You're here for a good time, not for a long time.

You're here for a good time, not a long time.

April 12, 2011

The Livestock Ambulance

I pulled up to the scene of the accident with Alex sitting on a rock with Sarah right next to him.  His bike was upright on its kickstand; tires like pretzels, forks bent, and his side case ripped off into oblivion.  Charlie was right behind me.  Minutes ago we had been ten miles ahead pulled over on the side of the road looking for a piece of his mirror that had flown off on a straightaway.  We were scouring the shoulder when an American in a 4Runner pulled up with big news.

“You the guys with the other two riders?... Your buddy crashed a ways back on that big curve outside of town.  He’s up and talking but his bike looks done.”

Twice in two days?  How could that be?  I thanked the guy and his wife and they sped south to continue their journey.  His warning wasn’t very alarming so I calmly walked over to Charlie, reiterated the conversation, and we both saddled up and took off back north toward Alex and Sarah.  As a team of four now, we have been breaking off into pairs lately.  The faster pair will push ahead and wait up about fifty miles down the road while the slower pair catches up.  Luckily for Alex and Sarah, Charlie’s mirror fell off just eight miles since our last gas stop so we weren’t very far ahead of wherever Alex had gone down.

I remember thinking on that eight mile stretch that another half-hour delay due to Alex stacking it was the last thing we needed.  This was the 300 mile stretch without gas that I had been fretting about for the last 24 hours.  After asking a dozen locals we had determined that although there were no Pemex stations (Mexico’s government run gas station), there would be vendors along the way selling gas out of cans for people in our situation.  Sure enough, ninety miles into the venture we stopped at Catanina, BC and found a mechanic who topped us all off with fuel enough to get us all the way to the next town with a Pemex, Guerrero Negro.  All gassed up, the eerie sense of petro urgency was gone and we were ready to knock out the next 220 miles with no problem.  We would be well into the Baja at that point and finally distanced from the American tourism.

That was until the 4Runner flagged me down.  Charlie and I pulled up expecting to see Alex ramped up on adrenaline telling the story of his epic crash over and over again just like the previous day.  Today was different though.  Alex was mellow, dazed.  He was confused, asking Sarah what day it was, how the two of them had met, and where we were; he couldn’t remember any of the last week.  He was sitting on the rock with his riding gear all off and cuts and bruises developing all over his skin.  His helmet was discarded off to the side and it was pelted with paint chips and scratches.  He was alive and conscious, but he wasn’t the over-confident Alex that we are all used to.

The gravity of the situation didn’t set in until Sarah pulled Charlie and me aside and said that we needed a doctor and a truck to move the bike immediately.  When I saw the concern in her eyes I realized the trauma she had been through since we had departed the gas station.  Charlie figured that due to his lack of Spanish skills he would be more useful in helping Sarah deal with Alex’s containment.  That left it to me to fly back in to Catanina and find help.

There are a lot of times where I could probably have ridden harder with more focus but the next eight miles were not one of them.  My shifts were absolutely fluid, my throttle was wide open the entire time, and my mind was racing even faster.  My wingman had just been in a major motorcycle accident.  He was awake and moving, but obviously had a concussion and had taken some brutal hits to the abdomen. 

As I tore away from the accident I made the mental note to study the spot for when I brought help back.  From the direction Alex had been riding it was a slightly banked downhill left-hand curve.  On the inside of the curve was a high dirt hill and to the outside was a rock garden followed by a patch of sand followed by a field of cacti.  Judging by the curve and the hole in the dirt where Alex hit, he had come in too hot, didn’t make the turn, and shot off the right side into the wall of boulders.  At this point, it is now commonly believed that he stayed with the bike as he bounced off the initial few boulders (I’m talking about rocks the size of VW Beetles) and then tumbled into the dirt alongside his bike.   

The impact is the scariest part.  I would probably ride that curve at about 50mph and feel very secure; that means Al must have been doing at least 75mph in order to lose such control.  Even worse, from the road to the sand was an 8-10 foot drop with boulders crowding the airspace.  Pulling away I didn’t know how he survived; I still don’t. 

