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

It Was the First of Many Deserts

In the last road log I plotted my route forward from Saltillo. The plan: go over a giant mountain one day and then log an unprecedented 109 miles the next day, essentially covering four days of desert in just two. But would it work? Well…

The Giant's new skull getting ready for the mountains. Photo by André.

The Giant’s new skull getting ready for the mountains. Photo by André.

Friday, November 14 (Day 861 of the Great Adventure)—Gasp That Mountain Air

I got as early of a start leaving Saltillo as I could stand. Given the frigid temperatures I didn’t want to set out before first light, so I crammed some of the Hotel Huizache’s carbs-or-more-carbs breakfast as the sun came up. Even so, I had to wear jeans (ugh) rather than my cargo shorts on the bicycle. Not a pleasant choice, at least after the first 20 miles or so. (Jeans tend to be tight in all the wrong places.)

Just getting out of town was a workout. I gulped the cold morning wind as hard as I could, chugging my gear-loaded bike up steep narrow streets. You can check out today’s elevation map for yourself; the first of those yellow “danger zones” is just past the town centro.

With enough stop-and-pant breaks I eventually made it out of town. The first leg down the main highway had some flat and even downhill stretches, but a headwind in my face made pedaling hard and slow. In any case I was soon on a steady, if gradual uphill climb approaching the mountains.

On one break I took temporary shelter from the wind in a small roadside shrine. I made an offering, then drank water and ate a banana. Just as I was leaving an old woman showed up to pay her respects. I went to get out of her way, but she asked me about my trip. After hearing my story she placed her hand on me and blessed me, making the cross over me three times. I thanked her and continued on.

The chapel. Photo by André.

The chapel. Photo by André.

There were two routes I could’ve taken, and I chose the one that is “worse overall but one big climb and then downhill” over the one that is “maybe not as tall total but up and down a million times.” It was certainly the prettier route. Eventually I turned off onto my road, a sparsely used rural highway through a high pass in the mountains. Briefly, the headwind abated, but the terrain would only get steeper. (Fellowship supporters actually got a video I shot along the way, panting for breath in the relative shelter of a tiny stand of trees.)

All morning, I could see clouds breaking over distant mountains like ships of the titans wrecked by the gods, or drifts of snow up to pagoda roofs. It took a long time, but eventually I could see such a drift in my own pass: the road angled up, impossibly steep and faraway, into a wall of pure white.

On the way I passed a small valley town surrounded by shepherds. The terrain on my right remained pasture for almost my entire ascent; the land to my left was sometimes too steep to be anything at all. Barbed wire fences and concrete culverts dotted the land below me, and the highway was narrow with no guardrail or shoulder. Occasionally I dodged semi trucks, teetering with exhaustion in the low-oxygen air and trying not to plunge over the brink.

It was painfully hard. The uphill climb was endless, unrelenting, and only got steeper as I went. I checked my mileage continuously, convincing myself the GPS must be off and I had gone farther than it said. But it was right: I advanced at a snail’s pace, finally taking breaks almost every five minutes in order to recover my breath at 8,000 feet. The wind, meanwhile, defied all weather reports. Though it came from the south, to my right, it was channeled though the narrow mountain pass above me and rushed down like an angry serpent. It was the fiercest headwind I’ve had, biting my lips and pushing me back down the mountain.

Near the top the terrain changed. I smelled life, and around me there sprung a scraggly and wind-rattled cedar forest. The soft hollows beneath those boughs would be the perfect place to camp, if I wasn’t so godforsook determined to get out of this wind and under a roof before the cold of night. I made offerings in the place and crept onward.

Once, as I fell off the bike with exhaustion, I called out in frustration at the gods. My voice cracked, dry in my throat. What do I have to do? What does it take to find you? Why don’t you show yourselves?

Nothing answered. The wind continued, as the wind does.

