Visit From Grandma
© Copyright 2023 by Mort Morford
Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash
It was in the early 1970s, when such things made sense. Or, even if experiences like this didn’t, or even couldn’t make sense, they happened anyway.
I had forgotten about it, or perhaps, not really forgotten, but, like many life changing moments, this one got blurred into others and was largely swallowed up by necessity and survival. And in my case, being in my twenties, in the moment and continually in motion.
Get a bunch of young men together, stir in freedom and mix it up in a foreign country and you get an ever predictable, thoroughly and specifically unpredictable result.
But even in the volatile mix of innocence, bravado and stupidity, miracles can happen. Doors without name open in that precarious world of adventure, naiveté and clumsy vulnerability.
Yes, it's a miracle some of us survive. Some of us even learn from our encounters, and some of us stagger into the next chapter of life never quite knowing what baggage we are carrying without ever being aware of it, until it, by some fluke, breaks through.
This particular event started with an invitation to go to Mexico over Christmas Break, with no particular end - in any sense - in mind.
We spent Christmas in Guadalajara and New Year’s Eve in Mexico City. After that we drove (in a beat-up VW van, what else?) to Oaxaca (almost to the border with Guatemala).
After a few nights there, my friends who drove the van took on some other (female) passengers and, with essentially no advance notice, I had to find my own way back – but how? And where to?
I hitchhiked (by myself, and with very limited Spanish-speaking skills) to Mexico City. It was about 225 miles through tiny towns, hard-scrabble country-sides with tin shacks on barren hillsides, and seeming endless miles of harsh deserts.
Among other things, I got caught in an intense desert rainstorm that caused flooding over and around the isolated road and found shelter in an abandoned building overnight.
I got picked up by a mix of truck drivers and locals. Their English was as inadequate as my Spanish. They probably gave me a lift out of curiosity and a bit of mercy.
I never saw any North American looking tourists. And if they saw me, they probably sped up to pass me by.
I had longish curly red hair back then, and probably looked like an alien or a lost angel with my paler-than-pale complexion.
Once I arrived on the outskirts of Mexico City, I caught a subway to the neighborhood I knew that was near the train station.
I had arrived in the deserted subway station shortly after dawn, a little before the first line was operating.
The very tinny loudspeakers had one song on continual repeat – it was “A whiter shade of pale” by Procul Harum.
I made my way to a hotel where I had stayed before and connected with a guy about my age on his way back to the USA.
We took a cheap taxi to the train station and, with just about the end of my remaining money, took a nearly thousand-mile rattling trip to Juarez, at the border with El Paso, Texas.
I was broke, exhausted, dusty and bedraggled and my one sustaining hope was that I would somehow make it back to the USA, to at least die in my own country.
I am from the Pacific Northwest and as I trudged through that rocky, dusty desert, all I could think about was the nearly constant cool weather of the Northwest.
Once I crossed the border, I hitchhiked to Los Angeles. After staying with friends for a few days in LA, eating and taking much appreciated showers, I took a Greyhound bus on about a 30-hour ride back home.
I was dazed, depleted, hungry and broke – but I was on my way home.
As I was on the bus, too broke to buy food when the bus stopped, too tired to talk to anyone and on a bus shaking too much to allow sleep, I was in a state of sustained, unrelieved exhaustion.
In the middle of that experience, I had a visit from my grandmother.
It wasn’t my actual, literal grandmother, but it was her spirit – or something.
She was in her late 90s and I hadn’t seen her in a year or two. She had been in a nursing home in gradual failing health.
I didn’t know her well, but on some level that I could never define, I had always felt a strong connection with her. Among other things, she wrote poetry and had published at least one book of her poems.
She came by, or in some sense, made her presence known to me in my exhausted state to let me know that her time on earth was done.
I took it in and let the rattle of the bus and the flashing of passing headlights and my own exhaustion take over as I slipped into half-awake, semi-hypnotic state.
I finally made it home, in the dark. As I stumbled through the front door into the arms of my worried parents, my dad told me that my grandmother had just died that day.
My instinctual, near-automatic response was “Yes, I know. She just told me”.
My parents were baffled beyond words, but were just glad to see that I was safely home.
I had forgotten, or at least lost track of the impact of that experience as I went back to school and sat alongside students who could never imagine such an adventure.
And with a little more focus, finished my four-year degree.
Fast-forward about 40 years and I found myself on a 17-mile hike in the rock-strewn desert outside of Palm Springs, California.
Call it muscle memory, or dream-time or reliving a past life, but whatever it was, it all came back – the dusty, parched, lost and lonely, and forsaken sense of being adrift in hostile, brittle, sunbaked, alien terrain, without a person or human creation in sight, no shade or shelter or relief – just sharp rocks, steep cliffs and scrub-brush and cactus as far as my eyes could see.
And I saw that, even without the visitation, my survival was its own miracle.
I essentially never saw those friends again, but I had encountered my own strength, resourcefulness and resilience that I had never imagined.
are few who ever find themselves so far from home with so few
resources, and yet I learned that I, unlike many others, could make
my way home like some wayward prodigal son and find my grandmother
waiting for me on the other side.