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

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

May 5, 2011

The Devil's Backbone

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Alex and I left Mazatlan around 10:00am and headed east into the mountains over the ‘Devil’s Backbone’.  The route is known to be dangerous not because of banditos, but rather because of a plethora of semi-trucks that all crowd your lane on the sharp corners.  To my dismay, this was most definitely the case.

The Devil’s Backbone is a major thoroughfare for trucking because it is the most direct route east towards the Gulf of Mexico.  Unfortunately, it is also some of the most technical and strenuous riding I have encountered so far; lots of ups and downs and blind corners.  In the U.S., trucks would not be allowed on this road.  The corners are so sharp that the semis absolutely have to take up half the other lane just to round the apex.  As a former trucker myself, I was terrified by what these people are willing to do with a fifty-five foot trailer behind them. 

At one point we saw three semis barreling down a small straightaway one after another with a sharp, blind right-hand turn ahead.  The second in line began to pass the first.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  Minutes ago I could have ripped around that corner right into his grill.  Then, just as the one made it back into the correct lane, the third went for a pass into the corner.  Absolutely blind, one semi was passing another going down a mountain pass.  I can only hope they were using their CB’s.  It is the only possible answer.  Or they are just idiots, like the one we saw that had tipped over coming around a curve.  Diesel and tomatoes all over the road; yum.

To remedy the deathtrap, the Mexican government is currently building a much safer road alongside the Devil’s Backbone with Chinese investment funding.  I turns out that the Chinese are willing to pay for this endeavor because it is cheaper to truck their exports across mainland Mexico than it is to pay for passage at the Panama Canal.  The road opens soon, and as I mentioned it will host the world’s tallest bridge (higher than the Empire State Building).

Alex and I stopped at the top of the mountain pass to get some gorditas two hours into our ride.  We pulled up next to another biker named Sergio who was also eating and started asking him about his BMW.  The conversation was slow to start but soon we were chatting all about the motorcycle weekend and tourism in Mexico.  It turns out that Sergio is the photographer, writer, and editor of his own quarterly magazine.  He rides his bike all around his home state and highlights all the little gems he comes across (basically what I’m doing but he made it a career).  He has 13,000 magazines in circulation plus a prosperous internet presence.  I’m inspired.

Check out Sergio’s magazine Coahuila at  He studied in Wisconsin in his youth so he goes out of his way to write some articles in English for us gringos.  He is also a dedicated environmentalist in the middle of a lawsuit with Coca Cola concerning the recycling of their bottles in Mexico.  I told him I would spread his word everywhere I go.

After taking a few photos together Sergio decided he would ride with us to Durango.  There he would spend the night and Al and I would continue on.  We all took off and made great time until we were about five miles from Durango… and Alex ran out of gas.  Prepared for this, I pulled out my 1 liter bottle of extra fuel, dropped it in his tank, and we kept going.  Within a mile we came to a toll station.  It was my turn to pay, so while I dealt with the money Alex sped ahead. 

I didn’t see Alex for about two hours after that.  He had a hair up his ass to push ahead into the monstrous city of Durango and somehow meet up with us once we got in.  I think the fear of running bone dry again had something to do with it.  Anyway, Sergio and I went into Durango using the first exit we saw.  We stopped at the first gas station we saw and realized that Alex was nowhere in sight.  For a 6’5” gringo, he was very easy to lose in a city of Durango’s scope.

Sergio and I went back to the main highway and tried another exit.  Again we went to the first gas station.  They had seen Alex; they had also watched him ride off into the sunset.  So… I lost my wingman in one of Mexico’s more dangerous cities and I was clinging to a journalist for survival… awesome.  Sergio let me use his iPhone to facebook a plan to Alex and then I followed Sergio to his hotel.  At the hotel, I got online and Al had responded that he would meet us there.  He showed up at about a half hour later to much relief.  Thanks Zuckerberg.

We thanked Sergio for all his help and moved towards Durango’s town center to find a hostel.  To our advantage, Sarah and Charlie were still here and we found them at their hostel in the main tourism district.  Al and I got a cheap room for the night and tomorrow we depart very early.  We didn’t make as good of time as hoped today and we still have fourteen hours of road ahead before Cuernavaca on Friday.  It is great to see Charlie and Sarah again; they have some big plans that sound awesome, but I can’t be swung from my hot date with Cintia.

