Are we there yet? A leisurely drive from San Antonio to San Miguel, with coffee and donuts

A routine among most expats in San Miguel, and I suspect most places with resident foreigners, is to return “home” periodically, to reconnect with friends and relatives, touch base with the family doctor or just indulge in the guilty pleasure of buying unneeded, overpriced crap at Bed, Bath & Beyond or Ikea. (We bought some copper sheets to put on our Weber grill, “as seen on TV!”)

In fact some expats will confide, guiltily, of their need to step out of Mexico once in a while. There is also a vocal minority who vows never to return to the U.S., to die in Mexico, and have become Mexican citizens to underline their decision. 

The large American city closest to San Miguel is San Antonio, about 725 miles or so, depending on where you cross the border. McAllen, Texas, might be a close second. 

Many of our friends have turned their trip north into a grand-prix event, and brag about making it in as little as ten or eleven hours, gripping the steering wheel, eyes fixed ahead zombie-like, pedal to the metal, with only the briefest stops to fill the gas tank and empty their bladder. 

Even if such speed records were possible—and Stew and I doubt it, even at 80 mph by those with industrial-capacity gas tanks and bladders—we don’t subscribe to such macho exploits. For us this drive is a schlep, a marathon, a trek, a merciless haul, often through vast stretches of barren land.

Joshua trees punctuate an otherwise barren landscape

So for us, the best way to endure it is to, ironically, stretch it out, seldom going faster than 65 mph, and making promiscuous use of convenience stores for a cup of cappuccino and some donuts, a visit to the bathroom, maybe buy some gasoline.

Naturally, some of you will note, filling up with coffee and donuts at every stop, or perhaps with those killer guava-filled empanaditas, only guarantees having to stop every two hours or so. 

But who cares? Ours is a leisurely pace not a race, though one that admittedly may be hell on your diet. 

In fact, if you slow down and take your eyes off the roadt ahead once in a while—briefly, please—and look around, all sorts of questions, and sights—inspiring, awful or baffling—will flash past your eyes and mind. 

Barren landscape with paved road. 

Even before reaching the Colombia border crossing, we note interminable cargo trains, some with as many as four diesel locomotives, flanked by caravans of semis, all going in both directions, a reminder of the enormous daily commercial traffic, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, between Mexico and the U.S. And the Colombia Bridge crossing, which we normally use, is just one border crossing out of 48.

So Stew wonders, what the heck was Trump babbling about a month ago, when via one of his early morning Twitter-farts, he threatened to “Close the border!” between the U.S. and Mexico. We shook our heads and wondered if our president is out of his mind to make such ridiculous threats. Close the border indeed, and you’d have mobs of business owners throwing rocks at the White House within 24 hours. 

Immediately after you enter Mexico you’ll drive through a godforsaken stretch of highway, maybe 15 miles long, that has been under construction for at least ten years. This construction project must be in an endless loop, proceeding so slowly that by the time construction is finished one end, the other end already has fallen apart and ready for new detour signs.
Then we spot the mixer portion of a cement truck, which has been lying by the side of the road also for several years, looking like a forgotten Mexican space capsule that fell to earth. Isn’t anyone ever going to haul it away, along with the other tons of junk lying about? It would be worth money at a metal scrap yard, if you can figure how to get it out of there.

Once past this stretch of forgotten land, you go on the brand-new bypass expressway winding around the industrial hub of Monterrey, and cutting through a thick cloud of polluted air nestled in between an otherwise beautiful mountain range.

The source of this fouled air is the giant Holcim cement works, puffing away 24/7, creating a permanent blight that envelops not only the industrial site but also the housing nearby, presumably where the hundreds of workers and their families live.

Note to die-hard libertarians: Sometimes the hand of government must guide industrial development, particularly with regard to the environment and workers’ health. For confirmation, check out this environmental cesspool.
After probably another coffee-and-donuts pit stop, maybe two, we arrive in Saltillo, an industrial city with its own spaghetti bowl of expressways, and check into La Quinta Dorada, a very pleasant place, where we take a brief nap and go sit by the pool to read.

Though not exactly a Four Seasons-level joint—this is more like a Two-and-a-Half Seasons—it’s a good place to recover from all that driving, coffee-drinking and donut munching during the first eight hours of out trip.

