La Frontera

…one of Jeff’s “self portraits” and the last chance for American gas; just before crossing over the border into Mexico, photo taken in Presidio, Texas…

I had long wanted to take a trip to Central America and Mexico.  Aside from border visits and to some resort areas, I had not seen much of Mexico.  My plan was to fly to Mexico City and then, by way of public bus, explore outwards throughout Mexico and then eventually work my way south into Central America.  I checked the airfare to Mexico City and found a roundtrip ticket was about twelve hundred dollars.  As I begin to think about the cost of the airline ticket and my choice of transport (local bus), I began to think of a different plan.

Two years earlier, I had bought a used Chevy Blazer.  The truck had over 180,000 miles on it.  But the original owner was a mechanic and took really good care of the truck.  He had the transmission rebuilt at 150,000 miles and the engine ran great.  I picked this 4X4 truck up for only $1300.  When I began to consider that the cost of the airline ticket was about the same as my cost for the truck, I thought, “Why not drive?”  If the truck breaks down, I can just push it off of a cliff and take the bus!

So, I began plotting my strategy: a drive from Texas, down through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador and then back again to Texas.  I had only a few months; depending on how long I could get out of work.  I researched the prices for fuel in Mexico and found that gas is about 100% more than in the United States.  I decided that it might be a good idea to see if I could find other travelers who would be willing to split the costs of fuel and road tolls.  I knew I would be able to pick up other travelers as I worked my way through Mexico and Central America, but wondered where I could find some travelers who might want to begin the journey with me in America.

I jumped on line to a favorite travel discussion site: Lonely Planet Travel Thorn Tree - a travel discussion bulletin board.  I posted the plans for my trip, the start date, countries and locations that I intended to travel to and my expected return date.  Within a week I had about 15 inquiries.  Most were serious, a few only moderately so.  Most though, could not come during the dates that I was traveling; they either wanted to come earlier than I was leaving or wanted to go later.  I also received about 20 emails from people who were planning the trip a year or two down the road who wanted email updates of my progress.

All of the emails of interest that I received washed out, except for one.  I received an email from Jeff, another Lonely Planet discussion member.  He was interested in the trip and asked that I give him a call.  I rang him up and we started chatting on the phone.  He said that he did a search for my LP discussion page login name and read some of my travel posts.  He said that I sounded “cool enough” and he would consider coming along.  We chatted for about 45 minutes and seem to hit it off; he told me about some of his travels and I told him about mine.  By the end of the phone call we agreed to meet in Dallas on 9 December 2001.  He said that he would fly in to Dallas Fort Worth on the 8th and grab a hotel room.

On the morning of 9 December, I drove to his hotel near DFW and knocked on the door.  He answered the door already packed with his bag in hand.  “Justin?  Jeff, nice to meet you.”  We shook hands, he tossed his bag into the back of the truck, turned in his key at the front desk and we were on our way.  We spent the next 12 or 14 hours driving towards Mexico telling travel stories and getting to know each other.

As we traveled the loop around Fort Worth and then west on Highway 20, Jeff told me about some of his RTW (Round the World) trips.  I had thought that I was well-traveled but he was really well-traveled.  He told me about his visit to Laos and how, once he had gotten off of the “beaten path” and into some of the remote areas, the people were truly fascinated to see him; they had never seen a westerner before.  He described how the children all crowded around and wanted to touch his skin, to see if he was real of if their eyes were playing tricks on them.  We talked and talked and the drive 1/2 way across Texas didn’t seem so long.

Jeff had a sharp wit and a sarcastic sense of humor; he was intelligent and articulate, perhaps a bit pragmatic.  He had no trouble voicing his opinion and his stories were interesting and fun to listen to.  We chatted all the way through Odessa and Midland, perhaps the armpit of America, continued west along Highway 20 and at Pecos turned south on Hwy 17.  We traveled south passing through Fort Davis and reached Marfa by sunset.  No, we didn’t see nay UFOs.  By night we drove south on 17 paralleling the western edge of Big Bend National Park and sometime at oh’dark thirty we arrived in Presidio.  We checked out the local hotel and it looked like a nightmare from a movie.  Considering how expensive it was, we decided to just crash in the truck.  We picked a quiet spot and racked out.  It wasn’t too uncomfortable nor cold and by day break we headed into town.

Presidio is just like any other town America with a population of a few thousand.  The “city slickers” draw stares from all of the locals wearing overalls, John Deer ball caps and using some form of tobacco.  We had some hot breakfast at the local greasy spoon, hit the gas station to fill up and then worked out way to the border.

