New Orleans, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Tin Man’s Year in New Orleans

Now that I’ve finally finished my road logs through New Orleans, I thought I would throw together a quick overview of the time I spent there. New Orleans was meant to be my first long-term stop, but I originally only planned 3 months or so. Instead, I was there on and off almost a year. Here are some of the highlights, as I remember them.

October 17, 2012 (Day 103). Arrival in New Orleans. Slept well. Soon joined by friends Urban and Saumya, on holiday from Minneapolis.

Oct. 20. Anba Dlo. A major Hallowe’en festival/fundraiser at a local nonprofit, with close associations to the Vodou temple. The name means “From Beneath the Waters,” a reference to the community coming back after Hurricane Katrina. I volunteered at the event, which got me free admission; also dressed as David Bowie/the Goblin King from Labyrinth. After borrowing a young lady dressed as a goth bride (looked like Sarah), we won the costume contest. The costume was actually a big expense and I would later regret it, but it was worth it.

Jared and Sarah!

Jared and Sarah!

Oct. 27. “Day of the Dead.” Actually Fête Gede, Vodou festival of the death god, but often just called Day of the Dead, a holiday more people are familiar with. To me this is like Vodou Christmas. The biggest event of our year and typically attracts 100 people or more to the Temple. This was my second year at the event, which consists of (a) a full Vodou ceremony with drumming and dancing for the raunchy, incorrigible death gods; (b) a big meal; and (c) a procession to the cemetery with a litter full of offerings and candles for the dead. My friend Cintain came from Mexico and joined us. Urban and Saumya there too.

November 2. House Blessing. I found a Creole cottage to rent, and moved in several days earlier. I christened it Rogue Chateau. I already had misgivings about the choice to rent it—client work was drying up, money was a little thin and I had passed up a chance to rent a cheap place with two other guys, offered to me days before I reached New Orleans. Saumya, Urban and Gary (all priests at the Vodou temple) came and did a house blessing for me. It didn’t fully settle my misgivings at the time, but this home would indeed be the site of the happiest year of my life (so far). I wrote:

“A gaggle of Vodou priests invaded my house last night. We processed backwards from the courtyard through each room to the front door, a traditional house blessing. Saumya poured a veve on the floor in corn meal, Gary filled the air with songs to Legba, and as he says, “all lights were on.” My mantle is an altar, its candles are a beacon, the door is open, the home is ready. Rogue Chateau is open for business.”

Cintain also lended a shamanic blessing of his own.

Rogue Chateau

Rogue Chateau

November 22. Thanksgiving. This was a weird but wonderful Thanksgiving. I went to at least three Thanksgivings total. First Gary and I went to the home of a very odd friend of ours, who went to great lengths to hold a feast for us but then immediately went and took a nap while we were eating. After we let ourselves out we went to Gary’s family’s house, where I was under strict instructions not to tell anyone he’s gay. Last we went to his boyfriend’s family’s Thanksgiving, a huge Puerto Rican family affair where the drink flowed and the jokes were raunchy. Then off to drinking in the Quarter. I bookended the whole day by stopping at my neighbors’ party twice, both too early and too late to catch their Thanksgiving but in time to snag some cookies and good conversation. It was a great day, much needed when I was starting to feel lonely.

December. The month as a whole was a turning point. With client work dried up, finances had gotten scary. As part of my effort to make new friends I also went to the local Couchsurfing meetup, where I met one of the guys I had almost roomed with. He was fantastic, and according to him so was the house I’d passed up. My rent there would have been $330, compared to $1100 at the Chateau. However, over the course of the month I confronted my financial situation head on. I found new clients, took on work on the side, sold artwork, got a grant and, at the very end of the month, took on a roommate. By New Year’s my life in New Orleans went from precarious and lonely to exciting and fun.

Saturday, December 8. Gran Bwa! Our temple’s head priestess was out of town for several weeks and we held a series of ceremonies on our own, with the other priests officiating. This was a really beautiful time because it gave me a chance to learn by doing, stepping up into roles that were normally filled by others. The one I remembered best happened on this date, for Gran Bwa, the tree lwa with roots reaching all the way down to the city of the dead. We held the ceremony under the tree in the yard outside the Temple, instead of indoors.

Ceremony for Gran Bwa

Thursday, Dec. 13. Launchpad. As part of my effort to turn my client work around I went to try out a couple free days at a local coworking space, Launchpad. It’s an excellent space and community. It didn’t lead to new clients, but did lead to new friends. This is also the day I met the girl who would, eventually, become my girlfriend.

Friday, December 14. Nerd Prom. Launchpad invited me to their holiday party, the “Nerd Prom.” I knew the girl in question was into me when she asked me to be her fake boyfriend to protect her from another man’s advances. It was the way she said it. Afterward we went for a walk and kissed. Unfortunately, she’d soon be heading out for several months in Thailand—the joy and pain of a fellow adventurer.

The R2 unit dispenses beer. Not kidding.

The R2 unit dispenses beer. Not kidding.

December 20. Date! Said girl and I went on our first real date. The downside: she’d be flying out the very next day. We took the ferry across the river and brought her cute little dog (with funny ears) with us. The ferry ride back, at dusk, was freezing. We missed a choir performance at the Cathedral so got dinner instead, then dropped off the dog and went out for a few drinks. She was sad to be leaving and I told her she would see me again.

December 24. Petwo! Christmas Eve is the night that the Petwo, the fiery spirits of Vodou, are given special honor. First we made fire baths in a special late night ceremony and blessed a variety of ritual implements, then we drove up to Lutcher, Louisiana, a small town on the river’s edge. Communities all along the river traditionally light giant bonfires for Christmas Eve. Our Vodou temple went as a group and we enjoyed a house party followed by the great bonfires themselves. A fitting celebration for the Petwo, and a good stand-in for my usual Midwinter celebration. (I described this a year later in more detail.)

At the bonfires

At the bonfires

New Year’s Eve. I spent this night with new friends, including my roommate and my soon to be best buddy Cole

January. Besides suffering from financial woes in November and December, I noticed I had given in quite heavily to New Orleans’ drinking culture. I decided to do a month of sobriety (a benefit to health, sanity and pocketbook). Friends told me this was a terrible idea, since January starts Carnival season, but I persisted and kept a clean record the whole month.

Also during this month I became seriously involved in my Mardi Gras krewe and our plan to dress as Led Zeppelin songs. We built an impressive float shaped like a Zeppelin, complete with fold-down guitar bar and keg.

Dazed and Confused Kewe (us). Picture by the Captain.

The Dazed and Confused Float

Saturday, January 19. Krewe du Vieux. This was my first Mardi Gras parade and, really, the first one of the season. Krewe du Vieux is known for its inappropriate humor, both sexually explicit and politically satirical. It didn’t disappoint. We went to a mixture of house parties before the parade. As the only sober one in the group, I was wide-eyed and lucid for the parade (but got worn out quickly later on). This parade truly dazzled me. The later tromping from bar to bar was more wearisome, but I still remember the night fondly. My landlord and soon-to-be good friend was a key part of it, as was his partner. It will forever be my introduction to Mardi Gras.

Natchez Trip, Jan. 31 – Feb 3. I took a long weekend to go see Jimmy, the host who had put me up in Natchez, Mississippi. He had invited me up about a month earlier to get my mind off my financial situation, but the invite came just as my fortunes turned around. Instead it was a very relaxing weekend, and I got to meet a friend of his who is the forester in charge of the entire National Forest I had adored bicycling through. We also walked along the river, met more of his wonderful neighbors, and explored the historic town in more detail.

Wednesday, Feb. 6. Nyx. This night will forever be enshrined among my happiest memories. Cole and her boyfriend Joe and I decided to bicycle up to the parade despite a forecast of rain. It was balmy when we set out, an electricity in the night air. Not long after we reached the parade route it began to rain. Not a soft drizzle but a good rain. We embraced it. The night was warm, and once we were soaked the rain was part of the magic. The women of Nyx doted on us, tossing us all kinds of great throws for being some of the only people to weather the rain. We ducked into a pizza shop where we traded throws for slices. We poured ourselves drinks from a kit we’d brought along and went back out. With bags and bags of throws, we retired to an Irish pub post-parade and eventually taxi’d home, to come collect our bikes the next day. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Thursday, February 7. Muses. Muses is one of the more fabled parades of New Orleans Mardi Gras, and I was surprised to recently learn it’s only been around 20 years or so. Another all-women parade, this one is “named for the nine daughters of Zeus and the goddesses who inspire the arts & sciences, as well as for the nine streets of New Orleans… Happy are they whom the Muses love!”

Happy indeed. This night was a treasure. The weather was clear and mild, we had a house party near the parade route to serve as our launching point, and I quickly made friends among the hundreds of people lining the block we chose to stake out. A group of our friends met us there, and among them was someone I’d met by chance only days earlier, who would eventually become a good friend. This friend managed to catch not one, but two of the treasured shoes that the Muses sometimes toss to revelers, each one a work of art in sequins and glitter. She gave one to two out of towners who were there on their honey moon. She also hooked them up with a room in a stone tower at a friend’s mansion, a modest step up from sleeping in their van as they had been doing.

What stands out most about Muses, however, was the fluttering butterflies on roller skates, their wings made of glow sticks and LED lights, holding  lights above them and passing out programs. This flock preceded the first float, giving the parade a sort of living overture, a buildup that made the excitement almost unbearable. It is rare to see such creatures of light, moving in inhuman ways, passing right by you and touching you as they go.

Our Mardi Gras krewe

Our Mardi Gras krewe

Tuesday, Feb. 12. Mardi Gras. There’s not much I can say that I haven’t already said in What Happens on Mardi Gras?

Saturday, Feb. 16. Bosale. I initiated into Vodou, as a free practicing member (bosale) of our House. Details are here.

Sunday, March 31. Easter. Early Easter morning I went to the Vodou temple. We had put the lwa to sleep earlier that week; in Vodou myth these are their days of rest. Now the altar was uncovered and coffee was laid out for each of the Rada lwa, the cool and wise spirits. I had a bad sore throat and had to beg some coffee from one of our priestesses to help soothe it so I could sing. One by one we sang to the lwa, woke them up and gave them offerings. Afterward we all ate cake.

Springtime. Eventually, the girl I liked so much returned from Thailand. We began spending time together. We went to a second line, a sort of street parade where revelers follow a brass band though a neighborhood (hence forming the “second line” behind the band). Originally it was a funeral tradition, but it’s used as an all purpose celebration and there’s one held pretty much every Sunday during the cool season. Neighborhoods take turns hosting them. The level of revelry in the street was intense, and we floated along as part of the crowd. We purchased beers from wheelbarrows of ice, jello shots from passing vendors, and cupcakes from a person with a few extras. Clouds of marijuana filled the streets.

The two of us were clearly falling for each other. Our courtship was slow, but bit by bit we became partners.

Also during the spring I found out that the Temple could not offer priestly initiation this year, unlike in previous years. This was crushing news to me as it was the main reason I had extended my stay in New Orleans, and had become a major part of my spiritual path.

