Guns, Germs and Topes

The culmination of months of work, my photojournalism project documenting the abhorrent lack of freedom endured by Mexico’s people as reflected in the continued prevalence of a colonial vestige: el tope.

Mexico suffers from an epidemic so pervasive that most residents are unaware of its pernicious effects and unendemic origins. The concept was initially brought from Europe during the Spanish conquest of the Americas and was tradionally used for psychological warfare, harassment in a sense. It was initially seen in very primitive and crude forms, of which artifacts have scarcely survived. The years that ensued after the arrival of the Spanish, and for the entirety of their presence in Mexico, were marked by fierce resistance on the part of indigenous peoples and a lack of cohesion amongst the colony. This lead to the development of an institutionalized form known as a Tùmulo, a named still used in Guatemala despite its brutal etymology, that translates to ‘tomb’ or ‘burial mound.’

Mexico, ever since its emancipation from the dominion of the crown, has been nothing but an aristocracy cloaked in the pleasing rhetoric of democracy. The need for oppression to assure order has never dissapated and neither has the existence of Tùmulos. In fact, they have proliferated since independence under a multitude of different names and physical forms intended to obscure the device’s origin: vibradore, tope, reductor and through signs adopting Mayan glyphs that are universally intelligible in the linguistically diverse nation.

Although stripped of their previously potent form and only seen in muted representations, their existence is a reminder of where power lies. The aristocracy has consolidated power and managed to create a market within this country, through legislation, for something seen as an oppressive burden on citizens and commerce in almost every other part of the world. The tope construction industry has come to consume to an estimated 25%-27% of the GDP of the 13th largest economy in the world. Tope related industires, such as car repair and tope maintenance contribute an additional 7% to this number.

I set out on my bicycle from the United States three and a half months ago to document this sad phenomenon.I was forced to go through the motions of being an abhorrent Western tourist in order to gain access to several tense tope terretories: pretending that I am interested in churches, Chinese-made trinkets, finding good coffee and eating pizza. I was forced to discuss ‘how incredibly cheap everything is!’ and which is the best party beach. All of this time I had only one thing on my mind, one major bump to me enjoying myself: topes. I felt the jar of the topes in my body and in the components of my bicycle. I watched families on their way to picnics grinding the bottom of their vehicles across a dozens of topes in a row serving no purpose other than antagonization. I have flown down dozens of mountains in elation only to have my smile fade as I am repeatedly warned by signs that this cannot continue, losing all of the momentum that I built up over hours of climbing. I have seen the localized resistance, the valiant guerrillas fighting against a faceless industrial enemy with their barehands, taking to the streets wielding sledgehammers and picks to create safe passage for their compadres.

I was quiet about my cause, only was stopped once and questioned by the military as I took pictures of a tope near a checkpoint, where I was forced to lie, telling them that I wasn’t taking pictures of the tope, just documenting their communications equipment and technology for publication on the internet. To avoid responding to too many emails I have the following to say to you: You are welcome. Here is what I found:

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Estado de Michoacan: Threat of tope installation.
Estado de Michoacan: Threat of tope installation.
Distrito Federal. Half ellipse. Faded white/yellow stripes on Asphlant. Obscure on approach.
Distrito Federal. Half ellipse. Faded white/yellow stripes on Asphlant. Obscure on approach.
Estado de Puebla: Steep approach, half ellipse. Brilliant red/white striped Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: Steep approach, half ellipse. Brilliant red/white striped Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: False form. White/yellow.
Estado de Puebla: False form. White/yellow.
Estado de Puebla: Reverse tope. Loose soil/gravel on Asphalt.
Estado de Puebla: Reverse tope. Loose soil/gravel on Asphalt.
Amecameca, Puebla: Half ellipse. Asphalt.
Amecameca, Puebla: Half ellipse. Asphalt.
Cholula, Puebla: Lengthy trapezoid. Cobblestone.
Cholula, Puebla: Lengthy trapezoid. Cobblestone.
Patria Nueva, Puebla: Densely clustered domes. Yellow on steel.
Patria Nueva, Puebla: Densely clustered domes. Yellow on steel. Man holding rooster on roadside.
San Nicolas Huajuapan, Puebla: Half ellipse. Dirt.
San Nicolas Huajuapan, Puebla: Half ellipse. Dirt.
San Juan Atzompa, Puebla: Triangular. Brick underlaid with concrete (presumably).
San Juan Atzompa, Puebla: Triangular. Brick underlaid with concrete (presumably).
Tepexi Rodriguez, Puebla: Trapezoidal with ridges. Concrete.
Tepexi Rodriguez, Puebla: Trapezoidal with ridges. Concrete.
Outskirts of Oaxaca de Juarèz, Oaxaca: A formation of domes. Yellow on steel.
Outskirts of Oaxaca de Juarèz, Oaxaca: A formation of domes. Yellow on steel.
Asunciòn Cacalotepec, Oaxaca: Used tire tread.
Asunciòn Cacalotepec, Oaxaca: Used tire tread.
San Juan Cotzocon, Oaxaca: Half ellipse. Wood reinforced with gravel.
San Juan Cotzocon, Oaxaca: Half ellipse. Wood reinforced with gravel.
Poblado Cinco, Veracruz: Three domed ridges. Concrete.
Poblado Cinco, Veracruz: Three domed ridges. Concrete.
Outside Copainala, Chiapas: Long trapezoid. Brick core with concete approach.
Outside Copainala, Chiapas: Long trapezoid. Brick core with concete approach.
Copainala, Chiapas: Formation of trapezoidal reflectors. Plastic.
Copainala, Chiapas: Formation of trapezoidal reflectors. Plastic.
Outside Soyalò, Chiapas: Formation of half ellipses. Asphalt.
Outside Soyalò, Chiapas: Formation of half ellipses. Asphalt.
San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular multimedium. Concrete with river cobble inlay.
San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular multimedium. Concrete with river cobble inlay.
Outside San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular. Plastic with steel anchors.
Outside San Cristòbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Rectangular. Plastic with steel anchors.
Outside Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas: Round. Rope.
Outside Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas: Round. Rope.
Outside Huehuetenango, Quichè, Guatemala: Natural.
Outside Huehuetenango, Quichè, Guatemala: Natural.

Auctioneer/Professional Boxer

Guanajuato, Guanajuato to Celaya, Guanajuato

IMG_2607[1]Breakfast: one can beans, four eggs, two tomatoes, one potato, one bag of salsa… All of it sauteed in a disgusting amount of oil. Preemption. I climb the cobblestones and exit the city through a dark tunnel that resounds with the roar of cars and chokes with putrid exhaust.

I ride by myself, at my own pace and rhythm. I gained a bit of weight with Brin’s departure and it makes itself known. I ride slower than previously, while still stopping regularly to eat fruit, but my breaks are never any longer than a minute or two as I climb towards Juventino Rosas.

I stop for lunch and eat with men painting lines on the road. They have built a fire and alternate heating beans and tortillas on the comal.

Juventino Rosas sits in a valley hazy with smog. I drink a bottomless glass of pineapple juice at a roadside stand and I am sent on my way with a gift of Mandarines and a ton of advice.  Celaya defies my expectations of an industrial hellhole strewn with powerlines and clogged with traffic. I effortlessly cruise into the city center where I eat several dinners.

I am not relaxed as I ride, I feel like I am lacking confidence in the world. I fight away the day, my mind constantly thinking about food, water, how many, what time, where, never thinking that it will all turn out alright and that I have limited control. The day seems lost to me.

Celaya, Guanajuato to Maravatìo, Michoacan
I awaken in a strange place that I occupy for only a few hours. Everything I do these days has a surreal quality, a detached feeling. I lose myself in thought frequently, apart from where I currently am. I am riding my bike on rural backroads of Mexico, crisscrossing the sierra. It seems like more of a concept than a reality. I don’t know how I got here, what I am doing, why I am doing it, where I am going…. I am not sure if I can answer any of these questions for anything in my life. I could give you a contrived answer. I thought I wanted time to think, time by myself?

Letting my mind free can be dangerous, there seems to be very little that it cannot deconstruct and bring into doubt.

I head once more again into the fray. I hope to beat some of the morning traffic as I have to ride on the highway for 20km to Apaseo el Alto. I have no such luck. I refuse to eat breakfast until I get off of this nightmarish stretch.

IMG_2615[1]The road to Jerècuaro weaves through town and then begins to climb steadily, the theme for the day. Cliffs tower in either direction and the landscape is filled with cactus and wiry trees. Drivers on this road are vicious as there is no sholder, I am run off the road several times. A bus goes flying past me within inches, not an ounce of recognition.

A long straightaway climbs into the distance, I shift my hands to my drop bars and put my head down. Why do Mexican businesses cluster together? On the highway before Apaseo El Alto there was a 10km stretch of businesses selling caramel, hundreds upon hundreds right next to one another selling caramel at the same price. Aftwards came the pallet district, 4-5 kilometers of businesses buying and selling pallets. How does this….Holy fuck! An oncoming Coke truck wakes me from this reverie as it passes another truck and misses me by inches, the gust of wind almost knocking me over. Adrenaline courses through my veins.

I sing songs as I ride, parodies of Mexican banda music that invariably include the following lyrical constants: beso, labios, corazon, madrugada, alma, amor, cariño. I ride and sing with pride, regardless of my audience.

A Monarch Butterfly flits past me, dancing across the road. Maybe they are migrating right now? I ask around and I am told that the butterflies are around and to ride in the direction of Melchor Ocampo. After eating a half chicken in Jerècuaro, I set out in the direction of mountains and the town of Puro Agüita.

A man with a table full of coconuts? I slam on my breaks. I start to feel far away from home as I recline on the roadside and sip a coconut after the top is hacked off with a machete.

My cadence is roughly 80rpm, an average day is five hours at an average speed of 20km/hr. 80 x 60 x 5 = 24000 rotations. Sweat pours down my face as I climb in my highest gears. I ride into Maravatìo and feel like quite a spectacle as I ride around in search of lodging. I resist the recommendations to head out to the bus station, semen spraying rendezvous come to mind. The hotel turns out to be alright.

‘Hey, what’s up man?’ I hear from a guy examining the engine of a semi truck as I walk towards the city center.

Antonio tells me his story in perfect English: He moved to Santa Ana, California from Mexico 20 years ago since there were no jobs and too much corruption. He married another illegal immigrant and had two kids that were natural born citizens. Two years ago while driving his kids to school he was pulled over and obviously had no license. He was shipped back to Mexico with his family following soon after. He talks about each of his kids, enumerating their hopes and dreams. It is heart rending to hear these stories, to put a face to the ‘immigrant problem’ in America. The immigrant problem in America that consists of people who are in a sense more American than many natural born citizens, immigrants who want a better life and are willing to leave everything they have to pursue it.

The windows of my room rattle from fireworks and strobe from Christmas lights strung in the trees outside. High heels click down the hallway all night long.

Maravatìo, Michoacan to Melchor Ocampo, Michoacan

IMG_2623[1]The champurrado that I drink on the roadside makes me breath steam in the cold air. I come across Antonio again as I am leaving town and we wish another well. I receive several distance estimates to Irimbo that are all various shades of wrong. As I climb out of the hazy valley where Maravatìo lies , the landscape moorphs as the mountains become steeper and their flanks are lined with pines. I know I am nearing my destination when every business, confusingly, is prefaced by the word Monarch. Irimbo is a strange town that gives me the impression of being on a slant, but a slant relative to the ground. Tilted in a way that makes no sense.

The mountains tower in the distance  as the road wraps around their flanks, beams of light cut through the air as they energize particulate matter. The trees are thick and lush, water runs off the mountainside. I find myself in Ocampo, check into a placed called the Hotel San Carlos and catch a collectivo  to the butterfly sanctuary.

IMG_2639[1]At the sanctuary I am forced to take a man with me from a pack of loitering shiftless ‘guides,’ after 15 minutes of arguing. His claims of having attended school to learn about the area are dubious. The trail is cordoned off by ropes along its entire length, making it virtually impossible for even a person destitute of vision to get lost.

IMG_2643[1]‘Why did you tell me that people get lost here regularly? Who could possibly get lost? The idiots from Mexico City that have never seen a forest before?’ I ask in befuddlement and irritation.

