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Into the Mist: Mexican Highway 15
The State of Michoacan, Mexico
(Aug. 5 - 6,  2002)

This is the story about a lonely mountain road that goes over a high pass in the state of Michoacan, Mexico.  The road itself is very nice with beautiful scenery and little to no traffic but it is not the main character in this story.  The leading part has to be the unpredictable weather that occurs in the high elevations in the great Mexican state of Michoacan.

This story starts out with us waking up in the picnic area of Jose Ma. Morelos National Park and spending the morning drying the tent from the previous night's rain.  The sun eventually came out and we got it dried completely.  The park employees stopped buy to kill some time and drink coffee with us.  They were great.  We had spoken with them for several hours on a wide variety of topics over the previous couple of days.  This in depth conversation greatly helps our knowledge of Spanish.  A lot of the time we only get to talk to people for only an hour or less and the conversation is usually about the same introductory topics and does not get to deep.   The park guys cheerfully told us their views on politics, local road construction, and the Mexican National Park system.   If we did not understand something they would cheerfully rephrase it differently or give us the time to look words up in our Spanish/English dictionary.  Given the fact that they told us that we could not camp there two days ago and then decided to "let it slide" without any form of payment made us great fans of theirs.  They were sincerely interested in us and I learned a great deal from them.  We quickly became friends.  When we told them our plans of riding east over the pass they had a disturbing look of concern and fear.  Their Spanish quickened on this topic and our understanding decreased but we could make out something about remoteness and quick changing weather.  We generally get some kind of warning from locals before setting out and things have always turned out just fine so we paid little attention to them.   We rode off as they were waving their hats in the air.  They watched us ride out of the park and head east towards the pass.  I believe they wanted to see if we were actually crazy enough to attempt the pass during the rainy season or we were just telling them a story to impress them.  I actually saw both men cross themselves out of the corner of my eye as we started up the hill.  Little did we know that they were the last humans we would see until we returned to earth on the other side of the pass.

We knew what we were up against from talking to the park guys and it did not sound that hard.  We were after all from the very mountainous state of Arizona and these long mountain roads we had done before.  There was a 20 mile climb that would take us up some 3,000 feet ahead of us.  On climbs like this we have learned to expect about 4 MPH while we are on the bikes and lots of rest stops.  I estimated the total time to the top at about 6 hours and made sure that we had enough supplies for three days just in case something came up.  The park employees all agreed that water should be no problem and told us of numerous creeks and waterfalls.  This was good to hear because water can really weigh you down.  I only packed enough for the days ride and planned on filtering the rest from some little stream.  The other thing I tried to save weight on was gasoline for the stove.  We had a quarter tank which was pushing it for an extended stay but I figured that we could build fires to cook with.  This thinking was my first mistake.

The beginning of the climb was pleasant with the altitude keeping temperatures in the 60's (F) and the wind was nonexistent.  We could see that the upper slopes were covered in dense clouds which made for some interesting scenery.  We felt good and talked and joked for the first two hours.  Time drifted by and there could not have been two more happy people on earth.

After about 10 miles our ears popped several times and the drain of riding in thinner air was starting to creep in.  We turned a corner and suddenly instead of looking at clouds we were riding into them.  I said symbolically "Into the mist" to Cindie.  Everything was damp and dripping wet.   Visibility was down to a few feet and the road kept going up.  The other funny thing was the absence of traffic on the road.  No one on horseback or lumbering along with burros packed up.   Not even the occasional bus.   Nothing but an exciting but eerie stillness.  We nervously turned on our tail lights and continued to climb. 

The vegetation was changing as well.  Instead of the bright green "western Oregon like" leafy plants and dazzling colorful flowers, that we saw on the lower slopes, were now seeing dark green to almost black growth and the air smelled of dampness and mildew.  It seemed that everything was struggling to grow due to the lack of sun light.  The mist was growing denser with every pedal stroke and the silence was only broken by the drip drip sound of water oozing from thousands of soggy leaves and our combined rhythms of deep heavy breathing.  There was the occasional water fall or rushing creek but we could only tell it was there from the sounds roaring through the stillness.  Visibility was to poor to see anything; even the lines on the road was impossible to see.

