True Treasures of the Sierra Madre

A case of nerves was seizing my two daughters, Sara, 23, and Hannah, 21.  A study trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico, was only three days away, and anxiety was setting in.  This would be Sara’s first time as the family’s designated interpreter, a role that I had filled many times in the past.  But my wife, Linda, and I were not going this time.  And, as for Hannah, she had not taken Spanish since high school.

And although close, my daughters were not enjoying the “now”–the pre-trip responsibilities of tying up loose ends before departure.

I interrupted their squabble saying, “Hey, speaking of Mexico.  Let me share something that happened when your mom and I were missionaries down there in 1977, when you were four and two.”

I went on to relate the time when their older brother, Danny, a bright-eyed eight-year-old back then, and a fellow missionary, John Boyer, and I hatched this little treasure hunting scheme in order to raise up some finances.

In those days in Mexico, even if you could find a job with the going wage of $2.00 a day, it was against the law to work without a work visa.  Both John and I had big families, and although our Christian brothers were doing all they could to support us, the money was always low.

We had met an American passing through, and he had told us that not many miles from us in the state of Nuevo Leon, a mile high in the Sierra Madre, there used to be an old factory, circa 1850.  A sealing wax used to waterproof sailing ships was produced for worldwide consumption from the candalaria cactus plant native to the region.  Find that old ghost town and its factory and its dump site, and with a little digging, you could strike it rich on just the antique bottles alone, he had told us.

Since $20 felt like it would have put us in that higher economic bracket, we set out to find the riches of the old factory.

We asked around and found out that it was supposed to be located just four or five miles directly to the west of our little valley cradled by dry rugged mountains, seven miles out of Galeana.  We went down our road one mile and then west on a dirt road a half mile and came to the rancho of Antonio Garcia.

The small adobe house with its rough-hewn wooden door and the outbuildings began to immediately throw me into a time warp.  A sun-bleached hitching post stood starkly in front, shiny from use.  A wagon in good repair waited for its horse to return and give it motion.  And as chickens and pigs and goats wandered around on the barren ground, I kept slipping back into time.  I was thinking, So this is how they lived in 1800.

Antonio Garcia wiped his leather hands on his pants and smiled big and rushed over to us with his hand extended.  It was as if he had been waiting for us all day, and we had finally arrived.  We shook hands and introduced ourselves.  In Spanish he said, “Para servirles, señores.  At your service, sirs.  How may I help you?”

I told him what we were looking for.  He shook his hear “yes” and said, “I will take you down the river that runs through the canyon.”

“Well, we don’t mean to take you away from your work.  It’s still early afternoon, and I know your have things to do.”

“The work will be here mañana.”  And with that he hustled over to the corral made from the twelve feet long dried poles that the maguey cactus shoots forth during its flowering swan song.

I walked over to his shed and looked in.  Saddles, tools, and primitive implements lined the walls.  I looked more closely, and to my amazement, everything was hand-made.  Tools hammered out on a blacksmith’s anvil lay beside saddles whose leather lay on a frame carved from blonde Mexican pine.  A 24″ long dish like trough was hand-hewn from a single log.  It was like walking into a dusty living museum whose artifacts were still being used by the inhabitants.  Only the exhibits here were at once old, yet newly made. 

Antonio came into the shed, fetched the saddles, and began to saddle up one burro, one mule and one horse.  He hurried us upon the animals, grabbed the reins of the burro, and just like that, we were off, heading west.

He took us into a shallow river.  Our mounts drank for the longest time.  In a few minutes we had arrived in a box canyon, the sides of which reared straight up 50 feet.  A timeless feeling spread over me as I took in the Technicolor layers of stone in those cliffs.  Unfenced cattle, curious about the intruders in their midst, peered down over the edge at us below.  Two hawks cut through the heavenly blue crystal above us in a whispered flutter.

We rode on for hours drinking in God’s creation.  We eventually left the river and its canyon and arrived on a high chaparral.  By this time the sun was setting over the majestic Mt. Potosi, the 10,000 feet monarch of the northern Sierra Madre Oriental.  I looked at the 6′ 4″ John Boyer who was having trouble on the mule.  He let out a shout as the girth gave way, and he swung down like a human pendulum, down to the ground, the saddle still between his legs.

Of course, we all laughed.  And then, as I looked at Danny and John and Antonio, I realized that not once had anyone mentioned the factory or its “treasures.”  We had all found a treasure.  Who ever gets to time-travel into a bygone era of history?  We had also found out that hospitality was not dead; it was alive and well in Antonio Garcia.

“And girls,” I said, finishing up my story, “do you know what was the greatest treasure we found that day?”

“What?” they asked in unison.

“It was the realization that life is lived in the journey.  Enjoy the “getting there” as much as the destination.  It might be all you find and all you need to find.”     Kenneth Wayne Hancock

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