Adventure, Bicycling, Spotlight, Texas, Travel, Women

130 Miles to Laredo, Pixi Version

This is a guest post by Pixi, one of two co-adventurers who accompanied me on the 130 mile ride to the Mexico border. 

Pixi just before we start. Photo by André.

Pixi just before we started. Photo by André.

In one of the last emails before the 3-day bike trip across southern Texas, André wrote to Blake and me:

“Okay guys. Yesterday and today I did some riding. Yesterday in 94 degrees, today in the low 90s in peak afternoon. The wind was comparable to the one we’ll have behind us. When I was against the wind the heat was unbearable because of the hard pedaling. But when the wind was behind me the heat actually seemed fine… And I was even wearing long pants!”

“Sounds awesome,” I wrote back.

And it did, even though I was freaking out in my head. I didn’t believe there was any way this trip was going to be that easy. Just the planning had already been stressful: getting time off work, finding a replacement bike after mine was stolen, and figuring out how to get it from Minneapolis to Texas. But, I knew deep down that this was what I had asked for. I wanted an adventure.

Despite the stress of transporting the bike in a bike box on the Greyhound, I arrived just fine. Blake and André picked me up at the bus station and we went back to Blake’s house to prepare for the journey the next day. André helped me put the bike back together and gave me a tour around some of Corpus Christi showing me what he meant by going with and against the wind. It was still hot in long pants, but I could feel the difference he talked about.

Early the next morning, we were picked up by Blake’s sister and brought to the dirt road where André had ended the kayaking leg of his adventure. After last minute sunscreen application and pictures we set off down a deserted country road full of excitement and anticipation. The South Texas roadside flora, so different from Minnesota, was fascinating and beautiful to watch go by. The trip was off to a great start as we chatted, joked, and greeted the cattle who watched us go by, while an overcast sky kept some of the heat and sunshine at bay.

Then, despite Captain André’s weather reports, it started to rain. We stopped to put our phones in plastic bags and turn on our bike lights. The rain actually helped a lot with the heat and I was grateful for it until I realized my brakes didn’t work as well when they were wet. But, we ended up keeping a good pace of about 9 miles per hour. By the time we rolled into Falfurrias in the early afternoon the rain had stopped.

André had already researched the town and knew that there was an RV park where we might be able to pitch the tent and bivy. He called them up and the owner told us we could definitely set up camp there for a small fee. They even had a laundry room to dry out our wet clothes, a shower and even a pool! About a half mile from the RV park, Blake got the first flat of the trip. But with a place to rest in sight, he just walked the bike the rest of the way. The owner, Arthur, was one of the nicest guys and very accommodating. He showed us the area where we could camp, chatted about how he ended up owning the RV park, and told us if we needed anything to just come to the office and ask him. He also recommended places to get dinner—including a good Mexican restaurant and a bad Mexican restaurant. We changed into dry clothes, set up camp and André gave us a class on how to change and repair a bike tube (By the end of the trip, Blake was an expert at this!). Still, I was almost disappointed at how easy the day had been. Where was the Adventure?

After dinner at the good Mexican restaurant we went back to the RV park and started a fire in the fire pit in the rec room. Well, André would say I made a fire and he just helped. It was still hot outside, even at that time of day, but the opportunity to have the traditional fire at the end of a long day of adventuring was hard for me to pass up.

We started earlier the next morning to try to beat some of the heat, silently wishing for more rain which never came. Leaving the RV park, we headed straight for a country road that we thought would have less traffic than the highway. The country road eventually turned into a dirt and gravel road. We stopped and André asked us what we wanted to do: bike back to the last intersection and try to meet up with the highway, or walk the bikes for a somewhat uncertain distance on the dirt road. Blake and I said we’d be fine walking (a short break from biking and the opportunity to move our legs in other ways sounded good, actually). André later told us that that’s what he probably would have done if he’d been alone, too, just gone straight on instead of backtracking.

The heat of the second day got harder to deal with as the morning went on. I started lagging behind. Blake, on his new bike with the skinny, yet highly breakable tires, was taking the lead. We kept up a 9 to 10 mph pace, even in the heat and gratefully stopped at the very first food establishment when we reached Hebbronville. After burgers and being in the air conditioning long enough to feel cold, André whipped out his phone to research possible camping spots. He found a mobile home park and while it was less likely we’d be able to camp there, he called them anyway. The woman who answered the phone was not sure if we could tent camp there, though. One of the employees at the burger joint suggested a park in the middle of the city, sure that no one would care if we put our tent there.

We decided to scope out the Catholic church in town, which ended up having no yard space to speak of, and then the city park, on the way to ask the mobile home park owners in person about pitching a tent. We eventually found a mobile home park and André confidently walked up to what appeared to possibly be the office, or just someone’s house, and knocked on the door. The door was answered by a man who happened to be the son of a woman who owned a different mobile home park across the street. Her son pointed her out to us, saying we could probably camp over there, that all the neighbors who lived there were really good people and even invited us over for a BBQ later. We thanked him and went across the street.

His mother, Lupita, said we could set up our tent in an area that wasn’t being used. At first she charged us the same $15 for the night that we had gotten charged at the RV park, but later gave us back the money saying we should use it for dinner. Her husband brought us some plastic chairs to lounge in and we took a siesta in the shade. Later, they offered to hook up an extension cord so that we could charge our phones. But when none of the electrical boxes seemed to work, a neighbor connected the extension cord straight from his mobile home. Their hospitality was incredible!

After dinner, Blake and I decided to readjust our seat heights, as both of us had started having knee pains. When it got dark, another neighbor came over and offered us a flashlight. Everyone was so nice. Now the question is, would André have gotten the same hospitality in both these cities if he had been alone? I think he would have. We just ended up meeting the nicest people in these small towns.

