I left Green Valley, Arizona with 22,640 miles on the odometer at about 8am on Saturday, November 29th and made it to the border town of Nogales, Mx. by about 9:30 after getting gas. (The "gas" part becomes important later.) My plans were just to make it to San Carlos, Sonora, which on the west coast of mainland Mexico. (Eastern shores of the California Bay.) Peter was camped out at the Totonaka Campground for a couple of weeks with his girlfriend, Maritza, but she had gone home now and was time for us to head toward South America.
Anyone that’s been to border towns knows the scenery sure does change the second you arrive. You’ll leave a completely rural setting in the U.S., and enter quite a busy little city in each border town. I had just crossed what looked like the first checkpoint for customs into Mexico, and uh oh……the Policia started waving at me to pull over for no apparent reason on the side of the main street in Nogales.
It turns out that Lieutenant Antonio and his partner were just interested in checking out my bike, finding out where I was from and asking about where I was going. We chatted for a bit on the side of the road about Antonio’s upcoming retirement and plans to buy a Honda Goldwing to do some touring with this wife. Both guys were surprised and excited to hear that I was not just riding into Mexico for a few days, but instead embarking on a multi-month journey to the southern tip of South America.
So this is great, right? I went from thinking something was wrong to having a great conversation immediately after crossing the border. Just when we had finished talking about my bike, my riding partner, and all the countries I was about to ride through and the adventure ahead, Antonio finished our conversation by letting out a simple, but very sincere “Welcome to Mexico.” Not sure how well I can explain this, but those few words really, really got to me. I mean, there’s quite a bit of build-up and anticipation that comes with two months of planning and waiting for a trip like this to start. One day you’re excited and optimistic and the next day you’re full of nerves and mild anxiety over stories you’ve been told and the unknown road ahead. Antonio, the moment you said that, this adventure became real to me. I was there. I was in Mexico. And I was excited….
So we took the photo together that you see above, said goodbye, and I continued down the main street of Nogales. It was a Saturday morning, and wow were the streets busy. Shop owners were tending to the front of their stores, people were crossing, walking, and riding all over, and cars and buses swarmed all around me. It’s a crazy drive. But I was smiling. I mean, I was beaming with a smile inside my helmet so much that my cheeks were getting sore. This was so exciting. I was here…in Mexico! That perfect welcoming I was just given had me floating high as a kite through these crazy streets, and I can’t remember feeling that good in a long, long time. It was like being in love and on adrenaline at the same time, and I felt untouchable.
But suddenly as I was cruising along, I noticed a strange reaction from my bike as I twisted the throttle. It seemed a little weak for second there, but it was still running. Check the choke switch….okay that’s good. Try it again. Same thing. It was bogging and getting weak, but barely still running, and cars and buses were whizzing all around me while I was in the middle lane of the crazy main street in downtown Nogales. Again with the twist of the throttle, and it’s weaker this time like its dying. Oh my…..I can’t believe this is happening! Barely coasting, I forced my way over to the side of the road in front of some little storefront, and stopped to check things out. Just as I got to the side, the engine died completely. And it would not start again.
Okay…is this seriously happening? I had just crossed the border into Mexico less than 1 mile ago!! I mean, I bought this bike with 12,000 miles on it, and drove it another 11,000 miles myself so far this year with absolutely no troubles. It’s in great condition, the valves had all just been adjusted, carburetors synchronized, and I had just ridden another 300 miles around Green Valley and down to Nogales since that maintenance. But now I’m literally less than 1 mile into Mexico, and it decides to choke up and stop running? This cannot be real. This is not happening.
It sounded like it wasn’t getting fuel, so I looked at all the fuel valves, and I know I had just filled up north of the border. So I’m pulling my mind apart in front of this store, trying to figure out what on earth I’m going to do. Who could I call, where could I take my bike to, how would I get it there…..and what is wrong with this thing!? To add stress to the situation, some of the locals are gathering around, getting curious about what was going on. They’re saying things in Spanish to me, and at that point, all I could really think to say was “Lo siento, no hablo Español.”
After a few minutes, a guy named Nieto came out of the storefront, and fortunately was able to speak some English with me. He mentioned right away that he knew of a motorcycle repair shop just down the road, and he could take me there to see if they can help. But what would I do with my bike here in downtown Nogales? I mean, I’m not comfortable leaving my bike alone in most cities in the U.S., so I’m not much more comfortable leaving it alone in a border town in another country where I don’t speak the language. It would be especially unsettling to leave it there with my backpack, tent, and luggage boxes all strapped onto it, easily removed with a couple of tools and there for the taking. Nieto assured me that the bike would be okay, and that he could take me to the shop. That means I’m getting in the car with someone I just met, in a country I just arrived into, on a trip I really just started. I was full of hesitation to say the least.
