Cows of the Autopista
Bombing Southern Mexico by Motorbike We were screaming down the Pan-American Highway 200 klicks south of Mexico City when Christ appeared. One minute we were buzzing through fields of candelabra cactus and the next minute these crude, steeple-shaped boxes started popping up. They contained lit candles and neon-colored crucifixes and stood roadside on rickety stilts ready to blow to bits from the gust of the next diesel. I gave Leland the finger, the one that means pull off soon because something's fucked. We stopped at a Pemex station and using my rusty Spanish I queried an attendant named Jose.
"They're little churches to the unlucky driver," he said.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Dropped into a sinkhole. Run over by a cement truck. Falling rocks, simple bad driving and cows."
"Cows! The warmth of the road brings them out at night to sleep. They kill the most drivers each year."
Jose crossed himself and then asked where we were headed.
"Chiapas," I said.
"Ha ha. Good luck, amigo."
Good God was more like it. Jose was still crossing himself when we pulled away.
Everyone who'd ridden through Mexico had plenty to say about the big hazards. I'd heard all about the banditos, the Mexican army, the Federales, the Zapatista rebels. Even Satan. But this new litany of perils had the disquieting cast of the normal. A just-up-yonder weirdness.
We got back on the highway and wove through limestone canyons clipping past donkey carcasses and ditched VW Beetles. We threw our bikes into the hairpins, and as I spied more crucifixes hidden in the shade of the trumpetwood, I tried to make peace with the possibility that my destiny might be yoked to a sleeping cow.
Leland and I rendezvoused in Mexico City, picked up the bikes in Cuernavaca and, on our first day, rode 800 kilometers on the Pan-American Highway straight to Oaxaca in south-central Mexico. In the late afternoon we motored up to the zocalo (town square) in Oaxaca city and peeled ourselves off our bikes. We lay on the grass under giant laurel trees, rattled by that internal reduction of vibration, vision and thought?that high hum in the brain borne of hours on a fast bike in a strange place. A few years ago I'd given Leland and Patty my gold '72 Honda CB 750. It was an act of largesse for which Patty is still trying to forgive me. Leland and I fantasized a ride down the Pan-American Highway, and last May we found a German couple living outside of Mexico City who were willing to rent us their pair of BMW F650s sport-touring bikes. All that was left to do was horde Immodium and book some plane tickets.
At an outdoor cafe along the arcade of the zocalo we drank Mexican Coca-Cola (it's still sweetened with cane sugar down here) and talked about the events that brought us here. Leland had a look on his face like shit, we actually made it in one piece, but after about half an hour his awe turned to swagger.
"We're gonna ride the whole thing someday." Statement of fact.
"Yeah, man. Alaska to Argentina. We'll trade in the bikes for horses in the Andes and gallop back to New York."
"Good, good. And work?"
"F work! F the whole world for once!"
Leland says F instead of fuck, thinks there's bravado in it. After a pause he stomped away from the table.
"Where you going?"
He shifted his eyes and mumbled, "Call Patty. What's the country code?"
So much for F the world. While Leland worked the phone I shot down a few Ultramarine mezcals and a local tequila, then chased them with a Bohemia and Spanish peanuts. I watched the middle-aged male ecotourist types walking arm in arm with their native concubines and felt momentarily superior. A few French girls who'd broken free of their tour group smiled as they passed and then doubled back to bum a cigarette. There was a low sort of bustle to the place, made more sedate by the constant flow of tequila and beer. And somewhere on the periphery of my thoughts I was right back on the gorgeous pumping obstacle course of a road we'd ridden earlier, a mile high in a tiny village called Agua Azul where just beyond a bend lay a shattered truck windshield draped inexplicably over a boulder. The sun glinted red and blue off the windshield and shimmered on the scrub bank opposite us. A couple of children ran through the subdued flickering lights, stopped to look at us with puzzled expressions and ran on.
Back in the square some Indian children wormed their way around the tables and chairs. They worked the hard sell on tourists, hawking "baratos" (literally "cheaps") such as gum, pens, pottery, artwork, cigarettes and whatever else they thought we might want. People who said "no gracias" were treated to some shrill wailing that melted the wax out of their ears. Out of some boozy sense of guilt I decided to buy something, and picked out a combination bottle opener/keychain adorned with the likeness of Che Guevara. Twenty pesos. I attached my rented BMW keys to Che's head and chuckled, supposing there was some irony in this.