We got up extra early the next day to beat the heat on our longest day of the trip. We got everything packed in record time, went to the nearby gas station to fill up all our water containers, and took off before sunrise. We knew from descriptions from our new friends that there were several large hills on our way to Laredo and one bridge, but also that it was mostly downhill. Whether it was the ease of our route, the seat adjustment, the cooling breeze we got most of the way, starting to listen to music on my phone like Blake had been doing, or a combination of all these factors, this day felt like the easiest of all three and I was leading most of the way. Even when I ended up getting my one flat of the trip, the three of us worked together very smoothly to replace the tire roadside.

Iconic road shot by Pixi.

Iconic road shot by Pixi.

We rolled into Laredo before we knew it and then the most difficult part started. When we got close to the city there was a lot more traffic than before and the shoulder of the road was filled with debris.Trying to navigate between the danger of passing cars or getting a flat tire was difficult and a little scary. Captain André’s leadership skills really came out to help us navigate the dangerous road.

After lunch, André tried to figure out the route to the border crossing and Blake worked on patching his latest flat as best as he could. We followed André, biking through the downtown, going the wrong way on several one ways until we finally found the right bridge for pedestrians to cross over into Mexico. Here we stopped and André made us take several pictures of the three of us. Then André put his hand to one of the columns, choosing the spot where he would officially begin the next part of his trip into Mexico. We went to a park in the middle of town to wait for Blake’s mother and stepfather to pick us up. Proud and exhausted at finishing our trip, we then had dinner and beers with them in celebration before heading back to Corpus Christi.

One of the pictures André made us take. Photo by Pixi.

One of the pictures André made us take. Photo by Pixi.

I am so glad I went on this trip. It was challenging and so much fun! I really believe anyone can do this. I didn’t really do any training at all. I only did one 25 mile ride beforehand. I can’t wait to see what other adventures I will get to be a part of in the future. Thanks, André, for letting me be part of this one!

Some notes to interested travelers:

  1. Having the correct bike fit for you (seat position, etc.) is very important and does make a huge difference in how tired you get or how many aches and pains you have when riding long distance.
  2. Although I had fears about packing my bike onto a bus it was actually much easier than I thought it would be. The policy on Greyhound is that you have to take the bike apart and put it in a bike box in order to have it as a piece of checked baggage. I thought I might have to pay a fee for it being larger than their 62” total height/width/length limit, but I ended up not having to pay anything extra. I may have had to if it was over the 50 lbs. limit, though. I also had the fear that with my several transfers, on a crowded bus there wouldn’t be enough room under the bus for my oversized box and I would have to wait for the next bus to my destination. This never happened either.

André’s note: does anyone have a question for Pixi?

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Adventure, Bicycling, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

Making New Adventurers

Sunday at around 3:00 p.m. our little bicycling group reached the US/Mexico border. I officially completed the US leg of my Great Adventure.

It was also the first leg I did with a group. I can safely say that this trip went as well as I could possibly have imagined it going.

I don’t want to give too much away, because both Pixie and Blake have offered to write up their own accounts of the trip which I’ll share here. But I did promise before and after pictures, so let’s start with those.

Before

Before

After!

After!

I had expected that the two pictures might show a major change. In the “after” shot I thought we’d look dirty, disheveled, totally beat. As you can see, we don’t. I also wondered if my co-adventurers would look a little unhappy by the end. This isn’t experienced cyclists with professional equipment and sponsorship; this is normal people with mismatched gear and no idea where we’d even sleep at night. And yet, everyone’s smiling.

From the beginning everyone seemed ready for a challenge. We worked as a team and we all got along. Neither the rain on Day 1 nor the 100 degree biking weather on Day 3 garnered any complaints and, more importantly, I don’t think there were supressed complaints either. Everyone was mentally prepared for what they were facing.

That’s not to say it was easy. The sun just savaged us. I ran out of water on the second day and had to borrow more from Blake. Pixie’s gears didn’t work. There were more flat tires on one bike than I expected from all three of us.

But none of that really mattered. When there was a problem we just huddled around and solved it. As Blake said, within a very short time traveling together we had started to work like a well-trained pit crew.

More than anything, I’m grateful that we got good rest each night and stayed safe each day. All the concern about heatstroke paid off, with some tough rides but no truly dangerous moments. Between the three of us we always had enough water and the right basic gear to survive in the sun.

I’m sure I can’t expect every adventuring group I travel with to operate this smoothly, but it taught me a great deal about what to plan for and how to lead. That will be important as I plan the Mexico leg. Within a few weeks I hope to announce the dates for each segment so that more co-adventurers can come along.

But what gives me the most heart isn’t what I learned. It’s seeing others get to experience an adventure of their own. By the end Pixie and Blake both came to me and told me they’re tempted to join for Mexico. (Blake’s mom has already told me he is not allowed to do the border region.) They now have memories and achievements of their own—the kinds of lessons from the road you can’t learn by reading about it, only by doing it. When we made it back they positively beamed.

For myself, there’s something like 5,000 more miles ahead. But that road doesn’t seem so long now that I know I can share it.

André's Great Adventure reaches the Mexico border!

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Adventure, Adventure Prep, Bicycling, Texas, The Great Adventure, Travel

On the eve of my first group adventure

Photo by Arturo Sotillo.

Friday morning I take out a bicycling group for the first time. This is the last leg of the US, and the first of my recruit-fellow-adventurers policy. Three days, three people, 125 miles. It’s a weird feeling.

For starters, people now call me “leader.” It’s a role I’m comfortable with, but in the past it was always more formal. As a younger man, the teachers who meant the most to me were the ones who enforced a strict master-apprentice relationship. That was the only way I knew how to lead. But that approach depends on having a lot of authority behind you, and it isn’t well suited to free adults. These days I prefer a partnership of equals, where I may guide or nudge but ultimately everyone makes their own choices. The problem is I have no experience leading that way.

Thankfully, a look at my two co-adventurers says not a lot of leadership is needed. Both seem pretty self contained. I can show them how to change a tire or I can talk about road safety, but for the most part I think they’ll be fine.

