I was that old gringo. I was driving south in my own car in Mexican sunshine along the straight sloping road through the thinly populated valleys of the Sierra Madre Oriental – the whole craggy spine of Mexico is mountainous. Valleys, spacious and austere, were forested with thousands of single yucca trees, the so-called dragon yucca (Yucca filifera) that Mexicans call palma china. I pulled off the road to look closely at them and wrote in my notebook: I cannot explain why, on the empty miles of these roads, I feel young.
And that was when I saw a slender branch twitch on the ground; it lay beneath the yucca in soil like sediment. It moved. It was a snake, a hank of shimmering scales. It began to contract and wrap itself – its smooth and narrow body pulsing in the serpentine peristalsis of threat, brownish, like the gravel and the dust. I stepped back, but it continued slowly to resolve itself into a coil. Not poisonous, I learned later. Not a plumed serpent, not the rearing rattler being gnawed by the wild-eyed eagle in the vivid emblazonment on the Mexican national flag. It was a coachwhip snake, as numerous on this plain as rattlesnakes, of which Mexico has 26 species – not to mention, elsewhere, milk snakes, blind snakes, rat snakes, pit vipers, worm-sized garden snakes and 10-foot-long boa constrictors.
The joy of the open road – joy verging on euphoria. “Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had known about life, and life on the road,” Kerouac writes of entering Mexico in On the Road. “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.”