Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Religion, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Ghost Towns of Real de Catorce

Last time I labored over a mountain pass and crossed a desert, setting a new record for the most miles traveled in one day. This time begins my second rest stop in the town of Cedral, SLP.

Sunday, November 16 – Tuesday, November 18, 2014—Rest and Work

Although I had come a long way and arrived early (by the official itinerary), I couldn’t slack off. I had plenty of client work to do and started my time in Cedral by diving right into it.

That doesn’t mean I got no rest. My first morning, I slept till almost 9—my compensation for the early mornings preceding. But as I stirred, wearing only my briefs, I was surprised to see a face at my window: Doña Blanca was there, bringing me breakfast in bed!

She had originally invited me to dine downstairs, but since I was a late riser she brought my breakfast up to the apartment. I threw on my pants and opened the door, accepting the breakfast with my limited Spanish. It was no paltry meal:

Doña Blanca's breakfast. Photo by André.

Doña Blanca’s breakfast. Photo by André.

I spent most of the next two days working. There were occasional forays to the Centro for food (Blanca provided only one meal a day), and I made it a point to explore despite all the looks I got biking around town.

One thing I wanted to learn was where I could catch a bus to Real de Catorce, the nearby tourist destination/near ghost town/gateway to Huichol sacred land. When I asked about this in Abarrotes Conche, the corner store attached to the house, the woman behind the counter asked a 13 year old boy if he would show me the way. Thus began the first serious challenge to my Spanish speaking skills.

Juan, as my friend was called, was very friendly. We made chit chat as we walked toward the bus stop, as best we could with my limited Spanish. I tried to convey concepts much too complicated for my language proficiency, as I’m wont to do, but unlike adults he would question and question and question until we had a moment of communication. At one point, laughing, he told me, “Your Spanish is really bad.”

Later: “You need to learn more words.”

With that sage advice in mind we reached the bus stop, more an unmarked area where buses pause in their journeys than an official station. Juan rustled up Jorge Luis, Cedral’s bus fixer, who told me that I could catch a ride to Real every half hour for just $60 pesos. That was all I really needed to know; with the mission accomplished, I planned to return to working.

Juan had other ideas. “Where are we going now?” he asked.

Deciding to make the most of our time together, I thought about the other chores on my back burner. Blanca had been vague about what I should do for water: over the coming days, I would sometimes get free liters from her, sometimes need to pay for them, and sometimes simply go to other stores where I could get water cheaper.

“I need to get a galón,” I said, referring to a jug that actually holds several gallons. “At the Super. Want to come?”

Juan was game, but he wanted to show me his bike—and see mine. I agreed to wait a few moments while he ran home for the bici, and we saddled up.

As we cruised toward the Super, I pointed at his back rack. “I like your….. thing,” I said in Spanish.

“The grill?” (Helpful bike term: a rack is a parilla.)

“Yeah.”

“I use it when I work for my grandpa,” he said. “He grows onions and cilantro and I take them to market. But he lives 3 kilometers outside of town. It’s very far.”

I cracked up laughing. After Juan rode me all morning about my Spanish, here was something where I finally dominated.

“Very far!” I taunted. “Two days ago I rode 175 km in one day.”

Once Juan confirmed the numbers, I had finally won his respect. We entered the supermarket and left our bikes unlocked outside. I had seen many locals do this, but had always locked mine up regardless; now I left it up to Fortuna, as if my association with this 13-year-old don would protect my property.

Inside, we found galónes. I already wondered how I was supposed to tip my friend—he had helped me, and by Mexican logic I should tip him in some way. But I didn’t know how much, or when, or if it could be perceived as an insult (what if he was just being friendly?). Thankfully he made it easy for me: as we walked toward the checkout he asked, “Can I get some juice?” There was no doubt who was paying for it, and I agreed: at 6 pesos, it seemed like a low price. He’ll learn eventually.

On the way home Juan tried to convince me that I should try a nieve (snow cone), which I couldn’t explain to him pales in comparison to the snowballs of New Orleans. I perceived this as an attempt at another free treat and, since I really did have work to do, I passed on the offer.

Being a writer, not a photographer, I failed to snap Juan’s picture. We parted on friendly terms, but I wouldn’t see him again for the remainder of my stay.

Also during these two days I did some laundry with the help of some niños. It turned out pretty well.

But the real excitement of these days was what would come next. One of my traveler friends who happened to be in Mexico heard that my cycling companions had evaporated, and offered to come up to Cedral for a few days so we could go to Real de Catorce together. (That was actually a big part of why I headed to Cedral rather than Matehuala: my friend had spotted Doña Blanca’s place on AirBnB.)

Monday night I watched as a hired car rolled up the street to Abarrotes Concha, my friend sitting inside. After dropping off bags we headed to the only late night taquería in town. Getting some English-language conversation was divine, and not being the only guero in town didn’t hurt either. I was finally part of a small group again, rather than a lone oddity.

On Tuesday we both finished work for our respective clients and finalized our plans for Real.

Wednesday, November 19 (Day 866 of the Great Adventure)—Real de Catorce

Wednesday morning found us huddled in the cold desert wind just after breakfast under Jorge Luis’ watchful gaze. His full parilla of gold teeth gleamed as he reassured us we would love Real. Soon enough we were ushered aboard a (thankfully) warm bus and took our seats.

