I had hardly finished my coffee when would-be banditos descended upon our pit stop. Freda, Cleo, and I had driven to the Mexican border at Nuevo Laredo, soon to cross into Texas. What could be safer than the park across from the police station? Freda had just exited the station where she had her work visa stamped so she could return in sixty days.
We had left her casita in Monterrey in the cool morning at 7 a.m. Now, after 9 a.m. it was sweltering and Freda's Subaru had faulty air conditioning. Before getting in the long line to immigration we needed a break. We parked near the meandering Rio Grande and got out. Freda took her adopted dog Cleo (short for Cleopatra) for a walk in the trees. Within minutes two young Mexicans in a beat-up car pulled in, parked on scrappy dirt, and shouted ominous salutations.
"Not good," Freda said. "We gotta go." She shoved Cleo in the backseat and I jumped in the passenger side, swinging the door closed as she sped up a gravelly incline. The men tail-gated us out of the park, then peeled off in the opposite direction.
"We dodged that bullet," I sighed. Freda looked tense. This morning before we left, she had seemed preoccupied. It was then that she told me we were crossing at Nuevo Laredo, not at the much closer Reynosa, because the latter road was too dangerous. Recently a Mexican couple had been run off the road, robbed, and murdered. An incident closer to home involved her Canadian colleagues barely escaping a similar car chase. Freda and other expat co-workers who received their mail in Reynosa only drove there in caravans of several cars.
As we took our place in the border-entry line, I thought about how serene my sojourn had been until now. Monterrey, the capital city in the state of Nuevo Leon, sits in the Sierra Madre foothills of northeastern Mexico. Though cradled by scenic peaks, the city sprawls as a commercial base for international corporations, including Sony, Toshiba, and Toyota. It has been considered one of the most livable cities in Mexico. Freda resides in the middle-class Santa Catarina neighborhood and teaches in the affluent San Pedro suburb, said by some to have the highest quality of life in Mexico.
She'd been living in Monterrey for the past three years, teaching at the international Colegio Americano. I had flown down end of May from San Francisco—on fairly empty planes. Covid-19 relegated her end-of-year duties to online work. So for the next two-and-a-half weeks, I kept occupied.
The nearby La Huasteca attracted hikers to its canyons, trails, and backroads through deserts and forests. The pandemic had closed it but one of its sheer ramparts rose spectacularly over Freda's roof patio. A new fast highway, the dangerous one to Reynosa, paralleled the mountain park and the abandoned old road attracted walkers and cyclists. Every day I walked or cycled its series of steep ups and downs. One morning, I was pedaling under magnificent views of peaks when I was pursued by a pack of wild dogs, snapping jaws at my ankles. A herd of goats followed and the goatherder, no doubt impressed with my blood-curdling screams, called off his curs. After that, I avoided "Goat Hill." On days when I walked in other areas I carried a stick I fashioned out of bamboo.
Freda wouldn't take Cleo for walks on that road for fear of wild dogs. One day she had been walking Cleo when a pit bull charged her dog. Freda lifted Cleo, a middle-weight mutt, and flung her over her shoulder to protect her from mauling. The pit bull sank its teeth into Freda's leg, causing a puncture wound that required medical attention. I doubted I would ever love a dog that much.
Freda showed me the weedy lot where she had found Cleo in December 2019, physically and emotionally damaged due to the blood sport of dog fighting. The cruel practice became a felony in Mexico in 2017, but still occurs. Cleo's veterinarian pointed out pink flesh where Cleo was scarred from cuts to make her bleed. Freda began to bring her food daily. Untrusting of humans, Cleo hung back with her companion, a pit bull (later adopted by the veterinarian and named Cairo). Cleo wouldn't let Freda near her for more than a month. Then, one day, to Freda's surprise, the dog came searching for her. She led Freda to where her newborn puppies (sired by Cairo) were stuck in a fence, hanging by their necks. Freda freed the pups and found homes for all five. She was finally able to bring Cleo home, hoping it was temporary, pending the delivery of the dog to a foster home in Annapolis.