Near the very top I walked the bike. You never want to walk the bike if you can help it. It’s slow and agonizing, difficult in its own way, very painful to hunch up on one side like that, and now you’re moving less than half the speed of the slowest pedal. Even when your knees tremble and your calves cramp and your quads burn, there’s more strength in those legs riding than there is walking. And it’s a one-way choice: stop the bike on an uphill, and you’ll find it quite unlikely to start pedaling it again.

So I held out as long as I could, and when I finally switched to walking I could see the top. The wall of white thinned out and swooped above me, thin wisps of cloud lounging in still, windless air above, while the serpent kept on me below.

At the top of the pass I made an offering, gave my blessing to the shivering, awful place of pure crystalline beauty. A female presence appeared on the mountain and watched me as I crossed over.

I didn’t dare to rest on the far side. If I sat down now I wouldn’t get back up; my legs wouldn’t let me. I gulped water—dangerously low—and probably ate nothing. A man and his son on a slow-moving motorbike went by. I had seen them going the other way an hour ago. Maybe a joyride.

It was my turn for the joyride now. For before me was the other side of the mountain, the downhill, the death chute. I checked the Giant over, made sure no semis were behind me, and got on the road.

I came down that winding, plummeting lane at gleeful speeds. If I had wiped out, that would have been it—no more Rogue Priest. But it was fun. It occurred to me that this was exactly the same as the road I’d just come up, that if I was going the other way I would hate this side and love the other one. But it was different, woodsier and shadier. And shorter—just like when we entered Saltillo, the land on the far side was much higher elevation than the land where we started.

A fruit truck passed me. I got the hell out of the way of that guy.

I descended an (estimated) 13 miles in (estimated) 20 minutes or less, which would put my speed well over 30 mph.

Even after that coaster, I had miles of gradual downhill slope before hitting flat land. But once again the south headwind was in my face, and the pedaling became hard soon enough. It was also nearly sunset and freezing. I had to race to make the Hotel La Palma, a roadside inn at the town of San Rafael, before nightfall.

My legs obliged, and at 20 minutes to dusk one ragged, filthy clergyman and his bicycle stumbled into the gate. The La Palma is a compound enclosed by yellow cement walls and boasts a restaurant, a hotel and a general store. The manager watched indifferently as I wheeled in the bike and pulled off my gloves.

“Is this Reception?” I asked him in Spanish.


The price was 290 pesos. He was unapologetic about the hotel: it was what it was, which is a shitty truckstop hotel that charges more than it’s worth because, well, where else are you gonna go? Few of his answers to my questions were helpful: no, there isn’t wifi; no, the rooms don’t have keys. (You can lock the door from the inside, of course. “What about my bike, while I go to dinner?” I asked. “You can eat right there in the restaurant. You can see your room from your table. Besides, I’ll keep an eye on it for you.”) At no point in our conversation was he sympathetic, and at no point was he smug.

The room passed my bedbug search, although one of the two pillows skeeved me out so much that I sequestered it in the bathroom all night. (It was nothing more than a pillowcase with old, rotten fluff stuffed loose inside of it.) Despite the manager’s assurances, I U-locked my bike to a piece of furniture and carried my laptop bag with me when I left, door wide open behind me, to go to the restaurant.

If the place had one redeeming feature it was the doña who ran the kitchen. She took a pride in her work that was lacking in the housekeeping and management. Friendly, chatty and agreeable, she made me a giant dinner at a disproportionately giant price. The sign said the place was open 24 hours, but I was dubious.

“How early do you serve breakfast?” I asked.

“Whenever you want.”

“I’m leaving early,” I said. “Is 5:30 okay?”

It was fine, she told me, in a way that implied she would be there, awake and working, at literally any hour I chose.

Once I was full I hauled my sore bones back to my room. Everything was as I left it, and I made extensive use of the room’s one extravagance: hot running water. I stayed in the shower at least 10 minutes, warm for the first time literally since 8:00 that morning.

I’d carefully lined up my long underwear, jeans, various shirts and sweater so I could throw myself into them the second I left the shower (and so they wouldn’t get wet in the meantime). La Palma, like many Mexican hotels and most Mexican homes generally, has no heat. Begging off of promised emails and other online tasks, I checked tomorrow’s route, climbed into bed, and stayed buried under the covers as I slept.