My friend opted to catch a final nap despite the blaring Will Smith action movie that suddenly lit up screens all around the bus. I preferred to gaze out the window, taking in a surreal cloud-covered landscape that got higher and steeper as we made our way to progressively less paved roads. Goat herders and an abandoned pueblo drifted out of the mist, the only sign of civilization until we reached the final approach: a cobblestone road curving up a mountain to a height of about 9,000 feet.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

That was only the first course, however. At the top of the road we stopped and the few other passengers on board simply got up and left. With no explanation in either Spanish or English, we shrugged followed. All of us huddled around a faux colonial plaza, deserted except for a lone candy seller. We knew what came next—the Tunnel, which loomed at the edge of the plaza—but not exactly what the procedure was.

We didn’t have to wait long. A smaller bus rattled out of the mist and opened its door. Hopping aboard, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was the same driver wearing a different hat. The tiny group of travelers spread out on hard plastic seats and we rumbled toward the hole in the mountain.

There’s only one road in or out of Real de Catorce, and instead of going over one of the tallest mountains in Mexico it opts to go through it. The Ogarrio Tunnel is one part mine shaft, one part public works project, and one part tourist attraction. It’s also so narrow that it barely has just one lane; traffic takes turns coming in and going out. (“Taking turns” may be an overstatement, however, since at least on weekdays there was no real traffic waiting at either side.)

I was eager to see the Tunnel, because at one point I had considered bicycling through it. By that plan I would have biked up the mountain and through the Ogarrio to get into Real, then depart by a sort of goat trail to continue the Adventure. I nixed the idea because the first road is paved with tire-busting cobbles. I had also heard rumors that vehicle exhaust inside the Tunnel makes it virtually impossible to cross unless sealed inside a car or bus.

The rumors weren’t exaggerated. In the black of the tunnel I spotted a carved stone doorway, a branching mine shaft and, within a minute or two, clouds of haze choking out the yellow lamps overhead. With over a mile to go, the bus itself began to smell of exhaust.

Yes, we rode a bus through this. Photo via Mexico Desconocido

At length we spilled out into daylight and a mostly empty plaza. The other travelers seemed to know where they were going, and we vaguely followed. Soon we found ourselves mostly alone except for occasional hustlers hoping to sell us everything from breakfast or guidebooks to hallucinogenic cacti.

Our first mission was to find a hotel. We looked at several and settled on Hotel Corral de Conde, a mid-level choice with beautiful interiors but no heaters and wi-fi only in the lobby. Along the way we got the story on the “Catorce” (fourteen) the town is named after, from an old man outside the tourist office:

“There’re different versions. It can be fourteen anything. Fourteen bandits, fourteen Spanish soldiers, fourteen miners, fourteen Huicholes. It depends on who’s telling it.”

With our things deposited at the Corral we set out for the first objective of our stay: an ancient cemetery and chapel outside of town. Travel websites make it sound like it’s miles away, so that you’ll hire a horse (or a bike or a jeep) to get there, but it’s really about an 8 minute walk—at least once you get directions. The few locals on the street wore tourist blinders and had little interest in telling us the way, but we found a sun-faded and vine-covered map on a placard by the centro that gave us the right general bearing.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

The walk may have been short, but it wasn’t easy. At 9,000 feet every breath of air is a lucha match. Add in a steep hill or three on every street in town and we understood why horse rides are so popular.

The view was worth it, however. At the edge of town we caught our first glimpse of what I’ll call the Cloud Desert, the Huichol sacred land straddled by the mountains that surround Real. It was one solid expanse of white below us, a fog-covered lowland where you can die of thirst while soaked with dew.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

The cemetery before the chapel was crowded with old graves, many bearing fresh offerings. The chapel was built 300 years ago by a small mining community, and yet it’s more impressive than most cathedrals in the US. Even so, centuries of wear left the murals inside peeled and faded, looking more like Pollock paintings than pictures of angels.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

Inside the Chapel. That's Guadalupe on  the  left.

Inside the Chapel. That’s Guadalupe on the left.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Flanking the chapel entrance are two holy images, Guadalupe on the left and St. Francis on the right. I had brought candles for both. I approached Guadalupe first. Lighting her candle was a struggle in the drafty mountain temple. Eventually, candle lit, I knelt before her and prayed. Guadalupe is a miraculous virgin who has been sainted by the Church, but whom many believe corresponds to an earlier Aztec goddess. Kneeling there, I understood that she was the female presence that had appeared to me on top of the mountain pass.

I also offered to St. Francis, although the town’s main image of him is actually kept in the parish church, not out here in the roadside chapel.

Afterward we sought out a late lunch. We settled on the restaurant at the high end Hotel Meson de la Abundancia, as much because it was warm inside as because of what was on the menu. The food was incredible, however, and this became our eatery for the next 24 hours.

While my friend checked in on client work, I ran some errands (like buying us water) and stopped by the parish church. It has the most unique floor I’ve ever seen. It seems to be made out of old mining pallets rather than planks, arranged like giant hardwood tiles. Each board of each pallet is rounded smooth from centuries of feet. They sounded hollow under my footsteps.

The parish church  with the great floors. Photo by André.

The parish church with the great floors. Photo by André.

I was there mainly to see the other image of St. Francis, however:

St. Francis. Photo by André.

St. Francis. Photo by André.

This one is reputed to be miraculous and is the object of a long annual pilgrimage. The people of Real apparently are quite attached to St. Francis and have various local nicknames for him. I made offerings to him for my mother, who has always held him especially close to her heart, and then took a small pilgrim pin from a jar of them beside the statue. (I’m actually not clear whether you’re supposed to pick one up when you pray there, or wear one on your pilgrimage and deposit it in the jar at the end; in any case St. Francis said to go ahead and take one if I wanted.)

