At 7:00 AM, except for a few small, isolated, fast-moving, and nervous-looking cumulus clouds with jagged edges, the sky is a deep, steely blue. I've never felt the air here as cold as this. Descending toward the Casa Grande for breakfast I find the valley floor cast with a ghostly whiteness. It's an optical illusion, I assume -- sometimes low-slanting, early-morning or late-afternoon sunlight bounces off towering thunderheads someplace out of sight, painting this whole valley with strange hues. But, no, when I reach the Casa Grande it becomes clear: What I'm seeing really is frost. Not just a hint of frost, but a heavy one -- the kind that in Kentucky in late October we'd call a killer.
The workers stand around looking, sometimes bending over to take a better look at grass blades adorned with lacy crystals. Don Chús looks with concern at the banana trees along the garden's western border. Their broad leaves instead of appearing glossy and green as usual, now are dusted with pale, silvery hoariness. A frost like this comes along only every few years, they say, and some swear they've never seen such a heavy one as this. A stunned feeling hangs in the air. People seem unable to organize their thoughts. They just stand looking at the frost, shaking their heads and cracking jokes.
At 7:53 Don Alfonso drives the old Dodge van, a recent gift from a patron in Nashville, onto the road to Villahermosa. On this trip Pastor Bercián and I are accompanied by two nurses. Gudulia, whom we've already met in "A Yerba Buena Graduate" accompanies us, as well as Marcela Ramírez Juárez, distinguished among the student nurses as being the tallest woman on campus -- a good five foot, six inches.
Heading north we find the frost lying spottily upon the landscape, sometimes very heavy, sometimes absent. Where it's heaviest, like the workers at Yerba Buena, people just stand looking. However, one old Tzotzil-speaking woman in a black dress, red belt and white blouse trimmed with red embroidery trots along with a load of firewood on her back, and she is barefoot as usual. Descending the slope beyond Selva Negra, the frost vanishes and the air warms with each mile. At 9:20, just north of Ixhuatán, we arrive next to the fast-moving, l00-foot wide river called Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat). Here the river flows across the road we need to take. Our van rides too low to make it across so we unpack and cross the river on a footbridge that sways unnervingly about seventy feet above the river's surface.
The bridge consists of four steel cables, upon the bottom two of which are tied cross-lying wooden planks. About two and a half feet long and half a foot wide, these planks are separated from one another by about four inches of open space. Many boards are missing where they've broken and fallen into the river. About three feet above the planks, on both sides of the bridge, the other two steel cables serve as handrails.
Beyond the footbridge a one-lane, much-broken-up, paved road continues. We're told that it's possible to purchase rides on trucks crossing the river, heading for villages on up the road. After waiting about half an hour, a truck carrying supplies from Ixhuatán comes along and for a small fee carries us to another footbridge, not unlike the one just crossed. Spanning the Río Amatán at a place called Puente Benito Juárez, this bridge serves as the trailhead of a footpath leading to several isolated villages, among which is our destination, San Lorenzo.
As promised by messengers who last week came from San Lorenzo to Yerba Buena, at Puente Benito Juárez two young guides and three mules for carrying gear await us. Gudulia and Marcela are invited to ride mules but they gamely insist on walking, though both wear slippers more appropriate for window-shopping than for hiking, and heavy clothing more befitting Yerba Buena's high-elevation cold weather than this merely chilly morning in the foothills. Beneath heavily overcast skies a slight breeze is blowing. It's 62º now -- good weather for hiking.
At first the trail is wide and climbs at a gentle rate. We pass several other walkers and mule- and horse-riders coming and going. One old man carrying firewood on his back says that last week at this very spot on the trail, and at this very hour, a bandit robbed a man of everything he had. After climbing for half an hour we enter a town of several thousand, surprisingly large to have no road going to it. Here we break off the main trail, descend briefly into a valley, and then begin climbing again. Now the trail becomes just wide enough for one or sometimes two walkers side by side, and it's very muddy. Frequently the hooves of mules and horses have worked the mud into a runny, brown soup smelling mightily of wet earth and manure. A cool, heavy mist begins falling, causing the outcroppings of limestone over which we must climb to be very slick. Sometimes steep grades cause our heavily laden mules to balk. The nurses soon dump most of their layers of clothing and when they look at their shoes just laugh and shake their heads. I'm carrying my full backpack. Though the air is cool, in the high humidity I sweat profusely. Sometimes I feel nauseated, apparently from the exertion of climbing and from so much sweating. The whole landscape hums with soft, continual tintinnabulations of stridulating grasshoppers and crickets.
For most of the distance the trail climbs, often very steeply, and often through intimidating fields of mud. But also there are long descents, especially in the afternoon. Early the nurses establish the routine of riding mules up slopes but then dismounting and walking downhill. Sometimes the trail courses along narrow ridge crests. Around us, except on the highest, steepest (almost vertical) slopes, the forest has been destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture. The landscape is a mosaic of small fields, some being grazed by white, hump-backed zebu cattle, others amounting to no more than rank patches of weeds, and others growing up with dense stands of spindly weed-trees. Around noon, periods of moderate drizzle begin, accompanied by clouds of slope-touching mists that majestically sweep through the vast scenery of deep green valleys and high, bluish peaks. Constantly I vacillate between watching the evolving landscape and cloud-theater, and paying full attention to picking my way across the mud and slippery stones. In the end I get too tired to pay attention to anything but the mud and stones.
At 4:45 we trudge up the last slope, an especially muddy and steep one, into the town of San Lorenzo. It's drizzling, and the temperature is 55º.