Leland had returned and was glaring at me. He has a sort of romantic view of the lefty hierarchy.
"What?" I said defensively, "Che was into bikes, right? Rode a Norton."
This was a bit like telling a Catholic you admire Christ for his chiseled abs. Leland's gaze persisted, a look that said the international workers' struggle had been cheapened by my insensitivity. I stomped away from the table like a scolded child, hoping that karma wouldn't slap me for this trespass.
Later, we spent a few hours touring the ruins at Monte Alban, home to the temples of the Zapotec Indians. Here the mountaintop was soccer-field flat. The short green grass threw the ancient stepped pyramids and squared-off temples into wild relief. At midday we climbed the raised altars, some of which date back to 700 BC, and took in the majestic view overlooking the valley and modern Oaxaca.
Our insides got tetchy by the third day. We'd been shoveling down tacos and chicken mole and chasing it all with a fair amount of mescal. Our condition was aggravated by the ubiquitous Mexican speed bump, or tope. Topes are twice the height of your average North American speed bump. They appear, as often as not, out of nowhere. We'd cruise along at 75 mph, eyes on the frothy cur off to the side of the road, and two blinks later find ourselves flying over our handle bars having hit an unmarked tope. Topes are suspension killers and, for Mexican drivers, the majority of whom have no automobile insurance, they're taken at a timid .5 km per hour. We tackled 100 topes a day on average, which would have been torture were it not for the F650's smooth suspension and our constant suckling at the Pepto teat.
Pushing west from Oaxaca, we took highway 175 through semiarid terrain. It was market day in Miahuatlán, and we bought a few pieces of fruit from a friendly farmer named Otilio. Otilio recommended going offroad, due to construction, and linking up with 175 about 23 klicks west of town. "Este no es feo!" he said with a smile and a wave of the hand, and I wondered if by that he meant it's a scenic route or this route is traversable or just, you know...it's all good.
It's like that with foreign languages. The more words I learn the less meaning I apprehend, and so I just smiled and took his directions, beating a trail along a flowing riverbed and then through the deep valley. We rode across grassland and scrub, dodging agave clusters and yellow barrel cactus. We wound around sandy-hued brittlebush and spindly walking-stick cholla and began to get a little nervous thinking we might've lost our way. Then we crossed a huge daisy field and linked up with 175 at precisely 23 klicks on the odometer.
Este no es feo! and after about 100 kilometers of straight road, we began the gradual ascent into the foothills of the Sierra Madre Del Sur. We'd been hearing about heat waves and brownouts back in New York, but here the temperature was a crisp 60 degrees and the sky was Windex blue. As we rose, the road obeyed topography instead of ignoring it. The gradual, increasing-radius turns we made in the valleys yielded to hill-hugging hairpins, and I remembered the old wisdom about cornering: in slow out fast, in fast out dead.
Occasionally we'd wind through a hairpin and a rush of heavy, putrid air would rise up from the gully below. It was the smell of rot. The odor of decay and death. We learned later that these steep, narrow gullies are where Mexicans deposit their dead animals. (Old Esperanza the cow finally succumbed to bovine spongiform? Bring her to that bend down the road and give her the old heave-ho; brother Flaco awaits her at the bottom.)
Still, este no es feo! and this is where things got really interesting. The oddly cambered road unfolded like rollercoaster tracks, obscuring visibility beyond the tilted hump in front of us. The constant dipping and rising reminded me of a certain bridge from my youth in Pennsylvania. My sisters used to call it the "stomach bridge" because of the way our guts tickled when our mom gunned the station wagon over its hump. We climbed quickly to about 9000 feet, and the thin air was making me giddy. I welcomed the mild hallucinations, the fingers of fog beckoning like sea anemones in a torpid current, the darting swallow winking at me in Morse code. We rode along a misty ridge past Indian villages spying even higher peaks in the distance.
