There had been warnings about money-grubbing Mexican cops, so the deft U-turn by two Nogales motorcycle patrolmen, just as we were pulling away from the curb, made us reach for our pesos. Lieutenant Antonio Lopez Aguilar dismounted his Kawasaki and thrust forward his square jaw. “Why did you park here?” he demanded in English. “What are you doing over here?” I showed my driver’s license, while the garrulous photographer Martyn Goddard offered his British passport. We had only taken some pictures and eaten lunch. “Where did you eat lunch?” the lieutenant asked. Neither of us could remember the name of the hole-in-the-wall joint that served pulled pork on freshly made tortillas and, upon request, mercifully withheld the tripe.
Lieutenant Lopez scrutinized the registration of our prototype 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser. It was nothing but a photocopy, and it lacked a VIN. “Do you have drugs, guns, liquor? Do you mind if we look inside the vehicle?” He and Officer Jorge Armando Pineda Cervantes flipped open the clamshell doors and gawked at the dash-mounted multi-information display with compass, inclinometer, and temperature gauge. Officer Pineda pointed to the gear lever and reverently uttered, “Seis cambios.” Hearing this-“six speeds”-I realized they’d only wanted to check out the sportiest SUV yet seen in Mexico.
We then related how, by way of testing the FJ Cruiser, we were traveling the U.S.-Mexico border, from California to the Gulf of Mexico, running Mexico’s Route 2 when possible and also poking around in large, bustling cities such as Nogales, Sonora. Along with everybody else, these cops figured the FJ would sticker at $50,000 and were wowed by the base price of $22,890. Goddard posed them with our dark cherry whoopee wagon. Then Lieutenant Lopez handed over his card bearing the name Trio Nuevo Amanecer. Translation: New Dawn Trio. His partner chided him for being a romantic balladeer. Bidding farewell, the lieutenant invited us to call for anything we needed. And one last thing: “Use our picture!”
Somewhat earlier, the driver of an Audi A3 2.0-the nicest car amid all the crazy Nogales Saturday early afternoon traffic-gave the FJ a thumbs up. This reaction, along with beans, dust, and razor wire, was a consistent element of our trip. People snapped photos, went out of their way to make inquiries, and devoted extra time to our case at ports of entry. (Crossing the one-lane bridge over the Rio Grande between El Porvenir, Chihuahua, and Fort Hancock, Texas, we repeated our mission statement to a curious customs agent, who responded with the name of this magazine’s founding editor, as though it were the password.)
Such widespread interest created the impression that the FJ will be another of the supposed niche vehicles from a Japanese automaker-like the Honda Element, the Toyota Prius, or the whole Scion brand-ostensibly aimed at youthful buyers but much more broadly coveted, and that sales could explode. There’s nothing special about driving it, any more so than there is about Toyota’s 4Runner, which is similar from the knees down except for a wheelbase that’s 3.9 inches longer. More specifically, the FJ is derived from the Land Cruiser Prado, which isn’t sold in America. The 4.0-liter V-6 produces plenty of power and torque and is very refined, the rack-and-pinion steering is a pleasure, and the ride is as supple and the handling as agreeable as anyone could expect from a ladder-type chassis with a solid rear axle.
Nevertheless, besides having more off-road prowess, the FJ far and away distinguishes itself from its brethren with evocative styling. It is the past and the future all rolled up in one juicy enchilada and dipped in salsa verde. First laying eyes on it, I nearly beat my breast; it’s just miraculous. Shoes wear down after repeated revolutions around this brilliant sun. It’s got a dazzling white cap, a roof rack that could serve as the return track for a ski gondola, a chunky overall appearance, droopy little throwback headlights in this age of proliferating projector beams, and, of course, those frog-eyed taillights. It has a fake air intake in the hood that’s all in good fun and a blocky stance with tough-looking aluminum wheels that make no sense for rock bashing. (Steel wheels are available.) The door handles are enormous, the D-shaped side mirrors have integrated spotlights, and the rubbery fender flares are endearingly daft. Oh, and let’s not forget that platoon of three windshield wi-pers. The guys who drew all this up at Toyota’s Calty Design Research in Southern California must have been slipping over to Tijuana for lunch. If our FJ had been painted in the available voodoo blue, the resulting commotion in Nogales might have incited the repeal of NAFTA.
For all its external character, though, the driver and occupants of the FJ must put up with certain deficiencies that are the result of this Brinks-truck-on-magic-mushrooms school of design. For example, only Elastigirl from The Incredibles could reach clear to the rear-view mirror for adjustment. And only she could comfortably enter, sit in, and exit the back seat. A shortcoming with the sun visors is revealed as they pivot around to the side glass, where they cover about half its length, and no extension is built in. The front seats might be made of easily cleaned, water-resistant fabric, but only a scrub bucket would find them comfortable for a long spell. And finally, the massive rear pillars that add panache to the exterior create tremendous blind spots; with the spare tire taking up much of the tailgate, it’s advisable to order the optional rear parking sensor.
