Mexico Trip: Voice Memo Transcriptions
Part 3: Michoacán Coast to Nuevo Casas Grandes
I’m having lunch here at a beautiful little beach at WP126. Took a couple of pictures into the sun. There are cabanas here. I had a lunch of shrimp ceviche. Cost 100 pesos but it was very good, and big. I think this is my southernmost point on this trip. I’ll go down the coast another 40 km or so and then turn north on Mex-37 and head towards Uruapan, and head off into the northeast. Not without a sense of regret. This a beautiful area, the most inviting part of Mexico I’ve seen. But, I came on this trip with a purpose, and lately I haven’t been spending too much time pursuing it, so I guess it’s time to head out, find some trees, and then make my way back to California.
At WP140 south of Uruapan I pick up the pines again. It includes P. maximinoi and at least one other species, and I think Cupressus as well, but the road is busy and there are few opportunities to stop and check out the details. Also they are tall trees so I can’t get a foliage sample. That makes identification a bit tricky. In 2005, not far from here, we found lots of P. maximinoi and P. oocarpa. I’ll stop again a little farther up the line.
At WP141 I get a chance to stop, pull off the road a bit, and thrash up a baking hot hillside to check out some pines. Again I can’t actually get my hands on cones or foliage but I get pretty good views of them, and the whole stand looks like classic P. oocarpa. Classic to me, that is, because I first saw the species near Uruapan. It is hot, standing here in the midafternoon sunshine. These pines don’t cast much shade. It’s not as hot as it was an hour and a half ago, though, down there near the coast. I think the hottest areas are 20 km or so in from the coast, away from the sea breezes but still at very low elevation. Now I’ve climbed to over 1400 m, most of which was gained in the last 20 or 30 km. I’m climbing up onto the Central Volcanic Plateau. So, besides having reached the southernmost point of the trip today, I probably also reached the hottest point of the trip today.
At the end of the day, WP146 is the Hotel San Gabriel in Patzcuaro, where for the princely sum of 200 pesos I get a quiet, roomy, clean but well-worn room, and the bike gets a nice secure courtyard outside my window. Now I sally forth to admire this very picturesque town and find some dinner.
Right now I’m by a busy highway about 30 miles east of Morelia. I left Patzcuaro at about 07:30 this morning, plunging promptly into rush hour traffic. Evidently a lot of people commute from Patzcuaro into Morelia. They were all getting on the cuota. I got on the libre which is a great road, you could do 80 mph on it, except for two things. One was that it was very cold. There was frost on the ground and I had all my warm stuff on, heated vest, heated grips, but I was still a bit chilly. Second is that for much of the ride I was headed straight into the rising sun, which is not good on a motorcycle. Then I got into Morelia and of course it was the height of rush hour, and I took the Periferico around the south and east sides of town to pick up Mex-126, the libre to Mexico City. Right now I’m standing by Mex-126. Stopped off in a little town about 20 miles east of Morelia and had a nice glass of orange juice for breakfast, and now I’ll noodle off into the northeast.
At WP156, just north of the cuota, I find something rather odd. There’s a stand of pines out here – I’ve seen no pines since Patzcuaro – and it’s a plantation, all the same species. They have needles about 30 cm long in fascicles of 5, so I think they’re P. devoniana, but there are no cones at all. There are no cones on the trees, which is not uncommon with P. devoniana, but there are also none on the ground, which must mean that someone has come through and picked them all up. Very odd.
There is a river of some kind that runs east from Jerecuaro to Coroneo, with a reservoir along the way. I saw a good bit of it coming in to Jerecuaro and coming out of it, and then again coming in to Coroneo, and from what I could see, it’s all lined with a gallery forest of Taxodium. I took a couple pictures of them in Jerecuaro. There were a fair number of trees up to about 2 m diameter, and all the dominant ones were about the same height and crown diameter. There weren’t any really big ones, and there didn’t seem to be any growing around the reservoir. Otherwise it was a fine gallery forest, and the first I’ve seen since Rodeo. Otherwise, they seem to be fond of Australia around here – the place is thick with Casuarina and Eucalyptus.
WP168, Asadero or whatever it’s called, and I believe I have finally found P. teocote. Also, Cupressus grows really well here, but still I’m pretty sure it’s all planted. These P. teocote are all planted too. It’s a line of about 10 of them along the highway. They have a distinctive form; I’ve seen them before and wondered what they were. Short needles and kind of branchy. The foliage forms tufts. Once again there are no cones and I can’t find any cones under them. The needles are only 10-12 cm long and are consistently in threes, and that coupled with foliage-bearing-twig characters and other things – the short fascicle sheath – seem to distinguish it from other closely-related species like P. lawsonii and P. pringlei. So, I’ll take some pictures.
WP180, 2057 m on the road to San Joaquin, which is a side road from Mex-120. A good and surprisingly busy side road, I might add. Here I’m in a P-J woodland. The juniper is a drooping juniper, so it’s almost certainly J. flaccida, and the piñon is our old pal P. cembroides. It’s growing on limestone here; the whole countryside is limestone. Here it seems mostly confined to northern exposures, but as I gain elevation it is becoming more widespread, starting to just cover the landscape.
Still at WP180. The piñon is somewhat unusual in having lots of bromeliads growing on it. See photos.
At WP182, just past the turnoff to El Doctor, we abruptly pick up P. montezumae, again initially on a N-facing slope. Cupressus is here as well.
I go another hundred meters and stop again because I see that we have acquired two pines. There’s a pine here that I initially think is P. greggii australis, but it isn’t.
The new pine doesn’t key to anything in the Farjon et al. key. It looks like a small form of P. montezumae. The cones are up to 8 cm long. The needles are up to 12-15 cm long. The needles are in fascicles of 5 and the cones have raised apophyses, just like in P. montezumae. There are quite a few of these trees, bearing rich cone crops – apparently last year was a mast year. [P. oocarpa?]
Perseverance furthers. At WP183 I find unmistakable P. greggii var. australis. To get here, I continued on to the village of San Joaquin, 32 km from the highway. It’s a fine little town, clean and picturesque, bustling – I can see that this would be a popular place to come to escape the summer heat. A surprisingly big town to be clinging to a mountainside near a mountaintop – I’d guess several thousand people. Has a Pemex, hotel, and more of that civilization stuff. There are signs to a ruin and a cave up here, and following the signs to the ruins takes you another 3 km to the trees; the ruins are a little ways farther on. The location is right at the edge of the cloud forest. I’m practically standing on the divide, and less than a mile from me is a bank of impenetrable clouds on the other side of the divide, visible in several directions. Right here, though, the sky is absolutely blue, without a cloud. By the way, I saw P. patula on the ride up here, first time this trip. I suspect there were several other species of pine along that road as well, but I didn’t stop to investigate because the day is wearing on and I wanted to be sure of finding the P. greggii. Anyway these trees are growing with Cupressus. Cupressus is so widespread here that although it is a very popular ornamental, I’m pretty sure we’re in its native range as well. There’s a white pine up here too, but I didn’t see cones. Probably P. ayacahuite.
Transcription of a sign at the ruin, Ranas: The city of Ranas was planned and built over the course of 600 years (600-1200 AD). What we see today is the result of the effort of many generations of a people whose name for themselves is not known, but research indicates that the builders were not Otomes, Pomes nor Chichimeca, since these groups were reported by the conquerors in the 16th and 17th century more than 400 years later. For want of a better name, the ancient inhabitants have been called Serranos. As in all organized groups, they did not remain isolated but maintained trade connections with the Rio Verde area, Teotihuacan, Tula, and even more so with the Huastecos and groups from the Gulf coast. This is evidenced by many objects found from their daily life, construction designs, choice of sites for their villages, and certain religious practices all of which have their roots in those of the regions of the coastal plain. The Serranos occupied a large part of what today is known as the Sierra Gorda, especially the portion south of this mountain range.
Evening. It was a long day. Along the way, San Jose del Rio was a good town to miss. It’s big, crowded, and industrial. I’d like to think it’s the last such town I’ll see in Mexico, but I think I’ll see it again in Torreon at least. From there I cruised north on Mex-120 through Vizarron, which is where I am now. Seven or eight kilometers north of Vizarron, there’s a road that takes off east into the Sierra Gorda, climbing 32 km to San Joaquin. Quite a nice little town. I didn’t check the elevation but its right up there, likely close to 3000 m. Saw lots of interesting conifers en route, including one species new to me, P. greggii var. australis. I also tried to find a campsite up there, which may not have been a real bright move since its probably very cold up there right now. Regardless, I was unsuccessful. The area looks like a wilderness, but when you get out and start exploring, you find that it is laced with many little dirt roads, most of them very steep, many of them obviously requiring a lot of labor to maintain, and everywhere there are villages and isolated farms. I went out there probably 10 km past the P. greggii site, following little roads like this, and out there stuck on high on a ridgetop was a tiny little town, half a dozen houses and a church and a town square about the size of my hotel room, and very steep dirt roads in every direction to get there. But no campsites. About 18:00 I blundered back onto the paved road and blasted down the twisty mountainside to this town. This town is small and seems like a friendly, decent little place. It exists primarily because of a limestone quarry located a few km north of town. For 200 pesos I got a room in the only hotel in town, there are only 6 rooms, and I believe I’m the only guest. The last person to sign the register was on the 14th. I think it caters mainly to truckers. For dinner I had a beer and 6 tacos from a taco stand, total cost 42 pesos. Had a nice hot shower. Tomorrow I get a nice ride over the mountain through Pinal del Amoles, and then I blast on into the north, bound for Nuevo León. It’s pretty chilly here. I’ve come a little ways north but mostly it’s the elevation, about 2000 m at this point. Anyway it was a long day, dawn to dusk, and I’m tired. Over and out.
WP194. At WP193 we passed through the village or Coramoche or something like that, and started seeing J. flaccida. P. cembroides joined the party soon after, and now I’m in an area of nearly continuous forest that has madroño – in fact I just passed a hamlet called Madroño – J. flaccida, and P. teocote. P. patula should be near here, there’s a CAMCORE seed collection site within a mile of me. OK, there’s a patula. Supposedly P. pinceana is here too, but I haven’t seen it yet. Need to find a place where I can walk around in the woods a little.
