On August 18th, 2012, I woke up at seven in the morning. That day was not going to be a common one as I usually had until then: editing, doing errands, swearing about immigration law; that day was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, the day in which I would start making history by taking a W123 Mercedes 300TD wagon across the entire American Continent.
Sitting outside was the vessel of this experience, glimmering in the light of dawn, its windows rich with the gradient of the new sky. The air was heavy with the pressure of upcoming rains.
Without hesitation, I sprung up from bed and started to pack all my supplies in the wagon, placing them by frequency of use and ease of reach. By noon I was done and blasted off to the unknown...
Highway 35 in Oklahoma, where there are actual hills as opposed to Kansas.
My first stop was the DFW area. I parked in a monumental shopping center and treated myself to one last luxury in the United States: to watch The Expendables 2, as I had been waiting for the release of this film for the last two months. I was not disappointed: with –almost– every single action hero from the last twenty years, the movie felt more like a Hollywood meetup of old work buddies than a serious narrative that asks its audience to build its characters. It reminded me of the old film "The Last Action Hero", starring Arnold Schwarzenegger: an honest, self-reflective movie.
I spent the night in an isolated corner next to a loading area, and the next day I went down to Dallas to say goodbye to a friend from the Mercedes-Benz PeachParts community: Panzzer. Together we had some finger-licking barbeque, and tried to get an old diesel engine running. I also diagnosed the shutoff problem in his car and pointed out the faulty element causing the problem.
No comment. As Texas as it gets.
The famous Stock Yards, with the White Elephant Café to the right.
The skyline of Dallas as the sun sets. Cannot believe it had been one year since I last stopped by!
Towards the end of the day I decided that the safest border town to make a stop at would be San Antonio; from there I could make the big push to Monterrey in Mexico. On the road down I still was in the mindset of the car transporter: drive long, sleep inside, arrive home. However, right now, my car was my home. Everything that I could need, that I would use for my basic sustenance, was well stocked in the modified guts of this invincible diesel.
Everybody's respective rigs. Can you find the most economical one?
In the outskirts of San Antonio I found a peaceful truck stop where I decided to park for the night. While setting up my bed, a leprechaun-looking trucker, wearing a plaid shirt, approached me:
TRUCKER: Sorry to bother, but nice diesel! What year is it?
MIGUEL: Thank you! It's an '81.
TRUCKER: My family just got one of those for $900, we love 'em.
MIGUEL: Nice! How many miles on yours?
TRUCKER: Close to 270,000; we are trying to get it runnin'.
MIGUEL: Can I see your rig? I never really saw an eighteen-wheeler up-close.
TRUCKER: Sure! This one is a Volvo.
The unnamed trucker and I walk a few feet towards his shiny new Volvo truck and opens the door and the hood. He starts explaining why the story behind his big rig...
TRUCKER: The special thing about this one is that this truck is an automatic.
MIGUEL: Wow, that's uncommon... for how long have you had it?
TRUCKER: It's about two months old, and in all that time it has run 50,000 miles!
MIGUEL: Impressive! Look at the size of the alternator on this engine!
TRUCKER: Yes, pretty big. These things can run one-two million miles with maintenance.
We kept chatting about engine specs and he felt noticeably refreshed. So much, in fact, he decided to keep going instead of stopping for the night. His little dog came out of the cabin and started staring at me, and we soon waved each other goodbye. I snuggled in my triple-memory-foam bed and slept like a baby until daylight woke me up the next day.
Some last supplies before I hit the road...
The next morning I got a few supplies in the local O'Reilly auto parts store, checked all the fluids and filled up at the gas station. With a full tank, I should be more than able to drive non-stop to Monterrey. I also replaced every single fuse for the sake of preventive maintenance.
Three fuse colors and close to 15 slots. Child's play and great peace of mind.
The area around Monterrey is said to be very dangerous, especially at night. It will probably be the most dangerous part of the journey, since a lot of the drug traffic is headed on this route. For this reason, I left quickly to make it before dusk. Very soon I found myself in Laredo, the border.
The US-Mexican border, where dreams are forged –and crushed.
I phoned a few close friends before taking off for Mexico, and cruised effortlessly past the "Puente Internacional" (International Bridge), where I was routed on to customs to get all my paperwork stamped, including the necessary documents to "temporarily import" the wagon.
The paperwork was actually easier to do than one would have thought!
Inside a Stalin-esque concrete construction, I was directed to several windows, marked by "step one", "step two" and "step four". The clerks competently handled all the paperwork without any effort, and a lot of stamping. This gave me good hopes for the rest of the bureaucracy in the journey.
Don't let yourself be fooled by the heavily armed Policía Federal, it is a recurrent sight throughout.
