We loved cycling across Mexico. Once we got off the main roads and took the small roads east across the country it quickly became one of the real highlights of the trip, one of my favourite cycling destinations of all time. Everywhere seemed different, no two towns or villages were ever the same. For example, the very day we left the American-Mexican kids at the football (or should that be soccer) pitch, we climbed up through a town called Tarecuata, a town full of Indian faces, of women in these amazing traditional shawls and skirts, the likes of which we hadn’t seen before, characters cut out of history books and pasted into a market scene in modern Mexico. Dea and I took seats at a little cafe and had the most fantastic fruit salads and watched the locals, so different here from the people we’d left behind in the village that morning. It was only later that I realised during this little break my total distance cycled since Paris was paused on 89,999 kilometres. 1,000 metres up the road, and I was 90% of the way to completing another of my seven targets.
The chickens had taken over the goals by morning.
Dea doing her best to blend in.
Taking the small roads wasn’t without
its risks, and later that afternoon our happiness threatened to turn
to frustration when we found ourselves coming to what appeared to be
a dead-end on a very quiet road. Faced with the prospect of a long
retreat we instead ploughed on forwards through the fields, and got
our reward when we eventually returned to the gravel roads and passed
through an amazing area of people and animals on our way to
Chilchota. There were chickens and turkeys and turkey babies, cows
grazing in people’s yards, and dogs, everywhere stray dogs. It
really is a dog’s life in Mexico, I swear there are more dogs than
people. And Chilchota was a great town too, where an English-speaking
taxi driver named Nacho cheerfully gave us directions to a cheap
hotel by a lake, and close to a series of steps that climbed up a
hill and overlooked the city. Painted in the green, white and red of
the Mexican flag, we defied the objections of our tired legs to climb
to the top and look down over the town, our hearts filled once again
only with happiness.
Come along now Dea, I’m sure this will all be fine…
It’s a dog’s life in Mexico
…it really is!
Not easy for tired legs!
We had to follow urban roads through
Chilchota and for a fair few kilometres beyond it too, as we passed
through a series of small towns. Normally we hate such roads and
avoid being in towns if we can, yet here in Mexico they were a treat,
a real delight, a highlight. The streets were quiet, with hardly any
traffic, only people walking or cycling, and what traffic there was
going carefully, slowed by frequent speed bumps and by the knowledge
that this was a human space, a place for people to go at their own
pace and enjoy it, just as we ourselves did. And these thoughts were
confirmed by Alberto, an English-speaker who came to us in a little
town square we stopped in for a break. He lives in the United States,
yet he said he preferred it here so much, everyone so friendly and
everything so peaceful, that he didn’t want to have to go back
north of the border.
No, I didn’t hit that girl a moment after this photo was taken! I was going very slowly and she ran across in front of me and I stopped!
The next day we reunited with Ciaran, the young Irish fellow who’d been a part of our great Baja cycling gang. He’d taken a lot more time off than us, resting in Guadalajara either side of taking a bus trip to Mexico City for New Years. He’d then cycled 120 kilometres in one day on the toll road to meet up with us again. He’d done four days of riding since our Christmas together, and while we had put in some two weeks of pedalling to get to the same spot, I wouldn’t have swapped our experiences for anything. But Ciaran was up for joining us on our meandering back road route, and, keen to show him the joys of taking the roads less travelled, we headed off together down a gravel track beside a canal. Before we’d made it 15 kilometres we had to stop. “Broke a spoke already!” chirped Ciaran.
We stopped in a little village park so that he could replace it. Two kids were kicking a football around, three old women sitting on a wall nearby chatting, as they no doubt always did. After taking everything off his bike, turning it upside down, removing the wheel, attaching a spare chain as a chain whip, and removing the cassette, Ciaran realised that the spare spokes he had were too short. But Dea and I played a super game of football-golf, so the break wasn’t a complete waste of time.
The route ahead of us felt too
daunting. Too many mountains between us and Oaxaca, then more to get
to Guatemala, then even more in Guatemala. Mexico felt impossibly
big, and it was all so very hard that we looked for a way out. We
even looked to try and find a way by boat down the Mexican coast, a
ridiculous and ultimately futile fantasy. For a while it felt
impossible, but I knew that the southeast part of Mexico was flat,
and, if we let go of the idea of visiting Oaxaca, it was possible to
get there by cutting directly east across the country. That would
take us across the central plateau, high up and a long way from being
flat, but not as daunting as the mountain range we were currently
following up and down. I began to try and plot a new route on
mapmyride.com and I was able to find small roads the whole way
through this new route. To make things easier I broke the journey
east to the flat land into three sections, each of about 350
kilometres, with a town where we could stop and take a rest between
each of them. There was still some 5,000 metres of climbing in each
section, but breaking it down into these three week-long rides made
it seem so much more manageable. By the time I was done plotting out
the route we were both feeling much more positive and optimistic
about cycling in Mexico again.
We went out in Tapalpa to celebrate our
new plan the way we always like to celebrate our new plans – with
pizza. And it certainly felt as if our fortunes had taken a positive
turn when we enjoyed a surprisingly good and surprisingly cheap meal
overlooking the central square. As afternoon turned to evening it
felt as if something was happening in town, the atmosphere was
building, there were lots of people gathering, and we could see a
couple of guys building a tower-like construction out of what looked
like giant matchsticks. We decided to stick around and see what would
happen. For a long time nothing much did happen, but still it seemed
like something was going to happen, for there was a band and a group
of people in Indian dress milling with the crowds, and through the
doors of the big church we could see a service taking place, the pews
filled with people.
At nine o’clock our patience was
rewarded when the church service ended, and as the people poured out
into the square the party could begin. Three different musical events
began simultaneously, with something like line dancing taking place
closest to the church, while in the middle those in Indian dress
started dancing to a beating drum, and further down at a pagoda a
band began to play. All this different music mingled and competed for
people’s attention, a sign of the Mexican love of loud things,
exemplified further by the loud bangs of more fireworks going off
right above the church itself. Dea and I, after admiring each of the
three acts, elected to sit and listen to the band down at the pagoda.
We took a seat on some steps and spent the rest of the evening people
watching, a very fine activity in Mexico, and especially so at a
Mexican festival. There were families and little kids, old folks and
everything in between. A young girl of five or six was running around
and around the pagoda, being chased by a little boy who ran after her
continuously, but always stopped short, uncertain of what to do,
whenever he got close enough to actually catch her. One day they
might grow up to be like the young couple sitting nervously talking,
as if on a first date, or perhaps the established couples dancing to
the music, not worrying about the crowds of watching eyes. Older
children ran around setting off firecrackers, while a group of young
cowboys stood off to the side, too cool in their matching wide
brimmed hats to do anything but stand and talk, their backs to the
music, unlike the middle-aged men and women who sat and listened,
smiling with contentment.
The music stopped, and the grand finale
of the evening began. The tower-like structure we’d seen being
built earlier was now being lit, it was being set on fire. On its
sides resided fireworks on wheels, that cracked and popped and
whizzed around, sending sparks flying down below. The kids that had
been setting off the firecrackers now ran freely through the shower
of sparks in yet another act of defiance against health and safety.
It was a hell of a show, and the culmination of it all came with the
top of the tower being lit, one final spinning firework wheel flying
off up into the night sky, the kids running after it madly,
presumably to try and be the lucky one to get hit on the head. This,
a woman next to us revealed, was a festival to celebrate the Virgin
Mary, yet it seemed much more than that. It seemed like a festival of
Mexico, a festival of people, a celebration of life.
The next morning we began the first
section of our eastward ride across Mexico with some climbing on a
nice quiet gravel road which was followed by a long, freewheeling
descent. Late afternoon saw us arrive in the town of Atoyac, and a
sign for a 250 peso hotel was too tempting to ignore. There was no
festival taking place this evening, but it was still a memorable one,
for we sat in the town square and ate delicious fresh fruit salads
from a food stand, and watched a group of kids playing football. As
with so many places in Mexico the town square was bustling with life,
and we were mostly completely ignored, free to sit and eat, and
engage in that always fun pastime of people watching.
The next day was, according to the
elevation profiles, the toughest day of this section, as we climbed
once again into mountainous terrain. On the way out of Atoyac we met
an English-speaking man named Oscar who told us he loved to mountain
bike. He lived in the United States, but he loved coming back here
and riding in the mountains we were heading for. It was a reminder to
appreciate where we were, how lucky we were to be free to ride in
this beautiful country. And despite all the climbing it turned out to
be a great day, spent on quiet roads that left behind civilization
and passed through sections of real wild forest. We were even able to
properly wild camp, something that isn’t always easy to do in
Mexico. It certainly wasn’t the following evening. We’d returned
to civilization and farmland, and fences that lined the road made
wild camping impossible. There didn’t even seem to be anyone around
to ask and we kept on cycling on and on, until eventually, with
darkness about to envelop us, we spotted a man up at a farm who we
were able to call out to.
The man, a young man, came down to find
out what it was that we wanted. We asked if we could camp on the nice
flat grass just inside the fence. He seemed puzzled as to why we
should want to do such a thing, but he called and asked his father,
and then told us that we could do so if we really wished. He let us
in, and we soon understood why he thought it a strange place to
sleep, for there was rather a lot of cow pats around. Still, beggars
can’t be choosers, and this was going to have to do us for the
night. We put up the tent, and got inside. After a while the young
man left, telling us that his father would be back soon. Not long
after he’d gone, three dogs came down from the house and began
barking rather viciously at us. We hunkered down for the night, and
hoped they wouldn’t see fit to attack.
We awoke in the smelly field and packed
up. The father was back, we could see him walking around up on the
farm, in amongst dozens of big black and white cows. He had on a
white apron and a surgical mask that, from a distance at least, made
him look like a character from a horror movie. I feared he was going
to butcher us and fancied a quick getaway, but when he called out to
ask us if we wanted coffee my British politeness had me saying yes
all the same. We followed him up through what appeared at first
glance to be a muddy field but turned out to be a concrete yard
covered in cow sh!t, and into a yard full of chickens and cats and
the three dogs who were thankfully now placid, friendly, and no doubt
nursing sore throats. Herman was the name of the farmer, and he
showed us to a rickety table and indicated that we should put in as
much coffee and sugar as we wanted into two waiting mugs. The fact
that he had actually asked us if we wanted leche con cafe, milk with
coffee, rather than the other way around now had us wondering
suspiciously. “Do you think? No, surely not.”
