Hiking in the Sandias

Just east of Albuquerque are range of mountains approximately 26 miles long and roughly 10,600 feet at the highest point of their serrated spine.  They are part of the Rio Grande Rift Valley and were formed tens of millions of years ago when the land literally began to split apart.  When this happened as one can imagine there were great bursts of lava and a lot of chaos.  As the land split and what would become Albuquerque began to sink, the hard granite that forms the base of the Sandias was thrust upward.

This process is still happening today.   If you look west from Albuquerque you will see a series of brown peaks.  These are old volcanoes.  I read that they were last active anywhere from 130,000 to 30,000 years ago.  Not too long geologically speaking, but not so recent that anyone remembers it.  Farther south toward Lincoln County you can find newer lava flows that occurred within the last 5,000 years.

The Sandias are mostly granite that is somewhere between 1.5 billion to 1.7 billions years old in some places.  The top of the crest has some newer stones, mostly limestone and sandstone that is only about 300 million years old.  The presence of limestone is not altogether surprising because for much of its history New Mexico was buried beneath the ocean.  Limestone by and large is the product of marine life dying and decomposing and then being compressed over much time into that lovely stone we use to decorate buildings.

Aside from being very old and subject to a violent, earth-shattering past, the Sandias are home to some excellent hiking trails.  Two of the most famous are La Luz and El Pino trail.  La Luz receives a bit more traffic though it shares the distinction with El Pino of winding all the way to the crest of the Sandias on the west side.  There are a number of other trails such as the Domingo Baca trail.  This trail is unique in that it follows a creek bed up the Sandias.  The only creek that is always running with water on the western slope of the mountains.  It is also unique in that it takes its travelers to the site of a TWA crash that occurred in 1955.  It was this site that I went in search of approximately two weeks ago.  I downloaded an app on my phone, did internet research, spoke to some Albuquerque natives at work, consulted with the park rangers before beginning on my hike and getting completely lost.

In my defense, the Sandia trails are really best not managed with a map or the trail markers but by experience.  For example, one will be walking along one trail that is marked by a number and then the trail will fork and you will encounter a sign pointing in the direction that you want to take with a particular number such as 242.  “Eureka!” you think, “I have found my trail!”  However, upon closer inspection you will note that the sign pointing to 242 is right between the fork and points in the direction where there is no trail.  Thus, if you are like me, you will encounter your Robert Frost moment of a trail diverging in the woods with both confusion and optimism.  I thought to myself, Domingo Baca is north, I will head north.

However, about 2 hours into my hike I realized that I was very clearly on the wrong trail.  Instead of asking another hiker or turning around, I decided to keep walking with the outside chance that I was on the right trail. Persisting in my belief despite all evidence to the contrary I continued hiking and only after about 2.5 hours of hiking did I ask another hiker who was on his way down.

“Am I close to the end?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “I was so happy! It’s only about 100 yards ahead.”

So I pushed on thinking in only a moment or two I would encounter the giant boulder that I had to climb before reaching the crash site.  However, instead of a boulder I encountered a stunning panorama of East New Mexico.  I had summited the mountain by mistake via El Pino.  Regardless of whether I knew where I was going the hike is extraordinary, and like most of life what you seek is not always what you find.

El Pino like all the trails begins at the base of the foothills, which for all practical purposes is desert.  You encounter cactuses and scruffy little trees and some sparse grass, but overall most of what you encounter is sand.  There are flies, beetles, ants, ground nesting bees, and my personal favorite the tarantula hawk.  This is not technically a hawk but a giant black wasp with translucent brown wings that is about two inches long.  It is absolutely horrifying, and they say it possess a sting that is worse than the bullet ant.  They are relatively docile and are a menace only to tarantulas on which they will lay their eggs.  The larvae from the eggs burrow inside the tarantula and as they grow and develop into wasps, they devour the tarantula from the inside out.  Quite naturally where you have a tarantula hawk you have tarantulas.  I have not yet seen these little devils in the wild, but they are mostly nocturnal.  The only insect that has ever given me trouble are the horseflies, and I have learned that if I do not use any beard oil or flowery shampoo prior to my hike they will mostly leave me alone.

After walking a half mile or so through the desert you encounter the foothills in earnest that are dotted with short little trees, but it is at this point that you more or less enter the shade.  This is what makes El Pino different from La Luz.  Both trails take you to the top, but El Pino does so with much more shade.  About a half hour more of walking you will find yourself at a nice elevation and start to see pine trees.  Those magnificent Ponderosa Pine trees for whom the trail is named.  El Pino of course means pine.

I kept going at a pretty good clip thinking eventually that I would encounter the little creek that leads to the crash site, but all I found were more and more pine trees.  Above me there was a species of insect that I failed to identify that continuously make clicking sounds as though the boughs of the trees were straining and the woods was cracking.  Though, the higher I climbed the more lovely it became.  The temperature dropped easily ten degrees and a nice little breeze whistled through the forest.

New Mexico is positively different at about 7,000 feet.  An Italian friend of mine described it as “like being in the Alps” after he finally took the tram to the top of the Sandias and experienced the change in ecosystems.  Yet walking up the Sandias is remarkable for a student of ecology because you pass through several ecosystems.  Not only do you encounter more trees, but you encounter more massive trees.  The pines at the foot of the trail though nice and providing ample shade are somewhat stunted in their growth.  The higher you climb the more often you encounter the real monsters, over 200 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.

sandia - pino trail

At this point I also encountered a grove of aspens whose trunks were covered in a thin white bark that was cool to the touch.  Over the many valleys cutting across the mountain I saw peregrine falcons and various hawks silently searching the ground for their next meal.  But for the most part I did not encounter any animals with the exception of a snake that I saw on the way down.  However, my hike was most notable not the for animals that I saw but for the animal that I heard.

After I had been hiking a good 2 hours and was still about 30 minutes from the crest I entered a part of the trail that passed through a sun filled meadow.  The vegetation was quite tall and rich.  It was filled with flowers and little bees and an impossible thicket of tangled roots, sticks, bushes, and numerous plants.  After a moment or two I had a very strange sensation, an unmistakable sensation that I was not alone.  I felt something akin to fear or a great anxiety, and then I heard it.  A very loud and very deep purr.  The same type of purr the wild street cat we owned in Colombia used to make when I would pick him up.  However, the purr my old cat Gabo made was nothing like this purr.  It seemed as though a cat had been hooked up to a stereo surround sound system with a deep bass.  And I knew that I was having my first encounter with a mountain lion.  I stopped and looked all around me.  Atop the trees and into the deep vegetation, and it was only when my eyes came to the densest part did my eyes meet his and the purring ceased.  I turned and walked quickly away leaving the giant cat to finish his nap.  The moment I left this clearing and climbed higher the feeling of anxiety that I had moments of before left me and was replaced with the cool serenity that can only be experienced while hiking through a forest 9,000 feet or higher.

Not long after this I reached the summit.  Though I was a little disappointed that I did not find the crash site for which I had been looking, I felt a nice satisfaction at having scaled that giant rock face that dominates the Albuquerque skyline.

The hike down was uneventful with the exception of me learning a very valuable lesson.  Cotton socks are not the best choice when hiking.  Once they get a little wet they cling to your skin and begin to rub against it.  This in turn creates blisters.  And of course once your feet hurt you adjust your gait to compensate, and this makes your hips and knees hurt because you are walking funny.  By the time I got to my car I was hobbling, out of water, and more grateful than I could ever imagine for air conditioning.

Chaco Canyon in June – Parts I and II

About a two-and-half-hour drive northwest of Albuquerque is an exquisite archaeological site called Chaco Canyon.  It is unfortunate that it is not more well known among the average American because it rivals Machu Pichu for its size and architectural accomplishments.  The best estimates place its construction somewhere between 950 and 1150 AD or CE if you want to be politically correct.  That is the where and the when, but as for the who, we are not really certain.

I have visited the site twice this year.  Once in the winter and once in late spring.  I went alone because my family is still in Colombia waiting what seems a lifetime for their visas to be approved.  I like taking trips on the weekend because it keeps my mind active.  I do not sit around my apartment feeling sorry for myself about how I cannot hold my 18-month-old son and listen to him sing and see him dance with his mother.

The last time I went to Chaco Canyon, I awoke early on a Saturday morning.  Not too early.  I had planned to get out of bed at 4:30 and then drive to Mesa Verde in Colorado, but I slept in because I drank too much wine the night before.  I rose somewhere around 7:00 and was out the door by 8:00.  I ate at McDonald’s before heading north on I-25.  There are really only two ways to reach Chaco Canyon and going north on I-25 and then turning west on Highway 550 at Bernalillo is the fastest.

