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

Natchez and the Trace

Last time I rested and partied in Vicksburg. Now I take to the road once again, with more new friends to meet and more challenges to conquer.

Jimmy and me. Photo by André.

Jimmy and me. Photo by André.


Day 97 (Thursday, October 11, 2012)

My new Vicksburg friends begged me to stay through another weekend, but now the clock was counting down. To keep my promise to meet two friends in New Orleans, I wanted to arrive the same day they would: October 17. I still had time to make it, but just barely. I’d spend at least one day going to Natchez, Mississippi; a second day to reach Baton Rouge, and potentially two more to hit the Big Easy. Factor in potential breakdowns and time was running out.

So Thursday morning I mounted up. I had heard of something up ahead called the Natchez Trace, an ancient highway that was, I was promised, blissfully free of traffic. The Trace started out as a Native American footpath shared by the European voyageurs in the frontier days. Once the Mississippi River became a major thoroughfare, so did the Trace. Crews from riverboats, who rode the current downstream herding their cargo as they went, had to walk back upstream in order to get a new gig aboard a new barge. (Apparently walking was cheaper than hiring horses, even with the longer road time). So they followed the well worn footpath from the river town of Natchez, MS up as far as Nashville.

Why the Trace goes to Nashville I can’t say. I presume these boat workers wanted to get another job as soon as they could, maybe at a town like Memphis. But the Trace’s route heads immediately away from the river, and by the time you reach Nashville you’ve a good 150 miles from the Mississippi. To me, it doesn’t add up.

What does make sense is how the Trace has been preserved and memorialized. The entirety of the trail is owned by the National Park Service and considered a historic site. While much of the original footpath still exists, a paved road was added as well—but it’s cleverly restricted. No commercial trucks can drive the Trace, and the speed limit is lower than a normal freeway. The result is that general traffic doesn’t use it, and the only vehicles you see are hatchbacks loaded up for family vacations and a few motorcyclists and bicycle groups.

At Vicksburg I was near the end of the Trace, and I planned to do about 35 miles on it, the second half of the day’s ride. First I took regular highways, having a little bit of a hard time between the occasional hills and the brutal Southern sun. By the time I reached Port Gibson, the town where I’d pick up the Trace, I already felt a little woozy. I started to worry that the glories of the Trace, like so many “easy” stretches before me, may have been exaggerated. I pounded cold water, bananas and trail mix in the shade at a gas station, double checked where to get on the Trace, and cautiously pedaled over.

A beautiful scenic route opened up before me. The traffic was, indeed, both sparse and respectful; the pavement was in remarkable condition; and instead of the usual gas stations and billboards the scenery was National Forest.

The new surroundings put me in a great mood. Emboldened by the low traffic I put in my ear buds and listened to music. I had never done this before on the bike, and I left one ear bud out (most of the time) to help stay aware of my surroundings. Digging into a trove of new music I had downloaded in Minnesota, I discovered Talvin Singh for the first time (Thank you, Urban!). If you’ve never biked through a forest with Talvin Singh in your ears, you’re missing a great experience.

Small worlds off the Natchez Trace. Photo by André.

Small worlds off the Natchez Trace. Photo by André.

Parts of the Trace were shady, which finally broke my heat problem. At one point, even though I was running a bit later than hoped, I just couldn’t help it: I stopped, chained up the bike, and walked a footpath off the main road for nearly an hour. When I finally returned to the Trace and ponied up, I could see the remains of log cabins and other historic structures in glens off the side of the road.

As day became evening, I found myself wistful. This is what I wanted every biking day to be like. I had always pictured myself riding down cute country roads, enjoying the beautiful outdoors without a care in the world. Most bicycle days aren’t like that, but if you ride far enough you will find them.

This time I beat the sunset to my destination. I rolled into Natchez, Mississippi and regular roads just at the tail end of rush hour. I had found a host named Jimmy on Warm Showers, a site dedicated to bicyclists and those who are willing to provide them a spot to crash. It was my first time using this website and, incidentally, Jimmy’s first time acting as an official host.

