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Mustangs and Unicorns

Mustangs and Unicorns

Meaningful travel leaves marks. Some emerge immediately and others linger, buried until revealed.

I’ve been listening to talks, attending workshops, and writing for five days in a San Miguel de Allende conference hotel. My brain is addled with no more room to absorb anything else. And my imagination has gone dark, out of words to put on paper. While I’m charmed by the high ceilinged, airy lobby and colorfully tiled outdoor spaces, I’m anxious to escape to the Mexican countryside. Wherever I am, after several days in a city, I long to break free, to smell the fresh air, shake out the stiffness in my muscles, and go for a lung-expanding hike. On this particular morning, however, over a breakfast of huevos rancheros, a fellow conference attendee, Naomi, recommends I head for the hills with a posse of cowboys. It takes all of five seconds for me to decide: yes, absolutely, a vigorous horseback ride through Coyote Canyon is exactly what I need.

What is it about women and horses? The love story begins when a little girl in pigtails reads Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, or Misty of Chincoteague. She learns to ride a horse. She wants a horse for Christmas. The majestic creatures are like unicorns that feed her fancies, powerful symbols of dreams, desires and aspirations. Is it their beauty and elegance that inspires her to romanticize these gentle giants? Or is it because of where they can take her, off to the horizon, into the sunset?

We take a half hour’s bumpy drive across rutted roads outside of San Miguel to landscape that would be the perfect backdrop for a classic Mexican Western. I meet my sorrel steed in a dusty corral at the base of the canyon, Lucifero is a Mexican mustang, small and lithe — just fourteen hands high — the perfect mount for my sixty-three inches. I wonder about his name, Lucifer, in English. Will he indeed be a devilish ride? I dismiss the possibility and opt for the Latin meaning of his name: morning light. I’m an adolescent stroking his broad forehead with its elongated white star, gazing into big, dark eyes behind a shaggy forelock. He has a beautiful face. I put my left foot in the stirrup, swing my right leg up and over, and settle into the broad saddle. I grip the Charro horn, bigger and flatter that its Western counterpart, as the vaquero adjusts my stirrup length.

Our group of six is well tended by four cowboys in straw hats, each swinging a red lasso. Our amigos are connected to the land in ways only possible in the wilderness. We’re soon on the trail splashing back and forth across the river at the base of the canyon. Unlike other outings where the horses remain in an obedient nose to tail caravan, this excursion is billed as an adventure. Those of us able to ride leave the others behind to gently lope and then gallop ahead. I sense the wild, muscled power of Lucifero beneath me as my eyes water, my hair flies, and I’m one with my horse. Do we have to stop? I think, as we slow to a trot to let the others catch up. Yes, we must because it’s time to scale the canyon wall up steep, rocky switchbacks. After just an hour on the trail, Lucifero and I trust each other. We’ve bonded. We crest the canyon summit at last and can now see in the distance the spires of San Miguel’s Parroquia to the northeast and the rolling crests of extinct volcanoes to the south. The breeze has picked up, cooling the plateau.

If hiking is my favorite moving meditation, then surely riding a horse is my preferred seated version. The rhythmic rocking of the saddle and the steady, soothing movement of the horse’s hindquarters become an effortless sway. I’m mesmerized on the back of this graceful animal, absorbed in the moment. Dust and desert. Cactus and mesquite. Sun and sky.

***

I sit in the hotel lobby with a glass of wine, relaxing before retiring. Someone taps me on the shoulder and I wince.

“So sorry,” apologizes Naomi as she sits down across from me. “Looks like you got a nasty sunburn today.”

“I did,” I reply. “But I had a wonderful day and can’t thank you enough for your excursion tip.”

As I cross my legs and shift on the sofa, an audible “ouch” escapes my lips. I look down to see a long, narrow bruise on my inner calf where the saddle fender pinched. Ah, I think, here they are, the immediate marks of my adventure.

I finish my nightcap and hustle back to my room, anxious to return to my writing. Refreshed and renewed, the words bubble forth. About mustangs, and canyons; about yearning and unicorns.