April 13. Wizard of Oz. For Cole’s birthday, she asked us all to dress as Wizard of Oz characters. I took Tin Man. We bicycled through the French Quarter and the Bayou St. John, stopping for lunch and drinks and eventually ending up at City Park where we laid on the grass and enjoyed life.

Tin Man!

Tin Man!

April 30. Bealtaine. Although Vodou had become a major part of my life, I found myself homesick for my old Irish polytheist temple. I had no one to celebrate the Irish holidays with, and no one to perform big ceremonies for the deities with. Lorien, one of the priestesses at the temple, asked what was involved. Soon she and another practitioner, Geoff, had agreed to come do a Bealtaine ceremony with me.

We held it at the Chateau, in the evening before May 1 as is traditional. I constructed a new musical branch (a ceremonial implement) for this occasion. I had burnt my old one as a sacrifice, which is an appropriate offering in our tradition. I sang the invocations, they sang the chorus, we made offerings and greeted the gods, and then we had food and drink together. It was a true ceremony of the Seancreideamh.

May 18 – 20. Journey to the End of the World. For the first time I had someone else biking with me! Our fledgling romance growing, my new girlfriend decided to accompany me on the final stretch of the Mississippi River: about 80 miles to the farthest downriver point you can reach on land, and 80 miles back again. You can read her account of it here.

May 30 – June 4. Mexico getaway. Although an experienced traveler, my new girlfriend had never been to Mexico City, a city I adore. We decided to swoop away for a few days. Out of four nights, we spend the first three staying with a wonderful Couchsurfing host named Damián, and the fourth one at a hotel. I got to play tour guide. Our relationship became serious. One of my favorite meals of my life—Argentinian stake and red wine under the trees of the Condesa—took place on this trip.

June 26. I crossed the Mississippi River in a kayak. This was a better alternative to biking across the freeway bridge, and allowed me to cross under my own body power—no cheating. Thus, when I later left on bicycle, I could take the ferry knowing I had already crossed the river by hand.

8:00 a.m. June 29. Drew Parade. This was the day I was scheduled to bicycle out of New Orleans. I planned a big going away brunch, where friends could stop by for champagne, doughnuts and coffee and then we’d bicycle through the Quarter together to the ferry. Then they’d watch me leave and I’d bike off toward Texas. I went by Drew then, so the event was named Drew Parade.

It didn’t quite work like that though. Now firmly in love, I wasn’t ready to give up on the fledgling relationship and neither was she. So instead, at the brunch we announced a surprise: instead of me leaving for Texas, she and I would both be leaving for a few months in the Dominican Republic. It was, we hoped, a chance to get time together and to decide what we wanted to do with our relationship.

We still bicycled across the Quarter, and then she and I went on to her house where we stayed several days till our flight.

In the Dominican Republic.

In the Dominican Republic.

July 4 – August 30. Dominican Republic. The trip was entirely different than we could have imagined. Talking about it recently, we agreed that many of the surprises were downright unpleasant to live through, but make hilarious stories now that they’re over. You can read her account here (mid-trip) and mine here (end of trip).

August 23 – 25. Haiti side-trip. We also crossed over to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for a couple of days. It was rough, the roughest travel I’d done to that point. Plus I came down with a terrible head cold during my time there, which would haunt me for some time to come.

August 31. Birthday! The day after our return home, we met with friends for drinks for my birthday and a chance to catch up. I think both of us vented at length about our bizarre experiences in the Dominican Republic, probably more so than our friends were prepared for.

September. False starts. Once back in New Orleans, I had planned to continue my bicycle trip, and the two of us agreed to try our relationship long distance. My plans were temporarily stymied, however. I’d still had my Haiti cold on the flight home from the DR, and my congested sinuses caused intense, painful pressure in my ears. This led to trapped fluid, pain, dizziness, and partial deafness that went on for days… then weeks (and ultimately months).

I had first planned to leave Sept. 8, after a week of work time to catch up on writing and side projects. I put this off ffor another week, finally insisting I leave, but to no avail. I set out on Sunday, September 15 but all factors conspired against me. The ear problem, a late start, mechanical issues and heat stroke. At sunset I had to call a friend to pick up me and my bike and take us home.

Friday, October 4, 2013 (Day 455). I departed New Orleans on bicycle, beginning the ride to Texas.

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

The Day I Biked Into New Orleans

What an incredible feeling. After leaving my home, selling my possessions, and bicycling over 1,800 miles in search of the gods I was finally in striking distance of my first destination. Last time I left off in tiny Laplace, Louisiana, just 30-odd miles from the Big Easy.

Day 103 of the Great Adventure (Tuesday, October 17, 2012)

I woke up excited and happy, but cautious. I had already learned that an expected “easy day” can go sour. But I could feel how close I was and decided that nothing would hold me back.

We ate a quick breakfast and Judith wished me well. Different hosts and friends handle goodbyes in different ways. Some drag them out, begging you to stay longer, trying to feed you as much as they can, holding on for a few more minutes. It’s very sweet. Others become almost abrupt, knowing that you have a long distance to cover and not wanting to bog you down. Judith fit that second type. She essentially said “it was good to meet you, now get going” in the friendliest way possible. To some people it may seem gruff but to me it shows an appreciation of the road, and I suspect these types of quick goodbyes are a sign of someone who has had long travels of their own.

Before I left I had one (mostly symbolic) chore. Way back in the first week of my trip I visited my friends Kira and Tony in their family cabin in Minnesota. Kira had given me a Turkish evil eye, a traditional protection charm from her travels in Turkey. I’d hung it from the Giant’s handlebar bag, but the cord eventually snapped and it fell off. Somehow, the colored glass charm didn’t crack on the pavement and I picked it up, keeping it stowed in the bag ever since.

I was long overdue in restoring this lucky charm. Judith provided some bright pink string, not the most couture choice perhaps but quite fitting given my pieced-together bicycling equipment. After futzing with the knots I once more had the protective eye glaring from the head of my fomhorian mount, ready to hold his gaze high as we coasted toward our first major stopping point.

It's still there! Photo by André.

It’s still there! Photo by André.

Mid-morning I wobbled away from Judith’s house and down the shady street toward the River Road and the levee. I had emailed ahead to a New Orleans cycling group asking about the best route into the city. (I didn’t want a repeat of Memphis.) They told me about a levee top trail I could follow instead of taking the highway, and Judith and her family knew of it, giving me directions to where the trail started.

The day began easily on low-traffic surface streets that ran parallel to the levee. I was looking for the “spillway,” a word everyone kept using as if it was a landmark I would recognize. I asked them what a spillway was and they stared like I was Martian. As it turns out the spillway is a giant dry channel used for flood control. It looks like a grassy basin, like a soccer field with concrete walls, except that it runs from the river all the way to Lake Ponchartrain. If the river comes close to topping the levee, gates are opened to let water rush into the spillway and drain it off into the lake.

[André's note: Thanks to Mark for correcting me on how a spillway works!]

I was pretty excited when I finally reached it (I actually biked past it without realizing and backtracked a couple blocks to check it out). It’s not much to look at, but there’s something magical about getting to walk on dry land and know that one day it could be 20 feet underwater. If I was a kid I’d want to play there, and I wonder if they ever build a wooden raft there and wait for it to flood to swim out to it. (Probably not safe–there’d be a strong current in the channel if it did fill with water. Not that that would stop me when I was a kid.)

I found the entrance to the trail. Unlike the one in St. Louis this one was fully paved and easy to follow, staying on top of the levee continuously. I got a view of the river on one side and mostly residential neighborhoods on the other. The day was sunny but not too hot, breezy but no headwind. A single rain cloud passed over, its light drizzle cooling me off before it moved on and made a rainbow. I passed industrial structures at regular intervals, but it was a peaceful stretch.

I decided this was a good time to listen to music. Since I was on a no-traffic levee top trail I wore both ear buds, jamming to M.I.A. and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, especially Zero. The last time I’d played music while cycling was in the forest of the Natchez Trace, where soothing Talvin Singh fit beautifully, but today it was all hooky adrenaline songs to herald me into the city.

(Maybe a little too hooky. As I coasted along, singing to the music in my ears, I got the scare of my life as a much faster cyclist roared past me. She called out “on your left” but I heard nothing till she was right on me. After laughing at myself I switched back to just one ear bud.)

Mysterious industrial bits on the levee top trail. Photo by André.

Mysterious industrial bits on the levee top trail. Photo by André.

Beer and Bad Pavement

At each curve of the River I passed another neighborhood, and usually a neighborhood bar. It put an idea in my head. When I reached what I now know to be the end of Carrollton Avenue I stopped at a gas station and bought two ice-cold bottles of beer. I poured these into my water bottle for what I’d heard one cyclist describe as “the perfect end to a long bike ride.” Drinking beer while cycling into New Orleans felt oddly fitting.

All too soon I was at the end of the trail. I passed through Audubon Park, a confusing loop of roads for the uninitiated, but managed to find Laurel Street on the other side. It was one of the streets the cycling club had told me would lead me all the way across town with very little traffic. It made me smile because Laurel was also the street I had followed to leave Saint Paul three months earlier—on a day not very unlike today.

This Laurel was BUMPY. There’s almost no city in the US that can match New Orleans for its terrible pavement. The cap on my “water” bottle popped open, splashing me with suds, and on another big jolt a light fell off. The little glass Evil Eye charm held together. I glanced nervously at the tires, worried I would get a flat so close to my end point.

As I went I spoke to New Orleans herself. I greeted her and made offerings. She took my hand and gleefully pulled me forward. New Orleans is an expensive woman, she is a high priced courtesan. She will make you many promises and she will take your money. I’m not saying she won’t keep the promises, and I’m not saying she will, either. But once you’re in her arms she’ll make it very hard to leave.

Vodou in New Orleans. Photo by André.

Vodou in New Orleans. Photo by André.

I’ll Meet You There

My destination was a small vacation rental in the Marigny, the first neighborhood down from the French Quarter. Months earlier I had visited my friends Urban and Saumya. They are regular visitors to New Orleans—both are part of our Vodou temple—and already planned to come down in fall.

“When do you get into the city?” Urban asked.

“Hard to say. Mid October, roughly. I want to be there before Hallowe’en.”

Urban nodded. “Well, we’re flying in on the 17th. If you want, you can stay with us.”

That date had floated over my head ever since. I knew it wasn’t a strict deadline (and Urban and Saumya never pressured me). But, especially with the hardships of the last month or so, getting to land in the arms of old friends held a great allure. I made it a point to arrive on the ordained day.

Now, as I coasted over potholes and cobblestones toward the vacation rental, it was the afternoon of October 17th—our agreed date. It took me 95 days and 1,800 miles of pedaling but I’d arrived exactly on time.

Saumya however sent this message:

I’m really sick and we decided to change our flight. Will be two days late.

I almost fell over laughing.

They still had the vacation home booked, however, and made arrangements for me to pick up the key. I reached the end of Laurel Street, crossed under the freeway that marks the end of the Central Business District, and weaved through traffic toward the French Quarter. At one point I managed to turn the wrong way down a one way street, but shrugged and plodded onward for a few blocks—there was just enough space for me on the edge of the road. (I now know this is common in New Orleans. Feel free to shake your fist at me in the comments.)

