From Guachochi you take the Chihuahua Highway 23 south and east to Hidalgo del Parral, a city along the major highway that connects Chihuahua to Guadalajara in the south. For a time the forested canyonlands continue but soon the slopes become gradual and the thick pine forest disperses and the land becomes dry everywhere. Soon you are riding through rolling yellow plains, the canyons ever further in the distance but never completely out of sight. Now you realize you have come back to the desert: harsh and pitiless, subtle and grand and unconquerable, someplace you can visit but not settle. God must love deserts, you think.
Here it is warm and the breeze becomes a formidable crosswind. Yes, it is desert but the jagged canyonlands were never far off and now they have returned, only this time dry and barren. The last 40 kilometers to Hidalgo del Parral are difficult ones because the highway here is bad from neglect and overuse. The tarmac is broken and rough. At least if there were potholes that would be something to avoid. So you rumble on, teeth clattering, spine jolting, front forks and rear shocks absorbing what little they can.
From Hidalgo del Parral it is a long 300 kilometers along a straight desert highway to Gomez Palacio. Even now in the winter it is hot and dry and very windy. There is no hurry in a desert. Maybe because it is so hot or so dry or maybe because it seems so endless in every direction. But you can ride all day as fast as your screaming engine will carry you and feel as though you have only advanced at a crawl. That is the way it is here.
In Gomez Palacio I completed two weeks on the road. It was an important psychological barrier because, previously when people would ask where I was going, I would say “to Panama” and then add “but let’s see if I make it past two weeks.” Two weeks came and went and I continued riding south. I was holding up because a body can get used to almost anything and grow stronger. The motorcycle was holding up because the riding was smooth here and there were no extremes but she wasn’t getting stronger. The riding went fast along the desert highway, always moving south, occasionally passing a small town, all the while the weather growing colder as you gradually ascended back into elevation.
Zacatecas is a beautiful colonial city nestled within a wide valley. It was once a mining town whose bounty of silver long fed the decadence of the Spanish crown. Here there is a cathedral and many churches; there are monuments of politicians and war heroes and buildings from the colonial days whose beautiful stone facades have been well preserved. There is a teleférico, which is a cable car that runs from midway up one hillside to the top of the other across the full spread of the old city. In the western of these two hillsides there is a once prosperous silver mine that ceased to produce and was shut down. Now it is a tourist attraction and at the end of one mine shaft they built a discotec.
In the evening I went to La Mina Club, which is the disco in the mine. After you pay your entrance fee they seat you on a small train and take you several hundred meters down the mine shaft. When you exit the train they escort you into the bar room, which is adjacent to and smaller than the dance hall. Here they seat you one at a time according to the number in your party. The walls are bare rock and dome-shaped except for the support beams that run every which way, reinforcing the structure and anchoring the large television screens and sound system.
I ordered a Bacardi on the rocks. Soon the dancehall became full and the music got louder. Now people were dancing. I ordered another Bacardi. I drank it and I tried to reason with myself to go out there. I prodded myself. I tried to shame and cajole. You didn’t come here to stand around! Nothing worked; I was unmoved. It seemed that I didn’t have the sand to go out and dance on my own. Finally, disappointed, I said: You’re riding a motorcycle alone through Mexico. The bad highways, the banditos, and the drug traffickers. All the countless dangers. Every day you wake up thinking about how today might be your last. You’ve accepted this and you’ve come this far and here you are in a place where no one knows your name or will ever see you again and you haven’t got the gravel to get out there and dance to just one song!
So I finished my drink and I went onto the dance floor. I danced to one song and then to another and I met people and I had fun. I felt about as awkward as I have ever felt when I first dancing but it got better and I felt braver than in any other moment during the trip.