55.4 miles.


Unapologetically bad. Photo by André.

Unapologetically bad. Photo by André.

Saturday, November 15 (Day 862 of the Great Adventure)—Can We Set a New Record?

Although I’d gone to bed at 8 p.m., 5 a.m. seemed far too soon. Still, I didn’t dawdle; if I was going to make nearly 110 miles in a single day I needed an early start and as few rest breaks as possible.

By 5:30 I stumbled back into the restaurant, this time leaving both bicycle and laptop unsecured. Sure enough, there was the doña, smiling and ready to cook. She made me a breakfast that the menu priced at 50 pesos, plus I consumed two and a half mugs of Nescafé. When I was done she told me the total was 105 pesos.

I thought I misheard. “How much?” I asked in Spanish.

“105 pesos,” she repeated.

I motioned at the carta on the wall. “The eggs are 50…”

She considered. “Well,” she said. “Let’s do 85 pesos. That last coffee was only half a mug.”

I’m pretty sure she was just making up the numbers at random, and even more certain that a cup of hot water shouldn’t run the same price as a bottle of beer. But I had little leverage—which is pretty much the motto at La Palma—and I payed her the 85.

I was on the bike and on the road by 6:30. That gave me exactly 12 hours before sunset (and at least twenty minutes before sunup), but I’d really rather make my destination by 5:30. After that the light would be dim and the air would be very cold. Assuming at least an hour in cumulative breaks, that meant I had to stay over 11 mph on the road.

My destination for the day was the town of Cedral, the site of my next rest stop. (Originally the rest stop after Leg 2 was planned to be Matehuala, a larger city. Matehuala and Cedral were both about the same distance, though, and Cedral is the closer launching off point to the ghost town of Real de Catorce.) The only difference in my route was that to get to Cedral I would turn off the main road about 10 miles before Matehuala.

But all that was assuming I didn’t have any flat tires, any mechanical issues, any problems of any sort. That’s the big problem with long bicycling days, more so than exhaustion or saddlesoreness: if even a single thing goes wrong, you don’t have any buffer time and you won’t make the night’s destination.

I was pretty determined that woudn’t happen. Considering how cold it was even in my hotel room, with strong windproof walls and piles of blankets, I didn’t want to attempt a night in my bivy and single fleece rucksack if I could help it. Even hours of after-dark cycling seemed worth the strain if it meant eventually arriving at a hot shower and bed, to say nothing of real food. But if it came to it, I’d find a windbreak and camp it out, likely with a belly full of gas station food (which isn’t bad in Mexico, if there’s a taco stand out front).

Surprisingly, there isn’t much to say about that long day on the road. In the dusky morning, leaving San Rafael, I saw teenage girls waiting for buses to go to work somewhere. I stopped very little, except for lunch at the Parador San Pedro, a large rest stop with a real restaurant (which was terrible, and subscribed the the La Palma school of pricing). I kept up on snacks, water and Gatorade to keep myself chugging along like a machine in the saddle.

One cool moment took place in the mid afternoon, when I was stopped and leaning against a guard rail at a bend in the highway. I chewed on a Cliff Bar while two cowboys came around the bend on bicycles. When I say cowboys I’m not kidding—they were rancheros, and they dressed the part.

One had a lead on the other and he pulled up. We conversed a bit in Spanish. Between his accent and his slang I couldn’t understand him well, but he told me where they were headed and explained that it was a ranch. He also motioned at my bike and told me (I thought) it was very nice. That surprised me; I love the Giant but he’s 30 years old, filthy, and rigged with an old milk crate on the front. To most people he looks like a junker, which is how I like it.

“Ah,” I shrugged. “It’s old.”

It was only later that I realized I’d misunderstood. What the old rancher meant was that my gear was nice. You know, the $300 in waterproof saddlebags hanging off the front and back. That actually worries me. These gents were nice enough, but clearly my equipment stands out as valuable. Had they been the rough sort of cowboys, this could have been an ugly encounter.

