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A road trip through central Mexico sends two longtime friends on a quest for volcano summits, rabbits, mescal and the shared meaning of death and running.
Photos by Rickey Gates
I found Jon at a corner table with a glass of mescal, half gone, in front of him. Though the bar was crowded with young Mexicans, his Scandinavian features—bronzed skin and wheat-blond hair—brought him no less attention than a two-horned Viking helmet covering his head. If his appearance didn’t distinguish him enough, a thick, trying, surfer-like accent, where the roll of the Spanish r and the rhythm of the Latin tongue didn’t come easy (or at all), had prohibited him from blending in throughout Latin America.
It was an Irish pub called O’Reilly’s or Limerick or something, where you could buy a can of Guinness, overpriced and expired. I ordered three more shots of mescal from the sauntering bartender and joined Jon at the table.
Two for me, one for you, hombre.
This small, colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, a half-day drive north of Mexico City, is where I had parted ways with Jon during a motorcycle tour several years ago. It only seemed right to reacquaint here.
Salud, pesetas, y tiempo para gastarlos.
Jon and I go way back. In high school, I was always one grade ahead of him and at cross-country races always several places behind. Following high school, he went on to run for the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he netted several All-American performances while helping the Buffaloes claim two NCAA team titles.
Three times, I tried out for the team and three times I came up short.
Trust me, I’m over it.
Jon’s CU story, however, wasn’t so simple. His older brother, Christopher Severy, was also a CU All-American runner. Chris Lear, who documented CU’s 1998 cross-country season in his book Running with the Buffaloes, noted some traits he called “typical Severy”—“determined, unassuming and unfailingly polite.”
Like Jon, Christopher had rolled-back, hunched shoulders and a preternatural ability to suffer. “His demeanor would suggest that he is placid and mellow,” wrote Lear. “But underneath that exterior burns the fire of a fierce competitor.” The brothers, separated by six years, shared this trait.
Early that fall when Jon was still a junior in high school, he joined Christopher on a post-race run, where the college senior had just finished second in the home team’s annual 8K Shootout behind soon-to-be Olympian Adam Goucher. Lear, standing by, noticed that the brothers even had the same running form—“shoulders slightly hunched, legs flexed like a mogul skier’s as he comes down a mountain trail.” However, Lear failed to note that as the miles quicken Jon’s torso trails slightly behind his thin, spindly legs. It’s as though his body can’t keep up with his legs.
Christopher was renting a small, off-the-grid cabin on the backside of Flagstaff Mountain above Boulder at the time, biking the eight miles and two thousand vertical feet into town and back every day on top of his 100-mile-a-week running regimen. Two weeks following the Shootout, I received a phone call. The voice over the phone spoke with an abruptness with which bad news is delivered. Christopher had been killed in a bike accident that morning while descending Flagstaff’s steep, treacherous road.
Eight months earlier, Jon’s dad had died of cancer.
Jon and I rarely discussed these deaths. Maybe because I had never lost anybody close to me and lacked reference. Maybe because we are men. Or maybe because, in the end, there is simply nothing to be said about their deaths.
Aside from talk about training or results, we rarely discussed running either. For years I had asked myself, Why the shared silence? Is running a form of death? No, I don’t think so. However, past the superficiality of times, splits, paces and places, it is as intensely personal as death and, dare I say, wordless.
Despite my shortcomings as a collegiate runner (or perhaps in spite of them), Jon and I remained close throughout our college years. Six years following his brother’s death we made our first trip across the Mexican border together on motorcycles.
Before we had even crossed the border into Mexico, I noticed that Jon embodied the obligatory traits of an excellent travel partner—namely that he was easy going and adaptable. On parting Colorado, he made only two requests: a morning cup of coffee and a run at some point during the day.
After three weeks and several thousand miles we said our farewells in San Miguel. Jon returned north for CU’s cross-country training camp in the mountains of Colorado. And me? Avoiding Mexico City, I continued south, through Central America, Colombia, along the spine of the Andes until I arrived in Chile for the start of school at a university in the coastal town of Valparaiso two months later.
Fast forward another six years. Jon was a semester away from graduating medical school and I was washing dishes somewhere in Antarctica. Jon wrote in an e-mail that he would be back in San Miguel for a weeklong medical-school program shortly after I got off the Ice. He proposed a nebulous road trip around the volcanic highlands and trails surrounding Mexico City and central Mexico for the week following his class.
