We had been driving through the high country of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental all day, but our progress was glacially slow. Most of the roads in the mountains are so poor, it takes hours to go just twenty miles, bumping and lurching endlessly with top speeds of only three or four miles per hour. We finally reached a small village in a high valley surrounded by pine-clad mountains. Pines were scattered throughout the village, with one even growing right through the roof of an empty cabin. The ground was still covered by several inches of snow a week after a powerful storm had swept through the area.
(Photo by Tim Gallagher)
We stopped at the first house we came to and knocked on the door. A man in his sixties named Pedro came outside to speak with us. He was staggering drunk but seemed eager to help. We showed him a color illustration depicting four species of Mexican woodpeckers. He instantly picked out the Imperial and launched into a story about riding on a high, pine-covered mesa with his son, Miguel, just three years earlier and seeing one of the birds clinging to the trunk of a large pine. He told us they had never seen one before and Miguel even wondered if it might be some kind of strange mountain grouse. Pedro immediately drew his pistol and shot the bird, injuring it, and quickly threw a blanket over it as it squawked loudly.
The two men had brought lunch with them, he said, and they decided to rest awhile and eat there. A short time later, Miguel stood up and went to check on the bird. The instant he lifted the edge of the blanket, the hugh black-and-white bird burst out and flew away. Apparently, it had only been stunned.
I didn't know what to make of his story. Of course, Pedro was completely intoxicated, and yet the tale he told had some interesting elements and would have been difficult to fake, drunk or sober.