September 22, 1997
I'm in Ciudad Hidalgo, 130 miles west of Mexico City and 65 miles east of Morelia. Due to
various computer problems, it's been 8 months since my last newsletter so I have a lot of territory
to cover. This letter is a composite, written, when inspired by the pending (non)arrival of my
computer, at various times en route.
My most recent problem, a crash, necessitated the reinstallation of my communications
software, with the concomitant loss of my address book, mailing lists, and the 86 letters I'd just
received. Thank you everyone for writing! This newsletter will have to suffice as an answer.
I've recreated my mailing list from other sources, so please send me any corrections or additions
you may have.
Now - more tales from the road! When last heard from our heroine/cyclista (the Spanish
word for heroine) was leaving San Antonio to rendezvous with her sister at Big Bend for the
holidays before entering Mexico. On December 21st, John drove me to Brackettville, Texas to
help me reach Big Bend by Christmas. The next morning, having for the first time loaded my
bike with all the gear I thought I was carrying around the world, I wobbled 22 miles to Del Rio,
where I stopped to re-pack the panniers and visit the local bike shop. Foolishly I hadn't ridden
my bike since overhauling it under John's very patient tutelage and something was out of kilter.
Lacking confidence in my own diagnostic abilities, I decided to avail myself of my last
opportunity to speak English with a bike mechanic. Though I was up at 4 AM the following
morning organizing and writing letters to send with packages and pictures, I still wasn't packed
by the time the bike was fixed and finally arranged to be picked up by my sister on her way to
Rachel and her husband, Will, came with their friends, John and Mary from North Carolina
to join Mary's family at Big Bend. Family camping at Big Bend is her father's alternative to
holiday celebrations, begun after her mother and the rest of the family became Jehovah's
Witnesses 30 years ago. Every year since he retired, her father, Norm, has been the Rio Grande
Village campground host from Thanksgiving to New Years. This year there were 19 family
members plus Rachel, Will and I and he fed us all every night in his trailer.
Camping at Big Bend was great. 70 miles from the nearest U.S. town, the only traffic noise
and light come from the campground itself, so the stars are spectacular and the silence of the
night is only broken by coyotes, mules and sometimes javelina raiding the neighboring campsite.
We did lots of hiking, the two most memorable being an 8 mile hike along the Mariscol Rim,
the edge of the Mariscol canyon which forms the bend of Big Bend and a 15 mile hike up to and
across the East and South Rims of the Chisos Basin. Another day we crossed the Rio Grande to
visit Boquillas, an adobe and cinder block village situated on a barren plateau under the looming
Sierra del Carmens. Access to the town is only by boat from Texas or by a 50 mile dirt and
gravel road in Mexico. It was my introduction to Mexico and, because of my pending travels, I
was both intimidated and intrigued, threatened by and at the same time finding beauty in the
starkness of the landscape, the isolation, the people, and the language.
Likewise, the desert was both alien and fascinating. On the trip to the Mariscol Rim I had 2
close encounters with blind prickly pears which, instead of long spines, have velvety brown spots
composed of hundreds of tiny, impossible to remove barbs. Rachel and I sarcastically called
them pets after I made their acquaintance. The trail to the Rim was marked by small cairns amid
lots of other rocks and required concentration to follow. Both Rachel and I got very
thirsty on the way back, though we'd been drinking all day. We still had plenty of water but just
couldn't seem to get enough. To me, that day felt like my first immersion in the desert and I was
glad to be with experienced people who knew the plants and the terrain. Their stories of other
trips in the area and their geographical knowledge gave me a great sense of place - the park, the
mountains, and the Rio Grande.
Rachel left December 31st, carrying lots of mail and another batch of discarded gear. I was
hard pressed to choke back tears, missing her and knowing it was my last sight of family for a
long time. I was planning to leave for Mexico the following day, but then I met an Irishman! He
was using that irresistible lure, the loaded bicycle parked outside the camp store. I invited him to
stop by my campsite and we spent the next 3 weeks traveling together. After dinner that
night we hiked 3 miles along an unknown trail in the dark to welcome in the New Year by sitting
in the hot springs beside the Rio Grande, watching the moon come up over the mountains in
Mexico. About 2 AM we got a ride back to the campsite and took our sleeping bags and pads
down beside the Rio Grande to sleep under the stars.
Awakened late the next morning by mules braying (which sound like some huge animal
gasping its last breath) on the other side of the river, we walked back to camp, packed the bikes
and rode back to the hot springs, where we very secretively stashed our bikes behind the
abandoned post office and camped by the river under the stars again. We left the hot springs
about 2 PM the next day, planning a short, 20 mile ride to our next campsite. After several stops
and some walking (often straddling the bike because I was afraid I'd knock the bike
over dismounting and be unable to pick it up again), I finally managed to ride the first 2 uphill
miles over gravel road. After reaching the pavement I struggled on up the gentle grade for 2
more miles when fortunately Michael had a flat and we took an hour rest break sitting in the
shade of the bikes. I was plagued by several problems. My tent was dragging on the wheel of
the bike. It was hot (85 degrees) with no shade, I was dehydrated though I didn't realize it till
later, I hadn't ridden in a month and I was trying to keep up with Michael. Michael, a minimalist
tourer by nature, was equipped for a 3 week trip, while I, a maximalist equipped for a 2 year
journey around the world, was carrying a lot of weight, both physically and psychologically.
Though we had enough water for that night, we decided to ride another 6 miles to put us within
reach of water the next morning. For the first time in my life, having enough water had become
the central factor in my plans. A mile later we decided to solicit water from passing motorists.
Bill, the first person who stopped, only had the melted ice water from his cooler which we
happily drank. Then he offered us a ride which we accepted with alacrity, at first planning to
stop at our primitive campsite, but then deciding to accompany him to the Chisos Basin
Campground. We shared his campsite that night and decided to stay for three days, one for me to
re-pack and ship another load home, then 2 days for an overnight hiking trip in
the Chisos. I was grateful. At those temperatures I literally couldn't contemplate the visibly
steep 5 mile climb out of the Basin. Even in retrospect it intimidates me.
The weather turned cooler as we returned from the hiking trip and we settled in for an
evening's reading in the tent. Soon I began feeling a lot of movement around my feet. After
Michael denied responsibility, we both sat bolt upright, to discover a skunk exploring the
premises. Avoiding any sudden moves, Michael and I did our best to project an aura of calm and
welcome, while she meandered all the way up to our knees between our sleeping bags, like my
cat looking for a warm place to sleep, before finally making her way back outside. We
decided the air would be fresher inside the tent with the door closed, even with our smelly
We awoke to a Basin covered with snow and ice. Every cactus spine and every bicycle
spoke had its own halo. After a hike and oatmeal cooked under adverse conditions, we spent
most of the day at the lodge, reading and writing e-mail. Michael proposed renting a car and
touring the Southwest over dinner at the lodge that night. I thought it was a great idea - 1. I
wanted to spend more time with Michael though I was unwilling to consider biking further than
the border in the States, 2. I wouldn't have to bike that 5 mile climb out of the Chisos Basin, and
3. I could postpone the scary crossing into Mexico a while longer.
The next day was still below freezing, roads were closed in the morning, and there were
sporadic power outages. Almost everyone left before another predicted storm that night. We felt
very intrepid as one of three sets of tent campers who had survived the night, until we met 6
campers who spent the night without tents on Emory Peak. When we met a guy who invited us
for dinner in his room, I asked about a shower (cold sponge baths and especially the hair washing
in the unheated bathroom was getting a little old) and Michael asked about a ride to pick up a
rental car. That shows what our priorities were. The roads opened unexpectedly at noon the next
day and I rushed down the mountain with Ann and Bryan, before calling to reserve a car, only to
discover that, due to my lack of personal car insurance, I would have to go back to San Antonio
to get a vehicle. The 6 hour drive each way wasn't a problem, but the decision to spend an
additional 10-15 days biking back from San Antonio after returning the car
required some thought.
When I returned the next afternoon we loaded the 2 bikes and our considerable gear into our
new home, a little red Suzuki Swift, and drove over the dreaded 17% grade hill (there were signs
warning motorists of the climb ahead) to camp at Big Bend Ranch. We stopped in Presidio and
previewed my crossing by walking across the border to Ojinaga the next morning, before driving
to the Guadalupe Mountains and hiking to Devil's Hall at dusk through the snow. Overnight the
fog coated everything with ice and when we awoke the sky overhead was blue
while the golden brown mountains played hide and seek in the fog and the rest of Texas was a
sea of white clouds.
We hiked McKittrick Canyon then rushed to Carlsbad Caverns for the last natural entrance
admission. Like Jonah, or perhaps proportionately more like plankton, we were swallowed up by
the mouth of the cavern looming over us, gradually cutting off the natural light as we walked
rapidly into the bowels of the earth. Actually it felt more like a "fantastic voyage" through the
earth's skeleton. Bicycling gives me one way of appreciating the earth's immensity. This gave
me another. Despite descending the equivalent of 70 stories toward the center of the earth, we
only traveled through the merest fraction of the earth's crust and the scale of everything was
enormous. We also only walked through the upper level of the caverns; there's another, not fully
explored lower level not open to the general public as well as several other nearby caves, also not
fully explored. Leaving Carlsbad, we drove across New Mexico via Alamagordo (lots of
"glow in the sky" jokes) to visit Deb Beaumont, Jean Harland's daughter, in Tucson, Arizona
where we went to Saguaro National Monument as well as numerous book stores.