At about mile 18, of this all day climb, we broke free of the clouds and climbed above them like a jet airliner ascending to cruising altitude.  It was weird to see the gray mist suspended below us.  Is this real?  When we reached the top the temperature had fallen to about 50 F.  When you are climbing your body generates a lot of heat because of the large amount of work required to haul yourself and your entire household up the grade.  You loose less heat while grinding up hill because the very slow speed does not create a wind chill. We were still in bike shorts and short sleeve jerseys when we reached the top. 

When we finally were at the top we were exhausted and started to think about camping.   It was also about 3 o'clock and we knew that the evening rains could come at any time now.   I spotted a flat, hidden place to camp near the summit.  It had plenty of firewood laying around and I could hear a small creek rushing down the mountain side which we could filter water from.  We rode to the creek to make sure it was accessible and determined that it was a little hard to get to.  It was covered by weeds, but looking back now, it was probably not that that bad to get to.  I was tired from going uphill all day and not thinking clearly.  I decided that a better place could be found further down the hill.  This point marks my second and biggest mistake of the day.  Given the time of day and numerous warnings from the park employees we should have camped at the first good spot.   

We envisioned that the decent would be equal to the climb that we had just endured.    About 20 miles of good quality road that is not so steep that your hands get tired from braking but enough of a grade that you would not need to pedal.  Like a well earned theme park ride.  I even named this imaginary ride that I hoped for.    "The Great Mexican plunge"    Little did I know we would not make it very far down the mountain.

Every cyclist knows that descending is a cold business.  It has exactly the opposite characteristics as climbing.  You do not pedal at all so you do not generate any heat.  Instead of huffing along at 4 miles per hour (MPH) you are flying at around 25 MPH or more.  Our loaded bikes handle well on the down hill and high speeds are amazingly stable.  The wind rips through you and washes away every bit of heat that you generated on the climb.  We collectively decided to pull on our jackets for the decent.  Even though the weather was improving Cindie put on her rain coat because of it's wind stopping abilities.  I happen to find my fleece jacket before my raincoat so I put it on.   It was a lot quicker than rummaging through my bags again.  This is a very warm jacket but not wind and water proof like my rain coat.   It was a 50/50 chance on which one I will find first.  As I would later learn this would turn out to be bad luck or a very bad mistake depending on how you look at it.

At first the decent was everything that I had hoped for.  The weather was even looking good.  I looked back and Cindie was trustfully riding in my draft so I knew I would not loose her as I increased our speed. Oh, how she loves to go fast.  We pasted a grassy area with a very clear looking spring that crossed my mind as another good place to camp.  It was just to fun to stop.  We were weaving in and out of switchbacks but always going down.  I noticed that we were going to descend back in the mist and thought that it would greatly slow our progress down the mountain, due to lack of visibility, but eventually we would descend below the mist.  This was a fine thought but not reality.  

As soon as we rode into the mist the sky opened up with hail.  Millions of marble size ice balls fell from the sky without any warning.  They were stinging my legs.   In an instant these white ice balls obscured the road so completely that I could not tell the difference between the road and the dirt.   My first thought was that I must take care of Cindie.  She has exceptional bike handling skills but I was not sure she could handle riding on a sheet of frozen marbles.  After I almost slipped and crashed I decided that I was not sure if I could keep upright under these conditions myself.  She was on her own.  The sound that the hail made hitting the ground was like a giant freight train was running us down.  Every squeeze of the brakes produced a slide and slowing down took every effort of skill and courage.  My loaded bike suddenly felt very cumbersome.  I knew that this could be IT.  I kept listening for the terrible sound of my beloved wife crashing into the numerous things that could have killed her but all I could hear was the pounding of ice.  A quick glance back showed her further back well out of the draft which even further demonstrating her years of experience in the saddle.  Hitting me would have wrecked the both of us.   She was still controlling her machine, like a pro, and seemingly doing better than myself.  The best description of my attempt to stop was a controlled skid and I use the word controlled optimistically.   I could tell that I was still on the road because besides the crushing of little ice balls it was still smooth.  This is a vision unlike any other that I have seen on a bike.  Complete covering of the road with slippery matter from the sky.   Millions of white marbles hitting loudly and then bouncing in every direction while others were rolling down the hill towards some unknown finish line.  I am sure that this vision will haunt me for years.  I saw a wide place covered in hail and hoped that it was a grassy shoulder like ones that often appeared on the sides of the road when I was able to see.  I headed for it in a do or die attempt to stop.  The ice could have been covering rocks or mud in which case I would surly have crashed.  I knew that continuing down this ice runway was going to spell disaster sooner or later.    I could feel the point when the tires exited the pavement and I pulled my weight far back by getting my butt behind the seat and lowered my center of gravity by lowering my shoulders close to the top tube.  I knew that this was my best bet for survival if I hit a rock or hole.  My fate was hanging by a thread and I knew it.

