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

A Tornado in the Desert

When last we left off, I had been through a harrowing ride through a desert on a nearly-broken bicycle, on the verge of being stranded out in the cold. I’d managed to reach a town, repair my bicycle by working through the night, and wobble exhausted to the dead little burg of Moctezuma, SLP. After a day of rest there, I was ready to depart the “Corridor of Oases” and strike off into desert once more…

Photo by Kevin Schraer

Wednesday, November 26 (Day 873 of the Great Adventure)—The  Road Least Traveled

Mexico’s waiters are not fleet of foot. A few very high end places defy the rule and recruit almost obsessive servers. They accost you for your convenience between each mouthful, so eager to clear your dishes that they snatch them away half full. Most places, however, from casual streetside taco stands to mainline restaurants, sit at the other end of the spectrum. The cultural expectation is not that they will come check on you in case you need something. The expectation is that they will visit you only when they must drop off your order, and otherwise stay far away. If you need your waiter, it is acceptable to call loudly from across the room.

The breakfast I had my last morning in Moctezuma pushed this standard to new lows. A server may do many things while pointedly not looking in your direction: they may chat with friends, check their phone or mop. My server opted for the latter approach—but not in the restaurant. Instead she left and swept an alley behind it, as if she had a grave duty to avoid the actual dining area where I sat, menu in hand, wanting food.

And the alley required a lot of attention. It wasn’t just the sweeping, it was caring for the flower pots and sprinkling water to hold down the dust. I assume a boyfriend was meeting her back there, and I accept that her teenage loins take precedence over my chilaquiles.

I don’t know what a Mexican customer would have done. Maybe they would’ve gone in the alley and placed their order, or yelled so loud that she could hear them from outside. There were no other customers to learn from. In any case I’m from the U.S.; I don’t chase down waiters. I sit quietly at my table hoping to catch someone’s eye, and I get annoyed.

Eventually, I heard shuffling in the kitchen. Sensing a doña, I strolled over to the order-up window.

“Hi there,” I said. “Could I order some red chilaquiles with fried eggs?”

“Sure,” she said.

Then she went outside, got the waitress (presumably in flagrante delicto) and sent her over to my table. I then gave my order a second time.

This is how the entire meal went: if I wanted something I got the doña’s attention, but instead of handing me whatever it was she summoned the waitress. At one point, the doña fetched the waitress so I could ask for more coffee; the waitress repeated this to the doña, who poured it herself. By the end of the meal I wasn’t sure if I should short the tip or double it.

Eventually I got on the bike. I headed back across the bridge to the outskirts, smashing over a hidden tope (speed bump) on the way and destroying my plastic toolbox. I picked its contents off the road and shoved them into a bag. I wondered what else Fortuna could have in store for me on such a lovely day.

My route turned off the Corridor of Oases. Where I had been heading south, I now swung east. The plan was to go completely around the city of San Luis Potosí, the state capital. There were a few reasons for this:

  • Biking through big cities is terrible.
  • I’ve already seen this city, and actually lived there for 6 weeks or so (pictures, stories).
  • I was too late to meet up with my friend who lives there, who had just left on a business trip for several weeks.

Instead, I planned to strike out for the town of Villa de Arista, then turn south and cut across some desert north of the city, turning away at the last minute on one of the highways that runs around it. I’d seek out a roadside hotel or lodging in a small outlying town. Alberto, a gentleman I’d spoken with while hitting a laundry in Moctezuma, was confident I’d find hotels in those towns. It was a medium-long bike ride for one day, but far from my longest.

There was one downside to skipping San Luis Potosí: bike shops. As a major metropolis it presumably had good ones, and there was a chance I replace my damaged tire—or even fix my wheel wobble. But the tire seemed to be doing fine and I was already in contact with a bike mechanic farther up ahead.

So I put my back to the wind and pedaled on.

The first part of the trip went well. I made a quick stop in Villa de Arista for a snack and Gatorade. One of the locals, another Alberto, saw the bike and made small talk. I learned the word for “scarf” from him (bufanda). I also asked him about the road ahead. He assumed I meant a freeway many miles east of the town, a major route toward San Luis Potosí. That wasn’t the highway I meant at all. I planned to turn south right here in Villa. I’d eventually cut over to the same highway he meant, but save many miles by taking a country road.

