The Ugly Americans
by Tracy Werth
My husband Dan and I bought a used ’83 Ram Van with all the trimmings. Foldout couch in the back, four captain’s chairs you could swivel to encircle a round table, pull-down blinds over the windows for privacy. Compared to the pup tent we had been packing into the tiny trunk of our old Ford Escort on weekend getaways, this thing was heaven.
“I’ve got Good Friday off,” Dan said as we shopped for a booster seat for our son. At three, Michael finally weighed enough to escape the confines of his old car seat that turned into a tiny sauna on trips, plastering his thick blond hair to his head. “John and his wife had a blast in Rocky Point last weekend. Remember how cheap we got those giant shrimp that time we drove down there six years ago?”
Now, camping and car trips were our only vacations after I insisted on not going back to work after the birth of our son. Eight-hour drives to LA, where a variety of relatives offered up spare bedrooms, were always fun, cheap trips. Seeing Disneyland through the eyes of our son or camping next to Oak Creek ended up being much more fun than the boring fly-to-Vegas-and-blow-money-trips I used to let Dan drag me on for years pre-parenthood. He had even stopped wearing long hair after I became pregnant, getting regular haircuts from an elderly white-smocked barber in a shop with a spiraling striped pole outside.
I watched as Dan counted out the cash for the blue corduroy and plastic booster seat at the checkout stand. “We could camp on the beach cheap in Mexico,” I agreed, excited at the idea of doing something different for our next trip. Dan and I had done the obligatory Mexico trips most Phoenicians experience before Michael came along. Shopping for fake pre-Columbian statues and eating turtle soup in Nogales a couple of times before once braving a trip further south to see the seashore in half the time it would have taken us to get to California. Scare stories we had heard about going further into Mexico turned out to be totally unfounded; every Mexican citizen we encountered was friendly.
Thursday I gathered clothes for our weekend on the Mexican coast along with supplies of food and bottled water and our birth certificates, as if any U.S. border guard would look twice at such a light-haired trio.
“Say ‘mucho gracias’,” I instructed Michael, who imitated me in his predictably precious toddler voice.
We left early Friday morning, singing along to taped Disney songs during the three-hour ride through scrub brush and tiny towns of Arizona. At the border, two Mexican guards asked us our destination.
“Puerto Penasco,” I said in my best Mexican accent, not wanting to insult the men in their own country by using the American slang name of the town. Both guards broke into wide grins and tipped their hats as they waved us through.
The road was now a narrow, gray gash across an even more barren landscape than the wide, blacktopped highway that had lead us to the southern edge of the Arizona desert. “Only another hour,” Dan said, pulling out the Silly Symphony tape that had lulled Michael to sleep, his brawny body slumping over the padded front of his new booster. At least his old seat had wings on the side for his head to lean against.
Fifteen minutes south of the border, we spied an antique ambulance parked on the side of the road. Reluctantly, Dan slowed to a stop for the woman wearing an old-fashioned nurse’s uniform, standing where a yellow dividing line would be on a U.S. highway. The Mexican woman didn’t say a word as she held out a large, white can with a red cross painted on its side and U.S. money in it. Dan pulled out his wallet and dropped three ones into the can.
“Mucho gracias.” The woman smiled before Dan pushed on the gas to slowly accelerate away from the mordita.
I looked back to see if Michael was stirring, ready to hand him a bag of Cheerios or a box of juice from the ice chest below his feet. “Think they keep track of who gives money? Maybe they don’t send help if you have an accident and didn’t pay,” I wondered out loud.
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” Dan said. Michael still slept, undisturbed because of the lack of any traffic noise to wake him. We hadn’t seen but one or two other cars on the road since the border.
Dan drove the kilometer speed limit posted on the only sign we’d seen so far, but slowed down slightly as we came upon a group of men on the opposite side of the street. Six federales in identical green uniforms surrounded two Mexican men with their arms raised in answer to the wicked-looking weapons several of the soldiers aimed at them. The rifles looked like machine guns I’d seen in old war movies.
Dan and I kept our eyes as straight ahead as possible. Fortunately, no one from the group even looked at us as we passed. I don’t think Dan or I took a single breath until we were several minutes away from the strange scene.
I glanced back at my sleeping son and out the rear windows of the van at the empty desert whizzing by. “What the hell was that?”
Dan shook his head. “I don’t think I want to know.”
We were both relieved when the road finally approached signs of civilization. The faded asphalt fell away into just dirt, but at least Puerto Penasco was an actual town with a gas station, hotels and stores. Figuring to fill up while we had the chance, I asked a young boy wiping our windshield, which way we should go to find camping on the beach. He gave me directions in perfect English and I pressed two dollars into his hand as Dan climbed back into the van. The boy peered into a 35-foot RV at the next pump and I realized that the humongous house on wheels that sat empty in a driveway most months was a hundred times nicer than the home he lived in everyday.
Following the boy’s directions, we drove toward a sandy, open peninsula with a cute cantina and a sign that said camping was five dollars. Michael woke up, rubbing his eyes as Dan paid the fee. “Are we there yet?” Michael asked, looking out the window at the white and blue surf splashing up on the sand just two hundred yards away.
“Sure are,” I said. “Looks like we have our pick of spots too.”
Dan drove to the end of the spit of land and parked the van. I freed Michael from his strapped-in seat and instructed him to sit on the couch while his father and I unpacked a folding table and three chairs. In minutes we were relaxing in paradise. Michael sat settled in the sand with his shovel and pail building something while I kept one eye on him, the other on a paperback novel. Dan worked on setting up the lantern for later.
