Thanks to an errant road sign, we arrived at our destination today 12 km before anticipated, making this an 80 km day with 30 of them unpaved and in the process of "improvement". Improvement meant loosely packed fresh gravel that enjoys sucking bicycle tires while enormous dump trucks pass spewing dust in their wake. I believe all drivers must be paid by the delivery and have a zealous need to drive as fast as they can. Two hours of eating dust before breakfast was a perfect time to practice the zen of the road.
This is my sixth bicycle adventure with Mr. Extreme and he was well versed in road zen long before I arrived on the scene. Being a goal driven person, I've spent every trip struggling to find the zen--to let things unfold in their time, to enjoy the moment without anticipation of what is to come, to loose ones self in thought, or better yet, no thought. Perhaps because I'm more motivated by the destination, it is my tendency to fight against the bad roads rather than loose myself in them. Today was different. I knew within minutes of starting the ride at 6:30am that todays goal was a shower at the end of a very dirty day, but rather than spend the day eating grit and swearing at drivers, Zeb reminded me that I didn't need to go fast, I simply needed to go. So I did, lost in thought, and eventually loosing Willie far behind while legs pumped and spirit soared.
Getting to zen has indeed been a long road. We left Medellin and pointed our noses towards the coast. Not the straight down the PanAmerican highway coast, but the long ride across the third range of the Andes and towards the Gulf of Uraba -- the closest paved road to the Darian Gap and Panama. Something in our readiness for a change of pace made us forget that even though the Occidente Range is the smallest of the mountain ranges, it's still means mountains to climb.
Our lovely decent from Medellin to Sante Fe de Antioquia and the warm river valley that seperates the middle and west ranges started with a surprising climb that turned the other direction only after we hitched a ride with a family in a pickup truck who could take us through the 5km-long tunnel. Bicycles, tractors and horses are not allowed, so the military patroling the entry encouraged the first empty truck to take us through.
After enjoying the historic pueblo we once again thought our way would be a long leisurely decent to the sea. We didn't pack much food since every few miles we've passed snack bars and restaurants, and once again we were met with a climb. This one was far different than before. Suddenly we were climbing grasslands dotted with brittle shrubs and dry river drainages that get used only in flash floods from infrequent hard rains. The saving grace was that it got cooler every foot we pedaled upwards. We pedaled past lunch time, and were offered no coffee. The only house we saw was on a point far from the road where we stopped to finish the last of our power bars offered so long ago in Bogota by Cristian.
By late-afternoon we came to the only town on our map and turned-in in search of food. A bronzed and confident woman offered to make us lunch when we asked about comida at her little tienda. While she cooked, the ever-present military offered their advice that we continue only another 14 km to a place with a hotel and restaurant. "Plano." he said. Flat. "OK." we said and were off even though our legs wanted only to rest.
This is the start of much well-meaning encouragement that included the word "plano" and we quickly realized that plano meant something different to someone riding a motorized vehicle. When your legs say no, and the military says go, and the road swoops and climbs; this is a good time to practice the zen of the road. It's a time to not go fast, but simply go. To not think of aching hands or where we'll sleep.
We rounded what truly was the last mountain pass a day later and glided into Uramita. At last we're ready to blissfully glide downhill to the sea. Plano, they say even as the road crosses the rolling foot-hills along the river. We climb and dip with it, this time on the wet side of the mountains lush with the tapestry of green. Weeping walls covered in ferns and vines and many of our common houseplants. Forests dense and dripping with humidity. I stop to duck into a drainage for a bit of roadside relief and stop in my tracks, jaw dropped and wiggling frantically for Willie to come look and see. A Tucan sitting 10 feet away in a tree! The thrill of it almost makes me forget that the road is climbing again and I am climbing with it. Vines are thick and ropey tying the trees to the earth or they would slide down the mountain.
We find ourselves again exhausted and my legs are ready to quite, but Mutata is still beyond our reach. Military posts dot the roads as we enter canyons and we get the thumbs up and encouragement to continue. It's late enough in the day that birds have come out for their evening feeding and I want nothing more than to pitch our tent at the make-shift military post. "It's only 8km more," they say, "and plano ... expect the one climb and one descent."
They don't know we've been pedaling since 8am and I've told Willie I'm done. He does his best to convince them, but they only say for us to go on and they will call ahead to their chief and let him know we're coming. We need to be off the road by dark, they say. I need to be off the road now.
We're in a bind and the only thing there is to do is continue. Bajando, down we go. Subido, up we go. The sky takes on the thick air of nightfall as the sun gets near the horizon. Canyons now are dank and cool. Past the 8km mark. Simply go. Don't think. Past the 10 ... did we miss the town? There's the cell phone billboard that is outside of every village. But where's the village? Another kilometer, folks say. But they're wrong. It's another 5km and sun has set by the time we enter Mutata city limits.
Willie checks in with the police to let them know we arrived while I enjoy the cool shower and crisp white sheets of two-month old hotel in town. We're their first foreigners and they're eager to have us join them sitting outside in red plastic chairs by the light of the street lamps while kids dart by on their bicycles and dogs circle sniffing for snacks.
The police promise that the road to the coast is now flat. Planed like a plank of wood for a table, flat. So we set out at the crack of dawn, as we do most days now to avoid the heat and wind, in search of flat.
We find the flat of banana plantations or cattle grazing, and we find a new reason to practice the zen of the road. Theirs a different kind of saddle sore that comes on the flats. The same motion, the same cadence, the same bones hanging on the edge of the seat. The flats are where your mind most needs to wonder in a different direction. In the mountains, there's mystery in what's around the next curve. The wide-open flats call for day-dreaming with legs pumping. Our 26km days of the mountains are now 80-plus kilometer days and we're making good time towards the coast.
Consensus along the route is that Necocli, a pueblo on the spit of land at the entrance to the Gulf of Uraba is the vacation place. Playa bonita, the locals say and encourage us to pass by the larger town of Turbo. A rest day by the seaside is inorder and our hearts are set on arriving early, so we depart at daybreak and share the road with regular bicycle commuters and even some sport cyclists, the likes of which we haven't seen since leaving Medellin a week ago. It's blissful on the road as the world wakes us. The air is fresh and traffic is light and the road is flat. We pass through Turbo as the workday begins and most other traffic stays in the city. Our anticipation of spotting water and relaxing by the sea grows as friendly cyclists and scooter-drivers chat along the way. Something cerrado in 6km, I tell Willie after such a chat. Or was that 6km of rough road? I don't know enough Spanish to get the finer points.
Soon enough we get the answer when we come to roadwork ahead signs. Our blissful ride to the sea has been interupted to bring improvement to this road. In the meantime, we can enjoy bone-jarring rocks lining what will someday be smooth, black asphalt all the way to Necocli.
This is the perfect place to practice the zen of the road. Don't think of that beer in the hammock or first dip into the waters of the Caribbean. Don't think of falling asleep with a book in your hands, or waking to the sound of surf out your balcony. Don't need to go fast. Just go.
"What about checking out one of these cabana places we pass along the way to Necocli?" the zen-master Willie asks? "Sure. Let's give it a try." I say as we turn our bikes left down a lane lined with palm trees. We don't need to get to Necocli today if we can find enlightenment right here.
Rancho Aleja was our reward. A cabana by the sea all to ourselves except the parrot that come to visit. The beer, the hammock, the fresh fish in coconut sauce, the lull of the waves, the reward for our escape from the road.
Thanks to all for your comments and emails encouraging me to write more, or more often.
Most internet cafe don't allow me to spell-check, so I apologize for my bad spelling and typos!