About the time the first cowboy was ready to take off the other one caught up. We tried conversing too, but I have poor Spanish and he explained he’s stone deaf. They headed onward. Later, after I finished my break, I would overtake them and zip past on the highway.

A later rest stop, my last of the day, involved a very crowded gas station. While I drank water out front, a beautiful woman yelled something from the window of an SUV. She had a different accent than I’m used to, and I misheard her as yelling something to a friend. After a few seconds I realized she’d actually said, “¿A donde va?” (Where are you headed?) and was talking to me. By the time that sank in, however, she’d lost interest and closed the window.

My 109 miles were divided roughly into three parts: the first 30 miles started flat and then had some big hills. The next 40 miles were predominantly downhill, with a gradual slope. (Gradual enough, I’d come to realize, that it didn’t really make a difference at all; that was supposed to be the easy part of my day but I never did get a free ride.) Then came a mountain range I had to ascend. Memories of the last mountain crossing were still all too fresh, but said it was neither as steep, or as tall, or as many uphill miles total as last time.

Indeed, it was grueling (especially with 80 miles behind you) but nothing like that high pass. Which is good, because at this point it was make or break—if I was reduced to just a couple miles an hour like last time, I’d be out three or four hours after sunset before I reached Cedral.

Instead it was maybe two hours of ascent. I was on a freeway this time, but one with very wide shoulders and  not a lot of traffic. Honey stands and abarrote shops (mini convenience stores) operated out of the homes along the way.

Once over the top, I zipped down a few miles of the downhill in a matter of minutes, but my goal wasn’t to descend the mountain (toward Matehuala). Instead I was turning off onto a side road into the highland, heading toward Cedral.

The Giant braves a dirt road. Photo by André.

The Giant braves a dirt road. Photo by André.

I found the side road easily enough, and it was even paved for the first 100 meters. Then it turned to gravel. I was ready for this, as neither Google nor my Atlas could tell me for sure but all the side roads I’d seen in the desert were unpaved. Gravel roads are terrible for heavily loaded road bikes, but I’d decided in advance that I would ride on it anyway and deal with the possible consequences, even if that meant a flat tire. It was about 10 miles of side road, and walking the bike that far would take 3 to 5 hours. The only alternative would be to go down the mountain 14 miles to Matehuala, then turn around and take another road 16 miles back up the mountain. No way.

As it turned out, within half a mile I found a separate paved road—not marked on Google, though it appears unmarked on satellite view—confirmed it went to the right place and took that.

That last 10 miles was heaven. “Side road” usually conjures an image of something semi-isolated: maybe only the occasional house, or power lines but no traffic. This was completely remote. Not a house, not a beer bottle, not a car or truck for miles at a time. Nothing but altiplano (highland desert) in every direction. Looking at the tall, silent scrub, I realized that walking just 20 paces off the road would mean losing sight of it, and that you could walk for days and find nothing at all.

View of the desolate altiplano. Photo by André.

View of the desolate altiplano. Photo by André.

I did see a young woman on a motorbike (who reminded me of a Hispanic Yara Greyjoy), and an old woman on one at an intersection with a sign marked “Oasis.”

Eventually I saw a few ranches and small farms and then, suddenly, the edge of town appeared. There was a school and some houses and then the first street of Cedral. I paused at the intersection to check directions and some men at a grilled chicken shop stared at me. They weren’t eager to return my buenas tardes and I realized just how far in the back country I was.

Glory of the evening altiplano. Photo by André.

Glory of the evening altiplano. Photo by André.

Mountains. Photo by André.

Mountains. Photo by André.

A few blocks later I pulled up at Abarrotes Conchita, a corner store. The address was right (to my surprise, since it was out of sequence with the numbers around it; I don’t know how Google nailed it) but there was no guest house sign (not a surprise, since who would put up a sign in Latin America?). All I could do was lean my bicycle on the wall and walk inside.

“Is this Casa de Huespedes Lopez?” I asked in Spanish.