‘Yes! It is always people from Mexico City.’ We share a good laugh.

We get to their….roosting grounds?…. The air is filled with butterflies, they cover the abundant Oyamel Pines and every other extant surface. The
sanctuary exists within old growth trees that are virtually nonexistent in a country whose existence has been perpetuated by the hemorrhaging of natural resources. The trees vibrate with life, their branches grow and shape shift. The only audible sound is the fluttering of their wings as they flutter through the air and jitter on the branches that sag under their weight. They gather together in the afternoon to cluster together through the night and conserve warmth. They take flight in the morning at a time adjusted to the temperature and strength of the sun. A Monarch while migrating can cover roughly 120km on a clear, warm day and as little as 60km on a cloudy, cold day. A pattern very similar to my riding patterns.

IMG_2644[1]As a couple of other tourists depart, I am left with one crazy Canadian named Dev. Dev is from British Columbia and is on his way to the End of the World Rainbow Gathering in Palenque, an event I will discuss later. The guides drop the rope and allow us to walk through the colorful trees, we walk mindfully to avoid killing any of the thousands of butterflies that litter the ground.

Have I ever seen millions of an individual thing at once before? I am
not sure if I can think of an instance, but it is impressive. Bark is barely visible on several trees. One lands in my hair and gently flaps its wins as I walk.

IMG_2645[1]I catch a ride back to Ocampo with Dev and we grab some food in town. We walk through the central square in town and suddenly find ourselves running for cover as a group of kids rain fireworks down upon us. As I run from the square I ask one kid where I can buy fireworks and I spent every last cent that I have on fireworks, immediately a strategy comes to mind: Shock and Awe.

We light a mortar, in the middle of the square, which tips over and fires a horizontal fusillade of red. An all out war breaks out on in the plaza, resistance is more fierce than anticipated. The kids shout anti-American propoganda and are funded by shadowy figures on the periphery. Their small stature adds to their agility and ability to conceal themselves. They employ unorthodox tactics, such as running into stores, that lead to munitions lighting a towel on fire. Smoke and screams fill the plaza. I am the first to be injured, suffering blisters on my hands from letting the fuses burn down on entire fistfuls of fireworks, as I try to minimize my opponents ability to dodge  them. In the end we clear the plaza and hold it until a group of well armed adults appear and we are forced to retire.

Fireworks are incredibly self-promotional.

Melchor Ocampo, Michoacan to  Toluca de Lerdo, Estado de Mexico

I set out in my warmest clothes at 2500m. A relatively even landscape drops off into Zitàcuaro on switchback turns. I replicate the Doppler Shift to give pathetic peripetetics an even greater impression of my velocity. I slam on my breaks going downhill as I see a sign for Atole de Galletas, a soupy blend of crunched up cookies and milk that is everything its name promises. A modern day spin on a drink with thousands of years of history.

I always seem to find myself riding the wrong way in cities, something that bothers me far less than police and motorists. I hop onto the tollroad, weaving around the tollbooths with unstoppable confidence. I hope I get pulled over.

As I tackle an 18km, 1000m climb sweat cascades down my face. I aim it off the end of my nose into a crevice on my framebag, creating a small pool.

Michoacan is notable for the following reasons:

-A remarkably diverse number of dead animals on theroadside, their bloated bodies befouling the air to such a degree that I have come to associate the smell of rotting flesh with this state in particular. I try to study the smells, believing that I can honestly identify the scent of a dead dog before seeing its rigid carcass.

-Amazing food.

-Stunning scenery. This portion of the Sierra Madre has not been as deforested as in other areas. Rugged mountains rise over 3300m in all directions.

Climbing…climbing…climb…  I reach the summit and the border between the two states. I see a 55 gallon drum billowing smoke with chicken carcasses splayed out across the top. I pull over and start shivering uncontrollably as soon as I get off my bike. The lady notices and invites me inside where she builds a fire. I change my clothes and savagely tear at the half of a chicken she places in front of me.

All ascents must come to an end at some point and after I eat I descend and hit a new highspeed at 73.6km/hr. I am run off the road at 45km/hr by a semi truck and narrowly maintain control in the loose rocks with my feet on the ground.

As I continue downhill a pickup truck follows behind me with its lights flashing, I ignore it. Eventually the driver pulls around me and then stops his truck to block my advance. I am flagged down and told that I am breaking the law, that bicycles are not allowed on the tollroad.

‘Sir, you a breaking the law. Bicycles are not allowed on the highway. It is too dangerous.’

‘Actually they are allowed on the highway. There is no other way for me to get to Toluca.’ I have no basis for this claim.

‘No they are not, it is too dangerous.’

‘I have never had a problem before, everyone has told me it is completely fine.’ A complete lie.

‘Sir, put your bike in the back of the pickup. We will give you a ride to Toluca.’

‘No thanks.’

‘Put your bike in the bed, please.’

‘No thanks.’ I absolutely love confidently asserting what I want, making it clear that I am immovable. What are you going to do? Taze me bro?

‘I am going to get my boss out of the truck, hold on.’ I take this moment to refine my obstinancy and argument, I will throw in a romantic twist to my appeal.

‘Sir, what is the problem here?’

‘Look, I am riding to Mexico City to meet up with my girlfriend. I rode 2200km to get here on my bicycle, using my own power. I am absolutely certain that I will not get into your pickup. Thanks for your concern over my safety, but I can assure you that I am more concerned with my safety than you.’

They speak amongst themselves for a minute.

‘We aren’t going to call anyone else about this, but we cannot tell you that you are not going to have problems further on.’

‘That is fine. Thank you. See you later!’

I get my wish of being pulled over.

I find myself in the hellish sprawling madness of Toluca. I veer wildly around buses, taxis and cars. Car doors open, cars back out, buses  merge, taxis stop. I run red lights, I swerve, I yell, I hit my brakes, I stand on my pedals, I spray black sootsnot out of my nose.

I eat ice cream and look at my map; I am going to center punch Mexico City on the 15. The main highway.

Toluca de Lerdo, Estado de Mexico to El Distrito Federal

I sleep like shit as Christmas lights, exterior to my room, cast their annoying glare upon my precious and fragile self. The liter of ice cream that I ate before bed is likely the actual culprit. I just can’t hold my choices or ice cream responsible for my restlessness. I cough up something black into the sink and leave it there. It tastes acrid with carbon and chemicals. The smog is so dense that I never see the 4700m volcano Nevado de Toluca.

As I nimbly weave through the rush hour traffic, I give in. I didn’t think it would ever come to this, it just wasn’t supposed to be this type of trip. My mom warned me though, and I adhered to her advice out of my respect for elders and family structure. Conditions change, your perspective must mature and aquiesce to the capriciousness of life. Life simply cannot just be about looking good as you valiantly cut through blunt machines manufactured for murder without a modicum of protection. I don my construction worker’s vest. Neon orange stripped with neon yellow reflective material.

I drink an orange juice blended with raw Quail’s eggs. Vamanos!

Speed is your friend in congestion. I feel like an auctioneer that is also a professional boxer. I am ducking and fluttering, confusing my opponents by shouting utter nonsense. I begin my climb into the mountains that cradle Mexico city.

I am passed by a road biker who looks like a factorymade  chorizo in synthetic casing. He doesn’t wave at me or say anything as he barely manages to pass me on his carbon fiber bike. He is constantly looking back at me as he pedals hard, judging himself against someone on a bike that weighs 62kg.

I race a truck that is belching carbon, a more fair opponent. I stand up and pedal hard and put some distance between us. I finally slow from exhaustion, hooting and shouting pour out of the truck cab.

IMG_2654[1]I reach the summit. I made it. I sit in disbelief and eat fruit as cars stream past. The real fruit though is the 10km descent into the city, I take over an entire lane with complete disregard for the angry muppets who pass me. The city suddenly expands in all directions, smoldering in its own effluence. Several potholes have metasticized to entire sections of the road and I am nearly airborne.

IMG_2658[1]I split lanes. I diverge off the thoroughfare and find myself in the leafy neighborhoods of La Condesa.

At the hostel I bore the living shit out of some unsuspecting backpackers with stories of my travels and my self importance.

Matching Slingshots!

8km outside Loreto, Aguascalientes to a few kilometers before Ojuelos de Jalisco, Jalisco.

We are dew soaked in the state of Aguascalientes, I see a portent in the wind already stirring the branches. We wait for the sun to rise before we set out, but it is dimmed by a veil of clouds. I pack everything up wet. In Cienega Grande we eat at one of the most Mexican of Mexican places: a combination butcher shop, burrito stand, chicharron/lard factory and restaurant. I rub my cold hands together over a steaming vat of pig organs, ears and skin boiling in what will become lard. A fat greasy man stirs disinterestedly with a shovel. We amusingly waste time asking people for their opinion on the route we want to take, receiving answers of equal confidence and vast discordance. A smile inadvertently rises on my face during conversations like these.

IMG_2568[1]We enter the small bustling town of Los Campos, which is divided into three parts by Zacatecas, Jalisco and Aguascalientes. Upon exiting the road surface turns to dirt and the hustle disappears as we snake our way through a craggy landscape full of Prickly Pear Cactus and towering Seussian Joshua Trees.

IMG_2573[1]As we pass through a town called San Juan de Letras, the road turns into ancient cobblestone that is a vestige from the prosperous colonial silver mining days in the 16th and 17th century. My teeth chatter and I worry for the welfare of my bike. The townspeople all seem to line the one street that runs through town, idly staring in wonder as we pass. The travel becomes more arduous as the road begins to climb and we are walking our bikes within a few minutes for their sake. Brin is forced to start riding due to ankle pain and I watch him ride towards an old cowboy tending his cattle near a small spring. We stop and chat with Geraro, his skin furrowed, dark and weathered from a life spent outside. He beams a smile without his two front teeth as we talk. He holds a slingshot in his hand.

‘Do you use that to herd the cows?’ I ask as it point to it in his hand.

‘No, it is for hunting rabbits.’ He picks up a small rock and hits a shattered yogurt container 7 meters away to demonstrate.

IMG_2580[1]A few other old men on bikes stop by to join in on the conversation. A car stops as well, a man calls us over and talks to us briefly about the history of the area from inside the cab before turning off the engine and getting out to the dismay of his wife and son. They seem accustomed to these lectures and sit in the cab. He introduces himself as Rodolfo Rodriguez from Encenillas.

‘The silver moved through this area on carts with big iron wheels pulled by mules. It was a dangerous section as this area was difficult for the Spanish to subdue. The indigenous population here was very strong and knew the terrain. They left many artifacts scattered all over the desert here, I have a collection. There are many small sites where they lived and hid from the Spanish for many years.’ He gesticulates and points as he speaks with animation.

He writes out an illegible note on the hood of his car to his son Fernando asking him to feed us and show us his collection of artifacts when we arrive in Encenillas. He quickly pulls Prickly Pear fruit from the bed of his truck and exposes their red flesh with his knife. He peels them as fast as we can eat them, their insides succulent and delicious. Rodolfo and his family leave to visit a friend in the hospital and we get back to the matters at hand.

IMG_2581[1]Pedro, another gregarious old man get his slingshot out of his back pocket and lays his rusty Benotto bicycle on the ground. They line up glass bottles and cans that they alternate shattering and toppling with perfect accuracy from 7-10 meters with slingshots carved by hand from a single piece of wood, strung with surgical rubber and a leather crotch. I have never seen anything like it.

After their demonstration they set up targets for us and keep us supplied with stones that ricochet and kick up dust all around the targets, seeming only to hit targets as required by probability. As we shoot we talk about the country.

‘The people in the cities here in Mexico are weary of strangers because they live with violent crime. They run around too fast to actually enjoy themselves. Here in the country people want to talk out of friendship and not for gain. I am thankful to live here. It is tranquil and the food is better. The animals are healthy and strong, they aren’t filled with chemicals. The corn here is real corn.’ Geraro explains as I watch his watery old eyes.

