By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Mauro Morales picks his way through mesquite trees and prickly pear cacti. The 65-year-old cautiously steps around a thicket of tasajillo, or rat-tail cactus, just down the road from his small ranch near Rio Grande City. Tasajillo thorns stick you like a fish hook, he says. Then there's the cola seca — the rattlesnake — another job hazard.
"We're far enough from a hospital that you probably wouldn't make it if you got bit," he says in a quiet voice, as though a snake might take his words as an invitation to strike.
Morales has been wandering through the chaparral for half an hour, staring at the ground. He combs over small rocks with a stick. Finally, he spots a greenish knob, sprouting out of the ground under the tasajillo thicket.
"There's some medicine, right there," he says. It's a lone peyote button, about an inch in diameter, way too small to harvest. It'll be another five years before this peyote is mature. As he navigates the hostile flora, he points to three more small peyote plants, all of them too young to cut.
"I used to collect as much in a week as I now do in a month," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen to the medicine."
Morales almost never utters the word "peyote." For him, the small green-gray cactus is a sacrament with miraculous healing powers, hence his word for it: medicine.
What makes peyote different from just about any other cactus in the world is that it naturally produces mescaline, a psychedelic alkaloid that can induce hallucinations lasting for days. It was mescaline that opened what Aldous Huxley called "the doors of perception" to "the divine source of all existence."
Before LSD, before Ecstasy, there was peyote.
Peyote and mescaline are both classified by the federal government as Schedule I Controlled Substances. This puts them in the same legal category as crack and heroin, drugs that, according to the DEA, have "a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision."
Much recent scientific research contradicts the DEA's verdict on peyote. There is little evidence for any adverse long-term effects on physical health and virtually no evidence that it is addictive.
Still, harvesting and selling peyote is illegal for all but three people in the entire country. And those three people happen to be located in Texas, operating in a swatch of South Texas between Rio Grande City and Laredo.
These people — Morales is one of them — are called peyoteros, people who make their living selling peyote buttons to the approximately 250,000 Indian members of the Native American Church. Only 20 years ago, there were dozens of peyoteros in small towns along the border. Now, two of the three still working are in their sixties. Meanwhile, membership in the Native American Church is growing and demand for peyote is outstripping the limited supply.
For Native American Church members, this 70-mile stretch of land used to be known as the "peyote gardens" — the only place on U.S. soil where the cactus grows in its natural habitat.
"I talk to the medicine every day," Morales says. "I pray to it. I know it works and I want to help the Natives in any way I can."
In his 1976 doctoral dissertation, "Man, Plant and Religion: Peyote Trade on the Mustang Plains of Texas," the geographer George Morgan speculated that Hispanic traders first bought peyote from a Mexican tribe called the Huichol. To this day, the Huichol harvest the cactus during their annual 250-mile pilgrimage from their homeland in the Sierra Madre to a sacred mountain in central Mexico. The pilgrimage takes them four weeks by foot and along the way, in the desolate Chihuahuan desert, they eat peyote, hunt deer and train a new generation to become shamans.
The Huichol, unlike most tribes, were never quite conquered by the Spaniards. They resisted Christianity and continue to practice an animist religion based on mystical beliefs about peyote, deer and corn. Morgan discovered that Mexicans brought peyote across the border and started trading it with marauding Indian tribes from Oklahoma in the late 19th century. These tribes then passed on the cactus to other Indians to the north and west. Soon, Indians from California were arriving in South Texas in search of the fabled peyote gardens.
Anglo authorities didn't look kindly upon the Hispanic-dominated peyote trade. In 1909, a U.S. Special Officer named William "Pussyfoot" Johnson bought up all the peyote in South Texas and burned it. According to Morgan, the operation worked for almost a year, until Johnson ran out of money. The Bureau of Indian Affairs convinced the Post Office to ban peyote sent by mail in 1917, but the ban had little effect since most Indians preferred to travel to the peyote gardens themselves. The Post Office lifted the ban a few years later.
After these early conflicts, Anglos mostly shrugged their shoulders and left peyoteros to their business, which was starting to flourish. Indians from Oklahoma started arriving on the Texas-Mexican railway with empty burlap sacks, which they would fill with thousands of buttons of dried peyote. In some places — such as the now-deserted town of Los Ojuelos — the peyote trade was the basis of the entire economy.
The peyoteros had a natural monopoly on their crop. Even though it's illegal to cultivate, there have been sporadic attempts to transplant the cactus to Oklahoma and New Mexico, all to no avail. In the United States, peyote will only grow in the hot, dry climate of South Texas.
The peyoteros remember a time a generation ago when Indians camped out and harvested their own peyote. "Back then, it was what we call open range," says Salvador Johnson, another peyotero. "You could harvest what you needed. At that time, ranchers were poorer than we were. They couldn't even afford feed for the cattle. Now those same ranchers are multimillionaires from oil and gas royalties." (Click here for a video interview with Morales and Johnson.)
Like many peyoteros, Johnson was a little mystified when peyote suddenly became trendy in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. It was during this time that the drug caught on among hippies and New Age folk, largely through the works of Carlos Castaneda, an anthropologist-turned-best-selling author.
Castaneda wrote a series of books about a shaman named Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian who took the anthropologist under his wing. Don Juan believed that "mescalito" — a code word for peyote — was a vehicle for self-knowledge. Through mescalito, Don Juan said, one could learn how to fly and see beings in liquid colors. Under Don Juan's tutelage, the rational academic learned how to become a sorcerer and warrior.
Castaneda's books were a phenomenon. The author, however, turned out to be a fraud. He was denounced by fellow anthropologists for trying to pass off a fictional character as an authentic source. In a cover story in Time in 1973, the magazine presented evidence that the author had lied about his background, including his nationality. None of this, however, stopped the influx of peyote-seekers in the one place in the nation where the plant grew wild.
Poachers started arriving, many of them Anglo hippies from the West Coast. One of those poachers was Frank Collum (not his real name), a hippie from Connecticut who had heard about the peyote gardens through some Indian friends in New Mexico. When he first started going to South Texas in the early 1970s, he would hop a fence and camp out for a week.
Now, he doesn't think it's worth the risk of getting caught for trespassing. Collum still goes down to South Texas, but his Indian wife buys dried peyote from Salvador Johnson. (In addition to belonging to the Native American Church, peyote buyers have to prove they are at least one-quarter related to a federally recognized Indian tribe.) Collum raised his son in the Church, going to meetings that would include all-night ceremonies in a teepee. Those days are gone.
"Peyote is in jeopardy," he says. "You hear stories about it coming from Mexico now. The ranchers in Texas have put up tall fences you can't jump. Then, there are all the wetbacks and Border Patrol. There's just too much heat."
"A lot of the Natives are real sensitive about the situation," Collum says. "The supply will not meet the demand unless you can convince the ranchers to cooperate. And the ranchers, they don't give a fuck about peyote."
Ranchers used to be friendly with the peyoteros, who paid them a small lease for access to their land. In recent years, as land prices have skyrocketed and Hispanic immigration has boomed, Anglo ranchers have come to view the peyoteros as a nuisance. According to Morales, many ranchers would rather root-plow their fields to plant grass for cattle feed than protect their native plants.
Salvador Johnson used to be a full-time peyotero, but now it's a part-time job. Rather than fight the ranchers, he's started helping them organize hunting trips. He also works as a general contractor around his hometown of Mirando City, a hamlet about half an hour east of Laredo.
"The big money is in deer hunting," says Johnson.
Mauro Morales remembers when it was possible to find massive clumps of peyote growing wild. "There was medicine just a couple miles from my home," he says. He grew up on the same street where he still lives in a ramshackle, two-story pink house with a dirt driveway. As a young man, he worked in the fields harvesting peyote for extra money. The matriarch of the peyote trade, a woman named Amada Cárdenas, first showed him peyote in 1950.
"Natives call the big ones 'chief,'" he says. "And when they find a chief, they get down and pray to it. Miss Cárdenas showed me my first chief."
Morales says that it's getting harder and harder to find chiefs. The only way to ensure the supply, he says, is greenhouse cultivation, something he's discussed with botanists from around the world, including a group from Germany that visited him in January.
But Johnson, the only remaining peyotero in the once-thriving area east of Laredo known as the Mirando Valley, doesn't believe cultivation will solve the peyoteros' problems.
"Even if we buy the land, we don't have control of peyote because God put it here," he says. "We don't know how it grows, how it multiplies. God will give us what we need, and that's it. He's the one who makes the rain. He's the one who makes the peyote."
Johnson says that the tipping point for the peyoteros was the mid-1970s. As ranchers struck oil and gas, seemingly worthless South Texas scrubland became expensive. Many peyoteros found more lucrative work in the oil fields. Others were getting old and retiring. Stringent requirements for a peyote license, which include a letter of recommendation from the local sheriff, stopped a lot of young people from becoming peyoteros.
Johnson had returned from the Vietnam War and wasn't sure he wanted to continue the family tradition. He quit selling for a while in 1976. "We were selling peyote and making a profit, but I had to make sure I was doing the right thing for my family," Johnson says. "In the late 1970s, there were so many drugs on the market we had never seen before — angel dust, PCP, reds, yellows, blues. Then, the DEA classified peyote as a Schedule I substance. There were a lot of landowners who started to think peyote was a dangerous drug."
Johnson, a 60-year-old with a white moustache who looks like a well-tanned Wilford Brimley, wasn't sure he wanted to be associated with a drug most people thought was harmful and addictive.
"I said to myself, that, for me to continue to doing what I'm doing, I need to understand this drug," he said. "I needed to have an understanding with my family that I was doing the right thing. I wanted to understand its effects on health."
So Johnson went to visit an Indian he'd known his entire life named Leslie Full Bull. For a few months, Johnson lived on a reservation in South Dakota and got to see for himself the long-term impact of peyote. He came away believing that the plant was a positive thing for the community.
"I'm really involved with the Native American Church," he says. "I'm so involved with it that I believe that I'm one of the smartest people in the world about peyote. I've been to Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota...Name a state, name a tribe of Indians that use peyote, I've been there."
The real test, though, was a firsthand experience of peyote in a Native American ceremony — a meeting.
"I got so involved in these meetings that the only way for me to understand what this peyote does is to take it."
According to Jody Patterson, supervisor of Controlled Substances Registration with the Texas Department of Public Safety, peyoteros have to follow the same rules regarding peyote as everyone else. If they aren't one-quarter Indian and a member of the Native American Church, it's illegal no matter if it was taken as part of a religious ceremony.
Johnson, who says he's "probably" part Indian — "most Mexicans are" — has been taking peyote for "many, many years" and sees the legal niceties somewhat differently. He says he takes peyote only after it has been blessed by a high priest. He expects that the Indians he sells to will do the same.
"I can only hope that you're using it the right way," Johnson says. "Now, if I know you're using it the wrong way, I can report you and you'll be arrested."
Martin Terry is a Harvard-trained botanist at Sul Ross State in Alpine who may be the world's leading authority on peyote. He runs a small nonprofit called the Cactus Conservation Institute, which is dedicated to saving peyote from extinction.
"I've become increasingly passionate about the conservation of cacti in the past ten years," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "I've personally witnessed species becoming scarce in places where I had previously found them to be abundant."
Terry is afraid that the natural habitat for peyote in South Texas is being ruined by ranchers and poachers. "The problem is defined by access to land," he says. "The peyoteros are Hispanic. They work through family connections. More and more of the land is being bought up by Anglo owners who don't derive any benefit from the peyoteros. They don't give a damn about the peyoteros."
For the first time in history, Terry says, there's active patrolling of ranch grounds. Ranchers have cut back brush to allow trucks to ride along their fence lines. Ranchers want to protect against peyoteros getting in and deer getting out.
The ranchers' hands-off policy represents a dilemma for Terry. On the one hand, protection against peyoteros will conserve the cactus. One the other, it prevents Indians from getting access to their sacred plant.
"From the point of view of the plant, the only threat is overharvesting," he says. "The fences and personnel that protect ranch lands from would-be harvesters are the very opposite of a threat, as the protected populations of peyote inside those fences are the only healthy ones in South Texas."
Still, Terry is sensitive to the peyoteros and their way of life. He considers Mauro Morales a personal friend. He wants to make sure that Indians have access to their cactus, but that's getting harder and harder.
"Everyone I talk to, they say peyote is getting more expensive," Terry says. "The buttons are getting smaller. It's now about 30 to 35 cents a button. Ten years ago it was a third of that."
As a botanist, Terry thinks he's found a solution — buying up land to protect the plant. But the price of land has skyrocketed.
"The only obstacle is the cost of buying a minimum of 2,000 acres of South Texas real estate," he says. "That means we're talking about something on the order of $2 million. For a relatively new 501(c)3 like the Cactus Conservation Institute, that's a fund-raising project of enormous magnitude."
It's also a challenge raising money to save a plant that the federal government considers a dangerous, addictive drug. But the biggest obstacle for conservation might be the Indians themselves. Many Indians are opposed to cultivating peyote in greenhouses. Their opposition stems from a mystical belief in the cactus as divinely planted.
Alden Naranjo, a Ute who's been traveling to the peyote gardens from Colorado since the 1960s, isn't too worked up about the disappearance of his sacred sacrament.
"Peyote predates Christianity by thousands of years," he says. "Native Americans have their spirituality based in this sacrament. It came north to us from Mexico. I don't think it will disappear. We've used it for thousands of years and it's still here."
Naranjo, like Salvador Johnson, doesn't want to see peyote grown in greenhouses. He would rather see it imported from Mexico, where 90 percent of the continent's supply grows. For Native Americans like Naranjo, the current crisis in the peyote supply is just the latest story in a history of injustices.
"It's just the white man's greed," he says. "The white man wants more land and that discourages peyoteros. It's getting harder for us, with stricter trespass laws."
It wasn't always like that in Texas, he says. "A lot of that land was open. Before the oil speculators, land was cheap. Then the white man with his European concept of ownership came in. There's just too many white men."
There are, in fact, white members of the Native American Church. Frank Collum is one, and he's been welcomed into meetings by Indians. It took him a while to be accepted, but now that he's married to an Indian and a veteran of peyote meetings, he feels like he's just as much a part of the Church as anyone. In the eyes of the law, however, it is illegal for Collum — or any non-Indian — to buy or consume peyote.
According to James Botsford, an attorney who has been defending peyote use by Indians for decades, there's a clear distinction between Indian and non-Indian peyote users. The law, he says, protects Native American Church members who can prove they have one grandparent from a federally recognized tribe.
There have been recent challenges to the law on First Amendment grounds. One case made it to the Utah Supreme Court, but the ban on peyote use by non-Indians remains.
"I'm comfortable with the law as it stands," says Botsford. "There's not enough peyote around to allow a broader interpretation of the law. Indian people understand peyote to be the flesh of God, something that the creator put here to help them pray."
A year ago, Mauro Morales started losing weight. He always looked forward to February, when busloads of Indians descended on South Texas for meetings in the peyote gardens. Suddenly, though, he didn't have the energy to go hunting for medicine with his sons. Morales is a small man who has always weighed about 125 pounds.
"I was all skin and bones," he says. "I was down to about 97 pounds."
The doctors couldn't give Morales a clear diagnosis. They told him he needed to rest, so he spent most of his time on the couch. When the Indians arrived in February, they were shocked to learn that he could barely walk.
"The Indians kept saying, 'We need you, we need you,'" Morales says.
One Indian from South Dakota called Morales and told him he would be down to his place the next day. The man had been visiting Morales for decades, and like many Indians, he had formed a friendship with the peyotero. The Indian brought 20 people to pray for Morales in his little peyote garden behind his house. In the garden, Morales has clumps of old peyote — chiefs — as well as ultrarare specimens of the star cactus, a super-potent, highly endangered plant in the same family as peyote.
Morales's Indian friends often set up their teepees on his ranch about half an hour outside town to conduct their ceremonies. This time, though, the 20 Indians put the teepee behind Morales's house. It's not the most tranquil spot for a campout. The neighborhood is abuzz with ranchera music, crowing roosters and belching pickups. But the Indians wanted Morales to participate in the meeting, which goes from dusk to dawn with constant drumming, singing, praying and — of course — peyote eating.
"I was so sick," Morales says, "I didn't think I could make it in the teepee — you've got to be in there all night long. I got up at 5 a.m. to go out. I didn't want to go back in. It's so hot in there and I'm sweating."
Still, he went back in. Morales, who had spent the majority of his life working around peyote, had never used it. Now, with his Indian friends praying over him, he took the medicine.
"I've only taken it when I've been real sick," he says. Days later, Morales started gaining weight. He got off the couch and was able to walk without pain. He's not sure how it worked, but he's convinced that the medicine — along with the Indians' prayers — healed him. Now, when they come back to Morales's place, he cuts them a deal, selling them bags of peyote at $200 a piece, which amounts to a significant discount from his regular price of $350.
"You've got to have faith in the medicine," he says. "Without faith, it won't work."
Morales says he's seen the medicine work for others as well. The most miraculous case he's seen happened when his brother was dying in the hospital. A doctor called Morales to tell him the brother had two days left. Morales started calling his family. At the same time, a group of Indians were visiting him to stock up on peyote before heading back to Arizona.
"One of them told me to write my brother's name on a piece of paper," he said. Morales wrote the name — Ajeo — and the Indians left. He didn't ask the Indians' names because he didn't believe it would work. "They told me not to worry because my brother wasn't going to die."
The family gathered at the hospital, thinking that it would only be a matter of hours. Days passed, and Ajeo held on. He didn't die for another six months. Weeks after the Indians left, one of them called Morales.
"He asked how my brother was doing," he says. "I said that he was still alive. He said it was the medicine. They were praying for him."
Other terminally ill people have turned up at Morales's door, looking for medicine. He would like to be able to help them, but if he deals to the wrong people, Morales's license to sell peyote could be revoked.
"One woman drove here from San Antonio," he says. "She had been taking chemo and it wasn't working. Nothing had really worked for her and someone had mentioned the medicine. But she didn't have the papers, so I had to turn her away."
"If you don't have papers, I can't sell to you," he says. Then, with a little smile, he adds, "but I can tell you where you might find it."
As Morales explains the magical power of the medicine, he inspects his supply. So far, business has been slow for the winter. It was still deer season in early January and Morales couldn't harvest much peyote if he wanted to. He sold about 5,000 buttons for December, which means that he netted around $1,750. Subtract wages for his handful of part-time workers and it becomes clear that Morales isn't making much money, even though the price of peyote has more than doubled in the past ten years.
He keeps thousands of buttons ready to sell. Stored in large wooden trays behind his house, some of them are covered by tarps and others by a makeshift roof. There's little security to protect his supply, but he says he's never had a problem with theft.
Morales bends down to demonstrate his technique for cutting the plant above the root so that it will grow back. He puts a button on a table and cuts a slice open. He offers it to me to smell. He gives me a little nod as if to indicate that I should try it. Without asking permission, I take a bite. Morales smiles. It tastes like a dirty, raw potato. The little button seems to suck all the moisture right out of my mouth. Suddenly, it starts tasting spicy, like a raw jalapeño. The feeling is intolerable and I spit it out.
"Maybe you just don't have the faith," he says, winking at me.
Humberto Fernández — known universally as Don Humberto in the village of Real de Catorce, Mexico — eats peyote for breakfast. One button — it's just enough to get him going for the day.
Don Humberto was a young Mexican hippie bumming around California in the 1970s when he heard about peyote growing wild near a ghost town in the mountains of central Mexico. As it turned out, the ghost town — Real de Catorce — was close to his hometown in the state of San Luis Potosí.
"I was hanging out in the esoteric sections of bookstores in California and reading about the Huichol Indians and peyote," he says. "I said, 'wow, that's where I'm from.' I didn't know anything about it growing up."
On a whim, Don Humberto moved to the town and started renovating a colonial building a few blocks from the cathedral. He turned it into a boutique hotel that catered to Europeans who had heard about peyote. About ten years ago, primarily through word of mouth, peyote tourism in the town boomed.
Before he knew it, Don Humberto was hosting Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, who came to town to film The Mexican. He points to a corner of his restaurant where Brad Pitt ate breakfast every morning for two months. Don Humberto, with his aquiline nose and stringy black-and-grey beard, looks like a Hollywood character actor — the classic ethnic bad guy. His involvement with The Mexican led to a bit part in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but his heart is still in Real de Catorce, where he's the most recognizable face in town.
"I came here as a dropout," he says. "There was nothing in town when I arrived. There was one lady on the corner who sold rice, beans and eggs. That was it. People asked me why I was coming here, but I had a dream, a vision." (Don Humberto has plenty to say over here.)
About 90 percent of the town's economy revolves around tourism. There isn't much to see in the town — an old church, some crumbling colonial architecture, and abandoned silver mines. The sacred mountain of the Huichol, Wirikuta, is just an hour's horseback ride away.
While most of the locals embrace the new peyote tourism, it also attracts some unsavory characters. On street corners, young men harass foreigners for a "ride in the desert." For about $70, they'll take tourists out to the peyote gardens below the mountains. It's technically illegal, but no one seems to care much. As Don Humberto says, peyote tourists are the core of the town's livelihood.
He's hoping that Indians longing for the lost peyote gardens of South Texas will work their way to his little village on a mountaintop. He's already seen a few relocate to Real. An Indian from San Antonio bought a house and lives there part-time. Then Don Humberto and his Swiss wife, Cornelia, met a group of Indians near the Four Corners, who promised to come.
"They said they had a vision that was leading them down here," says Cornelia, who was attracted to Real 20 years ago, in part because of peyote. "But peyote's not for everyone," she adds.
Cornelia and Don Humberto see peyote tourism as both a blessing and a curse. When tourists first started arriving in big numbers, local police preyed on them. "Police used to harass foreign tourists," Cornelia says. "They'd take watches and cameras as bribes. Now, they leave everyone alone."
She says that there's an unspoken agreement that police will never go into the desert looking for peyote seekers. "But," she says, "if you take it out and get caught with it, you could go to prison."
The Mexican government also has ambivalent feelings about the foreign influx. It has designated the area around Real de Catorce as a Natural and Cultural Reserve, protected under UNESCO. Although the government wants to promote tourism to the region, it also passes out flyers warning peyote seekers that the collection and trafficking of the cactus can be punished with up to 25 years in prison.
On the other hand, there's a long history of peyote's use as a folk medicine in northern Mexico. Mexicans have been using peyote as a cure-all for rheumatism, arthritis and other ailments for centuries. They drink it in teas or rub it directly on the skin.
Martin Terry says that even here in San Luis Potosí — the peyote heartland — the cactus is endangered. He says that the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) — the biggest and most prestigious university in Mexico — keeps GPS data on clusters of peyote plants around the sacred area of the Huichol. Last summer, someone ripped huge roots from the area. They squeezed the mescaline out of the cactus and left the roots to die. He thinks it may be a drug cartel.
"Only six years ago, it was a place of great abundance," he says. When he went back this summer, "there were just a few plants left. Those that were of no value were left to die."
Frank Collum, the Anglo peyote eater and sometime poacher, says that Native Americans should back off the Mexican peyote gardens. "If it keeps going like it is," he says, "there'll be a war with the Huichol. They eat an incredible amount of peyote. They've got their own problems with the Mexican government."
One local from Real de Catorce, Juan Hernández, makes his living taking foreigners to the sacred places of the Huichol on horseback. He charges about $20 per horse and serves as a guide. Hernández is a mestizo who lives in town, but he has close ties to the Indians.
"They call me before they start their pilgrimage in April," he says. "It takes them about four weeks to walk here and when they get here, I have firewood and food ready for them."
Hernández guides three horses straight up a mountaintop to a spiral of stones. It's not much of a monument, but the landscape is breathtaking, with a view of the Chihuahuan desert stretching as far as the eye can see. Hernández says that this is the birthplace of the god of the sun, Quetzal. He rubs coins across his body — it is a symbol of cleansing — and enters the stone spiral. When he gets to the center, he places the coins on a mound of other offerings. There are old shoes, a driver's license, candles, and Mexican and U.S. coins.
"This is a place of spiritual renewal," he says. (Click here for video footage atop Mount Wirikuta.)
Hernández follows many of the Huichol practices — including peyote eating. He prefers to mix it with chocolate or fruit juice so he's not likely to vomit it back up. He likes it because it gives him energy. He believes — like the Huichol — that the peyote ceremony on Wirikuta releases the shamans' spirits from their bodies. He's seen their spirits flying around the mountains like large, colorful birds.
But he's not immune to the transformations going on in his hometown. His eyes light up when the name Brad Pitt is mentioned. "He was so cool," Hernández says. "We all hung out with him for two months when he wasn't filming."
Mauro Morales looks a little worried when he talks about Mexican peyote. He knows that there's much more medicine on the other side of the border, but he's not crossing the river to seek it out. Even though he's a licensed dealer, transporting the stuff across the border would land him in jail. And he's skeptical of the Mexican police.
"You don't want to get caught with medicine over there," he says. "In Mexico, you're guilty until proven innocent. Here, you're innocent until proven guilty."
Still, like many people following the decline of the peyote trade in Texas, he hopes that, someday, he might be permitted to import peyote into Texas. But time may be running out for him. Morales says that he knew he was getting older when Indians started calling him "grandpa" a few years ago.
Morales gets part-time help from his sons harvesting peyote in February, when deer season ends and Indians start arriving. But one son has a full-time job and the other is more interested in his hobby of cockfighting than in picking medicine.
Morales has his eye on his 14-year-old grandson, Angel, who's doing well in school and has good manners. Angel might be able to take over the family business someday. But he's not sure. "The medicine might be extinct in 25 years. Then everyone will have to go to Mexico."