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

The First Story of the Fellowship of the Wheel

In the last road log I reached the US/Mexico border with two friends, Pixi and Blake, bicycling by my side. Now at long last we pick up from the same spot, ready to cycle across Mexico—this time for a planned group ride across 2,000 miles, the Fellowship of the Wheel.

The border crossing. Photo by Ernest White II.

Thursday, November 6, 2014 (Day 853 of the Great Adventure)—Crossing My First Border

As detailed earlier, it was quite a process getting back to Laredo, TX where I’d last left off the Adventure. It was a grey, rainy day but let up as I went from my hotel to the International Bridge. There I high-fived the same pillar where I’d left off months before, beside the same sign. Soon I was on the bridge over the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo) where I made offerings before crossing over.

Picking up where I left off! Photo by André.

Picking up where I left off! Photo by André.

It was a thrill to perform my first international crossing on bicycle. I’ve been to many countries including Mexico, but always on a plane or bus. Walking the Giant over the bridge, the first of a dozen borders I’ll cross, felt special.

On the far side, a Mexican border guard “searched” my bicycle.

“What’s in here?” (In Spanish.)

“Clothing.

“Here?”

“Equipment for my bicycle.”

“Here?”

“My house for camping.”

“And here?”

“My other…. equipment…. for to camp…..”

“For camping.”

“Right.”

He never opened any of these bags.

He asked me where I was going, and I told him the Yucatán. He asked if he’d heard me right, which he had. He then had a variety of questions—mostly about my tired and whether I was going alone—and only briefly mentioned security.

“But… it’s dangerous, right?”

He was a border guard.

I shrugged. “Around here, yes. But in the interior….”

He nodded.

A few other people around us had over heard, and all of them (including the guard) wished me good luck. They also directed me to the Customs Office. There, the man at the counter asked me some similar questions. Then:

“Do you have a bicycle permit?”

My eyes widened. “I need a…?”

He started laughing. Then I did, too. It may be the first joke I’ve ever gotten in Spanish.

Eventually, after many questions from a collection of old men, mostly about my tires (!), I had my passport stamped and my tourist card filled out. There was nothing left for it: it was time to go into Nuevo Laredo, the place where all of my friends and family have told me, every week for three years, I would die. Several cleaning ladies in the Customs office wished me well, and then I was off.

I had a clear destination: Mr. Rollo Sushi. I had carefully memorized the route in case my phone lost reception from its US cell tower. I had not, however, planned on rain.

The main drag through Nuevo Laredo was a fun ride. I could tell instantly that traffic moved differently than in the US, with more unpredictable obstacles and sudden darting. But I also felt like cars were surprisingly respectful of my bicycle, a hunch I’d have confirmed many times in the coming week.

When I reached Mr. Rollo it had just started to rain. I pulled up in front of a strip mall sushi restaurant, part of a large complex with an HEB, an Applebee’s and plenty of other US franchises.

Scotch saw me through the front window and, from the bicycle, knew exactly who I was. We embraced and only later did I find out that his real name is Ricardo. Scotch is the name of his bar and, by proxy, his Couchsurfing handle.

Scotch got in his his truck and led me toward his house. (He originally wanted to give me a ride, but I said I couldn’t cheat by not biking the short distance. Later he told me I had discipline.)

It was raining in earnest now and by the time we arrived I was wet. I dropped off my things and he offered to drive me to Telcel to get a local SIM card for my phone. On the way we delivered an order of sushi, to a neighborhood where Scotch explained that narcos rent big houses to garrison their troops.

Eventually I had a working phone with, most importantly, 3 gigabytes of prepaid 4G data. I also outfitted a backup iPhone with a second SIM card (minus the data) so that our Fellowship could communicate if split up. A mobile wi-fi device, however, proved elusive. Scotch, and later Ernest, both suggested I didn’t need it: it was nothing except another 4G connection like the one on my phone, and since my phone could act as a hotspot it was redundant. Eventually I agreed, planning instead to add prepaid data to the second phone so that we had a backup.

The rest of the day was relaxing and fun. Scotch spoiled me with a giant meal at Mr. Rollo (all of the food was excellent) and then I got to meet his family for a late meal and some great conversation in his house. By the time I went to bed I was exhausted and slept very well. 3.8 miles.

Map.

November 7—Meetup

Today involved some coordination. In the morning I was on call waiting for Pixi to arrive at the border crossing. When she did I biked over and met her. We changed her money to pesos and biked across town to Scotch’s house, where I finally got to eat breakfast. After that it was all prep. I set up the backup phone for Pixi, we got her bike into good working shape, and we did a short test ride between rain showers. Both the cold and the grey, rainy skies were unusual according to Scotch. Thankfully, the weather report said it would clear up for our big ride tomorrow.

In the afternoon I repeated my trip to the border crossing to meet Ernest, a.k.a. the Fly Brother. The Fly Brother is not only a seasoned international traveler and fluent Spanish speaker, he also offered to be our support vehicle driver. From the border we walked together to Sixt, a Mexican car rental agency, where we had a reservation thanks to many long hours research on Ernest’s part. After Ernest and the Sixt attendant finished joking together about my Spanish, we had the keys to a shiny Aveo.

“You’re driving it off the lot,” Ernest said.

I grinned. “Only if you ride my bike.”

He saw the dilemma. The bike wouldn’t readily fit into the car, and we couldn’t leave it behind. I put Scotch’s address on his phone and we took off separately, him in the car and me on bici. 15 minutes later we reunited.

After that came huddle time: we talked route, accommodations, and all the nitty gritty of keeping two bikes and one car together over 85 miles of savanna. Finally we went to the grocery store to get snacks, jugs of water, and a few other odds and ends.

The Fellowship! Left to right: Ernest "the Fly Brother" White II, Pixi, and André Solo. Photo by André.

The Fellowship! Left to right: Ernest “the Fly Brother” White II, Pixi, and André Solo. Photo by André.

That night we hung out with Scotch’s family and had a great dinner of hearty beef stew (caldo de res). Pixi, who’d been on 30 hours of buses before arriving at the border, mostly snoozed; Ernest and I, who weren’t much better rested, propped ourselves up and enjoyed the social atmosphere. It was later than we’d planned—after 12:00—when we finally went to sleep. Ernest and I shared a bed while Pixi took a couch beside it.

Everything was as ready as it was going to get.

[Andre’s note: There were originally four bicyclists planned for the first leg, not just two. Of these, one (Bredt) fell in love two weeks before the trip and bowed out to pursue the relationship—a choice I strongly support. Another (Luce) started bicycling from Florida to meet us and was a week behind, promising to catch up to us at a future rest point.]

Saturday, November 8, 2014 (Day 855 of the Great Adventure)—The Fellowship Departs!

The first day on the road! We got up ungodly early (around 5) and I reheated some of the stew for our breakfast. Scotch got up to join us and see us off. We saddled up just after 6 a.m., with the first light of dawn in the icy sky. I made offerings and blessed a candle of St. Christopher, we hugged and waved goodbye to Scotch, and off we went.

It felt good right away, but took some getting used to. Ernest followed slowly behind us with hazard lights blinking. Would this become a problem once we hit traffic? I stopped for a minute and adjusted saddlebags. Then, game on.

On the way out of town we passed many people. I gave a friendly “Buenas dias” to all of them. No one was surly, cold or threatening to us. Some threw back the greeting with a smile and some stared with interest.

Traffic was, for the most part, respectful. I’d later find out that Ernest had a much tougher time than we did; traffic can easily go around a cyclist but a slow moving car is another matter. Even so, we made our way onto the highway and headed south.

The goal for this leg was to get as far away from the border as quickly as possible. Thus, the leg involves some of our longest pedaling days: 85 miles today, over 60 the next day and nearly 60 again the day after that. Those are long days in the saddle, especially right out of the gate. The first three days were expected to be among the toughest of the 80-day Fellowship.

Today certainly lived up to that. Early on I found myself zipping well ahead of Pixi (and Ernest, staying protectively behind her). I sang some songs and allowed myself to burn off energy. But soon I fell back, allowing Pixi to set the pace. It wasn’t a slow one: at our first water break we found we’d covered 14 miles in an hour. That was thanks to a tailwind as well as our determined pedaling.