By this time it was nearly dark and the chill intensified. I explored a bit more before heading back to the hotel. We both caught up on work and grabbed an evening snack at the Meson before heading to bed.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Thursday, November 20 (Day 867 of the Great Adventure)—El Pueblo Phantasmo

Our alarm went off long before dawn. There was something else we had to see before leaving Real, and the hike there and back would take all morning.

Real de Catorce itself is often called a ghost town, but the truth is it was only mostly deserted after the silver industry collapsed in the early 1900s. By now it’s made a resurgence and has plenty of year-round residents. Other communities in the area, however, were truly abandoned; whole villages sit around forgotten mineshafts in the hills. I had spent a good part of the previous afternoon rustling up exact directions to one. “Exact” might be an overstatement, but I was confident I could at least find the trail head.

The morning started with a cold breakfast in the dark. We had pestered the hotel clerk the day before with a million variants of the same question: is there a free breakfast? A paid breakfast? Coffee at least? Is there somewhere else we can go for breakfast?

No, she explained between sighs. There is nothing.

So we had pastries I’d bought from a local vendor the night before, and washed them down with cold water. Then we put on every layer of clothing we had and opened the door to the freezing mountain wind.

We made our way through the abandoned cobble streets. At the edge of town we were surprised to see one tiny kitchen that was actually open, run by the world’s grumpiest doña. She offered us go cups of Nescafé at Starbucks prices. We used them alternately as beverages and hand warmers as we continued on our way.

To the left of the Ogarrio tunnel entrance we found a gravel road up out of town. Soon we were in the mountains, the sky barely grey and the town shrinking in the darkened valley.

The sun rose somewhere between the mountaintops above us. The endless white of the Cloud Desert flared into being below, and then the rooftops of Real. The tolling of the church bell came to us on the wind.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

This was no beginner’s hike. The trail was steep and the wind wasn’t just cold, it was also low on oxygen. We gulped for breath and sniffled, walking along the mountainsides.

This is what we found:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

It’s a bro on a burro. Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

The first set of ruins clustered around the opening to a vertical mineshaft, a pit in the earth twenty feet across. It was half-heartedly covered with wire mesh to discourage accidental skydiving. Dropping a rock through the mesh, we listened in silence. We never heard it hit bottom.

There were other, more diagonal mine shafts as well. I would have gladly explored the underground palace if we’d had more time and a bit of chalk. Responsible adventurer that I am, I contented myself with entering the foyer for now.

Wandering the ruins left us with many questions. Were any of these big stone buildings bunkhouses, or did the men sleep in tents? Did the men have wives and families out here, or just prostitutes? Did they leave their camp town and its chapel to go on leave in Real, or did they live up in the hills all the time? What happened to a man who took sick and couldn’t work?

Supposedly, the miners were paid a share of the monthly silver yield, which made it a lucrative job. I don’t imagine it was a safe one. I wonder how many of those men planned to do it only a little while, save up, and quit; and how many succeeded.

By the time we came down the mountain the sun was high in the sky. We collected our empty coffee cups from the branches where we’d stuck them on the way up. Unlike the miners, we left no sign that we’d ever been there.

Now everything in town was open. We had a late breakfast at the Meson, then rounded up our things at the Corral. We caught the noon bus just as it pulled into the tunnel, and began the trip back down. We’d had very little time in Real, but I’d already decided I needed to come back. It’s somewhere I’d like to rent a room for a few weeks and do a proper writing retreat. I’d also like to put on a backpack and hike the desert.

The tunnel and mountain road were less mystical now. We’d learned at least a few of their secrets, and the mist had begun to thin. In just an hour we were back in the ordinary world. We spent the rest of the day working, hanging out or looking for better food options around Cedral. We didn’t find many.

Friday, November 21 – Saturday, Novvember 22—Work and Planning

The next morning we once again rose before dawn. My friend had an early bus to catch, and we walked together to Jorge Luis’ bus stop. Afterward, alone again, I made my way home for one of Doña Blanca’s breakfasts and more work. I spent my last two days in Cedral writing, with afternoon and late evening forays to get food. There wasn’t much else to do in this sleepy little town, except plan my route onward.

Next time, I take off across the desert… which is the worst place to break down. Until then, here are the rest of the road logs.

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Religion, Spotlight

Polytheism Ebook Fail

Michel Hill's Hill Evidencism Polytheism Book

So, I recently received an (unsolicited) free copy of an ebook on polytheism. The email was signed by author Michael Hill, but the email address looked a lot like spam. So instead of clicking the attachment I decided to do some googling.

I found out that there really is a polytheism treatise by Michael Hill, and it looks like a real hoot. According to the abstract:

“Numerous and unrelated pieces of physical evidence currently exist that proves the existence of the Gods.”

Unlikely.

“A few examples of physical evidence, historical events like the Black Death, and some thoroughly-explained logic were combined to tell a complete story that reveals the answers to most religious questions.”

In case I was still on the fence, this pretty much confirmed that the book is not worth reading. Helpfully, the rest of the abstract brags that it’s a short, easy read. In fact, it says that of the 44 pages in the book (so… paper?), more than half is bibliography. In other words, Michael Hill believes he has polished off 6,000 years of theological debate in a handy 20 pages.

The best part is that Hill seems to be trying to found a whole new religion, “Hill Evidencism.” I finally gave in to curiosity and downloaded the complimentary pdf. Here’s a an actual quote:

“The main reason why lightning is physical divine evidence is because lightning frequently introduces humans to fire… After being introduced to fire, humans learned how to use fire.”

