Pan American Trails | Part 1

The story of a solo tour over some of the world’s worst roads. A trip from St. Louis to Managuz in Nicaragua…

By Jose Porta, Photography by Jose Porta

From the July 1935 issue of Motorcyclist Magazine

It was on the eighth day of May, nineteen hundred and thirty that a lone motorcycle rider brought his machine to a stop in front of the City Hall in Saint Louis, Missouri. A clock struck ten as he climbed the steps that led him into the office of the Mayor of the City.

A few minutes later he came out again and walked towards his motorcycle. By that time a group of curiosity seekers had gathered around the machine and a lot of conjecturing and whispering was going on among them, as the motorcycle was unlike any other seen on the road.

At first glance it could be seen that it was built for travel, especially for rough and arduous travel. It was stripped of all unnecessary equipment. The lights, mudguards, battery and generator had been removed. The gas tank was extremely large, having the capacity of five gallons of fuel. In front of the handlebars a special bracket had been built to support an extra can holding three gallons of gasoline.

The rear of the machine was carrying the heaviest load; two saddle bags were astride the rear wheel and a heavy bundle was strongly tied to the luggage carrier. To complete the outfit and probably to more stimulate the curiosity of the onlookers a .22 caliber rifle was securely tied against the front fork, thus giving the finishing touch to an already overloaded machine.

Without a word the young rider sat astride his machine and with a quick jerk of his right leg he sent a spark of life into the powerful motor. A twist of the throttle and he was gone.

Who the rider was the crowd knew not. Where he was headed for they didn’t know. To them he was just another young man starting out on the royal road to adventure.

And in truth I was young then and spring had come and like most young men the traveling fever had got the best of me. I wanted to go places to see the world. The United States wasn’t big enough for me any longer, having seen most of it from the saddle of a motorcycle during several trips that lasted from one week to two months. I wanted to see foreign lands and Mexico and Central and South America had always held a special fascination for my easily impressed imagination.

Leaving Saint Louis behind me I headed south with a light heart and a happy frame of mind. I had not a worry in the world to bother me. I was master of my own actions and all my belongings were with me and I could go where I pleased and stop when and where I wanted.

I had gone to the City Hall to have the Mayor sign me off as I intended to keep a record of every town or village I was to go thru.

My trip to the Mexican border was uneventful, I spent the first night at Poplar Bluff where I told the Hotel keeper I was going to South America. As a rule, in order not to cause too much commotion I was telling everybody that I was headed towards Los Angeles. But now that the secret came out I suddenly became a public figure. A reporter was sent from the local newspaper and as a result of his article when I left at dawn a large number of people were lined up in Main Street to see me off.

The whole thing meant nothing to them but just the same it made me feel better and my enthusiasm increased.

My enthusiasm died off soon enough though, as the sky clouded, perhaps in mute protest against my conceited thoughts, and a torrential downpour washed the road, ahead of me.

There I was on my second day out, caught in the rain already. But what’s a little rain for a man who was to go thru those terrific hurricanes of tropical countries, those slimy and tricky swamps of Central America?

Calmly sitting on my saddle, with poise and dignity, I let it pour. That was on the paved road. A few hours later I struck mud. The pavement had ended and I was to go thru eight miles of dirt road. Here it was altogether a different story. My poise and dignity were turned into the most clowning efforts at keeping my balance. I kept picking up that motorcycle as fast as it went down. I began to wonder if they had any rain in Mexico. Did I really want to go to those tropical countries where they had those terrific hurricanes and those slimy and tricky swamps?

A fellow motorist came rushing by on a flivver.

“Where are you going, partner?” he shouted at me.

“To California,” I hollered back as I took another flop.

I had heard that it never rained in California.

It took me a few days to get to New Laredo, on the Mexican border and it rained all the way thru.

At noon I crossed the bridge that joins the United States to Mexico. They charged me one nickel toll on the American side and on the Mexican side they hardly stopped me at all. It happened to be a Mexican holiday and only one guard was on duty. He told me to go ahead and then came back the next morning and show them what I had in my bundles.

It sounded silly but I went ahead into Mexico and I stopped at a hotel in Laredo for the night.

The next morning I went back to the bridge and here I had my first unpleasant surprise. It was all right for me to get into Mexico but I had to pay a heavy duty for the motorcycle. They wanted me to deposit almost one hundred dollars if I wanted to keep my machine in Mexico, that sum being returned to me on my leaving the country.

I tried to talk them out of it but it was all in vain. They succeeded in convincing me that they were just keeping that money for me, kind of helping me out so I wouldn’t be held up on the way. I almost thanked them for their thoughtfulness and I went to the nearest bank to cash some travelers’ checks. They don’t use any paper money in Mexico and for one hundred dollars I was given two hundred silver pesos and a sack to put it in.

