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Judges on wheels: 6,840 miles, 32 days, and 684 gallons of gas

By Jim Blair, with Allen Compton

This travelogue is in the Bar Rag for two reasons. First, Allen Compton, my travel companion, and I are both retired Alaska judges and thought the regular readers (all 44 of them) of the Bar Rag might enjoy hearing what some old judges do after retirement.


Second, no other publication would publish it. Hey, if Bill Satterberg has a regular column, anybody has a shot. Old timers may recall that I practiced law and served as a Superior Court Judge in Fairbanks for nearly 30 years. My recollection is that I was a courteous, patient, compassionate judge. Some lawyers may have a different recollection. I retired to Parachute, Colorado in 1995 where I play golf and preside as a municipal judge in Rifle, Colorado, two days a month. Allen was a legal services lawyer, a private practitioner, a Superior Court Judge in Juneau, and a Supreme Court Justice. But he was never a municipal judge in Rifle, even for two days a month.

The Concept

In 2002 I decided I wanted to drive from my home in Colorado to Belize. I bought a 1978 Ford F150 pickup for $2900. It had new tires, four-wheel drive and a new radio. It was perfect. I soon discovered that the 400 cubic inch engine got only 10 miles to the gallon. It could pass everything except a gas station. I would definitely need a travel companion to make the trip more enjoyable and to help with expenses.


Numerous friends were contacted and invited along. Only Allen agreed to think about it. Others said that I was crazy and advised me that such a trip was unthinkable. One friend even advised that “The roads in Mexico are littered with the bodies of dead gringos.” Since he lived in Phoenix I asked him to do a little checking for me to determine which road had the fewest dead gringos and that would be the route we would choose.

The Plan

The concept was simplicity itself. We would leave Colorado in the old truck and head South and East along the eastern Gulf Coast and then cross the Yucatan Peninsula to Belize. Then we would turn around and head West to the Pacific Coast and then turn North until we got back to the United States. Allen kept trying to refine the plan the entire trip to no avail. We had roughly six weeks travel and were limited in funds only by the limits in our ATM accounts and our credit cards.

The Trip

On January 20, 2003 I left Parachute in the old truck with 89,372 miles on the odometer and 40 gallons of gas in the two tanks. I met Allen at the Grand Junction, Colorado airport at 9:30 a.m. He had traveled all night from Girdwood and had arrived at 9:00 a.m.

 

We had somehow missed each other and had wandered around the terminal for half an hour before we connected. This was an improbable occurrence in such a tiny terminal since he was the only passenger and I was the only person meeting the plane. I can explain it only by blaming the new security regulations that prohibit visitors from any areas where the plane and passengers are actually visible.

 

We started the trip immediately and drove nearly to Santa Fe the first day. The highlight of the day was when Allen discovered that the truck got only 10 miles per gallon. He told me that had I passed along this fact to him he might not have come along. This, of course, explained why I had not passed this fact along to him.

 

The next two days we traveled through southern New Mexico and West Texas, where the scenery is actually enhanced by litter. (See very last paragraph). The landscape is so barren we listened to Waylon Jennings over and over again. After hearing Waylon sing “Lucille” about four times, we began to discuss the legal, moral, social and philosophical issues raised by the mournful chorus:

You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, four hungry children and the crops in the field

One of us would ask how the feminists might view Lucille’s plight and contrast that with how Jerry Falwell might respond. And where, we asked, was Social Services in this story? How many violations of the law could Harry Davis find in the Lucille scenario? With any luck at all, you may be able to read all about this in “The Lucille Chronicles” right here in the Bar Rag as soon as Allen and I get them written.

Into Mexico

We crossed into Mexico at Laredo which, I assume, is viewed by Texans as a place to visit in much the same way as Bethel and Barrow are viewed by some Alaskans. The weather was fairly cool and cloudy as we progressed down the east coast of Mexico through Monterrey, Ciudad Victoria, Tuxpan, Veracruz, Coatzacoalcas and Palenque to Chetumal, State of Quintana Roo, which is on the Caribbean coast almost directly south of Pensacola, Florida. It is the home of Quintana Roo University, or, as the T-shirts say, “Q. Roo U.”

The East Coast of Mexico is not exactly a tourist mecca. In the winter it tends to be cloudy and rainy and there are far more mangrove swamps than beaches although there are a few beautiful beaches. The cities are fairly big and depressingly industrialized, with huge oil refineries belching out black smoke visible for miles.

At Chetumal we crossed the Mexican border into Belize. Belize is a small country with not many people. Formerly British Honduras, the lingua franca is English. Many tourists visit Belize and travel mainly to the offshore islands known as cays.

We took a water taxi to Cay Caulker about 20 miles offshore from Belize City, a ride designed to keep chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons in business, and stayed there for three days.

The cays are famous for snorkeling and diving and amazingly clear water, but we had three days of rain and clouds so we stayed on shore. There are no cars on Cay Caulker, only golf carts, so the stay was pleasant and restful. If you go to Cay Caulker you can get a huge lobster burrito at Rasta Pasta, whose motto is: “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problema!” That could apply to all of Belize.

On To Guatemala

Belize is small enough to drive across in one day. After returning to Belize City, which is large, crowded, dirty and dingy, we drove for several hours and crossed the border into Guatemala. A few hours later we reached Tikal and spent an enjoyable day exploring the magnificent Mayan ruins hidden away in the jungle. We had also explored the Mayan ruins at Palenque, Mexico, and found them to be just as impressive as Tikal. A guidebook advised us that 49 buildings have been cleared at Tikal and another 2300 remain untouched in the jungle.

