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

The First Story of the Fellowship of the Wheel

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

The border crossing. Photo by Ernest White II.

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

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

Picking up where I left off! Photo by André.

Picking up where I left off! Photo by André.

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

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

“What’s in here?” (In Spanish.)

“Clothing.

“Here?”

“Equipment for my bicycle.”

“Here?”

“My house for camping.”

“And here?”

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

“For camping.”

“Right.”

He never opened any of these bags.

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

“But… it’s dangerous, right?”

He was a border guard.

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

He nodded.

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

“Do you have a bicycle permit?”

My eyes widened. “I need a…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map.

November 7—Meetup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything was as ready as it was going to get.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandonado. Photo by Ernest White II.

Abandonado. Photo by Ernest White II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ernest White II

Photo by Ernest White II

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

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

Map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She agreed.

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” I yelled.

“We’re here.”

“What?”

“We’re here!”

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11 (Day 858)—Major Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map.

Total traveled this leg:  205.5 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3213.3 miles

More soon, or see old road logs here.

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