Crossing The Desert

Crossing The Desert.

But, after all, he has to endure it only twenty-four hours; and what is that compared to the tribute which old Neptune frequently exacts from travelers crossing the Atlantic? The mountains which enclose this wilderness relieve the landscape from complete monotony. Their strange forms offer infinite variety. Without a single break, they line the desert all day long; at times advancing, then retreating, precisely like the rugged shores of an extensive lake. When close at hand, their sunburnt peaks look savage and forbidding; but, at a distance, a soft, mellow haze conceals their harsher features, and renders them as delicate in coloring as an aquarelle.

Desert (Near Laereon)

Desert (Near Laereon).

We could not understand, at first, why railway stations should have been built upon this Mexican desert. The depot was often the only building visible, surrounded by half a dozen scrawny palms, resembling worn-out feather dusters, and dominated by a telegraph pole, cutting its form like a gigantic gibbet against the sky; but, several miles distant from these stations, there is usually a large plantation, or a little town, between which and the railroad regular communication is maintained by means of tram-cars or a stage-coach. One of those stage-coaches I shall never forget. I looked at it as I might have gazed upon an instrument of torture used by the Inquisition. It seemed more perfectly adapted to inflict excruciating misery upon its occupants than any vehicle I had ever seen, even in the remotest districts of old Spain. Could it be possible that after five or six decades of active service in the Mother Country, this coach had been sent out to Mexico? Its springs had originally been of leather, but were now of rope. The doors had, apparently, passed through several desperate conflicts with banditti. The windows had been long since broken out. The white dust lay so thick upon the seats that I at first supposed them to be covered with gray-cloth, until I felt my fingers sink into the powdery mass to reach at last a species of bed-rock, which at some unknown period of the past had been a leather cushion. Yet this was the regular coach between the station and a village forty miles away. Five reckless passengers were about to risk their lives in its interior. The fare was three dollars. I asked if this included the services of an undertaker on arriving at their destination, but could not get a satisfactory reply. After long years of traveling in such vehicles as this, it is not strange that the Mexicans regarded tram-cars, drawn by mules along smooth rails, a priceless luxury, and made no serious objection when the railroads only came within a few miles of their towns.

A Feather Duster Station

A Feather Duster Station.

The Stage Coach

The Stage-Coach.

Soldiers At Station

Soldiers At Station.

A Mexican Private Carriage

A Mexican Private Carriage.

Indeed, tramways in Mexico sometimes connect the railroad with cities thirty or forty miles distant, the longest line - between Vera Cruz and Jalapa - covering a distance of seventy-six miles. Until comparatively recent times, with the exception of the highway built from the coast by Cortez, communication here was chiefly made on horseback. The difficulties of stage-coach traveling were sometimes almost insurmountable. A Mexican gentleman told me that, twenty years ago, a trip from Guadalajara to the capital required (when the roads were good) about six days. "And how long when the roads were bad?" I asked. "Six months," was the reply. Near one of the stations we beheld a group of Mexican horsemen, each thoroughly-armed, and wearing on his head a dark sombrero. These cavaliers were once highwaymen, who held up the stages, robbed the passengers, and rendered traveling here romantic. But President Diaz reformed them. On coming into power, he sent for their leaders and inquired: "My friends, how much does highway robbery pay you on an average every year?" They named a certain sum. "Well," continued the President, "would you not prefer to earn that money honestly and feel that you will die like Christians?" Most of them thought they would, and the interview closed with a promise of a salary of forty dollars a month; in return for which the men agreed to furnish arms and horses, and (as the "Mexican Rural Guards") to keep the country free from bandits. With such protectors who can feel unsafe in Mexico?