Jimmy was a retired antique dealer. A few weeks earlier, a friend of his had run into two French cyclists (a couple) headed on a route similar to mine. He offered them his roof, and it was from them that he first heard of the Warm Showers website. He’d had such a good experience with those two that he listed himself as a host, just in time for me to find him.

Jimmy’s house was small but stunning. Part of a row of stucco-walled historic homes in the middle of the oldest part of Natchez, he had put his full antique dealer talents into appointing it with flawless Southern charm. Classical statues on marble topped tables, ancient oak canopy beds, and 150 year old paintings. It was hard to believe I was in a real house. The back garden, enclosed in a high wall, was his true passion, and it was immaculate. I said it looked like something you’d see in a magazine and Jimmy grinned. “It is,” he said, and handed me the issue where he was featured. 70.2 miles.

Map.

Breakfast in Jimmy's garden. Photo by André.

Breakfast in Jimmy’s garden. Photo by André.


Day 98 (Friday, October 12, 2012)

One thing Jimmy’s home lacked was wi-fi, but the Public Library was just two blocks away. I had planned to spend one rest day in Natchez to keep up with work and explore, and Jimmy and I hit it off so well that I knew it was the right choice. After a light breakfast together, I settled in at the library and set to work on my laptop.

I came back in the afternoon and Jimmy gave me a walking tour of the city’s historic homes. Most were owned by friends and neighbors, so he knew the whole backstory of all of them. He pointed out stunning architecture including a rare style of plantation home that he said had only one other surviving example (which I’d later see in New Orleans).

This one, in fact. Photo via Pam the RV traveler.

In the downtown area, he showed me where the steam boats docked and explained how there’d be a coach service waiting to bring passengers and their luggage up the small bluff to town. He pointed out one brick home above the bluff which once belonged to a free black landowner, “A former slave who owned plenty of slaves of his own.” I wasn’t unaware that there were once black slave owners, but seeing the house in person was jarring. How completely had slavery entrenched itself in the old economy, if even a former slave turned to it?

In the park we saw a memorial to the victims of the Rhythm Club Fire, an inferno that destroyed a local dance hall in 1940 and killed 209 people. The rafters had been decorated with Spanish moss sprayed with a flammable insecticide, and the windows boarded shut to keep out unpaid revelers. The back door was padlocked as well, so most people inside died of smoke inhalation or trampling when the fire swept in from somewhere near the front door. Most of those inside were African American.

According to Jimmy, many donations for the memorial and nearby museum had come from Chicago, because so many Natchez natives had moved there but still remembered the tragedy.

Natchez, MS. Photo by André.

Natchez, MS. Photo by André.

After this tour we drove to the grocery store, where Jimmy and I both tried to beat the other one to paying for pasta, bacon, goat cheese and fresh veggies. These were the ingredients I used to make a dinner for Jimmy and two of his friends, a retired judge and his wife. First I served a spinach salad with walnuts, cranberries and a warm dressing made from the bacon fat. Then I brought out a giant goat cheese bacon pasta with red peppers and caramelized onions. We had a red wine that paired nicely and, as I recall, a white after the meal was over.

I got my first lesson in Southern manners. At one point, I reached for the bottle and asked if I could refill the glass of the judge’s wife. She said “yes, please” so I did. Jimmy later told me, “I’m sure he won’t hold it against you because you didn’t know, but when she said yes the judge shook his head. People won’t always speak their minds here so you need to look for the little cues.”

This was also my first experience with a Louisiana accent, as Jimmy had spent most of his adult life in New Orleans. He called me “baby” a lot (he calls everyone “baby” a lot) which stuck out as unusual at first, but is a normal tick of Louisianans—and one I’ve now enthusiastically picked up, baby.

The evening with Jimmy and his friends is still a warm memory, and like so many new friends he asked me to stay longer. But this time I had to decline, beckoned forward by the final stretch. I slept well that night knowing it was with a heavy heart that I would get back on the road in the morning.

In Jimmy’s garden a hand-lettered sign proclaimed: Strive for Beauty and Humanity. I will, Jimmy.