My mind drifts to my suburban childhood that I spent living in terror, in terror of a menace so furtive and menacing that few other children had ever heard of it: gypsies. Filthy, theiving gypsies swaddled in smelly clothing that play music from the Orient. Luckily I received straightforward guidance from my grandmother early on in life exhorting me against not flushing the toilet, releasing live animals in my house, not cleaning my room or spraying my siblings with the hose from around corners….as gypsies seek out children who behave poorly to kidnap and add to their seedy ranks.

‘Yes! Exactly! Exactly!’ I am riveted by the wisdom of this old man.

‘Almost nobody here has a gun, the law out here in the country is that you look out for yourself and defend what is yours.’ The short Geraro, with his clothes hanging off his bones, begins karate chopping and kicking the air as we all crack up and he grins.

We alternate shooting and chatting as time slips away. As we stand our bikes up and get set to leave Brin asks the two old timers between drags on their cigarettes,

‘Where can we get some slingshots like those?’

‘You can go to the next town and find them in the market if you ask around, you want ones like these though. See how the rubber is attached? And the wood? You want good wood, hard wood. It is difficult to find.’ Geraro passionately explains.

‘It was nice to meet you guys. Take care of yourselves!’ We shout as we throw our legs over the bikes.

‘Do you want our slingshots? We can make more.’

‘Seriously?’ I hesitate. I see the grip of Pedro’s slingshot worn with time from his hand and don’t want to deprive him of something that he needs.

‘Of course. Here take them.’

We thank them profusely and we join the ranks of the armed with slingshots. Matching slingshots!

We follow vague directions to Rodolfo’s house, which turns out to be an old hacienda with a dilapidated village around it. There are several expansive arched storehouses and a resevoir enclosed by a wall of impressive stonework.

IMG_2583[1]I hand the note over to Fernando from his father and he shrugs before leading us inside the courtyard of the home through an ancient wooden door. He churns out stacks of quesadillas and talks about his attempt to cross the US border, near Júarez, where he was spotted by a helicopter after two days without food and water. His niece shyly looks on in wonder as we gorge ourselves.

We go into his father’s office where he brings several boxes full of intricately carved arrowheads, stone animal figurines, ancient coins, pipes, needles….. a vast collection of artifacts. I gently finger them in awe. Afterwards he tours us around the grounds of the property where they currently cultivate quite a few hectares of Pickly Pear to use as feed for cattle and goats.

IMG_2587[1]We leave riding our bikes across the stonework encompassing the resevoir before hitting a dirt road marred by washboards and menaced by wind. We don’t spend long weaving from side to side on the road in avoidance of hazards before hitting pavement and the town of Matancillas. Toughs dressed like they are from Los Angeles circa 1992 lean against their trucks with beer bottles dangling in their hands, music booming from inside. I feel like I am on the set of some horrible music video. A few drunks stumble the streets and yell at us as we try to leave this prideless shithole as quick as possible on broken roads.

IMG_2589[1]We fight the wind on an actual uphill battle before finishing the day off a few kilometers outside of Ojuelos de Jalisco as we pull off into a stone walled fallow field. It was nice to simply let the day take us whereever it may, to not fight to make miles.

A few kilometers outside Ojuelos de Jalisco, Jalisco to Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato.

IMG_2592[1]The wind blows throughout the night and persists in the morning to our dismay. We pack up before the sun has risen. The day seems to pass in a blur as we ride hard and glutinously eat. The wind offers a challenge and I push back. It is relentless, unwavering. I stop, gasping for air, to inhale water and food as my legs burn. We reach the top of an ascent and a guy pushing a wheelbarrow full of firewood up the hill stops to rant with us as his captive exhausted audience.

‘¡Chinga las madres de esos hijos de putas! ¡Cabrones! ¡Pendejos!¡Todos son pendejos! ¡El mundo esta jodido! ¡Pinche gobierno! ¡Pinches camiones! ¡Pinche viento!’ It continues like this for roughly half an hour as he chainsmokes and spits on the ground for emphasis.

‘!Todas las mujeres son putas! ¿Pero necesitamos un lugar para poner la verga, no?’ He makes a diamond by putting his two thumbs and his two index fingers together, a gesture that inevitably comes out in every discussion with a Mexican male at some point.

We ride needlessly hard with the intent of reaching Dolores Hidalgo. A factory on the outskirts lets all of its workers out and they leave on their bikes, a few race us up a hill outside of town.

After finding a place to stay we go out into the dark streets to fill our stomachs and come across a bar and enter through its swinging wooden doors. A urinal in the corner and a prostitute leaning against the bar let us know we are in the right place. A cantina over 100 years old. We sample the local mescal and wash it down with beers that are slid down the bar in rapid succession. A man exchanges work, on the spot in the form of dish washing and sweeping, for shots of liquor. The television plays a show dedicated to violent assaults caught on tape! We watch humanity attack itself with belts, hammers, chairs, fists and vehicles. Absolute chaos. The bar luckily closes at 10pm along with all of the other bars in town.

Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato to Guanajuato, Guanajuato

My head hurts in the morning, instead of just my body as I am accustomed. We have been profusely warned about the upcoming climb, it looms over us physically and mentally. We climb slowly, Brin suffering every stroke of the way. We yell obscenities at cars and buses that pass too close on the shoulderless road.

Green scrub and cactus cover mountains with rocky cliffs jutting out from their faces. As we eat tortas from a roadside stand, the young woman working there shows us dozens of 15-20 second clips of sports cars passing her house. You hear the sound of a motor approaching for the first 15 seconds as the hand holding the camera phone quivers in anticipation of the 1 second blur that passes. We huddle around the 1 inch screen with building amusement. She gives us free candy to eat when we get to the summit.

‘The summit is only three kilometers away.’ She assures us.

Interesting roadkill is always a good excuse to stop.
Interesting roadkill is always a good excuse to stop.

After six kilometers of climbing we are cursing her and after ten kilometers we debate returning to extoll revenge. We could raze her grandmothers house to the ground and then salt the land… It would requiring going back though. Suddenly the road disappears ahead of us into a blue abyss. We stop amidst the pine trees and enjoy a beer. We recount the day and laugh about it, a continuation of a trip that has consisted of weeks spent laughing at the world around us, this ridiculous and strange place. We get quiet for a minute.

‘Guanajuato is the end of the line for me. My ankle is done and I have to get back to my life in Colorado.’ Brin lets out.

‘I figured it might be, but I hate to hear it man.’

IMG_2605[1]We straddle our bikes and begin by rolling, no pedaling. The colorful canyon of Guanajuato lies below. The road switchbacks down the mountainside into Guanajuato, surreally sinuous. I lean into them and fly, howling as I pass houses and pedestrians. My mind is nowhere but here, processing the cars that I dodge, the dogs running in the street, the feel of my fingers on the brake levers, the particolored city below, the trees blurring past. 290 pounds hurtling downhill.

I look in my mirror and have lost Brin. I stop to wait and he pulls up a little amped after a car pulled out in front of him with another one in the oncoming lane, requiring a last minute jerk of his handlebars to avoid sure dismemberment. I hit cobblestones in the city and let their friction slow me.

Guanajuato is the most beautiful city that I have ever visited, composed of rough stone blocks cemented together centuries ago, exhibiting the oppulence of the silver mines that once supplied over half the world’s silver. Centuries of architecture and arts have left their mark. The nights are alive here, full of youth and energy. The streets echo with music shouts and fireworks well past the hour that hidden rooftop roosters begin to crow.

A fact about Mexico: If you turn your hazards on while driving your car, you have effectively declared yourself a wildcard and are therefore exempt from all laws and rules of etiquette; other drivers are expected, no, required to respect your declaration. Holding a matress onto the roof of your car out the driverside window? Walking your dog on its leash from your car in the rain? Need to park your car for a few minutes in the middle of the road? The bed of your truck is so overloaded with livestock that they are trampling one another and blood is dripping out? Need to go the wrong way down a one way? Hazards!

We watch an urban downhill race that descends a treacherous, stairfilled alley called ‘El Callejón de Beso.’ So narrow that two torrid, yet forbidden, lovers were able to kiss one another from opposing balconies over the alley, giving it the badass name: Kissing Alley. The course ends with a jump that is eerily similar to dangerous contraptions I would build with stolen construction materials as a kid. Practice is delayed as a live powerline is in the flightpath of the riders as they leave the jump. Dog shit, vomit and geriatrics hostile to extreme sports serve as more permanent obstacles. We mostly make fun of the riders as there are not as many severe injuries as we had hoped.

And then I am on my own.

The Ineluctable March of History or How We Clogged a Toilet in Zacatecas

Atotonilco, Zacatecas to Zacatecas, Zacatecas

IMG_2540[1]It is one of the coldest mornings of our trip and my 28th birthday. I am slow getting out of bed as we agreed the night before not to push on to Zacatecas. We vow to move slower, take it easy and enjoy ourselves. We ride hard anyways, the miles clicking by as we glide past the Tropic of Cancer. The toucans and banana trees are strangely absent.

IMG_2543[1]Most of our conversations on the bikes are related to the landscape and signs, but occasionally an exceptional piece of trash or uniquely mangled animal draws our attention. The road stretches out before us, we are flying. Tarantulas lurch across the pavement, Mormon Crickets rape and canabalize one another. Rediculous construction projects abound and astound: a pedestrian walkway in the middle of nowhere, concrete posts line the highway that have all fallen over. All of it constructed by highway crews that impressively appear more indolent than their American counterparts. A truck painting lines on the road drives on the wrong side of the road as it twists and turns through the mountains, without advanced notice. A man slumps behind the wheel of his car looking dead with all of the doors wide open. Deep red blood is smeared across the road for extraordinary distances in places. Animal carcasses are flattened by traffic and baked into the pavement, their teeth and bones made planar with the road surface. A man sits on the side of the highway after an accident, all of the skin missing from his forehead leading to blood cascading down his face. Police and paramedics stand by him talking. Billboards constantly remind us of the money the government has spent on automotive infrastructure improvements so that Mexicans can ‘Vivir Mejor.’

We find ourselves in Fresnillo for lunch, cursing the topes and traffic after the sumptuous country. Over lunch we sit quietly eating until one of us brings up the possibility of making it to Zacatecas today, we speak as if we are two superstitious pitchers trying not to jinx ourselves.

IMG_2545[1]We set out from Fresnillo riding hard, averaging 25-30km/hr for over an hour, drafting and pushing with slow strokes. We take a quick break on the side of the highway to consume food with purpose, not relish. Clouds build to the Southwest, rolling across the plains in a torrent of flashes and columns of rain. It is late and we are exhausted, Zacatecas is still quite a few kilometers out. The rain starts falling on us, a sign says ‘Zacatecas 20km.’ Two kilometers down the road there is another sign saying ‘Zacatecas 20km.’ The mileage markers on the roadside skip down to 20km from 22km, then there are two 21km signs, then another saying 20km.

I think about all that the world has given me and how little I give back. I am not sure how I am still alive nor how I have the fortune to live as I do. I no longer have the option of dying young, of burning out rather than fading away. I tried. Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson and Jim Morrison couldn’t hack it.  I live during a time on earth of incredible tranquility and freedom, only by virtue of our own ignorance do we believe otherwise. The world is not perfect, nor is my life, yet if either were devoid of ugliness or suffering they would equally be devoid of beauty and happiness. The strange journey continues. Fuck! A tope!

As we arrive into town the rain starts falling harder, serendipitously timed with our descent down the incredibly steep cobblestone streets of Zacatecas. The city center is marked by colonial buildings of roughly hewn stones and intricately worked iron in a beautiful state of decay. We check into a hotel and I quickly put on a tequila blanket to warm myself and celebrate my birthday. The bottle of tequila is nearly empty as we set out.

The night comes on strange. We are standing on the street drinking beer when a guy pulls up in a pickup and rolls down his window.

‘It is a bad idea to drink in the street.’

‘Oh. That guy over there told us it is fine.’

‘Well he is an idiot. Where are you guys from?’

He invites us to take a ride with him around the city as he throws his empty beer cans into the back of the truck and moves his cold beer to make room for us in true Mexican fashion. He speaks broken English that brings a smile to my face.

‘I hate blacks, they steal and don’t work hard like Latinos.’ He proclaims proudly.