Then came the French Quarter, the first place I’d ever set foot in New Orleans a year earlier. I slowed down and savored each street. This was my new home. I felt the old rhythms, the generations of life and pain that haunted every doorway. I saw the freaks and the artists and the musicians and the weirdos, my people. I saw the street performers and the bamboozlers and the homeless people of both friendly and unfriendly stripes. I saw the old New Orleanians, to whom it was all normal, and the tourists to whom it’s all a show.

The last of my now-warm beer was gone. I crossed the Esplanade, the oak-lined boulevard at the end of the Quarter, and rattled a few rough blocks to the rental.

Soon I held the keys, opened the door, said good-bye to the landlord, brought the Giant inside. I wasn’t sure what to do with him. After so many months of rolling place to place, I couldn’t understand the idea that I’d stay here. That I didn’t have to go anywhere tomorrow or in a few days. That I could, I supposed, completely unpack the bike.

I didn’t know what to do with myself so I did what every adventurer does when they find the end of their road: I indulged. All you want after an adventure is, in no particular order: food, alcohol, a hot shower, sex, a good night’s sleep, some cookies, someone to talk to, a moment alone. I had about half these things at my disposal and I dove in.

I took a good shower, I came downstairs and laid on the sofa. The late afternoon light faded in the curtain. The ceiling hung above me, blank like my future in New Orleans. I stared at it, whispered thanks to my friends and all the people who’d helped me, and napped.

I knew my journey wasn’t over. I still had 80 more miles of Mississippi River to bike, and thousands more to the Amazon. But for a little while this was home. After 1,893 miles, 103 days, 40 flat tires, 30 new friends, seven states, three cases of heatstroke, one wipeout, and one soul-changing journey, I had made it to the city of my dreams.

...where I would soon dress like this for Hallowe'en. Photo by Saumya.

…where I would soon dress like this for Hallowe’en. Photo by Saumya.

That evening I walked to Frenchmen Street and Decatur. I was shaved and dressed in clean clothes. No one glanced twice. You could look at me and never guess what I’d done, never guess where I’d been or what I’d seen. I was normal, a little square even. But I had just done what so many people told me was impossible. And already, I wanted to do more.

33.5 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 33.5

Total traveled since Day 1: 1893.8

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

A Ride in Louisiana River Country

In the last Road Log, I made it into a riotous Baton Rouge on a Saturday night and stayed with a host who opened up about some very difficult memories. This time I leave the big, smelly city behind me and strike out across Louisiana river country.

Day 102 (Tuesday, October 16, 2012)

By the time I left Carol’s house outside Baton Rouge I knew the surrounding streets well. I had biked to her cycle mechanic’s shop when I dropped off the Giant for repairs. Carol then picked me up by car and we did the same thing in reverse when the bike was done. The first stretch of today’s ride was familiar territory.

But very soon I turned off to pursue a very odd route. If you look at the map, I first meandered back toward the main highway. Instead of taking it I went across it, aiming for the river. Eventually I linked up with the River Road, following every curve of the Mississippi for most of the day until just a few miles from my destination. The result: a ride that could have been 54.7 miles actually took 79.1 miles, but it was far, far nicer than just cruising on a freeway.

My destination for the night was a town called Laplace, Louisiana not 35 miles from New Orleans. I no longer remember if Laplace is locally pronounced “la place” or “la ploss” because there is a ritual role in our Vodou temple known as Laplace pronounced “la ploss.” So that’s how I say it.

The first third of the trip, heading toward the river, introduced me to many iconic Louisiana sights: Cajun seafood restaurants, po’boy shops and daiquiri stops. By the time I crossed the freeway things got a bit more rural, and I went through some ripped up roads thanks to construction. Everything was green, flat and open. It’s a very different look from rural Wisconsin, where the landscape is broken up not only by slight hills but by lots of trees.

Eventually I reached the river road. A levee runs along it, so there was no view of the river from the roadway itself.

This next third of the trip became somewhat unreal. The green open areas continued, but sometimes broken up by areas of giant, gnarled live oaks with Spanish moss hanging mystically from their branches. Just as common were sprawling industrial complexes, likely related to the petroleum or chemical refining industries. The river road was devoid of normal traffic, since most people took the freeway, but had no shortage of large semi trucks plowing down the two lanes.

Though intimidating at first, I soon found that these truck drivers were for the most part extremely courteous. I had no shoulder and couldn’t let them pass easily if there was oncoming traffic, but they just hung back and followed till they had a chance. Once or twice one edged too close, but compared to regular car and pickup traffic they were a joy.

I became so comfortable with the occasional trucks that I did something I had never done before: I called up my mom and chatted while cycling. I already felt a great sense of accomplishment because I was so close to reaching New Orleans, my first major stopping point. I was a little giddy and wanted to share my excitement with someone.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey Mom! Guess where I am!

Mom: What?

Me: Guess where I’m calling you from!

Mom: I can’t hear you!

Me: GUESS WHERE I AM!

Mom: I don’t know, where?

Me: I’m—

Semi: FWHOOOOOOOOOOOOM!

Mom: OH MY GOD WHERE ARE YOU?

We then talked for about a half hour, although how much information was successfully communicated is a question mark.

This conversation ended when, through the oak trees on my left, I saw one of the grander buildings of the last 1,800 miles. The gardening was magnificent. It had a lane leading up to a small parking lot as if it was open to the public, so I coasted off the road to explore. Families getting out of cars stared at me and I described the place to my Mom, still on the phone.

I had stumbled upon Houmas House, a plantation house open to public tours:

…although that wasn’t immediately obvious, as I had arrived at the back of the estate, a curious structure that consists of water cisterns that have been converted to wine cellars. I was moved by the old brick architecture. I got off the phone with Mom to take some pictures.

I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing.

Photos by André

Photos by André

The rest of the River Road was like this. Occasional beautiful old estates—most not in such fine condition—set back among oak trees on one side, and chemical pipelines along the levee on the other. There were small wooden houses with peeling paint and ramshackle country churches as well. There were even streets with names like Evangeline. It was Louisiana.

I rode at a leisurely pace, and by the final third the sun was low once again. The air became cooler. I picked up speed, but wasn’t too worried about being out after dark—I had gotten used to it. This may not have been the best attitude, since the very end of my route required that I re-join the main highway, which I reached just at dark. It was only a few miles, but I never like high-speed traffic whipping past me at night.

Finally I turned off on a quiet residential street in LaPlace. Just a few blocks away, about halfway between the highway and the river, was the house of my Couchsurfing host for the night, Judith.

Judith lives with her adult daughter and her family. They have a small but well kept house in a cute neighborhood of shade trees and kids playing outside. Judith herself doesn’t have much mobility, but her daughter welcomed me in and made me at home. After a good hot shower I joined them for dinner and got to know everyone.

My impression of Judith is that she’s had many adventures of her own in her younger days. She’s a straight talker and she had a true understanding of what I was doing, skipping the usual questions to talk about practical things I may not know about New Orleans. She has a great, inappropriate sense of humor that kept me laughing continuously. [André's note: Not just for that evening, either. Many people I meet on my travels say they want to keep in touch, but most never do. Judith quickly added me to her Facebook friends.]

After some chatting, we turned in for a relatively early night. If all went according to plan I would reach New Orleans tomorrow, and I could feel the excitement in my chest. But I was so tired I had no problem falling asleep… 79.1 miles. (Could have been just 54.7!)

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 79.1

Total traveled since Day 1: 1860.3

Next time I set out on the final ride, with just 33 miles to reach New Orleans and friends with a warm bed for me. But what if it turns out the friends aren’t going to be there?

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Don’t Bike Into Baton Rouge on a Saturday Night

Back to road logs (finally)! Last time, I cruised down one of the prettiest roads of my trip and arrived at one of the prettiest towns. This time, it’s about to get a lot less pretty.

Day 99 (Saturday, October 13, 2012)

In the morning, Jimmy made another delightful breakfast. I lingered, as I tend to do, savoring the last moments of comfort and camaraderie. Finally I walked the Giant out of Jimmy’s garden shed, hugged him goodbye one more time, and biked away.

Getting out of Natchez involved some hiccups but once I was on the open highway it was easy and peaceful ride. That changed as the day went on. I remain impressed by the ability of the Southern sun to cook the hell out of you even after a chilly autumn night. It was like day and night were totally different seasons.

I’d pass two major towns that day: Woodville on the Mississippi side of the border, and Francisville on the Louisiana side. By the time I got to Woodville it was lunch time and I was feeling the miles. I pulled off into town.

There’s this thing that happens when you’re cycling long distance where you start to look like a monster. You’re wearing your grubbiest road clothes and you’re drenched in sweat. Your nipples are probably rock hard through your t-shirt and maybe you shaved this morning or maybe you didn’t. If you’re fatigued enough, you may look like you just stumbled out of a hospital bed. It only gets passing glances at a gas station, but you really don’t fit in at nice events.

So as I biked into Woodville I was only briefly excited to see a festival going on. There was live music, a town square full of food booths, and families enjoying cotton candy in the streets. This will be fun! I thought. And then, as people eyed me and steered their kids far around me: No! It won’t!

The other problem with a crowded festival is where to put your cycle. All your stuff is on there, and it’s hard to keep an eye on it from even a short distance away in a crowd.

I decided not to bother navigating the festival proper, instead chaining the bike outside a cute local cafe where I could see it through the window. The families in the cafe were no more excited to rub elbows with me than those in the street, but now I was a paying customer. I was tired, and the icy air conditioning ate through my sweaty shorts and t-shirt. I mostly just wanted to keep to myself anyway.

This cafe also had a bathroom door whose only lock was one of those eye hook latches, like this bad boy:

…which you may wish to note, in case you plan to open a business, will never work for a public bathroom. It always ends the same way.

I used the restroom before eating to wash up a bit, and the latch was secure. After I finished my meal I went back in, this time noting it had been ripped clean out. Suffice it to say that the toddler and mom who came in the use the bathroom were just a few seconds too late to get a very good view of my bum.

Back on the road, I had really only come about a third of the way to Baton Rouge and the day was half over. As a plus, the crosswind had let up. As a minus, it was now about 400 times hotter than it was before.

I remember this section of the ride as brutal. It was my first serious flirt with heatstroke since the really bad incident outside Memphis. I kept dumping water over the back of my shirt, which helps in a huge way, but marveled at how quickly it evaporated bone dry. As I ran low on water I wished futilely for a gas station or rest stop, but there wasn’t one until long after the border crossing. I just had to suffer through.

Late in the afternoon a faint breeze kicked back up and the worst of the heat passed. I didn’t have time (or, at this point, much interest) to turn off into Francisville although the name intrigued me. I do remember feeling a slight sense of elation or pride at finally crossing the state line, as this was the last border of the trip and the entranceway to my new home. Mostly, though, I just pedaled.

