I was blind with plants. Plants everywhere. Some were elegant, erupting like a fountain or bursting into platter-sized dinosaur scales, but most were the scraggly survivor-types, creating a chaos of green and vines over the muddy hillside. We were scrambling -and oh was it a scramble- up a jungly hill, hands and knees and every body part clinging to the earth or vines or mossy rocks so as not to tumble into the creek several hundred feet below.
It was April, and I was in the jungle near Xilitla, a misty mountain town in the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. I was drawn to these mountains after hearing the story of a surrealist millionaire artist that had built giant fantastical castles in Xilitla´s jungle. I was relieved to have found myself there, at last, because at a certain point I hadn’t at all been sure I’d make it.
Whenever I met someone they would ask “Where are you going next?” I would answer, “No real plans but I started in Guadalajara and the goal is to generally go south”.
At a certain point I realized that I had not, in fact, been going south, but had scurried from place to place with no general direction or pattern or logic. It’d been West, North, South, East, South, Southeast, Northwest. And now I was further north than my original arrival in Mexico. What was I doing?
I combatted my sense of aimlessness by reading On The Road, which answered my question with another question:
Why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?
The book comforted me; I came to realize that I had the luxury of total freedom, to go where my whims take me. My life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted. I eventually decided that a journey does not have to go from point A to point B to be worth the trip.
My upper lip was wet with beads of sweat, and my hair and clothes drenched and plastered to my skin. The air was thick with humidity and smelled of earth. I pulled my eyes away from the plants, trying to see where I was heading.
Hacking a route above me, our indigenous guide Aristeo sliced away roots with a machete and shouted warnings about the poisonous ortiga plant that I inevitably touched, my mosquito- bitten legs blossoming into a red searing rash upon contact. Below me, the French-Canadian dancer I had met three days prior gasped in pain as she brushed a hidden ortiga with her hand.
We had found Aristeo by recommendation of our couchsurfing host Solomon, who lived in Xilitla, and worked at a local nonprofit and knows many members of the indigenous communities in the area. So he drew us a map and pointed us to the village of Pilatena, where if we asked around for the cooperativa of “Aristeo”, he might be available to guide us on a hike to a nearby river.
After squeezing with twenty bodies into the back of a truck, walking down a winding dirt road into the jungle village, and recieving the help of some villagers, we eventually found la cooperativa and Aristeo.
He was sitting in front of his home, a concrete building echoing with the chatter of his wife and children and murmuring jungle noises. The mist hung cool in the morning air, and he offered us sweet coffee from a metal pot hanging over the fire while we sat on his deck overlooking the mountains.
He was a small, lean man of fifty four, soft spoken and spry and happy to lead us through the jungle, though warning us that the trip would be peligroso and resbaloso, dangerous and slippery, due to recent heavy rain. We cheerfully agreed, and soon found ourselves deep in the jungle.
The hike ended up being a rough and muddy five hours of dirt and plants and rivers in the heat. The river was a nice enough destination, but most of the fun came from climbing through uncharted hillsides and hacking our way back to civilization. We ended up completely worn out and dirty and all the happier for it.
In the coming days, my French-Canadian dancer friend and I explored the surrealist castle, successfully paddled to aquamarine waterfalls, and unsuccessfully went roaming through this hills looking for a cave. A sense of unknown, of serendipity, pervaded my time in the mountains and I felt, for the first time, comfortable in the aimless romp my life had become. I was along for a ride, not knowing where I was going, and was actually starting to enjoy it.
After descending the mountain, I spent days hopping between the cities of Leon, Aguascalientes, and Guadalajara, and spent time with a friend near Guanajuato before once again saying goodbye.
I was going to head south, this time for real, and as I said farewell to my friend in the sweltering heat of the bus station, I left him with a quote scribbled on a piece of paper:
What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.
After one last “adios” my bus rumbled out of the station and I was off to golden lands ahead.