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


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A few days later I reached Del Rio (again!) and took my bike in for another checkup. I'd been struggling with the riding but couldn't figure out why no broken spokes, no brakes rubbing, etc. though I'd stopped several times to check. All the other possibilities I'd considered much more road resistance from knobby tires, extra weight, 2 months without riding, fears of entering Mexico didn't seem to have any easy solutions. The bike shop didn't have any other ideas, but I did meet a fellow cyclist, Heinz, an organic farmer from Virginia and previously from Switzerland, who was biking across the States. After some discussion we agreed to try riding together to Seminole Canyon the next day. We barely made it in time for the last tour at 3 PM, though for me it was a real struggle. Once again I was confronted with my riding difficulties, enhanced by being compared with a better cyclist. We camped together that night but split up about mid day the next day. We were getting a bit frustrated with each other, partly due to my slowness. but also, despite having a lot in common, a lack of compatibility. Perhaps I would have made more of an effort if I hadn't just spent the 3 weeks with Michael. To describe the difference: with Michael I shared the same books; with Heinz I shared the same brand of toothpaste (Auromere, a health food brand). The toothpaste analogy isn't as trite as it may seem. It represents a common commitment to a healthy and environmentally conscious lifestyle, though with me it's an attitude while with Heinz it's more of an obsession. Nevertheless, I learned several things from Heinz how to get on and off my bike over the top tube instead of knocking it over trying to swing my leg over the load on the back, oiling the bottom bracket, and changing a flat without removing the panniers information I've blessed him for many times. Over and over again on this trip information and/or help serendipitously presents itself when needed, though sometimes I don't recognize it till later. Developing confidence that things will work out has really decreased my fear of the unknown.

After Heinz left, I stopped for lunch at Langtry, named by the somewhat infamous Judge Roy Bean for Lily Langtry, a famous English actress with whom he was enamored. Bean, a self appointed though later sanctioned Justice of the Peace, settled in the area with his tent saloon when the railway was completed and administered his own brand of justice. A man found dead beside the tracks with $35 and a pistol in his pocket was fined $35 for carrying a gun, a fine which the Judge pocketed. Strangers from the train paying for their drinks with a $20 gold piece, would find that runners sent for change would take an unconscionably long time to return, so long, in fact, that the traveler would be forced to choose between forfeiting his change and missing his train. Forbidden by the Texas Rangers to use San Antonio or El Paso and discouraged by the Mexican government, promoters looking for a site to hold a then illegal championship prize fight were invited to Langtry. When the train carrying the fighters, the promoters, and the spectators arrived, it also carried the Texas Rangers. Judge Roy Bean, however, had had the foresight to build a bridge across the Rio Grande, so the fight was held in Mexico with the Mexican authorities 1500 miles away. I can tell you just how desolate those miles are.

I arrived in Sanderson the next day and spent the evening with folks from the campground, climbing around the mountain and exploring some local caves. Then it was on to Marathon (a 50 mile gentle climb with a Tailwind!) where I met the original Marlboro Man and a French couple traveling in a van with their baby. We spent a couple of hours conversing in a mixture of French, Spanish and English, an experience which gave me hope for my Spanish in Mexico. The climb from Alpine to Marfa over Paisano Pass was gorgeous! All the drab gray white of the limestone mountains was covered with deep golden grassland sprinkled with 20 foot GREEN trees. I camped too far west in Marfa that night to see the mysterious Marfa lights, first documented in the late 1800's and seen almost every night since then.

I anticipated another great day of riding the following day but got up to below freezing temperatures and overcast skies those unpredictable Texas Alps! Matters hadn't improved after breakfast, but, having left my non existent golf clubs at home and thus not tempted by the highest (4000+ feet) golf course in Texas, I set out for Presidio. According to a sign in Marfa, Presidio is the oldest town in America, settled 10,000 years ago, but its growth rate has been very slow with at least one attempted suburb 20 miles out now a ghost town. 15 miles into the ride I was rescued by two knights named Richard and Bo in a shining white truck who turned around and came back to offer me a ride. Sometimes looking miserable produces results! They were en route to Presidio and Ojinaga, Mexico to check on their water purification business, run by Bo's uncle. I went to Ojinaga with them three times in the next 2 days, met Chuy, Bo's uncle, had 2 delicious meals with his family, and tried speaking a little Spanish. I came to feel that Mexico had a personal face and that I was welcome there. Bo and Chuy drew me maps of the road between Ojinaga and Chihuahua including the climbs which they described in excruciating detail and gave me Chuy's phone number in case I had problems. I stayed one more day in Presidio, calling people and e mailing before finally crossing the border with my bike and gear at 2 PM, Tuesday, February 11, 1997!