As luck would have it I was pretty sure I was on grass and the 100 pound bike, I was attempting to stop, was suddenly easier to control.  I finally came to a stop and immediately looked back to see Cindie safely at a stop as well.  My first thought was what a relief.  No bloody crash to deal with in the middle of the Mexican wilderness.    My second thought was "what do we do now"?  My third thought was BLANK.  I stood there panting and bewildered. 

The hail was still pounding away but it was starting to be mixed with rain.  By now we had spent enough time in this hail storm that all the air vents in my helmet were full of ice balls.  When the rain arrived it created ice water gushing down my face and neck.   I suddenly felt very cold and I immediately became concerned about hypothermia.  The warmest piece of clothing, my fleece jacket, was soaked to the core.  The ground was ankle deep in water everywhere due to the sheeting effect of ice and rain falling so fast that that it did not have time to drain normally.  My heart was still racing from a thousand near crashes I had just experienced trying to stop.   Cindie seemed (uncharacteristically) very calm and asked me what we should do next.   She had to yell to be heard over the pounding of rain and hail.  Seeing her look at me in that probing hopeful way cleared my head and started me thinking and problem solving.  I looked around and did not see a sign of a house, barn, or ranch.  If I had I would have been knocking on the door.  No, we were on our own.

I tried to appear as calm as possible.  Cindie was counting on me to get us through this and I had to act like I knew what I was doing and had dealt with these adverse weather conditions many times before.  The truth was I had never seen such a storm in all of my life.  It came from nowhere and caught me completely off guard.  It dumped rain and ice on us like we were standing under some gigantic garden hose.  I regained my focus.  I replied to her "get the tent up, get everything inside, and we will dry it with the stove".  Without questioning anything (again uncharacteristically)  she swung into action.   She unpacked the tarp and covered my rear bags while I unrolled the tent.   Covering my rear bags was good thinking because they were the only bike bags we had that were not completely waterproof.  Once she finished she assisted me in getting the tent pitched.  We calmly and efficiently put the poles together and got the tent up in our fastest time ever.  We worked together in a display of teamwork that demonstrated just how good we are together.  That memory will always stick in my mind and remind me that we can get through anything.  This was no time to freak out.   The problem was that as soon as we got the poles in the tent the pouring rain was filling the water tight floor through the mosquito net roof before we could get the water tight fly on.  It was only exposed to the elements for a few seconds but it took a real soaking.   I sent Cindie in the tent and told her to towel dry the floor while I finished staking down the tent.  I pulled the bags off the bikes and handed them to her.  As I was handing her the bag with the computer (in a rubber dry bag) I saw that she was not towel drying the floor but instead had pulled apart our mess kit and was bailing water out by the pan full like our boat was sinking.  It must have been several inches of water in there.  Despite all of the water falling from the sky we still did not have any drinking water.  I set our biggest pan outside and watched it fill before my eyes.  It only took a couple minutes.  At least that problem was easily solved. 

I was still outside and starting to shiver.  When Cindie finally told me that she was ready for me to come in I was loosing motor control and had trouble getting my wet clothes off.  I was extremely cold and stiff.  It had been a long day.   Several hours of climbing, the terrifying skating rink decent, and now I was soaked to the bone and fading fast.  

