After an email, followed by a Skype call, it was apparent my presence was being requested back at the homestead… NOW! As the crow flies, I wasn’t too far from home – about 1500 miles. But the fact is my direct path is blocked by a rather large body of water, so I’d have to skirt the Gulf of Mexico, nearly doubling the distance to a bit over 2800 miles.
Early Wednesday, I arose to a few people sitting out drinking coffee under the first strands of sunrise. Most hostel guests were still fast asleep so I silently rolled my bike from the gravel inner courtyard to the parking area near the street. After strapping down my gear and turning in the room key I brought the Tiger to life and set off to ride the entire day away from my ultimate destination, first south towards Chetumal on the Belize boarder and then west to the state of Veracruz. It was a brilliant scorching day under a relentless sun arching across a cloudless pale blue sky. At Villiahermosa, Mex 180D takes a westerly track causing me to squint through sunglasses as the now lowering sun did its best to blind me. Pressing on from Villahermosa, I soon find myself doing something I swore I would not do within Mexico: ride at night. This section of toll road is sparsely populated and it wasn’t until I reached Minatitlán that I found a city significant enough to offer my needed amenities. By this time it was past 7:00 pm and I was pretty beat, being in the saddle for over 12 hours and covering 584 miles – the most of any day on this trip. Not bad considering it was all in Mexico, completely traversing the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Tabasco.
Not looking for bargains, I selected the first decent looking hotel I saw. The cityexpress hotel has a permanent advertisement below their sign enticing potential customers with “rooms from $57.” At reception I was offered a room for $68 being told the lower rate is for weekends. Ha! This place was nowhere near capacity so I collected my helmet and gloves then headed towards the door when suddenly the weekend rate became available.
Once in my room I nearly gasped at my reflection in the bathroom mirror – I looked like Lawrence of Arabia after a one week bivouac in the Sahara. After a refreshing shower, I set off into the Minatitlán night in search of food. Not anxious to wander solo in an unfamiliar city after sunset, I grabbed a few items at a convenience store and had a light meal in my room.
Thursday morning I enjoyed favorable weather along Mex 180D northwest towards the city of Veracruz. Beautiful green rolling meadow dominates the landscape. Once past snarling, congested Veracruz, I continue on a mostly northern track atop Mex 180, rocky and forested terrain rubbing the Gulf Coast. Being the only major artery between Veracruz and Tampico, two-lane Mex 180 plies more than its fair share of traffic which makes travel slow and tedious. The road’s location adjacent to the shore is a boon for tourism as there are countless hotels, motels, and villas strung one after another for miles on the seaside. Frequent small towns offer restaurants, groceries and gasoline making this a vacation destination that’s free from foreign tourists and the high prices they bring. It’s here that a grey sky signals impending moisture ahead so I stopped to don my rain gear. The heavy traffic has taken its toll and the pavement’s poor grading has tiny rivulets with surrounding soil flowing into the numerous potholes. Occasionally, while adjacent to my bike an opposing truck would blast through a pothole, casting an eruption of thin brown liquid across my coat and visor. With the steady drizzle already limiting my visibility, it made a treacherous situation that much worse. This section of Mex 180 is a free road, but a half dozen bridges over rivers and estuaries do have tollbooths. Trying to work cash and change with rain gloves proved frustrating, so I eventually packed them away.
Pulling into the industrialized city of Tampico, the rain had ceased but I was still dripping wet. I took up residence at the Hotel Mansion Real on the southwest side of the Plaza de Armas. Pillars supporting a large dome in the center of the plaza provided shelter to an open-air band playing horns and stringed instruments. A large crowd had gathered covering the lawn and park benches with numerous couples, young and old, dancing on the brick expanse surrounding the domed gazebo. At the hotel check-in desk, I was soon standing in a small puddle of my own making. Once I had my room key, I asked to have my parking receipt validated. But I had placed it in my sopping wet outer coat pocket and it looked pretty feeble on the stone counter. Thankfully a very cute young lady took up the cause and asked me to leave it with her and that she’d stamp it once she had dried it out.
I had a room on the third floor that looked out directly over the park and crowd. It was nearing twilight and a church just beyond the band was beginning to glow under artificial blue and red lights. Unable to do laundry in Tulum, I was now past my last remnants of clean dry clothing. Suspecting I smelled like a wet dog rolled in crap, I did some quick sink washing of socks, underwear and a few t-shirts. Thin polyester twine strung across the room provided a makeshift clothesline.
After a much needed shower, I joined the lively group enjoying the live entertainment. A box of fried chicken and some ice cream was wolfed down to serenades and folk tunes. After an hour or two, I returned to the lobby where I was presented with a dry, validated parking stub.
