Pan-American Trails part 3

The story of a long solo travel tour through Mexico to Central America

By Jose Porta, Photography by Jose Porta

The intrepid motorcycle adventurer has taken a loop route through Mexico which brought him back to the Coast near the United States line. Undaunted by hardships including weather and road conditions beyond description he now heads south on an uncharted route toward his Central America objective. Begin here to read this thrilling yarn of motorcycle meanderings.

I passed Jimenez and towards evening I went through the worst sandstorm I ever was subjected to. It started as a mild wind which rose gradually into a maddening fury of flying sand and gravel. All the sands of Mexico seemed to have been turned loose against me, using me for a target. Every grain a piercing needle, it felt as if a hundred giants were throwing sand at me with a hundred shovels.

With my face covered by my shirt I didn’t know which way to turn. Breathing was difficult and riding was impossible. Kneeling besides my prone motorcycle I waited.

The fury of the sand was merciless. Fed by an ever increasing wind it rose to greater heights. Enhanced by its success on earth it arose to conquer the skies. Then the gods protested. A deafening roar and the masters of the skies, the clouds, emptied their content on that rebellious sand, stifling its fight and forcing it back to the earth.

It was all over and the sandstorm ended as fast as it started giving vent to a steady rain that lasted until late at night.

It was a couple of days later that a dusty rider and a dustier motorcycle arrived in Chihuahua, the capital of the state by the same name in Northern Mexico. By this time the rainy season had started and it was raining practically every day. Still I preferred to have rain in the deserts than in the swamps of the Central American countries, although I was now inconvenienced by the countless number of rivers that I had to cross all along the way.

With renewed hope I pushed ahead. There were people at the house but they told me that farther on there was another ranch. Seeing that I wasn’t welcome I went my way. On and on I kept struggling. A few more spills, more mud, sweat dripping from my forehead. The sun was setting somewhere beyond those prairies and nothing in sight, nothing but rain.

North of Chihuahua the country became more and more barren and desolate. The road could have been described as good if it hadn’t been for the miles and miles of mud that I had to go through.

Whenever I had a chance I would leave the road and ride through the deserts where at least the ground was dry. During the day I passed a couple of ranches, El Sauz and Rancho Providencia and at night I stopped at Casas Grandes.

From then on the fun started. I found myself in real-to-goodness God’s open country. Again the roads were almost invisible and I never knew whether I was on the right tracks or not. All I cared for was about roaming around in those endless deserts.

I would see a snake, a rattlesnake! With my motorcycle I would go after it, but it crawled away and disappeared. Then another one! With better luck I went over it with both wheels trying to squash it on the ground, but the reptile just sank in the soft sand and whizzed away unhurt. Finding this new sport to my liking I kept on looking for more snakes. They were plentiful and I had the time of my life.

I enjoyed this part of my trip the most. There was no rain there and my tanks were full of gas and oil and I had enough water to last me for a day or two. Therefore I didn’t worry. Yet I had no food and when I wanted to eat I had to kill a jack-rabbit broil it on an improvised fire and gobble it down with a sip of flat water from my canteen while sitting on the hot sand under a broiling noonday sun. Was it fun? To most people I don’t believe it would have been but to me it was.

I always did like the desert and I felt at home in it. From the saddle of my motor I could look around for miles and miles, as far as where the sky comes down to meet the earth, and could see nothing but the most complete barrenness, the most discouraging desolation. Not a tree to break the monotony of the scenery, not a sound to compete with the purring of the motor, not a house and not a trace of human life.

And I liked it! At such times one has a feeling of freedom impossible to describe, a feeling of awe and admiration for that endless open country, where a man is his own king, a world unto himself. One wants to shout, just to hear the sound of a human voice. Riding in those deserts is like paddling a row boat in the middle of the ocean, the scenery never changes and you never seem to be getting anywhere.

And then my mind would wander back to the town I had left but a month before, and wonder if such a place really did exist. It all seemed too impossible, too unreasonable to be grasped by the imagination. In one place so much human life, such thick crowds where breathing was hardly possible and here-absolute nothingness!

It was so droll! I used to talk to myself and laugh out loud.

