At the spur of the moment, and in what I would consider to be a bit of cosmic planning, I found myself with some unexpected free time with which to head down Mexico way and drive the support car for my buddy Rogue Priest and friend as they cycled through the dry and dangerous northern borderlands between the Rio Grande and Monterrey.
Rogue’s epic journey—to bicycle the length of the Americas—combines adventure, danger, courage, spirituality, and heroism. His embodiment of these virtues (well, danger isn’t a virtue, but…) and his neverending quest for knowledge of all kinds are the reasons why I admire him, and why I agreed, offered, really, to be his support driver. Rogue opened up the Mexican portion of his quest―called The Fellowship of the Wheel―to the public and had a few interested parties sign on. Some backed out because of safety concerns; others agreed to join at points further down the road. But this first three-day stretch, with its forbidding terrain and criminal notoriety, required someone who understood the importance of the quest and who wouldn’t allow fear to interfere.
And so it was that I followed Rogue and Pixi south from Texas, crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico by foot from Laredo, a 10-minute jaunt for which the US Government charged 75 cents. Rogue met me in Nuevo Laredo with a smile and a hug, unable to look anything other than hopelessly American with his bicycle, and dashing my hopes of neutralizing our obvious foreignness with a little faux Dominican-ness of my own. The soggy, gray clouds lay thick and humid over the city as we trudged through the mildewed and crestfallen blocks of the old central business district looking for a rental car agency that was not where Google Maps said it would be, and I began my role as official translator when Rogue handed me the iPhone he waved about so liberally to confirm the exact address of the place (“What good is having a phone if not to donate it to those less virtuous than us?”).
Because of the complex nature of US-Mexico border relations, rental cars fall under a strange set of rules: only a select few rented in Texas can cross into Mexico, and even then, must stay within a certain distance from the border. Since we were taking the car just south of Monterrey, and therefore past the border threshold, we had to rent the car in Mexico, opting for returning the car to Nuevo Laredo rather than the more expensive one-way rental which would have allowed me to fly out of Monterrey three days later. But we were adventure seekers, and what kind of adventure would this have been without some sort of return dash north to La Frontera?
Car rented, I got directions to our CouchSurfing host’s house from Rogue and drove on ahead, getting accustomed to our silver Chevrolet Aveo and covering the distance in about 8 minutes that it took Rogue to cover in 15. In no time, he appeared and we stepped through a pair of wrought iron gates and past three cats and a dog into the house of sushi restauranteur and gentle giant, Scotch (who, at that very moment, was away managing one of his restaurants). There, among the visual noise of a modest Mexican homestead, I met quiet, reserved Pixi, who, like Rogue, hailed from the stoic wilds of the Upper Midwest (Minneapolis, to be exact…Rogue’s from ‘scahnsin). We then piled into the Aveo for trip provisions and a late lunch, as Scotch had promised a hearty dinner that evening.
The thing many people who don’t travel abroad fail to realize is just how Americanized life has become in many places around the world. Mexicans and Brazilians and South Africans and Malaysians and Germans all pull into the parking lots of big-box retailers in their SUVs to purchase American-inspired, Chinese-made groceries and household items. Disaffected teenagers swipe through Instagram on their smart phones while parents mull over which revamped Ninja Turtle toy to buy the kids. Sure, there are and will always be significant cultural differences, but in early November, in Mexico, leftover Halloween candy was still in the clearance bin and the Christmas decorations―replete with a rosy-cheeked Santa and fake snow―were being set up at the front of the H.E.B. supermarket in a strip mall in Nuevo Laredo. We stocked up on water, bananas, bran crackers, and tuna (with veggies!) for the road, then went to the Chinese take-out joint next door and ate greasy, plastic chicken and lo mein that sunk like the Hesperus in my stomach.
We capped off the night in Scotch’s dining room with scrumdiddlyumptious bowls of beef and rice stew, along with heaps of laughs and mostly-English conversation with his family about travel, music, and the general safety and sanity issues raised by a bicycle trip through northern Mexico: an arid and inhospitable hinterland pockmarked by gangs of drug- and human-traffickers, some even masquerading as “legitimate” law enforcement and setting up roadblocks to rob motorists, a most useful factoid on the eve of our excursion into said hinterland.
What seemed like a mere five hours later, just before 6am, we were up and out of the house, Rogue and Pixi on their bikes, peddling through the Saturday morning twilight at ten-to-fifteen miles per hour, me following behind in the Aveo, hugging the side of the road behind them with emergency flashers blinking and Janelle Monae hyping me up for the journey ahead. Initial fatigue aside, the excitement of supporting a good friend of mine on his life-quest, with the heightened sense of adventure associated with traveling through Narcolandia, kept me alert at the wheel. As the sun rose higher into the cloudless sky, I could sense the cosmic approval of this endeavor; we were going to be okay.