The pace wouldn’t last. Between water and snack breaks, a military checkpoint, and flagging energy levels we dipped down to 11 or 12 mph underway and an overland average of (eventually) less than 10 mph. This was a point of concern, since our highest priority was to reach tonight’s hotel before dark—preferably with time to spare. We knew we couldn’t make it all the way to Monterrey in one day, over 100 miles, so we’d planned our first night’s stop in the small town of Sabinas Hidalgo. Reaching the hotel before 6 pm would take strong, consistent pedaling.

View from the support vehicle. Photo by Ernest White II.

View from the support vehicle. Photo by Ernest White II.

This is the first place where my planning was too narrow. Pixi had originally offered to drive the support car, and thus didn’t expect to bike these 80 miles. Ernest’s offer was a godsend in every way: his has fluent Spanish, his presence meant I didn’t have to bike alone, and he was able to return the rental car for us after the three days, sparing us a convoluted (and expensive) backtrack.

But as a result, Pixi found out only weeks before we started that she could ride the bike instead of sit in the car. The long day became difficult for her. After we stopped at a roadside eatery (the only open one we saw) she started to lose her steam. I biked slower, still matching my pace to hers; I coudn’t tell if she was determined to get through this, or wishing she could stop. I made sure she knew that, if she chose to, we could put her bike in the support car and she could ride in the passenger seat. The decision was up to her.

(I wouldn’t have minded doing that myself: a butt can get pretty sore in 80 miles.)

Abandonado. Photo by Ernest White II.

Abandonado. Photo by Ernest White II.

The terrain was startlingly beautiful. The highway was lined with the remains of past commerce: closed gas stations, empty tire repair stops, food stands that no longer exist. My sense is that, like Nuevo Laredo itself, this area had much more economic activity before the drug war heated up. People are afraid to drive this road by night, and no one dawdles out there. So we were surrounded by two different worlds: the green savanna, surprisingly lush, as empty and open as it had always been; and the ghost of a human world which had once cluing to its edge, and now clung no longer.

Mountains in the distance only made the flat, abandoned plains look all the more lonely.

By mid afternoon the miles were getting to me as well as Pixi. I knew that after three hard cycling days and then three rest days our bodies would adapt and be ready for almost any ride [André’s note: a power I would put to use only a week later] but for now my butt was tender, my wrists were tired and I was soaked in sweat.

Pixi decided to stop rather than push herself too far. Together we took a wheel off her bike and loaded it into the car. I was impressed with her endurance: she had gone 65 miles, farther than we had ever gone in Texas and much farther than most people could do, especially without training.

After that I took a faster pace. I too was beat, but my plan was to cover the last 20 miles quickly and be done with it.

That afternoon segment was some of the prettiest scenery of the day. The mountains were close now and covered in rich greenery from crown to toe. The land around us became hilly and, now off the main highway, there were no more ghost gas stations—just a silver road through endless greenery. We passed through the small town of Vallecillo and then a long downhill section that was like riding a roller coaster. Dark mountains, blue sky, golden grass in the slanting sun: this is bicycling.

Photo by Ernest White II

Photo by Ernest White II

On entering Sabinas Hidalgo we stopped at a gas station where I was delighted to find Gatorade. There are several hotels in town, but only one that I could confirm in advance was both open and had good reviews: La Turbina. It was actually four miles on the other side of town, adding yet more distance to our day. We stopped at one other hotel that we passed, but it was closed; Ernest and Pixi would later tell me that there was an open one just across the street from it, but I biked past without noticing.

After a few twists and turns down some narrow residential streets we found our road out of town. The Hotel La Turbina is on the edge of Turbina Park, a recreational spot along a river with a hydroelectric turbine on it. The sign advertised the hotel as “100% Familiar” (family style). Rooms were basic but just fine after such a long ride. We showered and reassembled Pixi’s bike. I took a short spin through the park, and then we all drove into town for a dinner of tacos and enchiladas. 83.8 miles.

Map.

Sunday, November 9 (Day 856)—To Monterrey!

We got up before dark again, once more hoping to finish a long ride before sunset. Pixi and I set off on bicycle and Ernest followed us till we reached town, then we all had breakfast at a local diner—the only place open before 7. Soon we had full tummies and were underway.

This route was spectacular. We started on a rural highway running parallel to the feet of the green mountains. It linked up with the main freeway, which we forsook for the Libre (the non-toll, less used version of the federal highway) which meant little traffic and great scenery. It curved south toward Monterrey and took us past miles of national park. The land here was like nothing I’ve ever seen, a dense green savanna with desert plants mixed in.

We had to cross the mountain range to reach Monterrey. The Libre was the less steep of the two routes, but still no picnic: on the first ascent we passed two police cars and a tow truck where a car had gone over the edge of the (non-guardrailed) highway and off the mountainside. [André’s note: when Ernest went back this way two days later, an entire semi truck had gone off near the same spot.]

Soon we were on roads cut through the mountaintops, with tall rocky cliffs on either side of us. We stopped for breaks as needed. Ernest could stay protectively behind us on the way up—where traffic moves slowly—but couldn’t risk getting rear ended by a semi on the downhill portions. At the peak we pulled over for one final group huddle. Ernest played victory music and waved a scarf like a flag as we crested the peak and caught up to him. Once we’d both caught our breath, he got in the car and zipped ahead of us at high speed.

Pixi on the first leg of the mountains. Photo by André.

Pixi on the first leg of the mountains. Photo by André.

The next leg was one of the nicest of the trip. It was downhill, but not all in one big rush. At least the next ten miles were slightly sloped, giving us free energy and high speeds. Pixi and I rode alongside each other and chatted. Yesterday she had confessed she was thinking of quitting; today she told me this was more what she’d hoped the ride would be like and that she was once more excited about the trip.

Eventually we had to enter the city of Monterrey. Monterrey is Mexico’s third largest metropoolis, making it effectively their Chicago—it even has an el train. It’s also just as unpleasant to bike into. It started with the town of Ciénega de Flores (“Swamp of the Flowers”), a suburban shit show where the traffic became heavy and the Libre became unpleasant.

From there we got onto a major freeway. It was safe enough—a giant shoulder plus Ernest following us with his hazard lights on to prevent anyone from cutting too close—but it was noisy and unpleasant. At a gas station we looked for alternate routes on the map; there really weren’t any. The freeway was the main artery and no surface streets shadowed it.

Pixi wasn’t happy out there, and decided to once again switch to car. Muscle-wise, she could certainly have made it the last ten miles or so, but she didn’t like the conditions. I understood. I rode solo for the final stretch, and we reached our intended destination by 3:30 across heavy traffic, rough pavement and confusing intersections.

Cityscape in Monterrey. On theleft you can see the el train. Photo by André.

Cityscape in Monterrey. On theleft you can see the el train. Photo by André.

Originally we had planned to get a hotel, but Scotch’s girlfriend’s sister Karen lives in Monterrey. When she’d met us two nights earlier she called her roommates, conferred, and offered us a bed in their apartment.

She wouldn’t be home till around 7, however. We parked near her building on a beautiful, quiet boulevard and I locked up my bike. Then we all went for a much-needed meal. The venue? Pizza Hut. Viva Mexico!

After a long slow meal, Pixi and I explored the neighborhood a little while Ernest hit a Starbuck’s to get some work done. Around 7 we met Karen at her place and she was an amazing host. We took turns showering and did a load of laundry. A medical student, Karen planned to be awake literally all night studying. We on the other hand went to bed early, once again planning an early start in the morning. Before I turned in Karen went over my atlas with me and marked spots where I may be able to camp on the long second leg through the desert. 61.4 miles.

Map.

The mountains we had to climb, as seen from a boulevard in Monterrey. Photo by André.

The mountains we had to climb, as seen from a boulevard in Monterrey. Photo by André.

Monday, November 10 (Day 857)—Metro to Mountains

By mileage this was our shortest day so far. It was also, I believe, our hardest. The goal was to leave Monterrey, go up a mountain range and reach Saltillo. That’s where Pixi and I would spend our first rest stop, and where Ernest and the support vehicle would leave us.

