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One Woman's Solo Bicycle Tour Through Mexico
(by Marta Bowditch)


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September 22, 1997

Dear Everyone,

I'm in Ciudad Hidalgo, 130 miles west of Mexico City and 65 miles east of Morelia. Due to various computer problems, it's been 8 months since my last newsletter so I have a lot of territory to cover. This letter is a composite, written, when inspired by the pending (non)arrival of my computer, at various times en route.

My most recent problem, a crash, necessitated the reinstallation of my communications software, with the concomitant loss of my address book, mailing lists, and the 86 letters I'd just received. Thank you everyone for writing! This newsletter will have to suffice as an answer. I've recreated my mailing list from other sources, so please send me any corrections or additions you may have.

Now more tales from the road! When last heard from our heroine/cyclista (the Spanish word for heroine) was leaving San Antonio to rendezvous with her sister at Big Bend for the holidays before entering Mexico. On December 21st, John drove me to Brackettville, Texas to help me reach Big Bend by Christmas. The next morning, having for the first time loaded my bike with all the gear I thought I was carrying around the world, I wobbled 22 miles to Del Rio, where I stopped to re pack the panniers and visit the local bike shop. Foolishly I hadn't ridden my bike since overhauling it under John's very patient tutelage and something was out of kilter. Lacking confidence in my own diagnostic abilities, I decided to avail myself of my last opportunity to speak English with a bike mechanic. Though I was up at 4 AM the following morning organizing and writing letters to send with packages and pictures, I still wasn't packed by the time the bike was fixed and finally arranged to be picked up by my sister on her way to Big Bend.

Rachel and her husband, Will, came with their friends, John and Mary from North Carolina to join Mary's family at Big Bend. Family camping at Big Bend is her father's alternative to holiday celebrations, begun after her mother and the rest of the family became Jehovah's Witnesses 30 years ago. Every year since he retired, her father, Norm, has been the Rio Grande Village campground host from Thanksgiving to New Years. This year there were 19 family members plus Rachel, Will and I and he fed us all every night in his trailer.

Camping at Big Bend was great. 70 miles from the nearest U.S. town, the only traffic noise and light come from the campground itself, so the stars are spectacular and the silence of the night is only broken by coyotes, mules and sometimes javelina raiding the neighboring campsite. We did lots of hiking, the two most memorable being an 8 mile hike along the Mariscol Rim, the edge of the Mariscol canyon which forms the bend of Big Bend and a 15 mile hike up to and across the East and South Rims of the Chisos Basin. Another day we crossed the Rio Grande to visit Boquillas, an adobe and cinder block village situated on a barren plateau under the looming Sierra del Carmens. Access to the town is only by boat from Texas or by a 50 mile dirt and gravel road in Mexico. It was my introduction to Mexico and, because of my pending travels, I was both intimidated and intrigued, threatened by and at the same time finding beauty in the starkness of the landscape, the isolation, the people, and the language.

Likewise, the desert was both alien and fascinating. On the trip to the Mariscol Rim I had 2 close encounters with blind prickly pears which, instead of long spines, have velvety brown spots composed of hundreds of tiny, impossible to remove barbs. Rachel and I sarcastically called them pets after I made their acquaintance. The trail to the Rim was marked by small cairns amid lots of other rocks and required concentration to follow. Both Rachel and I got very thirsty on the way back, though we'd been drinking all day. We still had plenty of water but just couldn't seem to get enough. To me, that day felt like my first immersion in the desert and I was glad to be with experienced people who knew the plants and the terrain. Their stories of other trips in the area and their geographical knowledge gave me a great sense of place the park, the mountains, and the Rio Grande.

Rachel left December 31st, carrying lots of mail and another batch of discarded gear. I was hard pressed to choke back tears, missing her and knowing it was my last sight of family for a long time. I was planning to leave for Mexico the following day, but then I met an Irishman! He was using that irresistible lure, the loaded bicycle parked outside the camp store. I invited him to stop by my campsite and we spent the next 3 weeks traveling together. After dinner that night we hiked 3 miles along an unknown trail in the dark to welcome in the New Year by sitting in the hot springs beside the Rio Grande, watching the moon come up over the mountains in Mexico. About 2 AM we got a ride back to the campsite and took our sleeping bags and pads down beside the Rio Grande to sleep under the stars.

