“Are you wearing socks?” Ulises asks me. I look down at my leather boots.
“To walk in the river, dude. I’m not wearing any,” and he elbows me across the gearshift and winks. I think about it for a minute. Calzados. No, right, calzados means underwear. Calcetínes means socks. Always fuck that one up.
Am I wearing underwear? I’m always wearing underwear. But what underwear? Right, the knock-off Gucci spandex boyshorts-for-men Mom picked up last Christmas. Perfect. They cling like socks from the dryer out of the water; as soon as I hit the river they’ll be as revealing as Saran Wrap. Even better.
Ulises parks the truck in the shade and as I take a minute to check out the sapphire-blue ribbon in front of us, he hustles out and starts stripping. At least his going commando comment was a joke. He asks me if I’m coming. I look out my window and what seems to be the caretaker for the small group of tourist cabins a hundred yards to our right is leaning on his shovel and staring at me.
“Yea, sure,” I say to Ulises, and step out. It’s been a hot ride here and my jeans drag my briefs half off, exposing what I imagine is a piercingly white bit of waxing gibbous. Let’s go catch some fucking bugs.
For all that I’ve got six months left in Peace Corps, it feels like my service is winding down fast, and whenever somebody in the office takes a field trip, I try to tag along. I’ve been here eighteen months, I might as well see how the rest of the Reserve works.
Given that it’s campaign season, the public face of the park is on hiatus, so if I’ve got no school visits, I’m workless. Which means that when Ulises headed out to do water monitoring, I hopped in the truck. I’m never dressed right for these excursions. The first time, Samara had invited me on a ‘road trip,’ so I went in shorts and spent an afternoon getting eaten alive by fleas while hiking the hills above Madroño. Today I’m wearing the powder-blue, child-sized uniform polo of our kids’ groups, which is designed to trap sweat and lose the respect of any campesino who sees it.
I’m also strapped for cash and left my water bottle at home. That’s a problem; we’re headed to the Río Santa María, past the centuries-old Franciscan missions at Tilaco and Tancoyol, through the last indigenous Pame-speaking village and down another ninety minutes of dirt track to the lowest point in the Reserve, the thin band of water that separates this state from the Red Zone of San Luís Potosí. We need to eat and hydrate. I hope Ulises has his wallet.
“Take this,” Ulises says, and hands me what looks like one of those nets you use to clean pools. “For catching bugs.” I heft it and he dives off the bank, t-shirt and grey briefs sucking into every cleft of his bulk. I huck the net on the bank next to the bug box and the jars of alcohol. I think for a minute about stripping my shirt off, but then I take another look at the place.
This part of the park was under an inland sea an aeon ago, and millions of years of dead shell-dwellers have left calcium carbonate on and in every rock. It’s what makes the banks of the river dazzling white and the water its ridiculous azure. The Santa María cuts a low gorge through the mountains, and every brilliant surface throws sunlight back onto me and my very white skin. I keep my shirt on and wade in.
Ulises paddles back and sets his glasses on the shore before picking up the net and the electric wand he uses to test the water. “In case they fall off,” he explains. “We’re going through the rapids.” I toss my pair onshore and walk after him, squinting and struggling to find footing on rocks slick with calcium slime. I slip and the current whisks me downstream, the air in the bug box keeping me afloat. I wave at Ulises as I go by, and he laughs and lays back, powering up to me using the net like an underwater sail.
“Don Julio!” Ulises startles a man with no shirt, who drops a spoon and raises a hand in greeting. Our weather monitoring station is, I think, on his roof.
“Finally gonna check it?” He asks. “Been a while.”
“No gas money,” Ulises says, and shrugs. “Burocracia.” An aside to me: “The station can only hold two months’ of data.”
“When did you last drive out?”
“Three months ago.” It’s May. “Our February data’s gone by now.”
