"This is exactly the book you're hoping for when you pick it up: a crazy, sprawling story so well-written, you can't decide whether to keep reading or go to Mexico to see for yourself. Keep reading: You have an extraordinary book in your hands." Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm
God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madreby Richard Grant
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,
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.
Americans have an endless fascination with ruthless men and stoic loners dispensing frontier justice. Our films are replete with such depictions, from Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch to the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. We revel in the vicarious adrenaline rush from the comfort of our reclining chairs, Coke in one hand, popcorn in the other.
But travel writer Grant wanted more. An inveterate adventure seeker, he developed an "unfortunate fascination" with the Sierra Madre, the last of the wild frontier where the rule of law has never quite taken hold. Just south of the border, 900 miles long, with peaks reaching 11,000 feet and canyons deeper than the Grand, the Sierra Madre is home to bandits and drug smugglers. Marijuana is the biggest cash crop, and murder is the local pastime.
Grant's travels there are endlessly harrowing and often hilarious. He describes the unusual sexual appetites of narcotraficantes; the experience of towing a two-ton truck up a mountain at gunpoint; a search for an old bandit's lost treasure; and a frightening version of "The Most Dangerous Game" with cocaine-fueled Mexican hillbillies. Grant may have left his common sense behind, but thankfully his eyes are wide open, so we, comfortable in our armchairs -- but with him in spirit -- can relish every hair-raising moment. (Summer 2008 Selection)
The Washington Post
The New York Times
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.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
It becomes clear after reading this intriguingly titled book that it might be a good idea to cross that planned visit to Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains off one's "To Do" list. Travel writer Grant (American Nomads ) provides a highly descriptive portrayal of the Sierra Madre range, aptly described as "lawless" and filled with "mean drunken hillbillies," bandits, drug smugglers, and other assorted social outcasts. Grant has a fascination with this region 50 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border, which is still so untamed that Mexican authorities cannot control it. As a self-described thrill seeker, Grant ignored warnings from others to stay away: he enjoys "that edgy, adrenaline-hyped feeling that comes with pushing your luck in a place you don't belong." God's Middle Finger is a fascinating book, filled with tales that will surely keep readers in suspense. Grant's own near-death experience alone will captivate them. Highly recommended for those who wish to experience-from the safety of their livingroom couch-those of life's adventures that "sensible" people normally avoid.-Tim Delaney, SUNY OswegoCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Read an Excerpt
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.
Farther east in the border town of Douglas, Arizona, the foothills of the Sierra Madre are only twenty miles away and from the southwestern bootheel of New Mexico they are closer still. The mountains climb out of the desert on bony, outlying fingers and knuckled ridges, rising up into high cliffs, peaks, and battlements, with further ranges stacked up behind them in paler shades of blue. Crossed by only one railway and two paved roads, lacking a single city or large town, the Sierra Madre Occidental extends away behind those northern ramparts for 800 miles.
Or it extends for 930 miles. There are quarrels among cartographers, wild discrepancies on the maps. Where does the Sierra Madre end and a new chain of mountains begin? When the king of Spain asked Cortéz to describe the geography of Mexico, the country he had just conquered, Cortéz is said to have crumpled up a piece of paper and thrown it down on the table.
The worst mountains, the most crumpled and impenetrable, were the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Spanish authorities, like the Aztec emperors before them, were never able to bring them under government control. Some isolated mines, missions, haciendas, and military colonies were established but the population remained predominantly Indian and largely unsubdued.
Apaches terrorized the northern 250 miles. The warlike Yaquis were in the northwest and a nightmare horde of Comanches ravaged the eastern flanks every September, riding down from Texas and Oklahoma on horses festooned with human scalps, blowing on eagle-bone whistles, raping, killing, torturing, snatching up children, and riding away with the livestock.
The Spaniards and mixed-blood mestizo Mexicans who made their ranches and villages in the Sierra Madre developed a rough, violent, fiercely independent culture that had more in common with the American frontier than the civilized parts of central Mexico. Feuds and vendettas flourished. So did banditry, alcoholism, a fanatical machismo, and a deep distrust of law, government, or any kind of outside authority.
In the 180 years since independence from Spain, the Mexican nation-state has made a few inroads into the Sierra Madre but it still relies on the army to defend the small pockets of control it has managed to establish. Local power is in the hands of feuding mafias and regional strongmen who usually operate outside the law. Bandit gangs are still at large and some of them are still riding horses and mules like their cinematic counterparts in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ("Badges? I don't have to show you any stinking badges!").
