It was close to midnight when I arrived at Desemboque. Desemboque, the mouth of the river. Only there was no river that I could see. And it seemed, even in the middle of the night, that I’d arrived at Dante’s Ninth Ring of Hell. That’s all I could think of at that moment.
It was midnight and, with the windows open, still it felt like about 1,000 degrees, and as much humidity, here on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. Other than the washing of the sea’s waves onto the dark strand that stretched out in front of me, it was silent. People in places like this tend to go to sleep early, and rise early. Looking around, all I could see was a single thatched hut, to my left, and, behind me to the right, an ancient bus, which I took to be perhaps the dwelling place of American hippies.
The windshield of the car was plastered with carcasses of the countless flying things of the night that had careened into it as I crossed the Sonoran Desert to get to this place. I activated the windshield washer and wipers to clear the goop, only to find that someone at the Pemex station back in Nogales, where I filled up hours before, had surreptitiously lifted the wiper blades, leaving me with the metal bars scratching and screeching their way across the glass and the insect muck that obscured it. I had a sense that an already difficult night was going to become even more challenging.
Getting to Desemboque — in Spanish, all the syllables, four of them in the name, are pronounced — was no easy feat. I’d left my girlfriend at the time to spend some days with our mutual friend in Tucson while I went in search of desert solitude. Unsure how I’d manage in the mid-summer heat of the Arizona desert, I looked at a map, found Desemboque, and thought it would make a decent substitute for the open desert. After all, it was right on the sea. A little beach settlement. It sounded idyllic. Where could be better to spend a few days of solitude away from the girls?
It took me three tries to get across the border from Nogales, Arizona, to Nogales, Sonora. Being of a just minor age with a vehicle still in my mother’s name required signed documents, more signed permissions, and finally Mexican insurance, all of which entailed repeated returns to the U.S. side and visits to dingy notary and insurance offices. What started out as a simple border crossing earlier in the day only ended with success when the sun was low in the western sky. The porter at Customs at the interior border station claimed he was entitled to a reward since he had helped me get through. I thought his service was worth what I gave him. A peso.
I did. About eight-and-a-half American cents. And told him as much. In decades of traveling all over the globe, it’s the closest I ever came to paying a bribe.
I guess all this should have been my tip-off that more challenges lay ahead. It didn’t prepare me for the Pemex station and the stolen wiper blades, though. And I doubt anything could have prepared me for the Sonoran Desert.
Turning toward the southwest down Highway 43, I felt I was at last on my way. Dusk gradually turned to post-dusk, and then to early night as one Sonoran village after another passed by, lights giving away their presence before receding back into darkness. I finally got to Caborca, the big town of the region and the jumping off place before crossing the heart of the desert and, eventually, arriving at Desemboque.
Somewhere west of Caborca I began to get a sense that I was entering a different world. The later it got, instead of cooling down, the night air grew hotter and hotter. Without air conditioning, I had the windows open to let in the searing night air as I raced southwest. At some point, bird-sized creatures started flashing by the open window and crashing into the windshield. It wasn’t long when I figured out they weren’t birds, but huge desert flying insects. And maybe mixed up with bats, who knew, also out for the night.
The next thing to get my attention were things that looked like sticks every 100 meters or so lying across the two-lane blacktop of the Mexican highway. I wondered why there would be sticks in the road, and finally curiosity got the better of me and made me stop right on the highway to better see what was in my path. That’s when I saw the sticks moving, sideways, toward me. Not sticks at all, but rather snakes, sidewinders, a kind of rattlesnake, taking advantage of the heat of the pavement. Dozens or hundreds of them.
For what seemed like hours now, mine was the only vehicle on the road. I was crossing the great Sonoran Desert, besieged by flying creatures and sidewinders, the night air searingly hot, the stars above so bright one could read a newspaper by them, feeling completely vulnerable to the Universe. And that’s when I came to the pickup on the other side of the road, stopped, facing me, its lights on, men gathered all around it in the night. They flagged me down.
I’d heard lots about Mexican bandits, and as much as I wanted to be a Good Samaritan, caution took over. I passed the truck and the men, then slowed, then stopped, then backed up cautiously toward the scene, the transmission whining in reverse, ready to shift back into first and get the hell out of there at the first hint of danger. Within an instant of my stopping across from the small truck, several men were at my window, all shouting in rapid-fire Spanish which, at the time, I didn’t have so much as a clue about. One man in particular took control of the chaos, and by then it was clear these were not banditos, but just a bunch of guys stranded in the middle of the desert.
It was the man I came to know as el Ranchero Costello – a local rancher – who spoke to me, in English. He was with his ranch hands coming back to Caborca, his ranch not far from town, and they ran out of gas. Could I help them? I did have a can of extra gas in the car, and had enough in the tank to get to Desemboque and back.
“Why the hell are you going to Desemboque? There’s nothing there.”