Herman picked up the two mugs and
marched off with them back out of the yard and across the sh!tty
concrete and into the milking barn. In here the cows were being led
and systematically milked by a series of milking machines, under the
guidance of several young workers. Our suspicions were soon
confirmed, as Herman jumped down into the pit behind the cows and
thrust each mug in turn beneath a waiting udder. With his free hand
he proceeded to coax out our breakfast. Moments later he returned to
us with two fresh beverages, two mugs of warm and extremely frothy
It was a wonderful experience, a
unique, once-in-a-lifetime sort of morning, made all the more special
by the look on Herman’s face, which was one that said that he
couldn’t understand how this was anything other than absolutely
perfectly normal. Dea and I sat on a bench in the yard and watched
the animals, and here we drank our incredibly fresh milk, which
really didn’t taste at all bad, so long as you didn’t think too
much about where it had come from. Then Herman’s wife insisted on
cooking us some eggs, fresh from the chickens that were pecking about
in the yard, and by the time we got back on our bikes and left we had
a much better appreciation of where it is that our food comes from.
Our morning with Herman was not
destined to be our only fun interaction with people on this day. By
midday we were riding on a dirt road through flat farmland when we
passed through a little hamlet. There were a few people, and a few
small dogs about, but we passed through quickly. Just on the other
side of it, however, we were stopped by an old man, who wondered
where it was we were going on our bikes, and what we were doing in
such a remote place. Jose could only speak Spanish, but we understood
his invitation to come to his house in the hamlet to visit and to eat
something, and we decided to say yes. We walked the short distance
with Jose back to his home, which turned out to be the one with all
the small dogs. There we were suddenly the centre of attention, with
lots of people saying hello. The most memorable of these was Nicole,
the teenage granddaughter of Jose. Her parents had moved to Texas and
they were all now back home visiting for the holiday season, and as
such Nicole spoke in clear English, with a strong American accent,
most notable in the way she asked things like, “So, where’re
Inside we were offered lunch, our
second helping of locally-manufactured eggs of the day, and we talked
more with Nicole. It was interesting to hear her draw comparisons
between her life in Texas and what it was like for her to come and
live with her family in this little settlement in the Mexican
countryside. It was particularly interesting to hear her say that she
preferred it here. “I like to come here to de-stress,” she said.
“There’s no WiFi, no internet. Just… horses… and things.”
We understood exactly what she meant,
that living life entirely in the real world, away from screens, is
often a much simpler, and more enjoyable, existence. No Facebook,
Twitter, or Instagram. Just horses, and things. Real things. And it
was those horses that we were invited to come and see, and perhaps
even ride, after lunch. The horses were back at a barn where we’d
first met Jose, and now we were led back there by Nicole, her younger
brother Angel, a couple of other kids, and a small army of dogs. We
got to the barbed wire gate,..
We took the back road out of Ahuacatlan
and it felt good. Not just good to be cycling again after ten days of
rest and relaxation, but especially good to be cycling on the back
road. The busy, dangerous main roads we’d been forced to take
before Ahuacatlan had us both feeling like packing up and going home,
but being on the back road brought back the joy of cycle touring. By
the end of the first day of sharing the potholed roads with cowboys
on horseback I was exclaiming to Dea that I had fallen in love with
cycling in Mexico again. The following morning we sat and ate
breakfast on a patch of grass at the side of the road in a little
village and watched a man milking his cows across the street, a
rooster strutting proudly past us, pink flowers overflowing from a
wall as a cat peered out from behind a cactus, and the feeling was
The only disadvantage of the back roads
was the increased amount of our time spent sweating up steep hills,
and, for me at least, the speed of our descents on the other side.
One of my front brake arms had seized and I was unable to release it
from its holdings, as I had managed to circle out the centre of its
screw so that an Allen key could no longer release it. It was
something that a more sensible man would have fixed during the ten
days of rest in Ahuacatlan, but there was just so much damn relaxing
to do there. I cursed my lack of sensibleness with every screaming
descent that I struggled to control with just my back brakes, and
prayed for a miracle in the next town of Etzatlan. That miracle
arrived as we stood in the hot sun close to the busy central square
looking for a hotel, and came in the form of a teenage boy asking me
in English if I needed any help. Ramone introduced me to his father,
Ruben, a friendly, English-speaking man, who originally came from
Etzatlan before moving to the United States where he now earns a
living as an electrician and handy-man. After receiving some good
advice about where we might find a hotel, I asked if Ruben knew where
I might find a workshop to help me release the stuck screw, and his
response was to say “I’ve got some tools in my truck, I’ll get
it out!” And sure enough, Ruben did manage to get it out, filing
down the sides of the screw in order to grip it with his wrench. I
then asked if he could help with the front derailleur screw, which
had suffered a similar circling-out fate (due, it seems, to my worn
Allen keys, which, interestingly enough, as a survivor of my very
first bike tour in New Zealand in 2009, are my oldest possession). It
was not possible to file down this screw due to the complex angles,
but Ruben wasn’t deterred, and even after nearly taking his hand
off with a power tool, he eventually released this screw too with a
pare of pliers. My bike was suddenly fixed, a little miracle provided
by a kind stranger.
Perhaps not a job for power tools.
If all of this wasn’t already amazing
enough, imagine our joy to find ourselves following a bike path for
most of the next two days. Somehow an old railway line had been
converted into a paved path for something like 100 kilometres, a path
every bit as lovely as any cycle path in Holland or Denmark, and we
really could have believed we were in one of those countries, if it
wasn’t for the volcanoes on the horizon. The flat path helped us
quickly get out to see some pyramids, which I was strangely allergic
to, and then south to the not-very-nice big town of Ameca, the
launchpad for our next foray into the mountains. It was a surreal
couple of days, absolutely fantastic to see that Mexico has invested
in creating long-distance cycle paths in at least one place, and only
slightly disappointing that the only people other than us using it
were all on motorbikes.
It was probably all the cut grass that triggered my allergies actually.
It could almost be Holland. Almost.
A 700 metre climb brought us to the
small town of Quila, where we sat and ate lunch in the peaceful town
square. As we went to continue we crossed a street and saw a quite
extraordinary sight. A beautiful horse that had passed us in the
square a little earlier, and a mariachi band that had waved at us
from their van as they passed us even earlier in the day, had now
combined to the most extraordinary effect. We stood and watched
spellbound as they advanced down the street towards us, the band
playing typically upbeat Mexican music, and the poor horse dancing to
it with a graceful sense of timing and rhythm that I myself could
never hope to achieve. It was a wedding parade of some sort, the
bride sitting behind this bizarre scene in a car, presumably on her
way to the church. I fumbled for my camera and managed to shoot a
video of the action, but unfortunately the zoom was on and I was
preferring to watch things live rather than paying attention to where
I was pointing the lens, so there is rather more time paid to a man’s
crotch than I would have liked, but in any case, here is the video,
for your viewing pleasure:
Mexican horse dancing - YouTube
After such a long climb we were naturally looking forward to the descent, but on this occasion we were robbed of our reward. The road went downhill through natural forest and had almost no traffic on it, and as such it should have made for perfect cycling, but unfortunately the entire road had been paved with cobblestones. There was not even a narrow strip of un-cobblestoned road at the sides, and we were forced to suffer a long, bone-jarring afternoon, with progress just as slow going down as it had been going up. This slightly dampened our enthusiasm for the back roads, but an enforced seven kilometres on a main road after the descent was timely. “It’s good to get a reminder why we are taking the small roads,” Dea said, as we breathed a sigh of relief to leave the madness of the speeding vehicles on the shoulder-less road, and turned off onto a gravel road and another long climb into the mountains.
A well-earned juice break, freshly squeezed by this wonderful woman.
Vindication for taking the
road-less-travelled came with the spectacular sight of a man sweeping
his donkey, literally taking a broom to the animal’s flanks. Such
wonderful things you cannot hope to see on the highway. And after
another long day of climbing, we rolled into the town of
Chiquilistlan hoping to find a hotel for the night, when we were
stopped by an English-speaking man. He asked me where we were going
and when I asked him about a hotel in town his response was simply to
say, “ Why don’t you just sleep at my house?”
He was a short man with a kind face,
shiny eyes, and a wide smile that sat beneath a typically-Mexican
moustache. He introduced himself as Nacho. “And this is
Mini-Nacho,” he added, nodding at the small boy attached to his
hand, his son. It was obvious from the first moment that Nacho was a
good guy, someone we could trust, and it was easy to accept his
offer. He walked us back to his simple home, adorned with wonderful
paintings on all of the walls. Nacho himself was the artist. He
smiled with pride as we admired his work. It was clearly a passion of
his, one of many. He told us that he worked making chorizo, sausages,
and sold them door-to-door, but that he only needed to work a couple
of days a week to get by. The rest of his time was for living, and it
was obvious enough that he did that, he was one of Kerouac’s wild
ones, with a passion for life, a fire in him, that was impossible not
Nacho made us potato and eggs for
dinner and we sat and ate together, the four of us. Nacho was raising
Mini-Nacho alone, a single father of almost fifty. Yet Nacho himself
reminded me of a child in many ways, and it felt like the two of them
were more like mates. “You’re so ugly,” he teased his boy. “He
looks like, how you say, like a frog, but not a frog.” “A
toad?” “Yes, a toad. You’re a sappo, a toad,” he told his
three-year-old, who just giggled back. It wouldn’t be long before
he would join in with his father’s banter, and no doubt give as
good as he gets.
