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A Night in the Desert of Northern Mexico

Lloyd is a traveler who knows how to suffer.

Poverty was lying awake at night on a cold concrete slab in a Mexican city, too afraid to fall asleep and too tired to continue walking. My situation had become somewhat desperate as I continued across the country though I knew that my most basic needs would be met by the pesos left in my pocket and the kindness of fate. The generosity of my aunt had saved me from a couple of nights on the street and a couple of days of hitch-hiking, but that money was already gone, and I was still far from home.

Regardless, I wasn’t ready for the journey to end; I wanted to feel the cold wind of the desert ripping across my face. I wanted to meditate under a starry sky unshrouded by urban glow. I wanted to cry out to the dark infinity of the universe where no one would hear me or care. I wanted solitude and adventure and experience and all of those things which burned in my 19 year old heart, and I was prepared to endure any form of suffering and danger to get it.

Mostly, I knew that I couldn’t afford another night in a hotel, anywhere. The only possibility, therefore, was sleeping rough, either in the city or in the desert. If my experience up to that point had taught me anything, it was that almost anything in life was preferable to sleeping rough in Latin American cities. I chose to make for the desert. After a bus ride toward the town of Real de Catorce high into the mountains of Northern Mexico and a two hour hike from the highway into the open expanses of the highland desert, I pitched my tent beside an old Spanish outpost, eroded away by years of neglect and heavy winds and rains.

The cold wind of the afternoon was already blowing across my camp, and I slowly realized that my lack of sufficient warm clothing and a sleeping bag would become a problem. I had considered the purchase of a sleeping bag earlier but I was poor and couldn’t afford one. I had settled for a handwoven cotton blanket and decided to put the rest of my worries behind me. I reasoned, in my inexperience and lack of foresight, that I would need to start a fire for warmth. I began searching the area for firewood.

A gentle misty rain began to fall, which only made my search for firewood all the more futile. I scoured the land seeking out twigs and branches, charcoal and logs, but found almost nothing but soggy old grass and some dry cactus. I struggled to start a fire with those materials, scorching my eyes on the smoke from the cactus. Nothing burned.

I continued looking, eventually committing a great sin against the desert. I found a living tree that grew from an ancient well and broke a branch off of it in the hope that it would burn. I could blame ignorance for such an offense but it was really just desperation and foolishness. I should have known my effort would be completely futile and that the damage to the tree had the potential to be irreversible and perhaps even fatal. I was unprepared, and I would suffer for it.

After a couple of hours of attempts I managed only to get a small smoky flame that I had no idea how to use to get warmth into my tent. Had I been wiser, I would have heated one of the water bottles that I carried with me and stuffed that into my pants, but I wasn’t aware of this tactic, and instead just passed my time outside of the tent and next to my pathetic fire, getting wetter and colder in the mist. Finally, I gave up on the idea and retreated to the relative comfort of my coffin-sized tent.

The sun fell below the horizon and the wind picked up in intensity and strength, rattling at my tent and leaving my tattered jeans soaked. My entire body was wet, and I found myself shaking at first mildly, then uncontrollably. I flexed my muscles against these chills and utilized a mental technique that I had come to master in those days of poverty and discomfort. I would meditate on warmth and pleasure, focusing on every detail of a warm and comfortable bed, a sexual encounter with a passionate woman, a hot drink next to a fireplace in a remote cottage in the mountains with a beautiful Mexican woman lying beside me under a heavy woolen blanket. I would carry myself in every sense to that place, forgetting every detail of my current existence, and for a moment, sometimes for a long moment, I would disappear in that dream. This trick allowed me to sleep in some horrible, dangerous, and uncomfortable places, and it would warm my hands on a freezing night like that one in the desert above Real de Catorce.

The cold didn’t go away, however, and even if for a few minutes I would feel some warmth, I would soon freeze. I cursed myself for my lack of preparation. In the city, I would have scavenged something to get warm. Newspaper had been my life-line more than once, as I would stuff it into my pants and under my shirt to boost my insulation. In the mountains, there was nothing. I considered the grass around me, but as it was wet, and I doubted that it would help. I even considered filling my clothes with dirt, but the idea seemed so ridiculous that I abandoned it.

My jeans were full of holes and I had no long underwear. I carried two pairs of cotton socks, which I put on, and two t-shirts, which I was wearing. Over this I wore a polyester poncho with a hood. I had no hat. Thankfully, I had a foam mat which protected me against the cold ground, but even with the tent keeping most of the wind off of me, I was completely unprepared for the near-freezing temperatures that I would encounter that night. I put all of my clothes on, left my shoes on, and wrapped the blanket around me tightly. Regardless of what I did, I continued to shiver uncontrollably.

I was young and wild and happy to suffer in the name of wisdom. I took a dented harmonica from the top of my backpack and blew into it as loud as I could, as a man might blow a whistle, then I screamed out, laughing at the wind and madness and rage of nature. I knew I was fine. I felt unbreakable in those days and nights when I was cut off from everyone and everything, and I knew that life was stronger than comfort. I knew in the back of my mind that I could pack my things and walk to Real de Catorce within 3 hours, and that even if the weather changed to freezing I could heat my body by running against the mountains. There was a fire inside of me that required no fuel beyond the energy of my youth, and I could tap into it at any moment and burn myself alive.

“CAAAABBBBRRRROOOOOOONNNNN!!!” I screamed in the new language of my new life.

I ripped the zipper on my tent open and stood in the misty, peering into the abyss of greens and blues that painted the desert night. The wind smacked at me, but I shouted back in its face like the madman that I had become. I felt its mystery, the story it was trying to tell me, and I instantly understood what it meant. I conversed with it, screamed at it until I couldn’t speak and then blew into the harmonica with all the power that I had left in my lungs.

I don’t know how long this lasted, but when it ended I felt my eyes collapsing. I felt acid boiling in my stomach and my arms. I felt my legs tremble and cry out to me to collapse, to return to the tent and rest. Finally, I obeyed.

I had gotten even wetter after being outside, and I immediately started shaking again once the power of the adrenaline wore off. Desperate to sleep now, and willing to break any rule or utilize any resource to make it happen, I removed everything from my pack that could provide me any insulation at all and stuffed it under my clothes. I cannibalized my backpack, removing the detachable top portion and stuffing it into my pants. I even placed a plastic bag over my legs, which though I knew would keep the water close to my body actually seemed to warm me by keeping the wind from biting my skin through the holes in my jeans.

Eventually, through continued mental exercises, I managed to warm myself and fall asleep for some time. I woke up a couple of hours before dawn and found myself shaking again. The rain had stopped and the wind had died down, so I left the tent and went outside to observe the stars and the peace of the desert. I stood outside for the rest of the night, walking around the area in an attempt to stay warm, flexing the shrinking muscles in my arms and chest and cursing regularly at the cold wind that at times picked up into gusts and left my entire body trembling and weak, ready to melt to the ground. Finally, the sun broke the ground far below me, and I watched it begin its ascent from the distant Caribbean far beyond the horizon into the morning sky, where it eventually warmed my exhausted body and dried my wet clothes and tent.

I packed my things by mid morning after eating some sugary snacks for breakfast and made a long circular trail down the mountains toward Real de Catorce. I had learned something important and life-changing that night, and from that moment on I knew that my path led back to the mountains and deserts of Latin America. At the same time, I realized that I would have to be far more prepared to handle any climate and situation, and for that I would require gear. Gear required money, and the only way I could think of to make money was to return to the United States.

M.J. Lloyd

James Tramplefoot has been, and will continue to be on the road indefinitely, for years and probably decades.