Cactus Hill (Justin Stewart)
Gutierrez was fat in a way where all his tattoos stretched toward each other; everything was rounded. A Mexican-American man in his mid-40s who had been living on family land since his father had died. The land was cactus and scrub, mesquite flats, and distant lifts that gave thermals to soaring birds, mostly black and turkey vultures. Outside Laredo, exactly 13 miles past the only intersection in Mirando City, Gutierrez greeted me at the gate. “Welcome to South Texas,” he said. “How was the drive?”
His family has been here for centuries, GUTIERREZ written over sections and sections of original Spanish land grants. He had pointed this out to me in the framed maps along the hallway before I dropped my bags. I had never been on this much private land and I had never harvested drugs of any kind, let alone a cactus they call peyote. From the living room he asked if I was hungry and if I drank tequila. I said yes as I shut my door while he walked toward the kitchen light. I needed to clean up.
I’ve been self-employed for much of my life and for the last seven years I’ve been a freelance writer making most of my money from Texas newspapers and magazines. I’m almost a journalist; people pay me to cover all things Texas. In the big state this may cover rodeo, BBQ cuisine, interviews with famous musicians and even politics. One cook I sat with last July flips burgers and opens lone-star-long-necks an hour southeast of here in Hebbronville. Big Mamma is the man’s name and Frank’s is a greasy pool hall full of racy photos. The most memorable being a black and white nude poster of Marilyn Monroe next to the jukebox. Big Mamma turns 100 this year; that’s considered a good story in Texas - at least Texas Monthly thought so.
I’m on the border for a story about a Native American medicine man who goes through parts of The Valley every year to get peyote for sacred ceremonies. He is a “peyotero,” which means one that gathers the plant, or medicine. “They cut off the crown of the plant, the buttons,” Gutierrez said. “They grow back. They called me today and they always come the next morning at sunrise.”
A man named Luis Manuel arranged this freelance. He is a wealthy philanthropic man from this very land who put me in contact with Gutierrez. I met Luis at the historic Driskill Hotel in Austin almost a year ago, drank some neat bourbon on rawhide couches. Apparently his surname can also be found on those original land grants yet much of it has been sold off by his siblings. Luis Manuel still owns a half section atop a long ridge, lifted above the rest. Initially thought to be the dregs of the family land, Manuel said he didn't argue when the portion was divided because he liked the breeze and views from up there. “Back in the 70s this land was worthless by my older brother’s measure,” he told me over our second drink. “They had it accessed for mineral rights after my father died and it came in dead last, so it became my portion,” he smiled. “Turns out the breeze I remembered is ideal for wind farming too. In the last 5 years we have squeezed over 200 wind turbines up there. It’s a big industry in South Texas,” Manuel said. “West Texas too. For every spin I make a dollar, and they spin all day.”
He proceeded to tell me about Apache Indians that lived authentically along the border. I told him he should write a story. “You're the writer," he smiled. Luis Manuel is a multi-millionaire.
Gutierrez was sitting in sturdy patio furniture outside the back door on a partly covered concrete slab. Big moths were at the fluorescent light well above us and the night was desert-still and cooling. I sat next to him at a bowl covered by a plate at a table not far from the sliding glass door. “The plate keeps the beans hot,” he said. The tequila was poured and some of the ice had melted with the lime making it refreshing and drinkable.
In the plate that was on my beans I discarded portions of jalapeño and pork fat that I could not handle. “My father was close friends with the medicine man,” he said, squeezing a lime on the beans and throwing it into the darkness. “How old is he?” I asked. “He’s old, I don’t know how old, maybe 80 or 90. He doesn’t talk much. He helped my father deliver most of us in this house right here. I’d see him laugh and carry on with my father, usually on horseback when they were working; he was always quiet in the house. He is still a quiet old man, but he walks up the hill. It’s not a big hill and I don’t know why they grow there. He went alone for decades but now he brings others to help with all the bending over. He still walks up the hill though; I watch them from the gate every year.” He grabbed another lime from the bowl.
“We’d go up there as kids to look at the plants but I never saw anything, I never felt nothing. My father drank their tea and so does my sister, but I never have. They never asked me. But a couple of years ago my uncle trailered some horses over for a family party, a fiesta to celebrate our father’s life. I climbed my fat ass on a mare after some of these,” he tilted his tumbler. “The house was loud with women and children. My sister, who still ranches outside Miranda City, rode with me to the spring like we were kids, and while the horses ate grass I told her I wanted to go up Cactus Hill. My life had changed after my father died. We rode up there and it was quiet. I cried some when I looked back at the ranch house and my sister even saw me. The hill made me think about my life, how it goes by so quickly. You should meet my sister on your way back tomorrow, she got the most of my grandmother’s blood. She got her nose, you know, high cheekbones.”
