Mexico is a beautiful and friendly place. Almost everywhere I traveled the people were warm and inviting, and ready to accept the few and dwindling gringo tourists who still traveled their land during the Narco War. This story is not meant to put Mexico in a bad light, as what’s portrayed here are dark scenes from an otherwise bright and positive journey. – CUL
|Sometimes you gotta take the tracks.|
When I arrived at the border at Tijuana I felt a nervously bridled excitement that was compounded and exalted by two shots of espresso, two vicodin, two ibuprofen, and a single healthy dose of all natural adrenalin. I struggled to shove my heavily loaded bicycle through the rusty turnstile and was greeted by four policemen with machine guns. They said nothing as they helped me to maneuver my awkwardly large child’s toy through the gate, cigarettes lilting in their lips. As they watched me nervously clip into my pedals I got that heightened sensory surge that only grips you when you find yourself in a “What the fuck am I doing?” situation. This situation was a solo bicycle trip from Reno toward the nether regions of Latin America – to the end of the road or my thin bank account. I would only ask myself that question a couple of times after this. One was when a meth head chased me through a jungle village with a rock while I rode as fast as I could with my machete between us.. and the other time was, well.. difficult to describe.
I crossed the elevated pedestrian bridge that looks over the sewage laden Tijuana River and my personal concerns were diluted by the barefoot people picking through the refuse near their tarp homes on the concrete bank. As I stopped to take a picture a deformed child wheeled up to me holding a tall glass jar bearing the vestige apparition of whatever saint whose job it was to fix him and I quickly moved forward before he could corner my growing sense of imperialist white guilt.
I maneuvered down the stairs to the street and the ADD hyper focus effect which has ruled and ruined my entire life took over. I had memorized the route to the coast highway so I could get out of Tijuana as fast as possible. I didn’t want to stick around the border because I had chosen to travel through Mexico during the height of the Narco War. Only a week before my arrival in Tijuana there were six reported murders, one an American tourist, including two men who were decapitated and found hanging by their hands and feet from a bridge over the main highway to Ensenada. Though I still thought myself as capable in a street altercation, there wasn’t anything I could do against people armed to the teeth who felt nothingness to a place deeper than I could fathom.
As I passed by vendors of trinkets and boner pills I began to realize that my memory skills, which have never been sharp (remember the ADD?) were failing me. I mashed around at full clip through the city for about an hour before I found the libre (free) highway, burning precious energy and time, unwilling to ask for help in my broken Spanish. I rode by a tourist club I went to with a friend when we were 18. That night we ended up being shook down by the policia and lost all of our pocket money, but not our sock money.
I finally found the libre road to Ensenada and climbed the exhaust choked hill out of town in the big chainring, laboring past mud and chicken wire houses and dead dogs. When the hill crested I was offered a view of the sea and I began to relax. The adrenalin surge was waning in the late morning exhaust fumes and the ferocious pace at which I rode out of the city caused me to block out my surging knee pain that had been plaguing me since riding through Big Sur. I looked down and it was swollen and throbbing, but I didn’t care. I almost stopped the trip when I couldn’t get out of my sleeping bag near Morro Bay, but I went to the doctor and got some quality narcotics and horse sized ibuprofen along with a recommendation to stay off the bike for 2-4 weeks. Luckily drugs and the paralyzing fear of returning to a desk job kept the wheels rolling south, toward an adventure I needed more than anything. When you feel like you’re losing touch with yourself you need to get out of your element and as far away as possible from any idea of you.