Alberto shook his head and told me something I couldn’t translate, which may or may not have been a warning. I politely thanked him and went on my way, sticking to my plan. After all, I had Google.

Heading south meant no more tailwind. The terrain also quickly went from green cropland back to desert. The sun grew hot. I noticed that some of the roads I passed, marked as major ones on the map, were just gravel trails. For some reason that didn’t give me pause.

Finally I reached a tiny village known as Rincon de Leijas (if anyone can tell me what Leijas means you win a bicycle shaped cookie). This was where I needed to hang a right onto a new road. But as I cruised into town, the only right-hand turn was an old gravel mule track. “That’s weird,” I thought, and figured it was a bit farther up ahead. But all I found was a residential street and a dead end.

The mule track was my right-hand turn.

I harrumphed. Going back to Villa meant nearly two hours wasted, plus having to take the longer route Alberto recommended. On the other hand, this mule track was a very short segment on the map. It just jogged over to another more major highway. With no cell signal in the desert I couldn’t get a fix on the exact distance, but I eyeballed it as maybe 2 miles. That’s less than an hour of walking.

Gallantly, I wheeled my bike toward the trail and strode off the paved highway into the desert. Farm families watched me in silence as I departed their fair burg, and I kept my head up as if this was exactly what I’d intended to do. Who doesn’t want a quick constitutional in the wasteland?

Two vehicles passed me as I left Rincon de Leijas: one mule (with a rider) and one tractor (with a rider with a parasol). Both returned my head nod and neither asked any potentially embarrassing questions.

The mule track went over a rocky ridge, so I couldn’t actually see my destination up ahead. But I was confident that the hour wasted walking the bike would still be shorter than backtracking.

The hour passed. Atop the ridge I surveyed the land before me. I couldn’t clearly see the other highway I was supposed to meet. Then again, in a rocky rolling scrubland that wasn’t surprising. My mule trail curved left up ahead, which was exactly what it was supposed to do before merging. Perfect.

It took me a long time to admit that the highway didn’t exist. Not just that it too was unpaved: I never saw any other track at all.

I considered my options. The mule trail continued in the correct direction, the direction the “highway” was supposed to run. It pointed south, where sooner or later there would be towns and San Luis Potosí. I’d get there eventually. On the other hand, the cost of backtracking had grown by another hour and a half. And what’s the worst thing that could happen wandering alone in a desert?

So, fuck it. I kept walking the bike.

I was also highly conscious of my supplies. I had the camping gear to survive a night in the desert, cold as it would be. As for food, surviving on Cliff Bars is far from haute cuisine but it’ll do the job. Water was the real issue. Expecting to be able to stop at roadside stores, I had only a liter and a half on me. I could ration half of it for today/tonight and save half for tomorrow. That ought to get me to civilization.

So I walked through the desert. Once, a truck passed me; I didn’t think about flagging him down and he didn’t think about stopping. You might think of a truck as a reassuring sign, a symbol that I really was headed toward civilization, but he could have been a rancher. There was every possibility that the mule trail would just dead end.

The afternoon wore on. I felt oddly calm. My main problem was the stones that kept getting in my shoes. I stopped bothering to empty them out. The surroundings were beautiful, and I felt at home there.

At one point the trail dipped down to cross a dry stream bed. I entered the low area, and my view of the countryside ahead was cut off just for a moment.

Then I started up the far bank, looking up. And I froze.

Towering over me, straight ahead, was a tornado.

I’ve never seen a tornado except in movies  and news footage. But there was no mistaking it. And this sucker was huge. It was a giant vertical column ripping up the beige dust around me. It moved directly over the trail. And it was close.

My mouth dropped open. Parts of me were already spinning, spooling up, plotting my survival. I had to do something other than stand there and take it.

And then it was gone. As quick as it had appeared, the tornado fell to pieces and swirled itself out into nothing. Mouth still open I started laughing, loud, hard.