We started before dawn, departing on our bikes into the dark city. It was important to get through the downtown before the morning rush our, or Ernest could be stuck  in traffic for as much as three hours. At least, that was the biggest problem on our minds as we set out; it was not by any means our biggest actual problem.

We still had to take freeways rather than surface streets to cross the city. This was fine at first, riding on the shoulder, but soon it would mean diving across three lanes of 70 mph traffic to get to a left exit. I refused to do it. Pixi concurred. We had to seek an alternative.

Not that it was confusing. Photo by Ernest White II.

Not that it was confusing. Photo by Ernest White II (actually from a different day).

First we tried alternate connections to the same freeway. When that didn’t work we reconsidered our ramp by the light of dawn. We updated Ernest, who waited at a gas station well ahead of us; I told him to get to downtown so he wouldn’t be stuck in the commuter rush waiting for us.

Scanning satellite imagery of the city, I noticed something peculiar: a hair of a shadow across the crucial freeway that divides a residential neighborhood from the university. Could that shadow be an unmarked pedestrian walkway?

10 minutes later we turned down the fateful surface street that led to the shadow. There, ahead of us, was a white cement walkway complete with a newspaper seller and a doughnut stand. Pixi and I high fived and we made our way across, surrounded by about 7,000 university students. (I was struck by how college kids smell the same everywhere in the word: running to class freshly showered, hair still wet, reeking of far too much of the cheapest cologne/perfumes; it was like I was back in my girlfriend’s dorm in the Bush years.)

We were still miles from our meeting point with Ernest, a 7/11 right next to the on-ramp for our cruise out of town, and the going wouldn’t be easy. To avoid going the wrong way on a freeway we had to use a sidewalk, frequently dismounting for curbs or pedestrians. Then we reached downtown, with increasingly crowded sidewalks and street lanes I can only describe as death-by-bus.

Pixi surprised me during all of this by turning to me at one point and saying, “You know, this is pretty fun.” I laughed. In a way, she was right.

After coffee with Ernest we mounted up again. It had taken us two hours to go just a few miles across town. We hoped the worst was over, but the next two hours would be a different kind of pain: riding on the shoulders of freeways to get out of town. The traffic here wasn’t nearly as heavy as the rush into town, but it was still heavy (and fast). It was also uphill.

It would be 11:00 before we found ourselves outside of the sprawl, already worn out, and facing lighter traffic but giant mountains. We ascended more than 3,000 feet that day, with a total climb of almost 5,000 considering all the down-and-ups. At one rest stop, a gas station with a restaurant, Pixi asked if we should get lunch.

“I’m happy to if you want,” I said. “My own opinion is that I’d rather just eat a power bar and go, because if I sit down I’m worried I won’t ever get moving again.”

She agreed.

We also had one glorious downhill stretch where we covered ten miles in a matter of minutes. To me, this is about the most fun you could ask for; Pixi didn’t like it.

We stayed close together all afternoon, churning out the miles at a laughably slow pace. This time, Pixi stuck it out. She was going to finish on her own power.

We didn’t even have a big downhill to look forward to: ascending the mountains essentially just brought us up to Saltillo’s level, the gateway of Mexico’s highland. Finally, after miles of flat land and urban sprawl—thankfully nothing as bad as Monterrey—I saw Pixi drop back and dismount. I stopped a block ahead of her, looking back. Was there a problem?

She waved at me and yelled something. Must be a flat, I thought. Heavy and sore, I pedaled back toward her.

“What’s wrong?” I yelled.

“We’re here.”

“What?”

“We’re here!”

She pointed at a building I had gone right past. In front of it, a giant sign proclaimed that it was the hotel we planned to stay at. I hadn’t even seen it.

We checked in, showered, and had dinner at a surprisingly pricey taco restaurant. Sleep came easy. 58.5 miles.

Map 1. This map approximates the convoluted efforts Pixi and I made to get safely past two freeways. These nine miles alone took us two hours.

Map 2. This shows the rest of the way. It leaves off some additional (much less extreme) meandering to cross freeways, so we probably did a few tenths of a mile more than this.

Tuesday, November 11 (Day 858)—Major Change

While Ernest and I fell asleep the night before, Pixi sent me a late night email. In the morning, before I even saw it, she came up and took my hand.

“I’m going back with Ernest,” she said.

It wasn’t a giant surprise. She had struggled with two of the last three days, and she had told me on the first evening that she was thinking about it. But it was still difficult news. After so many people had dropped out, Pixi’s enthusiasm had kept me optimistic about the Fellowship. She planned on coming the whole way, all 80 days and 2,000 miles, and the prospect of having an adventuring partner was more exciting to me than the Adventure itself.

Still, it was her choice to make. Adventure is not easy, and we had just had some physically demanding days. I don’t think Pixi will mind me sharing here what I suggested then: the difficulty was as much psychological as it was physical. She had been in good spirits after our beautiful second day, and then very low spirits after our exhausting third day. The next leg was likely to be much easier, with a rest period followed by less miles per day and no more giant cities to cruise through. If she stuck out even one more leg, I suggested, she would get over the early-adventure threshold of “holy shit this is hard” and end up having a great time.

She agreed that was quite possible, but right now she had a ride out—and the possibility of joining friends on an organic farm in the States, something she likes more than bicycling. She said she might come back for the final ride down the Gulf Coast. To me that sounds unlikely, but the door is open.

We had a breakfast of fresh fruit and eight kinds of carbs in the hotel restaurant. Then there was business to tend to: we had booked a fairly high end hotel for our arrival, splitting the cost and wanting a good comfy landing place after so many miles on the road. But for the next three days of rest, we—or I, I suppose—would need somewhere cheaper. We drove and looked at some cheap flophouses by the Centro and then I settled on a mid-range hotel, Hotel Huizache, to be my temporary headquarters. We dropped off my stuff there, then had a warm goodbye.

I have intense respect for both of the brave, free-hearted individuals who spent these five days at my side. Ernest has gone through incredible contortions to balance a life as a professional academic and writer with one as an airline employee, so that he can travel the world for free; even with the free flight, it was a huge sacrifice for him to drive through an area known as the kidnapping capital of the world. When he learned that Pixi was leaving me to go it on my own, he immediately offered his company.

“I can fly into any airport in Mexico. No way am I getting on a bike. But if you want me driving behind you or waiting for you at a hotel, I’m there.”

Pixi has now shared the road with me twice. Out of 20 people who wanted to cycle Mexico with me, she is the only one who showed up at the starting point and got on a bicycle. She too made sacrifices, even quitting her job to come travel for these months. Just as she left Blake and me in the dust during our final 100-degree ride in Texas, she has outdone nearly everyone I know in terms of her bravery, determination and willingness to accept challenge.

At the final goodbye, Pixi looked sad. I shrugged and smiled. “We all make our choices,” I said. “There’s no use regretting them.”

We hugged, they got in the car, and I rode a victory lap around them, sunwise, as a blessing. I bicycled to my new hotel and they went over the haunted green savanna. 1.8 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg:  205.5 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3213.3 miles

More soon, or see old road logs here.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, The Great Adventure, Travel

Observations on Bicycling in Mexico

Photo by André

Photo by André

The first official road log will be up soon, but for now I wanted to share a few general observations on cycling in Mexico:

  • The border area felt very safe. I don’t regret any of the planning and preparation we did to minimize risk, but the dire warnings were overwrought. Traveling by daylight and staying in safe places at night, I have not felt in any real danger at any time. This might be different if I were going out to bars, engaging in risky behavior or flashing money and expensive belongings.
  • More than just safe, the border area is beautiful. South of Nuevo Laredo is a savanna far more lush and green than I could have expected. Wide open spaces with few fences and fewer buildings. The tall grass along the roadside rustled with tiny animals as we pedaled by. It’s glorious. All of you who warned me away: go and buy a ticket to Monterrey for your next vacation.
  • Traffic seems much safer here. Even though I’ve been mainly on major federal highways, the heavy traffic seems to give me plenty of space with few exceptions. This was true not only when we had a slow-moving support vehicle behind us, but even now, out there alone. I think drivers in Mexico are used to seeing lots of people on bicycles, as well as other obstacles like dogs, carts, mules, pedestrians on freeways, etc. They assume they have to be alert and as a result they give me plenty of space.
  • The above notwithstanding, I notice a lot more of those roadside memorials were people died in accidents. Maybe it’s just in my head, but there seem to be 2-3 times as many as in the US. That might indicate a higher accident rate, but it also might just mean the shrines are maintained better. I can easily picture a Mexican mother making the trip out every single week to refresh flowers, where a US family might just go once a year on the anniversary of the accident, at least after the initial period of mourning.
  • I have not camped out at all yet, largely because of the unseasonably cold weather, and I’m pretty happy about that. I love camping, but feel less than secure stealth camping even in the US.
  • This country is not as cheap as Americans say it is. I’m not sure where some bicycle bloggers get their numbers, talking of $10 hotels even in posts from the last five years. The cheapest hotel room I’ve found was 290 pesos, about US $25, and that was at a grubby and truly ramshackle little truck stop. (If there’s something cheaper than this, I’m a little afraid to see it.) Most hotels are closer to US $50. Similarly, meals are easily US $5-9. While these prices are substantially less than the US equivalent, they are nothing like the prices travel bloggers gleefully recite. If I continue in hotels the whole way, my budget will be a lot higher than I expected.

