Eagle Pass Texas sits on the southern US border 700 miles from Tulsa. As I rode my bicycle there back in 2007 almost everyone I met on the three month journey tried to convince me to abandon my mission, warning of impending disasters that would immediately befall me upon arriving in Mexico. The constant expressions of fear we’re infectious, filling me with dread as I finally saddled up to cross the bridge separating the land of law and order from it’s despicable and bloodthirsty southern neighbor.
I heeded the advice of those who cautioned against spending any time in the border town of Piedras Negras, hitting the highway west in the early morning hours. I didn’t stop to exchange currency so when I ducked into the shade of a little taco cart on the side of the dusty desert highway, I was unsure how to conduct business with dollars. I ordered some tacos and smiled suspiciously at the fellow diners who were offering to give me a ride in the back of their pickup. I was nodding yes though I had no idea what they were saying. I was just hoping that my agreeableness would be disarming. They got up to leave and waited for a confusing, silent moment until they shrugged and decided to go on without me. The taco man asked “No quires ir?” (You don’t want to go?) which I managed to understand after he repeated it using hand gestures to get the point across. Now realizing what was being offered and still desperate to get as far from the border as possible, I waved to the driver, loaded my bicycle in the back of the truck, forgetting to pay the taco man. I rushed back to ask how much and fumbled for some money trying to figure out how many dollars to pesos when he waved me off and welcomed me to his country, gifting me what was my first delicious Mexican street food experience.
I bumped along in the back of the rusty Toyota truck as the family of four shared the single cab in front. The kids kept looking back, laughing and paranoia set in. Was this family really a sadistic criminal outfit that was headed to some desert hideout where they would pillage this gullible gringo? How could I be so stupid to trust these strangers whose language I could barely comprehend? They drove about 20 miles to the next town where I tried to buy gas and soda, which they would not allow. I unloaded the bike and stepped into a little store. I attracted a fair amount of attention in this little town and feeling nervous I hurried to get back on the bike. I glanced over my shoulder as I rode off, catching sight of a young teenage boy running full sprint after me. All the warnings of thieves and malicious murderers flashed through my mind as I attempted to accelerate but was slowed down by my hundred pounds worth of gear strapped to the bike. He closed the gap quickly and held out a small bag I had accidentally left behind in my rush to leave.
I rode on through the desert, slowly passing stone mountains with tiny caves housing shrines to virgins and saints. This stretch of highway was not heavily travelled and the loneliness was comforting. That evening I arrived in San Buenaventura, Coahuila. I went to every hotel (there were two) and found every room occupied (there was a rodeo). The hotelier kindly offered to let me camp for free in one of the unfinished rooms at the back of the hotel if I would like. This sounded like a terrible idea and when I found out the “room” was a three sided concrete box with no windows I immediately suspected a setup. But it was already dark and I was very tired. I laid out my gear on one side and crouched nervously in the darkened corner across the room expecting a raid any minute. Again, my sirens of safety north of the rio were wrong. No raiders came.
The next day I woke early and left town before the roosters had a chance to crow. I bucked a desert headwind all morning arriving at a little tourist highway stop near Cuatro Cienegas. The day was quickly heating up. They were about to close leaving me in a difficult spot without shelter from the blowing sand and scorching sun. As the man locked the doors, he directed me to a place just a few miles down the road where I could camp next to an oasis. This again sounded too good to be true but I needed to find someplace to rest. I rode on as quickly as I could with sand in my teeth and sweat in my eyes, arriving at one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
I had been in Mexico only 48 hours, two terrifying days of looking over my shoulder, paranoid at every interaction. But my fears hadn’t realized. It seemed everyone was actually trying to help me. I was confused and disoriented. I stayed at the desert oasis two days, swimming under a searing sun with little fish and turtles surrounded by towering, dry crags and sandy horizons. It was as surreal as the preceding days.
And it was there I met another unexpected friend who would have so great an impact on my life that he continues to inspire me to this day.
…to be continued.