Next door is the Pour La France restaurant, its exterior and interior a faithful recreation of a French country eatery with flat-screen monitors throughout, projecting a slideshow of paintings by French impressionists. Everything is French except, strangely, the food which is still very good.

The hefty hamburger, the likes of which I’m sure no one has seen in France, comes with caramelized onions with bits of bacon, melted Jarlsberg cheese, and is served on a home-baked bun. Top off your meal with a slab of the chocolate cake layered with raspberries, and you’ll be almost fully recovered from all that driving and ready to face the grueling eight hours behind the wheel the following day, albeit probably two or three pounds heavier.
The next morning we wake up early, visit the breakfast buffet, drink two more cups of coffee and we’re off, fully energized and confident we’ll get home by one o’clock. Our wistful schedule will soon fall by the roadside, so to speak, as you might have guessed. We won’t make it to San Miguel until about five o’clock.

Immediately after Saltillo we encounter a most beautiful and majestic landscape. On both sides of the road there are manicured agricultural fields covered by a gauzy blanket of fog. The air is dampened by an almost imperceptible early-morning drizzle. The fields extend right up to the foot of the bald-faced mountains rising menacingly, their jagged tops slicing the clouds above.

Business diversification: Vulcanizing shop with public bathroom. 

But not too much farther after this breathtaking beauty, the landscape becomes arid and progressively poorer and more desperate. Vegetation consists mostly of Joshua trees, contorted and surreal, conjuring up extraterrestrial visions. The soil is whitish and hostile, occasionally whipped up into dust devils, some big enough to resemble miniature tornadoes.

For God’s sake, there’s even a dearth of gas stations and convenience stores to sustain us through this endless bleakness.

The locals—how do people survive in this awful terrain?— seem to eke out a living by setting up small and pathetic looking restaurants, most of them shuttered or empty. Restaurante “Gaby” or “Paty” are popular names. At some points you can see three or four or five of these establishments next to one another, all of them dead.

No-name restaurant

And yet, once in a long while there’d be one that mobbed by semis: Is the food particularly good, or do these joints offer other forms of sustenance for long-haul drivers?

Then there are dozens of tire vulcanizing shops—VULKA!, handmade signs proclaim—most with no visible business at all. Is this stretch of road the flat-tire capital of Mexico?

Roadside memorials are ubiquitous throughout Mexico, some hastily planted crosses with someone’s name scribbled on them, others mini temples with Corinthian columns and stone angels fluttering protectively above. A few though, seem to be rectangular tombs: Are the deceased actually buried right there?

Something all these memorials share is the respect of road construction crews, who carefully relocate them sometimes to the top of a hill or to the median, when the road is widened. (If there’s someone buried there, is (s)he relocated too?)

Mobile vulka unit and cafe.

On certain patches of road, clear plastic bags of jícamas appear regularly by the side of the road. Jícamas are white, rock-hard and tasteless tubers, about the size of a softball, and many of these bundles lie on the road shoulder unguarded, with no price. Are they free or is the vendor off for comida? Who would want to buy ten or twelve of those things anyway?

Hello Muerte, my old friend

Between San Luis Potosí and Querétaro—the homestretch toward San Miguel—a spooky shrine appears on the right side: The Chapel of Holy Death. We’d stopped there before and inside found a collection of ghoulish statues of skeletons in various poses, dressed and festooned with flowers and flickering votive candles, and handwritten pleas at their feet. Most Mexicans would tell you they don’t believe in such nonsense but “respect it” nonetheless. (“No creo en eso pero lo respeto”) I agree. Yeech.

During particularly barren stretches, we tuned in to podcasts of “Stuff You Should Know” I’d recorded on my phone, and which explore many arcane, Jeopardy-worthy topics, such as “How Area 51 Works” (it’s still there, north of Las Vegas, and it’s still closed off to the public); what is Capgrass Syndrome (an extremely rare mental malady that causes people to believe other people, including loved ones, are impostors); or the story behind smoke signals, used to communicate by Native Americans and also the ancient Chinese.

Yes, many podcasts about very strange stuff, but none as suspicious as those unexplained bundles of jícamas lying by the side of the road. I’m not touching them. My suspicion is they are booby-traps targeted at nosey gringo tourists who might stop to check them out. Not me. I can’t stand jícama anyway.

When we finally got home we received the usually raucous 42-gun salute from our dogs, which can’t seem to tell whether we’ve been gone two hours or two weeks. 

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