Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two Kilometers Past The Point Of No Return - June 2004

“You took highway 54?” “At night?” “In the rain?” “Are you crazy?” My friend Marshall asked. “Wow, you guys just did the equivalent of 2 tours in ‘Nam.

On an early June morning in 2004, I crawled out of the bed I would never sleep in again, woke Chuck up from the couch, took a final look around; both at my northern California cottage in the woods and the piles of my belongings that were being left for the Salvation Army, and drove off to begin a new life in a country I had longed to live in for 40 years.

My research for this life-changing event consisted of reading 5 books, months of pouring over websites on the subject, and my own information gleaned from 40 years of traveling into some far reaches of Mexico. I was bringing my 94 year old mother with me, who was to fly down later escorted by a friend, so I chose Lake Chapala for its easy transition, medical resources, and close proximity to Guadalajara. For her sake, I wanted no mistakes.

Chuck flew down, from his home on Whidbey Island, two nights before my scheduled departure in order to pack the car for me and help me make the move. Now THAT is a good friend. He had the Herculean task of reducing the contents of two homes (mine and mom’s) into only what would fit into my SUV. Purging ‘stuff’ was an exhilarating and freeing experience for me. Some may disagree, but I was tired of my eclectic junk antiques that would not fit or look right in a Mexican house and couldn’t wait to start over with heavy, rustic, Mexican furniture, plants, parrots, flowering courtyards, and Indigenous arts and crafts.

Chuck stared at the prioritized mounds of stuff in the driveway and as I handed the keys over to him he repeated what would become his mantra for the next two days, “I can do this, I used to live on a boat.” “I can do this. . .” And this he did. In the end, small soft things were stuffed into any crevice that would accept them. A pair of pants here, a towel there, finally, bursting at the seams, blowing kisses to envious neighbors, we pulled away from the San Francisco Bay Area. I miss my purple bathrobe.

Knowing that the interstates in the US were less dangerous than the highways of Mexico, we decided to drive in the US as much as possible before dropping down into the deserts of northern Mexico. Besides that, we could make better time. We arrived at an inviting looking motel in Deming, New Mexico at 6 pm of the second night. The next morning we drove south to the Columbus/Paloma border crossing hoping to slip into Mexico as smoothly as possible. We had been advised by other ex-pats who had crossed there that it was a tiny crossing out in the desert with no lines or waits. They even promised smiling friendly border agents. That remained to be seen.

The amount of paperwork required by the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco to immigrate to Mexico was daunting. It took 3 trips for me and my mother to complete it. Passports, FM3s (Immigration booklets), the dog had to have a Veterinary Health Certificate no more than 72 hours old (which ultimately required some last minute fast driving just to keep valid), vehicle ownership papers, Mexican auto insurance, and the dreaded Menaje de Casa. The Menaje is an official list (stamped, signed and approved in advance by the Mexican Consulate) of every household item being transported into Mexico. It had to be in Spanish, on an excel spreadsheet, and every item had to correspond with the labels of each box confirming the contents. Under the threat of being held up at the border while agents inspected my car, opened all the boxes, and compared the contents of the boxes to my list, I labored in earnest. It’s fair to say that not all Mexican Consulates interpret the rules the same; whereas one might not insist on a Menaje, another might insist on an AIDS test or a DMV clearance. These were my rules, and I followed them to a T.

Arriving at the border I gathered up all my documents then extracted myself from the navigator’s seat to dazzle the border agent with my copious and impressive piles of paperwork. A smartly uniformed young woman paused, and then stepped forward to greet us. With a nod of encouragement from her supervisor, leaning against a pickup truck, she cupped her eyes and peered inside the back of my car, then recoiled in fear. I fluttered the paperwork and spread it out on the table from one end to the other, naming it as I went. The grinning jefe picked his teeth. Finally, he gave her the nod. “Pase,” she said officially. With the nod of her supervisor, she—and I—were able to forgo the unloading and inspecting of every labeled box and bag to confirm the contents and compare electronic serial numbers against the Menaje list.

I was directed on to Aduana (Customs) while Chuck went to get his FM-T (tourist) card. Officials were summoned, papers were perused and stamped and elaborate signatures were affixed. I was genuinely and profusely welcomed to Mexico by all in attendance. That left the car import permits and the purchase of Mexican auto insurance which I naively bought for mucho mas pesos at the border than I would have had I bought it over the internet before leaving. “¡Viva Mexico!” Chuck shouted when we were finally done, and hit the gas.