“Mejico,” he writes one time. Later “Mehico,” then “Mexique.”
In the news, the drug war was still burning strong and another 20 or so bodies had just been found in the desert or in the ocean. I don’t remember. I only knew that it would be warm there … and I never turn down a trip to Mexico.
Jack Kerouac made several escapades across the border in his years as a lonesome traveler and described the sensation of entering Mexico better than anyone. “You feel like you just sneaked out of school,” he wrote. “When you told the teacher you were sick and she said you could go home at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It’s a great feeling entering the Pure Land.”
In a voice that would otherwise be considered soft if it weren’t for that accent, Jon hails me with “Chapo!” from across the bar, abruptly hushing other patrons’ conversations. “Chapo”—a nickname he gave to me—is part “ole chap” and part “chapoline,” meaning “grasshopper” in reference to a Mexican television show from the 1970s. Most importantly, though, Chapo was also the nickname of Mexico’s biggest drug cartel kingpin. We agree that the name can be skipped until either the drug war is over or we have left the country.
He filled me in on his week of working in San Miguel’s hospital, practicing his Spanish, learning new medical terms and even seeing patients. We discussed plans for the coming week, which were typical of Jon, that is to say amorphous and flexible. To his short list of travel requests, he added only a daily call home to his wife and one-year-old son, my godson, Christopher.
We remained, talking and drinking, in the corner until the bartender kicked us out at closing time. We woke late the next morning and ran in the dead heat through the botanical gardens that rest on a plateau above the city. Having run in the gardens daily for the past week, Jon instructed me to arm myself with small rocks to ward off ill-tempered pariah dogs.
Sweating away the stagnant essence of the mescal, we amassed a small collection of loops, meandering through the 220-acre reserve amidst the Nopali cactus, desert marshlands, crumbling stone walls, shade trees and old campesino men. Jon pointed out one well-dressed old campesino sitting on a stump beneath a tree.
“Every day, man,” Jon said. “He turns that cabesa like a tortoise to see me coming and I’m already gone.”
“Should we stop?” I asked.
“Nah. Let’s keep him guessing.”
I packed the jalopy-rental while Jon continued sweating through an end-of-the-week Spanish exam. The travel plan, we had agreed, would be made up as we went along. The American doctor conducting Jon’s medical course suggested the colorful town of Bernal as a stopping point before continuing south. “Quaint,” he called it. Jon’s guidebook used the same word. After driving for a couple hours, we pulled into town.
A 1200-foot igneous monolith loomed over the shoulder of the otherwise sleepy village, serving as a dramatic backdrop. In the small, central plaza old men sat and talked beneath a canopy of shade trees. Birds perched above chirped through the afternoon. Occasionally, a man on horseback would approach the plaza proudly displaying the beast beneath him. Our afternoon run led us on a failed attempt to circumnavigate the large volcanic tower. A fine, dirt trail brought us halfway around the monolith, where it ended abruptly and forced us to return, rocks in hand, from whence we came.
“’Quaint’ means that you can buy knick-knacks and sleep in a cheap, sagging bed,” Jon said.
“No, it means that the streets will be cobblestone, and the walls will be orange and red,” I replied.
The debate carried on until we found ourselves back at the hostel, where the portly owner greeted us with a smile and asked about our run. He didn’t express surprise when we told him about the miles that we had covered or the many more that we had planned to cover in the upcoming days. My many excursions into Mexico have taught me that Mexicans understand running. This is an important cultural distinction when you enter a crowded plaza wearing nothing but short shorts and running shoes.
Though the Tarahumaran Indians of northern Mexico have captured the attention of the running world in recent years, thanks in large part to Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, it is Mexico City and her many surrounding suburbs that have birthed the gross majority of the country’s greatest runners and the surrounding mountains that have forged them into world-class athletes.
Though top Mexican runners have only been on the stage since about the time of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when the country brought in international coaches to train some of the more promising distance runners, the sport is ingrained into Mexico’s culture dating from pre-Columbian times.
