Mexico - late 1956 to early 1957
Julian was enjoying success with his clown and nude paintings but, at the same time, he felt trapped by this success. He was not painting the great works he imagined, instead hemmed in by the call for his clowns, nudes and portraits. Julian felt that he needed to get away to renew himself and he persuaded Hilde to move to Mexico. The Ritters sold the Woodland Hills home in 1956, packed up a 1956 green and white Pontiac station wagon and moved to Mexico - first to San Blas, Nayarit, a small town on the Pacific Coast of Mexico located between Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta and later traveling to other parts of Mexico - where Ritter continued his painting.
Selling his cozy home in the suburbs and heading off to Mexico to paint is fairly eccentric behavior, even by Julian's standards. But the real question is why did Hilde agree to it: they had a big house on an acre of land in a pleasant suburb; she had her job nearby at Northrup; the kids were in school, with many friends in Woodland Hills; Julian was having more and more success selling from his studio, traveling less and less. They were living comfortably, far better off than they had been in Hollywood on Rinconia Drive – pretty damn well, in fact, considering that Julian still had little reputation and only a few collectors. Why would a conservative person like Hilde give up all this security for an open-ended trip to the tropics? The basic reason was Julian's distaste for the situation he had gotten into.
Julian Ritter shares his reasoning for the trip to MexicoI just wanted to get away. The whole thing depressed me. Painting just to sell, and all this hodgepodge of the commercial environment. You become a product of the system, I didn't like it. I was on a treadmill. I felt I was wasting my career, and I wanted to try something different. Hilde sensed my depression. When I told here I wanted to move, she said okay. When I told her I wanted to go to Mexico, she said, "Go!"
Given Hilde's upbringing, it's difficult to imagine her being so free-spirited; in fact, through their marriage, Hilde was the working mother, the thrifty housewife who pinched Julian's pennies for him and the person who protected him from customers who were trying to cheat him. There is no question that she was the conservative force of the family – the ballast for Julian's ballon. But there was another dimension to Hilde: her falling in love with a character like Julian whom her father dismissed as an "artist"; her following him to Memphis to marry him; her faith in him as an artist even when he could not make a living at it. Despite her conventional moral values, she was always consistently tolerant of Julian's peccadilloes –�both his drinking and his philandering.
Julian Ritter on Hilde's tolerance for his peccadilloesHilde was a social drinker herself, who didn't like me getting drunk.But she never complained about it, other than a quiet remark the next morning: "Julian, you drank too much last night." Later on, it bothered her more, and her disapproval caused me to cut down on my drinking. She never nagged me about it though. The same was true with me fooling around. She didn't like it, and she let me know it. She had this sixth sense; she could always tell when I'd been fooling around. She'd get very cool, and give me the evil eye whenever I said something. Then I'd bring her a bunch of flowers. She'd take them, uttering "You son of a bitch!" and grin. When I brought her flowers, she knew I'd been up to something.
Pulling up stakes and decamping to Mexico, though, suggests a degree of tolerance beyond forgiving peccadilloes and, instead, subordinating her life and her children's to his whim. It seems quite contrary to her basic role of shooting holes in Julian's hare-brained schemes. According to her closest friends, however, it was well within her capacity; they were not at all surprised to hear of the move to Mexico.
Former neighbor and close friend, Margaret Lefler, remembers Hilde's flexibilityHilde was really down to earth. She could do anything like that – quitting her job, selling her house and going off to Mexico. She was actually quite flexible.
Julian Ritter recalls Hilde's attentiveness to his needsHilde was a restraining influence, who'd make me take a second look at my plans and see the faults in them. But, in this case, she didn't try to talk me out of it. She had this ability to look beyond her personal interests, to see what I needed as a person and a painter. She understood that I was desperate and that I needed a change more than she and the kids needed stability. So, she just said, "Go!"