“LOOK CHRIS! LOOK!” I flew up from our sleeping arrangements on the deck of the ferry and pointed out at the beautiful morning ocean. I had seen a spray of a whale far away on the horizon, and I was so excited. IT WAS A WHALE! Chris was also pretty excited, but it was mainly me who the rest of the morning had my eyes fixed on the shimmering ocean. And to my great delight I saw several more whales, more sprays far away, one time a tale coming up as the big animal made its vertical dive deep into the sea and another time the grey back of one so close to the ferry that it must have almost hit it. It was amazing, but I seemed to be the only one being really excited about it. Everyone else was looking the other way forward onto what was appearing in the horizon to the east. The green, curvy outline of the Mexican mainland and the white city of Mazatlán that the ferry was heading straight and fast towards. And luckily that was something that also made me quite excited. The REAL Mexico, I thought, was waiting over there, a lush and green mountainous landscape, the scene for deep layers of colorful and vibrant history and culture. Baja California with its unique nature and the wonders of the ocean had obviously been something else of its own and now I farewell’ed the whales and joined the crowd looking forward.
A dense, humid heat was the first welcome of the Mexican mainland as we rolled of the ferry. Hungry, as a little dispute with a ferry official the evening before had seen us unable to bring any essential supplies with us on the deck, we now headed for the centre of the big, old town. Here we found quiet and almost empty, colorful streets of old, thoroughly restored buildings, and it was surely very neat, but definitely not the real Mexico I had expected. And the explanation appeared as one white American or Canadian after the other approached us, all excited and friendly as they can be. Some of them were cruise passengers visiting this historic city centre, others expats who lived here and ran little cafes, art galleries and hotels to cater this high end tourism. Some of them very kindly offered us a place to stay and to hang around for a festival that evening, but we honestly longed for something more authentic and also, we had a fair bit of cycling to do to get to our Christmas refuge in a little town, Ahuacatlán, almost 400 kilometres away.
Here we are ready to go!
So after having eaten, and fixed both a puncture of mine and a broken spoke on Nathan’s bike and bought some more spokes for Ciaran too, we navigated through the hustle and bustle of the now very authentic and chaotic outskirts of Mazatlán, before we finally rode along on a big mainroad with a wide shoulder. We were on the mainland and on our way! We had got quite delayed in Mazatlán already though, and because we didn’t fancy wild camping here we stopped after only 30 kilometres in a small town with a nice church, a little plaza where Chris got his Country Sign photo taken with help from a few friendly Mexicans, and a hotel where we could sleep safe and sound.
Country number 64 (however our photographer never managed to get all 64 fingers in the picture)
We now had four days to reach Ahuacatlán before Christmas, so some big days on the bikes were required and there were only few road options. We could either cycle on the toll road, the 15D, which had a lot of traffic, but a wide shoulder and officially was illegal for cyclists, or the free road, the 15, which also had a lot of traffic on it, but no shoulder at all. On the first day, we opted for the 15D and by help from a magical path that Ciaran spotted in the bushes above the toll road we entered it quickly and out of sight of any toll officials. However, the use of the shoulder was not as safe as usual, because here in Mexico it was used as a lane for slower vehicles to move out onto to let faster ones pass. But of course, we were the slowest of all the vehicles and I generally found that they all passed us at a safe distance.
Halfway through the day we encountered a toll both and did the only thing we could, which was to just cycle up past the toll bar while smiling to the officials and see what would happen. And all we received was smiles, we could continue our ride on the 15D. Not much happened cycling on the toll road, but throughout the day I was amazed by how green and lush the surroundings were. There seemed to be something growing everywhere and on top of other things growing on top of other things growing. An abundant variation of all kind of trees, bushes and plants, flowers and leafs. It felt so full of life and so different from the desert we had been in more or less since Utah.
Wild camping was also something different here. First of all, all land seemed to be in use and owned by someone and very thoroughly fenced off. Second of all, there were all the warnings about crime, violence and the general unsafety about being out on and along the road after dark. We were told and had read about it before we went to Mexico, and we were told about it in Mexico from the Mexicans themselves, and even though the threat somehow seemed invisible to us, it certainly made me weary about wild camping.
Entering the little village where we would spend the night
Everyday life in the village
night we were allowed to camp in the yard by a restaurant where we had our
dinner. And except from the noise of the experience with barking dogs,
cock-a-doodle-do’ing roosters and the pumping music from a nearby night club,
it was a most interesting experience to share the facilities of this simple
home with a local family. Water could be collected in a bucket from a deep
well, washing was done in public by a big container of water in the yard, and
from here you could also bring water to flush the toilet. Think about how
different you must act when there is no running water! And think about how
precious that deep well with clean fresh water was to these people! Think about
water, just water. It is so essential to our lives.
This was where we spent the night
The next day we decided to try and cycle on the smaller road, the 15, as it seemed to have a lot less traffic. And it started out being very enjoyable to not be passed constantly by roaring traffic and it gave me more time to appreciate the green and mountainous country side. But as soon as we neared the next town the amount of traffic grew and there was not much space for us to get off the road, so we just had to rely on the drivers’ patience and skill when it got tight. I did not enjoy it so much.
At first it was great
Last glimpse of the Pacific Ocean for a while
It was Jon’s birthday, and to celebrate it we stopped at a gas station in this next town and Tom and Nathan managed to provide a huge, fluffy birthday cake with candle lights and everything. After the out of tune ‘Happy Birthday’ singing we all enjoyed the cake, except from Jon who was lactose intolerant. Instead he got some fruity ice cream, a pineapple and a big hug (and some chocolate that he also couldn’t eat) from the woman working at the gas station. And then it was on with the day.
I think the hug from this lady was the best present Jon got
next 50 kilometres we decided to split up, as Tom, Nathan and Ciaran preferred
the smaller road, whereas Chris, Jon and I wanted to swap back to the toll
road. And although the heavy traffic roared past us non-stop I still
appreciated the more space on the shoulder a lot as the road went up and down
the green, rolling hills like a rollercoaster. In the spirit of racing the
faster three we got to the meeting point where the two roads crossed just
before sunset and just 10 mintues after them (they had stopped for a big tacos
lunch though), and to our surprise the other group reported that the small road
had been very fine. So we decided to find our next town for camping further
along this road rather than the toll road, and after a few kilometers of tight
riding in the evening traffic, we made it to the little town Chilapa. Here we
were greeted warmly by a family in the first house of the town, which was also
a restaurant, and as the young daughter Arlene spoke English, it was easy and
straight forward to ask, if they knew a place in town where we could camp
safely. Soon we were pitching out tents..
I think it was faith that in the end made us stay four days in Mulegé (and not just us being lazy). Because it was on the fourth day that we met no less than five other cyclists. First we spotted a couple walking in the street with unmistakably sharp tan lines on their thighs. We went to talk with them and after a few awkward seconds where the cyclists thought that two strangers had just followed them down the street to say ‘hello’ until they learned that we were indeed not strangers but fellow cyclists, after a few of these awkward seconds, we learned that they were Vincent and Sonia, a French couple on a cycle tour from Vancouver to the end of Baja and as they were planning to continue cycling the next day, we thought it likely we would meet again (because now with other cyclists on the road we felt motivated to do the same ourselves).
Then a little later outside our favorite orange supermarket were three touring bikes and when the owners appeared with their shopping we moved in for another conversation beyond a few more awkward seconds of explaining that we were cyclists too. The three guys, Tom from Philadelphia, Nathan from Switzerland and Ciaran from Ireland, were on their separate cycle tours from North America and south and had met each other along the way. They now formed a solid triple, but they were about to split up temporarily with Ciaran going on a bus to La Paz as the spokes on his rear wheel kept breaking and they didn’t have a way to get the cassette off so they could change them. It seemed then to be everyone’s luck that Chris was carrying a cassette remover tool and knew how to use it. After a successful operation Ciaran once again had a wheel without broken spokes so he could keep cycling and we had three new friends. We went to dinner with them and by coincidence Vincent and Sonia also joined our table for a mighty cyclists feast on tacos.
There was no more “Should we stay another day?” the next morning. We got our things packed and returned to the road where we had arranged to meet with Tom, Nathan and Ciaran at a beach for lunch some 25 kilometres away. The French couple were not so interested in cycling together and we didn’t know when and where they had gone.
It was a great feeling to be back on the bikes again, my legs felt so good and it was good to be moving again along the coastline of the Sea of Cortez that grew more and more beautiful. As we descended down a little hill the most magnificent bay of blue water dotted with little rocky islands and a long strip of white sandy beach appeared and I was happy to find that this was our meeting point with the guys. Unfortunately, I had a rather close call with a truck as I was stopped by the side of the road to cross it to get down to the beach. The truck came up behind me, not slowing down a beat and seemingly moving out towards me even though there was enough space in the road itself. I just stood there and saw it coming towards me, but had no time to react and a crash barrier blocked my way away anyway, and before I could think it thundered past me within a metre or so. I was shocked and for a few minutes the beach and the beauty and the nice people who curiously approached us and finding out we had made it to the beach before our friends who we thought were so fast – it all didn’t mean anything. I was just shaking and angry and sad, I didn’t know if it was all my own fault stopping by the road like that, I didn’t know if the driver just hadn’t seen me or if he actually had been hostile towards me. All I knew was that death had been too close to bear.
However, the shock faded and I could enjoy the little paradise. The water was clear and still and a perfect blue and when our friends arrived a little later we went swimming and playing catch. I retreated from the water before the guys and just enjoyed watching them play, knowing how much Chris enjoyed to have someone to hang out with. There was even a dog (owned by one of the many white North Americans who lived part time in their RV’s around Baja’s many paradises) who wanted to play too. It wanted the ball so badly and without any human intelligence to try and trick it from the guys it just kept following the ball as they threw it to each other in an innocent, instinctive desire to play. It was just lovely.