I cruised down the hill toward Rosarito, the exhaust fumes somewhat vanquished in the Pacific breeze. Rolling steadily through the town I passed several groups of uniformed school children who were laughing and carefree, unencumbered by whatever my idea of the current state of their country may have been. They would smile widely while waving and shouting greetings to me as I slowly rolled by. I would smile and wave back, give a shitty gringo “Hola!” while ringing my bell. Whatever stress and apprehension I had just a few hours earlier subsided into the welcome embrace of the road, the nakedness of the unknown that is so comforting on a bicycle. There is something about traveling by bicycle that is as close to magic as I’ve ever felt. Perfect strangers open up to you in minutes with sheer honesty. A few minutes later they would offer you the shirt off of their back if you wanted it. I’ve felt a bit of this traveling conventionally, but something about being on a bicycle makes you appear so vulnerable, so seemingly imperiled and exposed to the world that people will bend over backwards to help you even if you don’t ask for it or need it. As a Sunday misanthrope these people reaffirm my faith in humanity and it is born anew with each day and stranger met on the road.
As I rode out of Rosarito on the libre road I approached the toll road and the coast. A hectic whirlwind of traffic and blurred out sounds permeated my senses. I looked ahead into a rocky ditch and saw a man sleeping close to the toll road barrier. For the few seconds that I approached I was amazed at his ability to sleep in such an awful and noisy spot. As I passed near I saw his bloated body, shoeless and contorted, slowly swelling under a barrage of flies in the early afternoon sun. I didn’t stop, nobody else did. Maybe they couldn’t see him at car speeds, maybe they didn’t care. I quickly snapped back into the adrenaline high that filled the morning. The surging primeval chemicals from deep inside brought me out of the saddle and speeding towards my prearranged housing in Primo Tapia.
I arrived safely and met my hosts, two ex-pats who had internet but no running water. I didn’t mention what I had seen earlier and was surprised by the callousness at which I approached the situation. I don’t mean to trivialize a human life but at the time I really didn’t think of him as more than another piece of roadkill, one of the hundreds of deceased creatures I would pass on the road on this journey. I didn’t really think of it again until I was much further south on my journey, on a Saturday night in an orchard on the central coast of mainland Mexico.
I have to give some backstory before I jump to what happened in the orchard. Since Ensenada I had been riding with a guy that we’ll call Eric. Eric was too smart for his own good, and with that overly labored brain he tended to be a lot more paranoid and nervous than I was. We were exact opposites in almost every conceivable way aside from our riding pace and choice in podcasts, which is why I think we worked so well together on the road. He slept like a rock, I’m an insomniac. He would think things through properly, I would vye for the MacGyver option. Balance was achieved painlessly.. most of the time. We met at a bike hostel in Ensenada and after talking for a few hours we decided to ride together for awhile. It was comforting for both of us to have a riding partner, albeit a stranger, while we got accustomed to cycling through rural Latin America. We rode down Baja to La Paz in two weeks, polishing our spanish and more importantly our stealth camping skills. Every time we would stop in a village or town people would warn us not to be out at night. People feeding us stories of banditos and executions, spirits and devils, kidnappings and extortions. We got pretty good at staying hidden in the darker hours – using cactus patches and rock outcroppings to hide our presence from the road, sleeping in thickly shrubbed washes and cooking after dark with pannier shields to hide the light of our stoves if we felt we were too exposed.
|Hidden in a wash.|
|One of my favorite camps of all time.|
|The end of our Baja road.|
We had been on the mainland for a few days, riding south out of Mazatlan after taking a cramped ferry from La Paz across the Sea of Cortez. We rode the libre roads much of the time, but they had thick jungle for shoulders and insane truck drivers that made it extremely nerve racking and not very enjoyable. We learned that we could ride on the much nicer toll roads (on which bicycles were not allowed) by stopping at the toll gate, walking our bikes on the curb around the gate, waving at the official inside, and remounting past the booth. If you tried to ride past the gate they would run out and stop you, but the walk around on the curb method was acceptable for some odd bureaucratic Mexican reason. On either of the roads you would randomly be passed by a convoy of 6-12 Federal Police vehicles, laden with machine guns and men covered in body armor with masked faces to protect their identities from those that would kill their families for nothing more than being a Federale.
