Butterflies and Bandits

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Things have gotten pretty bad in Michoacan (one of the 31 states of Mexico) in recent years. The murder rate has skyrocketed. Politicians are being assassinated in record numbers. Crimes against women are among the highest in the world. The Universities are under siege with students battling against municipalities and against non-students who are clamoring to get in.

A vigilante group who call themselves THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR, organized to fight the ZETA criminal cartel. After a decades long bloody battle, the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR have

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

taken over most of the ZETAs criminal activities and have opened trade with organized crime syndicates all over the world. Now a new vigilante movement has taken hold and there is open warfare between them and the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR and remnants of the ZETAS. Soldiers in the new vigilante movement include members of Latino gangs from the U.S., who have either been deported or who have voluntarily left United States jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.

The Mexican government has sent in federal troupes because the municipalities are corrupt and the police can’t be trusted. The U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings advising citizens to avoid all but essential travel in Michoacan. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling by land in The Mexican state except on federal toll road 15D during daylight hours.

Monarch Sanctuary

Monarch Sanctuary

So my wife Margaret said to me, “Lets visit the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan while we’re in Mexico,” and I said, “Sure, why not.” Ignorance is bliss.

Who wouldn’t want to see the Monarchs? There are undeniable mystical overtones to the Monarch migration, perfect for a writer who dabbles in Magic Realism. Up to a billion of these delicate creatures leave their home in eastern Canada and fly 2,500 miles to the mountains of central Mexico. They arrive when locals are celebrating the Day of the Dead (October 31 to November 2).

Monarchs clustered in pines

Monarchs clustered in pines

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the holiday, it is a remnant of an Aztec festival that was celebrated at the beginning of summer. The Catholic Church tried to eradicate it but was only able to shorten it and move it to a time that coincided with a vaguely similar All Saints Day festival. On the day of the dead, the spirits of the ancestors visit the living. The living throw a party for the occasion with feasts and costumes (mostly skeletons) and parades. The locals in the mountains of Michoacan say the butterflies are the ancestral spirits. The timing is right, and it does seem like quite a coincidence.

There’s more. The typical Monarch life cycle lasts 4 to 5 weeks, starting as an egg, going through the larva period, morphing into a pupa until it reaches the adult stage when it reproduces and then dies. But when summer is over in Canada and temperatures drop drastically, a special generation is born. This new group will fly all the way to Michoacan where they can hibernate, feed, mate, and then travel back home. This different kind of Monarch is known as the Methuselah generation. These migratory Monarchs live as long as eight months. This age old miracle is observable, measurable, and totally without explanation—practically the definition of Magic Realism.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

We hired a driver—I’m so glad we did—who took us to the Butterfly reserve. We climbed the mountain and witnessed millions of Monarchs clustered in the pine trees so thick they bent the branches. When they swarmed, we could hear the sound of thousands of wings moving the air. It was a spectacle I will never forget.

Follow this link to see and hear Monarchs taking flight IMG_0344

I never thought once about the dangers—or knew about them truth be told—until we were on the highway to Morelia, the second part of our trip. The toll booth (yes, they have those in Mexico too) just before we got into the capitol city of Michoacan had been taken over by about 20 young men our driver called “the boys”.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

They were students, he told us, or they would be students if times were better. Until things moderate, they hijack toll booths and demand money before they let cars pass. The going rate was 100 Pesos (about 7 U.S. dollars). There were several Michoacan police cars on the other side of the booth. They didn’t intervene.

“Sometimes the boys get aggressive,” our driver said. “Sometimes they block traffic for hours. This time we were lucky.”

For better or for worse, that’s what it’s like in Michoacan these days. Luck is an inexpensive inconvenience that could have been worse. There are butterflies and there are bandits. Unforgettable, but I don’t think I’ll make that trip again.

 

Evita Peron

Evita's picture displayed on a popcorn stand.

Evita’s picture displayed on a popcorn stand.

Evita (little Eva) Peron’s beginnings were about as humble as a person could get in Argentina. Her father, Juan Duarte, was a rancher who already had a wife and children. He took Evita’s mother, Juana Ibarguaren, as his mistress and started a second illegitimate family that he kept on the edge of poverty in the little town of Junin. Continue reading

A Highway or a Short Story Collection?

Castle Valley on I-70

Castle Valley on I-70

Highway 70 through Utah is basically a series of short stories tied up by a ribbon of cement. It runs through a region of the state called the San Rafael Swell where there were no major roads at all before it was built. There is a 110 mile stretch of the highway where there are no towns and no service for automobiles, but every few miles there is another scenic and historical roadside attraction. Continue reading

The Fashionable Cemeteries of Paris

Crypt in the quarries below Paris.

Crypt in the quarries below Paris.

No matter how many negative things Americans say about the French (and lets face it, the list is pretty long) we have to admit they have a lot of style. Their language sounds like poetry. They have been the vanguard of every art movement dating back to the Renaissance. They know more about wine than anyone else and lead the world in fashion and cooking. Everything in France is pretty or tastes good or both. It should come as no great surprise that the French display elegance even in death.