Costello’s question should have been my next warning, but I was determined to go to this place I found on the map and have my days of solitude.
After helping el Ranchero Costello and his men with the gas, Costello told me to ask for him when I got back to Caborca at the end of my stay in Desemboque. Meanwhile, maybe I’d see him in Desemboque. We parted ways, each heading in opposite directions into the thick desert darkness. And finally, never running out of the desert – it stretched right to the sea’s edge – I came to Desemboque, stopping where the road came to an abrupt end at the sand of the beach. Indeed, I wondered, why the hell did I come to this place?
I was sweating in the reclining vinyl seat, the sun not even a glimmer yet, when the hippie bus fired up and creaked and rumbled its way out of Desemboque. It wasn’t a hippie bus at all, as it turned out, but the local transportation, heading for Caborca, across the desert, and beyond, not to return to Desemboque until the evening. I had no idea who rode this relic of another era, or why, but I was left feeling even more alone and isolated in the early morning dark. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have taken the hint and followed the bus out of this god-forsaken place.
The sun came up behind me, and with it the heat and the cloying humidity, which had never gone away through the night. It wasn’t long when it became untenable to stay in the car, and so I stepped out and put my feet on the warm earth of Desemboque for the first time. The sea was reflecting the colors of the rising sun, and I began to understand the intrinsic meaning of “Paradise,” a place where the pleasures of the flesh are intertwined with the tortures of that same flesh. Desemboque, it seemed, had plenty of both to offer, and as I’d further come to discover in the coming days and nights.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Desemboque was the hottest place I had ever been, and decades and several deserts later, it still retains that dubious honor. The heat was relentless, but not so relentless as the sun that rose higher and higher in the blue sky, what little shade I could muster from the car growing scanter and scanter, until finally it disappeared and I was driven to get under the car to escape its relentless rays. Not an easy fit, given that the car was a Renault Dix, 10, but it became a matter of survival.
There were some people who lived in Desemboque, for reasons that eluded me, but they mostly stayed to themselves, leaving me to my own devices. Who knows what they might have made of the strange unknown gringo lying prone under his car to find shade and cooking canned tamales over a Sterno stove when the sun receded enough to allow him to emerge and prepare a very basic dinner.
This was the ritual of my days at Desemboque, the first two days, at least, along with writing in long-hand a massive letter to a friend far from the Sonoran Desert, back in the States, chronicling my stay at the end of the road in this unknown place.
On the third full day, sometime after mid-day when I had already retreated under the Renault, some of the local folks took pity on me. They sent an emissary to invite the strange gringo out from under his car to join them at a table under the thatch they had established just off the beach. To say this was both an act of extreme kindness and a vast change in ambiance would be to grossly understate things.
It’s amazing how a little thatch and some sea breeze can transform a place of unending torture to one of great enjoyment. It can’t be said that it was like night and day, since the heat of the night wasn’t much of a respite from the heat of the day, but it was like being transported to another place altogether.
The people had a little comedor there, seeming as it did to lack any actual customers, but the cold cervezas and pleasant conversation in two fractured languages and steady cooling breeze would have made me a regular patron were I to stay there. We discussed the heat, and we discussed el Ranchero Costello – known to the local people – who at one point in the afternoon actually materialized, as he had said he might, and we shared cervezas while he again urged me to look him up in Caborca, and we all discussed whatever else came into our heads. It didn’t matter, I wasn’t under the car any more on my last full day in Desemboque.
The Melon-Breasted Girl
We might only get one time in our life where we’re faced with a real choice, one that will make the difference between one life and another entirely different one. Some people don’t even get one of those times. And some, the lucky ones, might get a few or even a handful of such times. But no more than that.
I didn’t know any of the few people who seemed to inhabit Desemboque by name, so a few I assigned names to in my mind. One of them was the Melon-Breasted Girl, which became my name for her. The Melon-Breasted Girl, a dark-skinned girl with the look and dress of a peasant about her, probably in her early 20s, or less, give or take, and well developed bosoms that she displayed to good advantage in the white peasant tops she wore.
That was the Melon-Breasted Girl, and then there was the guy, the Melon-Breasted Girl’s boyfriend or, more likely, husband, whom I dubbed Pancho. He just looked and acted like a Pancho, greasy and evil-spirited looking, overweight to the point of being fat, slicked back black hair. He might have been a car or even a truck mechanic, had there been any repair shops in Desemboque, and what he actually did, I had no idea. Except he seemed to spend a lot of time ordering the Melon-Breasted Girl around and generally maltreating her.
I felt bad for her, and I wondered what kind of story lay behind her pairing with Pancho. Did she pick him herself? Did she have a penchant for bad boys, as Pancho clearly looked to be? Did she, perhaps, thrive on the abuse? Or was the marriage arranged by families, outside forces, some collision rather than meeting of the stars that brought the two together?