Este no es feo! In fact it was too beautiful. And here, two miles up in a Mexican cloud forest I was overcome by weird spells of joy and manic grief, and the best I could do was to talk myself back to a state of calm with a mantra that went something like: the air is thin, this is perfectly natural, just steer clear of the cows.
The mellowest drug deal in the history of the narco trade went down at 10,000 feet. It was raining heavily. Dense fog crept up the mountainside, blanketing the trunks of oaks and pines and disappearing the road. I glanced down and the fog cut my legs off at the knees.
Leland and I stopped in San Jose del Pacífico, a summit village of eight creaky wooden houses balanced on a narrow precipice connecting two peaks. A hospitable señora appeared from her house and I negotiated lunch, something about salse de cheech-a-row.
Out on the road, a Mixtec Indian man with a mouth full of gold and deep-set bloodshot eyes fired his slingshot at a bird on a tree branch. He missed by a good two feet. He smiled and his teeth cut through the fog like little gold beacons.
Lunch came and Leland pulled me aside.
"You F'd up, dude," he said.
Her chicharrón, it turned out, was lightly poached pigskin. The señora presented me with my own plate of the fleshy, foul-smelling ingots and smiled hospitality as she backed into the kitchen.
"I can't do it," Leland said, poking his fork at the spongy slabs.
I agreed, and pulled a plastic baggy from my backpack. We shoveled the chicharrón into it, figuring we'd throw it away outside of town. We worked quickly. Two children appeared at the door and stared at us. I put index finger to lips and winked and the children giggled. I hoped they'd keep their mouths shut. Just as we scooped the last brick of fusty pig hide into the plastic bag they started screaming and the señora came running in.
"Qué están haciendo?" she asked.
I lied, telling her that we were saving it for later because of the long ride ahead. She looked unconvinced and a bit ticked off. The Mixtec poked his head inside and it appeared as though he might join in the little confrontation. I whispered to Leland, "Emergency tchotchke bag!"
He dashed out to the bikes. When he returned he was tossing gringo tchotchkes all over the room?baseball caps, glowsticks, pens and t-shirts with the word "Sports" emblazoned on the front. Everyone accepted graciously. It was a big fiesta, a real Kodak moment. The Mixtec man, who seemed especially pleased with his NYPD visor, pulled me outside. I shook out an American Spirit for him and he said, "No gracias," peering at the pipe-sucking Indian on the yellow box. He pulled out his own pack of Guatemalan-imported Marlboro reds and then grabbed the bag of chicharrón from me. He dug out a cube and chewed on it between drags of his cigarette. Then he pointed to a patch of thin-stemmed mushrooms under the low hanging branch of a pine tree.
"Hongos," he said.
"Son misticales?" I asked
"Sí. Te lanzan a Jupiter. Quantos viajes quieres?"
How many trips did I want? To tell the truth, none really. But sometimes I'm just too polite.
"Dos viajes, por favor."
I reached into my pocket for some pesos, but he put up a hand and pointed to the bag of chicharrón as if to say "fair trade." He picked 12 of the bluish, slope-capped champignons, wrapped them in a fresh yucca leaf and sent me on my way. Pigskin for mushrooms. Okay.
The descent was wet and slow going. For much of the way we dodged Pullman buses that lumbered through the mountains carrying tourists up from Puerto Angel, Huatulco and Chiapas. The Pullman drivers constantly cut the hairpins, which made navigating the blind mountain twists even more perilous. Every so often a bus passed, and I glimpsed a wild-eyed tourist peering from a window seat crossing himself with epileptic fury.
A constant, hard rain soaked through our Olympia deerskin gloves and Columbia rainsuits and we got the chills. Thankfully we were dropping at a rate of about 100 feet every half minute. Before long, the air became balmy and we entered moss-draped jungle. We passed banana trees and strangler figs. Coffee crops appeared in long, symmetrical rows, stretching down entire hillsides from ridge to base. We dropped into the dense, bristling green of tropical ferns, philodendron and palm. Floripondio with their bell-shaped flowers hung down like miniature cream-colored chandeliers and the air's salty top note said the ocean was nearby. The next 50 kilometers took us past more coffee plantations and controlled fires where forest was being converted into grassland for cattle. The odor of charcoal got inside our hair and clothing (and didn't wash out). Finally, at around 7:30 p.m., we spied the Pacific through a clearing. An hour later we were working the beach at Puerto Angel, squishing quartered limes into our Bohemias and joking around with the locals who'd gathered to gawk at our bikes.