Total traveled this leg: 70.2

Total traveled since Day 1: 1684.2

Next time, the ride into Baton Rouge is more like a run through a war zone. Until then you can until then you can check out my past road logs or sign up to bike a leg with me. Likely start date of the Mexico trip: on or around November 6. Are you tempted yet?

 

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Vicksburg Days

Last time I made my way to Vicksburg, Mississippi, despite getting lost. Having finally arrived, it’s time to spend  few days resting…

Carla, me, Ryan and Katya.

Carla, me, Ryan and Katya.

 

Day 93 (Sunday, October 7, 2012) continued

After nearly 100 miles of pedaling I was pretty beat. If my hosts had simply given me a shower and a bed I would’ve been grateful enough. But I was in for a hell of a welcome party.

Roommates Carla and Ryan were avid Couchsurfing hosts. Both worked as scientists in a large government research center located in Vicksburg. Due to this facility, the city has a huge population of researchers and intellectuals, and also tends to lean liberal. That means there was a lot of great conversation.

A second Couchsurfer had also arrived that day, but this one from Germany. She was something of a riddle: her name, Katya, is actually Russian, and when she opened her mouth to speak I thought I’d been misinformed and she was actually Scottish. Her English was flawless, but so was the Scots accent, and I gingerly asked where she was from. She’s German all the way, but had studied for years in Edinburgh.

Carla, for her part, was Puerto Rican while Ryan rounded out the group as a Southern white boy.

I was barely in the door before they handed me drinks: red wine in one hand and sips of various microbrew beers in the other. Beer is Ryan’s passion, and when he found out my dad makes mead he popped a mead of his own for me to try. It was delicious, but I sheepishly asked if I could shower before dinner.

I should say a word about Ryan and Carla’s home. Huge and immaculate, it was the perfect place to land. The house had a guest bedroom, which had been given to Katya, and a fully furnished mother-in-law apartment over the garage where they put me. The renovation on the bathroom up there wasn’t 100% complete, and they apologized for putting me out there. The truth is I loved it. It gave me a private place to write.

Behind the house was a big yard with a firepit and a spectacular view. They were on the bluff directly over the Mississippi. That’s some valuable real estate.

By the time I cleaned up Katya was well underway cooking us a giant dinner from fresh ingredients bought that day. While we hung around the kitchen chatting Carla made heavy-handed rum and cokes with plenty of limes, explaining it was the drink of Puerto Ricans everywhere. At first I politely declined, since a long day on the bicycle means even a few drinks can have a hefty effect. But soon I gave in and joined in the revelry, learning just how strong a Puerto Rican highball really is.

I couldn’t hide the fact that I was ravenously hungry, but the conversation was so good it didn’t really matter. I pitched in and helped Katya in the kitchen. Eventually we gathered around the table for one of the finest meals I’ve eaten.

One moment paints a pretty good picture of the back and forth. As Katya told us about Germany, Carla blurted out: “Well what was the deal with Hitler? What were you guys thinking!”

Ryan and I sucked in our breath. From the little I’ve heard, World War II is still a touchy subject in Deutschland, and casually blaming today’s Germans is pretty far from polite dinner topic. But Katya almost fell out of her seat laughing.

Carla laughed too. “Puerto Ricans just say whatever we’re thinking.”

After dinner we put on music and danced until the wee hours.

Entrance to my loft. Photo by André.

Entrance to my loft. Photo by André.

Days 94 – 96 (October 8 – 10) — R&R

The group of us bonded and explored Vicksburg together. I spent daytime in my little apartment catching up on client work, which was no problem since Carla and Ryan more or less worked a regular full time schedule. Katya spent her free time jogging or going out on adventures of her own.

All I knew about Vicksburg before I visited was that some Civil War battle happened there. In fact, it’s a little more impressive: perched on high bluffs at a bend in the Mississippi, the Confederate garrison had a perfect vantage to bombard any Union vessels that tried to pass. Numerous Union attempts were made, but for the most part the city’s guns locked down the river. Vicksburg finally capitulated to Union forces on July 4th, and for many years afterward the city refused to celebrate Independence Day. To hear the locals tell it, it was actually captured several days earlier and the Union commander delayed accepting the surrender so he could do it on the Fourth of July.

