Heart of Fear

An adventure-seeking scribe ventures into drug-producing Mexico and lives to tell the tale

A new beer in Mexico has been named Cerveza Jesus Malverde and celebrates the patron saint of narco-traffickers. At a time when the Mexican government is embroiled in a bloody war against its recreational pharmaceutical industry (complete with beheadings and rocket-propelled grenades), you've got to love the entrepreneurial spirit behind a beer that roots for the bad guys.

Mexicans fear and adore their outlaws, violent men who make John Dillinger and Al Capone look like pussies. So, like the refrain in that Texas Tornados song, you'll probably want to knock back "una mas cerveza," or maybe something a little stronger, when you sit down to read Richard Grant's hair-raising travel adventure called God's Middle Finger.

The book opens when a man, with a silver scorpion pinned to his cowboy hat, tells Grant, "We are the real killers here. Further north they grow more drugs but here we are hundred percent killers." Wasted out of his mind and jacked up on coke, the scorpion man will later spend that night with a buddy, hunting Grant like an animal through a cold, dark Durango, Mexico, forest.

Think Deliverance, only way more frightening.

Grant, a Tucsonan and author of the terrific American Nomads, is a freelance journalist who left London and came to the U.S. in his mid-20s. His specialty became going into places and hanging out with people others would find too scary. Coming off a marriage gone bad, he hatches a scheme to travel the length of the Sierra Madre Occidental and write a book about it. Claiming boredom, he craves adventure. He babbles about "the forbidden mystique of the Sierra" and his "intellectual curiosity about the nature of anarchy and surrealism." Grant is obviously another in that long line of adrenaline-fueled British travel junkies.

His long, twisted journey begins with a visit to that tough old man of the Sierra--writer, cowboy and all-around hell-raiser J.P.S. Brown (see Tucson Weekly, Aug. 30, 2007, and Sept. 11, 2008). Brown doesn't pull any punches: "If you go up there, what you're going to find is murder. Lots of murder," he pronounces. "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."

The whole business about there being safety in numbers is especially true in the drug-producing regions of Mexico. Knowing someone who knows someone, having a connection, a guide--these things are the difference between survival and tragedy. Grant has a tough time figuring out how to actually get into the mountains when it turns out Brown is unable to go. He then wastes a bunch of time dickering to go up with some enviros who bought a "conservation ranch" in the northern Sierra. He even comes up with a bizarre idea to accompany the driver of a beer truck on his rounds. Nothing pans out until someone hooks him up with a local filmmaker/musician named Ruben Ruiz, with family connections to a ranch in the northern Sierra.

Ruiz excitedly informs Grant: "It's just fucking primal up there." No kidding. Take the ranch hand Ruiz's father hired one summer. One day, Ruiz heads up to the ranch with his cousin. It was quiet. "Then this guy walks out of the trees wearing a fucking dress and pointing a Winchester rifle at us and he says, 'Quienes son?' Who are you?" Some days, he'd dress like a regular cowboy. Other days, he'd haul out of the bunkhouse wearing the dress and makeup, and carrying the Winchester. He'd mount up and ride off, looking "strange on the range" as Ruiz puts it.

God's Middle Finger describes a world where killing is honorable and often a point of pride. It's a place where drug trafficking and tourism somehow coexist, at least on the fringes. Grant describes the people as a "hillbilly vendetta culture that's up to its eyeballs in the world's most murderous business enterprise." It's a place where things happen, and then they never happened at all--a potent mix of "the real, the imaginary and the mythological."

It's a place where Grant finally learns what fear--dark, blood-curdling, sphincter-clenching fear--really means.

What a strange, wondrous and terrifying book this is. It's a lot like the Sierra Madre itself. This is one of the best travel books of the year--the chronicle of a thoughtful, observant, sensitive fool roaming an area of magical beauty and utter danger, and miraculously surviving to tell the tale.