Awakened late the next morning by mules braying (which sound like some huge animal gasping its last breath) on the other side of the river, we walked back to camp, packed the bikes and rode back to the hot springs, where we very secretively stashed our bikes behind the abandoned post office and camped by the river under the stars again. We left the hot springs about 2 PM the next day, planning a short, 20 mile ride to our next campsite. After several stops and some walking (often straddling the bike because I was afraid I'd knock the bike over dismounting and be unable to pick it up again), I finally managed to ride the first 2 uphill miles over gravel road. After reaching the pavement I struggled on up the gentle grade for 2 more miles when fortunately Michael had a flat and we took an hour rest break sitting in the shade of the bikes. I was plagued by several problems. My tent was dragging on the wheel of the bike. It was hot (85 degrees) with no shade, I was dehydrated though I didn't realize it till later, I hadn't ridden in a month and I was trying to keep up with Michael. Michael, a minimalist tourer by nature, was equipped for a 3 week trip, while I, a maximalist equipped for a 2 year journey around the world, was carrying a lot of weight, both physically and psychologically. Though we had enough water for that night, we decided to ride another 6 miles to put us within reach of water the next morning. For the first time in my life, having enough water had become the central factor in my plans. A mile later we decided to solicit water from passing motorists. Bill, the first person who stopped, only had the melted ice water from his cooler which we happily drank. Then he offered us a ride which we accepted with alacrity, at first planning to stop at our primitive campsite, but then deciding to accompany him to the Chisos Basin Campground. We shared his campsite that night and decided to stay for three days, one for me to re pack and ship another load home, then 2 days for an overnight hiking trip in the Chisos. I was grateful. At those temperatures I literally couldn't contemplate the visibly steep 5 mile climb out of the Basin. Even in retrospect it intimidates me.

The weather turned cooler as we returned from the hiking trip and we settled in for an evening's reading in the tent. Soon I began feeling a lot of movement around my feet. After Michael denied responsibility, we both sat bolt upright, to discover a skunk exploring the premises. Avoiding any sudden moves, Michael and I did our best to project an aura of calm and welcome, while she meandered all the way up to our knees between our sleeping bags, like my cat looking for a warm place to sleep, before finally making her way back outside. We decided the air would be fresher inside the tent with the door closed, even with our smelly boots.

We awoke to a Basin covered with snow and ice. Every cactus spine and every bicycle spoke had its own halo. After a hike and oatmeal cooked under adverse conditions, we spent most of the day at the lodge, reading and writing e mail. Michael proposed renting a car and touring the Southwest over dinner at the lodge that night. I thought it was a great idea 1. I wanted to spend more time with Michael though I was unwilling to consider biking further than the border in the States, 2. I wouldn't have to bike that 5 mile climb out of the Chisos Basin, and 3. I could postpone the scary crossing into Mexico a while longer.

The next day was still below freezing, roads were closed in the morning, and there were sporadic power outages. Almost everyone left before another predicted storm that night. We felt very intrepid as one of three sets of tent campers who had survived the night, until we met 6 campers who spent the night without tents on Emory Peak. When we met a guy who invited us for dinner in his room, I asked about a shower (cold sponge baths and especially the hair washing in the unheated bathroom was getting a little old) and Michael asked about a ride to pick up a rental car. That shows what our priorities were. The roads opened unexpectedly at noon the next day and I rushed down the mountain with Ann and Bryan, before calling to reserve a car, only to discover that, due to my lack of personal car insurance, I would have to go back to San Antonio to get a vehicle. The 6 hour drive each way wasn't a problem, but the decision to spend an additional 10 15 days biking back from San Antonio after returning the car required some thought.

When I returned the next afternoon we loaded the 2 bikes and our considerable gear into our new home, a little red Suzuki Swift, and drove over the dreaded 17% grade hill (there were signs warning motorists of the climb ahead) to camp at Big Bend Ranch. We stopped in Presidio and previewed my crossing by walking across the border to Ojinaga the next morning, before driving to the Guadalupe Mountains and hiking to Devil's Hall at dusk through the snow. Overnight the fog coated everything with ice and when we awoke the sky overhead was blue while the golden brown mountains played hide and seek in the fog and the rest of Texas was a sea of white clouds.