Amongst the Aztecs there existed a lower caste of people, the tameme, meaning messenger or porter. In a culture that hadn’t yet invented the wheel and in a land that was void of large hauling-animals, everything from messages and sacks of corn to the Sacred Flame was delivered by the tameme. An intricate network of trails connected Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) with every corner of the Aztec Empire. The Emperor’s kitchen, it was told, enjoyed the luxury of fresh fish from the Gulf of Mexico, 240 miles away. Today, there are Mexicans who proudly trace their lineage back to the hard-working and light-footed tameme.
Though the owner of the hostel was not a runner himself, it was a matter of fact that running is simply a way of getting around … faster than walking.
On leaving Bernal the following morning we decided to bypass Mexico City and her 21-million inhabitants to encounter the conical volcano, La Malinche, rising above the field-burning haze present throughout most of the country.
One can’t help but admire the simplicity and perfection of a volcano from afar. It is the first mountain a child learns to draw—two lines meeting upwardly at a point. It is the centerpiece of legends. Mexico’s sixth-highest mountain, La Malinche (14,636 feet) was named for the conflicted, young and beautiful Aztec woman, who was first brought to Conquistador Hernán Cortéz as a slave. Later, she acted as a translator, advisor and, finally, lover to Cortéz, bearing his first child, Martín, who is believed to be the first true Mestizo.
Squinting my eyes, I tried to make out the figure of the Aztec princess but the closer we drove, the shape of the mountain got lost in the details, like looking at a painting from a nose-length away. We spent that night in a cramped, government-run “resort” on the flanks of the mountain.
In the grey-blue dawn we laced up our shoes and rose steadily above the resort on a soft, pine-needle trail. Above the trees the pine needles gave way to volcanic cinder and alpine tundra and not long after that we were running in snow that had fallen the previous afternoon. Difficult footing and cool, thin air slowed us to a pace barely faster than a walk.
On the summit, we split a conchita, which is a Mexican pastry of sweet bread and pink frosting.
“My brother would have liked this,” Jon said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“I should have brought some of him,” he said, referring to Christopher’s ashes that he has scattered far and wide.
We descended the volcano the same way we had summited. Down to the stale resort. Down to the valley floor. At La Malinche’s feet we hopped in the rental, and joined the ever-present flow of traffic, heading into the bowl-like basin that is Mexico City.
I have avoided Mexico City on several occasions even though the constructs of the city have long fascinated me—that it was built in a swamp that rests a mile-and-a-half above sea level, with an imposing ring of volcanoes looming another mile-and-a-half above. Centuries of folklore have elevated the volcanoes amongst the ranks of the planets and stars. In Mexico City there are skyscrapers, billionaires, industry, art and the sobering little fact that you are always under the volcanoes.
We set to the street in search of a mezcaleria, a bar that would serve variations of the tumultuous kissing cousin to tequila. In short time, we found ourselves sitting before a collection of 30 mezcals from across Mexico. Tasting, sipping, shooting, giving in to the poignant effect of the drink. Glass jugs of the drink glowed ominously from behind the bar.
Por todo bueno mal, hay mezcal. We cheered. Por todo mal, tambien hay mezcal.
The bartender told us that in the times of the Aztecs law forbid the people from consuming more than a single drink. “The second drink,” he said, “invites the quatrociento conejos.” He imitated one of the 400 rabbits while Jon and I watched from a veritable sea of rabbits.
In the morning there were still some conejos flopping around in my head when we laced up our shoes for a run. We meandered through a neighborhood that looked more European than Mexican, through a bustling, impromptu bus terminal, into a subway station and out on the opposite side emerging into the great city park of Chapultapec. Trees grew thick over the large car-less avenues. Hilltops were adorned with the palaces of past kings, dictators and presidents.
“I could train here,” Jon said, as we passed a peanut salesman and several sporty joggers. This is a game that Jon likes to play: finding places around the world where he could live, work and train.
“I’d make sure to visit,” I said, leaping over a fresh, steaming present left by a pariah dog.
From Mexico City, our road trip brought us to the base of Xinantecatl (15,354 feet), or the Old Naked Man, as he is known in Nahuatl, in the valley of Toluca. I did not attempt to make out the figure of the volcano’s namesake as I had for La Malinche. The mountain’s simple beauty was enough. From the obliterated and spread-out summit of the volcano, ridgelines and valleys descended lazily to the valley floor. A wreath of pine enveloped the base of the mountain as would a skirt around a Christmas tree. “She seems to resolve her surrounding landscape rather than dominate it,” wrote John Brant in a 1996 article “The Volcano”. “She is a volcano to revere, but also one to use.”
