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Hitching across Mexico with furniture and a cat


So far, the journey had been surprisingly easy. A friend with a car had driven us with the boxes and furniture to a truck stop on the outskirts of the city, and since then it had all gone much as Hele had predicted. We made sure always to get dropped off at petrol stations, and simply unloaded the stuff from one ride and reloaded it into another. It all fitted in the sleeping compartment of a truck. Just about. Drivers didn’t even seem particularly surprised to find two European girls hitchhiking 1,000 kilometres across northern Mexico with the contents of an apartment and a cat. These things happen.

Our real stroke of luck came a few hours south of Chihuahua, when we were picked up by Eduardo, who was going all the way to San Luis Potosí. He wore a white vest top and had an amateur-looking tattoo on one bicep, its bluish ink blurring into the mahogany skin of his arm. He was friendly, but suspicious. He had seen the likes of us before.

‘They always come at night,’ he sighed, leaning back in his seat and stretching his sinewy arms against the wheel with an air of resignation. ‘About this time, about this place. Bloody desert’s full of ghosts. I’ve picked up loads of them.’ He paused before conceding: ‘They don’t usually have furniture, though. Or cats.’

Mjá was curled up in the crook of Hele’s arm with an expression of insouciant innocence. He had done a poo in her hand halfway through the previous ride and was currently trying to charm himself back into her favour.

‘What are they like?’ I asked Eduardo. ‘The ghosts, I mean.’

He looked surprised at the question.

‘Friendly, usually, good company. Sometimes I talk with them all night. But at the first glimpse of sunrise they disappear. I can be in the middle of a conversation, watching the road. Then I glance round at the passenger seat and they’re gone.’

‘What do they talk to you about?’

‘Oh, the usual stuff. The thing is, they don’t even know they’re dead. They’re people who died out here in the desert, and every night they’re trying to get back to their homes. I’m happy to help them out. Gives me someone to talk to. I get tired of driving this same road alone through the desert, over and over again. Can make you go a little funny after a while.’

‘Do they ever scare you? Try to hurt you?’

‘The hitchhiking ghosts, no. The dangerous ones are the ones you can’t see. Sometimes I’m driving along this road late at night, when suddenly some force grabs the steering wheel from my hands and I veer across the road. And then there’s the aliens.’

‘Aliens?’

‘Of course. Didn’t you know? There are more aliens in this desert than anywhere else on earth. They’ve been landing here for years. Haven’t you heard about the silent zone?’

‘I heard stories that there are metal deposits under the earth there that distort radio signals,’ Hele said.

Eduardo snorted at such gullibility.

‘Maybe that’s the story they tell people. The government are trying to cover it up. But it doesn’t explain the mutant animals. Or the abductions. I know a driver who woke up once in his truck in the middle of the desert, many kilometres from the road. He didn’t remember anything except a very bright light. That was the aliens.’ He shook his head grimly. ‘They’ve never abducted me though. Not yet.’

The silent zone was still a fair way southeast of where we were. That is, if it existed at all. But the cloud of rumour and superstition that surrounded it had spread steadily in all directions, to the point where pretty much the whole northern desert was tainted with its extra-terrestrial associations.

On 11 July 1970, a blaze of light was seen falling to earth in the desolate stretches of desert near the Mapimí river basin, somewhere to the north of Gómez Palacio. Local ranchers scratched their heads and speculated that perhaps an angel had descended. A short while later, the trucks arrived. Their coming was never announced and their presence was never explained but there they were, rumbling back and forth across the desert, searching. They were manned by the United States military. Approaching the operation in their own inimitable style, they did not see fit to ask the ranchers where the blaze of light had fallen, but instead hired residents of Gómez Palacio to assist with the search, without ever telling them exactly what they werelooking for. There was no comment from Washington.

