When we last saw our friend Richard Grant nearly five years ago, we believed we would never see him again. Surely he will be killed, we feared, after he told us of his plans to traverse the ungodly Sierra Madre mountain range of Mexico. With demented glee, he had described for us a lawless, rugged land, where drug cartels ruled, shipping out hordes of marijuana, opium and heroin grown by the local indigenous people, who were a prickly bunch themselves. The drug runners, or narcotraficantes, made their reputations shooting outsiders for sport. The army and police dropped by occasionally, but mostly to collect bribes. It was, he explained, "an experiment in anarchy."
Richard (pictured at left with a Tarahumara Indian) is one of the most well-traveled guys we've ever met. Though he headquarters in Tuscon, he never stays in one place for more than three weeks. He's a rambler, ever in search of the peculiar, reckless side of humanity. Having spent some time in the Mexican foothills, Richard fell in love with the mountain scenery and especially the wild tales that came down from the mountains, of banditry and lawlessness that sounded like the Old West. Despite repeated warnings, he felt an intense calling to travel this treacherous stretch and write a book about it.
We met Richard in Water Valley, Mississippi, prior to his trip. He had set up temporary camp in a mobile home with bluesman T-Model Ford, who was recording a new album for Fat Possum Records and needed a handler. (Richard wrote one of the funniest and most outlandish profiles of the Mississippi blues label for The Observer.) We spent a good deal of the summer getting to know him — though surely he was off somewhere every three weeks, including one trip to L.A. to interview Tom Waits, for which we greatly envied him — and admired his very dry and fierce British wit, but when the summer ended and he returned to Arizona, we shook hands for what we assumed would be the last time.
And then, just this spring, a miracle: we received a copy of Richard's book, God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre. Not only had our friend survived, but he'd written a hilarious and fascinating book to commemorate his mad excursions.
God's Middle Finger chronicles Richard's descent into the wild Mexican countryside. Per unanimous advice from friends and natives, he sought guides to lead him into every outward village and city, forming a network of benign sidekicks, friends of friends and fictional referrals that might allow him to pass through the country unharmed, for a stranger alone with no good reason in this part of the world would most certainly be killed. As expected, he encountered some rough characters, but just as interesting are the kind souls, strange hitchhikers and eccentric locals who accompanied him. As in the best travel writing, Grant guides readers not only to the scenic and the outrageous, but taps into the national consciousness, so that we might live for a while in the local people's minds. The Sierra Madre culture in particular is one of stories, fantasies, sorcery and folk beliefs. "People need these fantasies," explained one of his guides. "They escape into a magical world because this one is too hard, too brutal in its logic. It does not allow enough hope."
Though he survived the trip, it did not end well. The episode that finally convinced him to leave Mexico serves as the opening chapter of the book, which can be read here. The book is a clever, hilarious and addictive account of rough travels that fans of Hunter S. Thompson and Chuck Palahniuk will find especially rewarding. If you like this kind of full-immersion travelogue in troubled locales, you'll savor these reckless adventures.
We finally got around to reading the book a few weeks ago when, out of the blue, Richard called. He'd tracked us down in Greenwood and said he was coming through on a more pleasurable travel-writing assignment, this one to cover the high spots of Mississippi for a travel piece in London's Telegraph. In his sites was Lusco's, Greenwood's most celebrated restaurant, an assignment we were grateful to aid.
At dinner, we learned more of his recent exploits. He'd just come from interviewing Cheeta, the 76-year-old chimpanzee (and recovering alcoholic) who played sidekick to Tarzan in the classic movies of the 1930s and '40s. Officially the world's oldest-living primate, having outlived both Tarzan and Jane, Cheeta currently enjoys retirement at his Palm Springs estate and has recently published his memoirs, Me Cheeta (published in the U.S. in early 2009). Richard's report of his visit to Cheeta's manor, where he met the chimp's colorful human caretaker as well as his shoe fetishist grandson and various other primate relatives, had us cackling in our onion rings. We heartily encourage you to read Richard's bizarre encounter with Cheeta and his handler, as well as his positive review of the book (published in the U.S. in early 2009) at the London Telegraph's website.
It was good to see Richard alive and well and to get an interesting perspective of the wider world from someone who's seen much of it and reports back with such style and humor. Among his favorite places, he insists, is Mississippi. Most places you go, he explained, you'll find that good conversation isn't as natural and plentiful as it is here. He is especially fond of Oxford, where he has considered moving, and where he was headed after our visit, but for Richard, there may be no cure for the road and all of its treacherous stretches.