“Are we really leaving?” I couldn’t help thinking out loud as we got ready to continue after having had lunch in the restaurant. Somehow I found it silly we had stayed four days in Mulegé without finding this pearl of a place and then leave it so soon. I knew places like this don’t come around very often when you’re cycle touring because it was the first time in my career. So I only accepted to get back on the road because our plan was to cycle only eight kilometers before camping on another beach that an American man had recommended. It was a short ride, but incredibly scenic with the road hugging the rocky coastline curving up and down like a rollercoaster from one little beach to the next. And our beach for the night was yet another lovely one. We found a palapa, which is a little shelter of palm leaves, to camp by and Chris quickly got us all engaged in another epic game of Eureka Ball with a new rule allowing five players to play on a thee-man pitch with players swapping if the ball got through someone legs. It was the longest game in the history of Eureka Ball and it was great fun. Again for more details on the action and result you must consult Chris’ blog. We cooked dinner in the palapa all together. The dynamic of the group was great with a lot of laughing and talking and I think a communal feeling began to grow of not wanting to leave each other too soon.
It was magical to sleep in the tent on the beach while the tide moved in to just a few centimeters from our feet and to wake up early and see the light change over the sky and the water. After another morning swim it was time to go, Chris and I gave ourselves a head start to compromise for being slow. The road continued to follow the coast for another 30 kilometres along the beautiful Baja Conception, a deep bay with a rugged mountain coast on the far side, before turning more inland. There were a few climbs and we were not surprisingly overtaken by the three but also not surprisingly did we catch them up in a restaurant where they were stopped for lunch as eating tacos and other meaty Mexican treats was a theme of theirs.
However, Chris and I ended up spending a night by ourselves camping in the desert whereas ‘the boys’, as we had begun to call them, had preferred to cycle all the long way to Loreto driven by the prospect of visiting a brewery and stay in a hotel. It worked out perfectly as Chris and I enjoyed another peaceful night camping in the desert and early the next morning rode the remaining 25 kilometres into the town and found the hungover cyclists having their breakfast in a café. The brewery had been closed, but tequila can always be found in Mexico.
Loreto is one of the many Magical Towns of Mexico, a title given to old and especially pretty towns that then sees a growing number in visitors, which in my opinion is quite likely to change the real Mexican atmosphere into something more like a stage for tourism. At least that’s how it felt in Loreto, so reunited we soon left again to continue our progress south along Route 1. Back in Mulegé Chris and I had arranged to go on a tour swimming with whale sharks in La Paz, the town at the end of our Baja ride, and we had also planned to spend Christmas in a small town over at the mainland. Due to the great feeling in our group we had suggested the boys to join our plans and it seemed like they were in, and I booked them all for the whale shark tour, and we we now riding with motivation and a deadline towards a common goal.
But we didn’t make much progress that day after leaving Loreto around midday, stopping for lunch on another beach, fixing more of Ciaran’s broken spokes and a puncture of mine. By the end of the day we approached the beginning of a long climb but it was too late for most of us to feel confident to make it up, only Tom seemed eager to go on, but agreed to camp with the rest of us. We found a perfect place, a big but hidden clearing in the thorny bushes surrounded by rugged mountains. Another evening went by with talking and laughing under the stars. It was nice how we all wanted to stick together and therefore adjusted our rhythms and routines to that of the group, and to me and Chris having such company was priceless.
Therefore we pushed ourselves the next day to first deal with the 500 metre climb and then ride a long, long way in a rather vicious sidewind before turning south at around 4.30pm to ride another 25 kilometres, now with the wind at our backs, to the town with a hotel that the boys had set their eyes on. For me it was a rather tough compromise, but riding together had new advantages. At one point when the wind was coming from the side we were all riding together on a long, gradual descent, and to help me keep my speed up Chris rode next to me blocking the wind. I just sat there and effortlessly soared alongside him. Ciaran then came and rode on my other side sheltered by me, playing music from his loudspeakers on his handlebars. Thus the three of us flew along through the barren desert at high speed to the tunes of good, old Coldplay. The music and the team spirit (most of the work being done by Chris though) put a big smile on my face. After 110 long and windy kilometres we all settled in at a nice hotel as the sun set before eating a lot of pizza for dinner.
Looking back at the switchbacks of the morning climb
We were all tired from the previous long day, so no one was rushing to leave the hotel. This was also because there was a magnificently blue pool and Chris now engaged everyone in battles of Pool Football in the inflatable tubes that certainly had earned their worth by now.
BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO, 26th November – 8th December 2018
“It is a sh!thole” Eric said (I’m taking you back again to the little shack of a restaurant by the route 1 where we met Eric on a Baja roadtrip with his son Jackson).
“A sh!ithole?” I repeated a little surprised about the use of such language from the otherwise very positive and well-behaved American.
“You didn’t hear me say that” Eric said to Jackson, and then repeated to me: “It is a real sh!ithole.”
Eric was talking about the next bigger town, Guerrero Negro, that Chris and I were aiming for as a place to stay a couple of nights in a hotel some hundred kilometers down the road. We had not had a shower for many days, so instead Eric suggested we’d take our time to stop in San Ignacio, the oasis town another 150 kilometres past the so-called sh!thole. We carried these words with us, building our desert fantasies about what was waiting ahead. However, later I encountered my map and could see that there supposedly were several pizzarias in Guerrero Negro, and after having eaten nothing but various versions of tortillas (corn or flour pancakes) with beans, cheese and avocado for days, we decided that it couldn’t be so bad that we were not going to go at least for a pizza there.
Still more cool desert landscape along the Route 1
And endless options for desert camping amongst the cactus
These fantasies pulled us forward while our eyes constantly searched the road behind us for the silhouette of a cyclist. And the next morning when we sat by the road for a little snack break, we finally saw the first one. A dark little figure appearing in the distance that soon took the shape of a touring cyclist. We ran excitedly down to the road to meet Nick, a British man well beyond his youth who had begun his ride in Alaska and was hoping to make it all the way to Ushuaia, but pointing at his greying hair considering that maybe he was getting too old for it. I was sure he could do it. He was a real Brit using all kinds of funny words that don’t really exist in real English like the rest of the world speak and he was speaking rather casually about his toilet preferences in his sophisticated British accent. I loved it. Nick cycled faster than us (of course), spurred on by the promise of a hotel in Guerrero Negro (although Chris told him it was a real sh!thole), but we were lucky to catch him up in a colourful little restaurant 35 kilometres further along the road. Here we continued swapping stories and experiences from the road while eating cheap, but delicious bean sandwiches, just like we had dreamed about doing. Then Nick’s wife called and we heard him tell her about us and also that he now didn’t know how long he would stay in Guerrero Negro as it apparantly was a real sh!thole. I started to feel a solid and possibly unfair rumour was spreading beyond control about Guerrero Negro. Also I was really stunned by how many times English-speaking gentlemen had used the word ‘sh!thole’ in the last 24 hours.
We didn’t see Nick again. He pressed on to a hotel by the main road outside Guerrero Negro and quickly cycled on the next day, possibly bypassing the sh!thole altogether. We on the other hand didn’t get much further than the little cafe town that day. There was such a nice little colourful park by a yellow church where it was good to just sit for a bit and observe Mexican village life. It was peaceful, not much was going on. Until the bell rang in the school across the street and a joyous cheer rose over the roof. The children ran out into the freedom of the rest of the day and to their parents who had gathered outside waiting to bring them home. Witnessing these little moments of everyday life that seems so alike, so universal all over the world despite all cultural and political circumstances gave me that good feeling that the world overall is a good place.
We had a little chat in our limited Spanish with this boy as he came from school
We arrived in Guerrero Negro by midday the next day. I could see nothing sh!thole’ish about it. It looked like a very ordinary Mexican town, meant in the best of ways, full of colourful houses, colourful shops and restaurants, taco street stalls with people having their lunch and a good selection of hotels too. We had planned to spend that night in a hotel and so we could have the rest of the day off and we soon checked into a very cheap one in the middle of the town. We walked around the town a good bit to find the pizza places and do some shopping and I really thought it was a shame that Eric and we had spread such a badmouthed rumour about Guerrero Negro so that Nick had bypassed it, as it was exactly such an ordinary place that were on the top of my wish list of travelling experiences. I was not after the highlights and tourist attractions, but the real world and here it was.
The top of my wish list: Guerrero Negro – not a sh!thole
So after one night in the hotel, we were not ready to leave. Instead we found a colourful little restaurant and had another cheap, but delicious bean sandwich while a Mexican soap opera was playing on the tv and we could watch the street outside from our red plastic chairs. This was just great. Suddenly, the normality of the Mexican town picture was disturbed by three white people on bikes cycling down the street. With our mouths full of sandwiches we were too slow to stop them, but I was sure they were cycle tourers although they didn’t have bags on their bikes. What else could they be? There was a restaurant out by the main road that hosted cyclists and my theory was that they were staying out there. Fortunately a fourth cyclist appeared a little later and Chris ran out to talk with him. The French man Harvey confirmed my theory, they were four cyclists camping by the restaurant and taking a day off like us. Instead of spending another night in a hotel we therefore decided to join the group, as this was exactly what we had hoped for. Meeting other cyclists, swap stories with them, cycle with them, talk with someone else than each other, play games with them and perhaps find new companions for our southbound adventure.
So this we did. With the restaurant seeing many cyclists pass by they had generously opened up their back yard for cyclists to camp for free. Here we could have a shower, rest and hang out in the shade and in the evening we could conveniently eat in the restaurant, that didn’t seem to have many other customers. It was a very fine arrangement for everyone and the friendly, young man who welcomed us later cooked up special dinners for us all after the restaurant was closed. It was such a rare pleasure for us to be with other people we could easily talk with and understand – and such nice people they were too. Harvey only had few words in English, but Michel from Montreal also had French as his first language, and the Canadian girls Erica and Christina had learned French well in school. Therefore the conversations danced between English and French around the table as we learned about Michels plans to cycle a two-year Tour de America down to Ushuaia and back up to Canada again, about the Canadian girls’ jobs as cycling guides out of Canmore, the little town Chris and I also had spent the summer in, meaning that we actually had all been in the same place six months earlier. And about Harvey’s many cycle trips around in the world that he did in 3-4months stages in the winter season when he was off from his job as a mountain guide in the Alps. The evening was golden, social moments like these hold so much value to me during this trip.