It is a wonderful drive.  As you leave Albuquerque you wave goodbye to the Sandias on your right with the sun crashing over their serrated crest.  The foothills roll out like ripples in the desert and you ride through them crossing through the Sandia Reservation.  Just one of many Indian reservations you must pass in order to reach any destination within the state.  The foothills are covered in shrub bushes, cercocarpus montanus (I think is its Latin name).  Of course, at this time of the year there are also wild flowers, millions of them – white, yellow, purple, and red.  Cactuses too, not the big saguaro that you see on Arizona license plates, the prickly pear and the large cane cholla.  Higher up on the Sandias you can find Ponderosa pine trees and Aspen trees, but you have to be sufficiently motivated to climb.  But today is a day of driving.

New Mexico is vast, and it requires a lot of driving if you want to get anywhere.  But the driver is rewarded with unprecedented scenery.  To the visible north you encounter the Jemez Mountains, and to the east, Mount Taylor rises in a purple haze like a massive ice berg floating on the desert horizon.  To your immediate left is a patch of dense green populated with grasses and Cottonwood trees that line the banks of the Rio Grande whom the Spaniards once called El Rio de Nuestra Señora.  I prefer this name because today, like every other day when I drive, I am saying the rosary.  This is something I have been doing every day since I was separated from my family.  I promised Nuestra Señora that I will pray to her every day until my family arrives, and today I am tracing her river.

It takes about fifteen minutes of driving north before you reach Exit 242 for US-550 West.  This is where the drive becomes really spectacular.  But first you have to drive through the urban sprawl of Bernalillo, but it doesn’t take too long.  You are also passing through the Santa Ana Reservation and then the Jemez and then the Zia and countless others.  But what you notice most about crisscrossing through the reservations is how the inhabitants have preserved the land and kept it from being pockmarked with strip malls and other eyesores too often called progress.  The land how it was meant to be, natural and hauntingly beautiful.

The first thing you notice as you cross the Rio Grande is a sign indicating the Coronado Historical site on your right.  It is the site of an old pueblo along the river that was excavated initially during the New Deal.  It was named Coronado because the archaeologists studying the site convinced themselves regardless of evidence that Coronado had wintered there during his time in New Mexico.  The second thing you notice is the Santa Ana Casino.  It like all the casinos here is always full of cars abandoned by their owners for a time while they search for the American dream amid the smoke and flashing lights of the hundreds of slot machines.  However, once you pass the casino you enter a Mars-like landscape where you can settle back with your cruise control set comfortably at 70 miles per hour and watch the scenery unfold.

The road dips and courses through canyon after canyon and continues to rise in elevation.  To give you an idea of elevation, Albuquerque sits at about 5,400 feet above sea level.  But you gain an 1,600 additional feet as you approach Cuba.  This is a small town nearly 7,000 feet in elevation nestled amid pine trees in a picturesque valley surrounded by the Nacimientos Mountains and bisected by the Rio Puerco.  It is home to less than 1,000 people, and as I drive through it at a slow 35 miles per hour I notice a number of hippie backpackers emerging from the small hotels.  They are all groggy eyed, sunburned, and young – 21st Century Kerouacs – following the rhythm of the road.

Not far outside of Cuba one notices an increase in Ponderosa pines as one climbs up the road as it loops around the mountains’ base before flattening out amid the great expanse of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation.  The road passes through this area in silence crossing over the continental divide and the highest point of my trip today of almost 7,300 feet.  You descend after this crest until you reach NM-279 West at which point you turn left and leave the smooth as silk US-550 behind you.  You have about 4 miles of pavement at which point you leave the comforts of asphalt for a winding dirt and gravel road that cuts through grazing land populated by the occasional sheep and bushy haired cow.  Above you the sky is crisscrossed by ravens and sometimes a falcon that swoops down to scoop up a prairie dog.

My car rattles and bumps.  The package of water bottles I have in the back of my CRV burst open and scatter across the floor.  My teeth chatter, and I abandon the radio all together.  There is little to no cell phone coverage much less radio signals that are not interrupted by prolonged bouts of static.  Occasionally a farm house rises in the distance and alongside the road you find the bleached white skeletons of cows.  Some of them still have patches of black fur clinging to the skulls yet every other morsel has been dried by the sun or eaten by ants and coyotes.  You reach a point on this road where you tell yourself, “This is ridiculous.  Why am I driving here?”  And you don’t even think about the consequences of your car breaking down.  However, each day the Park Rangers drive this road two times a day.  So, worst case scenario, you are guaranteed to meet at least one government employee at some point if you do break down.

Yet my car powers on at breakneck speeds of 20 miles per hour that is often slowed to 10 miles per hour.  The fields to my left and right reach to the horizon in both directions and are green and streaked with wild flowers.  The first time I drove this road was in January, and the fields were gray and barren and partly covered in snow.  It is now June and the temperature is in the high seventies at this point.  Eventually after about 40 minutes of driving, the dirt road ends and becomes asphalt for the final few miles to the Chaco Culture Visitor Center.

Once you enter the visitor center you must pay a fee for your car and an additional fee for each additional passenger.  Since these days I am alone I am only required to pay $25.  However, the park ranger always asks me how many are in my party.  I say one.  I don’t like saying this.  I’d rather say, “Actually, there are four.  But you see, my wife and kids are stuck in Colombia because they don’t have visas.”  Although this is a longer conversation, and I have had it on several occasions, it has been my experience that park rangers prefer to talk about the park.

Generally, you need your car once inside the park.  It isn’t necessary, but it is a pretty good idea.  The park has a road that makes a loop in the canyon that is about 10 miles long.  The structures that you can visit are all over the canyon floor, but the road has been constructed along the north and south walls and is bisected by the Chaco Wash, the dry river bed that runs the length of the canyon.

Since it was my second time here.  My mission was very specific.  The first time I was here was to learn.  I was performing preliminary research for an adventure book that I am writing that takes place in New Mexico.  But this second trip, I came specifically because I wanted to be able to say how the canyon feels.  I was interested exclusively in the energy of the place and letting the rocks and walls speak to me without having to worry that I was seeing every part of the canyon and appreciating its architectural subtleties.

Yet speaking of architectural subtleties raises an interesting point.  I mentioned in Part I of this essay the where and the when of the canyon’s construction.  But I failed to mention the who.  That is who built it.  The short answer is the Ancestral Pueblo people.  Often you will see them referred to as Anasazi.  I do not think this is the right word because it is a Navajo word.  Some scholars today are using the Ancestral Pueblo people; however, this presents the same problem because it is an English word.  The truth is that we do not know what they called themselves.  I do think Ancestral Pueblo people has the best connotation though because it very clearly links the current Pueblo people you find living along the Rio Grande with the people who once lived in Chaco Canyon.  Because make no mistake, and the modern Pueblo people will tell you the same, they are the direct descendants of the makers of the Chaco culture.

What though is especially unique about Chaco architecture is its advanced nature that shows both a deep knowledge of building principles and astronomy.  Nowhere else in North America north of Mexico will you find such refined knowledge.  It is one thing to build a four-story stone structure with mortar, bricks, and wood, but it is something else altogether to align them with the solstices and other points of celestial interests.  Compare Chaco to another astronomical site, the Serpent Mound in Ohio.  This mound is pointing toward a point where the sun is positioned behind two natural occurring hills during the solstice.  It is likely that the builders of this mound noticed this phenomenon and then built the mound in reference to the phenomenon.  However, Chaco does not have this type of natural orientation.  The builders had to know precisely where the astronomical points were and then build a city on top of them.  It is a seemingly subtle difference, but the work and knowledge involved is a profound undertaking.

It seems natural to ask, “Where did the Chaco people learn this skill?”  Was it developed right here in Chaco Canyon from nothing but sheer will and determination.  Or did it perhaps come from somewhere else?  My answer to this is that yes it came from somewhere else.  I posit that the Ancestral Pueblo people were Mayan immigrants who came north for various reasons one of which was trade.  We know that the Mayan were trading with the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon because archaeologists have unearthed evidence of cocoa or cacao (however you want to spell it) beans and skeletons and feathers of macaws.  There are two things we know for certain.  At no point in the last several thousand years was this area of New Mexico suitable for raising cacao or supporting a native population of macaws.  Macaws were all over this region of New Mexico and were kept as pets or for some other reason.  You can see them in the petroglyphs in the Bandolier National Historic Site and find their remains in the Aztec National Historic Site, both of which are farther to the north.  Imagine for a moment the act of transporting live and healthy macaws by foot north from Central America to here in New Mexico.  I read in Bandolier that the macaws lived three to four years in captivity in New Mexico.  How anyone came up with this number is, to me, absurdity at its finest.  Macaws routinely live 75 years in captivity today.  And whoever made this claim is willing to tell me that the same group of people who learned to domesticate macaws and raise and successfully transport them thousands of miles did not know how to successfully care for them once they arrived in New Mexico.  Such an assumption seems pretentious to me at best.

