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Lessons: Oaxaca, Mexico
In 1990 a Taos artist began searching the remote Zapotec villages near Oaxaca for the finest mezcals. Ron Cooper traveled into areas where Spanish is rarely spoken, following rumors of locally-renowned spirits. After hours of driving down dirt roads, he found many farmers carrying on the 400-year old tradition, but only a few had the right touch.
Mezcal comes from the century plant, the agave, with the best-known variety found in the region of Tequila but not necessarily the best quality. The Zapotec palenqueros roast the agave hearts in pits where they absorb the flavors of earth and wood smoke. They next crush them with a stone wheel pulled around and around by horse. After the mash ferments in wooden vats, the farmers double distill it into a smoothly potent drink. Ron chose a few of the best mezcals for import under the Del Maguey label.
A wildly-enthusiastic German artist convinced me to try his mezcal. So sitting in a Flagstaff bar with my notebook in one hand and a shot glass in the other, I was ready to do some serious research. But after the first taste of “Chichicapa,” the work was forgotten. As the snow fell outside, I thought about Mexico and mezcal, unsure where one ended and the other began. The taste was so rooted to a particular place, its sense of connectedness was unmistakable.
“Each village,” Ron said, speaking from his home in Ranchos de Taos, “has one phone. It’s unpredictable and usually out for about six months. You call and they send a runner out to find the person you’re calling.” One of his makers, Faustino Garcia Vasquez from Chichicapa, never talked on the phone before meeting him.
“He’s the most simple guy. The municipal president of his village said to me, ‘Why are you dealing with him? He’s poor, he’s humble. I’ve got all of these friends who are powerful in the village.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m dealing with this guy because he has a good character, he’s a good person, and he makes the best mezcal.’ And it’s true. There’s some unique talent that he has. He uses the same process that everyone else does, but the results are different. His hand and his soul go into that stuff.”
Long days in the fields have toughened these highland farmers. “But when they
shake hands it’s a feather-light touch," Ron said. "Faustino gave me an abrazo, a lasting embrace but very light, and looked me in the eye and said, ‘Tu eres mi suerte – You are my luck. You changed my life.’ It was touching.”
When the artist first traveled the backroads of Oaxaca, he discovered villagers still following centuries-old customs. “It’s just miraculous. They observe all feast days –political holidays and saints days – all the confirmations, births, deaths, and weddings. Weddings take eight days. All fiestas start in the altar room at 5:00 in the morning with two mañanitas. You can’t have one; you gotta have two. These people don’t drink cocktails. They don’t drink in the evening. It’s a special, sacred event when you take mezcal.”
A judge, often an honored guest, carries a few cups and the bottle on a tray. “The judge has to pour the glasses. He takes the first drink and salutes everyone, and everyone salutes him back. And then he goes around and serves. The proper way is to fill the glass and put your finger over it, like the lip on a beaker, and pour a cross on the floor to feed the Madre Tierra. Or you hold the glass and make a cross over it. It’s a benediction, an appreciation. Depending on the house, there may just be one bottle and one glass. You take your shot and then you shake out what is left on the floor. You give it back to the judge who fills it and gives it to the next person until everyone’s had their drink. You sit for a few minutes and talk and then the second round of mañanitas starts.”
This formal approach to drinking, Ron added, can be traced back to the Pre-Columbian tradition of pulque, a fermented drink also made from agave. “You only drink on religious feast days. Then you could consume it until you were just totally smashed because you were considered to be with the gods. At other times the only ones who could drink were the priests. If a young person was found to be drinking pulque, the first time he was scolded publicly and possibly had his head shaved. The second time they were sacrificed. But once you were beyond child-bearing age, you could drink as much as you wanted.”
When I asked Ron about his art, he said it was always changing. His work had made its way into European and American collections, among them the Whitney Museum, Chicago Art Institute, and the Guggenheim Museum. “A work of art is important if it generates a question. That light has to come on, it has to alter your consciousness in some way. I see this mezcal the same way. You take it in and have these wonderful, interesting thoughts running around the back of your head.”