We hiked McKittrick Canyon then rushed to Carlsbad Caverns for the last natural entrance admission. Like Jonah, or perhaps proportionately more like plankton, we were swallowed up by the mouth of the cavern looming over us, gradually cutting off the natural light as we walked rapidly into the bowels of the earth. Actually it felt more like a "fantastic voyage" through the earth's skeleton. Bicycling gives me one way of appreciating the earth's immensity. This gave me another. Despite descending the equivalent of 70 stories toward the center of the earth, we only traveled through the merest fraction of the earth's crust and the scale of everything was enormous. We also only walked through the upper level of the caverns; there's another, not fully explored lower level not open to the general public as well as several other nearby caves, also not fully explored. Leaving Carlsbad, we drove across New Mexico via Alamagordo (lots of "glow in the sky" jokes) to visit Deb Beaumont, Jean Harland's daughter, in Tucson, Arizona where we went to Saguaro National Monument as well as numerous book stores.

Michael is a children's librarian in London and an avid reader. We share a similar taste in books. I'd started one of the books he'd brought, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, at Leslie and Gary's at the beginning of my trip and wanted to finish it. (I did and have since read his Songlines, the ultimate travelers book.) Michael had started the book I was reading, John Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez, just before leaving London and had contemplated bringing it along. Michael is especially interested in books about Native American cultures and particularly the Plains Indians, with whom he feels an affinity. In fact, he would like to arrange a work exchange for 6 months to a year with a children's librarian from the north central United States. He has already gotten approval from his supervisors but has not yet found anyone in the States who is interested. If you know of anyone who might be interested his address and phone number are:

Michael Fountain
182B Devonshire Road
London SE23 3TB
Great Britain
Tel: 011 44 (181) 291 0246 (home)

Leaving Deb's we detoured by Organ Pipe National Monument due to bad weather before heading north to the Grand Canyon, via Prescott, Arizona where we saw a UFO (I took somewhat belated pictures). We reached the South Rim at midnight and camped at 0 degrees F. in 2 feet of snow. After a gourmet thaw out breakfast overlooking a canyon full of fog, we drove along the South Rim until the fog lifted, then hiked about a mile down the Kaibob Trail into the canyon before reluctantly returning to start the 24 hour drive back to the Midlands, Texas airport where Michael caught a plane the next day.

I spent another week at John's, re packing (again) and catching up on my journal and correspondence. John and I had lunch in Castroville, beyond city traffic, the day I left, then I loaded up my bike and said good bye, this time for real! I was cultivating a new attitude living in the moment and having confidence that everything would work out. For the first time I had no bike maps detailing road conditions, campgrounds and hotels, so I had no idea where I was going to spend the night. I'd learned with Michael that sleeping without a tent in that country was possible no bugs, no dew or rain, enough warmth so if I needed to scrounge a place to camp off the road, I'd be less visible.

My new attitude was greatly bolstered that first night. I stopped to inquire about camping at Shivani's Truck Stop and the proprietor, Indenbhai Patel from India, immediately made me welcome, offering me ice as I walked in the door. I camped behind the store and spent the evening with his family, eating delicious Indian food and discussing Indian cooking. His wife, Shalya, and their two daughters had been driving back from San Antonio the previous night when they met a drunk driver coming toward them at 70 MPH on their side of the road. She swerved to miss him and totaled their car, rolling it 3 times. She and her daughters emerged virtually unscathed and very grateful to be alive. It seemed a bit incongruous, finding an Indian family running a truck stop in the middle of the west Texas countryside, but as I shared their hospitality and watched their interactions with their customers, I realized that their friendliness and their Buddhist inspired, caring attitude toward everyone they met would enable them to make a home anywhere.

Books About Adventurous Women

Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman's Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China & Vietnam
List Price: $24.95
Price: $17.47
You Save: $7.48 (30%)

Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone
List Price: $13.00
Price: $10.40
You Save: $2.60 (20%)

Miles from Nowhere : A Round the World Bicycle Adventure
List Price: $14.95
Price: $10.47
You Save: $4.48 (30%)
2 - 3 days)

The Adventure of Two Lifetimes
Price: $15.95

Midlife Mavericks: Women reinventing their lives in Mexico.
Our Price: $19.95

Cycling into Your Soul
Price: $18.95


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