Episode 3

By Fredrick A. Peterson

The journey to Monterrey, Mexico, from Laredo, Texas, was easy pedaling on my bike because it was mainly flat-land.  I made very good mileage daily. However it was hot in Northern Mexico, with dust storms, on a road with many potholes and sticky asphalt covering.  My days were made easier by a few shade trees along the roadside where I could rest, eat, and wipe my brow.  As usual every tourist that passed me would slow down, smile, wave and sometimes stop to give me water, a soft drink, a sandwich, or some fruit like an apple or orange. 

The most fun was provided by the Mexican Highway Police.  They all were mounted on motorcycles in those days.  They would roar up on me, ride parallel with me for a short while, then motion me over to the side of the road.  Invariably they would point to my bike, often to my holstered pistol, and make signs indicating that they wanted some identification. I would haul out my SALVO CONDUCTO, then watch them read it.  I have it someplace in my files and forget the exact wording, but it is something like this:

  SALVO CONDUCTO:  The bearer is a young man traveling through Mexican territory on a bicycle to South America.  This permits him to carry a pistol for his safety.  All authorities are requested to give him safe passage though Mexico, to extend him full courtesies, and to facilitate his journey.  Signed by the Commanding General of the Zone.

The Safe Conduct document had my photo attached with a seal of the Mexican Republic.

The reaction of each patrol officer was distinct. A smile, laughter, shaking the head incredulously, giving me some sort of advice or admonition which I didn’t understand as I spoke no Spanish, and usually a hand-shake.  Often the officer wanted to see my pistol, then laugh at the small .22 caliber, and haul out his own .45 to show me what a real gun looked like. Several times they waited for me at the next town to give me water, a soft-drink, perhaps an orange, and see me on the way.  Once, on a rainy day, an officer waited for me at the next stop with a pickup truck to haul me to the next small town, about 30 miles away.  On the way he spoke in rudimentary English and said he once had ridden a bike over the mountains to Tamazunchale and knew how hard it was. He expressed admiration for attempting to go to the end of South America and wished me God speed.

I came to the large and bustling city of Monterrey, home of breweries, glass factories and other large industry.  I forget how I found Clifford Campbell.  He had ridden from Laredo with a salesman, probably a Basque as his name sounded like Gochicoa, to help him sell women’s nylon stockings and other apparel.  Clifford was living in a boarding house and had fallen in love with a dark-eyed lovely young lady.  I remember being fed a delicious meal with mole, of dark chocolaty color and taste, together with soup, beans and tortillas, and some sort of custard.  Imagine remembering that after 60 years! 

I remember being taken to watch a Mexican Lucha Libre, wrestling match at night. The Mexican wrestlers were extremely acrobatic and impressed me with their energy and fortitude.  I have been a wrestling fan ever since, even in the United States where every move is scripted for maximum emotional effect.

I stayed but a short time in Monterrey and left when Clifford told me that he was tired of cycling, loved the young lady, and would stay as sales assistant to Mr. Gochicoa. 

That was the last time I saw Clifford.  I tried to get in touch with him in succeeding years, without success.  I felt very much alone.

The land around Monterrey was fairly flat, and there were many fruit orchards.  I bought oranges and mangos and put some in my knapsack. Several times I stopped at a grove right on the highway and snatched some fruit lying on the ground, as I saw no one around to ask.

When I got to the mountains my resolve and stamina was tested.  The road was rough, the grades were steep, and sometimes it would take me several hours to get to the crest of one mountain, only to look out at an endless sea of mountain ridges and peaks. I used every gear of my 3-speed gear bike continually as the road wound around and around. There were hairpin turns, sometimes making what looked like 300 degree turns, going back in the same direction I had come.  Sometimes the grade was so steep that I had to push my bike uphill for half an hour, or more.  And once I got into the mountain country the drizzles came nearly daily, giving me a good soaking.

Going through a small town I saw a news photographer take my picture. I understand that it appeared in print, but I did not stay around to buy the paper. 

Once I came to the Central Highlands of Mexico, the mountains became more arduous, the grades seemed steeper, but it was cooler than Northern Mexico.  I depended more on passing tourists to feed me and give refreshments. One day, when I was exhausted from pushing and pedaling in low gear, I accepted a ride on a truck to Pachuca, thereby avoiding several days of tough mountain road.

There was a further difficulty in finding places away from habitation to camp.  There were many more small towns, villages, and many more small houses and huts all along the road, making it difficult to find a quiet isolated place to rest.  This is a part of my journey that I do not remember how I coped, with no details forthcoming.  I remember riding into Mexico City, with bewildering traffic, many discourteous motorists who tooted me of their way and gave me scornful looks. I don’t remember where I went for lodging, probably the Y.M.C.A.

I do remember going to the National Museum, the National Palace, the ancient Cathedral, some Aztec ruins and doing other sight-seeing.  I went to the Post office in an ancient Spanish Colonial building, bought stamps, postcards and wrote a couple letters.

I also remember driving my bike up to the National Palace, getting my photo taken next to my bicycle, and shaking hands for a photo-op with Presidente Lazaro Cardenas.  He had recently expropriated all the oil reserves of Mexico, and was extremely busy with political matters.  He shook my hand cordially then excused himself as he had pressing affairs of state, but wished me a good journey. His aide asked if I needed any assistance then left to accompany the president. I still have the clipping someplace in my files, but the rest of my stay in Mexico City is a vague blur.


2 thoughts on “BICYCLING TO TIERRA DEL FUEGO episode 3

  1. A fascinating story, Peter. Is this the first time you tell it? Or did you write that book after all? Well, I guess we will be told wink

    I remember my own bike tour from Germany through France to England (much less dangerous country I guess wink ) and I always tried to find some hidden place to camp at night as well, seeing that I was on my own too. Difficult sometimes, you’re right.

    Also, it seems that every bicyclist feels like a cheater if he takes other transportation. Me, I travelled some 50 miles along the Rhine on a ship, and still wish I hadn’t. And they should have opened the channel tunnel for me to bike through, too wink

  2. Yes, fascinating.  Thanks for sharing this with us.  You might interest some biking mag to print it.

    Traveling by bike is a far better way to get to know the country and the people than any other (except perhaps walking).  The longest bike tour I’ve made so far was also pretty tame by comparison- from Vienna (where I live) east and south through Hungary as far as Mohács, and then north to Budapest and back home. 

    Two things we learned there- people are friendlier, the poorer they are, and if you make any attempt at all to speak their language, no matter how rudimentary, they are very touched.

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