Whatever it was, after three weeks of exhaustive scouring of sand dunes, they appeared to have found it. An extension was built from the nearest railway to a point in the heart of the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve – an area that had long been of interest to biologists for its unique flora and fauna – where a small airstrip was constructed. A few wagonloads of sand were removed. And then the army personnel moved out, dismantling the railway tracks behind them. The airstrip was abandoned to fall into disrepair.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the mystery with which the operation had been conducted, gossip spread like infection. What was it that had fallen? Why was it of such importance to the US government that they had to send secret army convoys to look for it? What had they taken away? Did it have anything to do with the unusually large animal species in that particular area of desert, or the purple tinge on the nopales? The rumours multiplied. It was said that magnetic anomalies in the atmosphere distorted radio signals in that location and caused compass needles to spin aimlessly. Perhaps these rogue magnetic fields were strong enough to create a vortex of energy that made things fall from the sky? What could cause such a thing? Clearly, there was only one logical explanation. It must be aliens. An alternative explanation did later emerge, which was that an Athena test missile fired in Utah had gone astray and fallen several hundred kilometres south of its intended destination, carrying a small quantity of radioactive isotope. Embarrassed by the blunder, the US military had sent convoys to retrieve the missile and remove any contaminated topsoil, and done their best to hush it up. But this story has never gained much currency across northern Mexico. It would, after all, be profoundly un-Mexican to accept such a boring explanation when a paranormal one can be found which fits just as well.

La Zona de Silencio has been a Mecca for conspiracy theorists and UFO curio hunters ever since, much to the exasperation of scientists working to study and protect the unique ecosystem of the Mapimí Reserve. Particularly irritating is the habit of some of the more devout zoneros of stealing scientific equipment and kidnapping the reserve’s endangered tortoises.

An hour down the road, the remnants of sunset had drained from the land and the desert was steeped in darkness. Eduardo pulled over in a truck stop.

‘Time for a coffee, I think,’ he said. ‘Do you girls want one?’

‘I’d love one,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’

We jumped down from the cab and walked together to the café. A few truck drivers glanced up at us when we entered before hunching back over their own coffees. We ordered at the counter and Eduardo made a barely perceptible signal to the waitress, a sort of tiny nod, and then said: ‘Tres’. Three. She reached under the counter and handed him something too small for me to see.

There are no frills in these places, no difficult choices between lattes and cappuccinos. We sat down at a table and the waitress plonked two mugs of boiling water in front of us, along with a jar of Nescafe, a tub of sugar, and another tub of milk powder. As we stirred the sludge into our mugs, Eduardo asked me if I wanted anything to eat.

‘I’m alright, thanks. Are you going to have anything?’

‘No. I don’t usually eat when I’m working.’

This was something I had noticed before when hitching with truck drivers in Mexico. I’d done journeys of 15 hours or more with a single driver, during which time they hadn’t eaten, slept, or even stopped for longer than about 20 minutes.

‘You Mexican truck drivers are incredible,’ I said. ‘You’re like machines. How do you manage to drive for so many hours without rest or food?’

‘We have no choice. We have to get there on time. Say my company gives me a journey from DF to Chihuahua. That’s at least twenty hours of straight driving in a heavy truck like mine. I load at 11 a.m. They tell me: “You must make the delivery in Chihuahua at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning.” I know that if I am late too many times, I will lose my job. How can I find time to rest or eat a meal?’

‘That’s terrible. That would be illegal in my country. How do you keep going?’

‘These,’ he said, pulling a strip of three pills from his pocket, and placing it on the table. ‘They kill your appetite as well as your tiredness.’ He jerked his head to indicate the other truck drivers in the room. ‘I would bet you that every man in this room has taken, or will take, at least two of these tonight. You can’t do this job without them.’

‘What are they?’ I asked. He shrugged.

‘Do you want to try one? I would normally save one for later, but if I have someone to talk to and keep me awake then I should be alright without it. That’s partly why I always pick up hitchhikers. Even the ghost ones.’ He reached over and put a small capsule of white powder on my palm.