Julian had no particular destination in mind when he left Los Angeles; he was looking for a quiet fishing village on the west coast of Mexico where he could live cheaply and paint all day. In Mazatlan, his first overnight stop, he discussed his needs with new acquaintances he met in a bar. They suggested San Blas, so he set off for there the next day. It took him longer then he expected, so it was late afternoon by the time he left Tepic. The gravel highway gave out about ten miles outside of town, and the sun disappeared just as he started to climb into the mountains.
Julian Ritter on his drive to San BlasIt was an unmarked dirt road, very messy and slippery, and once I got into the mountains, it was quite foggy. I could barely see where I was going, but I could see the cliff rising up beside me on one side, and knew that it fell away just as sharply on the other. I drove in first gear the whole way, wondering what kind of town this was the main road into.
It was after midnight when Julian arrived, so he took a room in a hotel, and did not get to explore San Blas until the next morning. What he discovered was a sleepy Mexican village in paradise – a few hundred adobe huts and flimsy shacks, with roofs of tin or coconut fronds, overrun with tropical scenery, on a gorgeous beach. It was a fishing village with only a couple of hotels which catered mainly to the Mexican trade from Guadalajara. Besides the terrible road that Julian had driven there, its only link with civilization was a tiny airstrip which could only handle light planes. To Julian's eye, it was beyond his wildest dreams, heartbreakingly picturesque. After wandering around for a couple of hours, Julian recalls buying a bottle of tequila and taking it to the plaza, the tree-shaded park at the center of the village's commerce.
Julian Ritter remembers getting drunk in the San Blas plazaI got roaring drunk and cried my eyes out. Finally, a Mexican came by who spoke some English, and asked me what I was crying for. I said, "I love your place. Have a shot of tequila." He sat down and drank with me, asking me who I was and what I was doing there.
He went back to town and told all the citizens, "There's a crazy fella, he's an artist, and he says he loves our village. He doesn't know how poor we are, but he says he loves us." From that day on, I was invited in most of their homes, for a tortilla or a shot of tequila.
The man was the Captain of the Port, Francisco Martinez Cambreros, who took a great liking to Julian and, as an influential man around town, did a lot to help Julian gain the hospitality of the villagers.
Julian made another good friend in his first weeks in San Blas, an American named Hall Farnsworth, who nearly ran him over with his motorcycle.
Julian Ritter recalls meeting Hall FarnsworthI was painting by the edge of the highway when the idiot came along on a motorcycle and almost ran me over. I yelled at him, calling him a son of a bitch. He turned around and came back. "Look, I'm not a son of a bitch." I said, "You're a fucking bastard! You almost killed me and knocked my painting over!" He apologized and invited me to have a drink. We became good friends and drinking companions. Matter of fact, we got drunk every day. I would put a note on my door – 'No visitors till one o'clock.' At one o'clock sharp, he'd be there and we would go out and drink.
Hall was a good fifteen years younger than Julian, an ex-Marine who had been wounded in Korea, and who had found a way to survive in Mexico on his pension.
Julian Ritter remembers FarnsworthHe did beautiful wood carvings but he would give them away or sell them cheap. He was crazy because he took a lot of dope. He'd take anything he could get ahold of and it made him a little cuckoo. He'd offer it to me and I tried it once. But I didn't like the smell of it, the taste of it or the effect.
Several years later, he got put in jail in Honduras. He could get all the dope he wanted there and have wonderful meals sent in. He had a cellmate whose wife and daughter would pay conjugal visits. Hall would sleep with the daughter, and the wife would bring them home-cooked meals every day. He was quite incensed when they told him his sentence was up, and they made him leave.
Julian made several excursions with Hall during the month or so before Hilde and the kids came to Mexico, including a memorable bus trip to Puerto Vallarta.
