Reflections In the Waves
The ride into South Padre Island was a short one, just over 60 km. The highest point of elevation was a whopping 12 meters, and I think it was on the bridge to the island. The bridge that had a sign prohibiting bikes and pedestrians, I might add. So unless you buy a 1,000 kg piece of machinery, as well as insurance, registration, inspection, and frequent refueling, you don't have the right to go to South Padre Island.
When I looked to my left and saw the ocean behind a row of short trees, I did a double take. I don't know how or why, but it caught me by surprise. Obviously I intellectually knew it was coming, I was going to South Padre Island today. But somehow I hadn't fully understood it until I saw it. I'd made it to the ocean! From the top of Alaska to the bottom of Texas, from the Arctic to the Atlantic!
The cheapest hotel on the island was $95. A campsite with free hot showers, less than a five minute bike ride from the beach, was $15. Hmmm...
Somehow, I was one of only four tents on the entire island. There were over 400 RVs, thousands in hotel rooms and condos, and only four groups in tents. One of them was me, a single guy on a bike! I was surprised the balance was so overwhelmingly in one direction, especially with the enormous discrepancy in prices. You'd think at least a few other families or broke college kids would go "Aw screw it, let's bring a tent."
After I set up my tent, I went straight to the beach, inadvertently to the busiest beach on the island. It was like a city! Canopy tents mere centimeters from the next canopy tent, three rows deep, stretching in each direction up and down the beach as far as you could see.
Not to be deterred, I dragged Valeria across the sand and near the water. I found the first adults without kids I could find and politely asked if they could do me a favor.
He shook his head, "No íngles."
"Puede hacer photographo de mio y mi bicicleta en el oceano?"
He smiled and nodded. I was immensely proud. I improvised (perhaps poorly) a whole sentence in Spanish! This might work out after all!
I stood shin-deep in the ocean, both of Valeria's wheels in the Atlantic. Two down, two to go. Pacific, you're next.
I hung out there for a little while, then headed up the island for a quieter beach to go swimming and for some solitary reading on the sand. I wound up meeting a family from McAllen there, just taking a day trip. I was only sitting there reading when they walked over and offered me a water, then a soda, and this soon became an entire dinner! Nice folks, all of them, with various fluency in English. A city planner, a substitute teacher, a brand new high school graduate who was about to study business management at UT-Pan American. They gave me some tips about traveling in Mexico. That might prove more valuable than the dinner!
For the last few days, people have asked if I'm heading to Mexico, and when I answer in the affirmative, I always get a reaction, never the exact same one. It's too dangerous. It's not as bad as people say it is. The cartels only hurt each other, but you could get caught in the crossfire. You'll only get robbed if you look rich. The people are nice. You might get kidnapped if they think you have rich family. Mind your own business. Don't walk alone at night. Don't flash money. Don't use a cell phone in public. Stick to the main highways. The small towns are worse. The big towns are worse.
The consensus seems to be that it's dangerous, but much safer if you know what to do and how to act. One noticeable thing: most of the people on the "It's too dangerous" side haven't been there lately. Most of the "It’s not bad, just be careful" folks have.
I found a venue with live folk music on my way back to my tent. I'd never expected to hear steel drums in a Lyle Lovett song, but now I have, and it worked! I waited until they played a song I could swing to, "Bad Bad Leroy Brown," and asked a middle-aged woman to dance. I would later learn she used to be a dance instructor, so I probably hardly impressed her. I would learn only a minute later that she was married to one of the guys in the band. Uh-oh. How coincidental that we happened to be dancing to a song about a jealous man!
The dozen or so folks in the audience were all locals and knew each other. I was the only tourist there, somehow...what was everyone else doing on their vacation that was more entertaining than live music and dancing? I was received with warmth and invited by more than one to come visit them if I'm ever around again. I will not forget that!
Later, I hung out with an Austinite couple in one of the other tents, drinking Tecate and philosophizing late into the night. The next morning, I talked with the family in the humongous tent next to mine. They didn't speak much English, only about as much as I spoke Spanish. Eager to practice, we used Spanish, and mostly understood each other!
Later in the day, I wound up meeting a large church group from New York. Some guy had started a church inside an old theater building, catering mostly to gang members and prostitutes, and it has since grown into a humongous church movement that is one of the largest in the northeast. This particular group was made up of "at-risk" teenagers who were about the most well-adjusted, level-headed (and fun!) young men and women I've met in a long time. What these people are doing is greater than what I’m doing.
At one point they had an informal service, mostly singing, and asked me to join them. The very first song was "Amazing Grace." I became overcome with emotion in one verse and couldn't even finish it:
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come,
'Twas grace that brought me safe this far,
And grace will lead me home.
Maybe I named Valeria prematurely.
My full day off, being Monday, was much more relaxing than the crowds had been on the weekend. A quiet day of introspection, reflecting on what's happened and looking ahead at what's coming. Over 8,000 km in two months. Freezing polar arctic, cool tundra, snow-capped mountains, lush river valleys, dry plains, rugged canyons, the lovely Hill Country, and the semi-tropical Texas coast. Downpours, snow, headwind, heat, humidity. Depressing lows and overwhelming highs. And somehow, this was just something else: I made it to the ocean. From here on out, I guess I just keep going!
When I think about the Dalton Highway in Alaska, it seems like a long time ago in a faraway land, almost like it was a dream, or it didn't happen. It's foreign to me now. And yet, it still feels like I'm just getting started. That's a good thing, I guess. I don't feel like I'm ready for this to be over, not in the slightest.
In many ways, the real adventure is about to begin. Developing countries where everything is unfamiliar and there's a language barrier to deal with. I'm glad I made North America the first leg of the ride, so riding 140 km in a day is no big deal by now. If I had to get used to that and deal with the logistical/cultural challenges at the same time, that might have been too much at once.
The greatest thing, so far, has been the countless warm, helpful souls I have met along the way. I don't know why I haven't learned to expect it by now, but every time I do something like this, the enormity of the kindness and generosity of people still surprises me every time. For all the negative things you hear about human nature, for every time you hear how we hate more than we love, for every time you believe we are a selfish, cold, uncaring species or society, go on a bike tour or backpacking trip and see for yourself. Humans are better than you would've ever guessed.
A little salt water, swimming, reading on the beach, live music, dancing. All things that are good for the soul. The perfect time and place for me to take my first entirely personal day for myself alone. I'm ready for whatever comes next. And I'm ready to slow down a little, too.