It wasn’t a tornado. It was a dust devil.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a giant fucking dust devil. This isn’t one of those swirls of leaves you see in autumn. This bad boy reached to the heavens. But it was nothing to be afraid of, just a bit of dirt caught in a swirl of the wind. Even if it had run right over me, the worst I would’ve suffered was a mouthful of grit.

Still, it had my hackles up. The tornado itself wasn’t even what got me. It was the way it appeared out of nowhere, with no warning. And then seeing it disappear just as quick. “Devil” seemed right: it was conjured and banished as quickly as a sorcerer’s pet.

Still smiling, I pushed on. I walked right through the spot where it had been and everything was at peace.

Much later, a huge truck passed me. This one stopped up ahead. I squinted as various people got off. The truck drove on, leaving them there, and they stayed by the side of the road. Were they waiting for me? What did they want?

As I got closer, I realized they had tools and were digging. And then I realized something much more important, but much harder to see: the road next to them was paved.

A mere three or four hours after nodding my head to a cowboy with a parasol, I had reached the fabled paved road. It was bikable.

As soon as I touched pavement I mounted up. I surveyed the workers, head again held high. They all stopped working and stared at me like I was insane.

I’m pretty used to that look.

“Buenas tardes,” I said, nodded, and pedaled down the road.

 —

The road soon led to a village (called Nuevo Tanque, “New Tank,” which I imagine has a corporate story behind it). It had an abarrotes shop and I went in for water. From the look on the doña’s face they didn’t get a lot of gueros in these parts, and even less crawling out of the desert. A gentleman there wanted to get chatty but, now four hours behind schedule, I had to keep going.

The rest of the afternoon was increasingly green land and occasional villages, all uphill. I had a difficult choice to make. There was absolutely no question that I’d be bicycling after dark, so should I stick to the original plan, or divert and head into the city? One option meant blindly searching for lodging after sunset, and the other was a shit show of bad biking conditions.

It was tough. I really, really didn’t want to go into the city. But searching hotels on Google showed them clustered in the metro, and nothing on the freeway. That didn’t mean there weren’t any highway hotels, but holding out hope in the freezing dark on a 6-lane freeway is a rough way to spend an evening.

At the final fork in the road, right before sunset, I made the call: we’re going to SLP.

There were two more towns before hitting the big city, and I held onto at least a small hope that one of them would have an inn. Neither did, and it was at this time that my back wheel chose to resume scuffing the against the frame. I stopped twice, once in each town, and threw my saddlebags roadside to turn the Giant upside down and adjust his back wheel. The second time, I cranked those lugnuts hard. And as quick as I had stopped, I pushed on.

Outside San Luis Potosí, the boundary between country and city is so precise it looks like a video game. An overpass formed a simple border: on one side was pristine green-gold farmland, on the other was smog-stained industrial slum. Straddling the divide was a giant gas station. It had a sign for showers but none for a hotel. Shrugging, I crossed the line.

That was about the same moment the sun fell behind the mountains, and the effect was pronounced. I remember my friend the Wandering Dragon, my host when I lived in SLP, warning me there were certain parts of town you just don’t go into. The road I was on went all the way across one.

The first problem was pavement. It was such a crater field I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear artillery shells. I urged the Giant to be strong, but it wasn’t just his life that was in danger.

The neighborhood itself was a mix of slummy residential structures with metal shops, warehouses and the odd taco stand. At first it was mostly deserted, and the few faces I saw tracked me with interest. Then it got darker. They couldn’t see that I had professional saddle bags rather than a crate of produce.

Additionally, it became denser and more residential. Trash fires lined the streets. People milled about, traffic increased, other bicycles passed me. I kept my head down, hoping to blend in, and I made a point to never speak. In the dark, I wasn’t a guero unless I opened my mouth.

The ride was nerve wracking, but no worse than the bad neighborhoods I’d gone through in south Memphis or Saint Louis—and marginally better than the street party in Baton Rouge. Early on, I made an agreement with myself that if things got any worse I would just turn it around and go back to the freeway, and figure out a backup plan. I never thought of that option again. (Which may indicate how skewed my judgment is, because not much later I went past a large-scale police bust in progress.)

By the time I reached a part of town that might be considered halfway respectable, I had also reached intense traffic conditions. The road turned from asphalt to large rectangular paving stones, a pain to ride on. I remember the Dragon complaining about these and me saying they’re pretty. Eff you, past André.