Julian Ritter recalls his bus trip from San Blas to Puerto VallartaIt wasn't a bus, really; it was a flat-bed truck with some benches on it and an awning over it. And there wasn't a road – a couple of wheel tracks through the jungle, over a mountain and across many streams. It was an all-day ride – very beautiful, but hot and dusty. It was the only transportation, so people would bring everything aboard, taking it to market: stalks of bananas, baskets of fruits and vegetables, chickens, goats, anything. You had to watch out for pigs suddenly sitting down on your foot.
Puerto Vallarta had not been discovered yet by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, or popularized by the "Night of the Iguana." So what they found in Puerto Vallarta was another fishing village, a little larger than San Blas, with a few more hotels, in an even more paradisiacal setting. They checked into the cheapest hotel they could find and went out for a drink at a local cantina.
Julian Ritter remembers drinking the local drink in Puerto VallartaThey gave us this local drink which didn't have much of a flavor; it might've been pretty close to straight alcohol. They warned us not to take more than one glass. I drank two glasses and I went up to the room and went berserk. I decided I wanted a bath, so I took my clothes off, picked up soap and towel, and went looking for the bathroom. But I couldn't find it, so I walked out of the hotel and knocked on the door of the first house, with soap and towel in my hand and naked. They screamed, and I said, " Look, all I want to do is take a bath." It seemed reasonable to me. They shooed me back to the hotel where the manager took over and got me back to my room. It was a very potent drink.
Julian spent a good deal of drinking time with his friend Martinez, the Captain of the Port, in the month or so before Hilde and the kids arrived. He even bought (or thought he did) a piece of land from him.
Julian Ritter is tricked into 'buying' land in MexicoIt was about ten acres, a little way out of town, with a couple of broken-down shacks on it. I was particularly fascinated by it because it fronted on a cove where Sir Francis Drake had landed and supposedly hidden treasure. One night, when we were both drunk, he offered to sell it to me. He had the papers made out, and I gave him a check. The next day, I bought lumber and cement and took it out there, and began fixing up one of the shacks out there as a place for Hilde and the kids to come stay with me. I didn't know it, but everybody was laughing up their sleeves at me because they all knew about the Mexican law prohibiting foreigners from owning waterfront land. But nobody told me until he [Martinez] told me himself, after the check had cleared. There was nothing left by then, after he'd paid the bills run up taking me to dinner every night and entertaining me. I saw the humor in it, that he'd spent all this money on me that he'd swindled from me. I figured that it was my own stupidity to blame.
Julian had been a figure painter ever since he studied with Stanley Reckless. Though he had done occasional still lifes, marines and interiors over the last twenty years, ninety-nine percent of his sales involved portraits, nudes or clowns. He had painted no more than a half-dozen landscapes, plus the eight Mission paintings, before he set off to Mexico. So his first month alone in San Blas was necessarily a period of learning and experimentation, adapting to the new subject matter and new conditions.
Julian Ritter on learning to paint tropical landscapesI was used to painting in the middle of the day, when the light was strongest in my studio. But the best light for painting landscapes is in the early morning or the evening. So, I'd get up early and go out in the town with my paintbox and easel. I'd set up somewhere and do a field sketch in oils. Then I'd go back to my room and start the full-sized picture, while the idea was still fresh in my mind. I'd work on it, touch it up for a few days longer – the way I always do with paintings – but I'd basically finish a painting in a day.
Julian was overwhelmed by the charms of Mexican culture. He later wrote about San Blas in a note published in the Los Angeles Times "the place is a paradise for landscape painters and living is cheap."
Julian Ritter on being in MexicoThe tropics, the palm trees, the serenity, the laughter of the people, the mariachis – the extreme opposite of what you are used to. The landscape, the climate, the people, the light – they're all different.
And he got along well-enough with the natives, despite his lack of Spanish.
Julian Ritter learns to communicate with the localsI could always make myself understood. I picked up the important words quickly, like 'cerveza'. And I'd make myself understood in pidgin English or pidgin Spanish. If necessary, I could draw a picture. I'd always gather a big crowd in a bar, and I'd never pay for my own drinks; they were very curious about me. Of course, they thought I was crazy: a grown man who stood out on the street and painted pictures.