We’re an hour out from what used to be the last Spanish imperial stronghold in these hills, and I’m given to understand that Don Julio’s rancho is the only thing between us and the river and San Luís beyond. We clamber on top of his poured concrete bungalow, and I take shitty photos with my phone while Ulises plugs a white laptop into the space-age weather station GIZ bought for us two years ago. Both look out of place against the backdrop of cattle-ranch and the thousand-foot cliffs that drop down to the river, a line of white far below.
Julio’s animals are the cleanest and happiest I’ve seen in Mexico. A puppy runs up, maybe half hound and half spaniel, and starts licking my boots. He’s got none of the fear of imminent violence that’s the basic attitude of most pets here, and he does me good. A giant billy-goat herds his flock of kids and does over to the corral, where they play around the big water-buffalo-looking serrano cows.
“Yea,” Ulises says, closing the laptop. “February’s just gone.”
“Would it be different from last February?”
“It’s a microclimate. Winds coming off the river from San Luís make it a little cooler, a little wetter. They import the weather from over there. Last year I came to do the monitoring when there was a forest fire across the border, and the valley funneled all the heat right here; fifty degrees all day. I came out looking like a fish out of water,” he says, and mimes gasping for breath that isn’t there.
That’s…I’m not sure, but well over a hundred in our degrees. Shit. It’s hard to imagine now. The tableau’s peaceful in bright sunlight, and you can tell it’s hot, but a breeze rockets up from the valley floor and wicks the sweat away.
When we go to check the soil-humidity station, the pipe that holds the wiring disgorges an entire fire-ant hive. We hotfoot around for a bit.
We crossed the river downstream the first time, where it was shallow, slow, and sandy. We’ve collected what I guess is enough bugs for one day, and this time we’re crossing back over through the rapids. I’ve got the jar of bichos in alcohol in my left hand and the bug box tucked under the same arm, its mess of mud and reeds leaking through a crack in one side.
Ulises doesn’t seem to know the box is compromised, so when he asks if I want to stick it in the net he’s carrying, I tell him no. He shrugs and starts off, using the net handle like a staff. I follow, but between the ripples from the current and my benighted eyes, I can’t see jack for where I’m stepping. It’s all rocks, though—big enough, some, to trip you up; small enough, others, to twist an ankle, and every one is covered in razorlike accumulate.
We pick our way, cursing and shouting every time we plant a heel down on a particularly sharp edge. I’m beginning to think that, of the two inches of thorn I hammered into my foot high-stepping the murderous hot sand down from the truck, I may have pulled out somewhat less than the full length. Exceptionally cool microclimate my exceptionally white ass.
The water climbs over our thighs, and every time I reposition my upriver foot, the current pushes at the leg, trying to twirl me around like the world’s ugliest ballerina. At midriver, the stone under my downriver foot rolls, and I go down with the embarrassing oop sound I make every time I commit a physical fuckup. Ulises turns and yells “Pinche Jona!” as I scud on my ass downriver, the bugbox and the jar in either hand above the water. I manage to jam an ankle into a biting pocket in the rocks and climb to my feet.
The rest of the crossing goes alright, and we spend the next hour in the shade, picking bugs out of the plants and silt in the bugbox and flicking them into jars of liquor. Ulises seems to have bludgeoned a number of minnows to death while collecting with the net, and I drop them in my jar, hoping he’ll think it’s funny when he checks them later. Even money he’ll assume I didn’t quite catch the point of our activity.
Sorting done, we finally tear our shirts off for a rinse. I call out to Ulises and put my forearm against my stomach, bright red on white bread. He laughs and flings back his mane of kinky hair like he’s in a shampoo commercial.
Why would anyone ever work in an office?
We take a less thorny route back to the pickup, and as he’s stowing all the gear, Ulises tells me to open both my doors so I can change between them. I look down at my briefs, cold-shrunken dick tiny and curled against the fabric. I mean, I was just gonna let these dry in the truck—but before I can finish the thought, I catch a good glimpse of Uli’s nude flank through the truck as he strips. Okay, sure.
I open both my doors and look behind me. The campesino’s back, same shovel, same stare, right in the only spot you can see me from. I grin at him and wave before I peel the briefs off. Chilly river, bro. I hope you enjoy the view.