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Mountain mayhem

Antoine Wilson is the author of the novel "The Interloper."

At the outset of Richard Grant’s journey into the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico, before he’s even left the United States, the air is thick with warnings. Fifth-generation cowboy J.P.S. Brown, who spent some four decades traveling in the Sierra Madre on horseback, advises Grant to first learn Spanish and how to ride a horse. Then he reconsiders: “Let’s say you were fluent in Spanish and a horseman,” he says. “I still don’t see how you can do this without getting killed.”

But Grant, an English journalist living in the southwestern U.S., is determined to pursue his insane plan to travel the entire length of the mountain chain. That he isn’t exactly successful does nothing to mar the bracing power of “God’s Middle Finger,” an exciting and illuminating book.

The Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range stretches some 900 miles south from the Arizona-Mexico border, a sort of southern continuation of the Rocky Mountains. With only two paved roads and no major cities or towns, with peaks rising to almost 11,000 feet and terrain characterized by steep canyons called barrancas -- four of them deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon -- the Sierra Madre is rough territory. As Grant puts it, “You can stand on the rimrock in high pine forest with snow on the ground and look down on the backs of parrots and macaws flying over semitropical jungles at river level -- a sight guaranteed to wow the passing traveler and sink the heart of any army or police force.”

Natural dangers abound, but Grant’s line about the army or police force is key -- the Sierra Madre has long resisted domination by outside forces. The Aztec emperors couldn’t bring the regional tribes under control, and the Spanish authorities, despite setting up assorted missions, haciendas, military posts and mines, had little more success. Eventually, the Spaniards and mestizo Mexicans who were able to establish a foothold “developed a rough, violent, fiercely independent culture that had more in common with the American frontier than the civilized parts of central Mexico.”

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Today, local power rests largely in the hands of regional strongmen, with occasional incursions by the Mexican army. All of which would be dangerous enough, but in the last 30 years, the Sierra Madre has also become “one of the world’s biggest production areas for marijuana, opium, heroin, and billionaire drug lords.”

The result is “a hillbilly vendetta culture . . . up to its eyeballs in the world’s most murderous business enterprise: illegal narcotics.” Town after town seems haunted by brand-new pickup trucks with tinted windows, blasting a strange hybrid music. Traditional folk corridos have been transformed into narcocorridos, with lyrics like “I’m one of the players in the Sierra where the opium poppy grows. . . . I like risky action, I like to do cocaine, I walk right behind death with a beautiful woman on each arm. . . . I’ve got an AK-47 for anyone who wants to try me.”

Into this lawless, vicious, ever-shifting world steps Grant, convincing himself that the Sierra Madre “isn’t as dangerous as it used to be,” and that “most places are not as dangerous as people say.”

I couldn’t help but think of the Paul Bowles story “A Distant Episode,” in which a linguistics professor blindly steps off the edge of civilization in North Africa, only to be abducted, have his tongue cut out and get traded from tribe to tribe as a sort of jester. But Grant is no clueless academic. Rather, he is an ideal guide, willfully heedless yet preternaturally observant. So while the potential for meeting a violent end hovers over the entire journey, Grant succeeds in painting a portrait of the region that is detailed, sympathetic, insightful and thoroughly compelling.

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Along the way, he pursues legends of outlaw gold, seeking the services of a folk healer and doing cocaine with police officers (to be fair, they demand it). He tracks down the Guarijio Indians, a tribe “lost” not once but twice, and spends time with the binge-drinking, tire-sandal-wearing, long-distance-running Tarahumaras.

On a visit to Mexico, the French Surrealist Andre Breton said, “Our art movement is not needed in this country.” This is one of the book’s epigraphs, and nowhere does it seem more accurate than in the Sierra Madre. Where else would you find a cross-dressing, Winchester-toting, pot-growing ranch hand? Or an area made safe for tourists only because the narcotraficantes want it that way? A village called Matalo (“kill him”)? A lavish estate with peacocks and an artificial ski slope? And where else would you recognize the last stronghold of Geronimo, arrived at after an arduous hike, by “weathered coils of black plastic irrigation tubing and old tin cans -- the unmistakable signs of a Sierra drug camp”?

As Grant continues his journey south, the tourist’s fascination with the oddball, with strange juxtapositions, with the marijuana plants in front of the police station, gives way to a clearer view of the poverty and suffering behind it all, of “the kind of anarchy that gives anarchy a bad name,” as J.P.S. Brown puts it. A picture emerges of poor, powerless people caught up in the vagaries of a corrupt system indifferent to their fates, whether it’s the devastation of the ejidos (communal lands granted by the government in the 1920s) or the seemingly futile efforts of environmental activists trying to protect the Sierra Madre from rampant logging.

Surreality, suffering and history culminate in the village of Guadalupe Coronado, where Grant goes to observe the traditional Holy Week celebration. It is a drunken and chaotic affair, a travesty of the Easter morality plays brought to the Tarahumaras four centuries earlier. In these celebrations, the Pharisees and the soldiers, former joint persecutors of Christ, are now on opposite sides. The soldiers carry wooden AK-47s with rattles on them, and no one seems to know what they’re supposed to do: “Individuals kept wandering off, arguing with each other, breaking into impromptu dances.”

Grant has a keen eye for details that evoke not only the present moment but the whole tangled history of a place. When effigies of Jesus and Mary finally emerge, they are followed by a third effigy, “with a beard and long green robe.” It is God. “A silver orb dangled from his arm, representing the world. His hand was raised up and turned outward and over the years all his fingers had broken off except the extended middle one. God was flipping the bird.” In a sense, this is the crowning item in a list of surreality, the ne plus ultra of wild stuff from a wild place. But it is also a degraded icon, a broken-down God, a reflection of both contemporary decay and the troubled history of colonization.

Eventually, Grant finds himself perched on the rim of Sinforosa Canyon, drinking out of a gourd with an elderly Tarahumara, having arrived “in the heart of the Sierra Madre, about as far from consumer capitalism and the comfortably familiar” as he can get. In a sense, he’s arrived at his destination, accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. And yet the journey has changed him: “To put it another way, here I was getting my kicks and curing my ennui in a place full of poverty and suffering, environmental and cultural destruction, widows and orphans from a slow-motion massacre. I tried to persuade myself that I was going to write something that would make a difference and help these people, but my capacity for self-delusion refused to stretch in that direction.”


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