I finished tying a sleeping bag to the back of my well-worn Suzuki DR650. It was small compared to most bikes in the US. A single cylinder and carburetor made just enough power to get it down the road. It wasn’t fast or flashy or even particularly comfortable. It was simple. Simple was just what I needed.
The sky was clear and the air was cool that morning. I had received my discharge paperwork only the day before. After four years of full time active duty in the Army, including a year in Iraq, I was finally free to do what I wanted. All I wanted to do was ride. I didn’t know where I was going or exactly when I would be back. I just knew I needed to go. I needed to clear my head. I packed some camping gear and some basic tools. I said goodbye to my parents and followed the road out of town. The vast, open landscapes, the solitude of the long, quiet days on the road, and the wind and rain on my face would be memorable, but it was the people along the way that would change me. The following are a few of their stories, forever interwoven with mine.
Father & Son
I pulled the DR onto a remote beach in south Texas. It was a cool February evening and the area still hadn’t recovered from severe storms from the previous summer. Entire sections of the road had been washed away. Bridges were partially collapsed. This left a patchwork of asphalt across the empty, flat sand. The sky was open in all directions with nothing to break the vast open landscape. Now, after almost a month on the road, I knew how to find quiet places to camp. Just as I was feeling completely alone, I noticed a car slowly making its way towards me. Its occupants, a father and son, Carl and David (names changed) were looking for a place to camp and asked if I wanted to join them.
Around the fire they told me David was getting ready to leave home and how they wanted to go on a road trip together while they had the chance. They didn’t know where they were going and David didn’t have any idea what he wanted to do in life. We talked on into the night, by the glow of the campfire.
I spent many nights listening to their long, father and son conversations.
Over the next several weeks I would cross paths with Carl and David three more times. Despite our seemingly aimless wandering we would end up in the same area and recognize each other’s vehicles. I spent many nights listening to their long, father and son conversations. They enjoyed each other’s company and knew their time together was limited. They reminded me of what I was leaving behind in my own family.
The wind howled across the desert floor of Big Bend National Park. I was searching for one out of the hundreds of campsites in this south Texas park. A ranger had shown it to me on a map, telling me how it sat next to a few low hills and was one of the few campsites in the park that would be protected from the strong winds over the next few nights. Very few of the roads in the park were paved. Most of them were a mixture of sand and large rocks. Most people camped close to the pavement where the risk of getting stuck in the sand was minimal. Being further from the pavement meant I would likely have the entire area to myself.
Riding into the well-protected campsite, I found a battered old Volkswagen van. It was the kind with the engine in the back that I had often seen broken down in gas stations or on the side of the road. Next to the van was a large tent with several camp chairs under it. A man with long gray hair and a scruffy beard greeted me. I asked if I could camp in the area. He happily responded, “Of course, and you should join us for dinner tonight! We enjoy having visitors!”
They were self-described hippies, Ben and Cathy-Jo. “Don’t ever trust a hippie that won’t tell you their real name”, Ben told me. During the winter, they worked at a park that was used for music festivals. They spent the summers travelling in their old van. They currently were driving that old van to California in hopes of being on The Price is Right gameshow. “Hopefully we’ll win something that can tow the van back across the country,” Ben lamented. The van had a habit of breaking down and he had become far too familiar with fixing it. I asked how they had found each other. He told me how he had lost his business. His wife had left him, taking the kids with her. The money eventually ran out and he had to start over. Cathy-Jo described how she had been a school teacher. She lost one of her legs and her husband had left her. Her daughter nearly died in a car wreck and had needed to be taken care of. Despite their difficulties, they had both remained positive and simply refused to give up. Their openness, joy, and warm acceptance of me was inspiring.
“You are losing too much weight, my friend,” the wrinkled, sun burnt old man said as he tossed a small bag of dried fruit across the table to me. It had been several months since I had first found his small camp in the Mexican desert. I had seen the painted rocks on the side of the dirt road, their bright colors vaguely pointing in the direction of his encampment. It was getting close to dark when the thousands of beer cans that hung on the perimeter fence caught my eye. They fluttered in the wind and the quiet crinkling was a welcome sound in the empty, silent desert. There were several old campers and a makeshift cantina across his compound. Brightly painted broken down vehicles had been recycled into decorative works of art that were now scattered throughout the property.
“Coco” as he’s called in those parts, had come to the desert with only a truck. The fact that he didn’t have any legs below the knees hadn’t stopped him. He built the camp from the ground up, now known as “Coco’s Corner”, a popular checkpoint for the legendary Baja 1000 races. He made a small amount of money selling beer and water to the passing desert racers and spectators that periodically rolled through the area. Coco set up a few solar panels to run the chest freezers for the cantina. He hauled water in a large tank on the back of his truck. He used sections of pipe as leverage and to roll materials off the truck and around the camp. Several years earlier a health issue meant Coco had to drive himself to the hospital, which was several hours away. After a few weeks in the hospital he returned to find that his camp had been robbed. The cantina was damaged and anything of value was gone. Rather than give up, Coco began to rebuild. I felt almost ridiculous. I had the full use of a young, healthy body. I could get a job. I had family that would look out for me if I needed it. And yet this man with nothing more than an old truck, some imagination, and sheer will, had built all this here in the desert with his own two hands. Coco was the one helping me. It was humbling, for sure
I had begun my journey looking to get away from something. To leave things behind. War will do that to a person. I thought that I could somehow get even with the world. Over the course of five months I had ridden that little Suzuki up and down mountains and through cold and snow. I crossed empty deserts. I spent nights looking up at the bright vast expanse of the universe that can only be seen in a clear desert sky. In Central American jungles I saw wildlife that I never knew existed. I saw cultures and customs I didn’t understand. The journey took me from one end of the U.S. to the other. When I reached the ocean, I turned south into Mexico and eventually rode deep into Central America.
For all the amazing sights and scenery I viewed from the saddle of my old DR650, they won’t be what I remember most, many years from now. What I’ll never forget will be the people I met along the way. Each of these people gave me a perspective that I was lacking before I encountered them. Carl and David reminded me what I had in my own family. They taught me that, while they may not be perfect, to value the family you have, because they may not be there forever. The resilient old hippie couple that could be happy and find joy with each other despite their past and current difficulties. No matter how bad things got, Ben and Cathy-Jo refused to feel sorry for themselves or to blame others. They struggled onward, together. The old man in the desert that welcomed me as a stranger. Coco offered me a place to stay, food to eat, and advice for the journey. He knew nothing about me. He never asked for money, or about what I did or didn’t have. He showed me what it means to truly be a good person. Most people would say he had nothing to give, yet he gave with no thought to who I was or what my circumstances were.
I began the journey thinking I knew what I was looking for. By the time I returned home, I had been changed in ways completely unexpected. It wasn’t the solitude, or the mountains, or the roads, or the changes in scenery. It was the people along the way that made all the difference.