WP195 is at a saddle where a road takes off to go up to a microwave tower. I’m going to explore it a ways because it gets into the woods. At this point we have Cupressus, J. flaccida, P. greggii var. australis, and P. patula. I took some pictures of a P. patula with a bizarre cone condition, I don’t know if its caused by insects or what, but the cones are greatly swollen. There’s also a big tree in the distance that looks like P. pseudostrobus or P. montezumae. I’m going up into the woods here.
I’m at WP199 in the little village of La Cañada. I take a bunch of P. patula pictures. That condition with the swollen cones predominates here, affecting the majority of cones. WP197 was where I turned around on the microwave road. I wasn’t seeing anything new and the road was getting worse. I suspect, though, that I was getting close to P. hartwegii. Haven’t confirmed it anyplace yet, though. Still haven’t found P. pinceana, either. It’s a lovely area, though, the road is extremely twisty, and it goes through a fine, diverse conifer forest and a culturally interesting area as well. I’ve realized that around here the desert is a desert; people don’t live there. But when you get up into the mountains, there is available water and there are little villages everywhere. As long as there are pines, the area is thickly settled.
WP200. This area seems to be the sweet spot for P. patula. There’s a lot of Cupressus too, though I think I’ve left the Juniperus behind. I believe I’ve also seen both P. pseudostrobus and P. montezumae, judging from the cones as seen from the ground.
WP201 is in Pinal del Amoles. They have a Pemex at the south end of town. At this point the road seems to be clearly descending from the high point I passed at WP200. Currently, a couple hundred meters below Pinal del Amoles, I’m still in a P. patula – Quercus spp. forest; no sign of P. cembroides.
I finally make it down the very twisty road to Jalpan, where I find a cash machine. Coming down the mountain from Pinal I left the pine forests fairly quickly, but the road does descend the side of the mountains where cloud forest occurs. The road was wet from fog drip in many areas, and crossed springs and rivulets. The forest was mostly oaks, but there were some substantial areas of J. flaccida – the first time I’ve ever seen it form pure, continuous stands. The riparian areas have sycamores, and one spring on the mountainside supported a lone Taxodium about 3 m dbh. All in all, the ride this morning from Vizarron to Jalpan counts as one of the best rides I’ve had in Mexico.
The stream from Jalpan to Rio Verde is for the most part lined with Taxodium. Again they tend to be large mature trees, and at WP210? I stopped and took a bunch of pictures of them. The roots completely make up the banks of the stream and form a well-defined steep bank that drops off into relatively deep water. They also hold the rocks and soil together to prevent erosion of the floodplain during peak flows, and thereby help to stabilize the thalweg. The trees bear a pretty heavy epiphyte load, virtually all bromeliads, some of them pretty big – I’d guess 3 or 4 kg plus the accumulated litter. Not a real heavy loading, but a good sized tree might have a couple tonnes dry weight of epiphytes. Seedlings are not common but I did find several that still bore their cotyledons. Haven’t seen any root sprouts, I don’t know if they do that. The larger and older trees bear fire scars. I assume, given the fabulous water supply, that none of these trees are very old and they’re all growing like topsy. I wish I could see this stand early or late in the day, when the light is better for photography. As it is, my photos can’t do it justice.
It was a pretty good day until I hit Rio Verde, and then things got pretty fucked up. I tried to go north through Rio Verde to pick up the road to Cerritos. I finally found a big road, and had to stop and get gas, so I asked the Pemex guy if it was the road to Cerritos and he said, yes, this is the free road to Cerritos. So I headed off and it eventually turns out that I’m on Mex-70, which goes to San Luis Potosi. I didn’t want to backtrack then because my map showed a paved road going north through a little town called Sencillo and on to Cerritos. Anyway I shot right past that intersection because it had no sign whatsoever, and moreover as it later turned out, it was a dirt road. 15 km farther on at San Miguel is another Pemex station where I pull in and ask the guy what the story is and he says oh no you want the Green Valley road, it’s about 10 km back. So I go back and after 18 km, the road to Sencillo does have a sign. However because it’s a dirt road, and the straight line distance to Cerritos is 50 km, it’s probably quicker just to backtrack to Rio Verde, enjoy the Saturday afternoon traffic there, and find the cuota out of town. From there I will blast northwest and north on cuotas the rest of the day to try to get close to Doctor Arroyo, where I disappear into the mountains again.
Evening finds me in beautiful Matehuala, San Luis Potosi. I ended up here mostly because its at the end of a fast road. I don’t know how far I went today, but it felt like a long ways. I got here about 17:00 and I’m in the shady Plaza de las Armas, which has all the usual Plaza stuff except not very many people, and rather more grass than is the norm. Nice place. There’s a church, I’ll probably take a picture. There’s the municipal palace, the library, one good restaurant. It’s Saturday night, it should be more popular than this.
I’m staying at the Hotel Alamo, which is half a block off the plaza. 180 pesos, clean, presentable. They would have let me park my motorcycle in the courtyard, but there’s a set of steps that must be gotten over and the geometry is such that I couldn’t use the engine to do it, so I guess the bike will park on the street tonight. I’ll just take all the attractive bits off of it.
The surrounding countryside, here and for the past 200 miles, is Chihuahuan desert. I rode past a lot of big columnar cacti and a lot of thorn scrub. Here their iconic plant is like a Joshua tree, a big leggy yucca that grows up to 40 or 50 feet tall. There’s also a pine here in the Plaza, I’m not certain but it looks a lot like P. teocote, and there are also a couple of anemic Cupressus and some leafless hardwoods. Spring is not too well advanced yet in this country, compared to Jalpan. It’s a warm evening, but I suspect it will be pretty chilly in the morning.
That’s all the news from Matehuala.
What a place. At WP250 on the western flanks of Cerro Peña Nevada I suddenly hit the piñon-juniper. Now I think this whole mountain is limestone, but certainly this area is all limestone, and it has got an amazing array of plants growing together. There are two kinds of ferns, at least four yuccas (two tall, two like shin-dagger), a lot of different cacti (including a barrel cactus almost 3 m tall, a cylindropuntia, another very wide barrel cactus, several small spreading ground cacti of the Echinocactus type), a flaccid-leaved juniper which is probably J. flaccida, and a bunch of twiggy shrubs and small trees like elephant-tree, and of course P. cembroides, which I took several photos of. It’s also just gorgeous. It’s colorful and aesthetically pleasing in that desert-garden way. None of the cacti are blooming yet, though the buds are swelling. Anyway, supposedly I’m within 3 km of where Michael Frankis found P. nelsonii out here, so I’m off to find it.
At WP251 I add an extremely glaucous Cupressaceae to the mix. Unfortunately it has neither cones nor berries, nor any remnant of them lying around, so I can’t be sure but I think its Cupressus, perhaps so glaucous as a defense against this lower-forest-border climate.
At WP254 I find P. nelsonii, one of the most unusual pines in the world. Unlike all the other piñon pines, it retains its fascicle sheaths. Unlike any other pine, its needles (3 per fascicle) do not separate, but throughout life remain fused, appearing and functioning as a single needle. The needles can be easily separated, though, by rolling a fascicle between your fingers a few times. The cones look quite unlike any other pine; see the photos. It’s growing here at this waypoint – I have to check the elevation – with P. cembroides, J. flaccida, another juniper that has very small single-seeded cones and a generally rigid branch appearance, some manzanitas, and a few other desert shrubs that I don’t identify. Mostly, though, the woodland consists of the two pines and J. flaccida, and there is a fair bit of regeneration of the two pines.
Based on this site, P. nelsonii appears to bear cones seldom, but to retain them. The cone-bearing trees here for the most part bear immature cones from last year, ripe-looking but seedless cones from the previous mast year, and grey battered-looking cones retained from previous mast years. I don’t know how often they mast. This stand occurs a couple hundred meters higher than the lowest of the piñons. Nearby is a long-needled pine, P. arizonica (see below). There are also evergreen oaks nearby, though not in this stand. These trees are growing on limestone, or more precisely, a recemented colluvial deposit comprised of limestone clasts cemented by caliche. The trees are growing on the banks of an arroyo, but far enough above the bed, about 20 m vertical, that they couldn’t be called riparian. The big, mature P. nelsonii are of about the same stature as their P. cembroides counterparts, which is about 8 m tall. The norm is about 4 m tall and there’s a good bit of regeneration as well, and a variety of stumps. There’s a very small village – a few houses, no stores – not more than 200 m from here, and I expect they come here for firewood, and maybe an occasional fencepost.
By the way, this rigid juniper is not the very glaucous thing I saw below. I’m pretty much persuaded now, that was a Cupressus. It had a classic pyramidal form and its foliage was not far off, more Cupressus than Juniperus.
There are some yuccas and aloes that grow here as well, and an occasional cactus.
When you’re trying to pick a tree like this out in the field, two characters really set it apart from the P. cembroides that grow with it. One is the foliage, which is a yellow-green that is highly distinct from the deep, rich green of the P. cembroides. Also the needles are slightly more congruent, and tend to foxtail a little bit, but that’s a lesser difference. The other prominent difference, which is visible on branches and stems up to at least 15 cm diameter, is that the stems of P. nelsonii are quite smooth, comparable to P. albicaulis of similar diameter; whereas P. cembroides has rough stems from the start, due to the decurrent pulvini, and become rougher over time. On stems larger than 15 cm diameter, the P. nelsonii starts to develop a fairly rough bark, and by the time the stems are 25 cm diameter, they are hard to distinguish.
Now I’m at WP255, about 2250 m. Something interesting has happened. Up until about 100 m ago, we were in the same forest – P. nelsonii, P. cembroides, etc. – and then we suddenly entered a big edaphic patch which I took a photo of, covering maybe 20-30 ha, that is a very white rock that I think is mostly gypsum or maybe some less common evaporite. It’s mostly barren, and what vegetation exists here consists of some yuccas, some manzanita, and a few trees of P. arizonica var. stormiae. Down below me, down in the arroyo, the stormiae blends in to the piñon forest, but in most of this patch the two are quite distinct. I take a bunch of pictures. It’s quite a distinctive tree. It has very stiff needles, up to about 20 cm long, usually slightly twisted. The bark is dark grey and rough but on trees bigger than about 30 cm diameter, the bark starts to look more ponderosa-like, flaky orange-yellow. The cones are very like normal ponderosa cones, at least superficially. It seems to have opened last year’s cones, that is, there is a crop of uncommonly small cones that look like they didn’t get to mature fully, and yet they’re opening. I wonder if that relates to the stresses it receives on this site.
