I guess you could say that my pilgrimage began several weeks ago. Spaced-out and exhausted after a long ride and examining the intricacies of a small, blue, twenty peso bill. On the backside was a picture of a flat topped mountain, covered in ruins. The tagline, Monte Alban, Oaxaca.
Monte Alban, why did that seem familiar.? I seemed to remember my grandfather talking about it. The long trecherous road to the top. The mystical city itself. It was decided. I would go. By hell or highwater I would stand on that mountain and feel its energy. Its magical alignment with the universe.
Turns out Monte Alban lies just above the city of Oaxaca, which Anthony claimed to be "the best city in Mexico", so when I suggested the detour from the coast, his enthusiasm was limitless. It was settled. We were going.
Leaving Pinotepa National drew us through a series of long climbs and decents. Due to a huge blank spot on my map (i still don't know why an entire highway was left out) we missed the direct route into the mountains that we'd hoped to take and ended up in the coastal lowlands of Oaxaca state. Long, flat stretches of agricultural flat. Mostly grazing land for Brhama cattle, goats, poultry farms.
In the heat of the day we stopped in at a cantina in the small town of San Jose del Progresso for a beer. The cantina was nothing more than a small concrete room with several plastic chairs. The "bar" was protected by a mesh of chickenwire and consisted of a cooler and several bags of various snacks. Had to literally step over a man passed out face down on the floor to enter the building. No one seemed to mind his presence or position. He'd groan occasionally and roll over, fall back asleep and continue his afternoon nap. After two beers each and some conversation, we left San Jose with the full bar in attendance. waving goodbye and wishing us luck.
Spent ONE LAST night on the beach at Cerro de Hermosa, a gorgeous small beach at the head of a long lagoon. Bathed in the sea one last time knowing that we faced at least several long and dusty days ahead.
We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
The next morining brought us to the crossroads for Oaxaca. Stopped in at a small roadside stand for water where an old woman gifted me three of the most delicious mangos I've ever eaten. Noon brought us inland to a small stream where we stopped for two hours bathing and relaxing in the shade, the crystal clear water and small rapids re-energizing and so cool. Had to fight to draw ourselves away and back into the afternoon sun. Climbing out of the river valley, we began to taste the mountains for real. The road became curvier at first, then steeper, before I knew it I was grinding up tight switchbacks in my lowest gear (24x30. For those of you who cant picture it, that's really, REALLY, low). It was like climbing a spiral staircase and nearly as slow...for 20 miles. Grasslands then tropical plants began to give way to pinetrees. The air begins to cool and waterseeps begin flowing from the hillside. The road steepens yet again (a concept I found impossible) then turns to a semi-paved, semi-dirt construction zone, then turns to nothing more than a small dirt jeep trail. Constantly climbing. Up and up and wondering finally if it will ever end. Bikes are dismounted and pushed. Streams are forded, shoes get soaked.
Spent the night in a small forrested cut just off the road. I'm not really a proponent of fence jumping or gate passing, but darkness was setting in and we were forced to cross a barbed wire fence to make our camp, with no traffic save for the occasional construstion vehicle passing in the night.
Woke the next morning to a short climb and finally a peak of sorts. Looking down into a vast, steep valley, we could just see the town of Santa Catarina de Juquila at the valley floor, the church, like in many small mexican towns taking center stage, dwarfing the smaller buildings surrounding. Dropped into Juquila on a four mile dirt and sand hill-bomb to find the small town absolutely overrun with people. We could barely ride the streets for the pedestrian traffic. The entire central square and churchyard was a market which spread for blocks in any direction. What we didn't know, could not have known, was that we had stumbled upon an annual pilgrimage to Juquila. In honor of it's virgin, Santa Catarina.
After a short visit and some quick lunch, we left Juquila to another brutally steep climb, back out of the valley we had only just recently entered. Aty this point the Pilgrimage became evident in all it's force and glory. Heavy, heavy traffic in the opposite direction. Cars Busses, pick-ups all filled to the brim with people, loaded to the gills with camping gear, food, blankets, furniture, anything you could imagine. All with a picture of The virgin of Juquila roped to the front grill. Passed a crew of cyclists, 50 strong, making the ride from Toluca, Estado Mexico (about 400 mkiles away). Cheered them on and they cheered us, each going our own direction, each on our own pilgrimage.
Continuing the climb, I passed a group of men parked at the roadside and resting in the shade. As I passed I heard a comment shot in my direction. It wasn't spanish....what was it that he said?
Then it hit me.
"Bin Laden." That man called me Bin Laden.
I gotta do something about this beard.
Another climb, another decent. With a small town in the distance, the thought of a cold beverage racing through my mind, and nothing between me and that goal but a steep downhill, I heard a disconcerting snapping noise, then moments later a loud rubbing sound and a feeling of strong resistance to my downward progress. Stopped to take stock and found that the left side rack eyelet of my frame (the part where the cargo rack attaches to the back of the bike) had snapped clean off, causing the rack, with all my gear to cant off to the left and rub on my rear tire.
This is not good.
Walked my bike the last 500 Meters into town where Anthony immediately sought out a beer and I immediately set about finding a welder, a mechanic, a hardware store, anyone or anything to hopefully resecure the rack to the frame. To spare me the 100 mile walk to Oaxaca city. All I could find was small, disorganized garage. Tried to explain my needs, a welder, a hoseclamp. Got a twist of bailing wire to hold the rack to the seat stay. Bike repair, mexican style. By any means neccessary. I love it.
When I got back to the center of town (if you could call it that), Anthony deep in conversation with an entire family outside of a small grocery store. They were all standing around drinking, and the patron of the family, the father, handed me an ice cold Corona. More Pilgrims, on their way to Juquila. Spent about two hours there in the shade with them. Maybe seven people in all. Grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren. More beers were purchaced and given to us. Toasts were made. They gave us some tortillas and fruit. I had to dump some weight on account of the broken frame, so I gave them my tent.
Next two days are more of the same. Climbing to peaks decending to valleys. Constantly up and down. Passing pilgrims all the way. Slept in a dry riverbed and in the morning stopped at what we thought to be a roadside foodstand. Turned out to be a mobile kitchen for a group of 100 pilgrims on foot, walking nine days from Tehuacan, nearly 300 miles away. Potato rolled tacos, eggs, juice and coca-cola. Served to us for free from the hands of strangers by the grace of god. Amen. Buying locally produced Mezcal from a roadside stand. The proprietor serving it into plastic liter bottles fom a murky looking glass carboy. Camping just off the road on a graded drit platform overlooking a small valley. Churchbells at six a.m. dragging us out of our much needed slumber. Finally finding a welder who spent about half an hour working on my bike, welding it back together, and asked for nothing, saying: "I'm a machinist, not a welder".
Finally, Oaxaca city. Beautiful, bustling town surrounded by mountains. Evening thunderstorms. Walking the streets late at night and watching the lightning dance in the distance. Mole negro and the best chocolate you'll ever taste in your life. Deep fried crickets by the bag (actually, half a bag was plenty for me).
Sunday Morning, Easter sunday. Skipped mass and headed for the hills. Finally. The end of my Pilgrimage. Monte Alban. Stood at the top of the tallest temple and whispered my thanks to the cardinal directions. Stood on a sacrificial altar. The exact spot where hundreds of human souls had left their earthly bodies. Despite the crowds, the vendors, the comercialization that unfortunately pervades even some of the most sacred places, standing on that mystical site, I shut my eyes and for a moment, a brief fleeting second, I was the center of the universe.