19 October 2009

2009 LCP: The Journey to the Start: Denver – Guanajuato – Zacatecas – Tehuacan - Hualtuco

After a flight from Denver to northern Mexico and 2-1/2 long days of road tripping, we finally made it to Hualtuco, location of the race start! One of the many crazy aspects of La Carrera is that it takes an immense amount of effort to just arrive at the start of the race in one piece. Not even considering the race car and the work to prepare it for this brutal endurance race, just getting the truck and trailer and crew here is lengthy and exhausting.

My journey began in Denver on Saturday morning when Todd and I flew to Dallas and then Guanajuato in north central Mexico. We were received by a wonderful welcome party, “equipo de bienvenido,” as I called them in my broken Spanish – Eloisa with her daughter Nanny and son Uriel - three smiling, familiar faces from Zacatecas with a balloon and gifts.

Our welcome crew: Nanny, Uriel and Eloisa

I hopped into the car with them for a 3 hour journey to Zacatecas, while Todd had a driver to take him 90 minutes to San Miguel de Allende to join Gerie Bledsoe and the Coyote Convoy. Gerie ushers the “Coyote Convoy” down from Laredo, TX each year to ensure anyone wanting the support of a large group and seasoned veterans to get across the border and 2,000 rugged miles to the start. Gerie’s assistance was invaluable our rookie year – we would not have made it to the start line without him. He provides support in the form of endless emails, phone calls and regular and frequent newsletters detailing step-by-step what a competitor must do to get to the start. Many competitors simply would not be here if it weren’t for Gerie’s constant and tireless effort – thank you, Gerie!

Arriving at my dad’s house in Zacatecas on Saturday evening the doggies were happy to see me. We got takeout sushi and all had a wonderful meal at the house. Sunday we would be meeting up with the Hot Rod Lincoln boys – Ralph and Bill from Phoenix – to continue to the journey to the 2009 LCP start in Hualtuco.

Team TBZ: Hugo, Bimbo, Geezer, Kristin, Rene - a chilly and overcast morning in Zacatecas.

El Jefe ready to leave Zacatecas with the Hot Rod Lincoln

No matter what part of the world you come from I think most on the LCP would agree it is difficult to get to Hualtuco. Our LCP friends come from Mexico, England, Canada, Germany, China, USA, and beyond. Even starting out in Mexico poses a challenge as Hualtuco lies in the very southwestern curve of Mexico on the Pacific Ocean.

Coming from my dad’s house in Zacatecas it took us about 28 hours to drive to Hualtuco. The first day was 13 smooth hours on the road from Zacatecas to Tehuacan. There is a new toll road around Mexico City called el Arco Norte (north arc) and it shaved off at least 2 frustrating hours off our journey. In 2007 Rene, Geezer and I got lost in Texcoco (part of Mexico City) in the dark and rain and ended up being escorted by a local policeman for over an hour through the congested city.

The caravan consisted of Ralph and Bill with their Hot Rod Lincoln, with Hugo Hernandez as their crew. Hugo is a friend of Rene and Bimbo’s who did an amazing job of body work and paint on Geezer’s two work trucks and El Jefe this year. Ralph and Bill were without a crew so Geezer hooked them up with Hugo. On the TBZ side we had Rene, Bimbo, Geezer and me with El Jefe on the trailer. El Jefe looks amazing – like a new car – now blue instead of black. Rumor has it that Hugo put so much paint on that the magnets won’t stick anymore!

Our breakfast stop about an hour outside of Zacatecas.

Geezer eating one of his hard-boiled eggs on the road.

Each year I adore the road trip to the start; it is my special time with Geezer and Rene and Bimbo before the real madness of the race starts. We are full of energy and excitement and we fill the Big Mama full of singing and laughter. Geezer was doing the happy dance in the backseat, air drumming and singing along to Bob Marley, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. We listened to some beautiful Mexican music, some mariachi tunes and some Vincente (my favorite). Then it is my ritual to make Rene cringe by playing Julio Iglesias.

