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Happy Trails

June 11, 2020

Moctezuma II, the last-but-one emperor of the Mexica (Aztecs) was fond of fresh fish. Every day, he had some brought to him from the waters of the Caribbean by a relay system of runners.

Most of us who come here end up exploring some of the paths in the hills and mountains around us, and there can be a sense of discovering something when we do so. This feeling of pioneering only fades after we’ve had a few encounters with farmers and people gathering wood, and we realise these ancient trails are still in regular use.

They aren’t roads, they’re tracks, often with protruding rocks and short, steep stretches. A human can walk on them (carefully, of course) and presumably Moctezuma’s fish couriers ran on some of them. Since the Spanish came in the 1520s, horses, mules and the occasional burro have made the journey carrying burdens of various sizes.

Burro copy

Burros are vanishing from the farms and villages of Mexico, but you can still come across them. This guy was friendly, and posed for his picture.

In the old days, there were actual roads in the lowlands, broad enough for people to pass easily. Today, these might be the routes of major highways. But the mountainous location of Tenochtitlan, which became Mexico City after the Conquest, is such that easy paths didn’t exist much. You’d have had to follow the trails the last part of the way with that fish, which of course had to arrive fresh.

Ask the right person in any community round here, and you can get information on where paths start, and where they go. Often, they’ll run for many kilometers, and it takes hours to go from one village to another. They can be fun to hike, or they can be dangerous, depending on how strong your legs are, and how flexible your knees and ankles. I’ve never had a bad accident on one, even if I’ve had a couple of tumbles, but I’m always respectful of the fact that they only exist because they were worn down by passing feet, not constructed in any sense.

Often, so many feet have passed along them that they exist in their own gulley. Summer rains assist in eroding these. The paths twist and turn their way up the hillsides, twist and turn some more through the heights, then twist and turn still more on the way down. Google Maps might show you some of them, but it can be misleading as to the actual distance you’ll need to march.

Rough trail

Where does it go – nowhere, somewhere, to a concealed valley?

Always, though, once you’re experienced, there’s that knowledge of how many generations of people might have walked along it. With paths that erode with the summer rains there’s often a more awkward one a little above the sections that fill up with mud. And sometimes land slips, and a whole new track has to be traced.

On some trails, there are also misleading almost-paths. This morning I hiked with my friend Gabriel near the village of Ocotitlan, and he wanted to avoid a return route that crossed a lot of fallen branches. He pointed out a trail that went near a cliff-edge, to which I agreed.

In 50 meters, it had dwindled to nothing. It was perhaps a track worn by deer, not people. We found ourselves in a patch of bushes that we had to push through in order to get back to a regular trail. The bushes had purple berries with red juice, and we’re still washing the stain of them out of our clothes.

But, tumbles and clothing stains aside, this is the pleasure of walking the trails. You never know exactly where one might lead – to a dead end, a cliff-edge, right back where you started an hour earlier, or to some small, otherwise invisible valley. I know my knees and other joints won’t allow me to walk on them for too many years more, but I’m postponing my retirement from trail-hiking for as many years as possible.

View in Ocotitlan

The view from today’s trail – a village soccer field, farmland, and some wild rock formations.

Walls of Rock

February 24, 2020

Walking in the hills around my village, I’m always finding farmer’s fields in unexpected places. Land passes down through the generations, and people continue to use it for growing corn, avocados and nopales (cactus), or as cattle or horse pasture, even if it’s on a hillside that’s difficult to access.

This past Sunday, three friends and I made the hike from this village of Amatlan to Ocotitlan, which is seven to eight kilometres away over a rough uphill trail. In Nahuatl, the ‘tlan‘ suffix means, basically, ‘place’ or ‘place of,’ so that Amatlan is the place of the Amate trees, and Ocotitlan the place of the Ocotes, conifers whose resin-rich wood is used to light fires.

It was an exhausting hike, but a rewarding one. There’s lava from long-extinct volcanoes lining the trail most of the way, so you need to make sure you don’t stumble. And much of the walk involved passing between fields bounded by walls made of stacked hunks of such lava.

Usually, trying to avoid tripping or stumbling, I don’t notice the walls much, especially since they’re everywhere round here. But at one point I realised we’d walked past one wall that was hundreds of yards long, and that building it must have been a huge job. Some of the rocks might be the size of an average brick, while others have the dimensions of an outsize beach ball. So, their weight varies from a few pounds to a couple of hundred. These big ones can only be dug up and rolled into place, not lifted, and it would take two or three men to stack one on top of another.

Land here is religion – so goes a common saying. If it’s not demarcated clearly, then it’s not hard for a violent dispute to start. However, if there’s a wall of stacked rocks that’s been there since your grandfather’s day, then it’s as good, or even better than, a notarised land deed. They’re also a haven for wildlife like lizards and rodents. These things don’t spring up overnight, but take time to construct, and they take on an almost sanctified character with the passing years.

Rock wall copy.jpgA portion of a lava rock wall, hundreds of yards long.

Sunday was hot and sunny, and it hit 29 degrees C by noon. We were watching our water as we hiked, and making jokes about how much we’d charge each other when someone’s bottle was empty. You can’t work up there in the heat without water, and the springs are often dry between the year’s end and the start of the rains in June. So, simply to stack boulders, you need to bring water with you.

At that point, as if on cue, a man with a burro showed up, on his way to water his new avocado plants. The animal carried a couple of water bottles filled from a spring that hadn’t failed yet, and the man was happy to see someone else and to give us advice on how to stay on track. I assume, but didn’t think to ask, that he, too, has rock walls to maintain, and must lift them back up when they fall after a quake, or simply from the passage of time.

Some farmers have opted for barbed wire in recent years, which is far easier to install and maintain. But there are advantages from using the rocks, not least because nobody can move a rock wall easily. Their documentary testimony is hard to impeach, while a barbed wire fence can be put up in an afternoon.

It’s hard to use the word ‘technology’ in relation to farming, but farmers need to know and learn a tremendous amount about how to manage their land. Most of us never begin to consider that, any more than I often think about the labour that goes into a rock wall. Conglomerates have taken over some of the low-lying or flatter farmland, but up in the hills, it’s all still a business of scattered smallholdings and generational pride.

I’m assuming many of the walls – there are miles of them in total around here – are put up by families, not someone making a solo effort. The work must be dangerous: to drop a heavy rock, or have it topple after it’s positioned, can easily be a bone-breaking event. Up on the trails, I’m conscious that a twisted ankle or a sprained knee would mean a painful hobble to get help, but having 120 pounds of lava fall on my foot would be a whole other problem.

So, I tip my straw hat to the guys who can construct and maintain these things. The walls are often a guide to the route I need to take, and they also indicate the long, long heritage of land cultivation around here.