A white pickup passed on the highway, a man hanging out the window talking at me, gesturing wildly, as if it were reasonable to think I could hear him. I sighed. Now I’d have to stop and check the bike to be absolutely certain nothing was wrong. I slowed the bike down and pulled onto the shoulder of the highway.
It was early morning and I was leaving Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. The highway was the nicest I’d seen in weeks, I didn’t have to dodge potholes or packs of dogs, just smooth 70 mph riding across mountain roads. There were even clear lines separating traffic, and though people drove wildly and fast, it felt so organized compared to the last few weeks riding in El Salvador and Guatemala. I walked around my parked bike, and of course, there was nothing the matter. What a waste of time, he just wanted attention, I thought.
I hopped back on the bike and took off. A little ways ahead, traffic lights lit the road in front, cars and trucks alike spread across the highway. What now, I thought. Then, horror bloomed in my stomach, and coldly spread outward through my arms. A twisted thing lay on the the roadway like a fallen bird, unrecognizable though I knew what it was immediately— a motorcycle.
A crowd of people swarmed the fallen bike, a bloody man being helped to the side of the road, another human picking up a hemet and gloves that lay in front of the bike. It could have been a dog or person running across the road, or more likely a driver not paying attention, like the truck that had just passed me. It could have been oil, slick on the road surface, or a mechanical issue, or one of the thousands of little dangerous things that cause a motorcycle to go down. There was no reason to think it, but I couldn’t help but feel if I hadn’t stopped to check my bike, that person would have been me. It would have been my bike lying there.
I rode across the bridge into El Salvador, and when it ended there was an empty bit of road with buildings to the left down a hill, and a little stand to my right— men in military uniforms and guns milling around. There were no clear signs I could see, and I sat there for a minute on my motorcycle. No one paid me any attention. I decided to ride down the hill to the left in front of one of the buildings and see if I could find the immigration building.
As soon as I starting riding, the few military men who had taken no interest in me before— the only person at the border crossing— all of a sudden were very interested in where I was going. I got off the bike in front of one of the buildings, and one of the men starting walking down the hill toward me. He started talking in rapid Spanish, so fast I couldn’t understand him, his face twisted into an unpleasant, arrogant leer. He jabbed a finger into my shoulder, pushing me back. I side-stepped his hand, gave him the blankest, deadest stare I could, and looking directly into his eyes asked him “where is the immigration building?” over, and over, and over in Spanish until he stopped talking and grudgingly pointed up to the top of the hill. I turned around and rode back. This is going to be a problem, I thought. I never liked to forcibly assert myself, I generally think people who behave in arrogant ways are better left ignored, but this was a border crossing and for some people, namely aggressive men in uniform, power is all they understand. To be powerful you have to act like it.
I pulled up to a space behind a truck, with plenty of room for me to turn around on the bike. An unpleasant looking man with a clipboard kept gesturing for me to move forward, needlessly. There was plenty of room, and by moving forward I’d be wedged in between a truck, not able to back up on my bike. Trying to be peaceable, I moved forward anyway, hoping to start the process as amicably as possible so I could quickly get my temporary vehicle import permit and leave. Roughly 5 people sat in the row of chairs outside the small guard shack on the hill. The man with the clipboard came up and asked to see my Guatemalan papers. Weird, I thought, but okay. I handed over the papers.
“This paper is a copy,” he said, holding one of the Guatemalan documents.
“What does it matter? This is El Salvador, those are for Guatemala.” He kept insisting it was a copy. One of the military guys came over and tried to help facilitate.
“He says you need the original copy for this,” he told me in English.
“Yes, I understand, but that’s all I have, and we’re in El Salvador.”
“You need to go back to Guatemala and get an import permit.”
“Why would I go back to Guatemala, we’re in El Salvador.” I said slowly. I didn’t know why I had to keep stressing this point. Minutes before, I had canceled my temporary import permit and left Guatemala, I certainly wasn’t going back. All of a sudden he turns over the paper and says everything is fine, because the paper was the original and wasn’t, in fact, a copy.
I stopped asking why. It became clear they had no idea what they were doing, and they were using Guatemalan documents for their own purposes. Twenty minutes later, one of the younger military guys came up to the guy I was chatting with (who told me he was a sergeant) and handed him a paper.
“You need to fill this out,” the sergeant told me. It asked for my address, names, and a ridiculously specific amount of information about my motorcycle like the number of cylinders and if it ran on gasoline.
As I filled out the paper, I noticed a prostitute sitting on a bench outside one of the buildings at the base of the hill— the sergeant waved to her. A few minutes later, he meandered up to me, “We go to lunch! What do you take?” I told him I was fine, and he wrote his name on a card with his number, and loudly told me to call if I needed help with anything. He walked into the street with a group of the younger military guys, “Call if you need anything— anything!” he stressed, opening his arms wide, making sure everyone in the vicinity heard him. I inwardly rolled my eyes. It was ridiculous, this kind of posturing, to make it seem like we had some sort of understanding in front of a group of men. It happened frequently, especially in places with a strong machisto culture, like the United States or Belize— and now, El Salvador. The border had an unpleasant, arrogant feel to it— a negative, bullying vibe, and I didn’t like it.
An hour later, I was still waiting, as were the same 5 people sitting there. No one moved, everyone was just hanging around the compound. I went up to another guy sitting at the booth, the unpleasant clipboard man was nowhere to be found. I asked him where my papers were, and found out they were with the other clipboard guy. I chatted with the family sitting there, and they told me they had been sitting there for 3 hours and didn’t know what was happening.
I don’t mind waiting— I understand different countries operate in different ways, and I don’t subscribe to the predominately Western, wealthy behavior of becoming impatient with anything that delays personal plans and causes the slightest inconvenience. However, bullying and arrogance is something different entirely, and I decided to investigate instead of waiting around.
I grabbed my helmet in one hand, and tank bag in the other, and walked down the hill into the buildings. They were completely empty save two men behind a counter. “Where are my papers. The man at the gate had them, and I don’t see him here. What is the problem and where are they.” One of the men started chatting with me in English, telling me to look for the guy in the other room. I walked next door, no one was there. I walked outside, and asked the guard. “Where are my papers.” He got on his walkie talkie, and then the man from the other room approached.
“They have your papers at the gate,” he said. “They’re waiting.”
“Waiting for what.”
“There’s only one guy here, at the desk, and he’s at lunch.”
“I have been here for hours in the heat, there’s a family that’s been here for 3 hours, and nothing is happening because one man is at lunch? Enserio? I want lunch, everyone waiting wants lunch— but I’m waiting, here, for my papers.”
He looked sheepish. “You can go to lunch,” he offered timidly. I looked around. Guatemala was one one side, El Salvador was on the other, and there was nothing in between at the border crossing. A woman was walking around delivering lunch to the men working at the hut on top of the hill, while everyone else sat.
My jacket was soaked with sweat in the heat, and I noticed in the buildings there was air conditioning, yet, they were forcing everyone to wait outside on top of the hill while the men working flitted in and out of the buildings. Even in the little hut at the top of the hill had an air conditioning unit.
I walked back up the hill to my motorcycle. I pulled my plastic food bag from underneath the cargo net and sat it on the seat of the bike. My metal spork was deep within my saddlebag, so I made one peanut butter sandwich after another, scooping the peanut butter out of the jar with my finger, smearing it across the bread like a drifter, licking my fingers shamelessly like the dirty American on a motorcycle I was— gobbling the sandwiches down. If I was going to have to wait, I wasn’t going to do it hungry and I didn’t give a shit at that point if I did it with manners or not.
Everyone sitting in the seats in front of the small guard shack, and the guards themselves, watched me. They watched me walk down the hill and back up, and watched my conversations with the guards and the guy with the clipboard. I was a foreign blonde woman at the border crossing, and I knew how rare it was to see a woman traveling alone on a motorbike. “Quieres uno!? Tengo crema de mani!” (Want one? I have peanut butter?) I waved the bread bag in the air.
A guard walked up to me a few minutes later, trying to pacify the situation after being radioed by one of the guards below, asking where my papers were. “15 minutes, just 15 minutes,” he held his hands up.
And, before I could help it, “My bones will be here before the papers are,” I said slowly, and immediately felt a little ashamed. The family sitting in the chairs looked slightly horrified, but the little girl giggled.
A few minutes later one guy wanted my original passport and title for my bike (I didn’t let him out of my sight until he returned them) and to inspect my motorcycle. I waited for another guy to type up the information. Every few minutes I would walk up to the guard hut to ask— Where are my papers? Where are my papers? until they got sick of me and finally handed them over. 3 hours of waiting at an empty border for an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper with some information about my motorcycle. I hopped on my bike and rode 10 feet away to another checkpoint.
The man at the gate asked me a bunch of questions about where I had entered Central America and what was I doing there. He asked to see my passport, as if the previous multiple times I had shown my passport, and the multiple copies I had given them, and the permit I had finally gotten wasn’t enough. He didn’t even ask how long I would be in El Salvador, no one did. There wasn’t even a space for that on the form. It was a facsimile of a border crossing, it was all showmanship, and chaos, and posturing, and it may me nervous for what I would find in El Salvador.
I spent one night in Juayua, a small town near the border under the shadow of Volcano Santa Ana. I ran into a guy I had met at a hostel in Guatemala City at the market, ate my first vegetarian Pupusas, a thick tortilla filled with cheese and veggies, and explored El Churros or Siete Cascadas, a famous park in the region for waterfalls.
I rode to Santa Ana and, along the way, started racing behind another motorcyclist who passed me at one point. We screamed along the mountain roads, passing through small towns, around and around mountains, and right outside Santa Ana we stopped to chat on the side of the road. He was a nice older El Salvadorian man, who couldn’t get over the fact that I was traveling alone, but more-so that I was such an aggressive driver.
“Wow, when I passed you I was like, wow here’s this girl riding a motorcycle, and when I sped up you were right there behind me!” he exclaimed.
We rode together to my hostel, and chatted in the common room for an hour about his family, the United States, and El Salvador, but mostly about motorcycles. His name was Antonio, and he worked for a technology company in the region and rode his motorcycle to see clients.
When Antonio left, Alex, a younger guy working at the hostel showed me around. In the TV room, he paused for a moment. “Your hair, wow, and your eyes, you’re so beautiful,” he gushed.
It’s both a nice and incredibly stressful thing to be so visible on the road. In many respects, it’s made traveling significantly safer for me— being so visible makes me visible on the road, which is one of the more dangerous aspects about riding a motorcycle (even though I constantly deal with people shouting at me on my bike, which is distracting). At any checkpoint I never have to wait, people are constantly trying to help. Crossing the border into Honduras, one of the border guards walked to the front of the line and took care of all my paperwork, I didn’t even have to wait in the line.
