Senior Seminar, Part VI

The Wrong Road Home. Our group had begun the Mexican adventure at one end of the designated territory then ended at the opposite. This gave us a tiny advantage: everybody else had to come to us to meet the buses, except for the group that ended in El Desemboque, where we began. They got a ride back.

One by one, the other groups trudged into our camp. After collapsing in the sand, one group dug into their packs and threw bags of food out on the sand, angry at lugging so much extra weight. They happily surrender a sack of Bisquick which we turned into pancakes on the spot, devouring as many as we could.

Another group found out who we were. “Oh, so you are the Commandos? We heard about that. Cool.” We didn’t know we had a nickname until we weren’t a group anymore.

As soon as everyone had arrived, we packed up our gear into the buses then drove a few miles down the road. On the way, Ziegler explained our final activity: a 10k race in the wilderness. Just what we needed.

We turned off the gravel highway into dusty trails then lurched to a halt. The route had been flagged with white fabric streamers so all we had to do was follow the markers. The track guys began whooping it up, challenging each other as to who would win the race. No prize was at stake, other than bragging rights.

I was in good cardio shape but never had been a distance runner. My plan was simple: finish. I’d move at the pace that suited me.

The instant the bus doors banged open the track guys rocketed down the trail. I was feeling good so I took up a place behind the lead pack but within sight of them. They were having a great time still shouting and shoving and not paying one single bit of attention to where they were going.

I was by myself between the jocks and the laggards when I noticed something odd: a strip of white cotton fabric dancing lightly in the faint breeze. It was a few yards down the trail that branched off to the right.

I stopped and stared for a moment, just to be sure. I looked behind me at the bulk of the runners then ahead at the trailing element of the jocks. “HEY! YOU MISSED THE TURN!” I shouted but all I got in return was a wave as they vanished around a bend.

I pointed out the turn to the nearest bunch behind me then took off on the correct path. It was nervous going until the next flag appeared. Eventually I slowed, allowing a small group to join me. We swapped tales of our time in the desert, laughed at the jocks going the wrong way, laughed even harder when we realized we were in the lead.

Finally the trail brought us back to the highway where we could see the buses parked a mile away, uphill. Another group had been slowly gaining on us and when they saw the highway started to push their pace. My running companions had no interest in winning the race but I felt it would be a squandered opportunity so I broke away for the final stretch.

That was the hardest bit of running I’ve ever done. Hot, exhausted, uphill, with somebody doggedly trying to catch me. I wanted to slow to a walk but the pressure from second place would not relent.

And then, suddenly, I won.

I won a 10 kilometer race against track stars. Even though it was their own fault I crossed the line first too tired to fully register the looks of surprise – and was that disappointment? — on the faces of the waiting leaders.

As soon as I caught my breath I told Ziegler about the jocks racing towards oblivion. He chose to wait to see if they corrected course on their own. Alone, and in small groups, the rest of the seminar kids reached the finish line until no more could be seen. Finally Ziegler dispatched one of the buses to search for the missing.

We waited in the baking sun for over an hour: in the bus, out of the bus, it didn’t make any difference in the heat. Nobody cared anymore about who won the race. Nobody asked about it. I could see worry growing on the faces of the leaders.

Then the rescue bus bounced back onto the gravel highway.

The runners had all been found, sunburned and dehydrated but OK. They ran until the road ended at an isolated hardscrabble farm, providing confirmation one or two had that they missed a turn. Then it was a long debate about what to do. They chose to retrace their steps and hope to be picked up.

In the raucous reunion, Kevin (one of the Lost Runners) asked who won the race. His question was lost in the cacophony but I was close enough to hear. I pointed at myself. Kevin nodded, smiled, and gave me a thumbs up sign.

Bahia de Kino. The delay over searching for the Lost Runners put the day’s plan in flux but the first order of business was not to be changed: showers. A real running-water-and-soap shower plus a change into clothes that had bumped around our backpacks for almost two weeks for this very purpose.

Welcome back to (the fringes of) civilization.

Next up: food! I found myself in some type of local eating establishment with several others. To my surprise I had enough cash for a T-bone steak. Nothing sounded better in all the world at that moment and I was not disappointed. It was probably horrible quality and tasteless to boot but in my condition it was pure heaven. Good choice to ingest a slab of protein as well.

Night was making preparations for its shift by the time we waddled from the restaurant. Kino is just a village so it was easy to find knots of other seminar kids strolling around. The local citizens were busily preparing for a festival of some type.

Zeigler wanted to hit the road but was eventually persuaded to let us experience the festival.

We wandered around, enjoying the lights and music and the festive atmosphere of the festival. Little carts selling random items. Other carts selling random tacos.