It must have been the heat!

The Pulpit Canyon is the only pass that crosses the Sierra Madre Mountains in the northern part of Mexico. There was no reason in the world why I should cross those mountains, since I could have got to Mexico City very easily through the state of Durango which was all flat country with comparatively easy roads. Yet I wanted to cross those mountains. They fascinated me and they just stood there as a challenge to my motorcycle and to myself, and I took the dare.

The Pulpit Pass wasn’t exactly a road. It had started as a mule trail, then during one of the many Mexican revolutions the rebels had to carry their army across the Sierra Madre, and that being the only way through they smoothed it out in spots so as to be able to drag along their heavy artillery. And it hasn’t been retouched or repaired since.

Few are the machines that dare undertake the crossing of the canyon, although they have a regular truck service twice a week between Agua Prieta and Chihuahua. Some automobiles succeed in crossing it, others get stuck on the road and either leave the machine there, if too old, or wait until they are pulled out by horses or trucks. And still other drivers, with less luck, slide off those tricky roads and end tragically at the bottom of some steep banks.

I reached the top of some chain of mountains and there I paused to feast my eyes on the majestic beauty of the Sierra Madre.

An endless mass of rocky mountains, it extended as far as the eye could see, defiant to the intruder and apparently impossible to cross. The road was narrow, rough and steep, covered with loose rocks and gravel and with no protection whatsoever on the outside edge. I knew the task ahead of me and with a sigh of resignation I pushed on.

My motor was performing at its best. With a steady purr it pulled up the steepest hills. All went smooth until I hit the first rock and from then on it was a game of hit and jump. The loose stones under my wheels would throw me all over the road. With the motor in low and the throttle wide open I had to take the hills at full speed as I couldn’t afford to kill the motor half way up.

With a little judgment and good luck I usually managed to reach the top, but it was not always so. I couldn’t think of steering the motorcycle on that road; I had no say in the matter whatsoever. All I could do was to sit on the saddle and turn on the juice and trust to luck. It was fortunate for me that I never missed the road. I fell hard and often, but I always fell on the road or against the side of the mountains. I kept away from the edge all I could. A steep hill, a few rocks, a high jump and there we were, crashing to the, ground with a sickening thud. At every fall I had to drag the motor about, coast down the hill and start all over again with greater speed and more determination.

For hours I wrestled with that motorcycle trying hard to keep her up while she was doing her best to go down. And then I saw at the bottom of a ravine a machine all smashed up against the rocks. A few miles further on I saw another one, in the same pitiful condition, and then that got to be a common sight. They were silent proofs of the many tragedies that had befallen some inexperienced or reckless drivers who had attempted to cross that treacherous and dangerous pass

The day was coming to a close and I was still climbing hills. Luck had been with me until I got my leg smashed against a rock with the weight of the motorcycle on it. For awhile I was down, unable to free myself, but finally I got up and after a little rest I got started again. It was painful going at first but, following a few forced kicks to the rocks on the road, my sore limb was soon all right again.

More hills to climb and a few more spills, and finally the sun set below the horizon. I pushed on, hoping to find a ranch, but it grew darker with nothing in sight. I still drove until I could see no more, then I spread my blankets under the stars and went to sleep.

I woke up at dawn and tried to get up, but I soon found out that my sore leg weighed a ton. It had swollen to twice its size and it couldn’t bear my weight. Still I couldn’t stay there and I had to go ahead. With a little difficulty I got the motor started. From then on the road was mostly down hill, nevertheless I had to take it easy as my leg bothered me a lot. It was probably at noon when I finally sighted a ranch, the first sign of life since I had started the crossing of the Pulpit Pass.

Here at last I would find rest and food, since I couldn’t possibly go much further with a leg as sore as mine.

I stopped in front of the first house and I knocked at the door.

“Who is there?” grumbled a voice from the inside.

“It’s a stranger,” I answered, “and I want some food.”

“No hay! (There isn’t any!)” was the curt reply.

“But I have money and I want to buy food.”

“No hay!” Again the same answer.

What on earth was the meaning of this? Was it possible that they would refuse to sell me food when they knew that there wasn’t another house for twenty or thirty miles around?