One of my least favorite things is to drive up behind a truck full of people, because it’s so unusual to see a foreign woman riding alone on a bike, everyone watches me. And when I inevitably pass, if it’s a group of men, they’ll shout and cheer and whistle. It’s not possible for me to walk down the street unnoticed— I’m constantly shouted at and heckled, and not in a nice way, by strange men.
In the US when I first started the trip, I would stop for breaks at gas stations, and one man approached me. “You know how to handle that?” he asked, referring to my motorcycle. Another time, “You’re going to get yourself killed.” I’ve stopped posting stories on my personal Facebook account, because inevitably there’s some guy who wants to give me riding tips (always the assumption they, and not I, are the more experienced rider, as I log thousands of miles through the Americas). Usually, I ignore these types of comments, remembering the good and leaving the bad— but it’s hard. The adventure itself is exhausting, riding for a hours a day through strange countries, border crossings, and terrible roads— but then as a reasonably attractive solo female rider, I also have to navigate the endless onslaught of social issues— relentless catcalling and gender stereotypes.
The sea stretched for miles into the distance, and I was part of it, my feet in the shallows. Perfect barrel waves crashed in the distance, the water deserted save a few swimmers down the beach. I held my surfboard over my head, staring into the distance. I loved to surf— it was one of the few things that brought me pure, undiluted joy. I loved paddling out, jumping up on the board, the soothing crash of the water around me, the sun on my back.
I had decided to take the weekend off at a place called La Tortuga Verde, a lodge on the coast of El Salvador. I had met so many amazing people during the week— Kevin, a South African who had volunteered at an animal shelter in Antigua, Guatemala, who I met in El Tunco; the staff at Somos Hostel in Antigua who helped me carry my bike inside the hostel for the night and out again in the morning; an Austrian guy who I ran into several times at different hostels and we chatted about agribusiness and poverty in Central America; the receptionist at El Hostel in Antigua who grabbed me a mojito and gave me her lunch of black beans and homemade tortillas.
In Tortuga Verde I met Agus Tin, a musician staying in the same dorm room who was a feminist, surfer, hippie, and all around awesome guy from Buenos Aires. We hung out and chatted over the weekend about the soybean takeover of Argentina and social norms in different cultures around the world. He played at the hostel Saturday night, and once again I was blown away by how many amazing people I had met.
Some things you conquer alone— you summon inner will to do seemingly crazy things, you spur yourself on. It seemed like the craziest thing, riding my motorcycle hours a day, across borders over unfamiliar roads, dodging potholes and going through military checkpoints, sometimes cars almost clipping me at 50 miles an hour.
But for some things you need the support of others to conquer. This week, through all the crazy experiences, crossing borders and surfing, grabbing a cocktail and seeing a wreck, almost being hit and driving across insane roads, seeing spectacular beauty and extreme poverty, I felt supported by people I didn’t know at all. People who made me feel less alone through a collective need to keep going, people driven by the need to create and have experiences, people chasing things and finding them. Ultimately, that’s all any of us can do. We ride across unknown roads, we look for things that drive us and people who change us, and only when we get to a checkpoint can we see who we’ve become.
Follow the Trip
San Ignacio, Belize
It was only 33 miles to the 1,000 ft waterfall in San Ignacio, but it would take over an hour to get there. I had already ridden 25 miles, and upon reaching a junction in the road I asked a guy manning a small booth on the side of the road which direction was the way to the falls— the main road in front of me, or the dilapidated road to the right where Maps.me was directing. He thought for a moment, “Derecha,” he said, pointing to the right.
A few miles later, a giant bird the size of a turkey ran out of the jungle in front of me, wavering back and forth until it finally darted back into the jungle. I was surrounded by dense foliage on either side, which had narrowed to the size of a small path. Deep ruts cut through sections of the road, filled with water and sand. All of a sudden that path dropped, the steep descent carved out by jagged rocks and sand. I decided to turn around.
30 minutes later, I rode back the same road, finally emerging out of the dense jungle onto the main road again. “That road is very bad,” I called to him. “Yes I think the main road is a much better way,” he agreed, “it also goes to the falls.” I sighed and continued down the main road, still trying to find the falls. 45 minutes later I was still driving around the mountain roads, which seemed to have turned into some sort of logging trail. I had followed a tiny sign with an arrow “1,000 ft falls this way” but there had been nothing else for miles. All of a sudden, I came across a section of the road that had been carved out by a water channel, and I barely missed hitting it— a section a foot wide and 6″ deep cut a canyon straight across the road. After coming across a series of wave-like bumps that made the whole bike shake, I decided no falls is worth this, and turned the bike around.
The sun was overhead, and it was hard to see the road made of bright yellow sand and clay. I squinted into the sunlight. All of a sudden, as quickly as an animal darting out into the road, I was upon the channel, and in a split second my front tire falling into it. The tire dropped, and I was flung from the bike. I hit head first, slamming into the ground, my helmet making a scraping noise on the rocks.
San Ignacio, Belize
I had arrived in San Ignacio from Belize, soaked, after hitting several big thunderstorms on the way. I didn’t see any hostels listed online, so I headed into the heart of the town hoping to find a cheap guesthouse for the next few days. I chose a random street, and all of a sudden I saw a sign for “Bella Backpackers”. Perfect.
I pulled the bike down the small gravel street, kicked out the kickstand, and shook the clump of what looked like metal bells at the gate (but really turned out to be some sort of decorative arrangement) and the guy coming towards me from inside the hostel gave me a strange look. His name was Daniel, and loved the bike, he told me. I’d be in San Ignacio for 3 nights, checking out the 1,000 ft falls, the ATM cave, and the ruins throughout the area. I heard Belize was amazing, and even though I had camped the night before on a lake to the north in-country, I was looking forward to being in a town and exploring the surrounding mountains.
Two days later, I was following a sandy path into the jungle, swimming across a river and walking across streams, until we reached the cave entrance. There were four of us— Shelby and Stephanie— both teachers from NY, myself, and our guide, Edgar. We jumped into the blue water at the mouth of the cave, and swam into the darkness, our headlamps illuminating narrow beams on the walls of the cave.
I heard the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave, was spectacular, and it was. We swam through giant caverns, and climbed through narrow slots chest deep in water. Finally, we reached a large rock formation we had to climb up to reach the main chamber. We climbed the rest of the way barefoot up a steep rock slab, the cave dropping away behind us to darkness, the steep drop a dark feeling behind us.
We entered the main chamber of the cave, an enormous chamber with toothy stalactites and beautiful flowing formations dropping down from the ceiling. It felt like an ornate ballroom that could spring to life at any moment. Pots littered the ground, some of them enormous and whole, others sunken into the ground. A small walkway was tacked to the floor, leading the way across the enormous cavern. Other groups were stopped at various places around the cavern. Edgar told us the history of the caves, how they were used as rituals and community leaders made sacrifices to the gods— sometimes agricultural goods, sometimes blood, sometimes human. As he led the way deeper into the cavern, he pointed out skulls on the ground next to the pots. We climbed a small aluminum ladder to a room with an entire skeleton, and another section with one of the most recent sacrifices— the bones of an infant.
Since there were only four of us, Edgar led us out of the caves through an alternate route, squeezing through water filled crevices and ducking under overhanging rock. We jumped off a falls in the cave into deep black water, and followed each other through canyons, our headlamps reflecting off the rock walls. Edgar stopped us in a dark cave of chest deep water, and we turned off our headlamps as he told us stories about disembodied voices heard in the caves in that exact spot, and how guides would sometimes feel hands on their shoulders. He told us how one day he was taking a nap on a rock, waiting for another tour group, when a rock flew across the cave and knocked his headlamp into the water— twice.
San Ignacio, Belize
I popped up like a jack-in-the-box, head hurting, worried about my bike. My shoulder and elbow stung, and I had an enormous welt on my right shin bone. My bike was overturned, and behind it, a woman was running toward me, asking if I was alright. The entire time I had been riding in the mountains, I had hardly seen anyone, but at that moment the bike fell, there was an SUV right behind me.
“I’m fine I think,” I said, barely registering we were speaking English.
“Is the bike okay?” I asked, mostly to myself as I inspected it on the ground. The driver of the car got out also, and the three of us picked the bike up. They waved goodbye and they drove off. The only damage done was the scratch on my helmet (thank you safety gear) some mild scrapes on my shoulder and elbow and shin, and a splitting headache from whacking my head on the ground. I couldn’t believe how hard I hit from going so slow, and I could only imagine how an impact at higher speeds would feel.
The howler monkey screams echoing in my head, I slowly rode down the empty road from Tikal National Park at 6 AM, the mist drifting through the jungle. I had spent the previous night camped in the park, my tent on a large concrete pad with a thatched roof tucked into a corner of a field outside the park. The ruins were spectacular, and I spent the day before wandering around in the rain, temples appearing before me, no one else in sight, exploring empty paths and ruins, howler monkeys in the trees and parrots flying overhead.
I saw no one leaving the park save a few tourist vans driving in the opposite direction. I was headed toward Flores, a small island on Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala, and it looked like an easy ride. My hostel was on the opposite shore of the island, so my route took me around the lake via a secondary road off the highway. As I turned onto the unmarked secondary road, the surface changed from paved asphalt to gravel and grey clay, surrounded by green foliage. Here we go again, I thought.
I rode for miles on the gravel road, up steel hills with carved channels from the rain, around sharp corners and through puddles. All of a sudden I was in a town of some sort, a football field to my right, and the gravel started to disappear into wide swaths of grey clay. I cautiously navigated the streets, avoiding pedestrians and other motobikes, keeping an eye on the route. I was 2 miles away, then one. I saw the lake in the distance, and there was only one more turn to go until I arrived. All of a sudden, in front of me was a patch of road, completely devoid of gravel, a 10 foot wide patch of slippery, soft clay, covered in deep ruts filled with water.
I aimed for one of the ruts on the left, riding halfway across the rut when all of a sudden, the rear tire spun out to the left and the bike fell to the right, throwing me a few feet in front of it. This time, I hit right knee first, smacking my head on the clay a split second later.
I remember only one thought going through my head through the waves of pain— this is a cry worthy moment, and then, should I be crying? I wasn’t sure if anything was broken or torn, it was all I could do to sit up. I rocked back and forth silently as I saw a woman and a small girl running toward from down the road. As they reached me, I had managed to stand up, but barely. I was covered in clay, and the small strip of skin that had been exposed on my ankle had been worn off to expose two bloody marks.