Julian was carried along by his enthusiasm through the learning process, charmed by his subjects, excited every day to see the steady improvement in his work.
Julian Ritter on his Mexican landscapesI worked my way up to my first good landscape over about a month. It was sometime after Christmas, a week or two before Hilde and the kids came down.
Julian later said, "My time in San Blas was an important time in my development as an artist. I developed a new conception of colors, and a self-assurance that I could do things if I wanted to. I began using a lot more blue, cerulean blue especially. I had to ask Hilde to bring some more down to me. The main lesson though was training my eye to observe the vivid colors in a landscape. I was pleased, of course, that I'd done a good landscape, but I didn't grasp its significance until much later. It's only now, looking back on it, that I realized that I suddenly became a much better painter in Mexico.
Several of these San Blas landscapes were given to or sold to members of the family or Julian's friends: [in-laws] Stewart and Lizzie [Potter] got one; Hilde's brother Walter got two; Chick and Kay [Rosenthal} got one; Leo Post got one; Laurie Kokx got one later on from Julian, as did Steve Shoemaker. Rudolph Axford had two in his collection: the one he bought from Stewart and Lizzie's children and the one he bought from Matthew Rao, the frame dealer. Besides these, Julian saved two for himself. As to what percentage of his whole production these ten represent and what happened to the remainder, Julian could only provide hints.
Julian Ritter on the Mexican landscapesI did about thirty or forty landscapes in San Blas, including field sketches. I sold various ones of them to dealers and collectors around Los Angeles. Most of them I sold through the Poulson Galleries [in Pasadena]. I began selling to her not long after I went back to California, and she had a show for me that featured them.
Hilde and the kids arrived in Guadalajara in early January according to Michael, as he recalls having his Christmas toys with him. They stayed in Guadalajara for a couple of days as Julian recalls.
Julian Ritter on GuadalajaraI loved Guadalajara, especially its architecture, which is Spanish colonial – a beautiful plaza there with lots of fountains. I enjoyed the sidewalk cafes; we patronized them once or twice a day. Just the idea that it was a foreign city was impressive to me.
Michael remembers that he was stunned by Mexico shortly after they left Guadalajara for San Blas.
Michael Ritter on the trip from Guadalajara to San BlasPretty soon, we started to see really interesting scenery – volcanoes and heavy tropics. I guess I was just old enough to appreciate the difference from what I was used to. I was pretty stunned and astounded by the visual beauty. I loved it.
But Julian recalls that Hilde's first impression of Mexico wasn't so favorable: "She thought it was dirty." And, as Christine remembers, Hilde's first impression of the house Julian had rented for them was even more unfavorable.
Christine Ritter recalls her mother's reaction to the rented house in San BlasIt was an adobe hut with a thatch roof, a typical middle-class Mexican dwelling, but not at all what she [Hilde] was used to, so she entered it skeptically. Then, just as she was going into the kitchen, a big iguana fell from the rafters in front of her. She let out a blood-curdling scream and ran outside. I think that was it for Mexico as far as she was concerned.
Julian had done his best in providing a decent place for his family, given the circumstances: he'd rented a typical Mexican dwelling from his pal Martinez with all the middle-class Mexican appurtenances. "It had electricity, it had propane gas, it had a flush toilet, it had hot water; you could live there." He admits that it was small, with only two rooms and a garden.
Julian Ritter describes the rented house in San BlasOne of the rooms, Hilde and I slept in. The other was a sort of kitchen that I finagled and made. The kids slept on bunks in the kitchen. I painted on the porch, which was better than it sounds: it faced the tree-shaded garden, which was very pleasant and the light was good. Of course, it wasn't what Hilde was used to, but she accepted it as temporary accommodations. She got used to the roaches and water-bugs, and she even got used to the iguanas, so that she wouldn't scream so loud when she found one in the house, except when one fell on her bed. They're entirely harmless, but they are so ugly. And they are pretty large – the size of a big tomcat or even larger. So when they land on you at night, it's bound to scare the daylights out of you.