Michael is a children's librarian in London and an avid reader. We share a similar taste in
books. I'd started one of the books he'd brought, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, at Leslie and
Gary's at the beginning of my trip and wanted to finish it. (I did and have since read his
Songlines, the ultimate travelers book.) Michael had started the book I was reading, John
Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez, just before leaving London and had contemplated
bringing it along. Michael is especially interested in books about Native American cultures and
particularly the Plains Indians, with whom he feels an affinity. In fact, he would like to arrange a
work exchange for 6 months to a year with a children's librarian from the north central United
States. He has already gotten approval from his supervisors but has not yet found anyone in the
States who is interested. If you know of anyone who might be interested his address and phone
182B Devonshire Road
London SE23 3TB
Tel: 011-44-(181) 291-0246 (home)
Leaving Deb's we detoured by Organ Pipe National Monument due to bad weather before
heading north to the Grand Canyon, via Prescott, Arizona where we saw a UFO (I took
somewhat belated pictures). We reached the South Rim at midnight and camped at 0 degrees F.
in 2 feet of snow. After a gourmet thaw-out breakfast overlooking a canyon full of fog, we drove
along the South Rim until the fog lifted, then hiked about a mile down the Kaibob Trail into the
canyon before reluctantly returning to start the 24 hour drive back to the Midlands,
Texas airport where Michael caught a plane the next day.
I spent another week at John's, re-packing (again) and catching up on my journal and
correspondence. John and I had lunch in Castroville, beyond city traffic, the day I left, then I
loaded up my bike and said good-bye, this time for real! I was cultivating a new attitude - living
in the moment and having confidence that everything would work out. For the first time I had no
bike maps detailing road conditions, campgrounds and hotels, so I had no idea where I was going
to spend the night. I'd learned with Michael that sleeping without a tent in that country was
possible - no bugs, no dew or rain, enough warmth - so if I needed to scrounge a place to camp
off the road, I'd be less visible.
My new attitude was greatly bolstered that first night. I stopped to inquire about camping at
Shivani's Truck Stop and the proprietor, Indenbhai Patel from India, immediately made me
welcome, offering me ice as I walked in the door. I camped behind the store and spent the
evening with his family, eating delicious Indian food and discussing Indian cooking. His wife,
Shalya, and their two daughters had been driving back from San Antonio the previous night when
they met a drunk driver coming toward them at 70 MPH on their side of the road. She
swerved to miss him and totaled their car, rolling it 3 times. She and her daughters emerged
virtually unscathed and very grateful to be alive. It seemed a bit incongruous, finding an Indian
family running a truck stop in the middle of the west Texas countryside, but as I shared their
hospitality and watched their interactions with their customers, I realized that their friendliness
and their Buddhist inspired, caring attitude toward everyone they met would enable them to make
a home anywhere.
A few days later I reached Del Rio (again!) and took my bike in for another checkup. I'd
been struggling with the riding but couldn't figure out why - no broken spokes, no brakes
rubbing, etc. - though I'd stopped several times to check. All the other possibilities I'd considered
- much more road resistance from knobby tires, extra weight, 2 months without riding, fears of
entering Mexico - didn't seem to have any easy solutions. The bike shop didn't have any other
ideas, but I did meet a fellow cyclist, Heinz, an organic farmer from Virginia and previously from
Switzerland, who was biking across the States. After some discussion we agreed to try riding
together to Seminole Canyon the next day. We barely made it in time for the last tour at 3 PM,
though for me it was a real struggle. Once again I was confronted with my
riding difficulties, enhanced by being compared with a better cyclist. We camped together that
night but split up about mid-day the next day. We were getting a bit frustrated with each other,
partly due to my slowness. but also, despite having a lot in common, a lack of compatibility.
Perhaps I would have made more of an effort if I hadn't just spent the 3 weeks with Michael. To
describe the difference: with Michael I shared the same books; with Heinz I shared the same
brand of toothpaste (Auromere, a health food brand). The toothpaste analogy isn't as trite as it
may seem. It represents a common commitment to a healthy and environmentally conscious
lifestyle, though with me it's an attitude while with Heinz it's more of an obsession.
Nevertheless, I learned several things from Heinz - how to get on and off my bike over the top
tube instead of knocking it over trying to swing my leg over the load on the back, oiling the
bottom bracket, and changing a flat without removing the panniers - information I've blessed
him for many times. Over and over again on this trip information and/or help serendipitously
presents itself when needed, though sometimes I don't recognize it till later. Developing
confidence that things will work out has really decreased my fear of the unknown.
After Heinz left, I stopped for lunch at Langtry, named by the somewhat infamous Judge
Roy Bean for Lily Langtry, a famous English actress with whom he was enamored. Bean, a
self-appointed though later sanctioned Justice of the Peace, settled in the area with his tent saloon
when the railway was completed and administered his own brand of justice. A man found dead
beside the tracks with $35 and a pistol in his pocket was fined $35 for carrying a gun, a fine
which the Judge pocketed. Strangers from the train paying for their drinks with
a $20 gold piece, would find that runners sent for change would take an unconscionably long
time to return, so long, in fact, that the traveler would be forced to choose between forfeiting his
change and missing his train. Forbidden by the Texas Rangers to use San Antonio or El Paso and
discouraged by the Mexican government, promoters looking for a site to hold a then illegal
championship prize fight were invited to Langtry. When the train carrying the fighters, the
promoters, and the spectators arrived, it also carried the Texas Rangers. Judge Roy Bean,
however, had had the foresight to build a bridge across the Rio Grande, so the fight was held in
Mexico with the Mexican authorities 1500 miles away. I can tell you just how desolate those
I arrived in Sanderson the next day and spent the evening with folks from the campground,
climbing around the mountain and exploring some local caves. Then it was on to Marathon (a 50
mile gentle climb with a Tailwind!) where I met the original Marlboro Man and a French couple
traveling in a van with their baby. We spent a couple of hours conversing in a mixture of
French, Spanish and English, an experience which gave me hope for my Spanish in Mexico.
The climb from Alpine to Marfa over Paisano Pass was gorgeous! All the drab grey white
of the limestone mountains was covered with deep golden grassland sprinkled with 20 foot
GREEN trees. I camped too far west in Marfa that night to see the mysterious Marfa lights, first
documented in the late 1800's and seen almost every night since then.
I anticipated another great day of riding the following day but got up to below freezing
temperatures and overcast skies - those unpredictable Texas Alps! Matters hadn't improved after
breakfast, but, having left my non-existent golf clubs at home and thus not tempted by the highest
(4000+ feet) golf course in Texas, I set out for Presidio. According to a sign in Marfa, Presidio is
the oldest town in America, settled 10,000 years ago, but its growth rate has been
very slow with at least one attempted suburb 20 miles out now a ghost town. 15 miles into the
ride I was rescued by two knights named Richard and Bo in a shining white truck who turned
around and came back to offer me a ride. Sometimes looking miserable produces results! They
were en route to Presidio and Ojinaga, Mexico to check on their water purification business, run
by Bo's uncle. I went to Ojinaga with them three times in the next 2 days, met Chuy, Bo's uncle,
had 2 delicious meals with his family, and tried speaking a little Spanish. I came to feel that
Mexico had a personal face and that I was welcome there. Bo and Chuy drew me maps of the
road between Ojinaga and Chihuahua including the climbs which they described in excruciating
detail and gave me Chuy's phone number in case I had problems. I stayed one more day in
Presidio, calling people and e-mailing before finally crossing the border with my
bike and gear at 2 PM, Tuesday, February 11, 1997!
The feared border hassles didn't materialize, either on the American or the Mexican side. I
only had to cope with incredulity and asking the Mexican border guards in Spanish to take my
picture in front of the Welcome to Mexico sign. I'd decided crossing the border was emotionally
enough for one day, so I spent the rest of the afternoon going by Chuy's to get water, finding a
hotel, getting my hair cut and buying fruit - all transacted in Spanish! I was gratified by being
able to manage, though I was also busy telling myself that everything was normal. That night I
read a novel (in English) and pretended that I wasn't riding off into the wilds of Mexico the next
My approach the next morning was don't think, just do it! That got me out the door and
through the first 35 kilometers of riding, even with a headwind. Then came the MOUNTAIN! I
could see it coming from miles away, a looming grey wall that stretched all the way across the
horizon. I didn't take any pictures of it and later realized that taking a picture would have forced
me to acknowledge its intimidating visage. I reached the climb about 1 PM during the hottest
part of the day. I was still having unexplained difficulty riding and my derailleur wasn't shifting
into my granny gear. I stopped to rest near the bottom, feeling very daunted, and a Mexican in a
pick-up stopped and asked in English "What's wrong?" but, expecting Spanish, I didn't
understand him. I went into my rehearsed speech .. "No entiendo. Hablo solamente un poco de
espanol." (I don't understand. I only speak a little Spanish.) He answered "I speak a little
English. What's wrong?" I told him I was just resting and that I was okay. If he'd offered me a
ride directly I probably would have taken it, but pride and intimidation (I might have to speak
Spanish) wouldn't let me ask.
