The decision to stop and lean on the hospitality of the Gonzalez Fernandez family the day before paid off. I awoke to a clear sky and calm weather, which resulted in the remaining 80 kms or so to the border town of Matamoros passing speedily and without incident. I did note, however, that the remaining road on the Mexican side (101) was particularly exposed, and would have resulted in my having to stop in an area without shelter if I had been foolish enough to press on the day before. In my notes that day, I recorded that the ride would have been horrendous! As always on the journey it has been important to listen to my gut feeling; if something doesn´t feel right it probably isn´t– and vice versa. That was the case regarding the increasing wind - but also in respect of the kind offer of help.
The quick skirt through the town of Matamoros found us, yet again, at a border the cross. Not many to go though, and this was likely to be the last tricky one of the trip. I have to note that the Mexican officials and the process they have put in place was remarkably efficient, and they soon had me cleared to leave with the return of my $400 bond for the temporary importation of the bike being managed in no time at all. Some 20 minutes later I was rolling up to the US immigration officials, who on sight of my strange looking number plate asked where I was from. Great Britain I replied, finding it somewhat odd to be finally speaking English to a border official. Ah, the officer responded... Canadian! No, I patiently explained, Great Britain – you know, from Europe? You had better pull to the side while we process your paperwork, I was advised by the somewhat bemused guard. I was aware that US customs have the reputation of being a little surly, so I did well to suppress the giggles that were growing inside, turning my growing smile into the "I´m really pleased to be here" line, "I´ve just ridden up from Argentina over the last couple of months" – which only seemed to baffle the officer more. Perhaps I should just shut up and go with the flow!
After a quick luggage check I was directed to the immigration office to arrange my Visa Waiver. I was rather rudely informed that the ESTA I logged online before my departure (and paid a few dollars for) was only for air travel and in my case a complete waste of time (would have been nice if the website had made that clear). On arrival in the well appointed (thankfully) air conditioned office, I was surprised to note that none of the 6 windows were manned – though there were some 15 people sitting around in the waiting area. After about 5 minutes standing around like an idiot, through the glass partition I managed to catch the eye of an officer busy packing out his waistline with doughnuts and coffee (no, seriously, I´m not making this up). When asked what I wanted, to which I replied my Visa Waiver, I was told rather brusquely that it would take at least 2 hours. OK, I thought, it looks like my objective for crossing each border in less than 2 hours in total was going to fail at the hand of US customs, and I settled in for a long wait. A short while later the officer with whom I was speaking outside entered, saw me waiting, called me over, and processed my Visa Waiver within minutes (having relived me of $6) and sent me on my way! I was in the good ol´ USA – and still within 2 hours at that!
I´m not sure what the Mexicans having to hang around in the waiting room thought of all that – but during my short wait I did see one official put his head around a door and call one of the adults into a separate side room. The guard was wearing rubber gloves! Another interesting observation was that while the US officials were all US born (as best you can judge from the accents used), they all reverted to Spanish when speaking between themselves. Spanish appeared to be the default office language, and signs were also posted with Spanish first. This observation was to be reinforced over the coming days, where people in the street generally also spoke Spanish first. I was aware of the large number of Spanish speakers now in the USA, but I hadn´t realised that this had translated so notably into use of Spanish as the first language. Interesting, or should I say... interesante?
Equally interesante was the immediate display of wealth as we crossed into the USA. This was visible in terms of road quality and cleanliness, the state of the buildings and tended gardens, volume and nature of retail outlets, newness and value of the vehicles on the road, clothes worn etc. Almost every visible aspect. The arrival of road signs that were clear, numerous and accurate was also a noticeable difference – and a welcome one. We were heading for Arizona, so the 83 west along the US border was selected, and we got out of Dodge (well, Brownsville actually, but you know the phrase).
The roads and landscape looked both familiar and yet strange. I had never been in this area of the US before, yet each town passed sounded like something from an old Western movie. In fact some of them were the names of old Western movies (eg Rio Grande) so that´s probably why. Also the landscape was still very familiar to what I had seen on the Mexican side (understandably, as it was only some 50 miles away), but at the same time it was strange as everything man made was in such good order and well organised. The disjointed feeling wasn´t helped by the fact that everyone continued to speak Spanish to each other – and in only a short space of time I found myself defaulting back to Español myself!
