“I thought y’all were in a cult,” she said.
She’d wandered up to us in the middle of Big Bend National Park under a scorching midday sun. Despite her misgivings, thirst drove her to take the risk. “Hey! Y’all have any water?” Her name was Sarah.
We were in our early twenties and made friends with Sarah over the course of the next several sentences. We stood there in the semi-desert, sun bleaching out the curves and valleys of the Chisos Mountains in the background, chatting. Sarah said she and her friend, Clay, were crossing the border to Boquillas later that evening. “Have you ever heard of sotol?” she asked.
Surprisingly, as well-versed in cheap liquor as we were, we hadn’t.
“You should totally meet us over there and try it!” she said before waving goodbye and continuing her hike, empty Camelbak slung over one arm.
It didn’t take much convincing for Javier, Trey and me to go to a bar, even if it was across a stagnant section of the Rio Grande and nestled in a dusty cluster of buildings with no electricity. Later that day, we happily paid a few bucks to be rowed 50 feet across the still, mud-brown water and just as happily declined their offers to sell us coke on the opposite shore. It was the late ’90s. There were no border patrol agents, no gates, no checking of identification at that deserted bend in the river, just a handful of locals running a rowboat service.
We found the bar, indistinguishable from the rest of the modest buildings, except that it had a counter inside with a guy selling liquor behind it. We started to order a shot of sotol each, but when we found out a bottle was ONLY SEVEN DOLLARS, we pooled our money. Curiously, the sotol came in an old tequila bottle.
We were several shots in when Sarah walked through the door. “Hey, y’all!”
“Sarah!” She was our newly long-lost Norm in a perky, blond package.
We were already well on our way to being drunk, so Javier offered Sarah a shot.
“Oh, I don’t drink,” she replied.
One of us said something like, “But you said….sotol…”
It turned out Sarah was a recovering alcoholic, and she had only heard of sotol, not sampled it herself. What we had taken as a personal recommendation had only been an uninformed, whimsical suggestion, one we would pay for later.
We were there long enough for me to need to use the outhouse. The back jutted out over a cliff, so everything you deposited in the hole went spilling down into the canyon, which was a handy way to avoid having to clean it. At some point, Sarah left, we finished the bottle, and it was time to go back.
It was dusk. We stumbled back toward the river, through rocks, dust, prickly pear, and mesquite trees. Halfway there, I stopped to pee again and fell into a cactus, impaling my butt cheek with spines. At the moment, thoroughly numbed, I thought it was hilarious.
When we came to the river, we saw a boat moored on our side and a pair of sad mules tethered to a hitching post, but no rowers. They’d promised they’d be there, but since we were communicating in both broken English (them) and broken Spanish (us), we could have been mistaken. Instead of considering this, though, we were drunkenly outraged.
The boat had a slow leak in it, so we decided David, Javier’s younger brother and the lightest person in our group, should row us across one at a time to prevent sinking. As our one-brother ferry made its way back and forth, Trey began to get more and more irate.
When he and Javier were the only ones left on the Mexico side, Trey managed to get Javier’s blood up as well. It wasn’t hard; the two of them together and under the influence almost guaranteed madness, which is part of why I loved them. They made me laugh and sometimes pissed me off, but they were loyal as hell — to each other, to me, and as it turns out, to two sad, strange mules.
It’s unclear whether the source of their irritation was the absence of promised rowers or the ill-treatment of the emaciated-looking animals tied to the post, but it culminated in this (loosely remembered) inebriated exchange of words:
“You know what, man. We should cut their mules loose.”
“Yeah! Yeah, we should! Serves them right.”
“Yeah, they should be free. Look at them. They’re starving!”
And then the two of them untethered the two beleaguered animals, at which point Trey slapped one on the ass and yelled, “Yah, mule! You’re free!” Like some sort of vigilante Yosemite Sam.
Said mules glanced curiously at the loud, stumbling gringos behind them but made no move whatsoever to “yah!” When David returned to retrieve Javier and Trey, they gave up trying to cajole the mules to freedom and got in the boat.
Finally, with all ten of our feet planted firmly back on U.S. soil, we surveyed the quiet, mud-colored river, the sedentary mules, and the leaky boat in the moonlight. Then, someone suggested, “We should push the boat down the river!”
And someone else said, “Yeah, serves them right!” (Middle-aged me is SMH in embarrassment at that group of naive, ineffective, self-centered white kids.)
So we pushed the boat down the river, and it went scarcely farther than the mules. I say “we” a lot in this story, but aside from falling in the cactus, I can’t take credit for most of these shenanigans. Not because I’m above such drunken ridiculousness (I once picked a bar fight over a stolen novelty condom), but more because the impulsive behavior quota was already filled, and there just wasn’t space for one more bad decision.
After the anticlimactic boat launch, we heard two people approaching from the Mexico side — our rowers, pushing through the brush. We panicked. Someone whisper-yelled, “Let’s GO!” and we all hopped in David’s waiting Jeep and sped off, gravel spitting out from the churning tires, just like the hardcore hooligans we weren’t.
Young, entitled assholes, maybe. Hardcore? Definitely not.
The rest of the evening was par for the course. We made dinner around a fire, talked and laughed. Javier and Trey got in an argument, and then I got mad at Javier and stomped off into the desert darkness. But only a little way off, because I was scared of getting lost. I was probably crying because that’s what I do. Aside from the fact that we were in Big Bend, it was a typical Saturday night. Javier and I were dating at the time, but it often felt more like the three of us were buddies. We acted more like family — there was closeness and trust, but fairly often, we annoyed the hell out of each other.
We all made up in the early dark hours of morning when the moonshine sotol hit our intestines. We were forced to stumble out of the tent, dig quick holes and pass around the toilet paper in the dark. Nothing brings people together like a shared case of the runs. The next day, we woke up late and hungover and went hiking because that’s what you do when you’re young and invincible.
Twenty-some-odd years later, I’m married with two kids and living in the suburbs. Trey lives in San Francisco with his husband; I keep up with him on Facebook. David got married, had a kid, then got divorced. Sarah had a kid, too. I lost track of her after that. Javier died about a year ago after a battle with prostate cancer, survived by his wife and two young sons.
I look back on that time in Big Bend, and it makes me smile as much as shudder. Unfortunately, I never could take anyone else’s word for it; I had to discover first-hand that it sucks to wake up hungover in the desert, that turning a good friend into a boyfriend into a husband is sometimes a bad idea. Some of those mistakes were fun to make, others more painful, more lasting.
At a time when I was emotionally volatile (she says, as if she’s not now), Trey and Javier reflected my sometimes violent feelings with their intensity, their humor, their arguments. Around them, I didn’t feel like such a mental misfit. But it wasn’t just that. I loved both of them. Still do. And after writing that, I can hear Trey’s theatrically nervous laughter followed by, “awk-ward!”