It’s hard to argue with reasoning like that… but not for the reasons Hill would like to think.

All of this reminds me that, although polytheism is a beautiful concept, there’s not a whole lot of respectable work being written about it these days.

I wonder if I should take the time to write a polytheism book of my own?

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Fellowship of the Wheel, Mexico

Postcards Sent

Guess what I mailed today? If you’re a supporter of the Fellowship of the Wheel and are owed a postcard, it is now on its way! I found 14 beautiful cards, spent the morning writing notes to each of you, and mailed them today.

The postman says that those of you in the US or Canada will receive them within 1-2 weeks; South Africa more like two and a half weeks. I have no idea if those numbers are accurate.

Thank you again to everyone who contributed, at any level. I carry the card with your names on it on the bike and you have my gratitude every day.

Road logs will continue soon!

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André, Spanish, Writing

The Goldfish and the Purple Cat

Photo by Gracias

This week my Spanish tutor asked us to write a composition using some of the irregular verbs we’d learned. He wanted just one page in a notebook, with something simple like what we’d done that day before school. But since everyone made such a big deal about the fact that I’m a writer, I decided I had to spend some time on it. I submitted a short story about a goldfish and a purple cat. My hope was to capture some of the morbid outlook of Mexican culture.

I’m just going to put this here, untranslated, for those of you who speak (or read) Spanish. I do welcome feedback and corrections, as I have no illusions that it’s perfect, but it’s really just here for your entertainment.

El Gato Morado y el Pez Dorado

Érase una vez, en una casa invertida, en medio del mar, vivieron juntos un gato morado y un pez dorado. La casa flotaba al reves sobre el oceano. El pez dorado vivía en una charca delgado y larga que se había filtrado en la cima del techo. El gato, en cambio, prefiría las ventanas y los cabrios. El pez no podía saltar al mar y el gato no podía nadar a la tierra. Así que tuvieron una vaga amistad y, por la noche, jugarían al ajedras.

Sin embargo, el pez intuyó que al gato tenía hambre. Al principio había comido su comida enlatada y, cuando acabó, había comido las termitas, porque termitas no pueden jugar al ajedras. Eventualmente era sólo el morado y el dorado.

El pez concluyó que su destino era ser una botána por un gato. Y, pues no creyó que una persona o un pez puede muy bien influir su destino, decidió abrazarlo. Pero, prefirió a encuentrarlo luchando.

Cuando vino el gato por él, el pez estaba grueso, gordo, lleno, y envuelto en una pieza de perejil. El morado sonrió. En un solo movimiento el gato clavó sus colmillos en su amigo. Tragandolo, notó un sabor raro: el distinto sabor de pesticida para termitas.

La casa flotó sobre las olas en perfecto quietud.

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Mexico, Photographs, Travel

Photo Friday: The Man in the Mirror

This is the view of the Templo de Carmen from the seventh floor of the Hotel Maria Cristina in San Luis, Potosí:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Since snapping this, I’ve taken a one week break to enroll in a Spanish immersion school including a homestay with a local host family. It’s challenging but very well structured and that makes learning the language a lot less difficult than you might think. It also takes virtually all of my time, which means I’m falling behind on road logs—but I do hope to have more up soon.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

It Was the First of Many Deserts

In the last road log I plotted my route forward from Saltillo. The plan: go over a giant mountain one day and then log an unprecedented 109 miles the next day, essentially covering four days of desert in just two. But would it work? Well…

The Giant's new skull getting ready for the mountains. Photo by André.

The Giant’s new skull getting ready for the mountains. Photo by André.

Friday, November 14 (Day 861 of the Great Adventure)—Gasp That Mountain Air

I got as early of a start leaving Saltillo as I could stand. Given the frigid temperatures I didn’t want to set out before first light, so I crammed some of the Hotel Huizache’s carbs-or-more-carbs breakfast as the sun came up. Even so, I had to wear jeans (ugh) rather than my cargo shorts on the bicycle. Not a pleasant choice, at least after the first 20 miles or so. (Jeans tend to be tight in all the wrong places.)

Just getting out of town was a workout. I gulped the cold morning wind as hard as I could, chugging my gear-loaded bike up steep narrow streets. You can check out today’s elevation map for yourself; the first of those yellow “danger zones” is just past the town centro.

With enough stop-and-pant breaks I eventually made it out of town. The first leg down the main highway had some flat and even downhill stretches, but a headwind in my face made pedaling hard and slow. In any case I was soon on a steady, if gradual uphill climb approaching the mountains.

On one break I took temporary shelter from the wind in a small roadside shrine. I made an offering, then drank water and ate a banana. Just as I was leaving an old woman showed up to pay her respects. I went to get out of her way, but she asked me about my trip. After hearing my story she placed her hand on me and blessed me, making the cross over me three times. I thanked her and continued on.

The chapel. Photo by André.

The chapel. Photo by André.

There were two routes I could’ve taken, and I chose the one that is “worse overall but one big climb and then downhill” over the one that is “maybe not as tall total but up and down a million times.” It was certainly the prettier route. Eventually I turned off onto my road, a sparsely used rural highway through a high pass in the mountains. Briefly, the headwind abated, but the terrain would only get steeper. (Fellowship supporters actually got a video I shot along the way, panting for breath in the relative shelter of a tiny stand of trees.)

All morning, I could see clouds breaking over distant mountains like ships of the titans wrecked by the gods, or drifts of snow up to pagoda roofs. It took a long time, but eventually I could see such a drift in my own pass: the road angled up, impossibly steep and faraway, into a wall of pure white.