Those are the basics. Have any questions? Let me know and I’ll do my best to answer.

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Mexico, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: Washin’ Ropas

I’m interrupting these road logs to bring you a quick glimpse of my first rest day in Cedral, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. I’m staying at an AirBnB rental (the only one in town!) which is cheaper per night than most Mexican hotels.

Here is my setup for washing my clothes:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Technically, the owner does have a washing machine, but the water doesn’t drain out of it. She seemed prepared to let me use it anyway but I didn’t want to create extra hassle for her. I said I could wash them in my sink, and she instead showed me the set of buckets she uses to do her family’s laundry.

I also ended up with some helpers:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Their assistance mostly consisted of playing with the hose, spraying each other (but not me), and drowning a plastic dinosaur. Their mom eventually ran them off, pictured here. They also put some leaves in my laundry water. I’m not sure if that is supposed to help (maybe they smell good? Or have helpful properties in local folklore?) or if it was just boys causing chaos (this seems more likely to me).

Either way, I have no clue if I did a good job or not. I mean, I swirled my clothes around in the soapy water till it was grey, and rubbed them against a washboard (a real washboard!). But is 60 seconds of that the equivalent of 40 minutes in a laundry machine? Or will they still smell a little funky when they’re done drying? I have no idea.

I did, however, manage to complete the job and my clothes are now hanging up to dry:

Photo by André

Photo by André

…which shouldn’t take long in the desert air (I hope, since I want those jeans before the nighttime chill sets in).

Please share this post on the social media of your choice. And if you want to help support the adventure, consider grabbing my novella in print or ebook!

 

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

Road Log: To the Border!

Last time I paddled a kayak 100 miles down the Gulf shore and washed up on a lonely beach after dark. This time I pick up from the same beach and bicycle with two friends: Blake, my roommate in Texas, and Pixi, an old friend from Minnesota. Our goal is to reach the US/Mexico border crossing in Laredo, Texas.

This particular adventure has already been covered in great detail by Pixi herself, so I’ll stick to charting our route and a few observations on each day.

Two things bear mentioning however:

  1. Having two good friends with me made this was one of the happiest sections of the entire adventure. Adventure always has its difficult moments but with good companions everything is happier. Riding with Pixi and Blake made me believe that my Adventure can be everything I hoped it would be—if I go with friends and kindred spirits.
  2. I was very sick throughout this trip. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a stomach parasite (thanks to produce at a Texas grocery store). I had gastrointestinal troubles every day, got fatigued easily, and may have been running a mild fever. When I mentioned this later, both Blake and Pixi said they had no idea I was under the weather.
Our "before" picture. Photo by Amber.

Our “before” picture. Photo by Amber.

Thursday, July 18, 2014 (Day 742 of the Great Adventure)—The Fast and the Falfurrias

The three of us needed a ride to our starting point. Amber, the wife of Blake’s brother, generously stepped in. Soon we were in her truck with our bikes and gear in the back, heading down the highway toward the tiny town of Riviera, Texas. From there we easily found the beach where I’d washed up in the kayak months earlier. Picking up from this last stopping point, we mounted our cycles and headed out, Amber and her toddler son Kayson waving behind us. (Kayson may have been screaming rather than waving.) If you’re reading this, thank you Amber!

The first section was a peaceful country stretch. I made up some Texas history and we had no problems. It was cloudy and soon we got rained on. I was worried this would dampen my companions’ spirits but they seemed fine.

We took a break at a gas station. When the rain passed we pushed on toward Falfurrias, Texas, now on a more heavily trafficked highway. Everyone seemed fine. It got quite warm toward the afternoon (July in Texas is, according to every Texan who weighed in, just about the worst month we could have chosen for this expedition). When we reached Falfurrias we stopped at a former gas station and called a local RV park. They said we could camp there. A couple more miles and $15 later we had our tent and bivy set up.

Blake got a flat tire on the final mile and we did “how to fix a flat” session at the park. Mexican for dinner. Stomach grumbling, I declined the margaritas. 34.9 miles.

Map.

July 19—Falfurrias to Hebbronville

We got a fairly early start, hoping to beat the heat. Today there were no rain clouds to help keep us cool.

It was interesting to see everyone’s unique style. Blake, an athletic swimming coach with a brand new cycle and minimal gear, rode ahead at high speed and then came back to take photos of us. He was fueled by punk rock playing in one ear (earbud) and frequent texts from his girlfriend. Pixi, true to her Minnesotan origin, was quiet and stoic. I kept a close eye on her because her bicycle effectively had just one gear (actually three, but we couldn’t get it to shift correctly to the others). It didn’t seem to affect her pace at all.

As the heat intensified our pace lagged. I was struggling and I could tell Pixi was too. We took turns dumping water on the back of each other’s t-shirts (“it’s like a shot of espresso,” Pixi said). Temperatures climbed over 100 degrees. This was expected but still brutal. By the final run into Hebbronville I borrowed water from Blake. We finally reached a hamburger stand where we sat in air conditioning, ate, charged our wireless devices, and looked for lodging.

The only major RV park in town turned down us tent-campers. Checking out what looked like another, smaller RV park we ended up knocking on a random residence thinking it was the office. The man there not only introduced us to his mother, who let us camp at one of her RV spots for free, but also invited us to a barbeque that night.

I took a long afternoon nap, completely beat due to the parasite. 36.5 miles

Map.

Sunday, July 20 (Day 744 of the Great Adventure)—This Way to Mexico!

Taking a lesson from the previous day, we got up so early it was still dark when we left. The first 40 minutes of our ride out of town, after a coffee-and-ice-water stop at a gas station, were in total darkness, occasional trucks passing us and giving a friendly berth to our flashing rear lights.

The sun came up all too soon and temperatures began to climb. This was our longest mileage day and also involved real hills. Blake maintained his previous free-spirited pace, like a puppy running at a park. Pixi’s body had already acclimated to the hard pedaling. She became the leader of the pack, zooming forward with relentless determination.

My own pace suffered. I have a strong constitution and I can endure almost anything. There was no question I would make it to Laredo, but how long it would take me and in what condition I’d arrive were open questions. It wasn’t just the heat and the parasite, but also the gear: I had more and bigger saddlebags than the others, and carried most of our shared gear. Slogging up those hills was a challenge and I fell behind.

I think Blake later felt guilty for letting me get behind. At one point I shouted at a dog to scare it off, and Blake fell back thinking I’d shouted at him (!). Luckily it didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits.

The final stretch of big hills and heavier traffic took place in the oven-like hours of late morning/early afternoon. We hopped on a freeway for about a half mile to get into town, then stopped at a Whataburger for a long lunch/hydration session/cooloff. Blake got his 48th flat tire of the trip or so, and all my assurances that a patched tube was as good as a new one were proven wrong.

After changing the flat we biked into the downtown area to reach the border station. There are two bridges and two international crossings, only one of them valid for cyclists, so we had to cruise around a bit figuring out where to go. Finally reached a sign that read “TO MEXICO ● ELEVATORS ● ESCALATORS.” We had arrived.

The sign in question. Photo by Blake.

The sign in question. Photo by Blake.