Durango isn’t the safest city.  The Durango police are currently exhuming a mass cartel grave and the latest body count was 104.  Last night only three people were killed in the city.  And apparently the municipal and federal police have gunfights against each other every so often.  How nice.  That said, the police presence is very impressive here on the main strip.  There is at least one cop car per block with the officers milling about everywhere.  I’m not sure who they really work for, but it makes me feel a little safer.  Rest assured, I will not be going out drinking in Durango.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Of the 1,100 kilometers to Cuernavaca, Alex and I knocked out 500 today and it was not without the usual hassles of adventure travel.  We got off to our earliest start (8:30am) since Day 2 in northern California and hit the road at a quick clip.  After lazing around in the Mazatlan sun for seven days it felt good to suit up, open the throttle, and watch the surrounding vegetation change all over again.  Overall, today was a great success.  We ran into little traffic and had no trouble passing that which did slow us down.  Furthermore, we managed to pay only 16 pesos in tolls by navigating only free roads.  You wouldn’t think Mexican toll roads add up to much, but it costs around $110 U.S. to get from Mazatlan to Mexico City on the main highways. 

Al and I intended to camp tonight to offset the elevated gas expenditures for the day.  Around 3:30pm we pulled into Aguascalientes and did a quick Wal-Mart stop.  We spent $15 on the next three meals and kept moving south.  When it’s 90F degrees out, there is really no point in stopping until sunset if you plan on pitching a tent on the side of the road.  You will only be much more sunburnt and exposed to snooping Mexicans if you post up before dusk.  Naturally, then, we planned to ride until we could no longer and then find camp there.

Well as the mid-afternoon heat wore on I quickly realized that the riding from dawn to dusk gig was pushing it a little too far.  South of Aguascalientes I started to feel the effects of heat exhaustion and they were playing out in my riding.  I was not braking as early as I should have, I wasn’t shifting on point, and everything just started to feel loose.  Time to stop: immediately.  Heat exhaustion sucks walking around the fairgrounds, but it is terrifying at light speed on a motorcycle.

I pulled over just after a construction zone, doused myself in with half a Nalgene of water, and drank the rest.  I put on some sunscreen and took out my earplugs.  Alex was in a bit better condition but we were both about done for the day.  After about ten minutes I felt back in control and we rode to the next town, Lagos de Moreno.  We stopped at a taco stand and gabbed with a Mexican geezer for a half hour and rehydrated.  The old guy told us where to find a cheap hotel for the night and at $9 each, that sounded way better waiting for the sun to go down.

Somehow we got lost on the two kilometer ride to the hotel and ended up in a nearby neighborhood.  I asked directions again about the hotel.  Ready to fall into bed and sip Gatorade, I pulled away only to find that my rear tire was absolutely flat.  A flat tire is an immediate emergency because if you roll very far on it, you risk destroying the tube between the rim and the rubber.  Confident and experienced, Alex and I pulled over, hopped off the bikes, and tore right into the operation.

Three hours later, in complete darkness, we finally had my tire back on the bike.  The puncture was pretty incredible.  A double-ended piece of sharp steel had somehow folded in half and ended up with both points buried in my tube.  Unfolded, it would have been about four inches long.  We pulled out the tube, patched the two holes, and put the wheel back together. 

Changing a tire is very difficult even when goes well.  You have to ‘break the bead’ which means popping the inner tire rubber off the rim’s lip (lay the wheel down on the ground and jump on it as you shove a tire iron in there).  Then you have to stretch that inner rubber over the huge rim so you can get at the tube.  You pull the tube out and if you’re smart you take the tire all the way off and inspect it for particles or damage.  Then you put it all back together and yadda yadda forty minutes of your life just passed if you are an ace.

Today, Alex and I were not aces.  After patching the two holes and putting the wheel back together we pumped up the tube only to learn that there was a third hole that we missed.  Take it all apart again and patch the third hole.  Then we pinched the tube while trying to squeeze the tire back on the rim on the second try.  Pinching is when you catch part of the tube under your tire iron as you stretch the rubber tire back onto the rim; it is very easy to do and requires yet another patch.  We patched the pinch, put it all back together again and pumped up the tire. 

The sun was setting, but we had finally succeeded.  I put the wheel back on my bike, joked around with some Mexicans who were watching, and loaded up all my gear.  I was absolutely exhausted; covered in grease, sweat, and mosquitos.  I put my helmet on and as I mounted the bike I realized that my tire was flat again.  You can imagine the words that came out of my mouth.  Alex and I were defeated.

