Magdalena And The Mountain Trees
By Gabrielle Blair
I met John Orviss as he was hiking up the mountain on the Tepalo Waterfall trail towards the Saddle, while I and a group of friends were resting on the rocks before heading back down to the village. Noticing the heavy pack he was carrying, I was curious to know what was in it. He heaved the pack off his back, happy to be free of the weight for a bit, and began to share his story:
“It began because I went to Sunday school as a boy, where I learned Bible stories.” I was intrigued. “Six years ago, when I moved down to Ajijic as a snow-bird from Ontario, I began hiking the standard routes. One day, coming down the Slippery Slope, I met a mysterious Mexican woman, who appeared like a sort of religious apparition. She was covered from head to toe, like a nun, with only her face visible beneath her hat and head-scarf. She carried a walking stick. I was impressed by her aura of devotion, but I didn’t know to what? She spoke some English and she told me her name was Magdalena.
“A year later I met her again on the mountain, ‘Oh, Senor!’” she said. ‘It’s very sad. Jesus has got a full-time job and he can’t carry water. Who will take care of the trees?’ Magdalena! Jesus! Questions popped into my mind: was this some Higher Entity that was giving me a message? Was I getting a hint of how I might be helpful? I asked her if she wanted help. “Oh, Senor! It would be wonderful if you could carry water.”
This was Magdalena’s story: She and some others had decided it was important to plant trees on the mountain slopes, mostly set close to the well-frequented trails, but some more off the beaten track. She described where they were planted and in time I found more: three on the Saddle itself, about 1,000 feet above the village, and three more on the south edge of the Cornfield, and one on the Slippery Slope. That one is not doing too well. They had been planted carefully, some with cages around them to protect them from animals. There’s a white pine and a mango tree and others that I haven’t identified. Then there’s also a big sharp-needled pine, must be about twenty-five years old by now, that’s a success story and it can take care of itself.
“At first I carried only a few liters, but as I built up stamina, I added more, and now I’m up to over 30 lbs: ten liters of water, plus a bag of carrots for my favorite little horse. Do you know, when she hears my hiking sticks, she whinnies from far off in the field and makes her way over to me for her treats. I love her like my own.” John opened his pack to reveal ten, neatly stacked plastic litre bottles of water and the bag of carrots. “I have another half liter for myself and the rest are for the trees.” How long have you been doing this, I asked? “For the last five years, I try to go three times a week.”
What about Magdalena and Jesus? Had he seen them? “I’ve heard that Magdalena is still in the village, but I’ve never run into her again. I’ve never met Jesus.” Maybe I should sleuth them out, I thought to myself.
I was eager to hear more and as John heaved on his pack heading up towards the Saddle, we agreed to meet again soon. Over coffee the next morning, he continued his story: “As a boy I developed a love of the mountains.” He chuckled: “I always wanted to get to the top of the hill. During my university years in Toronto where I was studying science, as soon as I was through with exams, I’d borrow a car and head for the mountains in Up-state New York, or Vermont, and particularly the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. At twenty-two I was in Jasper and I began serious mountaineering. I joined the Alpine Club of Canada and was a member for thirty years. I went on to climb major peaks in Austria, Switzerland and Germany.”
Did you have any accidents I asked? “Yes. I was 24 years old and being young and stupid, didn’t know enough about safety precautions. I ascended really quickly up Grossglockner, 12,461 feet to the peak, the highest mountain in the Austrian Alps, having come from sea level. While on the mountain, I developed a colossal headache and learned later that I had suffered from hypobaropathy (acute mountain sickness, or altitude bends) and I could have died. Another time, while free climbing in the Canadian Shield in Ontario, I wasn’t roped and I slipped and fell 25 feet from a 100 foot wall. I landed on broken rock, was badly winded, damaged a lung and coughed up blood. Fortunately there was someone to help me.
“I’m 75 years old now and a cancer survivor, twice over.” Looking at this tall healthy man with perfect posture, a full head of hair and bright blue eyes, I had a hard time believing him. “A year ago, I had a stroke on the table when they were operating for colon cancer and I was supposed to have died. I guess I have many lives, like a cat. I’ve given up mountaineering and rock climbing, but I still love hiking in the mountains behind Ajijic, sticking to the inclines.”
What happens to your seven trees when you go back to Canada? “I worry about them, and also my little horse” he added emotionally. “I just hope they’ll do alright until the rainy season and meanwhile, maybe some other kindly soul will carry up the water. So far they seem to be doing well and I’ve watched them grow through the years.”
Author’s Note: My hope is that people reading this story will develop an interest in and respect for the ancient trails in the mountains around Lakeside. I’m happy to see that the travelled paths are being kept up, the rocks cleared and even that there’s less garbage lying about. I forgot to say that I fill my pack with garbage after I’ve watered the trees.
If you’re planning on hiking, watch for Magdalena and Jesus’ trees. You may even have room in your pack for a few extra liters of water and will feel like picking up some garbage to keep our mountains beautiful.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com
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