Naturally, one’s next question might be “Which Mayas?”  That is, the Mayas were spread across various parts of Central America, so do you have an idea of which part of Central America the Ancestral Pueblo people, assuming that they were Mayan immigrants, came from.  I posit they came from Palenque.  I say this for three primary reasons:  first, Palenque is old and possibly the mother culture for Mayan civilization; second, one finds macaws in the part of Mexico where Palenque is located; and third, the T-shaped door.  One finds throughout Palenque a unique architectural feature; that is, a T-shaped door.  I am not sure why, but I posit that it is an unusual way to make a door.  A T-shaped door is exactly as it sounds.  Imagine a doorway like any other doorway except at the top you have two arms cut out to form a T or a Greek Tau.  I offer no conclusions as to why this is, but I posit that it is not the natural way one would make a door.  In fact, it makes the process of making a door much more difficult.

Now, where you find the T-shaped door in Chaco Canyon is especially interesting.  Keep in mind that only a fraction of Chaco Canyon has been excavated.  The vast majority of the buildings lie beneath the desert sand.  But if you drive to one part of the site called Casa Rinconada you will find the reconstruction of a great kiva.  Exactly what is a kiva deserves its own blog posting, so I will not go into that at the moment.  But keep in mind two things.  First, the kiva is a place of religious significance.  It is built partly below ground and partly above ground.  Second, the great kiva in Chaco Canyon is massive.  If you were to make the comparison of a kiva to a cathedral (which is probably very tempting yet dangerous intellectual exercise though I will do it for this one analogy).  A normal kiva would be your local parish church, but the great kiva is something along the lines of Saint Peter’s in Rome.  Without going into more detail, you find this architectural phenomenon on this great kiva, but not on the other kivas.  Yet bear in mind this architectural detail because I will return to it in later posts.

As I said though, my purpose in this trip to Chaco Canyon was to experience the energy of the place.  About a mile or so into the park I stopped at the parking lot between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.  I then walked around Chetro Ketl.  The thing that really stands out for me at this site is the sound the ground makes as you walk.  It has that nice crunch-crunch sound you get from walking on gravel, but here and perhaps it is because you are trapped inside the canyon, it seems more pronounced and internal like you are eating cereal before the milk has softened it too much.  The wildflowers were everywhere and growing in dirt and places that one would never imagine a flower to grow.  White flowers, yellow flowers, and purple flowers.  There were of course more, but these caught my eye the most.

I walked behind the great buildings of Chetro Ketl and then over to Pueblo Bonito, the real center piece of the park.  It is massive and in many ways beyond words.  In its original state it was four stories or higher, had massive courtyards, a great many kivas, thousands of rooms, etc.  It honestly rivals and arguably surpasses the buildings you find in Machu Pichu.  I was very much enjoying myself, but the one thing I noticed is that the site was definitely more crowded than it was in January.  It is nothing like Bandolier where you have to be bussed into the site, and several thousand people will arrive daily.  But it is markedly different with many people around you.  I have no real issue with other people in general with the exception of one thing.  Many are profoundly disrespectful.  I do not mean vandalizing or stealing things; although, this happens too.  I reference the mere act of talking.  How many times in our daily lives do we get to come across and face to face with the sacred?  Not often, if you are like me, and labor inside a windowless room with a dozen other attorneys writing decisions and memoranda that no one will ever read.  So, when you encounter something like Chaco Canyon why do so many people feel the need to fill the silence of the canyon with such inane chatter.

With this need of quiet in mind, I left the groups of people and went off-road.  There are certain sections of the park that require a permit to hike.  The first time I saw this, I was deterred from going, but upon closer inspection during this visit I realized a permit was given by simply filling out a card with your name, personal information like address and phone number, and the time at which you began your hike that is then deposited in a wooden box.  The idea being that the park rangers can find you, in theory, later if you go missing.  Next to the wooden box was a warning about mountain lions.  This is a fairly common sign on some hikes, but I did not see a mountain lion on this day.

The odd thing about this hike though is how you actually get to the top of the canyon.  If you look at the north side of the canyon where you find Pueblo Bonito you will notice that it is a sheer rock face that races up a few hundred feet.  However, if you keep walking along the canyon floor you will see that one section of rock has separated from the rock face thus providing a natural stairway to the top.  I use stairway very loosely here because it is a tricky hike that requires you to shimmy over boulders and perform several switch backs before disappearing behind a massive breakaway sheet of rock that split at just such an angle that it allows you to walk up to the top of the canyon.  Once you reach the top, the walk is fairly simple and not overly difficult assuming you have no great fear of heights or mountain lions.

The upper rim of the canyon afforded me the serenity and isolation for which I was desperately searching at the bottom of the canyon.  I hiked back to Pueblo Bonito for about a mile and was rewarded with a panoptic view that gave me an appreciation of the site that was inconceivable at the bottom.

IMG-20190601-WA0020

The above is a photo I took from the top of the canyon.  I do not wish to comment on the architecture at this point, but one thing in particular struck me that I had not noticed before.  That is, I immediately remembered the layout of the Poverty Point Site in Louisiana.  Compare for yourself with a photo I took from the National Park Service website.

poverty point

The half circle shape is similar, and I would suggest a little unusual.  However, I think perhaps at one time there was another similar structure in Chaco Canyon that mirrored Pueblo Bonito across the Chaco Wash.  You can also see mirror sites at another UNESCO site in New Mexico – the Taos Pueblo, which I will discuss in a future post.

After a few hours of climbing and walking I decided to return to my car, which I discovered was much farther away than I had imagined.  I had ambitions of spending more time at the site, but by the time I reached my car I was exhausted.  I see some people hike all day and run around with those backpacks equipped with a tube to hydrate better.  I am not cut from this cloth or perhaps I am getting too old, but I decided to drive home instead.  The road out is always a little easier than the road in. I stopped at the gas station on US-550 that you first encounter when entering the park, and I bought peanut M&Ms and a Gatorade (my lunch) before driving back to Albuquerque.

The drive is of course as spectacular entering Albuquerque as it is leaving Albuquerque.  But there is one thing that really draws your attention.  The Sandia Mountains.  They reach a top elevation of about 10,600 feet, but when you are in Albuquerque you never really get to appreciate how big they are because you are literally in their foothills.  Yet when you drive back on US-550 you see them emerge in the distance.  Initially they are a hazy purple just floating in the distance, but as you get closer they become a giant island of granite covered in every shade imaginable of green and pink.

Another Chapter from an Abandoned Book

This is another chapter from my abandoned book on Colombia of which I am quite fond.  I did not have time to write a blog today.  Thus, I am posting this old story.

Los Ladrones

I was going to call this story “The First Time I Was robbed in Colombia,” but that implies there will be a second time. This event of which I speak and the title of this story are not actually related in a strict sense, and I might change one title for the other without compromising my intended meaning. In any case, I settled on the title of “Los Ladrones”—“The Thieves.”

On the night of April 18, 2017, Alejandra and I were robbed at gunpoint while walking our dog. We were returning home via Avenida Liberador in El Cisne, in Santa Marta. We were no more than two hundred yards from the entrance to our apartment complex on the opposite side of the street. Just past where we were standing there was a small grove of trees and a break in the fence that lined the road opposite our apartment. The streetlight shone in such a way upon the trees that one noticed neither a break in the fence nor, and more importantly, the shadowed path leading to a barren field and the barrio on the opposite side.

It was at this point in our journey, having crossed this place for the second time and on our way home, myself being a little stoned, and Alejandra being a little drunk and talking on my new iPhone, that we were robbed. It was a classic “no dar papaya” moment. This idiom does not translate well into English, but the point is, “Don’t flash your money.” As we walked past the street lamp, two men emerged from the darkness. Both of them were young, well dressed, and clean in appearance. You could practically smell the detergent in their clothes.

The first man to emerge opened his jacket to show me a pistol, and said, “La plata…su cellular”—“The money… your cell phone,” while the other watched. The pistol was black and he showed me only the handle and half the barrel. I handed over a cigarette lighter, Alejandra’s wallet, about seventy dollars, and a cell phone. I gave the thieves these items as my wife realized what was happening.