It was now dark so Alex went to get our hotel while I started dissecting my entire rear end yet again.  Once he left to book a room, my situation dawned on me.  I was the only gringo in a lonely town in Mexico in the dark, obviously overwhelmed by a worthless flat tire.  My gear was spread everywhere and there was one guy in particular watching my every move and not saying a word.  I kept my cool and worked away completely on guard.  I kept looking over to him and smiling and he would barely nod.  I just had to tell myself that he is probably like every other Mexican I’ve met: awesome.  Ok, it wasn’t that scary; there was a store right next to me and plenty of people milling about, but still my security threat level was somewhere between yellow and orange.

Al returned and I was about half-way done.  I went into the store, borrowed a basin full of water and did a full check of my spare tube: no bubbles, no leaks.  This time, in complete darkness, we managed to put the wheel together without pinching the tube and I am proud to say that it is still holding air two hours later.  The hotel is a tiny hole in the wall and Alex and I will be sharing a double bed tonight.  We have another 600 kilometers to go starting tomorrow at 7:00am.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tired and absolutely soaked, Alex and I pulled into our hotel this evening around 6:30pm.  We had been on the move since 8:30am through widely varied roads all over central Mexico.  From Lagos de Moreno we kept making our way south avoiding every single toll road all the way to Morelia.  This method saved us a lot of cash, but also added at least 100km extra to our route.  Being cheapskates, we were quite proud.

Our target city at departure was Morelia and we arrived there around 2:00pm.  Then things got a little interesting.  Al and I followed the signs for the free road to Mexico City for about forty-five minutes as we toured through Morelia in stop and go traffic.  It wasn’t until twenty-five miles later that we arrived in the exact same place we started.  Enraged, we pulled over, studied the road, and found our mistake.  A very misleading sign had put us on a giant loop around the city; Mexican cities aren’t built on a grid… more on a spoke and hub chaotic nightmare.

Back on the right track Al and I sped off towards Mexico City on the free road.  To our surprise, not five minutes into the drive we came across a toll station.  We grudgingly paid the $2 and hoped to find the free road somewhere beyond the toll.  Twenty minutes later we came to another toll; this one was $10.  We were averaging $.20/kilometer at this rate and not happy about it.  After asking a few Mexicans, we found out that the toll road was the only feasible way to reach our destination and in total it would  cost us around $25 for the next 200 kilometers.

We bit the bullet and paid the man.  Two more hours of high-rev fifth gear riding put us sixty miles out of Toluca, the last big town before Cuernavaca.  Ahead were dark clouds and low visibility, but I wasn’t worried.  Al and I had put our waterproof liners in our jackets and we only had about an hour to go until Toluca.

There’s not much to say about the rest of the drive other than that Al and I got very wet.  The dark clouds turned out to be a deluge lightning storm and we rode right through the center for at least an hour.  Without the liners in my pants, everything from my belly button down to my big toe was saturated… including my boots which filled with water dripping down my leg.  Next time, we’ll throw the pant liners on when we encounter Mexican rain.

There is a happy ending.  We are in the best hotel yet and it was only $20 dollars.  The room comes with its own garage, a functioning shower with hot water, a king sized bed, and a wide variety of adult channels.  More importantly, we are only two hours from Cuernavaca.  Barring any of the very possible road warrior issues that we regularly encounter, we should be hitting the town with Cintia tomorrow evening as planned. 

It has been a long hard push to get here over the last two days.  In my opinion, one flat tire is better than anything mechanical problems.  The bikes did very well although Alex’s fuel mixture ratio needs to be tweaked since he is burning more gas than I am.  I definitely experienced the drawback of a carbureted engine during this haul.  With less oxygen in the air at these higher altitudes, my engine simply cannot pump out the same firepower it did at sea level.  It only really mattered when I was trying to go uphill at 80mph, but any higher and I will have to fiddle with my fuel mixture screw and find a better air to fuel ratio.

Tomorrow we intend to meet up with Cintia early afternoon in the town center of Cuernavaca.  Apparently she has lined up a room for Alex and me to rent near downtown.  If the place is up to our standards (a prison cell would suffice) then we will book it for at least a week. 

We have been looking forward to Cuernavaca as a base to take care of some pressing issues.  Due to its proximity to Mexico City, Cuernavaca will be the ideal spot to get some clutch cables, tire tubes, spark plugs, and a new Pelican case for Alex.  And with Guatemala finally within reaching distance, the incessant urge to move south has dulled slightly.  If we’re lucky, maybe Charlie and Sarah can catch up by the time we feel like moving on; if not, we’re all going to the same direction anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Glad changing a bicycle tire isn't that tough--that'd be a bummer in the middle of a race! Catching up on your posts after a two week trip to Costa Rica--you guys should have been riding faster and we coulda met up.