I still persisted in my request and a woman finally came to the door. But it didn’t do me any good. She just told me to go away.

There were more houses around the place, and I went to all of them. but they were all in ruins and deserted. There was nothing I could do but lie on the grass and try to rest.

A few hours later a man and a boy entered the house. Probably the husband and son of the lady I met. I waited for a while until I knew they were all at the table eating, then I went back to them and again asked for food, only to be refused once more by all of them.

In defense of Mexico I must say that this was the only place where I met with such poor hospitality. Most of the time I was treated as a welcome guest. Sometimes I had to pay for my food, at times, again, I had to pay an exorbitant price for it, but never at any time had I been refused like now, and when I needed it most, since I had been two days already without a bite.

I learned later that Oaxaca was the name of that ranch.

I spent the rest of the day limping around and trying to shoot a quail or a stray rabbit with my smashed-up rifle. but without any success. I tried to use my revolver, but it was still worse.

Time and again I had a strong temptation of grabbing one of the many chickens that belonged to my hostess, but then my conscience always got the best of me and I didn’t do it.

I spent the night wrapped up in my blankets in one of those empty houses. The next day it rained all day and all I had in mind was food. At one time I saw the boy leaving the house with an empty pail in his hand. I followed him and saw him go into a corral to milksome cows.

I had to use all my high pressure salesmanship to induce that boy to sell me some milk for thirty centavos. His mother wouldn’t like it, he told me, but finally I won and I had my fill of warm, sweet milk.

I spent one more night in the same place, and finally, in the morning, after a heavy storm, I decided to leave. The roads were muddy and my leg was sore. but I just couldn’t bear the thought of another day in that God-forsaken ranch.

I had about twenty or thirty miles of bad roads and steep hills, and at last I arrived at Colonia Morelos, a small settlement on the west side of the Sierra Madre Mountains.

I had succeeded in crossing the Sierra and the country ahead of me was now flat and smooth.

At Colonia Morelos I was well received. I related to the Chief of Police my experiences at Ranch Oaxaca. Knowing those people, he wasn’t surprised to hear that, but he was shocked to hear that I had been without food for three days. He swore that I had been the first motorcycle over the Pulpit Pass, had a heavy dinner prepared for me, and wished me the best of luck for the rest of my trip.

Again I was off for the open spaces. On the outskirts of the village I was stopped by a curious old man who wanted to know all about the thing I was riding. He and his family were eating and I was invited to join them. I had just finished one meal, but I had learned to take my food when I found it and not when I wanted it, so I sat down and ate again.

A few hours later I was in Agua Prieta, a small border town in Northern Mexico. After spending one month in Mexico I was finding myself once more on the United States border with a feeling that I was back at the starting point.

I stopped here one day to give a few touches to my motorcycle. The bottomof the crankcase had been smashed by the many rocks that it hit during the crossing of the Sierra Madre Mountains, and the oil was continuously pouring out from it. I had a brass patch put over the leak which seemed to hold it all right. For extra safety I fastened a square of sheet iron under the bottom of the motor and once more I was ready for the open road.

Nogales was my next stop and the road was easy and comfortable.

I was still close to the American border and from this town I headed south with Mazatlan as my next long stop.

I was now going through the easiest part of my trip. I had no more mountains to cross, the state of Sonora being composed mainly of endless extensions of barren ground, forming deserts covered by imposing giant cacti, nopals and other desert vegetation.

After what I had gone through I could well consider these roads excellent, although what I call a good road is nothing to be compared to a United States highway. I had to ride in low and second gear most of the time, with occasionally a short stretch in high. Besides, they were not exactly roads. They probably started as trails for horses and burros and oxcarts. Then, as the first automobiles came along, they left their tracks on the ground, and as more followed, the tracks got to be more and more visible so as to form an indelible way of communication leading from village to village. And this formed the best part of what was preposterously called the Pacific Coast Highway.

Of course, there will be a real highway here some day. What annoys the automobile or motorcycle traveler the most in this part of the country are the countless number of rivers that one has to cross every day.