Mexico likes to show its guns. Any time there's more than $100 in pesos in one place, there's an armed guard protecting it. This goes for banks, gas stations and any place where liquor is sold. Even in quiet, peaceful towns like Taxco and Cuernavaca we passed Ford flatbeds prowling the streets, carrying half a dozen teenage boys in army fatigues with guns at the ready.
Of course, none of this would have been of any concern to me had I not been carrying a couple ounces of mushrooms. But now we were close to Chiapas, and we'd just been pulled over by a border patrol. The army commandante who greeted us looked like Saddam Hussein. He wore Ray-Ban aviators, and over his shoulder was slung a well-polished M16.
"Colonel Fig?what is it? Figerora, Figgerera, Figg?" I stuttered.
"Yes, of course. Fig-uer-o-a. Colonel Figeuroa. Well, like it says on our entry cards, we are here for three weeks, test-riding for a motorcycle magazine back in the states."
"And what is your business in Chiapas?"
"No business, really. Just want to ride up to San Cristóbal. We've heard how beautiful it is. Uno Mexico muy differente."
"Good bikes, eh?"
"Uhh, well, we're renting."
I attempted a little silent Jedi mindsway: I am but a pinche gringo. There are no drugs here. You will have mercy on me. You will let me pass.
"Okay, amigo. Have a pleasant journey. Don't drive at night."
"We will. I mean, won't. Gracias. Gracias."
It was too good to be true. We smiled and started up.
"Oh, amigo, una cosa."
"Yes, Colonel Figueroa?"
"May I see your keychain?"
"Yes. Pull it out and hand it to me."
"Oh, that's just?I got it in Oaxaca. Baratos, you know? Little kids selling. It's not like I'm into Che or?"
All of a sudden Figueroa whistled that Mexican whistle that all Mexican men whistle, and from the back of the green truck came Figueroa junior and sidekick. Same sunglasses, black mustaches, fatigues tucked into their boots and big, big guns. They huddled and talked and then the three of them approached me.
"Te gusta Che, amigo?" asked Figueroa the younger.
"No Capitán, no. It's a little joke. Get it?"
Three blank faces.
"I much prefer Americanos like?um, Andrew Jackson. Que padre, Andrew Jackson, eh? I just happen to have a few pictures of him right here. Would each of you like your own picture of Andrew Jackson?"
"Well, here you are. They're yours to keep. Really. And we won't drive at night."
"Amigo, is this a bottle opener too?"
"That's right. It's a keychain and a bottle opener."
"How does it work?"
"Oh, of course, silly me. Tres cervezas, right?"
"Hell, let's call it doce. Where's the store?"
"The Pemex is 500 meters across the border. You can walk there. Your friend will keep us company."
"But he should come with?"
"We'll look after him. You go now."
I caught the look on Leland's face. A contorted, sullen grimace. It said: "I'm about to be ass-raped, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it." As I stumbled across the military border between Oaxaca and Chiapas in the direction of the Pemex station I petitioned every saint in the communion to keep Figueroa and company from searching my hard bags.
At the Pemex station I had a different sort of crisis. Corona, Sol or Bohemia? Fuck it, I thought, bought four of each and sprinted back to the command post. When I got back, Leland had an ear-to-ear smile on his face. He, Figueroa and the junior officers were yukking it up, leaning against the truck and smoking some of the Cohiba Robustos we'd bought in Oaxaca. As I approached I noticed Figueroa was clutching an NYPD baseball cap.
"They like me," Leland murmured. "But they're F-ing with you because of the keychain. Keep smiling and maybe we'll get out of here before it gets dark."
I opened their beers with my Che Guevara combination keychain/bottle opener, and then Leland and I saddled up and started our engines. Just as he was about to give the nod, Figueroa held up his hand.
"You're heading in the wrong direction."
"But Chiapas is south. Right?"
"Yes amigo, but you just went to Chiapas."
"And the surfing up north in Puerto Escondido is quite nice. And the women in Puerto Escondido?que linda, eh? I think you want to see Puerto Escondido. Right amigo?"
