You've Been Riding that Thing for How Long?

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sonora so far

by Mark

Greetings friends. Here's the update for now. We've logged 750 miles (in 7 days) so far in Mexico, and most of them have been in the Northwest state of Sonora. If the state name makes you think, "Sonoran desert," you're onto something. Despite the pictures I'm going to post here, most of our riding has been through relatively uninspiringly dry scenery. Imagine Arizona in roughly the shape and size of California, and Katie and I squirming around (due to the heat) on top of our little bikes as they roll past sand, all manner of cactus, and small cities full of people who somehow scratch a living out of the land. Sorry I don't even have a photo of the desert-- I think because we've been a little bit wary of ourselves due to the reports of violence here-- so the camera has stayed packed a lot of times when it could have been out. Oh well. Below is the first place we finally saw the sea of cortez (between the baja peninsula and mainland Mexico). It was like Arizona sprung a beach.

We've had a few interactions with the police, which have both proven to match other travelers' experiences. Now mind you, the cops down here look intimidating. They wear all black, sometimes with some kind of ski mask to cover their faces, carrying semi-automatic weapons, and often wearing bullet-proof vests. The Federales drive nice trucks (beds piled high with more guys with guns) or new Ford mustangs. I'll eventually get brave enough to start taking pictures of these guys. Anyway, we were in an old colonial city (made rich by the discovery of silver before the U.S. even became a country!), and I was pretty sure we were going the wrong way on a narrow one-way street.

A municipal cop (same outfit except without the vest) yells something at me and comes running. I pull over, pull off my helmet, smile at him, and ask him to speak slower. After 4 minutes of what you might call communication, (traffic was backing up behind us) we shake hands and he trots back to his post. Turns out he rides too, and wanted to know where we were from, where we were going, how fast my bike goes, etc....

Today as we drove through Navojoa (looking for Mex 15 South), a cop does the same thing-- yells something and runs toward us. It's a scary moment, but he only had one question: "Adonde van?" Where are you going? We told him, and he stepped confidently out into traffic, stops it, and waves us through toward our road.

Now that I'm on a roll, I'll tell you about riding into Sinaloa today as well. Sinaloa is the home of a powerful drug cartel, and has seen some violence-- so our ears were perked up when we rode in. The state border looks a lot like a National border-- lots of Federales pulling over and interrogating people, searching vehicles, and generally looking mean. We've been stopped at checkpoints before, and so we expected a more vigorous questioning. What happened? They waved us through. Yep, it was as if Obi Wan Kenobi were riding on the back of Katie's bike, waving his hand and saying, "Let this one go. These are not the droids you're looking for." (Thanks for getting the reference, Eric and Polly!)

Another 35 miles down the road and we start looking for a place to bed down. Los Mochis is coming up, so we consult "the book". Our Mexican travel guidebook describes Los Mochis as, "A grimy, densely populated town whose nightlife tends to be surly and male-dominated. Lots of belligerent men in cowboy hats are at every watering hole, and bars and shady strip clubs cluster in the center of town. They all fill with rowdy patrons by midnight". Hmm. So we pick the next big dot on the map, follow signs to downtown, and are delightfully suprised. The first hotel we see has a great rate and secure parking.

We ask if it's safe for gringos to walk around at night here, and the front desk lady seems shocked that we would ask such a question. Next to the grocery store we bought and almost ate an entire grilled chicken for $3, (breakfast leftovers!), and as night fell, tons of kids started showing up in halloween costumes, running through the town completely unsupervised (the horror!). I relate this story partly to share (again) how we feel that we're being taken care of, and partly to share how we are trying to be careful. I guess that it also demonstrates how 100% of the Mexicans we've seen so far don't seem to think we're anything out of the ordinary. Nobody gawks at our bikes, nobody watches us go into the ATM, and only the kids bother to wave. I tried to give the gas station attendant a 2 peso tip today (somewhat of a common practice, I'm told), and he refused it. Maybe it is still to come, but nobody seems to see me as a walking dollar bill. (If someone wanted a nice vehicle, they'd probably try to steal one of the BMW's, Audis, or Saab's we see on the road every day). Mexico is defying (so far) everything the news taught us.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mexico: La Primaria Dia

