsiders dared drive beyond Gómez Farías, and for good reason: there were no watering places or gas pumps on the forest network.
Exploitation of the forest for lumbering purposes had necessitated access by road, a convenience we took for granted, unaware of the labor involved in sculpting a trail through the wilderness. In a sense, the project is never completed, for upkeep remains a seasonal problem. The degree of maintenance usually depends on the amount of rainwater flooding down the right-ofway. Often, smaller, filler rocks are washed away during summer downpours, leaving solid rock mounds too high for a vehicle to pass over and too wide to maneuver around. To reduce a mound to acceptable size, workers build a fire over the rock, then chip away at the heated surface with sledgehammers. Over the years, only main arteries have been maintained, while many logging spurs quickly disappeared under second-growth vegetation.
We had gained little elevation when we came to an abrupt right-angle turn in the road. John stopped the Jeep, engine still running. A cliff loomed ahead, its sheer face softened by a mass of greenery. Access into the upper canyon was blocked here by a steep hillside that, like a dam, lay horizontally between the ramparts. Accordingly, the road bent to the right and took off uphill at a severe slant before curving out of view. John turned halfway toward the back seat.
"Fred Blesse always stopped here for a cigarette, to listen for trucks coming down. They have the right-of-way."
Leon leaned from the front passenger window. "I don't hear anything, John."
Leon had been uncharacteristically quiet since we left Gómez Farías. Earlier, we had been entertained (or at least kept awake) by Leon's chatter, which filled the gaps between John's informative comments.
"Well, the motor's running, Leon," Elizabeth said.
John turned the ignition key. I groaned inwardly, convinced that the Jeep would refuse to start again. But we did enjoy a few moments of relative silence, discounting the incessant buzz of insects.
"What is this?" Marie was pointing out her window.
Being on the right side of the road, I had been contemplating the steep grade ahead. On Marie's side, the canyon wall dropped precipitously to road level. At that point, a troughlike concrete structure had been placed against the rock. It was a pila, or water reservoir, John told us. Although no longer in use as such, it had once been a waystation in a pipeline system that took water from a spring, high in the mountain, to Gómez Farías. To one side of the pila, resting on a concrete block, was a rusting 60-gallon tin with a portion of the side cut out. Inside, we could discern a figure of the Virgin Mary and spent candle stubs. Cut flowers, now wilting, had been arranged about the tin.
We expressed curiosity. It was John's turn again.
"That's a shrine. People light a candle and pray for a safe trip."
"Up," I added.
"Or give thanks for a safe trip down," Elizabeth suggested.
Leon dropped the bomb. "This is where the truck went over?"
"Right here." John seemed to dismiss the matter.
"How many did you say were killed?" Leon persisted.
"Well, I don't know if they ever said."
"The shrine could be a memorial then," Marie said.
It was not difficult to visualize an ancient truck, bouncing down the grade, failing to make the turn at Blesse's corner and dropping into the ravine opposite the pila. We were respectfully silent as John started the Jeep.
From Blesse's corner the road cut across the canyon as described, with the downside on our right as we climbed. At the top of the grade it turned sharply left while inclining laterally at a precarious angle. Here John made the widest turn possible, successfully keeping four wheels to the road surface. Elizabeth and I converged on Marie in the process.
From this point to the Aguacates junction we could breathe easier, for the most part. At times we were hugging the mountainside with the canyon dropping off to our left. No one had thought to install a guard rail or other safety feature; there was just the one lane and little, if any, shoulder. Marie could look over into the canyon, the bottom of which was impossible to discern through the foliage of tree, bush, and vine.
We were now in the tropical semievergreen and evergreen forest that completely clothed both steep canyon slopes. Again, the tree species were mostly unfamiliar. Now there were no chacas, whose absence alone told us that we had left the tropical deciduous zone. Had we looked more closely we would have noticed that trees were taller here, with larger leaves, and more than half were evergreen species. Thorny species were all but absent; epiphytes and lianas were common.
A list of the trees shows mostly tropical genera. A few names were familiar to us: Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa), hackberry (Celtis monoica), oak (Quercus germana), and orchid tree (Bauhinia mexicana).
We were able to identify a few of the flowering plants, notably two vines, Mexican flame vine (Senecio confisus), with its bright reddish orange daisylike flowers, and the delicate, pendant clusters of purple wreath (Petrea volubilis). Other familiar plants were a Heliconia species, scarlet hamelia (Hamelia patens), cestrum (Cestrum nocturnum), and shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana).