On the way I passed a small valley town surrounded by shepherds. The terrain on my right remained pasture for almost my entire ascent; the land to my left was sometimes too steep to be anything at all. Barbed wire fences and concrete culverts dotted the land below me, and the highway was narrow with no guardrail or shoulder. Occasionally I dodged semi trucks, teetering with exhaustion in the low-oxygen air and trying not to plunge over the brink.

It was painfully hard. The uphill climb was endless, unrelenting, and only got steeper as I went. I checked my mileage continuously, convincing myself the GPS must be off and I had gone farther than it said. But it was right: I advanced at a snail’s pace, finally taking breaks almost every five minutes in order to recover my breath at 8,000 feet. The wind, meanwhile, defied all weather reports. Though it came from the south, to my right, it was channeled though the narrow mountain pass above me and rushed down like an angry serpent. It was the fiercest headwind I’ve had, biting my lips and pushing me back down the mountain.

Near the top the terrain changed. I smelled life, and around me there sprung a scraggly and wind-rattled cedar forest. The soft hollows beneath those boughs would be the perfect place to camp, if I wasn’t so godforsook determined to get out of this wind and under a roof before the cold of night. I made offerings in the place and crept onward.

Once, as I fell off the bike with exhaustion, I called out in frustration at the gods. My voice cracked, dry in my throat. What do I have to do? What does it take to find you? Why don’t you show yourselves?

Nothing answered. The wind continued, as the wind does.

Near the very top I walked the bike. You never want to walk the bike if you can help it. It’s slow and agonizing, difficult in its own way, very painful to hunch up on one side like that, and now you’re moving less than half the speed of the slowest pedal. Even when your knees tremble and your calves cramp and your quads burn, there’s more strength in those legs riding than there is walking. And it’s a one-way choice: stop the bike on an uphill, and you’ll find it quite unlikely to start pedaling it again.

So I held out as long as I could, and when I finally switched to walking I could see the top. The wall of white thinned out and swooped above me, thin wisps of cloud lounging in still, windless air above, while the serpent kept on me below.

At the top of the pass I made an offering, gave my blessing to the shivering, awful place of pure crystalline beauty. A female presence appeared on the mountain and watched me as I crossed over.

I didn’t dare to rest on the far side. If I sat down now I wouldn’t get back up; my legs wouldn’t let me. I gulped water—dangerously low—and probably ate nothing. A man and his son on a slow-moving motorbike went by. I had seen them going the other way an hour ago. Maybe a joyride.

It was my turn for the joyride now. For before me was the other side of the mountain, the downhill, the death chute. I checked the Giant over, made sure no semis were behind me, and got on the road.

I came down that winding, plummeting lane at gleeful speeds. If I had wiped out, that would have been it—no more Rogue Priest. But it was fun. It occurred to me that this was exactly the same as the road I’d just come up, that if I was going the other way I would hate this side and love the other one. But it was different, woodsier and shadier. And shorter—just like when we entered Saltillo, the land on the far side was much higher elevation than the land where we started.

A fruit truck passed me. I got the hell out of the way of that guy.

I descended an (estimated) 13 miles in (estimated) 20 minutes or less, which would put my speed well over 30 mph.

Even after that coaster, I had miles of gradual downhill slope before hitting flat land. But once again the south headwind was in my face, and the pedaling became hard soon enough. It was also nearly sunset and freezing. I had to race to make the Hotel La Palma, a roadside inn at the town of San Rafael, before nightfall.

My legs obliged, and at 20 minutes to dusk one ragged, filthy clergyman and his bicycle stumbled into the gate. The La Palma is a compound enclosed by yellow cement walls and boasts a restaurant, a hotel and a general store. The manager watched indifferently as I wheeled in the bike and pulled off my gloves.

“Is this Reception?” I asked him in Spanish.

“Yep.”

The price was 290 pesos. He was unapologetic about the hotel: it was what it was, which is a shitty truckstop hotel that charges more than it’s worth because, well, where else are you gonna go? Few of his answers to my questions were helpful: no, there isn’t wifi; no, the rooms don’t have keys. (You can lock the door from the inside, of course. “What about my bike, while I go to dinner?” I asked. “You can eat right there in the restaurant. You can see your room from your table. Besides, I’ll keep an eye on it for you.”) At no point in our conversation was he sympathetic, and at no point was he smug.

The room passed my bedbug search, although one of the two pillows skeeved me out so much that I sequestered it in the bathroom all night. (It was nothing more than a pillowcase with old, rotten fluff stuffed loose inside of it.) Despite the manager’s assurances, I U-locked my bike to a piece of furniture and carried my laptop bag with me when I left, door wide open behind me, to go to the restaurant.

If the place had one redeeming feature it was the doña who ran the kitchen. She took a pride in her work that was lacking in the housekeeping and management. Friendly, chatty and agreeable, she made me a giant dinner at a disproportionately giant price. The sign said the place was open 24 hours, but I was dubious.

“How early do you serve breakfast?” I asked.

“Whenever you want.”

“I’m leaving early,” I said. “Is 5:30 okay?”

It was fine, she told me, in a way that implied she would be there, awake and working, at literally any hour I chose.

Once I was full I hauled my sore bones back to my room. Everything was as I left it, and I made extensive use of the room’s one extravagance: hot running water. I stayed in the shower at least 10 minutes, warm for the first time literally since 8:00 that morning.