"Sure amigo. Sure you do. Now don't drive at night and have a pleasant trip."
"We won't. I mean, will. Gracias, Colonel Figueroa."
"De que, amigo."
The center of Puerto Escondido's late-night surfer's paradise was a little tiki-ish dive called Barfly. In the mass of sun-scarred bodies that crammed the dancefloor there were surfers of all stripes, as well as backpacking Europeans (mostly French and Dutch for some reason), Argentines and even Mexicans. Of more vague ethnic origin were some shadowy drug dealers, a few white rastas and five or six Ricky Martin wannabes.
Everyone here had a story that sounded like a rap (Leland and I included): How long they'd been on the road, route, method of travel, who'd ripped them off, who'd hooked them up, epiphanies and lamentations. We put a buzz on and recounted our run-in with Figueroa to anyone who'd listen. Leland was still cheesed that we weren't going to reach Chiapas. But we'd agreed at the start that our plans should be flexible enough to change for any reason barring libidinous exploits and/or acts of utter stupidity. So Chiapas was a theoretical destination that went unrealized.
The music at Barfly started out pretty good. Early in the evening the DJ featured Babasonicos, an Argentine band that conjured a strange but likable blend of hiphop, funk, rap and hard rock. Later on he spun some Latin dub that lit the place up. I've spent a fair amount of time on the late-nite circuit in Central America, and it was surprising to hear anything other than merengue, salsa, reggae, punta and the one or two imported megahits currently in vogue (this year's being "Believe" and "Livin' La Vida Loca"). Unfortunately, by the time I felt like dancing it was too late. The megahits were playing and the Ricky Martins had seized the floor with those gyrations of self-love that pass for this season's dance sophistication. Muggers they were?all pistol hands and shuteye smiles, sweating like piglets under their black ribbed sweaters and pleatless slacks. The girl standing beside me had had just about enough.
"Reediculous!" she steamed.
She was pretty: soft-featured and very blonde, with her hair pulled tight under a red bandanna. I figured a change of subject might help.
"How'd you know I speak English?" I asked.
She shot me a look. Then she smiled and held out her small hand. She said her name twice.
"Baker. Bay-ker," I answered.
"Hi Baker. I am from Amsterdam, yeah"?as though framing a question.
She told me that she and her friends had begun the summer in Panama and were hoping to get to San Francisco.
"Only now we get a little sick of each other," she added, nodding in the direction of two skinny girls who were also wearing bandannas and snarling at the Ricky Martins.
I told Bergitte our tale of border terror, tweaking the narrative to include half the Mexican army and a daring predawn prison break.
"Are all Americans full of this bullshit?" she asked when I'd finished.
At 3 a.m. the DJ finally decided to work the indigenous angle. First he put on Horace Andy, which cleared the dancefloor of all but a few malnourished white rastas. Everyone else scowled at the trio of flea-bitten skeletons. To their credit the white rastas ignored the venom that was being directed at them and just smiled and kicked up their knees in listless syncopation. Then Bergitte said she was going to ask the DJ to put on some salsa. She wanted to dance, but by now I was in no mood. I'd drunk more than my fair share of Bohemia and my stomach was starting to churn. I was ready to collapse. We traded e-mail addresses and I made a gift of the mushrooms, wishing her better luck with them than I'd had, and I split.
I walked into a cow on the way to the beach. The road was pitch black beneath the canopy of palms and mangroves. When I stumbled into the sleeping heifer she shot out her hooves and cuffed my shin. Then she moaned low and went right back to sleep. I sat down a few feet away from her and smoked, waiting for my body to stop trembling. As a sort of back payment to destiny I decided to build my own little steeple-shaped crucifix box in our honor?the cow's and mine, that is. Commemorating our harmless collision, I thought, might prevent another more serious one from happening. I hung my shirt from a tree branch to mark the location and walked down to the beach. I was joined by one of the many stray dogs that roam Mexico in search of a master. She guarded me as I sat down and took off my boots. Up to the north, the lights of the town lit the giant palms from behind. The muted plinking of boat bells sounded off in the harbor and I fell asleep on the sand.