When I was not crossing deserts I was crossing rivers. It was from one extreme to the other, either too much water or none at all.

From Nogales to Mazatlan I don’t remember of having seen a single bridge, although I had to cross over a hundred rivers and streams and rivulets and ditches and what have you.

A few miles south of Guaymas I had to stop at an army post stationed there for the protection of the travelers. They took my name down and then I was told to proceed cautiously and not to stop for any reason whatsoever because that part of the country was infested by Yaqui Indians, who occasionally robbed and killed some unwary traveler. Battalions of soldiers had been sent from time to time after those bandits, but without any success. At the first sign of soldiers the Yaquis would disperse themselves among the hills and none of them could be found. So the only thing the government could do was to station some soldiers in that dangerous zone, who would occasionally patrol the highway and warn strangers against the possibilities of a holdup.

Twenty miles below the first army post there was a second one, which meant the end of all dangers from the Yaqui Indians. I didn’t meet any Indian, and in spite of all warnings I had to stop a couple of times to patch my flat tires. When I reached the second post they told me they were expecting me, as my name had been wired from the other post and that I didn’t have to worry because if I hadn’t showed up in a reasonable length of time they would have sent a group of soldiers to look for my body. Swell consolation!

Cajeme, Navojoa, Ahome are the names of the next towns I had to go through. In the meantime I had to cross a couple of deep rivers on ferries. Unfortunately, not all rivers have ferries.

Suddenly my motor started to miss and stop, and with much trouble I arrived at Los Mochis, a promising little town a few miles from the Pacific Coast.

It was my first motor trouble since I had left Saint Louis, and it seemed to me to be serious enough to require a few days’ stop. I couldn’t have picked a better town for that purpose and I was sent to a bicycle shop where the owner, Don Pedro Penuelos, treated me like one of his own kin. He put his home and his shop at my disposal and bid me stay as long as I wished.

I took advantage of his hospitality and I was there four days. During that time I put the whole motor apart and found out that a few pieces of the damaged crankcase had found their way into the work ing parts of the motor, thus impeding their proper functioning. I cleaned the motor and had the crankcase welded and I was ready to go again. My stay in Los Mochis remains like a pleasant dream in my memory. I was always selling my cards wherever I stopped, and I had given a bunch of them to Don Pedro to sell for me while I was working back in the shop. In some towns I had met with complete indifference, but here I didn’t have to go around selling them. I remember Don Pedro coming behind his store every few minutes to hand me a dime or a nickel with a “I sold one of your cards” and “I sold another one,” “and another one,” and so on, lasting all day long. I believe that everybody in town had one of my cards. They all wanted to help the poor boy who was going around the world on a motorcycle.

Of course, I couldn’t have gone very far on my trip without this kind of help. I usually got everything free, from gas and oil to food and bedding, but I always needed some extra money for emergencies. I went through places where I had to pay one dollar and a half for a gallon of gas, where I had to pay fifty cents to go through a man’s backyard, and where I had to pay two pesos for a rotten plate of beans.

I have always been awkward and bashful about asking for any help, but whenever it was offered me I wouldn’t refuse it.

I must extend my thanks to all those who helped me on my way, from the humble peon who with open mouth and admiring eyes gave two pennies, to the fatherly governor who with a generous gesture handed me a check for twenty pesos. For the kindly tortillera who at dawn stuck a few tortillas in my saddle bags and with moist eyes whispered “God bless you!” to the opulent ranchero who let me feast at his table. To all those I extend my thanks.

And all the others I forget and forgive. I forget those who ignored me and I forgive those who laughed at me and those who chased me away with a shotgun. Amen!

Guasave, Angostura, Pericos, Culiacan are but a few of the next villages that I had to pass on my way south. The roads were very primitive, with an occasional muddy stretch.

In Culiacan I had the misfortune of killing a dog. Dogs are a nuisance in Mexico, anyway. They are almost as plentiful as the people themselves. Every street in every village is swarmed with them, every market place is lousy with them. You know how dogs like to bark at a motorcycle! Imagine my arrival at a town, any town. Imagine all the dogs in that town barking after my motorcycle, all at the same time, a million of them. From every corner, from every door, from every alley they’ll come out and join in the rumpus. If you can imagine all that you can understand my predicament. And I killed one of them, one out of a million. And I felt sad because I killed a dog.