As we drove up a winding road for several thousand vertical feet through pine trees and volcanic alpine grasslands, I explained to Jon what I knew about this mountain.
Xinantecatl’s significance to the running world began over five decades ago. At the time it was one of the first, and certainly highest, venue to be utilized as a high-altitude training center. For decades, runners from Mexico and beyond made pilgrimages to the volcano’s rim to reap the benefits of training in the thin, clean air. The list included two-time NYC Marathon winner Germán Silva of Mexico, Marathon World Champion Mark Plaatjes of Boulder, Colorado, Japanese marathoner Kenjiro Jitsui and several others.
We pulled the rental up to a small cement refuge at nearly 13,000 feet, still a vertical half-mile beneath the summit. All of Mexico appeared to spread out beneath us. The roar of cars, industry and bustle that had filled our ears, eyes and brains only hours before provided us with all the more contrast. Dark clouds came and went like passing thoughts.
Something about this building, I thought, is at the magical root of running. These simple concrete walls that have sheltered hundreds of runners over several decades have a story to tell—perhaps that running is a thing so simple and pure it is only the monks that truly understand it. They come to this mountain to suffer and grow stronger. It happens on a physiological level, where red blood cells are forced to increase in number to carry sufficient oxygen throughout the body. A scientist can tell you that. What is more, though, is the cold, quiet solitude. It is a “bitter communion with rock, water, wind, and sky,” as Brant noted.
An evening run took us a thousand vertical feet up and over the volcano’s rim to an elevation where running fast is not difficult—it is impossible. We descended a smooth, cinder trail into the crater where the Lake of the Sun and the smaller Lake of the Moon stand off against each other on opposite sides of the large bowl. The distinct sound of volcanic earth crunched beneath each step. Snow fell, shrouding the top of the mountain in white. We returned to the hostel and contented ourselves with the only rations available to us from the hostel office—Snickers bars, potato chips and tea cookies.
That night we talked with a drunkenness provided by the thin air and lack of oxygen to our brains. I suggested that there exists a connection between runners across time and culture.
“Like a thread,” I said, though I wasn’t exactly sure what I meant. “Something that is wordless and shared—an understanding.”
“That means that I’m connected to a whole lot of dorks, Chapo.”
“It also means,” I replied, “that you’re connected to Zatopek, Aztec runners and a million others that have suffered for the sake of running faster.”
“Sounds kinda pointless,” Jon said. “I don’t know, man. Isn’t running just running?”
After a cold and restless night (sleeping doesn’t come easily at 13,000 feet), we stepped into the crisp air and again ran to the volcano’s rim. Rather than dropping down into the crater we slowly picked our way along the jagged ridge, and eventually arrived at the summit. Beyond the veil of the Mexico City haze, the prominent summits of Iztaccihuatl and the violently active Popocatépetl appeared. At 15,000 feet my muscles ached, my lungs burned and my heart attempted to leap from my chest. It was indeed good training.
That evening we drove to the warm, lakefront town of Valle de Bravo, where Holy Week festivities were in full swing. Fireworks exploded over the lake. In the plaza, clowns put on their faces before a growing crowd then performed variations of skits from the Three Stooges and Albert and Costello. The crowd roared with laughter.
Running the cobblestone streets from the central plaza to the outskirts of town, we found a network of dusty trails winding up a small mountain behind the village. Dust billowed out, explosively, with every foot strike. Following several miles on these dusty trails we encountered an athletic complex, where a smallish boxing coach with a punched-in nose roared at two young featherweights. Sit-ups, push-ups, wind-sprints, sit-ups, push-ups, wind-sprints. Jon clicked off a few quick miles in preparation for an upcoming marathon while I stood by with the boxing coach. Noticing Jon’s trailing torso the coach suggested he run with better posture. Jon’s response was to pretend to not speak Spanish.
Our six-day circumambulation of Mexico City and her surrounding volcanoes brought us back to San Miguel on the evening of Good Friday. The holiday which, in America, I’ve experienced as either a non-event or, at most, a solemn one, was being celebrated with fireworks, music, balloons, candy and drinking. Considering the Day of the Dead at the beginning of November, it struck me just then as something uniquely Mexican—the joyous celebration of death.
