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The Test Drive
A trip can challenge any relationship. It's even harder when you're driving through Mexico with your new girlfriend.

By Dave Wielenga
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Driving to Durango, Mexico, is a marvelous, occasionally treacherous journey from the coastal resort of Mazatlan, and the trek over the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains to this historic high-desert mining city makes a fascinating and spiritually balancing side trip from touristy beaches, restaurants and high-rise hotels.

At least that's how I pitched the trip to Kristin. She responded with that cut-the-crap laugh I've come to like. We both knew we were driving to Durango for something more.

We'd been match-made a couple of months before by a mutual friend in Southern California -- Kristin flying out from Chicago, where she's lived all her life; me flying up from Mexico, where I moved three years ago -- and now she'd come to visit me in Mazatlan. Such is fate, or whatever you call it when divorced people in their forties get their hopes up again.

But the scheme to test our budding romance by taking it on the road was entirely premeditated. Such is my belief that traveling with someone you think you could love is the best way to determine if they are someone you can stand.

* * *

It's about 180 miles from Mazatlan to Durango, but the drive takes six to seven hours. The two-lane highway, known as Carretera 40 on the map but called Camino de Tres Mil Curvas (Road of 3,000 Curves) by the locals, twists dizzyingly upward through mountains of more than 8,000 feet.

You share this ribbon of pavement with long, slow trucks and buses. It's bad enough when those plodding arks are on your side of the road, which has few turnouts and thus pins your progress to a harrowing test of passing skills. But when they're on the other side of the road, they're still on your side -- that is, they often can't negotiate the tight turns without sweeping out across your lane, typically just on the other side of a blind curve.

I was eager to set out before daybreak so we could get some easy miles behind us, start climbing the mountains at first light and reach Durango in time for lunch. Kristin? Not so eager. She explained she's not a morning person, especially on vacation.

This wasn't just our first red flag. It was a total repudiation of my core values. I've been an early-starting long-hauler since childhood. My truck-driver father began every family vacation at 4 a.m., and the first-day destination always lay beyond the fold of the maps he distributed to his groggy kids in the back seat. When I opened my mouth to say something to Kristin, however, this is what came out: "Okay."

I actually derived a guilty pleasure from the dawdling breakfast we shared at a seaside cafe in Mazatlan's beautiful Centro Historico-- although I couldn't stop doing velocity-times-distance equations in my head, obsessively recalculating our ETA in Durango as hours of precious traveling time slipped away.

We finally hit the road just before noon. I yearned to make up for lost time but knew it would be unforgivable to sacrifice the pleasure -- hell, the purpose -- of a Mexican road trip by punching straight through to Durango. It had been only an hour when we neared the quaint 16th-century mining outposts of Concordia and Copala, but I bit my lip, hit the blinker and turned off the highway.

Concordia's mines played out long ago, but the 441-year-old settlement still bustles. The roadsides are dotted with stands offering the local specialties: mangos, pottery and highly polished wood furniture. We resisted until we reached the main square, where we savored a couple of raspados (shaved ices) before spending a few moments in the beautiful old church of San Sebastian.

Copala, a half-hour farther up the highway, is smaller and comparatively comatose. Kristin and I noticed each other's amazement as we slowly descended on a shaded cobblestone road, past an old cemetery -- and a sleeping dog, then a scurrying pig, then a grazing cow -- until we arrived at the plaza in front of the romantically disintegrating church of San Jose. We simultaneously "awww'ed" at the boys on small burros offering rides for a few pesos. We cracked up to discover that every restaurant offers the same dessert -- coconut banana-cream pie -- thanks to the influence of an American settler. As we left Copala and set out in earnest for Durango, we were holding hands.

* * *

Kristin insisted she never gets carsick. I always brag about that, too. So we were feeling pretty good about ourselves as we began to tilt-a-whirl through the piney-aired greenery and stark brightness of the sun at high altitude. There were places we looked back, down through the clouds, at the sea level we'd left behind. One of them, a narrow land bridge with a profound drop on either side, is appropriately called Espinazo del Diablo -- Devil's Spine. After about an hour of this, we both felt like throwing up.

For all my bluster about a cast-iron stomach, I'd considered bringing Dramamine. For all of hers, Kristin actually did. As we gulped down the tablets, we were feeling even better about ourselves.

Meanwhile, the highway took us back in time, through a string of tiny mountain settlements where villagers live in one-room homes of wood, stone or cinder block, grow corn on steep hillsides and graze their livestock amid the tall trees. Some featured humble hotels, llanteras (tire shops) and comedores (in this case, diners with floors of cement, wooden planks or, sometimes, bare earth).

We took a bathroom break at Comedor Las Flores and nearly busted our guts waiting for a group of yakkity truckers to pay their tabs so we could get the key. It was too early to eat, but the cook took our picture next to the wood-burning stove in her primitive, clean kitchen -- right in front of a clothesline hung heavily with red, raw skirt steaks waiting their turn over the flames.

Eventually, the twirling climb ended and we headed east along easy rolling terrain. There were more villages, the scraggly logging towns of La Ciudad (where we set our watches an hour ahead) and El Salto Lake (entrance to the camping and hunting of Puerto de Los Angeles State Park) and various hideaways with rustic cabins for rent (such as Sierra Paradise and El Tecuan State Park). We took notes for some future visit and got a thrill talking about it -- the future, that is.

Our mood was as easy as the scenery. Kristin and I exchanged observations on the natural beauty, speculated whether the isolated inhabitants were to be pitied or admired, wondered about the thoughts of a young Indian girl in native dress watching the cars go by from the roadside and gasped at the huge cow that was suddenly standing in our lane. Sometimes we were silent.