The point of this leg was not to cross the border, just to reach the border so I could pick up from there on the great Mexico leg. We had achieved our goal. Sweating in the afternoon heat, we posed in front of the sign and I high-fived a nearby pillar. I would tag it again months later when starting the next leg, proving I hadn’t skipped a single inch.

(André’s note: also on this day, I surpassed my 3,000th mile of the trip!)

Afterward we went to a nearby park surrounded by colonial buildings. Pixi and I napped in the shade while Blake went present shopping. Later, Blake’s mom and step-dad (hi guys!) generously picked us up for the ride back to Corpus Christi. We stopped for tacos for dinner, which I could barely eat. I was proud of having finished 130 miles in 100 degree heat even when I was ill. But more than that, it felt good to have shared this accomplishment with friends. 57.5 miles

Map. (Note: The portion of this map in Laredo contains approximations due to one way streets. Also, our actual end point is several hundred feet to the east of what is marked—in the “Paseo del Antiguo.”)

Our "after" pic. Great job guys! Photo by André.

Our “after” pic. Great job guys! Photo by André.

Total traveled this leg: 128.9 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3007.8 miles

That officially catches us up on old road logs. See them all here, and get ready for new stories from my current adventure, the ride across Mexico. I’m current in the highland desert town of Cedral, in the state of San Luis Potosí. I’m just a stone’s throw from the ghosts towns of Real de Catorce and have much to report. More soon!

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Adventure, Corpus Christi, Road Logs, Sea Kayaking, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: 98 Miles at Sea

In the last road log I biked 700 miles to Corpus Christi. In Corpus, I spent months training on sea kayaks with master kayaker Ken Johnson. (Ken has been written about by Forbes magazine and you can find information on touring with him here.) The plan was to switch from bicycle to kayak and do the entire Gulf coast all the way from Texas to the Yucatán.

That plan didn’t work out, mainly because of the difficulty in finding paddling partners to go on such a long voyage. Kayaking is much more expensive than cycling, which narrows the pool substantially. But I didn’t want all those months of training to go to waste, so I decided to at least do a section of the Texas coast before switching back to bicycle for Mexico.

I’ve already written up the story of that fateful, windswept voyage—one of my most popular adventure stories (part 1, part 2). But I never did map it out and figure out the total miles paddled. So here’s a road log (or sea log) of the kayak trip.

Note: Normally I use Google Maps to show the route I took on each leg. This isn’t possible for kayak routes because Google doesn’t have a sea voyage option. Instead, I used Google Maps’ “measure” tool to plot the course and tally up the miles covered—but you cannot share a link to measure tool maps. So no interactive maps this time, but I did include screen shots of each map below.

Friday, February 28, 2014 (Day 602 of the Great Adventure)

This was a standalone paddle day. The point was to go from our usual launch point, in town, to a location on the Intracoastal Waterway outside of town. That spot on the Intracoastal would then be my launch point for the big voyage. Thus, today was kind of like a prelude. 16.4 miles

Map 1:

Overland from my last bicycle point to the kayak launch point.

Overland from my last bicycle point to the kayak launch point. 0.4 miles.

Map 2:

Map 2

Standalone kayak day. 16 miles.

Thursday, March 6 (Day 608)—The Launch

I set off with Ken and our friend Winnie bidding me farewell on the shore. I put offerings in the water and then paddled against a tough tide/wind combination. Slept on the porch of a floating cottage in Baffin Bay. 27 miles.

Map 3 first full day

March 7—Waking in the Sea

Early start but slow progress. Very hard by late morning. I had heard that the tide creates a powerful draw in one direction or another down the long, narrow Intracoastal. I suspect it was with me at night/early morning (mostly when I wasn’t paddling) and then against me all day. Camped underneath another cottage, this one on land. Ken warned me of storms the next day. 17.3 miles.

Map 4 second full day

Friday, March 8 (Day 610 of the Great Adventure)—Race Against Storms

After probing ahead a bit, on Ken’s advice I turned for a pullout point. The kayak trip would be cut short due to approaching severe storms and hypothermic weather. First pullout point was a dud, and second one was a mad dash through a squall. It ended with a night crossing of the final stretch of bay and landing on a beach in the dark. Beautiful. 37.6 miles.

Map 5 Last Day

Total traveled this leg: 98.3

Total traveled since Day 1: 2878.9

Next time I’ll track the 130 miles that Blake, Pixi and I bicycled together in the Texas heat—100 degree days in July. Until then, check out old road logs. And yes, more reports on my current Mexico ride are coming up soon!

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

Road Log: New Orleans to Texas

In the last road log I paddled across the Mississippi to avoid taking a ferry. This time I pick up on the opposite bank and aim 700 miles away at Corpus Christi, Texas.

Image via Polkadots Cupcake Factory

Friday, October 4, 2013 (Day 455 of the Great Adventure)—Leaving New Orleans

Finally, after multiple false starts, I biked to the ferry, crossed the River and left. I made final offerings to say goodbye to the Mississippi, who had been my companion for 1900 miles and more than a year.

I headed toward Houma on a mix of levee trail, River Road, major highways, and the Old Spanish Trail which had some good scenery at times. I did my best to dodge rainstorms spun off of distant Tropical Storm Karen, and got a little wet but not soaked.

My destination that night was the hone of Alvin, a 50-something cyclist and a teacher. Easily the most knowedgeable cyclist I have ever met. I learned a lot from him in our short time together and enjoyed a great meal together. 58 miles.

Map.

(You can also see the actual route I took to get to the ferry, more or less—Google doesn’t approve of wrong ways on one ways—but this segment isn’t counted in the mileage because I had already crossed the river by kayak in June.)

October 5, 2013

Today there were more serious showers bearing down on me from Karen to the east. I made a calculated decision on being able to outrun them (the east wind was also a tailwind for me) despite Alvin’s offer to stay a day or two till they passed.

My destination today was Bayou Salé, but what I’ll always remember is Bayou Teche. Friends in New Orleans had helped me plan my route and insisted I bike along this bayou, and I’m sure glad I did—some of the most beautiful cycling I’ve ever seen along with the Natchez Trace. The road runs on either side of the bayou out of Houma, very lightly traveled. I did pass a park/fishing area that was closed due to the federal government shutdown.

My route then took me through Bayou Black, over the steep Amelia bridge, and through one small town before lunch at Morgan City. In the past I’d had only good experiences stopping at Shoney’s restaurants, but in this one they treated me like I was an escaped convict. I was sweaty but friendly, yet my manners didn’t seem to get me anywhere.

After crossing a big bridge out of Morgan City I continued to eschew major highway for a winding bayou road, adding miles but enjoying the scenery. I began to feel better about leaving New Orleans and pushing on with my adventure.

The small towns and scenic byways continued right up toward sunset. Finally I turned down the last road toward Bayou Salé, well off the beaten path. With only a few more miles to go, this road held one more steep bridge and—after staying dry all day—the first rainstorm to catch up with me. I arrived at my hosts’ house tired, wet and in good spirits.

Russ and Paul, my hosts, convinced me to have some wine with dinner. We had a great conversation and I got some much-needed sleep. 67.8 miles.

Map.

Sunday, October 6, 2013—Rest Day!

Russ and Paul are a sweet gay couple in their 50s. Russ grew up in the bayou and Paul moved there from Pennsylvania to be with him. Together, they opened a stained glass studio in a small building across the road. The studio makes a variety of objects, with most of their profit coming from large scale windows for churches. (Russ told me there was no need for me to pass on their business card to churches on my route, because they already had more orders than they could fill.)

They also make small items for tourists and do a lively trade teaching stained glass classes. Russ said that the men who take their workshops usually come to learn the skills needed, then start doing their own work at home; the women are more likely to keep coming back over and over, treating the classes as a social occasion as well as a learning opportunity. As a side benefit, the women have begun bringing food and wine to each workshop/social (which they share with the guys).

Russ also told me about how the devastation of the coastal marshes has made flooding worse in his area. Buildings that have not flooded in 200 years were feet below water after the last hurricane. One of his family’s houses was still in a needs-to-be-restored state from the last flood, and the glass studio had been badly damaged but already fixed up.