Not that our―or their, rather―safety was always readily apparent. On the multilane highway heading southwest from Nuevo Laredo, 18-wheelers flew by at astronomical speeds, often belching black clouds of exhaust and kicking up dust into Rogue’s and Pixi’s faces. Sometimes, the two had to ride single-file on the jagged edge of the road, dodging debris and potholes; I even had to keep a sharp eye out for abrupt slow-downs so as not to accidentally run over my own daring charges with the Aveo. Still, with me behind them, vehicles tended to give Rogue and Pixi a wider berth, often changing lanes completely and respectfully, with nary a beep or a toot. Typically, all heads in a passing vehicle or standing along the road turned in our direction, some spectators even waving, but all with a look on their faces that seemed to say “¿que carajo are these fools doing?”
The objective of the day was to get as far away from the border, and out of perceived danger, as quickly as possible, reaching the town of Sabinas Hidalgo―85 miles away―by afternoon’s end. The chosen route, the toll-free and therefore curvier and more-heavily-traveled version of Highway 85, spanned the fertile flatlands of the Rio Grande before the leafier, more vivid foliage gave way to paler greens and the spiky flora of the scrublands. By mid-morning, the sun burned hot overhead, a heat lamp quietly and deceitfully roasting the immediate environment while the actual air temperature remained mild, and every bird seemed, for a split second, to resemble a vulture. Yellow wildflowers clung boldly to the sides of the road and golden butterflies fluttered like confetti over the roadway, especially once the number of lanes dwindled to two.
Rogue and Pixi pedaled and pushed themselves along the route, their long-sleeved shirts shielding them from the sun and remaining virtually dry in the near-desert air, me rolling behind in relative luxury, South African house DJ Black Coffee’s rhythmic wizardry as much in place on the golden plains of Nuevo León as in the orange hills of KwaZulu-Natal. We stopped every hour along the route, chatting for a few minutes about their impressive progress while bladders were emptied and water bottles refilled. I respected them incredibly for their bravery and drive in this undertaking, and not for a single moment did I wish to be changing places with either of them at any time during the trip.
It was just before noon when we stopped at the first respectable-looking, and open, restaurant we came to along the route. While the front door gaped wide and the “Open” (yes, in English) sign was illuminated, not a solitary car occupied the muddy parking lot, but we decided to take a chance anyway. We’d settled around the table for totopos when the clock struck 12 and darnit if the place didn’t fill up with hungry truck drivers, relieving us of our apprehension about eating in a tiny diner in god-knows-where without any customers. But then, I guess it would have already been too late for us had there been any truly sinister shenanigans at that place.
Three full stomachs later, we hopped back onto the road, our sights set on Sabinas Hidalgo and an early arrival into town. About two hours later, though, as the afternoon sun beat down on the adventurers and the terrain started inching upwards, Pixi decided that she would join me in the cool, conditioned air of the Aveo, leaving Rogue to continue ahead of us on his own. Personally, I couldn’t blame Pixi―as I said, I had zero inclination to peddle even a tenth as far as she did…and this is due to falling off my bike in front of a bus at age 16…I’m scarred―and Rogue didn’t either; she had come over 60 miles of tough terrain and should be proud of the effort.
And so we pushed on, away from the US and ever deeper into Mexico. Shortly thereafter, weathered road signs welcomed us at last to Sabinas. At the leading edge of town, just as rain-heavy clouds closed in and the incline became ever steeper, we stopped for gas and snacks. I couldn’t resist a sliver of cheesecake in the freezer case labeled “Pay de Queso” (the “pay” pronounced “pie”), but I hadn’t been resisting much during the entire trip. I’m a grazer and had torn through half the box of bran crackers and at least five pouches of tuna during that day’s drive, and I hadn’t peddled an inch. But it seemed like every ten minutes, I was reaching to put something in my mouth. I vowed to stop the insanity after just that one slice of “pay.”
Pixi and I hopped back into the car and followed Rogue into town. The road became a city street, cross-streets and driveways depositing slow-moving small-town traffic onto the thoroughfare. We passed through the main commercial strip, banks and drugstores and gas stations and cocinas mexicanas on both sides. The local Church’s Chicken-cum-Subway stood proudly and colorfully as one of, if not the, newest buildings in town, a sign that modern globalization had not forgotten about little Sabinas Hidalgo.
Rogue peddled and I drove, exchanging glances with Pixi when Rogue seemed to be unsure of which route to take to our hotel, and unsure ourselves of the name and address of the place, necessary facts for any GPS search. Yet our trust in Fearless Leader unwavering, we ended up at the decrepit, yet still somehow cozy Hotel Las Turbinas, a small motor lodge located on the far end of town that glowed Dr. Seuss pink in the waning afternoon sunlight.
After a quick bed bug spot-check and verification of internet access at least somewhere on the premises, Day One was done.
To be continued…