The feared border hassles didn't materialize, either on the American or the Mexican side. I only had to cope with incredulity and asking the Mexican border guards in Spanish to take my picture in front of the Welcome to Mexico sign. I'd decided crossing the border was emotionally enough for one day, so I spent the rest of the afternoon going by Chuy's to get water, finding a hotel, getting my hair cut and buying fruit all transacted in Spanish! I was gratified by being able to manage, though I was also busy telling myself that everything was normal. That night I read a novel (in English) and pretended that I wasn't riding off into the wilds of Mexico the next day.

My approach the next morning was don't think, just do it! That got me out the door and through the first 35 kilometers of riding, even with a headwind. Then came the MOUNTAIN! I could see it coming from miles away, a looming gray wall that stretched all the way across the horizon. I didn't take any pictures of it and later realized that taking a picture would have forced me to acknowledge its intimidating visage. I reached the climb about 1 PM during the hottest part of the day. I was still having unexplained difficulty riding and my derailleur wasn't shifting into my granny gear. I stopped to rest near the bottom, feeling very daunted, and a Mexican in a pick up stopped and asked in English "What's wrong?" but, expecting Spanish, I didn't understand him. I went into my rehearsed speech .. "No entiendo. Hablo solamente un poco de espanol." (I don't understand. I only speak a little Spanish.) He answered "I speak a little English. What's wrong?" I told him I was just resting and that I was okay. If he'd offered me a ride directly I probably would have taken it, but pride and intimidation (I might have to speak Spanish) wouldn't let me ask.

Climbing the mountain was a real struggle. I stopped many times and took 2 naps with my head on my arms. Only my sister would have had enough patience to ride with me. The physical exertion required energy I'd been using to keep my fears at bay and they all came flooding in. So there I was climbing a mountain in an alien, barren environment in 90 degree heat with no shade, having all my doubts about my riding abilities justified, having an attack of nerves about being in Mexico, trying not to panic about speaking Spanish, and finally not knowing where I was going to spend the night. I certainly wasn't going to make it another 40 kilometers to Coyame, the nearest town. On the positive side, there was very little traffic which added to the sense of isolation but made for more pleasant biking conditions. All the vehicles gave me plenty of room and everyone smiled and waved, especially the bus drivers.

I reached the top of El Peguis at 5 PM and hiked to the overlook into Peguis Canyon, a very narrow, deep canyon cut by the Conchis River. I considered camping at the top but it was obviously a much used parking spot so I decided to cast myself on the mercies of the customs police, 1 kilometer further down the road. Now, looking back after 6 months in Mexico, I know it was ridiculous to be afraid, but I'd heard so many stories of Federales, border patrols, and mordita from Americans. I'd even been warned not to look authorities in the eye because it would be considered an act of defiance, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

Like everyone else I've met in Mexico, the customs officials were helpful and friendly. They didn't ask for my passport and didn't go through my bags. One of the officers spoke some English which helped. I asked for water and for permission to camp on the hill behind the station. They asked if I'd prefer a bed and a cold shower inside the station. I accepted gladly, though with some concern that it might be illegal. I couldn't imagine U.S. Customs officials making the same offer though perhaps they would. I went to bed early, totally exhausted, staying up only long enough to meet the changing shift at 8 PM. Periodically throughout the night, the light went on in my room when someone came back to use the bathroom but otherwise I slept undisturbed.

I got up about 7 the next morning, knowing I faced another climb. The female customs officer fed me breakfast and we talked a little in my halting Spanish. Preceded by a nice downhill, the somewhat shorter climb was eased by anticipation of plains ahead. At 10 AM it was cooler and I adjusted my derailleur so that it shifted into my granny gear. I reminded myself of the Unaka lesson that persistence and stops eventually reach the top. My bubble burst when I crested the gap and found another unexpected range of mountains straight ahead. I forgot to live in the moment, and the climb ahead coupled with increasing heat began beating me before I started. I also forgot that hard learned rule no climb is as bad as it appears from a distance. As I started the climb a front started moving through and the wind picked up, cooling things off. I passed a gang of men working on the road and my pride wouldn't let me stop until I was out of sight. By then I'd discovered that the climb wasn't as steep and was much more manageable. A man driving a donkey cart on a dirt track paralleling the road paced me most of the way up the mountain. The descent came just in time as the wind picked up and started to blow sand as I rode into Coyame.