One plant that John troubled to caution us about was mala mujer (Cnidoscolus urens), or "bad woman," a rank nettle with large hand-shaped leaves. Both leaf and stalk bear stinging hairs that can cause lingering infection if not treated promptly. We learned to wipe with moist towelettes at the merest contact with this plant. Eventually we would meet mal hombre (Urera caracasana), also equipped with stinging hairs but much less invasive and toxic, a comparison Marie thought fitting.
Mala mujer is a disturbance plant, likely to appear in any forest opening. In addition, it crowded the roadside and threatened to enter through the Jeep windows. The plant did have one redeeming quality: hummingbirds were attracted to the white flower clusters.
We reached a section of the road that was relatively smooth and, we thought, level. As to the latter assumption, John assured us that if he put the Jeep in neutral it would roll back downhill. We did not press him on the matter, but John did stop to let us admire the view.
From this elevation, we could look back on Gómez Farías, the Sierra Chiquita (a foothill just north of the village), and mesas beyond the Sabinas Valley. It was a pleasantly green vista, merely dappled with human handiwork.
"On a clear day you can see Sombrero," John said. His reference was to Bernal de Horcasitas, a huge volcanic plug, a tapering dome rising abruptly from the lowlands to the southeast and likened to a hat placed on a flat surface. Today the far horizon was too obscured by smoke haze to display one of John's favorite annotative subjects.
Looking back on a scene that we had traversed but which now appeared quite unfamiliar, I felt a stranger in alien territory. The world we knew was somewhere beyond Gómez Farías and the farthest horizon. Even as the thought crossed my mind like a foreboding shadow, we noticed movement up the road: a small group of local people, a man leading a pack burro, trailed by a woman and young girl on foot.
"Buenas tardes." The man turned his head slightly toward us, then quickly looked away. The others stared straight ahead, the woman gently prodding the girl. Two emaciated dogs gave the Jeep suspicious glances and a wide berth, slinking on the far side of the humans. As the party vanished around the bend, we were startled by the sudden appearance of a tiny woman, quite elderly and stooped, walking resolutely along the margin of the road. The brown, wrinkled face did not turn toward us, but seemed to contemplate the hem of a faded skirt, from which bare feet extended at each step.
"They should let her ride the burro," Leon said. "She won't have any skin left on her feet."
"They're tough, Leon," Elizabeth said. "Walking is the way of life. As for me, I'd have a hard time even with shoes."
I looked back down the road; the old woman was not to be seen. Had she been there at all, really, or had time skipped ahead a moment? Whatever, the incident reinforced my feeling of estrangement from the familiar.
There was little time for brooding; I was jarred back to reality as the Jeep lurched ahead once more.
The depth of the gorge on our left had gradually decreased until, now, we were traveling on the floor of the canyon. The green-flanked cliff towered directly ahead, beyond which open sky spread in an ever-expanding arc. It was apparent that we were nearing the head of the canyon. Even as I savored the thought, John halted the Jeep, engine still running. It was then that I noticed the road branching off to the right.
We were at Los Aguacates junction. Ahead, beyond the canyon, was the village of Alta Cima; to the right—somewhere—was Rancho del Cielo. John leaned back, half facing us. He had words to share, but I suspected, also, that he was pausing to marshal energy for the challenge ahead. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
We were at the site of the first Anglo settlement on the mountain, John explained. Murdock C. Cameron, a Scotch Canadian who had been a medic with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and his French-Canadian wife had come to Mexico in the 1890s seeking a healthy environment for the doctor, who had lost a lung while working above the Arctic circle. The Camerons had first lived in Ciudad Victoria, where Dr. Cameron was said to have opened a pharmacy and served as company doctor of the Texas-Mexican Railroad. After several years they had come to the Gómez Farías region. Some sources state that they resided in Gómez Farías for a few years before settling at the Aguacates. (The word aguacate, or avocado, comes from the Nahuatl Indian word ahuacatl.)
The Cameron residence at the Aguacates had been a cabin about 40 feet square. Presumably the timber was hand-hewn on the site, as were the split-oak shakes for the roof. Now, many decades later, there was no readily visible sign that anyone had lived here. Wooded slopes reached down to bare roadbed, erasing all but memories. The only reminder of the Camerons' brief sojourn at the Aguacates are a few avocado trees—unless, by chance, the curious visitor should probe about the adjacent woodland to find the foundations of the Cameron house.
Considering the difficult terrain, it is not surprising that after two years, the family moved up to the broad, flat valley now known as Ejido Alta Cima.
The next leg of our journey was the so-called Aguacates grade, which would take us to Frank Harrison's red gate in the cloud forest. We have traveled this route dozens of times over the years, and I can say with all sincerity that my respect for this stretch of road has never diminished.
