Escapar

Personal recollections of Méxican adventures and near misses.

Chapultepec shrouded in a late glow of yellow haze. I’ll never forget that cast. That blurred stretching shadow, low and long down the Avenida. It was well after four and in the long tale of the day and this particular day I’d finally found escape.

As much as I loved the big city, I missed the solitude of space. I often discussed this with Big G’. What it takes to leave. What it takes to escape.

Big G’, or Giorgio was a monster of a man. A native Uruguayan, an émigré, who like me had also come in search of hope.

Ciudad de México has always been an ‘arrival city’. A destination for migrants seeking fortune, Big G’ and I were no different. We, like the long line of those before us, had arrived in advance of our respective peers and families. To establish the most fragile of footholds of a life in the new world.

He towered no less than six four and all that in width, with the beating heart of a lion. We became pilgrims and comrades with a shared care for common people, and as tough as things became for the both of us, that big heart of his kept beating. Not because it could, but because it wanted to.

“Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas.”

He was right.

Escapar el norte

Silence and Sundays. Lest the disquiet of a distant rumble of traffic, the lifeblood of city consistently flowing past my ear. Urban tinnitus.

I sit on my rooftop a witness to the early morning mustard filter of sun over Plaza Luis Cabrerra. Somewhere distant a church bell and the barrenderos (sidewalk street sweepers) call pilgrims to prayer.

My arms wrapped in my own embrace against the early morning cool, I drew out the last of my Marlboro and black coffee, taking it all in. Then scratching, I break the crust cover of a tattoo and swear. Bloodied, I venture back down the darkened stairwell to the apartment. It’s time to ride north.

I take my old Kona and follow that familiar route up Paseo de Reforma, to mercardo Lagunilla and the barrio bravo called Tepito. Where, within its wilding the way becomes Calzada de Guadalupe – the way of the pilgrims. And there were always peregrinos on the road to Tepeyacer and the Basi­lica. Whole pueblos make there way here from all over of this big land. Heads bowed in quiet devotion, they stream behind their own gilded reproductions of the virgin of Guadalupe.

This particular December day I weave my way through this endless festival of chaos for another four kilometres. To the entrance of the Atrio de las Americas, the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe and the chapels beyond. Where the great swell of peregrinos flood the gates, then disappear through the smoulder of burnt incense and on into the kingdom of heaven. There the guilty drop to their knees and crawl over the weathered granite in prayer to the Virgin for their own salvation. Another timeless display that forever bonds poverty to Catholicism.

It’s enormously humbling to be there. A blessing blowing fresh oxygen over an old ember deep within my mortal soul. I belong here.

After an eternity I crossed myself and waded back through the repentant for the gates. With salt on my lip I pushed on, heading north over the broken back roads at the heal of El Tepeyac for the barrios and Ecatepec. I still sought escape.

Backroad barrios

North and east are nothing but the fringes of fresh arrival cities. Those informal yet to be made formal sprawls of dust and concrete communities squeezed between the diesel of the interstates. Fuchsia coloured mercados line the approaches, as formally attired families, fresh from Sunday prayers gather under the canopies for food. The smoky air from the coals swirl around in a restless blue, rich with the sweet scent of corn and carnitas. I moved through this haze towards Tepexpan and Alcoman beyond until at last I reached it… the very limits of the great city. At last I had found escape.

I’m on that edge that separates the wild from the tame. The informality of the sprawl from the formality of the field with its rigid lines of green and gold. I’ve now replaced broken seal for dusty trail and I grinned at my success. “I wish big G was here to see this”.

Abandonment

An unnatural symmetry rose up from the valley floor, ominous and monumental. The pyramids of Teotihuacan dominate the landscape, subjugating the present, just as they had in the past.

Teotihuacan – the city of the gods is a massive Meso-Américan ruin and the equal of any other from antiquity. It is estimated that at its height it domiciled more than one hundred and fifty thousand people and became a centre of influence that spanned future civilisations.

I had arrived, and quickly made my way through the cactus lined palisades to enter its interior and the echos of ghosts trapped within its dusty quiet. Somewhere at the periphery of my vision a skink scurried light-footed across the masonry of the temple of Quetzalcoatl – the feathered serpent. It was unnerving. I’d never stood in the remains of an abandoned city before, “Is this place a warning for our modern times” I wondered as I squinted through the shimmer of heat haze up the Camino de Los Muertos to the distant pyramid of the moon beyond.

And there at its roots was ritual. A new generation of adorned ancestors and Aztecas in feathered plumage, head dress and robe, that spun spun spun in bare-footed thunder. I was witnessing another devotion the equal of that I’d left earlier in the day. The scent of smouldering salt sage and dust was rising in a whirlwind of their making to the gods above.

Suddenly a whip of blue smoke reached out and drew me in. The world disappeared in its greyness and with it the realisation that my escape that day wasn’t a spacial one, it was a spiritual one.

I returned to my old Kona resting under the shade of the cactus palisades. I smiled at my old friend, then saddled up and made my way back through the yellow haze of big city. Back home.

Geezers run

The twin coast cycle trail – Pou Herenga Tai

A late hard rain of apprehension fell over the far north, but that didn’t deter Geezers run. He’d enlisted a good posse for the twin coast cycle trail – Pou Herenga Tai. So there we were. The seven of us. Going about our trailhead prep’ at the Hokeke speak-easy.

We were way up in the Hoki’, that oily flat Hokianga water an amble tide. Slowly washing through mangrove and boat house pier. Times a slow mover up here and there’s no rush to change it. So why are we racing? I thought. The Hoki’ is special. Not just Kiwi special, I mean world special. It never changes, it ebbs and flows on a living tide. Some people say that’s stagnant, I see stability.

So we head east. Along that ridiculous purpose built board walk for the rich strangers that never stay. Past free wheeling tamariki who slowly ‘cruise’ on their own steel wheels. Checking our rides and throwing us that sly northland nod – a tilting mean overshot jaw. “Fight you for your bike man” they jeer… Geezer looked back with a grin.

Our posse fell to bits and before long wheelmen were spread from road to railway iron all along the trail. We traced the riparian of the Utakura river valley onto the only real climb to the Horeke plateau, Okaihau and a coffee (of sorts).  There we waited on the stragglers, shoulders hunched and huddled around our own uncertainty as the weather closed back in. A turbulent overcast white water rolling east to Paihia.

Old virginia

It’s claimed the legendary Kupe made landfall up here. And the peoples of this land, the Ngāpuhi, trace their lineage back to the earliest of waka that migrated from across the pacific deep to these warm and fertile lands.

This was preceded many many centuries later with the arrival of old world detritus – the traders, whalers, sealers and colonial escapees that all took refuge in the small and legendary anchorage of Kororareka.

Boarders between worlds are always places of exchange, diversity and dishevelment. I’ve stayed and lived in these kinds of arrival town with their transience and can only imagine Kororareka for what it once was – ‘that lawless hellhole of the South Pacific’. But beyond the periphery lay the interior. For the tupuna of Ngāpuhi and european ancestors alike this warm and fertile land became our country’s own colonial virginia.

Strewn between us and Kororareka (Russell) lay many a Mission house, pa and battle ground. The chapel of Saint Michael’s and the great fortifications of Ohaewai lay just beyond lake Omapere to the east. But we were following the old iron of the Okaihau branch rail line south to Kaikohe.

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Saddle up

We saddled up and rode on. Seven sullen and soaked men doggedly making for town. Where slowly we ‘cruised the main’ in search of supplies and shelter. We found it in the Kaikohe bakehouse and cafe.

One by one we slid half inch thick porcelain plates over polished rails with all the clatter and rhythm of empty steel wagons. Shunting our cargo of warmly greased pastries to the till. Before negotiating our way back through the dejected to the door.

I ate in silence. Trapped within a wet wool malaise that was fitting for this sullen Kaikohe day.

Fifty clicks still stood in the way of our posse and Paihia. Our destination. Before long the route turned to rivers. We were soaked Lost within our own thoughts and privations.

I arrived at the outskirts of Moerewa – alone. Up ahead an old Holden swung unbreaking around the bend towards me. It lolled and floated, before swinging violently right once more. It’s lazy suspension bounding up and over cracked curb onto a squelch of sodden lawn. Sucking at air like a dying man, it’s engine wheezed, coughed and shuddered to its last breath.

I rode through Moerewa. Through its abandonment and endless unkept promises. That Holden a fitting metaphor of a struggling community.

We all got through it in the end – the seven of us, all in our own way with our own memories of it.

I love Northland. Its hard edges, its history and its heart. And this trail, Pou Herenga Tai, you don’t leave it behind you. You pick it up and carry it with you.

The return

Mannum to Adelaide

“Hell of a place for a flat Horse.” I said. Physically shaking against the bitter squall on Pebbly Range Road. We had been riding west into the grim, a distant low cloud over a furrowed landscape and my equally furrowed brow. He was fumbling for tools in the cold, all I could really do was wait.

For the next few hours everything was useless. The frustration of frozen fingers, wet maps and electronics. With little option we pushed on into stinking sticky red mud. It took us six hours to cover fifty clicks that day and another to reach Adelaide.

The tour… over.

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Looking down into the Tourilie Gorge

Postscript

Riding the Mawson was an epic ‘fail’.

We only covered a fifth of the planned trail. But this wasn’t of our own volition, things conspired against us from the outset; delayed flights, lost bikes with the inevitable lost days. But for all it’s frustrations we made the most of what we had, and took from it useful lessons and memorable experiences.

For me it wasn’t until we crossed that threshold from rolling green pasture to the expansive red country beyond that I truely felt I had arrived. It was there that I wanted to go, and it was there that we left the relative known of the Mawson for a land unknown.

Reflecting, I now see it more as reconnoitre than ramble. We were prospectors, surveying the terrain for a future time, a future campaign.

Does that mean I will be going back? Yes and I wonder when that will be…

Todays top track: Gundungurra – Keep on moving

Legends

Mannum

These old hands. They lay down and dug deep between shoulder and blade; “bloody knotted, you’re all bloody sinew” he coughed. They were a pugilists hands, with thick skin like loose stitched leather, the texture of polished bronze covering a wide ridge of weathered knuckle.

I turned. Hunched beneath a thick great coat and black trilby, with that same expression you’d expect of a man who’d spent a lifetime fighting for a living. Trevor’s trade was boxing. And I’ve meet boxers, Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis to name a few. Their eyes all share this caring countenance. They’ve all had to learn through hard fought experience that ‘it is always better to give, than to receive’. Trevor had those eyes.

“You need a good white oil my boy and a hot bath”, he repeated over and over. Obviously concerned about my sinewy self.

img_3064He was a former champion here in South Australia, and regaled us with stories from his youth. Not just the fights, but the training, the preparation, the sheer determination to fight in the steaming heat and dust.

Horse asked when he last stepped into the ring. “Boxing… back in the mid 60’s“, then with a wry smile he continued, “but I had my last punch-up just the other week” Legend.

Trevor was eighty years young.

Local legends

There are legends in every local. Mannum hotel had more than a few.

Like many New Zealanders Sian and Brent made Australia home, having moved from the South Island in the late eighty’s. With them were Maria (married to Don) and Reno, who grew up here or here abouts, both descendants of maverick and optimistic Italian parents.

So for the briefest of times here we all were, gathered around a table on the shores of the Murray, emigrants all. Tracing our genealogy upstream to distant and not so distant tributaries and streams that feeds the great river of the people. And this is such a very long river with the roots of its ancestry flowing back fifty thousand years and then some. The longest permanently inhabited place by one peoples anywhere in the world. We have now become the river.

They didn’t just share their stories, they shared their lives. With no one more endearing than Sian. For her, facing uncertainty is just a bend of that muddy river, it’s an unknown but the current flows strong and ‘it will sure carry her’. Legend.

We said our goodnights but not our goodbyes. We were perfect strangers and now old friends.

Late to rise I slouched in a moth eaten armchair, pitched as it was against the lean of the Mannum hotel veranda. Drinking cheap black coffee through a stained mug, I rubbed my feet for warmth and gazed out at the slow oily passage of the Murray and thought about last nights passage of time. I was hungry.

Pie floater

Every culture has a cuisine and South Australia has the ‘pie floater’. That iconic pastry encased delight, dumped upside down in a green swill of pea soup, garnished with a liberal squirt of ketchup.

Horse was ravenous for one. Me, I was hungry until he described what it was. We trudged off down Randell street – he was on the hunt.

It wasn’t the menu that got me, but the wayward wheezing coming from speaker. I reminded Horse that Tom Waits once said: “a true gentleman is someone that knows how to play the accordion, but chooses not to”. He grinned through my caution and crashed through the double doors.

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Inside the endless bellowing didn’t abate. We stood in a faux wood panelled room infused in camphor cured curtains. The waiter appeared. Thin and waxen, wearing taupe chinos, a cream rough wool jumper and apron. He was clearly rushed off his feet with two tables now needing service. “Right” he fumbled and began to list of all the items on the meagre menu that he couldn’t serve us.

“So what do you have?” I retorted, and slowly looking up over his horn rims at me he replied “Pie floater?” Horse grinned, he’d found his prey.

Open mic

Him satisfied, we made our way back to the Mannum hotel for the days ‘open mic’.

Open mic provides an opportunity for any would be troubadour with a chance to perform in front of a live pub audience. The Mannum is a regular haunt and it didn’t disappoint.

Corralled at the back of the bar, wild horses and wannabe rockers. Sunday’s finest, dressed in weathered denims and Motörhead t’s. Their restrained greying manes held back by Oakley wrap-arounds, as they shuffled hip slinging preloved Gibsons and Fenders awaiting their turn.

And like a microphone loves a musician, one by one they took their turn. Demonstrating they had the minimals in an endless medley of classic seventies rock covers and Joani Mitchell sound-alikes. Pints of the black stuff flowed, Horse and I reuniting with our emigrant family, along with the remaining revellers and sidewalk smokers, we stood arm and shoulder at the Heathers bar.

Then late, late, late in the day, as the mic’ drooped and reeled drunken against the breath of stale beer, smoke and whiskey, it staggered, only having the stamina for one more. Then the Theresa Law band took the stage.

“I used to think I could catch the wind, sail in any direction.
But now I’m drifting around the bend, yeah I’m loosing connection
.
I’ve got to breathe the wind…”

Mannum Hotel. You are legend.

Todays top track: Theresa Law band – Breath the Wind

Life on the road

Morgan ferry to Mannum

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Morgan is located at the great serpentine bend of the Murray (or the Tongala). South is the sea, whereas east traces the river back to its origins, through many varied tributaries such as the Darling and Culgoa deep into the steaming heart of Queensland.

We crossed that river early, me leaning shoulders slumped over my handlebars. Gazing ahead into the still cool dawn, as a million yellow-orange suns flash through drifting wattle and gum. East, how much I want to ride east.

Then with a quiet shudder the ferryman made his landing and my dreamtime ended (for now). “Com’on” said Horse. He led us south for the sea, I reluctantly followed.

As we rode, we knew it was there, the river. Trapped within its scoured canyon walls, it’s flat water slowly flowing south like diesel oil. We were above and beyond it, riding the table lands and tracing its course as best we could. The endless straight and dusty dawn coloured back roads that eventually evolved into rolling ‘dips’ and ‘crests’ south of Swan reach.

It was good ground. A warm and an endless (120km) kind of day that’s best ridden together alone. Lost within your own playlist, apart from the occasional bellow from Horse, “car back!”

Are we not just men?

These expansive rides frees the mind to wander untethered, just like old man river trying to find its way to the sea. As we never saw another adventure cyclist that day, or any day on our entire tour, I pondered the question “how should my particular approach to touring be defined?”

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We live in an age where the mamil dominates recreational bicycling and I have to acknowledge that ‘yes’ I am guilty by gender, not choice. We have all come to witness the exploding gaggles of  ‘middle aged men in lycra’, strapped as they are onto the latest, light weightiest carbon compound rocket racers. Choking the Saturday morning byways and bakeries in search of the perfect cinnamon latte.

This isn’t me. I don’t gaggle and I sure as shit don’t do lycra.  So I give thanks to mother nature in her good wisdom for allowing mamilian speciation.

Along with the road warriors, there are now also the ‘Bikepackers’, which (according to the Kennet brothers statistics from Tour Aotearoa 2018) are dominated by old mountain biking blokes. These are the grey-hairs who still prefer to chase gravel and grim, but with a good craft beer at the end.

As Bikpacking.com exclaims, ‘Bikepacking evokes the freedom of a multi-day backcountry hike, but with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike. It’s about exploring places less traveled, both near and far, via singletrack trails, gravel, and abandoned dirt roads, carrying only the minimum of essential gear.’

If there is a tribe then it’s here I trace my ancestry. But for one thing…

Yes I’m a Surly Ogre man (bike and personality type); yes I ride trails and far away places; and yes I’m into the whole minimalist thing (within reason), but what Bikepacking has is what traditional old timey touring has not. And that is a purpose!

Bikepacking has personal reason, a goal, a summit, a trial and a trail to overcome, whereas traditional touring doesn’t. Fundamentally touring is about ‘life on the road’ and it’s as much about your life as it is the people you meet on it.

As Tom Allen recently wrote:

“Touring is about enabling one to practice the art of travel and to live a life on the road”. To which I would add ‘and to meet perfect strangers as soon to be old friends.’

Does any of this really matter?

Not really. I’m more tourer than Bikepacker and maybe that helps me sit more comfortably in the saddle. To know what one isn’t, is as important to me as knowing what one is.

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The Mannum Hotel

We made Mannum by five. Two dust covered men on dust covered bikes. We avoided the campground and slowly rolled into town and the Mannum Hotel. Horse sauntering through the saloon doors to the bar as he peeled off his gloves, “Two pints of the black stuff and some salt and pepper please miss”

Heather looked up from behind the bar with that mischievous grin of hers, as a few locals gathered around us. We had most definitely arrived. It would take more than a day to leave. That’s another story…

Today’s top track: Finley Quaye – Spiritualised