Nowadays, I’m told, the holiday is celebrated like anywhere else in the country, but I’ve also heard that some diehards continue to boycott it.

The National Military Park is one of Vicksburg’s biggest attractions. One day Carla dropped us off there so we could explore while she was at work. For the most part, Katya and I went in separate directions: she wanted to jog the entire trail that circles the place, while I wanted to examine old graves.

Walking the ancient cemetery is as spooky as it should be. With graves going back to at least the early 1800s, crowded tight and decaying with moss and time, it’s a vision from a European horror story. In fact, my time wandering there helped inspire a particularly macabre fantasy game I’d later design and run for some friends. Many epitaphs featured whole poems, or personal messages from family members. The fatalistic blend of heartbreak and faith in those words struck me much harder than today’s optimistic and inspirational stanzas. One woman’s grave was inscribed with the shattering words of the man she left behind. He had lost all purpose.

In the evening we wanted to show Katya some Southern barbeque so we headed to a smokehouse overlooking the river. A few of Carla and Ryan’s friends joined us, one of them quite conservative (and not afraid to lecture us about it). At this time, Greece was going through a terrible financial crisis and had just received a huge bailout package from Germany. Assuming Katya would sympathize with his outrage, the conservative turned to her:

“What do you think about all the aid your country is giving out? You’re the most successful country in the EU and now you’re saddled giving away everything you you earned.”

Katya answered with characteristic warmth.

“I don’t mind that we give it away. I grew up with everything I needed, and was sent to a good school. I didn’t earn any of that. Now it’s made me successful. I enjoyed everything I was given, so how could I say we shouldn’t give it to others? I would feel like a hypocrite. My country gives a lot of aid to other countries, and it’s not my place to say we should stop.”

This, to me, is the ultimate condemnation of conservatism: the hypocrisy of denying to others what you yourself were given, and the conceit to say you earned it alone. Placed beside someone who views their own privilege with humility, wanting only to help others, American conservatism looks a lot like a carnival barker.

On the drive home, we went past a Sonic—the old fast food chain that still offers drive-in service. “What is Sonic?” Katya asked.

Ryan tried to explain it, but the concept only made Katya more confused.

“But… you cannot eat there?”

“Sure, I think they have an inside too.”

“So it’s like a drive through?”

“No, they bring out the food so you eat it in your car, but you eat it right there.”

“But why not just eat inside?”

The vision of the 1950s as the Age of the Automobile, and America’s perennial obsession with cars, was completely absent from her historical lexicon (as is, I’m sure, much of Germany’s culture from mine). Katya begged that we pull in. We did—she got herself a chocolate shake, practically jumping up and down with excitement as she wrapped her head around the experience.

The next day, over Carla and Ryan’s lunch break, we met them at a local cafe within easy walking distance of their house. Ryan raved about the place’s craft beer selection, so I tried a pecan flavored brown ale (Southern Pecan by MS-based Lazy Magnolia Brewing). It immediately become a favorite. The place was so good we went back for their happy hour that night, which happened to be the venue for a weekly Craft Brew gathering.

The cafe in question, Martin's at Midtown in Vicksburg. Photo by André.

The cafe in question, Martin’s at Midtown in Vicksburg. Photo by André.

It wasn’t all partying. I also needed to get new tire tubes, which involved navigating giant hills and busy highways to reach a strip mall on a sweltering sunny day. I also picked up a bottle of wine for my hosts and one for Katya’s goodbye party (she was leaving a day before me, as I recall) and made some basic repairs on the bike, to the amusement of neighbors.

The days in Vicksburg were more than just a happy time. They cemented my confidence in my ability to make friends and be good a good guest. My trip down the Mississippi had become a series of warm welcomes at major cities, much needed after hard days on the road, and it seemed I made a good impression at each of them. Once socially awkward, shy and more than a little selfish, I could see I had become easygoing, friendly and generally considerate. Carla and Ryan, like virtually every host before or since, insisted I extend my stay and seemed genuinely sad when I finally had to leave. This didn’t just reassure me about my social skills, it also served as a crucial touchstone with two later roommates I didn’t get along with. I could know, at least, that I didn’t need to squarely blame myself for a messy social situation.