My speed increased and I hoped I might actually make my destination before nightfall. I had arranged to stay with a Couchsurfing host we’ll call Carol, who lives in Baton Rouge. But my hopes were burst, as many times before, by yet another flat tire. I changed it—and then another one shortly after—along a golf course by the light of the setting sun. I noted with chagrin that my tubes were old and much-patched, and I was running out of good ones.

The golf course was the last scenic visa I’d see, and even that had pipelines running near it. By the time you approach Baton Rouge, the banks of the Mississippi River are nonstop chemical plants. I didn’t get to savor the green space long, though. I had emailed Carol to give her my ETA and received a reply:

“What route are you taking into the city? It gets very dangerous especially on a Saturday night.”

I frowned, not too worried. I gave her the route Google Maps gave me. A second later the phone rang.

It turned out that the route I was taking would lead me through most of Baton Rouge’s worst neighborhoods. She gave me a different plan, one which would only take me through some of its worst neighborhoods. And she warned me it would be “rowdy.” That wasn’t the half of it.

Entering Baton Rouge was, at first, like entering any city: heavy traffic, bad pavement and piles of tire-popping garbage on the shoulder. But soon everything changed. The sidewalks and street were packed with people. Hundreds of bodies per block milled around in the street. Traffic backed up. Police cruisers parked on sidewalks with lights flashing.

This is, apparently, any Saturday night in Baton Rouge. During Hurricane Katrina over 200,000 people fled from New Orleans to BR, raising the city’s population by one third overnight. Not all of those people stayed, but the population did jump by 200,000 total between 2000 and 2010. Even as a growing metropolis, Baton Rouge was not set up to handle these new arrivals.

That led to crowding, tension and crime. Of course, those who fled to BR and stayed were mostly those who already lived in poverty—who didn’t have the means to go back. To add another layer to it, most of the impoverished people in the exodus are of black descent. I’ll let you imagine local attitudes about this in a Southern US city.

In those conditions people have to let loose somewhere. So what otherwise might have been a block party, a neighborhood festival or a concert in the park became, essentially, a sidewalk-to-sidewalk street party.

Then I reached the street that Google had told me to turn on (which Carol told me to go straight past). I looked down it as I went by. It was completely closed to traffic by police barricades, with a sea of humans beyond.

My strategy was to keep moving. While cars ground to a total halt and drunks stumbled off the sidewalk, I swerved and dodged. I moved from lane to lane, into the oncoming, onto the sidewalk and off of it, around parked cars. Sometimes people noticed the cyclist with his bike loaded high with gear, and their eyes went wide or they pointed me out to their friends and yelled at me—but not until I was already passing them.

My strategy worked well, and I got through the party to a deserted industrial part of town that wasn’t much more reassuring. I had simply taken too long on the road, however, and Carol’s house turned out to be in a suburb well beyond the far side of the city. I had two hours of biking in the dark, through poorly signed residential neighborhoods and along heavily trafficked highways.

The final jaunt into Carol’s subdivision came with fresh breezes and a sense of relief. She lived in a two story home with a cast iron bench out front. She welcomed me in and gave me beer and food, in that order. 97.0 miles

Map.

Me wih "Carol." Photo by André.

Me with “Carol.” Photo by André.

Days 100-101 (October 14-15, 2012) — Rouge Priest

Sunday I joined Carol for church. We had spoken about it the night before and she didn’t pressure me at all to attend. Rather, I asked if I could come along. I made clear that I was only hoping to learn about their tradition and am not Christian myself, and that was fine with her. Given the positive experiences I’d had with churches earlier in my trip, I was interested to see how this one celebrated.

Carol is Episcopalian. I had dated an Episcopalian once but never gone to a service. Although she lives in the burbs, Carol drives into the city every week to attend worship service at St. James, a giant historic church that looks like this:

She introduced me to fellow parishioners and we settled in for the service. As a priest, I believe that ceremony is part performance (though that can’t be all of it, or you’re just a carny). St. James definitely knew how to create atmosphere and give their words and music impact. On the other hand, that week’s message wasn’t one I could connect with. The readings from the Bible included some real old fire-and-wrath stuff, and the theme of the week was tithing. For me, there’s always an inherent tension between the spiritual purpose of religion and the administrative need to solicit donations. (As a former nonprofit worker I know that that doesn’t make soliciting donations wrong. It just needs to be handled well.) To me, the heavy emphasis on giving money—during worship—felt uncomfortable. Especially coming from very well-heeled congregants who clearly didn’t have to sacrifice as much as others in the community might to tithe.

But the fire-and-wrath bits were extremely juicy poetry, and I saved the week’s program for inspiration in later fiction writing. After the worship service there was a breakfast on the church reception hall, and I met several of Carol’s friends. Everyone I met was friendly, warm and supportive of my journey across the Americas.

Afterward Carol wanted to show me the best view in Baton Rouge. The Louisiana State Capitol is the tallest capitol building in the US, at 450 feet with over 30 floors. It’s also open for visitors, and we got to see powerful WPA-era murals in the grand art deco lobby. We peeked in on (empty) courtrooms and legislative chambers and then ascended the elevator all the way to the top, where the observation deck was open.

Carol was a great tour guide. Aside from showing me around, she explained the history of Louisiana. She told me the state capital was originally New Orleans but it was moved to Baton Rouge “to get the politicians away from their Bourbon Street prostitutes.” She made good use of the view to orient me to the major landmarks of the city and explain all the industry along the river. I really enjoyed it.

Photo by André

View from the Capitol. Photo by André

Also as seen from the Capitol. Photo by André.

Also as seen from the Capitol. Photo by André.

Afterward she gave me a little driving tour to show me a few more spots, then we stopped for Puerto Rican beer at a local grocery. On the drive home we managed to run out of gas (!) on the freeway. Carol seemed nonplussed, explaining that Baton Rouge offers a roadside service that will “change a tire, jump a battery or give you one gallon of gas—but only one gallon.” Sure enough, the taxpayer-funded rescue service showed up in less than 15 minutes and we were on our way.

Back at her home, Carol understood that I needed to do some work. She showed me the nearly unlimited supply of tamales in her freezer and I had these and beer for lunch. It went to my head pretty quickly, leading to an interesting afternoon of work.

That evening over dinner, Carol told me about the social business she runs in Nicaragua. She had visited that country many times and made local friends, mainly women. She saw that the women from the villages made beautiful handcrafts and sold them for tiny prices. Large merchants or foreign buyers resold them for much more in urban centers to tourists or overseas. Carol had worked to form a collective where women in several villages could pool their handcrafts at a single urban shop that they owned together. That way they could sell their work at tourist prices and keep the profit. I love it.

Carol’s work had two highly visible results in her life: she spent a lot of time in Nicaragua, and she had a ton of great artwork in her house. The less visible but equally important result was that she had a strong sense of purpose and determination.

During dinner I commented on a painting upstairs that I liked. Carol said it was painted by her son, which took me by surprise because she had never mentioned having kids. She didn’t offer any more details about it. Sensing this, I didn’t ask any questions.

The next day was Monday. I had told Carol about my sad, leaky tires and how I was debating pushing on to New Orleans anyway—just two days away if the bike held together—versus taking a day to go a bike shop. She told me she knew a great bicycle mechanic who worked out of a shop behind his home, and by mid-morning we were on our way.

The bike mechanic was an older gent and was as skilled as Carol had said. He taught me a few things about my machine while he turned it upside down in his shop. We left it with him for a few hours and the Giant was as good as new, wheels trued and ready to roll.

That night we again had dinner together. This time Carol opened up more about her adult son. She told me that he had died several years earlier. She struggled between a sense of anger that she could barely contain, and the urge to be polite and positive in front of company. I told her she could talk honestly and she did.

I won’t share Carol’s son’s story here, but I will say that she had a great deal of advice for me: about my trip, about my family, and especially about my sister. (I had told Carol it bothered me that I never got to see my sister, who was cloistered in a Buddhist monastery.) I listened carefully and tried to absorb her advice. It was hard won, after all, and if she had learned lessons about how to live a good life after the immense hardship of losing a child, it would be a sin not to take them to heart.

To Carol, my ambition in riding to South America reminded her of the son she had lost and was part of why she was so supportive of my trip. To me, it was touching that this woman was willing to share with me the pain that she carried. I knew I could do nothing to relieve it, but I also sensed that it helped her to speak about it. I listened as long as she wanted to talk.

By the end of our visit, Carol had invited me to meet up with her in Nicaragua if we’re both in that country at the same time. Creating this social business was the project that gave her something to do with herself after she lost her son. I would love to stop and meet the women behind it one day.

Total traveled this leg: 97.0

Total traveled since Day 1: 1781.2

The next morning my first Baton Rouge visit ended and I took off once again. I’ll tell that story soon. Until then you can also read the previous road logs.

Keep this journey going:

Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

Your contribution helps us afford crucial safety precautions, AND you get exclusive perks like behind the scenes video logs, letters from the road and blessings from Mexico! Click here to support the the Fellowship of the Wheel

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A Roguish Update

Preparation for the Fellowship has kept me busy this week (and therefore quiet on this blog), but I wanted to give everyone an update.

I’m in New Orleans, as I have been since the Texas Leg. For the first two months here I rented a room, and this month I was invited to stay in a friend’s guest bedroom. I pay utilities, help him with a few errands, and we’re all getting along great.

My to-do list while here has been a whirlwind. First I had to get the word out about the ride across Mexico and recruit cyclists, which went well. Then I had to put together our funding campaign, which I did but the results have been slow. And this month I’ve had to focus on getting our little group ready: making sure everyone knows where to be and when to be there, and that all the arrangements are in place when we show up to get started.

This has by far been the most intimidating part of the preparation, and I spend pretty much every day racing from one task to another. I’m the sort of person who really prefers to have a single, large project to lose myself in (like writing a novel or a batch of 10 articles for a client). A to-do list of dozens of smaller, unconnected items is pretty much my nightmare. But it’s also to be expected before just about any large adventure.

Given that I also have client work to do, what’s fallen by the wayside is much of my own personal preparation. I realized this week that I haven’t yet gotten a physical, gone to the dentist or gotten new contact lenses as I’d planned to; I haven’t registered for an absentee ballot so I can vote from Mexico; I haven’t switched to my new phone or made a final decision on what shelter I’ll be sleeping in on the road.

There’s no doubt that these projects will get done. I wake up every morning, check my list and dive in. What will get triaged, unfortunately, is my own writing. Aside from not blogging here this week, I have three finished short stories I won’t have time to edit and send out before the trip, and I’m about 40% of the way through writing another book. It gets extremely strong feedback from my writers’ group, but I won’t make much more progress on it till after we reach the Yucatán.

All of this, of course, makes me question the Adventure overall. I felt the same way last time I left New Orleans to push the journey forward. In one form or another I’ve been planning for this journey since March, when I finished the kayak leg. There’s no denying that it’s taken my focus away from other things I care about.

So I ask myself: what takes me forward? It’s more than just a stubbornness, a refusal to quit (though that is something I excel at). There’s also a sense of excitement. Finally getting to cruise into the Yucatán on my bicycle, the wind in my face, is an image that grabs me. It’s a day, like the day I rolled into New Orleans, that I want to remember for the rest of my life.