The first day we made it to Tehuacan, one of the nuttiest stops on the race route. It is a smaller town whose people pull out all the stops to welcome the race cars. The town square is mobbed with mariachi bands playing, Corona girls and throngs of people wanting autographs. In 2006 Stewie and I arrived in Tehuacan after a thrilling morning of racing, Stewie’s first time driving, and when we finally got to the town square there was such a crowd that we could not get out of the car once we parked and sat there and signed autographs for an hour until we were able to get out and sit on the car and continue to sign more. At the time Stewie didn’t know that no matter who you are, if you are driving or navigating an LCP car, you are famous in Mexico!

We arrived at the hotel in Tehuacan pretty late, but they held the restaurant open for us, piped in some awesome 70s love songs and Rene found Nacho Libre with Jack Black on the TV.

We know our LCP friend Michael Emery from Lucha Libre Racing would have belly-laughed with us this evening.

Around midnight Geezer and I were checking into our rooms and we caught Ralph running back from his truck in his underwear. We hooted at him and he stopped dead in his track, struck a pose and shouted, "NACHO LIBRE!" Hysterical.

On Day 2 of our road trip we got an 8 a.m. start from Tehuacan for what we thought, based upon the mileage, was going to be a fairly easy 10 hour day to Hualtuco.

A beautiful early morning start in Tehuacan.

The 101 in Tehuacan.

Just a little pebble in the road starting up the mountain pass to Oaxaca.

The beautiful mountain pass north of Oaxaca - feels like the top of the world.

A little mid-century modernism at a gas station in Oaxaca.

New bed frames walking down the road in Oaxaca.

The beautiful countryside south of Oaxaca, on the way to Hualtuco.

A cute little burro.

We made it to Oaxaca by 1 pm, a familiar place to us, and began climbing a large mountain pass around 3 pm. We found out later it is called Espinazo del Diablo - THE DEVIL'S SPINE.
According to guidebooks:
"Highway 175, the cross-Sierra connection north with Oaxaca, although paved, is narrow and winding, with few services for a lonely 80-mile stretch between its junction with Hwy 200 at Pochutla and Miahuatlan in the Valley of Oaxaca. The road climbs to 7,000 feet into pineclad, winter-chilly Chatino and Zapotec country. Be prepared for emergencies. Allow 7 hours southbound from Oaxaca for the entire 170 mile Huatulco-Oaxaca trip."

The start of our climb over the Devil's Backbone - we had NO IDEA that is was going to take so long to go so few miles over this rugged and high mountain range.

Love the characters on this wall - grandma holding off the bad guy with a big ol' shotgun!

Yep, this is a gas station on the Devil's Spine - hard to see but there are small jugs of gas on the counter.

"Do not take candy from this man!" On one of our brake cooling stops some locals stopped to see the race cars and Ralph offered red licorice.

It's not easy to make friends with dogs in Mexico. This little guy was so cute but very skittish. Eventually Ralph and Bill got him to come close enough to eat some scraps of jerky.

Goats literally on the road! There isn't a shoulder here so we had to swerve so as to not disturb these homies chillin out.
We were very slow to realize that this mountain pass was going to take a veeeeeery long time. We were averaging around 20 mph due to the narrow, steep and winding mountain road. There thankfully wasn’t much traffic but with trucks and trailers it just takes time. At one point Bimbo was pulling over to wait for Ralph and Bill and as he coasted to a pullout, he exclaimed that we had very little brakes left. Bimbo is pretty quiet and almost impossible to ruffle so I knew it must be real if he was actually saying something about it. He was able to get us stopped and when we got out we realized how hot and overworked the brakes were.

Because we’ve all done the LCP before, we know that there are always obstacles in the path and things always break and when they do, you try to fix them and if you can’t and you have to wait, then you simply relax and enjoy the moment. So Ralph and Bill broke out the jerky and giant Costco bin of red licorice, and we took bathroom breaks in the woods and waited for the brakes to cool. The boys checked the trailer hitch and it was loose. Pretty much everything gets loose and eventually breaks on this trip.

