We were up extremely early this morning to make it into Mexico. Up to this point in the trip we haven’t left any earlier than 1030 in the morning, generally after a pretty solid breakfast. Today was different. Today we were out the door and on the bikes just before 0500 because we knew it was going to be a long day under the best of circumstances. We were planning 5 hours to McAllen where we would cross over to Reynosa, Mexico. From there it would be another 6 hours to our final destination for the day, Tampico. That was the plan. Today, was a little different from the plan but that is what adventure is all about, right?
It was so amazing to be on the roads before the sun in Austin. The air wasn’t cold but it definitely wasn’t warm or hot yet. It was just a really nice cool as it flowed up my sleeves and around my neck as we left. Packing up the bikes, in the driveway, in the dark had left me a little overheated so the air was a welcome relief from the heat packed into my jacket. The black pavement blended perfectly into the inky blackness of the pre-dawn sky as we made our way out of the hills on our way to the main southern drag that would eventually take us across the border so it felt like I was gliding deeper into the farthest reaches of space as I split the two. By the time the sun started to peak out over the edge of the landscape we already had 2 hours and 140 miles into our trip. It felt really good to know we had beat the daylight by getting a big jumpstart on our mileage. It also felt really good to know that we wouldn’t have to go nearly as far in the incredible heat of South Texas. When we had left North Carolina I knew we were headed into warmer temps but I was not prepared for what that would feel like on a bike traveling 70+ mph. Every other time I had been traveling at speed on the bike the air rushing around me felt good. It felt cooler than sitting still on the bike which was always welcome during the summer months. As we neared the border something strange happened to the air around us. The heat persisted even at higher speeds which made it feel like riding in a sauna. Imagine one of those hand dryers from the men’s room blowing directly in your face and you will understand what south Texas heat can do to your ride. Initially it was interesting and remarkable but after a short time my dry mouth and crusty nostrils just wanted a tendril of relief to waft through my helmet.
The cell signal was spotty, so instead of making calls or listening to music, I used the time to just reflect on how I was feeling as I neared the beginnings of what I called, “the real trip.” Before we left we heard countless warnings from people that had been to Mexico and plenty who hadn’t. We read reports from the State Department and other travelers from the blogs. We poured over the most recent information we could find on ADVRider.com. Some of it was calming and insightful but some of it left me with anxiety and worry. I was told I was crazy to even attempt a trip down to Mexico. It is too dangerous and you just had a kid. The people on the forums were much more reserved but still carried tons of warnings and advice. I wondered why those warnings were never heeded and why I always took them with a grain of salt as we approached. Maybe it was because the border always seemed so far away. Maybe it was because it wasn’t real until today. I didn’t have to worry about the tales and the circumstances because I was still at home. All that was going to be changing today in just a few short hours. Worry started to enter my mind and my heart but I decided to push it away as best as I can because I was locked into making this trip now. I have always trusted my instincts to guide me away from danger and although I had heard a billion different terror stories my heart told me everything was going to be just fine. Is fear a reason to deny opportunity? Is danger enough of an excuse to walk away from experience? Do I have to change my mind now that I have a young son at home?
I find my answers to these type of questions really cloudy. It becomes far more clear when I think about how I hope my son eventually answers these types of questions. My hope for him is to look at fear as exactly what it is, a guide. Nothing more. When fear strikes, it shouldn’t paralyze you but allow you a chance to analyze the sources of that fear. I want him to use fear rather than being used by fear. When others back away, I want him to step forward and realize life isn’t always safe or comfortable. The best way to dispel fear is to journey into the darkness. Each step will show you there is nothing to fear and you will be able to live a bolder life. My excitement rose significantly as we neared the border because I knew just a year ago I wouldn’t have made this trip. Not only did I not have the bike but I wouldn’t have considered something this far outside of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have internalized all the warnings and negativity until I simply assumed a trip beyond the borders of the USA wasn’t in the cards for me. I would have rationalized it as me being responsible or caring more about my family than the journey. What I realize now is this journey is all about my family and what kind of man I want to be in this family. Do I want to show my son that the best way to live life is inside a bubble where only other people’s stories get told or do I want to show him that sometimes prudence needs to take a backseat to action? I was proud of myself for taking a leap when countless reasons existed for why I shouldn’t. I want my son to look for reasons to say yes to challenge and experience because those are harder to find than the excuses we use to avoid all risk.