And this time I have companions. I don’t know how much will change, compared to past legs, with fellow adventurers at my side. It should make many of the hard times easier, and it will also bring problems of its own. But the individual personalities of those who have stepped forward are recommendation enough, and I would want the chance to mingle with a group like this whether we were on an adventure or not.

So a good crew, a good goal, and a certain amount of refusal to give in. Is that justification for a great adventure? I don’t know. But I’m damn well going to find out.

Please help us launch this adventure:

Fellowship of the Wheel bicycle adventure

Your contribution helps us afford crucial safety precautions, AND you get exclusive perks like behind the scenes video logs, letters from the road and blessings from Mexico! Please support the the Fellowship of the Wheel

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The Plane Ride Was Too Short

Since we’re getting ready for a group bicycle ride across Mexico, I thought I would share the story of another journey in that land: the tale of a young girl’s first trip out of her own country with her grandfather. This true story was sent to me as a present by one of my readers, who goes by Calluna, and I’m delighted to share it with you here.

The Baja. Photo by Charles Chandler.

THE PLANE RIDE TO LOS ANGELES was too short. I say that because I still had pages left to read in my book. I had come fully equipped with Bunnicula, two volumes of the Babysitters Club, and an edition of Horse Illustrated. I hadn’t even gotten through my first Babysitters Club—Claudia, who was my favorite character because I imagined she was pretty and because she was a painter, was still trying to figure out how to resolve the plot. If all the plane had done was launch into the sky, flown aimlessly until I had finished reading everything in my luggage, and then turned around and landed back at home, I would have been perfectly content. In fact, I would have considered it all to be a grand adventure because I could look out the window at the hidden side of the clouds, and glimpse tiny trees and rivers beneath.

Because I was eleven years old and flying alone, I had been instructed to wait for the flight attendants. I watched everyone file past my seat, feeling very grown up because I did not need a mommy or daddy to tell me what to do. The flight attendant greeted me when everyone had gone and escorted me off the plane.  This was back before 9-11, before shoe bombs and x-ray scanners. Back when your loved ones could greet you at the gate, holding signs and balloons. I was mildly concerned that Grandpa Johnson would be late, and the flight attendant would have to take me back into some kiddie playroom until he arrived.

Grandpa Johnson was a military man. He was not late. He did not bring balloons for me and he was not holding a sign with my name on it, but I found him anyway. Grandpa Johnson (who preferred I call him “Granddad” because “Grandpas,” he said, were old people) and I did not know each other very well. I had visited with him only a handful of times, when he would fly into Oklahoma City or we would fly to LA. I liked him because he looked like my mom, had a great smile and pretty silver hair, and once brought me a Mickey Mouse watch from Disneyland for Christmas. I was wearing the watch he gave me on the plane. He had a girlfriend named Judy, and she was nice and smiled a lot, too. This was my first trip to LA alone, but it was not my first trip to LA. I had also visited a few times when I was very small, and had vague memories of a giant snapping turtle that used to live in his backyard. Even now, looking back as an adult, I wonder about the accuracy of these memories, because having a pet snapping turtle is not only crazy for anyone, it is extra crazy for my Granddad, and extra extra crazy for an LA backyard. But I could swear I have seen photographs of this turtle in a family picture album.

We greeted each other and made it onto the LA highways without much fanfare. I had a day or two in LA before the main leg of the adventure, and he seemed to enjoy having me in the car. I fed him an endless stream of questions, beginning with, “Why is everyone honking?”

“Because we’re in a traffic jam.”

“But what do they think the honking will help? Do they think it will make traffic move if they honk enough?”

“No. I think they’re just angry and want something to do.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yes, it is.”

Granddad lived in Oxnard, outside of LA proper, so we had a lot of time to listen to honking. He also explained HOV lanes and told stories about people putting dummies in the passenger seats to ride in them. He was extra happy to have me in the car so we could ride in the HOV lane. He proudly announced when we were on Ventura Boulevard because “there are songs about it!” Granddad’s house was concrete (I thought at the time—it was actually stucco), which seemed appropriate for his big city life. He had two dogs to make me feel at home, and ironically, the constant traffic noise outside his window was also a familiar sound. My bedroom in Oklahoma was also off of a busy street. In my experience, sleeping near a busy street sounds just about the same no matter where you live. Some of them may also have trains, and some of them have drunkards, some of them (like in LA) have people who are more prone to honking, but always there is the droning white noise of vehicles to lull me to sleep; that ubiquitous cityscape lullaby; coming and going in waves not unlike the ocean.

The next day we packed up his big white pick-up and headed towards Mexico. I left my books in the back of the truck because I do not like to miss a single thing on road trips. I have to see everything we pass, read every sign, see every tree, every second of the trip. What is the point of travelling if I don’t pay attention? And how awkward, if I look down to read, or close my eyes to sleep, and the next time I look out the window, I am miles away? I feel like Scotty beamed me on down the road…

Before we made it out of the country there were yet more lessons. Granddad pointed out Silicon Valley, a nest of civilization surrounded by green mountains off to the side of the freeway. I told him I had never heard of it, so he asked me if I had heard of Valley girls. I said I wasn’t sure, so he asked me if I had heard Dumb Blonde jokes. (The 80s had recently ended… and if you don’t remember Dumb Blonde jokes, you were not in America in the 80s! My favorite used to go something like this: How do you kill a blonde? Put nails in her shoulder pads.) He said the Dumb Blondes were Valley girls, and Valley girls came from Silicon Valley. I was mystified as to why Dumb Blondes would come from a single small area of the country, so I scrutinized the scenery and shared some of my observations.

“It sure is foggy here.” And it was. The morning sun scattered every which way and little puffs of whitish haze drifted in and out of the mountain peaks. “I like fog.” Fog is faerie weather. Magic happens in the fog.

“Heather…” his tone of voice was one of those that people use when they are about to say something really obvious, “that’s not fog.” I frowned. He did not sound happy.

“What is it?” I considered that he might be pulling my leg. It looked like fog.

“It’s smog.”

“What’s smog?”

“Air pollution. From the cars, and from the Valley.” Now air pollution was something I HAD heard of. I wrinkled my nose.

“Ew. Yuck.”

“Yes, yuck.” Here, there were two things unbeknownst to me. The first is that I would grow up to be an air pollution specialist (for reasons unrelated to early visits with Granddad), and that this seemingly minor incident would stick out in my mind forever as my introduction to heavy air pollution. The second is that during this particular visit, the air of the LA metropolis was the most polluted and unhealthiest air in the entire country. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) and California politicians would soon launch a massive series of experimental and seemingly extreme efforts to curtail and reverse the ambient air pollution, and they would succeed. It would become a case study in my own college courses many years later. Before I graduate, their air will have improved and their smoggy crown will be stolen by Houston (which I will also come to visit at its smoggiest). CARB will become the most progressive and cutting-edge air regulatory body in the country, and all the other states and even the federal government will wait for the results of policies attempted in California before making decisions in the rest of the country. But for this trip, Granddad and I agreed that it was Yuck, and I unfairly still equate LA to Yuck in my own mind.

“I casually acknowledged that my young life was in danger, and I wondered if my mother knew. I was pretty certain that she did not, because if she did, I probably would not be having such a lovely adventure.”

Granddad was bent on making good time as we had many days of driving ahead, but he was kind enough to stop and take me to the San Diego Zoo. It was supposed to be the best zoo in the country. I was moderately impressed, but I didn’t see a huge difference between the SD Zoo and my hometown zoo. Another lesson to be learned later, after I acquired a summertime job at the OKC Zoo: I was not as impressed as I might have been because the OKC Zoo is also a top ten zoo. In 1990 Oklahoma City began supporting the zoo with sales tax, and ever since then it has been pumping tax money into a never-ending stream of improvements, some of which had already begun to materialize before I came to San Diego. But the San Diego zoo was lush and green, and it was the first true outing my Granddad and I had together, and a welcome side trip on a very long car ride.

25 miles later we approached the US/Mexico border at Tijuana. I recall something that resembled gates on a toll road, only taller, and manned by Mexicans. I didn’t need a passport; I had a birth certificate, and Granddad explained that I was his granddaughter, and that was good enough. They wanted to know what produce we had and they were particularly concerned about bananas. They looked quickly through some of our luggage, presumably for fruit, and then waved us through. Granddad locked the doors and told me to keep the windows rolled up. “Tijuana is nasty,” he said. “It’s a nasty city. It’s dirty and there are lots of drugs and lots of druggies. It’s the worst city in the world.” Granddad had been in the Air Force for a long time because he loved to travel—he had shipped my grandmother furniture from Japan; he had sent me money from Korea. So when he said Tijuana was a bad city, I believed his expertise and I kept my windows up. He said that he had military buddies who liked to go to Tijuana to party, and said he’d gone with them a few times, and found it unpleasant. He added that he wished he could drive around it. I stared out the window, mystified that a city could be so dangerous and disgusting that you’d want to drive around it instead of through it. I wondered what he expected people to do if I had my window down. The city did in fact look dirty and slummy—a poor city with sad poor people. I saw a lot of people out on the streets and most of them did not look happy. Most of them looked hot in the sun, bored, and maybe a little bit angry. But they didn’t look particularly dangerous and none of them tried to get in our truck.

We were taking Highway 1 all the way down the California Baja to Loreto, Mexico, over 800 miles from Los Angeles. Highway 1 travels along the western coast of the baja for many miles, snakes back and forth across the middle of the peninsula, and then jumps over to the eastern coast and eventually passes through Loreto. We didn’t pass many towns, although there were a few sprinklings of civilization along the way. Most of it was mile after mile of narrow, winding mountain highway with little or no guard rails, the shoulders just as sparse, dropping off into very steep mountainside that could send you tumbling into the sea if only you had enough momentum. Granddad took this drive every year, and did not seem bothered by the highway at all. The highway was so narrow that there was not enough room for two cars to pass one another if one of them was a large vehicle. We could squeeze past small sedans, but occasionally a larger truck or van would appear around the curve of the mountain. The vehicle nearest the slope would gingerly move over and park with one side of its wheels off the edge of the roadwhile the vehicle nearest the mountain face would continue past. Then the other vehicle could ease back onto the road and continue. This happened infrequently—Highway 1 was not a busy road.

I was aware, logically, that this was a dangerous highway. I was aware that it was entirely possible for a vehicle to come around a mountain curve a little too fast, popping into view, and surprise us over the edge before we could gingerly move aside. I was equally aware that were we to tumble, and were the tumble to end a few feet down the embankment rather than in the ocean, that Mexican doctors and ambulance and Mexican 911 (if there was even such a thing) would be far away and we would be in a bad state. This being the pre-cell phone era, we could have been there all day even if a witness reported our accident immediately. In short—I casually acknowledged that my young life was in a mild sort of danger, and I wondered if my mother knew. I was pretty certain that she did not, because if she did, I probably would not be having such a lovely adventure. She would want to keep me safe. That is a mother’s job, after all, but my Granddad’s job was to adventure. A vagabond at heart, he could not keep family ties, and after he retired even his chosen family could hardly keep track of him. I think that when he finally passed away he lived in Alaska, but even of that, I’m uncertain.

