by Chris MacAskill
November 10, 2000
It was a black motorcycle with yellow brush guards and off-road tires that made it look truly gnarly. It was fitted with tough aluminum luggage cases, the type of bike you'd ride to exotic places with bad roads. You could tell from various scratches, dings and stickers from foreign countries that this one had been there.
Almost every day I admired it as I crossed the parking lot at work. I imagined what it would be like to ride it into the Australian outback, perhaps, or across China.
One day I happened to walk by as the owner arrived. He was exactly as I pictured him: slender and tanned with a rugged jacket and close-cropped beard that made him look like an outdoorsman. He had taken 13 months off work and ridden alone to the Southern tip of Argentina and back, from San Francisco. "Wow," I told him, "I'd LOVE to do that!" He described a few adventures as I stood mesmerized, and then we went our separate ways. My mind has drifted many times to the stories he told and I wondered how I could sneak away for an adventure of my own.
After a few years of dreaming, I finally stuck out my jaw and blocked off some time. I found 10 days.
I researched Mexico, but every two-week ride report I found was written by people who cruised the North: Baja, Copper Canyon, some Colonial cities. I dreamed of exotic ruins, jungles, Mexico City, Acapulco, Belize... Could I go 3,000 miles down, 3,000 back and still see stuff? I was going to try.
I struggled to leave early but I couldn't get away until 1:00. Bummer. My plan was to make Tucson, 854 miles away, but now there was no chance. I'd be in Los Angeles during rush hour. And it was pouring. My sad and worried wife took last-minute pictures of me looking like a drowned rat.
I disappeared into the gloom in my Stylin' new Joe Rocket jacket with its shocking lime-green and purple slashes. Everyone in Mexico would see me coming and I was happy about it.
For about 5 miles. I couldn't believe it, but the jacket was leaking like a sieve. There had to be some mistake. Perhaps the sleeve vents were open? No, that wasn't it. The jacket leaked so badly that by 10 miles, cold rain-water filled my gloves. I flirted with the idea of just toughing it out. I had an electric vest and sleeves. I was going south. How cold could it be? Was it worth riding ten miles back the wrong direction to get my trusty old waterproof jacket?
Good thing I did, because the heavens opened on the way to Los Angeles, and the night was cold and clear in the Palm Desert. Even with the electric vest and sleeves set to Dark Toast, I was beginning to shiver.
I stayed in Blythe, 300 miles from the Mexican border.
Got away early and rode into a spectacular sunrise, with shafts of light reaching the Arizona desert between threatening black clouds with orange trim. The entire scene seemed too dramatic for real life, and I wondered if I was dreaming about a painting I had seen somewhere. The road was leading straight for the Mother of all Black Clouds, which was sending a constant stream of jagged lightning to the ground. It got so dark under there I wanted to change my tinted shield, but it was too late. I wondered if motorcyclists ever get hit by lightning. Occasionally the blackness flashed white followed quickly by a BOOM that made me shudder.
The border guard was very impressed with my German riding machine. He reached for the handlebars and revved the engine. He asked about horsepower. Engine size. How much it costs in U.S. dollars. With no further questions, I was free to navigate the ultimate riding machine alongside beat-up taxis and smoking buses through crowded, muddy streets with incredibly deep potholes. I somehow thought a puddle 6 feet long would be 4 inches deep... Imagine my surprise when the water washed over the tops of my boots. I was beginning to wonder whether I'd made a serious mistake by bringing a street bike.
Strange that you can ride into Nogales so easily but 19km along the highway South you have to stop and get a tourist card, vehicle permit, and inspection. It takes two hours of lining up, gesturing about various requirements, and saying "No hablo Espaņol."
The next few hours would answer the question about whether I was crazy to think I could cover so many miles in Mexico. Everything I read about Mexican roads was scary and I had the sick feeling I'd have to Get Real and confine myself to Northern Mexico. I debated what to do if my progress was slow. Should I just ride to Belize and ship my bike home?
But the toll road south was promising. It was a divided, 4-lane highway with good asphalt and absolutely no enforcement for the speed limit. On the downside, the asphalt ends where the lane does and burros graze right up to the edge. It was creepy to fly past burros just a few feet away at 75+ mph. What if they suddenly run onto the highway? And the road surface isn't as even as it is in America, so your suspension gets worked. I worried that my overloaded topbox rack wouldn't hold up to the constant bouncing.
The toll roads do not bypass towns and you will slow down or be severely punished. Topes, speed bumps from Hell, come in every imaginable size and shape and lie crouched in the street ready to get you. Almost every vehicle slows to 2-3 mph before crossing topes.
But I hit one I didn't see at 40 mph. It sounded and felt like a circus strongman had swung a sledgehammer that landed on my handlebars. WHANK! I had heard that a severe bottoming of your forks could blow your seals or worse. If that was true, I was in trouble. It didn't look like I'd find a BMW dealership for 1,000 miles. The forks weren't the only things to bottom; on the next bump, the center of the bike hit hard, on the centerstand I guess. I had no choice but to get used to centerstand bashing. It happened another two-dozen times, even though I never forgot to slow down to 2 mph again.
The contents in my topbox sounded like they were being tossed when I hit topes, even at low speeds. It was a bad sound, as if my camera, shaver, Palm Pilot, and cell phone were thrown together in a cement mixer. Out on the toll road, in the rain, a friendly-looking Mexican family of 6, all seated in the front of a pickup, pulled up beside me and started waving and smiling. I waved and smiled back. But they persisted in pointing just slightly behind me, at my GIVI topbox. Uh oh. I quickly reached back with one hand. THE LID WASN'T CLOSED! I had forgotten to fasten it at the last inspection station and no telling what had been thrown out the back.
I pulled onto a mud road and to my horror found some of my soaked and muddy clothing hanging out the back. All my rolls of film, the map, guidebooks, a few pairs of socks, and who knows what else had gone overboard. And who knew where? The camera, Palm, and phone, however, were still inside, tossed like a salad along with running shoes, toothpaste, and shaver.
Back on the toll road, I was surprised to see how beautiful the countryside was. I had expected a dry and foul desert, but this was green. Grass about a foot high waved on the shoulders as cars passed, short willowy trees flowed in the breeze, and the mountains to the left were reasonably dramatic-and mostly green. According to the guidebook that was now dumped along the road somewhere, those mountains represented the third-highest inhabited land in the world, behind Nepal and Bolivia.
|A navy-blue Chevy Tahoe shot past me at 100 mph. I couldn't let a fine German riding machine be dissed by a Tahoe, could I? I matched his speed and kept him in view but it seemed too fast for Mexico. What if we came around a bend to find cattle on the road? Caution signs everywhere warned about cattle. The unsmooth nature of the road made my bike bob and weave around what would otherwise be awesome sweepers. Blowing by the occasional slow-moving and dilapidated car made me wonder. I followed the Tahoe for 10 minutes before deciding to chill.
In Guaymas, I followed the signs to El Centro, which every Mexican town has, and stayed in an old hotel with a fabulous rustic steakhouse. I had no idea Mexican beef was so good. Nobody in Guaymas seemed to speak a word of English and my Spanish is limited to maybe two hundred words. But almost everyone in Mexico is very friendly and they love it when you try their language. Gestures and smiles will get you anywhere.
It was Friday and the other guests (all Mexican) partied past midnight. I removed the mirror from the wall beside the bed, moved it to the sink, placed it opposite the mirror over the sink so that I could see the back of my head, and shaved my head bald. We're talkin' Patrick Stewart here. I had never done that before. For the next few days, every time I saw my reflection in glass, I'd get a jolt. But I convinced myself that it looked stealth.