One may find a degree of detachment from the tensions of the Aguacates grade by forcing attention on the flowering plants along the way, or by pondering strange bird calls. Fending off advances of mala mujer certainly offers a diversion. But always underlying the total experience is an awareness of the relentless struggle of people and machines against the mountain, the grinding, whirring, crunching of vehicles, the constant jostling of riders.
Riding with John at the wheel, we learned, added a degree of excitement to any trip. John knew the mountain roads, and he was confidently optimistic, but diabetes and arthritis, combined with oversized shoes, made his footwork suspect. Neither footwork nor mechanical trouble slowed us on this occasion. Our main hazard, beyond the physical beating, proved to be an errant sack of tomatoes, quite ripe; dislodged from a precarious perch by an especially strenuous maneuver of the Jeep, the sack emptied its contents on us in the back seat.
Eventually the Aguacates grade was conquered and we paused at Frank's gate. The red gate consisted of four rough-hewn poles of reddish hue positioned through holes in posts to either side of the road. In order to proceed, one merely pulled the poles out of one supporting post and laid them aside. Leon and I shared the task, replacing the poles when the Jeep had passed through the gap.
The gate was intended to discourage Frank's cattle from venturing down the Aguacates. To bypass the barrier, an animal would have to work through rocks and heavy forest.
We had been too preoccupied with the mechanics of the trip to notice a gradual change in the composition of the forest as we neared the crest of the Aguacates. Now, at Frank's gate, we realized that at long last we were in cloud forest. To reach Rancho del Cielo, we would travel on a northerly heading, subject to the contours of the cloud forest corridor.
Momentarily, my mind wandered to literature I had read, information I had tried to assimilate regarding the geological and climatic conditions that support cloud forest so near the Tropic of Cancer. This forest type is not extensive; it starts as a narrow strip about twelve miles north of Rancho del Cielo but broadens considerably near the southern terminus of the range. In the vicinity of Rancho del Cielo, cloud forest probably is no more than two and a half miles in width.
It is said that the Sierra de Guatemala is composed of three north-south running ridges. The easternmost ridge (home to the cloud forest) is most clearly defined from about the latitude of Pano Ayuctle or E1 Encino southward. Along this front, gulf moisture crossing the coastal lowlands on easterly winds meets with the least opposition, the Sierra Chiquita being a minor and apparently insignificant deterrent. This foothill (about 2,300 feet in elevation and just north of Gómez Farías) is an anticlinal formation, with folds of rock strata inclining downward on both sides from a central axis.
Topographic maps show a remarkable consistency in the contour lines of the first ridge on its north-south alignment. The second ridge westward shows considerable irregularity but can still be delineated. As for a third or westernmost ridge, peaks and canyons destroy any continuity.
Timewise, we had reached a halfway point in our journey from Gómez Farías. We had traveled a little over three miles from the plaza to the Aguacates, and from that point a little over a mile to Frank's gate. Each portion of the trip had taken about 30 minutes. The stretch from the gate to Rancho del Cielo was close to three miles, which, John assured us, normally required somewhat less than an hour; that is, if we avoided mechanical breakdown and the road was not blocked by fallen trees.
The road from the gate to the ranch was rough and rocky in places, particularly as we neared the ranch, but after the Aguacates experience we were prone to tolerance. There were occasional smooth stretches of red clay surface, spoiled only by deep truck ruts, which stored water for days after a rain.
We could rejoice that we had reached the cloud forest, the northernmost tropical cloud forest in the hemisphere. This was the wilderness that had been home to Frank Harrison since 1935. This was the magnet that had drawn scientists of various disciplines to investigate and record diverse ecological subjects.
Two features of this wonderland impressed us most: trees and rocks. Trees were tall and straight for the most part, older trunks wrapped in epiphytic growth—lichen, moss, fern, bromeliad, orchid. Tank bromeliads, supporting microcommunities of living organisms, clung to the trunk or perched on larger branches. Ground cover was sparse where the canopy was most dense but thrived in disturbed areas or where rock outcrops created permanent openings. In places, second-growth saplings reached skyward like so many toothpicks, with little chance in the competition for sunlight.
Rocks were everywhere, weathered and gray, adorned with lichen, moss, and fern not yet revived by summer rain. Rocks protruded from a leaf-littered surface as house-sized boulders; smaller rocks cluttered the forest floor at random. Although the latter appeared to rest on the surface, we would discover later that most were anchored in the subterranean mass. What we would not discern from a moving vehicle were the numerous fissures, which in some instances appear bottomless.