I do wonder if they’ll need moral support. On a long bike trip, the beginning and end are fun but the middle is the passage of darkness. That’s when you’re a long way from home and still have a long way to go. On a three day trip, will that still apply? I don’t know. Waking up that second morning, tired and sore but not even halfway done, could be the roughest moment.

Most of my time is spent thinking about safety. On my own, I can abuse myself as much as I want. I know my body pretty well, and I can push it to levels that most people would shy away from. If I want to keep going in the dark, or the rain, or against a strong wind, or with no food—I can.

With a group that’s no longer my right. To some degree I have to think about what my people need, even if they won’t say it out loud. I’ve never so thoroughly considered heatstroke, bike safety or equipment as I have in the past eight weeks. At the same time, I have a commitment to finish this trip powered only by my own muscles. If one of them has a crisis, I not only have to get them picked up and driven to safety, I then have to continue on my own.

It’s been fun to see how different people prepare for a trip. Pixi is organized and planful, asking equipment questions well in advance and demanding checklists for what to bring. This is a quality I really admire and aspire to. Blake’s style has been more like mine: plan it in the abstract but put off the details until crunch time. I’ve forced myself out of that habit: I’m the one who has to be ahead of everything here. Blake has expressed amazement at how much I pre-plan. Heh.

If there’s anything that surprises me, it’s that both of my copilots are totally following through. While I never had reason to doubt them, I’m just used to the reality that most people flake out on most things. Of the three people who wanted to come kayaking with me, zero ever showed up; but of the two who wanted to join this bike leg, both will be gathered around the bikes by the time you read this message.

This is particularly amazing considering both had huge setbacks. Pixi got her bike ready months ahead of time, only to have it stolen our weeks ago. When I read her email I was sure it would end with Sorry, but I think I’m done. Likewise, Blake was gifted a beautiful 1970s Schwinn from his dad, which barely wobbled out of the garage but survived a 30 mile test ride. We took it for routine maintenance and cleaning at a bike shop and 24 hours later it was a pile of scrap.

(Old bike fans: it will be resurrected one day. The head bolt was rusted through and snapped, and some other components were kaput as well. The shop in question isn’t used to working on v̶i̶n̶t̶a̶g̶e superior bicycles, but Blake is dedicated to getting the parts and fixing it.)

This is where a lot of people would have thrown their hands up, especially with the added cost, but Blake bought a brand new aluminum-frame touring cycle meaning he’ll probably outpace us all. Meanwhile Pixi hit the garage sales and successfully combined two non-functional bikes into one functional bike, even rebuilding a back gear cassette together with her boyfriend.

Ironically, while my bike is named The Giant, Blake’s is a Giant brand. I’m going to call it the Little Giant until he comes up with a name that doesn’t infringe. I don’t know what Pixi’s bike’s name is, but it seems like she has good taste in adventuring names, so I expect big things. Of course, there will be before and after pictures of all three of us.

I don’t really know what to expect from these next three days. Even with all the planning, all the new equipment, and two friends at my side, we’re heading to towns we’ve never visited and anything could happen. To me that’s where adventure comes from. Adventure is the unknown and embracing it wholeheartedly.

No one in the world knows where they’re going; an adventurer has no choice but to admit it.

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Mexico, Photographs, Travel

One last stop in Guanajuato [Photo]

Today is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, George Washington’s birthday and the feast day of St. Benjamin Franklin! Happy 4th to all my US readers. I arrived safe and sound in the US despite some customs hiccups. Perhaps appropriately, today will be the last of my Mexico photos, at least for now.

I had to seek this one out. One day I was wandering through some new callejones (apparently other expats are scared to do this? Guys it’s just houses!) and I came upon what I call the Alley of the Flores, because every single balcony was hung with flower pots and the whole thing was painted bright colors. I wanted a picture right away but (of course) had no camera on me. I made a mental note to get return another day and take photos.

When that day came, I rounded the corner into Flores and stopped in my tracks. It was every bit as pretty as I remembered, but someone had thoughtfully parked a brand new VW that perfectly matched the trim paint of the alley. It’s like they knew I was coming.

Photo by André

Photo by André

I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out. I took a bunch of photos from different angles, and this isn’t quite my favorite but it has the best colors. What do you think? How could I have made it better?

Anyway, so long Guanajuato, hello beach town. I’m having a cookout this evening with my Texas friends. What are y’all doing?

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Adventure, Mexico, Travel

Thoughts at the Border Crossing

I don’t know what it is about travel days that make me feel like I can spend as much money as I want. Maybe it’s the lack of obligations for a day, or feeling like being on vacation—or maybe the hours of low-grade discomfort just need to be offset somehow.

For the last 25 hours I’ve been on buses. I’m struck by how different Mexican bus stations are from US ones. They’re almost more like airports, minus the heavy security. They have full service restaurants, complimentary wi-fi, a coffee shop and beer. US bus stations are vaguely frightening places where staff eye you like you may be a criminal. I suppose it’s because buses are used by all classes in Mexico, whereas in the US they’re for people who can’t afford a plane.

But then you’d think the price in the US would reflect that. Just a few hours on a Greyound bus cost me $40. In Mexico I crossed over 500 miles on two luxury buses, the kind that have giant airline seats and give you a pillow, a snack and a beverage. The total trip there cost just US $80.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I left Mexico. When I entered the country I accidentally dodged the proper paperwork and passport stamps. I would have owed a sizeable fine if anyone noticed. But they barely glanced at my passport. The security guard paused for a second as he handed it back, as if considering asking where my tourist card was, then thought the better of it. I make sure to never speak Spanish at customs.
Next we stopped on the US side of the border. I was surprised how different the air smelled: like fresh summer prairies. Im sure the Mexico side smelled just as good—we drove through hundreds of miles of open steppe—but I hadn’t set foot anywhere except crowded cities for months.