After the edaphic interlude, the road winds back into a cembroides-flaccida forest with occasional evergreen oak, and the P. nelsonii is gone. As I continue to climb, occasional P. arizonica var. stormiae start to appear in the forest, and at WP256 or WP257 – the one before this one – I pass a couple of trees of P. montezumae. They’re right by the roadside though, and they’re the only ones I see, so it is possible that humans mediated their introduction. I’ve also seen a few trees off in the bush that look like P. teocote, but I haven’t seen any cones. This WP which is, what did I say, 258? I’ll make another one, what the hell, 259 now, is located at a major crossroads. The road to the right looks pretty marginal and I’ll let it pass because the road I’m already on is enough trouble on this big bike. First gear starts to lug at about 10 mph, 1500 rpm, and its tough to go as fast as 10 mph on a lot of this road. Anyway that spur seems to go towards the peak of Cerro Peña Nevada, which is well named because there appears to be a lot of snow up there. There also appear to be some larger trees, dark pointy trees that might be spruces or firs. As for the other forks, the best road goes left and the middle road goes straight into the north. I have a hunch the road to the left goes back toward the paved road that runs north from El Doctor, so I’ll explore the middle fork. Oh, and by the way this crossroads is in an area of farmers’ fields, so it has no forest, but it appears that I’m crossing into an area dominated by evergreen oak forest. Also the middle fork takes me toward the spot where Michael Frankis found Taxus, and I really want to see it. We looked for it in 2005 without luck, and I haven’t seen it this trip, and now I’m pretty close to its northern range limit so its probably now or never.
WP259. Since my last note I’ve been in oak forest almost continuously. There’s an occasional madrone, an occasional understory J. flaccida, and along the road, a few suspected P. teocote, a few P. cembroides, and maybe a P. arizonica. At this point, though, I have Abies. I’m pretty much at the lower limit of their distribution, and they are just young trees – the tallest is about 10 m, and it looks as if they never have borne cones, but I’ll get some pictures and maybe we can figure out the species sometime later.
Just 50 m up the road, too close to take another WP, I find a Pseudotsuga. Its about 12-13 m tall and 25 cm dbh. Doesn’t have any limbs that are near the ground, but it does have some fallen branches. The foliage, bark, and overall aspect of the tree is indistinguishable from Ps. menziesii var. glauca. The cones seem to be a bit on the small side, maybe 5-6 cm long, and they don’t have recurved bracts. It has been described as a different species, but based on what I see here, that does not seem to be well supported.
At WP261 I’m toodlin’ along on a real bumpy road and I look up and damned if I don’t see a piñon that I’ve never seen before. It doesn’t have any abaxial stomata, so this must be the elusive P. johannis. It’s growing with a darker green piñon – that’s the first thing I noticed, is that it’s a lighter green – that must be P. cembroides, and with quite a bit of J. flaccida, and with a manzanita and some really big aloes. All on limestone. Take some pictures.
I just came through an interesting village. No store, almost all buildings built of native adobe, one communal radiotelephone supplied by the government. Probably several hundred people, about a half mile across.
Next comes a very dodgy bit of road, including WP263 where I heard something go “ding!”. Walked back to see if anything had fallen off, but no evidence. I hope it wasn’t an important part. Now I’m at WP264, the road is starting to get slightly more civilized, but here I’m entering a Quercus forest with some sizable – well, 30 cm dbh, 13 m tall, emergent – P. teocote. Also a few P. cembroides. Hopefully we’re entering a more mesic realm, because I’m only a few km from where the Taxus is reported.
At WP265 I finally hit P. hartwegii. About time, I’m at 2865 m. It is growing with the giant aloes and an understory that includes madrone and evergreen oak. No other pines, but there was some P. teocote just a little ways back. There’s a fine little P. hartwegii grove at this WP, where a farmer has a field and the rocks are covered by an alluvial valley fill. Hopefully this bodes at least a temporary improvement in the road. It’s been very rough the last kilometer or so, the worst yet. I’m really hoping that this thing takes me out to a better road on the other side, although if it comes to it I can just spend the night up here, eat what little food I still have, find some water – I’ve crossed water half a dozen times today – and then there’s enough gas to make it back to Doctor Arroyo, if it comes to that. I’m getting the feeling, though, that this road is going to cross the range crest soon and descend the other side. It should be a bit more mesic on the other side, too.
WP269 is at the lower entrance to a little village called Ejido La Encantada, which is probably the biggest town since Doctor Arroyo. WP268 or 269J came before that, at an abandoned forest experiment station where I saw white pines, and also there’s a big P. ayacahuite cone in the streambed here beside me, so they must not be very far upstream. Also, the summit massif of Cerro Peña Blanca rises just a couple km to the south of me. The north face of it is steep and thickly forested with what from this distance looks like a large closed stand of fir. The road has improved since I hit the Ejido – really since the forest station – and is descending, so I have hope that it will lead back to pavement, which I wouldn’t mind at all. Anyway, it’s a warm, sunny afternoon and really this is a beautiful ride, you just have to watch out for the bumpy bits. Having a great time.
WP271 is a microwave station, and also a junction with a spur road that takes off to the right. I stay on what is developing into a fairly major dirt road. The forest just past the microwave station is closed canopy, consisting of a lot of P. teocote, P. ayacahuite, and a fair bit of scattered Abies. Most trees are 15-18 m tall. Madrone in the understory.
The loggers have been pretty busy up here. All of it is selective cutting, it appears to be good management, but there are little skidder roads everywhere. Hmm, here’s what looks like a Goodyera. I think I’m seeing a bimodal distribution in the white pine cones, P. strobiformis and P. ayacahuite, but I need to review the differences between their cones.
WP272, just beyond, marks Taxus globosa. It’s growing in a little dry gulch, very small drainage. Northern exposure. Neighboring trees include two species of Abies, Pseudotsuga, evergreen Quercus, Arbutus, P. ayacahuite, and P. teocote, all growing within 20 m of each other. The two Abies are quite distinct, one has typical blunt needles, the other has needles so sharp that at first I was sure it was a Picea. The Taxus is growing in full shade, so I probably won’t be able to get a decent photo of the tree but I have a nice shot of a seedling. There’s at least one fern, and quite a bit of LWD on the ground. Fairly thick duff layer, maybe 10 cm.
I am currently stopped at WP279, elevation 2173 m. The Taxus continued intermittently in the forest for a couple hundred meters down from where I camped, but I haven’t seen any for awhile. The forest is getting more xeric, so I expect we’re out of it, and out of the Abies as well. Now I’m in a forest that is predominantly evergreen oaks, 10-12 m tall, mixed with P. teocote. There’s also some madrone. The understory is very open, almost barren, but appears to include a small Berberis. There’s some J. deppeana [I think this was an error, meant to say flaccida] here and there. I’ve been seeing Cupressus sporadically, but I haven’t seen any lately, may be below it now. I also think I saw a few P. montezumae here and there. I haven’t seen any unfamiliar conifers.
The road is continuing to improve. I haven’t been out of first gear for more than a kilometer total since about 9:00 yesterday morning, when I turned off the paved road north of Doctor Arroyo. I think I’ll hit a major road in 10 km or so and head on towards Galena.
Still here. I forgot to add that I didn’t sleep too well last night, maybe I’ve just had too much sleep lately, but I woke up about 02:30 and slept pretty fitfully after that. Anyway about 04:30 the first logging truck went by and I’ve met five of them on the road so far. They’re the small logging truck, about a 4-ton flatbed with 8 foot long logs laid crosswise. It’s Monday morning. I haven’t seen any more of them for about a half hour, so maybe they’re all on the mountain now.
WP280, 1967 m. Here we’ve picked up P. oocarpa, which looks a lot the P. oocarpa I saw on Mex-16, and P. arizonica var. stormiae, which looks a lot like the stuff I saw yesterday growing on evaporites. Also P. teocote and lots of J. flaccida in the understory of an evergreen oak forest with most trees 6-7 m tall.
WP284, 1625 m. At WP283 I got back into P. cembroides. By the way the forest has mostly been trees about 10 m tall, the last place I talked was just a bit shorter, WP283 was 12-13 m. I’ve been seeing a juniper that I think is a bit different, it’s still droopy but it holds its branches in planar sprays. I didn’t stop, been paying attention to the road. At this WP, I just took a picture, the habitat has changed a bit. Includes P. ariz. stormiae, P. teocote and P. cembroides with and understory of palms, prickly pear and agave. Looks a bit exotic. All on limestone, of course.
I finally get back to the pavement at WP El Salto J in the little village of El Salto, about 22 km SE of Escondida. There’s a lively brook here, filled with calcium carbonate deposits – probably spring-fed. It’s pretty chilly here, colder than it was on the mountain. Must be cold air drainage. Riparian forest is oak trees draped with Spanish moss.
WP293, taking pictures. At WP292, about 7 km N of La Escondida, we entered a P. cembroides forest. It’s a fine forest for P. cembroides, nearly closed canopy, composed of trees about 10 m tall. At this point P. ariz. stormiae and P. montezumae are added to the forest, but they are no taller than the P. cembroides; there’s also a small amount of evergreen oak. Junipers are conspicuously absent.
Between WP296 and WP297, just S of the town of Ascención, the highway passes through a P-J woodland. Throughout this area the nearby mountainsides are covered in continuous P. cembroides forest; this area seems to be the sweet spot for P. cembroides. These mountains also have some other conifers at higher elevations; by color, I would guess P. montezumae. The juniper is a shrubby juniper; it never achieves tree stature. It grows both in the open, where I have pictures of it invading pasturelands, and as a short understory shrub in the closed-canopy P. cembroides forest. It’s the one I mentioned before, a single-seeded species with stiff foliage and cones only 3-5 mm diameter, a bit pulpy, sour to the taste, never more than 3 m tall. Maybe I can figure it out someday. Still limestone bedrock.