Climbing the mountain was a real struggle. I stopped many times and took 2 naps with my
head on my arms. Only my sister would have had enough patience to ride with me. The physical
exertion required energy I'd been using to keep my fears at bay and they all came flooding in. So
there I was - climbing a mountain in an alien, barren environment in 90 degree heat with no
shade, having all my doubts about my riding abilities justified, having an attack of nerves about
being in Mexico, trying not to panic about speaking Spanish, and finally not knowing where I
was going to spend the night. I certainly wasn't going to make it another 40 kilometers to
Coyame, the nearest town. On the positive side, there was very little traffic which added to the
sense of isolation but made for more pleasant biking conditions. All the vehicles gave me plenty
of room and everyone smiled and waved, especially the bus drivers.
I reached the top of El Peguis at 5 PM and hiked to the overlook into Peguis Canyon, a very
narrow, deep canyon cut by the Conchis River. I considered camping at the top but it was
obviously a much used parking spot so I decided to cast myself on the mercies of the customs
police, 1 kilometer further down the road. Now, looking back after 6 months in Mexico, I know
it was ridiculous to be afraid, but I'd heard so many stories of Federales, border patrols, and
mordita from Americans. I'd even been warned not to look authorities in the eye because it
would be considered an act of defiance, so I wasn't sure what to expect.
Like everyone else I've met in Mexico, the customs officials were helpful and friendly.
They didn't ask for my passport and didn't go through my bags. One of the officers spoke some
English which helped. I asked for water and for permission to camp on the hill behind the
station. They asked if I'd prefer a bed and a cold shower inside the station. I accepted gladly,
though with some concern that it might be illegal. I couldn't imagine U.S. Customs officials
making the same offer though perhaps they would. I went to bed early, totally exhausted, staying
up only long enough to meet the changing shift at 8 PM. Periodically throughout the night, the
light went on in my room when someone came back to use the bathroom but otherwise I slept
I got up about 7 the next morning, knowing I faced another climb. The female customs
officer fed me breakfast and we talked a little in my halting Spanish. Preceded by a nice
downhill, the somewhat shorter climb was eased by anticipation of plains ahead. At 10 AM it
was cooler and I adjusted my derailleur so that it shifted into my granny gear. I reminded myself
of the Unaka lesson - that persistence and stops eventually reach the top. My bubble burst when I
crested the gap and found another unexpected range of mountains straight ahead. I forgot to live
in the moment, and the climb ahead coupled with increasing heat began beating me before I
started. I also forgot that hard-learned rule - no climb is as bad as it appears from a distance. As
I started the climb a front started moving through and the wind picked up, cooling things off. I
passed a gang of men working on the road and my pride wouldn't let me stop until I was out of
sight. By then I'd discovered that the climb wasn't as steep and was much more manageable. A
man driving a donkey cart on a dirt track paralleling the road paced me most of the way up the
mountain. The descent came just in time as the wind picked up and started to blow sand as I
rode into Coyame.
I spent that night and the next (a flat the first morning gave me an excuse for a day off) in a
half-finished cabana for which I paid $115 pesos (about $17), one of the most expensive rooms
I've had. There was no shower curtain and a trickle of cold water the first night. The second
night there was hot water but the following morning there was no water at all - it had frozen.
Throughout the day, the workmen building the cabana moved closer and closer out of curiosity,
finally congregating in the room next door. Eventually I invited them in, gave them the grand
bike tour, and a copy of my projected route. My comment of "muy bonito" (very handsome) to
one man admiring himself in my bike mirror, elicited a great round of laughter. There are natural
caves near Coyame and I'm sure if I'd asked they would have given me a tour, but I wasn't yet
comfortable enough with my Spanish or the country to try.
As I left the next morning, I met 2 English speaking men who were amazed and
encouraging. One gave me his card and offered me a place to stay if I came through Ciudad
Jimenez. That day was a great ride over rolling countryside. The mountains were blue and
individually delineated instead of being one continuous forbidding grey escarpment across my
path. The land had changed too, from grey-white rock with very little vegetation to red and green
rock with golden brown grasses which seemed to make the landscape glow. A bus passed me
that afternoon, full of children who were leaning out the window and chanting to cheer me on. I
was so touched I started to cry. That night I camped sans tent behind some bushes by the side of
the road. I'd finally figured out that I could unload the bike and carry everything off the road
piecemeal, though I was careful not to be seen. There was very little traffic at night, and I was
essentially invisible, especially after dark.
Arriving in Chihuahua, a city of 800,000 people, at 5 PM with only a small map from the
guidebook was the first test of my Spanish direction finding abilities. Some of my informants
thought I'd studied sign language instead of Spanish. I stayed in Chihuahua a week awaiting a
shipment of inner tubes from the States, and was adopted by Aurora, a staff person at the hotel
who often spent her two hour lunch breaks talking with me in Spanish. She said that most
foreigners who stayed there didn't speak, even to say good morning. People on the streets
usually didn't speak to me unless I spoke first, but then I inevitably got a genuine greeting and a
warm smile. However, as I left on my bike I felt like a one person parade as person after person
whistled and cheered me on. The bike, as always, opened doors to experiences and people I
wouldn't have met otherwise.
I'd had four flats since leaving John's, an abnormally high number for me, and decided that I
needed more tubes before heading for Copper Canyon. Those flats were actually a blessing in
disguise. In the process of looking for inner tubes in Chihuahua (bike tires are a different size in
Mexico) and then ordering them through Candace, I finally solved the mystery of those
unexplained riding difficulties. My tubes were too small, so even though my tires appeared fully
inflated, they weren't. My bike pump was also half-broken, so each time I'd had a flat it was
difficult to re-inflate the tire properly. With new tubes and a new pump I smiled as I tackled the
headwind on the way out of Chihuahua.
A strong and unpredictable sidewind the next afternoon blew that smile off my face. After
stopping 10 times in one flat stretch to avoid being blown off the road, I decided it would be
faster to walk. At the top of the first hill I had to lean the bike over in the ditch to hold it steady
enough to mount. As I was walking up the second hill, a passing truck passenger handed me a
cold orange soda. Mountains visible earlier in the distance were obscured by dust. I began
to think I'd be camping again that night but 3 guys in a pick-up offered me a ride. We passed a
young apple orchard and all the trees were bent sideways. As we came around the last curve
overlooking the city, the guys said there's Cuatehmoc but it wasn't there - it was hidden by dust.
After listening to the wind howl around the hotel all night, I took the next day off but tried
to leave the following day. In one hour I rode 7 kilometers (about 4 miles), gave up, turned
around, and was back in the city in 10 minutes without pedaling on level ground. I still wanted
to ride because I wanted to get some serious mountain riding in before Creel, both to see if I
could do it and also training before the much more strenuous ride from Creel to Batopilas.
However, the wind was even worse the next morning, so I took the train. Getting my gear (5
bags and my backpack) plus the bike onto the crowded train was almost as much of a challenge.
There was no place to put the bike, so I left it partly blocking the exit door.. At subsequent stops
I could tell it hadn't been stolen by watching people struggling through the door. A fellow
passenger eventually came to complain and helped me negotiate a place for it in the caboose. He
later came back and requested 20 pesos because it was "forbidden." I paid gladly, both for the
security and for the relief that it wasn't inconveniencing so many people. The anticipated riding
will have to be pretty grim before I'll willingly deal again with the hassles and fears of getting
everything loaded onto public transport.
In Creel I stayed at Margarita's, a well-known stop for the more adventurous on the gringo
trail. For 20 pesos ($3) a night you can get a bed in a co-ed dorm, a cold shower, breakfast, and
dinner. I spent two weeks there meeting lots of worldwide travelers and doing lots of hiking,
though almost none of the anticipated descents into the canyons. The first day I walked through
rain, sleet and snow to look for Julia, my contact for a place to camp, but failing to find her I
hiked on to the 400 year old San Ignacio Mission. Starting back I met Fredi, a German from
Margarita's and decided to join him hiking to Lake Arareco. Eventually, being tired, cold and
hungry, we gave up before finding it. On the way back we saw lots of caves as well as houses
where Tarahumara Indians lived. I bought a necklace from a little girl who came running
barefoot across the fields to tempt the gringo tourists. Later, looking at a map, we
figured we'd hiked about 12 miles and would have eventually reached the lake, though not by the
most direct route. The following day Fredi, his friend Birgit and I hiked to the hot springs, a trip
described as strenuous but worth it. The springs are in a side canyon but from the top you can
see parts of the spectacular main system. The hike is straight down 1/3 the distance of the
descent into the Grand Canyon, mitigated only slightly by mini-switchbacks over rocky,
scree-covered goat track. The river at the bottom is a series of warm blue-green swimming holes
fed by hot springs on the surrounding cliffs. It was gorgeous (so to speak)! I was the last person
back up with a huge blister on the bottom of each big toe.
