Around the Volcano

The Plaza Macondo in Comonfort

How long do you need to sit doing nothing before you become extinct? This ancient rock heap in front of me holds that secret deep inside beneath the earth’s crust. Palo Huerfano, as the caldera in these Picacho Mountains is called, has a 12 million year history of dormancy according to geologists. That would seem to qualify as “extinct” because even in geological terms that’s a good long while. 

I remember when Mount St. Helen’s blew back in 1980. At the time, I was working at a retreat center in the North Cascades above Lake Chelan. The volcanic eruption was hundreds of miles south of us but I still heard it pop. That event changed a lot of people’s minds about what an “extinct” volcano was.

Palo Huerfano might be the oldest inactive volcano in Mexico. In a country with around 48 active volcanos the underlying volcanic geology has apparently moved on for Palo Huerfano in the 12 million year interim. But who knows for sure? 

I hope nobody calls me extinct just because I lie dormant for a while. Some of my naps did seem like 12 million years.

We did a little excursion today to see if we could circumnavigate this friendly neighborhood volcano of ours. Our house outside San Miguel de Allende is on property up against the north side of the Picachos, in the small town of Alcocer. I was always curious to see the other side. We had twice attempted to climb into the caldera from here. From Alcocer it is a strenuous hike. Twice we were thwarted short of our goal.

So, driving! I thought I had mapped out a route around it on our handy apps. They showed roads connecting villages around the southern perimeter. These lines on the map proved to be referencing only a bare approximation of navigable byways. 

We went east and then south on a very good road to Jalpa, a small town we had visited once with friends who thought of living there. The drive was lovely on a fine day, through acres of yellow blooming Huisache trees optimistically throwing their finest to the bees in the driest of seasons. In Jalpa we toured the central church, the interior spare and unadorned, apparently under some kind of rehab. We walked the courtyard accompanied by two tranquil burros who seemed caught off guard by our presence and by a locked gate.

Stefanie is the International Delegate for Burros. She has a deep-seated affinity for these gentle creatures, a connection which they return as enthusiastically as a burro can be. We enjoyed tousling their mops of top hair and speaking affectionately with them.

The map showed a road short of Jalpa heading west which we struggled to find. We had only a very limited cell service but Stef kept me current on her best guesses while I paused periodically to scrutinize my previous screen captures of the area.

We got off onto a really bad road, or something vaguely similar to an actual road, aiming west for a village called Jalpilla outside Comonfort. The path struggled its way in tortured fashion around the landscape, changing on a whim from rock strewn clay to boulder infested ravines.

After a mile or two wondering if it would get any better we turned back because it only got worse. We backtracked to the main road and bailed on today’s plan to find the loop around Palo Huerfano. We made a note of two other options which we plan to explore someday. The circuit is out there somewhere!

We looped back around through San Miguel to take regular pavement to Comonfort. I had another idea for a route mapped out (danger!) that showed a way into the caldera of this sleepy volcano. Just north of Comonfort was another small village called El Refugio that appeared to be the launching point for this road.

The effort turned into a brief redux of Dave’s Bad Roads Tour. By trying to follow our phone map’s indications, we took on the mistaken belief that a road actually existed, one that would take us into this volcano’s caldera, this time headed east. This belief turned out to be as illusory as the previous dream. So after two strikes I was out and we turned back again. Stef was up as navigator.

She helped me point our way through Comonfort to a smooth piece of road down a lovely green valley all the way to Jalpilla from the other side. The road continues on after that towards Potrero which is a mere 5 miles or so west of Jalpa but we decided to turn back to Comonfort. The full circuit lies just there I am confident. But on another day.

Back in Comonfort we toured an Iglesia and and discovered an impressive hotel with a gorgeous courtyard that felt like old England. I got my boots shined within an inch of their life in the jardin. We eventually met our friends Michael and Victoria for lunch at a nice little spot called Citronella.

On the way back to San Miguel we had time for a second social stop at Las Frailes at the lovely home of friends Doug and Judy. Snacks and drinks in their back patio under breezy palm trees gave us a chance to recount our day.

So… turns out you can’t get round there from here. At least not so far. And our scale of experience with bad roads was enlarged by a few notches.

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