Thursday, August 16, 2007

Driving the Jeep to Mexico - Part 16

We sat in the stillness of the Jeep, listening to the motor idling, and just stared incomprehensively ahead. About 20 yards in the front of us was a solid wall of smoke. It was burning alternately white and black. Black smoke is not a good thing. We discussed turning around but there was little chance of that. We certainly did not want to travel in the wrong direction on the freeway. Crossing the median was an impossibility, even with the Jeep. It was one wide, steep and deep ditch. We were both terrified to proceed and enter into the wall of smoke and unknowns. As we sat there, each of us lost in our own little world of terror and not speaking, a car appeared out of the smoke going in the opposite direction. At least we knew somebody had gotten through ok, even though it was on the other side of the freeway from us. I wanted to wait and follow somebody from our side into that blind wall of smoke, but there were no cars in sight. Based on the few that had passed us over the last few hours, one was not likely to come along anytime soon either. I made the decision for the both of us and told Jaimie to zip up his plastic window while I did the same. (the Jeep is a soft top with plastic windows) The temperature in the Jeep immediately felt like it soared to over 100 degrees. Maybe we were just sweating from nerves and adrenaline adding to the heat.

I started forward and kept at a speed low enough to stay in second gear. I had no idea what I might encounter once inside the wall. We entered into what surely seemed like a page out of hell. Smoke and flames were everywhere and visibility was close to zero inside. Through the smoke, which was coming into the Jeep from everywhere, we could now see the flames that were not visible from outside the wall. They were amazingly bright, huge, hot and very, very close to us. Some of the flames were shooting up higher than the Jeep. We were being bombarded by bits of flying ash, some still glowing red. I was very nervous that a hot ember would land on the top of the Jeep and start our canvas roof on fire. Or stick to the windows and start melting them. At one point the wind was whipping the flames straight across the road and we had to drive through a wall of fire. My hands felt like they were cemented to the wheel, I was gripping it so tightly.

As we drove this at the fastest pace I dared, which was about 30 MPH, we also had to keep a watch out for the wildlife being driven onto the road by the fire. We certainly did not need to hit anything and stall out in the middle of this inferno. Thankfully, we never saw any large animals but there were plenty of other things. Wild feral cats, armadillos, iguana, snakes and hairy creatures the size of beaver that I do not know the name of. And dead and burning things lined the road too. I had no choice at times but to splatter iguana and a few cats that got in my way. I felt horrible every time I felt something squish under my tires. I was certainly not going to swerve to miss anything and risk an accident or going off the road. Our safety came before the lives of any animals we encountered. Sad, but true. To this day, if I close my eyes, I can still see this moment and feel every bump to the tires.

We emerged from the fire in what seemed like an eternity later. We were mentally badly shaken up but alive and not on fire. We drove a safe distance from it and I pulled over to inspect for any damage or fires. Luckily I could not find any and the worst was the ash that covered the Jeep and the smell of smoke that was to be a co-pilot with us for quite some time to come. Speaking of smoke, I took the time to have one myself at this point. Jaimie, who normally doesn’t smoke, asked for one too!

We continued on our way, nervous and edgy whenever we saw smoke ahead that looked like it could be close to the road. We did pass a few more fires that were close to the road, but not close enough to really cause us alarm. We were just glad to pass them before the spread in our direction. It really did seem like all of Tabasco was on fire. We followed the freeway towards Villahermosa, where it abruptly ended, putting us back onto the two lane M180, heading to Frontera and back to the coast.

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