But, if Hilde accepted what she could not change, she was never at ease in Mexico.
Christine Ritter on her mother's acceptance of living n MexicoI don't remember her ever complaining, but I always remember a very, very strong feeling from her that she didn't like it at all, and that she was only there at her husband's request.
Michael Ritter on his mother's food safety in MexicoShe'd always soak the vegetables in some solution before she cooked them, and she made awful powdered milk with boiled water instead of letting us drink the local milk. We drank a lot of soda pop, which she ordinarily didn't approve of; on several occasions, I was encouraged to drink beer rather than drink the water.
It was Julian's idea to enroll the kids in the San Blas public school, although Hilde was in full agreement.
Julian Ritter on entering the kids in Mexican schoolI didn't expect them to learn anything besides Spanish, or even a whole lot of that, since they were only going to be there two or three months. Mostly, I wanted them to have playmates, and an exposure to Mexican life.
It was a good idea for which both the children were grateful, although Michael's feelings were somewhat more mixed.
Christine Ritter on going to Mexican schoolIt was great starting school in San Blas. I remember my classroom very well; I even remember the smell – a sweet, fruity smell. We were treated like royalty by our classmates, I suppose because of the blond hair and blue eyes. A lot of the kids really liked us.
Michael Ritter remembers his experience in the San Blas schoolFor one thing, I had really white-blond hair, and I naturally stood out from everyone. My sister had blond hair too, but I more than she because I was younger. For another thing, I was tiny: the smallest kid in the school, even in a Mexican school. So I was a special case, a real ornament around the school and many people treated me as such. They would come up and touch me or ogle over me.That bothered me. But other then that, I rather enjoyed school. I made friends among the Mexican boys, and I started to learn to speak and write Spanish, and I rather enjoyed that part of it.
Michael Ritter recalls his delight in some of the differences between American and Mexican schoolsAt recess, all the kids would line up at a street vendor's cart to buy soda pop. Back in California, they were really into milk – everybody got milk whether he wanted it or not. So this seemed really seditious to us. We loved it.
Julian remembered one of their parades, on a secular occasion, which featured the marching band from the local army post.
Christine Ritter recalls a very lax curriculumI think we spent more time on parade than anything else. Every religious holiday, every national holiday, that was an excuse to have us parade. There were a lot of religious parades, carrying lots of religious decorations, figurines, statues and banners.
Julian Ritter remembers one anti-American paradeThey were celebrating the occasion of Mexico confiscating U.S. oil interests, and the kids had to sing anti-American songs: "Down with America, down with the gringo, we got the oil wells", stuff like that. We all laughed about it.
Michael Ritter remembers marching in that particular paradeThey would line us up according to height, which put me at the very end, running along, trying to keep up. So the front of the parade would march by with the marching band and there'd be a roar from the crowd. Then things would quiet down till I came along, when there'd be another roar. Here comes the little gringo.
The kids were only enrolled in the morning session at school, in keeping with the family's laid-back lifestyle.
Michael Ritter on the daily life in MexicoJulian would take us on pre-breakfast walks each morning, up or down the beach, or along one of the streets that led out of town. We'd walk for an hour or more and then return home to eat the breakfast my mother had prepared, then go to school. Julian would paint in the morning while we were at school. Sometimes we would just stay around in the afternoon while he worked. But I don't think he worked as hard in San Blas as he did in other places. Lots of times, we'd go off on excursions in the afternoon, to one of the beaches or on a boat ride through a mangrove swamp. We spent more time together as a family in Mexico than any other time.