Gasoline slowly dripped into the puddle on the ground from the top of the tank on my motorcycle. I was in too much pain to lift it, and the woman sent her daughter to run for help. A few moments later a man came walking down the street, and between the two of them they managed to lift the bike. I climbed back on, and wearily navigated the last 500 feet to the hostel. Covered in clay, bloody, and limping, I arrived at Casa Grethel, overlooking Lake Petén Itzá and the island of Flores. It was spectacularly beautiful, and I was a wreck.
I spent the next two days crossing the lake via the free hostel boat, eating cake and street food in the afternoons and evenings, visiting Jorge’s Rope Swing and reading my book on the balcony overlooking the lake. Luckily, after icing my knee and taking anti-inflammatories, I was able to hobble around the area safely, knowing no serious damage had been done.
Luckily, I didn’t have to ride the same way back— there was a small ferry that cost a little over $1 USD and would take me across to the island of Flores, where I could then ride the bridge across to the main highway. In no time, I was riding off the ferry and onto the main road to Rio Dulce, roughly a 3 hour ride to the South-East.
Rio Dulce, Guatemala
I think I must have been the only one crazy enough (or cheap enough) to stay in the hostel dorm room. It was stuffed with 16 dilapidated down beds, the white paint peeling from their ill fitted frames, the thin mattresses covered with nothing more than a worn sheet— meant to protect the mattress rather than be used as a blanket. Cracks through the floor showed the water underneath, and a giant sign with an illustration of a rat and a hamburger with an ‘x’ across it was posted on a beam in the middle of the room.
The woman who showed me the room told me there was no one else there, then cheerfully ‘closed’ the wooden shanty door behind her. If there were ever a place to murder someone then leave the body, this space was it, I decided. A row of toilets ran along the back wall like a wall of outhouses. I opened the door, and it was like the bathroom had been pieced together over the water by the oldest, cheapest scraps of wood leftover from a project 100 years prior. I half expected it to collapse into the river— but there was a mirror with a sink I thought cheerfully, and it was like a private for for only $6— better even. I stowed my things in the wooden cupboard that hovered over the river with open slats, imagining all the creatures that could climb inside my bags from the outside world, and tried not to think about it as I locked the padlock and dropped the key into my pocket.
I spent the evening writing and hanging out in the hostel restaurant, a creaky wooden structure that hung over the water. Passing boats sent waves into the small river oasis of the hostel as I sat drinking mineral water with salt and lime at a small plastic table at the edge. That night, I started chatting with a girl from Guatemala City, and we sat for hours, our legs hanging over the edge of the deck above the river. We talked about our favorite Reggaeton artists, watched music videos, and talked about Panera and different slang words in Spanish and English. While we were chatting, another guy and a family with two small kids showed up in the dorm room, and I discreetly moved my sleeping pad and bear mace from the row of lockers overlooking the river in the corner (where I planned to sleep if I was alone in the cavernous room) to an actual bed. I wasn’t worried about other people, I was worried about R.O.U.S.’s— it was the kind of place one could imagine something crawling in from the river, creeping up the floorboards, and eating its fill from the dorm beds.
Since I would no longer be occupying the room alone, I cheerfully brushed my teeth before heading to bed. I was on a top bunk, so whatever crept into the room in the dead of night, everyone else would be eaten first.
Guatemala City, Guatemala
I’d never felt unsafe on the road until I rode 179 miles from Rio Dulce to Guatemala City. Guatemala is going to kill me, I thought to myself.
I left the hostel on the river at 8 AM, the sky filled with watery light from the morning rainstorm. I was hoping I’d avoid the rain by leaving early enough, and had been obsessively checking the weather in every city along the route since the previous evening. When the rain started petering off around 7 AM, I finished my breakfast of fried plantains, tortillas, and a pile of black beans, and hurriedly packed my motorcycle.
As soon as I started riding I knew it was going to be a long day. The road would abruptly end, a sharp drop off into potholed gravel, sometimes mud. Giant potholes would appear out of nowhere, and I started to flinch at shadows on the roadway ahead. Cars would pass if there was a fraction of space between me and the car in front, leaving me no reaction time to spot potholes, or in one case, a giant canal carved out from the road at a bridge crossing, a section I was almost certain I would lose control on.
It took so much concentration to ride, I was exhausted 50 miles into the trip, and had never used my horn so many times in such a short period of time. 14 miles from Guatemala City, it began to pour, and enormous puddles of water covered the roadway. Tuk tuks and small motorcycles darted in and out between cars, and trucks and cars alike pulled out into the roadway without looking. Dogs ran along the roadway, and people ran across between traffic.
I wiped the water off my faceshield, wishing with every fiber of my being the rain would stop. To top it off, the only reason I was stopping in Guatemala City was to visit the Suzuki Dealer and get a new tire for my almost completely worm rear wheel. Every swerve, every rain soaked section of road, every time a dog looked ready to dart across the road, I worried I’d lose traction and go down. It was the most stressful ride I’ve ever done, and even though I had to stop at three different hostels in the city to find a place to stay (and a Taco Bell to utilize the free wifi) I had never been so happy to unload my bags off the bike and stop riding for the day.
Rafael, the guy working the front desk of Theater International Hostel, helped me carry the bike inside the foyer of the hostel, and we tucked it into a corner at the base of the stairs. The Suzuki all tucked in, I spent the rest of the afternoon in a daze of exhaustion, watching the rain pour into the courtyard, drinking coffee and feeling grateful to be alive.
Perspective is driving along a broken highway, fearful of crushing dogs and wrecking along the pot-holed stretch of asphalt, grateful for wool socks and a hot drink at the end of the day. No matter what happens this next week, no matter what horrible weather or roads or creatures I encounter, I’ve made it this far, and I’m alive. I toasted myself with my Instacoffee and put on another pair of socks.
Follow the Trip
Calling it hot was an understatement— a drop of water dripped from the end of my side braid onto the floor, my canvas riding jacket so wet with sweat it was almost impossible to take it off. My bike was finally packed— two trips upstairs to the dorm room, a trip to the front desk to drop off the keys and get my deposit back, said my goodbyes to the girls I had befriended at the lake house, and went to hop on the bike and head toward Belize.
My back tire was flat. I was ready to go, drowning in my own sweat all geared up and only 12 miles to the border, and my tire was flat.
Flat tire (tire abajo) in Bacalar, Mexico
“Let me tell you something,” an attractive Mexican man said softly, pulling up a chair and sitting down at my table.
Please do, I thought to myself. I was sitting in a small cafe on Isla Mujeres, the rain pounding the ground outside. I had spent only two days on the island, but what a wonderful two days they were. Even though it poured almost the entire time, it was nice to see all the spots I had visited with my sister years earlier— the same restaurants and cafes, the same boardwalk and ferry and snorkeling spot. I tore around the island, rounding curves that opened up to vistas of crashing waves on rocks, small restaurants and concrete houses perched on the cliff in the distance.
I had gone to the ferry earlier that morning at 9 AM all packed, but there weren’t enough cars so they told me to come back later. After getting soaked in the rainstorm riding to the ferry, and soaked again leaving, I was now having second breakfast and cinnamon coffee at Mango Cafe while I waited, watching the storm through the open windows.
“Two months ago, a guy with a big BMW parked at his hotel had to run for the ferry when he woke up and it was gone. Do you have a chain?” he asked, looking at me earnestly with big, dark eyes.
I swallowed, “Yeah, yeah I’ve got a great Kryptonite chain. It’s hardened steel. I didn’t lock up my bike last night either, it was in an enclosed parking lot. Wow. Good to know though.”
“Yes,” he said, looking at me seriously, “It’s always good to be safe.”
We chatted for another twenty minutes about motorcycles, and when he left, he waved outside the open shuttered window as he threw a leg over his Kawasaki. “It’s not as nice as yours,” he smiled charming, which made me wish I were staying just one more day. My motorcycle insurance was only good through the June 24th in Mexico, and I only had until 3 PM a few days later to cross into Belize.
I will spray myself with ‘OFF’ until my entire body is toxic and I make myself sick, I thought to myself. Out of spite I waved the can of bug repellant and sprayed one of the mosquitoes flying nearby with the spray. “Fuckers,” I whispered.
I had just arrived in Bacalar in front of my hostel for the night, Yak Lake House, and I wasn’t even sure if they’d have space available. It was turning out to be a stressful week. I had only one night in Tulum the night before, staying at one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed with an amazing group of people. After a great communal dinner, and communal breakfast the next morning, I was sad to have to leave and make for my last stop before Belize— Bacalar. Not only had Tulum been amazing, it was the first dry spot I had visited in awhile— it only rained once. It had been pouring all week, and I tried to dry my soggy boots by hanging them off the back of my motorcycle to dry in the wind.
Yak Lake House turned out to feel more like an fancy hostel than it did a hostel. The big modern building opened up to a view of the lake, enormous glass windows overlooking a deck running the length of the building, and multiple docks that ran out into the clear blue water and white sand. A breeze ran through the hostel and open-air kitchen and reception, which was set into the floor underneath a metal staircase.
I spent the day and evening hanging out with two cool girls, grabbing lunch and dinner out in the town, and talking about our travels on the road. I met my first fellow motorcyclist, a Canadian, who was horrible and made patronizing comments like “Since your bike is a 250 and blends in with all the other bikes here I’m sure, while my bike, since it’s an 800, really stands out.” I not so delicately exited the conversation to down several mojitos and go swimming in the lake where I was serenaded by a man practicing the saxophone on the next dock over. Surrounded by dogs playing on the deck and a cool breeze off the water, it was a beautiful day.
The next morning and I found my tire flat. “Maybe someone cut it,” one of the girls from the hostel said. I briefly entertained the idea of the Canadian guy cutting one of my tires, only because he was unpleasant, but really I must have ridden over something yesterday on the way and it had slowly deflated overnight. Sigh.
The unfortunate thing about having tubed tires, is that unless I had wanted to carry a jack and breaker bars with me (which I might do a little farther south), I had to make a trip to the local bike mechanic to fix the flat.
I unpacked everything from the bike, pumped the tire up to a ridiculously low PSI, and rode into town as a slowly as possible following the exact directions of the receptionist at the hostel, doubting there would be a motorcycle repair shot in that exact spot. Most of the time directions given to me were wrong, either the street number or number of blocks, the nature of the business, or even the direction of the place itself. A market might be on the complete opposite side of town, or even closed. I was positively gleeful when I rounded the corner and saw a line of motorcycles parked in front of a small shop. I sat on the ground and chatted with one of the mechanics while he jacked up my bike via the frame in front of the rear tire, pried the tire loose from the wheel, and patched the tube inside. It was only 70 pesos, and in no time I was back at the hostel re-loading the bike, and on my way to the border.