Late into the evening the group I was wandering with met up with a smaller group talking to a young local man. Kevin was persisting in trying to understand what the local man was saying but Kevin’s Spanish was, well, minimal. A girl in Kevin’s group started pulling on his arm. “We need to leave. Now,” she warned.

Kevin shook off the hand. “No! I need to understand what he’s trying to tell me!” This cycle repeated itself a few times so my gang decided to move on.

We had only gone a few yards when the Federales zoomed up in their rusty Rambler. Two officers sprang from the car. One tossed the local man into the back seat then reached for Kevin. The other officer grabbed another boy from the group. The American kids, ignorant as they may have been, nevertheless understood that getting into the Federales’ vehicle qualified in every respect as A Very Bad Idea.

“Don’t let them get you in the car!” yelled Kevin.

Kevin and the other boy resisted all they could without actually fighting and the officers did find the operation clearly taking far more effort than planned. I turned to one of our group nearby and told her to fetch a leader who spoke Spanish. She raced off without hesitation.

The struggle was growing in intensity and Kevin could sense a change was about to happen when he stopped resisting. He stood his ground still, but he spread his legs, raised his hands to the sky and shouted, over and over, “Nada! Nada!”

“Let them frisk you! Show them we don’t have anything!” Kevin yelled to the other boy, who mimicked Kevin’s stance. Then they both shouted, “Nada! Nada!” as the Federales obliged and began pat-downs.

Then one of Zeigler’s lieutenants ran up and began talking with the officers. There may, or may not, have been a discreet hand-off of pesos between the two men but either way the two boys were let go.

This was followed by a frantic round-up of all our people. If buses could burn rubber ours would have as we raced out of town the instant the last person set foot on the last bus.

Inside our bus, Kevin was experiencing the euphoria of a commuted sentence. He was suddenly full of love for everybody but most especially for those who aided in his rescue. I was singled out repeatedly even though my part was minimal. It was the adrenaline speaking, which required almost an hour to burn off.

Nogales, S.A. You can stare at a globe forever and always come away seeing Mexico on the North American continent but the Mexican people don’t care. They consider themselves part of South America.

The buses drove through the night as if Hades himself was on our tail. We awoke the next morning still on the run but before lunch we landed at the border town of Nogales where we were set loose one more time to chase down some grub.

Somehow I ended up with Zeigler, wandering the streets. Children sold tacos from galvanized buckets to people waiting in line to cross the border. Zeigler claimed these were the best tacos to be had anywhere.

He bought two and I bought one. It did, indeed, taste fantastic.

To nobody’s surprise, the American border patrol wanted a closer look at our buses and gear. We were pulled over to an isolated area then instructed to pull all the packs off of the roof racks. Then we stood to the side while a drug-sniffing dog did his work, going over the packs and through the buses.

Afterwards, we got the green light to reload. Nobody had been stupid enough to bring drugs back with them.

I had the chance to talk to the dog’s handler. He said the dog had signaled him at the back of one bus. “Somebody probably smoked some pot back there last week,” he said. After the crossing I recounted the agent’s words.

“I did that the first night at base camp,” admitted Vince.

Nogales, AZ. Back in the U.S.A. (barely) the clamor for some good ol’ American food grew to riotous levels. Ziegler finally succumbed, stopping at a McDonalds. Big mistake.

Throughout our journey into the deep desert of Sonora not one case of Montezuma’s Revenge had been reported. None. This fact can be laid largely on the efforts to maintain a constant supply of clean, filtered water from the “gringo” hotel in Kino.

Within hours, however, of our stop at the McDonalds in Nogales bathroom emergencies sprouted like wildflowers in the spring and these could not be resolved by pulling to the side of the road. Our return trip slowed to crawl.

By the time we crossed through New Mexico on the approach to Colorado nobody had anything left to come out (nor dared take anything solid in) and so the pace quickened.

Denver, CO. Just short of two weeks after departing, our little cluster of yellow school buses rolled back into the school parking lot. The school, the city, looked both familiar and strange. Not for a long time did we realize we were the ones who were different.

Dirty, stinky, exhausted, we unpacked our gear like Spartans returning from war. We were all veterans of Seminar now, having passed officially through initiation. The groups formed for Mexico would never be rebuilt but the semester had only begun and these were the kids we would spend the last months of High School with. With barely a waive, we each headed down the final distance to our ultimate destination: home, and with it long-overdue rest.

Come Monday new adventures awaited.


Senior Seminar, Part I
Senior Seminar, Part II
Senior Seminar, Part III
Senior Seminar, Part IV
Senior Seminar, Part V
Senior Seminar, Part VI

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