I walked out of the bank with that sack in my hands. I tried to hide it but it was too big. I felt uneasy at first but I was soon relieved to find out that nobody seemed to pay any attention to me.

I went to the Custom House where they made me sign twelve documents and then relieved me of the sack.

A few minutes later I was back on the road again, free to go where I pleased.

I had the thrill of going over what was possibly the longest stretch of straight highway in the world; forty-six miles of straight paved road, without a single curve. It was part of the highway to Mexico City which was at that time under construction. It would have been easy to follow that road all the way to Mexico City, but I wasn’t out to break any records. I wanted to see Mexico and I intended to see every nook and corner of it and go to those out-of-the-way places where the people are not yet affected by our civilized ways. I wanted to see the Mexicans in their natural habitat, living their own lives in their own ways.

It took me but a few hours to get to Monterrey where I intended to stay a few days to make arrangements for the rest of the trip. From then on the real work would start and paved highways would be but things of the past.

In Monterrey I got in touch with a gasoline company trying to induce them to furnish me with free gas in exchange for advertising.

I was told it could be done, but they had to write to the main office in Mexico City and it would take about a week to get an answer.

Therefore whether I liked it or not I had to stay in Monterrey for one week. I was glad I did in a way because it rained steadily every day until I was ready to leave town.

While in Monterrey I boarded with a nice and interesting family. Don Andres was the head of this family. Eighty-eight years old, an old time gold digger, all he would talk about was gold and hidden treasures. He had discovered a gold vein in Durango a few years past which would yield enough gold to make anybody multimillionaire in no time. All he needed was a partner to put up the money to file up the claim.

And I was to be the partner, he said.

It would only cost me five thousand dollars to become a millionaire.

Mexico is really the land of golden opportunities. I had just landed in the country and somebody was trying to make a millionaire out of me already and only for five thousand dollars. Too bad I didn’t have the five thousand dollars.

But Don Andres didn’t mind. He was willing to start on something smaller. He knew of an old lady who lived in an old house which used to belong to a famous bandit. Don Andres was sure that there was a treasure hidden in that house. He wanted me to go with him with pick and shovel and tear down the building. I told him I wanted to go to South America.

A few days later an answer came from Mexico City about the gasoline. They were not interested.

I had to do something because my bankroll was very low, having suffered the biggest cut at the border.

So, I had a thousand postal cards printed with my picture, and I figured on giving them away in exchange for gasoline and other necessities. I was kind of bashful in showing them around at first but finally I worked up enough nerve and I got some people interested in them. Sure enough everybody wanted one but thinking that they were free they gave me nothing in exchange. It wasn’t such a smart idea after all.

I bought some gas and left town.

It had stopped raining but the roads were still wet and I had quite a time in getting to Saltillo where I inquired about the road to Torreon.

I was sent to Carneros, twenty miles south. There is where I first learned at my own expense that it is very bad business to inquire about the road. Everybody used to send me to a different direction and I never knew who to believe. Most people don’t know where a certain place is and still they insist upon showing you the way. I made the twenty miles to Carneros on a very bumpy and narrow road, so bumpy indeed that on one jump one saddle bag was torn clear off, falling on the road.

When I arrived at Cameros some kind soul told me that I should ride back eight miles to Aguanueva and from there take a road that would get me to Torreon. I rode back the eight miles and in Aguanueva I was told that I had to go back all the way to Saltillo from where a good road would take me to Torreon. By that time I was about ready to blow up.

Why couldn’t I go straight to Torreon from where I was without having to go back to Saltillo? Yes, I could, but there was no regular road and I would have to follow cow paths from ranch to ranch until I got there. It would be very easy for me to lose my way. I didn’t relish the idea of going back all the way to Saltillo so I decided to take to the cow paths.

Later on I wished I had gone to Saltillo. It was no fun finding my way thru those deserts, following some almost invisible tracks. The going was rough and tedious, and I was forever afraid of being on the wrong trail.

And to make thing worse towards evening I saw an enormous black cloud ahead of me. A few minutes later I was caught under a heavy storm.

In a few moments the whole soil was turned into mud, and mud of the most slippery kind. I couldn’t stop anywhere because there was no shelter in sight and the trails were fast becoming obliterated by the erosion of the water. Sliding and falling I kept going doggedly ahead.

Here was a heavy puddle of water which would flush the carburetor and stop the motor. There was a steep hill and the rear wheel would spin around refusing to carry me over the top. On and on I went until I saw the outline of a ranch silhouetted against the horizon.`

Pan-American trails by Jose Porta is a story full of adventure and the romance of travel. The author secured an unusually fine photographic record of his trip and many interesting pictures will appear with the successive installments during the next eight months in this magazine-Ed. Note.

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By Jose Porta
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