At WP299 I enter the P. cembroides forest again, at WP300 I leave it again. As before it’s a nearly pure stand, about 10 m tall, near canopy closure. At higher elevations within the stand I see a few P. montezumae and P. ariz. stormiae, along with two junipers, one stiff-leaved, the other flaccid. I didn’t stop to look for details. Did not see any oaks at all, but there were a few desert shrubs.
At WP302 we enter the P. cembroides forest again. As before, it’s a nearly pure stand, but this time it includes some oaks (both deciduous and evergreen). Initially there were very rare P. montezumae and P. ariz. stormiae, but around WP305 and for a km or so S from there, was an abundance of P. ariz. stormiae. As before, it shows a clear competitive dominance on the evaporite-derived soils but occasionally forms large trees within the P. cembroides stand. The latter half of the route since WP302, I’ve also been seeing a lot of the shrubby juniper.
At WP307 we finally exit the P. cembroides forest and enter an area of Joshua trees, or something very like. At WP308 is a photo of the Beemer next to a really big J-tree, about 2.5 or 3 m diameter.
WP312, the P. ariz. stormiae parkland, which was discontinuous for quite a ways, finally fades out near the town of Galeana. It may have actually been logged out. Just beyond, at WP313, there’s a row of planted pines along the road. They key out as P. leiophylla but are somewhat odd because they all have fascicles of 2 needles, and the unopened cones are 5-6 cm long, blunt. Open cones look like P. leiophylla and has no fascicle sheaths, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
WP321, 2065 m, on Cerro Potosí, is where I get back into the piñons. Here there is P. cembroides, and a bit of the rigid-leaf juniper, along with yuccas and desert shrubs. Generally speaking Cerro Potosí seems to be more xeric than Cerro Peña Nevada. WP320 was the junction in Dieciocho del Marzo where the road takes off; there’s also a sign there that says this way to the top of Cerro Potosí. There’s a communications station on the summit so I expect the road is maintained for access by 2WD pickups.
There’s P. ariz. stormiae here too, here at the lower forest limit. It’s already 13:45, so there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be camping out somewhere on this mountain.
Now I’m at WP322. It’s mostly a forest of P. ariz. stormiae, but right here there is P. nelsonii. Young trees, I don’t see any over 2 m tall. A couple of them are already bearing cones. Still a few P. cembroides, some big aloes, mostly desert shrubs.
It’s tough to look at the scenery along this road. It’s made of what I assume is the predecessor of Mexican corduroy, which is a pavement of placed rocks, sort of like what they use to pave village streets but instead of rounded cobbles in neat rows, here there is a mostly random jumble of sharp angular cobbles. In places, fines have filled the interstices to provide a reasonably level driving surface, but elsewhere water has eroded away all the fines and it’s just a road of highly angular big rocks. I hope my tires survive it.
WP324, 2344 m, gets me into the edge of the burned area shown in the last photo. There are some residuals here. The larger trees that were affected are Pseudotsuga. This has been called Ps. flauhaultii (sp?). Some photos here. Road continues much as before. Tires holding up heroically. Very warm day, bloody warm day. Of course I’ve got two undershirts on, but I took off my suit and my helmet and I’m just bouncing up the road. I figure things can’t go too far wrong at 10 kph, absolutely at the lower limit of first gear, 1200 rpm. Onward we go.
The next WP is in a peaceful little gulch. WP325. In this peaceful little gulch we have madrone, some broadleaf deciduous shrubs that still have their leaves, Pseudotsuga and the first appearance of Abies. Also a debris flow deposit that roughed up the road some when it came down. The Abies was judged by Mr. Frankis to be A. vejarii. It looks like the Abies I saw yesterday. The Abies is about 10 m tall and has no axils; the Pseudotsuga is similar size. The Abies is a good Abies, with two-ranked foliage and clearly marked annual growth increments. That’s all the news. Riding up the road is still a struggle and I stop now and then to rest.
WP328, just under 2600 m. The forest in the lower couple hundred meters, as I noted, had P. arizonica stormiae and P. cembroides right from the start, a little bit of the shrubby juniper, and then the P. cembroides dropped out after a couple hundred meters of elevation gain, and up around 2300 m we added Abies and Pseudotsuga. Above that point it changed to a Pseudotsuga woodland with intervening evergreen oaks. The Pseudotsuga are very emergent trees, with heights up to about 30 m. P. arizonica remains in the forest – I’m under one right now – but it gets scrawnier and stubbier and I think it will be gone soon. The Pseudotsuga woodland is very open, maybe 5-10% canopy closure. The evergreen oaks are pretty short – maybe 5-6 m canopy height, and there are various other shrubs or small trees mixed in as well, such as this madrone, which is of comparable stature. I have not seen any madrones this trip larger than 30 cm dbh, 10-20 cm is the norm, though in 2005 we saw one on Nevada de Colima that was about 130 cm dbh. Might have been a different species, though.
By the way, this is a park. It’s gated, and there’s a gatekeeper who charges the 10 peso fee and makes visitors sign the register. There seem to be few if any rules. A mile or two in is a little cabaña by the road, at a stream, that looks like a nice spot to camp. Otherwise there are plenty of campsites scattered here and there along the road.
There is the remains of a fairly extensive forest fire toward the northern part of the mountain. It was long enough ago that the snags are white, but fairly numerous. The biggest Pseudotsuga I’ve seen are about 80 cm dbh, growing in riparian areas where they are likely not old but fast growing, and I suspect the reason I don’t see larger ones is fire.
Slight correction: I am not sitting under a P. arizonica, but a P. teocote. I’m not sure when they came into the mix, but just down the road 20 m is a P. arizonica, so they’re still here as well. In the shady spots of the understory, and where the roadcut has made it shady, there are occasional Abies vejarii seedlings, but I haven’t seen Abies in the canopy for a while.
Addendum: This Abies seedling here has stiff, sharp needles, so that identifies what I saw the other day. But which species has blunt needles?
Just a bit farther, WP330, 2800 m, we are into the lower limits of P. hartwegii. P. ariz. stormiae is the dominant tree here, though. Actually I might have seen a little P. hartwegii lower down, too, but now it’s for sure.
WP332, 2935 m. We still have a little P. arizonica but it’s almost entirely a P. hartwegii stand. It looks a lot like the stands on Nevado de Toluca, Popocatepetl, etc., i.e., an open parklike stand of trees with live crown depths of 20-50%, all about the same size although there is P. hartwegii regen in the understory. The understory is depauperate, dominated by a sparse cover of low-growing evergreen shrubs. Cattle might play a role in that. Oaks are gone; I see one shrubby madrone about 5 m tall. There’s also an agave of diminutive stature.
WP333, 2966m. Now here is something that you will not see every day. P. culminicola growing right next to P. hartwegii, and A. vejarii less than 3 m away. They’re all saplings. I have to admit that since this P. culminicola seedling is right at the edge of the road and growing under a P. hartwegii overstory, it is possible that it grew from a seed carried down here by a vehicle. Still, it’s a strong contender for the lowest P. culminicola on the mountain, and it has a height of, well, lower than my knee. Call it 40 cm. I’m going to take a picture. There’s also a white pine growing 4-5 m away, another sapling, P. strobiformis.
A bit further, WP334 now, and I should mention that it’s not a monotonous P. hartwegii stand. It’s highly variable, mostly because it’s patchy. We have Pseudotsuga, Abies, and P. strobiformis. There’s quite a bit of open space too, legacy of past fires.
At a little before 17:00, I reach the summit of Cerro Potosí. I’m afraid I had to leave my trusty motorcycle 13 m below the summit; there was a sheet of ice across the road, and motorcycle tires don’t do well on snow, let alone ice. The summit has a microwave station and a giant golf ball. Don’t know who owns the golf ball but it looks sort of military. There are some other strange-looking antennas up here as well. P. culminicola and P. hartwegii grow on the absolute summit. The P. hartwegii is definitely krummholzy. I didn’t think it ever did that, but it does it here. The P. culminicola is thriving. There are mats 2 m tall and 10 m across, and it grows all over the place.
Wouldn’t you know it? Two weeks in Mexico and my first cloudy day is here. There are a few sunbreaks so I’ll get some decent evening photos, but overall, it’s a bit gloomy up here. It looks particularly grim off to the west, where the wind is coming from. Looks like a cold front coming in. I hope it isn’t going to snow on me tonight; it could be like Picacho del Diablo all over again, except that packing up in a hurry and heading down this road in the middle of the night would not be a simple affair.
Perry talks about Pinus flexilis itself – not var. reflexa – occurring right here on the summit. I’ve been looking for it intensively, and see no sign of it. There is some sort of flexilis – I’ve been seeing it for several hundred meters – but it is not plain vanilla flexilis. And right here in the summit region its just P. hartwegii and P. culminicola.
I can tell that at the right time of the year, there’s quite a remarkable alpine tundra community, full of amazing plants and lovely wildflowers. This isn’t that time though; everything but the conifers is brown or grey-green, and dried up.
On the descent, from at old burn at WP344 I snag a P. culminicola cookie. Not very big. I should have brought the razor saw; this little wooden saw is shot. Memo to self: throw it away. Anyway it’s a long way down this hill and it’s pretty tiring trying to muscle this bike around while wearing the Aerostich. It was a lot easier when I didn’t have the suit on; it really is kind of like wearing a suit of armor.
The sun is getting low. Except for this mountaintop, not much of the countryside still has sun on it. I took a waypoint 1.24 km from here and about 500 m down, and that’s where I aim to camp. That’ll be far enough for this day. Tomorrow, well, tomorrow is another day.
WP346 is taken at my arrival in camp, which is also WP339. I am bushed. I have never ridden such strenuous roads in my life. Wrestling this thing up and down this mountain is just an epic – it’s an epic motorcycling adventure. I think the sun is going down. There’s no light left on the landscape, but there’s still some on the clouds. I’m totally in the shade, of course. My camp faces east, so I’ll catch the rising sun if these clouds clear away. It’s currently about 50% cloudy. Hope we don’t get a blizzard. There’s white pine here, looks like P. flexilis var reflexa; there’s also P. hartwegii and P. culminicola, and A. vejarii. I’m at 3400 m, so this will be by far the highest campsite of the trip. I’d better start getting my camp ready.
