1 and sheer cliff faces, is a forbiddingly beautiful place. “This is the roughest country I have ever taken a trek,” Cheatham announcedafter we had begun our trip. We had no reason to doubt him. For the first thirty hours, we ate nothing. Cheatham showed us various edible seed pods and grasses, but mostly, we walked. By the second night, everyone in the group had a grumbling stomach, so Cheatham gave us each a handful of raw corn. Corn was permissible, he said, because it was cultivated by native Americans for hundreds of years before Columbus. The next day, we woke to a drizzling rain that grew into a gully-washing downpour, as our cooking fire merged with a nearby stream. The corn cakes that had been cooking quickly disintegrated into runny mush, slumping toward the Gulf of Mexico. Rather than sulk in the open, most of the groupcold, tired and hungry huddled under rocks. The following night, a rattlesnake slithered up to our favorite New Yorker’s bedthough it quickly moved on, Sacks was less than thrilled. Thereafter, he clapped and sang out whenever he walked into the brush, explaining penises. I was glad we were not attempting an exact re-creation of the Jumano culture. Nonetheless, like the Jumano, we foraged for cat-tail roots, berries of the brazeal bush, and the fruits of the prickly-pear cactus. Called “tuna” by the Mexicans, the :uit of the prickly pear was our most plentiful food source. Covered by a thin, thorny skin, the inner meat of the beet-colored fruit has a tangy, slightly sweet taste. Mexican cooks use them in cold drinks and in picadillo, a meat filling. We ate them rawa lot of them. Cheatham’s own favorite food was strawberry cactusthe dessert of the desert. The pulp of the strawberry cactus, he told us, tastes just like strawberry ice cream. The sweet, seedy pulp was a welcome break from the prickly-pear fruit, and Cheatham’s description was at least close; its taste bore about the same relation to strawberry ice cream as bark does to root beer. The plants kept the 1punger pangs at bay, but fhey couldn’t prevent the inevitable. It was Sacksa graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of Americawho began, with a description of his grandmother’s sweet noodles. Soon, while our bodies followed Cheatham through the desert, our imaginations were occupied with planning meals we would never see. I craved breakfast: orange juice, hot biscuits and coffee with cream. On to lunch, then dinner, each of us suppressing our hunger in a salivary safari. Prerequisites for each meal were tall, sweaty pitchers of ice water, but each menu-maker kept a particular food in mind. The investor longed for pancakes. I longed for cold pasta salad. In the nearly waterless desert we all dreamed of cold swimming pools, iced tea, and shadedeep, dark shade. There was precious little shade to be had. We were in the middle of the vast Chambers Ranch, seventy square miles of terrain so rugged that the cowboys on the ranch ride mules instead of horses, a land so sparse that a single cow requires one hundred grazing acres. From the ranch house to the nearest pavementin Candelaria, Texasis a bumpy, hour-long ride. The ranch, a mixture of volcanic rock that he was “scaring the snakes away.” Cheatham eventually led us to a new campsite, where he had earlier stashed some beans, venison jerky, and dried fruit. The infusion of calories improved our sag ging morale, and it seemed to hold up through the following day, as we rested, took short hikes, and bathed in the shallow pools of the canyon. The next morning, we walked a few miles through steep canyon country, finally returning to the ranch house. The closer we got to civilizationthe world of air-conditioning and supermarketsthe happier I got. Still, I began to realize I’d spent an entire week without alcohol, ice, meat, bread, packaged food, soft beds, clean clothes, or television, and I’d survived quite well. I’d watched meteor showers streak across the desert sky. There were crystal clear dawns and blistering afternoons, followed by cool, shaded sunsets. I’d learned how to make fire using only a bow drill, and come to some understanding of how hard it was for native Americans and the early settlers simply to survive. A few hundred yards from the ranch house, I stopped and listened to one of the vaqueros. Riding up the trail on his mule, he sang a Mexican folk song; his clear voice SAM HURT carried down the trail and echoed throughout the canyon. I began to forget my hard desert bed, and my insa tiable hunger. Would I follow Scooter Cheatham through the desert again? Hell no. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. ANDERSON & COMPANY COFFEE TEA SPICES TWO JEFFERSON SQUARE AUSTIN, TEXAS 78731 512 453-1533 Send me your list. Name Street City Zip THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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