“Uh… Oh, yeah. It is,” the lady told me.

I brightened. “Oh! I have a reservation…”

She mumbled some stuff and walked away. Soon I was talking to her mother, Doña Blanca, who manages the guesthouse side of their business.

I glanced at my phone as she opened the side door for me. 5:30. I had made it to Cedral exactly on time.

I brought the Giant into a beautiful courtyard and was shown to an upstairs apartment. I was shown upstairs to a small two-bedroom apartment. After La Palma and so many hotels it was hard to even conceptualize having so much space, and even a real locking door!

My first order of business was to shower. Afterward I asked Aunt Blanca if there were any restaurants around. (Blanca is the aunt of the person who handles the AirBnB reservations online; that person lives in the US.) She stared at me vaguely for a moment. I found out this is a habit of Blanca’s. At first I thought maybe my Spanish was just that atrocious, but it’s just her way. It’s a habit you’ll see in people with rural roots in Nebraska or Minnesota, too: they’re tacit and not quick to answer.

She did, eventually, say not much would be open but I could probably find tacos or hamburgers. “Perfect,” I said. She told me to walk to the Centro, just four blocks away, and that it would be safe since “it’s early.”

In the dark streets, more people stared at me like I’m from Mars. I had thought of Cedral as a tourist town, since it’s the departure point for Real, but I suppose most of those tourists are Mexican. The Centro itself was lined with teenagers huddled in pairs or small groups.

I found a taco restaurant, ate my fill, and headed home to catch up on the emails I’d skipped the night before. And then I slept very, very well. 108.2 miles

Map. Note: Google doesn’t show tenths of miles on trips over 100 miles long. But if you break this route into segments, you’ll see it was 108.2 total, not 108.0.

Total traveled this leg:  163.6 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3376.9 miles

More road logs are available here. And of course, a new one will be up soon!

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

Three Days in Saltillo

In the last road log the Fellowship rode hard away from the border—and then promptly lost one of our key members. This time, I pick up alone.

This is the weather I was dealing with. Photo by André.

This is the weather I was dealing with. Photo by André.

November 11-13—Rest and Writing in Saltillo

After Pixi and Ernest left I biked over to my hotel for the first of my three rest days. The Hotel Huizache was a pretty little place with an outdoor pool surrounded by a garden/courtyard, both essentially unusable in the freezing, foggy weather that had descended over the city.

It didn’t matter much to me. My “rest days” were really work days. I spent the first two of them working overtime to catch up on articles for clients, road logs, and other writer duties. It still felt like I was perpetually behind, but I managed to get the most important work done.

Saltillo boasts the first, and likely last, bike lane I've seen in Mexico. It lasted two blocks.

Saltillo boasts the first, and likely last, bike lane I’ve seen in Mexico. It lasted two blocks.

That afternoon I went to a nice cafe/book store I had biked past and enjoyed their comida special. Afterward I perused the books, thinking I might pick up some extra Spanish reading material. It turns out they’re a Christian store, and all the books they had were either biblical or self help/inspirational in nature.

I was surprised that I didn’t feel more upset about Pixi leaving. In fact I felt quite calm. I had spent a year planning the group ride across Mexico, and canceled a kayak trip after months of training because I didn’t want to go it alone. Now my main partner had bailed on me. I wasn’t happy about it, but I felt completely capable of carrying on alone. There was also a chance that others would come through: last I’d heard Luce was trying to catch up to me, a cyclist named Ron wanted his own trans-Mexico trip to cross paths with mine, and Fellowship member Ysa hoped to join me in San Miguel de Allende.

Even so, I had to face certain difficult truths:

  • Pixi and I had planned to share hotel rooms. With her gone, my cost of living for the next 75 days is now twice what I had budgeted.
  • The next leg, from Saltillo south, was originally broken up into three or four days of camping out in the desert. With friends I felt comfortable with that; alone, it didn’t sound as safe.