If I wanted, I could move tomorrow to Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis or Dubuque and already have a circle of friends happy to see me arrive. That is a gift for which I am truly grateful.

On the morning of October 11 I saddled up the Giant and hit the road again. I’ll pick up that story next time, and until then you can read my other road logs or join me on the next bike ride.

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The Road to Vicksburg

Back to road logs! Last time the black cloud over my head parted (after thoroughly dousing me with rain) and I experienced a new level of kindness on my Journey. This time, I put the difficulties behind me and try to race to Vicksburg on the promise of a comfortable bed.

Vicksburg. Photo by Michelle Lee

Day 93 (Sunday, October 7, 2012)

Since the previous 48 hours included head stroke, exhaustion, hypothermia, and little real rest, I had no problem sleeping on the stage in a church gymnasium. I did have a problem waking up, but there wasn’t much choice: Pastor Brian needed me out by 8:00 so I wouldn’t be in the way of church members arriving to start Sunday youth programs.

I woke up on time, groggy eyed, and raced to get things ready. But people arrived early. I could hear voices outside soon a volunteer was in the giant kitchen, prepping things. At first no one really paid attention to me; this is what you might call a “mega church” and I suppose not all the community members know each other. But they do know that loading up a bicycle with camping gear is not a common church activity, and soon they had questions. They were as friendly as you could possibly imagine—no one insinuated I was trespassing. And when I said I had the Pastor’s permission, it was clear that was all I needed. But I worried, suddenly, that my presence might raise questions Brian had hoped not to answer, or that I’d have to start refusing invites to attend service. I scrambled my bike out the door and hit the open road.

For a few minutes, anyway. This was an earlier start than I normally had, and I was famished. I located a Shoney’s in town and biked over to eat. I ordered the largest breakfast special they had, not worried about the piles of carbs before me given that I was burning about 6,000 calories a day. I ate staring out the window at the sky. Grey clouds raced on the north wind, evoking yesterday’s chills. But my heart was high. I’ll always remember that time: the elements seething outside, me me sipping cup after cup of coffee, the adventurer enjoying a small delight. For that moment I was totally free from fear. When I finally went outside, I stayed warm for hours.

That’s a good chunk of what I remember about the road to Vicksburg. I continued on the scenic River Road, and halfway through the day it merged onto the main highway. Eventually I crossed the Yazoo River and its Yazoo Pass, which made the name of the cafe back in Clarksdale make a lot more sense. My map app wanted me to follow Highway 61 all the way into town but, remembering freeway conditions near other larger cities, I planned my own course that involved rural roads once I got close.

I made poorer time than I expected,  but didn’t really care. The sun was low when I turned off 61 onto a disused side road. I was about to experience two things: truly mystical terrain and a new opportunity to get lost.

Mississippi is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful states in our country. The terrain near Vicksburg–built on a bluff over the magnificent Mississippi–is hilly, almost mountainous. I would have believed that some of the vistas were from a lazy corner of Appalachia. Or, for that matter, a fantasy world: soon entire forests were covered with a blanket of choking vine, a solid rolling expanse of green. Mighty oaks rose like moss-covered rocks, smooth and branchless under their creepers. The cliffs and wore the same shroud. Mist drifted from these surroundings, huddling in the shady lows like a magic tide on the rise. I breathed the air and chanted to the local gods.

The local people were in less opulent straits. The landscape alone could have convinced me I was back in rural Thailand; the houses proved it. Tiny cabins housed large families, many cooking over an open fire outside. Brush or garbage fires burned as well, and smoke drifted across the highway. I waved as I passed. Little dark-skinned children watched me go by with curiosity, or yelled and pointed me out to their parents and grandparents, who waved back. I passed a time-beaten church closed up for the evening, and then the forested hillside dropped away and so did the homes. I found myself in open fields.

This nagged at my navigating instinct. Shouldn’t I be seeing more and bigger houses as I got closer to the city? But the road was winding and had many turns, and I decided to trust the directions I’d gotten from Google. I enjoyed the evening ride, knowing I would reach a house with a real bed and a real shower before sunset. I texted Carla, the host at that house, with an ETA less than an hour out. She told me they had another Couchsurfer as well, a girl from Germany, and that they were cooking a huge dinner. I’d be right on time.

