My little meander in the mountains to Mascota reignited my passion for isolated mountain tracks. It was months back in northern New Mexico on the Divide that I last had the satisfaction of a true mtb-only tester. Geographical constraints limited the options through Baja, but with Mexico opening up ahead of me I used my time at Mary’s to plot ahead and shun the obvious route choices.
To me plotting a route entails finding what I call the ‘max zoom’ paths in Google Maps. These are normally well hidden, and as the name suggest it requires a laborious process of zooming down to the sub kilometer level of detail before Google relents and reveals the smallest of the small tracks. How Google even knows about these is truely beyond me, but I suspect it has less confidence in their accuracy than I often assume, hence the amount of digging required to reveal them. As if Google says, ‘Well bud, it’s up to you to chance it. Take a sharp machete as a minimum, although a chainsaw might be more appropriate. Hope you’re not on a touring bike as that would be down right outrageous.’ And as you are now looking at the map through a straw, it is quite a mission to piece together all these tracks, as most terminate in dead ends. But few things warm my soul like a track that comes together in the end. It’s a sobering thought, I’ve come to realize, that my obsessive pouring over Google Maps (and the hundreds of hours on Google Earth back home) is very akin to the compulsive gambler going through the horse racing pages in the newspaper.
Regardless, the next day saw me heading out along a track around the lake below Mary’s house, and within 2km I was crawling up and down deeply rutted sections. Thanks to vigorous legwork I managed to stay in the saddle. Despite the sacrificial level of effort required I casually noted to myself ‘Be grateful for being able to keep riding, straining in granny gear beats pushing the bike hands down’. More on that later, but the track panned out quite well in the end.
An intermediate tar section took me to a dirt road leading up a wide valley, from where I’d swing east, perpendicular to the mountains and head over into the next inhabited valley. I had to go through a cattle gate just outside the last small village and was greeted by more of an erosion rut than a track coming down the mountain. I reflectively came up with a plausible explanation why the road was nonexistent, it involved cattle and rain if I remember correctly. Of course I bought it and most importantly why it would undoubtedly improve around every next corner. The road surface did improve in patches, but the gradient became impossibly steep, even for an unladen mountain bike. Oh, how I longed for my little 200cc KDX 2-smoke.
But I was on a solitary mountain track and therefore quite content to push a bit. Which stretched into some hours. ‘But’, I told myself philosophically, ‘be grateful to still be able to push, at least you’re not carrying your bike…’ But more on that later.
In the afternoon the track vanished, or rather the bit that Google said was there. I spent a good hour on foot trying to find what Google was on about, and finally found a clearing through the pine forrests that vaguely agreed with Google. Geat success. Then this track too vanished. Google simply shrugged it’s shoulders in a ‘Oops, that’s max zoom for you…’ kind of way. Another round of scouting revealed a clearing with a faint track heading in the general direction of where I needed to go. Linking all this up required me to carry my bike through some steep pine forest sections. Then I realized: If you have to resort to carrying your bike your route options might be a bit ambitious. If your bike happens to be a 35kg touring bike, they suck outright and need urgent review. So pondering this epiphany I found a place to camp, licked my wounds and tended to my bruised ego in the fading light.
The next morning should have started of with a graceful retreat but I set out with a clutching at straws motto of ‘Lets see, maybe I still stumble into something..’ which I did, then didn’t, as this track too vanished. Only then was it a full blow tail beteen the legs backtrack. ‘You cant win ’em all…’ I told myself as I rejoined the tar road well into the afternoon, having wasted a day. But during this I had many flashbacks of a certain Lesotho motorbike excursion when still on my BMW 650 Dakar, joined by my partner in crime Louis. The similarities were striking: many early warning signs that the road was basically impassable except for on foot or hoof. Exceptional positivism that things will improve. They didn’t. In fact it got so bad we couldn’t return the way we’d came, and spent a night in a flea infested shepherd’s hut. I sold my bike right after that trip. But what I realized during this episode is that I get track-fever, where my natural overly strong sense of risk averseness abandons me and I simply cannot see the obvious: this is a lost cause. The amusing thing is that while I’m hacking away at it, I don’t feel the slightest sliver of dread about the likely failed outcome, nor am I forging ahead to save my ego. I’m just happy to be out there in a track and eager to meet the next obstacle, because it’s a track, right. It’s meant to be tough… And thats track-fever for you.