Back on the road Bill’s GPS said we had 50 miles to go and it would take 3 hours. I think that is when it started to sink in that we still had a ways to go. It was 5 pm when we got rolling again. We were hoping to be off the mountain with the coast in sight before sundown. But our pace didn’t get any faster, in fact, it slowed tremendously when darkness came very quickly with clouds, then fog, then rain. Visibility was so poor that Rene was actually quietly calling out the turns as he drove, with a wavering question mark at the end that Bimbo would confirm with his own eyes from the backseat. It was incredibly difficult to see. At one point messing with the dims and the brights, Rene turned off the headlights and could actually see better without them but Geezer yelled, “Turn on the lights,” and later said it scared the crap out of him. There just wasn’t a good solution – we couldn’t see. We plugged along and for a while followed two trucks that seemed to know the way and that helped.

The road up here is incredible, we climbed about 5,000 feet in altitude from Oaxaca with lots of ups and downs. The pass seemed to go on forever and the views were magnificent. The road has no shoulder and the drop off is extreme, often times on both sides. It is rainforest up here and there aren’t even any visible trails. It seems you could only travel on the road to the next village up or down – most people up here don’t appear to own cars and I didn’t spot any walking paths. The infrequent and sparse villages typically lie on a spine or ridge and are about a block in length. The gas stations, where they exist, consist of a palapa hut with some gas in a plastic jug and a “gas for sale” sign.

But this is the route we were told to take from Oaxaca to Hualtuco (hwy 175) and it was some of the most incredible mountain scenery I have ever seen. Yes, it was taking us forever but we were grateful that no one broke down and when our brakes got hot, we could let them cool. It happened a second time when Rene was driving…..he was pulling over to wait for the Hot Rod Lincoln and I could see him pumping the brakes furiously saying, “BOSS! BOSS! No brakes! No brakes!”

Geezer, Bimbo and I were all calm – after all, what can you possibly do in a truck and trailer without brakes? So we got stopped again and were actually in a village which was nice for our brake break. Ralph and Bill soon joined us and there were maybe 25 people milling around in this tiny place that was the biggest town we’d seen in about 6 hours. We got cold Coronas and sat on a railing while the brakes cooled. There was a bit of frustration I think because we did not know that this relatively short section was going to take us so many hours. We had been climbing and descending the mountain pass for about 5 hours and we didn’t feel confident about the end in sight. But here we were, in a very remote mountain region of Mexico, having beers with the locals who were taking phone pictures of the car and asking questions, so what could be better? I love this stuff.

Then the fog came......we could see about 5 feet ahead of us....then the sun went down. Oh, and the brakes that kept overheating. Talk about nerve-racking!

Another brake cooling break in a tiny village where most of the people weren't wearing shoes. Luckily the corner tiendita was open and they had cold Coronas. You might be able to see the fatigue on Bimbo and Hugo's faces.

Villagers enjoying the freakshow that was us.

Ralph in a quiet moment with a Corona.

We asked a few locals how long it would take to get to Hualtuco and their varying answers were becoming the joke of the day. As with anywhere in the world, ask the same question of many people and you will get different answers. When asking directions in Mexico it is a good practice to ask at least 3 different people as the answers seem to widely vary. We asked and got that Hualtuco was 90 minutes or 2 hours away. We chuckled because we had thought and hoped that we were much closer, and also because 2 hours in a tiny little car on roads that you know is a lot quicker than when in a truck and trailer for the first time.

We finally did make it to the Bay of Hualtuco, a beautiful and remote area of Oaxaca where a resort/tourist infrastructure has appeared to grow quickly out of nothing. I think we were on the road about 15 hours today. We are staying at the Barcelo, a resort on the beach in a smallish bay. We arrived at the hotel too late to eat and even the lobby bar was shutting down when we got there. We were very tired and hungry but found the disco bar that was open until 2 am to wind down and have a drink and relax. You learn to relax in Mexico with eardrum-pounding Mexican techno music blaring, yes you do.

Todd and Fernando in San Miguel. Luckily the Coyote Convoy was a day behind us and we were able to advise them not to travel The Devil's Spine. I love this photo by Coop.

1 comment:

mjb said...

Great to read the news Kristin! Hope Geezer keeps smiling and Todd keeps Gerie on the road! Best of luck to you all!