Intrigued to know what these truck drivers were taking in between picking up phantom hitchhikers and being abducted by aliens, not to mention thundering along at maximum speed hauling extremely heavy and sometimes hazardous loads, I took it, swigging it down with the dregs of my coffee. I expected it to have some mild stimulant effect, perhaps the equivalent of downing a can of energy drink. Eduardo took the other two. He paid, and we got back on the road.

About 20 minutes later I found myself rigid and quivering, my pulse racing and my eyes popping. Hands like claws on the dashboard, I started mindlessly scraping the plastic with my fingernails, inhaling great awkward gulps of air and craning forward to stare manically at the semicircle of lit highway ahead of us, wondering why the hell we weren’t going FASTER?

Glancing round at my swollen irises and clenched jaw, Eduardo chuckled.

‘They hit you pretty hard the first time, right?’

‘Yes man, I mean like, no mames, I can’t believe you took two!’ I was speaking in a sort of urgent gasp, breathing some words with trembling emphasis and practically squeaking others. ‘Hijo de su puta madre… how the fuck can you drive like this?’

He made a wry face.

‘You get a tolerance to them pretty fast. These aren’t even the good ones. There are a few different types. The best ones come from Guatemala, but I think there have been tighter controls or something recently, because we haven’t been getting many of them. With those ones I can still be OK with two, but with these ones I’d usually take at least three on a journey like this.’ He sighed. ‘It’s a fucking pain, because they’re really expensive. Varies a bit depending on where you are, but often you have to pay eighty pesos for a pill. So if you’re taking three… that’s a lot of your pay, you know? And of course, you can’t claim it from the company, even though they know most people can’t do the journeys without them.’

‘No mames! Pinches culeros!’ I was outraged, feeling the injustice like a burn in my chest. I was ready to go out and strangle them with my bare hands. Whoever ‘they’ were. I had forgotten.

‘Así es,’ he answered philosophically. That’s how it is.

‘But isn’t it dangerous?’

‘Not really, once you’re used to them. Less dangerous than falling asleep at the wheel.’

I wasn’t sure if I believed that. I certainly felt wide awake, but also taut and twitchy, as if I could spasm uncontrollably at any minute. I could see how a truck could veer across the road under my hands. Even the story of the truck driver who had woken up in the middle of the desert suddenly didn’t seem quite so implausible. In fact, the more I stared through the windscreen at the grey tarmac being endlessly devoured by the snout of the truck, the more it seemed perfectly logical to leave this soul-numbing highway and roll free and unrestricted through the boundless mysteries of the desert. I turned round to tell Hele about it. She was cramped up in a huddle beside the boxes, her head resting on her shoulder and her eyes closed. ‘Hele!’ I hissed, in a deafening stage whisper. She gave a little moan and opened her eyes dazedly.

‘What?’

I couldn’t remember what I was going to say.

‘How’s Mjá?’

She flicked her eyes down to where he lay contentedly in her lap before squinting at me in irritation.

‘He’s fine… are you fine?’

I nodded vigorously. ‘He gave me one of those little fucking pills, man, and it’s like, fucking nuts man, I feel like, woah, as if I’m on fucking amphetamine or something.’

‘You are on amphetamine,’ she told me calmly.

‘You what?’

‘Some form of it, anyway.’

‘But – you – what the fuck? He bought these at the truck stop! In the shop, not outside. Is that legal?’

‘Of course it’s not legal. It’s not legal to give truck drivers such impossibly short times to do long journeys in either. But why would the police do anything about it when they’re probably picking up bribes from both sides?’

I gawped dumbly at her, exhaling heavily through my nose. She gave me her best elder-sister look of patient disapprobation.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘it will wear off in a couple of hours. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to get some more sleep. I was going to offer to swap places with you so you could have a turn in the bed, but it doesn’t look as if you’ll be needing it for a while.’

Catriona Rainsford’s book on her two years in Mexico is brilliant. Read the rest of the Urban Circus by buying it.

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