"Somebody in my office got the idea we should drive the road before the Olympics, find out what it'll be like for all the American drivers going down in September."
"For the what?"
"For the Olympics."
"Oh, s�," the inspector said, "I heard about that." He slapped the back of the car as one would slap the rump of a pony to tell him to be off. We drove till dark and found ourselves still an hour away from our first night's stopping place: the little town of Santa Ana in the desert state of Sonora. Everyone we had talked to—the Triple-A lady, the Mexican insurance agent, the American border officials—had warned us not to drive in Mexico after dark. "Sheer suicide," the insurance man had said. "If you don't hit a cow, you'll hit an unlighted car." But we were only 50 miles from Santa Ana, and we had a choice between sleeping on the desert floor and using up our snakebite kit on the first night out or proceeding through the black Mexican night to Santa Ana. We proceeded, at a speed of about 30 mph.
Soon the lights of Santa Ana appeared ahead and, as we tooled into the outskirts of town, we came to the edge of a river about 50 yards in width. There was no bridge, so far as I could see, and no ferry. Mexican National Highway No. 2 went to the water's edge and quit. The water bubbled and gurgled, and little flecks of secondhand light glittered from the crests of the rapids. A Mexican walked up to the car and beckoned us to drive on into the river. "Not me, Buster," I said, and nervously handed him a pack of cigarettes purchased for just such an emergency, when the goodwill of the peasantry would be sorely needed. I looked again, but the river was still there. The Mexican had begun to talk haltingly. "You go wife first," he seemed to be saying, "and then you know something." Gradually he gave me to understand that anybody with any sense at all would send the wife on ahead. If she sank, the river was unsafe for the car. Just then an old pickup truck bearing Mexican license plates and no running lights came bumping down the road and plunged into the river without slowing down. I jumped behind the wheel and followed, and we drove into Santa Ana in triumph, with river water streaming from the trunk. Our first day's drive in the strange land was a success. "Tomorrow you ride with your shoes off," I said giddily to my wife. "There might be more rivers."
We drove for a total of eight days in Mexico, anticipating the thousands of Americans who will pile into their cars in September and October and head for the Olympic Games, the first time since 1932 that this feat has been possible by automobile. We took the western route into Mexico City, the same route that Californians will have to take, and returned to the U.S. via the eastern route, through Monterrey to the southern tip of Texas, to find out what the drive will be like for Americans from points east of El Paso. We found out, all right. The drive will be an adventure. Something different will happen each day. You will want to abandon the trip and turn back at least 100 times. And another 100 times on the second day, and the third. If you persist in driving like a gringo, a norteamericano, you had better have plenty of insurance and a clear conscience. Perhaps, like the man from Berwyn, Ill., you will top a slight rise and slam into a burro and wipe out your new car. Or, like the man from McAllen, Texas, you will break up your car against a wandering cow. Or, like the three priests from Colorado, you might crack up against the back of an unlighted truck at night. The Mexican highways are a barrel of fun, a laugh riot—if you live. And even if you live, you can find yourself in plenty of trouble over nothing. An American photographer was a passenger in a car that swerved to miss a horse and plowed into a tree; when the photographer awoke after two days of unconsciousness he found himself in a hospital under armed guard. Another American was engaged in an accident with a politician from Quer�taro and was held by the police for a week, while his wife went back into the U.S. to get the money to buy the politico a new Ford Galaxie. Mexico has the Napoleonic Code; you're guilty until proved innocent, and sometimes even then. Killing a pedestrian is an automatic case of homicide; you find yourself immediately in jail trying to prove that you did not run down the victim intentionally or carelessly.
To be sure, not one American in 100 finds himself involved with the Mexican law, but the possibility is always there, and it keeps one on the defensive and continually flits around the back of one's consciousness. Take the matter of the dove. We were spinning along south of Hermosillo toward one of the dozens of roadside inspection stations that are the most prominent feature of Mexico's campaign to cut down on narcotics transport in the Olympic year. For North Americans, these stops are mere formalities, and usually one is waved on with a cavalier gesture or questioned briefly by smiling officials who quickly say, "Awkay, dawkay, you can gaw!"
We had been running at about 75 mph on a straight stretch of highway marked for 62, and we had driven through an arrant flock of doves and heard the sickening thump of one of them careening into the roof line of the car and going to his maker in a puff of little gray feathers. Minutes later we were pulling into the check station and handing the official our car papers. He accepted the papers indifferently and pointed to the roof rack. "La paloma," he said.
"Comment?" I said. People in uniform always fluster me. He beckoned me to take a look, and I got out.
"La paloma" he said. I saw the dove jammed between the roof rack and the roof. His little head hung at a bizarre angle. A tiny streak of blood was on his beak. His eyes were flat and dry.