One family excursion that Michael remembers was on the occasion of a fiesta at a church some way out of town. "Coming back, the priest wanted a ride with us. Julian was pissed out-of-his-mind drunk. He made Hilde stop because he wanted to get out and take a pee. But he didn't go in the bushes; right in front of the car, he took his schwanz out and peed. Hilde was red with embarrassment, with the priest in the car and all. But I am sure that the priest had seen it before.
Another excursion that Michael remembers was to the piece of land Julian 'bought', where there was a cave that fascinated him.
Julian Ritter recalls his cave exploration in San BlasAccording to legend, Sir Francis Drake had buried his treasure in there. But it was a bat cave, where they'd been roosting for centuries. Several people had been overcome by the fumes and died while looking for the treasure. I sent to Los Angeles, and had a gas mask sent down. With it, and a rope securely tied around my waist, with Martinez at the other end, I climbed in there. I only stayed about a half-hour; all I found was a bunch of bat shit.
Michael Ritter remembers this same excursionThere was a side cave or something that he [Julian] hadn't been able to explore. He figured I could get through, being so much smaller, and he tried to persuade my mother to let me go down. She, of course, wouldn't hear of it.
It was extremely typical of him to want to send his seven-year old son into a poison cave. Julian would get a little crazy whenever there was treasure involved. He had a real obsession with it, which he'd shown in his Mojave gold mining and his uranium mining days, and which he'd demonstrate in his later life, listening to any crackpot who mentioned treasure. Even out on our morning walks, he'd stop and poke at a bunch of seaweed. "There could be a wallet under there."
Christine also remembers the family's three months in San Blas as a period of family intimacy and good times, such as her birthday celebration in March.
Christine Ritter remembers her birthday in San BlasJulian made a pi�ata, which just fascinated the Mexican kids, who'd never seen anything like it. We were amazed, assuming that they'd know all about pi�atas.
She remembers the nightly band concerts in the plaza, promenading there with her family and everybody else in town. And she has the clearest memories of the family's trip to Puerto Vallarta, especially of the part involving horses.
Christine Ritter recalls the Puerto Vallarta excursionWe rented horses, and rode them up the mountains behind the town to a ridge, where we overlooked a deep valley with a river down at the bottom, where women were washing their clothes. I remember climbing down some rocks close to the ocean, to get to where everyone went to the bathroom – pretty stinky. They were smoking fish there on the beach; I remember that the smell was wonderful.
Michael remembers that one of their objectives in visiting Puerto Vallarta was to visit Hall Farnsworth there, where he'd moved after his and Julian's first trip. His mother was quite taken by Hall, he recalls – more than she usually was by Julian's drinking buddies. And he himself took a great liking to Hall.
Michael Ritter's recollection of Hall FarnsworthOf all the people – Julian's friends and the other people he got close with in his life – Hall was the one I liked the best, the one I felt I could relate to. Hall was a real free, vagabond spirit. He was a hippie before the hippies were about, and he didn't accept any established values on anything; he checked it out for himself and made his own decisions. He remained a close friend of the family for fifteen years or more, visiting us in Santa Barbara during his annual trips to the States, so I got to know him pretty well. One of his visits, in 1966 or '67, I took a trip with him. He and his girlfriends came through Santa Barbara, and I went with them, up through Big Sur and onto Santa Cruz, staying a couple of nights in communes. It was real fun.
By the end of March, according to a letter Hilde sent from San Blas to Margaret Lefler, they had already postponed their departure from there a couple of times. But with the beginning of April, Julian had only a couple of months left on his tourist visa. If they were going to see the rest of Mexico, they were going to have to get to it. So, in the first week of April, Julian packed all his paintings and his family's belongings inside or on top of the Pontiac station wagon, and they set off for Mexico City.
Driving through Mexico with Julian was easy traveling, according to his children: a late start in the morning, an early stop in the evening, and frequent breaks in between.
