Saturday, October 24, 2009

On the Road Again!

After spending a busy summer back in Calgary I planned my return trip to Loreto to begin after the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, October 13th. Preparations began almost a month before – assembling things that I wanted to take back with me, sorting out what else was to go or would stay in storage for the winter. Even with half a dozen previous trips under my belt, I was scrambling as the departure day approached remembering things, sometimes at the last minute, that I had previously overlooked. One “crisis” arose in those final days – I realized that I hadn’t received the hard copy by mail of my renewed Mexican Car Insurance! Fortunately, thanks to internet access, I was able to get the renewed policy emailed so I would be carrying a valid copy with me.

Day by day as I finished packing boxes and suitcases, I moved them down to the SUV parked underground at the condo. In the final week several friends dropped off boxes that they wanted carried down as they were too bulky for air travel. Finally, the moment of truth, as the last additions to the load were made – would it all fit? Well, the short answer is, yes! But just. I later confirmed at a public scale that I was carrying over 1,000 lbs. of cargo, pushing (but within) the safe limits of the Yukon’s capacity. I have yet to be accused of ever “travelling light”!

Talk about inauspicious beginnings – when I woke up, pre-dawn on the day of my departure the radio was full of dire warnings about traffic chaos – overnight Calgary had received the first real snowfall of the season, several inches of wet slippery snow which had accumulated over a film of ice, making a skating rink out of the morning commute! So I poured myself another cup of coffee and let some of the logjam clear before I started out. Heading south through the city I was mainly going against the heaviest traffic and I made decent time , stopping to top off the gas tank and say good-bye to my Mother, before finally hitting the main highway southbound.

Within half an hour of leaving the city there was noticeably less snow at the sides of the road and the pavement was just wet with no accumulation. A couple of hours later I stopped in Lethbridge for lunch and the sun was out, with little or no snow around but it was still cold. An hour further south I came to the Coutts/Sweetgrass border crossing and there was a 15 minute line-up to reach the Immigration Officer. Although I have made the crossing into the US many times before, there is always a slight level of anxiety as I approach the border. Things started out normally enough with the regular questions, but when I said I was going to spend several months in my home in Mexico, the Officer surprisingly said that he didn’t think “foreigners” could own land in Mexico - and this is from a US Immigration Officer – he should know better! So I presented him with my FM3 as evidence of my “resident” status and with that and my passport in hand he shut the window to his kiosk and started consulting with two other Officers who were all three studying the computer monitor. Meanwhile, the “Outdoor Guy” had peered into the cargo area from the back and side and seemed satisfied, so when the meeting was over and the window re-opened Officer #1 handed my Passport and FM3 to the Outdoor Guy and told me to follow him to the parking lot and then into the office.

Inside the office I was directed through a glass door into a smaller secure area at one end of the room. There I was met with two other Officers; a woman who was in charge and a younger guy who was apparently a trainee. I was a bit taken aback the way things started – take off my jacket, remove everything from my pockets and turn them inside out, then stand away from the counter separating us so they could see me in full view and then pull up my pant legs above my socks and turn around slowly. At this point I was thinking – thank goodness I have a completely clear conscious and nothing to hide, or else this routine could be VERY intimidating! Apparently satisfied with my appearance, I was told to take a seat and the two officers moved to a computer terminal where She proceeded to walk Him through everything they could ever want to know about the past comings and goings of Yours Truly!

These days nothing should surprise us when it comes to Homeland Security – and what we the public think we are aware of, is probably the tip of the iceberg when it comes to whatever information that they have access to. Without wanting to appear TOO interested, I did manage to pick up bits of their conversation, while She showed Him different screens of information about me and how they could shift between them and search for things in different ways. Suffice to say, that they were looking at records of every time I had crossed into or out of the US going back who knows how far and it was, of course, a consistent pattern with what my current story was. I could also tell by their tone that there was nothing amiss in what they were looking at – I was just lucky enough (long-grey-haired-single-guy-in-a-heavily-loaded-SUV-heading-to-Mexico-for-an-indefinite-period-of-time) to have been picked out as sufficiently interesting subject for a training exercise!

After about 20 minutes I was given back my documents and other stuff and told I was free to carry on – which I did with enthusiasm and alacrity! Never have the bleak and barren hills of northern Montana looked so inviting to me before! The rest of my drive was uneventful – arriving in Dillon, near the southern border of Montana about 7:00 that evening. The next day I got a good start on a bright brisk morning and chewed up almost a thousand km before stopping for the night in St. George, Utah, a few miles north of the Nevada border. My third day started early and I was arriving in Las Vegas just before 10:00 am – timed precisely for the opening of the Las Vegas Outlets Mall where I quickly and efficiently picked up several shirts, shorts, pants and some shoes to update my “winter” wardrobe.

Back at the truck again, I managed to find a few nooks and crannies to stuff with my purchases and then hit the road again to cross the desert into California. Needless to say, the weather had changed dramatically over the two and a half days of travel –99 degrees in mid-town Vegas. The day before, travelling from Montana to southern Utah was like a speeded up movie of the arrival of spring, starting out in snow and arriving in mid-summer conditions (for Canada). But from Vegas south I was “cooking”, flirting with 100 degrees F. all afternoon.