At dawn I walked back up to the road to find my shirt. The cow was gone. My shirt was still hanging where I'd left it, and standing around it were three blonde girls in red and blue bandannas. From a distance they looked like underfed German milkmaids out on a birdwatching excursion.
"How do, ladies?" I called and walked forward. Of course it was Bergitte and her friends. Their eyes were bugging; their faces, locked rictii. The full concentration of mushroom poison had stiffened their jaws. And then an explosion:
Bergitte mussed my hair. Tears welling, a salt sea slicking her massively dilated orbs. She spoke in slow motion.
"Bay-ker, your leg is okay?" asked another, pointing at the dried blood on my shin.
All this misunderstanding, concern and effusion of emotion?it was embarrassing. I explained about the cow. About how I wanted to erect a shrine for karmic protection. They agreed this was a good thing to do. They insisted I sit down by the roadside. And, with a determination that was singular, the three stoned Dutch girls set to building me a cross. They used pieces of driftwood and torn shards of bandanna as sash. When they were done we had not one but two simple blue and red crosses, both a foot and a half tall. The blue was my votive, the red was the cow's. We stuck them in the ground behind some scrub where they'd be hard to spot. Then Bergitte grabbed me and the four of us group hugged for nearly 10 minutes. I figured by now we were well enough acquainted that I could ask the other two their names. Their names were Anita and Mieke. I thanked all three of them?Bergitte, Anita and Mieke?and said goodbye. I hope they're doing well.
The following day we got waylaid by Montezuma. We were supposed to ride up to Acapulco, but our guts were voiding with such a vengeance that all we could do was camp out on the beach and wait.
At first, Leland and I tried to figure out where we'd picked it up. Perhaps it was the ceviche we ate, or the chicken mole. Or maybe we'd gotten it from silverware washed with unpurified water. But the search for a cause was futile. This was Mexico. You could avoid the ice, drink bottled water, swill Pepto Bismol till your shit turned two shades of black and wear a goddamned boy-in-the-plastic-bubble suit and, like Leland says, you'd still end up shooting cappuccino froth out of your ass.
So we huddled in the shade of a palapa at beautiful playa Carrizallilo with the pre-explosion shivers racking our limbs. They came in perpetual 20-minute waves, these shits, beginning with the sweats and followed by the cold clammies and that sinking-gut sensation. Then the sweats would dry up too rapidly and all surface moisture would suck back through our skin. It was like sweating in reverse. From this point on detonation was inevitable, and we soon realized that this wasn't some mild strain of squeeze-tight-and-I'll-buy-myself-another-10-minutes. This was a meltdown, a maelstrom, each trip to the can an explosion more apocalyptic than the one that preceded it. It couldn't go on like this. But it did. It did.
Leland and I moved closer to the palapa grande, which supplied the only bathroom for miles. The old woman who served papas fritas and Cokes gave a sweet, sympathetic smile each time we sprinted through her kitchen. Between trips to the bathroom we both tried to make the best of it?to spin shit into gold, as it were?by coming up with a few euphemisms for what we were going through. Among our favorites: ass eruption, ass emergency, ass attack, ass explosion, the Jon Spencer Ass Explosion, the screaming shits, super colon blow, the muds and?my favorite?the maroon typhoon.
On one of my final trips to the seatless toilet I tossed Leland the roll of toilet paper, but he just let it bounce off his head and remained transfixed by the ocean's curling waves.
"What's up?" I asked.
"I was just thinking. If the Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow, then the Mexicans?"
He was dashing to the can before he could finish the thought.
Leland had it worse than me, and by about 6 in the afternoon I was able to try a little surfing while he shivered under the palapa. Carrizallilo is a cove about a quarter mile wide, and the waves here arrived mostly in long interval singles. They weren't too large?about 6 to 9 feet. They broke gently, almost in slow motion, creating perfect conditions for the novice surfer. I was able to catch a few beautiful rides before an attack sent me sprinting up the beach (I refused to let it go in the water?that would've been really bad karma). Then I jumped back in and surfed until sundown with a few more frenzied breaks for shore in between.