My morning view from the tent
It came as no surprise that all the other cyclists were faster than us, but because Chris and I were the most experienced desert campers among us (the others mostly camped by people’s houses and in towns) and suggested we’d all camp together out between the cactuses and under the stars, they adjusted their rhythm and we all leap-frogged past each other throughout the day. A mighty tailwind also helped Chris and I to keep a decent speed and the 90 kilometres we rode along a rather monotonous stretch of the desert road didn’t take much effort. So when we all had pushed our bikes through the deep sand and zig-zagged between cactuses to our desert camp site, everyone had plenty of energy for the Eureka Ball tournament that Chris quickly arranged. I love Chris’s endless enthusiasm for playing games, but I must admit I don’t possess the same amount as him, although his often transmits to me and I find more than I thought I had. But what I love even more is to see how it also transmits to others, and how this evening six very adult strangers immediatey threw themselves into his self-invented game with cheers, dives in the sand and shouts of ‘Eureka’ as if everything depended on it. Those smiles and that energy that the game created between us was priceless. (And if you want to know the results and highlights of the tournament you must consult Chris’s other blog).
”We’ve been invited for a beer” Chris exclaimed happily when he caught me up. It was 9am in the morning and we had only just hit the road. He explained that the invitation was from a European couple who had a beach house 30 kilometres further down the road. A beer at a beach house is not an offer we come by every day at 9am in the morning. A little later the same car returned coming back from San Felipe and the friendly couple, Roy and Jeanette, stopped again and invited us to not only drink a beer but to stay with them overnight at that beach house. Who could say no to that? Luckily we didn’t have to worry about that it would mean we only had made it 50 kilometres south of San Felipe in two days, because we had no tight time deadline hanging over our heads these days – and boy did we appreciate it!
When we arrived at Roy and Jeanette’s beautiful beachfront property I appreciated it even more. This was surely a once in a lifetime experience. It consisted of several shining white buildings around a tiled yard with palm trees growing here and there. One of the buildings was an octagonal house with huge window facades on each side so that you would have a view of the sea from almost every angle. It was a unique place like something out of a dream. Roy and Jeanette gave us a tour around and explained that they had been developing the property over the last 25 years from a bare nothing to this paradise of comfort and tranquility. They now rented out the octagonal house and a couple of beach front condos while living in another condo themselves. It was a place far above the standard of rentals Chris and I would ever dream of, but now we were generously invited to stay “as long as we wanted” as Roy said.
We spent a good time on the beach once again bringing out our beloved inflatable tubes and as mere holiday makers sunbathed and played games on in the sand without a worry in the world. At 3pm we were sat at a lovely dinner table on the terrace with all the things we so rarely would have: a tablecloth, plates, food from different pots and bowls that together made a meal of delicious spaghetti bolognese and a fresh salad, beer or wine from real wine glasses and long, interesting conversations about our lives and the state of the world. “You never know what surprises life will bring you” Roy said again and again referring to the many different stories from his own life and career as a pilot, and I could easily associate that philosophy to our own situation. When we woke up in the tent in the desert that morning we had no idea we would be sitting at a neat dinner table with good company. The surprises are essential to traveling and this one was certainly one of the most pleasurable ones you could imagine. My attention drifted away from the conversations and onto the beautiful view of the ocean and the full moon growing brighter and brighter as the light gradually changed into night.
“Should we stay another night?” Chris asked me the next morning, and of course we should do that. The day became somewhat a repetition of the previous with Chris and I hanging on the beach until another dinner was served. The only exception that day was when Roy showed us the solar power system that provided endless energy for the whole property. It was very impressive. There was one circle of solar panels, transformers and batteries for the house and one for the condos. But Roy was in the midst of adding a third system for the garage.
“Surely you don’t need that much energy for the garage?” Chris asked. “Well, I need a lot of energy to get my flight simulator running…”
I’d never heard of such a thing, but now Roy revealed to us the never-dying fascination about flying that pilots possess. In the garage was boxes with all the bits and pieces for his Boeing flight simulator, which is a replica of a real cockpit with all the instruments moving and blinking and a seat moving to simulate turbulence. Once he’d got the whole thing set up with electricity and internet connection Roy could chose to fly between any destinations in the world in real time (for hours and hours) seeing the real airports and fluffy clouds outside the windows (which was actually just two big screens) and communicating with real airport staff over the radio. It was insane! He showed us videos of him flying the simulator and I could sense the thrill it was to make the airplane take off and soar through the sky even though it was just a simulation. It seemed so real that I could only imagine it would feel absolutely absurd to then afterwards step right out onto the beach in Mexico after having flown an airplane with 300 passengers from L.A. to London. And it would be 100% solar powered – maybe a solution for the future (how about we all just pretend to fly around the world?)!
At low tide the beach outside Roy and Jeanette’s house got busy with the launcing of fishing boats like this. It gave us a glimpse into another kind of life by the sea than that lived by our hosts and ourselves
After two completely relaxed and comfortable days it was time to get back on the Mexican roads. After all we did have a booking of a cargo ship waiting somewhere out in the future some thousand kilometres away.
After San Felipe the wide shoulder had disappeared, but fortunately the amount of traffic on the road was light, and we didn’t have any troubles but enjoyed to be back riding through the desert with beautiful views of the Sea of Cortez to our right. After a bumpy stretch of gravel where a new section of road was under construction we arrived in Puertecitos, a sleepy little village on the rocks of the coast. It was surprisingly undeveloped despite the unique hot springsthat could be found here right where the ocean reached the rocks and attracted many foreign visitors. The whole coast area near the American border was under a process of development of infrastructure to facilitate mainly tourism I reckon and we had expected Puertecitos to be one of the pearls of this project, but that was far from the case. I was generally struck by the contrast between the wealth that had already arrived here with the expat beach houses and holiday makers that drove down the bumpy road of the Cortez coast with their huge caravans or towing trailers with ATVs and the poor conditions that the local people still lived under in old and simple concrete houses or the fishermen’s camps of wooden shacks and rusty caravans by the beaches. There was a feeling of glaring inequality and subtle tensions here and in Puertecitos where Western tourists strolled in the dusty and dead-still streets amongst the ramparts of concrete houses. This place had not yet transformed into the holiday haven it was supposed to be for the Thanksgiving celebraters who had already arrived, it was still a place of another world, of hard, simple life by the sea in a very remote, but beautiful place. The difference between rich and poor was stark and I felt very aware of which side I represented and was almost grateful to pay the entrance fee of 250 pesos that two women required outside their house that was conveniently located at the corner of the main street. We were not sure if the money went straight in their pockets or actually went to some sort of community building project, but I somehow thought it fair enough they made some money anyway, maybe so I could pay off my guilty conscience of the being white and privileged.
One of the fishermen’s camps outside of Puertecitos
Despite all this, the hot springs themselves were a great experience and we had been lucky to time our arrival perfectly. The hot water mixes with the cold ocean water gradually as it rises and falls with the tide and we got there just as the water was retreating so that we could move from one rock pool to the next as they gradually warmed up as the level of ocean water dropped. It was really nice sitting there between the colouful rocks in naturally warm water and watch the ocean where a perfect line of pelicans from time to time soared close over the surface.
We camped high up on the rocks overlooking the sea that evening. It was a spectacular place, such a place you don’t get to camp every night. It would have been even more spectacular if we had been able to see the full moon rise out of the sea, but unfortunately it was overcast. What instead made our night memorable was the sketchy activites that began on the shore right below our camp. We could hear a boat going at high speed across the sea but it had its lights off so we couldn’t see it. Roy and Jeanette had told us how the ‘drug runs’ take place exactly like that, so we immediately thought it better to turn off our head lamps and sit still in the dark as the boat landed right below our camp site. A car, also without its lights on, was parked down there, we could tell because from time to time either vehicle would turn their lights on for a few seconds as if for the people there to be able to orientate themselves. There were no sounds, no cheerful calls like from the fishermen on the beach at Roy and Jeanette’s place. ‘Nothing’ was happening, nothing that we wanted to know of anyway. Roy had made it clear that it was best to stay far, far away from those activities. Best to not know anything. But suddenly and completely unintentionally we were now very, very close to something perhaps happening and due to all the warnings about drugs, crime and guns in Mexico that we had received over the last six months in North America I got very nervous that we had brought ourselves into an unfortunate situation. If the people down there realized that we knew they were there, that we had seen what they were doing (even though we hadn’t seen anything in the dark), I feared it could escalate into a dramatic and dangerous situation. They were on the edge. Did they have weapons? The best thing we could do was to not be seen ourselves. We had already turned our lights off and now we retreated to the tent, covering the noise we made by the noise of a second boat arriving in the dark, and once inside we hid deep in our sleeping bags and… fell asleep.
I was surprised how well I had slept and the next morning there were no signs of that which we hadn’t seen. There was only the most beautiful sunrise over the ocean and a great day of cycling ahead of us. Relieved we got back on the road. It had been improved to a smooth one with a good shoulder and following the now rugged coast it made for some perfect cycling. It was a road to be proud of and an important piece of the big project of developing the infrastructure on the coast. So it was then really sad to see the severe damage that a recent hurricane had done to this road. Flash floods, that is huge and sudden amounts of rainwater coming down from the mountains, had simply washed the road and its foundation away in many places. We could easily bypass it on parallel gravel roads that had been developed, but it was surely a huge set back for the project that it would take a long time to recover.
I found Chris in a motel in Yuma. It was two days after his mad race project and he was in surprisingly good shape. I guess the big TV showing English football matches and the pizzas he had made in the microwave had something to do with it. I myself was quite tired after having done my own kind of race from Prescott to Yuma in four days instead of 24 hours. Knowing about the motel room in Yuma had had me get up at 5am that morning ready to hit the road by the first daylight to get to a bed, shower, Chris and a half day of resting and I finished the 90 kilometres ride by 1pm. Chris told me I’d done well and added that it wasn’t meant to be patronizing and I asked him what patronizing meant anyway. It was great to be together again and to share our different stories and I was once again immensely impressed with what that man is capable of due to what you could either call stubbornness or determination. I can’t chose, but I love it nevertheless.