Crooked Tree, Belize
That night, I set up camp at a small lodge called Crooked Tree Lodge in the Orange Tree area, Belize. There was no one else at the lodge, and I set up in front of a small pond with floating ducks that I later realized were wooden. Tucked into the trees, the pond in front and the lake in the distance, I spent the evening listening to the birds and the insects, reading my book. I woke up to this spectacular sunrise over the lake.
Another week, another country, more people and stories and experiences on the road.
Follow the Trip
On the Road, Campeche, Mexico
Rocketing down the highway, drops of rain nipped at the tops of my legs. I leaned forward into the wind, as if propelling the motorcycle forward through force of will. The road wound through hills in front of me, enormous dark storm clouds gathering behind. I had been outrunning the storm for the last 20 miles— what had been a pile of dark clouds on the horizon had become a dark mass overhead, the edges tinted green where the sun would have been setting, the rest a writhing mass of turbulent shapes. I didn’t know storm clouds well enough to determine what type of clouds I was seeing and what they meant, but I knew what was coming.
I was 10 miles away from Campeche, my destination for the evening after a grueling 11 hour day on the motorcycle. Most of the way had been spectacularly beautiful coastline with miles of white sand beach dropping away to my left into the perfectly green, clear sea. Bright green lizards scuttled across the road, butterflies floated at the edges and all sorts of birds swooped above me. I had crossed bridges to islands, small fishing boats in the water below, and followed the flat winding road all the way from Oaxaca to Campeche, almost 500 miles to the North-East.
I was so close— but even screaming along the highway at 85 mph, the wind streaming my hair behind me, I couldn’t outrun the dark mass of clouds that were always there behind me.
Oaxaca City, Mexico
“Who were your role models growing up?” Brad asked me.
Brad Mendenhall of Cosmic Gepetto was interviewing me for a podcast about my experiences on the road, and what it was like as a solo female adventure traveler. The question took me by surprise, although it shouldn’t have. It was my first podcast interview talking about my experiences on the road, and even though being a strong woman is a huge part of my life and image, where it stemmed from wasn’t something I thought about often. Growing up, my role models existed in the pages of the books I read voraciously— Matilda, Maniac Magee, Lyra, Hermione Granger— I read all of Roald Dahl’s books and about his time in South Africa in the RAF, the lions and insects and the snake catcher who would be called when a green mamba had gotten into someone’s house. I’ve lived in books most of my life, but people were harder to identify. People weren’t a constant like books were.
“My Aunt was a big inspiration to me as a kid,” I said finally. “Although I only knew her when I was very young, hearing about her stories growing up gave me the inspiration to know I could do whatever I wanted, and that was enough for me.”
“Growing up, I took so many cues from books. They taught me most of what I knew about what people did, about how to behave. They were my teachers and my advisers.” ―Neil Gaiman
My mother’s elder sister, 6 feet tall and larger than life, was at the heart of many of the adventure stories I was told as a child. Aunt Amy, an Amazon who would tell me and my siblings our fortunes and read our tea leaves. We knew all the stories about her— her narrowly missing being eaten by a shark in Thailand, how she would jump out of restaurant bathrooms to escape bad dates, how she swam through narrow sewage canals to skip school, and how she barely escaped being stung by a man of war on some exotic beach.
“Tell us the shark story again!” we’d yell from the back seat of the old green Impala my Mom used to drive. “Tell us about the jellyfish!” My Mom often talked about her fiery red-headed sister, and her wicked sense of humor. Up until I was 6, my siblings and I would make day trips with my Mom and Aunt to a circuit of thrift stores where we’d hunt for bargains. My Mom and Amy would treat themselves to a soda at 7-11, calling them brain burners. The brain burners and the excursions to thrift stores were always exciting to us, we’d make it into our own adventure, hiding in shopping carts, all of us wanting to be with Aunt Amy and hear her stories.
After the thrift store there would always be a treat waiting for us back at her house, a box of Entenmann’s mixed donuts: three powdered sugar, three cinnamon + sugar, and three plain. While my brother and sister and I would debate over which flavor of donut to eat first (powdered sugar), my Mom and my Aunt would sit on the front steps drinking iced tea, my Aunt smoking a cigarette.
After my grandparents (my Mom’s parents) died when I was 6, my family had a falling out, and we moved away. The memories of who I was in relation to my Aunt Amy at age 6 was something I held onto for 14 years, until I would see my Aunt again when we found out she had cancer.
“Aunt Amy! Aunt Amy! Aunt Amy’s house!” We would shout as kids, racing up the steep hill to the gate, the words running together to form a chant, “AntTamy, AntTamy, AntTamy!” My sister and I fighting over who got to ride in AntTamy’s shopping cart, showing her what we found at the thrift store, and waiting for her approval of our bargains. AntTamy on her front stoop, AntTamy in her Volkswagon beetle, AntTamy with cancer.
As I grew older, I held onto the person I was crouched in my Aunt’s shopping cart in thrift stores. The girl who reminded everyone so much of Amy herself, this person I didn’t know save my childhood memories, but who was such an integral part of me. This heroic goddess I had heard so much about, this beautiful, daring woman I hoped to be just like. I remember even at 6 knowing I wanted my life to be full of adventure, just like hers. I’d wanted those same adventures, those stories. I remember getting my driver’s license, and right after the test thinking, I have my driver’s license Aunt Amy! And, in the back of my mind, I could go visit her, now. I remember birthdays and life changes and successes, always successes, thinking of her. Comparing myself to 6 year old Dani and the woman I knew then, thinking, I wonder how like her I am now?
“You may tire of me, as our December sun is setting, because I’m not who I used to be.” —Death Cab for Cutie
On the Road to Campeche
“Buenas dias,” I said the the woman at the counter of the Oxxo, a small store at the gas station.
“Tardes,” she squawked, reminding me it was afternoon not morning, grabbing my bottle of water not even looking at me.
It was the first unpleasant person I had encountered in Mexico, after traveling for a month, which blew my mind to think about. Encountering unpleasant people is a daily occurrence on the East Coast in the US, but everyone I had met in Mexico was friendly and kind. The trip so far was unlike like any other trip I had ever taken— people approached me all the time, to talk about the bike and where I was going. They asked about the tank size, how much weight I was carrying, they asked where I had come from and where I was going. Sometimes I couldn’t remember where I had come from that morning, but I always knew where I was going— Patagonia.
I was almost to the city, I was 8 miles away, then 5. All of a sudden, I could see the hazy grey on the road surface ahead which meant one thing— rain. All of a sudden I was being pelted with what felt like tiny grains of sand but were actually rain drops. Just up ahead, a man on a motorcycle was stopped on the highway under an overhanging tree. I quickly pulled over underneath, throwing out a quick hello as I pulled on my jacket, and zipped it up to the neck.
Huddling under the scrap of a tree, I pulled up the map on my phone to get the final directions to my hostel. It was raining so hard even with my helmet on, beads of water dripped off the end of my nose. I slid my phone into the clear sleeve on my tank bag, kicked the stand up, started the bike, and gunned down the highway.
Thunder grumbled overhead as I navigated the last few miles into the city. I parked in a row of bike parking in front of a small doorway that said “Monkey Hostel”. Like every day, I systematically unpacked my bike, making two trips up the steep, narrow staircase. Although I was in a mixed dorm with 6 beds, no one else was there, and I opened the doors to the balcony that overlooked the street.
The clouds had parted to reveal a rainbow sunset, golden light spilling across pinks and greens and reds. The church in the distance cut through the sky, backlit by the dying sun. Before it dropped below the horizon, everything was illuminated.
The streets of Campeche after the rain.
Cape Town, 2013
“Amy was found unconscious this morning, she’s in the hospital now. We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” my Mom said. The Skype connection started breaking up. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” my Mom repeated.
I had been traveling around Africa for months before settling down at an apartment in Cape Town. I had planned on staying for a few months, maybe moving there permanently, when I had woken up that day to the phone call. After years of fighting cancer, the day we all knew was coming had arrived.
The flight home from Cape Town was long, usually around 24 hours. Even if I found a flight the next morning, I’d still be a full day away from home, and it would be too late. Amy was in the hospital back home on the east coast, and there was nothing I could do but wait.
The next evening, my Mom called again. I could hear the tears in her voice, and my whole body constricted. I remember the room going completely silent, holding its breath, as if everything had been waiting for this moment, and after my Mom said what she was going to say the world would be changed forever. “We’re all headed to the hospital now, the doctors told us to say our goodbyes.” I sat in my empty apartment for hours, in the dark, seeing the lights sparkle off in the distance on Table Mountain.
When my roommate arrived, I told her what had been happening. I looked at her tearfully, “If she dies, I don’t know how I should feel. She’s been my hero my entire life, but she doesn’t know me at all.”
A role model is a story we tell ourselves. Even if that person is family, family who doesn’t know your birthday or calls or wants to see you, they shape who you become. They give you a piece of their fire, their wicked sense of humor, tales of their adventures— and even if it isn’t real, even if the person you thought they were and the person you wanted to become was a story— it changed you anyway. That’s what stories do. And so we tell ourselves these stories, and move onward into the unknown, the stories lighting the path to who we want to become.
“Words save our lives, sometimes.” ―Neil Gaiman
My computer buzzed, another call. My Mom was openly crying this time. I could hear people in the background. “We told her you love her, and wished you could be here,” my Mom sobbed over the phone. We were all together over the phone for a few moments. During the last few moments of my Aunt’s life, before they pulled the life support, I slept halfway around the world, and she was gone.
Aunt Amy, AntTamy, my godmother, my role model, the woman who swam with sharks, the woman who made me want my life to be different, the woman who didn’t know me at all and the woman who arguably I didn’t know either, was gone.
The next morning I rode into Valladolid, a town known for its close proximity to the famous Chitzen Itza ruins, and local cennotes— but better known to me as a place I had visited with my sister years before. As I rode down the city streets I recognized some of the places we had been— the large sprawling town square filled with big trees and green grass, the stone cathedral. All of a sudden, I turned right down a familiar street, Calle de Los Frailles. I stopped my bike in front of a small hostel, one that I remembered from all those years ago— the thatched hut private room in the back that no longer had a thatched roof, the open air bathroom with a giant concrete sink. My sister and I had stayed in that room and I remembered brushing my teeth in that sink outside, thinking, I wanted to brush my teeth outside every day for the rest of my life.
This was the first hostel I every stayed in. My sister had to convince me— back then, like many unseasoned travelers, I had a healthy suspicion of the unknown, but my sister knew. Everything had started here. I walked around, touching the walls and taking photos. Everything I had wanted to do back then I had now done. It made me happy and proud and immeasurably sad at the same time— that through all the the years since, all the things I had done and all the things I had worked so hard for, the woman that I had become and the girl I had been were standing together in that place, and waiting for some answer about the world.
I told Brad during the interview all we needed was for someone to tell us we could choose our path, to show us it was okay to be a little different to move forward in the world. My Aunt did that for me, and my sister did as well. It’s okay to sleep in a room full of people in a strange place, it’s okay to leave and see the world and create new stories. I’m surrounded by people who are constantly surprising me, people doing amazing different things, people I know well and people I’ve never met, paving the way for new generations of small kids in shopping carts making heroes of the people in their lives, the small things like powdered sugar donuts and stories about sharks making every difference in the world.
Follow the Trip
The moon was high in the sky, a small yellow orb in the distance, matching the yellow lights that shone on the opposite shore. I could hear the sound of the waves crashing below as I descended the steep concrete staircase from my apartment overlooking the water to the narrow path below. It was such a beautiful night, the heat finally stifled by the arrival of darkness, the faint sound of mariachi emanating from the small town in the distance.
The narrow path below followed the perimeter of the bay, and I expected to find it empty, but it wasn’t. It was filled with couples, perched on every available space— tucked into the shadows of steep rocks, on the benches and small bridges dotting the path as the waves crashed beneath them. They held hands and strolled in arguably one of the most romantic spots I’d every stayed, and I felt self-conscious walking among them, the only single tourist in the town it seemed.
The driving force of my walk was to get another strawberry popsicle from a tienda on the main street in town— they were absolutely delicious, and in the 24 or so hours I’d been in town I’d already eaten 3. So it was that I had to walk back and forth through the couples lining the path, eating my popsicle, alone, licking the juice from my arm and trying to look cool even though I’m sure I only achieved a degree of awkward.
* * *
This week was defined by feeling solitary, maybe it was being in bigger cities rather than small towns, but instead of feeling invested in the people or places I was staying I felt like I was orbiting around their centers, drifting through the crowds like I was less a part of them and more akin to a pigeon pecking at the ground— I was there, but I didn’t quite belong.
It wasn’t as if I wasn’t meeting people or being invited places— I was. One gorgeous German redhead asked, “We should go out tonight,” then a beautiful man from Mexico City wanted to meet up for dinner. I was serenaded one night in a public square, invited to dance, grab a few beers— I received so much attention anywhere I went on the motorcycle, I was constantly having conversations with people about the weather, the trip, whatever city I was in. I felt like the Universe was telling me to dive in and I was pulling away. I had no reason to refuse an offer to dance, to go out, to meet a beautiful man for dinner, but I was refusing everything— like there was a part of me that knew I needed to dive in, to offer far more to this journey than I was, to step out from behind the camera and the woman on the motorcycle and the businesswoman to find more of myself in the heart of Mexico— but I hadn’t yet.
“Standing on the fringes of life… offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.”― Stephen Chbosky
* * *
The heat was so intense, my thick canvas jacket was soaked within 10 minutes of riding through town to leave.
I planned on wild camping that night— it would be dark before I could make Acapulco, a three hour ride to the south, and I had been dying to sleep on the beach under the stars along the pristine coastline I had been following for days. Just 40 miles outside Zihuatanejo, I drove by a small, sandy road descending to the beach in the distance. The first 10 feet of the road included a steep descent, with a deep rut down the middle, all made of loosely packed, gravely sand. I eyed the left and right side of the road, and the long stretch of seemingly deserted beach on the distance, giant barrels of waves crashing near the shore. I decided to attempt the right side of the path. I eased out the front brake lever slowly, and started descending the steep road. A little too slowly, I found out— without enough forward momentum, the rear wheel started to slide to the left down the giant rut in the middle of the road, forcing the front tire into another rut. I leaped off the bike, my right foot catching a little as the bike slid and then came to a stop. My bike was on its side, horizontal across the road, the front wheel pointed down the steep road.
Without missing a beat, I unhooked my cargo net covered my backpack and saddlebag on the rear of the bike, and unloaded several bags. The greatest thing about the Giant Loop saddlebag on the back is that it protects the bike on either side as well as holding all my gear. The bike was sitting a top of the right saddlebag, on a pile of my clothes inside.
With some of the weight off, I grabbed the back of the frame just in front of the rear tire, and pulled it toward me. It was now hovering off the ground, a food above the steep rut in the road where I now stood. I walked to the front of the bike, grabbed the front handlebars, and leveraging the weight of the bike over the rut, I threw all my weight back and pulled the bike up off the ground.
“Ahhhhh success!” I shrieked. I threw my right leg over the seat, and leaving the heavier bags on the side of the road to come back to, continued down the road.
Headlights swept past my tent. I didn’t move, thinking it was just another bike, someone else wanting to check out the beach and they’d drive on by. I saw the shadows of legs as someone walked in front the the light, then around my tent.
“Buenas noches,” I heard a man say, and then I looked out. There wasn’t one person outside, there were 10 enormous men, all dressed in the heavy black military uniform with guns slung over their shoulders. What I thought was a bike was actually two military trucks. They had surrounded my tent, shining flashlights over my motorcycle and tent.
“Buenas noches,” I replied cooly, staying in my tent.
“What are you doing here?” one man asked, in a thick accent.
“I wanted to camp on the beach.”
I could see the rest of the group of men behind me shifting around, looking at my bike and the surrounding area. The men looked enormous wearing their thick black jackets and helmets, the headlights from the trucks illuminating them like a scene from an arty film. I decided to stay in my tent.
“It would be better to stay in a hotel. There is one 15 minutes from here. Bad men come here sometimes, it’s not safe. I can give you our phone number to call if you have a problem.”
I pretended to write the number down, asking him to repeat it, although I didn’t have a functioning phone I wasn’t about to let on I was alone on the beach without any way to contact anyone.
“Are you alone?”
I thought briefly about lying, that was usually what I did when asked this question, but since he was kind and non-threatening, I told him I was traveling from Washington to Patagonia alone, and that I had stopped here for the night instead of riding to Acapulco in the dark.
One of the other men started chatting in Spanish to the man I was speaking with, telling him about another beach that was much more beautiful for camping. My heart melted a little at that.
“Where we are staying, 15 minutes away, the beach is much more beautiful, you can follow us.”
I was used to people telling me areas weren’t safe, usually for the sole reason I was traveling alone, but I was only 150 miles outside Acapulco in the state of Guerrero— the most notorious area in the entire country for drug trafficking, and I had been passing through multiple military checkpoints for days. Since I was obviously a tourist, it wasn’t a problem for me, and the men I had encountered in the military were always polite and professional. That was different, however, from encountering drug smugglers on a deserted beach in the middle of the night.
With that, I decided to pack up and leave. I didn’t know the area, and the vacant buildings on a deserted beach near a highway did seem like an ideal spot for drug trafficking.
“It’ll take about 15 minutes for me to pack up.”
He nodded, and pointed down the beach. “We’ll be down there.” I thanked him, and with that, they piled into the back of the two pickup trucks, and retreated into the darkness. Maybe I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. Standing there in the moonlight on the edge of the sea, packing my things on my bike in the light of my headlamp, I felt strangely exhilarated.
“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.” ― Michelle Obama
* * *
The MSF (the Motorcycle Safety Foundation) Rider Handbook has a section that talks about how to handle curves riding a motorcycle. “If you cannot see the exit, predict the curve radius tightens and hold entry speed farther into the curve.”
It struck me at the time, and now on the road, that handling curves on a motorcycle was a metaphor for my life. That most of the time I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I went into it with a good entry speed, held the curve, looking as far ahead as I could and held my speed.
None of us will ever know what lies ahead, but a lot of us won’t chance going into the curve. We’ll take the safer, less mountainous road, or the straight predictable path— the one we can see for hundreds of miles ahead. But in doing so, we’ll never be rewarded by the sinewy mountain roads that open up to a view of the crashing waves in the distance, or giant mountains towering over the road. We’ll never know what it’s like to camp on a beach alone, nothing but the moon and the waves and a great expanse of sand in either direction.
In that moment, in the dark on the beach after being surrounded by the Mexican military, I realized for the second time this trip how little fear is part of my life.
“If you cannot see the exit, predict the curve radius tightens and hold entry speed farther into the curve.” —Motorcycle Safety Foundation
* * *
I rode in along the dark highway for 20 miles after gunning my motorcycle up the steep roading leading to the beach— this time making it up and over onto the paved road in seconds— feeling empowered by the night riding, the wind cool and the air clean, the road unfolding before me illuminated by my headlight. Bugs slapped at my arms— I was too hot at the beach to put on my riding jacket, so I rode along the roads bare armed, the motorcycle growling over speed bumps, only the occasional sweep of headlights crossing my path.
I thought about riding all the way to Acapulco in the dark, but the experience on the beach had put a little darkness in my heart, so I stopped at the first hotel I spotted off the small two lane road. A tiny older man sat at the reception desk, the glow of a solitary light behind him. The reception desk was in the middle of a vast dining area, and what looked like an empty pool with a swim up bar in the corner.
I followed him to a room, hoping that, as expensive the price was, the room would be nice and I could take a shower. He opened the door, turned on the light, and I spotted cockroaches scuttling over the sink in the back along the sink. He discreetly tried to kill them, flushing their carcasses down the sink drain, then walking into the separate shower stall presumably to do the same. He showed me how to turn on the AC with a breaker switch, then smiling kindly, left the room. I was now alone to contemplate the horrors of where the cockroaches were coming from and if they would be in the bed at night. After a brief look into the shower stall and realizing one enormous cockroach remained, I decided to sleep in my bikini sans shower and leave at dawn.
* * *
“…the universe wants to be noticed. But what we want is to be noticed by the universe, to have the universe give a shit what happens to us— not the collective idea of sentient life but each of us, as individuals.” —John Green
* * *
I was on the road by 6 AM, dark clouds in the distance threatening rain. I could feel the chill air even through my thick canvas riding jacket, the air getting cooler and cooler the longer I road. I rode though the last big town until Acapulco, which was 80 miles away. I had just started down an empty stretch of highway when it started to rain, and then, it started to pour. I could barely see the road in front of me, and every few minutes I let go of the clutch lever to wipe the beads of water from my face-shield.
Great bolts of lighting struck in the distance, and in an instant, enormous puddles collected on the roadway. All of a sudden, I was no longer alone— 18 wheelers and buses and small vans were passing me, or stopped on the side of the road in the torrential downpour. I stopped for a few moments underneath a concrete bus shelter and re-check my bags to make sure no water was getting in. The was a 1′ wide strip underneath the roof in the bus shelter that wasn’t soaked, and I stood there, removing the interior part of my face-shield that was continually fogging.
I couldn’t go back, but it seemed like I couldn’t keep going either. I kept going.
I rode out the downpour, and arrived two hours later in Acapulco, completely soaked but victorious.
* * *
The hotel which assured me had wifi did not, so after a quick shower, I spent the rest of the day in the Woolworth restaurant working. Acapulco, a city I had heard so much about, was noisy and dirty and overwhelming, and even though I loved it for all those things in the short time I spent there, I was ready to leave the next morning. I woke up at 4:45, packed up my bike outside, chatting with one of the many military men who occupied Acapulco— their military vehicles parked at almost every intersection— and left the city in the dark. I wanted to make Mexico City in time to work West Coast hours, 245 miles away.
* * *
I had heard so much about Mexico City from other travelers— CDMX it was referred to, the cool acronym reflecting how great the city was itself. Mexico City is like the Colombia of South America— anyone who has been knows how amazing it is and shares their experiences with like-minded travelers— anyone who hasn’t defers to the reputation of the place, which in the US (surprise, surprise) isn’t good.
I stayed for 3 days at the spectacular CDMX Hostel and Art Gallery on the swanky Paseo de la Reforma, surrounded by amazing street food, and giant buses sporting ‘CDMX’ racing around the giant roundabouts filled with trees and statues and fountains. I locked my motorcycle up outside the hostel on the metal framing in front of the windows, and didn’t ride for two straight days. I did laundry, ran errands, shipped packages, ran every morning through the parks lining the main street, and ate lunch every day at a vegetarian cafe down the street.
I left Mexico City Sunday morning, and made the incredible drive through the mountains to Oaxaca in what seemed like no time at all, but was really 5 hours.
I blew through mountain roads, rolling around curves that opened up to enormous views of the enormous mountains in the distance. I road across desert after desert, riding through oddly shaped red hills, carved with small canyons that looked like anthills. I rode through a downpour and dodged falling rocks from the cliffs lining the road, an ambulance stopped on the side for a car that had been hit by rocks. I rode with other motorcyclists and passed gangs of them going the opposite way, everyone out riding on that beautiful Sunday.
I passed the strangest things— a smear of green across the highway that ended in two giant heads of broccoli on the shoulder, a hat perfectly positioned in the roadway as I came across it, the word ‘FUCK’ embroidered loosely in great, sprawling loops on the front, a red plastic bag floating high, so high up in the sky it drifted like a small red cloud.
And so it was I ended another week on the road, rolling through curve after curve after curve, holding the entry speed, and ready for whatever appeared in the distance.
Follow the Trip
I zipped around a bus that had been making frequent stops, following the river that wound up the road in the distance, passing small shops and a Tortilleria, where fresh tortillas were being made by a silver machine. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by dogs, and everything I ever read about dogs and motorcycles went through my head. “Do not kick the dogs, do not kick the dogs,” as the dog on my right lunged toward the bike and I simultaneously shrieked and accelerated, pulling my leg up and away from the dog’s mouth.
My motorcycle bumped up and down over the cobblestone road, and my phone was narrating the journey with its cries of ‘slight left’, but re-routing every mile so I wasn’t sure if I was 2 miles away or 5, and the road kept winding higher. Finally, I passed a beautiful little green building that said ‘Casa Rio Cuale’ on the front. I managed a u-turn on the tiny cobblestone street and came to a stop before a heavy black gate. I had arrived.
* * *
“Come se dice ‘barbed wire’?” I muttered to myself, making a mental note to look up the word in Spanish when I got back on wifi. My recommended early morning running route dead ended in a barbed wire fence— a route recommended by a woman 50 feet down the road.
“You should take that road, it’s a great run that loops around the town. Make a right at the green house. And don’t worry about the barking dogs, they’re friendly!” she added.
A right that ended in barbed wire. I sighed inwardly and turned around to continue on the route I had started on before. I ran back down the hill, passing by a small house on the right with two small chihuahuas perched on the road. “Hola,” I crooned to the dogs as I passed, when all of a sudden, an enormous German Shepard lunged at me from behind them, its teeth missing my thigh by inches inches as it choked itself on its own short leash.
I took off at a sprint toward the beach and ran laps around the town square instead.
* * *
Some weeks on the road are just hard. Nothing seems to go right, even when it does. I sometimes longed to open a locked door easily the first time, that familiarity of knowing how the key works instead of struggling with it. There were metal gates with deadbolts and handles, tiny wooden doors that push inward like the doors to a saloon, there was a door in one hotel that had to be turned three times to the right, and would turn endless times to the left without doing anything, and anytime I wanted to get into my room I struggled— one day at any place isn’t enough time to get to know all the quirks.
I longed to rely on the wifi, or to know exactly how long it would take to get to a place, and which was the best way to go. This week was one of those weeks. Every day it seemed I had gotten lost, or there wasn’t a place to stay in a town, and I’d arrive at my final destination flustered and frantically pulling out all my gear to hop online and start working as quickly as possible, sometimes barely making meetings. My phone died on the road several times, or overheated, I was chased by dogs on and off the bike, I got sick off a plate of chilaquiles (my second of the day because it was the only vegetarian dish I could find in the small beach town) and was covered in mosquito bites. Every morning I would wake up, my hands two claws from squeezing and releasing the front brake and clutch lever. I participated in a joint ride on the streets of Puerto Vallarta, the other party being two teenage boys on a small bike, and a man at a hardware store helped me fix my computer cable at no charge. The road gives and it takes.
I arrived at my last hotel to find it filled with the carcasses of dead roaches, each set of legs like a prayer for me to escape to a better place and get this week over with. I was on my way to the front desk to inquire about the cockroaches, grumbling inside, when I passed a a family talking and laughing, sitting in plastic chairs around a table laden with food and beer.
“Quieres tequila?” a woman called to me as I passed, holding up a glass.
I was there until almost 11 PM, drinking tequila and brandy and another alcohol I no longer remember the name of. “Try!” Elsa and her husband exclaimed, pulling out bag after bag of Mexican street snacks, homemade dishes, and drinks. Elsa sliced me mango and jicama, and along with her son, two grandsons, husband, daughter in law, and restaurant owner in-law, we toasted “Salud!” into the night.
“Fuck Trump!” Else exclaimed at one point, then her husband got up to dance on the lawn where their two grandsons joined them. Elsa’s son shyly approached me, “para tu moto”. It was a gift, a keychain in the shape of a frog that was also a bottle opener.
Elsa told me when I returned to Mexico, she could introduce me to some attractive Mexican men, and told me if anyone bothered me on my trip all I needed to do was just take a knife— she illustrated the movement with a flick of the knife she had just cut the jicama with— and tell them I’d cut off their balls.
“And feed them to the dogs!” I added, thinking it would be a good distraction for all the dogs that had been chasing me. Elsa laughed, and we toasted some more. I woke hours later in my bed in the pitch black, frantically searching for my motorcycle keys only to find them sitting atop the bed.
* * *
I wake up every morning at sunrise, and pull on my running shoes to go for a three mile run. Afterwards, I take a shower, find some breakfast, and work for the next 4 hours. I take a short break for lunch, work for a few more hours, then grab my camera gear and shoot some photos in the evening light, which I later edit, and set up social media posts for the next day. At night, I plan my route for the next day, return any personal emails or messages I hadn’t gotten around to, and plan stops for the next week or work on other projects.
If it’s a riding day I pack when I get back from my run, do some maintenance on the motorcycle, then spend the next few hours on the motorcycle riding to the next destination and arrive in time to work West Coast hours and work even later into the night. Like many people, I look forward to the weekend, and plan on longer rides or camping. Normally, I love this life. I love life on the road, managing my own work and clients, shooting photos, thinking about what projects I’m working on while riding, or ideas for future projects. Sometimes, while on the road I sing along with the faint music I listen to through earbuds tucked inside my helmet, shouting out lyrics as I ride.
Even so, I was grumpy. I was grumpy even though I loved it, even though I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. I grumbled at the dogs, and when I had trouble making u-turns on tiny cobblestone streets, and I grumbled when I walked around in any populated city and was shouted at, or blown kisses, or whistled at by strange men. By the time I had arrived in Zihuatanejo on Sunday, I was ready for a break— and luckily, a break was waiting for me.
* * *
“It’s too hot to be walking. Walking is bullshit,” I thought to myself grumpily. I had just arrived in Zihuatanejo a day early after riding 6 hours from the tiny beach hotel I had spent the night at before drinking tequila with Elsa. I knew I was in a grumpy mood, and just needed some alone time to read a book in a quiet place, which downtown Zihuatanejo is anything but. The sun beat down relentlessly from its overhead perch, every part of my body sticky from sweat and the mosquito repellant I had slathered myself with.
“Hey lady want a beer?” a voice called from within a group of men at a corner bar, titters of laughter following.
A little later down the street I was whistled at from a rooftop, and half a block after that I heard a father asking his toddler aged son if he thought I was pretty, in Spanish. When it was obvious I understood the conversation, he repeated it for me in English.
“Yeah got it.” I entered into a brief daydream where I visualized kicking dogs and humans alike, before I continued on down the street.
As a birthday present earlier that year, my sister and her husband Matt offered to buy a room or a cool lesson on the road and be part of the trip. Earlier that week, they bought me an AirBNB for a night with an amazing view of the ocean in Zihuatanejo, and I would head there the next day. My own kitchen and a locking door, I thought, stuffing myself with strawberry ice cream along the walk to soothe my ruffled feelings. I love meeting people on the road, I love being on the road, but sometimes I dream of being alone and silent in a room I can lock, and forget the outside world exists if only for a while and reset. It was all I could think of walking along the streets and the crowds of Zihuatanejo. Mañana.
* * *
Some weeks doing awesome things are hard. Vent, move on, find a better way of dealing with it. It’s hard being an introvert on the road. Sometimes, ya gotta mentally kick all the dogs before you can continue on and appreciate the journey for what it is— a beautiful piece of time and space along this journey.
I had always wanted to come to Zihuatanejo after watching Shawshank Redemption as a kid. It’s the city Andy goes to after breaking out of prison— he refers to it in the movie, “You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.”
I sit on the beach in the evening, watching the fishing boats and people go by, knowing no one and belonging nowhere. The water in the harbor quietly moves to and fro, reflecting the light of distant houses and washing up onto the beach and falling back, taking my memories with it.
Follow the Trip
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
The two lane road wound across the desert, cacti popping up like telephone lines and scrubby trees dotting the skyline for miles. I leaned into turn after turn, opening up the throttle and throwing the bike right, then left, then right again. The early sunrise was golden, and at every turn glinted off my face-shield, the only sounds in my helmet the rush of the wind and the click of the gear shift lever as I change gears.
A short hour later, I rode into the town of San Miguel de Allende, the highway petering out in a steep descent of slippery cobblestones and bumper to bumper traffic.
“In 500 feet, turn left” chirped my phone, through my left headphone.
The streets leaned and dropped, my motorcycle bumping up and down. The traffic stopped, then started, then turned into a series of sharp, unmarked speed bumps, all the while tiny little alleyways with steep descents and ascents popped up seemingly out of nowhere. I quickly squinted at my phone underneath the clear plastic sleeve of my tank bag, but the sun was so bright, it was hard to see where the turn was.
The 2016 Suzuki tu250x weighs 326 pounds unloaded. With roughly 45 pounds of gear on the pillion, 7 pounds on my tank bag, and another 110 pounds for me, I balanced the weight from arm to arm, tiring after just a mile of maneuvering the bike at such slow speed. I made another left at the next street, and a quick right, narrowly avoiding a huge bus and navigating a sharp right on the cobblestones. There!
With a quick maneuver, I leaned hard to the left, quickly pulling the bike back to the right while blipping the throttle to extend the front forks over the low curb, and stopping hard on a tiny sidewalk the width of my forearm. I sat on my bike for a minute, laughing a little at the madness that every day brings on an adventure.
The two owners of the hostel came out smiling. “Why didn’t you just drive the bike inside?” they asked, gesturing to the small door and lobby, and a set of steps behind leading to a courtyard. “How silly of me,” I thought to myself, “Of course I should have just driven it inside the hostel.”
They pulled out two tiny metal pieces shaped like a crooked ‘L”, no wider than a smallish sandwich. “Here,” one of the owners said. “We’ll put these down, and just drive up the stairs.” He placed the metal pieces at the base of each narrow step. The stairs exited through a small metal door, which opened up into a small courtyard. They looked at me expectantly.
I’ve learned through experience when trying new, difficult things on the road, to embrace them with a passive face, and hope with all one’s heart everything goes well. I didn’t want to ride up those steps. I had just finished a hard ride through the tiny city that took all my concentration— but there’s a confidence we find when other people believe in our capabilities. Seeing the two owners watching me expectantly and smiling, I nodded to them, and rode the bike up the stairs into the courtyard with a serene face, my heart pounding in my chest.
* * *
The day begin as all good days do, surrendering to the challenges that await us on the road. My fate took the shape of riding down steps on the motorcycle to exit the hostel, and a short ride to a neighboring town— Guanajuato. The map Maps.me presented as I typed in the hostel name at 7 am looked like a joke— a spaghetti noodle pile in the centro district. I figured it was just the GPS acting up, and it would re-route once I got closer to the city. It didn’t.
Guanajuato was initially settled in the 1520s by the Spanish as a mining town. Its maze of crisscrossing roads and bridges and underground tunnels in the City Centro is due to diverting the Guanajuato River from flooding the town during the wet season. Almost all the streets running through the city center are one way, and I rode on a maze of roads, down through underground tunnels, plunging into darkness and emerging out into the sunlight just as quickly.
It only took 30 minutes to find the hostel through the city center, and after unloading my bags, one of the guys working at the Vegetarian Restaurant/Hostel where I was staying pointed down the road to where I could park my motorcycle. I was roughly 20 feet down the one way road, in the opposite direction of traffic.
“Just drive around,” he said, pointing down the one way street in the flow of traffic.
I looked at the bike, then down the road. I walked down the narrow sidewalk which ended in two metal posts I’d have to squeeze the bike through if I rode down the sidewalk instead— I wasn’t sure I’d make it. I considered riding the wrong way down the street, it was such a short distance, but the road ended in a sharp curve small trucks were trying to navigate, and it seemed like a foolish risk to take. Inwardly sighing, I resigned myself to again riding up stairs so to speak, and started up the bike.
“Turn left in 100 feet,” my phone chirped. The narrow cobblestone street turned a sharp curve and ended in 4 different small streets branching off. None of the streets appeared on my map, or had any of the same names as what my map was showing. I went far left. I ended in a travel circle with my phone telling me “take the first exit” which I did, then ended back at the traffic circle. Then again. Then again. After arriving at the same roundabout 4 times, I started taking random streets that seemed to head east. I rode through dark tunnels, over bridges, then through more dark tunnels where cars would suddenly appear from hidden exits, and the tunnels would end in hidden underground expressways, dotted with stop signs. One hour later, I arrived back at the hostel, 20 feet from where I began. I splurged on lunch and drank an entire pot of coffee.
* * *
There’s a word in Arabic, Fanaa فناء , that means the destruction of the ego or self, related to the Buddhist idea of the eightfold path and the highest state of meditation through stripping away the self. It also means the destruction of self for love.
Ego has no place in adventures, although it’s found often enough in explorers. The moment we start to feel like the moment, or place, has been conquered, is the same instant we stop being open to learning— and we lose. We lose the stories of other humans on the road while we’re talking about ourselves instead, we lose the knowledge of the best roads to take, or places to visit, by becoming overly invested in ourselves and our current knowledge, and we lose the ability to lean on others. We lose.
Only by being humble, by being open to experiences and stories, and accepting and actively thinking that we know so very little, can we truly be part of the road. The saddest thing we can do is hold on tightly to what we think we know, brandishing it like a sword. Without fanaa, we’re no more than sheep, traveling a grey line to what we expect to be at the end of the road.
* * *
I rode down a steep, sandy street into the heart of Sayulita, a surf town on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Heads turned as I rode down the street, my tangled hair thrown over one shoulder, my loose tank top over my sports bra.
I like to joke that I couldn’t get more attention if I rode into towns on the back of a Taun Taun. It would be easy to confuse the attention with accomplishment, to make the attention into something ego-centric, instead of what it is— doing something a little different people aren’t used to seeing— and there’s a responsibility in that.
I’ve met the most amazing humans this week on the road— who are all doing something a little different. Lucy in San Miguel de Allende, who has traveled all over the world, and is headed to Australia next. I met Cody and Sarah, two entrepreneurs on their honeymoon who have multiple properties in Melbourne they rent on AirBNB. I met Dana last night for dinner in Sayulita, from the Remote Year program, after she sent me a message on Instagram that she had been following me there for a year and had seen my motorcycle with DC plates parked on the street. I’ve had the most amazing conversations and heard some incredible stories of people doing the wildest things.
We all have unique capabilities and stories, some more visible than others, but hold no more or less value. In this crazy life, we can only move forward, forgiving ourselves for the things we didn’t do well, building on the mistakes we’ve made, quieting our restless hearts with promise of doing more, doing better in the future, and riding down that next stretch of highway to the unknown.
* * *
La Lancha, Mexico
I had reached the Pacific, that long stretch of blue and breeze running out to the horizon. I was walking along a winding path from the road to the sea, alone in the quiet of the woods, spying red crabs popping in and out of holes and small lizards scuttling in the dry leaves and dirt.
Carrying my surfboard, the path opened up to the ocean, the smell of salt on the air, and long, quiet beaches in both direction. Craggy rocks capped the beach at the ends, and several people sat along the shore at that popular surf break.
I paddled out into the clear water, one stroke after another, my fingers sieving the water. Nearing the first break, a white wave crashed around me, soaking me completely in the warm Pacific. I surrendered to the ocean, and began anew.
Follow the Trip
Nuevo Laredo, Mexico
I was waiting at the Banjercito office in the Migración building, having just crossed International Bridge II from Laredo, Texas into Mexico. I held my motorcycle helmet in one hand, and my tank bag in the other, simultaneously clutching a large ziplock of all my documents needed for my temporary vehicle permit to ride through Mexico.
“You should throw your motorcycle in the back of my truck,” the man in front of me said.
His wife, standing in front of him, tried to say something to him and he waved her off impatiently. “It’s not safe for you in this state. You can put your motorcycle in the back of my truck. Other states, sure, but this one— you think the police will help you, maybe 50%, but the rest, corruption. Maybe one saw you come in. Maybe he will follow you. It’s fine for me, in my truck, but you, on a bike…” He trailed off, clearly contemplating the horrors awaiting a female traveler alone on a motorcycle.
I nodded politely. I was used to people telling me it wasn’t safe. In fact, almost every place I’ve ever been people have asked if I was afraid— afraid of being alone, afraid of certain places or, what they really were asking and projecting, afraid of the unknown. When you’re a solo female traveler, you get used to these kind of comments and intrusive questions. I’ve found that passivity is the best way to handle them.
These fears are driven by skewed media outlets, gossip, and urban legends. They’re driven by blatant sexism (protect the women!) and culture— where instead of women being encouraged to explore the world, they’re told they need to be protected from it. I’ve been told by people in bordering countries that I’ll find nothing but desert the next country over, or, one of my personal favorites, that I’ll be killed or kidnapped. “I hope you make it,” they mutter, convinced of my demise for the sole reason of choosing to travel without a companion. I nod politely, and carry on.
* * *
5 days before, Sam Houston Jones State Park
I rolled the biked around a sharp curve, the smell of pine and warm sun breezing in through the vents in my helmet. Up ahead, a sign came into view around the curve— Sam Houston Jones State Park. It was a relief to be out of the bustle of New Orleans, and into the quiet of the forest. I pulled under an awning at the entrance to the State Park, a small bell sounding as I came to a stop. I climbed off the bike, and walked into the State Park office.
Two young girls were sorting money at the front desk. “You traveling alone?” one asked, looking at my riding jacket and helmet, and out the window to the motorcycle parked outside. “I’d be too afraid to camp alone,” she added.
“Nah it’s great you totally should, it’s a lot of fun. What’s going to get ya?”
The other girl handed me a written pass to hang on the post at the campsite.”Watch out for the raccoons ya hear, a guy was in here a little while back, asking for a refund because raccoons ate his tent. Don’t feed the raccoons al’right?”
I smiled at them both, walked outside to the bike, and rode off into the park.
* * *
It started pouring just as I reached the outskirts of Monterrey— a dirty, misty sort of rain that soaks the roadways and sends waves of gritty water into your boots. I could barely see through my face-shield, and the road-signs came up so quickly I didn’t have time to respond, and eventually didn’t bother with directions and just rode toward the city center— I was headed into Monterrey at least. My heart felt like it was in my throat as I rode down the highway, pelted by rain at 60 mph, surrounded by cars and buildings and busy road signs— then my low gas light came on. It was cold, I was completely soaked, and when I saw the Pemex gas station, I veered off the main highway onto a side street, rolling over hundreds of round miniature speed bumps checkering the roadway that made it feel like I was going to lose control of the bike, made a u-turn and and finally rolled to a stop under the blissfully dry awning of my first Mexican gas station.
The next 30 minutes were spent navigating the periphery of Monterrey, wiping water off my face-shield and clear sleeve of my tank bag while I tried to navigate streets. Lost for a time in the commercial outskirts, I rode across potholed roads filled with dirty rainwater deeper than kiddie swimming pools, crossed surprise railroad tracks— all the while inwardly cringing at every bump and turn on the slippery roadway. All of the sudden the rain stopped, and I pulled down a cobblestone street to reveal little restaurants, pink flowering vines, and a little cafe— Amatle Organic Hostel and Cafe— my home for the night. I got off the bike, and danced around like I had discovered the source of the Nile. I was in Mexico, and it was beautiful.
* * *
Sam Houston Jones State Park
I woke with a start in the pitch black. The sound of the trees rustled overhead, the wind running through the exposed screen of my tent— I had left the fly off. I heard the sound of breaking branches in front of the tent. I rummaged around for a light, inwardly groaning when I realized I had left my headlamp in one of the bags on my motorcycle.
Unzipping the tent, I walked gingerly across the ground in the dark, grabbing my headlamp out of my bag, finding it only by the dim glint of the motorcycle in the dark. I turned on the light to spy a raccoon dangling out of the tree, hands on my food bag, rummaging its hands around inside. I had hung a bear bag with p-cord from the tree in my campsite— not because of the threat of bears, but to keep the food (and raccoons) away from my motorcycle and tent.
I chuckled inwardly, crawled back into my tent, and fell asleep. It wasn’t until the next morning I thought of the significance of the moment, me stumbling around in the dark, the raccoon watching me.
When I was a younger, there was a part of me that was a little afraid to travel alone. Not enough to stop me from doing it, or to actively worry about it, but there was a part that wondered, “will this be safe?” or “will tonight be the night there’s a problem?”. More than that though, it’s the taunting finger wag all solo female travelers are confronted with, whether it’s walking home from a bar at night, spending a night in the woods alone, or traveling to another country— it’s the comments and condescension that say— “it’s not safe for you”.
I’m older and wiser now, and I’ve realized there’s far more danger in discouraging people to try new things, from telling them the world isn’t a safe place. The greatest danger I’ve found is the danger of ignorance, and complacency, and the spreading of myths— and passing these on to children and young adults. Asking “what will you protect yourself with?” first, instead of contributing encouragement and confidence.
I used to carry bear mace religiously in my bag, and while I still carry it with me sometimes, mostly I forget which bag it’s in or even that it’s there at all. It wasn’t until this trip, on this night, that I realized I wasn’t afraid anymore. I had endured the endless comments about my safety, the “turn backs” and “where’s your knife” and “why are you doing this” and all the other fear mongering for years, until my experience far outweighed them, and I came out the other side fearless. It wasn’t until I heard that raccoon eating my teabags, and stumbled around in the pitch black woods uncaring, that I realized something had changed— and it was me. On that night, my first thought before I was completely awake, was not that someone was coming out of the woods to ‘get me’, it was, uncaringly—”if that’s an alligator I hope it eats me quickly because I’m tired”.
If you tell a small human there’s a monster under her bed often enough, she’s going to believe it. She’s going to look for monsters everywhere, be afraid to go to sleep, and will cultivate that deep-seated fear something is out to get her. My greatest hope is that one day, overcoming the fear of monsters won’t exist, because she’ll grow up without constantly being told the world isn’t safe for her. This life isn’t about what’s out there waiting for us, it’s about what we bring to it. Tell her instead about building a raft and sailing it down a big river, tell her about walking through the woods in the dark and all the animals she can find there. Tell her that one day, she’ll find herself on a motorcycle trip south, on a great adventure, and in one place she’ll stop to find alligators and tent-eating raccoons, and if she’s lucky, she’ll even find part of herself she didn’t know was there until she left.
* * *
I spent the rest of the week in Texas, spending one glorious night in Houston, where I met up with my friend Mariana, who had Couchsurfed with me 3 years earlier and we had kept in touch since. I met Mariana’s Mom, her sister, her roommate Casey, and she showed me around the city and we talked about our love of travel. We sat in a park under an umbrella, the evening wind tossing our box of tabbouleh and hummus around as we caught up, in the way solo travelers often do, in harmony with the same good vibes and world views— with perfect understanding of the challenges and rewards, the work and the love for a life on the road.
I spent one tired night in downtown Austin, and I loved it. I ate the most spectacular vegan junk food at Arlos Food Truck (fried tater tots drenched with vegan cheese) and wandered around the area. I would have stayed another night, but the hostel price ($48 a night) set a new record of the most expensive hostel I’ve ever stayed in the world, and made me get creative and find a quiet spot outside the city.
I stumbled upon the Community Inn on AirBNB, where I found row after row of tiny houses perched upon acres of land in Austin. Community Inn is run by Mobile Loaves, and organization dedicated to getting the homeless of the street, and providing them with a community and meaningful work. My stay happened to be on Friday night, which is movie night, and just outside my teepee I had rented for the evening was a large outdoor movie theater, the projector run inside a small airstream overlooking grassy tiers. Not only that, a larger airstream on the road above sold snacks— beautiful little boxes of the most exquisitely salty popcorn I’ve had the pleasure of eating, and little s’more packets tied with a twine bow, to be roasted at the campfire pit behind the outdoor movie theater.
The next morning I rolled out early, trying to get ahead of the rainstorms in the area. I spent the night in Laredo, and before I knew it was crossing over into Mexico— one country down, 17 more to experience, and an endless amount of people to meet and know, experiences to have, things to be afraid of but try anyway.
It’s okay to be afraid. Being afraid is one of the most positive emotions we can have— it brings us wisdom. It brings us new experiences and to new places and ways of doing things. With our hearts in our throats, we pave new ways for ourselves. The more we encourage and support those around us to be brave, to be fearless, instead of projecting our own inexperience and fears onto them, the more sunshine we bring into this world. The unknown’s not so bad really.
Follow the Trip
The moon shone, a white orb in the sky above the parking garage rooftop in Asheville. Nelson and I sat in empty parking spaces, our adventure vehicles parked haphazardly across spaces in front of us, cherry tobacco smoke pouring from the corncob pipes were were smoking. It was Monday night in North Carolina, the kind of night that stays warm and makes you want to stay up late, a few clouds in the sky and the buildings illuminated by the moonlight and street lamps.
It was a start, a start to the trip south to Patagonia— meeting another adventurer and winding up here on the rooftop, with the sole purpose of taking the coolest photos of Nelson’s Taco (Tacoma truck) and my motorcycle, smoking mountain pipes and talking about the kinds of lives we wanted for ourselves and the world around us. It’s what I love the most about traveling, that ability to roll up to an unknown place full of unknown people and become friends, to surrender to the moments and try new things, and find new facets of yourself you might not have known were there in the humdrum of routine and home.
* * *
The trip started with surrender, the way plans often do. I was already starting out a week late, a week after the beautiful weather on the east coast turned to cold rain. Dark clouds had been in the sky all morning, but there were a few hours the rain was supposed to stop and I had planned to make my escape. I had gotten my Giant Loop bags just two days before, and was test driving the bike loaded for the first time as I was leaving, double checking (triple checking) the suspension and the tire pressure, before I headed down the road toward Gaithersburg— the skies ominous but the smell of freedom in the air.
Just outside of DC I hit rain— pant soaking, chill you to the bone rain, slapping against my jacket, against my face shield. My goals of camping in Shenandoah deteriorated when after just 2 hours of riding I had to stop for the night. Then again the night after, when I couldn’t quite make Asheville, and ended up staying in a tiny Virginia town with a taxidermied creature perched in the front window, welcoming visitors in.
After Asheville and corncob nights, I started to hit warmer weather as I rode south-west to Chattanooga. The two lane road rolled around a huge river with giant stones, passing through small rafting towns and MotoBike and I drifted between patches of sun and shade, always on the go.
Hours later, I pulled into a small gravel lot behind a big home in Chattanooga in a quiet residential neighborhood. En Root House, a newer hostel in Chattanooga, looked beautiful, and I had always wanted to visit this small town and vibrant climbing community in Tennessee.
Over the next three days (being delayed by a storm on the third day) I got to know the owners of the place— Lizzie and Cody, two young entrepreneurs who had gone to college together in the area, and ran a bicycle-powered coffee shop in Chattanooga before opening the hostel. Having a few beers at a local brewery and getting to hear their story was the highlight of the trip in Chattanooga.
I rode through Alabama, stopping for the night in Tuscaloosa at arguably the best AirBNB listing I’ve ever seen— an Airstream with pink flamingoes in the front yard. The owner was the most wonderful southern lady who put fresh flowers on the table, and had stocked the place with a great assortment of tea, and worried about my safety as I rode off the next morning, New Orleans bound.
I arrived in New Orleans yesterday evening over gleaming white roads criss-crossing waterways, only to be swept away immediately with a new group of people to a music festival in a park nearby.
It’s been a whirlwind week, filled with many firsts, and amazing people and places. A week always seems like a month adventure traveling— that person you knew yourself to be before blurs at the edges, and makes room for the person you are becoming. I believe in fate, and the way our small choices influence daily the kinds of people we meet, and when, and how. That’s what love is isn’t it? That give and take of energy, spread across this world, this life, this adventure.
Follow the Trip
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Lone Rucksack, in collaboration with Wilderness Badass, I’m giving back by giving away a set of my Canon camera gear to a fellow adventurer, along with some epic goodies from the amazing Wilderness Badass. With camera gear has been all over the world with some seriously good karma, and awesome Wilderness Badass gear— one adventurer will be totally set.
I bought this camera equipment in 2012, after I quit my job and decided I wanted more from my life than what I currently had. I bought this gear, and a one way ticket to West Africa, and haven’t looked back ever since. I photographed my first elephant with the camera, took it down the river in Chobe National Park in Botswana, climbed Table Mountain in South Africa, and wandered around markets in Ethiopia. This camera has taken me places, and I want it to take the next adventurer places too.
Let’s represent in the outdoors, let’s collaborate, let’s be inclusive and give each other a leg up.
How to Give Someone a Shot at the Adventure Package?
Follow @lonerucksack and @wildernessbadass on Instagram, tag a friend who deserves a shot and comment why on the post below. Comment by Thursday, May 4th at 3 PM EST for a shot to win.
The Adventure Package
Canon 5D Mark II Body
Soft Camera Case
Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 Zoom Lens
Soft Lens Case
Manfrotto Tripod with Swivel Ball Head
(2) SanDisk Extreme 32 GB (60 MB/s) Compact Flash Cards
USB Compact Flash Reader
Battery Grip with (with 6 AA Batteries)
Wilderness Badass Premium Trucker Hat
Wilderness Badass Grizzly Sticker Pack