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The International Writers Magazine: US Travel

Colorado to Mexico
• Eva Marcelle Clifford
Flying into Houston, lightning pierces charcoal storm clouds; raindrops spill from tangerine skies and race down the cabin windows. The air’s electrifying, tingling with southern storms.

Houston

As we descend, the plane seems to struggle against the turbulence, and I see a man fingering his prayer beads underneath a swinging light. We touch down with unnecessary force onto the runway, and there is a ripple of delirium in the cabin as the brakes cut in and we speed to a grinding halt. Despite the storm, the Texan heat hits you like a punch as you come off the plane. It is only after hours of obsessive questioning, fingerprinting and scans, that we finally make the connecting flight to Denver.

At the Denver Arrivals, we see a monk in robes striding towards us across marble floors, and we are swept up into bear tight hugs. “Long journey, huh?” he says with a monastic beam.

We know him as Uncle Ben, but in the monastery he is always ‘Phap Lai’. Our journey continues as Ben drives us down the highway west to the Rocky Mountains, while the immense fading skyline drains summer of its languid light. Later on, the sky plunges into a stygian blackness and we climb the steep mountain road deeper into the Rockies. The Rocky Mountains form the vertebrae of America, extending two thousand miles from British Columbia to Northern Mexico, where the axial crystalline rocks tower to over 12,000 feet. The last image imprinted on my mind before being overcome by sleep, is the winding road. All the time, the mountains crawling up on the left like eagle shadows reigning the land.

YM Dawn. Limbo light radiates through the mosquito nets, and through glassy eyes I can see snow-crested mountains, sloping meadows and the faraway tips of silver-fringed canyons. Wild deer graze outside our window, a surreal sight. I’m 8010 feet above sea level and the air certainly feels thinner. Amplified in the heart of the mountains is a silver orchestra, with trombones catching the first rays of sun, and hummingbirds flicker like spinning-tops by the bird fountains, as they warm their wings in the 80-degree sunshine.

The place where we stay is the YMCA of the Rockies (http://www.ymcarockies.org), where the summer monastic retreat takes place.

By midday, the sun is inexorable.
Taking advantage of the free shuttles across the park, we visit Nymph, Dream and Emerald lakes, which are nestled deep in the valleys. Rivers of ice fall like silver threads down cliff-faces and fishermen wade knee-deep into icy waters, while isolated thunderstorms pass overhead sending rain crystals scattering over tranquil water. Walking alone down these empty trails is quite unnerving: the senses vigilant for lions and bears. On the return shuttle ride, there's a lot of talk about cinnamon bears roaming the deeper trails. Earlier today, Sister Suchness had somehow escaped two bears close by the camp; she warns us that the worst thing you can do in a bear situation is to run.

As twilight enwraps us, we steal into the moraine marshes. The long grass is pressed down into wells where the elk have lain earlier in the day, and their musky scent still lingers in the air. The wapiti elk stand defiant with their ivory antlers and great mocha manes, although they are elusive creatures in nature. In the 1800s, elk numbers were threatened by the demand for ivory, and Native Americans used elk canines as talismans and even as a form of currency. A distant ruby-red sunset gilds their eyes as they slope into the shadows, whistling into the deep chasms of the moraine valley.

I wake to thunderstorms. The sky has turned the sort of moody, apocalyptic grey you would expect to see vultures circling in. We’d been warned repetitively about lighting - to always remain below the tree line during storms – Colorado being the leading state for lightning deaths, so we left the storm to fizzle out before we venture out above the tree line. We see running monks through the trees holding their Japanese hats tight under their chins.

Later we go by car up the Old Fall River Road to the alpine tundra: the ‘land above trees’. A two-way dirt track with a 6,000 ft vertical drop on one side and hairpin bends, I admit I’m not completely at ease, especially when the driver is far more interested in taking in the scenery. We soar above the timberline, the frontline of trees gnarled and twisted with the altitude.
Old Fall River Road

The temperature has plunged 20 degrees, and we’re now 13,000 ft up in the snow-tops - the high country.

During winter up here the snow can reach 40 ft in depth, and all along the roadside there are tall poles to measure the snowfall. A necklace of alpine flowers fringe the trail ridge, and far to the east are the white peaks of the Never Summer mountain range.

The camp itself was best in the evenings, where everyone would be immersed in their own activities. You could walk around and come across a group of people huddled around a tightrope, or catch people dreaming or painting through open doors, or hear the sounds of drumming and people telling stories. On our last night, we went to join the tightrope crowd. There was a blind man on the wire, who had ingeniously managed seven steps assisted by a long rod of bamboo. The mountains were already dissolving in papery shadows, and our roommate ‘Greybeard’ was hollering to us from a great height: “You gonna stay up ‘til sunrise y’all, watch the sun come up over the mountains yonder”. He had a wheezy southern drawl, and seemed to have turned psychotic from no sleep.

Border Next day, we reluctantly leave the retreat. We leave the misty, silent valleys behind and travel south towards Mexico. The scenes from the tram window as we close in on the border change dramatically, and as we pull into the station we see valleys all around swamped in white corrugated huts. We collide with a tiny Mexican woman hurrying along the roadside in jellies. She is tilting an umbrella over her head.

We tell her we want to get to the centre and could she help us please? The woman does not stop walking, and so we are forced to follow her. She leads us through narrow lanes and in market places with the ease of a native. We reach a taxi rank, and the woman throws herself deep into an argument with a cab driver, yelling and gesturing over at us all the while with her umbrella suspended over her like a toad stall. All the drivers are slouched in chairs lined up under a trellis dropping with creepers. Suddenly the taxi driver moves the woman aside, so that she disappears into the crowds of traders, and he strides over to us and opens the doors to his taxi “Taxi, Si??”

The taxi drives us through streams of hot traffic to the main street called ‘Revolucion’. The drivers are very efficient and seem to squeeze through impossible gaps in the seven lane traffic with alarming ease. This place is the antithesis of the Rocky Mountain retreat and our feeling of security immediately dissolves, the foreign territory outside is frightening and hostile. We are dropped off, and the driver warns us only to take yellow cabs, something we’d already heard many times. God knows what kind of stuff happens in the others. The main street is lined with feathery palms, and every stall is brimming with beautiful Peruvian rugs. We go in to the first bar we see, in desperate need of a drink. The walls are painted wild flaming fuchsias and bombay pinks and made to look like caves. The waiter rushes over as soon as we sit down, shaking our hands and saying “Hola hola so nice to meet you,”.

In the depths of the restaurant I notice a snake thrashing about in a glass box. The waiter had at one point come over stabbing his finger in the direction of the snake and saying “Come on, come on, we must go, see the snake,” with impenetrable eyes. We didn't have a clue what he was trying to infer. We ordered nachos between us and the waiter seems to be rushing to-and-fro our table with hot bowls of the stuff straight from the kitchen. We leave tipsy from the tequila and the streets appear sun-drenched and dreamlike. There is a donkey outside chalked with zebra markings and Mexican boys are feeding it: the donkey looks sad. Everything is tourist-orientated but strangely we don’t actually see any tourists…... Our taxi driver on the way back believes the reason why there are so many babies born in Mexico is due to alcoholism: “It’s the tequila that does it, you know.”

© Eva Marcelle Clifford July 2012
evaclifford (at) hotmail.co.uk
http://evamarcelle.tumblr.com/

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