She then screamed a host of obscenities in Spanish, the likes of which I shall not set down on paper. The thrust of her impromptu apologia was, “Give me back my papers!” followed by a string of obscenities that questioned both the thieves masculinity, the chastity of their mothers, and intimated that their buttocks were filled with all manner of disease and disgust. As one can imagine, such words did not fall on agreeable ears. The thief with the gun was most offended; whether or not he was the more sensitive of the two I cannot rightly say, but his reaction was one of classic denial followed by rage.

Pointing the gun at Alejandra, he walked toward us.

Without hesitation I lifted my wife from the ground and carried her across the street towards our apartment and a security guard station. As I did this my Spanish vocabulary continued to improve as I heard a string of curses leave Alejandra’s mouth, the ultimate of which, she told me several hours later, was, “My purse is a curse to them! God loves me very much. You will see!”

On the other side of the street we were greeted by a woman and three men on motorcycles, all of whom were both alerted and intrigued by the events occurring around them. One man on a motorcycle raced to the adjacent barrio in pursuit of the thieves. The woman consoled Alejandra like an abulita—a granny—and the two other men waited with us and pointed toward the direction of the two thieves saying only, “Ese barrio…” When the first man returned, he was empty handed, but he asked my wife’s name and intimated that her papers would be returned.

After approximately an hour of waiting for the Santa Marta police to not arrive, we returned to our apartment. At this point Alejandra attempted to contact the police again, only to be met with the cunning wiles of a logician on the other end of the phone. “Señora, if the thieves took your phone, how are you calling me?” the operator said. Yet my wife was prepared for such a riddle, and she responded in such a way that would have made Bilbo proud. “My neighbor loaned me his phone,” Alejandra replied. Being unable to verify this information and being naturally suspicious, the philosopher in blue simply hung up the phone.

An hour later two police officers arrived, and they offered to take us on the backs of their motorcycles to search for the thieves and deliver what I can only imagine is impromptu and rapid justice.

There is a part of me that is writing this story, that loves adventure, and that will live forever. This portion of my soul desperately wanted to go with the two police officers. But this part of me was tragically beaten into submission by that other part of me that loves sitting on my balcony and drinking beer, that waters our flowers and walks our dog, and which is closer to my heart.

It was at this point that I began to reflect.

My first thought—and I have always wondered how I would react in such a situation—was not to think. I remember very lucidly the moment the primer ladron emerged from the darkness. Without a word and prior to him showing me his gun, I felt a dark energy. It was negative, it was strong, and it was immediate, like a punch in the face. Imagine sitting in your car spinning your wheels upon the wet earth as a train approaches. And then there was the gun. Of course the importance of a gun, a pistol, una arma is felt without saying a word. And one need not speak, one need not know a language, one need not even know how to fire a shot. If one is bad, the arma may talk for you, to be both signifier and signified… to say nothing but death.

And this concept of death at this moment was not an intellectual concept but something real from which you must flee as fast your feet will carry you. That is what I felt and nothing more, a desire to be free. Yet immediately following this was a feeling of burden, of stress, of being beaten down. That tired, hangdog feeling you get after paying your taxes. When you know that something unjust is happening and you are powerless to stop it. A feeling of relief followed this, as I ran across the street with my wife in my arms. I carried her like children do when they test their strength on the playground hugging another’s waist and grunting as though the other person were a sack of unruly potatoes.

All the while she screamed injustice. A deep scream that can come only from the lungs of a woman, and only one who knows what is like to be hungry. To have a thief take your last dollar with which you would feed a child. To be forced to find money where there is none, to look for water when there is only sand, to feel that empty rattle of loneliness—that was the scream of my wife. It was not for the ears of the thieves or for mine or for the people. It was a cry to God for justice.

Being a lawyer trained in the cunning ways of the American judicial system, I am naturally inclined to turn to the state for answers, to trust in the rule of law, to know that if such ladrones exist it is only by grace of pure statistics—that is, they must exist, and a certain number of people must be robbed each day. Lawyers, judges, criminals, plaintiffs, and defendants all learn sooner or later that our—and by that I mean the American—judicial system is flawed. Yet scratch most of them and they will wax philosophic and tell you something about “the rule of law” and that “our justice system is the best and most perfect one can have.”

But what does this mean in that moment when a gun speaks? As my wife most elegantly stated, “They deserve nothing!” And now I too have begun to question if indeed, at least for us if not for the universe as a whole, that there is indeed a Rubicon that one might cross after which all is changed. Prior to this moment I had always conflated my sense of justice with a notion of forgiveness. A favorite question of mine is, “Is Judas, or was Judas, beyond redemption?”

From friends and family, the natural response to me is that I am confusing God and justice or God and the state.

My reply to this is simply, “What’s the difference when both hold the power to balance the scales when death is a stake?”

Yet Alejandra’s point is that the moment when one points an arma at another person, all is lost. That is, your blood is cold, your heart is black, and the thief deserves nothing.

So how does the story end? This is Colombia—“Chibchombia,” as Alejandra proudly says (a corruption of the words “Chibcha,” a local indigenous language group, and “Colombia”). On the night in question I can tell you that all ended quietly. I went to sleep, and the next morning a news crew found Alejandra in the city discussing the lack of protection and describing the ladrone’s gun as “muy linda” and then laughing, telling me, “I will never leave. I want the bad people to know me and know I am cool. And I fear nothing.”

Remember, when describing how I felt when the ladrones first approached, I said I felt a dark energy. Without question the arma possessed an energy; yet whether such energy was of its own origin or from that of the ladron I cannot rightly say. The first possibility is the easiest to describe. That is, the gun was a vehicle for the negative energy of the ladron. He had a thought manifested in an intent and carried forth in an action. The negative energy, the low vibrations, call it what you will, began with the ladron and terminated in the arma. This implies the arma itself is a nothing, which is the secondary argument of the gun lobby in the United States: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

The second possibility is much more nuanced. That is, the arma possessed a negative energy independent of the ladron. The cold manufactured steel, hard plastic, polycarbonate gun was a thing of evil. But was it evil, sui generis, or did it acquire this malevolence from another more evil still? As though Sauron had used the pistol for target practice, driving down Ruta 25, roaring at 100 km/h, firing round after round into the boundless Magdalena. Did this ladron acquire this negative arma, and under its spell and in a cruel twist of fate manifest the evil latent and inherent within it? Perhaps my Lord of the Rings analogy is stretched a bit thin, but is it really so absurd to state that an object can possess negative energy, and convey that energy to its owner?

Consider the Hope Diamond. The fact that I capitalized it correctly indicates a reverence in words seldom found in reference to an inanimate object, save perhaps Sacra Biblia. Yet there is more to the Hope Diamond story, as we all know. The legend behind the stone indicates that it was stolen from a Hindu temple in what was then British East India. A curse fell upon each of its owners, and, to a person, all met with an unfortunate demise.

There is, of course, an extraordinary vein of adventure running through this story from Rudyard Kipling to Indiana Jones. There are those among us raised on the idea that movies and books are but entertainment and not repositories of ideas, and who will doubt the veracity of this legend due to its perceived fancifulness; but to them I posit two important points. First, there is but one place on earth where a diamond like that might be found—India. And second, the diamond’s worth and beauty are evident to all. It is not a great leap to consider it a gift worthy of a god? I will stop my argument here, because its conclusion is not relevant, but I note the veracity of both premises.

Yet my goal behind this stop in my train of thought was to add a piece of evidence to support the idea that the ladron was not inherently bad, and like a good Hobbit had a small piece of him tucked away that remained wholesome. I bring this point up and I wish to stress it because it coincides and supports my other experiences in Colombia. And I do not mean solely my experiences with individuals like these ladrones, but every Colombian, to a person, and every place.

And this particular event occurred in a very special place in Colombia. Not just Santa Marta, the beautiful city by the sea, but the land on which she sits. There are a large number of indigenous people living here in this part of Colombia, from outside Santa Marta to La Guajira and all the way up the Sierra Nevada. This mountain range is not part of the Andes and is the highest reaching and fastest rising coastal mountain range on earth. In fact, its rate of ascent is second only to the Himalayas. On clear days, from Ruta 25 you can see the two snowcapped peaks of Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar, which are the two highest peaks in Colombia.