Jim Morrison's grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Jim Morrison’s grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery

At the end of the 18th century the principal cemetery in Paris (Holy Innocents Cemetery) was closed. It was over crowded and poorly managed and was generally considered to be an esthetic and public health menace. The bones and partially decomposed bodies were cleaned and removed to underground quarries under the city, where they are stored to this day. French entrepreneurs collected the fat from partially decomposed bodies and rendered it into soap and candles. Hopefully all of those products were used up long ago.

Chopin's grave at Pere Lechaise cemetery

Chopin’s grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery

Four new cemeteries replaced the Cimetière des Saints-Innocents: Pere-Lachaise, Montmartre, Montpasse, and Passy.

Pere Lachaise is by far the most famous. This graveyard was named for the confessor to Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise (1624–1709), who lived in the Jesuit house on this site. It took a while for this cemetery to catch on with the fashionable Parisian dead. The first year it was open, Pere-Lachaise had only thirteen occupants.

To stir the interest of the public, the remains of famous Parisians were removed to the cemetery, including two well-known Parisian lovers (another thing the French are famous for). Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil were interned in a specially built

Man and wife retiring for eternity at Montparnasse Cemetery.

Man and wife retiring for eternity at Montparnasse Cemetery.

mausoleum. By tradition, lovers and lovelorn singles leave letters at the crypt in tribute to the couple or in hope of finding true love.

The promotion worked. Today, the cemetery and the ossuary (where bones and cremains are stored after the leases on gravesites have expired) contain what’s left of 3,000,000 bodies. In order to be buried at Pere-Lachaise you have to have an association with France. Dying there is good enough. Jim Morrison is buried this cemetery. His grave has been the subject of a great deal of vandalism. Chopin is also buried at Pere-Lachaise

Surrealistic monument at Montparnasse Cemetery

Surrealistic monument at Montparnasse Cemetery

—no graffiti on his grave, but people still leave flowers.

Many of France’s intellectual and artistic elite are buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. There are traditional monuments to Parisian police and firefighters killed in the line of duty. There is also has a large collection of monuments that depict moments in the lives of the deceased. Some Montparnasse monuments are surrealistic and even abstract.

Elaborate Cemetery Sculpture at Montmartre

Elaborate Cemetery Sculpture at Montmartre

Montmartre Cemetery (originally known as Cemetery of the Quarries) is on the site of an old gypsum quarry, which was used as a mass grave during the French Revolution. Many of the monuments in this cemetery are exquisite (if somewhat depressing) sculptures that look as if they belong in a museum rather than a graveyard.

Passy Cemetery is located in the shadow of the Eifel Tower. It is situated in the

Passy Cemetery, the most exclusive graveyard in Paris

Passy Cemetery, the most exclusive graveyard in Paris

expensive residential and commercial districts of the Right Bank near the Champs-Élysées. by 1874 the small Passy Cemetery had become the aristocratic necropolis of Paris. It is the only cemetery in Paris to have a heated waiting-room (for visitors, not for residents).

Anyone who reads my fiction (Owl Dreams, Magic Popsicle Sticks)—or my blog—knows I have a special place in my heart for cemeteries. I am especially fond of cemetery art, and some of the best funereal sculpture in the world is found in these four cemeteries. I recommend visiting the four famous graveyards of Paris if you are ever traveling in the region. It is easy to see why people are dying to get in.

Museum of the Mummies–Guanajuato

Me posed beside a monument in a Guanajuato  cemetery.

Me posed beside a monument in a Guanajuato cemetery.

I like graveyards. There’s a funeral or at least a burial scene in practically everything I’ve written. I’ve visited famous cemeteries all over the world, including: the St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the Highgate Cemetery in London, and, of course, the Pyramids of Egypt. I like the mysticism, and the elaborate tombstones, and the rituals that are part religion and part performance art.

Many people share my fascination. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend so much time and energy—not to mention money—on funerals and crypts, and all the fantastic graveyard art, especially in the old world cemeteries. Burial is not so much a way of disposing of the dead as it is a last right of passage, out of this world into the next—the

Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico

Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico

final act of the dearly departed after which everything will be different because they are no longer be around.

Every culture has burial and funeral customs. Some of them are solemn and some of them are just plain weird, but everybody has them—even New Age agnostics—and on a very basic level they are all the same. Whether we bury our loved ones under a twenty ton slab of granite or we scatter their ashes on the Appalachian

Standing room only in the Museum of the Mummies

Standing room only in the Museum of the Mummies

Trail, we do something that is meaningful to us, and (we hope) will be meaningful to the loved ones whether they actually know about it or not.

When I learned about the Museo de las Mommias in Guanajuato Mexico I thought: “This is right up my alley.” I thought Mexican mummies must be the product of some ancient Central American pre-Columbian culture. They had pyramids didn’t they? So maybe pyramid cultures came equipped with mummy technology.

Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive)

Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive)

Imagine my surprise. The Guanajuato mummies weren’t the product of an elaborate embalming routine. They were people who were buried in crypts roughly between the years of 1830 and 1958. Most of them died in a cholera outbreak in 1833.

