It’s time to come clean and confess: Twice I’ve run drugs across the border. I’m so busted.

As a third year medical student, I bicycled seven miles to Kino Hospital during my obstetrics rotation. Yes, birth is a miracle and all that, but I couldn’t resist dabbling in creative arts on the side. After catching babies for twenty-four hours, I cycled another six miles to Tucson International where I’d arranged to rent a Cessna 172.

Pastillas y otras cosas

A textbook publisher in Cincinnati wanted pictures of objects with Spanish labeling for a fifth grade arithmetic book – miligramos, velocidad, presion, anchura, whatever. Red-eyed and unshaven, I picked up the keys to the Skyhawk and headed south, checking out of the US with an octogenarian Customs agent at the Nogales airport. The flight down was effortless; before I knew it, I was driving a Hertz rental car into the heart of Hermosillo. The red alternator warning light cheerily lit up the dashboard.

I photographed city busses, road signs, and wind gauges, anything with packaging that might show numbers. The day wore on and I grew sleepier. I yawned and thought, why not just buy things and bring them home where I could photograph them later? So I loaded up the rental car with an eclectic collection – a bag of fertilizer, cans of dog food, some licorice. In the farmacia, a lovely young woman stared at me with increasingly wide eyes as I pointed to a row of pill bottles behind the counter and asked first for the one with a green label, then the blue label, entonces la botella roja, y amarilla, and so on. I don’t speak Spanish very well but I do know my colors. Well, don’t YOU buy the bottle of wine with the most colorful label?

By the time I got back to the plane, I’d been up for thirty-six hours and looked pretty beat up. I was happy to be flying north toward home. It had been fun quirky trip. Twenty miles before crossing back into the US, a light bulb came on in my dim brain: I realized that I didn’t have a clue what was in those pill bottles. This could be bad. So I opened the window and began pouring out the contents, creating a twenty-mile veil of pills that led toward the border – pharmaceutical virga.

In Nogales, the same Customs agent I had seen earlier in the day asked if I had anything to declare. I apologetically offered my bag of fertilizer, the cans of dog food, and all those empty pill bottles. He looked at me, shook his head as he declined to bother searching the plane, and said, “Get out of here.”

Packing the Buzzard

The other time that I ran drugs across the border was even goofier. This time, I was carrying pills out of the US and into Central America. I was working on a book about climate change for the US Geological Survey. I was reveling in an entirely new subject that seriously widened my earth science horizons, studying floods and droughts, El Nino and La Nina. I was meeting climatologists all over the country. I’d been to Canada and Florida, Peru and Antarctica.

Just when I thought I was finished with the research, Hurricane Mitch ripped through Honduras. Barry Lopez happened to be in town, giving a talk about some book he’d just written. Years earlier I had spent many hours in his kitchen while photographing along the McKenzie River in Oregon. After the book talk, we went to Joe’s Place for a beer. Barry is an intense, passionate man. He never does anything half way. I realized that if I aspired to write books too, I had to go to Honduras.

Rio Choluteca in Tegucigalpa

Over the next three weeks, I made plans to depart. I called my USGS boss and buddy Bob Webb and told him to pack his bags. I ran around to most of the medical offices in Flagstaff; those who didn’t load me up with drug-rep samples gave cash with which I purchased bucketloads of antibiotics. I got in touch with a Honduran NGO called MOPAWI that ministered to the Mosquito Indians on the country’s east coast. They agreed to accept and distribute the twenty-five boxes of drugs that I stuffed into the Buzzard and carried down the east coast of Mexico.

Fishing village north of Minatitlan

The trip was incredible. Tampico. Poza Rica. Ciudad del Carmen. On the 200-mile leg across the Yucatan to Chetumal, I realized that it didn’t matter how high we were: if the engine blew up, we were going to be swallowed by the jungle and never spit out. So we flew at treetop level the whole way. Mayan ruins scrolled up on the foreshortened horizon, disappearing beneath and behind us as we sailed further south and east.

We followed the coast of Belize, forced slowly down by a lowering ceiling. 2000 feet as we passed Punta Gorda. Friends had suggested flying out over the water to skirt Guatemalan airspace. 1000 feet. 500 feet. Approaching Honduras we hugged the tops of palm trees along the beach as a tropical firehose lashed the windshield. The Buzzard had to climb to avoid the masts of ships at Puerto Cortes. We landed at San Pedro Sula, happy to explain to the dubious customs folk why we had stopped short of our intended goal of Tegucigalpa. When they saw all the drugs that we were bringing to their hurricane-ravaged country, they exclaimed with delight, “Ah, humanitarios!”

Valle del Angeles road above Tegucigalpa

We refueled, heartened by our new friends’ assurances that Tegucigalpa was just over the hill, not a hundred miles away. ‘Just follow the road,” they said. The road led into the mountains and then ran smack into the clouds. I tried scud running down low. That didn’t work. I climbed to five thousand feet, squeezed between layers. Nope. Seven thousand feet. Nope. At eleven thousand feet above sea level, I gave up and more or less declared an instrument clearance to the obliging controller who really didn’t seem to care. After all, he wasn’t in the plane.

El Berinche landslide

Osvaldo Munguia and Adelberto Padilla from MOPAWI met us at the Tegucigalpa airport. They were deeply grateful to receive the drugs we had brought; I was grateful to finally have some room to stretch out again in the plane. Riding into town, we saw what we had come to see – Hurricane Mitch’s Category Five devastation. The Rio Choluteca had gutted the city’s heart. Roads were erased. Floods had reduced entire neighborhoods to mere smudges. Barry Lopez had been right; I had to come here if I was to write about the human face of climate change.

Tegucigalpa children amid wreakage from Hurricane Mitch

After a week we packed up and headed home. Instruments again. Over Belize City, a controller speaking with a beautiful British accent informed us that we had traffic – a 737, a Caravan, and a couple of 206’s. I was solid IFR. I asked her where the traffic might be. She had neither radar nor a clue. Well, I thought, it’s a big sky. Back in Mexico I pointedly rubbed elbows with the Federale in Villahermosa who too enthusiastically inspected the Buzzard, watching to see what he might plant on the plane. I needn’t have been so paranoid. In Vera Cruz, the airport commandante said sure, we could roll our sleeping bags out on the tarmac under the Buzzard’s wings. We were serenaded all night long by Aero Mexico 727s taxiing past us.

Friendly folk wearing US Customs and Border Protection uniforms in McAllen, Texas could smell us coming a mile away. Bob and I were two desperados, hungry and in need of baths. In a courteous, professional, and chillingly efficient manner, two officers began to dismantle the Buzzard. This was not your basic shake down. This was not Nogales. They had their screw drivers out and inspection panels were being removed. Then another agent came out of the office and said, “It’s ok; he’s a doctor.” As if that was supposed to suddenly make everything all right. I was so not busted.


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About Michael Collier

I had the good fortune to be given five mentors early in life. John Running shared his love for honest photographs. Chuck Barnes showed me how to think like a geologist. Chris Condit, bless his soul, taught me to fly. Walt Taylor will always be the most effectively caring physician I could ever imagine. And Wesley Smith, that night above Crystal, taught me how to pray to the river. My thanks to you all. www.michaelcollierphoto.com