‘But there aren’t any here.’ Brin says, neither of us not touching the subject any further.

‘Good! Let’s keep it that way!’

We toss cans into the bed as we drive along.

‘Do the cops ever stop you here for drinking and driving?’

‘As long as the car is moving you are fine, if you are standing somewhere or your car is stopped they will hassle you.’

We blare Paradise City and You Could be Mine by Guns and Roses before he aggressively switches gears to Avril Lavigne. I do most of my laughing in my head, just three drunk men riding around in a pickup blaring teenbop pop. We learn how to piss in public with minimal risk of a police confrontation: we pull the truck over, lift the hood and stand contemplating a nonexistant problem as urine splashes onto the pavement.

We arrive at a karaoke bar where I promptly sign myself up for several songs in a row. I sing the first song with the Dj, one that I stumble through as I have never   heard it before. Afterwards I scream and shout myself through I Feel Good by James Brown. I wait for the shepard’s crook that never comes, the audience reverently maintains their quiet. After the song ends I refuse to relinquish control of the microphone, instead giving a riviting and eloquent speech introducing myself, explaining the circumstances of the day and expounding upon my travels in Mexico. Everyone is so engrossed, hanging on my every word as they wish for my oration to continue without end, that they forget to clap.

Brin and I step up to the stage together, I can feel the Mexican crowd’s demand for something nostalgic and heartwarming. A piece of the old America. I choose You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling by The Righteous Brothers. Our velvety vocals lead to swooning and frustrated boyfriends. I deliver a final monologue so prolix that its contents are lost to me forever. I decide to leave on this high note, Brin stays for a bit longer.

I am awoken toBrin spraying me with water and dumping peanut shells upon me. I obstinately refuse to go on the hunt for streetfood with him. I wake fifteen minutes later as a cheeseburger slaps the side of my face from the other side of the room. I eat it and go back to sleep.

Zacatecas, Zacatecas

I prematurely leave breakfast in spine tingling, sweating horror. I cannot run or I will have the runs. As I sit on the toilet looking at the map, which I am wont to do, I take stock of Mexican town names: Pie de Gallo, KM 59, Delicias, Poblado 1, Poblado 14, Santa Rosa Matagallinas, Nombre de Dios, Agua de Puerco, Ojo de Puerco, Cantuna, Los Mexicanos, 6 de Enero, 15 de Septiembre, Nuevo Casas Grandes, towns with the same name only a few kilometers apart…towns named after individuals like General Rodrigo M. Quevedo, Oscar Soto Maynes. I see Comitan de Dominguez and am reminded of what is still referred to as the Comitan de Dominguez Incident by everyone involved. The memories clog my mind as I sit on my bed and hear a second incomplete flush as Brin uses the bathroom.

‘Remember what happened in Comitan?’ Brin asks as he exits the bathroom with a look of worry on his face.

‘I have never forgotten compadre, will never forget.’

An event seared into both our memory, the worrying and guilt never having left us. After a similar night of drinking last year, we awoke to stirring and churning at the same time, leading to a rapid assault on the toilet. No flush would dislodge the heavy dike constructed of tacos, burritos and low grade meat left to ferment overnight in a mix of mescal and several liters of beer hemorraged out in an inhuman form that resembled none of its constituents. The room was befouled with a permeating miasma of shit. We descended the stairs to the front desk with our bags packed, moving quickly with the hope of being well clear before the discovery was made. Images run through our heads as we walked away from the hotel looking over our shoulders: The maid entering the room before the appointed time, alerted by the scent. Something is wrong, very wrong. Screams echo through the courtyard as she gazes in transfixed horror at the brimming brown bowl. A mob armed with broken plungers and mops rendered into trash combing the streets in search of two conspicuous gringos guilty of a crime so heinous the women are at a loss as they try to explain to the media.

IMG_2547[1]As we are walking out the door to change hotels, after the dike has remained in place for over four hours, we hear the sucking sound of the bowl vacating. We change hotels anyways, the bathroom has run its course. Our new hotel still has a flapper flush valve, not a flushometer or pressure assist, but a larger sized drainage pipe and higher capacity water tank with a more forceful flush increase the stool capacity of the toilet. There is a balcony overlooking one of the main streets of the city; an elderly female musician serenades me from below, playing one cord on her broken guitar incessantly for over an hour.

Zacatecas, Zacatecas to 8km outside Loreto, Aguascalientes

IMG_2549[1]As we sip fruit juice blended with raw quail’s eggs, Brin disappears in search of a public restroom. I sit idly sippling my drink and pondering the 30m Christmas tree sprayed with fake snow and covered in Coca Cola ornaments.

‘That was a disaster.’ Brin informs me upon his return. I ask no further questions as I assume that the outcome was therefore normal. He starts giggling as he sips his drink.

‘What is it?’

‘I forgot toilet paper.’ He grins.

‘Uhm.. so what did you do?’

‘I wiped with my hand.’

‘Ugh.. did you wash it?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘What the hell do you mean?’

‘First I looked in the used toilet paper basket for something reasonably clean, but there was nothing, then I thought about the nice sinks I saw on entry, all Sloan stainless. I couldn’t button or zip up my pants with just one hand so I came out with my pants undone to realize that none of the sinks were connected. I suddenly understood all of the shit smeared on the wall. I did the same. I managed to get my pants part way zipped up and then washed my hand in the fountain over there by the Coke tree.’

‘That is rock bottom.’

IMG_2565[1]We ride a treacherous highway to Guadalupe engorged with traffic. As we ride a rural highway and make a few stops we are refreshed by the friendly and gregarious people that joke around with us and toss us fruit. Outside of Luis Moya we hit 1610km or 1000 miles, we take some pointless photos. Loreto appears to be a rough town as it is patrolled by a multitude of police, military wearing black balaklavas in humvees and an armored personnel carrier. A tatooed drunk tests my patience by stroking our bikes while telling us to go fuck ourselves as we eat tacos.

IMG_2563[1]As the sun sets we ride quickly out of town, a full chicken stuffed in my pannier. The concrete rectilinear sprawl of the city stretches further than expected. We keep pushing at our limits until an open pasture appears to our right. Two men are working in the adjacent field, a fire dances and colors their figures. Fireworks irregularly explode above us, more sound than noise. Ancient ruins lie within a few hundred meters of us as an outcropping in what is otherwise farmland.

We play cards in the dark. The men in the nearby field continue slashing corn stalks with their machetes for cattle feed. We hear a man spit nearby and we both freeze and turn our lights out. We get up and shine our lights in the direction of the sound, but see nothing. We go back to our cards before the sound of a machete chinking through corn or brush approaches us. We hear footsteps. I see a silhouette under the full moon coming our way with a machete dangling by its side and a sombrero on top.

I have been in this situation several times in my life, twice with Brin. The air is pregnant with tension. Who is this? What does he want? Why? These are probably the same questions he is asking himself. The only option is to quickly defuse the situation, to exude tranquility.

‘Buenas noches.’ (Good night.) I announce as we slowly walk towards one another, measuring each other up. The moonlit man with the machete stops dead in his tracks as we near, his face is cloaked in moonshadow from his hat.

‘……Buenas noches.’  He replies with weariness in his voice.

‘¿Todo bien? ¿Todo esta bien?’  (Everything good? Everything is good?) I venture, trying to keep my voice from shaking.

‘¿Quienes son?’ (Who are you?)

‘Somos viajeros…….’ (We are travelers……) I give our whole story rapidly, my adrenaline spewing it out. I tell him that darkness overtook us and we needed to rest somewhere.

‘You are just here to camp?’ I can hear a change in his voice, he has relaxed.

‘Yes, nothing more.’

‘I needed to come see who you are after seeing your lights. Many people steal animals here, so we stay late to guard them.’

‘We are good people. Is it safe here?’

‘Yes.’

‘As long as we aren’t animals, right?’ I try to inject some humor, only I laugh.

‘You will be safe here. I hope you rest well.’

I introduce myself and almost forcibly shake his hand, something that I see as indespensible in self preservation: being seen as a person. We bid him goodnight.

Brin falls asleep quickly, his breathing slowing. I lie awake as the random explosions continue. Thumping basslines layered in horns resound from at least two different locales. I am still slightly worried about being hacked to death with a machete, but not overly.

Santo Riots

30km outside of Balleza, Chihuahua to Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua

IMG_2503I take a shit under a mesquite tree as the sun rises, its orange glow illuminating the road to Hidalgo del Parral. Brin is already packed by the time I start. As I ferry my gear down towards the road, early morning ranch traffic rumbles past. They generally honk and wave.

I frequently stop to stretch as my muscles tighten, cranking on my IT band and causing the outside of my knee to bother. We ride through rolling hills, I am too exhausted to sprint up them, instead slowly limping upward. Brin disappears ahead leaving me to wallow in my ego’s corrosive monologue about how I am going to go home with my tail between my legs and fail. I will be out on the street fighting packs of wild dogs for scraps of blankets, forced to fight other bearded smelly men for coveted spots over warm exhaust grates on the sidewalk as the gilded graduates of my highschool take photos and instantly disseminate them with expensive technology that I have never even seen before. I consciously shift my thoughts to the rolling pasture filled with Cholla and Mesquite, surrounded by mountains made hazy by the distance. I think about my family and friends, everyone I wish that I could talk to at this moment.

I find Brin reclining on the side of the road reading The Milagro Beanfield War which leads to a brief discussion of the Snuffy Ledoux Santo Riots as we alternate taking swigs from bottles of honey and caramel.

‘So this is where we are at, huh?’

We push into a rugged mountain range, it looks daunting with sheer rock faces and a mass that quickly rises from the landscape. It is intimidating to look forward and be unable to perceive a route through an area. I put my bike in the lowest gear, put my head down and just keep pedalling. I occasionally look up and stare vacantly, as drool wavers in the wind from the corner of my mouth, at the red, yellow, orange and brown rocks that comprise the range. I don’t bother looking at traffic anymore, I just hope that they are conscientious enough not to hit me.

We crest the range and I suddenly become aware of how awful I smell as I try to breath deep the mountain air. The click and whirring of my bike on the downhill merges into one consistent howl with the wind as I descend. We see a pickup truck with the following cargo in the bed: three cows, one donkey and one horse. There is no food at the junction where we were told a restaurant existed.

IMG_2506‘It’s really close.’ Fuck! You aren’t the one who hasn’t eaten all day and is riding a bicycle. We ride a few kilometers down the road before eating at a restaurant where a woman rambles nonsensically and bitches about the two guys who are working for her as we alternate responding with ‘Si’ through mouths plugged with tortillas and chorizo. We pulled up and saw the two guys laying in the grass at 10:30am each with a litre of beer listening to the radio. I wouldn’t want to work for this crazy lady either.

An old silo along the roadside.
An old silo along the roadside.

As we climb into Parral a logging truck paces us and drowns us in black smoke. We hit 1000km just outside of the city. I savour the moment surrounded by barbed wire on both sides, broken glass under my feet and vultures circling overhead. Constructions workers urge us on as we climb into the city. I stop outside of a mechanic’s shop to ask for directions as Brin rides a bit ahead.

‘Thanks. I am going to catch up with my friend.’

‘Yeah, you should. There are a lot of murders and gun fights here.’

‘You have been watching too much news.’

‘Just kidding!’

We navigate the sprawling wasteland outside the city before taking winding

At the Pancho Villa museum in Hidalgo del Parral.
At the Pancho Villa museum in Hidalgo del Parral.

backroads into the plaza surrounded by churches and colonial edifices. After being warned by countless Mexicans about how dangerous and ugly the city is, we are pleasantly surprised. We ask a few of the fifty men in the plaza wearing white cowboy hats for a hotel and roll our bikes into the lobby.

I eat the following from at least five different eating establishments before the night is over: one gordita de mole, one burrito de lomo, one torta de lomo, one order of tacos de barbacoa, 1 order of tacos de bistek, one glass of champurrado, four apples, one cone of cookies and cream ice cream and one cone of chocolate ice cream. The tacos de barbacoa have smell rocks in them that almost break my teeth. I ask the owner:

‘Are these rocks in my food? or are they bones?’ I unfortunately give her an out.