Fredi, Birgit and I planned another hike to the lake the following day but Fredi and I were
both very sore from the previous two days and we got a late start so we had lunch on the first
saddle then returned in time for them to catch their train. I'm happy to report, Fredi and Birgit,
that I did eventually make it to the lake with 8 other people, 2 maps and a compass. We decided
to walk around it and the question became not "where's the lake?" but "when will it end?" Every
anticipated ending became a new dog-leg and eventually we struck out across country, sorting
through a myriad dirt tracks to finally come out about halfway down the main road you and I
took that first day, Fredi.
Another day I went with 3 20 year old mountain climbers to Basaseachic Falls, which,
depending on which guide book you read varies between the 4th highest in North America and
the 2nd highest in the world. Needless to say they were much faster so I hiked about 2/3 of the
way down then up to the top and back along the rim to the van. When we arrived there was a
rainbow on the edge of the falls, but 3 hours later when we left the falls had disappeared - the
wind was blowing them into mist. Considering that the water at the top was a 3 foot wide
stream approximately 5 feet deep, that was quite a feat and offers some indication of just how far
the drop was.
Candace met me in Los Mochis and we returned to Creel on the Chihuahua al Pacifico
Railway, one of the best train rides in the world. It climbs from the coast through the Sierra
Madre Occidental otherwise known as the Sierra Tarahumara and skirts the Copper Canyon
complex, traversing 86 tunnels and 37 bridges along the way. Serendipitously 2 cyclists sat
across from us and we shared my mother's care package of cookies and nuts while we avidly
exchanged stories and jokes about our experiences. Jason had just biked Baja and was heading
for Mexico City while Stephan was on his way north to Alaska from Tierra del Fuego. I was
especially interested in Stephan's South American experiences but after an intensive recounting
of "highlights" (for example crossing 4 consecutive 15,000 foot passes over dirt roads often deep
in dust while combating stomach and intestinal bugs topped off with 2 flats in 30 minutes) I
was overwhelmed and exhausted, feeling like I'd biked all of South America in an hour.
Eventually we moved to a flatcar near the front of the train for unsurpassed views, though at the
expense of intense diesel fumes in all the tunnels. Some workmen got on the flatcar at one point
and pulled out a homemade, ornamented checkerboard for a game before getting off at the next
Aided by Jason and Candace's ridicule, I spent the following day sorting and discarding
gear. Stephan, however, was carrying much the same gear and approximately the same weight,
though more compactly. For example, his New Zealand manufactured, -20 degree F MacPac
sleeping bag was only insulated on the top with a sleeve on the bottom to hold a sleeping pad, the
rationale being that bottom insulation is useless because it's compacted by body weight. It was
about 1/3 the size of mine and could also be used as a light summer bag with the sleeve side up.
Stephan was much more mechanically involved with his bike and carried more spare parts in
various ingenious ways, for example using extra smaller cogs as spacers between the bigger cogs
of his freewheel. At the minimalist extreme was a Swiss woman with whom he'd ridden for a
while. She'd previously toured China and the Himalayas by bike and hadn't broken any spokes
so saw no need to carry any on this trip. When, after examining her bike and finding the chain a
bit dry, Stephan asked what type of lubricant she used, she replied "sun screen - why carry special
oil just for the chain?"
Candace and I hiked 20 miles the following day and picnicked on a point overlooking the
canyons. Since the day was overcast we unfortunately didn't use sun screen and Candace got a
bad sunburn which curtailed future activities. While waiting for the train the day she left we
were, without words, inveigled into a "throw the super ball" game with an extraordinarily agile
and sure-footed 2-4 year old Tarahumara boy. He loved figuring out new angles to throw the
ball and delighted in throwing it between the legs of unsuspecting passers by. He initiated the
game and devised its variations, never tiring of chasing the ball and chortling delightedly with
each new possibility, carrying us and the other bystanders along with his enthusiasm. Eventually
we all moved inside the station out of the sun and then every child in the station started playing.
Jason left the next day for Batopilas and Stephan and I the following day, Stephan for
Basaseachic Falls and Alaska and me for Batopilas. I stopped to see Cusasare Falls where my
anticipated 20 minute hike took 3 hours. The path I was on finally emerged in a lovely, peaceful
valley with a shallow river and a cliff resembling Half-Dome on one side. Martin, a young
Tarahumara boy who had been fishing, escorted me to the falls which also had a rainbow arcing
over one side. After asking his mother's permission as she was washing her hair in the river,
Martin, who lived in a nearby cave, walked back with me to see my bike, pointing out various
animals and flowers on the way.
By the time I was ready to leave it was 3 PM and hot. I made it up the first climb by 4:30,
hoping to find a camping spot on the far side, but a pick-up stopped and the driver insisted I
accept a ride because the coming terrain was very difficult. I rode in the back with my bike and 2
Tarahumara men while the man and his family rode in front. It was my first personal encounter
with Tarahumara adults who lead a semi-nomadic existence with little contact with the outside
world. The elder of the men was dressed in traditional Tarahumara dress, a shirt, short skirt, an
embroidered band around the head and homemade tire-tread and rope sandals. He had some sort
of injury to his leg which was bandaged. He spoke no Spanish, only Tarahumari. The other,
younger man spoke some Spanish and was dressed in shirt and pants, though with sandals also.
It was cold in the wind in the back of the truck and eventually I got out my
sleeping bag to keep us warm. We talked about the beauty of the terrain and I asked the names of
the 5 major canyons and rivers we traversed. I was very glad not to be climbing out of them by
bicycle. They pointed out some caves to me and taught me a few words in Tarahumari including
their own name for themselves - Ramuri - which means People Who Run. They're renowned for
their running abilities, often running for several days and nights without rest, covering
tremendous distances over very rugged terrain in and out of the canyons. The stories abound.
When asked, after running a deer to its death from exhaustion over a period of three days, why
he didn't just shoot it, one man replied "bullets cost money." The Mexican government entered
them in the marathon (26 miles) at the Mexico City Olympic Games. They lost but asked
afterward why they'd been entered in a sprint. Several runners were entered in an
ultra-marathon (100 miles) run near Leadville, Colorado over terrain that never drops below
10,000 feet. The first year, arriving the night before the race with no knowledge of the course,
they didn't finish but the second year with a few days advance arrival, they all placed - first,
fourth, fifth and sixth. When our ride ended about 6:30 PM my Tarahumara companions, one
with an injured ankle, set off on the 65 kilometer walk to Batopilas. Perhaps they knew
"shortcuts" over the mountains.
I spent the night in a room attached to the restaurant and store which served as the local bus
stop at the intersection of the road to Batopilas. The facilities wouldn't quite meet Disney World
standards but I found them more desirable. The walls were planks with gaps between, light was
a kerosene lantern, dinner was cooked on a wood cookstove, water came from an outside
faucet, and the outhouse was 2 straight planks spaced too far apart for me to reach across. I had
to balance on the edge of one while carefully avoiding getting my feet wet through a crack near
the bottom. That night the four kids came to visit me and, after the usual tour of my gear, I
pulled out my sketchbook and got them to draw for me by the light of the kerosene lantern. It
was the beginning of a tradition. I now have a sketchbook full of children's and occasional
adult's sketches from various places I've been.
It was my turn, the next morning, to traverse the 65 kilometer dirt/gravel/rock road into the
Batopilas canyon. This is the ride described in the book I quoted in the last newsletter as
"strenuous, ironman difficulty." I was intimidated before starting and seriously considered taking
the bus. For weeks I'd been hearing hair-raising accounts of bus and hitchhiking trips to
Batopilas. Five hitchhikers recounted the story of one 24 hour trip with 2 broken fan belts, 2
flats and a brake failure which forced them to run into the side of the mountain to stop - all in one
ride. When I asked why they didn't look for a different ride, they replied that it was dark and
better something they knew than something they didn't.
The first 20 kilometers were rolling. I walked a lot of it, finding walking easier than trying
to pedal and negotiate the road surface. My fear was ruling me, making everything twice as
difficult. I would gladly have accepted a ride but the 3 cars which passed me in the morning
were too full and didn't offer. The last car I saw all day, on its way out at 2 PM, was carrying
Chris and Christine who knew both Jason and me. Jason had made it, but thought it was
hell and had gotten a ride about halfway down. They said it only got worse from where I was,
advised me to find a ride as soon as possible, and gave me water.
