On an ordinary morning my wife, Toni, answered the phone and her face went ashen. She quickly handed the phone to me but pressed her head against mine in an attempt to hear both sides of the conversation.
The man on the other end had asked for me. He identified himself as the Mormon Mission President from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where our 19-year-old son volunteered. Our missionary son had been sending us fascinating audio stories of living among poor but wonderful families.
Mission Presidents rarely call parents unless there’s bad news. I could feel Toni’s fingernails squeezing my arm as President Shepherd said Ben was in critical care with an unknown but possibly life-threatening illness. He was down to 140 pounds on his 6’5” frame.
The next few weeks were terrifying. I got a call from a church authority that lasted five seconds because my cell dropped. I was in a packed elevator 26 floors up and suddenly believed the reason someone like him would call was that Ben had passed. In that moment I had the awful realization that I hadn’t rehearsed how I would break the news to Toni.
To get a cell signal among the skyscrapers I ran in my suit through a crowded lobby and across a busy boulevard, where drivers thought I was crazy. I shouted “WHAT?!” into the phone when it connected. The church authority explained that Ben had recovered enough to be flown home. I burst into tears.
As Ben began his long recovery, I sat beside his skinny self during the memorial for a beautiful 21-year-old who lost her battle with cancer. Her father and I were good friends and I wondered, as he somehow managed to pay tribute to her, would I have had that strength if Ben’s life ended at 21? Fortunately, Ben recovered but another missionary who was sent home with similar symptoms did not.
I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and had a burning desire to escape all my troubles.
What explains the choice to ride a motorcycle through remote Mexican villages instead of flying to a resort in Cabo? Is it the the wind in our faces, the adrenaline that comes with risk, leaning into sweeping corners? Or was it a desire to experience everyday people in Mexico as Ben had done in Brazil? That seemed like true adventure to me: to go the rugged, primitive way that connects you to the sounds, smells, rain, mud, burros, food and people. Maybe connecting with people whose lives were tougher than mine would help me realize how lucky I really was and get over my feelings of self-pity.
Anthony Bourdain said something that felt like a driving force for me in Mexico: “If you sit down with people and just say, ‘Hey, what makes you happy? What’s your life like? What do you like to eat?’ More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food,”
Whatever the reason, I didn’t think much about preparing. I had a sexy red BMW street bike that I thought was the ultimate riding machine. It had a rear topcase to fit a few clothes. I had a map of Mexico. I had skimmed a tour book. What could go wrong?
It was the spring of 2001. I bought Toni a ticket to meet me in Puerto Vallarta and fly back from Monterrey 6 days later. I’d do the hard miles down and back without her. We could ride 2-up to Mexico City, Acapulco…maybe to the border with Guatemala. How far can you travel in a day in Mexico? Guess we’d find out.
Thank God I bought a good waterproof electric jacket and pants. I didn’t know anything about leathers or Aerostich and I can’t even remember exactly what I bought. All I remember is I plugged them into my Beemer and I was warm and totally dry. At least, I was until they were stolen in Mexico.
As I left my house near San Francisco, the heavens opened and it poured all the way to Mexico. I don’t remember ever seeing rain like that. Interstate 5 had standing water and when trucks passed, I couldn’t see the road. Do motorcycles hydroplane? I didn’t know. I was hoping not.
When I would stop for gas, motorists felt sorry for me. I explained that I was warm and didn’t have a drop of water seepage anywhere. Electric clothing, what will they think of next?
Arizona was terrifying. There were dark vertical clouds dumping water with lightning that came to the desert floor. There was no place to hide and wait out the storms. Did lightning sometimes take out motorcyclists? I didn’t know that either.
That’s when I finally realized that a lifetime of owning motorcycles and riding them up and down Highway 1 in California did not prepare me for this. I knew a lot of local riders but no one who rode through Arizona lightning. Does Mexico have heavy rain and lightning?
Things quickly got real for me and my shiny red street bike when I crossed the border at Nogales. The potholes were full of rain water. I had no idea the first one would be half-a-wheel deep. It bottomed my forks with a huge bang. That was followed by a second bang when my bash plate didn’t clear the asphalt edge of the pothole on the way out. I didn’t notice that my topcase flew open and, I would later discover, left my ear plugs, toothbrush and some clothes in the mud.
There were busses and trucks following close behind, driving aggressively, while I was discovering that my bike also didn’t clear the speed bumps (topes) without a loud bang. How durable are bash plates on shiny street bikes? I had never considered it. I could slow down, swerve across the speed bumps at an angle and not bash, but trucks would bear down on me when I tried.