‘Oh they are just bones, little bones.’ I know they are rocks. I pay her anyways.

We are frequently stopped by these laidback country folks who regale us with tales of meth, cocaine, deportation and violence.

Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua to 16km outside of a town with no name in Durango.

IMG_2517We ride out of town on fake cobblestone streets brought to us by Cemex, one of the largest polluters in the world. We are flagged down by a nice local who offers for us to stay with his daughter who lives in San Miguel de Allende, but reconsiders as he is writing down her phone number and gives us his instead. I don’t blame him. Brin mentions that his Achilles is hurting him slightly, but I figure he is due to suffer a little bit too. We ride into the state of Durango as we fight to make up kilometres lost from our leisurely start. Chihuahua is the largest state in Mexico and the most violent, it is feels good to ride out. The landscape gradually becomes more lush as we ride. We pass into piñon/juniper country where we hop a locked cattle gate surrounded by barbed wire as the cows eye us with suspicious rendered useless by indolence.

I am riding a fine line between a crippling injury that will lay me up for a long time and steady progress. I know what getting back into the saddle means and it isn’t pleasant. I bought some anti-inflamatories in Parral that a pharmacist recommended without asking how much I should take, when, contraindications or duration. I did ask if I could drink beer while taking this medication and was given a reproving sideways glance and a stern no. I also take some ibuprofen as well for good measure. My insides feel like they are corroding for some inexplicable reason.

16km outside of town with no name to Durango, Durango.

I rise before the sun has crested the rolling brown plains. Brin wakes crippled, but we both assume it will pass as everything always seems to hurt the most in the morning. We are completely soaked from dew and pack everything up wet.

Riding always clears my head and warms my body in the morning. Brin nurses his heel on the ride to breakfast, which is more than fine with me. Five kilometers after breakfast we arrive at a junction where Brin lays his bike down in excruciating pain. He tapes his ankle, takes ibuprofen, stretches… nothing seems to make much of a difference. I talk to a drunk who waves around his empty breakfast bottle. He has worked as a farmer and a rancher since he returned from the states. I get the distinct impression that he does not get much work done.

‘Do you want to buy some dynamite?’ He slurs through his rotten teeth.

‘Yes. Yes I do!’ How else can anyone respond to such a question?

‘Do you have any?’

‘Yes. Look.’ He pulls out a stick of dynamite from his pocket and then quickly puts it away.

‘Wait a minute. Let me see it.’ He hands me the stick, which I examine.

‘Where is the fuse? How do you light it?’

‘You just hold a lighter to this end and then throw it.’

‘How does that possibly work? How do you not lose a hand?’

‘You just have to do it quickly.’

‘No. I don’t want this type of dynamite.’

We make it a few more kilometres before Brin hops of his bike and throws his helmet down.

‘Fuck! God fucking damn it!’

We try and rest for a bit, hoping the pain will abate. We play cross cribbage in the grass and hold our cards as cars pass. His ankle worsens, he can barely walk as we sit in front of the gates of a bizarre narcohacienda. I lean my bike against a roadsign as we try to look like pitiful hitchhikers. Gringos in distress! We quickly catch a ride in the back of a Dodge pickup, sharing the bed with a man named Candi Castro who just keeps telling me that it is dangerous here and that we shouldn’t be here. Over and over.

‘Muy peligroso aqui. Muy peligroso acá en Durango. Mucha violencia.’

We are dropped at an intersection and gas station where we catch a solemn ride on a bus to Durango. I feel like this is the end of the line for Brin, the end of our trip together. There is no way tendonitis in his Achilles is going to heal in a few days.

A woman from Juaréz on the bus tells me that the situation there is perceptibly improving  due to the control of the Sinaloa cartel. The murders and kidnappings have slowed, although now they are just more systematic. Every business within Juaréz, all the way down to the taco stands, must now pay protection money to the cartel.

We pass what she claims will be one of the largest solar arrays in the world and I let my rational pessimism flow forth. I tell her that no alternative energy source has made significant headway as nothing is a viable alternative to oil, yet we have a limited supply of oil that even at current prices is incredibly undervalued for the important role it plays in our lives. Secondarily, the energy from renewable sources is difficult and inefficient to transport in comparison. Everything represents a significant increase in the cost of each unit of energy over oil, which will inherently lead to cost increases for our agroindustrial, energy intensive, globalized economy. Growth is dependent upon cheap energy and broad scale adoption of alternative energy would likely lead to a shrinking of the global economy in a way that would be inherently threatening to global stability.

Once we arrive in the city, I run into Walmart to try and find some ibuprofen. The stores always leaves me with an impending sense of doom. The teeming mass of humanity is lewdly displayed, unabashedly demanding, wanting more. Constantly more. The demands have no end, but the resources are finite. I want to run out of the store. It is El Buen Fin, the Mexican equivalent of Black Friday. It coincides with the celebration of the Mexican Revolution and most of the people we talk to cannot distinguish between the two.

Durango, Durango

The future.
The future.

A young man named Mauricio talks to us at the bar and the conversation moves towards natural topics such as political corruption and drug trafficking, although they are almost indistinguishable here. I chose to ignore the only specific advice the pharmacist offered. Mauricio confirms what the woman on the bus told me: that since PRI won the presidency in July, the Sinaloa cartel has been actively aided and has consolidated power within Mexico leading to a significantly calmer atmosphere. He claims that Chapo Guzman, the mythical leader of the cartel, indiscreetly lives in the mountains of Durango. Stories constantly circulate about Chapo, Mexicans are concerned and object when I tell them that my nickname is El Chapo. They tell me I shouldn’t say that.

We leave the bar in pursuit of street food and find nothing but tacos in front of a whorehouse. The taco stand proprietor yells at the police as they pass.

‘¡Pinche policia! ¡Hijos de la chingada! Pendejeando todo el tiempo.’

‘Why do you hate the pigs?’

‘Because they stop by here all the time and steal food from me, saying it is protection money.’

Durango, Durango to 10 km outside Vincente Guerrero, Durango

Brin decides to try and continue, adjusting his cleats and his riding style to minimize the movement of his Achilles. We eat breakfast at our standard restaurant, but something peculiar happens as we swing out legs over our bikes to set out on the next leg of our journey. A short balding man in a sweater and slacks approaches Brin. He stares awkwardly at him.

‘Buenos días…’ Brin ventures. It doesn’t seem to be well received, if at all. He sticks his hand out to Brin in a strange quick motion, which he shakes.

It builds in volume as he proceeds, I can only phonetically spell it out. I watch in captivated horror.

‘Ahí chia pet. Ahí chia pet! Ahí chia pet!! AHÍ CHIA PET!’ He emphatically and confidently repeats it over and over as he faces down Brin. He abruptly departs as soon as he finishes this….

‘He just hexed you! I know what I saw!’ It doesn’t bode well for Brin’s future.

20 kilometres outside of Durango Brin gets a flat from a piece of glass and we pull over onto the roadside to fix it. We ride another few hundred meters and I feel my back tire go flat. I patch the tire and cannot find the cause, but it is obvious that it is the hex and it is severe. The Hex of the Chia Pet.

We make it a few kilometres more before Brin’s rear tire goes flat again. The valve stem has separated from the tube. That fucking diablero!

Prickly Pear. Nopal.
Prickly Pear. Nopal.

We stop for lunch at a bamboo shack on the roadside and eat smoked ham. As we ride away my tire is flat again, requiring another patch on the roadside and the removal of a piece of glass. Four flat tires. We pass through Nombre de Díos and over a luxuriant river coursing through this parched desert full of Prickly Pear cactus. so large that they resemble trees.

We move towards Zacatecas slowly, but an afternoon tailwind descends on us like a miracle. We draft behind two pickup trucks stacked high with corn stalks that will be used for livestock feed for the winter. We are making a steady 25-30km/hr huffing their exhaust with ease.

As lightning strikes to the North and rain is visible in wavering virga illuminated by rays of sun radiating from below the cloudbank, we pull into a fallow field with an open gate. A truck leaves a dust trail as it heads towards the mine on the mountainside in the distance. We ride out to a good spot and another truck approaches us an then stops nearby, seemingly watching us. A few minutes elapse, we start riding towards the truck to see what is going on. They drive away as we approach, strange. The storm passes to the North, the distant strobe of lightning continues throughout the night. The mine continues operating as well, the lights of machinery traversing and illuminating the mountainside.

10km outside Vincente Guerrero, Durango to Atotonilco, Zacatecas

IMG_2530We move quickly in the morning, but Brin is hurting. The landscape changes dramatically in Zacatecas, different from anywhere else we have been. The soil is an iron rich red. The mountains are not very prominent, we traverse a high rolling plateau full of

corn. The unplanted areas host massive Prickly Pear cactus, spiny Joshua Trees and Acacia. The cows that inhibited the North are gone. The sweeping backdrop is illuminated by shards of light that piece the cloud cover. Ancient structures grow out of the ground, composed of adobe bricks.

Nopal with tuna fruit.
Tuna fruit.

My body is a machine at this point, veins spiderweb across my legs. I can ride all day without feeling the fatigue that I felt initially on the trip. I could barely read or write at night earlier, constantly overwhelmed by exhaustion. The road is smooth, rolling resistance is almost non-existent. In Sombrerete we stop and reprovision. A taxi driver tells Brin that there are some hotsprings further on, near Atotonilco. We ride in anticipation of Atotonilco with beer, bacon, six pounds of mandarins and five pounds of bananas. We arrive slightly deflated at an old

From inside another abandoned structure.
From inside another abandoned structure.

decaying mansion with several cesspools full of leaves and algae. We speak with the surly owners who direct us further down the road. We sit in the pools, my muscles soaking in beer and hot water. We take runs down a waterslide made for children, it sways and creaks under my weight.

Finishing tending to my saddle sores.
Finishing tending to my saddle sores.

We arrange to sleep here for the night, next to the pools. We have a protracted traditional Thanksgiving feast. I list everything for which I am thankful before I shut my eyes. A bar nearby blares music late into the night, sleep lingers over me like a fog that never fully descends.

The Legend of the Pura Bajada

Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico to Samachique, Chihuahua, Mexico

We now live in a society where the hour of the clock is more important than the position of the sun. We live by set schedules that do not correspond to the natural world and thus we shift our clocks forward an hour in the beginning of summer and back an hour in the fall. One day in the spring ends up being 23 hours and one in the fall is 25 hours. Not only am I pissed off about the switch in time, I have to be pissed off for an extra hour.

Parque Nacional de Las Barrancas del Cobre
Parque Nacional de Las Barrancas del Cobre

As we shift an hour back it makes already short days more difficult as restaurants and shops open later relative to the rising of the sun. The hour of the day is irrelevant to us. We are delayed in accomplishing certain vital tasks such as returning 1.2L beer bottles to the grocery store and buying fruit. As we ride out of town my leg feels slightly better after a break, although I nurse it anyways.

Lago de Arareco
Lago de Arareco

As we exit Creel we enter the indigenous ejidos that are minimally developed and still maintain large stands of pine. The indigenous people subsistence farm in this area and live a life very distinct from that of other Mexicans. They walk the road, appearing and disappearing into the woods, as the only traffic we encounter for awhile. One scraggly old man herds goats on the roadside, the tinkling of the bells fills the air. We greet everyone as we pass in Spanish, their second language, which receives a lukewarm reception. I feel like Cortez on his iron horse, so I stop speaking and just give gentle waves

sierratara1The riding is stunning, lined with pines and limestone outcroppings. The road is not cut through the landscape and instead follows the meandering contours that characterize the sierra. It is difficult to tell where we are going in such a steep landscape as there are virtually no vistas. We could be going up, down, sideways or topwise. We were told by every person with whom we spoke that this section promises to be arduous. After a sheer descent we follow a river canyon lined with fences
around pastures and cornfields made of meticulously stacked rocks. sierratara2The homes a similarly built out of the materials available, pine and stone. We ride over Río Uríque and climb for hours at 8km/hr, unsure of where the summit lies. The air gets cooler, the trees change. We need food and water in Samachique. We arrive where Samachique should lie according to our piece of shit map and find out that it is several kilometers off the highway and a decent descent in order to get supplies.