I camped in someone's yard that night in Quirare, a Tarahumara village. About 10 kids
came to help me set up camp. We played a guessing game about what was in my various bags as
they helped me set up camp, then crawled inside to inspect everything. My sketchbook was
again a welcome diversion with lots of onlooker suggestions for the artist of the moment. The
oldest, a woman of 19, eventually invited me next door where a tesguinada, a homemade corn
beer party was in progress. Such parties are the primary social interaction among Tarahumara,
often given when communal help is needed, and outsiders aren't often invited. It was another
door the bike and traveling alone had opened for me. The corn beer is made in ollas, large
homemade pottery jars, then dipped out with a gourd and served with a smaller gourd. The
server makes the rounds, offering a full gourd to each person who polishes it off, then offers the
server one in return. They filled a glass for me but I didn't drink much, pleading stomach
problems. There was some dancing and music played on homemade fiddles and tambours, a type
of drum used in Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. I'd been hearing their thrum echoing
like a supernatural heartbeat over the mountains for weeks. I met the whole family, who were in
various stages of inebriation. One sister, who had adopted a dead woman's child, explained to
me with words and gestures that the child was often sick because she was unable to breast-feed
it. I stayed for about 2 hours before returning to my tent where I entertained 3 men who stopped
by for a discussion of drugs, and drug traffic with the United States. A lot of drugs are grown in
the Copper Canyon area because it's so remote and un-police able as well as being relatively
close to the border. Finally I pleaded exhaustion and retired for the night.
I left early to avoid the heat and also a proffered escort from the night before. In the next 7
miles the road descended from 7000 feet to 700 feet via a series of switchbacks. I stopped every
5 minutes or so to cool my brakes which were hot to the touch (I wore out a set on the descent)
and to rest my hands and shoulders which were tense from the strain of picking the best path
through the rocks while avoiding the edge where a miscalculation could mean a very rapid
descent. I bruised my butt using it as a chock for the bike seat and thus the bike while resting.
About halfway down I met a guy driving out and stopped him to ask for water. While we were
talking, a truck came from the opposite direction and I hitched a ride to the heliport where they
were dropping a load of supplies for gold prospectors. Even in the truck it was grueling. After
we crossed the river there was an ascent to La Bufa, an old mining town with a huge pile of
tailings, then significant rollers for the next 35 kilometers. Fortunately, considering my mental
and physical exhaustion, a pick-up gave me a ride into town. I met Jason at the bridge where he
was trying to hitch a ride out and told him I was spending the rest of my life in Batopilas since I'd
never be able to face that road again. We sat in the SHADE (it was 90 degrees), ate, drank, and
swapped stories till 2 PM when he gave up and we returned to share the last room at his hotel. I
slept undisturbed on the floor, though later saw scorpions in the room.
It was the first time I'd really talked with Jason and I discovered we have a lot in common.
Like me, he prefers camping to sleeping inside, though I do have a certain fondness for showers.
We talked a lot about the rewards of being vulnerable and thus approachable by traveling solo
and by trusting people. Jason keeps 2 journals, a trip journal at night and a general journal in the
morning. While biking Baja he drew a different cactus every day. His ideal day is to bike in the
morning and settle in at a library in the afternoon. He would like to lead people on journal
writing trips. It sounds like an ideal life to me.
I got up at 4:30 the next morning to help Jason load his bike on the roof of the bus and to
watch the process just in case I decided Batopilas wasn't my permanent home. It confirmed my
decision. Batopilas, settled by Europeans in 1690, was the site of a major silver mine during the
Porfirio Diaz era before the Mexican Revolution. Prodigious amounts of ore were carried out by
mule back over extremely rugged terrain. A grand piano in a sling on 2 poles was also carried in
by teams of 4 Tarahumara Indians who rotated every 5 minutes. I'd read Grant Shepherd the
mine manager's son's memoirs in Cuatéhmoc and enjoyed seeing the ruins of their hacienda for
myself. A group of people who arrived on the bus and I explored the old silver mine, then Chris
and I walked along the aqueduct built by the Shepherd family until we met some other folks
searching for the local swimming hole. I fell in. Chris and I, along with 2 of his friends, went
back and camped on a sandbar next to it the next night after a full day getting up early to see the
comet, then hiking 7 kilometers along the Rio Batopilas to the mysterious 350 year old Satevo
mission, whose origins and reasons for existence are unknown. I did my laundry the next day in
the backyard of the hotel on a concrete washboard using water dipped from the barrel beside it
where all the hotel laundry was done. While washing I watched other women doing their laundry
in the river and a constant parade of horses, burros, dogs, chickens, cows, pigs, and cats walking
along the river bank. Greg, a fellow reading addict, gave me a ride out of the canyon in his car
so I abandoned further domestic activities and my search for a permanent campsite
along the river.
I spent another night at the Batopilas bus stop intersection where we had another drawing
session. I now have two illustrated Spanish dictionaries. From there I rode to Guachochic,
camping one night at a lake along the way. Once again my derailleur wasn't shifting to the
granny gear so I started changing it by hand. That's fine for big climbs but it's a big nuisance on
rollers. Despite several additional bike shop adjustments, I'm still coping with it. David,
another cyclist with the same problem, speculated that the added weight somehow affects the
geometry since it changes easily without the load for both of us.
I stayed in Guachochic for three days, trying without success to shake a cough. While there
I took a taxi to Cumbres de Sinforosa overlooking the Sinforosa Canyon, the wildest and most
inaccessible part of the entire 10,000 square mile Copper Canyon complex. It was spectacular
and with company I would have hiked some of it. Back on the road I began feeling dizzy at the
top of the first climb but I wasn't sure if it was from the altitude or from being sick. Another
helpful truck driver and his 10 year old son gave me a ride all the way to Hidalgo del Parral. The
son, who had studied English in school for 4 years with a teacher from North Carolina, spoke
very well and translated for us. His ability and stories of how he'd been taught inspired me with a
desire to teach English as well.
I was in Parral a month patiently (after finding the local library's stash of English books)
recuperating from a bout of bronchitis and then working on this newsletter. Parral, a colorful,
friendly town at 6,600 feet, was founded in 1631 after the discovery of silver in the La Prieta
mine whose workings still dominate the hillside above town. Surrounded by desert with very
little vegetation, I felt that I'd reached an oasis with carefully cultivated trees lining the streets
and many substantial bridges crossing the dry Rio Parral. Best of all, that suggestion of water
availability was borne out by hot showers in my $7/night hotel room and especially by my daily
gallon purchases of "agua purificada."
Water, and the fear of running out, had become an obsession for me, though it was not a fear
based in reality. I have never run out. I've always managed to find some source of fluids, though
in one case it was a two liter bottle of orange soda. However, I do think that drinking insufficient
fluids caused my bronchitis. The combination of desert, altitude (the higher the altitude, the
more fluids you lose), lengthy distances between human habitations, concerns about the purity of
the water, and economic considerations have all forced me to change my habitual drinking
patterns, thus heightening my awareness of my need for water and its scarcity.
Parral provided a real psychological oasis as well. I became friends with several people at
the local library, especially Irma, her daughter Eunice, and Patti. We played basketball one
evening after work. Irma and Patti in their stylish work dresses and borrowed sneakers trounced
Eunice and me. Housed in the building where Pancho Villa was shot, the library is part of the
Pancho Villa Museum. One afternoon we all posed as various characters for photos in the
museum. Irma starred as Pancho Villa's widow, a demanding role since he'd had 25 wives. I
went to Irma and Eunice's for dinner several times and spent one Sunday with them. I plan to
visit them again on another trip and I also hope they'll visit me. Another friend, Luis ran the
restaurant across the street from my hotel with his father. He was learning English so we spent
a lot of time talking in a mixture of English and Spanish. He, too, may visit me. As I left I
suggested that the proprietors rename their hotel "Hotel de Los Gallos" after the 4 roosters that
lived directly behind it.
The first day back on the road was very hot. My thermometer registered 41 degrees C or
about 106 degrees F in the sun. I, of course, was also in the sun. At the ranch where I camped
that night, I took a welcomed bath and filtered water for drinking from the cow trough.
Convinced by the anticipated afternoon heat and possibly by the name of the town - Las Nieves
(The Snows)- I stopped at noon the next day and spent a pleasant afternoon studying Spanish
before going to Maria's roadside stand for dinner. We'd met earlier when I'd stopped to fix a flat.
She had lots of friends and I later found out that she told some of them to watch out for me on
My rest paid off because it was followed by a grueling 87 kilometer ride with lots of rollers
and strong sidewinds, especially at the end of the day. I left Las Nieves at 9 AM and only arrived
at the soldier's checkpoint in La Zarca at dusk (8:30 PM) thanks to a 15 kilometer ride in the
middle of the day. Discovering that the "town" marked on the AAA map was the checkpoint
and adjacent restaurant, I inquired about a place to camp and was offered a room and hot shower
at the local highway department.
18 kilometers down the road the next morning, McKey, a lumber truck driver stopped and
offered me a ride. At first I said no and he pulled away, but only to pull off the side of the road
and come back to persuade me. At first he wanted to tie the bike on the back fully loaded (he
was the only person who still thought it was possible after picking it up), but, being afraid the
gear would fall off, I asked if it could go in the cab. It was a bit ironic - a cyclist and her bike
riding in a lumber truck. Logging trucks are generally considered a cyclist's nightmare, probably
because they're the only large trucks which frequent the back roads cyclists prefer. We rode
together to Santiago Papasquiaro where he picked up a load of lumber, then to Durango. I
missed a great photo opportunity when he carried my bike by fork lift to load it on top of the
We fell a bit in love on the trip. It took us 2 hours to say good-bye, knowing that we'd
probably never see each other again. I finally said I thought it was finished, not emotionally, but
because the circumstances surrounding us seemed insurmountable - different cultures, languages,
and life expectations. Even staying in touch seemed impossible - I was on the road and he was
too. He lived in his truck and didn't have an address or a phone. I spent the next two weeks on
the road fantasizing ways we could be together, to avoid thinking about never seeing him again.
