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

Breakdown in the Wirikuta Desert

Last time I explored ghost towns and silver mines. This time, I get back on the bicycle for the next leg—across a wide empty desert.

The Giant getting ready for the trek.

The Giant getting ready for the trek. Photo by André

Sunday, November 23, 2014 (Day 870 of the Great Adventure)—To Charcas

My departure from Cedral brought a certain sense of relief. While the side trip to Catorce was one of the highlights of my trip, Cedral itself was humdrum. I had become too settled in routine my little apartment. I was eager to be back on the road.

This segment seemed particularly promising. My route would take me west and south, essentially going around the rectangular block of mountains I had just ascended to visit Real. It was a total of 75 miles of desert, aiming toward the distant city of Charcas. It would be open, desolate territory with stunning mountain views, and I got on the bike eagerly.

For some reason I decided to leave town by a main street, past the market and the town square, instead of heading right for the highway. This proved fateful. Not 150 meters into my 75 mile ride, I rolled over a row of metal topes (speed bumps) a little too fast. My toolkit jumped in my front basket and, unknown to me, something gave in my back wheel. Minutes later I heard a faint noise I couldn’t diagnose and, much much later, it would come to a head in the desert.

I left this toy from a Kinder egg hanging where the niño's would find it.

I left this toy from a Kinder egg hanging where the niños would find it. Photo by André.

The way out of town was hard for other reasons. Once on the highway the wind was against me, cold on the skin and rough on the lips, making the pedaling very hard. I knew it was only for 12 miles or so—after that I’d be able to “turn the corner” around the block of mountains and head south, the wind coming from my side. But it was a long 12 miles and slow going.

After the corner I took a moment to catch my breath in the town of Vanegas. From here onward, a set of train tracks ran along the road the whole way south. Mountains, desert, empty town, rails: it made for the perfect desert scene. It’s startling how the mountains of the Wirikuta rise so suddenly out of an otherwise flat desert, no foothills or rolling terrain leading up to them. I was grateful for it though, as flat land is a biker’s friend.

That thin white ribbon? That's the road I originally planned to take.

That thin white ribbon? That’s the road I originally planned to take.

My pace improved on the next leg, but something was wrong. I didn’t like the noise coming from my bicycle. For the time being I couldn’t identify the cause, but the back wheel was wobbling. That wobble got worse as the hours wore on.

There are a few towns along the Wirikuta road/rail, and at first it seemed like a reasonably well traveled route. The most substantial of them is Estacion de Catorce, or Catorce Station, so named because it’s the closest train stop to the road to Real de Catorce. (The back road, not the tour bus road through the tunnel.) I had toyed with the idea of stopping there for the night instead of Charca. Once I reached the town, however, I really just wanted to keep going. There was a lot of daylight left, plus if I could move quickly I’d be able to catch the Wandering Dragon in the city of San Luis Potosí.

So on I went.

Just outside of Estacion I came around a bend in the road and did a double take. There on the roadside, standing near the train crossing, were two gueros. I was a little stunned to see other people of my own race—I was definitely an oddity in Cedral. I was so stunned that I didn’t really pull together any words to say hi as I whisked by, but I flashed them a smile and they waved as I went. It occurred to me that the area is a big draw for hippies, what with the Huichol shamans and the peyote pilgrimage. (Indeed, earlier at another bend three people with a large drum were waiting at a train or bus stop. When they spotted me one began playing and two began chanting. It was a nice little sendoff.) I supposed that my two pale-skinned comrades were either waiting to go up the mountains or had just come back down, and I thought no more of it.

It was around that time that my bike problems got serious. The noise got louder, and I could now see the wheel wobble. The side of the tire rubbed against the frame on every rotation. That’s a big problem, one which can rub right through the tire and ultimately destroy it.

This led to a series of attempted maintenance stops. One was under the shade of a mesquite tree near the driveway entrance to a ranch. I took all the bags off the Giant and turned him upside down hoping to diagnose the problem. I barely noticed that a pickup truck turned off the road onto the ranch drive and then stopped. People got in or out, most likely ranch workers. I focused on my machine.

“Ach, it leuks like he’s go’ a problem.”

The accent vaguely resembled Scrooge McDuck’s Scottish ancestor on Duck Tales. My ears perked up nonetheless; it was the first strain of fluent English that hadn’t come from me or one of my friends in two weeks.

Walking over from the pickup truck at the ranch drive were the two gueros I’d seen earlier. The faux-Scot voice was the man of the couple, actually from Belgium; the woman was his Canadian girlfriend. As they walked toward me I had a brief hope that perhaps one of them was a talented bike mechanic. Neither was.

Still, it didn’t hurt to have company. While I spun my wheel and looked for the source of the problem, they told me they were hitchhikers. They teach yoga somewhere in the Baja, but were on walkabout (rideabout) for a few weeks. The woman spoke of the “desert energy,” (as in “the desert energy is much stronger here”) while the man tried to figure out what the next nearest town was. Their Spanish was a hair better than mine and they were able to sustain a sort of conversation with several drunk ranch workers who wandered over. Seeing the hitchhikers up close, I actually realized I had seen them—just for a moment—in the public market of Cedral several days earlier.

