Pan-American Trails Part 4

Being the continuation of a tale of a motorcycle vagabond in Latin America

By the time I arrived in Tepic the inside of my thighs was nothing but a bleeding sore and the seat of my pants-well, anyway I had to stay in Tepic one week.

It was still raining when I left town and I had been warned not to go any further or to wait at least two or three months by which time the rainy season would be over. Besides I couldn’t cross the mountains on my motorcycle. It was simply impossible, it had never been done and it would never be done.

Still I had heard the word impossible before and I had learned not to pay any attention to it. The rainy season in this part of Mexico lasts from July until October and it was August now, and I couldn’t afford to stop for three months. Besides I was bound to meet more rain in other countries and if I had to stop whenever I found mud I might as well have turned around and gone back home. I would have been safer there.

The Sierra Madre separates Tepic from Guadalajara and, as I said before, the only way of communication between the two cities is the railroad. There are primitive roads that go part of the way but there are none that cross those mountains. During the dry season one can take a road from Tepic to Barrancas through Campustela, crossing a river twelve times, but during the rainy season this same river swells up and turns the adjoining country almost into a lake. Therefore the road to Campustela was out of the question for me at that time.

But there was another way to get to Barrancas through an old road used by the stage coach up to 1924, at which time the railroad had been built and after which nothing on wheels has ever gone through it. The road had been forgotten and completely abandoned ever since.

I had no choice in the matter as this seemed to be the only road left for me to follow. At least I couldn’t lose my way, and I started out with Barrancas as my next goal.

On my first day out I had nothing but mud and after passing a small village, San Gayetano, I reached a ranch, Mirador, where all passable roads were supposed to end. It was late in the afternoon and it was raining so hard that I decided to stop there for the night.

But then I was anxious to know what was ahead of me and after leaving the motorcycle at the ranch I followed the road on foot for a few miles, then I went back to the ranch to sleep, or rather I tried to sleep but couldn’t very well because what I had seen of the road had made me believe that the time had come for me to turn around and go back.

Next morning when I got up it wasn’t raining and that gave me more courage to go ahead. Besides from then on there would have been no more mud to cross, at least until I got through crossing those mountains.

There wasn’t a stretch of level road; it was all up and down hill. It was easy to see that road hadn’t been used for several years. It had been cut on hard rock where the foundation was solid, but where the ground was soft it had been covered by large cobblestones which were now eradicated and turned loose by the torrential downpours that had slashed and punished those mountains during those many years.

It was a hopeless task for me to tackle that road. The Pulpit Pass was childplay compared to this. There the road had been tough, here it was impassable.

With a sigh of resignation I sat on the saddle and let the clutch down. I went down the first hill by letting the motorcycle drop from rock to rock, then we went uphill. I didn’t reach the top. Rivulets of water had eaten the rocks away, forming uneven steps and crevices all along the way. Deep, treacherous ruts were to be met with everywhere On my first fall I dragged the motor around, went to the bottom and started up again. On and on I went dodging rocks and stones, throwing my front wheel towards the sky until I would end into a two-foot ditch in the center of the road with the motorcycle heavily encased in it.

A cool head was no help to me then, common sense was a hindrance to my success. I forgot myself ; I lost control of everything; I became furious. I couldn’t give up. I didn’t want to give up. I cursed the motorcycle and the road and the mountains. Like a madman I drove up those hills, blind to all dangers, unmindful of the consequences.

To reach the top I had to depend on speed, a little loss of which would kill the motor. High steps, deep ruts, rocks and boulders meant nothing any more. I had to take a chance, I had to overcome all obstacles.

I fell down and got up, fell down again and got up some more. I didn’t want to give up! Every inch was a struggle, every yard a victory. Soon I lost a footboard, then I lost the other one, and at last the saddle broke. I couldn’t sit down and Icouldn’t stand up. I was turning on the throttle and hanging on for dear life. I never thought of stopping, I never meant to rest. I wanted to go while the going was good.

Then I looked down the valley from the top of a mountain and I saw a ranch, La Galinda. It was dark when I reached it and I called it a day. There was nobody living there. In fact the house had no roof and only the four walls were left standing up. It was raining when I went to sleep, laying against one wall to protect myself from the wind.

At dawn I was up again. A little mud in the valley, then I tackled once more those dreaded mountains. The road was no better although it couldn’t be any worse. I was about to go over the steepest hill of them all, La Calzada. I had been warned against it and I was prepared for a desperate struggle. It was miles in length and very steep but strange to say that part of the road seemed to have withstood the corrosive powers of the elements better than any other part, due to the fact perhaps that being steeper and more dangerous it had been built with better care.

I made La Calzada without a spill and without a miss from my motor. I drew a breath of relief thinking that the worst was over, but it wasn’t so. At every turn of the road I would meet with new obstacles. Since I had left Tepic I never took that motor out of low gear.

At the end of my second day I arrived at El Jasmin, a ranch owned by very hospitable and kind people who gave me my first meal in two days.

