On March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa led a raid on the village of Columbus, New Mexico. Shortly thereafter, General John "Black Jack" Pershing led a punitive raid into Mexico.
For the last half dozen years, Columbus has hosted Camp Furlong Day to commemorate the brief hostilities and to help cement a spirit of friendship between the two neighboring countries. Men, women, and children on horseback rode from Chihuahua to the border, and Americans did the same from as far away (so I was told) as Colorado.
This year Nancy, two friends and I
formed a mini caravan and drove our RVs to Columbus to witness the festivities. For a very reasonable fee we stayed in Pancho Villa State Park, the site of the old Camp Furlong. The weather forecast was for 50 and 60-mph winds on the day of the event—hardly an auspicious prediction. If I had
been true to my word, Nancy and I would not have crossed the border; what with the drug cartels fighting the Federales and murders in the thousands, I had said many times that I would never go to Mexico again.
The first thing we did was to drive three miles to Palomas, park, and walk across the border to eat lunch in a pink building called La Tienda Rosa, or The Pink Store. Scanning the menu, I decided to have the Pancho Villa Plate, a choice based on the name alone. It consisted of a beef taco, a chimichanga, and refried beans, which I supplemented with a three-dollar margarita. Muy bien. We learned from the waiter not to fear the water, because they and apparently all
restaurants in Mexico serve only distilled water, including in the ice. Good thing. Tap water makes everyone sick down there, not just us gringos.
Outside, I heard a lot of commotion. No, it wasn't the feared gunfight. A small parade of horseback riders made their way up the street with much fanfare, apparently having ridden from deep inside Mexico. Next to me on the sidewalk stood a young soldier in uniform, casually holding an automatic rifle. The riders stopped a few yards past me at the base of a large statue of a mustachioed Pancho Villa on horseback, no more than a twenty-second walk from the border. I am fairly certain they didn't stop there to worship, but el General was definitely the object of their affection. By the way, his face bears an uncanny resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt. If you moved the same statue a hundred yards to the north into Yanqui territory, it could easily pass for T.R. charging up San Juan Hill.
Though I'm not much of a drinker, I decided to buy some relatively inexpensive liquor at a store that was even closer (if that's possible) to the border. As I walked around examining labels, a young boy of 13 or so followed me, three or four steps behind, whichever direction I stepped. Did he want something from me? Maybe he hoped my wallet would fall out of my pocket or I'd pay him a dollar to go away? I never found out.
I picked up a couple of bottles and headed for the counter. Nancy stopped me, held out a quarter, and whispered that I should give it to the boy (not the stalker) who stood in front of the counter and bagged bottles for customers. Our friend Robie had clued us in that this is a widespread custom in Mexico: a boy picks up your purchase and bags it for you, hoping for a tip.
Back at the park, we met a couple from Manitoba who come down to this same location every year to escape the bitter Canadian winters. They stay for months at a time, defraying expenses by helping to manage the park.
The next day, Saturday, the wind howled as predicted, whipping up clouds of sand and dust. The event itself was small and pleasant. From a bandstand, the mayor of Columbus greeted us in Spanish and English while 15 or 20 vendors sold t-shirts and tacos, local kitsch and sugared kettle corn. To my untrained eye there looked like 400 to 500 people in attendance, though a vendor told me that about 2000 was the official estimate for the entire day. People came and went, of course. Some may have been blown away. By the time we tired of watching a man do fancy tricks with his horse, many of the vendors had packed up and gone home. We left too, somehow missing what promised to be a colorful folklórico dance.
It was a perfectly fine event, and I'd go again—but I might check for wind advisories first.