That night I hung out on the beach with a bunch of Argentinians and some guitars. Leland stayed in and slept. When the sun came up I stumbled over to my room at the Casa Blanca pension and fell asleep. Half an hour later Mexican banda music kicked in, signaling the start of the hotel's breakfast buffet. Leland was already down there among the 20 or 30 Mexicans who'd come from outside of town to take advantage of the food. We wanted to eat, but were afraid of the consequences. The day's ride would be the longest yet: 1000 kilometers from Escondido to Taxco. Riding on a half-hour of sleep was doable. Riding with the shits was not.
The first 400 klicks on coastal highway 200 took us through mangrove swamps and along beaches and coastal rivers. The Pemex stations between Escondido and Acapulco were out of gas, and so we had to siphon on the fly from truck drivers. In Acapulco, Leland and I searched for a McDonald's. Our guts were crying out for something American, but Acapulco is much larger than we'd anticipated, and the detour turned out to be a sweltering, dirty and congested waste of time. We blew two hours just driving through the tunnel and into the center of the city, dodging hundreds of vicious green and white Beetle taxicabs. Fearing the loss of crucial daylight, we gave up on the McDonald's idea and hauled out of Acapulco.
We began the 600-kilometer highway blast up the Autopista del Sol, which was as pristine and as fast as Germany's Autobahn. It shot straight over farmland and cut through, rather than around, the mountains. It was astonishing how a road could master the landscape the way this one did. Whole sides of mountains had been shaved, sliced off, to accommodate its linear trajectory. Massive suspension bridges spanning low valley farmland connected one mountain to another, eliminating the need for ascent/descent switchbacks. In a half-daze I imagined that the highway's conception involved a braided army general slamming a straight edge down on a map, shouting, "Calle aquí!" Whereupon a thousand civil engineers charged off to take him literally.
For the rest of the day we lay it flat open. We averaged 170 km per hour on the long straightaways. Once every 10 minutes I braced my hand on the throttle, lay my head on the F650's oversized gas tank and took a three-second disco nap. Since it's a toll road, the route was virtually empty (Acapulco to Taxco is about $50 U.S., too expensive for the average Mexican). The locals did, however, make use of its wide and even shoulder for jogging and calisthenics. And late in the afternoon we saw some bathers standing by an immense water vat meant to supply overheated car radiators. It was a father and his son, sudsed-up and naked. As we passed they dropped their ladles and waved. A sweet tableau on this marvel of infrastructure.
About 100 klicks from Taxco we left the autopista and entered the secondary access. In our time here the only other bikes we'd seen were some copped-out Yamaha Seca IIs ridden by Cuernavaca's police force, and Pizza Hut's delivery fleet of Honda 150s. On the access road we were momentarily subsumed by a posse of about 50 sport bikes. It was a Sunday night, and this small, mobile army of leather-clad canyon burners was returning to Mexico City from a day in the mountains. Leland gave me the finger, the one that means pull up and stay close. When the sport bikes finally pulled over for a gas stop, we did too. Most of them were riding Ducati Supersports and Honda Hawks and CBRs?good machines for these parts. We introduced ourselves and they invited us to join them and told us they'd signal the cutoff to Taxco when it came up.
We got back out on the road just as the sun was setting. Leland and I fell to the back of the formation, and the song of the high revving sport burners in front of us?the brutal Ducati baritones harmonizing with the four-stroke Ninja sopranos and the smooth CBR altos?was like some piston-fuelled choral whine. I've always preferred riding alone, or with one other person at most. But this Mexican motorcade was a thrill, and I was more than happy to have 50 bikes in front of me to signal any bovine road blockage.
For 50 kilometers we rode north, and then we got the signal. Leland and I peeled off to the east, and the sport bikes continued on toward the smog-shrouded megalopolis of the Distrito Federal.
Now that we were alone again, my usual fears resurfaced. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep or the hunger or the lingering effects of Montezuma, but everywhere I looked I saw strange luminescent dots staring back at me. Eyes. I concentrated on my votive crucifix back in Escondido. I prayed that none of the rheumy beasts were here to foul me up, to complete my destiny. But they were here. They kept on. They popped their heads and limbs through the roadside scrub. They lowed along the shoulder and teased.
Leland was up ahead, throwing his bike into turns like some hell-bent cafe racer. And in the final 50 klicks of twilight it was just me, my bike and cows.