A year after my brother returned from Vietnam, he decided to head south to Mexico. I traveled with him, and a few weeks later we found ourselves caught up in a wild, Mardi Gras celebration in the town of Tepotzlan. If you saw the final shootout in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you know the place. That scene was filmed in the town plaza that we now found filled with Indians and mestizos, musicians and masked dancers, all moving in one direction and all dancing to a beat more Aztec than Spanish. The ancient temple above town heightened the carnival effect. Dedicated to Two Rabbit, the supreme god of intoxication, it was where villagers once honored those who died drunk. And from all appearances a few more might join the rolls before the night was over.
Hundreds of people circled the plaza in time to the music, a great maelstrom of bodies packed together. Anyone who carried an instrument joined the first band they met. Each group played a different tune but all to the same beat. John and I got swept up in the throng, dancing with the crowd until John began looking around for a cantina. Shouting to make himself heard, he said he would be back soon. He pushed his way through the revelers and disappeared into a doorway. When he didn’t return, I suspected trouble and went looking for him.
Stepping inside the bar, I found my brother surrounded by a crowd of men who were slapping him on the back and buying him drinks. An old man, he explained, had approached him with a box hanging by a strap from his neck. It had a dial on top, a hand crank on the side, and a pair of electrodes he wanted John to hold. Playing along, he grabbed one in each hand as the old man turned the crank. The dynamo in the box began to whirl, and an electric charge shot down the wires, increasing in voltage as the man cranked faster and faster. Unable to take it any longer, John called for him to stop, but the man just smiled, not understanding English or pretending not to. The charge grew so intense my brother couldn’t let go, and he couldn’t remember the Spanish word for stop. The old man kept cranking the machine until the needle swung into the red zone and hit the end of the scale.
“Alto! Alto!” John finally remembered, and the crowd broke into cheers. He had outlasted all the others on the macho machine. In this Mexican cantina far from home, he found a place to forget, and by forgetting had become an accidental hero. After he finished his shot of mezcal, the two of us headed back to the celebration. We had been warned not to hang around after dark, and one fight had already broken out. So having paid our respects to Two Rabbit, we caught the next bus out of town.
Colorado River: Grand Canyon, Arizona
In the spring of 1983, Verlen Kruger and Steve Landick paddled toward the lower end of Grand Canyon. Three years before, they had set out to explore North America by canoe. They had already crossed the Great Lakes, skirted the Atlantic coast, ascended the Mississippi River during spring runoff, reached the Arctic Ocean, and had pushed their way down the Pacific coast. Now the two canoeists faced the greatest challenge of their entire journey. Somehow they had to find a way to paddle upriver through the Grand Canyon with its one hundred and 65 rapids.
“We had come a long ways,” Kruger told me, “and nothing was going to stop us. It was just a question of how we were going to do it.” He was 61-years old at the time and Landick was half his age. For the next three weeks they struggled upstream through the inner gorge, making 200 portages. And every portage took two carries – the first to haul their hundred-pound packs and the next to carry the canoes, each weighing 60 pounds.
When they reached the foot of Sockdolager Rapid, the entire expedition hung in the balance. “During the three years before,” Landick said, “people who looked at the map of our route would see the Grand Canyon and say, ‘How are you going to do that?’ And we couldn’t really say, other than we figured we could do it. And it was that rapid in the Grand Canyon that held the key. Looking up at the flat water above Sockdolager was like looking at the Promised Land.”
Sheer cliffs shot straight up from the river on both sides. Impossible, they thought, until a search turned up a sketchy route, one hundred and 50 vertical feet above the water. Using all their rope they rigged lines to the bow and stern of the first canoe. Then they worked their way along the exposed ledge with the rapids thundering below. One slip and it would be all over.
"We had the canoe,” Kruger said, “hanging in space with only each other to keep it up." He pulled as Landick let the rope play out as far as possible, but it was too short. “So I dug in my heels as best I possibly could, leaned back, and hollered for him to let it go. The canoe swung down, ka-wombitty-woomp.” He managed to hang on.
