If you drive at night in Mexico, you're asking for trouble...
Remember, Sanborn's Cow is lurking out there
and it's waiting for YOU...

John J. Pint

For many years, the Sanborn's car insurance people have been saying that you can dramatically reduce your chances of having an accident in Mexico simply by restricting your driving to daylight hours. One of their favorite examples of the dangers of night driving is the black cow that steps onto the highway and into your headlights just as you come up over the top of a hill. Well, we finally met that legendary cow and it helped us widen our knowledge of how to survive in Mexico.

One cloudy afternoon in July, a Canadian, a Brazilian and a "norteamericano" (Chris Lloyd, Claudio Chilomer and I, John Pint) loaded Chris's big Dodge truck with camping and caving gear and set out for a newly-discovered cave not far from Barra de Navidad. Night was falling as we reached Autlán which is located on a flat plain between the two enormous canyons you must traverse on the way from Guadalajara's high altitude down to sea level. We took a rest stop in Autlán, enjoyed a few lonches and quesadillas and resumed our journey, happily speculating about petroglyphs, caves and the picturesque little lake where we planned to camp.

As we rolled out of town and back onto highway 80, it was "as black as a cow's inside" to quote Mark Twain. Of course, there are no shoulders on that ancient, two-lane highway, just steep downslopes on both sides, covered with thorny bushes and tasty grass, the kind that could tempt the most obedient cow to slip away from the corral for a forbidden evening snack.

Our cow materialized out of nowhere. Suddenly, there it was only a few meters ahead of us. If there hadn't been a string of cars speeding at us from the opposite direction, Chris might have missed it by swerving to the other side of the road. This, however, was impossible, but we were only going about 50 kph, so when Chris applied the brakes, we slowed down quite a lot before impact with the broad side of that huge, four-legged beefsteak. Immediately, the truck pulled sharply to the left. Chris jerked the wheel to the right. The struck straightened out, inches from the speeding traffic in the other lane. "A split second later," say Chris, " the steering wheel seemed to go dead in my hands." At the same time, the hood flew straight up, completely blinding us. Nevertheless, to the three of us sitting in the wide cab, the actual impact felt like a gentle bump and the two not wearing seat belts weren't even thrown forward.

Therefore, once we came to a complete stop, we imagined no more damage than a dented bumper. Grabbing flashlights ÄÄ which are always at hand if you go caving a lot ÄÄ we stepped out onto the road, which was now dead quiet. The cow was about ten meters ahead of us, still on its feet, but looking very bedraggled. The smell of hot radiator fluid filled the air, but we were shocked to discover that the entire radiator was no more. It had been flattened like a tortilla. Chris climbed back into the cab and gave the steering wheel a turn. It spun like a top, round and round. Our camping trip was over before it started.

Claudio hitched a ride into Autlán for a tow truck which arrived in a few minutes but could not tow us away until the Policia Federal arrived. The officer in question had already been notified, just had to put on his uniform and would arrive "ahorita," a word that is often mistranslated as "right away" but usually means anything but that. In fact, it took the policia a full hour and a half to put on that uniform. The accident was over, but the consequences were just beginning.

Having lots of time on our hands with nothing to do but wave our lights at approaching traffic and direct it past the red triangles, agonizing cow, dead truck and patiently waiting grua, we began to speculate about the legal aspects of our predicament. Of course, everyone says that in Mexico you should leave the scene of an accident immediately because the police like to arrest everyone first and ask questions later. Well, we couldn't leave, but we could try to find out who was at fault: us or the cow. A passing motorist kindly dropped a bit of free legal advice: "The cow is at fault," he stated, "and you can collect costs from its owner because it's illegal to let one's animals stray onto a road. All you have to do is cut off the cow's brand and you've got all the proof you need right in your hand."

So we walked over to the poor cow, which was lying on its side, still quite alive and slowly wriggling its way off the road. It wasn't hard to find the brand, which was almost as big as the cow. "That brand is a meter long," I said to Chris. "How are we ever going to get it off the cow, especially since it's still alive?" Upon hearing this, the cow gave a mighty lunge and flipped over. There was no brand on the other side and we could see that this particular cow was not going to give up its hide without a fight.

At long last the policeman showed up, uniform neatly pressed. "Looks like they have a fine dry cleaner in Autlán," whispered Claudio. The officer checked out the scene, collected Chris's license and the car's tarjeta and politely told us we couldn't leave Autlán until the insurance adjuster had had a look at the vehicle and decided whether or not he would bear the full brunt of the repairs. "If not," said the policeman, "you'll have to start a pleito against the owner of the cow, which will involve an investigation and ..." On went the policeman, describing this, that and the other legal entanglements in which we could get ourselves thoroughly enmeshed, should we choose to.

In spite of these bureaucratic rumblings, we considered ourselves lucky, first, that Chris had insurance (which is more expensive here than in the States and utterly out of the reach of most Mexicans) and secondly, that his company had an agent practically on the spot where we crashed.

So we were hauled into Autlán, where a smiling and efficient insurance agent, with camera in hand, stated that his company would foot the whole bill for the accident.

"What about the cow's owner?" I asked. Will you hunt for him later and try to get some of your money back?"

"I'll tell you the truth about that," said the insurance man with a knowing look. "Never once in my many years of experience have I seen my company or any other extract even one centavo from one of these rancheros. What happens is that when you confront one of them with that hunk of bloody cowhide bearing his brand, he scratches his head, rolls his eyes and says, `ah, sí, that cow! Yes, that's the one I sold to Epifanio just weeks ago. You know Epifanio who lives over there in the pantano (swamp)? Now he told me he was going to rebrand that cow mañana, but looks like he didn't get around to it, verdad? (aina?). Anyhow, I'm sure you can look him up as soon as the rainy season ends.'

"And of course," continued the agent, "when you finally find Epifanio, he tells you he sold that same cow the very next day to old Gelasio Tumbaburros who lives somewhere up on Endless Ridge which is only accessible by burro trails and isn't it chistoso how that there cow wandered clear down to the highway from 'way up on that mountain?"

Next morning the adjuster did his adjusting and in a mere matter of hours we were back inside Chris's truck which, in turn, was now on top of an even bigger truck that slowly wound its way up the barranca to Guadalajara. But now we were much better educated in matters of cows, crashes and moving vehicles and all of us crossed our hearts and promised to Dan Sanborn that never again would we venture forth on a country road in the darkness of night.

© 2000, John J. Pint - All rights reserved

Have a look at OUTDOORS IN WESTERN MEXICO by John and Susy Pint