Not that driving in Mexico wasn’t already hazardous enough without the blind spots. Two days earlier, when we had first crossed at Mexicali, Baja California Norte, we began to be inculcated in Mexican highway etiquette. Mexico welcomes Americans to wheel right in and spend their money; all that’s needed is special insurance and a passport for U.S. officials upon return. The customs checkpoints are about fifteen miles to the south of the actual border, which means that, where Route 2 parallels the border, often within sight of it, we were free to cruise. The border cities have swelled with people since the free-trade pact of 1994, and Mexicali is a large city ringed with neat neighborhoods of recently built little concrete bungalows. Mexico’s population is nudging past 100 million, and for so many Mexicans, opportunity lies to the north. It took a while before the sprawl of junkyards and marginal little businesses petered out, and then we crossed the Colorado River, which by that point is nothing more than a sandbar and some willows. Here was another city: San Luis Ro Colorado, with 127,000 people-far more than Yuma, Arizona, some twenty-five miles to the north. We would keep seeing much larger cities in Mexico.
The next step was crossing the Altar Desert, of which the first fully recorded exploration was achieved only in 1977. We hadn’t expected so much truck and bus traffic on the narrow, slope-shouldered thoroughfare that is Route 2. As if to chasten us for our ambitions of rapid travel and prove there could be no room for error, fate presented us with a big rig that had literally fallen off the roadway into the sand. Darkness soon set in, leaving two more grinding hours before the junction town of Sonoyta. Other vehicles would signal with their left blinkers to indicate it was clear to pass. This seemed counterintuitive, but before long we were confidently gunning past brightly festooned doble-remolque, or tandem-trailer, behemoths.
At Sonoyta, we filled up with premium fuel at a Pemex station on the intersection of Benem,rito de las Americas Boulevard and Eusebio Francisco Kino Boulevard. Kino was a Jesuit missionary from the Tyrol who mapped northwestern Mexico between 1683 and his death in 1711, and his name had also popped up on a street sign in Mexicali. With the tank full, we proceeded some miles southeast to the customs station, becoming the cause of great mirth among those Mexican agents whose flashlight beams revealed the VIN ending in eight zeros; my protests that the FJ was un protipo were futile.
Retreating north, we crossed into Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: 330,689 acres and twenty-six types of cactus, including reproachful saguaros in our headlights. Lodging in the town of Ajo, which is the Spanish word for garlic, we consumed an 11:30 p.m. supper of tepid hot dogs from the Circle K minimarket. In the morning we learned that the nearby New Cornelia Mine stopped producing copper ore in the mid-1980s, and the biggest things going now are retirement living and the Border Patrol hub.
Goddard was eager to show me Tombstone, Arizona, a shopping destination for Tucson’s palefaces. He blazed away with his camera in front of Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, and I bumped into Lew Sexton, retired military, whose monologue ranged from such topics as Tombstone’s development (“I think it’s sick”) to respectful mention of Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. To much fanfare in April 2005, the Minutemen supplied ad hoc augmentation of the U.S. Border Patrol’s regular efforts to turn back illegal immigrants.
It was Saturday evening when we checked in at the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Arizona, said to be the nation’s southernmost mile-high town. Bisbee, like Ajo, was built by the Phelps Dodge Mining Company. After a supper far surpassing lukewarm hot dogs, I sat at the bar and met writer Rick McKinney, who spoke sarcastically of the Minutemen. Whereas they had only patrolled a two-mile stretch of border, McKinney last summer had hiked to Hunter S. Thompson’s memorial service, near Aspen, Colorado, when the gonzo doctor’s ashes were fired from a cannon. In his new book, Dead Men Hike No Trails, McKinney writes of “a lifetime of swimming from one funky freak community to another . . .” So who lives in Bisbee? Retirees? Ski bums? “People who don’t like to work,” he said.
The early bird catches the worm, and for Goddard and me, the worm on Sunday morning was the ’74 Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser being driven by Hans Decoz past the enormous Copper Queen mine on a stretch of road that’s picked up by the Cochise County Gay and Lesbian Alliance. FJ40s were sold in the States from 1960 to 1983. Decoz settled in Bisbee in 2003 and bought his the next year for $7200. He overhauled the original in-line six, added two and a half inches of lift, put on new tires, and began exploring the back roads around Bisbee. “This thing literally crawls over everything,” he said. “Just take your foot off the gas, off the brakes, and steer.” He apologized for the “Arizona desert stripes” on the sides of his vehicle, as though they might spoil our pictures. Looking at the FJ Cruiser, he expressed appreciation that the design retains the signature rear corner windows. Decoz, incidentally, proved that some people in Bisbee do like to work: he is a successful software developer and the author of Numerology: Key to Your Inner Self.