It all came to a head my second night in Desemboque. Somehow I had survived my first day in Dante’s Ninth Ring, and I was reclining in the driver seat of my Renault, exhausted by the day. I had the doors open for air, and the temperature had dropped an imperceptible amount. The main thing was that the sun, the implacable sun, finally was down, replaced by a much cooler moon, or maybe it was just the desert stars. I don’t remember, but whatever it was, the skylight illuminated the strand and, like a kind of stage lighting, provided me with a clear view of the tawdry drama that was to unfold in front of me on the sand.
Remember what I said about those rare turning points, those points in life where our choice really does matter and determines everything that comes after it? Well, this was one of them, even if I was too simple-minded at the time to realize it.
As I lay sweating on the vinyl seat, looking through the buggy windshield toward the beach and the sea beyond, from the left a couple emerged in the moonlight, starlight, whatever light it was, they emerged struggling, as it soon became apparent. It was the Melon-Breasted Girl being pulled along by Pancho. Pancho, as greasy and unsavory as ever, was yanking the Melon-Breasted Girl by the hair, that marvelous long straight black hair of hers, shouting incomprehensible phrases to her in Spanish, and shaking or slapping her when she became particularly resistant. It looked to me like the Melon-Breasted Girl was crying and fighting against Pancho, but he was giving her no out, no respite from his pulls and shouts and shakes and slaps when, for some minutes, they stopped right in front of me.
Maybe it was insane, but at that moment I felt I wanted to save the Melon-Breasted Girl from this guy she was saddled with, to go take her away from Pancho, put her in my car, and drive her across the great Sonoran Desert until we were far enough away that the Melon-Breasted Girl would want to forget Desemboque, to forget Pancho, to forget her former life and go with me into an entirely new one.
Maybe it was insane to have these thoughts, but I considered all the contingencies. Maybe the Melon-Breasted Girl didn’t want to be saved, didn’t want to be taken away. Maybe Pancho would beat me to a pulp or beyond, an element that played no small part in my calculations. That by itself could turn out to be life-altering. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to bring a Mexican peasant girl – or, really, any girl – back to meet my girlfriend and tell her she’s staying with us. And maybe life with a Mexican peasant girl would be more complicated and problematic than I imagined. Starting with getting her across the border, something that I wasn’t focusing on watching Pancho abusing her just meters from where I sat.
There were lots of reasons to convince me that grabbing the Melon-Breasted Girl away from Pancho, however that might be accomplished, and taking her away from Desemboque, might not be the best choice to make. But the other side of that choice, having the Melon-Breasted Girl as my own, being together as we forged a new life for both of us, the vision of a radically changed experience, was a powerful countervailing force. In retrospect from many years away, I now see, as I didn’t at the time, that this was one – the first one – of those life-altering junctions, arriving unexpectedly as it did.
The part of me that found the idea of stealing away the Melon-Breasted Girl to be insane came, in the end, to garner the upper hand. Right or wrong, it was a decision. The decision. And I let the Melon-Breasted Girl slip past me in the clutches of the greasy Pancho and disappear down the dark sand to wherever he was pulling her. And I didn’t try to capture her in the coming days at Desemboque, the days of sun and heat and humidity and sand and getting through. I don’t remember even talking to the Melon-Breasted Girl, or how much she noticed me, the odd gringo who came to Desemboque and found shade under his small red car and eventually wound up under the thatch of the beachside comedor.
It was the afternoon of the last day at Desemboque when I got to Caborca and stopped at the Pemex. I asked around for el Ranchero Costello, as he had urged me to do that night out on the dark highway and again under the thatch at Desemboque, but somehow no one knew where he was or how to find him. I had my tank filled with Mexican gasoline, no windshield wiper blades left to steal, surrounded by ranchers and pickup trucks full of hay or whatever Sonoran ranchers carried in them. And I left Caborca, headed northeast.
The U.S. border guards asked me where I had been in Mexico. I’m sure by then I looked like the sun-baked cross between a hermit and a madman.
“Desemboque,” I answered.
“What the hell were you doing in Desemboque?”
I couldn’t help but think that they suspected I was smuggling drugs.
“Just getting away to be by myself for a few days. It’s the hottest place I’ve ever been!”
They must have assessed I was more the hermit-madman than the drug trafficker, and after I parted with a half-rotted plum, held gingerly by the stem between thumb and forefinger, that actually I had brought with me from the States, they let me pass, back into the U.S., back into Arizona, back just myself, still myself, back to the girls, my girlfriend and our friend, waiting for me in Tucson.
To this day, I wonder what became of the Melon-Breasted Girl and if I made the right decision that night on the beach in the cosmic light at Desemboque. Some questions, I suppose, are best left unanswered. That might be one of them, but I keep coming back to it. Or it to me.
Photo by Harpal Singh on Unsplash.