To make things more interesting, it became one-way and I faced a wall of traffic. I refused to reroute to the correct-way street, but did take to the sidewalk for several blocks.

Finally, the street spat me out somewhere I recognized. I had reached a park in the Central Historic district, a perfectly safe and peaceful place to stop. These transitions don’t even feel weird anymore: guarding my life one minute, sitting on a park bench perusing my iPhone the next. I identified several hotels within blocks and set out for one that, based on the reviews, sounded affordable but nice.

A few minutes later I rolled the bike up to the Hotel Maria Cristina. Its grand staircase looked both elegant, and difficult to haul a bike up. Most of all it looked expensive. I leaned against the wall, checking my phone for the other hotels in the area.

At that point some random guy walked up to me. “Mande,” he said.

Now I know that mande means “excuse me.” At the time I didn’t know that word. So I looked up and said, essentially, “What?”

The man hesitated. He had thought I was Mexican until I spoke. (I find this happens not infrequently: remember, Latinos don’t actually come in any one skin or hair color, and have their fair share of blondies.) While he stuttered to reorient himself, I lost my patience. I had spent the last hour trying to repel potential troublemakers, and strangers usually only approach you in big cities to ask for money. Basically, my defenses were up.

“Que quiere?” I snapped, which translates as a fairly brisk whaddya want.

He hesitated but went on. “I just think your bike is beautiful,” he said in English.

Immediately my heart softened, and so did my demeanor. He could still be hustling me for all I knew, but he sure had a creative way of doing it.

We started talking about bikes and my trip. He loves old road bikes and wanted to know what kind the Giant is (a Miyata, for those interested). He owns a Raleigh not unlike the one I’d just helped a friend in New Orleans sell. He desperately wants to do long distance biking, but hasn’t had a chance yet.

“Where do you want to bike?” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said. We laughed.

Finally I asked him if he could do me a favor. “I need to run in and see how much this hotel costs,” I said. “Will you watch my bike?”

He hesitated. “How long?” he asked. [Andre’s note: if you want to steal someone’s bike, this is a great tactic. As soon as he was reluctant I was 100% sure I’d found a trustworthy person to watch it.]

I assured him it would just be a minute and he agreed. The hotel turned out to be something like 500 pesos, more than I usually spend but not so much more that I was going to keep wandering the streets looking for a bargain. I came outside and told my new friend the good news.

I also asked if he lived in San Luis Potosí, thinking maybe we’d get dinner together or something. He actually doesn’t, but he’s there often for work. He told me he lives in Rioverde. Now it was my turn to light up: Rioverde is one of the area’s more pristine tourist destinations, famous for a crescent moon shaped lake. He confirmed that the lake is divinely beautiful and asked if my trip would take me that way.

“I don’t know,” I said. As I recalled, it was east of the city and well off my route.

“Well if you do, you have a place to stay,” he told me. He introduced himself by his full name—four names long—and told me that anyone in town would know him and point out his house to me. I committed all four names to memory and promised my friend I would stop by if I went that way. (Unfortunately I was right; it’s pretty far off my route.)

After that the night was a wind-down. The hotel actually had a parking garage, and encouraged me to just roll the bike in there. I chained him up and U-locked him to a railing near the motorcycle parking. The attendant nodded approvingly. “Very smart,” he said in Spanish. Bike locks don’t seem real common in Mexico.

A bellboy (bellman?) brought the rest of my stuff upstairs. The place came with free water, more nonfunctional wi-fi, and not a single outlet to be found in my room. Seeking to avoid the high prices of a hotel restaurant, I went to a cafe around the block. They handed me what could have been a carbon copy of the hotel menu. Same dishes, same prices.

My waiter, at least, was a source of familiar comfort. He may not have had an alley to retreat to, but he subscribed to the exact school of service as the girl who brought me breakfast. 59.6 miles.

Map 1. 26.3 miles

Map 2. 5.5 miles walking

Map 3. 27.8 miles.

Total traveled this leg: 59.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3540.3 miles.

Next time the biking gets easier and the hotels get a whole lot worse. Until then, here are all my road logs.

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