The 61st Minute
The man facing me across the wide, grassy clearing held a paper grocery sack. He seemed innocent enough, but I knew that the sparse woods from which he emerged very likely held at least one of his friends. Probably with the .30-30 Winchester aimed right at me.
It was late spring in the late 1970s, and my friends—John and Michael—and I had been camping in Big Bend National Park for about a week. It had been a good trip during which, among other things, we’d driven the rugged River Road along the Rio Grande and camped in the badlands on the west side of the park where we’d seen a huge meteor light up the sky and heard it hit many miles out on the plains to the west. But now that the trip was about to wind up, we couldn’t let go of the fact that we were right on the border with Mexico. We wanted to buy some weed to take home with us.
These days, buying marijuana in Mexico and transporting it across Texas is practically impossible. There are roadblock inspection stations with drug sniffing dogs on almost every road in the region as well as at the larger boarder crossings over the Rio Grande. And most of the smaller crossings over the Rio Grande have been closed since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. These days, you can’t even visit any of the small villages just across the river from the park. In those days, though, it was still possible, although the transportation would be problematic for hippie types such as us, who were favorite targets of law enforcement in this land west of the Pecos, where Judge Roy Bean once held sway.
Michael, whose Hispanic ancestry reached back to the Mexican land-grant days of Texas, spoke some Spanish, so he went across the river to the village of Santa Elena to see if pot was available. John and I waited in the campground near the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. Not long afterward, Michael came back with the news that he’d met somebody who said they had some weed to sell.
The guy invited us over to visit before the transaction. I think he and his compadres wanted to check us out before they did the deal. So the three of us went across the river in a small rowboat piloted by our contact. He moored the boat on the Mexico bank, and the four of us walked up the incline from the river to a dirt road baking beneath the midday sun. There, a battered red Chevy pickup waited. Our contact and Michael got into the cab, and John and I hopped into the bed, and we were off.
The roads were all dirt and heavily potholed, so it was a heck of a bumpy ride. Our contact drove faster than was comfortable, and John and I bounced and jounced around in the bed, hoping the ride wouldn’t last too long. It didn’t. Santa Elena was a pretty small town once you got past the cantinas and taquerias that faced the river and catered to the few tourists brave enough to cross over. We reached the other side of town in ten minutes or so, and our contact drove a little farther until there was just a scattering of dwellings dwindling into the desert. This was the poor side of town in a poor town. As the pick-up pulled up in front of a small adobe house and stopped, the cloud of dust that had been chasing it through town engulfed us.
We got out, and our contact invited us inside. I don’t know about Michael and John, but I was nervous. I was in a foreign land, and the fact that the United States was less than five miles away didn’t make my surroundings any less dangerous. And the house, itself, though large by the standards of its neighbors, was unprepossessing. Its plain, mud-smoothed adobe walls were pierced by several rectangular window openings. All were without panes of glass, but each had a pair of rude wooden shutters, all of which stood open. The roof was sheathed in river cane packed with dried mud.
Inside, the temperature was considerably cooler than outside thanks to the open windows, which allowed a nice breeze to circulate. The floor was contiguous with the ground outside—hard-packed dirt—and the sparse furniture that sat on it was wooden, simple, and mostly homemade. The house had four or five rooms, all with open doorways with no doors, and there was no electricity or running water. The only light was that which came in through the windows and door.
There were two other guys in the front room, which seemed to serve as a kitchen. They’d been sitting at the simple table, drinking beer, but they got up when we came in. Three of us; three of them; all of us in our late twenties. But the three of us were callow American city dwellers, and the three Mexican guys were tougher looking. One of them, in particular, was a little older than the others and looked more hard-bitten. A .30-30 Winchester dangled casually in his hand. But all three seemed friendly enough, and the one with the rifle soon propped the weapon against a wall.
None of them spoke English, but through Michael, they offered us warm beers, and then we got down to business. We dickered about the price and quantity and eventually settled on purchasing a kilo for a price that was then quite reasonable. Reasonable enough that, among the three of us, we could come up with the cash. We arranged a time and a place to meet that we were familiar with—a large clearing in the mesquite forest on the American side of the river, near the Santa Elena campground and close to the river. With the business concluded and small talk impossible, we all shook hands and smiled, and our lead contact drove us back to the crossing and rowed us across the river.
We returned to our campsite to wait out the remainder of the day until the appointed hour, which was 7 o’clock. At the appropriate time, the three of us got into Michael’s pick-up and drove to the clearing. Michael parked on the clearing’s edge, and a few minutes later, we saw one of the Mexican guys emerge from the sparse trees on the other side of the clearing, maybe a hundred and fifty feet away. He was the hard-bitten one. The one who’d had the rifle. Only now he wasn’t holding the gun but a brown paper grocery sack, its rolled top gripped in one hand.
The guy glanced around the clearing then stared at us.
“Go on, Michael,” I said. He had our money in his pocket, and he was the one who spoke Spanish.
But Michael didn’t move.
“I don’t want to,” he said, and I realized that he was frozen, too nervous to go out into the clearing to finalize the deal.
I knew one of us had to act or the whole thing would go sour. The guy across the clearing didn’t have the rifle, but very likely his two friends were in the woods somewhere behind him, and one of them surely had the gun.
“Give me the money,” I said, and Michael handed it over.
I got out of the truck and walked around it so the guy across the clearing—and his friends—could see that I wasn’t obviously armed. Then I started walking toward the middle of the clearing, and the guy did likewise. We met in the center, and he set the sack on the ground. I squatted and unrolled the paper to look inside.
He said something in Spanish. I didn’t really understand, but I caught the word todo—all—and understood him to be telling me that it was all there. It looked and felt like a kilo to me, or close enough.
I stood up and handed him the money. He counted it then looked at me, and his hard-bitten face smiled a smile that seemed genuine. Maybe he appreciated my courage. I smiled back, we shook hands, and I said, “Gracias.”
With that, he turned on his heel and headed back the way he’d come. I picked up the sack and went back to Michael’s pick-up, half expecting to feel a bullet that I’d never hear, but nothing happened. By the time I got into the truck, the guy had disappeared into the woods. Michael drove us back to the campground. We’d come away happy campers.
The drive back to Houston was uneventful, and the incident faded as life went on. But it came back a few months later when I was visiting some friends one Sunday evening. We were watching 60 Minutes, and one of the segments—hosted, as I recall, by Mike Wallace—concerned drug smuggling on the Texas–Mexico border.
The segment was filmed at the Santa Elena crossing, and Wallace had gotten three local men to show him how people might do the smuggling. The three guys showed him how they’d load the pot into their rowboat and ferry it to the American side. The three guys were, of course, the same three that we’d actually bought pot from, and when one of them leaned out of the boat to hand Wallace a fake grocery sack of marijuana, I easily recognized the hard-bitten one. Again his face was cracked in mirth, but instead of the appreciative smile he’d given me, this time he had a huge, shit-eating grin on his face. It was, after all, a huge joke to be faking for the camera what he often did for real, and he was probably being paid as much or more for faking it as he’d make from an actual sale.
I couldn’t help but laugh, but a couple of years later, when I returned to Santa Elena with other friends, I saw that it was no longer a laughing matter. A contingent of Federales who’d set up shop in a building overlooking the crossing gave us harsh glares as we trudged up from the river to go to one of the cantinas for a couple of shots of tequila and a beer. Of the three smugglers, there was no sign. I’m sure they were long gone to other occupations or for more fertile ground before the Federales arrived.
Vaya con Dios, amigos.