Children were next in following me. They’d follow me when I walked. They’d swarm around me when I stopped. They wanted to know so many things. They asked so many questions. A little fellow came up to me one day and asked for one of mv pictures.

“What do you want it for?” I wanted to know.

“Teacher said you are a hero,” was the innocent answer.

“Why am I a hero ?”

“ I don’t know!”

I still wonder if the teacher could have answered that last question.

The road to Mazatlan wasn’t so bad, although I had to cross several large rivers. At times I could find my way to the railroad tracks and cross the river over the railroad bridges, but where the tracks weren’t in sight I had to do the best I could and cross the rivers riding my motor.

The toughest one to cross was the Rio Piaxtla, south of Culiacan. There were no boats and no railroad bridges in sight. The river was one of the widest I had seen in that part of the country, and I had anticipated a laborious crossing owing to the large amount of rain that had recently fallen.

Seeing no other means of crossing it, I just looked to where the water seemed to be more shallow and I rode to it. I advanced cautiously with the motor in low. The water reached the cylinders and I still kept going until the carburetor sucked in more water and the motor stopped. I was more than halfway, but ahead of me the water was very deep and the current was swift.

There were people at the river and I hollered for help. Three or four men came to the rescue and together we pushed. Soon the tank was covered by the water, then the handlebars, and the motorcycle was out of sight. The current was getting swifter and we could scarcely proceed. Slowly and carefully, pushing the motorcycle under water, we finally reached the opposite shore.

What an experience! I thought I would never do a thing like that again. I was getting ready to take the motor apart and drain it when one of the fellows stopped me and told me I had to cross two more rivers right then and there. I crossed them in the same way, although they were not so deep, being only branches of the same river.

By the time I got through with all those rivers it was dark and I was pushed to a ranch where I stopped for the night.

Next morning I put my motorcycle apart and I dried the magneto and I had to stop in that ranch for three days before I could get that motorcycle to run again. In the meantime I was fed three meals a day on beans and tortillas. Believe me I was sick of beans and tortillas. Wherever I stopped to eat they used to give me beans. Beans for breakfast, beans for lunch and beans for dinner. Always beans and I hated them.

It’s surprising to see how Mexicans can thrive on such a simple diet. Some of them live there whole life on beans and tortillas with an occasional strip of dried meat or a few crumbs of dried cheese sprinkled on their frijoles (beans to you). As for me I couldn’t swallow such a diet. I had to eat it while I was on the road, but when I reached a town I had to indulge in something more substantial. And did I indulge! Three and four and five meals a day weren’t enough for me any more. I used to buy a half a dozen rolls at night before I went to sleep and eat them in bed and I always felt that I never had enough. It was probably to my advantage that I could eat so much when I had a chance because very often I had to go one or two or even three days with scarcely a bite to eat.

Therefore, before you judge me, my friends, you must realize that at times when I reached a town I had lost from ten to fifteen pounds of my weight and during my three or four days’ stop in that town I had to put on all the weight I could before I started out again.

And that’s what I did when I reached Mazatlan where I stopped for one week.

And we were put on the stage there, motorcycle and all. It was at the suggestion of the owner of one of the local theaters that I decided to make a public appearance. I had the motorcycle lifted to the stage behind the curtains and as an added attraction when the curtains went up I drove in circles for a few seconds, making a terrific bedlam, then I stopped the motor and made a short speech. I cannot have said much but considering the applause I got I almost thought I was good. Seeing the ground ripe I stepped off the stage and went through the aisles passing my cards around. When I was through I had two pockets full of silver and as far as I was concerned the night had been a success.

I finally left Mazatlan and headed south once more. And here the real work started and I had to fight for every step of the way and struggle for every inch of ground that I covered.

It had started to rain while I was still in Mazatlan and I had been advised not to go any further since the rainy season had begun and it would rain practically every day for three or four months, turning all roads into pools of water and swamps. All automobile traffic had been stopped, since no machine could go through that mud, and I realized that I had a hard task ahead of me, still I had to go on. I was out for punishment and I expected to get plenty of it.