The Kogi, a local indigenous group, believe that these mountains are the center of the earth, and what happens here is most important. All must be in balance, and when one thing is taken, another must be given. The idea of value is inherent within this principle. Thus, the more one takes the more one must give back, or balance will be lost. For example, the Kogis are famous chewers of coca leaves. When kept in the mouth (you don’t actually chew the leaves), coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. The traditional method of chewing coca leaf, called acullico, consists of keeping a saliva-soaked ball of coca leaves tucked in the cheek, together with an alkaline substance that assists in extracting cocaine from the leaves. This alkaline substance is often powdered lime, which is made by burning sea shells, which the Kogi collect from the Caribbean coast.

Thus, the Kogi will mix in a little bit of the seashell powder with the leaves into their mouths, and when it mixes with their saliva a chemical reaction occurs and releases tiny amounts of cocaine alkaloid into their blood stream. It’s been studied for centuries and has never been found to be harmful—it’s like having a nice hot cup of coffee in the morning.

Both the Kogi on the bottom of the mountain and the Kogi on the top chew coca, but they each have a dilemma. Because coca only grows well in the higher, more lush mountain air but the white powder is obtained from sea shells found on the beach at the base of the mountain. The shells are roasted over a fire and then pulverized into a fine powder. Thus, the Kogi on the mountaintop and the Kogi at the mountain’s base are forced to cooperate in order to maintain the balance inherent within the coca trade. And this simple leaf is essential to the life of a Kogi, both man and woman. I cannot write further on this subject at the moment though it begs further attention. Additionally, as a consequence of this trade, one will find many places in Santa Marta and the wilderness looming above her that the Kogi consider sacred.

Every object in the Museo de Oro in Bogotá or in any other museum in the world that is from Tayrona National Park or labeled in some way was unearthed and stolen from the indigenous people in this very place. These objects are very often the most ornate and intricate in the collection, being of the finest quality gold and depicting species of animals found only here and nowhere else on earth. And all of these objects were created and given by the indigenous people to Mother Earth, Pacha Mama, not as gifts, as one might give a thousand pesos to a homeless person, but as an offering and gesture of both respect and love to maintain balance in the universe.

The Kogi are but one of many indigenous peoples in Santa Marta, which is a very special and unique place aside from the high density of indigenous inhabitants one encounters over six hundred years of Spanish and now Colombian folklore. From the beginning, Santa Marta and its drier sisters to the north in La Guajira have been famous last resorts of all manner of scoundrels, smugglers, and those in their company.

Add to the mix that this part of Colombia, this section of the costa, is very near Aracataca, the birthplace and first home for Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Whether or not they have ever read a word he has written, everyone immediately shouts “magic realism,” and the literary work most often mentioned next after this famous phrase is, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The beauty and at times fancifulness of this marvelous tale are beyond debate, but what many often overlook is that Gabo, though a famous novelist of the “magic realism” genre, was first and foremost a journalist. And when you read One Hundred Years you are reading the history of Colombia. The mythic town, Macondo, is here in this area, unmarked and unbounded like the mythic Yoknapatawpha County of William Faulkner looming on the edges of maps and the many dusty roads.

Less than a week later I was walking my dog with Alejandra within our apartment complex when we noticed a group of children and mothers rush to the top of a hill, followed by a series of loud “booms.” My first thought was that the neighborhood was at war, and I imagined myself like Anthony Bourdain falsely trapped within a beautiful city. But then I saw the fireworks—all golden lights racing across the sky and illuminating the night and raining stars upon the dry mountains. The display lasted for nearly fifteen minutes and then the children and women dispersed shouting “Otra vez, otra vez, otra vez!”—“Again, again, again!”

The next morning I went to the tienda adjacent my apartment to purchase eggs, Coca Cola, and cigarettes. To the clerk I said, “Good morning, how are you?”

He leaned closely and whispered, “…son muertos.”

Un Coca Cola grande, cinco huevos, y media de Marlboro y…” I ceased speaking when I finally understood his words.

He leaned closer to say, “Ellos….los…los…estaban esperando…muertos.”

“What?” I said.

Los Ladrones, senor,” he repeated once more, “son muertos”—“The thieves, sir, are dead.”

Chapter from an Abandoned Book

This is a chapter from a book that I wrote a few years ago that was never published.  It is different from the books I write now, but I still like this chapter, which is why I am sharing it here.  I prefer now to write adventure books for my son with happy endings that are full of ghosts and adventure.

The Colonel Writes to Everyone

In April 2017, while on my honeymoon, I visited Aracataca, Colombia, the birthplace of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Gabo, as he is affectionately known throughout Colombia. It is about an hour and a half drive south from Santa Marta but still within the Department of Magdalena.

Gabo was born on March 6, 1927, in Aracataca to Gabriel Eligio García and Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguarán, but he was abandoned to be raised by his grandparents. This arrangement lasted during his childhood, and as both biology and fate would have it, this was his most formative period. For without the influence of Aracataca and his grandparents’ home, much of what we know as Gabo likely would not have existed. For those who do not know, Gabo was a Colombian writer. I refrain from saying journalist, novelist, essayist, or political satirist, because however you choose to identify him, the common thread of all these titles is “writer.”

But more than that he was a storyteller, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. He passed from this life to the next in 2014.

I first learned of him from my grandmother. She mailed me a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera when I was sixteen, and it immediately became my favorite book and one of the few that I have read many times in the years since. This is a rather unusual book and highly unusual for a grandmother to give her grandson, but then again there is nothing usual or ordinary about my grandmother or the man to whom she first introduced me. And it was through a shared love for him that I first began to love my wife. That is not terribly unusual, really. If you wish to endear yourself to any Colombian, whether this Colombian has read Gabo or not, tell him or her you love Gabo, and you will instantly become good friends.

To say that he is a hero to Colombia is an understatement. Simon Bolivar is a hero, but he is a hero to many people in South America. Gabo is more of a demigod of sorts. Certainly he may have his detractors among the living intelligentsia in Colombia with their European degrees and who are graced with talent but lacking heart; but make no mistake, he was a phenomenal writer. The Colombians’ love for this man and their love for storytellers in general is one of the things that most endear them to me. It reminds me of my birthplace, Mississippi, where writers are held in similar esteem. When Eudora Welty died a few years ago, she lay in state beneath the rotunda of the old state capitol, and she was mourned by everyone from former governors to local clerks. And I need not mention William Faulkner, who has reached a state of apotheosis where those lucky enough to have known him are revered like angels possessing some secret knowledge of the great writer. Remarkably, Gabo’s link to Mississippi is stronger than analogy in my mind because in his Nobel acceptance speech he thanked Faulkner, calling him “my master,” which as a son of Mississippi would forever endear the Colombian to me even without the grandeur of his own writings.

If you are unfamiliar with Gabo, or if you are only generally familiar with him, it’s worth remembering that he was without question one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century in any language. But in his own language, Spanish, they say that he was the greatest writer since Cervantes. Yes, that’s Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the sixteenth century Spanish author of Don Quixote, who is held in as high esteem in the Spanish speaking world as Shakespeare is in the English. Thus, to assert that Gabo was the greatest Spanish language writer since Cervantes is like saying Earnest Hemingway was the greatest English language writer since Shakespeare, but this is something altogether different. Because most people will agree that although Hemingway was a great writer he was not exactly the heir to Shakespeare, but that is exactly what the Spanish language world says about Gabo.

In fact, he is so beloved in Colombia that they have begun putting his impression on their currency—specifically, the 50,000 peso note with Gabo on the front and the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada on the back. There is perhaps a level of irony in this act by the government of Colombia, but it is true to say that he is deeply loved in Colombia.

When we first met, Alejandra and I would discuss his writings for hours, and whenever I had a question about a historical reference in one of his books, Alejandra was the first person I asked for clarification. I learned from her that many of his stories and books are part of the Colombian educational system, like Homer in ancient Greece.

I once asked a boy in his late teens if he had read No One Writes to the Colonel, and Alejandra took my arm and whispered quietly to me that all children in Colombia read it before the fifth grade. Her meaning was that my question was a bit condescending because of course the boy knew, as did everyone who went to school in Colombia, all about Gabo’s classic novella. It concerns a retired colonel from the 1,000 Days War who visits the post office each day in hopes that his promised pension will arrive. It never does, and his heartache is one of many that affect a country of eternal optimists. You can learn a great deal about Colombian history and culture by reading Gabo. The problem is that until you see Colombia for yourself you will not really believe that most of what Gabo wrote was truth. Critics use a term like “magic realism” to describe an element of his writings that is better described as “realism.”