Here I am, driving in Mexico... IT'S ON!
Cheap pitstop: obleas with dulce de leche (caramel wafers). I had been waiting for YEARS to have them again.
These cows must have found my wagon rather interesting... they could not stop staring!
The beautiful layering of mountains as I approach Monterrey.
Mexican highways have nothing to envy the American interstate. Despite being evident that there is not enough money to create lots of fancy bridges and overpasses –official U turns are used instead-, they are well laid, and many of them are brand spanking new, with "water and trash" mini stops in the shoulders. The landscapes around them are absolutely stunning.
Livingstone the 300TD, making its way like the German sewing machine it is.
The mountains near Monterrey, where I would spend the night.
As soon as I arrived to Monterrey I was greeted by chaotic traffic. But, may I add, it is a controlled kind of chaos. Most drives do not seem to be too well versed on the laws of the road, but they have an impeccable common sense and a degree of politeness I have not seen since Canada.
In the words of a tour-operator: 'Monterey is a city of contrasts". BIG TIME UNDERSTATEMENT.
Anyone reminded of San Francisco, the way the houses overlap each other in the hills?
I will be very clear: the first impression on Monterrey was not a favorable one. The city, choked by smog, sits on a valley surrounded by very steep mountains, which help creating a "well" of pollution. The difference between the richest and the poorest is no less than impressive: while the lowest classes will live in shacks built out of wooden pallets without any kind of sanitation, the richest will enjoy their private-police patrolled neighborhoods crammed with fortress-like, concrete row-homes and the latest German imports in their garages. Shocking, to say the least.
Poor Monterrey: where the residential and the industrial meet!
"Transitional" Monterrey. Both the rich and poor sectors are divided by a tunnel into the mountain.
Rich Monterrey: I say, old chap, do you fancy a light snack at Starbucks?
I went to the local mall in search of free wifi, but all connections were password-protected. I did see, however, how many of the American chain restaurants we take for granted in the United States (Starbucks, Johnny Rocket's, Krispy Kreme) are actually very fancy places for casual dining. Ever fancied a very upcale IHOP? They have it in Monterrey!
The local Pemex station... let's see how many times I have to replace my fuel filters!
I filled up with Mexican diesel and no additives, fingers crossed, and the performance of my wagon was not altered at all! I was very relieved to know I could trust the government's brand of fuel!
I drove up to the rich neighborhood and spent the night there for the sake of safety, setting up my sleeping quarters with my dark blanket held by a string across the cabin, more or less a "tent" inside the wagon. With this safe setup, I slept with some difficulty until I opened the sunroof, then the night's cool air lulled me to the sweetest of dreams.
Good morning! Time to go on my route and get outta here!
Fancy engineering on the road to San Luis Potosí!
The last sight of the sprawling metropolis, minutes before Highway 40.
The usual landscape on highways 40 and 57. Made it to town with still half a tank of diesel!
The drive to San Luis Potosí was absolutely uneventful, just 5 hours of breathtaking landscapes, foggy mountains, twisted vegetation, lots of "Vulncanizadora" (tire repair and replacement) shacks, roadside restaurants and two convoys of army trucks that passed my wagon with lots of smiles.
As I stared into the distance, I thought for a moment that target had made it to Mexico. I was wrong.
The many Spanish colonial churches in San Luis Potosí.
The first thing I did after arriving to San Luis Potosí at 2pm was to take a long gulp of water and rest for a few minutes in my seat. From then on, I threw myself into the streets of this beautiful town to explore the historic center, especially the baroque architecture of its temples.
My wagon's HD suspension took the cobblestone like a champion!
Parked next to a gym in a residential neighborhood. Excellent place to spend the night!
Iglesia de Guadalupe. I could not resist to get in!
Incredible Spanish Splendor. Notice the ship made out of glass at the top, hanging for the main dome.
Dusty colonial charm. Really reminds me of home!
Yet another baroque church. They are EVERYWHERE!
Exploring downtown San Luis Potosí... parts of it are a mix of Catalonia and Andalusia.
For the first time in Mexico, I went hunting of an ice-cold glass of real horchata (tiger nut milk), and I found my coveted prize: right density, incredibly thirst-quenching and only one dollar!
Where I woke up this morning, just before heading to the library to write this post.
The journey is being wonderful so far. I am taking things calmly and staying in the safest spots I can, roaming the world bit by bit on a tiny budget, enjoying the simple pleasures that this life without luxuries is providing me. I have slept for four nights in the wagon without difficulties, and taken a few showers out of an industrial sprayer bottle with no apparent difference in hygiene. Life is good, what else can I say? I have been for a few days on the road and have zero regrets!
Follow Miguel at ThisEuropeanLife.com [link]