But when the fields gave way to endless industrial structures—no cityscape on the horizon—I knew I’d done something wrong. Finally I pulled over and brought up the map again. I was on the prescribed route but, looking carefully, it led to the wrong destination. Some rural road had a name similar to the street where Carla lives, and Google had aimed me there instead of downtown Vicksburg.

I laughed. Like so many times on my Adventure, the moment when comfort is closest is exactly when one last obstacle reared its head. I could only shake my head at the fading Sun, who watched all this with barely a smirk, and laugh at myself.

Soon I’d routed the correct address (another hour away) and informed Carla, who was very understanding. But now I pedaled with a fire: I was hungry, and tired, and didn’t want to enter a city at nightfall.

I wondered if the families would think it was funny when I biked past a second time in the opposite direction, but my turnoff came before I reached many houses. One road led to another, I found my urban surroundings, and a single uphill chug took me into the heart off historic Vicksburg. It was dusk.

A little after downtown was the beautiful, aged street where Carla lived with her roommate Ryan. I had a final moment of uncertainty in the grey light, the spot where their address should be containing no clear house and no clear driveway, but wandering down a packed-earth alleyway landed me at their door. Their house perched just above the winding Mississippi. The sun’s last glow faded and Carla, Ryan, Katya and two puppies cheerfully received me.

Made it again, Rogue Priest. 98.5 miles.

Map.

Total traveled since Day 1: 1,614

I completely fell in love with Vicksburg over the course of just a few days. I’ll tell you all about it next time, and until then you can also check out my past road logs. You can also sign up to bike a leg with me.

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Adventure Prep, Bicycling, The Great Adventure, Travel

Preview of the Ride Across Mexico

Photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

I promised that today I would have more information about the route for my cross-Mexico adventure. For those who don’t know, this is a bicycle expedition to cross all of Mexico powered only by the human body. It will start in November and anyone, regardless of skill level or experience, is welcome to come. I’m breaking it into small segments so you can do just a few days, or you can come for a longer stretch.

Planning the route has not been easy. In order to provide individual 4-7 day segments, I need to chart out every mile in advance. It try to end every segment in a larger town that has hotels, some culture and some cool things to see. That way we can spend a few days there, which gives some wiggle room for starting the next leg in case we’re running late.

That’s meant a lot of time on both the Spanish and English versions of Wikipedia researching the towns along the way. For example, one promising route ended in a town that turned out to be best known for its oil pipeline; I switched to a different route toward a little colonial gem instead. Anyone on this adventure will definitely experience the day to day life of rural Mexico, so adding a few tourist destinations seems like a nice balance.

Unfortunately, charting out these segments—and choosing dates for them—is a project that’s not yet finished. But I do have the overall route, broken into seven major legs, and wanted to show it to readers. If you’re even 20% interested in coming along, it’s time to start planning.

The seven legs are below, but first a note on safety. 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, most of the violence in Mexico is concentrated along the northern border, as well as a few other hot spots. To complete the adventure requires crossing that border zone, but I was able to keep the rest of the trip away from major crime zones.

So with that said, here’s a rough map:

Click or zoomable Google map.

Click for zoomable Google map.

Each of these major branches has its own unique character:

Road A: Border Run

This single three-day run is the section I suspect will get the least interest, but it’s also where I’d most value companions. We’ll start at dawn from the border city of Nuevo Laredo and cover a whopping 82 miles in one day. We’ll use a major Mexican highway with a wide paved shoulder, which is heavily policed by federal forces. We’ll check into a hotel in a small town before dark, rest up and leave the next morning for another 60 miles to Monterrey. Finally, on the third day we’ll cross a small mountain region to neighboring Saltillo, effectively getting us out of the border zone once and for all.