The Sierra Madre Occidental still contains unconquered and largely unassimilated Indian tribes. Three hundred miles south of the U.S. border, in the early years of the twenty-first century, it is still possible to find Tarahumaras wearing loincloths and living in seasonal caves. At the southern end of the Sierra Madre are some twenty thousand Huichol Indians, most of whom are still guided by their shamans and the hallucinogenic visions they experience on peyote cactus.
The range is mostly volcanic, a southern continuation of the Rocky Mountain chain, rising up to nearly eleven thousand feet at its highest point and torn apart by plunging ravines, gorges, and the immense, steep-sided canyons known in Spanish as barrancas. Four of them are deeper than the Grand Canyon of Arizona, three others are nearly as deep, and there are six more only slightly less daunting. You can stand on the rimrock in high pine forest with snow on the ground and look down on the backs of parrots and macaws flying over semitropical jungle at river level a sight guaranteed to wow the passing traveler and sink the hearts of any army or police force.
The Sierra Madre Occidental was the last refuge for the Apaches, some of whom were still living free and raiding Mexican homesteads into the 1930s, and in the last thirty years it has become one of the world's biggest production areas for marijuana, opium, heroin, and billionaire drug lords. It was my bright idea to travel the length of the Sierra Madre and write a book about it.
Joe Brown hung up his hat, smoothed back his thinning hair, and limped with stately dignity across the kitchen linoleum to the coffeepot. He poured out two cups and we sat down in opposing armchairs in the front room. The house was clean, modestly furnished, and decorated almost exclusively with images of cows, horses, cowboys, and Indians.
"It's always been dangerous, it's always been an anarchy, but now nearly all the decent people have been killed or run out and all the bad guys have automatic weapons, at least in the part of the Sierra that I know," he said. "It's become the kind of anarchy that gives anarchy a bad name."
A few months previously, Joe Brown had won the Lawrence Clark Powell award for his lifetime contributions to the literature of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, mainly in light of his first novel, Jim Kane, which was filmed as Pocket Money with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin, and The Forests of the Night, the best novel ever written about the Sierra Madre with the arguable exception of B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The more Joe Brown talked, in that gentle, husky, authoritative voice, the more I wished he was an ignorant drunk sounding off in a bordertown saloon.
"In San Bernardo, which is just a very small town in the foothills, there were twenty-six young men that I knew killed in one year. The bus, the old rattletrap local bus, was getting held up about once a month. This was in the mid-1980s. They would rape the women by the side of the road and strip the men of all their belongings and clothes, including a couple of Americans who were up there bird hunting. Now it's even worse. People are getting killed up there now for no reason at all, because some drug guy with an automatic weapon is drunk or bored and he wants to see how his new gun shoots."
At that moment, for some unaccountable reason, my pen leaped out of my fingers and clattered on the floor between us. He paused while I reached down and picked it up, then took another swig of coffee and continued.
"They can't have social gatherings because there's always trouble. But what happens is that people go mad from the isolation. There was always a couple of them on the loose when I was up there, just wandering around, eating grass, and killing people because they got the idea in their heads that they were good at it, that it was their destiny to be a great killer of men. There's this idea in the Sierra that you're not a man until you've killed a man, like it was with the Apaches, and now you add alcohol and cocaine and AK-47s into the equation..."
I thought he was exaggerating, making bold, forthright, unsustainable declarations like that sticker on his truck. Much as I love beef, it isn't always for dinner. I also thought his information was out of date. Joe Brown stopped going to the Sierra Madre in the 1980s and my scattered reports indicated that things had calmed down since then. I knew of American botanists who had traveled safely in the northern Sierra, although one group was robbed at gunpoint and a woman in the party was raped. I had been to the Sierra Madre myself but only in the two small areas where it was safe for tourists to visit.
In the early 1990s I spent most of a summer in Álamos, Sonora, an old colonial town in the foothills with a winter population of expatriate Americans. That was where my fascination began. The mountains loomed above the town and stories would come down of the latest killings and vendettas between the drug mafias and also of lost gold mines, buried treasure, mythical beasts, bandit gangs, the gigantic canyons that lay deeper into the mountains. There's no law up there, people kept saying. They made it sound like a remnant Wild West and, like Martín Luis Guzmán riding that train during the revolution, I gazed up there with a mixture of dread and yearning.