Unfortunately, many people do not visit Aracataca, and sometimes they are even discouraged from doing so, as Alejandra and I were initially. We were drinking cervezas on the Playa Blanca in Rodadero, an upscale neighborhood in Santa Marta. We found the beach entirely by accident. We were both entirely unfamiliar with Santa Marta, and often times Alejandra will manufacture an adventure from the hand of destiny. Literally, in this instance; several hours before she had pulled me onto a bus that had already started moving.

“Hurry, hurry,” the driver shouted.

We collapsed into two seats and immediately shielded our ears from the intermittent blasts of music from a boom box lodged under the driver’s seat. Bursts of sea breeze and diesel blew through the windows, stirring alternating dust clouds of cold and hot. The driver’s assistant stumbled down the aisle to collect our money.

“Where we go?” Alejandra asked the man.

“Everywhere,” he said, and fell to the ground. “Uff, and nowhere.”

The bus system in Santa Marta is similar to and yet distinct from the bus systems in the rest of Colombia. It’s similar in that it’s a bus and you must pay, but it’s distinct in that it’s a singularly coastal experience. Some of the busses are privately owned and their routes are much more fluid than in other places. For example, if you were to ride MegaBus in Pereira, you can only catch the bus at designated stops. But the other smaller privately owned and operated buses pick up people and drop them off on an improvised basis. This happens throughout the country, and it offers a certain amount of flexibility while also adding extra time to your schedule. But the buses in Santa Marta often have the appearance of being operated by two men who decided that morning to be bus drivers and are at all times negotiating the best route to any location.

“This is an adventure! You no do this without me? No?” Alejandra said while grabbing the sides of my face and giving me a giant smacking kiss.

“Sometimes,” I said, “but I would know where we are going first.”

“Ohhh, don’t be a lllaaaadddyyyy,” she said. “You scared? Don’t worry, my darling. I protect you.”

The bus wound its way through the many barrios lining the dusty mountains surrounding Santa Marta before climbing, turning, and dropping into a cooler expanse of more lush vegetation. The music from outside the bus grew louder and overcame the driver’s old speakers.

“Look, look,” Alejandra said squeezing my hand. “It is a sign from God.”

Indeed it was a sign and the name of an upscale apartment complex, the same name of the mythic town created by Gabo: Macondo. We jumped off the bus as it rounded a curve and ran opposite the traffic to reach a sidewalk that led to a beach hidden behind a grove of palm trees and hemmed in by two mountain outcrops. Macondo is an amalgam of all the myths and towns along the coast stretching back before the Spanish conquest. Much like Yoknapatawpha County created by Faulkner, it is seemingly nowhere and everywhere.

We collapsed onto the wet sand and held one another as the sun began its descent behind the waves. It was here that we ordered beers and met a local minstrel who serenaded us with his guitar. Alejandra accompanied him with her soft Paisa voice, and when he finished, he offered her a job as his backup singer.

“It pays nothing, but the scenery is good,” he said smiling.

“Ave Maria! No,” she said, “but you can drive me and my husband to Aracataca.”

“No, Senora,” he said, “it is very ugly and dangerous.”

“Uff, I no believe him,” she said to me in English.

This was our first introduction to Aracataca, and it could not have been more wrong. But like most of Colombia this sleepy hamlet is a bit misunderstood. It was founded in 1885. Thus, it is relatively new, when one considers that Santa Marta was founded in 1525. It is sunbaked, humid, and at times a little dusty. Although Aracataca is of modern vintage, the land itself is extraordinarily old and filled with mystery. This portion of Colombia was never properly tamed, and it is only along the thin strip of sand between the ocean and the land that one will find the sort of domestication one most closely associates with the West. The rest of the land bears that unmistakable criollo flavor that is one part magic and one part dream.

Literary critics, teachers, and even the tourist industry of Colombia use the term “magic realism” to describe Gabo and the flavor of his writings. And if you read his works and visit Colombia, you’ll get a taste of this magic realism. The term itself is a genre of modern fiction that blends the element of realism and another element called “magic.” This is not magic in the sense of David Copperfield. It is magic in the sense of the fabulous whereby it seamlessly incorporates elements of myth, make-believe, and supernatural allegory into the story. The term “magic realism” existed prior to Gabo and was first used to describe other Latin and Creole writers including Jorge Luis Borge, Isabel Allende, or even Salman Rushdie, but I would argue the term has been mistakenly applied to Gabo. First and foremost, Gabo was a realist and a journalist. It was not the writer who was a proponent of this term “magic realism,” but instead it is the land itself that invites this comparison. When one calls Gabo an example of the genre magic realism, one runs the danger of thinking that his writing is that of fiction rather than fact. The problem here is that one automatically dismisses his words and assumes they are false without bothering to investigate further.

The history of Colombia is contained in his writings, and those parts of his writings that one might be tempted to call “fabulous” or “magic” show one’s unfamiliarity with Colombia and Colombian history, reinforcing the tired Latin American stereotypes that writers like Gabo worked so hard to dismiss. But make no mistake, there is a presence in this part of Colombia that often cannot be explained without reference to the supernatural.

I can from experience tell you of several ghostly encounters I have had in Santa Marta and the surrounding areas. A month after our honeymoon, Alejandra, our son, and I relocated to Santa Marta to be closer to the tourist industry and the indigenous inhabitants. We rented an apartment, in which from the very first night I experienced a series of ghostly encounters. Each night at 2 A.M. the door to Mateo’s bedroom would slam shut regardless of what item I had jammed under the door, or chair I had placed in front of the door, and always in the absence of wind. Several times in the living room I saw the specter of an indigenous man wearing a crimson cloak over white under garments staring at me, and who would motion toward the pool before disappearing into the night air. They say such a specter can often lead you to buried treasure, though I was more annoyed than curious.

I have had lights flash in front of my eyes in a darkened hallway, once causing me to spill a glass of wine, and when I bent over to clean up the mess I felt an entity shove me into the bathroom (it was my first glass of the night and I was in no way intoxicated).

I have felt Alejandra’s dog enter the apartment and run around the bed, and when I yelled at her to keep the dog out of the bedroom she told me that Mateo was outside walking it.

I could go on and on about such occurrences that I experienced in Santa Marta and the rest of Colombia as well. But the most remarkable thing about seeing a ghost in Colombia and telling a Colombian about your encounter is that the Colombian will not answer you with disbelief but with another ghost story.

Such encounters are more often met by the general populace not with fear but with annoyance. In fact, the town Macondo in 100 Years of Solitude was founded to escape the haunting of a bothersome ghost. The town’s patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, killed a man named Prudencio Alguilar following an argument after a cockfight when Alguilar said that perhaps Buendía’s fighting cock could do what his penis could not—impregnate his wife. In Buendía’s defense, his wife had refused to consecrate their marriage and, because they were cousins, wore a chastity belt to prevent the birth of a monster. Buendía did sleep with his wife, Úrsula, but only after murdering Alguilar, and he did so (or so he said) not out of marital felicity but to prevent more murders. However, it was ultimately the ghost of Francis Drake, the dragon, who was responsible for this mishap. But for this man erroneously called “Sir” that Úrsula’s great-great-grandmother left Riohacha, the capital of Guajira, after Drake raped, burned, and robbed the town, and met the great-great-grandfather of her husband.

Yet only by moving to a town that had not experienced a death could Buendía escape the ghost of Alguilar. This he did by founding Macondo, but his efforts went to naught after a gypsy named Melquiades died in the town. This gypsy in turn had, in Úrsula’s opinion, ruined her husband by introducing him to alchemy and the natural sciences, which so thoroughly occupied his mind that he became generally good for nothing until he went completely insane. It was at this point that the ghost of Alguilar found him and they became good friends. However, fanciful all this may sound, it was Buendía’s second son, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, also an alchemist but more importantly a colonel in the 1,000 Days War, who is so significant for an understanding of modern Colombian history and Gabo’s brilliance as a writer.

But I am getting a little ahead of myself.

Several days after Alejandra and I had met the beach minstrel, we met another man named Eder, whose enthusiasm for driving us to Aracataca was matched only by my wife’s joy at meeting a fellow Paisa. He was working as a driver for a company associated with the Villa Maria, the eco-hotel in which we had stayed in the Sierra Nevada in the second leg of our honeymoon. After breakfast one morning I found Alejandra joking with him and half the gardening staff in the parking lot. She waved to me excitedly, and when I reached the parking lot she grabbed me by my arm.

“Say it, mor,” she shouted. “Say it.”

“No,” I responded.

“Oh, he is shy,” she said, “Say it, mor, it is funny.”

