Nathan and the friends we’ve met on our journey have wanted to know how I spend all that time alone in the backseat with the thoughts bouncing around inside my helmet. In truth, I only get bored when we’re riding on toll roads, and I mostly love our connection to the environment as we ride. Without the shelter and security of an enclosed vehicle, we are especially vulnerable. But I find that within that vulnerability, we have a unique opportunity to exercise mindfulness. We are mindful of the fact that we have no control over the choices other motorists make, and that the only mileage we have to accomplish is what we can achieve by sundown. Really, the timetables of the setting sun and those of a small town on Sunday are the only ones to mind. And while I have always considered myself a flexible person, even I become attached to an itinerary every now and again, without having anything at stake. It’s been interesting to question where those attachments might come from. Nearly always, we have nowhere to be, and have in our pockets the option of moving on whenever we’d like. (The Enlightened will remind me that this has always been true; that one’s plans can always change at any time, but given our near-two months in Mexico, it seems especially true.)
We’ve sailed past cattle crossing, horse crossing, coyote crossing, and wild boar crossing signs, and as such, we are now intimately acquainted with the cycle of death, decomposition, and renewal. An amazingly intact, though now dehydrated dragonfly has been stuck in headlight grate for weeks, and our panniers and jackets are speckled with streaks of cadmium yellow butterfly remains. (Fortunately, Nathan in first position catches the bulk of insect casualties.) Whether a dog or coyote or deer has been hit while crossing the road, or met it’s end by some natural cause and lies hidden among thick, scrubby vegetation or behind a bank of sand, there simply isn't any mistaking the fact of a dead animal in a hot country. It’s a fact of life that we are mostly shielded from in a city like San Francisco, barring, of course, the occasional unfortunate mouse which may expire within your walls. Even without wind, the scent carries far beyond the decomposing creature, in all directions, and slithers inside your helmet via the millimeters of wiggle room around your neck. We’ve seen so many different animals left in various stages of decomposition and are constantly reminded of how other organisms—the vultures, the flies, the ants, the beetles, and the worms—participate in the cycle.
We find the calling cards of the approaching seasons, weather patterns, and changing terrain in an ever-expanding array of sensory experience. The scent of water is an impressively evocative one. It signaled the transformation of the arid terrain of the San Felipe desert in Baja California to a more temperate zone, like that of Loreto and San Javier in Baja California Sur; the change from a temperate zone like Mazatlán, Sinaloa to the lush and tropical San Blas, San Francisco, and Sayulíta, Nayarít; and then the return to the temperate, urban climes of cities like Guadalajara, Jalisco; Morelia, Michoacan; and San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. From the road, the scent of water brings a roundness to the air; the darker, blue-green notes of moss and algae carried in it whisper of a low, snaking stream or lake nearby. It tells us of a moist, unseen world, of frogs and salamanders and alligators. It gives life to one of our many images of Mexico, of ‘Mexico the Exotic’, with its mangroves and its guava and yaka fruit hanging heavily from the trees. It gives us a slim glimpse into the birth of Mexican civilizations and the dynamism of its culture; of the sustenance and the opportunity for development that freshwater sources held for the natives and for the conquerors of this land.
Likewise, take the desert highways of Baja California, for example, where stretches between towns were the longest and loneliest; where our eyes perceived the vast horizon as tessellations of the same patch of cactus, sand, and scrub, again and again. Here, if our eyes struggled to find nuance, the scents of human habitation carried on the wind helped us build a much fuller awareness of where we were. To our continual surprise, each Middle of Nowhere we encountered was peopled, if only by the few—and wherever there are people, I realized, there follow the smells of fire and trash. In many of the towns we have visited, infrastructure like trash collection doesn’t exist. Household trash is burnt along the perimeters of one’s land, and even when we couldn’t see a thin grey trail of smoke disappearing into white desert sky, the cloying sweetness of charred corn cobs and husks and kitchen scraps, and the acrid tang of plastic and aluminum-lined wrappers shriveling and shrinking into nothing, found us. I wonder, “Why would anyone live here?” and “How awesome would it be to live out here?” and “Could I survive out here even if I wanted to?”
I engage in speculation. I make copious mental notes to research the origins and meanings of indigenous place names, but usually forget to do so in post-ride exhaustion. Though the Spanish named many places after the Christian tradition, I have been surprised to note that as many have indigenous origins. As we rode through Mazatlán, (“Place of the Deer”) Sinaloa and Tecolotlán, (“Place of the Owl”) Jalisco, and noticed the lack of said deer and owls, I was struck by how greatly the ecology of these places must have changed. It then occurred to me that some places named after an animal may not have been named for the abundance of the creatures, but rather, for some feature of the landscape that resembled that animal, or perhaps for a place’s association with a deity said to take the form of said creature…I enjoy being transported through such mental wormholes. But inevitably, my eye is caught by a passing pick-up loaded with jicama or kale, and then I balk at the thought that it’s been almost two months since I’ve even seen any kale, and then I long to follow that kale to it’s destination, and then I fall to pondering the miraculous inflammation-fighting properties of parsley, for which I happen to know the word in Spanish. It’s “Perejil.” Naturally.
Despite all this to entertain me, I do try to keep my eyes on the road. When the potholes are plentiful, or when we find our fellow motorists taking more creative license than usual, or when a cow is running for it’s life, away from us, and looks as if it will dash across the road, I remember mindfulness. I focus on encircling our rig in a bubble of protective energy. I imagine us vibrating along inside a little bubble of courage, quick-thinking, and resilience.