Frank Harrison had expressed it graphically in an early writing: "This part of the mountain must have been the discards after the rest of the world was made. It is just a jumble of loose rocks . . . no creek or any signs of any streams, just holes, caves and sunken spots amongst the rocks. It can rain all night, and sometimes it does, 7 or 8 inches in a terrible thunderstorm that shakes the house and the very mountain itself, and the next morning you will not get your feet wet walking in the forest."
In Frank Harrison's words, the foregoing applied to "this part of the mountain," not to the entire range. His statement was puzzling until we learned more of the geology of the region. The Sierra de Guatemala is composed mostly of El Abra limestone of the Cretaceous period, but there is a striking difference in configuration between the eastern and western portions of the mountain. On the eastern side (roughly the first two ridges) the strata are severely folded or bent. Here karst topography is everywhere evident in protruding rock masses (some standing like weathered towers), scattered boulders, and numerous caves and sinks. Little surface drainage occurs except in the wet season, then only temporarily. Even permanent springs form rivulets that soon vanish underground. Two major springs handle discharge from the subterranean channels: the nacimiento of the Río Sabinas, not far upstream from Pano Ayuctle, and the nacimiento of the Río Frío, just south of Gómez Farías.
We could not have foreseen that we would have many occasions during subsequent years to experience the diversity of mountain life, thanks to the main logging roads. On this day, exploration was not on our minds; our concern was reaching Rancho del Cielo. Frank's gate was only about fifteen minutes behind us, but already my resolve to enjoy the remainder of the ride had eroded in the face of reality. The bouncing and jostling had not decreased appreciably, and even in the shade of the forest it was insufferably hot; the only breeze was that created by the overloaded Jeep.
The novelty of our surroundings gradually diminished. The forest slipped slowly past with little change of character except where rock formations altered the landscape. As far as we could see there was more forest, and a trail (generously called a road) that weaved its way under a canopy that permitted little sunlight to relieve a surface of brown leaf litter and gray rock.
Civilization, a.k.a. Gómez Farías, was only miles away, but it could as well have been in another galaxy. Here in the forest we had encountered no human presence other than ourselves, nor were there signs of human habitation along the route. The forest belonged to bird and beast, and the latter rested by day in myriad hideaways. We had entered a land where we must tread softly, for we were intruders and knew not the rules of the realm.
For a fleeting moment I felt a curious release, a freedom from the ordinariness of existence, a surge of exhilaration—but quickly tempered by uneasiness. I sensed a need to belong, to relate to the wilderness. How to achieve that intimacy, except through experience?
My current passion, birds, came to mind. We had looked for birds through the windows of the Jeep, only to glimpse shadows darting, vanishing against the greenery. To experience and relate we must identify, but visual contact had failed us. Occasionally a song reached us over the clamor of the vehicle; no familiarity here. We were in an enchanted woodland, where phantom wings beckoned, inviting us to share their secrets, mocking with unseen voices when we tried. It would take time and patience to win over the forest and its denizens.
We came to a fork in the road. Ahead, a hundred yards or so, the main road would skirt the cleared area known as Paul's Field at the locality called San Pablo, from where it would continue northward to the lumber camp at Julilo, but that itinerary was not for us today. A right turn here would take us to Rancho del Cielo.
From this point it only seemed a long distance, perhaps because we were anxious, and the going was slow and rough. Then a steep climb, a coast downhill to level ground, and we were at John's gate. John detailed Leon to pull aside the barbed-wire barrier and reattach it to the gate post when we cleared the opening.
We were at forest edge. Beyond, we could see John's cabin perched at the crest of a small rise. A castle on a mountaintop would have been no more welcome. Moments later, the Jeep groaned to a halt alongside the cabin. We disentangled ourselves and stumbled to the ground.
I took a panoramic impression of our surroundings: the small clearing bordered by forest giants, another cabin across the way, a haze-shrouded ridge beyond a hillside to the west.
Then I noticed the small man standing beside the Jeep. Frank Harrison? Small and wiry—was this a man who would challenge the Mexican wilderness? I tried not to stare, but he was looking at the group, not at me. Curious, I noted the unpressed blue cotton pants and shirt, faded but clean, and the scuffed and moisture-stained shoes. It all seemed to fit—the rustic gentleman tidied up to welcome friends.
"It's paradise!" Marie exclaimed.
"I'm glad you could come."
The weathered face was fixed in a slight smile. I had an instant impression of cordiality, and when Frank Harrison spoke you knew that he would never be a stranger.