My confidence responded like a classical underdamped system, having soared after the Puerto Vallarta section, it was now down to a local minima. So I reverted to a more cautious approach and headed east along the main tar arteries. The mountains that followed were much more demanding than expected and it was a challenging 2 or 3 days later that the terrain opened up sufficiently to attempt more dirt tracks. By this time my confidence had also recovered and then predictably overshot as the tracks worked out rather well again. I was having fun, stumbling into dusty sleepy villages where a touring cyclists is an extreme rarity, if not a first off. Concerned old ladies will often supply unsolicited directions back to the main road along with the solicited Coke and much commotion will ensue as I’d head off in the other direction.
And so I made it to my first ancient ruins site at Guachimontones, where I discovered that they are not quite so ancient as I’d naively thought – I’d put them with the likes of the Pyramids and Stone Henge and the ancient Greek cities. Not quite. Seems the common thread of these ruins are that they started out fairly modest around the time of Christ and are then expanded and enlarged as successive and more powerful rulers came to power, basically by lumping on another layer to what was before. The last occupation dated to as recently as 900ac, after which the site was mysteriously abandoned. The remaining stepped structures are the enduring stone and earth platforms for wooden houses and temples that are long since gone. Or the courts where the great Ball Game was played, that resulted in the death of one of the participants. I’m still not sure which though, the winner or looser. The rules and structure of the game also sounds highly speculative, basically all I know is that it was played with a hefty solid rubber ball and there was a hoop somewhere. I must Wikipedia it sometime. Of course the fact that the earliest Spanish conquistadors did their savage best to eliminate all local culture, and people in many instances, did not do wonders for preserving the rich and dynamic culture. Walking among the ruins is a strange experience. Here, in these grounds, lived and breathed a people, a society destroyed not that long ago, that is completely different to anything left today. And the only thing we know of sure is they liked their mielies.
It was a weekend when I visited, and a MTB club from nearby Guadalajara had come out to do a ride around the site. Surrounded by my cycling brethren I scored a free lunch of delicious lamb taco’s and a pair of much needed gloves. This came about as I’d casually asked about bikes shops in Guadalajara, which then very quickly escalated to a guy taking of his basically new Scott gloves and handing them over to me. Mexicans are amazingly friendly and generous, as I discovered time and again.
The afternoon ride into Guadalajara reached a bit of a frenzy close to town as the hard shoulder I was riding on dissappeared right as the traffic reached maximum intensity. I’ll be honest and admit I lost my nerve at least once, with busses and trucks whistling by inches from my bike. But I made it into town where things calmed down and on the 2nd attempt found the city’s Casa Ciclista, or Bicycle House. Typically these are the headquarters of a cycle awareness initiative, offering free accommodation to touring cyclists and I host of other cycling oriented services. I turned up unannounced, with no plan B, and by no small stroke of good fortune found a guy who let me in. I had a bed, safe storage for my bike and gear and access to all basic services – basically Wifi, bathroom and kitchen. Great success.
The next day I bused futher back along the route I cycled in on to visit the famous Tequila distilleries. Instead of the glitzy Jose Cuervo setup in the actual town of Tequila, I opted for the hopefully more authentic Herradura Distillery in the town of Amatitan, which produces the most popular Tequila sold in Mexico. For my troubles I was rewarded with a passionate English speaking tourguide on a private tour of the facilities, showing how the fiery liquor is made from the noble blue agave plant. The tour finished in a tasting session in the underground storage room part of the now preserved 100 year old original distillery. The place oozed rich tradition and old world ambiance, and as my allotted 3 tasters turned into 6 and then into 9 ridiculously heavy handed servings I felt more and more endeared to the place. And tequila. And life. And everything in fact. It was only after I smashed a family sized platter of tacos waiting for the bus back to the city that my vision unblurred and the ground beneath my feet firmed up. All in all a very memorable outing. The bits that I actually remember that is..
From Guadalajara I headed south to check out Lake Chapala. Not wanting to repeat the death defying ride into town, I plotted a back road route to avoid the main highway. This turned into a bit of a hack along jarring coble stone sections of the baby head variety. I suspected the wife of the man who built the road ran of with a cyclist, and now he was having his revenge on all of us. The cobbles gave way to wet and muddy dirt sections, then maize fields, abruptly a ride through a quarry followed by another crazy shoulderless tar section. A shortcut through a very dodgy township like neighborhood got me back onto the main road. I’d be lying if I said I’d enjoyed any of it so far. At least back on the tar I was flirting with the devil I knew, and eventually made it into town and found my Warm Shower host in the late afternoon. He told me I wasn’t they only person he’s hosting, and a short while later I was reunited with good ‘ol Javier, making this our 4th or so chance meeting. Jessica had gone back to Puerto Vallarta to catch her flight back to Canada, and in the last couple of days they to had been partying it up in Tequila. So much so that Javi announced a rest day for the following day, and weighing up my options I quickly accepted that losing a day is a negligible tradeoff compared to riding with a Spanish speaker who happens to be a seasoned tourer.
