Despite all those scary stories I've been reading and seeing in the American media about how dangerous and violent Mexico has become, I'm always eager to head south of the border.
It's because rural Mexico reminds me of a simpler time. Like the recent trip I took to the town of Ortiz, a journey that took me back to my childhood, growing up mostly poor but also mostly happy in rural western Pennsylvania.
And so, I recently headed off on yet another trip south, with a first stop across the border at San Carlos, in the Mexican state of Sonora. Via the Internet, I'd rented a small house there at a seaside resort that caters to middle-class Mexicans, Americans and Canadians. I spent a few days in the area, hiking along San Carlos's rugged shoreline, catching thrilling glimpses of diving seals, dolphins and seabirds and exploring its tidal pools.
Despite all that natural beauty, I grew restless. I wanted to get away from tourists like myself and explore something more authentically "Mexican." So I drove on east from San Carlos to Empalme, once an important, prospering railroad town, though no longer.
To enter Empalme, I crossed a double set of railroad tracks where, off to the left and right of me, I saw the rusting, tilted hulks of ancient locomotives and boxcars. I wasn't surprised to find that Empalme's central plaza was shabby, to say the least. But once there, I met a friendly traffic cop who seemed pleasantly shocked to have encountered an actual "turista."
Then, when I told him that what I really wanted to do was to take a drive up to Ortiz, he exclaimed, "That's where I was born!" He eagerly gave me precise directions for the drive up to Ortiz. On the way, I stopped in Las Palmas, a tiny town with, maybe, 60 modest houses clustered around one store.
Thirsty, I pulled up to the store and was greeted by a gaggle of pre-teenaged boys who were hanging around its front. They were teasing and poking at each other, engaging in the universal, silly behavior of teenage boys. But it was not long before one of those teens decided that this norteamericano would be an easy mark.
He was bold enough to tell me that he and his pals were thirsty after a hard morning's work at school, and so this easy-going gringo told him that he'd be happy to buy him and his pals a round of Pepsis, a gesture that, predictably, prompted thanks and more pokes and giggles among his peers.
But when they ran into the store to claim their sodas, the guy in the store scolded them and glowered at me. He was clearly embarrassed by their behavior and displeased by my apparent gullibility. His disapproving demeanor reminded of the reaction I used to get from my western Pennsylvania dad whenever I did something stupid. Which was fairly often.
But I was only amused. I bid those rascally kids adios to head on up to Ortiz, an hour's drive north on a dusty, pot-holed road. (After paying the proud and cranky store manager for those Pepsis, of course.)
When I arrived at Ortiz, I felt as though I had gone back in time, encountering pieces of my life as a bedraggled kid growing up in a backwater. The Ortiz I discovered was a much smaller town than mine had been, though, with only a post office, government health clinic, police station, two very small grocery stores and the ruins of what seemed to be an old fort.
Most of Ortiz's streets were unpaved, as was the street where I lived in my own small town many decades ago. Yet as I drove slowly through Ortiz, raising puffs of dust, I saw that behind every humble house was a garden plot filled with tomatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions and corn, the same vegetables I weeded and watered for an allowance as a kid.
But what impressed me most about my brief sojourn there was the greeting an Ortiz mother gave me as I passed by while she was pinning bed sheets onto her clothesline. Despite the clothespins she'd clamped between her lips, she somehow managed to turn and toss a smile my way. I waved and smiled back. And I remembered my mom.
Jack McGarvey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in southern Arizona.