Crossing into Mexico with the intent of heading south – further south than the “Frontier” region requires a permit.  Almost like a visa, but not quite.  The border region with America is a “free travel zone,” but to go into interior Mexico requires a customs form and a nominal fee (in our case, $10 for 90 days).  We filled out the forms and handed them to the clerk along with our passports.  When it came time to stamp us in, the clerk would not stamp Jeff’s passport.  Apparently, Jeff had used up EVERY page of his passport.  It was so full that previous customs agents and border guards had taken to stamping in the margins, on the notes section and even in the back index.  This guard said that Jeff must obtain a new passport before he enters Mexico.

Ugh!  Oh wait, I’ve been to Mexico before.  “Ahem, Jeff,” I mumbled under my breath, “Maybe you forgot to pay the special fee.”  A ten spot later and the clerk stamped Jeff in.  We agreed that first chance in Mexico City we would stop at the embassy and get some pages added to his passport.

Our next stop was at the search area.  We were questioned if we had any weapons, specifically firearms, or if we had any drugs.  We said that we did not and the guard gave the Blazer a nominal search and then gave us leave to continue.

… at the border near Ojinaga, Mexico…

The road to Ojinaga to Chihuahua was long and tiring.  As we dropped down into the valley that separates the cities, we could see that the road wound back and forth like a snake through the desert.  Rather than move earth and make a straight road it wound left and right around every hill and bluff.  It seemed like we hit 180 degree turn after another weaving back and forth for hours.  I would learn later that the “straight” roads were the toll roads that charged to use them.  I also learned that the moderate price paid in tolls more than makes up for the wear and tear on your car, your stomach and on your time schedule.

We reached Chihuahua sometime after lunch and pulled over at a taco stand to eat.  The tacos, fried pork inside small corn tortillas and covered with some salsa verde (green chili) were not bad at all.  I topped them off with a cold coke and in no time we were on our way.  We made a stop at the local bank to withdraw some pesos from the ATM machine and to pay our immigration fees; the Mexican government does not trust the border guards with the cash.  Instead, you pay the local bank and they stamp your customs form for you.  If  your form is not stamped by a bank, you will not be allowed to leave the country when you try to clear customs on your way out of the country.

Driving west from Chihuaha towards our destination of Creel and the famous Barranca Del Cobre, the “Copper Canyon,” we found the drive much more pleasurable.  The road was straight and flat cutting across a high desert prairie that looked much like parts of California (above).  In the late afternoon we turned south and began climbing into the Sierra Madre (southern) mountains.  As we rose higher and higher in altitude I began to notice a drastic change in the scenery.  No longer did it look like Mexico – at least my preconceived notion of what Mexico looked like – it started to look like the mountains of California and Nevada (below).  As I looked around I wondered if we might drive up on Lake Tahoe!

Night descended on us as we climbed higher into the mountains and neared Creel.  We could smell wood fireplaces burning and pine trees and the crisp cool air of the high altitude made me feel like I was in Big Bear or Arrowhead, California.  We actually encountered ice patches on the road slowing our drive a bit.  I kept thinking, “I can’t believe this is Mexico.”  We pulled into one of the hotels recommended in the Lonely Planet Mexico Guidebook and checked for availability.  Luckily, they did have rooms available.  We booked a double room with its own bathroom for $16 per night.  The beds were made of pine logs that were smoothed and lacquered but were not cut and had their original shape.  The entire hotel smelled like freshly cut pine and a burning fireplace.

Some photos of our hotel, the Casa de Margarita posted by another traveler:

As we came into the entryway and kitchen we were greeted by a dozen travelers; a couple from Holland, some football chums from Chile, 4 American girls who just finished a year in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and a cast of people from all over the Americas.  After we placed our bags in the room we sat down for dinner.  The cost of the room included breakfast and dinner!  All of the travelers joined in telling stories of their travels giving recommendations of what to see and what to skip.  The hotel proprietor was selling beer by the bottle for a buck fifty and some local moonshine (mixed with some local fruit juice) for .75 cents a glass.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying the shine so we joined in and in no time we were part of the party.  It was nice to have a drink and unwind in a friendly crowd after two long days of driving.

Jeff really hit it off with the crowd and I thought that I was lucky to have crossed paths with such a likeable character.  I wondered what the next months would have in store for me as I worked my way further and further south into the Americas.


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