On the Road: Big Jumps and War Zones

Jun 20, 2014

Tampico through Tamaulipas

Credit Skippy Mesirow

2100 hours. A soldier eats his last MRE for the day. He huddles with his platoon mates for what may be the last time. They look each other in the eyes, man their perimeter and tuck in for an uneasy last night sleep before a sunrise assault tomorrow. They know some won’t make it, they are fearful, but together, they are strong. This is what hell week, all the training, all the battles to this point has lead up to. They think of their children, families, loved ones. In the morning, the fear will subside, they will be trained and ready, tomorrow is their day.

11:00pm Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia. A pro skier sucks down a liter or water and some snacks. He’s nervous, tomorrow is his big day, the opportunity to finally make it into the mainstream. His body quakes lightly, his mind races. The jump is the biggest he’s ever hit, 110 feet to the knuckle, MSP is filming, he will be alongside all his childhood heroes. He’s trained his whole life for this moment, and now it has arrived. Once he drops in the tension will subside and instinct will take over. Tomorrow he begins the first day of the rest of his life.

9:07pm I pace my hotel room in Tampico, Tamaulipas, MX. I’ve made it through the day. 10 hours of intense full bore riding. Winding costal cliffs, undulating rainforest crests and depressions, open desert slabs. Heat, humidity, rain, clouds, noxious exhausts fumes, oil refinery smog, dirt, oil, and sunshine. No big issues, a few scary moments. Yet, still I pace. Tomorrow is the big day, the one that everything thus far has lead up to. All my experiences riding in Kashmir, and Vietnam, and Laos, and Panama, and greater India. All the close calls, landslides, terrorist threats, snowstorms, and near crashes prepare me for tomorrow, or at least they better. I am genuinely nervous, this will be the most perilous drive I’ve ever done but there is not option and tomorrow I will be ready.

The US State department offers this for their own employees and the public “Defer non-essential travel to the state of Tamaulipas. All USG employees are prohibited from personal travel on Tamaulipas highways outside of Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo due to the tenuous security situation.”

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Precisely where I’m going, no way around. US Bank has sealed my fate, the only option is which of these three portals I will pass through, whether I will pass is non-negotiable. The state department justifies their position. “Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, and Ciudad Victoria have experienced grenade attacks in the past year, as well as numerous reported gun battles. Violent gun battles between rival TCO elements and/or the Mexican military can occur in all parts of the region, and at all times of the day. The kidnapping rate for Tamaulipas, the highest for all states in Mexico, more than doubled in 2012 over 2011, and the number of U.S. citizens reported to the consulate as kidnapped in 2013 increased by 75% over 2012. In February 2013, four masked and armed individuals attempted to kidnap a USG employee in Matamoros during daylight hours. All travelers should be aware of the risks posed by armed robbery and carjacking on state highways throughout Tamaulipas…. While no highway routes through Tamaulipas are considered safe, the highways between Matamoros-Tampico, Monterrey-Nuevo Laredo, and Matamoros-Ciudad Victoria are particularly prone to criminal activity. In the past year there have been several instances of U.S. citizens being kidnapped from hotels while attending family or social events (e.g. weddings and funerals). In at least one incident, a member of the traveling party was summoned to the front desk by hotel staff whereupon he was kidnapped”.

Well, I’m in a hotel in Tamaulipas and those specific highways are my only way home. Googling for reassurance I find this as the first news headline “Mexican authorities discovered the body of an Arizona man killed execution-style on the main highway south of the dangerous border city of Nogales on Monday, hours after the U.S. Consulate General in the city issued a travel advisory for the region. Police said that the body of Jorge Luis Soto, 25, was found at the wheel of a 1997 Chevrolet Tahoe with gunshot wounds to his face and chest. The SUV’s engine was still running and was parked under an overpass on the highway.”