Russ and Paul live in another of Russ’ old family homes and Russ takes care of his elderly father, who is mostly confined to his bed. I spent part of the day doing writing, and rode with Paul to get some groceries from a gas station/mini-market. (By “groceries” I mostly mean ice cream.)

Like so many hosts, Russ and Paul offered for me to stay longer, but I planned to head out the next morning.

October 7, 2013—Bad Gear Day

I started out excited about more bayou country, but today quickly became a lesser disaster. I’d had a strange noise on the bike the previous cycling day—never a good sign—but couldn’t trouble shoot it. Just miles after setting out, as I made my way back over the nearby bridge from the other day, the back gear set began to fail. I limped forward and stopped at the gas station/mini mart hoping to fix it.

Unfortunately it wasn’t that easy. The gear cassette was loose and, contrary to what would make sense in a world run by the Rogue Priest, cannot just be screwed back on. It takes a special tool. To make matters worse, the lockring that holds it in place appeared to be stripped. Tools or no tools, my gears—the crucial component that translates pedal strokes into forward movement—were hanging on only by force of habit.

I could have called Paul and Russ and asked them for a ride back to their house just 7 miles away. But with no bike shop anywhere nearby it wouldn’t have helped. My destination for tonight, Abbeville, was still 60 miles off—but if I could get there, a bike shop in Lafayette was only a 20 minute drive away.

After at least an hour of failed troubleshooting, I mounted the Giant and limped him back onto the road. What followed was one of the most agonizing days I’ve ever experienced: soon the gear cassette lost its grip and fell off the wheel of the bicycle. I fitted it back on, still with no lockring to hold it in place, put the chain back on, and continued. Repeat this 100 times or so—anywhere from once every few hundred feet to once every five miles—and you have a clear picture of my day.

After a few bayou towns I figured out a partial solution: as long as I kept the chain in the absolute lowest gear, the tension of the chain itself helped guide the gear set toward the wheel instead of falling off. (It still fell off, just not as often.) The downside is that I had to run in my lowest gear. At an approximate pace of 6 miles per hour, I cruised onward.

I alerted my Abbeville hosts of my bike troubles and late arrival. I was determined to get there: camping in the middle of nowhere and then getting back on the wounded bike tomorrow sounded awful. No way was I stopping till either I arrived at their house or the bike crumbled to dust under me.

Eventually I had to depart the beautiful bayou roads and take a major state highway toward my destination. This was around rush hour and very, very unpleasant. The shoulder was a cratered mess—a good recipe for knocking that gear cassette off—so I stayed in the lane as much as possible (legally correct, but not a popular choice). One trucker actually pulled over and blocked my way, apparently planning to give me a scolding. I shared some opinions of my own.

My persistence paid off. Completely beat, I coasted into Abbeville at sunset just as the moist swamp air cooled down. I made my way by dusk to the home of Leanne and JH (names changed), a former boulangerie converted into one of the coolest homes I’ve seen. Leanne made Thai food and we ate at the former butcher counter, now their bar. 64.2 miles.

Map.

October 18, 2013—Rest & Repair

Both very laid back, Leanne & JH had no problem hosting me for an extra day while I repaired the bike. JH is mechanically inclined and had some thoughts on pillaging a gear set off an old Peugeot. I, being less initiated into the inner workings of these machines, preferred to get a brand new replacement. We took a ride to Lafayette where a bicycle shop installed the new gears without difficulty. (I also managed to leave behind my chain oil there, which I mourned for some time.)

Tonight it was my turn to make dinner. I made a giant pasta served with red wine. Friends came over. I enjoyed meeting everyone but I recall my two evenings in Abbeville without much fondness: I spent most of my time worried about the bike or the road ahead, plus I was physically beat. I get a feeling that I wasn’t the most social guest to my young, fun-loving hosts, though they did enjoy the dinner. I also got my first taste of Cajun hospitality at a nearby house party.

Late at night, I found myself craving some sweets. Leanne had told me to help myself to anything in the kitchen. In the freezer I found some chocolates, and had a few. They tasted (I thought) freezer burned, but satisfied my sweet tooth and I went to sleep. I remember feeling dizzy as I passed out…

Wednesday, October 9, 2013—Ouch My Head

I awoke feeling like a bag of garbage, or like something that the entire garbage truck had run over. I was on my own for breakfast: Leanne had to run to work early and JH was already gone. Somehow, I was simultaneously nauseous and ravenous, not to mention dizzy, bleary and suffering from a jackhammer of a headache. Doing morning yoga did not help.

Also, there was no food in the house.

Wondering how just a few drinks had left me with such a hangover, I moaned as I climbed onto the bike. The Giant, at least, was refreshed and ready to go—minus a lack of oil on his chain—and off I wobbled.

I remember the first hour of this ride as some of the most painful cycling I’ve done. Days later, I would find out from Leanne that the chocolates I’d eaten contained large amounts of magic mushrooms. Recommended dosage: one chocolate. That explained both the horrible after effects and the grittiness I had taken for freezerburn, though it does not explain why people would ever eat these mushrooms voluntarily.

About an hour out I reached the small town of Kaplan, LA. and had the “Hungry Man Breakfast” which helped considerably. (The hunger had, by now, overcome the nausea.) I picked up an extra bungee from a hardware store to secure gear in my front basket. Last, still reeling from the last effects of mushrooms, I conducted a review with one of my clients via phone while wandering through the side streets of town. Just another day as a freelancer on the road.

My destination for the day was Lake Charles, LA, a bigger city. It was a lot of miles away on a hangover and an untested bike, but the Giant was a champ and I’m happy I was able to get the brand new gear cassette for him. The chain slipped from the gears once but overall it seemed like a successful repair.

Between Kaplan and Gueydan I sang an entire Vodou ceremony, which felt good.

Sadly, I lost one of my (worn out) bicycle gloves while resting in Gueydan, just after I started thinking of replacing them. My hands and bum became very sore, but I had no knee pain, indicating my new seat position was good.

The towns were all interesting. Abbeville was beautiful if quiet. Not much going on in Kaplan. Gueydan was pretty and looks like it has good eateries but the people were a little standoffish. Lake Arthur seems like a good sightseeing destination. I stopped there in a park beside the lake and called my mom while I hydrated. Not much in Hayes or Bell City, barely towns at all.

I stopped at a roadside eatery/convenience store in Hayes late in the afternoon. While slamming Gatorade, cashews and a Cliff Bar, a teenager named Seth struck up a conversation with me. Really social, really interested in what I was doing. His dad put up two cyclists from Australia with their family about three years ago. I explained that I work on the road and I hope it planted the seed that he can do this too. His friend was much more cynical. Seth can do better than that.

Finally I cruised into Lake Charles just after rush hour and found the home of my next host, an English professor. 80.8 miles. 

Map.

Thursday, October 10, 2013—Work Day

I got along great with my host, Dustin, not only a young professor but a fellow writer. We discussed favorite books, authors, the difficulty of writing and the great joy of revising. He had a sort of high-functioning hippy attitude that I’m sure made him popular with his students. I read some of the original Conan the Barbarian graphic novels from his book shelf the night at one point during my stay, likely the night I arrived. The conversation was great.

Dustin understood about my need for a peaceful, quiet place to write and recommended the Stellar Bean Cafe. While he went to teach classes, I bicycled into downtown Lake Charles. The cafe was everything I hoped it would be (there was even a local writers’ group meeting there, which I did not join). I completed a lot of work, much more so than at previous rest stops, and that night I bought Dustin dinner at a Mexican restaurant. He seemed surprised by the gesture but his attitude and camaraderie meant a lot and I wanted to do something nice.

This would also be my last full day in Louisiana, as tomorrow’s route would take me across the border if all went well.

October 11, 2013—Train Bridge Day

I had no host lined up so I planned to go 37 miles to Orange, Texas and look for a place for the night. I was hoping a Methodist pastor there would respond to an email and offer me a spot. Because of the short day I took my time and got a late start. I left Dustin’s around 9, went to a park and did yoga, went to two bike shops and bought a new pair of bike gloves, then cruised up to the bridge I expected to take, the I-10 bridge. So steep! And negligible shoulder. I had seen the shoulder situation on the satellite but not the steepness.