The hotel had a pool. It looked nice and more than that, it finally gave us an opportunity to play Pool Football, a game that we had engaged in often throughout our time living in Australia (where a blue pool was a part of our apartment complex) and even though the water was actually rather dirty and really cold, we got our inflatable tubes inflated. Yes that’s right, since Montana we have carried with us two inflatable tubes in bright colors to be used next time we found a suitable lake or pool. Which we now finally did. I scored a goal early on and Chris tried all he could to equalize (in his defense he had a strong headwind against him) but after two halves it was still 1-0. But it was not the victory that had me laughing and smiling like a happy fool. It was merely the fun of playing games with Chris and the sweet memories of our time in Australia it brought. Carrying those tubes for three months was all worth it.
The next morning we woke up to the 90th and last day of our stay in the US. I was so excited to get to a new country. I usually always am, but this time even more. After six months in North America I was again hungry for some more adventurous adventures, hungry for cultures and countries more different from the my own and hungry for the cheap tacos I’d heard so much about. Just beyond that border it was all waiting for us. Mexico, Central and South America. A new chapter in our journey. More than a year of cycling south into the yet unknown of Hispanic culture, language, food, music, mad traffic and exotic nature. My travel heart was beating passionately for every next pedal stroke towards the border.
We were leaving the US on Veteran’s Day and got to see bits of the big parade as we cycled through Yuma on the way to the border. Quite a salute! Bye bye USA
And it was indeed something else that I had never seen before that appeared as if out of nowhere after the border guard smoothly let us through to Mexico (only requesting a fee of 30 dollars each for the service…). From the nothingness on the American side we suddenly stood in a bustling street full of dentists – and shops selling souvenirs, bracelets, colourful blankets and sombreros to the white Americans who daily crossed this border for a cheap teeth deal. Dentists touts shouted their deals to us, smiling men watched us and greeted “Welcome to Mexico” knowing that we hadn’t come here to have our teeth done, and rhythmic and warm music escaped the shops and car windows and danced around in the chaos. It was wonderfully crazy.
And then a few hundreds metres later it was all gone again and we suddenly cycled on sandy roads through a quiet village of simple, decaying concrete houses. A little shop out of a window selling drinks, old commercials painted on wall in bright colours, cars slowly bumping over the occasional patches of tarmac, dogs running around doing their own business and again the same soulful music from a car workshop in the street. It was such a change, such a contrast to the US, that it was hard to believe it was real.
That it was real quickly became all too obvious however when we left the little town on a main road. It was an old road only just wide enough for two cars to pass each other and with a good number of cars driving at speeds that certainly didn’t feel safe on such a road. Not knowing the mentality of drivers here (were they patient or inconsiderate, would they wait, give space or squeeze through where there was no space?), I constantly bumped off the road onto the sandy slopes to just get out of their way. Suddenly the memory, the feeling of the terrors of the traffic in China, the claustrophobia and distress, was back in my mind and the idea of all that was ahead of me, Mexico, Central and South America seemed daunting.
Luckily Chris had found us an alternative route on gravel roads, and despite being a bit sandy here and there it was a great way to enter Mexico. So much better than the narrow road. Once again it was hard to understand that we had only just left the motel in Yuma that morning when we passed through dusty villages with homes of wooden huts without running water. People lived here under such poor conditions. And their dogs protected their homes from anything moving past, chasing us menacingly and wildly barking through village after village. This had not happened since Central Asia and I had lost my indifference to them, their teeth and growls filled me with terror like they were supposed to. Chris showed his care for me by fearlessly facing them while I got away and received my admiring thanks for him being a real man. No, really I am so lucky to always have him trying to keep me out of the most discomfort and danger.
It was getting late in the day, or actually it was only 3pm, but because of the new timezone it would get dark already at 4.30 and we still had to cycle 20 kilometres to get to the motel we were aiming for for the night. I had felt absolutely safe all day, but being so close to a border that is notorious for smuggling and crime, we felt it was not the place to take the chance of wild camping in a field. Also all the fields were full of crops and people harvesting either vegetables by hand or cotton with machines, so it was impossible to hide away in the tent. Therefore we sprinted as well as we could through sand pitches and past barking dogs along the irrigation canals that were like mirrors of calm, clean water and by sunset we reached the little town and the motel. Relieved and happy we went to the only restaurant in town having the only thing on the menu: tacos and that was just we wanted anyway. Our first tacos experience and of course we overloaded the little tacos with beans and guacamole and fresh greens only to have it all flow out of the back end when we took a bite at the front. But they came with a spoon and napkins, and we saw we were not the only ones using them, so we felt confident we were on the right track with those tacos.
We ended up staying in the motel for three nights. The first one we had planned, a rest day after our races to get out of the States and to aclimatise a little to the new place we had come to, meaning eat more tacos and learn how to ask if we could play Eureka Ball on the lawn in Spanish. And then play Eureka Ball (for more details on the results see Chris’s daily blog here). The next day we left the motel to cycle west towards the main road, Route 5, that we could follow south down the peninsular. But first we had to find a supermarket and the only one in the area happened to be in a town 10 kilometres east of the motel. In the end it took us most of the (short) day to get there, do our first shopping in this new country and speak with a nice Mexican man in the shop who also helped us get purified water for our bottles, and then of course eat lunch in the town’s pizzeria to variate our tacos diet a little.
So on our fourth day in Mexico we were still only 50 kilometres into the country, but with no tight schedule on our hands it didn’t really matter, only I was by now getting very eager to see more of it because I had really liked the feel of Mexico so far. Chris led us through another 40 kilometres of farmland and little, sleepy villages and I was all eyes and ears – which was also useful in The Spotting Things Game that we played that day, but despite my best efforts Chris still won by the end of the day. But I had still seen the colourful bushes and lemon trees, the old car tires made into decorative fence sand gardens, the kids playing at the school, the grimy food stalls, the brightly painted shops, the empty base ball arena, more mad dogs, dusty roads, wooden shacks, young people in love, women gossiping in their gardens, hammocks, cotton balls on brown bushes, big groups of people harvesting and packing onions in the fields, a little shrine for the Virgin Mary and the water in the canals so surprisingly clear that it was refreshing just to look at it.
By evening we had reached the Route 5 which to my great relief had a wide shoulder where we could cycle safely and it now led us away from the farmland and into the desert. The next day we passed both a patch of real, wavy sand dunes and white salt flats that looked like snow. I’m always amazed how much variation you can actually see in a desert. All day we were passed by fast going 4x4s on their way to watch the Baja 1000 off-road race and we ended our 100 kilometre day camping opposite dust clouds and motor roars from the race.
But peace had returned when we woke up to a clear blue sky the next morning amongst the first of many cool desert plants we would see on our way down through the Baja. We had already eyed a blue strip of ocean the previous evening. It was the Sea of Cortez on the east side of the peninsular, the first glimpse of ocean we had seen since we had left Vancouver six months earlier. I was excited to finally be by the ocean again. The coast line was lined with various holiday resorts and there didn’t seem to be any public acces to the beach, so we tried our luck at a fancy looking gate to a big resort. To my great surprise the guard had no objections to us going to use the private resort beach. Two rough-looking vagabonds rolled down the palm tree lined avenue past colorful holiday palaces and the tennis courts busy with a tournament to an almost empty, perfectly white beach. Oh it was bliss to feel the salt water slowly dry off the skin in the warm sunshine and have nothing else to do. Until Chris challenged me for a beach volley match of course, which he won tightly even though he got highly distracted by the flying ATV that kept circling over our heads. A toy for the retired expat.
We had rented an apartment via Airbnb in San Felipe, a little town on the coast another 15 kilometres down the road. Here we were received by Luis, the host, in the afternoon, and after moving in to our residence we went out to explore the town. By the sea we found the lively promenade, the Malecon, which of course reminded me of the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, but also of the beach promenades in Surfers Paradise in Australia, Den Haag in Holland and Batumi in Georgia. Despite the immense differences between these countries the presence of the sea carried the same vibe onto shore. It was a place to stroll, a place to eat pricey with seaview or snack from a food stall, it was a place to sell tacky souvenirs, it was a place to watch the kids play in the sand and the seagulls in the air, it was a place for stray dogs to find scraps, at place to get drunk, a place to gossip, to kiss, to sing serenades like generations before. It was a place to watch the changing light by the end of the day and everyone seemed to be drawn here. It was a place to live.
Yuma – Ejido Monterrey – San Felipe 302 kilometres..
I was up at 11 p.m. in the morning (not
a typo) to make my final preparations for the day ahead. I’d gone
to bed at 6 p.m. but had found it impossible to sleep, such is often
the way when you know how important it is to get a good night’s
sleep… and go to bed at 6 p.m. But ahead of me was an almighty
challenge, a challenge that I had set for myself, a challenge to try
and cycle as far as I possibly could in one day.
As a consequence I didn’t feel tired
or sleepy, only excited. I’d been planning this ride for a month,
pretty much ever since I’d heard about the Transcontinental bike
race and decided it was something I wanted to try and compete in when
we got back to Europe. It’s a non-stop, unsupported bicycle race
across Europe, generally starting in Belgium and ending in Greece but
with checkpoints along the way that change each year. Riders have to
plan their own route, source their own food and sleeping arrangements
along the way, and pedal all of the way themselves. The route varies
in length but is typically around 4,000 kilometres long, and the
winners have never taken more than ten days to get over the line. All
of this appealed to me somehow. I remembered my long rides across
Siberia, China, Australia, when I had to be efficient with everything
I did, with a fond nostalgia, time having taken the hardship and
reshaped my memories into something I look back on positively. I’ve
done enough kilometres, I know how to ride all day, I know how to do
all the things I’d need to do efficiently, and with so many years
riding on a heavily loaded touring bike, the racing bike I’d have
for the Transcontinental would surely feel ridiculously light and
easy to ride. I was basically pretty sure I was going to win.