On the way back to town was a military checkpoint.  In Mexico there are army outposts every sixty miles or so where they make you stop, explain your business, and they may search you.  Who better to save the day than the Mexican army?  Apparently anyone.  The guard listened to my story in garbled Spanish and eventually ordered me through the checkpoint.  His advice: go to the town hotel and let them radio for the nearest ambulance.  Thanks for nothing amigo.  I ripped off the next two miles into town as fast as I could and came to a skidding stop in dirt at the first person I could find.  I didn’t even know where the hotel was so the lady sitting at a local café was my first responder.

I struggled to explain our situation but I made it clear that there had been an accident and that we needed a doctor.  She immediately closed up shop and told me to go find the police at the station down the road; she was going to rally her own troops in the meantime.  I hauled off to the police station to find that there was absolutely no one there.  Picture me wandering around in an unlocked, unmanned police station screaming ‘Alguien? Ayuda?  Hola?’.  Not what I had in mind when I woke up that day.  When I determined the police station bust I tore back to town to find the lady ready to go with her friend in an ancient Chevy Lumina.  I parked the bike, left all my valuables there for the taking, hopped in, and we sped off towards Alex.

Ten minutes later we arrived to find Charlie and Sarah tending to Alex who was laying under a tree in the shade.  He was making more sense now but also showing more signs of the accident.  At least he knew we were in Mexico now.  As it turned out, the lady and her friend were the volunteer medics for the town and they knew exactly what to do.  Stethoscope in hand, she first checked his vitals, then whipped out a neck brace and immobilized Alex.  Three educated Westerners in tow and the first Mexican I saw was best prepared to save the day.

While she was putting him together a livestock pickup pulled off the road to offer assistance.  Within minutes it seemed the entire city had come to the rescue; there were five vehicles there at one point all of them willing to do whatever was necessary.  I couldn’t believe the response of hospitality exhibited by a tiny town in Baja that didn’t even have a gas station.  The town folk were running the rescue now while the white people stared and took pictures.  Humbled much?

Last to show up was the police truck.  While the villagers were all tending to the injured rider, the Mexican policeman casually parked, stepped out, surveyed the scene, and went straight to the bike to take down information for his report.  I’m not the cop but I’m convinced he could have given a shit about Alex’s condition.  Nevertheless, the solid platoon of local volunteers orchestrated an amazing operation.  Within half an hour of arriving they had Alex on a stretcher and loaded into the livestock truck that was to be the makeshift ambulance back to Rosario.  Some days you haul pigs, some days you haul gringos; no difference really.

The entire time since I had returned Alex was jabbering in Spanish about everything from here to there.  He seemed much more coherent but obviously he still needed medical attention.  With him secured in the pig pen, the truck pulled out being driven by the most ancient Mexican I have ever seen.  The old man was dressed like a cowboy and his skin was more leathery than his boots.  In the cab with him were his daughter-in-law and grandson and his son in the livestock bed keeping an eye on Alex.  I hitched a ride in another truck that had pulled over until we made it back to Catanina. 

Back in town we stopped and I paid the gas man to fill up the makeshift ambulance’s tank ($40).  I quickly thanked all the locals who had helped and then hopped on my bike to follow the injured pig back to Rosario where there was a doctor. 

As old as grandpa was, though, he drove his pig truck like a champ through some tortuous mountain roads.  Forget lane splitting, he used whatever lane he wanted through the winding high desert.  It took about an hour and a half to get there; partly because old man Mexico had to pull over for a piss three different times during the ninety mile drive.

Around 6:00pm we arrived in Rosario.  The last twenty miles I had been fighting gale force desert winds coming across the sandy plains; the muscles on the right-hand side of my back were aching unbearably having fought to keep the bike upright for so long.  We finally pulled into a hole in the wall clinic on the outskirts of town.  They opened up the steel cattle doors on the truck and two Mexicans hauled Al inside the clinic for the doctor to examine him. 