I spent that night and the next (a flat the first morning gave me an excuse for a day off) in a half finished cabana for which I paid $115 pesos (about $17), one of the most expensive rooms I've had. There was no shower curtain and a trickle of cold water the first night. The second night there was hot water but the following morning there was no water at all it had frozen. Throughout the day, the workmen building the cabana moved closer and closer out of curiosity, finally congregating in the room next door. Eventually I invited them in, gave them the grand bike tour, and a copy of my projected route. My comment of "muy bonito" (very handsome) to one man admiring himself in my bike mirror, elicited a great round of laughter. There are natural caves near Coyame and I'm sure if I'd asked they would have given me a tour, but I wasn't yet comfortable enough with my Spanish or the country to try.

As I left the next morning, I met 2 English speaking men who were amazed and encouraging. One gave me his card and offered me a place to stay if I came through Ciudad Jimenez. That day was a great ride over rolling countryside. The mountains were blue and individually delineated instead of being one continuous forbidding gray escarpment across my path. The land had changed too, from gray white rock with very little vegetation to red and green rock with golden brown grasses which seemed to make the landscape glow. A bus passed me that afternoon, full of children who were leaning out the window and chanting to cheer me on. I was so touched I started to cry. That night I camped sans tent behind some bushes by the side of the road. I'd finally figured out that I could unload the bike and carry everything off the road piecemeal, though I was careful not to be seen. There was very little traffic at night, and I was essentially invisible, especially after dark.

Arriving in Chihuahua, a city of 800,000 people, at 5 PM with only a small map from the guidebook was the first test of my Spanish direction finding abilities. Some of my informants thought I'd studied sign language instead of Spanish. I stayed in Chihuahua a week awaiting a shipment of inner tubes from the States, and was adopted by Aurora, a staff person at the hotel who often spent her two hour lunch breaks talking with me in Spanish. She said that most foreigners who stayed there didn't speak, even to say good morning. People on the streets usually didn't speak to me unless I spoke first, but then I inevitably got a genuine greeting and a warm smile. However, as I left on my bike I felt like a one person parade as person after person whistled and cheered me on. The bike, as always, opened doors to experiences and people I wouldn't have met otherwise.

I'd had four flats since leaving John's, an abnormally high number for me, and decided that I needed more tubes before heading for Copper Canyon. Those flats were actually a blessing in disguise. In the process of looking for inner tubes in Chihuahua (bike tires are a different size in Mexico) and then ordering them through Candace, I finally solved the mystery of those unexplained riding difficulties. My tubes were too small, so even though my tires appeared fully inflated, they weren't. My bike pump was also half broken, so each time I'd had a flat it was difficult to re inflate the tire properly. With new tubes and a new pump I smiled as I tackled the headwind on the way out of Chihuahua.

A strong and unpredictable sidewind the next afternoon blew that smile off my face. After stopping 10 times in one flat stretch to avoid being blown off the road, I decided it would be faster to walk. At the top of the first hill I had to lean the bike over in the ditch to hold it steady enough to mount. As I was walking up the second hill, a passing truck passenger handed me a cold orange soda. Mountains visible earlier in the distance were obscured by dust. I began to think I'd be camping again that night but 3 guys in a pick up offered me a ride. We passed a young apple orchard and all the trees were bent sideways. As we came around the last curve overlooking the city, the guys said there's Cuatehmoc but it wasn't there it was hidden by dust.

After listening to the wind howl around the hotel all night, I took the next day off but tried to leave the following day. In one hour I rode 7 kilometers (about 4 miles), gave up, turned around, and was back in the city in 10 minutes without pedaling on level ground. I still wanted to ride because I wanted to get some serious mountain riding in before Creel, both to see if I could do it and also training before the much more strenuous ride from Creel to Batopilas. However, the wind was even worse the next morning, so I took the train. Getting my gear (5 bags and my backpack) plus the bike onto the crowded train was almost as much of a challenge. There was no place to put the bike, so I left it partly blocking the exit door.. At subsequent stops I could tell it hadn't been stolen by watching people struggling through the door. A fellow passenger eventually came to complain and helped me negotiate a place for it in the caboose. He later came back and requested 20 pesos because it was "forbidden." I paid gladly, both for the security and for the relief that it wasn't inconveniencing so many people. The anticipated riding will have to be pretty grim before I'll willingly deal again with the hassles and fears of getting everything loaded onto public transport.

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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