We were waiting at the FM gate 30 minutes before the May sunrise and mockingbirds were already calling. A big G was welded into the entry gate and giant agaves flanked both sides. The coffee was still plenty hot in an insulated metal mug he said I could keep. Gutierrez had opened the gate and was returning to the truck when a worn blue dodge ram slowed off the FM pavement as the black tires rolled through the red dirt. There were two men on the bench seat separated by a little dark-haired girl, and a wiry teenage boy in the bed of the truck. The old man nodded through the open window and Gutierrez shook the driver’s hand. The boy was behind the driver reclined on the spare tire, leaning against the cab. Gutierrez closed the gate, got up into the truck and we pulled ahead. “They are in a good mood today,” he laughed. “I told them you write stories,” he said. They followed us a long time, through many gates, the last one being open and we crossed over the cattle guard; the hill was right there.
Flannel shirt, blue jeans, and work boots, the old man got out of the truck with a smile and a wave as he turned to the hill and started walking, the girl was not far behind. No hat, no silver, just a hand shovel in his back pocket.
The rest of us convened briefly at the back of our truck and Gutierrez sat on the tailgate that he opened. I listened to the men talk in Spanglish. The little dark-haired girl continued to trail behind the medicine man whose hands were out like he was walking through high grass. Gutierrez told the driver that I had a camera and that I’d like to see the blooming cactus. The driver nodded all but his green eyes, “El vieijo says the peyote is leaving your hill, Gutierrez, looking for higher and cooler ground, but it is still a good hill.” We all looked out toward the old man and the girl trailing up the side of the cactus hill. “Vamanos,” the driver said, and we followed. Gutierrez adjusted his weight on the tailgate.
The driver dropped his backpack on the side of the hill at a little limestone outcrop. He called me over and pointed to three or four clusters of coral-colored blooming peyote cactus. “Here you go,” he said. They started working, bending over for seconds at a time, working their sharp knives. The medicine man dug up two plants and wrapped them each in a handkerchief. The sun had risen quickly yet still cast light off dew in the mesquite flat below us. I made some sketches, and jotted some notes. I tried to orient myself and could make out a windmill and power line near the ranch house. The men had worked to the far side of the hill and I walked back to the truck.
Norteño music was lightly thumping through the truck stereo. “Did you get what you needed?” Gutierrez asked. I nodded. We drove out and waited over the cattle guard. A mule had wandered over. I heard the thunder-like rumble of the boy jumping back in the truck and looked over the bench seat to see them shut the doors. We pulled away slowly. “This mule is over 35 years old,” Gutierrez said. “No tango nada, Manguera,” he shouted. “My father called him Manguera; that means garden hose.” He laughed out loud and hit his steering wheel with a fat finger. “You know, because of his pinche grande verga,” his chuckle continued and blended into a short border grito. “We’ll go back a different way,” he said. We picked up speed and the tires pulled up red and white dust as our trucks winded through the old senderos. We turned down a pipeline right-of-way and stopped briefly next to a deer blind. “I’ll shoot a big deer from here in a couple months. And if we kept going this way into Jim Hogg County and to the end of our land, you would be able to see the ridge with Manuel’s wind turbines.” The long straightaway cut to the horizon, small white months jumbled across the hood and into the thorny bush. “He’s a rich man now,” he said. I nodded. We turned back into the chaparral until we arrived at the property fence that ran along the paved road.
I got out of the truck with Gutierrez to help man the gate knowing that the Indians’ departure would be brief. “Always be careful of snakes around the gates in South Texas,” he said. He spun the combo at the FM gate and asked me how long it takes me to write a story. “It depends," I said as he swung the big gate. Their truck stopped just before the cattle guard, where Gutierrez held the family gate open. “Adios Gutierrez,” the driver said, “and good luck with your story. Tell Luis Manuel that we planted some cactus on his ridge years ago that should be ready next spring; if you can ride a horse you can come with us for another story. Little Manuel may have a cactus garden under his wind farm,” the driver grinned. “Where do you live and how old is the man?” I said quickly. The driver let the diesel idle forward. “We still live here,” he smiled and pointed off. “And el primo is old but still very young.” Gutierrez and he shared a head nod and I smiled at the native people as they went on. “We still live here,” the boy in back of the truck repeated, putting the straw back in his mouth. The ram picked up speed and slowly straddled onto the FM road. I was eager to drive back north, and start working on an outline for a sacred practice in South Texas.
"Quill n ink" sketches by the Rev. James Derkits: james-derkits.blogspot.com