The Transcontinental grew rapidly in my
mind into something I knew I had to do, but the idea that I had to
wait until 2020 or 2021 to take part frustrated me. I wanted to do it
immediately. And from this impatience came an idea. I could take one
day and try to ride as far as I possibly could. It would have to be
on my heavily loaded touring bike, but I would try to offset that by
riding in favourable conditions, mostly downhill or at least flat,
mostly with the wind at my back, mostly on high quality roads. It
meant I needed to do it before we left the United States, and the
last section of Arizona was perfect, it met all of the criteria. And
that was why I was now packing up my bike in the dark, with midnight
approaching, 25 kilometres south of Prescott, Arizona. Dea and I had
gone our separate ways the previous morning, she to ride south to
Yuma on the Mexican border over the course of four days, me to stop
after just 25 kilometres to rest and prepare, then do it all in one
day. The starting location had been carefully chosen, at the top of a
pass, giving me some free early kilometres. The date had been picked
with similar care, when I should have the most favourable winds. My
bike was set up so that I should have very few reasons to ever pause
from cycling, with my basket loaded up with food that I could eat on
the go, and with a whole host of new parts having been recently
fitted to it to ensure it should run smoothly. It was just a shame I
hadn’t managed to get any sleep before the start. But there was
nothing more to do about that. The time on my cycle computer rolled
around to 0:00 and I took my first pedal strokes. I was about to find
out what was possible.
I whizzed downhill for the first
fifteen kilometres, taking the tight corners as fast as I dared in
the glow of my headlight. I was down before I knew it and the road
climbed again for three kilometres and I pushed hard to set a good
pace. The night was warmer than I had anticipated and I quickly grew
hot. I shredded my jacket without pausing pedalling, strapping it
under a bungee at the back of my bike. There was no moon and the sky
was filled with stars. Frequently I saw shooting stars dart across
the sky in front of me. Each time I made a wish, and each time it was
for the same thing. 400 kilometres. That was my goal for the day. It
seemed ambitious, but I’d estimated I could spend 23 of the 24
hours actually on the bike, and if I could average 17.4 kilometres
per hour, well, then I would succeed in hitting 400, the sort of
daily distance I’d need to do to finish at the front of the
Transcontinental field. My goal was simply to ride as far as I could,
but I knew if I fell short of 400 I would be disappointed.
As the road levelled out and I reached Arizona’s flat desert I continued to move at over 20 kilometres per hour. Orion’s Belt loomed over me and I could just make out the shapes of occasional cactuses around me, but otherwise I was all alone. I had thought that this would be a time when my thoughts would wander back over all that had happened during our time in the United States. To think back to our time with Vivian in Helena, how we had continued our ride on the Great Divide, how we had met and made great friends along the way with a couple named Paul and Kelli, like-minded travellers who moved at our speed who we had ridden with for a couple of weeks all of the way to Yellowstone National Park. To think back on the great natural wonders, the geysers and the bison we’d seen there. To think back on all the good stuff but also, more importantly, all of the the doubts and the difficulties and the bad stuff that we’d faced. To think back on the time that Dea and I had spent cycling separately and all of the issues we’d struggled with, and to think back on the way we had come through it all and been so much stronger for it, events which I’m sure will make for some interesting chapters in a book someday but that we won’t be covering more on this blog. To think about Dea and how much I love her and about going to Mexico together and riding the rest of the Americas together, to think about our future together. And to think about my writing and my exciting new blog project (online now here). To think back also on the wonderful people we’d met along the way, like Sean in Grand Canyon, who had helped us out by letting us have numerous bike parts delivered to his address, then by letting us stay three nights with him and his dogs, and by being such an all-round good guy. And like Richard and Cecelia who had just hosted us in Prescott. And also I would think back on the extraordinary development and success of Eureka Ball, which had gone from strength to strength, most notably when we’d been playing a game in a park in a small town in Utah and some kids had spotted us and asked what we were doing, and soon there were multiple games going on with the kids promising to ask their teacher if they could play it in school sports. I thought I would think back on all of those things and all of the incredible landscapes we’d seen throughout the United States.
But I didn’t think about any of that.
I didn’t think about anything.
I was in a zone, in a trance. I somehow
knew that if I let my mind wander like it usually did then my speed
would drop, I would lose the high level that I was cycling at. I was
riding at more than 20 kilometres per hour, even on the flat, and I
was well ahead of schedule. I can’t remember the exact details of
when I got where, but at the time it was the only real focus of my
attention, and it wasn’t long before I started thinking that maybe
I was going to be able to ride 500 kilometres.
The night stretched on for a long time, as I suppose it will do when all you do is ride your bike in a straight line and don’t let yourself think about anything else, but dawn eventually broke, and I remember that at the moment when I first saw the sun I had already cycled 140 kilometres. I reflected on how that would usually count as a very long day, but I quickly dismissed such thoughts and pressed on. I knew if I thought too much about how what I was trying to do compared with a normal day then the enormity of the challenge might overwhelm me. Instead I repeated to myself that I was only going to do this once. This wasn’t something I was going to be able to repeat in Mexico or anywhere else, even if I wanted to. It was a one-off, it was my only chance, and all I had to do was give it my all on this one day and it would be done. With this motivating thought I kept up my unusually high pace.
I still felt surprisingly good as I
took a road south-east from a town called Salome. It went in this
direction for 50 kilometres through the first hours of daylight and
during this ride I remained confident about making it to the 500
kilometre mark. I was working out what I was on course for, and I
know that at some point I was on schedule for 514 kilometres with the
pace I was keeping. At this stage I had spent only one minute off the
bike in over eight hours (because I hadn’t learnt how to pee
without stopping) and I still felt really good. But there was a
problem, because the route I had planned would turn west at the end
of this road on the interstate, and when I saw how busy the
interstate was I became worried that I would get a puncture from all
of the debris on the shoulder. I was also in need of finding some
more road, because my original route plan was for 400 kilometres, and
if I just kept on going with that I was going to run out of country
before midnight. So I came up with a new plan, which was to retreat
back the way that I had come, cycling again the 50 kilometre road
back to Salome.
Unfortunately, I realised that doing
this would take me into the face of a headwind, which rather hampered
my hopes of getting to 500 kilometres. Then, as I slowed and made the
U-turn, my front tyre went soft. This double whammy quickly put paid
to my 500 kilometre-day hopes, which were rather fanciful in truth,
and I felt suddenly deflated. But I kept moving, getting the wheel
off and a new tube in as quickly as possible, while also taking the
chance to get my trousers off and into my shorts and switch a fresh
water bottle over. All-in-all I lost about 14 minutes.
More devastating for morale was the 50
kilometre slog back into the wind. I kept pushing myself hard, harder
than I’d done so far actually, but my speed had dropped to between
13 and 17 kilometres per hour, compared with the 21-24 I’d been
doing before. Still, there was that drive inside me, that focus, and
getting to midday was a big boost. It was the halfway stage, and I’d
cycled 242 kilometres. All I had to do was repeat that and I’d
finish with 484 kilometres, a smidge over 300 miles. A respectable
total, I thought.
Photos taken by Dea, I had no time for that!
At 12:30 I got back to Salome and
decided to cycle back north for ten kilometres before making another
U-turn and riding back south. I still needed to add a little extra
distance to the day, and I also thought I might see Dea. I figured
I’d passed her campsite around three or four in the morning, but
with my 100 kilometre out-and-back there was a chance she’d been
nearing Salome by now. After ten kilometres there was no sign of her,
however, and I wouldn’t have been able to stop for a chat anyway,
and I turned back south. I would later find out she reached this
point about half an hour later.
I was still feeling strong, but the day
was taking a long, long time. Time really did drag, but I maintained
around 20 kilometres per hour. Then there was a descent, and I picked
up time. It coincided with two in the afternoon, and I had now ridden
exactly 280 kilometres. This raised my hopes again of hitting 500,
and I began to believe it was possible. All I had to do was ride 22
kilometres per hour for ten hours and I would have the 220 kilometres
that I needed. It sounds absurd now, but at the time it really did
seem very feasible. Unfortunately at about this moment there was a
fork in the road and I didn’t know which of the two options to
take. My first instinct was to go straight on the road I was on,
missing the right turn, and I went across the junction, but then I
thought about it and decided I was probably wrong, I probably wanted
to make that right turn, so I bumped across some gravel as fast as I
could to get on it. I was now riding into a strong headwind again,
and as I checked my phone I saw that I’d made an error. Still, I
could easily get back on course by taking another connecting road.
But the headwind wasn’t so helpful for my new quest of 500
I fought hard to get back onto the
right road without losing too much time. Sadly the road didn’t
share my passion for making this 500 kilometre thing happen, and it
began on a long climb into the mountains. The wind was also against
me here, and it was utterly demoralising. Over the course of the next
hour my hopes of getting to 500 kilometres evaporated again in the
face of this climb, my speed stuck around 14 kilometres per hour all
of the way to the summit. This was still much faster than I would
usually cycle up such a climb and my body was beginning to protest at
the exertion. My left hamstring felt a little tight and my back was
getting sore, but overall I was still okay. I had a lot of good food
in my basket, including bananas, grapes, sandwiches and energy bars,
and I’d been grazing on it all day, keeping my energy levels up.
The psychological effect of getting to the top of the climb and not
seeing a big descent where I could make up the time was more
energy-sapping, however. I reached the town of Quartzsite, where I
navigated a couple of red lights by making right turns (legal in the
US) and then U-turns, until I was at the exit I wanted. At this stage
I had still only stopped three times, for a total of about 16
minutes, in 18 hours, covering just shy of 350 kilometres in the
From Quartzsite to Yuma there was just one road, a very long, very straight, 100-kilometre-long road. Unfortunately as I pedalled out onto it I discovered that it was not a good road. There was only a very narrow shoulder and it was rendered unusable by a rumble strip having been ploughed down the middle of it. The road was busy with rush hour traffic and, while it was just about safe enough to ride on in daylight, the sun disappearing over the horizon to my right had me greatly concerned. This was about the time when I would usually be calling it a night and there was plenty of good camping around in the desert. It was silly to continue on under such conditions, but I couldn’t quit. I’d put too much into this day to quit. I wasn’t even at 400 kilometres yet! I pressed on as fast as I could, hoping to get to a wider shoulder. Thankfully the traffic thinned out and the rumble strip buggered off, but even so as it grew dark there were times when I felt I had to pull off the road and let cars pass when there was something coming the other way, blinding them with their headlights. I lost another eight minutes this way.