A fruitful blogging day followed, and by blogging I mean trawling the web for Taylor Swift gossip and keeping track, via the Daily Maverick, of the slow motion train wreck that is South Africa. But by the time we set of in the morning I’d grafted a bit to plot a kief looking track to Morelia, the next mayor city on route. And it worked like a bomb. East of lake Chapala we hit farming country, maize fields that is. And just as these got boring we hit some mountains and high intensity strawberry farming. And throughout these there would be lively little towns and villages, never more than a hour or two of riding apart, with cheap streetfood and basic shops to keep us fuelled up. Pretty easy really. For those reading this from a South African context, I have to stress how alien this was. In, say the Freestate, backroad towns are anything from 30km apart, with absolutely nothing in between, except a distant possibly empty farmhouse in the horizon. In Mexico there are villages everywhere as people stay in them and from there go out to tend their patchwork of fields and animals, often in foot. And on every street corner of even the most forgotten town there will be shops, and one will be a tienda or spaza type shop. Furthermore every village has a church overlooking the town square, which would not be complete at least 3 different types of food carts. Warm options includes tacos, quesadillas, tamales, hamburgers, grilled chicken and tortas. Sweet option range accross shaven ice with sweet syrups, juices in big glass jars ready to be decanted out into plastic bags, icecream, coconuts, diced fruit and sugar cane and various fried options. Regional specialities and variances made this an ever changing kaleidoscope of flavours. I imagine Javier was often looking where the hole in my stomach was allowing me to keep on packing in the treats. And compared to Baja it was really affordable. I was loving it.
Another constant of Mexican villages were the ever present tortilla shops, seemingly always branded in the yellow and green stripes if the leading corn flour brand. Now, first hand experience has revealed that corn tortillas, the peerless indomitable Mexican staple, must be eaten as freshly as possible, preferably hot off the stove. Where volumes permit (roadside eateries for example), or access to a dedicated tortilla vendor is denied, tortillas are hand pressed and cooked to order. But the majority are produced on the rhythmically clanking mechanical press and integrated oven and then sold per kilogram. Because freshness is so critical, the tortilla economy is very decentralised and each shop serves only it’s immediate neighborhoods, i.e. those withing walking distance. This obviously requires a HUGE number of little shops, which freemarket capitalism is only happy to provide. Every 10 blocks in a village you’ll pass one. I’ve often mused over how many millions of Mexicans must be directly employed in the sole purpose of making fresh corn tortillas. In fact, it literally build the empire.
Not to be outdone in terms of availability, Coca Cola can be consumed in an unprecedented range of volumes, from a time wasting 250ml and going up in 200ml odd intervals up to the thirst destroying diabetes inducing 3L monster. It’s rumoured that Mexicans have the worlds highest per capita consumption of Coke, so I felt right at home, and did my level best to drown in my share.
During this time the Mexicans celebrated a historical revolution of some importance, as all the towns were putting on parades complete with marching bands and the younger kids dressed up as the adults who partook in the historic event. Speeches were made in town squares and a festive mood reigned throughout. And no celebrations that brings a country to an standstill is complete without streetfood, so I thought it was all rather splendid.
My route was marred only by some fence hopping required to get on and off a 15km section along the main toll road. This was quite fortunate, as 15km was just enough to remind me how empty, no, worse, soulless and impersonal these main carriageways are. Javi and I were equally relieved to be off it again and plodding along the more intimate roads that only the locals and Google knows about.
Or reaching Morelia we had to scramble to find accommodation, as previous Warm Shower enquiries came to nought. We resorted to some cold calling and landed up with an absolute legend host in the form of Carlos Unda. He fetched us in his pickup, saving us a sizeable climb up to his place. Later we were joined by his girlfriend, Laura, and set out to see a bit of Morilia by night. A 2 week festival was getting going and we walked through the night market, packed with young people and, you guessed it, food stalls. But we were treated to supper at a huge church run cafeteria. I was once again able to sample fair that I hadn’t tasted before. Oh, and it was my birthday, so I had a further excuse to indulge.
The next morning Carlos and Laura joined us on their bikes to escort us out of Morelia, which happened to be a Sunday. In a progressive campaign to promote cycling and bike awareness the city closes a number of main roads around the city center on Sundays, meaning the streets are bustling with cyclist, roller bladers, runners and walkers who eagerly get to enjoy a car-free city for a couple of hours once a week. But soon enough we had to say goodbye to our esteemed hosts and the safety of the cordoned off roads and face reality, which meant going up.
Note: Due to the hair tugging frustration that is the WordPress app, this post is broken into 2 or 3 entries, but should read as one. Apologies.