I mentally prepare myself, I run through every circumstance that may arise, think through each response, each choice, each action that will best ensure survival. I can’t control events, but I can control how I react to them. I sleep well, at five I raise, it’s raining, 60 degrees, not ideal. I tuck my money and IDs in various locations so if items are lost or stolen I stand a good chance of retaining what is required to get back into the US. I chug some water, pound some crackers, holster my knife, turn on my GPS tracker, email out proposed locations so people may track me, and shut my helmet visor. I walk outside, the rain has stopped, town is quite and the sun is just reaching the horizon, a thin pink sheen lines the ground in the distance.

Fear is gone, apprehension subsides and I’m ready. I’ve done the prep, I’ve studied up, prepared mentally and physically. There is nothing more I can do, any hesitation or worry can now only serve to impair me, to debilitate, to increase the risk, they are self-defeating emotions and they have no place here. All I can do now is focus, be absolutely present, diligently observe, prepare for action, take what may come in stride and know, absolutely know, I will be fine. I do. Like the soldier or the skier my reality has shaped me, options are not things I have, time to do.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Pulling out of town the sky begins to glow, pinks and oranges illuminate huge cumulous clouds above the horizon. The landscape is immense and beautiful, rolling agricultural fields, corn, maize, and other industrial crops, little barbwire fences line the tattered two lane highway, large trees provide cover for would be ambushers. I don’t stop at stoplights, I speed prodigiously. I keep my eyes open. I stay distant from cars but never alone in eyesight from any one vantage. Finally I catch up to the police cars traveling en-mass at double the speed limit. I bargain that the risk of them serving as a target for a grenade attack or pulling me over for speeding is less than the benefit they will provide as a deterrent to a carjacker or kidnapper in wait. I hug the rear car’s bumper for the next sixty or so miles until they pull off to help a stranded driver, all three of them, their need to stay en-mass to help a passerby an indication of the danger they perceive.

I continue unabated, I drive as fast as I can, balancing time to reach the border with gas mileage, gas stops must be kept to an absolute minimum as they are where I am most vulnerable, yet un extra hour or two on this road also increases the risk. It’s all a balance. The numbers continuously run through my mind, X miles to go, Y fuel economy, I need Z miles in reserve for a calamity or a chase, when do I stop? Should I drive 60, 71, 76 or 90mph?

Half way there, the highway splits, I have three options, the shortest route with the most danger, through Matamoros, or the longest with the least, through Laredo, or somewhere in between through Reynosa. An additional 2 hours on Mexican roads and an extra gas stop but marginally less potential for violence vs. one more stop and just over one hour to the border with increased hostile activity, that is the option. Or the middle option, no additionally gas, just an extra half hour of driving with a risk profile between the two. I spot a police checkpoint, four hulking navy blue pick-ups, six fully fatigued officers in the beds, each with a fully automatic assault rifle loaded and mounted to tripods in the bed. I ask their advice, they suggest the middle route would serve me best, I abide.

All is going well. No grenade attacks, no carjackings, not scary moments. In fact, I’ve spent most of my time enjoying the scenery, calculating arrival times in my head and wondering if I would intersect the sporadically placed storm clouds on the horizon. As I pass a gas station with 90 miles of range (I normally fill at 100) I decide to push on, I have 140miles to the border and at 100mph, what I presume to be my chase speed should an attempt be made on my life, my range is 120 miles. Having seen a station every 20 or so miles all day I decide to wait on the next one ensuring that in a worst case scenario I can make the border without running out of gas. Yet, as I progress, 10, 20, 40, 50 miles, no station. My heart rate increases, with each mile I move towards the border the danger increases and my fuel reserve is dropping precipitously.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

At 40 miles of range I spot a gas station, relief rushes over me, but as I approach, each terminal is closed off, the pumps covered by garbage bags. At 25 miles another shuttered station, at 20 another. Now the tension peaks, I begin to plan how I will deal with impending disaster, how I will hide my bike, where I will go, who I will ask for help, the range ticks down on the digital display, 13, 11, 7,6. Then, off in the distance I spot another high roof, another potential station. I pull up, in business, my savior, no premium but I’ll take whatever they’re pumping. I fill up, calamity avoided, 50 miles to freedom. How will this all end.