by Katie

This will just be a shorty because we are both knackered. For those of you who have been anxiously awaiting...we made it safely across the border! We crossed at Douglas, Arizona into Agua Prieta, Mexico. All in all, it was relatively painless. All passport stamping, paperwork filling out, and paying of permits took less than an hour. There were no other people in the migracion/banjercito office and I think the employees took a special pleasure in saying "no, go first to window 4 and have copies made, then you come back," as they watched us go back and forth between the three desks like helpless children. We fumbled our way through the process with our miserable Spanish and swore to improve it by the time we get to the next border.
About 15 miles out of Agua Prieta just as the jitters were starting to leave us, I was riding behind Mark and watched something flutter past. This conversation ensued:

Me: Hey, did you have anything important in your pocket? It looked like something just flew out.
Mark: I don't think so. I put all my paperwork in my case.
Me: Okay, if you say so.
Mark: I'll pull over and check though.
Mark: Uh, yeah. That was my registration and insurance paperwork.

We quickly turned around and started riding very slowly back down the highway looking for a little ziploc bag with two very important documents. Did I mention the wind was blowing about 30 miles an hour?
The picture speaks for itself.

We rode 60 miles to the town of Cananea and called it a day.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Phase II Begins

by Katie and Mark

Katie, here. I'll give an abbreivated version of what we've been up to for the last two weeks before passing the computer off to Mark. We left L.A. and headed into the east California desert. Joshua Tree National Park was a welcome respite after the busy city-ness of L.A. Of course, we were wishing we had some climbing gear with us in this geologically amazing national park.

Mark's moto porn in J. Tree.

From J. Tree we continued east to Sun City West, AZ (just outside of Phoenix) to stay with my grandparents. We were generously invited to join my family in Gulf Shores, Alabama for a fall family reunion. Having spent many a summer on the Gulf coast as a child, I was tempted. We couldn't resist and spent four beautiful days in with my family in a ginormous house right on the beach.

The whole fam. See that building in the back that resembles a small hotel? That was our fancy pants beach house. Thanks gramps and gram!

The view and beach from that magnificent house.

The entrance to Souvenir City. I haven't been to this place since I was 9 years old!

The latest and greatest from our trip so far:
State count: 10 (including our sidetrip to AL)
Miles Ridden: 6,500
Money spent on gas: $673
National Parks visited: 5
Days on the road: 129

And now, here's Mark.

I have been dreaming of riding my motorcycle to somewhere far off for a few years now. When I met Katie, I was blown away by a woman who loves to travel and was willing to learn how to ride (just because she loves me)! So 4 months ago we set off on our dream honeymoon.

Many of you already know about the stress we experienced this summer as we watched the news of violence in Mexico. Our families were justifiably concerned, and so this last week in Gulf Shores, we were able to sit down together and talk. That's when the most beautiful thing happened. I realized that I was willing to sacrifice the trip if it meant peace for our families. I can only attribute that change to the work of God in my heart, because I REALLY wanted to ride through Central America. I was reminded that there are plenty of other fun things to do with Katie. That's when another beautiful thing happened. Katie's mother said the same thing-- it became clear that she had gone through a similar process. So we're going, but with humility. The plan is to continue to respect our families' concerns and try to hustle through old Mexico.

So after months of hearing everyone's opinions alternately warning and encouraging us, we're going for it. We thank you all for your thoughts, advice, and encouragement that you have shared.

Katie, again. We will be leaving the Phoenix area on Sunday and heading to the Douglas/Agua Prieta border crossing. It is a notoriously mellow and not-too-busy crossing. The last couple days have been spent packing, unpacking, re-packing, running last minute errands, and picking up those last minute items that we don't really need.
Here are a couple parting shots of the packing process:

Yep, you counted correctly. Nine books for two people.

