Words & Portraits by Antonio.
In 1958, William “Red Dog” Tynan left the comfort of Los Angeles, to walk to Mexico City entirely on foot. The former Army photographer left behind friends, family and a cushy job at Disney in order to fill a longing for adventure that he could no longer ignore.
Tynan was joined by Bill Bates, a friend of a friend, who proved to be invaluable. Along the way, both men endured brutal weather, unforgiving terrain, and a constant lack of supplies. Despite these harsh conditions, they were met with the kindness and support of people in many of the towns they encountered.
Tynan brought his camera with him, taking photographs of the people and landscapes with his Rolleicord camera. For over 50 years, these photos remained in a cardboard box. That is, until a fire engulfed his home in 2011, leaving everything in ruins, except those very photographs. He worked to piece together the surviving photos, many of which needed digital restoration. At the Pico Gallery in L.A.’s Plaza Olvera, Tynan exhibited his work, to critical acclaim. Filmmakers Xochi Blymyer and Regina Ainsworth are currently working on a film that will chronicle the trip Tynan and Bates, who has passed, entitled “Red Dog & Bates.”
William Tynan discusses leaving everything behind, his walk to Mexico City, and how the whole ordeal changed his outlook on life.
Q: What’s the story behind the exhibit?
WILLIAM: These are photographs I took when I walked to Mexico in 1958-59. My house burned down four years ago and destroyed almost everything and left these photos intact. They were laying in there, and probably would still be laying there if I didn’t have the fire. I decided to put some time in effort into them and bring them to where I can put on a gallery show.
It took me four years to get it to this point. This is the first time I’ve ever seen them all and it’s really a joyful experience for me to see all these pictures up on the wall. It’s a miracle actually, that we saved them; they were in cardboard boxes, in a very hot fire, that melted metal, and there they were.
They weren’t in totally great shape, so we took them down and had him digitally scanned. They looked better than I had imagined them. Everybody seems to like them, and it’s a thrill of course, to have anyone liking anything you’ve done.
“I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I wanted to get away and think about what I was going to do next”
Q: How did you prepare to do the walk and what inspired you?
WILLIAM: I wanted to have an adventure and I was 27-years-old. All my friends were getting married, having kids, and moving to the San Fernando Valley, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I wanted to get away and think about what I was going to do next.
I was working at a great job with Walt Disney in the camera department. I was on my way up, I had nothing but a good future there, but I wasn’t thrilled about it. It was going to work every day at the same old job. The more it appealed to me, the more I talked about it, and the more I talked about it, the more they laughed about it.
^ Photograph by William Tynan.
They thought this was stupid. So I wrote letters to the National Geographic, The Explorers Club, and Adventure Magazine – a lot of places where they would know if it was possible to walk from L.A. to Mexico City. They all said no and that it was too far distant between towns, and I won’t be able to carry enough food or water. The more everybody said no, the more I said yes.
I gave my thirty-days’ notice to my immediate boss, told him I’d be leaving for Mexico City in thirty days, and he just laughed and let it go. Thirty days later I went into his office and said “I’m here to tell you that this is my last day. I said well, that’s what I’m going to do, and away I went on my way to Mexico City.
“They all said no and that it was too far distant between towns, and I won’t be able to carry enough food or water. The more everybody said no, the more I said yes”
I wanted to do it alone. Another guy who I did not know, but knew somebody I knew, called me up and said he’d heard that I was walking to Mexico City. I told him I wanted to do it alone, but he kept calling, and called me maybe a dozen times over that period. My friend said I better get with this guy, if anything happens to me, I’ll be out on my own. That, plus the fact that he could speak Spanish, and because I couldn’t speak a word of it, said to me I better take him along. So I told him to meet me at the border of the city of L.A. and Highway 60 and we’d start the walk, and away we went.
That was the first time I had ever seen him. We turned out to be opposites, and we both realized this as time went on, but we have to live with it. It worked out very well in a lot of ways, because the things I was fluent in, he was not. Between the two of us we could virtually cover all the bases. I couldn’t hear all that well, I couldn’t see all that well so I did all the talking, while he laid back and kept it cool.
Q: What did you bring with you?