After a thorough once-over the doctor determined that Alex was in no immediate danger but he decided to call an ambulance to have Al sent to the next city, San Quintin (another hour north) for x-rays.  Alex, now a cog in the Mexican medical system, had to pay $200 cash up front to the ambulance EMT for the ride.  I went through his luggage grabbing all of his documentation and necessities as they moved him onto a real stretcher and tossed him in the ambulance.  I got his email password and his phone so I could call our insurance company and report the claim (we had applied just forty hours earlier).  I told him I’d see him that night or the next day depending on how my next couple hours went dealing with all of his luggage and finding Charlie and Sarah.

Charlie and Sarah meanwhile had stayed behind to clean up ground zero and deal with Alex’s bike.  As far as we know, they managed to grab all of his belongings; an incredible feat considering that his shit was fanned out in every direction from where he left the road.  The policeman actually decided to lend a hand and had Alex’s bike loaded into the bed of his truck to be taken back to town.  Once back in Catinina, Charlie found a local with a truck who said he would transport the bike back to the hotel in Rosario for $100.  Done deal (it was Alex’s money anyway).

With the ambulance pulling away I asked the old man driving the original ride if he could take Alex’s luggage back to Turista Motel, the place we had stayed at the night before.  He agreed and we set off towards the other end of Rosario to unload nine months -worth of adventure gear into the same hotel room.  On the way to the motel saw Charlie and Sarah pulled off to the shoulder just arriving in town; I screamed something about the hotel and knew they would get the point.  At the hotel we unloaded everything, paid the family another $50 for gas and thanked them endlessly.  Eventually they pulled away and carried on with their day; these people just happened to drive by our accident and ended up spending the next six hours hauling a gringo to the nearest doctor… lazy Mexicans.

Within moments Charlie and Sarah arrived at the hotel and all three of us ghosts had the same idea: beer and food.  Alex was finally under professional medical supervision and we had gotten all of his gear back to Rosario.  Wow.  After about an hour of gathering ourselves we eventually strolled to the local market, bought a LOT of beer, and then hit the next door restaurant to bury ourselves in tacos. 

That was all yesterday.

Today was less intense but just as much mental expenditure.  We woke up at 7:00am and loaded Alex’s busted up bike into the bed of our hotel owner’s pickup.  Last night she had offered to haul it in to San Quintin for us since she was already making the trip.  We graciously agreed and then worked around her schedule.  With his bike and all of his gear in the bed the truck took off for San Quintin around 8:30am and we followed on our motorcycles. 

An hour later we arrived in town and immediately stopped at the local motorcycle mechanic to let him pick through the damage.  Mind you that we are in the Baja so these guys are very good at their jobs.  We were worried that the bike was totaled after looking at it in the morning because on top of everything else the frame was obviously bent.  After we unloaded the bike the shop owner took one glance at it and confidently assured us that he could get it mobile again. 

While Charlie and Sarah kept talking to him, the hotel owner and took the caravan further down the road to Alex’s hospital.  We pulled up and Dona Betty (hotel owner) walked me inside and asked the reception where we could find Alex’s room for me.  It wouldn’t have been that hard for me to figure out since the hotel was barely bigger than my house in America but I was glad to have her do the talking. 

Dona Betty got the directions and walked me down the hallway to Alex’s room.  Inside we found him awake, alert, and very chipper.  He was connected to an IV and laying in his hospital bed.  We were relieved to find that had no serious injuries and apparently not even a concussion.  He was bruised and swollen all over his right side but other than that doing well.  I went outside and grabbed Alex’s gear out of Betty’s truck so she could run her errands in San Quintin. 

The next few hours were pretty boring getting Alex cleared to check out.  I did have a good time smoking a cigarette with the head doctor as I rode with him to the bank to withdraw money from Al’s account.  All told, Alex paid about $250 for a night in the hospital, 3 IVs, a couple meals, and constant medical attention.  But our American healthcare system should be left the way it is.