After some bouncing around we found ourselves at La Cucaracha, where the beer is cheap and the bartenders indifferent. Very little has changed since Kerouac and his beatnik cronies watered here over 50 years ago. On the walls hung crudely painted portraits of bare-breasted women. A jukebox blasted Mariachi music from the corner while the bartender shared a story—an adapted joke, no doubt—with Jon and me:
“A man call me at my house one afternoon ask when the bar open. ‘I open the bar at 8,’ I say. The man he call back sounding a little borracho, you know?, and ask when the bar open. ‘I say I open at 8.’ The man he call back a third time, this time muy borracho and ask me if I can open the bar early today. ‘Estupido borracho!’ I yell at him. ‘You can’t wait to get in?’ ‘I don’t want in to the bar,’ the borracho say to me. ‘I want out!’” The bartender erupted with laughter. That was the last thing I remember from that night.
I awoke on the lawn of a church, and looked over to see the Saturday morning rays slowly cooking Jon in the back seat of the jalopy rental. I was wearing a shirt that said, “I survived the La Cucaracha bathroom,” which I wasn’t entirely sure was true.
We ran the train tracks that afternoon, again, in oppressive, punishing heat. When the hangover gave way to light conversation, we talked about the Beat Generation’s shining prince, Neal Cassady, who lived a rollercoaster life and died alone alongside the rails on a cold night five decades ago. Pneumonia is generally attributed to killing Cassady.
“Not what I heard,” Jon said. “’General congestion of all systems,’ is what they’ve got on file at the hospital.”
“That’s pretty vague,” I replied.
“And he’d been drinking at La Cucaracha that night,” Jon added.
On our final morning there—Easter Sunday—we returned to the Botanical Gardens for a run amidst the cacti and pariah dogs. Armed with stones, we clicked off very quick miles. Five, 10 … eventually 20 miles. By mile 17, Jon had put a quarter mile on me, which, in a nostalgic way, was almost pleasant. The gap was enough of a warning for the old campesino to see me come and go.
We soaked up the “2 o’clock in the afternoon” feeling for the rest of the day and into the night. Music marched up and down the streets. Vendors sold tacos, balloons, popsicles and Coca Cola. Incense floated about like a spirit. “Everything is perfect on the street,” Kerouac wrote.
In the morning, Jon disappeared around the corner, off to the next phase of his life. The thread of running spread distantly between us, between airplanes and cities. Between wives, children, careers, money and age. Running is merely a thread, in the end—a thread between messengers, All-Americans, knock-kneed high schoolers and Tarahumarans. Those who finish first and those who finish last.
Trailhead :: Trail Running Around Mexico City
Seasons. Due to its subtropical location and high elevation, Central Mexico experiences only two seasons—a dry season from November to May and a rainy season from June to October—making it the perfect off-season getaway for winter-weary runners. Plan your trip around festivities for added excitement (Holy Week: first week of April 2012; Dia de Los Muertos: end of October through the beginning of November).
Getting There. Mexico City International Airport is the largest and busiest airport in Latin America. However “easing into” Mexican traffic from a smaller city is recommended. Leon, Guanajuato Airport, only one hour from San Miguel de Allende, is an excellent starting point.
Getting Around. Though bus service is available to nearly every corner of Mexico, you will spend most of your trip dealing with connections and long waits. Car rentals are cheap if you book online and even cheaper if you provide your own insurance (required). Be sure to inspect the car thoroughly and note any damages before leaving the lot!
Resources and Guidebooks. Lonely Planet offers an excellent guidebook for travelers of all budgets. Information includes local history, national parks, trails, restaurants and accommodation. Also check out www.parasalvajes.com.mx for a list of mountain races (site in Spanish only).
Recommended Reading. Mexico has long been inspiration for Mexican writers and expats alike: Under the Volcano, by Malcom Lowry, Lonesome Traveler, by Jack Kerouac, The Labyrinth of Solitude, by Octavio Paz.
Recommended Routes. Stay in a small, private cabin at the “Centro Vacacional” at the base of La Malinche (phone +52.246.462.4098). Food and bedding available. For those looking for a rougher experience, sleep at 13,000 feet partway up Xinantecatl. First come, first serve. Junk food available; bring sleeping bag.