In 1865 the city imposed a local tax for burials. A family could pay a one time fee of 170 pesos and be done with it. If they didn’t have 170 pesos to spare they could elect to pay the city a 50 pesos per year. If they neglected to pay, for any reason, the deadbeat dead were removed from the crypts

Fetal Mummy--advertised as the world's smallest

Fetus Mummy–advertised as the world’s smallest

and stored in a warehouse. Most of the bodies had disintegrated, but about 2% of them had mummified naturally.

The cemetery workers started charging Mexican tourists a small fee to come and view the natural mummies. Bits and pieces of the bodies were taken by tourists as souvenirs. Over the years, the warehouse became a popular destination and eventually the warehouse was turned into a museum.

 In 1958 the tax law was changed and no more bodies were disinterred but by then the museum was going strong. It gained popularity in 1970 with the release of a movie, Santo Versus the Mummies of Guanajuato, starring the popular masked wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán guanajuato.jaramilloHuerta.

The mummies were the inspiration for the short story, “The Next in Line” by Ray Bradbury. In the introduction to his collection, The Stories of Ray Bradbury, the author wrote: “The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”

The mummies have gone on tour in the United States and have been shown in The Detroit Science Center in 2009, The West End Dallas Market in 2011, and The Natural Science

Mummy dressed in modern clothing

Mummy dressed in modern clothing

Center of Greensboro in 2012. The collection includes a fetal mummy (advertised as the world’s smallest) and the mummy of Ignacia Aguilar (who may have been buried alive). Most of the mummies are naked. A few are wearing socks (with shoes and without). Some are fully dressed in what appears to be fairly modern clothing.

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. You can read my fiction and make the comparison yourself. Major scenes in Owl Dreams take place in a cemetery. There are cemetery / burial scenes in Magic Popsicle Sticks and Trial Separation (to be released soon by Pen-L Publishing), and the streets are literally littered with the dead in the Kindle short, “Messages”.

 

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

If you drive through the Texas panhandle you’ll see miles of empty grasslands, feedlots that make you consider becoming a vegetarian, and small towns that look like they could have been where The Last Picture Show was filmed (actually that was Gatesville—nowhere near the panhandle). The scenery is mostly a boring monochromatic yellow interrupted only by billboards advertising free 72 oz. steaks at the Big Texan restaurant.

And then you run across the canyons. I’ve blogged about Palo Duro Canyon already.

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

It’s a stunningly beautiful erosion disaster that inspired Georgia O’Keefe to paint western landscapes. It was also the backdrop for the end of the Red River War. Canyons like Palo Duro seem have no business in the Texas panhandle. I certainly didn’t expect to find a second one. But about a hundred miles Southeast of Amarillo near the small Texas town of Quitaque (pronounced Kit-i-kway) there it is—15,314 acres of the most beautiful erosion disaster I’ve ever seen.

Caprock used to be a great place to hunt buffalo. Indigenous people killed thousands of them there starting about 10,000 years ago. That was before horses and even bows

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

and arrows. Folsom man (named for the Folsom N.M. where their lance points were first discovered) took the animals with spears and atlatls. They also stampeded them over deadfalls. The bison were just as surprised to find canyon in the middle of the grasslands as I was.

The Comanche, the Kiowa, and the Southern Cheyenne moved into the region after horses were introduced by the Spanish. They terrorized the local tribes and were pretty much running things by the time white settlers started moving through the area. The plains Indian era ended when Colonel Ranald (Bad

Caprock Canyon

Caprock Canyon

Hand) Mackenzie recruited the Tonkowa, Ute, and Deleware to help him kill off the plains Indians’ horses and leave them on foot and undersupplied just as winter was setting in. The horse slaughter took place in Palo Duro, but brass cartridges and even artillery shells have been found in several locations in Caprock.

I have to believe Colonel Bad Hand Mackenzie felt bad about killing all those Indian ponies. Ten years after the Red River War he was discharged from the army for “the general paresis of the insane.” Quanah Parker, on the other hand, became the chief of all the Comanche’s on the reservation. He went on hunting trips with

Official Texas Bison Herd

Official Texas Bison Herd

President Teddy Roosevelt and a founded of the Native American Church. While he was busy becoming one of the wealthiest Native Americans of his time, Quanah Parker had time to marry eight wives and have twenty-five children.

I gave many of the Comanche chief’s personality traits to Archie Chatto, Robert Collins and even Hashilli when I wrote Owl Dreams. I used him again in two new novels that will be coming out later this year, Magic Popsicle Sticks, and Trial Separation. I’ve also taken bits and pieces of Rand (Bad Hand)

Caprock Buffalo

Caprock Buffalo

Mackenzie’s life—his mental challenges and his physical handicap—for several of my stories. You’ll recognize them now that you know. When I’m borrowing from reality, I like to borrow from the very best.

Buffalo are grazing in the canyon again. In September of 2011, 80 descendants of the original southern plains bison herd were released in a 700 acre protected area of the canyon. No Comanche’s have been seen in he area, but I wouldn’t count them out just yet.