If it was hard to. tour Mexico during the dry season what would it be then during the rainy season? I was about to find out.

When I left Mazatlan it was raining and it rained every day ever after, a drizzling, steady rain that never stopped, a rain that soaked me through and through. From then on everything was wet, my clothes and my underclothes and my spare clothes on my luggage carrier. And there was mud all over me and all the time. And I kept sliding and falling down and getting up. The cylinders were covered with mud and the motor would balk and stop and I would continually fall face down in a foot of mud. I had mud in my eyes and I couldn’t scrape it off with my muddy hands and a muddier handkerchief. There was nothing dry anywhere. I had to stop until my eyes would dry out and I could see a little. There was mud and mud everywhere, not only for a mile, not for ten or a hundred but for a thousand miles. And I had two months of it, two months of the hardest and toughest riding I ever was subjected to.

I could not always follow the road, in fact most of the time I had to make my own roads. With a long Mexican machete I had to cut my way through the jungle. Usually I had to leave the motor behind, wade in the mud to see how deep it was, then find or make a shallow way and ride through with my motor. I went through many a place I never thought I would get out of.

From Rosario to Acaponeta, between Mazatlan and Tepic, I had to follow the railroad tracks for about thirty miles, the road being completely under water and out of sight. Following the railroad tracks was not an easy job. In places the ties were too far apart and were not filled with gravel and there was no place to ride on the outside of the tracks. I had to ride in low and the motorcycle would jerk and jump from tie to tie until I’d get one wheel stuck in between two ties. I rode that motor in low for practically the whole two months of rain. I was traveling from dawn until dark and I had days when I only covered four or five miles, not to mention one place near Tepic where I was stuck in the same spot for a whole day and two nights. And it was continuously raining and I had to sleep in the mud covered with wet blankets, wondering when I would get out of that hell hole. I was all alone and I could not hope for any outside help, the country being so swampy that not even the natives would venture to go out on their burros.

The mosquitos also did their share in making my trip the more miserable. They don’t bother the Indians much but when a stranger is around they surely find him right away and stick to him in swarms.

Another pest was the garrapato, a small tick about the size and shape of a bed bug, which used to stick its head under my skin and try as I may I couldn’t pull it out. If I pulled out the body and left the head behind it would cause an itching sore that would last for a few days.

Between the mosquitos, the ants, the garrapatos and other vermin I was kept busy all day and all night scratching my itching and inflamed body.

Close to Tepic I left the swamps and followed a rough and mountainous road. No matter where I went it was always tough going. First the mud made the road too soft and now the rocks made it too hard. I never knew what to expect next and I just made myself insensible to everything and took things as they came.

How welcome Tepic was to me then and how thankful I was when I reached that town.

Tepic is a very small and picturesque city, typically Mexican. It is almost entirely cut off from the rest of Mexico, its only way of communication being a single track railroad with a train service of once a week. A mountain village where nothing ever happens, where a stranger would cause as much commotion as a circus would in one of our one-horse towns.

Haggard and tired, with my clothes in tatters, I drove to the Market Place. A forlorn figure, riding a fantastic mount, coming up from the lowlands like a ghost from its grave, all covered with mud, with not enough shirt on me to make a necktie, with my body covered by cuts and bruises, the sight of me must have been too much for the good people of Tepic.

The vendors left their wares and came to me. The merchants closed their stores and joined the crowd. Dogs barked and kids hollered. The police came to investigate. There was excitement in Tepic.

Next day I had half of the front page of their local paper all to myself.

I stopped in that town one week. I had to stop there that long because I could hardly walk when I arrived. I had left Mazatlan nine days before and in those nine days I never had a chance to wear any dry clothes. I had been soaking wet all the way through, having been forced to sleep in the mud and water with my clothes on. My underclothes got to be as thick and stiff as parchment paper, scratching my skin with my every movement. When riding the motor I had to be rough and I couldn’t afford to feel any pain although I felt it at night when I tried to sleep.

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By Jose Porta
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