Then I took the train into the Copper Canyon country, the other part of the Sierra where tourists travel freely. I gawped at the barrancas and found my way into some remote Tarahumara huts, skirting marijuana fields along the way, meeting a cantankerous old gold prospector on a mule, suffering a mild but persistent vertigo because so much of the landscape was vertical, and generally wandering around in a state of wide-eyed confusion and wonderment.
Sitting there in Joe Brown's front room, I tried to explain to him how raw and alive I had felt in the mountains and how consistently baffled and intrigued I was by the things I saw there. In Álamos there were big, healthy marijuana plants growing in the tree wells at the state judicial police headquarters the very agency charged with fighting drug cultivation in the area. I knew some judiciales were corrupt, but were they actually growing the stuff, too?
"No, no," one of the locals said. "They sit out there on the front steps and roll their joints and throw the seeds into the tree wells and Mother Nature does the rest."
"But they don't pull out the plants. They're right there for everyone to see."
"They will pull them out but what's the hurry? Look, the buds are nearly ready."
In the raucous, accordion-driven, cocaine-fueled cantinas of Álamos and Batopilas, a small town at the bottom of one of the deepest barrancas, I drank with a succession of extravagantly costumed drug traffickers ostrich skin boots, gold chains, silk cowboy shirts, white straw cowboy hats and discovered that nearly all of them were devotees of Jesús Malverde, a nineteenth-century bandit who has been claimed as the patron saint of Mexican narcotraficantes, although stringently denied by the Catholic Church.
The narcos wore scapulars of the mustachioed bandit around their necks and took their loads of marijuana, heroin, and Colombian cocaine to Malverde shrines to get them blessed for safe passage north into the United States. Hit men went to the shrines to get their bullets blessed, so they would fly straight and true and lethal.
At Satevo, a village not far from Batopilas, I went to an old white cathedral built by the Jesuits. At the nave was an effigy of Christ lying horizontal in a glass box and both his eyes were covered by blue Smurf stickers. I asked around. Why does Christ have these cartoon stickers over his eyes? My question was met with shrugs or stony silence. No one else seemed to find it odd or noteworthy. Finally an old woman set me straight. "We covered his eyes because Our Lord has seen enough suffering."
Joe Brown liked these stories. They made him laugh and brought back memories. "Sometimes I really miss it down there," he said. He poured more coffee. I told him about my encounters with Tarahumaras, seeing their caves, being served a bowl of goat stew with the uncleaned guts floating in it, watching them run a hundred mile footrace in sandals cut from old truck tires. The Tarahumaras are generally agreed to be the greatest long-distance runners on the planet, and in one of those bizarre, surreal paradoxes that Mexico is always throwing at you, they are also one of the drunkest tribes on earth, getting utterly smashed on fermented corn beer once or twice a week, often for two or three days straight.
"I remember coming up on these Tarahumaras once and they were roasting a rat over a fire by the side of the trail," said Joe Brown. "They had it on a stick and its tail was hanging down and the tail caught fire and it started scorching the meat and they didn't care in the very least bit. The fare is a little bleak, to say the least, but that's going to be the least of your problems."
Now we were getting somewhere. He was talking about my travel plans as though they were actually going to happen. "I read somewhere that rat tastes better than squirrel," I said. "And a lot better than boiled whole vulture, which is supposedly eaten in the Sierra Madre during lean times and also considered a cure for venereal disease."
"Well, I've never been served vulture but it's a terrible rudeness to refuse the food that someone offers you," he said. "That's the kind of thing that gets you started on the wrong foot and can end up getting you killed."
He rose with stifled pains and opened a kitchen cupboard. He pulled out a large plastic Coke bottle with a handwoven rope handle and poured out one shot of a clear and slightly oily liquid.
"This is what they call lechuguilla, the bootleg tequila of the Sierra Madre," he said. Joe Brown had given up drinking twelve years ago, having worked up a habit that reached four bottles of whiskey a day, but he still enjoyed watching other people drink.
The lechuguilla had a green, spiny taste with a strong burn and the first swallow seemed to lift up the back of my brain and send it skidding across the top of my skull. "Suffering gods, what proof is that?"