Wait, what?! How could I—the guy who read every motorcycle magazine and had a stack of them up to my hip—not know this? If I drop my bike when my front fender fills with mud, causing the front wheel to stop rotating, how much does it cost to replace the plastic? $3,000? I wasn’t seeing any bikes like mine in Mexico. What happens if it breaks down? The sane thing would be to turn around and tour the U.S. instead. I didn’t think of that.
The first time the men in black pulled me over, I had no idea who they were. The locals I stayed with that night told me that they are the drug police. I don’t remember them asking about drugs, but my bike created a sensation with all of them. They would grab the throttle and rev it. They would ask to ride it. I always said no. They would reply, “El Jefe, he gay, HE WANT TO MAKE LOVE TO YOU!!” (Laughter all around.) “You better let him ride it.”
That night I checked into a small village hotel. The owner looked at my bike and said I could bring it in my room. She told me I should never leave it out at night. So every night in Mexico I parked it beside my bed. In Mexico City, I splurged for a night and stayed in a 4-star hotel on the 12th floor. They let me wheel my bike into the elevator and take it upstairs as if it was no big deal.
The first night across the border, I looked myself in the mirror and shaved my head bald. I don’t know why. A 40-something midlife crisis? My hair had been thinning and I wanted to look badass? Whatever. It was a look. When I emailed the family, my sons thought it was the coolest thing ever. They called me Baldy. My wife thought I’d lost my mind. I found a pay phone to try to persuade her I was sane. As I spoke I realized I too was afraid I might be losing it.
The shaved head thing—like the trip—wasn’t well thought out. The skin under my hair was porcelain white and there was no way to get a tan under my helmet. When I’d remove my helmet to walk into a store, I’d see my reflection in the window and get a shock. For 11 days in Mexico, I never saw another man with a shaved head. The men in black at the drug inspection stops would ask me to remove my helmet and I could see their shock. One screamed, “OH!! LEX LUTHOR!!” And he, like everyone else, would call his buddies over to see my lilly-white cueball and laugh.
I rode south beside the Sea of Cortez, bashing my bike on more topes, wondering how much more it would take. Somewhere north of Puerto Vallarta, the roads became narrow, mountainous and twisty—perfect for the incredible power my bike had. It was white-knuckle thrilling because the roads were filled with semis and I could accelerate like a bat out of Hell around them.
One problem is my bike didn’t have good range and with every abandoned Pemex station I passed, my stomach would tighten for fear of running out. One time I saw a farmer filling his tractor from a 55-gallon drum and I talked him into selling me a gallon. I also bought tacos from his roadside stand. Delicious.
Another time I ran out several miles from a town at night. I hid the bike off the road and hitched a ride into town. Gah. Nothing says rob me like a 6’4” white American with a porcelain head hitchhiking in rural Mexico in the dark. A store was open that sold milk in plastic gallon bottles, so I bought one, poured the milk out, put gas in the bottle from a nearby station, and got a ride back to my bike.
I wondered with all the banging of the bashplate, the daredevil passing of trucks, and running out of gas, how would Toni take this? As it turned out, she canceled. She had abdominal pains and had to schedule surgery for adhesions. I offered to come straight home but she insisted I continue. However, once again she insisted I had lost my mind and, well, the evidence was on her side.
I started to imagine how a motorcycle should be designed for this. It should be like a Land Rover on two wheels—rugged, good clearance, more upright seating, less buffeting, more cargo space, more suspension travel, bigger gas tank.
How come the only two I could think of were a BMW GS and Triumph Tiger? I didn’t like oilhead GS engines in the day because they surged. I had owned an oilhead street bike. I wondered, aren’t Tigers more street than dirt with that low front fender? Why can’t someone else make a rugged bike with more than one cylinder so I can zap past the trucks?
I made a mental note: get on the Internet when you get home and find a forum for…hmmm…what do they call rugged touring bikes? Oh well, I’ll just call them adventure bikes for now because this is turning into one Hell of an adventure.
Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta were beautiful, but I avoided tourists and stayed with locals. I felt like Ben during his missionary adventures. A group of teens came over to hear stories about America from the big gringo. They laughed, asked questions about pop stars and fashion, and asked why we didn’t listen to Nancy Reagan when she was First Lady.
What? Nancy Reagan? They explained how American demand for drugs meant kids they knew got leather jackets and machine guns at 16 by joining cartels. Did Americans know how much our consumption of drugs drove violence in Mexico? No, actually, I didn’t and we stopped laughing for a while.
The ride to Guadalajara was breathtaking. On Sunday morning I cruised the city and admired the 50s & 60s-era cars people were showing off downtown. I felt like I was in Cuba. I spent a couple hours just walking and admiring the Buicks and Chevy Bel Airs, and wishing my father would have let me buy his 1953 Buick Roadmaster when I was 14. I would still own that car.