I’m enjoying my dinner as I watch the lights twinkle on in the valley. I’ve been eating really badly out here. Last night in the mountains I didn’t have enough water. Then I found some water spraying out of a line running down the mountain – probably from a spring or diversion dam to somebody’s ranch – so that worked out, but for dinner I had a cup of hot chocolate, some nuts and some candied ginger. Tonight I have a cup of lemon tea and some crackers I bought in a grocery store today. For breakfast and lunch both days I had nothing. At least I might be losing some weight [but no, I didn’t].
There are big clouds massing overhead. I hope it doesn’t rain tonight. I haven’t set up the tent – in fact I haven’t set it up all trip – and it would be awkward to try to do it on this site. I’ll just put away things like delicate electronic devices before I go to sleep, and if it does rain, I’ll jump up and run around in my underwear and get everything organized.
It’s funny, all the things you think about lying here at night. Last night I was thinking about Taoism. It started with “when work is done and no one takes credit, the people say ‘we did it’.” That’s a philosophy for doing work. That got me thinking about how I got on to Taoism. It happened when I was a sophomore in high school. I went to a country day school, actually, which is a ritzy kind of high school for smart kids, and I was taking pretty much college-level courses at that point. That sophomore year I took a course in the history of China, Japan and Russia. For the China section our texts were Fairbank’s “The United States and China” for post-1949 history, and Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig’s “East Asian History” for the earlier stuff. For Japan we read Edwin Reischauer’s “Japan.” For Russia it was Grey’s “The First Fifty Years,” meaning 1917 to 1967. I was reading all this in 1972-3. Anyway our first trimester was on China, and we reviewed the major philosophies, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. That introduced me to the Tao Te Ching, and in fact I think my brother had a copy of it, the Gia Fu-Feng and Jane English translation, which I read and was very impressed with, declaring myself a Taoist.
Although Taoism was a theme in my college freshman philosophy class, I didn’t actually make a lot more headway on the subject until after graduating from college. Then in 1980-81 I spent a year at Western Washington University. There I took a course from Sandra Howlett on Taoism. To digress a moment, the big problem with Taoism in America is that it is beloved by the woo-woo crowd – California brown rice religious nutzos who adore philosophies that justify hedonism, self-interest, and sloppy thinking. Consequently Taoism was not, and still is not, dealt with seriously in any of the popular literature available in this country. However, Sandra was a scholar, and she had delved deep into the literature. The academic literature, although a bit stuffy, is an anodyne to the woo-woo attitude because you can’t betray anything like a woo-woo attitude and still get published in the academic literature. Sandra was getting this stuff from white-cover ivy league journals written by people with Ph.D.’s in Oriental languages and philosophies. Somewhere I have the bibliography from that course. One of the things I learned then, that has really endured in my philosophy, is the idea that Taoism is not originally a Chinese philosophy. The evidence for this appears mainly in Chapter 16 of the Tao Te Ching, which is the most revealing of all 81 chapters because it describes the attributes of a sheng-ren, a term that literally means “newborn person” in the “born again” sense, but is often translated as “sage.” Elsewhere, the Tao Te Ching describes how the sage is like a newborn child. Chapter 16 has an almost autobiographical flavor to it, but at the very least, it is a description of what the author aspired to, and believed a Taoist sage should be. The chapter uses words that are almost never used in Chinese. It does this because it describes images totally alien to the China of 2600 years ago, when the book was first written down. For instance, there is the description of a man walking on ice, and his sense of when the ice is about to break. Now, anyone who’s spent a winter in the bush in the far north knows that is a very important sense to have. In the northern forest, frozen lakes and streams are natural highways in the winter, but they have open leads and thin ice that may be hidden beneath snow. The sheng-ren has the ability to know when he is near such areas. However, nobody in China walked on frozen ice 2600 years ago. At that time China was a much smaller place than it is now; it was ruled by the Han dynasty, which controlled the area that we now call south China, its capital near modern Shanghai. Snow was almost unknown in the China of 2600 years ago; frozen rivers were an alien concept. Modern China is a much larger place, of course; places like Heilongjiang have very large rivers that freeze solid for months. But Heilongjiang has only been Chinese for about a hundred years. Before that it was part of Siberia. Now, the oldest known copy of the Tao Te Ching is from the Dunhuang manuscripts, 2200 years old, recovered from some Buddhist caves along the Silk Road in what is now Xinjiang. That area, though, has long been extreme desert; although it gets very cold, snow is almost unknown and a frozen river is again an alien concept. There are also various other cues, both in Chapter 16 and elsewhere, that Sandra assembled in her argument that the Tao Te Ching was originally a shamanic text, the origins of which lay far to the north of China, in the area now known as southeast Siberia – probably the Amur River basin. I wonder sometimes if Akira Kurosawa knew something of this, because his brilliant film “Dersu Uzala” is the best exploration of primal Siberian culture that has ever appeared in a feature film, and it beautifully demonstrates the Taoist virtues – in fact, Dersu himself is an embodiment of the sheng ren as characterized in Chapter 16.
Another attribute of Taoism that is very Chinese, but is also found in many primitive cultures, is the pu bu, generally translated as “uncarved block.” Now, most of the philosophical Taoists – the western scholars writing in Sandra’s journals – seem to think that “uncarved block” means a two-by-four. Clueless. 2600 years ago, two-by-fours were as common as televisions. They’re an artifact of western civilization. The philosophical Taoists also compare it to a block of marble, with a statue inside waiting to be revealed. Attractive notion, but nonsense. 2600 years ago an uncarved block was simply a piece of wood – and pieces of wood show their own nature. A weathered piece of wood is a particularly good example, because it shows the work of its past – storms, cold, and so on. It shows its own relationship to the world around it, and so is a fine example of the Tao. Trees unify climate and life in the structure of their wood.
I saw a lot of good uncarved blocks today. This mountaintop is a singularly beautiful place. It reminds me of Cave Peak in Nevada, where Bob and I spent a night amongst the bristlecones, warming ourselves by a campfire of bristlecone wood. The story written in the uncarved block has long been appreciated by primitive cultures all over the world, and modern people continue to appreciate that story, that needs no sculptor’s hand to reveal.
The truly Chinese analogue to the uncarved block is what they call “dragon bones.” If you’ve ever seen Chinese landscape painting, you know that it portrays fabulous (literally), fantastic (literally) landscapes with an extreme spareness of line – a minimal amount of ink. One thing that I learned by traveling through China is that those mountains are not that fantastic – in fact, they actually do look like that. Also, those mountains are almost completely cloaked in vegetation. The paintings, though, show relatively little vegetation apart from a few token pines, which are symbolic of longevity. Instead, the painters show the structure of the bedrock. The Chinese call that structure “dragon bones,” because in the yin-yang duality of Chinese myth, mountains are yang which is male, symbolized by the dragon. The dragon bones, which show the forces that have acted upon mountains across geologic history, are the geologic equivalent of the uncarved block.
I’ve been talking about this trip mostly from the point of view of a conifer biologist, but it’s also a motorcycle trip so I should give an update on the motorcycling. From Matehuala it was a straight run out to Doctor Arroyo on a pretty fast, good road although again right into the rising sun. Out of Doctor Arroyo I went 10 or 12 km north on the road to Galeana and then headed northeast toward Cerro Peña Nevada. That road was paved for 4 or 5 km and then I hit an area where they were doing chip seal and was detoured onto a dirt road. Then the chip seal ran out and I was just on the original dirt road, which will likely be paved in a couple of years. I took the turnoff northeast toward San Miguel Peña Nevada and then, for about the next 24 hours, I pretty much didn’t get out of first gear, but I had a hell of an adventure. The road climbed, endlessly twisting and turning, mostly rocky, sometimes a bit of gravel or sand, into the mountains. It started off at about 1400 m in San Miguel Peña Nevada and finally topped out, many many bumpy kilometers later, at over 3000 m on a road that four-wheelers couldn’t have traversed without a high-clearance vehicle. Most puffter gringos would want a 4WD but the average Mexican would use an old full-size pickup. I was really out there. I rarely saw another vehicle and when I did it was a local who looked at me as if I’d just gotten out of a flying saucer. Once I crossed the crest and started down toward Ejido Encantada, the road progressively improved and the traffic increased to maybe a vehicle per hour. On that high divide, though, I really felt as if I’d ridden to the end of the earth. To do a road like that on a heavily loaded R1100RS is a bit of an adventure in its own right. I rather doubt anybody else has ever taken an RS over that road.
Anyway, once I finally popped out on pavement this morning, it was a pleasant and fairly fast ride to Galeana. There were a lot of straight stretches but also some good sweepers, mostly 4th and 5th gear stuff, through scenery of mountains clad in piñon forests and valleys filled with pastures, with an occasional village. One thing I should mention, though – I was again reminded of this in Galeana – is that the most challenging part of motorcycling in Mexico has been simply to get out of town. The Mexicans, by and large, do not believe in road signs. For instance, there is one major road going east out of Matehuala. It goes to Doctor Arroyo and points beyond. It’s an important road, gets quite a bit of traffic. There is no sign marking this road. Where it leaves the highway in Matehuala it looks like an ordinary residential street, no different from twenty or thirty other such streets on the east side of the highway through Matehuala. Today, when I popped out onto pavement in El Salto, there was no sign anywhere. None saying this way east, this way west, whatever. There was one sign that pointed to Monterey; it led me to a dirt road and a dead end. So, I just rode systematically up and down streets through El Salto for a few minutes – it didn’t take long, El Salto is pretty small – until I found a street that was going more or less the right direction and didn’t end or turn to dirt at the edge of town, and that led me out. Then in Galeana I followed the sign to Cerro Potosí, and that led me about three miles out of town to a dead end. I rode back into town and Galeana is a much bigger town, but about 20 minutes of riding around (during which I discovered that they also don’t mark the one-way streets in Galeana) I finally lucked onto a road out of town toward the mountain (hint: it goes west from south of downtown). Again, no signs anywhere. Finally, a GPS is helpful in such a quest, but only slightly so, because there are no good GPS maps available for rural Mexico, except for certain very limited areas [note, a good GPS coverage for Baja was finally released while I was in Mexico].