I was also aware that being in danger was not something that I should love as completely as I did, and not something that I should approach fearlessly, but I could not help myself. In fact, this may be the first time I remember being in any sort of danger. I loved staring up and down the mountain on both sides. It was both breathtakingly lovely and exciting to look straight down onto jagged rocks and crashing waves when the mountain fell away suddenly to my right. The few guard rails were scratched up, scuffed up, and mangled, and I imagined the vehicle-guardrail collision each time I examined them. Most of all, I was morbidly fascinated by the seemingly enormous quantity of dead vehicles littering the mountain side. Some of them had trees or shrubs growing through them, as though they were part of the native flora. Many of them were rusty, soon to foster their own gardens inside. Some were new and shiny. Most of them were tiny sedans with Mexican license plates. Sometimes it looked like perfectly-A-OK passengers probably had a challenging climb back to the road and long walk to the nearest town while other vehicles looked so mangled and precarious that I wondered if the unfortunate skeletons of their riders were still inside.I kept an eye out for the most antique vehicle I could find (a pick-up truck and a few cars from the 1940s). I tried counting the vehicle husks, but there were too many, and I gave up. I tried guessing how long the cars had been there and when the accidents that sent them over the edge had occurred, but there was no way for me to know. A few years later my Mom took the same trip with my Granddad, and she said she was terrified throughout the entire drive. I thought that was a shame—even without the forensic intrigue, the mountains and coast were incredibly beautiful, and my Granddad handled that twisty-twining deadly passage like a pro. The awkward and lovely highway turned out to be one of my favorite parts of our trip.

The ride to Loreto took three days. We learned to communicate with one another over those days… at least, I thought at the time that was what was happening. In retrospect, I realize that he came from my own home town and so, more likely than not, he knew exactly what I was saying and was trying to teach me better diction. Back then, being from Oklahoma was still stigmatized and an Okie accent was actively discouraged. (Today, on the other hand, my husband amps up his Okie accent on purpose because he says it makes him sound “friendly.”) Whatever the reason, we had several conversations that went something like this:

“Hey! We just passed a skole on the side of the road!”

“A what?”

“A skole! A cow skole!”

“A skole?”

“Yes!” At this point my enthusiasm on the imagined grisly death of cattle in the desert is waning, because we have both cows and cow skoles back at home, where people know about skoles.

“What’s a skole?”

“A cow skole. You know, a skole. From a cow.”

“No. I don’t know. What is that?”

At this point I’m skeptical that he’s never heard of cow skoles, but I keep trying, and grab my head with both hands as an example. “Um. It was the cow’s HEAD, and the cow dies, and skin and flesh rot away, and then it’s a skole.”

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” he responds, as though he finally understands the gibberish I’ve been spouting. “I call those SKULLS. That’s the correct way to say it.” This happened a handful of times afterwards, as though we were speaking a different language. I remember significant issues during a conversation about mirages, as well… It took some time to explain what a “mere” was and to get a lesson on how to pronounce “mirror.”

I fancied myself to be a horse expert, because I had ridden horses twice, had exactly one riding lesson, and read Horse Illustrated. I had taught myself the breeds and watched the Kentucky Derby on TV.  There were lots of horses in the Baja, and I ooh’ed over them and even mentioned what fine looking horses they were—all of them lithe, dark and muscular. Granddad told me that they were indeed very proud of their horses and the quality of their breeding in the Baja. I felt proud for having noticed, and took that as proof of my expertise.

One day we encountered some road construction. The entire road was new, fresh black asphalt—both lanes. Right into the wet road we went, driving slowly, flinging sticky tar and asphalt everywhere. I was stunned that they had not left even one lane dry, but the construction workers calmly stepped aside while we splashed through their work, like they were expecting it to get disturbed. Hours later, we stopped for gas. I hopped out of the truck to get some “jugo de naranja” and immediately planted both of my bare feet onto sticky globs of tar that were baking on the truck’s step—I had forgotten about our encounter with the road workers. I immediately sat back in my seat. Granddad handed me a rag with some water poured on it, and it took a lot of elbow grease to get that stuff off. Have you ever wondered how difficult it is to get tar off of your feet? Now, I can tell you: Pretty darn difficult.

My Granddad and I La Quinta’d our way up and down the peninsula. I don’t know what was special about the La Quinta Inn and I didn’t even know they had La Quintas in Mexico before this trip, but at the La Quinta we got free Spanish TV and free eggs and toast for breakfast. The La Quintas usually appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, a lonely Hotel California-like rest stop on a lonely highway, and we didn’t venture far from them. We stayed in, watched the Three Stooges or Clint Eastwood dubbed over in Spanish, and ate eggs. The irony that I left the country just to watch American TV programs in another language was not lost on me, but there didn’t seem to be much else on the TV. I would read some more chapters out of my Babysitters Club books (I will have finished them all before we return to California) and then we were back in the truck.

One evening we went out to eat in a restaurant. I ordered a hamburger and I could actually see cows grazing through the windows. He watched me eat as though he expected me to do something. Finally he asked me how I liked my burger.

“It’s fine.” I kept chewing.

“It’s different.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Cows taste different here.”

“Oh yeah?” I chewed more slowly, trying to figure out what he meant. The height of my burger-tasting skills were learned at McDonalds.

“The cows here are fed different. They aren’t as fat. The meat is drier; less juicy.”

“Hmm.” I kept chewing, looking at the cows. I tried to remember how fat the cows at home were. I supposed that he was right about their weight. “Can I have desert?”

The only desert on the menu said “ICE CREAM.” At home, “ICE CREAM” always meant vanilla, which I thought was a little disappointing, but better than no desert, so I ordered it. It came out. It looked like vanilla. I tasted it. And it was coconut, and it was divine. It was very soft and very flavorful, so good that I guessed it was made on site. I was immediately aware that I might never taste ice cream exactly like that again. (So far, I have not.) I “made a big deal” over it, as my Mom would say, but my Granddad was just as impressed with my ice cream as I was with his insight on Mexican hamburger meat.

Eventually we made it all the way down the Baja to Loreto.

Professor Google tells me that Loreto, Mexico was founded in 1677 (which would have astounded me, had I known it at the time—I wish I had), and that the year I visited (1993) was the first year the city elected its own mayor. Professor Google goes on to tell me that Loreto is now a popular tourist destination. Photos on the internet show me large resort hotels with big blue swimming pools and all of the usual brochure-like images of scuba divers, kayakers, and bikini-clad women sunning on the beach. This is not the Loreto I remember.

I remember a small-town Loreto, with long stretches of (largely empty) sandy beaches frequented primarily by fishermen. I don’t recall any fancy resort hotels, and did not see any of the rental infrastructure that comes with a beach tourism industry. There were no bikini babes, no swimming pools or scuba divers, and few structures at all on the beaches we visited. The only beach building that I recall was little more than a large, do-it-yourself-looking covered patio where you could get burgers and sodas. Granddad knew these fellows; every few days we’d visit. They would talk together in Spanish and I had no idea what they were saying. My Spanish was then and is now very rudimentary, but Granddad was fluent. The owner of—I’ll call it “The Shack”—had two boys that fished the bay, and they would drag their boat up and down the sand in front of the shack. I watched them with interest, and they were introduced to me. I liked looking in the boat to see how much fish they’d caught. They did not seem hard at work—they seemed hard at play. As though they thought it might be fun to go out and fish for a little while, so they’d go out for only a few hours, catch a few fish, and come back in, but they did it every day and so I guessed it was their job.

I recall a Loreto entrenched in place; look away from the ocean and still you see ocean everywhere. People decorated, both in and out, with things that had been pulled out of the sea or things that had washed up on the beach; driftwood, dried fish (especially pufferfish—lots of those! Hung all over everything like spiked and bleached Christmas ornaments—they fascinated me—to this day, I’d like to have one), seashells, sea glass; they set them out in the sun, hung them from the eaves of their buildings, or made all varieties of crafts with them. It was just to my taste. I was always hauling in outdoor finds, anyway, so I thought it was perfect. When my mother visited Loreto the following year she admired their seashell wind chimes so much that she learned to make her own; she carried home jars and jars of shells, and had my father carefully drill tiny holes into each one so she could string them into long tinkling chains and arrange them onto loops. The hardy Loreto wind chimes survived many years on a gusty Oklahoma porch, and that is saying a lot.

“I hadn’t considered walking as a ‘hang-out’ activity before and imagined there was nothing else to do, or perhaps it was a cultural thing and they really loved sidewalks.”

Granddad Johnson owned an RV in a small RV park outside of town. I could walk from one end of the park to the other in very short order, with tropical flora reaching for me from the fences and humming birds zipping all around my head. In the center of the park was a building that held a tiny Laundromat, convenience store, memento store, and post office all in one. This was my home base for buying popsicles in a variety of tropical flavors and sending postcards home. I always delighted in sorting out my pesos and separating the old style from the new style; they had recently had a currency change.

Granddad visited Loreto once or twice a year and stayed for a few weeks each time, but the couple in the RV next to ours (also Americans—expats, I guess) were permanent residents. They were friends. We had dinner and card games with them on most evenings. We grilled burgers. They drank beer, I drank Coke. Because my parents did not allow me to drink soda, I would drink way, way too much Coke and bounced myself back and forth across the RV until I was told to quit shaking the house.

On our first or second evening in Loreto, Granddad drove us from the RV to the town. We did some grocery shopping and then he took me to the promenade. It was a wide gray sidewalk made with irregular stones. You could see the ocean from it (you could see the ocean from almost everywhere) and there were, here and there, portions that would jut out into platforms or docks. “This is the promenade!” he told me. He seemed excited. I was not impressed. It just looked like a sidewalk. I had never heard the word “promenade.”

“What is it for?” Because I am nothing if not inquisitive. When he offered to spend time with me that summer, he probably had not counted on also becoming a school teacher.

“It’s for walking.”

“Why? It’s not for the view. You can also see the ocean over there.” I pick a random place and point.

“I don’t know. It’s what people do out here. For fun. They go on dates here, and bring their friends.”

“Hmmm,” I nodded, examining the other people on the promenade. I hadn’t considered walking as a “hang-out” activity before and imagined there was nothing else to do, or perhaps it was a cultural thing and they really loved sidewalks. I indeed identified an opposite-sex pair strolling the cobblestones, and decided that meant that Granddad was right, and those two were lovebirds on a walk, watching the ocean. “Well, let’s do it. Let’s walk.” I don’t remember very much about our stroll along the promenade other than that it seemed uneventful and smelled like fish. I spent some time watching sea gulls and when we meandered back to the truck Granddad pulled out a cigarette and leaned against the car. I went down to the dock and looked into the water. I could see mud, seaweed, and fish. Some of the fish were very tiny, the size of a fingernail. I wondered if they were young or if they were naturally small. I stuck my hand in the water and they didn’t seem frightened.