Instead of just leaving the bike on the roadside, Nieto asked a local shop owner named Frank if he would let me push the bike into his entrance way, just behind a small wall and off the immediate street. Frank kindly obliged, but that meant my bike would be concealed from the main road. Does that open the opportunity further for people to pick apart and load up my bike while I go to seek help? I was really, really concerned about this, but saw no other option at that point. A feeling came over me though that I’ll never forget. “Maybe this is a sign for me. A big, bright, clear sign that will determine whether or not I’m supposed to go on this trip.” I figured if I could trust my bike and luggage alone there in Nogales, if I could trust Nieto who I’d only known for 5 minutes at that point, and if I could get my bike problem figured out so I’m on the road again, then it was meant to be. If something happens to my bike or luggage, or something is really seriously wrong with my bike, maybe I would reconsider this trip.
So after one last try to start the bike, Nieto and I pushed it back into Frank’s garage area, parked it, and I did my best to lock thing up on it. With my bike hopefully in a safe spot, we walked around back to Nieto’s truck for a quick ride to the motorcycle shop. (Okay, I’m a big boy, and I see nothing about Nieto that says he isn’t just sincerely offering help. But still, I’m hitching rides from strangers minutes after arriving in Mexico?) A short 2-minute drive further into Nogales, just off the main street, and we were there at the Moto Hercules motorcycle shop talking with the owner, Ignacio. Fortunately, Ignacio and a couple of his mechanics were available to go for a ride to my bike and see about fixing it there in Frank’s garage. In the event it needed to be fixed at the garage though, they had loaded up their pickup truck with all the gear we’d need to move the bike.
Nieto had other things to do, so after my most sincere thanks for the help, he left me with Ignacio and went on his way. About 25 very stressful minutes had passed since I had left my bike there alone in Frank’s garage, and I rode with Ignacio and his guys back to where it was parked nervously hoping that everything was still there and okay. Traffic was taking forever, and all I could do was put the picture in my mind of what the bike looked like as I left it. (“Is my bike there, or is everything gone already?”) As we arrived, the most incredible sense of relief came over me. My bike and all my luggage was still there and just fine. Probably the longest 25 minutes of my life.
First thing Ignacio wanted to do was check out the fuel situation, so we opened the caps, looked around, checked fluid levels, etc. He suggested I try starting it again, and much to our surprise: It worked! The bike was running like a champ. Still, we waited a few minutes while it was running, just to make sure it wasn’t a come-and-go problem. It was running just fine with no signs of a problem, but still, we thought it best to drive it back to his shop and give it a good look-over.
Back at Ignacio's shop (picture with Ignacio above) he had the idea from past experience that sometimes an over-filled fuel tank can create a vacuum inside, and that suction can keep the fuel from dropping down to the fuel pump at the bottom. I had heard of this before too, and based on the way my bike was running at that point, I could see no other explanation for why it had stopped running 1 mile after I had crossed into Mexico, and about 3 miles after I had topped off the fuel. We figured opening the gas caps or tilting the bike to the side there in Frank’s garage might have been all it needed to release that vacuum and give it fuel again.
Well, this was the sign I was looking for. My bike was fine (although we thought it’d be best for me to ride around the shop for a while before embarking on a 5 hour ride through remote areas en route to San Carlos.) Ignacio refused my offer to pay for services, despite the considerable amount of time he and his employees had spent with me. So between the greeting of Lieutenant Antonio, the help of Nieto and Frank, and extreme generosity of Ignacio, I had just had the most bizarre, but incredible and surprising welcoming to Mexico I could have ever imagined. I did a few laps around Ignacio’s shop for 10 minutes to make sure the bike was okay, (which it was) and set out southbound for the Mexico customs office and San Carlos beyond that. Despite about a 2-hour total delay, I did make it to the campground in San Carlos just as the sun was setting. My friend Peter waiting for me, it was great to see him again share this story of what it took for me to get there.
Antonio, Nieto, Frank, and Ignacio, if you read this, I can’t thank you enough. Not only helping me through that motorcycle situation, but for setting an example of the type of hospitality I would soon find exists everywhere I’ve been in Mexico. As I write this, I’m over 1 week and 1000 miles traveled through many towns and 4 states, and it’s been an absolute pleasure that I’m sure will continue as I head south. Thank you, most sincerely.