I know this seems like a pretty heavy mental activity for such a free and open area of the ride but Southern Texas in September heat can feel excruciatingly large. We eventually made our way to the border town of McAllen, TX and it was a little unnerving because there is an awful lot going on right there. For some reason, I felt like it would be a straight road directly across Mexico with no real hurdles but let me dispel that fantasy if any of you share my ignorance. There is a full blown city right there and more than a couple stop lights before you cross. We found our way to the right path thanks to Google Maps but got ourselves a little turned around as we passed into the Mexican side. We veered right instead of left and almost left the border area without a stamp, registration or insurance. Needless to say to anyone who has done even a little research about riding into Mexico, this oversight would have been very bad for the remainder of our trip. Luckily, a kind gentleman on his way back from lunch recognized our looks of dismay as we neared the exit and turned us around to head back to the very large building where we would eventually take care of all necessary items. We thanked him, in English, and made our way to what was going to be my most frustrating part of the day.
We entered at the far right door at Reynosa which brings the insurance office up first on our left as we step inside the cool air conditioned confines. There were four gentlemen on folding chairs outside the office spilling into the walkway ever so slightly as they laughed and shared chips while sipping from their individual sodas. Immediately after the insurance office comes the immigration office which had one gentleman sitting inside giving us a knowing glance as he beckoned us over. He asked for our passports and all the necessary paperwork in Spanish and once we figured out what we had and didn’t have he sent us all the way to the opposite end of the building to check in the bikes properly. We grabbed all our jackets, helmets and tank bags for the long walk to the opposite end of the building just happy that we were at least inside where it was much cooler than the midday sun beating down outside. I remember being vaguely aware that it wouldn’t have taken much to get my bike into the back of a pick up while I was in here and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. I pushed that fear to the back of my mind convincing myself that nothing would happen. We made it to the bike check in and registration section. They first asked to register the bikes which was a large $400 fee which I tried to pay with my credit card. A Discover card. She handed it back to me simply saying, “No.” I got this sick feeling in my stomach as I realized that card was the only one I had brought. Uh oh. I meekly looked at Joe and asked if he might be able to help as he was a stall over and well on his way through the process because he brought more than one card and something other than a Discover card. He handed me his still warm from use card, which I promptly handed to the attendant. She handed it back and told me the card had to have my name on it. Big uh oh. What was I going to do? Joe and I pooled our on hand cash (mostly Joe’s) and just barely got me over the $400 collateral registration. The remaining entry fee (~$50) was put on Joe’s card without any restrictions. We had passed the first window but I was already sweating pretty bad as I understood just how unprepared I was for this border.
I went to the immigration window again and he reviewed all of my paperwork, provided me with a stamp and told me my last window would be the insurance man just to my left where Joe was finishing up after paying a few dollars for five day insurance coverage. With a smile he told me he was all good but I was going to need to head into town to pull our cash because we were both empty and the insurance man only took dollars or pesos. Crap. I asked a few of the men outside the window if they could point me to the nearest bank and they motioned over there shoulder, into town and a few blocks over. I got the feeling this wasn’t going to be as easy as they made it sound. I asked Joe to hold everything he could of mine and I headed out the door, into the heat and into my first Mexican town to find a bank which was supposed to be about 10 minutes away.
The streets of Reynosa don’t run parallel to the border crossing but instead in a crisscross pattern offset about 45 degrees. Thinking about it now, this shouldn’t have affected me as much as it did but for some reason it felt like stepping off the curb onto Mars. My mind was really thrown. I was also terrified to ask for help from anyone I passed assuming they would recognize me as clueless and take me for everything I had which was next to nothing. I passed school children and women on their way back from the grocery store. I passed young gentlemen dressed in light colored suits and others in work pants and dirty t-shirts without saying a word. I tried to be a shadow. After about 20 minutes of searching I was starting to get worried because I didn’t want to return empty-handed and looking even more foolish than I already have while also being covered in new glistening sweat. Just as I was going to give up, I saw the sign. I was almost there. The vestibule was occupied when I arrived so I retrieved my Discover card and said a little wish to the universe that it would let me off with a warning this time so I could get some money and continue. The woman inside left holding the door open for me as I smiled slightly as if to say, “Don’t worry, I look like this all the time.” Once inside, I slid my card in the slot and was met with an unfortunate buzzing sound like the one you hear on Family Feud when someone receives their third strike. Not good for me. I called the number on the back of the card hoping it was just a small international unlock issue. The customer service person on the other end informed me of the rarity with which I was likely to be using this card while in Mexico. My heart and my head sank. So far Mexico is not really going my way.
We arrived in Mobile late last night and strangely slept in a little late today. We got down to breakfast and scrounged through what was left of a pretty weak continental breakfast which wasn’t a big problem for me because I only, usually, have cereal and yogurt. For Joe, however, it is a first hurdle of trying to maintain a pretty strict vegan diet as we head through Central America. I am a bit nervous about what places like Guatemala hold in terms of meatless options while remaining glad that I have precious few dietary restrictions short of eyeballs, brains and most guts.