The day I arrived at Freda's, the skittish Cleo barked at me. Freda said that the barking had started the night before when two prowling boys woke them. The next morning Freda's bike was gone. As I climbed behind Freda to my bedroom, Cleo nudged my calf hard, bruising it. Freda tried to discipline her but after that Cleo and I did a comical dance avoiding each other, both of us happy to enforce physical distance. Time and again I would offer Cleo snacks but she would not accept them until I dropped them on the floor and stood back. If I got too close she would cower or growl.
Freda pointed out a residual tic from her mean-street days. Cleo's right eyelid would droop with fear. It was heartbreaking to imagine the abuse the dog had suffered. It would be three weeks of no touching before she would let me pet her.
As we crawled toward the border, hawkers of every item from water to fans, masks to peyote pain balm, leaned in. Freda, lifelong friend of every species of underdog, gave them donations from a stash she always kept near her seat. It took us two hours to advance the quarter mile to immigration. At the booth, we donned masks, presented passports, and stifled laughter when the agent asked if the dog was American. Por supuesto—of course! Freda had Cleo's papers and proof of shots but was not asked to show them.
We were driving a circuitous route to the northeast. We carried liters of hand sanitizer and when possible avoided public restrooms, making stops roadside near trees and bushes. Our hotels, exhibiting elevated hygienic practice, were located just off highways away from population centers. We generally ordered food to go. Each morning, we filled a thermos with hot water and found a park or picnic area to make coffee.
Sleek, buff-colored with a tan oval, Cleo was a model dog as we drove many hours. She sat or lay still in the back, always waiting until we were ready to stop. Freda and I would forget she was there as we caught up with each other's lives. We met in 1982 but our paths diverged in 1986. Freda had gone on to work with migrant farmers, then to the Sudan where she met her physician husband. They went to Saudi Arabia for health work, then returned to Annapolis to raise their two sons. There Freda taught at an inner-city D.C. school, occasionally rescuing her students from difficult (or lack of) homes. One time, she invited a family—two parents, three children, who were living on the streets—to stay with her family. They stayed for three months.
That was Freda. Even after being groped, robbed, and harassed while teaching in places like Egypt, she continued working abroad. I considered that Cleo, street toughened dog, knew a good thing when she sniffed it. She would cry like a baby when Freda left on errands. When Freda returned, Cleo stood on her hind legs and embraced her owner's hips with her forelegs. It remained to be seen if this dog would really go with another owner.
We survived a blinding Texas cloudburst, checked into our Corpus Christi hotel, ordered bad Chinese food, and couldn't wait to get out of that state. We took Cleo to the local Whitecap Beach, hoping to dip in the warm gulf waters, but were thwarted by crowds of unmasked sunbathers. The next morning we left early for Lafayette, not stopping until we were clear out of Texas.
In Louisiana, a pink flamingo flew overhead near a preserve and we were sad we could only view it and the mysterious bayous from the car. Mandeville, a lush suburb on Lake Pontchartrain was our peaceful coffee stop with a single great blue heron for company.
Onward we drove through Mississippi and Alabama to Tallahassee for two nights. At a gas station we chatted with two young Black men about the protests sparked by George Floyd's killing. Freda and I would have marched but the capital city was presently calm. We contented ourselves reading Henry Louis Gates' Stony the Road and luxuriated in the southern hospitality of our hosts at the Seven Hills Suites. Beneath a wraparound porch the charming hotel included a pool where I was the only swimmer. Mornings we found an unpopulated stroll down Monroe Street to Lake Ella Park where the mossy oaks provided abundant shade.
The hotel's spacious commons featured a clever self-serve beer and wine station where you insert a pre-paid card, choose your beverage and size, and let the drink flow into a glass. The novelty encouraged several tastings as we ate our southern fare from Wahoo. It was here that Cleo, perhaps loosened up amid our merriment, first allowed me to pet her. Two men from Daytona Beach admired her and one petted her. So I took a chance. She even let me hug her torso. But she would never stand on her hind legs and embrace me as she did Freda.
We headed up Georgia to Savannah where we spent three sultry summer nights. We met Tom, a friend of mine who had defected from his native California. We supped with him and friends outdoors on the California-style cuisine of the Savoy Society, the conviviality conducive to forgetting we were in a raging pandemic.