They finally completed the treacherous portage and continued upriver. Reaching Lees Ferry a few days later, the paddlers were elated. They had overcome the greatest obstacle on the continent, and knew nothing could stop them now. That December, 25-years ago, Kruger and Landick ended the epic journey at Lansing, Michigan. Their expedition has never been matched.
As he was wrapping up his account, Kruger mentioned something about not being able to swim worth beans. Uncertain if I heard him right, I asked, “You covered 28,000 miles in a canoe and you can’t swim?”
He laughed and said, “It makes you a better paddler.”
Walking Pickett's Charge
Battlefields: Civil War: Gettysburg
To understand a battlefield you must walk it, so I’ve asked Civil War historian Ed Bearss to lead me along the route of Pickett’s Charge. I want to get a sense of what those soldiers faced, the ground truth of that day. The Confederate attack was the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg, when the fate of a nation hung in the balance.
Ed and I stand at the edge of Spangler Woods where Robert E. Lee had massed his forces on Seminary Ridge during the last day of battle. The Confederate general had decided to risk the outcome of the battle in a desperate attempt to break the Union hold on Cemetery Ridge a mile to the east.
A ball cap sits on Ed’s head, and he wears a pair of jungle boots on his feet, well worn from the more than 300 days a year he spends guiding throngs of enthusiastic history buffs. A veteran of World War II, he can still out-walk most of those who follow him across the old battlefields. As he points out a landmark, I notice the bullet holes scarring his left arm.
He knows the terrain and disposition of the troops, where each regiment stood in line, their strengths at that moment of the battle, and their commanding officers. He knows the times these leaders have hesitated in a fight and the times they have shown extraordinary courage. He also knows what fates lie in store for them, those who will die this day, those who will survive, and those who will wish they hadn’t. In fact, he knows much more than the generals did who fought here on a July afternoon in 1864.
Major General George Pickett's division formed the center of the Confederate line. Before the attack he talked with one of his brigade commanders, General Richard Garnett. “I advise you to get across those fields as quick as you can," Pickett said, "for in my opinion you are going to catch hell.”
The two of us look across the open fields to the ridge beyond. The former chief historian for the National Park Service knows the landscape as they saw it – the woods more open then, a patchwork of smaller fields, the post-and-rail fences sturdier, the ridgeline clear of monuments. We stand where Garnett’s Brigade began the attack. “It’s July 3,” Ed says, “and the temperature will reach 86 degrees.” Pickett spoke to the soldiers waiting to advance, and Ed bellows out his words. “Men of old Virginia, prepare to charge the enemy!”
Three divisions, some 12,600 Confederate soldiers, moved forward. The first line advanced with men marching elbow to elbow, their rifles over their right shoulders and bayonets flashing in the sun. Thousands of feet tramped to a steady drumbeat as a second line followed less than two yards behind the first. The soldiers, dressed in faded grays and butternut brown, marched in perfect order. A veteran of the charge called it as “an inexpressibly grand and inspiring attack . . . My God, it was magnificent!”
Ed and I step out across the open field, the ground soft from recent rains, and retrace the route taken by Garnett’s Brigade. Mud lies in the low spots and grass grows thick, no different than any farmer’s pasture in this part of Pennsylvania. When I first visited a battlefield as a kid, I was surprised to discover that such a tremendous event hadn’t left some trace of its passing. To the eye it’s only common ground, but the collective memory has transformed these fields into something more powerful, more timeless.
As we walk, Ed tells me about leading a Vietnam veteran across this field with a plate in his head and missing one leg and half of the other. “He walked all the way,” Ed says. “I was impressed. He fell down crossing the stone wall, and people rushed to help him, but he waved them aside.” After walking a few steps in silence, Ed picks up the battlefield narration where he left off, speaking in a commanding voice. With a rising cadence and a sense of immediacy, he draws a listener into those far distant times. “Now,” he says, “they are taking heavy casualties.”
Shells burst among the Confederates, exploding in geysers of dirt and metal and tearing bloody gaps in the ranks. The soldiers filled these holes without hesitation, and the lines moved on unbroken, marching at a quick step of 80 steps a minute. Allowing for a pause midway to swing left and close the gap with the next division, they came to grips with the Union defenders in 15 minutes. Ed knows this by having covered the ground himself at a precise, quick-step pace.