Michael Ritter describes traveling in Mexico with JulianIn the morning, we'd drive for an hour or two, stop in a town for some groceries then stop beside the road to cook breakfast. That was Julian's job, although Christine and I would gather firewood; he'd build a fire and cook up a big breakfast – usually some eggs, potatoes and vegetables. Our appetites were sharp by then, especially being outdoors in the fresh air. It was always a pleasant time.
Via a circuitous route, through Manzanillo, the family arrived in Mexico City after about a week, then spent another week or so seeing the sights. Hilde and Christine got sick there and were laid up in their hotel room for a few days, so Julian took the opportunity to do some peddling.
Julian Ritter peddles his paintings in Mexico CityI had a car full of paintings and thought, "Once a peddler, always a peddler." First, I went looking for galleries, but I couldn't find a single one; nobody knew about one. Finally, I went to a calendar company that someone referred me to. I made a big hit with the owner. First off, he bought a nude from me. I'd brought a couple of nudes down from California with me, and when I showed him one, he wanted it. Second, he made me a job offer: $350 a month to paint calendars for his company. But I turned him down. For one thing, Hilde didn't want to live in Mexico City, and I wasn't too crazy about it myself. For another thing, we disagreed about subjects. My idea was to paint Mexican characters; they wanted blond babies and blond women.
From Mexico City, they drove south through Oaxaca as far as Salina Cruz, then across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to Veracruz. There they parked their station wagon in the safety of a garage, and took passage for the Yucatan on a tiny freighter. To Christine, it hardly deserved being called a freighter: "It was like a tiny, tiny fishing boat." But Julian insists that it was a freighter, plying a regular route, despite its diminutive size.
Julian Ritter recalls taking passage on a freighter to the YucatanIt didn't customarily carry passengers, but I made a deal with the shipping company. There were no passenger cabins. The captain and mate gave up their cabins to the kids because they were so taken with them. Hilde and I slept on the deck in a sleeping bag.
Michael remembers the trip in detail, down to the nature of the cargo: "Crates of soft drinks."
Michael Ritter recalls the trip to the Yucatan aboard the 'freighter'We left at night, and we stopped every hour or so at various towns to unload soft drinks. I remember waking up and peeking out to see the lights of a town. I think from that day on that impression has stayed with me: that smell of a ship whose diesel engines are running, the tropical breeze and the light swing on a ship. That feeling has stayed with me.
Morning found them in Campeche, where they made their headquarters for a few days, before and after their visit to Uxmal. Campeche impressed Julian as a beautiful city, more Spanish than the rest of Mexico, and he took daily walks while he was there to admire it.
Travel to Uxmal was evidently still pretty exotic in 1957, for their means of transportation there from Campeche, Julian remembers, was "an ordinary Mexican bus with chickens and goats." Worse, they arrived without prior hotel reservations, and were unable to find a hotel. Hilde was distressed as Julian recalls: "The one thing she insisted on was a bed." But she'd reconciled herself to sleeping on the ground in their sleeping bag, and had already laid it out, Christine remembers, when a trio of German travelers arrived and said, "Ach, you can't do that!"
Michael Ritter on staying in UxmalThe problem was that we were in heavy scorpion country, so you couldn't sleep on the ground. These German fellows were travelogue cinematographers, and, being German, they were naturally well-equipped with pup tents. Christine slept in one, I slept in the other, and my parents slept in their sleeping bag on the first step of the pyramid.
Julian Ritter recalls UxmalThe next morning, the ground was covered with scorpions.
There was a song popular in Mexico while we were there, "La Cama de Piedra", "the Bed of Stone." After our night sleeping on that big stone, that became our theme song, and it remains my favorite mariachi song. It's still the one I request when I hear a mariachi band.
Michael remembers a sense of excitement in anticipation of Uxmal, and the excitement of being there, assuming he got that from Julian.
Michael Ritter recall the anticipation of UxmalI don't remember him sitting me down and talking to me, but he certainly made me aware. He was excited, so I was excited. He was attuned to the energy, so I was too.