The I-210 bridge appears to have wider shoulder but it’s much, much longer, and even from a distance I could see it was tall as well. I considered using a train bridge to cross but couldn’t find a way to access the tracks. Ultimately I went around the lake entirely, through the towns of Moss and Westlake, adding 15 miles to my day. Had lunch at Jake’s Cakes and Coffee Shop north of Sulphur.

During this time I received an offer from a WarmShowers host, Jeff, to come stay two nights in Beaumont, TX. That is significantly farther than Orange, and I held out hoping the pastor would get back to me, but no luck. So I pushed on, and my day’s route grew from 40 miles to 60 miles to 80 miles.

Was on track to reach Jeff’s house just at 7:20 as promised, but the I-10 bridge into Beaumont was under construction, with absolutely no shoulder for bikes on either side! Jeff offered a ride, but I struck out and used a railroad bridge instead. Walked for about an hour on gravel and rail tracks in the dark, covered in mosquitoes, dodging living and dead snakes. Moved off the tracks at one point to let a train go by.

Halfway across the train bridge, a train appeared coming straight for me.

[André’s note: this is one of the craziest things that has happened to me and you can read the full story here.]

Once across, coming off a huge adrenaline surge, I made it to Jeff’s about 9:00 p.m. a 12-hour, 83-mile day. Ugh.

83.3 miles.

Map.

(Map includes a loop before the I-10 bridge that equates to the actual distance I took on the railroad tracks. Across the river, map does not show the distance I crossed on the bridge itself or on the city streets from the bridge back to the latitude of I-10. The estimated total for those two combined distances is 1.4 miles, which I’ve added in. After that the route on Magnolia Street is accurate. I always exclude time spent cruising around locally, which would amount to about 6 more miles in Lake Charles, and in this case I excluded the many spans of frontage road I took along I-10, which sometimes included small detours.)

October 12—Work Day

Jeff had never hosted anyone before, and was only able to put me up because (a) his wife was out of town and (b) he agreed to keep me in the guest room attached to the garage, not part of the main house.

One other cyclist was there the night I arrived, though I use the word “cyclist” loosely. This man drove a car which may or may not have had a bicycle inside of it, may or may not have been on his way to some kind of vague family emergency, and had the approximate social skills of a stoned badger. I felt incredibly grateful that this guy was not Jeff’s only introduction to the world of hosting travelers, and I endeavored to be the best guest possible and leave him with a good impression.

Thankfully, Mr. Grumpy left early on the morning of the 12th. I had arranged a rest day before continuing, and Jeff invited me to go fishing with him. I was extremely tempted—the area he was going sounded gorgeous—but I had too much client work to do. I stayed in and was a homebody, but I did get all of my work done before Jeff returned that evening. We went to the store and got some ingredients, then Jeff cooked up his catch with curry and we had a great meal and conversation.

Jeff and I hit it off. We come from different worlds but I know a good soul when I meet one, and he had it. He also seemed to take to me, and even put me in touch with relatives of his around Corpus Christi so I would know someone when I got there. Like many hosts, he invited me to stay longer but I felt the need to push on.

October 13, 2013—Loneliness

The day was dreary with occasional piss from the heavens. Riding out of Beaumont toward Baytown involved little traffic but a headwind that made the going frustratingly slow. The whole day was a long slog of a ride. Knee pain and saddle soreness became so extreme that I started making adjustments to my seat. Starting to get scared about my knees.

Really not much fun today. Not sure why I’m so worn down. Saw a guy sitting roadside (on the freeway) just out of Beaumont and offered him some water. He drank it without touching the water bottle to his mouth. I really admire that.

Rain clouds threatened all day. Didn’t get rained on till about an hour out of Baytown. Rain matches my mood. Further slowed everything down.

I had nowhere lined up to stay tonight. Thought I might get in by 3 pm and try to find a local who would help. Felt horrible sense of insecurity because of not knowing where I’d sleep—sometimes I think I’m giving myself an anxiety disorder out here. Ended up deciding I would just get a motel on arrival, and that brightened my mood up a lot—sense of security and promise of comfort.

Good decision too. Didn’t get in to Baytown till nearly six (reached my motel at 6:30) and this town really doesn’t have a cute downtown or anything particularly welcoming. Would have been hard luck trying to find a free place to stay. Lots of taquerías though.

Rested well and ate Mexican for dinner. Drank two beers. Stayed up too late. 68.1 miles.

Map.

Monday, October 14, 2013—Galveston Day

I had really looked forward today as a short, fun bike ride ending on the Gulf coast. But the wind was against me and there were many steep bridges. My knee pain became pronounced quickly, and I felt a new, much more urgent discomfort in one knee. I stopped and made adjustments again (I had also made more adjustments before leaving the motel). I think I’m closing in on the best seat height/position/angle for my body and bicycle, but the existing pain is still going to take a while to subside.

Going across the causeway onto the island was amazing, however. (Galveston is located on an island.)

Once on the island I saw another person sitting on the side of the freeway. This one seemed drunk and disoriented. He asked me how to get to the beach. I couldn’t do anything for him so I wished him luck and kept going.

Galveston is a beautiful town! I stayed with Kellyn, a graduate student and her roommates. As a man I couldn’t ask for a better welcome: four college girls living in a giant house together. I had a guest bedroom with its own bathroom. I also happened to arrive the night they were carving their Hallowe’en pumpkins, and I brought a six pack of beer to contribute to the event. They had an extra pumpking for me and we all chatted as we carved. My night with Kellyn and her roommates’ will definitely be one of my favorite memories from the trip. 44.5 miles.

Map.

October 15—Work Day and a New Host

On Kellyn’s advice I chose a little cafe in downtown Galveston to work in. Galveston is a great city, with a lot of artists and a lively downtown. It’s a vacation destination, which is part of its charm, but it also lacks the sprawl of other Texas cities because the island only has so much space.

When I planned my stop in Galveston I arranged two nights with two different hosts. It was one of the first destinations on this trip that had a large Couchsurfing community, and I figured I would meet more people this way. In reality, though, I was sad to leave Kellyn & Co. My second host, Celia, was incredibly kind and had many interesting stories of her own. I’m happy I met her. But Kellyn and her friends are closer to my own age, and after having such a lonely time on the road the chance to socialize with them had been very nourishing. Celia has a son to look after and after our dinner together I was mostly left to my own devices. I think the smart choice, after having met Kellyn yesterday, would have been to change my plans and stay with her both nights while simply meeting Celia and her son for dinner. I’m sure neither host would have minded.

I iced my knees regularly during this rest stop.

October 16, 2013—Freeport Day

Instead of crossing back to the mainland I rode alone the barrier islands. Extremely pleasant ride with beach and beach houses to my left, and pasture or dune prairie to my right. A little rain at the beginning and end. My knees are feeling differently, with the right knee feeling much less strained and the left feeling more strained, which means my seat adjustments have had an overall good effect though still not perfect.

Really enjoyed the ride along the Seawall in Galveston in the beginning, even though the tourist strip is less attractive than downtown. Wish I had taken a week or a few days in this town.

Just before reaching my destination, near the tip of the barrier island, I stopped at an oceanside restaurant for a burger, a beer and some rest time. I called my friend Saumya, long overdue and good to speak with her again.

In afternoon I reached my next host, a young couple named Danielle and Chris living in a small, nice house in the edge of a bayou outside Freeport. Both work as chemical engineers at a major refinery operation. Interesting, friendly people.

[André’s note: much later, they would take me up on my offer to reach out to me if they were ever in New Orleans. I got their message very last minute and was unable to find a place for them to stay that night. Will always feel like I let them down after they helped me out so generously.]

43 miles.

Map.

(This map still shows me leaving from Kellyn’s house, not Celia’s. That’s because the two houses are nearby, and this way my route includes the distance traveled between the two. One house is literally on the route onward from the other.)

October 17, 2013—Bay City Day

Reluctantly, I turned away from the Gulf and its beach communities, which seemed open and welcoming. I went through the “city” of Freeport, which is more like thirty miles of nothing but refineries. It felt like bicycling through the Death Star. Actually kind of fun.