I’d carefully lined up my long underwear, jeans, various shirts and sweater so I could throw myself into them the second I left the shower (and so they wouldn’t get wet in the meantime). La Palma, like many Mexican hotels and most Mexican homes generally, has no heat. Begging off of promised emails and other online tasks, I checked tomorrow’s route, climbed into bed, and stayed buried under the covers as I slept.

55.4 miles.

Map.

Unapologetically bad. Photo by André.

Unapologetically bad. Photo by André.

Saturday, November 15 (Day 862 of the Great Adventure)—Can We Set a New Record?

Although I’d gone to bed at 8 p.m., 5 a.m. seemed far too soon. Still, I didn’t dawdle; if I was going to make nearly 110 miles in a single day I needed an early start and as few rest breaks as possible.

By 5:30 I stumbled back into the restaurant, this time leaving both bicycle and laptop unsecured. Sure enough, there was the doña, smiling and ready to cook. She made me a breakfast that the menu priced at 50 pesos, plus I consumed two and a half mugs of Nescafé. When I was done she told me the total was 105 pesos.

I thought I misheard. “How much?” I asked in Spanish.

“105 pesos,” she repeated.

I motioned at the carta on the wall. “The eggs are 50…”

She considered. “Well,” she said. “Let’s do 85 pesos. That last coffee was only half a mug.”

I’m pretty sure she was just making up the numbers at random, and even more certain that a cup of hot water shouldn’t run the same price as a bottle of beer. But I had little leverage—which is pretty much the motto at La Palma—and I payed her the 85.

I was on the bike and on the road by 6:30. That gave me exactly 12 hours before sunset (and at least twenty minutes before sunup), but I’d really rather make my destination by 5:30. After that the light would be dim and the air would be very cold. Assuming at least an hour in cumulative breaks, that meant I had to stay over 11 mph on the road.

My destination for the day was the town of Cedral, the site of my next rest stop. (Originally the rest stop after Leg 2 was planned to be Matehuala, a larger city. Matehuala and Cedral were both about the same distance, though, and Cedral is the closer launching off point to the ghost town of Real de Catorce.) The only difference in my route was that to get to Cedral I would turn off the main road about 10 miles before Matehuala.

But all that was assuming I didn’t have any flat tires, any mechanical issues, any problems of any sort. That’s the big problem with long bicycling days, more so than exhaustion or saddlesoreness: if even a single thing goes wrong, you don’t have any buffer time and you won’t make the night’s destination.

I was pretty determined that woudn’t happen. Considering how cold it was even in my hotel room, with strong windproof walls and piles of blankets, I didn’t want to attempt a night in my bivy and single fleece rucksack if I could help it. Even hours of after-dark cycling seemed worth the strain if it meant eventually arriving at a hot shower and bed, to say nothing of real food. But if it came to it, I’d find a windbreak and camp it out, likely with a belly full of gas station food (which isn’t bad in Mexico, if there’s a taco stand out front).

Surprisingly, there isn’t much to say about that long day on the road. In the dusky morning, leaving San Rafael, I saw teenage girls waiting for buses to go to work somewhere. I stopped very little, except for lunch at the Parador San Pedro, a large rest stop with a real restaurant (which was terrible, and subscribed the the La Palma school of pricing). I kept up on snacks, water and Gatorade to keep myself chugging along like a machine in the saddle.

One cool moment took place in the mid afternoon, when I was stopped and leaning against a guard rail at a bend in the highway. I chewed on a Cliff Bar while two cowboys came around the bend on bicycles. When I say cowboys I’m not kidding—they were rancheros, and they dressed the part.

One had a lead on the other and he pulled up. We conversed a bit in Spanish. Between his accent and his slang I couldn’t understand him well, but he told me where they were headed and explained that it was a ranch. He also motioned at my bike and told me (I thought) it was very nice. That surprised me; I love the Giant but he’s 30 years old, filthy, and rigged with an old milk crate on the front. To most people he looks like a junker, which is how I like it.

“Ah,” I shrugged. “It’s old.”

It was only later that I realized I’d misunderstood. What the old rancher meant was that my gear was nice. You know, the $300 in waterproof saddlebags hanging off the front and back. That actually worries me. These gents were nice enough, but clearly my equipment stands out as valuable. Had they been the rough sort of cowboys, this could have been an ugly encounter.

About the time the first cowboy was ready to take off the other one caught up. We tried conversing too, but I have poor Spanish and he explained he’s stone deaf. They headed onward. Later, after I finished my break, I would overtake them and zip past on the highway.

A later rest stop, my last of the day, involved a very crowded gas station. While I drank water out front, a beautiful woman yelled something from the window of an SUV. She had a different accent than I’m used to, and I misheard her as yelling something to a friend. After a few seconds I realized she’d actually said, “¿A donde va?” (Where are you headed?) and was talking to me. By the time that sank in, however, she’d lost interest and closed the window.

My 109 miles were divided roughly into three parts: the first 30 miles started flat and then had some big hills. The next 40 miles were predominantly downhill, with a gradual slope. (Gradual enough, I’d come to realize, that it didn’t really make a difference at all; that was supposed to be the easy part of my day but I never did get a free ride.) Then came a mountain range I had to ascend. Memories of the last mountain crossing were still all too fresh, but Cycleroute.org said it was neither as steep, or as tall, or as many uphill miles total as last time.

Indeed, it was grueling (especially with 80 miles behind you) but nothing like that high pass. Which is good, because at this point it was make or break—if I was reduced to just a couple miles an hour like last time, I’d be out three or four hours after sunset before I reached Cedral.