But during another stretch, Kristin had us playing an alcohol-free version of her old college drinking game, in which we competed to be the first to guess the next rhyming word in country songs.

* * *

Durango lies in a high desert valley, where craggy orange buttes explode majestically from the earth like silent, petrified mushroom clouds. The pastel light that cascades from them is magical. Legend says that when Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa hid out here, he traded his soul to the devil for mastery over other men.

Yet as you descend from the mountains, the first sight of the city does not seem the proper reward for such a long drive. It looks like a scattered pile of colored stones and white scraps of paper. Even at the city limits, it's rough-edged, disheveled. Approaching El Centro, however, everything changes.

Durango was founded in 1563, and its defining architecture survives from the 17th and 18th centuries; the entire city is a national historic landmark. But the charm of its grand buildings, narrow streets and quirky shops does not inhibit its ability to function in the here and now. Its cathedral, its museums, its main plazas and its artisans mostly serve the 430,000 residents, rather than existing merely as tourist attractions. There aren't enough tourists for that -- Durango's accessibility is limited by mountains on one side, desert on the other and infrequent airline service to the United States. Nonetheless, accommodations are plentiful and comfortable and span the gamut of prices, services and tastes.

We spent our first night in the Posada San Jose, a converted 18th-century mansion. It captured us the instant we walked through its sun-bleached pink exterior into a dazzlingly restored courtyard. Choosing our room was touchy, however.

Kristin emphasized that she's a light sleeper, so when we heard a band rehearsing at a nearby club, she opted for the other side of the hotel. Our junior suite had a bathtub, cable television and a balcony -- which hung over a street that rumbled and honked with loud traffic long after the band stopped playing. She didn't sleep well.

Me neither, after getting gluttonous during dinner at Los Farolitos, a side-street spot famous with the locals for its flour-tortilla tacos. The waitress warned us they were big. Kristin prudently ordered one of carne asada (grilled skirt steak). I insisted on one each of beef, chicken and queso con rajas (cheese with strips of green chile). We went to a pharmacy for my dessert -- a couple of shots of Pepto-Bismol. I whined and apologized all the way back to the hotel for ruining our under-the-stars stroll around Plaza de Armas. Kristin just patiently rubbed my stomach.

We switched hotels the next night, moving to the sweetly faded glory of the Hotel Reforma. Its art deco stylings -- played out in the lobby's sweeping staircase, angular windows and burnished-wood wall -- vouched for its former greatness. Its shuttered restaurant, worn checkerboard linoleum and occasionally rickety fixtures conceded to the passage of time. But its impeccable cleanliness, the firm freshness of its beds and the attentiveness of the staff asserted an undiminished pride.

Meanwhile, our one full day in Durango began with a short jog. We were hoping for an endorphin rush after our long day in the car, but we ended up gasping for oxygen in the thin air and choosing our steps carefully on the uneven sidewalks.

Then came the search for breakfast, both of us very hungry and soon very cranky. Kristin's non-morning persona was showing as she approached 24 hours without coffee. She got quieter and quieter, which has always ticked me off.

My inability to just choose a restaurant -- weirdly, the hungrier I am, the pickier I become -- was driving her nuts. Finally, we surrendered to the local link in the Sanborn's coffee shop chain. It saved our day -- or rather, the rich coffee and real cream did. I took a picture of Kristin taking her first sip: pure bliss.

Renewed, we set out on the basic tour of every Mexican city -- from main church to main plaza to main government building to surrounding museums -- which is somehow different everywhere you go. Durango is an easy town to get around in. Walking is the best way to see the central city, but buses are efficient and cheap, too. The focal point is Plaza de Armas, a clean and lively zocalo (central plaza) flanked by the beautiful Catedral Basilica Menor, Palacio Municipal and Palacio de Gobierno -- the simultaneously awesome and tranquil legacy of Durango's rich mining history. During our strolls we came across a shoeshine boy with an astounding knowledge of 1970s classic rock, a vintage photography exhibit and a free concert in Plaza del Centenario, and gift shops filled with items bearing images of the scorpions that infest this territory.

Yet just as riveting as Durango's traditional history is its place in pop culture, reviewed in the Museo del Cine (Museum of the Cinema). Moviemaking in Durango goes back more than 100 years, and during the glory days of Hollywood westerns the studios trundled in their biggest stars -- including Clark Gable, Lillian Gish, Burt Lancaster, Maureen O'Hara, John Wayne, Jack Nicholson, John Belushi and John Travolta, not to mention Durango-born Dolores Del Rio. Many of the sets, called escenarios , still stand a few miles out of town. One of them, Villa de Oeste, is an official attraction, where gunfights and barroom brawls are reenacted on weekends.

We opted to swing through Chupaderos, where Hollywood make-believe and Mexican make-do have combined in the most-intimate way -- people have moved their families into the old sets. The scene was desolate and peculiar in a "Twilight Zone" way, these people living at the foot of frozen explosions of ancient rock in Wild West-style buildings bearing signs such as "Efren's Guns" or "Wells Fargo" or "Cantina." But then, at the edge of Chupaderos, by the phony cemetery, kids were squealing as they played on a swing set and slide. Somehow, it all seemed to make sense.

That was the feeling Kristin and I shared as we drove out of Durango toward the horizon. We reflected on how well we'd gotten along and wondered about our own Hollywood ending. We decided that like those old western serials, our story was "To Be Continued."

About a week later, I booked a flight to Chicago.

Dave Wielenga is a Southern California journalist who has been living, traveling and teaching English in Mexico for three years. He's currently looking for work in Chicago.

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