In 2001, Mexico was building cement superhighways, called Cuotas (toll roads), that reminded me of the Autobahn in Germany. They were nearly deserted. The locals said no one could afford them, not even the truckers. I was twice shaken by the sight of trucks that had plunged off the narrow roads into ravines below and couldn’t stop thinking about the tragedy of the tolls.
I hopped on a Cuota from Guadalajara to Mexico City and accelerated to the speed limit. After a few minutes, WHOOM, a BMW car shot past at seemingly twice my speed. 10 minutes later a Porsche did it. Pretty soon I realized there are some rich Mexicans and nobody seems to enforce the speed limit. So I got bolder.
The first thing I wanted to know is how fast they were going. So I took it up to 90. WHOOM: another one. 100. WHOOM. Well maybe more like a whoosh at that speed. 110. Whoosh. Okay, that’s it, my ears were going to explode from wind noise and losing my earplugs at the border sinkhole.
The burros made me shiver on the two-lane roads because they would feed on the shoulders just a few feet from me as I zoomed by. Do they ever run out in the road? On the Cuotas, the burros were blocked by fences. Relief.
Sometimes I’d run into a flock of butterflies and they would coat my helmet so I couldn’t see. I kept stopping to wash my helmet shield. And for some reason my bike was getting slower. More WHOOMs. Was it because we were getting to higher altitudes near Mexico City? Top speed dropped to 90, then 70, then lower. The engine sounded pitiful when I rolled open the throttle. BUWAAHHH.
This was the trouble I dreaded. A breakdown on a fancy bike in the middle of nowhere. Dirty gas? I pulled into a rest area having no idea what to do. As I washed my shield again I thought, “Hmmm… So many butterflies.” I checked my air filter. Totally clogged. I cleaned it out, along with the radiator, and back to 110 mph.
No one told me that in Mexico City the busses don’t care if you’re in the lane next to them, they’re coming. Better squeeze between them and the car next to you. The first time it happened, I thought jerk! You could have killed me on this congested freeway. But I figured out that if you’re a motorcycle, they’re coming for you. After that I stayed off the freeways in Mexico City and enjoyed the city streets. They have beautiful roundabouts, dramatic statues, parks, & big trees.
Lucky for me—the man without a plan—I happened upon Zona Rosa near the old town. It has artists, a gay community, and great restaurants (Photo from Flickr user AramFranco )
Zona Rosa is the only place in Mexico where I saw almost-shaved heads (more like buzz cuts) and always on women. They were striking.
I never mind asking someone for their photo now, but back then I wasn’t so brazen. So you’ll have to make do with this photo of Natalie Portman from Good Housekeeping.
Mexico City stunned me. First, IT’S SURROUNDED BY SOME OF THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MOUNTAINS! Who knew? El Pico de Orizaba is 18,500’, 4,000’ higher than Mt. Whitney. Who knows this?
If only I had a rugged motorcycle…I could have ridden up a dirt road to 14,100’. From there you can summit in a day. I didn’t have crampons for hiking up glaciers or a warm parka, but I got a great bucket-list item for someday. Must. Return!
Second, just 45 minutes outside of the city is Teotihuacan, an ancient (abandoned) city of perhaps 125,000 population, concurrent with the Roman empire—perhaps the 6th largest city in the world at the time. It also contains the 6th largest pyramid ever built. Tourists were bent over clutching their burning quads trying to get to the top.
Third, the road to Acapulco! Well paved, smooth twisties, remote, beautiful, alpine… Whenever I’m asked what my favorite road for motorcycling in the world is, I think of this road. Whatever rugged bike was in my future, it had to be good on roads like this.
It’s a crazy thing to suddenly descend, after 4 hours of riding in the cool mountain air, to Acapulco. In the space of a few miles it suddenly gets hot, humid, congested and packed with luxury resorts.
A funny thing happened in Acapulco: I got homesick. I called Toni from a phone booth: $96. I was tempted to ride south down the coast and through the mountains to Guatemala and Belize, but I wanted to do it with her. And I wanted to be home when she went under the knife.
So I turned around and rode back to Mexico City. I still can’t believe this but the next day I rode 1,141 miles to El Paso by setting the speedo to 120 on the Cuotas and holding it there all day. Ow, my ears. The next day I rode an equal distance back home, in slow motion, at 70 mph.
What’s a motorcycle adventurer to do once the needle is in your arm and you need a daily fix of adventure? Buy a server and forum software on a lark and not think about what it will mean for you for the next 17 years?
Yeah, I didn’t think that through either.