Coming back to Texas stirs mixed feelings for me. I’ll get to do a bike leg with friends in a few weeks, and landing here gives me a chance to plan for the months ahead. At the same time, I feel a little rudderless. I’ll spend the next few months organizing a trans-Mexico bike trip, and I’ve never done anything on that scale before.

Mostly though it’s just culture shock. My first meal in any new Mexican town is inevitably at a small local kitchen where a grandma makes everything from scratch. My first meal in Brownsville, Texas, was the same as my last meal there three months ago: a 12″ sandwich from Subway.

Even American dollars feel different. There was a time when pesos felt frail to me, such thin slivers of paper with little transparent parts. But when the exchange counter handled me dollars today they felt like slabs of cardboard. I couldn’t fit them in my money clip, and had a hard time paying for my sandwich with the clothy bills sticking together.

But the biggest difference is my Spanish. Last time I returned from a stint in Mexico, I walked around proudly trying to use it at any chance—only to see that I couldn’t carry on a conversation. Now, “conversation” might be stretching it but I can switch to Spanish with relative ease and get the jist, at least by the second time they repeat it.

I’ve had a hard time remembering to use English. So far this hasn’t been a problem, since almost everyone around me in Brownsville and on the buses has been Mexican American and they knew what I meant. But even with the Anglo border guards I found myself saying “gracias” rather than “thank you.” It’s a hard habit to break, and one I wish I didn’t have to so that I can keep learning.

My Spanish is still nowhere near what I would like it to be, but I have a few months to continue practicing. Ultimately I suppose it will be just like my bicycling skills were when I started out: far inferior to what I needed, but enough to get by and improve rapidly.

 

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

There is Good in People Everywhere You Go

In the last entry I had lunch with racists and a sleepless night of hypothermia. This time, even though the physical obstacles don’t get any easier, the attitudes of the people I meet start to change—which makes all the difference in the world. This will be a long entry, but it was also a turning point in my adventure.

Day 92 (Saturday, October 6, 2012)

I didn’t so much sleep as go through a staccato of naps. The morning light went from black to gray. For hours I’d prayed that the night would end, but when it did, the slght warmth of the morning sun coaxed me into real slumber.

But I couldn’t dally for long. Unless I wanted to spend another night exposed in the wind, I had to run toward a new town and new prospects—in this case Greenville, Mississippi. An hour later I got up once and for all.

The rain had stopped, and it was sunny but cold when my feet hit the ground. I packed up my hammock as efficiently as I could in the wind, putting it away wet, and looked over the Giant who seemed to have weathered the storm just fine. I waved to some of the families in their RV’s as I pedaled away from my temporary home.

The first thing I needed was breakfast. And coffee, a whole lot of coffee. Lack of sleep undermines all of your abilities on the road, and coffee doesn’t fix it but it does reduce the pain.

I biked along a highway at the edge of town, looking for the kind of place that would have big breakfasts at a reasonable price: a Denny’s or its Southern equivalent. But it was multiple fried chicken places and zero diner types. Reluctantly, I turned back into downtown: Yazoo Pass Cafe advertised a great breakfast, though it wasn’t exactly Denny’s prices.

Still, maybe I’d see Whitman there again. That would almost be rewarding, just to show him I’d been fine in that “dangerous” neighborhood.

The breakfast was worth the money, as was the stack of coffee mugs I went through. No sign of my racist friend, which was just as well. But the place was busy: it was Saturday morning and, I learned, there was a blues festival this weekend.

During all this I got a message from one of my readers named Jason. Jason is on a spiritual search of his own now, but he used to be a pastor at a church in Mississippi. He was still well connected to other pastors, and said that his friend Pastor Brian could put me up at his church tonight. The church was in Greenville, more than 70 miles away. After the previous night, I was determined to cover those miles in one day.

I had aired up my tires before breakfast, but already they felt soft. I wondered if it was my imagination or the cold air. As I loaded my computer into the saddlebags (I’m sure I spent some time online over coffee, which is my general self-remedy for feeling stressed and frayed), a friendly voice called out.

I turned. It was a woman sitting at an outdoor cafe table with a few friends. She was middle aged, with giant curly hair and a cane near her chair. Her body didn’t look athletic at all, but you never can judge. She asked me where I was going, and when I told her, she began to reminisce about her own thousands of miles of bicycle touring.

I really respect this woman. She had done it back in the 70s or 80s, for starters, and I’m always fascinated by analogue adventurers in a web-free world. She was a font of knowledge, as experienced cyclists are, and she was friendly. I remember worrying after we spoke that I might have come off rude, as tired and wired and worry-focused as I was. But if I did she didn’t let me know it. We had a great talk.

I told her about my worry about the tire, and she asked if I had a patch kit (I did). She gave me the tip that if you need to use a patch with adhesive, you need to let it sit “as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette.” Of course, I don’t smoke, and the patches I had were self-adhering, but this tip would eventually come in handy.

She also asked if I had a chain link tool. I had never even heard of that. She explained that if my chain broke roadside, it was game over unless I had that tool, and one spare chain link. I had neither.

“Here.” She dug around in her bag and produced a single bike chain link, still in its package. “This is yours. Get yourself a chain link tool and learn how to use it!”

(André’s note: I sheepishly have to admit I still haven’t done this, though I do have that chain link and I plan to get the tool before the Mexico leg.)

I thanked her. I had to get going, although I had one more stop to make first. I biked over to the Clarksdale Post Office to mail a letter to my dad. He’s a Vietnam vet and I remember that getting letters in the Marines was really important to him. When my sister went into a Buddhist monastery, he wrote her every week. I figured it would mean more to him if I sent him handwritten letters rather than just email. This was probably my fifth one.

Coming out of the post office, there was no doubt my back tired was leaking. I was angry. It’d been only two biking days since I’d patched it last. And when you’re fatigued and already running late, you don’t want to do a bunch of repairs. Especially in front of a post office with non-cyclists staring at you.

