Twenty miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border, the rugged, beautiful Sierra Madre mountains begin their dramatic ascent. Almost 900 miles long, the range climbs to nearly 11,000 feet and boasts several canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. The rules of law and society have never taken hold in the Sierra Madre, which is home to bandits, drug smugglers, Mormons, cave-dwelling Tarahumara Indians, opium farmers, cowboys, and other assorted outcasts. Outsiders are not welcome; drugs are the primary source of income; murder is all but a regional pastime. The Mexican army occasionally goes in to burn marijuana and opium crops -- the modern treasure of the Sierra Madre -- but otherwise the government stays away. In its stead are the drug lords, who have made it one of the biggest drug-producing areas in the world.
Fifteen years ago, journalist Richard Grant developed what he calls "an unfortunate fascination" with this lawless place. Locals warned that he would meet his death there, but he didn't believe them -- until his last trip. During his travels Grant visited a folk healer for his insomnia and was prescribed rattlesnake pills, attended bizarre religious rituals, consorted with cocaine-snorting policemen, taught English to Guarijio Indians, and dug for buried treasure. On his last visit, his reckless adventure spiraled into his own personal heart of darkness when cocaine-fueled Mexican hillbillies hunted him through the woods all night, bent on killing him for sport.
With gorgeous detail, fascinating insight, and an undercurrent of dark humor, God's Middle Finger brings to vivid life a truly unique and uncharted world.
As he travels through Mexico's Sierra Madre, one of the largest drug-producing regions in the world, British journalist Grant (American Nomads) encounters a rugged landscape where the mythical old Mexico meets the challenges of the new. The birthplace of Pancho Villa and the Apaches' last refuge, the Sierra Madre has long been home to outlaws and eccentric characters that inspired a variety of American westerns. Into this legendary danger zone, with its exceptionally high murder rate, rides Grant--on horseback, though he has never ridden previously. Grant is the finest kind of travel narrator; though fully cognizant of the dangers and foolhardiness of his obsession with this land, he throws himself into crazy situations, such as a quest for buried gold treasure, a sampling of Mexican folk remedies, a terrifying Tarahumara Indian ritual when God gets into his annual drinking bout with the Devil, a little cocaine or blasting parakeet with local drug dealers, and lots and lots of drinking. He narrates these adventures with unflappable charm and humor, risking his life to the reader's benefit, shared fear and delight of discovery. Though eventually worn out by his physically and emotionally challenging journey, Grant still manages to produce a clear-eyed, empathetic account of this complex, fascinating place. (Mar.)
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March 03, 2008
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Excerpt from God's Middle Finger by Richard Grant
The first time I saw him, he was standing in his front yard in Patagonia, Arizona, with a pack of dogs roiling at his feet and a high-stepping emu penned off to the side. Fifth-generation Arizona cowboy and cattleman, former U.S. Marine, occasional gold prospector, and a well-respected novelist, J. P. S. Brown spent the best part of forty years on horseback in the Sierra Madre Occidental -- the Mother Mountains of the Mexican West -- a rugged, forbidding, lawless region for which I felt an unfortunate fascination.
The dogs came forward and sniffed politely at my legs and he shut them away in the screened front porch of his house. He was a big, broad-shouldered, stout-bellied man in his early seventies, an aging alpha male with a bad knee, a white mustache and small smoky green eyes that were shot through with intelligence and authority. "Joe Brown," he said, extending a leathery right hand.
We exchanged opinions on the likelihood of rain and then I asked him about the emu. It was standing by the fence now studying us. It bore a strong resemblance to Samuel Beckett. "You can pet him if you want to," Joe said. "He likes affection but you have to watch him."
I went over and started stroking the emu's neck. The skin on its neck was blue under a patchy covering of feathers. The neck began to undulate as I stroked it, the eyelids lowered and fluttered with pleasure and then it made a sudden, vicious, lunging peck at my ear. I whipped back my head and let slip an involuntary oath.
"Yup, he's a feisty one all right," said Joe Brown, smiling proudly.
"Where did you get him?" I asked.
"There was a fad for emu ranching around here a few years back. When the ranchers went bankrupt, a lot of them just let their stock go loose in the desert. Most of them got killed by coyotes or starved to death. This one showed up starving for water at my horse trough and fell in with my horses. He thought he was a horse for a while but he's getting over it now. He's a good old emu."
He pronounced it eh-moo, as if it were a Spanish word.
"Does he have a name?"
"We call him Eh-moo."
I judged that the preliminary courtesies had now run their proper course and started wheeling the conversation around to the Sierra Madre. Joe Brown surveyed me from under his hat brim and listened carefully to what I had to say.
"How's your Spanish?" he asked.
"Pretty basic but I'm working on it."
"How are you horseback?"
"Not good. I've been on a horse four times in my life and none of them were happy experiences."
"Well," he said curtly. Joe Brown learned to ride at the age of three and once wrote most of a novel from a horse's point of view. "You're not going to find anyone who speaks English up there. And they're not going to wait for you to catch up afoot."
He limped over to his pickup truck, planted his cowboy boots, and started unloading fifty-pound bags of horse feed as if they were feather pillows. The truck was an old white Ford. A sticker in its rear window declared, "BEEF: It's What's For Dinner." There were low gray clouds scudding overhead and the smell of rain falling somewhere else on the desert.
Joe Brown finished unloading. He gave me another long searching look. "Let's say you were fluent in Spanish and a horseman," he said. "I still don't see how you can do this without getting killed."
"I was hoping you might have some advice for me about that. I was thinking about posing as an academic of some kind, a historian maybe, and trying to steer clear of the really dangerous places."
"Look," he said and now his eyes bored into mine in deadly earnest. "I don't know you but you're a friend of someone who's been a very good friend to me. If you go up in those mountains, what you're going to find is murder. Lots of murder. The last place you want to find is the heart of the Sierra Madre, because that's where you'll get shot on sight, no questions asked, and the guy who shoots you will probably still have a smile on his face from saying hello."
"That's the type of place I want to avoid."
"Well, stay out of the Sierra Madre then."
"I don't think I can. And I don't think it's as dangerous as it used to be."
The sky was a dark pearl color now and the first fat raindrops came spattering down. "I guess you'd better come inside," he said.
From Joe Brown's front yard the foothills of the Sierra Madre are ninety miles away. He used to fly down there in a Cessna, back in his cattle-buying and gold-prospecting days, and he is still enowned in the town of Navojoa, Sonora, for buzzing the roof of the local whorehouse while flying drunk. On the second pass, with his favorite whore beside him in the passenger seat, he managed to knock off the TV aerial so the madam could no longer watch her soap operas.