Unnecessary climbing? No huey. Instead, we choose to buy several liters of water, four baloney and cheese sandwiches on white bread and two cans of juice from a lady in a shack on the side of the road. We continue climbing despite sheer exhaustion.

Realizing what looms ahead.
Realizing what looms ahead.

The shadow I cast on the road grows long. I arrive at the top of a climb where the cold air prickles the sweat on my skin and look out upon the mountains in the distance. A summit of some sort. We disappear into the woods, feeling secluded and secure. We get quiet as an entire indigenous family passes through the woods, not 20 meters away, without noticing us. You are never very isolated in Mexico.

We build a fire out of pine trees downed from the routing of power lines through the area. The flames ebb and surge as we take in the stars. An owl hoots in the distance.

Samachique, Chihuahua, Mexico to just outside Guachochi,Chihuahua, Mexico

I am more rigid than normal when I get up, the cold making matters worse. We are out of food. We descend and climb for kilometers, riding the crest of the sierra. The roadside is littered with broken Barrelito beer bottles that I am constantly dodging. We pass a frozen lake in a meadow.

We eventually reach a small store where children who are in school are practicing marching in step on the basketball court in the freezing air. Brin tries to enter the store and a woman emerges from the house next door and approaches us with a look on her face like he just spit in her salsa. The people in the sierra are genuinely good people, but they are just not very outwardly welcoming. The lady opens the store and then just stares at us, occasionally giving monosyllabic answers. Another woman arrives to help stare at us. Nobody here has water. We buy tuna and cookies for breakfast. We devour the food as the school kids stare through the cyclone fence. One girl keeps poking her head around the corner of a building and disappearing shyly if we look at her.

Exhausted we arrive in another small town where we buy avocados and tortillas. We sit on some pine needles in the forest and relish our quarry. I limp into Guachochi where we split a chicken and a rack of ribs.

We spend most of our days building a mental roadmap of what lies ahead based upon hearsay, myths and talltales. On this map there is never much climbing with plenty of towns where we can get supplies followed by a lengthy downhill. Pura bajada is the phrase oft used, meaning pure descent. People who have never ridden a loaded bicycle significant distances have a limited ability to judge the landscape and appreciate its features; riding a bicycle sears the topography into your head. That being said, I prefer lies.

sierratara4Guachochi is a decent logging town with a massive golden bighorn sheep that demarcates the entrance to town, an animal that does not live in this area. It may have lived here at one point, but would have been hunted to extinction hundreds of year ago like everything else in Mexico. There is virtually no animal life here except vultures. The state’s namesake dog is strangely popular here, they brazenly bark from rooftops and curbs as we pass.

We ride outside of town, making a few extra kilometers as the day peters out. Camp is on a limestone slab a hundred meters off the road where we build an awesome fire. I read until I fall asleep, only to be awoken by the sound of my heart beating in my sleeping bag, which sounds like footsteps and Brin talking in his sleep. All I can make out is ‘pura bajada.’

Outside Guachochi, Chihuahua, Mexico to 40km outside of Balleza, Chihuahua, Mexico

The fire still smolders and fills the air with the sweet smell of burnt Juniper. The sun never officially rises, it is smothered by a curtain of clouds. We set out in search of the legend of the Pura Bajada. Dozens of people have told us that it exists, the cyclist’s El Dorado. It can drive a man mad. It never appears for several hours as we grind our way upwards only to dissipate our potential energy in seconds over and over again.

I limp to the top of a climb drenched in sweat. Brin arrived a while before and sits around chatting with a road crew.

‘¡Ay quiero vender la pinche bici y comprar una mota!’ I exclaim as I lay my bike down.

This has them in stitches. It takes me a second to realize what I said. La moto is short for la motocicleta. La mota is short for marijuana. This roughly translates to ‘Ah I want to sell my fucking bike and buy weed.’ They courteosly offer to get me high, but I decline.

sierratara5A few of the construction workers wear neon vests that are very similar to the one that I bought to wear while riding, but have never donned until this point. I put it on proudly.

‘¡Dame una pala!’ I shout and they toss me a shovel.

I deliriously shovel gravel as fast as I can, keeping them laughing.

We are once again given a scintillating vision of the Pura Bajada from the road workers, yet we curse them as we continue climbing. The mountains begin to gradually soften. We arrive in Baquiriachi on empty stomachs. A cowboy in a pink on black jacket embroidered with Japanimation samurais fighting directs us to a 75 year old lady’s house where we can feast. She invites us in and is very reserved initially. She claps her hands together to make tortillas out of corn that she places on her woodburning stove, churning out a stack in just a few minutes. She begins talking to us about the Sierra Tarahumara and her life here. She eats only tortillas, beans and pinole.

‘What is pinole?’ Brin asks.

‘It is toasted corn that is ground. It is what the Tarahumara runners drink. Do you want some?’

I savor the pinole while she speaks of Pura Bajada that awaits us.

sierratara8We continue climbing a little more before suddenly an expansive desert valley lined by craggy cliffs opens up in front of us, the sierra dropping off. Juquilita’s Mustache! Malverde’s Tiara! The legends are true!

We do a quick pre-descent sierratara7check to make sure that nothing is going to let loose at 60km/hr and go. I veer across both lanes, banking into turns. I hit 69.9km/hr without pedaling on one section. The views are stunning and I nearly lose control as I get distracted. Cactus appear in the blur. Mormon crickets again crunch under my tires and ping against my spokes. Cattle lift their heads and gaze as we pass. The likelihood of Onza attacks diminishes with each passing second.

sierratara6We arrive in Balleza where ⅕ of the population appears to be crosseyed from our limited sample size. We buy the following provisions: Honey, bacon, fresh caramel and beans. We head out of town into a muted landscape, the horrors of the Sierra fading from my mind in the warm desert air.

The past few days have been without a doubt the toughest mentally and physically in my life, mainly due the pain in my leg and exhaustion that never abated during our break in Creel. I went to bed the past few nights knowing that I would wake up stiff and in pain, only to fight through it over the day as I vomit stomach acid into my mouth from the 800mg of Ibuprofen that I am eating on a stomach that is not nearly full enough. I have sores on my ass that burn everytime I sit down.

Before a climb we stop for some tacos from a pudgy roadside taco vendor. Brin talks to him and they stumble through a conversation in Spanish until the man switches to perfect English. He has lived in America for the past 20 years as his parents brought him there when he was a child. He went to school, got married, bought two houses and had a kid in America. He remembers nothing from being a child in Mexico, yet was deported last year and has had to start a life here. He hopes that Obama will give him and his parents, who still reside in America illegally, amnesty.

‘A lot of the drugs that come from the sierra pass through here, El Tule. The narcos will get out of their cars with assault rifles and eat tacos before leaving a good tip. They mind their own business. There was a guy full of bullet holes in the bushes over there a few weeks ago, but he was probably mixed up with the wrong people.’

His son cracks all of us up by running around in miniature cowboy boots and kicking trash while shouting all of the phrases he knows in English.

At the summit we pass all of our gear over a barbed wire fence, but the ground is uneven and littered with Cat’s Claw and cactus. We carry our gear and our bikes all the way to the summit where the ground is flat and the cattle have cleared out most of the prickly plants. I gently slide cow patties a few feet away from where I will sleep. sierratara9The sky is filled with a thin sheared sheet of clouds the underside of which is on fire against a faded Robin’s egg sky. Shooting stars cut cut across the Milky Way as cows bellow in the distance.

I stretch in the starlight before laying down for the night. I feel like today was the first time I felt that I might actually make it to Mexico City, the only destination that I have. I listen to the coyotes yipping and howling in the distance, they know something about living that we never can. To be free with no future or past. They curl up with the rising of the sun and set out as darkness descends with a purpose. I keep trying to push myself in order to find my limits. I have never actually known a point where I can no longer continue in my life.

Surviving the Sierra

The mountains outside Buenaventura, Chihuahua, Mexico to Santa Ana Bavìcora, Chihuahua, Mexico

We are up before the sun eating oranges outside the barbed wire fence. The sun rises down canyon, giving everything a tangerine glow. We start riding. I never even try to move any faster than 10km/hr, as the next hour clearly visible as it sinuously traverses the mountainside climbing deep into the Sierra Madre. We pass a small pasture illuminated in the morning light, a grey coyote stands alert as we pass. Traffic is light and polite. Every car gives us a wide berth, a wave and often a well intentioned honk that makes me tense  every time. We take one break midway, eating fruit flavored with sweat dripping down my face. We march upwards and meander back and forth as we reach the summit adorned with shrines dedicated to the Virgin de Guadalupe, each one filled with half burnt candles and dead flowers. My gnawing hunger makes itself known and we start our descent into Ignacio Zaragoza.

I lean my bike into the turns, yipping and howling as junipers and piñons fly past. It never lasts long though, the gradient falls off and we find ourselves using our pedals once again to traverse an open valley full of waving brown grass populated by corpulent cattle. We navigate the dirt streets of Zaragoza in search of food with no luck. We are directed further down the road, where we gorge ourselves on chips, salsa, guacamole, burritos and huevos Mexicanos. The restaurant is strange, full of patrons, yet nobody speaks. I try to break the silence to no avail. This is our first taste of the different constitution of the denizens of the sierra.

As we leave town we climb continuously and are frequently taunted by short descents. Overeating was a bad choice; I stare enviously at open patches of grass on the roadside and imagine myself laying there contented. The valley stretches out in front of us, divided by painstakingly built stone fences. I pull over to stop and stretch. Brin and I talk briefly as we watch two donkeys that overheard our conversation from a distance come tear assing down the hillside right up to the fence that separates us. Brin draws them close with a climb of grass held out as an olive branch. As I run my hand down their muzzles, dust fills the air.

We frequently stop to ask for directions and about the terrain. We peruse chiles, discuss them and buy large quantities. We stock up on supplies before arriving at the pass between this valley and Santa Ana Bavìcora. The descent is incredible, a road crew yips and hollers as we pass,  straight out of a narcocorrido. As the wind howls in my ears, the pines give way to rock, scrub and cactus once more. As we relax in the sumptuous plaza of Santa Ana Bavìcora, centered around a fountain surrounded by roses, a toothless man stares at our map uncomprehending before sending us on a shorter route towards Matachic that doesn’t exist according to our map.

We head out of town in search of a campsite, apple orchards line the roadside. We find one that lacks a fence and wait for traffic to pass before we disappear into the rows. A man in a pickup nearly slows to a stop as he rolls past staring. Strange. We roll our bikes across the supple dirt and eat apples off the trees left behind from the harvest. We unpack and get prepared for the night as a man whistling and eating an apple passes through our row, only long enough for us to make eye contact. He heads onward, but it unnerves us slightly. Trucks wander through the fields and machinery scours the earth late into the night. Traffic roars past. Light pierces the trees and shines on my face, leaves fall around me. A dog bays in the distance. All of this rattles me for a moment, but you either accept your limited locus of control or spend your life worrying about things that are outside of it. I accept that I am at the mercy of the world and roll onto my side to go to sleep.

Santa Ana Bavìcora, Chihuahua, Mexico to Guerrero, Chihuahua, Mexico

I awake to a sleeping back covered in frost. Light from the sun dapples the ground around me. As we slowly begin our morning, I look down the row of trees to see a man standing 100 meters away watching us. He disappears before returning IMG_2431[1]several minutes later. I can see him talking on his cell phone. He disappears again and we start quickly rolling our bikes out of the orchard. We are still in the relative security of the trees as a cop car comes flying around the corner in a plume of dust heading in the direction of the farm house. We quickly hop onto our bikes and pedal hard down the road.

We set off in the chilly air towards Matachic.  The kilometers come easy until a small town appears on the right side of the road where we decide to stop for breakfast before we climb. Buena Vista has rutted rocky streets dotted with adobe houses and unintimidating dogs as obstacles. A man in a stained Frank Zappa shirt scratches his belly as he gives us directions to the local store. The massive store has shelves lined with goods spaced several feet apart, a meagre selection. We buy small candy bars as a consolation for the shopkeep.

As we are trying to find our way out of town, I ask wiry man in a cowboy hat picking up trash in his yard about the way out of town. He comes over smiling, speaking a mile a minute in Spanish.