WILLIAM: We went down to the Army/Navy store that’s on the corner of Vine Street and Santa Monica – it’s still there – and asked the guy what would we need to walk to Mexico City, and he sold us practically everything in the store. He sold us dishes and tableware, and tents for sleeping bags and all kinds of stuff. It was too much.
“We started out carrying 70 pounds apiece, which just drove us into the ground because it was so heavy.”
We started out carrying 70 pounds apiece, which just drove us into the ground because it was so heavy. When we get out into the desert we decided to stop and see the guy who was the publisher of Desert Magazine, who was the only guy who thought it was interesting to walk to Mexico City. He said “my God how can you carry all this equipment? You need to get rid of some of this stuff. You don’t need a tent; look at the weather you’ll be dealing with. Just get a poncho.”
Before you know it, it was sounding pretty good to be throwing stuff away. As we walked we got down to twenty pound a piece, barely with enough stuff to deal with everything.
“I’m often asked what would be the most important thing to take along on a walk like this, and I always say two-inch EZ tape”
I’m often asked what would be the most important thing to take along on a walk like this, and I always say two-inch EZ tape. First of all we had blisters until the day we started until we walked into Mexico City. We got up every morning and took the EZ tape and taped our feet. That’s how we were able to endure it. Clothes ripped and we would tape the clothes. When we had to do anything like pack wood, we had to collect enough wood for a fire in order to sleep in the desert. We could wrap a couple of sticks together to make into a thing we could carry. The two-inch EZ tape came out whenever we had a problem.
We were sorry we got rid of our sleeping bags many times. It was cold at night, bitterly cold. It was all night praying for the sun, and all day praying for the night. It was not a joyous experience, but we never once thought of quitting or giving up in anyway. The biggest problem was the language. We misinterpreted what a lot of people said at certain times, and that became a problem. We learned a little Spanish as we went and people were totally helpful.
We heard from everybody horrible stories about what they would do with us because they were so poor, they would slit our throats for shoes and stuff like that. It was just the opposite of what it proved to be. We were helped in every way by the people once they found out who we were and that we were good people.
They hadn’t seen anything like us, and we went into all kinds of small towns where no cars were. The people wanted to know what we were doing. We told them we were walking to Mexico City. A lot of them assumed that we were religious pilgrims, on the way to the Virgin Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City. When we told them no, this wasn’t true, they thought we were being modest and were potential saints. They brought out the rosaries and other gifts, and it was advantageous to let them believe, and they didn’t want to believe anything else. When I said no, they just didn’t want to even hear it. This was a good portion of the people who treated us this way.
“We told them we were walking to Mexico City. A lot of them assumed that we were religious pilgrims, on the way to the Virgin Guadalupe Basilica”
There were other people who thought we were connected with Fidel Castro, who was connected to the revolution. He was in the mountains, just before he swept down and took over Havana. We looked a lot like Fidel: we were both wearing fatigues, just like Fidel, and we both had beards. Cars that would go by, and they’d honk and yell out “Castro!” They believed we were part of the revolution. Castro trained his forces there in Mexico too, so everybody knew what was going on, and they all had a political interest in what was going to happen there. It was right on everybody’s mind all the time.
“A lot of people were afraid us, because they hadn’t seen anything like us, but we were afraid of them in a way”
A lot of people were afraid us, because they hadn’t seen anything like us, but we were afraid of them in a way. We were in a place called Benjamin Hill. There was a German guy there that told us that if we’re going to leave and Benjamin Hill and go to the next place, that we would be crazy. There are some people that would kill you for clothes, for anything you got. By the time we got there, we couldn’t go around, we had nothing to eat and they had a store there. We went into the store, there were a few guys hanging out in front of the store and they looked pretty tough. When we walked into the store, they followed us in, and there were already half-a-dozen guys in there.
There were no lights in the town, but they had a couple of flickering oil lanterns in the store. You could cut the silence with the knife. They were dead-silent and grim-looking, with the flame flickering on their faces. My partner went outside, and I saw two wrinkled oranges sitting on the counter. I bought the oranges, gave them the five pesos, and hurried out the door. My partner was outside and there as a guy with a bandana tied around his neck, hold-up style, and he had him pushed up against the wall.