We are preparing for a long day from Mobile, AL through to Austin, TX at about 650 miles. On our way down the elevators in the morning I realized very quickly that I need to find a better way to carry my gear as I have two very heavy panniers, one in each hand, and a Mosko Moto Backcountry 40 pack on my back. In order to carry all this stuff I need to have my jacket on already which is starting to heat me up before we’ve even hit the sun. By the time we get down to the bikes in the courtyard of the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel I have already started sweating quite heavily which wouldn’t be a problem but it definitely makes for awkward casual conversation with the people gathered near the bikes who think you may pass out at any moment.
We met a brother and sister who had arrived in Mobile from Florida to welcome their sister’s new baby girl. They were quite overjoyed with the newest arrival to the family and I took the opportunity to practice my goal of reaching out more while on the road. The conversation felt free and easy with their interest in our travels bounding with the same sincerity as their own joy. I got to hand out my first stickers of the trip which felt really great and a little like a necessary hurdle to get over before we got into Mexico. I was glad to have tackled it early. The pair wished us luck and we boarded the bikes with a little extra lightness from the positivity of the morning.
The mileage today wasn’t particularly fun or interesting but I loved watching the surrounding landscape morph from the familiar tree lined highways to raised concrete bridges spanning for miles over the watery bayous of Southern Louisiana. It brought back memories of reading Ted Simon’s journey around the world in Jupiter’s Travels where he spoke of the major difference between traveling by plane to a destination and by roadway because you had the opportunity on the road to view all the nuance change and similarities of neighboring communities. It struck me as a similar difference between flicking on a light in your bathroom and immediately being granted light so quickly that the dark is no longer evident as opposed to watching the night slowly fade moment to moment as the light conquers it with the sun rise. I was hopeful to see the changes in population as we traveled through countries I’ve only ever read about before.
There was another realization that washed over me as we cruised across Interstate 10 hovering over the water and it had me a little concerned. In all the head turning and gawking I was doing, I noticed my eyes and mind were spending less and less time on the road immediately ahead. This just would not do traveling 70-80 mph but it would almost certainly be a problem when I got into Mexico where the rules of the road are a bit more lax. It was time for my to buckle down and recognize my first priority is to complete this trip safely because if I died on the road my wife would never let me do this again. This is the great paradox of travel. We want to see everything but you can’t possibly view it all. I have to be okay getting bits and pieces and knowing there will always be a reason to come back because I have either missed something or the inevitable change has made the old, new again. Each new mile makes my life more full exactly because of the fleeting nature of the experience.
Joe and I were still well within our cell signal so we decided to practice using the bluetooth headsets in our helmets while we could still have a back up. It was fun being able to push a button and immediately get into Joe’s head while it was a little unnerving when the reverse happened. For some reason my main fear was he would click in and I wouldn’t catch it until he had already heard me singing a few bars of Abba’s Take a Chance On Me. For those that might share a similar concern, the headsets do a pretty good job of making you aware of the changeover so you can compose yourself appropriately. We soon found ourselves punching the buttons for all manners of attractions we passed to let the other guy know before it was nothing but a glimmering mirage a mile behind us. One of Joe’s best was letting me know from behind that he had spotted an alligator swimming in the canal just below where we were riding. As I didn’t see it, probably because of previously mentioned singing fit, I choose to believe he was simply lying about it.
We pulled into Austin pretty late that night and I made a phone call to my buddy who was putting us up for the night to apologize for arriving not at 5 or 6 pm but closer to 10 or 11 because we cannot bring ourselves to keep a tight schedule on this trip so far. He guided me through his neighborhood in the high hills overlooking downtown Austin on what amounted to a much more exciting ride than it should have been. Being relatively new on a bike I didn’t consider just how troubling steep hills could be on travel while on a bike if you didn’t think about your path beforehand and decided to stop. After a couple of close calls where I almost turned around and dropped/fell off the side of the mountain we finally rolled into his courtyard driveway to complete a long second day of riding.
Joe dismounted and was ready to step inside quickly because he didn’t pack like it was the end of the world. I, on the other hand, took a few minutes longer because arranging 40 pounds of gear is seldom easy but it is hampered even further by having a tank bag and helmet to contend with as well. I eventually made it inside to be greeted with a warm kitchen and a cold beer to celebrate the end of our USA-only travel days. We quickly decided that with our late arrival and a big day of travel to get all the way to Tampico, it might be best to spend an extra day in Austin to recover. It will be nice to see some of the life we have been blistering past over the past couple of days. Plus who doesn’t love spending time in Austin?