I spent a lot of time pouring over my route, searching for signs of hotels in the tiny desert towns, and conferring with faraway friends. At no time did I consider giving up. Pixi’s decision had left me in a difficult place, but, as it is written by the sages of old, “Time to get your balls up, son.”

Selfie at the Huizache. Photo by André.

Selfie at the Huizache. Photo by André.

The second day I enjoyed the Huizache’s continental breakfast, which consists of: doughnuts OR sugary cereal, orange-flavored sugar juice, and Nescafé. (Get ready to see a whole lot of Nescafé on this Mexico trip.) Then more writing. In the afternoon, despite the cold, I made a short foray to the Centro—a reasonable walk—mainly just to find somewhere cheap to eat. One thing I love about Saltillo is that, finally, I had gotten to a town with a real Mexican centro in the sense of a central town area with plazas, a walking mall, food stands and local businesses like fruit and produce shops. The cost of a meal is much cheaper at these places than it is in bigger restaurants and supermarkets. The atmosphere is nicer too.

At night I continued working.

I had made an oath to myself that I wouldn’t spend my entire rest breaks working. The point of the journey is, at least in part, to see the places I visit—not just to pedal across them and hide in hotels with my laptop. So I worked double time the first two days and made sure I’d have the third day open for a museum and some exploration.

The Centro! Photo by André.

The Centro! Photo by André.

The third day came and it was as freezing as the one before (literally, with temperatures in the 30s). Desert nights are supposed to be cold, but these nights were 20 degrees lower than average and the days weren’t much better. [André’s note: I would later see a “coldest day of the year” bit on a local weather show.] Still, I had kept this day open for a reason, right? My new friend Scotch in Nuevo Laredo had told me that Saltillo is beautiful and its museums are great… so I looked up the museums online:

  1. The Museum of Birds. It has one or more stuffed specimens of every species in Mexico. Honestly this is something I would like to see, especially (a) the local species around Saltillo so I could identify them during my long rides and (b) the quetzal bird, sacred in the pre-Hispanic religions of Mexico. But was it worth leaving my toasty space heater with no jacket? Not quite.
  2. The Desert Museum. An eco-museum about the geology, history and wildlife of Mexico’s northern deserts. This actually is also something that interests me, except (a) I’d be seeing A LOT of desert up close and personal over the next few weeks, and (b) it’s far outside of town (in, you know, the desert) requiring a substantial bike ride to reach.

I was not museuming today.

(I explained this predicament to a friend online, asking if staying in made me a bad traveler. “No way,” she said, “It makes you smart.”)

Still, the day wasn’t a total wash. I did muster the will to venture out in the afternoon, exploring more around the Centro and having another great lunch (gorditas stuffed with nopal, delicious!) and some hot Nescafé. I also found a great artesanía (handmade craft) market. I considered getting a hand woven hooded sweater, but they were all acrylic rather than wool. I did, however, pick up a calavera (skull) which I mounted on the front of the Giant:

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

I also got bananas for tomorrow’s ride and a bag of dried cherries to add to my trail mix, both at the local fruit stand.

When I finally got back to the Huizache I finalized my plans for the route. I would go all the way across the mountains and desert, originally a four day journey, in just two days. These would consist of:

  • A trip over a high a mountain pass on the first day out of Saltillo. Pixi had showed a me a cool topographical tool for bicyclists, however, which revealed that the terrain was both taller and steeper than expected. Additionally, the hotel I had planned to stop at after this monstrous ascent (just 40 miles away) turned out not to exist. Thank goodness I street viewed it on Google Maps. Instead, I could aim for the only other confirmed hotel in the desert, bringing the day’s mileage to 55. Not an easy day.
  • If that wasn’t enough, I was then going to go the entire remaining 109 miles to the next rest stop, all in one day.

It wasn’t a great plan, but everyone I talked to agreed there’d be a shortage of places to stay out there. And besides not wanting to camp alone, my camping equipment just wasn’t meant for these record low temperatures. I made a fallback plan, charting roadside rest stops where I could camp near food and water if it came to it, but I preferred one brokeback marathon all the way.

Time to get your balls up, son.

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