Julian Ritter admits to being the source of Michael's anticipation at UxmalI'd read about the ruins quite a bit – their history and so forth – and I'd desired to see them for a long time. Seeing them, I was awed with wonder of this intelligent past. Being there, I felt in touch with the past. I have very clear visual memories that I can call up of the ruins, as I can of great works of art that I've seen: they stick in your mind.
From Campeche, the family moved on to Merida, further out on the Yucatan Peninsula, where Julian left them for a few days, while he traveled on to Cozumel and Isla Mujeres with the German cinematographers.
Julian Ritter remembers his first impressions of Isla MujeresThey [the Germans] were going to this beautiful place I'd never heard of, which had no transportation or accommodations. It sounded great to me, but not so hot to Hilde. So I went by myself with them. We paddled over there in canoes and camped on the beach. The water was a beautiful blue-green color and dazzlingly clear; I don't know how deep it was – fifteen or twenty feet – but you could see the bottom clearly: all the fish and sharks and turtles swimming around. The beach was beautiful too: pure white with pink conch shells lying all over it. One of the Germans was a fella who could go into the jungle, pick this leaf and that leaf, this root and that root, then add them to a pot with a few seasonings and an onion, and make a delicious stew. I'd never known or even heard of anyone who could do that, so I was pretty impressed.
As he discovered, there was a small hotel on Isla Mujeres, and a sailboat that traveled there regularly. So, no sooner did he return to Merida than he packed the family up and took them out there to see it.
Christine Ritter remembers Isla MujeresIt was a town on the beach. Not much besides this small motel, and nothing at all besides the town. The beach was lovely, and we spent a lot of time swimming. The water was warm and clear, and their were porpoises that jumped over us as we swam. It was delightful, and I remember it very fondly.
Palenque, which they traveled to on the narrow-gauge railroad that ran up from Campeche, made a strong impression on Michael.
Michael Ritter recalls going to PalenqueFirst there was the trip up there, on this little railroad train chugging through the jungle. This is what really seemed like the jungle to me: the African jungle. Big tall trees with vines and snaky, sleepy rivers, very humid – that kind of jungle. Then there were these pyramids in the middle of it, quite overgrown. We walked down into, I guess you call them crypts, down inside. It made a big impression on me.
Julian Ritter is more impressed with Palenque than the ruins at UxmalThey'd only recently been discovered, and they hadn't been completely cleared yet. So there were many structures still in the jungle. I was fascinated by the jungle, and wandered off on these little winding paths. It would've been easy to get lost, and there were jaguars and snakes in the jungle; they warned against it. But I couldn't resist my romantic curiosity. I had to see what the middle of the jungle felt like.
From Palenque, the railroad took them through the jungles of Chiapas and Tabasco, back to the Caribbean coast at Coatzalcoalcos. There, they caught a ferry back to Veracruz and recovered their station wagon, which they drove back to Mexico City. They stayed there another week or so – visiting friends and some of the museums they had missed the first time through. By that time, Julian's tourist card was about to expire, so it was time to head home – wherever that was. They idled north at the usual Julian speed, with plenty of stops for sights and strolls. There was one difficult leg in the Sonoran Desert en route to Laredo.
Michael Ritter remembers the sandstorm in the Sonoran DesertWe got involved in a sandstorm that got pretty ferocious, to the point where we were creeping along in first gear, with our headlights on. It did a terrible job on the car's finish: it took the paint right off it and pitted the windshield. The car looked like a wreck, though it was only two years old. It was a wreck: Julian had beaten the shit out of it down in Mexico. I think we traded it in shortly after we got to Santa Barbara.
Despite this difficulty, they arrived in Laredo a day or two before Julian's deadline. Then with more purpose, they covered the trip from Laredo to Los Angeles in a couple of days, returning there almost exactly six months after Julian left. Unfortunately, Julian had no better idea of where he was going to live than before the trip.