Coyote Canyon Adventures: http://www.coyotecanyonadventures.com

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Posted by on March 1, 2017 in Travel

 

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Me Llamo Mariana Cañedo

Me Llamo Mariana Cañedo

“Did you know that Mayan Indians have crooked fingers?” my grandmother asks as she rubs my oddly shaped adolescent pinky. “It’s true,” she says as I wince and look at her quizzically. “Your grandfather was born in Mexico, so you never know. You could be an Indian princess.” She gives a quick laugh that ends in her characteristic snort. My Midwestern grandmother has a penchant for coming up with all sorts of interesting, random, tidbits of information. “Don’t cha know,” she says, “one day you’ll go to Mexico and find out for yourself.”

***

Going to San Miguel de Allende is a calling. The city has been tucked away in a cobblestoned corner of my imagination for twenty-five years. Mary Morris’s courageous chronicle, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, put it there. Her soul-baring tale of living in San Miguel, 6,400 feet high in the Sierra Madre of central Mexico, captured my heart and gave me even more courage than I already had to travel alone. And now, I’m finally here, lucky girl that I am, on my own for a weeklong writer’s conference.

The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color: greens, and golds; mango, mustard, and lemon; and of course, every shade of red imaginable — burgundy, cayenne, paprika and raspberry. Ceramic pots filled white, purple, and blue blossoms set off the pueblo colors. Brimming with boisterous gardens and with a temperate, year-round climate of brisk mornings, warm afternoons, and cool evenings, San Miguel is eternally spring. With more than 140,000 residents, it can certainly be labeled a city, but deeper down, at its heart, it’s a delightful, lively, village.

There are many places in the world others consider lovely, but leave me feeling cold. San Miguel, on the other hand, embraced me the moment I arrived. I feel I belong here, with these people of my tribes. During the day, I commune with writers of every ilk — novelists, poets, essayists, playwrights, memoirists, and screenwriters. And when I escape into the long shadows and crystalline light of the late afternoon to wander narrow lanes between high, painted stucco walls and monumental wooden doorways, I’m at home among the locals. They look like my father and my grandfather before him. The men are short and the women shorter. Just like my Dad and just like me. I recognize my siblings’ body types in those of the flower vendors and musicians on the square in front of the Parroquia church. The features set in their silky brown complexions — heavy-lidded eyes and full lips — are the very same features that look back at me and my easily tanned white skin in the mirror. These people are my ancestors, those in the sepia picture of my grandfather’s 1906 First Communion, his mother and his sister beside him, multiple aunts and cousins in the background. Yes, indeed, I feel at home here.

I stop for breakfast one morning on San Miguel’s central square. I choose a table in the shade, the breeze already warm. My mouth waters as a beautifully arranged platter of fresh fruit is set in front of me – mango, melon, banana, pineapple, and papaya, with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of granola. The waiter could be my brother with his sturdy Cañedo silhouette. My years of Spanish classes serve me well as he and I chat, even though I admit: “Comprendo mucho, pero hablo solamente un poquito (I understand a lot but I speak only a little).” Fruit juice drips from my chin and my thoughts drift to a what-if of my family tree. What if my Mexican grandfather and my American father after him, hadn’t both married Irish women, Mae Duffy and Mary Darby? I would likely look just like her, this woman who passes by in a hot pink dress and turquoise apron — traditional dress worn to help sell the handmade dolls and woven flowers spilling from baskets looped over her arms. My long, dirty blond hair, while still long and straight, would be lustrous and dark, just like hers. Mi hermana mexicana.

My new friend clears my empty plate and asks if I’d like more coffee. “No, gracias,” I answer and smile. It’s time to get back to my second tribe – my writing tribe — but I’m reluctant to leave this comfortable spot where it’s so easy to watch the world of San Miguel pass by. I pay la cuenta and leave a tip worthy of family.

“Hasta mañana?” he asks as I swing my bag over my shoulder. Will I see you tomorrow?

¡Claro que sí, señor, hasta mañana!” I step from behind my table, my crooked pinkie waving goodbye in the sunshine.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2017 in Travel, Uncategorized

 

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