Friday, June 11, 2010

On the Road with James Baker and Itinerarios

"Just across the street Mexico began. We looked with wonder. To our amazement, it looked exactly like Mexico." Thus wrote Jack Kerouac, seeing Mexico for the first time through the eyes of narrator Sal Paradise in the essential road novel On the Road.

My first Mexico road trip came in the early 70s, Spring Break from UT. I headed my naturally low riding Chevy Biscayne to the border, crossing at Reynosa. I intended to follow my nose, camping wherever I could pitch my one-man pup tent. This trip ignited a passion in me for Mexico, one which still burns white hot.

"Then we turned our faces to Mexico with bashfulness and wonder as those dozens of Mexican cats watched us from under their secret hatbrims in the night. Beyond were music and all-night restaurants with smoke pouring out of the door. 'Whee,' whispered Dean very softly." (On the Road, Jack Kerouac)

If you think you know Mexico from the border regions, think again. Although this is an important geography and culture - the border - it all changes within miles of the immigration station. The roads begin to wind through the countryside, expressing an abandon unknown in the world left behind. I headed my car in the direction of Monterrey, then further West, higher into the surrounding mountains. I camped at the end of a dirt road, listening to the sounds of a distant shepherd and his flock.

Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac's On the Road characters, were seeing their slice of Mexico in the early 50s. The Pan-American Highway ran from Laredo to Monterrey, then South and East, unlike today's more common route which slices the Central Highlands through Matehuala (a great place to stop for the night), onward to San Luis Potosi, Queretaro, and Mexico City. That explains why Kerouac's characters found themselves passing through Montemorelos, Linares and Hidalgo, eventually stopping in Gregoria, a largely imagined town which was alive with music:

"Behind the bar was the proprietor, a young fellow who instantly ran out when we told him we wanted to hear mambo music and came back with a stack of records, mostly by Pérez-Prado, and put them on over the loudspeaker........In a few minutes half that portion of town was at the windows, watching the Americanos dance with the gals. They all stood, side by side with the cops, on the dirt sidewalk, leaning in with indifference and casualness. 'More Mambo Jambo,' 'Chattanooga de Mambo,' 'Mambo Numero Ocho' - all these tremendous numbers resounded and flared in the golden, mysterious afternoon like the sounds you expect to hear on the last day of the world and the Second Coming." (On the Road, Jack Kerouac)

Kerouac's journey to Mexico ended in Mexico City, the last of the road trips Sal Paradise would take with Dean Moriarty. My own road trip, the first one, ended in the mountains South of Monterrey when my gas tank snagged on logs across a small waterway. I looked back in the rear view mirror to see the tank rocking back and forth, back and forth. There was just enough gasoline in the fuel line to back up to the tank. Now the canyon came alive with Mexicans descending from the hills to watch the gringo on the edge of panic. They brought tools and offered advice as I managed to lift the tank back into place and secure it with the dangling straps. The crowd celebrated by jumping into my car for a joy ride, a ride which lasted until we encountered a bus going back to the hills from which the campesinos had descended.

"Adios!" they shouted. "Qué le vaya bien!"

This week, on Itinerarios, the mambos of Pérez-Prado will be found, played by the Mexico City based wind octet Sinfonietta Ventus. We will also hear a musical picture of another destination from On the Road, Pachuca de Soto. This week's program also takes us off road, to Lake Patzcuaro and the island Janitzio. Please join me as I share with you music from Mexico this Sunday evening at 7 o'clock, on KPAC-San Antonio and KTXI-Ingram. Not in the San Antonio area? Listen online at

James Baker, host and producer of Itinerarios

1 comment:

Bar None Publishing Group said...

This was a great read. I'm planning on driving out of San Antonio to Mexico in the coming days and your travelog has helped to define mine.
Mark Butkus