My new goal had been adjusted down to 450 kilometres and I made a plan to aim for 17 kilometre hours for the six hours of darkness that remained to cover the final 100 kilometres. In a way it felt like weakness to lower expectations, it felt like weakness that I could no longer cycle at 20 kilometres per hour, but in reality 100 kilometres on my heavily loaded touring bike was under normal circumstances a very good day, never mind with 350 kilometres already in my legs. The longest I’d ever cycled in a day before was 250 kilometres, I knew I’d already done something special, I’d already put in numbers that seemed absurd to me. All I had to do was get to the line in one piece and having cycled as far as I possibly could without breaking myself. And I was beginning to break down. Turning my head led to severe pain in the middle of my upper back, so to look behind me to check for the headlamps of cars in the darkness involved half standing and turning my whole upper body as one. My arse was sore like never before, and I could manage only a short time on each cheek before having to shift my weight onto the other, almost always with a corresponding cry of “Ouch!”
There was no doubt that I was
suffering. I was suffering like I never suffered on a bike before. I
really just wanted it to be over and each hour passed incredibly
slowly. It had been an eye-opening experience, for sure, if only to
teach me how long 24 hours actually is (it’s really, really a long
time, it really is). I was riding under the stars again, but this
time the road was still fairly busy. A wide shoulder had thankfully
appeared, but it was not in great shape and it was much better for me
to ride out in the road. Hence a strange sort of video game scenario
developed where I would ride in the road until a car’s headlights
appeared behind me in my mirror. I would then turn my body to check
on its position, how close it was, and move over once it got near,
briefly bumping along on the shoulder before returning to the road.
And so this weird night-time game went on, and on, and my mind began
to deteriorate slightly. I was still essentially in control of my
mind, but there were weird moments when things seemed to have
personalities, things like my different gear combinations, or the
cars. Mostly though, I just wanted it to be over. At nine o’clock I
got to 400 kilometres but I felt no sense of elation. I still had
three more hours to suffer through.
I arrived into Yuma in the final half an hour before midnight, quite convinced of one thing. I had absolutely no intention of competing in the Transcontinental race anymore. Sure, I’d proved I could do this type of thing. I’d ridden a really long way, on my loaded touring bike, I’d spent no more than 24 minutes off the bike in 24 hours, the vast majority of which had been for reasons beyond my control, and I’d ridden hard all day long. But by the end I was crawling along. I could barely turn the pedals. I was in agony. The idea of sleeping for three hours in a bus shelter and then getting up and doing it all again, for TEN DAYS IN A ROW, was utterly beyond my comprehension at this stage. There was no way I was going to be getting up and cycling any distance in the morning, I would count myself lucky if I would be getting up at all in the morning. This, I decided, surely was a one-off event, and not one that I was finishing strongly. In fact, I finished it circling pathetically around a patch of desert at an intersection just out of town that I’d earmarked for my tent. As the clock struck 0:00 again I skidded to a stop in the sand. I would say that putting up my tent was difficult, but the truth was that to be doing something, anything, that was not riding a bicycle felt simply joyous. I crawled inside and fell into one of the greatest sleeps of my life with just one thought on my mind.
Distance cycled: 452.67 kilometres (281
Time spent on bike: 23 hours, 36
minutes, 35 seconds.
There was no mistaking the excited individual as she rushed towards me outside of Helena Public Library. My face was surely contorted into a picture of shock, confusion, surprise, and, yes, probably a little bit of terror, while the face of the girl heading rapidly in my direction could easily have been found sketched into a dictionary under the word “overexcited”. Her Asian features glowed manically, her short frame moving as fast as it could under the weight of a backpack bigger than her. One outstretched arm held an iPhone, video-recording our reunion, as the blur of pink arrived before me and I struggled to find any words. Luckily my temporary muteness was not a problem, as the girl was speaking continuously at one hundred miles per hour. Before me stood Vivian, the girl I had spent weeks cycling across Canada with two years previously. She had flown out here to surprise me, and surprise me she most certainly had, but I had known it was her the moment I saw her. Who else, after all, would be hanging out in the town centre of Montana’s state capital with a can of bear spray strapped to the front strap of their backpack?
This reunion with Vivian occurred a
little over a week after we’d left Tony and his wonderful, generous
family, a week which had been spent continuing south on the Great
Divide bicycle route. Quiet forest roads had taken us up into hills
and mountains, through forests of evergreens where butterflies and
grasshoppers vastly outnumbered any motorised traffic. Our decision
to try our luck on the Great Divide felt vindicated with every day
that we spent pedalling beneath the singing birds. The cycling was so
enjoyable, the route nowhere near as technically difficult as we had
feared, the nicely-graded gravel roads manageable even on our heavy
bikes. We met many other cyclists, almost always as they overtook us.
Deanna was the only one who didn’t pull away from us, as we fell
into a routine of bumping into each other on a daily basis, but other
than her everyone else with their lightweight bikepacking set-ups
left us in their dust. Indeed, over the course of one day we were
passed by a group of no less than twenty or so that were paying for a
guided trip, who had nothing on their bikes and a big van following
on behind carrying everything for them. Almost without exception they
each commented on how much stuff we were carrying as they passed us,
irritating us slightly, until we fell in with the lead guide and
business owner, a friendly Dutchman, who chuckled about this. “You
wouldn’t believe how much stuff they all have in the van!!!” he
The Great Divide – mostly Great
The undoubted highlight of these days was the two nights that we spent at the home of Barbara and John. These amazing people had set up two cabins on their land that are free for divide cyclists to stay in. We arrived in the evening to find a note welcoming us and telling us to make ourselves at home. The log cabin was wonderful, and Dea and I spent a nice evening by candle light, but it was the following day when the real magic happened. Barbara and John, whose generosity had already extended to hosting 300 cyclists this year, came by and invited us to stay for another night if we wanted to, and we thought ‘why not?’. We chatted with them for a while and they were such lovely people, and with a lovely story of how they met too, for Barbara had once lived here alone. “I was on a bike trip, and I was staying in this cabin, you see, you may have heard of it,” John explained. “Wow, that’s some nice karma,” I said.
Inside our amazing temporary home
There were many llamas, but Jasper was the only one friendly enough to let us pose with him
And pose with him we most certainly did!
Dea and I spent the day relaxing around
the cabin and hanging out with the rescued llamas and alpacas that
Barbara and John have on their land. In the afternoon some other
southbound cyclists arrived. There came an English couple, Charlie
and Katie, an American named Andrew, and, predictably enough, Deanna.
Barbara and John invited us all up to their house for dinner, and put
on an amazing spread for us all, leading to an evening of much
merriment. We concluded it sitting around the campfire and resumed it
in the morning with pancakes at our cabin. I put jam, syrup, whipped
cream, blueberries and M&Ms on mine, and this made me very happy
for a while, and then made me feel a bit sick for a while longer. But
it was the opportunity for playing games that brought real joy to my
heart. Charlie and Andrew were very much up for playing the game that
I invented in Eureka, which up until this point did not have a name.
“You invented it in Eureka, why not call it Eureka Ball?” Charlie
suggested. And this was a very good suggestion, and it led also to me
thinking that it would be a superbly good idea to create a new rule –
players should have to shout “Eureka!” when they scored points
(by hitting another player’s T-shirt, or by catching the ball). If
the player should forget to shout “Eureka!” then bad luck, no
points! Eureka Ball, as you can tell, was developing into a seriously
One point for hitting an opponent’s T-shirt
Two points for a clean catch of a throw
Here we are, Eureka Ball live
Just like in the diagrams! Great shot Andrew! One point!
Me, Katie, Charlie, Barbara, John, Andrew, and Deanna pose for Dea’s photo
Predictably enough, Charlie, Katie, and
Andrew were all faster than us. Andrew in particular was travelling
very quickly and he raced off ahead to do the three passes to Helena
in a single afternoon. Charlie and Katie also pushed on and we didn’t
see them again either, but someone else did, a fact that became
apparent once we were in Helena ourselves the following day.
“Oh my God! I wanted to surprise you!
I’ve been here looking for you since yesterday! I thought I found
you this morning, but it was the wrong Chris and Dea! It was the
wrong Chris and Dea!” Vivian repeated. In actual fact a nice woman
named Melissa, who had seen Vivian wandering around and asked if she
needed help, had told her about a pair of English cyclists sitting in
a Helena bakery, and Vivian, naturally assuming it to be us, had
rushed in with her iPhone filming everything, only to be disappointed
by the sight of Charlie and Katie, who from this moment on would be
referred to as ‘the wrong Chris and Dea.’
But after a night spent camping outside of Walmart, she had found the right Chris and Dea now at the library, with no need to use her bear spray. “Do you know, all the way across Canada I never knew how to use this bear spray,” Vivian informed me, “But I know now.” Which was perhaps a good thing, because she was doing some hiking around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park during a two-week holiday. I was glad that meeting us wasn’t the only reason she was here, but we still needed to find a way to spend some time together given all of her efforts to find us. Luckily Melissa, the woman who had directed Vivian to the wrong Chris and Dea, had also offered her a place to stay in Helena, and the invitation was soon extended to all three of us.
Melissa and her family went out for the
evening, leaving us alone to catch up over a dinner expertly made by
Vivian. It was good to see her again, for we had parted on a sour
note two years earlier and, while we had made up via online
communications, it was still nice to be able to talk about it in
person. Our silly falling out had happened because I’d overreacted
to feeling underappreciated by Vivian after cycling with her from the
Rockies to Ontario, but by now quite the opposite was true. Vivian
was giving me a lot of credit. “Seriously, you don’t get
it. You saved my life,” she said. More credit than I deserve, I
think, considering all I did was cycle with her, but it was certainly
great to see Vivian doing so well. Now divorced, putting her unhappy
marriage behind her, qualified as an estate agent, and seemingly
doing well and happy. She seemed more mature than..