Very sore ride especially the second half. Had to fight wind at times too. Late-ish start from Danielle and Chris’ house (they left early for work and left me to my own devices) and had a big lunch at a Tex Mex place in Brazoria, right at the V-corner in my route. More Tex than Mex for sure. Called many motels in Bay City and cruised through town to get a feel for the place (not reflected in map/miles). Settled on Studio 6 for the night and was quite happy with it—apartment-style rooms with full kitchen at very low price.

Notably, this was the one year anniversary of arriving at New Orleans.

Had indulgent Mexican dinner at Ricardo’s. 49 miles.

Map.

Friday, October 18, 2013—Port Lavaca Day

I ate again at Ricardo’s, this time for breakfast, and really loved it. Possibly the best huevos rancheros (with chorizo!) I’ve ever had, and one of the top breakfasts in general, too. I’m starting to like these “shorter” 50-mile days, even though I’m mostly using the extra time to leave later in the morning—flies in the face of my original reason for shorter days (although still no sunset runs in quite some time) but makes everything less stressful.

I also took a long break at a gas station in Blessing, TX after almost missing the turn off (continuing past would have sent me through Palacios, adding perhaps 15 extra miles onto my route).

The last section of roads before reaching the causeway to Port Lavaca, such as Highway 1862 and then back on 35, were gorgeous and empty and perfect. Felt that spiritual sense of awe at the beauty and desolation that makes me love journeys in the first place. It’s really been too long since I felt that.

The causeway was another matter. While I made it across fine (and was actually impressed at how smoothly and politely traffic changed lanes to go around me), no sooner was I across than a sheriff vehicle threw on its lights and motioned for me to pull aside. He scolded me for using the causeway and told me “the worst accidents” happen because of cyclists. I didn’t tell him that I was the one following the law, or that if law-breakers are causing accidents, maybe they should be the ones pulled over. He told me “next time” I should “get a ride or… whatever.” I was polite.

I planned to camp tonight at a public park in Port Lavaca, right there on the shore near the causeway. It had RV camping so I figured if I paid my hammock would be more than welcome. Wrong. When someone asks if you need a “tent site” apparently you should just say yes. Something about the idea of the hammock made the woman fear for her job. She did recommend another possible campsite (which seemed dubious) and a Mexican food stand (which I never went to), and I liked her overall. But with the cold north wind, no promising camp option, and storms on the way I ended up going to a motel for the third time on this trip. (It was a regular Motel 6, directly across the street from the RV park, which was oddly more expensive than the apartment-style Studio 6 the night before.)

I feel a lot of regret that I didn’t get to camp. Not that I was super looking forward to it, in all—setting up camp solo after a long bike day can be exhausting—but I had gotten excited about it that day. Plus, with tomorrow having a scheduled CouchSurfing host, this was my last opportunity for this whole leg of the trip. Turns out I hauled the hammock, fleece sleeping bag and cold weather gear all this way for nothing. It’s a substantial amount of dead weight on a bike. Sunk costs and all. But it would’ve been nice to sleep in the breeze at least once on this segment.

After checking in and showering I spent an outrageous amount of time biking around looking for a local pizza place that turned out to be closed, then settled for Mexican again at a restaurant that was truly sub-par (but more expensive than Ricardo’s). I miss you, Ricky. 51.9 miles.

Map.

October 19, 2013—Broke Axel Day

Today seemed like an easy day. At “only” 50 miles, I felt good that I would make it to my host for the night, where I would get to sleep on his sailboat in the Fulton, TX harbor. That’s a pretty cool prospect, and one I looked forward to. Plus, tomorrow would be my arrival in Corpus Christi if all went well.

All did not go well. Less than 10 miles out of town I heard an odd noise from the back wheel, and the second time I stopped to check on it the axle fell out in two broken pieces. The bike couldn’t go any further.

I’ve already told this tense story before, so I won’t repeat it. The short version is I had to hitchhike forward 10 miles to the next town, where I failed to find a further ride onward toward Fulton. Instead, a friendly local gave me the axle from an old Peugeot road bike and helped me change it. I continued on from that point and, in a heart-pumping race against the sunset, made it to host Mel and his boat.

[André’s note: I had to come back to this stretch of road months later and bike the missing 10 miles I’d hitchhiked over, for the sake of covering every inch powered by my own body.]

Mel was a fascinating individual whose spirit I admire. He lives aboard his catamaran, which he’s slowly fixing up for long sea voyages. He’s also toured extensively in his camper van, and not long ago took a cruise ship one-way to South America and bused back to the US slowly over the the course of months.

We had an excellent evening swapping travel stories. Mel served a home made dinner of soup with brisket and noodles and a big side salad. It’s rare to meet a host on my travels who will serve healthy food, and while I’m always grateful for whatever people share, I was extra happy to get some greens in me. 50.6 miles.

Map 1: Completed that day before breakdown. 10.4 miles.

Map 2: Hitchhiked that day; completed by bicycle later on January 18, 2014 (Day 561). 10.8 miles.

Map 3: Completed that day after repair. 29.4 miles.

Sunday, October 20, 2013 (Day 471 of the Great Adventure)—Arrival in Corpus

This was a good day. After a light breakfast with Mel I set out on the bike, confident I could cover the 34 miles to Corpus. I stopped for an early lunch at a cafe in Rockport and took byways off the main road as far as I could. Remembering my entrance into New Orleans, I allowed myself a congratulatory beer at a gas station in Ingleside—not quite as memorable as the one on the way into the Crescent City.

The first (larger) bridge into Corpus, the causeway, was no problem. Wide lanes, wide shoulder and not steep. The second bridge however proved much trickier. I feel that Fortuna always throws one last obstacle at an adventurer close to completing a quest, and mine was the bridge featured in this video:

Finally I made it into the city proper, the freeway bridge depositing me directly in the downtown. Known for its beach, I had hoped Corpus Christi would be similar to Galveston (especially after the cute, laid back feeling of Fulton). The truth was it felt very different, more like the big, sprawling city that it is. I aimed myself at the palm trees and the waterfront and followed Shoreline Boulevard and its scenic Seawall. (This isn’t reflected exactly in the map, since I was on the pedestrian/bike walk on the Seawall, which Google doesn’t approve of.)

Finally I reached a yellow concrete building facing the ocean. It looked like it had survived from the set of a Miami Vice episode 30 years ago. Inside that building was the apartment of my final host, a man who had offered to put me up for a few days while I found an apartment—and would ultimately take me on as along term paying roommate.

For now, my host was out on a fishing trip and I was told to let myself in and make myself at home. I tried to determine if there was a beer store nearby, so I could have a gift waiting for him, but to no avail. Instead, I took a shower and prepared for a new life in Texas. 37.4 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 698.6

Total traveled since Day 1: 2780.6

There are just two more road logs to go (the kayak trip, and the final push to the Mexico border), and then we’ll be all caught up—and ready to start chronicling the current Mexico ride! Until then, check out old road logs if you’re so inclined.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, Spotlight, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: Narcolandia

Since I’m now back on the road, I thought it would be a good idea to resume my semi-regular Photo of the Week practice every Friday. This week’s photo, which you can find below, is actually taken by my friend the Fly Brother, and shows Pixi and me—the first two cyclists of the Fellowship of the Wheel–as we set off on a ride across northern Mexico under our own power.

Photo by Ernest White II

The Fly Brother also wrote a riveting account of that first day, from his perspective as the driver of our support vehicle across what he refers to as Narcolandia. It was thanks to Fly’s cheerful bravery, and the help of numerous contributors, that we didn’t have to go it alone. Read his full account (with more photos) here.

And since I’m long overdue for an update of my own, here are some essentials:

  • We made it safely to our first rest stop in Saltillo, Coahuilas. That’s where I am as I write this. The roads seemed all in all safe, and we put as much distance between us and the border as we could in our first three days.
  • For those who contributed to the Fellowship of the Wheel crowdfunding campaign, I’m just editing the first video logs. They should be in your email before Monday. For everyone else, I’m hoping to create a way to become a supporter even though the campaign is over, allowing you to get access if you missed out.
  • I’m staying 100% on top of my road logs this time, so unlike the ride down the Mississippi there won’t be any year-or-more lags before my journals are up. However, I’m also determined to get the last few overdue road logs up from Texas, so expect those in the next couple days. Mexico logs will start after that.

Again, thank you to everyone who provided support in any form. Gracias and viva la Fellowship!

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