Our numeric destiny for this afternoon was to traverse the Geronimo Trail. The unpaved route leads northeast from Douglas, Arizona, into New Mexico’s boot heel. The Apache chief Geronimo warred from these mountain strongholds until his final capture in 1886. He later appeared at Theodore Roosevelt’s 1901 inaugural procession and the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair. The mountain ranges here rise from the desert floor, forming sky islands. As the Geronimo Trail climbed to a 6500-foot pass over the Peloncillo Mountains, the brushy desert flora was replaced by sycamores, oaks, and, on the leeward side, ponderosa pines. Stopping for cheese sandwiches in a shaded area, we saw a small ungulate’s skeleton near a rock fire ring. It was perplexing. When the trail descended into the next basin, we had entered New Mexico. Just as the route turned north, we encountered four ragged Mexicans in the road, heading back toward Sonora. Goddard adamantly urged me not to stop. One of the men lifted a hand to his mouth; after a couple hundred yards we paused and left two bottles of water.
Randy Neal Caillouette waited, scowling, in the driveway of the next ranch on the road. He said they were drug mules-lucky thing we hadn’t chanced upon others in the mountains; the men often are armed. Ah, now we knew who might have eaten that little goat or deer, whether roasted or raw. Two of this present group had banged on his door minutes earlier, but he shooed them away and called authorities in Animas. “I fed ten of them yesterday,” he said. “That’s some bucks out of my pockets. You can tell I’m not a rich guy.” Because of the need to make El Paso, we declined his gracious offer to tour the ranch. His parting words were, “This is New Mexico, man. It’s supposed to be the Land of Enchantment. Instead, it’s the land of drugs and crackheads.”
First thing Monday we crossed into Ciudad Ju rez, Chihuahua, once again picking up Route 2. Turning into an industrial park, we found some of the factories by which Ju rez has built its reputation. There were Toshiba (television chassis), Delphi (automotive thermal systems), and Molnlycke (surgical barrier drapes) complexes. Employment opportunities draw southerners up here, many of them breaking family connections. Hundreds of the women who do this assembly work have been the easy prey of sex killers, and the scandal about inadequate police investigation keeps growing.
Leaving behind the last of the fraccionamientos-the comfortable modern housing developments with gaudy flags indicating available new units-we entered the valley of the Rio Bravo del Norte (called Rio Grande in the States), with cotton and beef production and decrepit little villages. “It’s like a Mad Max set,” Goddard said. An irrigation canal carrying utterly fetid water paralleled the road. A group of men stood around watching someone change a tire, and in the tiny ejidos and larger villages, more people waited for buses, or simply waited. After about sixty miles, Route 2 is indicated as a primitive road leading into wild country, so we turned north. Officials at the port of entry mentioned Neely’s Crossing, not far downstream, where big rigs leaving Interstate 10 can splash right through the riverbed in order to evade the highly variable Mexican import duties. If we’d cleared it first, one agent said, we could have taken the FJ through there legally. Interesting that this should come up, because that same day, three SUVs fled police on Interstate 10 and made for Neely’s Crossing, where a Humvee in Mexican army livery waited on the U.S. side. A Cadillac Escalade was abandoned with 1474 pounds of marijuana, a Ford Explorer became stuck in the river and was unloaded by the smugglers before being set afire, and the third SUV and the Humvee made it back. Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West would tell the El Paso Times, “Let’s clarify that it was the Mexican military. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Before dawn the next morning, we met Clint McDonald, sheriff of Terrell County, which covers 2358 square miles and has about 1100 residents. Funding increases have allowed the sheriff to expand his force, adding a fourth deputy, and to purchase night-vision equipment and a four-wheel-drive pickup. “We’ve got a lot of rugged terrain,” he said. “These cars can’t get in.” Looking at the FJ Cruiser parked nearby, he stipulated that only a pickup would do for his purposes. “Unfortunately, we have the chore of picking up deceased individuals.” Most of them, it was revealed, drown in the river.
We were leaving the desert, and the next afternoon, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, tropical vines and palm trees grew in the lovely plazas. Men pedaled freight-bearing tricycles between shops, and horse-drawn carts rattled through downtown streets. The carefully swept sidewalks were crowded with well-dressed people. We ended up having an audience with municipal tourism director Jose Luis Cercevo, who was dressed for winter in a corduroy sports coat over a turtleneck. He spoke of efforts to restore and beautify historic structures. “What we’re trying to provide to the visitor,” he said, “is the atmosphere of late-1800s Mexico, so they don’t have to go into the interior.”
Continuing fifteen miles east on Route 2, we passed grazing herds of goats and arrived at the beach at high tide. The trip odometer read 2171 miles. The FJ sat by a palm umbrella, sparkling where it wasn’t mud-caked and exhibiting justifiably high self-regard, despite having achieved only 16.5 mpg according to the trip computer. We had interviewed everybody from Ricardo Rojas, a woodworker who had just been kicked back into Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila, to David Kimble, known to most every car enthusiast for his see-through illustrations, in Marfa, Texas. We had glimpsed javelinas and roadrunners. I’d devoured the best breakfast burrito in Texas, which is served at the Seminole Cafe in Comstock. We had narrowly missed out on interloping with armed smugglers. Pretty overwhelming, all of it, but if we could have turned south for Tampico and Veracruz and slid those eight zeros through customs, we might still be on the road.