Anyway, I have spent so many hours this trip just trying to get out of the fuckin’ town. Once out of town, sometimes there are good road signs, and sometimes there aren’t. San Blas was a good example. Major intersection on a major four-lane highway. No signs whatsoever, so I overshot it by 20 km, waiting for a sign or something pointing the way to this very significant town, San Blas. Eventually decided the maps couldn’t be that far off, so turned around and backtracked. Coming from the south, there was a prominent sign for San Blas. However, once you are out on the road, a GPS is pretty handy. You key in a town that’s in the right general direction, and although the road isn’t in the GPS (unless it’s a BIG highway, and even then it’s usually mislocated by at least a few kilometers), the GPS coupled with a sense of how the landscape is put together will generally keep you on the right road.
Once you’re on the road, the main things to watch out for are bad pavement and crazy drivers. The crazy drivers are not really more common than in the States, but sometimes crazy behavior appears in normal drivers because they are trying to evade the bad pavement. For instance, nobody likes to drive over a tope, so it’s not uncommon to see someone suddenly swerve off the road, through a driveway or parking lot usually, in order to evade a tope. Turn signals don’t mean anything – mean even less than they do here. It’s not unusual for someone to signal one direction and turn another, or to signal and not turn. The best you can say is that when someone turns on a signal, it’s a sign that something unpredictable may happen soon.
Pavement is the biggie. One common problem is to be flying along on great pavement and suddenly it turns into the road from hell – cracks, holes, gravel, edge traps due to wheel ruts. Often this happens in a sharp curve; they seem to be much better at maintaining straight stretches than curvy ones. Consequently you must at all times be ready to cut your speed in half or more, on one to three seconds’ notice. Other things that commonly crop up in the middle of a sharp curve include mud, sand and gravel – especially on inside curves where a stream may flow across the road due to a plugged culvert or the like – and stopped or very slow vehicles, or my personal favorite, a semi truck or bus driving down the middle of the road, leaving the motorcycle half a lane filled with potholes. The upshot is that you can’t really boogie in the twisties except on that rare curve where you can see all the way around the curve and can see the pavement surface all the way through. The exception is on cuotas. A late model cuota will have great pavement, really good engineering, and very little traffic.
However, the cuotas are expensive – about 1.5 to 2 pesos per kilometer, which works out to 25-30 cents a mile. If your budget can handle two hundred dollars a day in tolls, you can cross Mexico at a very rapid clip – 125-140 kph as opposed to 85-95 kph on typical free-road pavement with few curves, and no stops except at toll plazas. Personally I usually avoid the cuotas except where there’s no reasonable alternative; the entire trip so far I’ve spent under a hundred dollars in tolls.
Finally, a note on gas. Mexican gas, which is sold by the government monopoly Pemex, is very good. In the States I usually run “plus” but here the bike has been performing beautifully on regular. That’s partly because the nature of the riding is such that I don’t often call on the bike to provide rapid acceleration; when I do, I get a little detonation. Gas has been very easy to find; in fact in really empty country, there are more gas stations in Mexico than in the States. Good road maps (Guia Roja makes the best; buy them online or at major truck stops) show which towns have stations, and on those rare occasions where it is a very long way between stations, there are local entrepreneurs in the villages who will sell you Pemex gas for only 10-20% above the official rate. That official rate is another interesting thing – every Pemex station charges exactly the same amount for gas, whether you’re in a big city or in the middle of nowhere. When I was there it worked out to about $2.40/gallon, so it was actually cheaper than in the States. The only thing to watch out for, really (aside from the rare dishonest attendant – count your change), is that in remote areas the stations are sometimes out of gas. So, as in any remote area, it’s a good idea to fill up anytime you’re at a half tank or less, and to know where your next stop will be.
I just took a picture of stratified shale bits behind my camp. It looks as if the strata separate paleosols. The strata are unsorted or very weakly sorted, so probably colluvial. They are cemented by calcium carbonate, and pretty well indurated, enough that it’s hard to smash a rock made of the stuff unless you use another rock. The material is shale, fractured into pieces 1-2 cm across. Yet there is no shale on this mountain. These may represent frost shattering of a shale stratum that used to be on the mountaintop, 300 m above me. Such frost shattering would have been an active process in a substantially colder climate, so the different strata likely represent climate episodes – possibly glacial/interglacial cycles, or perhaps some other periodicity.
I also have some things to say about a Pseudotsuga tree growing above camp, that I just photographed. It looks to me like a typical Ps. menziesii var. glauca. The needles are about 1 cm long, which is definitely on the short side, but stomata are normally distributed, in two well-defined bands on the underside of the needle. It has a full crown, but one of the supposed characteristics of the southern species or variety is a more open crown. I think that’s interesting because this individual is growing near the upper range limit of this population. It is therefore growing in a rather cold climate comparable to what Ps. menziesii var. glauca experiences farther north.
As for the question of whether P. hartwegii and P. rudis are distinct taxa, I still agree with Farjon. P hartwegii is said by Perry to have reddish-brown bark with large scaly plates formed by narrow horizontal and vertical fissures. P. rudis is supposed to have grayish-brown bark with small thick geometrically shaped plates. Well, here I have two trees next to each other and one fits the description for P. hartwegii and the other for P. rudis. The one that keys as P. rudis is younger than the one that keys as P. hartwegii. I rather doubt that they differ in any respect other than age. What about foliage? Perry says that one has needles that are thick, stiff, 1.5 mm diameter; the other has needles that are thick, erect, 1-1.5 mm wide. I don’t see that those words don’t describe the same thing. One has needles 10-15 cm long; the other, 10-16 cm. I call those the same. One has foliage curved inward in small groups at the ends of the branches; for the other, he doesn’t describe the foliar units. I look around and these trees, like all P. hartwegii/rudis I have seen, mostly have foliar units in tufts at branch ends, but have foliage extending back along the branch on younger or more vigorous trees. As a matter of fact the same can be said of many species of Mexican pines. Perry says P. hartwegii needles are in fascicles of 3, often 4 and 5. P. rudis, in fascicles of 4 and 5. Almost all these trees are in fascicles of 5, which would tend to make it P. rudis, except for the reddish-brown bark in large scaly plates. Cones? They are supposed to be purple to almost black in one species, or dark purple in the other. Not much of a distinction there. In one species they are 10 cm long, in the other 10-15 cm. Never seen a pine with less than a centimeter of variance in cone length, so I presume the “10 cm” statement is vague, and thus there is again no difference in the descriptions. These cones seem to average about 12 cm. In one species, the apophyses are flat, in the other they are flat to slightly raised. Not much of a distinction there. In one the umbo is flat to depressed, in the other, flat to slightly raised. All of these cones, it’s as close to flat as makes no difference. Basically Perry is trying to distinguish species on the basis of minute differences that can distinguish one tree from another in this stand – can even sometimes distinguish different branches or cones on the same tree. If the differences he names are the only observable ones, then he has effectively shown that there is only a single species. I conclude that P. rudis does not exist; priority assigns the name P. hartwegii.
I’ve been looking at P. flexilis and P. strobiformis here. One of my first pictures early this morning was of a big tree right by camp here. I called it P. flexilis var. reflexa at the time, but now I think it’s P. strobiformis. The cone that I called P. flexilis in the photos has some P. strobiformis characters. Perry states his belief that there are backcrosses and hybrids between the white pines here (he sees three species, not knowing that P. ayacahuite var. brachyptera is the same species – based on the same herbarium specimen – as P. strobiformis). I haven’t seen any good P. flexilis cones anywhere on this mountain. Perry says he collected one on the summit, but I was on the summit yesterday and now there are no white pines up there at all. The cone I collected yesterday is a bit rumpled around the edges of the scales, and fits Farjon et al.’s description of P. flexilis var. reflexa. Now I find myself wondering about the distribution of reflexa, because it looks to me as if the trees here may actually have a hybrid origin between P. flexilis and P. strobiformis. Frankly this is not a question I am going to be able to answer in the field. It will require comparison of herbarium specimens, DNA studies, stuff like that. Still it’s an interesting problem.
At WP354, after much unsuccessful casting around in a hunt for the CAMCORE site, I finally locate P. greggii var. greggii. It’s growing above a stream, well above a stream, on a very dry south-facing canyon wall. About 30% mineral substrate exposure, the rest, mainly grasses. It’s the dominant tree on the hillside, with a total cover of maybe 15-20%. There are also a few trees of P. cembroides, at least one P. teocote, and a flaccid Juniperus, probably J. flaccida. There are also some yuccas and some unknown angiosperm trees growing in arroyos that run down the hillside. There are also cacti and desert shrubs. On the opposite, north-facing slope there’s a lot of Pseudotsuga, possibly with admixture of A. vejarii. Elevation about 2300 m.
P. greggii differs noticeably from var. australis in that it opens its cones. Only the cones that matured most recently are fully closed and apparently serotinous. Cones that are a year or more older, though, have fully opened and shed their seed. That could at least partly be a function of the site; this is a much more hot, dry, exposed site than where I encountered var. australis. On the other hand, it could be a real taxonomic distinction.
I checked that hillside and it is mostly Pseudotsuga. There are also a few P. greggii saplings and some more of the juniper.
That’s about it. It’s 12:30. I still haven’t seen P. pinceana; there’s a location between here and Saltillo where I could look for it. It’s quite a ways off the highway, and I don’t know how bad the road is. I’ll think about it when I get there, but it could be that this is the end of the pine explorations, and that now I start back to Seattle. Start to leave Mexico. Don’t know how I feel about that, but it don’t much matter. Here we are. Now its back to Galeana.
Here’s something interesting. In Dieciocho I pass a line of P. greggii, good sized trees. I stop to take a picture of them and this lady working in there comes over and asks me if I want to come in and look around. I don’t because of my language difficulties. Nonetheless, it’s a P. greggii nursery. They grow tubelings and use them for afforestation. Then, just down the road, I pass what appears to be a seed orchard. It has P. strobiformis, P. arizonica var. stormiae, and P. cembroides. Wish my Spanish was good enough to ask questions about it.
Between WP357 and WP358 I passed through a P. cembroides area with some P. arizonica var. stormiae and the shrubby juniper I talked about yesterday. Possibly also a new juniper with stiff foliage and subarboreal form, up to about 4 m tall. Otherwise it’s mostly been a desert landscape. That gave way to a plain of yuccas, and now I’m cruising across the valley floor towards Saltillo. Looks like it could be a long ride.