Instead it was maybe two hours of ascent. I was on a freeway this time, but one with very wide shoulders and  not a lot of traffic. Honey stands and abarrote shops (mini convenience stores) operated out of the homes along the way.

Once over the top, I zipped down a few miles of the downhill in a matter of minutes, but my goal wasn’t to descend the mountain (toward Matehuala). Instead I was turning off onto a side road into the highland, heading toward Cedral.

The Giant braves a dirt road. Photo by André.

The Giant braves a dirt road. Photo by André.

I found the side road easily enough, and it was even paved for the first 100 meters. Then it turned to gravel. I was ready for this, as neither Google nor my Atlas could tell me for sure but all the side roads I’d seen in the desert were unpaved. Gravel roads are terrible for heavily loaded road bikes, but I’d decided in advance that I would ride on it anyway and deal with the possible consequences, even if that meant a flat tire. It was about 10 miles of side road, and walking the bike that far would take 3 to 5 hours. The only alternative would be to go down the mountain 14 miles to Matehuala, then turn around and take another road 16 miles back up the mountain. No way.

As it turned out, within half a mile I found a separate paved road—not marked on Google, though it appears unmarked on satellite view—confirmed it went to the right place and took that.

That last 10 miles was heaven. “Side road” usually conjures an image of something semi-isolated: maybe only the occasional house, or power lines but no traffic. This was completely remote. Not a house, not a beer bottle, not a car or truck for miles at a time. Nothing but altiplano (highland desert) in every direction. Looking at the tall, silent scrub, I realized that walking just 20 paces off the road would mean losing sight of it, and that you could walk for days and find nothing at all.

View of the desolate altiplano. Photo by André.

View of the desolate altiplano. Photo by André.

I did see a young woman on a motorbike (who reminded me of a Hispanic Yara Greyjoy), and an old woman on one at an intersection with a sign marked “Oasis.”

Eventually I saw a few ranches and small farms and then, suddenly, the edge of town appeared. There was a school and some houses and then the first street of Cedral. I paused at the intersection to check directions and some men at a grilled chicken shop stared at me. They weren’t eager to return my buenas tardes and I realized just how far in the back country I was.

Glory of the evening altiplano. Photo by André.

Glory of the evening altiplano. Photo by André.

Mountains. Photo by André.

Mountains. Photo by André.

A few blocks later I pulled up at Abarrotes Conchita, a corner store. The address was right (to my surprise, since it was out of sequence with the numbers around it; I don’t know how Google nailed it) but there was no guest house sign (not a surprise, since who would put up a sign in Latin America?). All I could do was lean my bicycle on the wall and walk inside.

“Is this Casa de Huespedes Lopez?” I asked in Spanish.

“Uh… Oh, yeah. It is,” the lady told me.

I brightened. “Oh! I have a reservation…”

She mumbled some stuff and walked away. Soon I was talking to her mother, Doña Blanca, who manages the guesthouse side of their business.

I glanced at my phone as she opened the side door for me. 5:30. I had made it to Cedral exactly on time.

I brought the Giant into a beautiful courtyard and was shown to an upstairs apartment. I was shown upstairs to a small two-bedroom apartment. After La Palma and so many hotels it was hard to even conceptualize having so much space, and even a real locking door!

My first order of business was to shower. Afterward I asked Aunt Blanca if there were any restaurants around. (Blanca is the aunt of the person who handles the AirBnB reservations online; that person lives in the US.) She stared at me vaguely for a moment. I found out this is a habit of Blanca’s. At first I thought maybe my Spanish was just that atrocious, but it’s just her way. It’s a habit you’ll see in people with rural roots in Nebraska or Minnesota, too: they’re tacit and not quick to answer.

She did, eventually, say not much would be open but I could probably find tacos or hamburgers. “Perfect,” I said. She told me to walk to the Centro, just four blocks away, and that it would be safe since “it’s early.”

In the dark streets, more people stared at me like I’m from Mars. I had thought of Cedral as a tourist town, since it’s the departure point for Real, but I suppose most of those tourists are Mexican. The Centro itself was lined with teenagers huddled in pairs or small groups.

I found a taco restaurant, ate my fill, and headed home to catch up on the emails I’d skipped the night before. And then I slept very, very well. 108.2 miles

Map. Note: Google doesn’t show tenths of miles on trips over 100 miles long. But if you break this route into segments, you’ll see it was 108.2 total, not 108.0.

Total traveled this leg:  163.6 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3376.9 miles

More road logs are available here. And of course, a new one will be up soon!

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Adventure, Bicycling, Fellowship of the Wheel, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Three Days in Saltillo

In the last road log the Fellowship rode hard away from the border—and then promptly lost one of our key members. This time, I pick up alone.

This is the weather I was dealing with. Photo by André.

This is the weather I was dealing with. Photo by André.

November 11-13—Rest and Writing in Saltillo

After Pixi and Ernest left I biked over to my hotel for the first of my three rest days. The Hotel Huizache was a pretty little place with an outdoor pool surrounded by a garden/courtyard, both essentially unusable in the freezing, foggy weather that had descended over the city.

It didn’t matter much to me. My “rest days” were really work days. I spent the first two of them working overtime to catch up on articles for clients, road logs, and other writer duties. It still felt like I was perpetually behind, but I managed to get the most important work done.

Saltillo boasts the first, and likely last, bike lane I've seen in Mexico. It lasted two blocks.

Saltillo boasts the first, and likely last, bike lane I’ve seen in Mexico. It lasted two blocks.

