We’ve all done it at one time or another, ignored something that we knew was going to be a source of stress or discomfort. No, it’s not the most adult way to handle it I agree, but it happens and I’m guilty. I’ve been ignoring my blog. This blog. It’s nothing personal mind you, it’s just that I haven’t felt great about my writing lately. I’ve been struggling to find a voice now that we’re not sailing and quite frankly, posts like my last one about sleeping in airports have left me uninspired. I can only imagine what you felt having to read it.
This blog has been tapping me on the shoulder for the last couple of months; whispering in my ear, “Christopher, you need to write a post or people are going to stop reading. They’re going to lose interest and your analytics are going to drop.”
I understand completely. I am well aware that when I don’t post on a regular basis our Google analytics drop drastically, book sales falter, our downsizing course gets less traffic and therefore fewer sales. I get it. But I can’t post something for the sake of posting and because I can barely stomach another sleeping in airports post, I took a break. Sometimes you need to disconnect in order to reconnect.
Here in Oaxaca, Mexico, October is supposed to mark the end of rainy season. So, I thought it was the perfect time to visit a place I’ve been wanting to see since we arrived back in March, the Pueblos Mancamunados. Thirty-miles east of us, perched high in the Sierra Norte mountains, are 8 indigenous villages connected by over 100 kilometers of hiking trails, goat paths, and fire roads. This remote community is heralded as a shining example of how indigenous peoples can manage the delicate relationship between responsible eco-tourism and respect for the local culture.
Developed in 1998, when the Zapotec communities that have existed for nearly a millennia were crumbling, a group of friends saw an opportunity. They created a program that would foster economic development in these remote communities while at the same time, protecting the sensitive cultural and natural heritage of the area.
Today, nearly 17,000 people make the trek to visit the area each year. Ten percent of all the money taken in goes toward administrative costs. The rest goes directly to the towns. It’s used to fix and maintain trails and roads, supply electricity, and build schools. Funds can also be distributed directly to the community.
Melody got to visit a while back when a dear friend came for an extended stay. After her glowing endorsement, I considered grabbing my backpack and setting out on foot for a ten day trek through the woods. That plan soon gave way to another and the one I ultimately chose, I’d ride my bike.
If there is one thing I love as much as sailing, it’s riding my bike. Although I can never seem to explain this in any cohesive way that seems to make sense to the person listening. Maybe a quote would help?
When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man’s convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man’s brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.
Once the idea was hatched, I spent the next couple months tweaking my bike, my gear, and my body. We had a few interruptions, one being a minor back injury (unrelated to biking), the second being a robbery. Yep- the house we’re staying in got broken into and although they stole our computers, cameras, and some other stuff, they didn’t steal my bike. I’m not sure why. For a time, I considered abandoning the entire trip, but after some serious discussions with Mel, I decided to scale back the original 10 day trip to about a week and still go.
The ride from our little hacienda in San Felipe to Benito Juarez plotted out to 60 km. Using my Gaia gps app, I planned my route to take me through the smallest towns via any dirt road or goat path I could find.
My bike is a Surly Wednesday. The tires are oversized, fat; made for sandy, loose soil. It’s built to carry heavy touring gear and still be able to perform well on the most demanding terrain. By the looks on the faces of the locals, I might as well have been riding a spaceship. It was a great conversation starter but after some further thought, I believe it may have been a bit intimidating and kept most people at a distance, not what I was hoping for.
The morning of my departure was filled with nerves and a little apprehension. I was starting to second guess the whole silly endeavor and I if I didn’t get on that bike and leave immediately, I might have talked myself out of it completely. So, I kissed my beautiful wife good-bye and headed up the hill.
An hour later, I took a quick detour into the town of Santa Maria del Tule, which is famous for a particular tree that stands in the town square next to a church that would normally be the attraction. Not here. Not in Tule. Instead, El Árbol del Tule, a Montezuma cypress tree that is said to date back nearly 3,000 years and stands nearly 150 ft. hight takes center stage. It’s a sacred place in a quaint and colorful village and a UNESCO World Heritage sight. It’s a sight to behold. I’ve seen it twice and each time I’ve visited all I can do is stand there and stare up in amazement.
After a few sips of water and some photos, with my head heavy with thoughts and wonderment surrounding that amazing cypress, I pedaled hard for my next stop. The village of Teotitlán del Valle sits nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Norte range and it’s the starting point for the climb to Benito Juarez, my first destination. This village is famous for it’s naturally died textiles and woven rugs. Natural dies made from everything from plant matter to insects.
In fact, one of the most amazing things I learned is that the beautiful and most vibrant red that you see in these woven designs comes from a very small and specific bug called the Cochineal. Carminic acid is extracted from the female when she dies and then exposed to hot water and sunlight to produce a vibrant crimson red. The story of this bug is told in a fascinating book aptly named, A Perfect Red.
I also learned that this little village dates back nearly 7000 years! As old as the Ancient City of Damascus. Both are believed to be the oldest continually occupied places on the planet. Get your head around that. Now, Imagine sitting on the curb in front of a beautiful church, noshing on some incredible tacos. Sadly, there are no photos of said tacos. I ate them in record time while fending off the town pooches and a local named Jose’ who desperately wanted to trade bikes with me.