But it was either that or go take a bus home and cry to mama.

The goo-filled tire tube had done its job, but at this point I stopped patching it. It looked like it had been through World War I. I put in a new tube and levered the tire back onto the wheel, which took forever because I was terrified I would rip up the tire like I had done in the past.

Mississippi makes for some stunning bicycling. Photo by Meg.

Mississippi makes for some stunning bicycling. Photo by Meg.

It was probably nearly noon when I threw the expended tube in a trash can and mounted a loaded, aired up, combat-ready bicycle. I made a navigational decision I’m still very happy with: instead of taking straight Highway 61, I would use the winding and scenic River Road. I still remembered the glorious ride into Memphis and, with another north wind behind me, figured I’d make record time.

It didn’t quite work out like that, but the following hours would be one of my favorite days. Ostensibly, everything was at least as hard as the day before: my first leg was westward, so that powerful wind wasn’t an ally at all, and when I did turn south it would quickly shift directions and leave me to my own muscle power. I was going to get dumped on by rain, too. But the woman with the chain link was only the first of several generous people I’d meet that day.

When I finally turned southward, I found myself in some of the most stunning terrain of the Adventure. So far, most of what I’ve described in Mississippi has been hardship, but that hardship was surrounded by an almost mystical beauty.

Because of the cool weather I’d worn long pants and a sweater. But the grey smudge behind my shoulder turned out to be a bank of storm clouds. I’ve biked through the rain a lot, and I’ve found it’s best not to try to waterproof yourself. The water will come from all directions, with tires kicking up plenty from below, and you’re just going to get soaked. So rather than ruin my warm clothing, I stopped and changed into shorts and t-shirt.

With nowhere private to change, I waited till I was at a rural cross-road. I hadn’t seen a vehicle in ten or twenty minutes. The crossroad had a small embankment that hid it from approaching traffic. I stood behind that embankment and changed.

(This included stripping all the way down, to replace my long underwear with boxers.)

Just as your Rogue Priest’s junk was completely divested of its trunk, a series of about four cars and trucks went by. One was an SUV with a family inside, which turned down the side road and went right past me. Children pointed out the window, and I wondered briefly about Mississippi’s laws on public exposure.

My next encounter with a car was more positive, however. At a later crossroad, I paused to put my phone in a plastic bag. The storm clouds loomed over me like a fortress, and the green Mississippi riverland looked emerald under the gray-black.

A pickup truck stopped next to me.

As the man rolled down the window, I figured he’d ask if I needed a ride and I already knew I’d say no. He asked me where I was going.

“South America,” I said.

His eyes widened. That’s one of my favorite questions to answer when I’m on a bike. And he was excited for me.

“You gonna be okay in this rain?”

“Yeah. It’s supposed to pass pretty quick. I just changed into this so my good clothes wouldn’t get wet.”

He nodded approvingly. He gave me his name and then his phone number. He introduced me to his wife in the seat next to him.

“We own a garage down in Gunnison,” he said. “You’re probably going to go right past it. If you need anything at all, you call us, okay?”

“That’s great! Thank you.”

“And here, I want you to take this.”

He held out money. I was humbled. At this point in my Adventure I knew that you don’t say not to this: this is a person’s way of being part of what you’re doing, of knowing they contributed. I worked the whole time I was on that bicycle, and while my budget was tight I paid my own way. I could’ve gone the whole length of the River without accepting a single ad hoc donation. But it wasn’t just about me, it was also about the person giving it. About their own hopes.

I gave him just the one, courtesy refusal. “Oh, you don’t have to. I work—“

“I know I don’t have to. But maybe you can get a couple of meals or a place to sleep some night. Think of it as my gift.”

I looked him in the eye, nodded, and said thank you. And I meant it.

The money he handed me a brand new $100 bill.

We shook hands, he reminded me to call him if I needed help, and they took off.

On the way into Greenville. Photo by Tom Hilton.

On the way into Greenville. Photo by Tom Hilton.

The rain came, and boy did it come. Soon I was soaked through—and the warmth of the coffee was long gone. I listened for thunder, and the bit I heard was far off. But it came closer and closer, and I had to start counting the seconds between thunder claps and lightning. Biking in the rain is one thing, but biking in Zeus’ shooting range is another.

Eventually I entered an area with woods on both sides, which made me feel a lot less concerned about being the tallest thing around. But the cold was a much bigger factor than the voltage. What had looked on my weather app like a short storm went on for fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, and no sign of stopping. I ate up mile after mile at a snail’s pace, moving cautiously with the combination of slippery roads and slippery brakes. Soon I was shivering uncontrollably, losing feeling in my fingers.

I did have my rain jacket on over my t-shirt, more as a windbreaker than expecting to stay dry. I pulled the sleeves down over my fingers, and the hood over my head, frequently fixing it when the wind blew it down.

These measures didn’t help. Keeping the wind off my fingers was a small victory with my whole lower body bleeding heat.  I considered sheltering in the woods, even putting up the hammock, but the thought of one of those trees crashing down on me didn’t hold much appeal.

I held out for a house.

When I did see one, I couldn’t tell if anybody was home. As I’d done in Missouri, I figured I would just go take shelter on their porch if no one answered. I leaned my bike against a giant oak in their yard, where it was visible from their doorstep, and walked up. I knocked timidly.

A woman called out from inside. Soon her husband had come to the door, and hearing my story he invited me in right away.

“You’re soaked,” he observed.

“A little bit. And cold.”

Thank the blessed gods, they didn’t have air conditioning on. He brought me a towel which I wrapped around myself like a blanket, shivering underneath. He also asked if I was hungry.

“Well, I don’t want to impose,” I said.

“We have plenty of food! What do you want? Here, we have Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s, Snickers, Reese’s…”

He ticked off about a half dozen more sweets.

