Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Senora: How I Became a Mexican Holy Man

     I’d been in the Forest for sixty days. The last forty or so, I was hopping around the campgrounds at Bear Canyon trying to look like somebody different every couple of weeks. I had gotten in the habit of fishing in the afternoons so I wouldn’t be around when the rangers drove through and then, after eating my trout dinner, I would take a nice five mile walk around the short leg of the Bear Canyon Loop trail. I would see dozens of Elk on these hikes. So I called them my evening Elk walks.
     I was returning from an Elk walk just after dark one night and heard the unusual sound of electric guitars tuning up in the forest. I cut through a ravine and up the hill on the other side, bringing me just outside the circle of generated electric lights of a large camp. I eased back into the shadows a bit, so as not to freak anybody out while I watched the hundred or so people milling about, waiting for a show of some sort. This wasn’t something I would see every day in the woods, and I was starving for entertainment in those early days.
     Eventually a tiny blond woman stepped up to a microphone and began speaking in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word she said, but I liked the way she said it. Obviously the crowd did too, as occasionally they cheered and clapped. Lurking there in the tall pines, I felt like an anthropologist; watching strange customs in an unknown language, or maybe a marine biologist studying dolphins. I knew they were intelligent, but had no clue what their language meant. Then the music started.
     It wasn’t like the Polka beat stuff I was used to hearing or any other Mexican music I was familiar with. Everybody danced except the little woman and her entourage of maybe six men. There was no doubt but they were all familiar with the songs. Most were accompanied by intricate gestures. I watched as the crowd alternately pantomimed pushing something away and then chased each other around. There were people of all ages, and they were having a lot of fun. I returned to my camp and smoked a joint while I listened to the distant strains of music and laughter.
     Eventually, of course, curiosity got the best of me and I went back to the celebration, this time taking the trail that went right past the assemblage. I had to get a better look. There was a high school aged fellow standing guard on the trail. When he saw me approaching, he told me “No English” and signaled to another guy at the other side of their camp and he came over smiling. “Can we help you?” he said in broken English.   “Are we bothering you”?
     “Not at all, I heard your music and wanted to listen. I’m sorry. I’ll go back to my camp”.
He nodded to the little blond woman who was watching from a distance and she he nodded back. I was beginning to wonder if I had gotten myself into some kind of situation. “Wait here a minute”, he said. He conferred with the little blond woman and then she pointed and he disappeared into the crowd. A few people had begun staring at me. The little blond woman, whom they called ‘The Senora’, leaned over and whispered with a tall man. Moments later, four teenage girls came out of the crowd and, taking me by both hands, led me into the circle of dancers. None of the girls spoke English, and they were very patient with me; showing me the proper steps and gestures to accompany each of the songs the band played. I began to recognize certain words and gestures and realized I was at a religious retreat of some kind.
     When the music stopped everybody remained standing where they were. The tall man came to me then and asked me if I was having a good time. I told him I certainly was. His name was Vincent and he told me he was the Senora’s husband and co-Pastor. She spoke again and paused between sentences to allow Vincent to translate for me. As she gave her sermon, I noticed her making eye contact and gesturing with her chin to certain young men who were standing around the outside of the group. They would take people by the arm and move them around, setting up the congregation like pieces on a chessboard.
     When the “ushers” returned to their original positions, the Senora paused and looked down, then the tone of the Sermon changed. She said God had told her there was a fornicator in the group who needed her help, and asked that this person come forward. I was worried for a minute. When nobody came forward she began describing this person. Finally a young girl, no older than twelve, stepped to the front with tears in her eyes. The Senora spoke directly to her, this time with no translation, and then hauled off and wacked this little girl on the forehead. The girl fell to the ground, rolling in the dirt and wailing. The Senora spoke of the courage this little girl, her own daughter, then asked that any other fornicators step forward. A line of about ten people formed and she thumped each of them, leaving them to roll on the ground and cry.
     When there were about a dozen people on the ground and the majority of the congregation was sobbing, The Senora walked into the crowd and proceeded to smack people. I saw her give one of her signals to the first young man I met and he guided the four girls I had been dancing with right in front of me. The Senora thumped them and they fell, rolling all over each other at my feet. I tried to maintain my composure, but as I mentioned, I was stoned, nervous, and thoroughly entertained. I couldn’t keep the silly grin off my face even though I was appalled that I was smiling so stupidly in the midst of such anguish.
     Finally all were on the ground except Vincent, The Senora, The ushers, and I. She then walked directly up to me and looking me deep in the eye, asked if I wanted her to smack me too. I politely declined and apologized for grinning like a fool. She smiled and told me it was okay, that some of her people were great actors and she was glad I was enjoying myself. I spoke with Vincent a while and watched as the ushers gently brought each person to their feet and walked them to their tents. Figuring the show was over, I returned to my camp, wondering at the unusual scenes I came across in the forest.
     The next morning I was drinking cowboy coffee at my camp when I was approached by a twelve year old boy named Genaro. He said the Senora asked him to bring me to her. To my surprise she wasn’t at her camp, but sitting by the lake with Vincent. She said that I was obviously different than others in the forest and asked me to tell her my story. I explained about my web site and how people paid to read my journals and the charities the money went to. We talked about fear and the mistakes it causes people to make and my faith that the Universe would provide for me. That night her pre-music sermon was entirely taken from our conversation. She used me as an example and asked me many questions during her talk designed as an example to her people.
     For five years I spent my summers at Bear Canyon. The Senora brought her people out twice a year for a week at a time. On the last day of her visits she would always ask me to join her at the lake and we would plan the evening’s sermon based on my most recent adventures. The last time I saw the Senora, she announced to her people that there would be a time when they came and I was not there. She said that that would be when she retired. She offered me a scholarship to attend their seminary and warned me against the many temptations I would face when I left the forest. I didn’t know at that time that I would be free and home in Indiana before the next summer.
     Frequently the drunken hillbillies of the campground would come around with threats and warnings, angry about the noise and unusual activities in the camp. Sometimes they brought rangers. I acted as intermediary each time and made sure the noise subsided before 10p.m. according to the rules of the forest.
Over the years I became close with those people. Here I was this long haired bearded dude that appeared out of the forest every year. I think I inadvertently acquired a position in the mythos of their church. Sometimes the littlest ones would call me “Christo” I would have to straighten them out. I often wonder what stories they still may tell about “The Gringo in the Forest”.

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