‘Where are you from?’
‘Colorado. Have you been to the States?’ We agreed on a joint answer to simplify our lives.
‘I worked in Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Arizona.. All over the West. Maybe half of the townspeople here have been to the States to work. We work hard and cause very few problems. I had my papers when I was there and worked in construction for many years.’
‘Are you going to go back?’
‘No, I have earned enough money and learned enough skills that I don’t need to go back there. I like living here more.’
‘Can you find work here?’
‘If you know what you are doing, there is construction work here. The problem with immigration is that the immigrants aren’t brought into the system and families are split apart. Many of the hard working Mexicans are deported while the lazy criminals who don’t even have jobs go unnoticed.’
’What do you think should be done to fix the problem?’
‘I don’t know. Obama has four more years to fix it.’
‘Did Obama win the election?’
‘Yeah, he won, by quite a bit. He has a tough job fixing all of the problems that Bush created, worrying about all of the money he spent.’

This is how we find out that Obama won the presidency.

‘Romney is a pendejo’ I feel like freely expressing my opinion.
‘No, no. He isn’t a bad person. He is just a part of a group that has bad policies.’

I am taken aback by this intelligent understanding view.

‘What do you think about Peña Nieto winning the election?’

This question always evokes interesting answers, as most people believe the election was rigged in typical Mexican fashion. The PRI is the establishment party of Mexico that held sway over the government for over 60 consecutive years until the conservative Northern party, PAN, inexplicably took the reins in 2000. PAN held the presidency for 12 years until January 2013.

‘PRI is full of crooks. We need a change, we need to move away from that style of politics. Politicians are like babies diapers, you need to change them frequently. But in many cases Mexicans don’t value the right things and they get the politicians that they deserve.’’

We introduce ourselves and learn that his name is Beto. He shows us pictures of his family on his cell phone.

‘We are going to find some breakfast, it was really nice talking to you Beto’ I say in Spanish.
‘You are going to find ham and eggs!’ Beto shouts in English as we ride away.

Our day is off to an interesting yet slow start as we climb back into the piñons and junipers. As we descent into Matachic we crouch close to our bikes and IMG_2433[1]pedal hard to set new high speed records on the steep rolling descents. We ride up to a cop car parked in the middle of the intersection of two highways to ask where we can find some food. The windows are cracked, both seats are reclined and the passengers are sleeping.

‘Haha. They are sleeping!’ Brin exclaims as he rides up.
‘No…no…no’ We hear come from the car as the seats rachet up.

I ride over and they button up their shirts and put on their hats before rolling down the window to talk with us. We get directions and are told to tell anyone in town that we are friends of Mario if they give us trouble. Matachic is a strange place, random drunks staggering in the streets shout broken English as we ride past and one gropes our arms as we walk into a restaurant. Every town here seems to have its own vibe, the one here is unpleasant.

After Matachic we enter a section of rolling hills that never seem to end and sap our energy. The wind picks up, further demoralizing us. IMG_2435[1]We keep pushing though. As we pedal into Guerrero I smell chicken roasting over flames and start riding towards it. I lose the scent and double back until I see it, El Pollo Rey. IMG_2436[1]We lean our bikes against the wall and treat ourselves to a beer and an entire chicken.

A man enters with his alligator skin boots clomping and says nothing in response to our greetings, only flipping up his shirt so that we can see the pistol in his waistband. A black cowboy hat and thick mustache complete the look. He glares at Brin the entire time we sit there, I have my back to him. We decide to hasten our departure.

Outside town we find ourselves passing our gear over a barbed wire fence IMG_2441[1]once more to a spot nestled in the pines with a beautiful view of the sun setting over the sierra. The pink lingering in the sky until darkness overtakes us. The riding here is spectacular, open, minimal traffic, good people and a constantly varying landscape.

Guerrero, Chihuahua, Mexico to Creel, Chihuahua, Mexico

The big push. We each eat a can of tuna, a banana that tastes like drywall and several chocolate cookies. I know the taste of drywall from a strange childhood that I have expounded upon previously. The morning is chilly and already a steady breeze buffets our advance. We ride across a large plain filled with apple trees and alfalfa fields before arriving at Entronque San Pedro, a place where I spent many hours sticking my thumb out the year before.

Creel is in our sights: relaxation, food and beer. The plains quickly give way to the sierra, we drop into canyons and climb out, over and over. We reach a river canyon that softens our ascent, but it funnels wind that leaves us absolutely gasping for air. We alternate drafting every couple of minutes as leading into the stiff wind is exhausting. I pedal as hard as I can to reach the top of several climbs, the pine trees on either side swaying from top to bottom. We stop and collapse into the dirt on the side of the road, laying in silence before eating some peanuts and cookies.

I grit my teeth and curse under my breath as I give everything that I have until we reach the bottom of a steep 400m climb. The wind strangely dies and we leisurely climb to the summit where a steep downhill awaits us. I am reveling in the descent, lost in a joy that nothing else I have ever done has come close to providing when a truck coming the opposite direction lays on its horn. A piece of lumber comes flying off of the truck as my eyes are watering at 60km/hr. I instinctively swerve and narrowly miss the piece of wood, but I pull over to the side of the road to breath deeply for a few seconds. Too close.

‘Everything alright?’ Brin shouts as he rolls past.
‘Yep!’

We pass through San Juanito, a rough logging and drug trafficking town. The streets are lined with liquor stores, indolent women of ill repute and corrupt police. A strange mix of Norteños and indigenous people becomes apparent for the first time in our trip. We ask around town about the ride to Creel and receive answers that vary wildly in typical Mexican fashion.

‘O Si. Tan fàcil, muy fàcil. Ustedes han hecho el parte mas difícil.’
‘Hay dos subidas grandes, mas grande que la subida para llegar acà.’
‘Solamente hay una subida grandote!’

We eat some burritos that a guy is selling out of the back of his van and pay someone else  as the guy who sold them to us took off running as we were eating for no clear reason. A bus runs us off the road, we yell unheard obscenities. Logging trucks slowly pass and choke us with black smoke. IMG_2444[1]One logging truck comes down a climb we are slowly ascending, making itself first heard by a horrific squealing, swerving recklessly between both lanes at over double the speed limit. We bail to the side of the road again. Another truck randomly decides to pass another coming uphill as we are full of momentum going downhill, Brin bails into the gravel and I am forced into a steep concrete ditch on the side of the road. The riding is anything but mundane, complete focus is necessary. Virgin de Guadalupes line the roadside in little shrines. Drivers urge us on. At the summit a woman crosses herself in her car, Brin thinks that she is blowing him a kiss.

We hit Creel at full speed from a downhill, coming into town like madmen. I fly over speedbumps, blow past grandmas, a fat kid runs out into the street and reaches his arm out to touch me as I pass, but I am too fast. We gulp down beer as quickly as the waitress can bring it. The early darkness and chill put us to sleep 643km from Columbus, New Mexico.

All paths lead nowhere, but some make for a joyous journey and others for a miserable one.

Polygamy in the Pueblos: Mormons and the Mafia

Outside Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico to the foothills outside Buenaventura, Chihuahua, Mexico

We survived the Black Widows and will thankfully get to be alive for the greatest spectacle in the free world: election day in America. We have  decided not to seek out the results of the election. As we ride through the rural mountains, we  will let somebody inform us of the outcome in due time. We work on our bikes in the morning, cleaning chains and pulling sharp objects out of tires. I wince as I stand up from a crouch in the sandy wash and move my bike out of the wash. We disregard traffic and brazenly pass all of our gear over the barbed wire fence along the highway. I clip on my panniers and begin once more.

We descend  on a brand new road with a shoulder, a  much deserved reprieve. We barely pedal and let the bikes take us downhill. We are traveling with a map that was given to Brin’s fiance as she bought temporary car insurance for a trip into Mexico. It has no key and the least amount of detail possible. Many of the roads we take do not exist on the map, which gives us plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish. We stop at a roadside….. I am not sure what to call it, although it has an astounding amount of scrap parts and junk for sale… to ask directions.  We continue onwards and eat breakfast in a family’s living room with several gruff truck drivers.

We pass through the town of Galeana and then arrive in a place called Colonia Lebaron named after its founder Alma Dayer LeBaron who started the community roughly 60 years ago to freely fornicate with multiple women tied to him by the sanctity of marriage in pecan orchards he planted. LeBaron was a Mormon Fundamentalist, a polygamist who was forced from the United States and granted refuge by Porfirio Diaz’s government. As we stop for a sandwich and some juice, we meet one of the founder’s sons who speaks frankly about the community. He is one of 48 children left by the founder. The church’s leader and prophet was murdered by his brother in a Machiavellian religious powerplay in 1972. This set of a string of murders that lasted decades  and claimed as many as 25 lives. Andy himself proudly lays claim to five wives and thirteen children. His friend Charles who chats with us pathetically has only two wives and five children. He describes himself as a late bloomer, I describe him as a loser.

‘Do you guys have any connections with anyone in Colonia Juarez?’ Colonia Juarez is another polygamist refuge where Mitt Romney’s father was born.
‘Oh yeah! We have known the Romney family for years. Let’s hope Mitt takes back America.’

Andy tells the restaurant owner that he will pick up the tab for anything we would like and takes off in his massive diesel pickup. We each order a liter of fresh squeezed orange juice and a sandwich. We are then subjected to a rambling soliloquy from Charles; there really is no such thing as a free lunch. You know it is going to be good when it starts out like this:

‘Do you know that there is a new world order being set up?’ He asks in earnest.
‘No…no we didn’t.’
‘George Washington and Joseph Smith prophesied that the thirteen controlling families of the world intend to murder 80% of the worlds population with genetically modified crops and vaccines.’
‘……’
‘The end is coming when the Nephites, the light skinned people of the world, will fight the Lamanites, dark skinned people in a battle of good versus evil. I am not racist, it is just that god decreed in the story of Cain and Abel that dark skin was a sign of evil.’

We try repeatedly to extract ourselves from this discussion, saying goodbye and shaking his hand. At least six times. I have condensed this dialogue for your sake. I nod my head and give monosyllabic answers as my food gets cold.

‘Did you know that particle physics has finally proven what Joseph Smith said about everything being infinitely divisible?’
‘No…..’
‘Dark matter propagates its force at 80 billion times the speed of light, finally allowing us to reach the next galaxy in 1/10th of a second. This is god’s force. I have some videos that I would like to show you guys if you would come to my house with me?’
‘Oh um, we need to try and make some miles on our bikes, but thank you.’
‘I am going to a wedding later as well if you want to come. China and Russia are going to attack America, a fight we will almost lose until the moment when god intervenes. God’s kingdom on earth will rise in Central America, amongst the Mayans.’ He is fervent.

I desperately want to ask him how god’s kingdom is going to rise amongst the swarthy sinners of the Yucatan and Central America, but I relent.

‘In Colonia Lebaron we have had problems with violence as of late, with the mafia. This place is supposed to be a peaceful refuge for anyone, with any background. We say respect is peace, like Benito Juarez. We have taken on the cartels, we have a sniper positioned in that tower on the hill over there that overlooks town. They killed a few of our brothers. We all carry guns now. You can read about us on the internet. I also sell some medicine on the internet, it cures nearly everything. Here is the address of my website if you guys are interested in ordering some of it.’’
‘Interesting…’ Again, someone in Mexico talking to us about snipers watching us. That makes at least two occasions that Brin and I have been threatened with snipers while traveling here.

A girl comes into the restaurant and introduces herself as Elsy. She is pregnant as is every other woman that we see waddling through town.

‘You boys are in the wrong part of Mexico.’ She knowingly warns us.
‘Why is that?’

She walks away. We finally extract ourselves from this place after speaking English with some white Mormon Mexican cowboys who are sipping on glasses of carrot juice. I am mentally exhausted from the 45 minute tirade. I had read that the townspeople here are often more mixed up with the cartels than they will admit, for obvious reasons.

Our last stop for the day is in Buenaventura, where we buy four kilograms of oranges, pecans, honey, water and steaks. Our ascent into the Sierra Madre Occidental begins in earnest at this moment. IMG_2423[1]We follow a long straightaway where we stop as my bike is making a racket, my front rack is nearly falling off. Lesson: periodically tighten bolts.