Funny, when he’d offered me food I somehow pictured a sandwich or something. I was stuffed right after the big breakfast but by now I could’ve eaten a whole pizza; road days do that to you. But even though I didn’t normally fuel on sweets, I didn’t say no either. It so happens I’m a big fan of peanut butter cups, and soon I had a giant bag of them in my lap.

I did manage to pass up soda, instead getting a bottle of water that was (wince) ice cold.

The two of them were very kind. The woman never got up from the sofa, where she was covered with a blanket. I got the sense that she couldn’t walk easily. The husband did all the running around for her. I didn’t ask what condition she had, and I won’t speculate.

They wanted to hear all about my Journey. As the rain lashed down outside, I told them the basics. They had questions—including whether I would spend the night!

My mouth dropped open. After all the closed hearts I’d run into lately, I hadn’t expected that. And I thought about it. Would it really be so bad to put off the church invitation by one night? Couldn’t I just call it quits here, less than a third of the way to Greenville, and take a hot shower?

It was tempting. But the road called to me. I like the challenge, and I had barely made any progress today. The tail wind, the invitation up ahead, the promise of hosts in Vicksburg and a plan to meet friends in New Orleans in less than two weeks… it all kind of combined with my normal stubbornness and galvanized me to keep going.

“Wow, that’s really kind of you,” I said. “But I should push on. Once it stops out there, I’m going to try to make Greenville.”

It did stop out there. They stuffed my pockets full of candy for the road. They gave me more water, and offered me a blanket to take with me. I considered it, but I had stopped shivering and had enough weight to carry already (including a blanket of my own). After more thank yous and encouragement, I got back on the bike and pushed on.

I cruised through the next town (Gunnison, I believe) and the shop owned by my high-dollar benefactor from earlier. His truck wasn’t out front and I had a long way to go, so I didn’t stop.

From what I could tell, Gunnison has a large white population; later I reached Beulah, a tiny town that’s almost exclusively black. I stopped there for water and a snack. Several locals were surprised to see a white cyclist but all were very warm and friendly. I’ve suggested before that the towns that are most suspicious of outsider are those with the most racial tension. Towns like Beulah tended to confirm that hunch. Beulah is definitely rural and definitely small, and as the only white person around I was doubly an “outsider,” yet the people treated me with courtesy and smiles. I suspect it’s because there was no day-to-day racial tension leading to violence, cliquishness and suspicion.

(André’s note: Around Beulah I almost got hit by a truck, too. He was merging onto the road at a Y-intersection with only a yield sign. Seeing no cars, he just barreled through—and would’ve wiped me off the highway if I hadn’t swerved way out in the oncoming lane. I gave a yell as I swerved, and I could see the startled look on the driver’s face. He was a middle aged African American in overalls, driving the most hillbilly old pickup truck you can imagine. He promptly pulled over to the side of the road and apologized. Contrast that with the aggressive white driver who almost killed me in Clarksdale.)

I raced on. With the sun out, the wind wasn’t so bad on my soaking wet clothes, and I still had a little tailwind helping me along. But I already knew I wasn’t going to make Greenville before sunset. In the somewhat larger town of Benoit 11 miles later, I paused to call Pastor Brian with an update.

“I’m going to be a little late,” I said.

“That’s not problem on our end, Drew,” (this is when I still went by Drew) “But how late do you mean? Is it safe to bike after dark?”

“Well I try to avoid it but I have front and back lights to use. I’ll be careful. I expect to arrive a little after sunset—are you sure that’s okay?”

Brian said it would be just fine, and if I called him when I reached the church he’d drive right over to meet me.

From there onward the sun was setting. Earlier in my trip I had many grinning conversations with the Sun Goddess as she slipped below the horizon, my last lamp for the evening. By now it was just a joke to her—always late, Rogue Priest.

I kind of enjoyed the lengthening shadows, the golden light, the dramatic colors on the autumn greenery of the lonely Mississippi roads. A little mist crept from the woods.

The tailwind had shifted, and I had to pedal harder. At some point I put on my warm, dry clothing (behind a garage in Benoit, as I recall). But as the sun went down and with the northeast wind cutting across my bow, the dark got colder and colder.

The final run to Greenville was long, slow and unsettling. In the open country there are no street lights, so I only had the little pool of illumination from my headlamp to warn me of potholes. And I was nervous about speeding or drunk drivers behind me, even with my tail light. I kept a flashlight in one hand, signaling my presence as vehicles approached. My hands cramped up and went numb from holding it against the handlebars.

At last came a winding trip through the neighborhoods of Greenville, some of which looked like an even prettier version of Clarksdale while others looked pretty rough. I reached the church, texted Brian and waited beside a giant glowing crucifix for him to arrive.

Brian came quickly, along with one of the other church members. I suspect they came as a pair just in case I didn’t seem trustworthy. But they greeted me warmly and waved off my thank-yous. The nighttime temperature was already plummeting, and I thought of last night with a renewed sense of gratitude not to be left outside.

They took me around to the back where the church had a large youth center. It was basically a gymnasium/basketball court with a stage set up on it, plus bathrooms, a small kitchen and a few side rooms for smaller activities. Brian told me I was welcome to set up my sleeping bag anywhere.

Once he made sure I had everything I needed he and his friend left me alone with the whole place to myself. My first order of business was a hot shower, like medicine to my shivering body. Back in dry clothes again, I turned to my stomach’s priorities: I hadn’t had more than a bite or two of trail mix since the candy family.

Fortunately the church was located near a main street with several restaurants. Making sure not to lock myself outside, I walked about a block to check one out. The cold windy night didn’t seem so intimidating anymore.

My long, eventful day ended with one more act of kindness: as I finished my meal, the waitress asked me where I was from. I told her about my trip and that I was spending the night in the nearby church. This, along with the fact that I’d biked “all the way from Clarksdale” in one day, was enough to put me on her good list. She brought me a free dessert, bless her.