“Ok. Soy mas paisa que un arepa bebe!” I shouted, and Alejandra exploded in laughter. This was, “I am more paisa than an arepa, baby!” This is one of the first things Alejandra ever taught me. An arepa is a distinct part of paisa cuisine. And to say that you are more paisa than an arepa is like saying, “I’m more Southern than grits.” Eder too was thrilled with my verbal display, and the three us agreed to drive to Aracataca the following Saturday, the last day of our honeymoon.

As we drove to Aracataca, the sun rose fully from behind the Sierra Nevadas and drenched the open fields rolling from their base to the most distant horizons. The road outside Santa Marta leading south to Aracataca is lined with farmland and is unquestionably fertile and productive. For nearly an hour all you see are groves of banana trees, guava, and mango lining the road. Dense vegetation carpets the ground beneath the trees and gives some indication of the area’s former lushness. Part of the problem with growing crops like bananas is that they take up a lot of water, which could be used more effectively by local fauna and fruit trees native to the region.

Southeast Asia, the original home to the banana, receives more rainfall than this part of Colombia, and the wild and domestic bananas in those regions receive sufficiently more water as well. The consequence of this thirsty effect of banana production is that when you do not have sufficient rain for the bananas, they take water that would have gone to support the natural fauna. The native fauna is most suited to growing in this region because those species are adapted to thrive on the amount of water available on a normal year-to-year cycle in this area. When these local varieties of plants are pushed out to make room for newcomers such as bananas, the result is that some of the land will dry up. You can see this in varying degrees in this area and the Magdalena Department in general. You can see miles of trees on one side of the road, but off in the distance you can see what appear to be dry patches of sand.

Banana plantations still occupy a large percentage of the land, and as you drive to Aracataca you see the tens of miles of them lining the road. The banana is a peculiar fruit. There is evidence of it being cultivated for human use as many as ten thousand years ago. Like coffee, bananas are not native to the New World. Originating in Southeast Asia, they were first brought to the New World by the Portuguese. Unlike the Spanish, the Portuguese had colonial and commercial interests along the east and west coasts of Africa and as far away as India and China. This gave them access to a number of crops otherwise unavailable to the Spanish.

In many ways the banana has been as economically important to the coastal regions of Colombia as coffee has been to the mountainous regions to the south. While the industry has largely moved north to Central America, Colombia is still tenth in world production and bananas represent its third largest agricultural export crop. Familiar names like Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte can still be found in Colombia. Chiquita is perhaps the most infamous in this string of names.

At one time Chiquita was called the United Fruit Company. The name change occurred after a series of reorganizations and mergers, but make no mistake, the two are the same. If a company owns and farms a piece of land from one year to the next, and one day they change the sign in the front of the farm, the only difference is the sign.

The United Fruit Company was involved in a terrible incident in Colombia that occurred on December 6, 1928, and which has become known as the “banana massacre.” The workers on the various plantations had begun to organize into labor unions. The conditions were much the same as they were in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, when a man was said to “owe his soul to the company store”—a reference to the system of debt bondage where workers lived on the work site and were paid in credit at the company store. The more a person worked, the more he needed to buy, with the result that the worker was forced into debt, which he had to then “work off” while continuing to accrue more debt in the company store.

When the Colombian workers began to organize, the governments of both the U.S. and Colombia took notice. If you change the words “labor union” to “Communist organization”—which the bosses did—you see the problem. The U.S. was not prepared to tolerate such a movement within the Western Hemisphere, and the federal government threatened to invade with the U.S. Marines if the Colombian government did not act to protect U.S. financial interests.

The workers’ unrest turned into a general strike. Their demands were fairly simple: eight-hour workdays, six-day work weeks, and elimination of the “food coupons” at the company store. The workers and their families gathered in the town square of Cienaga, the town due north of Aracataca, on that fateful Sunday, just before Mass. The government troops positioned machine guns atop the buildings surrounding the square, and after giving the crowd of people a five-minute warning to disburse, they opened fire. According to government reports, only about nine people were killed. This number is likely fictitious. Estimates of the dead range from the hundreds to the thousands. The dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá to the U.S. Secretary of State, dated January 16, 1929, stated: “I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.”

In Cien Anos de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Gabriel Garcia Marquez placed the number of dead at three thousand or more, writing that the government filled freight cars, normally used to haul bananas, and dumped the bodies into the sea.

Wherever you place the number of casualties on the sliding scale of misinformation, the toll is too high, and the memory of this unfortunate event resonates in Colombia today. My wife tells me that there are certain politicians in Colombia who even today deny the existence of the banana massacre. Saying that Gabo lied is a blatant attempt to whitewash history. Similar motivations can be found in countries across the globe as people attempt to forget a moment they consider shameful while putting themselves in danger that such events will repeat themselves. Perhaps equally shameful is the attempt to sensationalize events like the banana massacre for political gain. Yet wherever you fall on this spectrum, the historical documents exist and are available for anyone to read who’s interested in ferreting out the truth. The conflict in many ways was, and still is, drawn along the lines separating the liberals from the conservatives, and it is from this line that one can best understand Colonel Aureliano Buendía.

As I mentioned before in a previous essay, it’s perhaps best to view the distinction between the conservatives and liberals in Colombia as a distinction between the old guard and the new. The conservatives tend to be wealthy landowners backed by the church, and they have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo. The liberals tend to be those advancing new liberal ideas (imagine Rousseau in the 18th century and Marx in the 20th century). They are best seen as the sort of intelligent people who are brought up in a society, consider its flaws, and then rebel against it. In 100 Years, translated by Gregory Rabassa, Gabo described the difference as follows, in the mouthpiece of Don Apolinar Moscote, conservative bureaucrat and father-in-law to Colonel Aureliano Buendia: “The liberals are Freemasons, bad people, wanting to hang priests, institute civil marriage and divorce, recognize the rights of illegitimate children as the same as legitimate children, and cut the country up into a federal system. But the conservatives had received their power directly from God, proposed the establishment of public order and family morality, and would not permit the country to be broken down into autonomous units.”

However, these distinctions only really work on paper. Often times the only true distinction between conservatives and liberals was what color they painted their houses: blue for conservatives and red for liberals. Pinning down just what started the war is an equally ludicrous proposition because it ultimately had its genesis in 1492 when an Italian persuaded a couple of Spaniards that he could find a fast route to India. Yet make no mistake: the 1,000 Day War, the Violencia, and the war against the FARC, the drug wars, etc., all have one undeniable thing in common—they are all civil wars. And I will go one step further and state that they were and are the same civil war.

Now, I perhaps got a bit ahead of myself by stating that the Banana Massacre was a continuation of this conflict, but if one stops for a moment one will see the same ugly beast raising its head. First, there was a group of people profiting from the banana production—that would be all of Colombia. Second, there was a group of people who wanted to profit more from the banana production—that would be a part of Colombia who partnered with a foreign power. I will not waste your time restating what I wrote above, but I believe most strongly that the conflict would have been the same if the other party was in power and the opposite party was picking the bananas. This is ultimately the conflict behind the 1,000 Day War as well—one group had power and the other wanted it. There were certain triggering events. First, in 1886, a new more conservative constitution replaced the more liberal constitution from 1863. Second, an octogenarian was elected to the office of president in 1898 who was either incapable or simply was denied the right to rule, and a power vacuum resulted that was immediately filled by conservative opportunists. Third, a group of war-hungry liberals literally jumped the gun and declared war, much to the surprise of many of their colleagues.

It was this war that Buendia joined and fought during most of the novel. In fact the opening line of Cien Anos is, “Many years later as he faced the firing squad . . . .” This phrase “facing the firing squad” occurs over and over throughout the novel, but each time Buendia manages to escape and continue to fight in what he ultimately counts to be thirty-two civil wars. Now, one will be immediately inclined to shout “magic realism” here and state that it is impossible for a man to fight thirty-two civil wars, but one must remember what I said earlier that every conflict in Colombia’s history has been a civil war. By fighting in the 1,000 Day War that inevitably dragged on beyond 1,000 days, Buendia became the “everyman” for Colombian violence. He began fighting because he believed in the liberal cause, but this changed to a fight for power to arguably a fight to ward off old age, boredom, and death. His prowess as a soldier, however, was ultimately either forgotten or disbelieved by everyone, and all that was left of him were the little gold fish that he manufactured in a workshop behind his parents’ home.

It was his interest in gold inherited from his father that ultimately chronicled the ruin of his family and the town his father founded. Melquiades, the travelling gypsy, first introduced his father to the art of alchemy, who passed it on to the young Buendia, who in turned used it as a means of making a living—the manufacture and sale of gold fish. This is a not unsurprising vocation for a man whose name in fact contains the Latin word for gold and personifies all that can go wrong in one’s life when greed and lust for power assume control of one’s soul.