Eventually in my daydreams we were running an import/export business and selling stuff from
Mexico at Weavers Way.
Then I caught myself thinking that if we got married, I could write a book about my travels
because then I'd have a proper ending. I had to laugh. Before I left Philadelphia, I'd heard Jill
Kerr Conway, the author of Road from Coorain, speak. She stated that all Western literature
(which reflects our world view) is based on two themes/stories. For men, the story is the
Odysseus myth, that men go on quests and have adventures in the process. For women, the
story is rooted in the religious writings of female mystics and the romances of the Middle Ages.
A woman's vocation is finding a spouse, preferably through a union with God, but failing that,
with a man, and thereby living happily ever after, though very few of the stories provide details
of "happily ever after." Now I was falling into the expected pattern. I'd broken out enough to go
on a quest but was having trouble convincing myself of its interest or validity to other people
without a "proper ending." I suppose it also reflects my own uncertainty about bucking the
system. I was really amazed at that revelation of how powerfully societal expectations affected
Knowing McKey also opened me up personally to Mexico and to Spanish. I'd been at war
within myself - one side eager to embrace the culture and the language while another part of me
resisted. By remaining an onlooker, I held myself inviolate, thus avoiding acknowledging my
fears. The same principle worked with taking photos like my unwillingness to take pictures of
the mountain that first day in Mexico. By inviting me into his life, McKey also opened the door
to his culture, offering me the security of being personally welcomed and providing the impetus
to deal with my fears. Even the riding was easier, afterward.
Afterward I thought a lot too about what was important in a relationship for me. Perhaps
because of cultural differences, I separated the emotional from the other aspects of being with
someone (shared experiences, shared interests, etc.) and asked myself what is really important to
me. I felt that the way McKey related to me as a person was perfect emotionally - he included
me in his life and made it clear that he wanted me to be there. I felt cared for and valued
but not smothered. Mexican men in general are gentler and more openly emotional. Families are
a central part of their lives. Everyone here is obviously happier too. I very seldom see children
crying. It all makes me want these things for myself. At the same time I wonder if I could
permanently separate myself from my language, my culture, and my landscape and feel at home
somewhere else. Is the emotional richness enough to fill that void? On the other hand will I ever
be truly happy without it? I don't know the answer.
There are two things emotionally very important to me which my culture doesn't satisfy.
The first, and probably the primary reason I undertook this bike trip, is my need to be outside or
to be in contact with the outside. I've felt more and more deprived in recent years. I think it
started when I worked in the basement for three years at Weavers Way. When I left, I was much
happier, not because I was leaving the store but because I had constant access to natural light.
When I biked alone across the United States in 1989 I discovered that I never felt lonely when I
was camping, but the few times I stayed in hotel rooms I felt abandoned. Upon returning to
Philadelphia it took several weeks to adjust to living inside. Air conditioning became a prison,
prohibiting a summer thaw and open windows. In recent summers even closing the back door
leaves me feeling deprived. I suspect that we as a culture have also lost some vital healing
connection with the natural world which is affecting our well-being, our openness and our ability
to relate to other people.
Mexicans have a phrase "hambre de piel" which describes the other basic need I feel.
Literally meaning "hunger of the skin" it describes the need to be touched. Loss of that access to
touching another person was the most painful part of my divorce. Touching is a natural part of
the Mexican culture. The taboos with their implied negative sexual overtones don't exist here.
Unfortunately, as a gringa, I am not often the recipient but I see it all around me. Children
especially benefit from it, both when it's directed toward them and as they frequently see it
between their parents and other elders. It is an affectionate culture which values an emotional
quality of life.
Thanks to fantasies and memories of McKey, the ride from Durango to Zacatecas went by
quickly. I waved at all the lumber truck drivers, hoping that he would hear that they'd seen me. I
crossed the continental divide again, much more easily than expected. Coming into Zacatecas I
could feel the change in altitude (8100 feet), stopping often to catch my breath and wipe away the
sweat and pushing my bike up the last steep hill to the hotel. Many of the streets in
Zacatecas are so steep that they have steps. I spent a week there awaiting the first, foiled by
customs, attempted delivery of my computer and finishing that draft of this newsletter. It rained
every night, starting one hour after I arrived, and I was sure the rainy season had started. I visited
two delightful museums, one an art museum with an impressive breadth of collection and the
other a powerful collection of Mexican masks from prehistoric to present, housed in a lovely
former convent. There were very few female masks. Most were men, devils or animals and
many were the same figures, used in groups in religious re-enactments, a somewhat chilling
representation of the single face of the mob. I traded travel stories for hours one evening with a
Dutch guy but we never exchanged names. One sketch in his journal, a communal effort with
fellow travelers, shows heaven at the Alhambra (in Spain) - the fountains spout coffee in the
morning and wine in the afternoon.
On the way to Aguas Calientes I failed to stop at a checkpoint and was chased by two
policemen who searched my bags, ostensibly for drugs. It was the reverse of my normal
encounters with Mexican policemen who generally are curious about my travels and eager to
help. Later a double tanker truck full of vodka turned into a Kahlua factory in front of me and I
passed a lot of egrets beside a wide irrigation ditch. My hotel with double shuttered windows,
double doors and a pleasant courtyard, was just off the grand Plaza Principal in Aguas Calientes,
with its beautiful Palacio Gobernio featuring a lovely courtyard with murals and 2 stories of
On September 15, 1810 at the church in Dolores Hidalgo, Father Hidalgo issued his Grito
(cry) de Dolores, a statement of the abuses suffered by Mexicans under the rule of Spain, which
began the Mexican War of Independence. My hotel, ornamented with the tiles for which the area
is famous, had also been host to Benito Juarez, the only full-blooded Indian president of Mexico
and a very important figure in its history. On my way out of the church I struck up a
conversation with David, a fellow tourist, and quickly discovered that he was traveling by bicycle
also, from Puerto Vallarta to Veracruz. He's a photographer and travel writer, specializing in
articles about budget travel. We agreed that bicycling in Mexico with its slower traffic and
alert, friendly drivers on the lookout for the occasional stray cow (or cyclist) was more pleasant
than biking in the United States. However, we also found the buses with their rear-mounted
engines which sneak up behind you and pass with sometimes slender margins a bit unnerving.
David interviewed me and took pictures for possible use in an article about his trip.
We met again at the hostel in San Miguel de Allende, a beautiful town noted for its
population of expatriate retirees from the United States. It's one of those places you go for a day
and stay a week or a lifetime. After one night at the hostel, I visited Luella, a Servas host and
American who had lived in San Miguel for 30 years. She and her husband intended to live on a
boat after retirement but were permanently sidetracked by a visit to San Miguel, on the
recommendation of Georgia O'Keefe whom they'd met in another town in Mexico. Her guest
house where I stayed had a sunken bathtub made of tiles with brass fish-shaped fixtures and a
KITCHEN where I delightedly cooked dinners which we ate on the patio in her lovely garden.
After my 5 day stay with Luella I returned to the hostel, another international crossroads on
the gringo trail, and spent a couple of days writing at my favorite library in the whole world. It's
the second largest bi-lingual library in Latin America, so it satisfied my cravings for books in
English. But far more importantly, it was an extraordinarily pleasant place to read and work and
was a community center for bi-lingual activities such as the bi-weekly meetings of the
Spanish/English Conversaciones con Amigos group. The library is built around a courtyard with
a fountain and tables with umbrellas in the middle. Shaded underneath a second story overhang
are tables and chairs for working and the walls are lined with paperbacks. There's also a cafe
which serves light European cuisine with coffee and various fruit drinks in another herb-planted
courtyard. Just writing about it makes me want to be working there.
A new language school in San Miguel was offering 30 hours of classes per week for $45
and studying Spanish seemed a good reason to stay in San Miguel a while longer. Classes were
intensive and wide ranging with 2 hours of grammar, an hour of conversation, an hour of
literature, an hour of practical Spanish, and an hour of Mexican culture per day. My only
frustration was a lack of time and a place to study since the library kept much the same hours as
the school and the hostel was full of distractions. Grammar was especially helpful and the
culture classes were enlightening. Our teacher illustrated his insights with personal experience.
For example the color of ones skin has a great effect on ones social standing in Mexico with
darker skin indicating more Indian blood and lighter skin more Spanish blood. Carlos went six
years without work he was qualified for simply because of the color of his skin. He had much
lighter skin when he married his wife due to working indoors for several years. When his
skin darkened as he worked in the sun, his wife, who had much lighter skin, complained.