To round out the story, I hit the road in Galena, gassed up, and followed the road from Galena to the main highway headed north to Saltillo. I followed that for quite a ways, to a sign that said Saltillo cuota this way, Saltillo libre that way. I figured what he hell, it’s early, I’ll just take the libre. Well, there turned out to a problem with the Saltillo libre – it doesn’t go to Saltillo, and it’s not the road shown in my road atlas. Instead it’s a little yellow road that heads off into the west. When it finally connected with a recognizable highway, it was over 20 miles south of Saltillo, directly on the road to Torreon. So, at that point I decided to pass on Saltillo and head for Torreon. I headed out another yellow road that intersected the cuota for Torreon. When I got out there I discovered that it only intersected the cuota; it was not actually possible to get on the cuota. So, I then had to backtrack about 10 km for Saltillo and finally pick up the libre from Saltillo to Torreon, and follow that.
During that time the sun set, so when I hit Torreon it was dark. Torreon is a big city. In fact it’s a big ugly city. It reminds me of Modesto or Fresno. Heavy traffic, smelly air, bright lights, confusing interchanges (lots more confusing than in California, due to the signage problem). The only recognizable lodging I saw was a Holiday Inn at the airport that would have been a hundred dollars a night. Also my auxiliary lights aren’t working for some reason – I don’t know why, I haven’t used them in two weeks because this is my first day in Mexico that I’ve ridden after dark. The main headlight doesn’t seem as bright as usual, either. Stuff to fix. Anyway from Torreon I managed to find some signs pointing towards Chihuahua, that led me into Torreon’s sister city Gomez Palacio. There I finally found a motel.
It’s one of the sex motels. You’re supposed to drive into a little garage by the room and wait while an attendant scurries down from the front office, closes a curtain over the garage entrance, and lets you and your mistress into your room. No windows. There’s a big bed, a couch, a big TV with the Playboy channel on, and the room service menu consists mostly of hard drinks. You can also order a Domino’s pizza, which I did. It cost a lot and tasted like a bad grade of frozen pizza, but I was hungry. The room cost 320 pesos, which is a bit steep for Mexico, but I’m sure it’s a lot cheaper than the Holiday Inn. Anyway there’s a comfy bed, and I’ll get out of here at the crack of dawn and hopefully say goodbye to Torreon and Gomez Palacio forever. At this point the tree explorations are about done. There’s a big flat bit between here and Palm Springs that mostly consists of barren desert, and my next goal is to cover that ground as quickly as possible. Haven’t figured out how long that will take.
I just had an interesting dream. I was out in some kind of a wildlife preserve, a green spot in the middle of a vast desert, and there were some interesting birds out there. The authorities issued all sorts of precautions, oh be careful, do not disturb the birds, but we were out there doing some sort of ecological study. I was out there with Steve and Marie and Bonnie and I think some other people. We were going around placing data transponders that were little white things about the size of dimes that were going to give us all sorts of environmental information on the site. Then we had a bunch of grad students there that had metal detectors and we were going around sweeping the area and finding all these wires running in the ground through conduit, old wires put together with electrical tape. They were apparently some sort of instrumentation from past studies that had been done there.
Then the scene sort of magically shifted to some new house, a house I hadn’t been to before. It was Steve and Marie’s house. It was sort of unfinished in the sense of having large spaces that were just open to the outdoors, as if someone had taken a normal house and sliced off random bits of it with a razor blade. They didn’t have any furniture. It was not finished yet, and they were talking about getting some new furniture for it. I was thinking, “well gee, I have all this old furniture that’s in storage that I’ve never even used.” Talking about for instance a dining room set, and I was thinking about that stuff I had. There was a time there when I was making little models of the stuff I had, counting up the number of chairs and tables, things like that. Bookcases. And then there were these contractors that just sort of walked in and they were saying things like “Yes we could make you a dining room set like this, and it would be very expensive, labor rates today you know, and good wood costs a fortune, but it would be a beautiful set.” And I was thinking “well yes, for that matter I have the woodworking skills to make this sort of thing myself, but it would take forever. It would take years, because it’s a spare time project.” That was about where I woke up, but somewhere during the dream there was a sort of flash-over to my home in storage.
That home is in the basement of a house that is a lot like the house we lived in on Woodacres Drive in 1970-1978. That house had a rectangular basement divided lengthwise; one side was developed with a pool table and rec room – very Fifties – and the other side was undeveloped and had the shop. We never used the rec room much, so in the dreams its always sort of dusty and desolate, although it has a closet under the stairs that has yielded some good stuff on occasion. The undeveloped side, though, is where all the secrets are, and that’s where all the interesting things happen in my dreams. Many years ago that side used to hold my scary dreams. It was always dark on that side, and you had to walk quite a ways into the darkness to reach the light switch. Down at the end was an ell where the room bent, and that was the darkest place of all, and who knew what secrets it held. That was when I was young, anyway. Over the years, that side of the basement has gotten quite full. In fact it’s had to expand into hyperspace to hold all the stuff. One of the things that’s down there now is all this old furniture. It’s very nice old wooden furniture, and a lot of it is bookcases, dark and dusty and covered with rococo carvings that get more intricate the closer you look, as if they had a fractal dimension. Those cases are filled with extraordinary books. There are 17th century Latin tomes that contain all that was known about the world. There are big red leather folios from the 19th century that contain interesting engravings and chromolithographs and that cover knowledge in natural history, religion and philosophy. There are also great works of fiction and poetry, beautifully bound and illustrated. Some are familiar titles, but others are mysterious titles I’ve never heard of that sound incredibly interesting. I can’t give you examples because the titles aren’t words; they just sort of project that mysterious essence. They are the names that I do not know, the names of ignorance. There’s other stuff there too. Old ornate mirrors with tapestries hung over them; I don’t know what might happen if I looked into one.
The houses where these dreams happen have changed a lot over the years, and the landscapes have changed too. This house is like the Woodacres house, but there’s another house that generations of my family have lived in. In reality there is no such house; our real family has been on this island since before the Mayflower, but they’ve always been wanderers. That other house is sort of four-dimensional – it’s very loooong. One end is like the house where my mother lives today, a white American colonial but in the middle of a green lawn, and it feels very empty when you go inside it. It’s very tastefully decorated. But then as you go back to the other end of the house it becomes plainer. Farther back it has stone walls and an old-fashioned kitchen with a pump over the sink. Farther back it looks like a barn and has piles of straw with boxes piled here and there, and is dilapidated. At the very end – you can’t really see the end – it just sort of disappears into darkness. But before that house entered my dreams there was still another house, rather like our house on Briar Patch, and various interesting things happened in that house too. Maybe my child-self lived there. There’s an old entry in my journal from the early 1980s that talks about an earthquake, in that house; another talks of a time when all the paint was peeling. Strange transformations.
This is an interesting thing to reflect upon because Carl Jung says that dreams about a house are dreams about your psyche, about your metaphorical home. I think maybe this latest dream means that Steve and Marie are part of my metaphorical family. Not an unreasonable thing to think, but its interesting to see how they’ve been incorporated because I think that the stuff in the basement – the old furniture and books – symbolizes the knowledge that has come to me over the course of my life. It’s accumulated over time and is all stowed away down there on the dark side of the basement, which is my subconscious side. The stuff that I really know, as opposed to the stuff I superficially know. The furniture corresponds to the ways of thinking, and the books correspond to the things that are known. By ‘ways of thinking’ I mean the furniture of thought, the tools used to get the thinking done. Aristotelian deduction is a desk. Jung is a big comfortable chair, and Freud a narrow uncomfortable one. Mathematics is a workbench. Taxonomy is a file cabinet. Thoreau-Muir-Leopold style natural philosophy is the dining table; that is the source of sustenance. The other old house, the one that mom lives alone in, I think that’s the family house. It represents the knowledge and traditions that go back to my ancestors. Most of them haven’t played a major role in my life, which is why that house is mostly empty and muchly dilapidated. Also a lot of the strange dreams I’ve had take place in that house – dreams that are hard to understand and that lead to unsatisfactory endings. A lot of dreams also involve travel to or from that house, travels that may take a long time and go through some very strange places, because that house is not my house, it’s not even in the same city or state. It’s a long ways to travel, but its always very peaceful there, a preternatural English landscape of lawns and shade trees. Maybe I’ll go there to die.
I’ve had other interesting dreams this trip, and I was going to try to talk about them a little, but I’ve spaced them out for now.
2007.02.21, an email I sent from Nuevo Casas Grandes:
It now appears almost inevitable that I will survive Mexico and return to the land of the Big Mac unscathed. The journey from Hidalgo del Parral (my last missive) took me south across a very open landscape to Durango, a city where many famous westerns have been filmed. I was soon to find that much of the state of Durango has dramatic, if austere, landscapes - mountains rising skyward in huge broken planes of yellow and red volcanic rock, only a few cacti and scraggly bushes clinging to the precipices, and atop - sometimes - extensive forests of towering pines. Leaving the old city at dawn the next morning I rode upward to El Salto, a classic logging town of sawmills and bars. The highway was cluttered with log trucks hauling pretty big timber, comparable to the usual Northwest second growth, and a rusty Heisler locomotive welcomes visitors at the town's entrance. The forests are managed well here - selective cutting, carefully done - though a total fire exclusion policy will lead to troubles if it works for more than a few decades, as it has in our country.
Late in the day I crossed the ridge crest and began what I think is probably the finest motorcycle road I have ever ridden. The road winds along the summit ridges of spectacular mountains, sheer cliffs to both sides, and as one crosses the range toward the Pacific the vegetation changes from dry pine forest to fir forest, pines and oaks cloaked in epiphytes, then weird tropical pines like P. lumholtzii whose long needles all hang lax and limp. The most spectacular section crosses the "Devil's Backbone" where the mountain drops away sheer to both sides of roadway for a thousand meters. The governments of Sinaloa and Durango are very proud even to have built this road - it would be seen as an engineering feat by anyone - and the fact that it so twisty (50 kph is a blistering speed) only makes it more fun. I spent the night on an abandoned logging road near the Devil's Backbone and the next dawn it took 3 hours to ride the 2000 m descent to the coastal plain near Mazatlan.