He poured a little into a glass ashtray and set fire to it with a cigarette lighter. "It's pure alcohol," he said. "If you're ever offered lechuguilla straight from the still, take only a little sip or else your throat might get permanently damaged."
I asked him where he got the stuff and he said that Oscar Russo, the nephew of his ex-partner, had gone back up into the Sierra and started up the family cattle ranch again, along with the lechuguilla still.
"If Oscar is up there again, it probably means the drug turf wars have calmed down, at least temporarily," he said. "He might be able to get you in and that's the only way you're going to be able to do it. The rest of the Sierra is not like Álamos or that Copper Canyon country. You can't just turn up there. You need someone from there to take you in there under their protection."
"Do you think Oscar Russo would be willing to do it?"
"That's for him to decide. Bringing a stranger into the country might put his life in danger, especially a gringo. But I'll get in touch with him and see what he says. If you get up there, say you're researching cattle and ranching and the history of the area, and whatever you do, don't mention drugs. If they mention drugs, don't show any interest. And if you can't make friends with the people there in twenty minutes, get out immediately."
"Any other advice?"
"Learn Spanish and learn to ride a horse."
Copyright © 2008 by Richard Grant
Meet the Author
Richard Grant is an award-winning author, journalist, and television host. His books include Crazy River, the adventure classic God’s Middle Finger, and American Nomads, which has since been made into a BBC documentary of the same name.
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Wow. What an exciting tale. Read it! Compelling subject matter and such description! It is a marvellously exciting story, even more heart-thumping because it is true.
I LOVED this book! So much so that I read it twice, which is a first for me. I disagree with the first reviewer entirely. No doubt he's the kind of person who travels solely to reach a very precise destination, not realizing the value of the journey along the way. I travelled to the Sierra Madre region of Mexico myself. I believe Richard Grant captivates the underlying atmosphere to perfection. Incidentally, flicking through a book, isn't reading a book. Just like life. WELL DONE!
So much fun I read it in two sittings and have ordered more for family and friends. Typically a fiction reader, I may convert after this book--he provides an informational foray into a mysterious land with characters you couldn't invent if you tried. His descriptions of the various cultures and their mores are gritty and realistic, yet somehow tender. Mostly, this book is plain hilarious. It's not all fun, though--you will be thinking about this area of the world long after you read God's Middle Finger.
This was my first intro to a travel guide & I give the author credit for being intriguing enough for me to want to read other books on travel. Most likely, however, I would not read another by him. The "sample" of this book and the introduction were the best parts of the book. In the middle I kept waiting to find out how he got into the situation protrayed in the introduction. The book really didn't build up to it & that experience turned out to be the most exciting thing that happened to him. At one point the author talked about being sick of the machismo of the men in the Sierra Madre. After as many references as he'd made, you are sick of it at that point too. Perhaps he could've condensed this book into a few chapters in a book with more exciting experiences. I wouldn't discount the book completely, however. I read it quickly, looking for an explanation for the beginning, but it was still a decent read.
Entertaining with a good mix of yarn spinning and interesting cultural observations. If you like Troost you will love Grant.
I have told people that any book with such a title needs to be read. It lives up to expectations. Captivating, rich in detail and at times near breathless. To be sure there are one or two slow spells but the book is a quick read and fascinating in detail. Having lived in the US near the Mexican border recently I was somewhat prepared for the vivid description of lawlessness and corruption just south of the border. I wonder though if people less familiar with the area can imagine the conditions the author describes. Murder and mayhem, drug and gun running, world class distance runners who love to smoke and drink. I highly recommend this book for people interested in adventure or foreign relations for that matter.
Truth is stranger than fiction hike through a weirdly wonderful scary canyon of thieves, gangsters, murderers, and a cast of unsavories.
i found this book in the travel section...strange place for it.loved this booked.it was exciting and filled with facts and fun.i learned a lot from this book..very very interesting and very well written.i have reccommened this book to many of my friends..i am sure you will love it too
The start hooked me in. The people were interesting. The history was educational. The current situation was enlightening. If the book were 75 pages shorter it would have been more enjoyable. Unfortunately it tended to return to the same core. There are drugs and narcos in the mountains, life is dangerous, despite the adversity life goes on. Perhaps the author had no choice, life in the Mexican mountains is as it is, and the sameness is only altered by the characters one met. But it seems that the ending of each tale became predictable. It was the sameness that hurt this work.