Once again I was awake while the sun was still below the horizon. Pulling a thin white window veil aside, I peered northeast to a grey sky merging with Gulf waters and city concrete, providing a monotone backdrop to distant brightly lit industrial complexes. I stripped the clothesline and shroud myself in some clean digs. I checked the forecast for the Chicago area the previous night and I really needed to be home no later than Monday evening. I’ve been gone for over a month and it’s now late March, but winter still has a firm grip on Chicago. The high temperature was going below freezing on Tuesday and was expected to stay there for several days. I was determined to cross back to the United States TODAY!
I set the boarder town of Matamoros into the GPS and navigated through Tampico back to Mex 180. Ugh! The first 20 miles or so were absolutely horrific. Constant diligence was needed to remain out of ruts, loose gravel and potholes. But then the asphalt improved and I was making good time. I’m now in Tamaulipas state and there is an unprecedented show of force here. Convoys of 4 or 5 vehicles, with a couple of them sporting a standing soldier manning a mounted machine gun, are a common sight. About 125 miles south of the boarder four Federal Police cruisers are parked in the flat median separating the four lane highway, officers standing alongside their cars. I’m waved over and I pull off to the left, shut down my engine and remove my helmet. I’m asked where I’m from, where I’m going etc and they request I produce my passport, tourist card and vehicle permit. I always keep those items in a lanyard around my neck so I was able to quickly comply. I handed my paperwork to one of the officers and he took a clipboard from his car and wrote something out then handed everything back and basically said, “Have a nice day.” Very professional and courteous.
After a final Pemex fuel stop, I continued north on Mex 180 and it wasn’t too long before all northbound vehicles were being detoured off the highway into a gravel parking lot. A military checkpoint was directing everyone into one of four lanes. Once motioned to pull forward, I stopped the bike and got off. A young soldier asked to look in my panniers and top case, which are locked. No problem. I opened two and he ruffled through my gear for a few moments, was satisfied I wasn’t a drug runner and set me on my way. Again, very professional and courteous.
At about 2:00 pm I approach the boarder crossing. It was very important that I arrive early as I needed to turn in my tourist card and Vehicle Permit on the Mexican side of the boarder! Check your facts on hours of operation because the personnel handling the exit paperwork in Mexico may not have the same hours as the boarder station in the USA. God help you if you get on that bridge before checking out of Mexico! Your only recourse will be to enter the U.S. then turn around and re-enter Mexico! So I first had to stop just before crossing the International Bridge but being aware of procedure was not very beneficial. I have to say, Mexico has a long way to go in checking people from the United States into and out of their country. You may recall the fiasco entering at Piedras Negras a month earlier. Well (FLAME ON) it was no better leaving on this Friday afternoon. I knew I had to turn in my tourist card and vehicle permit, but there was no booth or signs providing direction. I was forced to ask soldiers and police patrolling the station where I was to go and park. For Christ’s sake – toss me a bone will ya!?!? Considering there are tens of thousands of tourists in this very same predicament every month, you’d think they’d at least erect a bi-lingual sign directing traffic.
Once the Mexico paperwork was complete I rode over the International Bridge to Brownsville, Texas. There were quite a few vehicles in queue so I shut down and just rolled the bike forward every so often to keep the gap closed. I checked the time and my odometer: 2 ½ days since leaving Tulum and covered 1371 miles. Drug sniffing dogs led by armed boarder patrol were wandering around the rows of idling vehicles. Once I was up, I removed my helmet, showed my passport and heard “Welcome home!”
I rolled north through Texas to a small town northwest of Corpus Christi before tossing in the towel. I took a room at a family run motel. Back in the land of cell service, my sequestered text messages were dumped to my phone and I made a few calls to the family. Nice to be back in the USA!
Saturday morning started out well enough. Nice blue sky with light winds gave way to a cold front with a thick fog followed by light rain and high winds. Somewhere south of Dallas I decided to pull off the interstate and treated the Tiger to a wash. After pumping a bunch of wrinkled dollars into the change machine, a stack of quarters provided enough time to cleanse the bike of the majority of dirt obscuring the fine finish. Like an unwanted stowaway, this Mexican gunk was comprised of clay, sand and organics delivered straight from Hell. It would eventually take three additional washes back home (with a toothbrush) to rid myself of all visible filth.
Once northeast of Dallas, the rain quit and I found a cheap room at a Motel 6 in Greenville, Texas. I don’t know what it is about these establishments, but they always seem a bit on the seedy / menacing side to me.
Sunday was basically a clean shot across the state of Arkansas in sunshine and wind. The forecast for Monday in Chicago still showed a high near 40 degrees but the low tonight along my route was the mid 30s. I had sent all my cold weather riding gear home a month ago, not expecting to be back until mid-April. I stopped at a major retailer and purchased a pair of fleece sleepwear bottoms on clearance. Winds were pretty intense again this day so I took a room at the Deerfield Inn in Blytheville, Arkansas. They even gave me a motorcycle discount!
Monday, my final day of riding on this trip, would be a cold one! I put on every piece of clothing I had and took off with the thermometer indicating 38 degrees. 455 miles later and facing a setting sun, the temperature was 34. But after 6 days and 2838 miles, I was finally home.