From there I went on south to San Blas, where I finally found a population of gringos. San Blas used to be known as a good place to get malaria, which means today that it's a good place for ecotourism - the coastal swamps there are home to an incredible diversity of birds, plants and fishes, along with certain exotica such as the crocodilas (which I think are actually caimans, not to be picky). I spent two days there, taking a little time to visit nearby Mexcaltitan, the legendary origin-place of the Aztecs. (You might take a moment to type Mexcaltitan into Google Images - worth a thousand words, you know). And, to be frank, it was also a good place to sip margaritas, eat ceviche, and savor the English language with a few gringos - all of whom were Canadian, by the way.
The day after San Blas I rode thru Puerto Vallarta, which frankly was my least favorite place in the entire country. It reminds me of Las Vegas, with tour ships instead of casinos. Dozens of American chain stores are there (and nowhere else), the streets are thronged with Americans (usually old ones with incipient skin cancers), the prices are in dollars. It took two hours to get through. About 20 km south, though, I had a wonderful few hours at the PV Jardin Botanical, a new institution but set in a wonderful dry tropical forest, the trees hung with lianas and filled with bromeliads, exotic colorful birds flitting through the forest, and a clear cool stream babbling through a rocky canyon. The garden itself is particularly strong on orchids and bromeliads. South of there I saw Pinus jaliscana, a discovery that likely will excite no one on this list but me, and celebrated with a cold cervesa in the cantina at the foot of the largest pine I found. Noodling on down the line, night finally caught me at the little seaside village of Tenacatita.
Now at Tenacatita I was on known ground. When I came here with Bob and Bonnie in 2005, we visited Tenacatita and snorkeled the reef there. So, I knew about a perfect little out-of-the-way camping area full of gringos on a little tombolo where you can see the sun set into the Pacific Ocean - and then see it rise out of the Pacific Ocean the next morning. After a dinner of ceviche and cervesa I did just that, and under the warm tropical sky, sleeping out on the beach, I also got to see the Southern Cross rise, a couple of hours before sunrise.
The next day was, in a word, halcyon. I took breakfast just down the line in Barra Navidad, where I shared huevos rancheros with a couple of Canadian bikers - from Vancouver - the first gringos on bikes that I met all trip. Later in the day, winding through a small city farther south, I met another Canadian - this one on a Kawasaki, bound for Chiapas - and he was the last gringo biker I met, though in fact I also saw him one more time, farther down the coast. Otherwise, the days was spent riding the winding, nearly empty coast highway, eventually spending the night at a tiny village in Michoacán, where I had another dinner of cervesa and ceviche, watched the sun set and the Souithern Cross rise, and slept on the empty beach with the sound of crashing surf.
The next day I bade farewell to the slothful coast and turned inland, riding fast toll roads and twisty mountain highways to the old mountain town of Patzcuaro. In the process I gained 2000 m elevation and made a shocking discovery - it was February! My ride from Mazatlan down the coast had been warm, even hot, the nights balmy - but the morning after, in Patzcuaro, I awoke to frost, and put on every stitch I had for what proved to be a very long day´s ride across central Mexico. At the end of it, though, I made it to the mountains of Guanajuato. Following another incredibly twisty montain road high into the mountains, I made it to the little village of San Joaquin, and here encountered the rare Pinus greggii var. australis. For those who care, this tree is first cousin to a group of pines that otherwise live only in California - the knobcone, Bishop and Monterrey pines. How and when P. greggii got to Guanajuato is a mystery of biogeography. Here I also saw the only ruin of the trip - a mountaintop city inhabited from A.D. 600 to 1200. The mountaintop in question straddles the Divide, and warm moist ar from the Gulf of Mexico rises on the east side to shroud the peaks in fog much of the time, while cold dry air from the central plateau keeps the western side of the mountains in desert. The ancient city sits on the borderline, and as I sat there, the cold mists swirled around me while the sun shown bight in a cloudless sky. The sun was lowering in that sky, though, so I beat a retreat down the long twisty road to spend the night as the only guest in a tiny trucker´s hotel, in a little village at the foot of the winding road.
The next day started with what might be the second best motorcycle road I've ever ridden. The first fifty kilometers was a winding decent into and climb out of a desert canyon. Weird columnar cacti and giant agaves cloaked the mountain slopes, and at long intervals the road passed through a tiny village where goat herders and irrigation farmers eked out a living. Then the road started to climb, first into the piñon-juniper woodlands and then into a full continuous pine forest. Here again I noticed something that also stuck me the day before, which is that while the desert valleys are almost empty, the forests are filled with people. The increased rainfall at higher elevations, coupled with the sustenance opportunities of timber and piñon nut harvest, make the high mountains a relatively benign and desirable environment, and so not only the ancients but also the poor people of today site their villages on the bounteous summits. At 3000 m elevation this road crossed to the east side, and though the day was clear and bright, the roads were wet from the night fog, and water still dripped from the trees. On this side the mountains were thickly forested, streams cascaded down the mountainsides, and springs burst forth here and there. At one spring, on a steep mountainside, I found an ancient gnarled baldcypress close to 10 feet in diameter. In the valley bottom, a clear river ran through prosperous villages, its banks lined also with baldcypress.
Climbing out of that valley, the road again turned inland, and within a span of 50 km I was in a desert again, surrounded by dry shrubs and tall cacti. The rest of the day I simply rode fast and hard into the north, bound for the tall mountains of Nuevo León. I made it as far as Matehuala, a nice enough town but I was dead beat, and only had a dinner (where 75 pesos got me a steak a foot across) and a shower before going to sleep in a hotel room.
The next day I rode fast, east into the rising sun, to the town of Doctor Arroyo near the southern tip of Nuevo León. A little ways out of town I found the turnoff for San Miguel de Peña Nevada, and shortly afterward left the pavement behind and began the long climb onto the Cerro Peña Nevada. This time, both the mountains and the desert were nearly empty of people. I started seeing the trees, though, as soon as I left the bajada and started onto the mountain proper. There was a remarkable array of conifers, including a number of rare and remarkable species I had never seen before, but I will save the details on that for another time. The road was not bad, at first. Then it was bad. It was a track blasted out of the limestone bedrock, with a few blasted chunks thrown back on to sort of level it out. The bike chuffed and backfired and now and then a smell of burning clutch scented the piney woods, but we still climbed upwards (I never got out of first gear for nearly two days) to finally crest the Sierra at nearly 3000 m.
I should emphasize that throughout this adventure I knew exactly where I was. After all, I had a GPS. However, I had nothng even vaguely resembling a map. The whole of the Sierra Peña Nevada is a blank space on the best map I have. So I noted the locations of any road junctions I passed (there weren't many), and I watched my back trail, and I watched the gas gauge slowly sink. It all worked out. After I passed the crest, the road improved a little (a very little) and I encountered some tire tracks. Then a tiny village. Then a microwave tower. By this time the sun was setting, so I headed down something that had once maybe been a road, found a spot with a wonderful view over the valley to the east, and made camp.
I woke up at 04:30. Its not that I wasn´t sleepy. It was a truck grumbling up the road. If there is one sound that will always remind me of Mexico, it is that of an unmuffled diesel. They are ubiquitous. In this case, it was in a logging truck, going to work at the same time logging truck drivers everywhere go to work, on a Monday morning. The next logging truck came by - moving about 5 kph on this very steep road, so it takes 10 minutes for one to pass - 15 minutes later. And the next, in another 15 minutes. I put in my earplugs and listened to Beethoven until first light, and then I packed camp and hit the road.
It only took 3 hours to get back to a paved road. It was a very small one, but it led to a larger one, and pretty soon I was rolling down the highway again. In this case the highway led to a town called Galeana, in the shadow of Nuevo León's greatest peak, the Cerro Potosí. Potosí is a mammoth hulk of a mountain, rising from Galeana at 1500 m to a summit a over 3700 m, and standing alone and apart from every other mountain range. It is solid limestone, and it has a hell of an interesting flora, and on top grows one pine that grows nowhere else, and another that only grows in the far-off Rocky Mountains. So at 12:30 I started up Potosí, in first gear again, but this time on a paved road. Paved yes, and no doubt much labor went into it - for some very important antennas are on top of Potosí - but nonetheless paved with volleyball-sized blocks of roughly broken limestone. It was a hell of a bumpy ride, but it was gorgeous, with vast views reaching out at least 100 km, and lovely pine forests all the way. At 17:00 I finally bumped to a stop 13 m below the top, where a drift of snow blocked the road, and I walked on to the summit. Gnarled and stunted pines grew up there, and jays flitted about scavenging nuts from them. After awhile I started down again, but not too far, making camp at a fine spot at 3400 m, by far the highest campsite of the trip. I snuggled down ino my sleeping bag, started brewing cups of hot tea, and watched the sunset steal over the land until the ridge crest of Potosí was the only thing illuminated for as far as the eye could see. Then I slept.
It was, of course, a cold night and a frosty dawn. Fortunately the campsite was situated to catch the morning light. I spent a couple of hours up there, doing botany-ecology stuff, and then came the long bumpy ride down the hill. From Galeana I rode into the hills again, just for a couple of hours, until I found one last species on my list - the northern variety of Pinus greggii - and then it was done.
No more trees to see. No more mountains to cross. No more surf to lull me to sleep. Only a thousand miles of craggy Mexican blacktop between me and Douglas, Arizona - time to ride.
So I rode. I rode 400 km in what remained on the day, blasting across the vast empty plain between Saltillo and Torreon into the setting sun, reaching Torreon just as full dark fell. Damned Torreon. Torreon of the stinking chemical fctories, freeways, chain stores. Riding through nighttime rush hour frenzy on highways under construction, maps uselss, GPS useless, I finally spotted a MOTEL sign. It turnd out to be a sex motel, where each room has its own garage so people won't spot your car and know that you're in a sex motel with your mistress. Where TV carries the Playboy channel and room service carries nothing but hard drinks. I don´t care, it gets me off the dark crazy highway. Tomorrow I'll figure out where I am. I check in and sleep.
At 6:00 I'm awake and bored so I leave. It is still totally dark but there's no traffic so I wander around for half an hour and finally find the highway to Chihuahua. I ride and ride and ride, vast empty desert spaces on high speed highways. 800 km later I reach Nuevo Cascas Grandes, 200 km from the border, and I stop. Here I am. Time to go find dinner.