Ironically enough I find the darker skinned and brown or black-eyed people more attractive while
my blue eyes and relatively fair skin draw immediate attention.
My classmate, Patricia, a Chicano artist from Los Angeles, and I spent many hours talking
about the differences in the three cultures - Mexican, Chicano and WASP. She introduced me to
the dichotomy of the Mexican people - how they are at the same time the conquered (the
pre-Hispanic Indians) and the conquerors (the Spanish) with the conflicting pride of both. Now
there's also the Mexican/American conflict with roots in both cultures. Mexico and the United
States have the longest third/first world border in the world and the attractions of higher wages
lure many young men north to trade 1 to 5 years of their life for a grubstake to help them create a
life for their families. Most return because the quality of life is better in Mexico - more tranquil,
more family and community oriented, and happier. Most people I ask about why they came back
cite violence in the United States as the reason - not violence toward them but violence in the
culture. During one conversation with Nick, a widely-traveled Englishman, and Mario, a
Mexican photographer who lived in the States for five years, they both said that they thought
America is the most violent culture in the world. On an individual basis, excluding
governmentally violent terrorist regimes, I think they may be right. I've certainly noticed an
absence of random violence and violent solutions to problems on Mexican TV. Before writing
this I wrote a diatribe about drugs and blaming other countries for our drug problems. I'll spare
you that but I do think we should question why there's an epidemic drug problem in the United
States and no drug problem in Mexico.
Aside from the two weeks of classes with Patricia and my time with Luella, my social life in
San Miguel revolved around the hostel and its endless flow of international travelers. Among
various shared meals were scattered highlights - Stephanie's fireeating, Amber's "graduation from
college" (celebrated irreverently in abstensia), my first (and last) bullfight (described very well at
the beginning of D.H. Lawrence's Plumed Serpent), a permaculture benefit reading of a George
Bernard Shaw play, various concerts, a birthday celebration at the local hot springs (partly inside
a cavern lit by candles and accessed by a 7 foot high narrow tunnel half filled with flowing warm
water), a crazy person's parade (no cyclists - it wasn't THAT crazy), and a hike to the Botanical
Gardens which feature cactus.
On June 16th, after lunch with Ward a Belgian sailor, I set off on the hot ride to Guanajuato
to rendezvous with my sister and my computer the next day. Fortunately there was a footpath
where I could pull off the narrow busy road to change a flat just out of town. By 6 PM I'd biked
about 30 kilometers (and could still see San Miguel) but was tired so I asked the Ramirez family
if I could camp in their yard. What I'd originally thought was a couple of houses
turned out to be about thirty, all occupied by one extended family who farmed the surrounding
area which they called the Rancho Nuevo Villa de Guadalupe. Twice I was asked when the rainy
season was in Philadelphia. Their entire year's harvest depends on planting just before it starts.
Water for non-drinking purposes came by burro from their private dammed stream about 1
kilometer away. The water level when we went there at the end of the dry season was low -
about 6 feet deep - but during the 2 month rainy season it fills to about 18 feet, sometimes
overflowing the dam. Along with the children and adults, a helpful baby goat supervised my
unpacking and tried to lighten my load by sampling the gear I'd left on top of the stone wall.
After all facilities were set up and inspected, they fed me and I brought out my sketchbook where
we drew until dark. Returning from the bathroom through the fields at 5 AM the next morning, I
woke up all the neighborhood dogs, but fortunately all the humans seemed to sleep through the
The ride that day was tiring but mostly uneventful. I met 2 bike racers who had already
ridden 70 kilometers (I'd ridden 15) by 10 AM and had another 70 ahead for the return trip.
When I stopped to call for hotel reservations, school was just getting out so I answered questions
waist deep in kids for about 15 minutes. Ward, who had come to Guanajuato for the day, came
by the hotel shortly after I arrived and we went out for dinner before I rushed off to meet
my sister at the airport. I was a bit worried since it was her first trip abroad and through customs
alone. When she didn't show up I wasn't sure what to do. An airline spokesperson told me she'd
be on a flight the following day. I assumed she'd missed the connection in Dallas, but when I
called I discovered she'd been bumped by an unidentifiable stowaway who had taken the last
Rachel arrived without incident the next day and we filled the next six days, Sid Ozer style,
with lots of walking around Guanajuato (and one tour), some concerts and several museums
including the Don Quixote Museum (I bought a card for my journal showing Don Quixote on a
penny farthing with Sancho behind him on a scooter), the Diego Riviera Museum, and the
macabre mummy museum which contained, among others, a woman with her unborn child and a
woman who, in a 72 hour catatonic seizure, had been buried alive. One day we went leather
shopping in Leon where Rachel, who wears size 12's, found 3 pairs of comfortable dress
shoes - a feted feat! Another day we spent in San Miguel, sleeping in the Mirador at the Hostel
which, with its panoramic windows on three sides gave us a rooftop view of a spectacular
thunderstorm. Rachel, as usual, made friends wherever she went and, unlike me, was not
intimidated by the language barrier, making herself understood with English, gestures, and her
friendly smile. Despite a momentary panic when we were locked out of our room at 6 AM, we
made it to the airport in time for a good breakfast before she left. I cried - again.
I stayed another week in Guanajuato catching up on my journal, processing addresses, and
working on this newsletter, only to have the Tapcis program (my automated DOS internet
interface) crash when this letter was 2/3 entered. After consulting several people and Tapcis, I
was unable to get back into the program and eventually reinstalled it, losing in the process 4 days
of edited work on the newsletter, my address file and 87 e-mail letters I'd just received.
I was feeling tremendous pressure to reach the border by August 6th, when my tourist card
expired - another frustration of the computer crash since I wanted to send the newsletter before
leaving Mexico. I decided to forego biking to Guadalajara and head south, calculating that if I
skipped Mexico City, I'd need to bike 50 kilometers every day for the next month to reach the
border in time. On July 2 I left Guanajuato for Irapuato where I did a newspaper and 3 radio
interviews, all in Spanish! Fernando, the interviewer, very kindly helped me find a hotel and
showed me around downtown. On subsequent nights I listened to his sports talk show on my
radio. Unfortunately on my way into Irapuato (the strawberry capital of the world) I stopped for
a break and ate strawberries and cream at a roadside stand. I rode the next day but spent the next
3 days sick in Valle de Santiago. Ms. Ramirez the owner of the hotel made me herb tea and
the proprietor of the restaurant where I threw up sent out to the pharmacy for medicine, then
called her doctor for advice. While I was walking back to my room she called my hotel to tell
Ms. Ramirez I was sick. Driven by my need to reach the border, I left the fourth day, though
somewhat concerned by my lack of food the past three days. After a big lunch, while resting in
the middle of a climb, I was offered a ride to Moreleon. A sculpture of three industrial spools
of thread greeted us as we entered town and most stalls in the market displayed textiles instead of
food. On the ride to Morelia the next day, I had tremendous gas pains all afternoon. I spent
several days at the hostel in Morelia, intending every day to leave the next, but always feeling too
sick. I thought it was nerves. I was facing a difficult 50 kilometer climb outside Morelia and
wasn't sure I could handle it. I couldn't find anything I wanted to eat, always feeling full, though
still having diarrhea, all of which I attributed to lack of nerve. On Friday, before a planned
departure on Saturday, I awoke to a 130 person teenage invasion of the heretofore deserted
hostel. I felt forced out and was having great difficulty considering even the 2 block gentle climb
to the center of town. On my way back from breakfast I met Kathleen, a previous
acquaintance from the San Miguel hostel who was updating Lets Go Mexico. She and her sister
were in town for a couple of days so I moved into their hotel and spent the afternoon with them,
but was sick again the following morning, so didn't leave. Eventually I found a book store with
used English books and started reading during meals to distract myself from the nausea.
Finally on July 16th I pulled myself together and tackled the ride. Some bike racers in
training passed me and asked if I knew how much climbing I had ahead. By kilometer 26 I was
exhausted and fortunately got a ride with three guys hauling cement in a rickety truck up the
mountain. The truck died a couple of times and finally the third time they pulled out a new fuel
pump and installed it by the side of the road.
After they dropped me off at the top of the climb, I had an 18 kilometer descent through
misty forest (it had just stormed and there were branches in the road) to Mil Cumbres (Thousand
Peaks - 9379 feet) where I had a flat and dinner and arranged a place to spend the night. My
hostess had 28 children with no multiple births, of whom 20 were still living. At age 54 she had
61 grandchildren and she's still going strong though her husband suffers from depression. The
cabana where I stayed was three kilometers further down the road and all the countryside
between was populated with her family. For 50 pesos (approximately $7), the same price I've
paid for some of my nicer hotel rooms, I had a roof over my head (fortunately, since it rained that
night), a bed with no sheets or pillows, an outhouse, a candle for light, and water from the creek
across the road to bathe in. It was a very peaceful accommodation in a beautiful location and she
and her daughter were a pleasure to know. Nevertheless I had a bit of sympathy for the husband
who had perhaps also been overcharged for many years.