We go slower, pausing at critical points to comment on the action. I hold back my questions to keep from breaking the mood,. As he talks I begin to get a sense of the battlefield from the feet up. There’s a momentary easing of tension when we enter a shallow swale, reducing our exposure to artillery fire. “We’re safe now,” he says, “we’re as safe from those guns as if we’re in the hands of Jesus!” And then we find ourselves on a slight rise, and the entire ridgeline comes into view. Still listening to Ed, I notice the strength draining from my legs, a visceral dread of what is about to happen.
The Virginians reached the Emmitsburg Road, lined with heavy post-and-rail fences. Holes had been knocked through sections of it while other parts remained intact. Some soldiers crossed the road without trouble; for those who had to climb the fences it became a nightmare. Exposed to deadly fire, men dropped by the dozens. The brigades, under a continuing bombardment and hit by rapid musket volleys, had difficulty reforming their lines. Exploding shells tore through what formations they managed to pull together, cutting men in two as the arms and legs of others were sent flying. In the defending roar orders had to be shouted to men standing a foot away. One soldier recalled hearing nothing, his senses overwhelmed by the terrific din.
Garnett’s Brigade now formed the tip of the spear, and he ordered his men to double-quick across the dead zone between the road and the stone wall. Along the route of attack, Union regiments swung in to face the Confederate flanks, the jaws of a trap ready to close. These farmlands became a killing field as a lethal crossfire ripped into the attacking forces. Captain Michael Spessard of the 28th Virginia, one of Garnett’s regiments, came upon his wounded son. He stopped to cradle him in his arms for a moment and kiss him goodbye, before rejoining the attack.
Bunched together, the Confederates rushed the defenders, each soldier bent forward as if bracing against a gale. At 75 yards from the enemy they opened fire, and soon Garnett’s Virginians reached the wall where it formed a right angle. By now the companies, regiments, and even brigades had lost cohesion. The attackers crowded together in broken ranks up to thirty men deep, gasping for air in the choking smoke. The sun burned red through it, and they found themselves in a twilight of their own making.
All the defenders could see were the red battle flags rising above the pall and the steady pulse of muzzle flashes. Through the chaos of battle could be heard a savage, human drone. “The men do not cheer or shout,” remembered Frank Haskell, a Union officer defending Cemetery Ridge; “they growl, and over that uneasy sea, heard with the roar of musketry, sweeps the muttered thunder of a storm of growls.”
Confederates surged over the stone wall, breaching the Union line. Soldiers grappled in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, clubbing each other with the butts of their rifles, thrusting bayonets, and firing guns at point-blank range. “We were crazy with the excitement of the fight,” recalled Lieutenant William Harmon of the 1st Minnesota. “We rushed in like wild beasts. Men swore and cursed and struggled and fought, grappled in hand to hand fight, threw stones, clubbed their muskets, yelled and hurrahed!”
As the 14th Virginia crossed the wall, cannon opened on them with canister. “They are vaporized,” says Ed. “And suddenly there is going to be a crisis. The 69th Pennsylvania, led by Colonel Dennis O’Kane look to their right and see the Rebels coming over the wall.” They fall back to a clump of trees, reform, and fire as rapidly as possible at those firing just as desperately at them.
“Alonzo Cushing has had two of his guns pushed up here,” Ed continues. “He’s had them double-charged with canister. He’s been shot in the fleshy part of the leg, shot in the groin, shot in the fleshy part of each of the arms, and he gives the command, ‘Fire!’ and as he pulls the lanyard a bullet goes in his mouth so we don’t know if he could have fathered children with that shot in the groin because he’s dead.” The two of us stand next to Cushing’s guns, facing the stone wall.