If you are a little confused by my description of Cien Anos, do not worry because it confuses everyone, even Colombians. The book tells the history of the Buendias and Macondo over a period of one hundred years or seven generations where every man is either named Aureliano or Jose Arcadio and many of the women are named Ursula. Much like the Bible, it is a book that many claim to know but few have really read, and if they have read it, they have likely fallen into the many pitfalls and red herrings left by Gabo. In fact the story of the Buendia family was recorded by Melquiades, the gypsy, and written in a cyphered Sanskrit where the even lines corresponded to the “private cipher of Emperor Augustus” and the odd lines to “Lacaedomonian military code.”

You may visit the tomb of Melquiades in Aracata, as my wife and I did with Eder and several police officers. After we visited the house of Gabo’s grandparents and a book museum we expressed an interest in visiting the tomb. We were initially dissuaded by a security guard, who told us that it was in a dangerous neighborhood. In truth, he wanted to come with us and bring his cousin, a police officer, who then took the scenic route and drove us all over the town. They were in love, and as all lovers tend to do they wanted to talk about and show us their beloved. For each of them, the object of their ardor was Aracataca.

When we reached the tomb, we discovered it was in a clean and hospitable neighborhood not unlike our own in Pereira, with children playing outside, old men sitting on porches, and dogs sleeping under palm trees. Ostensibly the tomb is a cenotaph, false tomb, but I can no more attest whether this is true than I can attest whether Gabo ever met a man like Melquiades.

We then walked to the former home of Leo Matiz, which had been converted into a restaurant. The restaurant was closed that day in honor of Matiz’s birthday; he would have been one hundred years old. A contemporary and friend of Gabo, he was an astonishing photographer. But the restaurant’s owner invited us into the private party and introduced us to Leo Matiz’s daughter, the town mayor, and a tremendous number of Colombian intellectuals whose names all blurred with the surfeit of food and whiskey they offered us. Alejandra sang with a local minstrel again. They were Paisa songs, which the partygoers said they had never heard. And for a few minutes the interest of the party shifted from celebrating the birthday of Leo Matiz to my wife, an unknown Paisa girl.

“Did you have a nice time?” I asked her while we awaited our plane in Santa Marta.

“It was like a dream, Mor,” she said.

Chaco Canyon in June – Part I

About a two-and-half-hour drive northwest of Albuquerque is an exquisite archaeological site called Chaco Canyon.  It is unfortunate that it is not more well known among the average American because it rivals Machu Pichu for its size and architectural accomplishments.  The best estimates place its construction somewhere between 950 and 1150 AD or CE if you want to be politically correct.  That is the where and the when, but as for the who, we are not really certain.

I have visited the site twice this year.  Once in the winter and once in late spring.  I went alone because my family is still in Colombia waiting what seems a lifetime for their visas to be approved.  I like taking trips on the weekend because it keeps my mind active.  I do not sit around my apartment feeling sorry for myself about how I cannot hold my 18-month-old son and listen to him sing and see him dance with his mother.

The last time I went to Chaco Canyon, I awoke early on a Saturday morning.  Not too early.  I had planned to get out of bed at 4:30 and then drive to Mesa Verde in Colorado, but I slept in because I drank too much wine the night before.  I rose somewhere around 7:00 and was out the door by 8:00.  I ate at McDonald’s before heading north on I-25.  There are really only two ways to reach Chaco Canyon and going north on I-25 and then turning west on Highway 550 at Bernalillo is the fastest.

It is a wonderful drive.  As you leave Albuquerque you wave goodbye to the Sandias on your right with the sun crashing over their serrated crest.  The foothills roll out like ripples in the desert and you ride through them crossing through the Sandia Reservation.  Just one of many Indian reservations you must pass in order to reach any destination within the state.  The foothills are covered in shrub bushes, cercocarpus montanus (I think is its Latin name).  Of course, at this time of the year there are also wild flowers, millions of them – white, yellow, purple, and red.  Cactuses too, not the big saguaro that you see on Arizona license plates, the prickly pear and the large cane cholla.  Higher up on the Sandias you can find Ponderosa pine trees and Aspen trees, but you have to be sufficiently motivated to climb.  But today is a day of driving.

New Mexico is vast, and it requires a lot of driving if you want to get anywhere.  But the driver is rewarded with unprecedented scenery.  To the visible north you encounter the Jemez Mountains, and to the east, Mount Taylor rises in a purple haze like a massive ice berg floating on the desert horizon.  To your immediate left is a patch of dense green populated with grasses and Cottonwood trees that line the banks of the Rio Grande whom the Spaniards once called El Rio de Nuestra Señora.  I prefer this name because today, like every other day when I drive, I am saying the rosary.  This is something I have been doing every day since I was separated from my family.  I promised Nuestra Señora that I will pray to her every day until my family arrives, and today I am tracing her river.

It takes about fifteen minutes of driving north before you reach Exit 242 for US-550 West.  This is where the drive becomes really spectacular.  But first you have to drive through the urban sprawl of Bernalillo, but it doesn’t take too long.  You are also passing through the Santa Ana Reservation and then the Jemez and then the Zia and countless others.  But what you notice most about crisscrossing through the reservations is how the inhabitants have preserved the land and kept it from being pockmarked with strip malls and other eyesores too often called progress.  The land how it was meant to be, natural and hauntingly beautiful.

The first thing you notice as you cross the Rio Grande is a sign indicating the Coronado Historical site on your right.  It is the site of an old pueblo along the river that was excavated initially during the New Deal.  It was named Coronado because the archaeologists studying the site convinced themselves regardless of evidence that Coronado had wintered there during his time in New Mexico.  The second thing you notice is the Santa Ana Casino.  It like all the casinos here is always full of cars abandoned by their owners for a time while they search for the American dream amid the smoke and flashing lights of the hundreds of slot machines.  However, once you pass the casino you enter a Mars-like landscape where you can settle back with your cruise control set comfortably at 70 miles per hour and watch the scenery unfold.

The road dips and courses through canyon after canyon and continues to rise in elevation.  To give you an idea of elevation, Albuquerque sits at about 5,400 feet above sea level.  But you gain an 1,600 additional feet as you approach Cuba.  This is a small town nearly 7,000 feet in elevation nestled amid pine trees in a picturesque valley surrounded by the Nacimientos Mountains and bisected by the Rio Puerco.  It is home to less than 1,000 people, and as I drive through it at a slow 35 miles per hour I notice a number of hippie backpackers emerging from the small hotels.  They are all groggy eyed, sunburned, and young – 21st Century Kerouacs – following the rhythm of the road.

Not far outside of Cuba one notices an increase in Ponderosa pines as one climbs up the road as it loops around the mountains’ base before flattening out amid the great expanse of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation.  The road passes through this area in silence crossing over the continental divide and the highest point of my trip today of almost 7,300 feet.  You descend after this crest until you reach NM-279 West at which point you turn left and leave the smooth as silk US-550 behind you.  You have about 4 miles of pavement at which point you leave the comforts of asphalt for a winding dirt and gravel road that cuts through grazing land populated by the occasional sheep and bushy haired cow.  Above you the sky is crisscrossed by ravens and sometimes a falcon that swoops down to scoop up a prairie dog.

My car rattles and bumps.  The package of water bottles I have in the back of my CRV burst open and scatter across the floor.  My teeth chatter, and I abandon the radio all together.  There is little to no cell phone coverage much less radio signals that are not interrupted by prolonged bouts of static.  Occasionally a farm house rises in the distance and alongside the road you find the bleached white skeletons of cows.  Some of them still have patches of black fur clinging to the skulls yet every other morsel has been dried by the sun or eaten by ants and coyotes.  You reach a point on this road where you tell yourself, “This is ridiculous.  Why am I driving here?”  And you don’t even think about the consequences of your car breaking down.  However, each day the Park Rangers drive this road two times a day.  So, worst case scenario, you are guaranteed to meet at least one government employee at some point if you do break down.

Yet my car powers on at breakneck speeds of 20 miles per hour that is often slowed to 10 miles per hour.  The fields to my left and right reach to the horizon in both directions and are green and streaked with wild flowers.  The first time I drove this road was in January, and the fields were gray and barren and partly covered in snow.  It is now June and the temperature is in the high seventies at this point.  Eventually after about 40 minutes of driving, the dirt road ends and becomes asphalt for the final few miles to the Chaco Culture Visitor Center.