I mentioned that everything was comparatively well organised, but that is not entirely true. Searching for a place to stay in Rio Grande and (later that day) in Roma resulted in a frustrating quest to find a motel with an internet connection. I gave up on the fourth or fifth attempt, and landed in a reasonable place in Roma (sense WiFi), as the temperature was now well into the 40s and too hot to comfortably continue this day. Perhaps I was being a little unfair, but I couldn´t help pointing out to the motel receptionist all the countries I had travelled where I had been able to easily find good wifi over recent months. She, somewhat embarrassed by the facts, muttered that they were thinking about getting it installed. Texas is a BIG place, and clearly the twenty-first century has yet to arrive in all its parts.
The arrival of some pretty hot weather saw us up and out well before dawn, as we calmly made our way up the 83 and onto the 90 west at Uvalde. The roads were predictably good, but the landscape unremarkable and generally flat. We didn´t spot Southfork (the Dallas series has recently been regenerated in the USA – yep JR and Bobby are back – and are getting good reviews) but we did pass numerous ranch gates, some of which were quite artistic. We also passed some curious road signs, such as "Hitchhikers may be escaped convicts".
When the temperature got back into the 40s we, again, pulled in for the day – this time in Del Rio at a Motel 6 (a network of cheap motels which we were to use regularly throughout the lower 48). These places were also a great opportunity to meet up with fellow motorcycle travellers, and this was no exception. Mike Marrion (Harley Ultra), the impressively bearded former marine and police officer and I passed an enjoyable few hours talking about our respective travels. Cool guy who, now well in to retirement, was on his last distance bike trip revisiting the various states on a coast to coast run. The next day was another attempt to beat the sun as we trundled west (90) through Bantry and stopping in Sanderson for a refuel and some of the best coffee of the trip so far (at the small town petrol station, and made fresh by the owner). Chatting to the locals at the fuel stop, saw us then continuing along the 90 through Alpine, a more scenic route, rather than heading up to the Interstate. I didn´t enjoy riding the Interstates, which are faster and generally more exposed (they seem to all be built up from ground level) to the high winds currently battering the western half of the USA.
It was a pleasant ride, though I noted in my day log that it getting hot by 10 o´clock each day was a bit odd, and having to stop by 2 was surprising. But I was not going to ride without my armoured gear – and my armoured gear was not going to let me ride such high temperatures in comfort, despite being vented etc. I also concluded that if I was going to ride in such a climate again, I would not choose to use a black crash helmet – which only seemed to magnify the searing heat. So we stopped for the day in El Paso, right on the New Mexico border, which sounded just like another western movie – but didn´t look it – it being a modern and bustling border city. A chance to catch up on some writing and do a bit of basic maintenance on Idris (as soon as that sun passed overhead and put the car park in shadow that is).
I noted how tricky it was to unload Idris this day. The two straps that hold the roll bag to the back of the bike have metal clasps – which I had to douse with cold water as they had gotten too hot to handle with my bare hands! Equally I couldn´t hold the steel pannier lids for more than the couple of seconds needed to release the locks. Crazy! South America was relatively cold (well it was getting into their winter), and Central America was humid and sweaty, but nothing had prepared me for the heat of the lower US.
Thought for the day
Despite my research which alerted me to the contrary, I couldn´t help arriving in North America with the expectation or feeling that I had covered the hard ground in the first two phases of the journey (South and Central America). I had to keep telling myself that this was not necessarily the case. And if I had a job keeping that in mind, then the weather only served as a regular reminder. The hurricane in Mexico, had been quickly followed by my arrival in unseasonably hot weather in the USA – coupled with a notable dryness and particularly harsh winds – the "lower 48" were suffering from a series of wildfires, drought, flash flooding, tornadoes, and dangerous thunder storms, the likes of which are generally unheard of in Europe. I had to think carefully on how to proceed, and continue to pick my route and riding style to suit the climate. My plan to use the US as a place to make some real progress through long riding days seemed to have been tossed out the window by mother nature.