Road B: Central Highlands

This section is harder to plan. While the crime rate drops to almost nothing after Saltillo, and the major highway is still well policed, now we’re in scrubby highland desert with very few towns. This will be a section where we’ll need to scope each village as we approach it and decide where we’re going to stay. Many nights we’ll camp in a town, which was surprisingly easy in Texas and which other cyclists tell me is both easy and safe in Mexico. (Fun fact: this probably means camping next to churches!) This section will have several 4-day legs and ultimately end at the tranquil colonial town of San Luís Potosi.

Typical bicycling days in this section will be an easy 30-45 miles, which will also be the pace for much of the rest of the trip.

Road C: The Bajía

This section crosses part of the Bajía, or Lowland, one of Mexico’s safest and most affluent regions. One leg will pass through San Miguel Allende, a beautiful silver mining town that has become a haven for expats and tourists.

Road D: Aztecs and Mountains

So far we’ve been heading toward Mexico City, but I intend to avoid biking through it. I also want to skirt away from the surrounding cities which have high crime rates. Instead, we’ll stick to more rural areas and head east back into the highlands. Ultimately we’ll cross Mexico’s eastern mountain range at the city of Xalapa. This leg will have some serious uphill pedaling, but beautiful terrain and at least one town (Tula) with stunning pyramids and Toltec statues.

Road E: To the Gulf!

We’ll start with a long downhill run toward Heroica Veracruz and the Gulf shore, then a day at the beach town of Boca del Rio. After that will be a few days of short rides through buggy coastal marshes. The end of this leg will take us to Catemaco, Mexico’s City of Sorcerers perched beside a magic lake.

Note that this route is specifically charted to take us far south of the cartel activity concentrated further up the Gulf shore.

Road F: Beaches and Oil

I’m not sure what to expect as far as scenery on this section. On the one hand, we’ll be hugging the shoreline and might get some great stops at beach towns. On the other hand, this isn’t a tourist region and we may see more refineries and offshore oil rigs than white sand and piña coladas. The terrain will be blisfully flat, however, making for relatively easy biking depending on the wind.

Road G: The Yucatán

This is the last leg, the final run to victory! The Yucatán is my favorite region in Mexico for so many reasons. Beautiful terrain, ancient pyramids, hidden cenotes (underwater lakes), Mayan art and culture, and the best food in the entire nation. Our route will be mostly inland, crossing some deserts and skirting at least one national park and wildlife refuge. We’ll pass through the popular tourist city of Merida, bicycle right past the famous Chichén Itzá pyramids, and end in the peaceful colonial town of Valladolid.

I chose Valladolid because I have warm memories there and because it’s affordable compared to bigger tourist destinations. I plan to rent a home and spend several months writing. Of course, we should have a celebration first when we arrive, and beach cities like Cancún and Tulum are just a 1 hour bus ride, if you need some R&R after the long pedal.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons


The Fellowship

I have interest from at least three people in joining for part or all of this journey. I hope to announce dates as soon as possible, but the journey will start in early November and take approximately two months. We’ll reach the Gulf around the beginning of December and likely be in the Yucatán for Christmas.

I’ll locate nearby airports for each leg so that arriving and joining us is as easy as it can be. But I don’t know what to plan unless I hear from those interested. So here’s what I need from you, dear readers: which of these segments sounds most attractive to you? Is there a part you can picture yourself doing? And who wants to brave the difficult Border section with me?

Of course, if you can’t cycle a leg, you could also meet up with us in one of our rest stop towns and just hang out for a few days. What do you think?

Please leave a comment or email andre@roguepriest.net to share your thoughts or express interest.

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Adventure, Ask Me Anything, Travel

Do You Doubt Your Journey Sometimes?

Photo by Brett Davies

Last month I got an email from a reader named Tobes, who is planning his own great bicycle journey across Europe, ultimately to place his mother’s ashes in India. I can’t think of a more beautiful quest.

After we chatted a bit, Tobes had some questions for me. I love the questions I get from fellow adventurers, because they tend to go a bit deeper than the standard fare like, “What do you eat?” or “How many miles in a day?” So I thought I’d share them here, starting with one that cuts right to the bone.