Our first day was a bit of a struggle because we had left so late and really wanted to make it all the way to Mobile, AL. Truthfully, our plan was to cut through the States as quickly as we could to get to the “real” adventure south of the border. The surprising part was just how much fun we had covering even the most mundane of miles. There is a really special feeling I get when I am on the open road for any amount of time. It is almost hypnotic or meditative. There is a gentle, almost indiscernible shift in landscape as thought some grand hand is painting over everything around you the moment you look away. When your eyes drift back to where they just were the world has altered in the slightest way but you can’t help to feel the motion of the earth. It has the effect of making me feel insignificantly small and totally connected at the same time.
The first rains of our ride occurred late on day one as we neared our destination which is fitting for my first long trip because I also encountered rain when I first rode a motorcycle just ten months ago. From that first day I have really enjoyed riding in the rain though I have never lost my respect for it. I recognize the difference in how I must ride when the rains come and it is an attitude that will surely be very useful later in the trip (hint, hint).
Unfortunately, I was so concerned with churning up pavement on our first day I recorded almost nothing of our travels. There was one bridge as we pulled into Mobile called the General W.K. Wilson Jr. Bridge but lovingly referred to as “Hello Dolly”, I presume because of the wonderfully ample dual humps rising out of the tree line as you approach. We crossed the bridge at night which made for an exhilarating late night boost after a 12 hour and 700 mile day.
We pulled into the hotel where they told us to park the bikes in the front courtyard of the hotel which immediately made me feel incredibly cool. We got VIP parking right up front so we could remove all our gear and luggage under the watchful eye of the partying patrons as it was nearly 11pm on Saturday night. I wanted to believe I didn’t smell nearly as bad as I did after driving all day in what felt like near 100 degree heat but I don’t think my thoughts were enough as more than a few people allowed us to take our own elevator to our floor.
The first day was done and we had another big day planned for Day 2. We wanted to get all the way to Austin where a family friend was going to put us up for the night so we could enjoy all the nightlife Austin could offer on a Sunday. It was going to have to be an early day and 700 miles again to make everything work out. With the first day down and the excitement of the trip slowly turning into focused anticipation, I settled in to get my body right and my mind rested because soon I was going to be traveling into Mexico for my first international ride.
I had planned on getting an early start and it should have been pretty easy because I got very little sleep last night which led to an early morning. My natural tendency is to procrastinate when it comes to packing which has made prepping for this trip a little dodgy. Unfortunately, with no practice or elimination rounds, I have way overpacked as I carried the bursting panniers down to the bike. The thoughts of, “Bring less and travel light” have given way to “Well, what if I might need it along the way” so I am bringing every tool I can think of and all my electronic equipment. These decision were swirling in my head all night as I contemplated the entire complex trip. As I snapped awake at 6am with just 4 fitful hours of sleep, I had a flurry of ideas about improving my rig. The next few hours were spent doing all the things I should have done months earlier. I do wonder though if these doubts and tribulations are just a natural part of departure regardless of how much prep is undertaken. No time to worry about that now…I have to get on the road.
My travel partner, Joe arrived at about 10 and we sat down for a quick moment at my house to go over last minute details over morning beverages. Once we were satisfied with our mutual inquiries, “Passport?” “Check.”, “Registration?”, “Check.”, “Title?”, “Check.”, we decided it was time to hit the road. I said my final goodbyes to my wife and kid desperately trying to push from my mind just how long it would be before I saw either of them again for fear I wouldn’t be able to get on the bike. After my last checks on all the straps and buckles, I put on my helmet for the beginnings of my first major trip. It wasn’t until I got to my gloves that I realized my hands were shaking just a bit. I chalked it up to nerves and excitement instead of the likely culprit of nearly five hours now without any food at all. It just never occurred to me to grab a meal before leaving.
The hum of the engine kicked up as I dropped my visor down to shield from the high sun. Joe’s KTM roared to life and I remember my first thought being, I am going to be chasing that 1200 all the way to Honduras. We rolled up to the makeshift starting line I had taped down the night before to boost the pomp and circumstance of the moment although now it seemed rather silly. My wife took a couple last pictures of us and I rolled on the throttle for the first of many times on this journey.
I heard the first directions from Google Maps in my ear as we made our way to the highway. The excitement became more focused but no less intense because I know I am in for a long ride but I cannot believe it has finally begun. This trip has been in the planning stages for close to 10 months and we are finally covering the very beginnings of our 3,000 mile journey. I have nothing but promise in front of me and i am completely filled with gratitude for this opportunity.