Cindie had managed to remove most of the standing water.  The rest had pooled in the downhill corner of the tent.  The water was still falling from the sky and flowing under the tent.  Even though I had placed it on the highest ground around and on a noticeable slope it was still sheeting  across the hidden ground everywhere.   This made the rubber floor very cold and we sat on our damp camping chairs to keep us above the coldness.   Our gear was perfectly dry thanks to the water proof panniers but the floor and walls of the inside of the tent were dripping wet.  I was having trouble controlling my shivering and had a lot of difficulty lighting our stove.   My Boy Scout Master, Mr. Dawson, taught us boys that flames were strictly forbidden inside of tents because of the obvious fire danger.  He often recounted several horror stories to us to reinforce this.  He also taught us wilderness survival skills including the dangers of hypothermia.  He had equally gruesome stories for this.   I considered this information but continued lighting the stove.  It was my best chance.  I was in the initial stages of hypothermia and needed to warm up fast.   I finally got it burning properly and the tent immediately began to warm up.   My shivering subsided and I regained enough motor control to change into dry clothes.  Of course my warmest piece of clothing, my heavy fleece jacket, was rendered useless by being turned into a saturated sponge.  I wish I had put on my raincoat instead like Cindie did.

Things were improving.  The stove was quickly drying everything while the storm was starting to weaken outside.  The evening was waning and the outside temperature was falling rapidly.  The temperature inside the tent was climbing and we were able to turn the stove down.  Cindie started going through our food supplies and making a large pan of soup and pasta.  Eating hot food was the ticket to my recovery and I was feeling comfortable again.  The problem was that I did not have much fuel left and feared that the stove would not last much longer.  I could shake the fuel bottle and feel the last precious drops of Mexican Pemex low octane gasoline (Premium is hard to find in the small towns).  I wish I had filled it before entering the wilderness instead of trying to save weight.  The mistakes I had made earlier were starting to catch up with me. 

The rain had stopped and I went outside to relieve myself and fetch the last of our drinking water.  Fortunately, now I had a large pan of rain water to filter in the morning.  After I stumbled out of our little warm tent I was amazed.  The skies had cleared to the point that I could see stars in-between the clouds and the moonlight was illuminating things.  I rubbed my eyes and could not believe what I was seeing.   Patches of snow (more like hail) had accumulated while we were in the tent.  I did not think this was possible.   We were in Mexico and at a latitude well below that of Havana, Cuba.  For a moment I wondered if we could get snowed in up here but that was not very realistic.  At least the river that once covered the ground was gone and our ark of a tent was on solid ground. 

I climbed back in the tent where Cindie had made our bed and warmed myself next to the stove.  I could not believe that it was still running and wondered what it was using for fuel.  Our cloth castle actually looked dry enough for sleeping thanks to the stove.  At least one of my mistakes was not as big as I thought.  I wish I could had said the same for my wet jacket.  We turned off the stove and slept well.    It had been an eventful day.

In the morning we were awoken by the strange sound of a car driving by.  It sounded like we were camped right next to the road.  Upon closer inspection I found the tent was about a bike's length from the edge of the road.  It was the first humans that we had seen in a long while.  At least the road slanted away from us and carried water from our location instead of dumping it on us.  The sun was out and the patches of snow was melting quickly and the road was dry.  We packed up the tent wet and headed into the next town to dry everything in a cheap hotel.  The ride into town was very pleasant with sweeping green fields and more mist covered volcanoes.  Today we would stay below the mist. 

In the near future we will be faced with even higher passes.  I hear that there is a much higher and more remote road that stands between us and Toluca that we will see in about a week.  On the Guatemalan map we see several 12,000 ft. passes that can not be avoided.  I can not imagine what that will be like.  I intend to learn from my mistakes and be more prepared in the future.  I also learned that when Cindie and I worked together as a team we can overcome and accomplice great things.  I truly believe that we will make it around the world. 

Tim Travis

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Time to turn on our tail lights.

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Start of the big climb.

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Cindie stops to inspect the remaining snow on the lower slopes.

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View outside our tent of the instant swamp that the downpour created.

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