San Miguel de Allende, central Mexico
When you’re 1000 kilometers from the border, a sign for Texas catches the eye. It’s a solid hook. No driver can make the excuse that they’re not going to our exact destination. In this idyllic splash of a colorful hill town, no one is driving all the way to the States.
I love hitchhiking in Mexico. The passing drivers give thumbs up and encouraging smiles. They shrug their shoulders apologetically and point at the ground when they’re just making a short trip. The sun is coming up and the traffic is strong and slow. The drivers are delighted with two gringos holding a cardboard sign. So I’m surprised that no one stops for the first half hour.
Until an old boy pulls over in a vintage Chevy truck, midnight blue with a long crack across the windshield. “You’re going to Texas?” We nod happily in expectation. “Then why are you on the south bound side of the road?”
Because we’re lazy. Because we’re fat and sassy from a restful few days. Because we sat where she dropped us off without checking the map. Because we had a stuffed bag of groceries. Because we’re pumped up and cocky.
Mrs. Fernandez-Diaz kindly waited for us at the grocery store while we loaded up our grub bag that morning. I rushed Aly through the store, unnecessarily of course. I keep moving too fast in this country. This time I was worried about our friend’s mom waiting in the parking lot. My stomach churned at the thought of her tapping her foot at these damn kids wasting her time after spending the night on her sof\a. But she’s a mother. And a Mexican. When we came out loaded with groceries, she just smiled brightly and cooed at our apologies. “I’m in no rush. I want you to be ready for your adventure.”
Still, she did drop us on the wrong side of the road. We try to chuckle at ourselves as we cross the highway and struggle to catch a ride across town. Downtowns are dead zones –deliveries, commuters, daily errands and suits – a hitcher’s limbo.
Rule of the Road #4: Never get trapped in the center of a city. Get out before the sprawl makes it impossible to get a ride.
We scramble on and off a couple buses, embarrassed to keep the commuters waiting while we pile on our cumbersome load. I forget once again that it’s Mexico. They smile in amusement at our load of hula hoops and books, none of the exasperated tight-lipped aggravation of the Rotten Apple. At the far end of the bus route, we get out where the two main roads out of the city converge.
We decided to wait by the stop sign where the one road ended. It meant we missed half the outgoing traffic but the line of waiting cars got a chance to look over me and Aly. She has more testicular fortitude than me (plus being much cuter) and she called out to drivers with open windows, asking where they’re headed and if they have a seat in the back, “Atras? Atras?”
Rule of the Road #2: The driver wants a good look at you. Position yourself to give it to them.
I wanted to start the day with the wind in my hair so we prayed to the road god (that’s Saint Christopher in this country) for a ride in the back of a pickup truck. Ask and ye shall receive. Aly worked the next driver with a big grin, “A donde van? Atras? Por que no? Mucho espacio!! Por atras?” We spent the next 30 kilometers sitting on bags of grain watching the scrub desert zip by while we sang snatches of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs.
Under a sliver of shade, we lunched on a spicy rajas and cheese sandwich. The hot mid-day sun started zapping our stamina for roadside soliciting. It was our first hints of the roadside horrors – that depressing and infuriating wonder at how these empty heartless vehicles can speed by two wanderers wilting in the harsh heat. However, it only took a short ride to rejuvenate – dropped beneath a tree in the center of a town where the cars slow and the fertilizer salesgirl returns my winks. Everything brightens in the shade.
Then she appeared lumbering over the horizon. My guts clenched to push down the hope that’s always been disappointed. There she was in all her transportational glory, the great White Whale I’d been hunting for all my years of hitching – the RV. I’ve never had a ride in these traveling homes with acres of bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchenettes hidden behind white walls and piloted by wizened couples. They would lurch by me on the highways of Texas and Arkansas and South Dakota with their drivers too gripped by fear and senility to even return my frantic waves of hope. But alas, after all these years, I’ve never stuck my harpoon into one yet.
To be fair, what appeared out of the heat waves of this dusty Mexican highway was more of a Mottled Grey Pygmy Sperm Whale. It wasn’t fifty feet of linoleum and indulgence and leather. It was a little Toyota truck with a camper built into the bed. But they didn’t hesitate to pull over once they spotted us – a hip Colorado couple, laid back and slow moving. He spent years hitching around the world and agreed with me about RVs. “The only time I ever caught a ride on one was with a guy whose job was to deliver brand new ones around the country. I had to sit in the middle of the aisle and not touch anything because it was spotless and covered in plastic.”
Aly was worn out from all the talking with our Mexican drivers so she took a nap on the bed while I grew enamored of this couple. They lived an ambling life – traveling the world on the cheap, not moving too fast and funding themselves with freelance graphic design work. We effortlessly traded stories from the road and found an understanding on all the topics that we broached in our wandering conversation. By the time they let us out at San Luis Potosi, I decided I wanted my life to turn out like his.
As the little RV pulled away, I excitedly tried to describe them to Aly, tripping over my words in my adoration but I couldn’t describe the magic I felt (and so of course I miss describing it here as well). “They were just what I needed to see – but now I can’t remember any of the stories and all the fakts seem like rubbish. There was nothing electrifying or punchy. They were just happy and fulfilled. Gah. They inspired me so much…I don’t know. So simple and nice.”
Amused by my ramblings, Aly laughed that engaging laugh, “Well, I’m glad you found what you needed. Now that we picked up the main highway, let’s see how fast we can move.”