It was here that when I got up in the morning after having slept under some trees near the ranch that I saw something in my blankets and showed it to the woman of the house. She got all excited. “Kill it. Kill it!” she hollered. “It’s an alacran.” I killed it. It was a reddish scorpion about an inch in length which is found everywhere in Mexico. Its sting is considered very dangerous although seldom fatal. It causes a swelling of the larynx of the victim with consequent suffocation and a choking feeling which lasts from a few hours to two or three days, after which the swelling subsides and the danger is over. The natives fear the alacran more than the rattlesnake. That was my first experience with it, but later on I found an occasional one while removing large stones to make room for my motorcycle and once again I found one in my blankets, but I never was bitten, or rather I never was stung, because they carry their dart at the end of their tail and they curl up to sting. Once you cut their sting they are rendered harmless.

After a good breakfast I left El Jasmin. The road was still the same. It hadn’t improved a bit. I noticed now that I had company. A man on a mule was following me, stopping whenever I stopped. He was the mailman making the round of those ranches. He could travel faster than I could because his mount was keeping a steady pace while mine was going twenty miles an hour for two minutes, then I had to stop ten minutes to replace a broken bolt or to straighten a bent handlebar or to look for a lost bundle.

Still the mailman was patiently waiting for me. He told me later that he expected me to get killed any minute. I couldn’t blame him for that. The way I was flying all over the road I never knew myself how long it would last.

We reached Locotillo and there I stopped to change a spark plug. But I couldn’t find my wrench. It was a big heavy wrench, the only one of its kind which I used for all purposes and I had lost it. It was a calamity to me and I didn’t want to proceed without it. I had to go back and look for it.

I had walked but a hundred yards when I saw a little boy running towards me, all out of breath, with my wrench in his hands. He was one of the boys from El Jasmin and, having found my wrench after I left, he had run all the way to Locotillo to give it back to me. I was touched by his honesty and tried to give him a few coins. But he refused. By his bright face beaming with happiness I could see that he was glad at having pleased me. “You are my friend,” he said. And therefore why should I pay him? Friendship isn’t a matter of money. But how many of us, civilized people, practice this truth? Just try and lose something in a big city and if you don’t advertise a reward in the papers you won’t get it back.

Chapalilla is a little village a few miles from Locotillo. Then came Tetitlan where the mailman lived. We soon gathered a crowd when we got there and the mailman was telling everybody what he had seen. He told them how I made that motorcycle jump six feet into the air, fall down straight and then jump again and again. He told them how I drove that motorcycle on the rear wheel for yards at a time, and they believed him. Then he wanted his wife to see me and finally I had to stay for dinner.

I reached Barrancas a couple of days later, all worn out and the motorcycle ready to fall apart. It was raining.

The road ended there and there was no way of getting any further, the side of the mountain being almost perpendicular like the opposite side which could be seen far away. Barrancas is a railroad station and the train proceeds from there towards Guadalajara going over bridges and through tunnels.

I figured that where a train goes a motorcycle can go too. I slept in Barrancas. At night word came that a train had met with a catastrophe a few miles east of us. The storm had caused a landslide and the locomotive had been crushed under an avalanche of loose rocks. I watched the rescue work but nobody was hurt.

Early in the morning, with the station master’s permission, I drove my motorcycle between the tracks and I started towards those tunnels. It all sounds very simple but believe me it was as bad in there as it was in the deserts or in the swamps or in the mountain trails. I had to go through thirty-two tunnels, some of them short and a few of them almost a mile long with no light in them and of course I had no lights with me. The only place for me to ride was between the tracks, over the ties, which were not filled properly most of the time and which were not filled at all under the tunnels. Since it never rains under tunnels they did not have to fill the empty spaces between the ties with gravel, especially as they never thought that some day some simpleton would try to ride over them on a motorcycle.

Therefore it was a neck-breaking ride. Once more it was speed that counted. If I drove too slowly the wheels would sink in between the ties and stop the motor, while when I drove fast the impetus would carry me over all obstacles.

I passed a few short tunnels then I reached my first long one and was soon swallowed by its darkness. First I saw a little, then nothing at all. For a few seconds it was complete darkness but I rode on trusting to my good luck. Then I saw two shiny lines ahead of me, the rails, and a minute later lightness and daylight.

More tunnels to cross, short ones and long ones, every one of them a struggle and a fight. I came again to a long one about a mile in length. A watchman was standing at the entrance but told me nothing. I rode into the darkness and I could see no more. All of a sudden I felt the ground missing from under my wheels and I was sent flying into the air.

I couldn’t understand what had happened. I got up and fumbled for my motorcycle and then I saw what had caused the accident. One railroad tie was missing and that formed a hole about four feet wide and a couple of feet deep. And at the bottom of that hole my motor was staying, waiting to be pulled out.

I pulled and lifted but I couldn’t budge it. Besides I had bruised my right hand and I couldn’t use it so well. I walked out of the tunnel and found the watchman who came to the rescue. Together we set the motorcycle back on its wheels then with his help we pushed it a few yards until I was able to see the tracks again, then I drove off.