Northern Mexico was brown and boring. We hugged the border eastbound on Hwy 2 long enough to bypass the congestion of Ciudad Juarez, connect with Hwy 45, and finally turn south. In Chihuahua we pulled into a guarded Holiday Inn parking lot and fell into bed without eating.

Somewhere, the next day, Hwy 45 became Hwy 49, and the scenery turned an eye-pleasing green. However, what followed; was anything but pleasing.

Prior to Zacatecas, and with no conscious effort on our part, Hwy 49 became Hwy 54. At a cuota-road turn off, studying the Mexican map I was given at the border with my insurance policy, we apparently made a big mistake. The lines depicting the routes on the map were equally straight, bold, and red. Clearly the line on the left bypassed the cities we needed to see in our rear view mirror before we could even think of closing in on Guadalajara. We agreed the one on the left looked the most direct. After 4 days of sitting in a space of two-and-a-half by 6 feet, wedged between the neck of the guitar, the food bag, and four bungeed backpacks—the concept of direct was very appealing.

After awhile the road got worse. Then it even went away completely for several kilometers. First it rained. Then it poured. Every kilometer held the choice between a head-on with a barreling, one-eyed Mexican truck or a pothole the size of Texas. Still light at 5, we decided to risk it (abandoning all previous rules regarding driving at night in Mexico) and continue on, calculating we’d be at the lake by 10:30 and in bed by 11:00.

It was dark at eight. Prior to that, we noticed the road was beginning to take us through mountain ranges with hairpin turns and deep drop offs—the bottom of which could not be ascertained. “Funny,” I said, “the map doesn’t show all these twists and turns.” Six glassy and bloodshot eyes (if you count the hairy ones in the back seat) were riveted to the roadway scanning for horses, cows, burros, dogs, bicycles and people on the impossibly narrow 2 lane ‘road’. I use that word generously.

At ten, we pulled into a Pemex and interrupted a conversation between two propane deliverymen and got the worst news of our five-day trip. “Oh no, you are only here,” the driver said and poked at the map; “you have all this way to go yet,” then waved expansively. Discussing our plight among themselves, they studied our map frowning with concern. Then with a cocked eyebrow and a steely sidelong look, the passenger advised “We never drive this road at night, you shouldn’t either. It’s very dangerous, muy peligroso.”

“Well, we’ll just turn around and go back to Aguascalientes then,” Chuck said.

“No, no, no!” The waging finger got my attention. “You are two kilometers past the point of no return. Don’t go back!” “Two villages from here you might be able to rent a hotel room—and you should.”

“Gracias,” I nodded. We drove on.

How could this happen? We weren’t rookies; we’d both logged thousands of miles on Mexican highways. Some trips a lot riskier than this. By midnight it was excruciating. We were hungry, cramped, and beyond exhausted. We didn’t dare pull over to sleep; not that there was a shoulder to pull over on, much less a rest area.

Forty five minutes later we came to a small settlement and The Hotel . . .closed. Boarded up and without the slightest evidence of hospitality, we drove on. With the exception of that one Pemex, there had not been a single gas station, tienda, restaurant, or other sign of life for hours.

At 2 a.m. we crested a hill and a blanket of lights appeared. ¡Guadalajara! The sound of Mariachis played in my head. Trumpets blared. Men in tight pants. . .

Drizzle turned to rain and back to drizzle, jubilation waned. We had seen no lights since the amazing and inspiring hilltop view more than an hour ago until the palapas on the side of the road appeared. “This is good.” Chuck said. Then a bus stop.

At 3 a.m. we were confounded by glorietas. They spun us off and dropped us on slick deserted streets. There was no traffic, only an occasional late partier and a cop or two, each making a point to ignore the other.

At 4 am we rounded a bend on the highway out of Guadalajara, and a mere 20 minutes from the house I had rented two months prior when I had visited the area to determine it’s possibilities.

We saw them at the same time and gasped in unison. The first thing I noticed was the bright whiteness reflected in the headlights. Then the black. The pattern was definitely cow! We were closing in on them and they weren’t moving. We slid to a stop alongside the behemoth straddling the white line and acknowledged its disdain. Then its hooves clattered and slid, while its body undulated and rocked struggling to gain purchase on the slippery asphalt. Taller than the car, it lumbered off joining the others now huddled on the shoulder. We stared, they stared back. We sighed and rolled on.

Seems that even the cows had survived our two tours in ‘Nam.


  • Get a GOOD map!


  1. Very happy I didn't read this before my first trip down the east coast of Mexico ;-)

  2. Heh heh. We weren't very smart on that one.

  3. I travelled the road to Guadalajara a few times. I vowed to FLY and never drive it again. It can be a cinch or harrowing depending on what's on the road.