I love all the Earth’s creatures, and at that time, I especially loved catching them and taking them inside. My family had bought me a variety “bug zoos” and ant farms to combat my tendency to catch and release indoors (so we could cohabitate with butterflies, right? Cool idea?). I had boxes of frogs and tortoises and grass snakes. I even caught a duckling one day, to the disbelief of my parents, who immediately ordered me to return the duckling to its mother. I was always trying (unsuccessfully) to catch squirrels and bluejays in my butterfly net. One year I brought a mouse inside and it escaped from its box to cause an infestation (which I never fessed up to). So you can guess what happened next.

I walked back to the truck and asked for something to use to catch fish. Granddad took it in stride—he had me describe the fish I wanted to catch and then told me the only thing he had in the car that might catch a fish was his coffee mug. I was told to hold onto it very tight and then I was back at the dock, mug in hand. Ever so slowly, I lowered the mug into the water. I held it motionless as the fish got used to it. They got brave, coming closer and closer. Then, a quick swish-swish and I had a tiny fish in the mug! Relieved that I hadn’t lost his mug to the sea, I carefully walked back to the truck with my new friend. “I got one! Can I take it back with us?”

“Sure. Let’s go now.” He stomped out his cigarette and opened the door for me; I gingerly climbed in, staring at the tiny fish. It was swimming circles. It was stressful preventing the splashing from upsetting the fish (or worse, splashing it out into the car) on the road. Granddad showed me how to “use your elbows as shock absorbers” and that helped somewhat. As we drove, the water in the mug started to change. First it got cloudy, and then tiny clumps started to appear, and I finally had the thought I should have had at the dock.

“Can the fish live in this cup?”

“I don’t know.” I felt my heart skip a beat. I didn’t want to kill it. I just wanted to have it close to me!

“There’s something wrong with the water. It’s cloudy.”

“Maybe it’s the salt.”

“It wasn’t like that before.” We are nearing the RV at this point, and I am growing increasingly concerned. The water is getting worse. The fish is swimming slower. I wonder if it’s the agitation from the ride. When we get back to the RV I set it on the counter and stare intensely while Granddad puts away groceries. The water keeps getting chalkier and the bits of debris keep coagulating and getting bigger. The fish quits swimming and just sort of hovers; it doesn’t float to the top… in fact, it sinks a little bit. “What is wrong with it?”

Granddad looks into the cup. “I don’t know; maybe it doesn’t have enough oxygen.”

“What should I do?!”

“Well, you could keep it and see how it goes. I don’t have a fish tank.”

I don’t remember which of us suggests that the fish could be returned to the ocean, but Granddad said it would take a while to get there and we’d have to leave right away. I decide I’d rather be safe than sorry and we get back in the truck to drive all the way back to the dock. I fret over my little fish the entire time, certain that the fish is moments from death and I’m about to become a fish killer, when all I wanted to do was watch it swim in the RV. He is very kind and understanding, but I am certain he has no concern for the fish or the dark stain that would appear on my youthful conscience if it died. Yet he humors me, acting equally concerned, not letting on how inconvenient I was making his evening, and I return the fish to the exact same spot I’d caught it from. The fish sinks out of sight and other tiny fish swim into view on top of it. I don’t know if the fish lived or not (I like to imagine it did), but I learned an important lesson about being more thoughtful before I take responsibility for living things and remove them from their environment, and I also learned a good deal about my Granddad’s capacity for patience. Even at the time I knew the type of gentle patience it must have taken for him to allow me to catch the fish, carry it home, and immediately return it—all without any real adult guidance or words of judgment or irritation, just quietly going along with whatever I wanted.

I now have to add to this story that we were on a fishing trip, so I am 100% sure that he was not as concerned about the Coffee Mug Fish as I was. Granddad paid for the RV in the Baja just so he could always have a nice home base from whence to fish. His favorite prey were marlin, although we were also after edibles, which at that time of year was mostly dorado. Dorado is the Spanish name for the dolphinfish and so that is how I was introduced to it in the baja, but I later learn it is more frequently called mahi-mahi or dolphinfish by Americans.

Granddad paid for the services of a fishing guide and his small motorized fishing boat, which was probably no more than ten or twelve feet long and four feet wide. Every morning, we would get up before dawn, pack some sandwiches, put on sunscreen lotion, and go down to the beach to load up the boat. The men—usually our guide—would catch tiny bait fish with a net in the bay, and when we had a few buckets full of live bait our guide would drive the boat out into the Gulf of California. This was my favorite part of the trip. The sky was only dimly blue and the air was cool and breezy; the water in the bay was smooth and dark and the land wrapped around it was the shadow of a giant’s arms. They’d speed the boat to get it through the bay—so fast that we had to tie our hats on – and I’d perch as far towards the bow as they’d let me go so that I could really fly when the nose would dip up and down.  The water would get choppy as we went through the pass; we’d always hit at least one or two big waves that would jolt me to my spine, and at this point we could finally see what type of waters we faced on the ocean. The men always seemed discouraged by whitecaps, but we never turned around.

Before this trip, I had been under the impression that only big boats were ocean faring. Little motorboats like ours surely stayed in lakes and rivers—at least, that is what the television had taught me. But the three of us rode that boat all day long, often going so far into the Gulf that land was nowhere to be seen.

Our guide watched the seabirds, and followed them to find floating mats of kelp. The kelp attracted small fish, and the small fish attracted the dorado (and birds, and many other things), which my Granddad wanted for the table.  We took several dorado everyday; they were plentiful; if there were fishing limits, we must have met them. We filled the iceboxes with them. I’d never seen anything like them. I was certain that if a rainbow could fall to the sea and become a fish, it would become a dorado, blunt nose and all. We would usually fish dorado in the morning, then go farther into the Gulf, past the kelp, past the birds, to fish for marlin.

Granddad Johnson loved the marlin. The marlin were what drew him into the Baja; the dorado were only secondary. He thought marlin were magnificent creatures, and they were: some of the ones we saw were as big as our boat, all powerful and gleaming blue and white, the tall sword-like tip of their dorsal fin slicing the water and visible for long distances. He never killed one, although we caught several; usually one or two a day. He said they were too beautiful to kill, and that he had too much respect for them to kill them. He just loved the hunt.

We would see the fin from far off and watch it for a while. We had to wait and watch because it was easy to mistake sailfish for marlin if their sails weren’t at extension. Sometimes we’d see the fish swim at a different angle or see the fin flex, identify it as a sailfish, and carry on. Other times we confirmed it as a marlin, and our guide would slowly work the boat close enough for Granddad to cast. Sometimes it felt like forever to get near if the fish was moving away from us, and we often couldn’t head straight towards the marlin. This far into the gulf, the waves were large. The boat had to angle over them. We’d have to head the fish off. It seemed we were always moving at angles for one reason or another. Finally, Granddad would cast his line out as far as he could. Sometimes it wasn’t far enough, but eventually, he’d catch the marlin’s attention. He’d make the bait dance. The marlin would catch the bait, and the two of them would duel with much back and forth. He’d work the fish in, and let the line out. Reel it in, and let it out. Over and over. Sometimes his adversary escaped the hook and disappeared into the deep. Other times, the glorious thing was at last fatigued and at rest alongside our boat. We would admire it for a few short moments, Granddad would either remove the hook or cut it loose (if the hook had been swallowed), and fish and fisherman would part ways. If the sun was low, we’d turn around and head back past the kelp and into the bay. We’d return with an hour or two of daylight to spare.

They removed the hook, clubbed its head, and put it in the tank. They told me it was a red snapper. They declared it was a Good Fish

I was raised in a landlocked state. A state with plenty of lake and river coastline, to be sure, but a state with no ocean and peopled with farmers and other landlubbers. Big water was not an integral part of our lives; lakes and rivers were places you might visit in the summers or on weekends. I had been on boats before that summer on the Gulf of California. I had been in canoes at home, and I had been on a dinner cruise on a big steady tourist ship in Florida. But it was nothing like this. Nothing like water as far as the eye can see, a tiny boat, alone, in a great big world. Nothing like waves that tossed me up and down like an amusement park ride, nothing like moving across the water at speeds that created a breeze in my face as strong as a stormy wind. On this trip I fell in love with the ocean and even more so—I fell in love with riding in boats. Specifically, I fell in love with riding in small, agile fishing boats. I fell in love with the feel of the waves rocking my body.

I was only seasick once. I spent the first day dreading the possibility that I might get seasick, and look weak in front of the men. So I moved to the back of the boat, were the rocking was less intense. I sat there quietly. I did my best not to let on that my body was fighting the ocean. I watched the men, hoping they wouldn’t notice. They were at the front of the boat, talking and fishing. After what felt like a very long time, I leaned over the side, vomited very quickly and neatly, then sat back up and wiped my mouth with my shirt. They were still at the front of the boat talking and fishing. To my immense relief, they had not noticed. After that, I was a child of the sea.

But I was not a fisher. There is a reason why I have spoken only of the adults catching fish, and it is this. I had never been fishing and I had never held a fishing rod. On our first day out, they brought a rod for me and showed me how to bait and cast. I fished with them, happy as a clam, until the first time I saw my bobber dip. They told me that I had a fish, and I ought to reel it in. I did so without trouble, and I could feel the fish fighting under water. When it emerged from the water I saw a stout red fish, a little over twelve inches long, flailing at the end of the line. I had no idea what to do with it. I laid it down in the boat, hook in, still flopping. I thought it was lovely. I recognized I had caused it distress. Granddad and the guide were both excited about my fish. They removed the hook, clubbed its head, and put it in the tank. They told me it was a red snapper. It turned out to be the only snapper we saw during the entire trip. They declared it was a Good Fish, and Granddad went on to tell me how excellent a meal red snapper was, how delicious, how pleased he was that I’d caught it, told me I’d been lucky. I spent that time trying not to cry in front of the men—because I had killed a fish. A live fish. Dead. Thanks to me. Knowing that it was going towards dinner did very little to soothe my aching conscience and tender heart. After my first and only fishing experience, I told them that I would rather watch.

For two entire weeks, I watched. I watched the men joke in English and Spanish. I watched them fish with nets and reels. I liked watching them reel in a catch, because you almost never knew what it was until it broke the water next to the boat. Often it was food, like dorado or my snapper, but equally often it was something that had to be thrown back, like an eel. Eels were always a total loss for the hook. By the time they reached the boat, they were a writhing Gordian knot of a creature, and all you could do was cut them loose, throw them back, and hope they came untangled on their own.

I dangled my fingers in the water and watched shadows move beneath our fishing boat—I could see just well enough to tell when fish were swimming underneath or when the water was getting shallow. Sometimes I could make out the rocks. The ghosts I saw in the underworld were fascinating. To me, the best shadows of all were sea turtles and rays. Rays were very common and I saw a handful each day—some of them quite large; I only saw two or three turtles the entire trip, so each time I’d call it out and point so my companions could look. I’m not sure if the men could see the turtles or not, but they took me at my word, and that was good enough.

I watched the sea gulls and the seaweed. I watched the motion of the kelp. I watched the dolphin—of which we saw many (much to my delight). We saw so many that they almost seemed common by the time I flew home. The dolphin were often near the same kelp islands that drew the dorado and seagulls. We could usually see their fins breaking the waves or the quick blow of a spout. I learned that they were easy to spot from far away because they looked like waves moving out of unison with the rest of the ocean. Sometimes they would follow our boat, and I was reminded of stories of dolphins saving people from sharks.