After two and a half days on “cruise control”, following my nose south on I-15, I was now beginning the first challenging part of the trip so far. On every other journey to Mexico I have entered the country through Tijuana where the border is connected to the main southbound Interstate through California. This time I was going to go in through Tecate, about 30 miles east of TJ, due to changes in the Mexican Customs routine. I had read several posts about heavily loaded Snowbirds being redirected from the main crossing to the commercial truck crossing at Otay Mesa about 10 miles east. Although the reports I had read had said there were no problems making the crossing, I was reluctant to have to negotiate any new territory in and around Tijuana so I chose to go a little further east and use Tecate, which I was very familiar with, having always exited from there on my previous trips.

So I had to negotiate several new freeway connections to get on highway 94 eastbound in the middle of what passes for rush hour in the southern California corridor. My Google Map gave me one bad turn, which was quickly remedied by a helpful young lady in a tire shop, and I eventually left the congested civilization of the San Diego environs behind and as twilight turned into no moon dark I was winding my way along the right highway skirting the border and heading to Tecate. Now, as I said, I have travelled these roads before, but always westbound and usually mid-day, and not paying much attention to the surroundings, as I was enjoying the relative freedom of the American road system after just having left Mexico. According to the maps there are three “dots” on the road indicating towns (or more accurately “Hamlets”) and I had falsely assumed that there MUST be somewhere to stay in one of these places.

Well, I was wrong. When I reached the turnoff for the Tecate crossing without seeing anywhere to stop I decided to keep going east and see what was further on. Five miles later I came to a General Store and asked how far till I would find somewhere to stay and the nice couple there said 38 miles. Well, that wasn’t going to happen –and it was at least 20 miles back to the last place I had seen before, so my choice was clear – I would cross at Tecate that night, rather than first thing the next morning as I had planned.

Now, I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that the crossing into Mexico is always a highly “anticipated” moment of any trip I have made here. Having planned my itinerary with some care, I was “psyched” for the morning crossing and now I was driving back to Tecate in the pitch black, not sure what I would find when I got there – which turned out to be NOTHING! As I approached the modest border control buildings on the Mexican side there were three lanes – two of which were closed, leaving only the Nothing to Declare lane open. This suited my purposes just fine, I wasn’t planning on making any “stinkin Declaration”! So I proceeded with caution through the one open gate and slowed to a crawl as I approached the kiosk on the driver’s side – no one home! – the booth was empty – and I had just triggered the Red/Green light and it was GREEN! I quickly glanced left and right and seeing no one of any official appearance I was through and in downtown Tecate – Yippie!

My celebration was short lived. Because now I was on the lookout for a Hotel in a medium size Mexican town that I had only driven through before, looking for the way to the US border and not paying any attention to the local attractions that Tecate must hold. Finding the “main drag” I went 6 or 8 blocks one way and saw a decent looking motel, and then went back in the other direction to see if there was anything better that way. Which, there wasn’t. So I found my way back to the likely looking Hotel Eldorado and pulled into the narrow entrance lane, squeezing past a Police truck to get into the courtyard parking lot. That’s when I knew I had made the RIGHT choice! Indeed, Eldorado parking lot looked even better than it’s golden name promised – the Police truck I had squeezed past was partially blocking the entrance because, the entire lot inside was FULL of nothing but more Police trucks!

While checking in at the front desk I asked the guy what were the trucks there for, and he said the Hotel was full of Police staying there while on some sort of training course. I had stumbled on to the SAFEST Hotel in all of the Baja – old Denny (my Yukon) would sleep soundly surrounded by (I counted the next morning) 27 full regalia Cop Trucks and every other guy sleeping in the building, other than me, was ARMED! I slept like a baby that night.

The next morning I was on the road by 8:00 with a great cup of coffee from across the street and I hit the Costco parking lot in Ensenada at 10:00. One hour to score some liquor and meat and a few other Costco-only delicacies, a quick pizza slice in their open air snack bar and I was back on Mex #1 heading south. Traffic was light after I cleared Ensenada and I put the pedal down and arrived in Guerrero Negro at 6:00 pm just as the sun was setting. A comfortable room at Malarrimo and a good meal in their excellent restaurant and the next morning I was back on the road after a full breakfast for 100 pesos (less than $8.00!). The trip to Loreto was mainly smooth – with a few rough patches between Santa Rosalia and Mulege from Hurricane Jimena, but nothing to worry about – and I hit the north end of Loreto at 1:00 pm on day five, last Saturday.

I may revisit some parts of this trip in more detail in future postings, but I had promised my return trip as my first post so I wanted to get the whole thing down for you, my loyal readers. This winter I pledge to carry on with Living Loreto and track my on-going journey here in this beautiful place I call home. And you may notice some changes, as I look forward to a new winter of challenges and celebrations here. My career as a Real Estate agent here for Dorado Properties is entering a new, more focused phase, as we prepare for the changes that will inevitably come to Loreto Bay this winter. I welcome you to join me in my journey and just maybe someday soon you too will be “Living Loreto”!