“The Confederates are coming on fast," Ed says, "they’re crowding up, it’s a mob, they’ve lost all order whatsoever. Garnett with a high fever is riding a horse with his overcoat on. There is an explosion, lots of smoke, the horse, badly wounded, will come out of the smoke, and they’ll never see Garnett again. Garnett’s watch and sword will show up in a Baltimore pawnshop in the 1880s. He’s undoubtedly one of the Confederates buried as unknown by the Yankees.
“Now, Confederate General Lewis Armistead will push himself to the head, put his hat on his sword, and the 71st Pennsylvania breaks as the Confederates come over the wall. That folds back the right of the 69th Pennsylvania, O’Kane is mortally wounded, and the Confederates, men of Armistead and Garnett, crowd together. They will press forward as a mob – no order at all, and will continue to advance into this area here. Reaching this point, Armistead will symbolically place his hand on one of Cushing’s guns and will be shot down with a body wound. Now the Union will begin a counter-attack.”
Reinforcements rushed forward in a fighting mass with regiments tossed together without order and each soldier firing at will into the attackers. No more than a few hundred Confederates had crossed the Union lines, and their momentum quickly faltered. “In five minutes,” Ed says, “it’s all over.”
Cheers swept along the Union lines as the greatest battle ever fought in America came to an end. Of the nearly 12,500 Confederates who began the final assault, more than half lay dead, wounded, or missing when it was over.
A Union officer, wounded earlier in the day, returned to Cemetery Ridge at sundown. The carnage left in the wake of the final attack spread out below him. “No words can depict the ghastly picture,” wrote Captain Benjamin Thompson.
“The track of the great charge was marked by bodies of men in all possible positions, wounded, bleeding, dying and dead. Near the line where the final struggle occurred, the men lay in heaps, the wounded wriggling and groaning under the weight of the dead among whom they were entangled. In my weak and exhausted condition I could not long endure the gory, ghastly spectacle. I found my head reeling, the tears flowing and my stomach sick at the sight.” The horror of what he witnessed would haunt him the rest of his life.
Ed and I loop back to our car on Seminary Ridge, retracing the Confederate line of retreat. The historian continues his account, relating tales of desperation and despair, detailing where the survivors reformed and commenting on how defeat tests the character of men. Walking back over those fields, we slowly resurface and leave the past behind.
Lessons: Hot Chilis: El Paso, Texas
One morning outside El Paso, I pulled into a cafe near the border on the theory that the closer to Mexico, the better the Mexican food. The waitress brought an order of spicy chorizo sausage mixed with eggs and wrapped in a tortilla. But something about the chili pepper sitting next to it made me hesitate. Unable to identify the variety, I took a nibble and let it sit on the tongue for a few moments – using the same precautions for testing an unknown plant in the wild. With no immediate burning, I swallowed and waited. It had a pleasant, fresh taste, and without a second thought, I took a big bite. And then the realization suddenly hit – I had made a serious mistake.
The slow burn picked up momentum and quickly passed the pain threshold. My tongue felt blistered. Putting down the newspaper, I tried to think. A sip of coffee only made it worse. My nose began to run and my eyes began to water as sweat broke out on my upper lip. By the time the pain receptors on the tip of the tongue had numbed, those on the back kicked in. The thought of death by chili became a stark reality, and I mentally checked my vitals.
While traveling south of the border, I had eaten my share of hot foods. A group of friendly mountain climbers once invited me to a party on the side of a volcano at 15,000 feet. They had packed up a bottle of tequila, a guitar, and a can of jalapeño peppers. The leader offered me one – a big one, and the others turned to watch its effects. But I’d already learned to eat a jalapeño the way a dog eats a bumblebee – all teeth and no lips, then one fast gulp. You have to swallow it whole and smile while doing it.
This El Paso chili was hotter than a jalapeño, probably a local variety nicknamed levanta muertos, the infamous “raise-the-dead” chili. Hundreds of different varieties are grown in the Southwest, a region where some people eat chilies with every meal, and many are selected for one trait only – their pyrotechnic effect. Usually the more innocent looking, the hotter they are, so I should have known before biting into this one. Now all I could do was grip the table and wait, trying to imagine who the first person was to eat a hot pepper and call it food.
Radio commentary, National Public Radio, www.npr.org.
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