Next I reached the spot where the train had been wrecked by the landslide. Men were busy cleaning up the debris and clearing the way which was obstructed for half a block. Seeing my plight the foreman called half a dozen men and together they lifted that motorcycle and carried it over the wrecked locomotive.

A few more tunnels later I reached a small station composed of a few miserable shacks which housed the families of some railroad workers. I entered the first hut and asked for something to eat but was met with a laconic “No hay.” (There isn’t any.) I went to the next shack and I got the same answer. In the next one I saw two women eating and surely here I wouldn’t be refused. But still I got the same, “No hay,” for an answer. I was beginning to despair and I lost my patience.

“Two pesos for a meal,” I shouted. My words had the desired effect. The two women jumped up, collected their dishes and went to the kitchen. Three minutes later they came back with a couple of fried eggs, a plate of beans, a pile of tortillas and a steaming cup of coffee. Of course I explained to the ladies that that wasn’t worth two pesos and I gave them fifty centavos, but after that we were good friends, and it being late I arranged with them to stay there until morning.

I made myself at home and stretched my tired body on the floor. Still I was worrying about the road ahead of me and I learned from those ladies that eight miles further on I could leave the railroad tracks and get into a road on the other side of the mountains which would take me to Magdalena and hence to Guadalajara.

Next day I started out late and with a little hardship I managed to drive the remaining eight miles over the railroad tracks, after which I found a small humpity-bumpity road which took me to Magdalena.

A couple of days later I was in Guadalajara.

This being the second largest town in Mexico I decided to stop for a few days and rest.

I spent the first day roaming around the streets looking for a meson or boarding house. A hotel is rather an expensive extravagance in Mexico and the meson answers all the requirements of the average traveler. There are several kinds of mesones to suit all pocketbooks and the prices are very reasonable. In large cities they are more in the hotel style, with usually two floors of rooms and a dining room. But strange to say, the rooms of these boarding houses and in fact the rooms of most houses in this country have no windows, with the exception of the rooms in the front of the house which have barred windows looking on the street. All others have a single door, without transom, which opens on the patio and if you want light or air you must leave the door open. Presumably a Mexican thinks nothing of sleeping all night in a shut-in room where none of the injurious (?) night air can get to him.

So much for the meson in a big city, but you must have a strong constitution to stop in a meson in a small village. It’s not a boarding house any more. It’s a barn, a stench house, a human dump, everything combined. It’s composed of a string of bare rooms set around a patio. It’s the rendezvous of the lazy peon and the weary arriero. Here you see a bunch of burros scattered around the patio, with their arrieros forming groups all around them. You might see a dozen of them squatting down in a circle, talking or hollering or arguing, passing their gourd of tequila from hand to hand, drinking great gulps out of it until their mind is paralyzed and they pass out. And beware of a drunken Indian! The Indians of Mexico are very polite, ceremonious and hospitable when they are sober, but when they are under the influence of the tequila they are altogether different beings and anything but human. They want to raise cain and they want to fight and I soon learned to keep away from them when they were in that condition, although I got in trouble a few times before I learned my lesson.

The interior of the meson is just as filthy as the exterior. It’s a one-story adobe building with small rooms built all around it. The floor is made of plain earth and the rooms are bare, the traveler being expected to wrap himself up in his own serape and go to sleep on the floor. Thehigher class mesones have small cots in them and of course you can’t expect to have electric lights. Candles are a luxury and in some parts of the country they use dry sticks to make light with, a bunch of such sticks being suspended from the ceiling and lit. They are bought at the market square at one centavo a bunch and they give a fairly good light when used in a small room.

Nevertheless I was in Guadalajara now and I expected something better than that. I found a place and I arranged with the patrona to stay there for a few days. I would get a room and three meals for two pesos a day, payable in advance. I considered it satisfactory until I found out what payable in advance meant. I paid for the first day. The next morning at six o’clock I heard a bang at my door and I got up to open it. The lady was there and she wanted her two pesos.

Next morning at the same time the same thing happened. I got sore.

“Why on earth can’t you wait until I get up?” I asked her.

“But senor, I need the money to go to the market to buy food.”

So next day I paid her two days in advance, hoping that I could sleep in peace, but when dinner came:

“Senora,” I asked, “where is my food?”

“Sorry, senor, you see, senor, it was like this.”

I knew it. She had spent all the money I had given her and I had to go without dinner. I went into the street to look for a restaurant and next day I left Guadalajara.

Top-The family, or families maybe, turn out to see the motorcycle pass, and this is the main road. Note the stone wall on the right. These stone fences are common in Mexico. Center-Good trailing on the road to Barrancas, but not much of it. Bottom-Heading up the slopes of the Sierra Madre on the railroad tracks. The author thought “a motorcycle could run where a train can run,” and sometimes it could
Top-A bit of dry going near Tepic. Center-Down the valleys of a strange land on a ribbon of rutted trail, the author found rich adventure, and many bruises. Bottom-The rainy season leaves some Mexican roads like this miniature lake just out of Mazatlan