These bags contain all of my (Katie) clothes for the next four months. Inside you will find: one pair of pants, two pairs of shorts, one skirt, one dress, three tank tops, four t-shirts (for riding!), one short-sleeve button up, two swimmies, three bras, five underwears, four pairs of socks, and one hoody! I know, I know, ask any true motorcycler and this is waaay too many clothes. I stripped it down as much as I could but you just never know what clothes you might need!

Next post: the South side of the border!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Why I love to Travel (Part II)

by Mark

Greetings friends! I'm writing from rainy Los Angeles, where we've been visiting Katie's second cousin Laura and her husband Chris. They've got two great kiddos and it's been a fun place to wait out the unseasonable weather. Here are the small ones.

Okay, so it's been a while, so I'll try to catch you up on the happenings. In Bellingham, Washington, Katie's rear tire needed to be refreshed, so I called around a found a great shop to help with a whole slew of little things. It is hard to describe how comforting (and necessary) it is for me to talk with a qualified mechanic (who doesn't try to charge you money). Tim is the owner/operator of Cycle Therapy, and is in it for the love of riding. He recognized the extra layers of grit on Katie and I and showed great mercy. We rolled out of Bellingham all tuned up. He specializes in tires and suspension tuning--he's your guy in NW Washington, fellow riders!

We put our bikes on the ferry in Anacortes, Washington, and headed out to Orcas Island. It was great fun, and felt like we were on a real trip (our first boat ride of our journey). Katie was REALLY excited, and thus, my favorite photo of our entire ride. Look into her eyes. This was serious fun.

While on Orcas, we spent a few nights at Doe Bay resort, and had a great time.

We climbed Mt. Constitution, and met more interesting people than I will write about here-- but I do want to highlight one gentleman who was particularly inspiring to us-- We think his name is Richard, (I know, we really need to start writing this stuff down), and we met him after having just swam a bit in a nice, cold mountain lake. I was stretching, and he started up a conversation. He mentioned that he was planning to ride up the paved road to the summit of Mt. Constitution the next day.

What's uncanny about this story however, is that Richard could barely walk. He was quite forthright about having had a bicycle accident 30 years ago (before helmets were common), and a resulting brain injury limited the use of his legs. It hadn't slowed him down however, and as an engineer, found the hand-crank bicycles available to be wanting. He naturally set out to build his own-- which he was happy to show me. And I can tell you that the pictures don't do it justice. As tidy-minded as the Swiss and Germans are known for, Richard had designed his three wheeled machine with an awareness of all aspects imaginable-- weight, aesthetics, handling, ergonomics, and even the practical detail of overall size (so that it fit into the back of his truck without room to roll around!) We hit it off, and I had to pry myself out of conversation with him-- and intriguing man with an overflow of stories, wisdom, and spirit.

We continued south down the coast (getting rained on a bit), and I kept a lookout for Sasquatches. I didn't see any, but definitely had the feeling that I was being watched a few times.... Anyway, I settled for a hug from this redwood replica.

So I don't have a nice accompanying photo for this nugget of recently-discovered infomation, but I'll share nonetheless. Northern California (particularly Humboldt county) wins the prize for the highest number of gizzled older men (complete with long white beards and hair) preparing or smoking marijuana in public. Small groups of dirty Earnest Hemmingways on every public bench or picnic table, rolling joints and displaying a lack of intelligence and couth. Unconcerned about the law I'm sure, as it was clear these men were medicating themselves. A special place.

As I followed Katie along the coast, I began to notice that the taillight on her bike was dimming whenever her turn signal would illuminate. Too much use of the heated jackets (which use the motorcycle's electricity to create warmth) along the cold and damp coast! Bad sign for the battery, so I tried something I'd never done before. I put a post on a motorcycling website called, asking for help. To our amazement, our guardian angel came through AGAIN, and a gentleman named Mike called us the next morning as we packed up camp. We arranged for a meeting in Garberville at his home, and he set us up nicely. Batteries charged on both bikes all night, and Mike provided beer in the evening, coffee in the morning, and gave us some local's insight into a way to navigate around Los Angeles. We slept in the white van in the photo-- he has outfitted it for road trips. He even gave us a map, which Katie made some repairs to, and served us well. Thanks again Mike!