Neither Dan nor I had gone to college, so the concept of “spring break” meant nothing to us until an hour later as our secluded beachfront slowly came under siege from an unending wave of rowdy ASU students speeding across the sand on dune buggies and ATVs. The sun had started its final dip into the Pacific as the nearby cantina flowered into full swing with flowing Tecate and tequila. Our first full view of a male college student urinating in the sand just yards from our once beautiful campsite had Dan and me belting Michael into his new booster seat before hastily re-stowing our camping equipment.
With three-fourths of the sun still above the blue horizon, we had enough light to head down the coast to search out a small, secluded campground. We parked the van in front of the white-stuccoed office building where a young Mexican woman chucked Michael under his chubby chin before assigning us a campsite.
Each spot had its own water spigot and a spectacular view of the Sea of Cortez. Most of the other occupants of the campground were friendly retired American couples in older campers and trailers with long fishing poles leaning up against them. Dan unpacked the wood stuffed beneath the van’s sofa bed in preparation for a fire in the rock-encircled pit after the sun made its final dip into the sea.
“You wanna go for a walk on the beach?” he asked after finishing a perfect pyramid of kindling for later. We each held Michael’s hand and headed toward the water before letting go so he could play tag with the incoming tide. On the way back to the campground, Dan and I stopped short at the sight of three uniformed Mexican soldiers strolling along the upper beach past die-hard sunbathers and anglers, none of whom seemed to take notice of the gun-toting group.
We hurried back to eat dinner in the dusky sea air before wrapping up the final hours of the evening in front of a glowing fire as the moon took over for the sun. Our fellow campers retreated into their aluminum homes and we soon followed, climbing beneath the sheets of our foldout bed with Michael tucked between us.
In the middle of the night, we woke up to the battlefield sounds of exploding bullets. “What the hell is that?” I whispered to Dan, as Michael still slept, his mouth open like a hungry baby bird.
Dan pulled up the back window blind as the dark sky lit up with a chorus of small flashes. “They’re shooting off bottle rockets from that beach we were at earlier.” He climbed out of the van to look up at the white explosions. “I need a drink of water.”
“Make sure you drink out of the water from home,” I warned. The exploding fireworks and party sounds from down the beach continued for hours and I couldn’t fall sleep until the sun was ready to reappear.
When Michael and I finally woke up, Dan was outside frying bacon in a cast iron skillet on our dented green Coleman stove. Inside the van, I got the two of us dressed and grabbed the overnight bag that held our toothbrushes. Standing beside our site’s spigot, I brushed my teeth and helped Michael with his blue Mickey Mouse toothbrush.
I gave Michael a box of plastic dinosaurs to play with as I looked out across the clean blue water washing up on the sand. “You didn’t want to stay another night, did you?” I asked Dan.
He handed me a plate of scrambled eggs. “I wouldn’t mind spending tonight in a real bed. Wanna explore a little after breakfast though?”
“Sure. Then we can hit the embarcadero and load up the ice chest with shrimp before we head home. Maybe some red snapper, too.”
The three of us wandered in and out of the souvenir shops along the waterfront-shopping district, paying the first asking price for a big-nosed guitar-playing marionette, a rainbow-striped blanket and a mahogany looking carving of a turtle. Across the street were booths fronted by iced trays of staring whole fish and pink jumbo shrimp. Dan and I held Michael’s hand to cross but were forced to jump back as swimsuit-clad students sped past us on ATVs.
After filling our cooler with shrimp and snapper, we strapped Michael into his seat. Dan put on the Little Toot tape for Michael to sing along with to pass the hour drive to the border. We were still twenty minutes from the invisible line between Mexico and Arizona when Michael suddenly spewed vomit all over himself, his plastic T-Rex and his new blue booster seat.
“Oh my baby,” I said, jumping from my seat to crouch next to Michael so I could wipe his mouth. After an eternity, he finally stopped crying in between vomiting and my futile attempts to clean the upholstery with wet wipes. I changed Michael into clean clothes.
Dan turned to me as I pulled open a second box of wipes. “Here comes the border. Better get back in your seat.”
Stopped at the entrance to the U. S., Dan answered questions through the van window asked by an unsmiling American immigration official. “Bringing back? Just souvenirs. And some fish and shrimp.”
“Pull over to the side and open up the van,” the dark-eyed border agent instructed Dan. Oblivious to the scent of any trouble, Michael pleasantly played with a plastic dinosaur. I reached to open the lid of the blue ice chest to prove that we weren’t smuggling anything as the man walked to the passenger side of the van to open double doors where Michael sat in his stained seat.
Looking at the serious expression of the official, I could gauge to the second when the smell of old puke hit the man square in his stern face. The agent’s hand flew to close off his nose as he simultaneously shut the van’s doors. “Go ahead; you’re fine,” he said in a strangled voice, his fingers still pinching his nostrils.
In silence, I watched as the wide Arizona highway opened up before us, thinking that if not for the financial angle, I have a feeling the Mexicans would be the ones putting up the fences.
Tracy Werth has been many things over the years from factory worker to legal secretary although she turned down an offer from a carnival to appear as “Susie the Headless Girl.”
Her proudest label is “writer,” accomplished due to encouragement from the incredible instructors in the Phoenix College Creative Writing Program.