“I started thinking about this, maybe that guy wasn’t robbing Bates, he just really wanted a cigarette”
I said Bates what’s happening, what does he want? “He wants a cigarette,” he told me and I said let’s give him one and let’s get out of here! We gave him a cigarette and ran off terrified just because of how these guys looked.
We ran and ran until we got to the high brush and then we trampled down all the high brush, threw our bag on the top of it and went to sleep. When we woke up the next day, we saw five or six guys with the bandanas tied around their face. A lot of them did that because of the dust that was around there and they didn’t want to breathe it. I started thinking about this, maybe that guy wasn’t robbing Bates, he just really wanted a cigarette. We saw this look in there, and they were silent because he didn’t know who we were. I think the military uniform turned them off in a way and frightened them.
Later we were dealing with Indians that didn’t even come out of their hut when they saw us. We were dealing with fear, and when we learned that, we did our best to get a joke out to break the silence. If we could break the silence, they would all laugh at any place.
“Everything we had learned about Mexico taught us that everything we had learned was wrong”
Everything we had learned about Mexico taught us that everything we had learned was wrong. It was a really unique experience. I don’t regret it one bit, even though there was a lot of problems involved, and a lot of times we were uncomfortable because of the weather or whatever.
Q: Have you been back to Mexico since that trip?
WILLIAM: I went down and started establishing a quick way of getting pre-Columbian art, out of these small little towns. Most of the pre-Columbian art you find in Mexico was really manufactured last week and they sell them as fakes. I got very good at being able to tell the difference between a fake and a real one.
I was able to get a lot of them out there. They were worth a lot of money in Guadalajara or Mexico City. You could get them for a couple of pesos in some of these little towns, and that was all they wanted. I spent some time in Mexico City, and at the American School there.
“I’d buy that $100 four-door car, drive it to Mexico City, and sell it for quite a bit of money to a guy who couldn’t afford to pay for more”
One of the things I used to do was go down on Santa Monica Boulevard, where they sold old junk cars for nothing more than $100. I’d buy that $100 four-door car, drive it to Mexico City, and sell it for quite a bit of money to a guy who couldn’t afford to pay for more than what he’d have to pay for a car in Mexico City, because they had taxes for five times the cost. But they could afford from me, that I could sell because I only paid a hundred bucks for it. I then had enough money left over to make back my $100, fly home, and have a few hundred more to live on until the next time I needed a quick buck.
I had a regular route down there. I had places where I could stop and get a tire, because the road would tear up the tire. I’d get tires and stuff, and they began to expect me, and they knew I was good business. I did that for a while.
In recent times, I hadn’t gone back for a long time, but I’d like to go back to Mexico City and see how much that’s changed.
“When we were walking to Mexico City, we never figured out where we were going. When we got there, we let whatever happened there, whatever looked cool, we went that way”
Q: Where will you be in five days, five months and five years?
WILLIAM: That’s something I don’t know, because I don’t allow that to happen. When we were walking to Mexico City, we never figured out where we were going. We wanted to figure it out when we got there. When we got there, we let whatever happened there, whatever looked cool, we went that way. Sometimes we went by the railroad, sometimes we went by the road, sometimes we went by the paths, but we didn’t decide until we got there.
In five months, I have no idea. A lot of it will depend on what happens with this show, if I can take this on the next step up from here. I’m investing my energy in that right now. I’m getting very favorable responses here from people on it. I just wait and see when I get there. I’ve got a few offers and I’m going to consider all of them. One is in Monterrey, one is down south in Mexico, and one is in Beverly Hills. I’ve been drawn along with what’s happened.
“Just like all the notes I took, I don’t remember making those notes. It’s like taking the walk again”
This is almost magic, the way it’s working for me. I just show up every day, shake everybody’s hand talk to them about the pictures. These are what was left for me, and that’s what i’m doing. I was surprised how good they were, because I didn’t remember it was me. Just like all the notes I took, I don’t remember making those notes. It’s like taking the walk again, doing it. I don’t know if I’ll go on the railroad track, the highway, or the trail.
Thank you for the great interview Mr. Tynan! Stay updated with the progress of the film at the official website for Red Dog & Bates!