After dispersing the local stray dog community with my remaining scraps of tortillas, I mounted my faithful steed and prepared myself for the most challenging part of the trip, the 20km climb from my already elevated 5000 feet to the village of Benito Juarez, cloaked in a somber, gray mist at 10,000 feet above me.
If the roads leaving Teotitlan were any indication, I got a pretty clear idea of what the next 20km were going to inflict on my body. The streets were steeper than anything you’d find in America. The rough concrete reverberated through both of our frames.
I stopped one last time at a small tienda to grab a Gatorade. The shop owner was quick to engage and interrogate me about my bike. He spoke broken English, eager to practice and patient with my horrible Spanish. He pointed a finger and tossed his head in the direction of the hill. “Arriba la montaña?” He said. “Yes, I’m headed up the mountain.” He smiled, turned away and over his shoulder he shot, “Buena suerte, amigo! Buena suerte.”
I had been told it should take two to three hours to ride to the summit. Leaving the village at 11:00am, I would be more than satisfied to arrive by 4pm. Five hours; an incredibly conservative ETA, I thought.
The bike was heavy, 65lbs. I had one change of clothes, a sleeping bag and inflatable sleeping pad, tent, tools, clothes for sleeping in (that wouldn’t ever be exposed to the the trail), a small alcohol stove, 160z. of alcohol, some tortillas and minimal snacks, and one incredibly bulky foully jacket that would be my only solace against the rain and cold that would greet me at the top.
At 52 years old, I have no interest in hot-dogging or false bravado. My approach was to take it easy on my bad knees and nurse my sore back. I planned on a 2.5 to 3 miles per hour average going up. That would put 20km (12.5 miles) behind me in approximately 5 hours. No sweat.
At 1:00pm, after a couple hours of riding, I found some protection from the mid-day sun and sat for a 30 minute break. Nosh down a Cliff Bar and a banana. Hydrate. Pace yourself, I told myself. There’s only one goal; make it to the top.
At approximately 3pm, a small tuk-tuk chugged up from behind. A nice young man named Rafael said he was a park ranger and offered to give me a ride. I thanked him and declined. Then he offered to take some of my stuff to the ranger station and hold it for me if I wanted to lighten my load. Again, I thanked him for his kind offer and declined. Rafael told me the rain was coming. I shouldn’t delay. Before he departed, I asked, “Cuanto tiempo más?” His answer surprised me. “Dos horas.” Two hours! I was four hours into this climb and I still had two more to go?
At 3:30, just like Rafael predicted, the rain started. Slowly at first and then in a steady, rehearsed downpour as it did every afternoon around this time. I donned my bulky sailing jacket and tucked all my electronics into their dry bag. I could feel the lactic acid in my legs and it was time to stop screwing around. If Rafael’s estimation was correct, I still hand an hour and a half to go and I was soaking wet and getting cold. Never a good combination.
Another hour had passed. The rain was unrelenting. I had to keep moving. I didn’t want to think about hypothermia, but my brain was barking out orders to a pair of legs that were bent on staging a mutiny of sorts. I wasn’t upset or regretting my decision to do the climb. And I wasn’t thinking about quitting.
While I was wrestling with my bike in the mud and rain, I thought about the villagers who lived in those mountains who were walking in the same downpour, only they were walking with bundles of firewood on their backs because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have a hot meal or warmth for the night. Me? I chose to be there. At any point I could make camp on the side of the road and get warm. But that wasn’t going to happen.
It’s in these moments that my mind releases the senseless bullshit and finds a focal point. I know, it’s crazy but that’s how it’s always been for me. In these moments I see how utterly silly it is to become mired in the pettiness of self criticism and false worry. I’m guilty. I admit it. If I could change anything about myself it would be to do away with the immense pressure I put on myself and my work. It’s crippling at times and I’m at my worst when I’m idling. I begin to wobble like a top, abandoned by the forces that keep it spinning. I being to question everything. I can feel it coming on but sometimes it gets the better of me.
And that’s why I rode my bike to the top of that mountain. Not to prove anything to anyone. Not to brag about the accomplishment, but to remind myself how lucky I am to live this wacky, beautiful life. To remind myself not to waste a single second on negative thoughts. I do it to reset the belief that you can do anything you set your mind to. I don’t normally need reminders. It’s just that sometimes I forget to remember. I need to disconnect to reconnect. Unplug it and plug it back in. Sometimes that fixes everything.
When all was said and done, I arrived to Rafael’s office at 6:00pm. It took me over an hour to do the final 2km (1.6 miles). An iceberg drifts at 0.7km an hour. That’s about how slow I was moving. Daylight was fading and I was probably a sight to behold. Soaked through, caked with mud, and babbling like a madman. I booked a small, unheated cabin for 250 pesos (12 USD). Thankfully, my sleep gear, wool socks, and sleeping bag were dry. I quickly made a fire, strung up some twine between a couple chairs and hung my sopping clothes.
The climb I had been dreaming about was now behind me. My legs ached but my mind was clear. I missed my wife. I knew she was worried but there was no way to contact her to let her know I was safe. I would seek a brief connection once the sun came up. Slowly the warmth returned and the shivering subsided. I don’t remember much after that. I slipped away quickly to the lullaby of crackling pine and falling rain.