Our route took us over the Carrizo Plain, which is a high, flat desert area North of Los Angeles. This place was hot, dry, and deserted. The local attraction, Painted rock, had the brightest (best preserved) pictographs I've ever seen.

Ok, last story. Again, about a great encounter with a stranger, who became a friend quite easily. Katie and I pulled into San Louis Obisbo, CA tired, cold, hungry, out of gas, and clueless about where to camp (while the sun was going down, Katie guided us through downtown just to make sure the street market had ALL the parking spots taken-- ha! So we found gasoline, which was fairly easy, and then Taco Roca (across the street) provided the food and a warm place to sit. Ok, doing well-- that's 3 out of 5. How 4 and 5 got taken care of is the fun part: A guy comes in, orders some food, and while waiting, is at the salsa bar filling up little plastic containers with bright red and green sauces. He spills some lively red salsa onto the bar and the floor. Normal behavior up to this point. But being in a greasy little Mexican food joint, I didn't expect him to do anything about it. But in one of those tiny acts of good that go unnoticed every day, all over the world, said guy finds some napkins and does a fine job of cleaning up after himself. Mothers of the world rejoice!

I can't help myself, so I thank him on behalf of whoever mops the floors. We start a conversation, which leads to our daily "where to sleep" predicament. He makes a phone call, we follow his dirty Toyota tacoma across town, and are shown to "the barn," where registered guests are instructed to sign the wall with a sharpie under the title, BARN RATS. Once again, beers were promptly delivered (a cultural greeting ritual, apparently), and the fold-out couch folded-out. I tightened my chain, fixed a clutch lever rattle, and made some tweaks to our clutch cable adjustments (under the ubiquitous back-porch christmas lights of their post-college rental). I love California. I didn't think to take any photos of these guys, just a couple from the morning we left.

So satisfying to ride across this bridge. We were graciously hosted by Barb and Jay Lewellen in San Francisco, (not pictured--our fault). They provided a great place for us to rest and recharge once again.

After having locked their doors (they had both left for work), I noticed that Katie's clutch lever pulled really softly. I looked, and it turned out that her cable was fraying, and was dangerously close to breaking. Mine was near the end as well! We called around and discovered that there was a replacement available 30 miles south of us-- right near Camille's pumpkin-and-play-patch. Another call, and it was set. Pictured here is Camille and Katie being spat out of the mouth of a shark. That's right, folks. Shark.

So a funny thing happened on the way back from picking up the cables. Mine broke. I had been on the highway, about 25 miles from where we were going to stay for the night. I was stopped at a red light in a turning lane. There were people behind me. I had no choice but to climb off the bike, manually get the bike out of gear (harder than it sounds), and push it through an intersection. Best part of this situation? I was 50 feet from Camille's trailer, Katie, and all my tools when it happened. Yep, that's right. The clutch cable hung on until I was (pretty much) home for the night. I can't get away from the feeling: we're in good hands.

Which brings us full circle back to L.A., where we got to see old friends Robby and Miles Rasmussen. Even got to crash a service at their church! They seem to be thriving in the madness of this town.

That's it except for the commentary. Lessons learned? Katie and I have figured out that meaningful interactions with real live people have made our trip so fun. Sure, there are lots of great places to go and things to see. But that gets boring. In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig suggests that the lives of the retirees he observes are "depressing". This monument. Photo. This national park. Photo. Drive around for better weather. Eat out. Boring. We've done it too. But we took some risks, (which mostly involved talking to strangers), and now our hearts are bigger, and our world has fewer strangers and more friends. Good deal, eh?