|TOLL ROAD IS NICE!|
After a long and tiresome Saturday we were looking for water and a place to camp. From the toll road we could see a town a mile off to the east, which the old libre road ran through. The toll road most certainly had put a death nail through the town’s tourist economy since it was built, much like other towns we passed through on the old libre road. We heaved our loaded bikes over the barrier and followed a dirt trail into the town. The town was filthy, even for Mexico. There was sewage running through the dirt streets, barefoot children, and burning heaps of garbage everywhere. We passed by a group of several men in a yard who were sitting shirtless in plastic chairs, obviously three to six sheets to the wind. We waved as we were passing and the oldest looking man stopped us and without asking him he invited us to camp in their yard and drink with them. As the old man talked and we only caught every fifth slurred word the others stared blankly at their surroundings. Vacant creepy stares of men who had drank too much or were on things far more powerful than booze. Some had tattoos, which is not a positive expression of art in most of Mexico, but more of a brand of loyalty to things you don’t want to think about, let alone sleep next to. The hairs stood up on my neck a bit and I told them we would go buy more beer for everyone and be back, and asked how to get to the store. He gave us undecipherable directions while an unprovoked maniacal laugh bellowed from one of the blank faced men sitting near him. I knew even if I was inclined to sleep there, which I wasn’t, there was no way in hell Eric would do it. We rode off toward where the old man was pointing and gave each other a glance to make sure that just happened, then decided to get supplies and ride out of town a ways to camp.
We bought the necessities, water and beer, and headed south out of town on the old libre road. After about a kilometer we were in the middle of an old overgrown orchard. Both sides of the road were blocked by a wall of unkempt row trees that bore no distinguishable fruit and whose forgotten larder and tangled arms welcomed us for a nights stay. We found an old dirt road that cut through the orchard on each side, going both east and west from the highway forming a makeshift four way intersection. I was in charge of finding the camping spot, so after checking to see if the coast was clear we ducked to the right off the west side of the highway and hurriedly dove into the wildly disheveled trees and made our way through the perfectly spaced rows to a place that was relatively hidden from both the highway and the dirt road. If you stood up you couldn’t see much aside from branches, but when you were sitting you could see both roads. You could see the wheels and lower part of cars on the elevated highway, but we were almost totally exposed to the lower dirt road aside from setting our tents up between the trees in the row to block the view as much as possible. We were only about thirty yards from the highway and a hundred from the dirt road. We set up camp and cooked dinner on our stoves before nightfall. The mosquitos were thick and lacking malarial protection I left my stove on the ground and dove into my tent. I didn’t put the rainfly on so I could get some airflow in the stifling heat and humidity, and more importantly so I could see what was going on around me.
I cracked my big bottle of Pacifico, opened my book and began to unwind in the slowly fading light. Before it was totally dark I heard a truck approaching from the town and it began to slowly downshift before the orchard intersection. “Turn left, turn left, turn left!” was all I could say as I heard the tires slide into the dirt and the engine grow louder. I looked at Eric and he looked at me, both sitting in our underwear in our tents with beers and books, pressing our heads into the tent mesh and peeking around the tree trunks down the row as the truck rolled by in a haze of dust. We held our breath as we heard the banda music blare from the drivers window down our row and slowly fade as the truck continued west toward the fading sun.
