El Zopilote—A New Dispensary
The Steiners’ presence in Ajoya has allowed me to devote more time to the upper-barrancas, a rugged and remote area where the need for medical aid is great, and where I would much prefer to be. Because my early dispensary in Verano—tucked in a dank old grain shed which I had reluctantly shared with rats, roaches and roosting hens—had certain disadvantages, a year ago I began the search for a new location. I found at last an ideal spot, nearly 6,000 feet in elevation, at the edge of a pine forest which crowns a steep ridge overlooking the valley of Verano, 2,000 feet below.
A ragged panorama of the high Sierra Madre towers beyond. It is a quiet spot and isolated, the closest but being half a mile away as the raven flies, yet nearly a mile by trail. The larger settlements lie still further down, thousands of feet below in the valleys. Yet the new dispensary, situated to one side of the mountain pass where trails to several villages converge, is centrally located to the population of the Rio Verde watersheds Verano lies south-east; Los Pinos, south; La Higuerita, south-west; Amarillo and Caballo, north-west; La Tahona, north; El Oso, north-east; La Quebrada, east. On emergency calls I can reach any of these villages (except Caballo) within an hour and a half on the down hill run.
Reasons for its Distant Location
Although its central position well justifies the distance of my new dispensary from the scattered settlements below, I must confess ulterior motives. I have found that when a free dispensary is located inside a village, many of those arriving for medication come either with conditions too trivial to treat, with invented ailments in order to pack-rat medicines, or simply for the pleasure of complaining. On the other hand, when the dispensary is placed on a mountain top, the patient thinks twice before making the journey or sending for aid. There is less waste, for treatment is no longer free—the patient or a relative must perspire profusely in order to receive it. (And frequently, on call, so must the medic, but the scenery is beautiful down the mountainside, and I enjoy the hike.) Expending such energy, I find people are much more appreciative of benefits received. Often they volunteer to chop firewood, haul water from the spring, clean house, plant flowers, etc. The majority bring token gifts of thanks: a chicken, a couple of eggs, a papaya, venison, armadillo meat, wild bee’s honey, etc. Upon these gifts I rely for my “daily bread”.
I confess yet another motive for the remoteness of my new dispensary. I find I need this isolation for my own well being. In three years of living in the villages I had almost forgotten the glory of being alone. In Ajoya I lived with a family of 12 in a no-bedroom house. By choice I would live so far from the beaten paths of humanity that every knock on my door would make my heart skip with delight. At my new dispensary—which more nearly fulfills this condition—I find I enjoy both other people and myself a great deal store. Some days I have time to study the bird life, to paint, even to think a little and write poor poems; things which I dreamed of doing when I first came to stay in the Sierra Madre four years ago but never found time for, until now. Day by day I perhaps accomplish less, but in the long run, I think, more.
The Story of its Construction
Construction of the new dispensary has teen an adventure in itself. Men and boys from the surrounding villages have come to help build, and women to carry water. A number of young people from California have also assisted. To help construct a log cabin, now a store room, came Michael Bock (son of Dr. Rudolf Rock, who performed eye surgery here two years ago). He was followed by Marc Silber and John Grunewald, .who helped build the adobe “clinic” and a small second floor “study”. John also fashioned a magnificent staircase of split pine logs. A small group of boys and girls from Pacific High School cane fox- three weeks to lend, at times, a hand. Bobby Steiner came up from Ajoya and became a master tile-maker, and in June Steve Hogle and Eric Dueker came to help with finishing touches, doing an excellent job.
Located nearly 30 miles from the closest road, the new dispensary was, of necessity, built from the most basic materials—trees, earth and rock—using hand tools only.- Main beams are hand hewn. Planks for the upstairs study/bedroom, and timbers which flank the adobe pillars of the veranda, are all hand-sawn from pine logs. Adobe bricks we made from soil right on the site, but clay for roof tiles was brought from El Oso, three miles away. Line for white-washing the “clinic” was dug from the barks of the distant Rio Verde and socked with prickly-pear pads to keep it from powdering when dry. Rocks for the foundation, flooring, and the retaining wall of the forward paths we brought on mule back from over a mile away. Bricks for the central fireplace and chimney we did not make ourselves, but hauled from the remnants of an old mining project in Jocuixtita, defunct for over 100 years.
The final result is a curiously beautiful structure combining aspects of an adobe hacienda with early American log cabin. I put heart and soul into its creation, and have never felt more at home.
How the Dispensary got its Name
For many days I pondered over what name to give to my new dispensary and homestead, but every appropriate name I thought of seemed trite. Villagers, impressed by the landscape, suggested names like “Buena Vista”, but such names called to my mind images of tract houses with picture windows overlooking busy freeways. Then one days as I paused to look out over the blue valley, I could not help but marvel at the perfect design and graceful flight of the vultures as they glided on the eddies of air that rose through the gullies from the valley. Every day vultures are wheeling and soaring there, part of the landscape. What better name could I find for my new home than El Zopilote—“The Vulture”? And yet, for a medical dispensary, what name more shocking? The temptation was more than I could pass up, and with tongue in cheek I christened my new dispensary “El Zopilote”.
The response of the villagers on first hearing the name is invariably the same: “El Zopilote! How ugly!”
“But just look at them out there,” I reply. “How beautifully they soar!”
“Close up they look revolting!”
“But why not judge their actions, instead of their looks?”
“Their actions are revolting! They eat dead animals!”
What better name could I find for my new home than El Zopilote—“The Vulture”?
“As do we,” I reply, with mock seriousness. “But vultures don’t kill them first. And that is precisely their virtue. How few animals there are which, like the vulture, don’t take a single life, either plant or animal, to fill their stomachs, yet provide such worthwhile clean-up services for the rest of us. If only we human beings would learn from the vulture … which is surely one of the most wonderful of God’s creatures!”
Having said which I pause for a moment, then laugh. Whereupon the villager breaths a sigh of relief and laughs with me, graciously putting from his mind all I have said.
But the name, “El Zopilote”, has stuck.