Dear reader, I would never have guessed at how fast we could go. We found one of the luckiest rides of my career and we weren’t even hunting for a ride at that moment. At a modern marvel of a rest stop, we decided to take a short rest to let some of the day’s stress ease away as we lunched on more hot peppers and cheese. I read of telepathic drug experiences while Aly wrote on my computer, the sign for Texas at our feet temporarily discarded at our feet.
Rule of the Road #7: On a long haul, don’t push so hard. You’ll be out there for days so don’t increase the stress and decrease the rides by skipping naps and snacks. When you grind yourself down to a short fuse, drivers notice the surliness in your stance no matter how hard you may try to hide it with those fake grins.
When a fast talking Texican woman spotted our sign, she rushed over on swinging hips, big and brash. “Oh, honeys. We’re going to Texas too. Now it’s not my car but I’m sure he won’t care. It’s only that it’s a pickup so you’ll have to sit in the back. I’m sure you won’t mind. It’s such radiant country. You must come meet him.”
“Hector, meet these wonderful young people going to Texas. They seem quite nice. Oh, they wouldn’t have any drugs on them. You don’t have drugs do you dearies? No, of course you don’t. But you can see why he’s worried don’t you? Oh, I’m so glad. Hector was a taxi driver you know. He’s an excellent driver. We’ll be in Laredo by sunset.”
And that was my goodbye to Mexico – a hard fast push through the scrub desert of the promised land at 120 kilometers per hour, the buffeting wind blowing away the heat of the sun. Alone in the back with no one to entertain – no responsibility but to watch the shifting contours of the painted desert and the burros grazing in the highway’s median.
Every so often, we’d glance into the cab and confirm, “Yep, she’s still talking.” Poor Hector.
Ten hours of sunburn, windburn and rushing countryside later, we arrived at the border town of Nuevo Laredo (missing a gun battle between the Zetas and the federalis by a couple of hours). By this time, we bonded with our driver at the stops for gas, relieving his fear that we would be dumb enough to try and cross the border with marijuana. With the help of the indomitable chatter from the passenger seat, he agreed to take us across the border and all the way to our destination in San Antonio. Elation. We expected four days on the road but this magic little pickup would blow through it in one blazing day.
Except for the fear addled border guard. As that vicious little tramp checked our passports, he said, “You’re going to let them ride in the back of the truck on the highway are you?”
Of course, she leans across the driver to do the talking. “What’s wrong with that? We did it all through Mexico.”
He’s baffled at even considering the idea. “Why, for their safety. It’s dangerous back there. How could you consider it?” Welcome back to Amerika, the great Fearmonger.
I growl to myself, “Life is dangerous you scumsucking weasel. I’ll stuff red tape down your gaping maw before I let you ruin this sweet thing.” Aly laid a calming hand on my back so I simply grimaced as we pulled forward to the bag check. As she said to me later, “Because surely dropping a couple kids with nowhere to go in a strange border town in the middle of the night is a much safer option than the back of a truck for an hour.”
All my hatred for the first United States Customs official was erased and overwhelmed by the second. The guard in charge of searching our bags was cracking jokes before we even had time to pile out. He had a laconic grin and easy manner that more than made up for his small minded predecessor. In fact, it was the finest entrance I’ve ever had to the United States.
He liked us as soon as he saw Aly’s pile of hula hoops. With a gleam in his eye, “You know I can’t let you into the country without proving that you know how to use those things.” So while the driver and I unloaded the bags onto the aluminum tables under the glaring lights of the immigration shed, Aly put on one of her best shows. She whirled the hoops around her, letting them fall almost to the floor before working them slowly up to her neck and then jumping through them, hurling them into the air and sinuously weaving the brightly flashing hoops. The dozen bored guards who gathered for the show gave her a hearty round of applause as she gave the deep boneless bow of the circus.
Then the host of guards inched closer as the search of her bag led to guffaws and loud commentary from our friendly guard. Searching her bag was like trying to make Harpo Marx empty his pockets. He found pois for spinning fire and soot covered chains to whirl them around her. Juggling balls, jewelry making supplies, tools for fixing circus equipment. He kept pawing through her bag like a kid on a treasure hunt, excited to see what oddity he would unearth next. Only reluctantly did he realize that there was nothing left to search.
He never even glanced into the drab suitcases of the driver. When he turned to my bag of books, now 31 strong, and started pulling out handfuls of wonderful literature, I started excitedly describing what I loved about each time. He stopped quickly, rolling his eyes just like the vast majority who watch me start on a bibilio-rant. He turned to my traveling bag with a disinterested air until he found my long rolling papers. Now there’s a bit of gleam in his eye when he said, “Now I’m looking for your pot. Where do you keep your pot?”
“Sir, I do not carry drugs when I cross borders.”
“Do you smoke pot?”
“Yes sir but I decided to quit for good when I crossed this border. I came to the conclusion that it’s really not a very good drug for me. I’ve noticed its effects tend to…”
He rolls his eyes and interrupts. “So where is your pot?”
“I was born at night but it wasn’t last night. I certainly wouldn’t carry it through a border crossing.”
Though I certainly could have. He gave up quickly.
When our ride dropped us at a gas station on the edge of the town, they both kept apologizing for not taking us all the way. We couldn’t say enough to convince them their ride was a beautiful gift – a rare jewel of thumbing. We parted with happy waves and then found a vacant lot to sleep for the night, sharing one last peanut butter sandwich before we slip into sleep, back in America, the Land of Dreams.