While I helped with the checkout process Charlie and Sarah finished dealing with the mechanic and drove around town to find a hotel for Alex.  The plan leading up to this trip had always been that if one rider goes down, the others will continue on once he is stable and cared for.  Today we executed that plan perfectly.  It seems like a cold way of doing things but it is absolutely necessary if we are to accomplish our goals.  Everyone understood that going into that and Alex was prepared for it today as we arranged to leave him behind.

After Alex paid the hospital and checked out, Dona Betty returned with her truck to give him and his gear a ride to his hotel.  We caravanned over there, dropped him and his gear off, and said goodbye to Dona Betty (not a long one since we would be seeing her back at the hotel in Rosario again in a few hours).  Next we finally got some breakfast around 2:00pm.  Alex manned up and bought us bought the entire meal as a token of gratitude for arranging him, his gear, and his broken motorcycle to be delivered safely two and a half hours north of his accident.

After eating we all rode over to the bike shop (Alex on the back of my bike) to assess his bike’s condition.  Surprisingly, the mechanic swears up and down that he can have Alex’s DR fully functional again within two weeks for around $1000.  The God-King apparently still has the power of luck.  With few other legitimate options, the rest was easy. 

We left Alex in San Quentin alone while he waits for his bike to be repaired.  In good spirits, he was already scheming about camping in the mechanic’s backyard and helping out around the shop.  Now Charlie, Sarah, and I are back at Turista Motel in Rosario preparing to head south again tomorrow.  We are short one man but knowing Alex he will be hot on our trail and back with the team in the blink of an eye.

 I cannot begin to explain how grateful I am for Charlie’s and Sarah’s support the last two days.  The two of them never thought twice about indefinitely holding their trips in order to assure that Alex was taken care of in the fastest manner possible.  Even though the guy who convinced me to come on this trip is recovering an hour north in a lonely hotel room for the next couple weeks, I am eager to push forward knowing that I have these two looking out for me.  I also offer 1000 thank you’s to the people of Catinina and Dona Betty.  Without them I don’t know what we would have done.

This post was way too long and I know that.  This one was more for me than for anyone else but I hope it was worth reading until the end.  Without Alex the parameters of this trip have changed entirely.  I cannot wait until he rejoins us but until then I will be immersing myself in the unbelievable unpredictability that is my current life and soaking in the amazing companionship of my new friends and the Mexican people.


  1. good thing alex is ok. When he leaves in 2 weeks to catch up is he planning on finding someone thats heading your way to go with him? Because with his track record so far i can seen him rushing to make up 2 weeks and wiping out a 3rd time. Which would really suck if he doesn't have someone with him to pick up the pieces and get him taken care of.

  2. Hey Tom, Just saw on FB that you had a blog up. Read from your first post to Alex's crash. Epic adventures, man! I'm jealous! Just ride safe, and tell Alex to back it off a notch or two, lol. 2 crashes in 3 blog posts. I'll be following regularly though. Stay safe, mate!

  3. Same story here, didn't know you had a blog or this epic trip underway until Fbook but man, this is awesome. You're a great writer and I can only imagine the shenanigans to come if this is only the first leg of the trip. Good luck. Can't wait to see how this adventure goes.

  4. Tom,
    I'm Al's Aunt and want to Thank you for being there and taking care of everything. Give my regards to Sarah and Charlie as well. When you get back home from your adventure, I want to give a hug to the guy that was the "guardian" of the God King. Cheers to you all

    Shelli Smith

  5. Hi Tom,

    Thank you for your determination in taking care of Alex. I hope that your travels are going well today and that you can relax and enjoy. I think Prince Alex is more appropriate now!

    Momma Smith

  6. That is seriously intense, Tom! Great recount. I'm glad to hear Alex is okay and on track to rejoin the team!

  7. Give alex a hug for me when he finally catches up...and give yourself a hug for me right now (and one for charlie and sarah too!)