4. Ruta 175

I returned my attention to the present and the ribbon of tar, at times barely a car width, which wound higher into the Oaxacan mountains. The afternoon air became crisp and fresh. Astringent scents of mountain pine and wood smoke swirled through our open windows. In places the mist hung heavy in the trees. Adobe huts gave way to wooden cottages that were scattered farther and farther from their neighbors. The spectacular scenery unfolded as we rounded each bend. Fresh water streams spilled over tumbled stones and fell down steep cliffs, disappearing into fern-lined canyons. In sunny pockets, brilliant red, yellow and orange flowers crowded against the dark forest. The people we saw wore woolen clothes and hats, stout boots, and thick woven shawls to protect against the chilling dampness of the shadows. We shivered in shorts and sandals.

“I’m cold,” I said. “Let’s stop for some lunch and change into something warmer. Are you hungry?”

“I could use some coffee. This road beats hell—what have you gotten me into?”

A bright fire burned in a large fireplace along one wall and local crafts and paintings hung above it. Hand-loomed yellow cloths brightened the handful of square wooden tables filling the room. Opposite the fire a little bar and the door into the kitchen took much of the wall-space. Most amazing was the north-facing picture window that looked over the rugged peaks to the end of the earth, farther than my eye could see.

The nameless restaurant wasn’t listed in any of my guidebooks, but appeared like a miraculous vision. We hunkered down in front of the restaurant’s fireplace to sip our steaming mugs of sweet café de olla and waited in silence for the dueña to serve her mole de guajillo.

Back on the road, a black blanket of clouds extended below us to the horizon covering the lower range and foothills as we began our westerly descent from the peaks. We slipped under the clouds into a torrential downpour that turned the twisting mountain road into a churning mud-laced rapid. The cloud-forest had thinned and lush tropical jungle crowded the narrow road. Storm-tossed leaves and branches rained down like confetti over a wild parade. We crawled along in first gear.

“God, do you think this road is safe?” I asked Sam. “What if it washes out while we’re on it? What if one of these trees falls on us?” I was scared. It was dark, slippery, hazardous. Brown churning rivers cascaded down the hillsides and were briefly illuminated by the white glare of lightning. We smelled the fried ozone and felt the compression of the thunderous explosions.

“We should pull over and wait it out,” I said.

Sam shifted into second gear, dismissing my suggestion. “Let’s just get off this damn mountain. I can’t see a damn thing. Wipe off the window.”

I bristled but pinched my lips tight against the angry tempest close to bursting from me.

The torrent slacked and trickled to mist, and as it cleared around us, the air was perfumed with exotic flowers and the rich smell of loam. The road, still curvy, wasn’t so steep, and it was no longer a muddy flash flood. The deep black sky lightened and I saw people walking with their burros and baskets from what appeared to be banana groves at the end of the day’s work. Girls clutched stacks of tortillas in embroidered cloths, grandmothers bent under trump lines of firewood, and mothers carried steaming blue enamel pots on their heads while herding their children to dinner. We had arrived in Pochutla. It was the first town since Miahuatlán back on the east slope, and it flanked the intersection of Ruta 200 and Ruta 175 from Oaxaca.

“Turn right at the intersection,” I directed.

Sam maneuvered the bus into a parking space. “Let’s stop and have a beer.”