The following day's short ride to Ciudad Hidalgo was downhill except for a 1 ½ kilometer
climb, during which I decided I'd had enough biking. After 3 days of dragging around Ciudad
Hidalgo, I realized that my 3 week bout of the runs was probably not nerves or turista. So I went
to the doctor for medicine which gave me the same symptoms - nausea and diarrhea - but after
another 10 days of walking gingerly I felt ready to climb mountains again.
Eventually, realizing that I wasn't going to reach the border in time under my own steam, I
decided to try to renew my tourist card. Immigration in San Miguel turned me down but advised
me to just cross the border and come back. For almost a week I waited for a ride back with a
fellow American who was tying up various business loose ends in San Miguel. However, it was
time well spent because I got Ed to help me re-install Tapcis. By that time I was reconciled to
the loss of all my files and just grateful to be back on-line again. Also Erwan and I went on a
great hike to a local falls and down the canyon with a 2 kilometer detour due to a wrong turn and
a nervous sheltering from a hailstorm under a lone tree on top of a mountain. He's a French chef
who has fallen in love with Mexico, its women, and San Miguel. We cooked a couple of meals
together and it was a pleasure to watch him work. He's leaving Mexico in November, probably
for France, unless he stops in French Guiana to hunt for gold. Eventually I got tired of the
delays, took the bus to Nuevo Laredo, and got a new 6-month tourist card.
The trip back to Ciudad Hidalgo took 19 hours by bus (vs 6 months on my bicycle). I'd
been looking longingly at the buses during the last few weeks of riding, but discovered that I felt
gypped when I rode them, despite their ease of travel. Except for the change from plain to the
mountains surrounding Monterrey, I had very little sense of the terrain and slept or read much of
the time. By contrast, when Rachel and I took the bus to San Miguel over the route I'd previously
biked I remembered curves and climbs (they seemed inconsequential on the bus), the rock where
I'd eaten breakfast, the house where I'd spent the night, the path where I'd changed a flat..., a
sense of active involvement that's entirely lacking when traveling by bus.
I've spent the last month and a half here in Ciudad Hidalgo, re-entering all my addresses,
working out various computer transmission problems, and writing this newsletter. While writing
in Guanajuato I predicted that with the rainy season arriving I wouldn't need a water bottle since
I'd absorb it by osmosis. That was another dreaded factor in my anticipated forced march to the
border. However, my lengthy stay here has had one advantage - I seem to have bypassed
the rainy season! The town itself at 6565 feet isn't especially pretty but it's surrounded by
beautiful mountains. Los Azufres, a thermal area with numerous hot springs, mudpots, and
geysers harnessed to provide power for Morelia is nearby. One step outside the hotel door I can
buy bananas for breakfast in the market which smells of fresh fruits and vegetables (unlike the
Italian Market). On the way to my hotel with my bicycle I got stuck between a crate of huge
wild orange mushrooms and the meat truck delivering sides of beef. People here are even
friendlier than elsewhere in Mexico. The hotel staff just called and invited me to join them for
lunch - fresh tortillas, local cheese, avocados and chiles - delicious! Of course the standing joke
is whether the gringa will eat the chiles. A three-inch stack of tortillas sells for 2 pesos - about
30 cents. The Independence Day parade (Sept 15-16th), in addition to the usual mixture of local
bands, school children, and folks on horseback (the women in long dresses riding sidesaddle),
also featured 2 garbage trucks and a bulldozer.
I've made several other friends here - Alberto, who lives in the room above me and wakes
me up every morning blowing his nose (I call him Alburro to myself because the noise they make
is similar), Paco, his brother who runs the hotel where I send e-mail, their friend Gonzalo and
Vicki, whom I met by translating directions for amplifiers, as well as all the staff at the hotel.
Alberto, Paco, and I drove to Mexico City one morning at 4 AM (no problem since I had my
built-in alarm clock upstairs). While Alberto dealt with business, Paco and I went to the
Museum of Modern Art, Bellas Artes, Zona Rosa and the Latinamerican Tower for a panoramic
view of Mexico City. It was a sunny day with no perceivable smog and destroyed all my
misconceptions. It felt less crowded than Philadelphia, possibly because all cars are restricted by
license plate number to one day of driving in Mexico City per week. Also the buildings aren't as
tall, possibly due to unstable anchorage. Of course Alberto and Paco were responsible for the
navigation but getting around in a city of 20 million seemed no more complicated than a city of 2
million. In fact, parking seemed a lot easier and theft was not a major concern. We left our stuff
piled in the back seat with a blanket thrown over it as opposed to Philadelphia where, if you
leave something in the car, you lock it in your trunk before reaching your destination.
Another day Paco and I dropped Alberto off in Mexico City to catch a plane, then drove
back to Valle de Bravo, a resort town where many Mexico City residents have weekend homes.
I'd wanted to see it but was very glad I hadn't biked there since the town is on a lake in a deep
bowl surrounded by mountains. We nicknamed it Ciudad de Topes Grandes (City of Big Speed
Bumps). Topes (speed bumps) are the very effective Mexican answer to stop lights, though
they're the bane of my cyclist's existence, especially at the bottom of a nice downhill where most
towns tend to be located. On the way home just at dusk we climbed my first pyramid. It was
about 2 miles up a washed out dirt road and was deserted. A rainstorm had just passed and we
could still see pink lightning in the west over the mountains while in the valleys around us a
white mist was rising and the lights of Zitacuaro were coming on on the opposite mountainside.
Bird and insect calls mingled with distant evening laughter and music as people settled in for the
night. I don't know who built them or for what purpose but I felt a sense of continuity from the
earth through an ancient culture to the present. The adjacent mountain is rumored to be a much
larger, un-excavated pyramid.
Paco, Gonzalo and I drove to Queretero another day, passing Hotel Mansion Galindo en
route, a restored hacienda given by Cortez to Malinche, his Tabascan Indian mistress and
interpreter. We also went through San Juan del Rio and Tequisquiapan, a beautiful resort town.
Opals are mined there and the best fighting bulls are raised nearby. A canyon we stopped at was
created by an earthquake, though not recently, Mama.
Vicki and I went to Morelia on day for a bit of shopping and some errands. She's studying
English, though, like me, is a bit bashful about trying to speak another language. Her husband is
working in Chicago at present and she plans to visit him in October. I often visit her at her office
on my way to get ice cream in the afternoon.
These various trips have been interspersed with longs periods of writing and procrastination.
Despite the company and everyone's friendliness I've, at times, felt very lonely here. Partly it's
working inside and an intensified awareness of the lack of distractions from writing, partly it's
the basic loneliness of the solitary traveler, too deep to be assuaged by casual contact with people
who have their own lives and their own families, and especially it's a struggle to communicate in
Spanish on a level that builds friendship and understanding.
Despite the frustrations of writing the newsletter, I enjoy doing it and I enjoy sharing my trip
with all of you. It is much easier to write these stories in a newsletter than it would be to tell all
of you individually. This way you get the fresh and sculpted version, not the
watered-down-through-retelling version, though admittedly, due to the time span covered, the
details are somewhat compressed. Aside from your wonderful responses I've benefitted in
other ways. Rachel and her friends at Big Bend only needed a word or two to identify my photos
because they'd read the stories in the newsletter. Michael also read my newsletter that first
afternoon while I packed, thus covering in 10 minutes all that recent history which would have
taken hours to recount.
After I post this newsletter I'm planning to go west by bus to Uruapan and Patscuaro and
also back to San Miguel for a week during their city fiesta to allay some of the loneliness with a
bit of English and to spend some time studying Spanish at the library. Then it's on to Toluca
(with a side trip by bus to Mexico City), Cuernavaca, Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas en
route to Guatemala where I want to spend a couple more weeks studying Spanish. My plans after
that are uncertain. I'm running out of money and will either have to return to the States to earn
some more or will possibly take a job teaching English down here - a further reason to improve
my Spanish. If anyone can recommend materials on teaching English as a second language to
either adults or children I'd like to hear about them. I can be reached via my friend Candace Burt.
Candace speaks Spanish very well and usually knows where I am.
Her address is: Candace Burt
157 East King Street
Hillsborough, North Carolina 27278
Tel: (919) 732-5025
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
I can also be reached at my own e-mail address which is: email@example.com
Thanks again for all your lovely letters. They really mean a lot. I'm sorry that they were all
lost so I can't respond individually. Also I apologize again for the long time between newsletters.
I know some of you have been a bit concerned.
I hope everyone has had a great year. It's been exactly a year since I left home in North
24Carolina and 7 months since I entered Mexico. I've moved much slower than anticipated but
have enjoyed it all (except for the sickness). Gil, a SERIOUS biker I've been in touch with by
e-mail, went on a 6 month trip to Tierra del Fuego which took 5 years. He played organ concerts
en route to earn money using music he carried in his panniers. I guess that's better than carrying
Love, Peace and Happy Trails to all of you, however you choose to traverse
Marti, Martha, Marta, and Martita Bowditch - pick your favorite.
(Marta is my name in Spanish where the h is not pronounced. Martita is the
affectionate diminutive by which Mexicans often call me - it's a little ironic
since I'm taller than almost everyone)