Touring Mexico on a BMW R80GS | The Kindness of Strangers

Our Dependence on One Another is a Good Thing

By Tim Courts, Photography by Tim Courts

I’ve always loved riding in Mexico. Pretty roads, cheap hotels, and warm weather would be enough to get me down there. But there’s something more.

Back when my son was too young to care whether he was in school or not, we used to go down to Baja California in the spring and camp on the beaches. Once south of Ensenada, nobody ever passed by a vehicle stopped on the road. Everyone would try to help, and sooner or later somebody would have the piece of wire for the muffler or some brake fluid, or whatever was needed. It’s still much that way off the major highways throughout the country, and even in the more rural areas of mainland Mexico.

In December of 2004, my wife Carrie and I headed for Mexico on our R80GS, escaping the frostbitten landscape of New England. I hadn’t really used the bike in a couple of years, so we spent the U.S. portion of the trip doing a sort of rolling tune-up. We stopped at BMW shops in Atlanta (new throttle cables), Baton Rouge (voltage regulator), San Antonio (headlight bulb), and finally Tucson, where in the course of fitting a new rear tire I noticed the brake shoes were down to metal and replaced them. A pilgrimage to Al Jesse’s shop near Phoenix yielded a pair of aluminum saddlebags, de rigeur for the adventurous, and off we went. A mere 80,000 miles on the old boy at that point, so why worry?

We crossed into Sonora at Agua Prieta, heading south toward the coast. The plan was to meet up with friends in Guanajuato for Christmas, 1200 miles or so. The highway was agreeable for the most part, with only the odd third-world detour around some problem spots.

On the second day, south of Sahuaripa, a bridge was under construction. Just before the bridge there was a row of white-painted stones across the roadway, and an arrow pointing off the road, so we dropped down off the highway onto dusty, truck-chopped dirt toward the riverbed beneath the bridge. We did fine for a while, waving to the bridge crew, but as the going got wetter the bike got heavier and less and less wieldy. Finally, distracted, I misinterpreted one of the rows of white stones and sank the bike in mud up to the saddlebags. It was stuck so deep that we didn’t even need the sidestand; we just stepped off and sloshed away to higher ground. We could hear the crew laughing up on the bridge.

Had we been alone we would have unloaded the bike and looked around for brush, sticks, rocks, and levers. But as I’ve so often found, there was a better way. Wrestling out of my riding gear, I walked over to the bridge crew, hat in hand. In terrible Spanish I tried to say I hoped they’d enjoyed my little show, and wondered if they might spare a few moments to help.

The foreman was a dashing fellow, obviously in charge, and apparently glad for the distraction. He grabbed the gang and we walked back to the bike together. He asked about our trip, how we liked Mexico, told us about a big rodeo and fiesta happening nearby that weekend, and with no great effort the five of us dragged the 600-pound package out of the mud and onto terra firma. Handshakes all around, along with many thanks and admonitions to watch where I was going from then on. And off we went, warmed by new friendships.

We had a beautiful ride down through those dry hills, little towns with only a restaurant and maybe a gas station, which maybe had gas. Fortunately a full tank is 11 gallons on my GS, easing one of the usual rural-Mexico worries. A couple of days later we hit the coast road north of Obregon, and I figured now we would make some time, the coast road being a modern highway, tolls and all. But as soon as we got to highway speed I could feel the clutch slipping, and in a glance confirmed the telltale drip of oil from the clutch housing.

By Tim Courts
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