This day, and the hardships of the few days before it, taught me a lot about what it means to be a good person and change other people’s lives. But this log entry has gone on long enough, and I’ll save the philosophy for another time. 80.4 miles.

Map.

Total traveled since Day 1: 1515.5

Next time I make my final bid for Vicksburg, Mississippi—a long road day with the promise of rum at the other end. What do you think of the road logs so far? Too much detail, or just enough?

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Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

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

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

Road Log: Heat Stroke and Fire Ants

Monday I announced that everyone is invited for the Mexico leg, so I figured I would post some more road logs to get people excited about adventuring. I may have timed it poorly, however, because these next couple entries are rough. When we left off I was enjoying Memphis. This time I head out hoping for Clarksdale, Mississippi—and encounter some of the toughest days of the whole trip. Here’s the first one.

Image by Jeffrey

Day 90 (October 4, 2012)

90 days! Effectively three months since I started, but the real anniversary won’t be till October 7. If you’d asked me at the start of my trip how long it would take me, I wouldn’t have had a clue. But I did hope—and still do—to meet friends Urban and Saumya in New Orleans by October the 17th. That means I’m starting to feel a little urgency in moving on. The colder nights contribute to that too. At the same time, my perspective on camping out has changed. The experience of the last few weeks has taught me that it’s really, really hard to be a stranger with nowhere to stay. When I have a Couchsurfing host, the advantage isn’t just a roof and a hot shower (although that’s nice) it’s that the entire community becomes more friendly. When you’re a guest of a local you’re welcomed warmly by their friends and seen as someone worth meeting. When you’re an itinerant bicyclist people regard you as somewhere between a bum, a freeloader and a dangerous criminal. A lot of other adventurers talk about how easy it is to walk into a town, share your story and be given a place to stay. Maybe those people are more charming than me. Or perhaps, soaked with sweat fresh off the road, I just look too wild. But my luck has been decidedly mixed in finding even just permission to camp somewhere. So now I try to line up a Couchsurfing host every night if possible. I also learned about the site Warm Showers (it sounds dirty but it’s not) and started using that as well. Neither network turned up any hosts between Memphis and Vicksburg, three days’ ride away. The first stop on the way is Clarksdale, Mississippi. I figure I’ll just have to take my chances finding a place to stay or camp when I get there.

As so often happens, I got a much later start than I’d hoped. John and Michael both said I could stay longer, and it was tempting, but I pushed on. Cruised through downtown Memphis, taking in the beautiful buildings one last time before angling south toward a bridge, the Mississippi border, and Clarksdale. To get out of the city I had to go through South Memphis. I could tell I was in a rougher neighborhood but in broad daylight it didn’t worry me. Not, that is, until a squad car pulled up. “Where are you going?” asked the officer. With all the stuff strapped to my bike, I figured he was just curious. I explained my plan. “You got any other way you can take?” I didn’t, really, without going way off course. He nodded. “The neighborhood you’re going into is deadly,” he told me. “If I were you I would pedal fast and don’t stop for anything.” That took me back. I thanked him and he waved as I pulled away. At first I thought he was following me to give me an escort, but as soon as I turned a corner he was gone. I generally take other people’s neighborhood fears with a pretty big dose of skepticism. But I also don’t want to ignore potential life-saving advice. Heeding his words, I pedaled hard and fast. I didn’t stop for stop signs or red lights, only slowing down as much as I absolutely had to to make sure no cross-traffic would hit me. I got some stares here and there, but the main thing I noticed in the neighborhood was about a million signs like this: You might one or two anywhere in the world, but when they wallpaper every house like it’s a political campaign I figure maybe there’s a murdering problem. I was glad for the officer’s advice and moved fast. Eventually I went from slum to industrial zone. I crossed the Noncannah Creek, which is more like a drainage canal, on a giant meta bridge. Beyond was more industry, the exurbs, and—after what seemed like an eternity—the countryside. I stayed on Highway 61, belting out miles in the hot sun. The day really took a toll on me, and I can’t say why. Maybe it was hotter than before, maybe I wasn’t hydrated enough, maybe I was just pushing too hard. One way or another, it was actively unpleasant even by the time I crossed the Creek, and by afternoon out in the shadeless country I was really hurting. The lessons I had learned about camping out vs. having a host loomed large, however. Any idea of quitting before Clarksdale carried with it the miserable specter of another evening scrabbling for a place to camp. And another day before reaching a friendly home in Vicksburg. I really didn’t want to do that. Soon I developed early symptoms of heat stroke. I took basic precautions: a rest stop, more water, a little time in the shade. These precautions had worked in the past but, I would eventually learn, they don’t usually work. The cure for heatstroke is to get out of the heat and rest in a cool place for a good hour or more. I look at heatstroke (and sunburn) as low grade radiation poisoning. I don’t know if that’s medically accurate but they’re the result of too much exposure to a giant nuclear furnace. One makes your skin peel off and the other makes you nauseous and weak. You get these same symptoms if you’re an incautious distance from an atom bomb. Because of the sudden weakness, heatstroke also affects your bike pace. You go slower either to try to reduce the strain or just because you can’t go fast anymore. So now you’re out in the sun even longer. It’s not pretty.