Although we saw a long line of cars at a soccer complex waiting for free Covid-19 testing, many Georgians seemed lulled into complacency. We drove to Hilton Head, finding a beach too packed to stay long. We drove back through Bluffton, a candy-coated tourist town mostly closed, then turned down the mysteriously named Burnt Church, a road that gives rise to various long-winded yarns about the name's origins, but none about church arson.
Tourists went placidly by the antebellum architecture, restored mansions, cobblestone squares, and historic blocks of Savannah where we visited next. But Freda reminded me that Savannah's port was site of the largest slave auction in Georgia's history in 1859, a date dubbed by slaves as "Weeping Time." In 2008, a marker west of downtown was erected to the memory of the inhumane event. Those African slaves could not have believed that weeping time would continue to this day and, as widespread sorrow over Black men's deaths at the hands of police indicated, for many Americans.
Our trip was coasting to its close with our penultimate stop. As we got closer to the Mason-Dixon Line, I reviewed moments that symbolized the starkness of that boundary, a divide more cultural than concrete: throughout the Bible south billboards blaring "Jesus Saves" juxtaposed with those for Adult Fantasyland; a forest of pro-Trump signs followed by one lone "Dump Trump" poster; a Christian minister setting up church at our coffee stop, feverishly preaching Solomon and Matthew to his little congregation. At a convenience store a man asked Freda, "You one of them Yankees from up north come to see our cardboard Trump?" It was a life-size replica that begged for comparison with its two dimensions. We resisted snide remarks as the obese man took a shine to Cleo, who never betrayed her politics.
We checked into the Island Inn in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, and the next day drove up the southern Outer Banks through the marshy barrier islands to the hamlet of Atlantic, population under 600, a thorny sentimental journey for Freda. A cute periwinkle-blue cottage, a summer getaway set among overgrown bushes, grasses, under a magnolia tree, held stories only she knew. Now divorced, she was saying good-bye as the house that would be sold. We toured the grounds swatting mosquitos, hearing only the din of crickets. To Freda came sweet memories of past summers, her boys off playing, husband fishing, cooking great seafood meals. But when we peeked through dusty glass interspersed with cobwebs, the interior was dead silent, dilapidated, speaking of ruin, perhaps a metaphor.
The broad beach two blocks from our Caribbean-themed inn was empty enough for Freda to take Cleo on long walks and meditate in that reset margin between loss and recovery. Our last evening as we waited for our carry-out fish tacos at the beachside Biergarten, Freda chatted like a local with the wait persons, not like a "dingbat" as visitors to the Outer Banks are called. I perceived that her connection to the place was not torn asunder by the grief of divorce.
Nearly 4,000 miles after leaving Mexico, we reached Annapolis, our terminus. Freda had rented a lovely Airbnb house in the Eastport neighborhood where she once lived with her husband and sons. We enjoyed our last supper together. Oddly, while Freda slept in the room upstairs, Cleo chose to curl up near my bed, as if she knew I was leaving.
I flew home to San Francisco and kept texting Freda to ask how it went with Cleo and her new owner. At last I received the news I knew I'd get. Freda kept Cleo (or vice versa) after two attempts with new owners. I imagined droopy-eyed Cleo, hopping on hind legs, clinging to Freda whenever she tried to leave her. As they drove back to Monterrey together in four days' time, Cleo must have licked her chops and contemplated that she was the luckiest dog on earth.
Camille Cusumano is the author of the travel memoir Tango, an Argentine Love Story, a novel The Last Cannoli, and editor of Seal Press anthologies on France, Italy, Mexico, and Greece. Her latest book is Wilderness Begins at Home, Travels with my big Sicilian family.
Sasabe and El Paso Border Towns: History, Street Art, and Tolerance - Sherry Shahan
Taking the Carolina Hometown Tour - Lydia Carey
Road Trips Through Life - Chris Epting
A Vintage Roadtrip: Butterflies, Blues and VW Buses - Lydia Carey
See other USA travel stories and Mexico articles in the archives.
Books from the Author:
Buy Tango: An Argentine Love Story at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Italy, A Love Story at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Greece, A Love Story at your local bookstore, or get it online here: