We've been bounding around the world, most often, in our favorite old Suburban. Welcome to the first story of the Legends of White Lightning.
Sometimes, when the sun sets just right and the desert is swathed in that perfect, dusty pink, when the cacti loom like prophets in the descending twilight and the Sierra Lagunas stand like watchmen in the distance, it’s not hard to succumb to the spirits and mythology of a place like Todos Santos. And when the bar is slow at Hotel California and the mezcal hits that exact right spot on your tongue, the salt triggers something in your senses and magic seeps into your palette, and things just seem to happen.
All of which explains how we found ourselves on a quiet night in early December, margarita roadies in hand, standing in the dim headlights of an old Suburban nicknamed “White Lightning” and staring at a tree known as the Hanging Tree.
La Ahorcadita, as it is known to locals, has a special place in Todos Santos lore. Legend states that a young woman who’d become pregnant under mysterious conditions was found hanging from the tree; an apparent suicide, until fellow townspeople began to suspect her bitter mother-in-law of murdering her and staging the hanging as a cover-up. Word of the crime spread and spurred sympathy for the young woman’s injustice, and people have since come from all over the country to pay their respects to the tree and leave offerings at the altar set up beside it. It is thought that the spirit of the girl will repay those who leave her offerings with fulfilled wishes and, for expectant mothers, safe pregnancies and healthy newborns.
To be transparent: we were in it for the adventure and intrigue. We had no desires or wishes (or pregnancies, praise be,) in mind when we enlisted Juan, a favorite bartender and lifelong Todos Santos local, to help us track La Ahorcadita down. The hour was early and the night already quiet when we picked him up across the road from La Esquina. He climbed into the back of the beat up old Suburban, swatting away the dresses hanging off racks in the backseat. I turned and offered to switch spots with him; he laughed and shook his head, then pointed down the road and ordered Linda to drive. The windows down and the music blasting, we made our way from the paved roads of town to the dirt roads surrounding it.
“But this is right where we were!” Linda exclaimed, following Juan’s directions and turning down a narrow dirt lane. She’d tried, unsuccessfully, to find the tree several nights earlier. Juan, clearly amused by our fervent interest in locating the tree, only shrugged. “You must have just missed it,” he offered, giving me a sheepish grin as I turned and looked into the backseat. He continued telling Linda to drive further down the dark road, battling off the dresses as they repeatedly slapped him in the face.
We passed various curiosities like the shell of an old blue truck, overgrown with ivy and weeds and stranded like a ghost ship on the side of the road. With each bump in the unruly road, mezcal splashed over the side of my cup and onto my bare legs. A low wall ran along the right side of the road we traveled down, while the side to the left was barren. Suddenly, a sole building appeared, a low residence barricaded in by barbed wire fencing and a brightly colored wall.
I kept my eyes strained on the darkness ahead, expecting to retreat further into the wild before arriving at the mythic spot; I was surprised when Juan abruptly announced we’d arrived. Linda maneuvered the massive car so we sat perpendicular on the road, facing the side with the sole house. There, in the headlights, was a tree, was the tree, and beside it stood a fenced-in altar, eerily reminiscent of an infant’s crib.
The Suburban still running, the three of us slid out onto the dirt road. Our frenzied energy immediately dissipated; rendered unexpectedly reverent, we approached the tree slowly and quietly. In the dusty headlights, La Ahorcadita didn’t look much different than a typical olive tree, but the presence of the altar beside it was enough to warrant hushed whispers and nervous laughter.
In that strange semi-darkness of a desert night and Suburban headlights, we delicately circled the tree and altar, peering gingerly at the offerings left by those who’d visited before us. Baby dolls, flowers, and plastic toys peered back at us, haunting relics heightening the tension and trepidation in the air.
Having no offering of my own to present, I felt increasingly like an uninvited voyeur, a sham standing on sacred ground. It occured to me that maybe I did have wishes, did have desires, did have questions that needed answering; thinking about my conversations with Linda earlier that same day, I couldn’t help but wonder if she suddenly remembered some of her own, too.
I moved back towards the car.
“What now?” I asked, breaking our silent spell.
Linda seemed to confirm what I’d been feeling. “Well, now we need to bring something,” she replied. We returned to the car, returned Juan to his stop, and made our way home.
As with most things, La Ahorcadita seemed far less mysterious in the broad light of day. I walked behind Linda as she approached the altar again, this time, with an offering of her own. I stood next to her as she laid it alongside the other gifts, aware of its deeply personal significance and feeling slightly better about our presence in the space.
We left that day with the tree in our bright, sunny rearview, no longer a mystery or secret to uncover, but as another part of Todos Santos we were fortunate enough to experience.