I started to doze off to the cacophony of mosquitos barraging my tent and woke up in the night to the sound of music. It was distant and blaring from the town, a Saturday night celebration that seemed to happen on Saturday nights in every Mexican town we stayed in or near since our first night out of Ensenada. I dozed back off again and awoke to the sound of a loud truck coming from town, beginning to slow near the intersection. I could see the patchy headlights through the trees and recanted my mantra of “Turn left, turn left, turn left..”. The sound slightly faded as it dropped off the far side of the highway to the east orchard, then picked up again as it headed south and stopped nearly parallel with Eric and I’s camp. The truck was left running with the glow of the headlights barely radiating through the trees and over the raised highway. I heard laughing and loud music blare when they opened the doors, along with a terrible scream that repeated but I wasn’t able to make out. I knew the scream was from a man, and it was desperate. I started softly saying “Eric! Eric! ERIIIIIIC!!!” too scared to make much more than a loud whisper, which he would undoubtedly have heard if he were awake. He didn’t respond and I started to put my shorts and shoes on. The laughter and music and screaming rolled into a hollow white noise in the near distance for a minute or two, the wailing scream accompanied by fast talking and laughter. I was trying to make sense of what might be happening and was calling Eric slightly louder across the twenty feet between us when a single shot rang out. I froze and all I heard was laughter, loud music, and the truck doors close. The truck’s music was muted by the engine as it drove slowly back towards the highway then south away from the town and speeding by our camp, its presence fading slowly into the night while the hum of mosquitos and the distant thud of bass lines from the town party retook their auditory dominance.
I awoke to the early morning light squeezing through the clawed tangled branches and finding me lying in my underwear, Eric still sleeping. I got up and packed my tent and stove as he woke up. I didn’t say anything to him and he didn’t say anything to me aside from our normal morning pleasantries and expletives about the mosquitos. Had what I thought happened in the night been a dream? How could I go back to sleep after that? How could he not wake up to the gunshot or the commotion? Eric was making his oats for breakfast, content as a hindu cow and I decided to ride back to the edge of town to eat at a cafe we saw the night before. I left Eric to his oats and pushed my bike out of the orchard to the intersection. I stopped at the edge of the highway stared across the tarmac to the east for a minute. I pushed my bike across the highway and looked down the east road at two sets of fresh tire tracks, one turning in softly from the north and the other pulling out to the south – a pair of small holes and tails of roost where the rear tires accelerated in the soft earth onto the highway. Pushing my bike I traced them down from the highway. The tracks turned sharply south through a large gap in the orchard about fifty yards off the highway. I stood and looked from the dirt road down the missing rows of trees that constituted the gap. It was walled off by thick brush and trees at the end about a hundred yards away, about parallel to Eric and I’s camp across the highway. I stared down the gap for a while and considered what I might find. I looked up again toward the mountains and rising sun and slowly turned back toward the highway.
I rode the kilometer back to town and in front of the cafe there was a fresh pile of burning trash and several dogs fighting over the flaming scraps. I sat down on the patio and the surly old woman who wouldn’t talk to me brought me a plate of extra dry machaca, beans and goat cheese. I’m not a fan of food pictures but for some reason I took one. She had no coffee aside from shitty NesCafe but she had coca cola and an energy drink called “B Energy” that killed most of my taste buds for two weeks. I sat and ate slowly, which is unusual for me, and watched the dogs eat flaming garbage and the old woman tend to a festering wound on the face of the horse tied to the far support pole for the palm thatched awning. There were large birds who were swooping grasshoppers out of the air above the road. I finished my breakfast and Eric rolled up and eyed the fire trash dogs uneasily. I grabbed my bike and joined him on the highway and we struck out. As we approached the orchard again I considered saying something, but I didn’t.
I felt nothing. I didn’t know where I was. I mean I knew physically, but where was I? I buried it inside. I never told Eric for fear he’d call me insane, which he already suspected. I didn’t recant it until I got back home and was among friends. And even then I wasn’t sure. Even now I’m not sure. How could I pass the man in Rosarito so cold heartedly, arrogantly, yet I couldn’t go look at what could have just been a bad dream.. The truth still alludes me, and I guess the imagination and wondering are better than finality and closure, because I still think about that orchard, and the possibility of how lucky Eric and I are that I didn’t turn east to camp that night. I have always belonged in the west, and I’ve always preferred traveling to the west. It’s a feeling I’ve known from an early age that I still get today from just facing in that direction – an innate stirring deep inside that I’ve never been able to fully articulate because I don’t understand it. Perhaps it’s passed down from my pioneer ancestors who I undoubtedly believe had the same sensation, perhaps it’s all in my head. Imagined or real, I’m glad the feeling is there.