Yep, it really happened, just like in the old western shoot-em-ups. A gunman in a black mask, a remote stretch of road and a gun the size of a cannon that might have been requisitioned for Old Fort Tucson. The only things lacking were a red bandana and a horse for the robber to jump on as he galloped off to make his getaway.
As for the stagecoach full of characters, substitute a tired old Toyota Corolla with two equally tired old North American tourists returning from a beach in Central Mexico. My husband Lynn and I had been enjoying a relaxing few days at a pretty beach on the Pacific near the quiet village of La Mira.
After a leisurely breakfast we started out on what was supposed to be a pleasant drive to our next destination. The day was bright and sunny and the highway, Mexico National #37, was narrow but well maintained with only moderate traffic that day.
We left the lush green humidity of the coast behind and began a slow climb into a much different landscape. Winding our way around gentle curves, we commented on the huge boulders and sparse vegetation that reminded us of our own Southwest.
Rounding a curve, we stumbled upon a tableau John Wayne would have fit right into. Ahead of us, blocking the road completely, a shabby old truck was stopped, the driver standing by the opened door. His hands were in the air and he was shuddering visibly from head to toe, while an equaling nervous figure threatened him with a pointed gun. I’d guess that poor driver’s boots were full of puddles.
We watched, absolutely stunned, as the robber grabbed the driver’s watch off his wrist and shoved him into the cab of the truck. He angrily waved the truck on its way, all the time darting quick looks to left and right, watching the highway. Our sudden appearance must have startled him as he ran toward us next, waving the gun, his face hidden and his entire head covered by a black knit ski mask.
Lynn just had time to mutter, “Stick your wallet under the seat.” There was no way we could turn around, not on that narrow road with that big gun waving at us. Where was John Wayne when we needed him? We would have settled for Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy right about then if John hadn’t been available.
With no choice in the matter, we sat and waited. Within seconds a very young, very frightened robber stuck his cannon into the passenger window, right in my face, demanding our money. Fortunately, in those days we traveled with our extra money, traveler’s checks and one credit card all fastened securely under our clothing.
Lynn calmly handed over the money clip he always carried. He kept just enough pesos in it to last for a few days at a time. The desperate young man grabbed that and my purse off the floor by my feet and ran up the hillside. He plopped down on a rock and pawed through my purse, meanwhile jerking his head back and forth, watching the highway for any oncoming traffic.
I leaped out of the car yelling in my best Spanish, “Our papers, our papers! They’re very important!” Well, no one understands the importance of personal papers more than a citizen of a Central American country. He got it! That frightened kid actually ran back down the hill and thrust my purse into the car window, asking where my money was. I told him, “mi esposo, (my husband) had all the money.” Being in rural Mexico with its macho culture, he got that too!
By now getting more and more frantic, he poked a hand into the pocket of my blouse, which I, in the throes of an allergy attack, had been stuffing full of soggy tissues, not wanting to litter such a lovely countryside. All I could think was, “Hah!! Serves you right” as he leaped back and gestured for us to go on our way.
It was a tossup as to who was the most nervous, that panicky kid or me. Fortunately Lynn remained calm and collected, realizing the danger of upsetting the jittery young criminal. The term “trigger happy” came to mind. The last we saw of our bandit, he was bounding up through the boulders, on the look-out for his next victim. If we’d had a lasso and the skill to use it, we might have brought him down, hog-tied and ready for the sheriff.
We continued on to the busy little city of Uruapan, famed for hand-crafted leather goods, and now unexpectedly famous as the home of the “Truck Bandido.” A courtesy copy of the local newspaper was left in our hotel room and big black headlines told of a number of recent robberies, all involving truck drivers on Mexican National highway #37. Well, almost all involved truck drivers. Two fortunate North American tourists hadn’t made the headlines, much to our relief.
The next day we reported our experience to the local Turismo, or Tourist Bureau, thinking they might make better use of the information than the police. I can still see that official, leaning back in his desk chair, rather amused at my halting Spanish, until I got to the part about the gun.
“A shotgun?” he asked me. I looked to Lynn for confirmation and answered, “No, a rifle.” The official shot forward in his seat. “UN REEF-LAY!!” he cried, and he began rapidly filling in forms.
Hardly babes in the woods when it came to driving through Latin America, Lynn, our children and I had lived in Panama for nearly 12 years. We’d driven through every Central American country, some of them several times, and traveled through every state in Mexico over the years, often towing a small travel trailer.
Our trip to Uruapan was the only time we were ever in harm’s way. Instead of being “Accidental Tourists” we had become “Accidental Survivors.” John, Roy and Hoppy would have been proud of us, Gene Autry too, as we rode off into the sunset singing “Happy Trails To You” at the top of our lungs.