I saw sharks, too. I could see larger nurse sharks beneath the boat (especially when we were in shallow water) and I was told they were docile. Granddad would catch smaller sharks on his line, and those were some of the fish he had to throw back.

I saw many pufferfish: bleached-white spikey balls bobbing up and down on the top of the waves like miniature buoys. They were all dead. I guessed the puffers faced foes who were fearsome enough to cause fatal wounds but not fearsome enough to eat an inflated pufferfish. And so the fish stayed inflated, died, and floated up to meet the sun. This is where all the locals got their porch decorations—all you had to do was take a boat out and scoop them up.

While watching the ocean, I came face to face with a mythological animal: the flying fish. At least, my mind had convinced me, while going about daily life atop red Oklahoma clay, that flying fish were mythological. I had seen them on cartoons and heard about them in discussion, but they seemed obviously fake. Like mermaids. The Little Mermaid should have had one for a pet. She was half mammal and half fish, and flying fish were half fish and half bird, so they should have gotten along, right? They could swim to shore and chat with their buddies, the centaur and the basilisk. Imagine my surprise when I saw hundreds of tiny airplane-shaped blue fish leaping joyfully from wave to wave. I beheld them with awe and humility. If there are platypi in Australia, why not flying fish in the ocean? We saw them every day; the creature I had arrogantly assumed to be impossible.

After two weeks of floating in this magical new place where fish could fly, we repeated the long and breathtaking drive back Highway 1 to Los Angeles. I spent another couple of days in LA, where Granddad and Judy treated me as though I was older than I was. They took me out to see a scary movie (Jurassic Park), and they left me alone all day while Granddad was at work. With his permission I pulled a book off of his shelf (Clan of the Cave Bear, with plenty of graphic content) and read the entire thing. And then I went back to Oklahoma, back to school, and bragged about my summer vacation. I told my parents that I had enjoyed both Jurassic Park (“You were ok with it being scary?”) and Clan of the Cave Bear (“You liked that? But there’s no talking… I thought it was boring”), and they started buying me edgier books and letting me watch scary movies.

I saw Granddad Johnson less than a handful of times after that (the vagabond soul was soon to retire, bid Judy goodbye, and spend the rest of his days travelling in his RV, far out of my reach). I halfway hoped that he would invite me back to the Baja, but he never did. In later years I learned from my mother that he thought I did not enjoy the trip. He thought that I was bored out of my mind, but since I did not ask to go anywhere or do anything, he didn’t know what to do with me. So instead of taking me out to “do things” he let me watch his TV, ride in his boat, and play his card games.

It is true that I was a quiet kid, but I didn’t ask him for anything during those weeks because I was not only content, I was delighted. I loved riding with him in the boat and watching the ocean. I loved following him up and down the beach. I loved watching Mexico pass by my truck window and playing cards with the neighbors at the RV park. I liked listening to Granddad and Clint Eastwood speak Spanish. I liked the burgers, coconut ice cream, and pineapple popsicles. I even liked watching the Mexican mechanics work on his truck, because I got to go into town, try my hand at translating signs, and imagine what it was like to live there. I knew nothing about Mexico, the sea or the Baja. I did not know there was anything more that I should have been requesting. I was only eleven years old, and for all I knew, the entirety of the Baja was what I saw.

I was well-taught enough to thank him for the trip, but I had not yet learned how to express gratitude in a way that he could understand. I still had not learned that a deeply sincere thank-you is different from a simple thank-you. I thought he knew that I was enjoying myself, like he thought I knew that I should be asking to go for outings.  It is too late to tell him now. At 11 years old I had no sense of perspective, but now I can say that the Baja was an important place for me. It was my first time away from my parents; my first solo plane trip; my first time out of the country; my first time on the ocean; my first time fishing; my first time for a lot of things.  From an adult perspective, it was a simple fishing trip with little cultural enrichment. But I was not an adult. I was eleven. And that summer in Mexico, my world suddenly became much bigger.

Please support the ride across Mexico.

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Adventure Prep, Bicycling, Mexico, The Great Adventure, Travel

Here Are the Dates for Biking Across Mexico

Finally! I’m excited to announce the route and dates for the Fellowship of the Wheel, a group bicycling trip across Mexico. We will wander, we will make new friends, we will eat new foods and maybe we’ll even learn a little about the purpose of life… at least, that’s the plan.

Although this kid seems to have a head start. Photo by Jorge Organista.

The whole trip will take 80 days. Most people can’t take that long off of work, so I’ve broken it down into much smaller segments. You can come along for as little as three days of riding, the whole two and a half months, or anywhere in between.

Each segment ends with a few rest days, so we have a buffer if we fall behind. Here are all ten segments:

#1: The Border Dash

You’ll get to see three Mexican states. The terrain will be wide open scrub land, and we will cross a mountain range on the third day!

  • Starts Saturday, November 8 from Nuevo Laredo.
  • 3 riding days totaling 205 miles. Map.
  • This section is for experienced cyclists.. The first day will be 80 miles and then about 65 on the second and third days.
  • This is the most intense segment of the trip. Because the border area is dangerous, we will cross it as quickly as possible and sleep in hotels at night. You should read the safety information at the end of this post.

We will then take three rest days in Arteaga, a pretty town of 6,000 people on the outskirts of the major city of Saltillo.

#2: Dust Country 
  • Starts November 14 in Arteaga, COAH.
  • 4 riding days and 183 miles. Map.
  • The first day will be an easy 25 miles. The longest one will be 64 miles, then 45 mile days after that. It is gentle, flat terrain.
  • We will pass through some small rural towns and likely camp out in the town centers near churches.

We will end in Matehuala, which is near the famous desert town of Real de Catorce known for the shamanic traditions of the Huichol natives. There is a bus from Matehuala to Real de Catorce which we can take during our three rest days.

Real de Catorce has internet! I’m hoping we see this sign a lot on our trip. Photo by Michael R. Swigart.


#3: The Midlands
  • Starts November 21 in Matehuala, SLP.
  • 138 miles in three riding days. Map.
  • Expect to bike about 55 miles on two of the days, with a short 28 mile day in the middle.
  • I expect to camp out in the towns along the way or use hotels, depending on what’s available in each town. That will also be the policy for much of the rest of the trip (except rest days, which will typically be hotels).

We’ll then get to spend three rest days in the city of San Luis Potosí, where I can play tour guide because I used to live there! This is one of the safest cities in Mexico and has a great historic downtown.

#4: Silver Land
  • Starts November 27 from San Luis Potosí, SLP.
  • 4 riding days and 121 miles. Map.
  • This is a great section for beginner bicyclists. It’s all easy biking, just 25-37 miles a day. 
  • We should get some dramatic vistas in this area although the road will still be mostly flat.

We end in the stunning town of San Miguel de Allende, one of Mexico’s most popular destinations. It’s a colonial-era town built on the wealth of its silver mines. Three rest days to explore it!

Views like this! Photo by Michael R. Swigart.


#5: The Bajía
  • Starts December 4 in San Miguel de Allende, GTO.
  • 3 riding days and 135 miles. Map.
  • The last day is the longest one, going 58 miles.
  • This is a generally affluent area of Mexico with a large middle class.

We’ll take three rest days in Tula, a major city known for its well-preserved pyramids and colossal statues.

Note: If you want to see Mexico City, you could take a bus there from Tula. It’s very close.

#6: Aztec Land
  • Starts December 10 in Tula, HID.
  • 5 riding days and 227 miles. Map.
  • Expect 45-55 mile days.
  • This will be the most diverse leg of the trip, going from the affluent central lowland to small rural towns to a final climb up a mountain range.

We’ll end in the mountain city of Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz. There are museums and parks and we’ll have three rest days to enjoy them. Plus you really can’t have a cooler name for a city than Xalapa.

Is it cheating if we use mules? Photo by Elena Marini Silvestri.


#7: The Magic Road
  • Starts December 18 in Xalapa, Veracruz.
  • Total of 6 days (5 riding days and 1 beach day) and 177 miles. Map.
  • Mileage varies from 35 to 55 miles per day. Our last day is a mere 7 miles!
  • We’ll start off downhill and then follow the Gulf Coast, with a stop on Midwinter at the beach town of Boca del Rio. At the end we’ll come through a forested area to a city on a magic lake.

This leg ends at Catemaco, Mexico’s City of Sorcerers. I plan to take a full eight rest days there, using the time to meet some of the local magical and spiritual practitioners. And we’ll spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve here!

#8: Agua Dulce
  • Starts on January 1 in Catemaco, VER.
  • 6 riding days and 209 miles. Map.
  • Most days are less than 40 miles; there will be one 59 mile day.
  • Most of this leg will not be in view of the Gulf, but in the forested areas about 20 miles inland.

We’ll take three rest days in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco. This city has a lot of history and holds the world’s leading collection of Olmec artifacts.

#9: The Beach Road
  • Starts January 10 in Villahermosa, TAB.
  • 7 riding days and 259 miles. Map.
  • Other than one 60 mile day, these are all 40 or less.
  • You should really look at the map link on this one. Much of this segment will be on road just 100 feet from the beach, and we’ll be exploring small coastal towns including two that are literally islands. Plus for two days we’ll be biking the edge of a wildlife reserve.

We’ll take three rest days in Campeche, the gateway to the Yucatán Peninsula and Mayan culture. It also has a 17th century fort built to repel pirates.

#10: The Yucatán
  • Starts January 20 in Campeche, CAMP.
  • Total of 7 days (6 riding days and 1 pyramid day). Map.
  • This is all easy days of mostly 35-40 miles. Even the longest day is only 47.
  • We’ll be in the heart of the Mayan empire. We will bicycle directly past the massive pyramids of Chichen-Itza and will take a day to see them.

We will end in Valladolid, one of my favorite towns in Mexico, on or around January 26. For me, this will be home for a while. But before you fly out, we could all take a beach day at Cancun…

Photo by Wonderlane.


Safety Information

There is a lot of misinformation about the dangers of traveling in Mexico. Much of Mexico is very safe. Here is what I wrote about safety last time:

I planned this route using the advice of two native Mexicans, one of whom is a former security editor for a major news publication. I also drew on crime data from researchers at Stanford University and a variety of watch groups. These sources helped me avoid most high crime areas. Contrary to American perceptions, the violence in Mexico is concentrated along the northern border and a few other hot spots. To complete the adventure requires crossing that border area, but the rest of the trip aims to avoid major crime zones.

With that said, we will do everything we can to travel smart and minimize risk. I will provide a more in-depth section on safety soon.

Missing Information

I wanted to get this itinerary out right away, so that I can start contacting cycling groups. But I realize there’s a lot more information I should provide to help people plan. Here is my to-do list of info I need to pull together:

  • “Must have” packing list (including biking essentials)
  • “Nice to have” packing list
  • How to take a bike on a plane
  • Basics of traveling in Mexico
  • Expanded safety information

Is there any other critical information you think I should provide?

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