We climb, grinding it out at 9 km/hr. I come to learn that climbs always look worse than they are. It is just a matter of persistence. We are rewarded with steep short downhills that are succeeded by another significant climb each time. The smell of marijuana emanates from several cars that pass on their way out of the Sierra. We come into sight of the big climb into the Sierra before Ignacio Zaragoza. Camping in this area poses a significant problem as the ground is littered with Cholla and other vicious spiny succulents that will surely wreak havoc with our tires. We stop in front of a ranch gate with a corral and a dilapidated building. We decide to climb the following day. IMG_2427[1]We scout it out and nobody is home. We look both ways and then start passing our gear over the fence again. We set up camp on the concrete slab dated to 1968. The roof has fallen in on the structure, but there are fresh horse tracks and manure.

We feast before the day dies. We vow to leave at first light, lest we be caught here by the owner. Cattle forlornly moo throughout the canyon, the echoes bouncing off the walls. A chilly down canyon breeze sends me into my sleeping bag.

Guerilla camping is strange. It feels so exposed, yet so free and right. We leave no trace and only occupy the ground. I am so tired that concerns over safety easily fall by the wayside. The coming days promise to be tough, but rewarding. We are entering an area infrequently traveled by tourists and with insignificant local traffic. It promises significant climbs, but incomparable scenery. New types of cactus are appearing already: ocotillo, prickly pear and cholla. Traffic dies completely as I lay in my sleeping bag staring at the stars.

I awaken with adrenaline instantly coursing through my veins as three horses gallop through our camp in the middle of the night. I am quickly calmed as I watch them strangely play with one another and give chase, their forms only visible as silhouettes in the moonlight.

Dos Güeros

The United States of America to Mexico

I wake up at Brin´s fiance´s place in Española, New Mexico with the lingering stabbing pains from food poisoning or anxiety induced illness from over a month and a half of moving from place to place. My life has never been more scattered. I couldn´t eat the day before and instead drank two glasses of vodka, a couple of fingers worth in each, with the intent of vomiting up the contents of my stomach. I succeeded. The following morning I awoke, loaded my bike and panniers into my sister’s car, who drove me to Green River, Utah where I met up with my friend Brin.

We intend on beginning our trip in Columbus, New Mexico where we will try to find a place to leave Brin’s car.

Let me step back and contextualize this trip:

I had planned last winter to continue hitchhiking out of the freedom, simplicity and adventures it provided. In the middle of summer, after riding a bicycle more than a few miles for the first time in five years, I decided to buy a bike. A bike to ride South. I had no idea what I was undertaking at this point. The first person that I told about this change in plans was my boss as we were working on a van in the shop.

‘Hey Tim, I think I figured out what I am going to do this winter..’
‘YEAH! WHAT´S THAT?’
‘I am going to buy a bike and try to ride it to South America.’ I don’t think I finish the sentence before it begins.
‘AAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA……’ It continued for a while, I don’t feel like typing it all out. It was the most that I have ever gotten him to laugh. He never explained why this was so hilarious and I didn’t want to ask.

I talked to a few friends who ride frequently. I measured myself. Everyone told me that I needed to train extensively, that I needed to buy an expensive bike and have it custom fitted. In the end I decided to order a stock Surly Disc Trucker from the internet, due to its simplicity and my desire to make miles. Most people I talked to about this trip had nothing to contribute but reasons why I shouldn’t or can’t. My intention was to get on my bike and start riding. I will train and figure it out as I ride.

I finished guiding one of my last river trips for the season and my bike was sitting in a box at the warehouse. It was one of those evening where whiskey just tastes better than food. My brother, sister, Brin and I started building my bike after finishing a bottle of Canadian Host. We drunkenly eyeballed, cut, tightened and assembled the bike. An auspicious start. We ripped the ‘ly’ off from Surly to leave simply ‘Sur.’ The bike came together in a blur, emerging out of our soused collaboration. We decided was a good idea to quit at some point. We hit a bucket around the shop with brooms, playing some sort of violent variant of floor hockey. Brin hits a slapshot that shatters the bucket and it slices across my face. I go to the bathroom and am unwittingly assaulted with a fusillade of soaps, rags, towels, shampoo bottles that come flying between the top of the drywall and the ceiling. The bottles explode as they impact the walls around me spraying fluorescent chemical streams.

I wake up on the back porch with my brother and sister huddled to my right and Brin without a sleeping pad using my left leg as a pillow.

The next few weeks unfold as I slowly collect parts and try to plan for something that I have never done before. I ride a little bit, never more than 100km in order to get in shape. On my first long ride I eat no breakfast beforehand and only bring two cookies. My legs feel like they are being beaten with a baseball bat as I descend down Logan Canyon. Diet is important?

In the twilight shivering and hiking our bikes over a rock strewn dirt road on our way from Salt Lake City to Logan, my sister says something that has stuck with me for the entirety of this trip:

‘Hey, just let me know if you are too tired and I can call for a ride.’ I propose.
‘I have never given up on anything before, I am not going to start now. Let’s go!’

Here is some of the soundtrack from our drive from Green River to the border to set the mood:

‘He’s thirty four, drinking in a honky tonk, kicking hippy’s asses and raisin’ hell!’  Jerry Jeff Walker – Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother

‘He rode into El Sueco, stole a rooster called El Gallo del Cielo and he crossed the Rio Grande with that fighter nestled deep below his arm…’ Tom Russell – Gallo del Cielo

‘There is no need for alarm, they are waving their arms, they would just assume blow you away.’ Robert Earl Keen – Blow You Away (Can’t find an original)

‘It all started when I had a little trouble with this guy on a highway crew and that lying son of a gun told them I had done some things I didn’t do.’  Todd Snider – Tillamook County Jail

We get a parking ticket in Santa Fe and spend an hour trying to pay it to no avail. We decide to mail it from further down the road and stop in Socorro. After mailing it Brin crouches down next to his VW Passat, the front end is held together with a cam strap and one of the turn signals dangles from its wire on the fender. We make eye contact and just start laughing.

‘So this is where my life is at? Taping my car’s turn signal into place after paying a ticket on my way to ride my bike through a place that everyone keeps telling me is one of the most dangerous on earth.’
‘Sounds pretty good to me.’

We are going to Mexico. We pass through Albuquerque, the worst city that I have ever seen on Cops. Images of meth, knives, flashing lights, strip malls and prostitutes flash through my head. Anchorage is the second worst city due to a Special Summer Solstice Episode of Cops. Violence, drunkeness and depravity appear all the more surreal and disturbing when played out in broad daylight at 3am.

We follow the Rio Grande and its line of yellow Cottonwoods southward through the rocky and barren landscape to Columbus. We find a bed and breakfast run by a nice old lady named Martha who says we can leave the car there, no questions asked. We go to sleep with the lights of the border fence shining over us in Pancho Villa State Park.

In the morning we pack our bikes, something that I haven’t even done before. It takes a bit of time before everything finds its proper place.

As I pedal the steel frame of my bike flexes and sways under the weight. IMG_2419[1]It fishtails, yet rides better weighted. After two kilometers I try and adjust my mirror before we reach the border, hit a speed bump and am nearly catapulted over the handlebars. I am reassured when the bike continues rolling without a hiccup.

The border: kids selling trinkets, men yip like coyotes out of cars, food simmers in every direction, animals beg and scatter and broken English echoes. The energy of Mexico is inexplicablely intoxicating.

We head out into the wild Chihuahuan desert, a massive expanse of rock and scrub. A straight road fading into the distance demoralizes us. It undulates over the rolling landscape, I find even minor climbs exhausting. We draft off of one another to save energy, alternating every few kilometers. My entire body burns and aches. I drink water as quick as possible, unable to get hydrated. A pain develops on the outside of my left knee and becomes excruciating. I feel even the most minor shifts in wind that barely stir the grass along the roadside. I am going to do this for how long? What did I get myself into? What if I have to turn back with no job or place to live with my tail between my legs?

Brin gets one flat tire, then a second within a few minutes. IMG_2420[1]The valves are being cut by his rim, a jagged edge encircles the valve stem. We use one of the destroyed tubes to fashion a valve protector. Not an ideal start.

‘Echale güero!’ Horns blare. Norteño music is remixed with the Doppler Shift.

The drivers are incredibly respectful compared to American drivers, contrary to expectation. The sun beats down on us, I wince under burden of the pain in my leg and focus on taking one stroke at a time.

We eat at a restaurant in Ascención with dozens of fighting cocks strutting and crowing in cages, the walls pasted with posters for upcoming fights. We talk to various characters around town, lack of teeth correlates with our lack of understanding.

As the sun sets we ride out of town trying to find a place to camp. We head down a gravel road between some cornfields and turn into the lot behind an abandoned building. We look around making sure that nobody is watching. A few workers wander in the chile field across from us.  We disappear into the cornfield after 107km.

Day 1:

As darkness descends we emerge from the field and set up camp in the soft tilled dirt that flanks the field. I dig a trench to sleep in that feels like a shallow grave. I lay down exhausted under a moonless sky electric with a million burning suns. I wake up occassionally as cars rattle and crunch down the gravel road. The highway roars all night. As the moon rises the coyotes begin to yip and howl in all directions. I don’t think I can do this.

I get up though and do it again. My knee protests as I begin to move in the morning before the sun rises. I am soaked in dew. I crouch inbetween the corn rows trying to take a shit as I hear Brin come crashing through the corn stalks. He tries to take a picture of me crouched over the steaming pile, but it is too cold out for the camera to work. We steal some red jalapeños from the field across the way as we set out.

Most drivers wave as they pass, an old grandma gives us the finger. We pass several checkpoints where we are searched and questioned. The soldiers seem unable to comprehend what we are doing. We ride on a two lane shoulderless highway, the wind from trucks either buffets us or propels us depending upon their direction.

We arrive in Janos at 10:30am without having eaten breakfast. We eat the most exquisite food on earth, Mexican food. We buy some packaged mystery meat and other provisions for the day. The day heats up under a vacant sky. Time passes slowly, the trucks pass quickly. My knee pain, which I have decided is from my IT band, leaves me wincing and hobbled. I am struggling mentally and think I might have to give up. Day two: The tip of my dick is chaffed and bleeding. I walk like Captain Ahab.

Brin and I sit on the roadside under a Cottonwood eating lunch. The chiles that we picked from the field in the morning leave Brin in tears. I valiantly savour their heat when combined with the  gratifying mystery meat that we purchased in the morning. We lay around in the shade for an hour or two before riding into Nuevo Casas Grandes.

Riding into cities is exhilirating and irritating at the same time. Cars are less courteous, but people are more interested in what we are doing and want to speak with us. We jostle over speed bumps and run stop lights. We make our way out of town in search of a place to lay our heads. Barbed wire lines the highway with almost no break. We stop in front of an agrochemial disposal site and debate the merits of sleeping there. We press onward in the fading light.

We climb into some small mountains after already having ridden over 100km for the day . I am running on fumes. The rotor on my front disc brake squeaks as the bike flexes under the force of each stroke. We stop at a few locked cattle gates in dismay. The sun disappears. We ride down a hill and find a wash at the bottom. We pass our bikes and gear over the barbed wire fence when there is a break in traffic. We walk up the wash a couple hundred feet and drop our gear on the sandy bottom. Brin runs up a nearby peak to catch the last of the daylight. I hobble.

We reach the top and look over a broad valley surrounded by gentle sloped foothills. We take it in before descending in the last scrap of light. We cook two batches of popcorn on my stove. We garnish the popcorn with lime, chile and salt. Brin swings his headlamp to his side and recoils as a massive Black Widow hovers in a nest built into the bank. We admire its size and I anger it by throwing unpopped kernels at it. Wait there is another right next to it, and another….there are hundreds lining the rocks near us and on the walls. I agree to stop harassing them.

Trucks wail on their jake brakes coming down the hill. I realize that I can do this, that I am doing it. I cannot fail, as there is no goal. I lay in my sleeping bag smiling as I think about my life before sleep draws me away from my reverie.

Day Two: