Cajun meets Asian

Mud bugs and madness in West Houston

Waking comes with trepidation, ‘who has voted and where are we going?’ Our die was cast, we were riding west once more. 

Night watch over, we made good our escape down the corridors of the shabby (hotel) with its ‘behind closed door’ murmuring and the leftover stench of the previous evenings cigarettes. It was early, heading south through central, south-central then onward into the west. The sound of Banda echoing from the cantinas 

Zombies. I’m not sure how else to describe it. The city canyons all echo and slow shuffle of random human detritus trapped and lost within their own altered realities. The stumbling, the aimless and the lost an every city tragedy that we have no current cure for. 

We rode in silence as the heat built. Cloud and shade our welcome companion, surviving on Walgreens flavoured milk and frequent plunges into service stations for a welcome walk-in chiller and endless bottles of electrolytes. Impossible I thought, as whatever was going in certainly wasn’t coming out. 

Asian Cajun 

It became increasing clear we’d entered Little Saigon. Everything changed, from street signs, the vendors and traders who sat in the sidewalk shade selling locally grown produce. We made ‘Crawfish and Noodes’ at noon. Our pre-arranged sanctuary from the mid day sun.

We dove into plates of crab and Cajun crawfish, all washed down in an endless supply of sweet pickled lemon and soda. It was a special place, not so much for the cavernous interior, but more the waiting staff: Marcus, Kim and Harry. We exchanged story’s then swag before turning and making our way back to Zombieland. 

Every day is a winding road of trails and turns untold. We witnessed plenty this day. There were local police pistols drawn, Brian, and yet another lost soul. This one serenading the oncoming traffic through a makeshift microphone – a paper cup and stick for a stand. 

We called it just after five, as we collapsed in the shade of a multi-story parking lot close to downtown. Hear that said Horse… somewhere in the heat a car stereo crackled in the heat.  It was Weezer’s El Scorcho.

A day in the Sun

Exploring the innards of Houston

It was a slow start. A few chores and people to chat to. We didn’t get underway until eleven. By that stage the mercury was already hitting 31 degrees C.

We travelled east, not interstate east but enough lanes to keep life short. Skirting the northern edge of George Bush International. We were meant to be heading east… so west it was. Such is the life of a Clueless traveller. The heat was building.

The museum

By chance we stumbled upon the ridiculous. ‘The national museum of funeral history’. We couldn’t resist. We burst through the door into the escape and the cool, only to stand behind a slow shuffling hoard of ageing pensioners being forcibly directed through the turnstiles into the exhibit. They were clearly concerned.

The exhibit was as magnificent and perfunctory as it was dark. It’s not everyday you see the wax work of a dead Pope, a presidential hearse and an exhibit on the inner workings of an industrial crematorium. All the while we watched the shuffling group of octogenarian becoming increasingly concerned with their own escape. The reality all too relevant to us.

Ribs

We too made our escape. Heading due south through the inferno of the ‘burbs to Burns BBQ. Oh the irony. We were famished. Horse ordered a couple of small mixed portions of all things smokey and good. We underestimated the portions and did battle. Finally surrendering to the grill. What a place, what fabulous people, serving and local.

We rejoined the road, that hard ashen grey concrete, and for all intents hotter than the very sun burning at our backs. The mercury climbed, and climbed again. It hit 37 before I collapsed onto the eastern boarder of the White Oak Bayou Greenway. I was exhausted and looking up. High, high in the clear blue I saw a vulture circling. I realised it was time to call it, before things got worse. Today’s ride was over.

We booked into the closest and cheapest of sweaty hotels we could find and made our flight from the caldron. We had only achieved half of what we thought we could. Our expectations of could, should, be re-examined.

We made the sweaty by five. Hmmmm, I think we will take turns on watch tonight. That Is, if I ever leave the Lei low…  now where is Horse… ?

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.

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