While we chatted I made a decision on the bike wheel. This decision involved several factors:

  • I did not know the exact problem, or how to fix it.
  • The symptoms were similar to when my rear axle broke about a year earlier. When that had happened, the bike ran grudgingly until I tried taking the axle out; after that I was grounded. Thus, I didn’t exactly want to take the wheel apart to confirm or refute my guess.
  • I had a lot of miles to cover. Sitting around tinkering would mean not reaching Charcas today.
  • There were no more hotels before Charcas.
  • The desert night would be dangerously cold to camp in.

So I improvised. Without giving a technical explanation, I essentially rigged the wheel so that it was still wobbling but wasn’t quite hitting the frame.

The drunk ranchworkers offered us all beer, but none of us accepted. I posed briefly for them to snap a picture, and laughed along with some Bourbon Street talk once they heard I’m from New Orleans, then said my goodbyes and went on my way. I have to admit a little envy, and a lot of admiration, for the hippies and their hitchhiking. While my way of traveling involves a lot of freedom and is rewarding physically, theirs is clearly easier. They seemed quite calm and comfortable getting dropped at a ranch entrance and waiting for another car in any direction to any town. They had no mechanical issues, less physical strain and less gear to carry with them. I’d like to do a trip by hitchhiking sometime, especially with a partner.

Once I was underway the day became long and hard. My “fix” of the wheel didn’t last more than an hour before it was rubbing again. I made the tough choice to push on: if the tire failed, I would definitely not reach Charcas, but the alternative was to stop pedaling and not reach Charcas. It didn’t seem like a bad gamble.

I did try to mitigate the rubbing, however. I stopped several times to readjust the back wheel and even poured lubricant on it to reduce how badly it wore against the frame. But, determined, I got back on the seat every time.

By mid-afternoon it was clear I wouldn’t make Charcas before dark. I only passed through one more pueblo after that, and it was so small that I didn’t stop. I’m sure I could have spent a night there, huddled in my tent, but what would I do the next day? I’d be back in the same predicament.

During this period I crossed the Tropic of Cancer:

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

As the sun sank low in the sky, I finally reached an intersection in the desert highway. Turning right would take me to Charcas. There was no way I’d make it by nightfall, but it was only two hours off: with my lights on I could continue after dark.

I looked at my back tire. It was damn worn.


Glancing over to my right, I noticed a shrine. We weren’t near a church or a town or even a house; someone had just seen fit to erect a shrine by the roadside. I leaned my bike on its side and approached.

A narrow cement walkway led over a ditch to the front of the shrine. I froze. There under the little roof was a statue of St. Francis. The whole place was dedicated to him.

With one hand I dug up the pilgrim pendant I had gotten from his statue in Real de Catorce. I was so tired—and in such a hurry to reach Charcas—that I didn’t even look for an offertory. I threw the pendant over his statue into the back of the shine.

Respect the gods but do not ask for their help, said the philosopher in me.

“Saint Francis…” said my lips. “All I want is to reach Charcas safely tonight and not damage my bike too bad. Please help me.”

Then I put my hand over my heart, saluted, and was gone.

The sun indeed set on me. I froze in shorts and a t-shirt, wondering which of the lights on the distant hills was Charcas. Of course, there was a giant uphill slog before I reached it.

But I did reach it. Then I had only a maze of side streets between me and the Centro. One by one, I crossed them till I reached a street with several hotels on it. I vetted two of them, which were holes, before walking into the Malacate. Though it also looked like a hole from a distance, it was warm inside, clean, with working bathrooms and free water and coffee—and I’m not talking Nescafé. Even the wi-fi worked.

I was so exhausted I could have fallen asleep without dinner, but my day was far from over. First I showered and scrubbed the bike chain oil off my hands. Then I crossed the street to a little restaurant where I devoured a bowl of pozole:

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

This really, really hit the spot… along with an order of guacamole.

During dinner my body took on a leaden weight, insistent it needed to sleep. But I couldn’t allow it. I had to go back to the bicycle, now safe in my room at the Malacate, and get to work.

Dissecting the back wheel, I determined several things:

  • A spoke had broken. I don’t know if this happened on the initial speed bump or later on.
  • The entire back gear assembly was loose, giving the wheel a lot of play.

I determined I could fix both these problems. Tightening the gear assembly was fairly easy, and made me angry I hadn’t done it sooner. The spoke was another issue. I had a spare—four of them, to be exact—and thank the gods that it wasn’t on the side of the back wheel that would require removing the gears, since I never invested in that tool. But I had never changed a spoke before.

Youtube helped me out. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of steps and lots of things to be taken off. The entire tire has to be removed, for example, and in this case I had to remove a second spoke in order to access the first one.

Once the spoke was changed—which went pretty well if I do say so myself—there was still the matter of truing the back wheel. This is done by tightening or loosening various spokes as if tuning a musical instrument. I have no experience at this, and did at best a mediocre job.

Still, I now had a working wheel with reduced wheel wobble. I had to install it somewhat off center in order to counteract the remaining wobble, the cause of which I couldn’t determine. But once it was installed it spun smoothly. I didn’t know how it would hold up under weight but it appeared to be temporarily fixed.

Scrubbing the oil from my hands, I glanced at my phone. It was well after midnight. I planned to keep riding tomorrow, still in the vague hope I’d make San Luis Potosí before the Dragon left.

Lips chapped, face sunburned, body cold, hands cut and dirty, I threw myself under the covers at long last and slept for a few precious hours. 75.8 miles.


Total traveled this leg: 75.8 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3452.7 miles.

Next time I embark on the “Corridor of Oases” wondering if my back wheel will fail me. Until then, check out other road logs.


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