That afternoon I went to a nice cafe/book store I had biked past and enjoyed their comida special. Afterward I perused the books, thinking I might pick up some extra Spanish reading material. It turns out they’re a Christian store, and all the books they had were either biblical or self help/inspirational in nature.

I was surprised that I didn’t feel more upset about Pixi leaving. In fact I felt quite calm. I had spent a year planning the group ride across Mexico, and canceled a kayak trip after months of training because I didn’t want to go it alone. Now my main partner had bailed on me. I wasn’t happy about it, but I felt completely capable of carrying on alone. There was also a chance that others would come through: last I’d heard Luce was trying to catch up to me, a cyclist named Ron wanted his own trans-Mexico trip to cross paths with mine, and Fellowship member Ysa hoped to join me in San Miguel de Allende.

Even so, I had to face certain difficult truths:

  • Pixi and I had planned to share hotel rooms. With her gone, my cost of living for the next 75 days is now twice what I had budgeted.
  • The next leg, from Saltillo south, was originally broken up into three or four days of camping out in the desert. With friends I felt comfortable with that; alone, it didn’t sound as safe.

I spent a lot of time pouring over my route, searching for signs of hotels in the tiny desert towns, and conferring with faraway friends. At no time did I consider giving up. Pixi’s decision had left me in a difficult place, but, as it is written by the sages of old, “Time to get your balls up, son.”

Selfie at the Huizache. Photo by André.

Selfie at the Huizache. Photo by André.

The second day I enjoyed the Huizache’s continental breakfast, which consists of: doughnuts OR sugary cereal, orange-flavored sugar juice, and Nescafé. (Get ready to see a whole lot of Nescafé on this Mexico trip.) Then more writing. In the afternoon, despite the cold, I made a short foray to the Centro—a reasonable walk—mainly just to find somewhere cheap to eat. One thing I love about Saltillo is that, finally, I had gotten to a town with a real Mexican centro in the sense of a central town area with plazas, a walking mall, food stands and local businesses like fruit and produce shops. The cost of a meal is much cheaper at these places than it is in bigger restaurants and supermarkets. The atmosphere is nicer too.

At night I continued working.

I had made an oath to myself that I wouldn’t spend my entire rest breaks working. The point of the journey is, at least in part, to see the places I visit—not just to pedal across them and hide in hotels with my laptop. So I worked double time the first two days and made sure I’d have the third day open for a museum and some exploration.

The Centro! Photo by André.

The Centro! Photo by André.

The third day came and it was as freezing as the one before (literally, with temperatures in the 30s). Desert nights are supposed to be cold, but these nights were 20 degrees lower than average and the days weren’t much better. [André’s note: I would later see a “coldest day of the year” bit on a local weather show.] Still, I had kept this day open for a reason, right? My new friend Scotch in Nuevo Laredo had told me that Saltillo is beautiful and its museums are great… so I looked up the museums online:

  1. The Museum of Birds. It has one or more stuffed specimens of every species in Mexico. Honestly this is something I would like to see, especially (a) the local species around Saltillo so I could identify them during my long rides and (b) the quetzal bird, sacred in the pre-Hispanic religions of Mexico. But was it worth leaving my toasty space heater with no jacket? Not quite.
  2. The Desert Museum. An eco-museum about the geology, history and wildlife of Mexico’s northern deserts. This actually is also something that interests me, except (a) I’d be seeing A LOT of desert up close and personal over the next few weeks, and (b) it’s far outside of town (in, you know, the desert) requiring a substantial bike ride to reach.

I was not museuming today.

(I explained this predicament to a friend online, asking if staying in made me a bad traveler. “No way,” she said, “It makes you smart.”)

Still, the day wasn’t a total wash. I did muster the will to venture out in the afternoon, exploring more around the Centro and having another great lunch (gorditas stuffed with nopal, delicious!) and some hot Nescafé. I also found a great artesanía (handmade craft) market. I considered getting a hand woven hooded sweater, but they were all acrylic rather than wool. I did, however, pick up a calavera (skull) which I mounted on the front of the Giant:

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

I also got bananas for tomorrow’s ride and a bag of dried cherries to add to my trail mix, both at the local fruit stand.

When I finally got back to the Huizache I finalized my plans for the route. I would go all the way across the mountains and desert, originally a four day journey, in just two days. These would consist of:

  • A trip over a high a mountain pass on the first day out of Saltillo. Pixi had showed a me a cool topographical tool for bicyclists, however, which revealed that the terrain was both taller and steeper than expected. Additionally, the hotel I had planned to stop at after this monstrous ascent (just 40 miles away) turned out not to exist. Thank goodness I street viewed it on Google Maps. Instead, I could aim for the only other confirmed hotel in the desert, bringing the day’s mileage to 55. Not an easy day.
  • If that wasn’t enough, I was then going to go the entire remaining 109 miles to the next rest stop, all in one day.

It wasn’t a great plan, but everyone I talked to agreed there’d be a shortage of places to stay out there. And besides not wanting to camp alone, my camping equipment just wasn’t meant for these record low temperatures. I made a fallback plan, charting roadside rest stops where I could camp near food and water if it came to it, but I preferred one brokeback marathon all the way.

Time to get your balls up, son.

Looking for the perfect gift for someone who loves to read? Let me recommend my novella Lúnasa Days:

L Days cover_front only_half size

Lúnasa Days debuted at #1 in Fantasy and #2 in Literary Fiction on Amazon. Following the journey of a magician who no longer believes in his spells, it brings together the spiritual and the magical—and the questions that they raise. It has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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