God of Pelota

by | Mar 22, 2022

At the end of my freshman year at the University of Hawai‘i, when I left Honolulu on the Zephyrus to sail to Tahiti, I had listed my major as oceanography, but when I got back—having decided over the summer I liked the arts more than the sciences—I switched to anthropology, thinking it would be interesting to learn more about people like the Tahitians. In addition to courses in anthropology I took one in archeology, and began to think of spending my junior year studying abroad in a country where I could do fieldwork in both disciplines.

I had heard about a private college on the outskirts of Mexico City called the University of the Americas. They sent an information packet and the curriculum sounded perfect. They also said there was no waiting list. But it was expensive, and I didn’t have the money and neither did my mother. I wrote to them about scholarships, and they said they didn’t have anything available. They did have a job program, however, for students to work on campus to pay down tuition, but they wouldn’t know what jobs might be available until just before school started in early fall.

I decided I would go to Mexico City and just show up. How could they say no to that? But I would need to spend as little money as possible on travel. Clarke wanted the Zephyrus back on the mainland, so he flew over and we sailed the boat to California. That took a month. I then hitchhiked to Mexico City, and that took a couple of more weeks. But since Clarke paid for all the food on the boat, and nearly everyone who picked me up hitching bought my meals, I made the whole passage from Honolulu to Mexico City for less than fifty dollars.

I showed up on campus with my ice ax and boots secured to my Kelty. I met with an administrator at the university to review my options.

“So you’re a sailor and a mountain climber?”

“I plan to climb the volcanoes while I’m here. Popocatepétl, Ixtaccíhuatl, and Orizaba.”

“So you’re an athlete?”

“I guess so.”

“Can you teach a gym class?”



“Why not?”

“The photography teacher also needs someone in the dark room. To mix chemicals.”

My exercise and volleyball classes were successful, and once the photography instructor showed me how to mix chemicals and maintain the darkroom, I became interested in photography. One of my new friends had a Nikkormat camera that he let me use. I enrolled in the photography course and learned how to develop film and make black-and-white prints. I landed a couple of photo jobs including a gig to photograph an artist in his studio for his promotional brochure.

Even better, I met another student, John van Haslett, who was a climber and also had a Volkswagen bus he had driven down from Toronto. On two different weekends we climbed first Popocatepétl and then Ixtaccíhuatl. I was thrilled once again to be using my ice ax and crampons. Our next objective was Orizaba. The Volkswagen made it partway up the road ascending the base of the mountain. We hiked to a hut with a team of Mexican climbers already there, and a German who said he was going to ski down the peak. The Mexicans had a large jar of pulque, the indigenous alcoholic drink brewed from maguey juice, and they passed it around. The German abstained, but John and I took a gulp. It had a sour taste and a snot-like consistency. Another swig was all I could handle, and John and the Mexican team finished the jar.

It was around midnight when John got sick, followed by the Mexicans. The German cursed in German. Finally, despite the smell of vomit, everyone fell asleep. The German woke about 4:00 am and started his small kerosene stove. I got out of my sleeping bag, and he gave me a cup of coffee.

“You and me,” he said. “We climb Orizaba.”

It was still dark when we left the hut, but starlight alone was sufficient as we ascended the snowfield. Even with skis on his pack, the German was faster than me and soon I was climbing alone. The eastern horizon began to brighten. I stopped to rest and looked toward the summit, and to my astonishment I saw a comet in the sky, just above the starlight rim of the mountain. Two hours past dawn I saw the German skiing down, carving S-turns in the firm snow. He stopped to tell me I was close to the top.

I reached the summit, pushed my ice ax into the snow, and looked at the world below me. I could see the Atlantic, and in the opposite direction I saw a reflection that I thought likely was the Pacific. I was at 18,500 feet, the third-highest point on the North American continent.

* * *

I had chosen to go to school in Mexico in part with the hope I could do anthropology and archeology fieldwork. My chance came in March 1970 when a total solar eclipse was to occur across southern Mexico. The instructor in one of my anthropology classes assigned us to different villages in different ethnographical regions to record the indigenous response to the eclipse in the hope we might discover connections to pre-Hispanic myths about eclipses.

I traveled to a remote village in Veracruz province. I told the villagers I had come to watch the eclipse. Just before the eclipse was to start, I handed out a few paper-frame glasses with tinted lenses. The sky darkened. Roosters started crowing. The villagers began to squabble over who got the glasses, and for how long. The oldest man in the village, who I had assumed might also be the repository of ancient myth, stretched his arms and announced that because it was getting dark, he was going back to bed.

My hopes turned to my archeology class. The Mexican government was in the middle of constructing the subway system in the Distrito Federal, and my instructor had arranged for student volunteers to work with archeologists who were part of the construction crews excavating trenches throughout the city.

I was assigned to a crew digging alongside the central cathedral in the Zocolo, the heart of Mexico City. In class we had learned some of the stones used to build the cathedral had come from the Aztec temple of Huítzilōpōchtli, which had been adjacent to the present-day cathedral. When Hernando Cortez marched into the city, the Aztecs had sacrificed thousands of victims on the top of the pyramid until blood ran like a creek down its side. Their heads were severed and skewered through the temples on long poles displayed at the base of the pyramid.

My first day on the job, we found a skull with holes the size of a broom handle in each temple. I held it in my hands, more real than any classroom lesson I’d ever had. At the end of my first week, the workers struck something hard. Work halted. The archeologists moved in and excavated a symmetrical cube about a yard on each side made of perfectly fitted blocks of basalt. The engineers drilled an anchor bolt into the top block and connected it to a crane that lifted it off. The lead archeologist peered in with his flashlight, looked up, and grinned.


When I got my turn to look in, I saw two perfectly round and polished stones each the size of a softball, one white quartz and the other black onyx. The two balls were surrounded by small stone and jade carvings. The archeologist said the two balls represented the famous Maya and Aztec ball game, pelota, and this was an offering to the God of Pelota.

* * *

Forty-eight years later, in 2017, I returned to Mexico City to speak at a conference connected to my work at Patagonia, Inc. When I arrived I had a free afternoon, so I walked through Chapultepec Park to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. I worked my way through the human occupation of Mesoamerica, the pre-Aztec cultures, to the great hall at the back of the museum dedicated to the Aztecs.

I entered the hall and encountered the stunningly immense Calendar Stone, the talisman of Mexican culture. Past that, along the right-hand wall, there was a long line of glass cases filled with artifacts. In the middle, I suddenly stopped. There in a case were the two balls. One white quartz and the other black onyx. Around them was an arrangement of the artifacts, the offerings to the God of Pelota. The balls, the artifacts, all were arranged just I remember seeing them when I shined that flashlight, like a young Indiana Jones, into the cube of basalt blocks.