I reached the town of Tunica, Mississippi in the late afternoon. I pulled off the main highway to scope their downtown and consider options. Maybe someone would strike up a conversation and offer me a great place to stay. Or maybe I’d find somewhere cool to hang out and rest. One man said he “bikes” from Clarksdale to Tunica and back all the time. Turns out he uses a motorcycle. The difference in difficulty seemed to be lost on him, and he figured we’d both arrive in Clarksdale around the same time. He said he’d wave if he passed me later. Tunica is a really attractive little town and I should have stopped there. Just put up my hammock by a church and called it a day. But the brief stop rejuvenated me, and I considered my mileage. If I had to leave from Tunica tomorrow morning, it would be over 100 miles to my next stop in Greenville—an even longer, hotter run than today had been. So I got back out on the highway and kept going. Within a few miles I knew it was a bad decision. I put all my legendary willpower into pushing forward—first in the vain hope of still making Clarksdale, then with the hope of reaching any other town, and finally just hoping for a gas station. I saw a little copse of trees that would make a suitable camp site, and went right past it. Not camping in the middle of nowhere! I thought. About 100 yards later the bicycle stopped. I fell more than I dismounted, and could barely hold the Giant up next to me. A motorcycle went by and honked without stopping. I turned the Giant back to the little copse of trees. We shoved through the tall grass, which caught musically in the spokes. I remember hoping vaguely that nothing broke. The remains of an old trail ran into the woods, and we followed it. Leaving the Giant, I took a few minutes to scout. No sign of anyone to catch me. I returned to the Giant and began unpacking camping supplies. And caught fire. Suddenly my skin flamed up all over my arms, legs and feet. Tiny red ants were all over me. I beat them off as best I could but every slap drew even more bites. They were all over the Giant where I had leaned him against a tree, and now they were all over me too. It was my first day in Mississippi and my first experience with fire ants. After slapping myself half to death, moving the Giant, slapping some more, and brushing him off I could finally set up camp. (André’s note: it turns out that if you’re writing a blog about fire ants and you see a bug on your arm, you freak the hell out.) Water was running low. I was ready to vomit. Setting up camp is physical work, and even in the shade it was warm. As the sun got low the mosquitoes covered me. Eventually I had a working hammock. After a letting out a short trickle of hot, sickly urine I threw myself into the hammock and just laid there, panting and clutching my water bottle. I had a lot to worry about. Lack of proper food was one thing. But since my stomach felt like a punching bag, a bigger concern was the low water. I used my phone to search for the nearest gas station and found nothing between Tunica and Clarksdale. That could be an error on Google’s part, but I wasn’t going out searching. I was only a few miles from a town called Lula. (Annoyingly, it has a propane or oil place that kept coming up on my searches for “gas.”) I entertained the fantasy that, once I rested a little bit, I’d be well enough to bike over there, look for somewhere to buy water, and maybe even get a decent meal in an air conditioned diner before returning to camp for the night. But as evening wore on it was clearly not going to happen. Rather than feeling better, it was like my body had only begun its epic voyage through radiation sickness. It was a struggle of will just to hold down the water I allowed myself to drink. And I didn’t hold back—I figured better to hydrate now and look for water in the morning. I rationed a small amount and sipped as much of the rest as I could handle. Fever set in and chills shook my body. I got a cheery message from Michael asking if I’d made Clarksdale (which he called Clarkville). Not wanting to alarm him, I only said I’d found a place to camp a little before town. I fell asleep early, and settled into a world of disturbing dreams, physical discomfort and much, much needed rest. 59.3 miles.

Map.

 

Total traveled since Day 1: 1412.6

Next we’ll see what it’s like to bike on with no water, and find out who exactly is waiting for me in the town of Clarksdale. Until then, you can check out all my road logs. Does this kind of story scare you away from going on adventures of your own? How would you have handled it if you found yourself in the same position? Obviously, I brought this heat stroke on myself, and I’ve learned a lot about safe biking since then. But leave me a comment and tell me what you think. Is the risk work the thrill and sense of accomplishment?

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Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.” Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Mexico, Photographs, Travel

The Steps of Guanajuato (Photo of the Week)

This week’s Photo of the Week was snapped from the stairs of the University of Guanajuato, which look like this:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That’s 113 stairs on one of the most stunning and asymmetrical old timey buildings I’ve seen. I don’t know what kinds of classes are held at the top, but I hope the professor gives extra credit.

The stairs also double as amphitheater space during the Cervantino, Guanajuato’s annual festival of arts, culture and theater. The Cervantino is named (and held in honor of) Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. Like many longstanding traditions it makes little sense: Cervantes wasn’t born here, never visited here, and set none of his fiction here. The best explanation I’ve gotten is that when one of Mexico’s presidents visited Guanajuato, he watched a live street play that just happened to be about Cervantes, and thought it was so brilliant he declared they should do a big drama festival. That kind of sounds like a folk story, but it also sounds very Mexico. The result is bronze statues of Cervantes, Quixote, and Sancho all over downtown, and costumed actors who lead tours and reenact scenes.

The Cervantino is in November so I won’t see it, but it’s a major international festival with the arts of one Mexican state and one foreign nation singled out each year. During that time, there are many performances outdoors (as well as in the city’s two historic theaters and many smaller stages) and the 113 steps offer plenty of stadium seating for one of the most popular venues.

But when I ventured up it was pretty empty, because rain clouds rumbled down the mountains just as the church bells rang 6 o’clock. I managed to catch church, clouds, mountains and a fellow intrepid photographer all in one shot::

Photo by André

Photo by André

I’m a little timid about calling that Photo of the Week. My photography skills just aren’t where I’d like them to be, and someone else could have gotten a much more dramatic shot. (I already know where I wished I would have stood instead, which is more behind her to put the focus on her view of the horizon).

But I like this shot for several reasons:

  • I finally got a candid shot of a local in the foreground, which is incredibly hard to do without them staring at you.
  • I got a foreground figure at all, whereas normally I just photograph what interests me: landscapes, buildings and moods. Boring stuff to most people.
  • I’m finally getting a sense of how to use the Dutch tilt to good effect. It used to be I’d tilt the camera A TON to kind of scream GUYS IT’S DRAMATIC (like in the first photo), or I’d realize how contrived that is and just shoot flat angles. But this picture has a slight tilt that adds movement without waving its arms for attention, and compliments the natural angle of the mountains versus the buildings.

Still, it’s not an amazing shot, and I welcome critique. By the way, that statue in the background? That’s Pípila, a guy you should totally read about. And yes, I did hike up the mountain to see him (instead of taking the cable car), but you should have already guessed that.

Any feedback on the photo, photographer friends?

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