1. Do you doubt your journey sometimes?

Constantly. Maybe every day. If there’s anything I have faith in it’s that a journey will change you, will remake you… But I always doubt whether I’m on the right journey. Whether I’m doing it the way that’s best for me, or if I’m speeding past things I should stop to savor or, on the other hand, dallying too long. My journey also taught me that I’m a writer, that writing is my “purpose” in life—so should I still be journeying instead of staying in the chair and writing?

And why am I so dedicated to doing this journey powered by my own body, when that choice could get me in trouble? Wouldn’t I be a smarter adventurer to just bus past the worst areas? Is it stupid to bicycle them? Or would taking a bus be giving up, admitting defeat, backing out? And does that matter, or is it just pride?

Those are some of the doubts I have every single day.

2. Do you present yourself to new faces—those you seek shelter from—with a version of yourself or your true self?

I think we all present different versions of ourselves, sometimes even to ourselves. So I’m surprised I don’t “change” more for strangers. Even though I could reinvent myself in every town, I catch myself with the same habits, the same ticks, the same basic personality. Only Vodou has really changed the face I put on. After my initiation when my patron spirit was in my head all my self-doubt fell away. I just acted from instinct. I think that was my “true self” coming through without all the social baggage. It lasted for several weeks and now it comes through at certain times.

I’ve also noticed that, despite originally thinking this journey would make me a badass, I don’t try to market myself. I don’t like to impress people with my adventure. Sometimes I wish I could avoid mentioning it at all. So when I’m buying camping supplies or a neighbor hears I’m a cyclist, I often downplay it. “Yeah, I’m doing a three day ride next week.” No mention of the 2,700 miles before that or the 5,000 more to go. Unless a friend is there and brags for me, it never even comes up.

That isn’t so much from a sense of humility (which I’m terrible at) but from sometimes just from fatigue. It can get tiring to tell your story all the time. If my purpose is to inspire, maybe I would do better to talk about it whenever I can. But I think my purpose is just to adventure.

3. Do you differentiate yourself from the homeless you see on your travels and are you wary of them?

Amazing question. I like the romantic idea of sitting down next to hobos and striking up a conversation with no barriers and no fear. The reality is a little different. They can see I have professional equipment and travel in a different way from them. I think they appreciate that I treat them as equals and will chat with them, but I don’t think I could be accepted as one of them. If I tried to stay in the jungle by a railroad yard I’d likely lose my equipment. My laptop is how I get my work done, and it’s tucked in a dry sack inside an $80 waterproof saddlebag. Hobos don’t carry that stuff.

On another level there’s my own hangup. I know I travel with a lifeline; if my trip becomes too dangerous, or too difficult, or I have a breakdown or an illness or a crisis, I place one phone call and someone who loves me is there. I can book a bus ticket to New Orleans anytime I decide to rest. When I talk to the homeless I feel this safety net hanging from me, like an invisible but conspicuous sign of class difference. I suspect that makes me more timid around them than I have to be.

In Mexico I spent a lot of time practicing noticing the similarities between strangers and me, rather than what sets us apart. I need to do that more.

4. How good does your BS detector need to be?

Surprisingly not all that good. When someone is “off” you will feel it right away. It doesn’t take a lot of practice because you’ve been feeling it all your life. The tricky part is listening to it.

On the road, turn down companionship if anything feels off. It might not mean they’re going to rob you, it may just mean they’re going waste your time or make you angry. But trust it. Be rude if you have to. Better yet, just be firm.

One lady felt off to me but invited me to dinner with buffalo burgers. That sounded really, really good after 45 miles of hills. Plus maybe I could spend the night. She said she was going to the store and would swing back to get me right after. I waited hours and she never came. I was stupid to keep waiting but the prospect of food and shelter was too much. I ended up sleeping under a tree by the river.

If you’d like, you can ask me anything as well. Tomorrow I’ll have an update on the planning for the Trans-Mexico leg.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Spotlight, Texas, Travel, Women

130 Miles to Laredo, Pixi Version

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

Pixi just before we start. Photo by André.

Pixi just before we started. Photo by André.

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

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

“Sounds awesome,” I wrote back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iconic road shot by Pixi.

Iconic road shot by Pixi.

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

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

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

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

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

Some notes to interested travelers:

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

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

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