From Tikal we drove across most of Guatemala on winding, narrow, mountain roads to Guatemala City, which is huge, polluted, noisy, crowded, and dirty. Traffic is simply hysterical. We both enjoyed the very old, very beautiful city of Antigua, Guatemala, and then drove past one volcano after another to the Mexican border. Several of the volcanoes were belching out impressive plumes of black smoke.

A glance at a map of Mexico will show that the Mexican Pacific Coast is enormously long. We can vouch for that. We followed the coast all the way from Guatemala to Nogales, with an incursion to Oaxaca where we stayed three days. We took a seven-day stop just outside Manzanillo at Barra Navidad where we visited with two Anchorage lawyers who stay in the same room in the same hotel for nearly a month every year. That is no wonder. The weather was perfect, the surf was pounding but still swimable and the two pools were cooling and relaxing. On our trip up the coast we came through all of the present or former famous resort cities including Zihuatenajo, Ixtapa, Manzanillo, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Guaymas and Hermosillo. Then we crossed the U.S. border south of Phoenix and I went on to Parachute. Upon arrival in Parachute, the odometer showed we had gone 6,840 miles in 32 days. The old truck performed admirably.

Reflections

Nearly everything we had heard about driving in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala turned out to be untrue. We encountered no bandits, pickpockets, muggers, thieves or car strippers. Nothing was ever taken from any of our hotel rooms. Toilets were uniformly clean and toilet paper was always present. There were always sinks and almost always soap and towels. And we definitely did not always stay at first class or even second class hotels. Third world, third rate had became our motto.

The many drug interdiction check points along the way were essentially non-events. Mexican soldiers, many carrying automatic rifles, would stop our truck, ask or say something in Spanish, and we would shrug and deny any understanding. They would look at us, look at the truck, smile and laugh and wave us on our way.

Nobody ever requested or even hinted at a bribe or any payment at any of the barricades or any of the border crossings. We only occasionally saw animals on the road, most frequently in Guatemala. There are many new toll roads in Mexico that improve travel conditions considerably. They are mostly four-lane and allow for very fast travel but they are quite expensive, too expensive for most Mexicans. Accordingly, truck traffic is minimal.

Where there are no toll roads, conditions rapidly deteriorate. Older Mexican roads are two-lane, narrow and have NO shoulders. If there is a lane marking on the right side of the road, the road drops off several inches past that line. It may drop off precipitously, even many hundreds of feet as it often did in southern Mexico or Guatemala. In places where new lanes were being constructed, there was a four-foot drop to the construction area. If there was a ditch, it was usually constructed of concrete that sloped down at a 45-degree angle from the road. If our right front wheel had ever gone over the edge, a rollover would have certainly resulted.

On these roads, only eight feet wide, traffic hurtled along at 60 to 65 miles per hour and traffic in the opposite lane, barely two feet from the side of our truck, was an unending stream of large, roaring, partially burned diesel fuel belching trucks. If we did not keep up with the traffic, drivers from behind would pass with absolutely no regard for yellow lines or blind curves.

The worst thing about driving in Mexico is the topes (‘TOW pays’). These are simply speed bumps with an attitude. They are elevated concrete or asphalt areas built up to several inches in height and roughly a foot wide.

The authorities know that Mexican drivers will simply ignore any signs telling them to slow down for pedestrians or crosswalks, so they simply place these speed bumps across the whole road. A tiny village gets two topes, a town may have four or even six. A city has them at regular spacing and also at unexpected places. They may even show up at a point in the country where only a dirt trail meets the highway.

Probably 90 percent of the topes are well marked and require a complete stop to navigate them. The other 10 percent will wreck your under carriage, crash your head against your roof and ruin your tires. I lost two front truck tires to unseen topes. It does not take very long before you automatically hit the brakes at the first indication of a village. Topes are a bane to anyone driving in Mexico, but they do accomplish their intended purpose.

Mexico has perfect weather in the interior and on the Pacific Coast where there are endless beaches, magnificent diving and snorkeling, lovely people, good food and fine beer.

It also has grinding poverty, a dismal lack of clean water and sewer systems, unabated air and water pollution, widespread unemployment and allegedly corrupted officials.

Plastic bottles and other food containers, paper and other trash litter the highways everywhere. Trashcans simply do not exist. Out the window it goes whenever its contents are finished or its usefulness is at an end.

We often saw trucks transporting dozens of people packed in like sardines. Traffic accidents are horrific. OSHA regulations are, of course, non-existent. I doubt that there is an electrician in all Mexico. Electrical cords are strung any which way and conduit does not seem to exist. But I have been going to Mexico for over 40 years and things are definitely much better than they used to be and the overall attitude of the population seems to be positive.

On the other hand, we purposely avoided traveling within 100 miles of Mexico City, where 20 million souls live in conditions that rival anything written about by Gogol or Dante.

Overall, Allen and I enjoyed our long trip but neither of us would do it again. We both agreed that we might be done traveling to third world or even second world countries. Things are just so much cleaner and more convenient in the first world.

We told endless war stories about dozens (maybe even hundreds) of lawyers and judges that we knew and know in Alaska. We were saddened to think about how many of our former colleagues and friends are dead. If you have been a member of the Alaska Bar Association for more than 10 years, we probably talked about you. Our discussions were almost always favorable, but there were exceptions. If you do not believe that, I can only repeat the words of yet another country classic:

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

 

PART II: The Navigator's notes

By Allen Compton

It is true that I became the unofficial Navigator of sorts for our journey into Mexico and though mostly my job was to quickly look up words in the Spanish – English dictionary.

However, I did have other navigational tasks about which I will say more. These notes are intended to expose readers to yet another peril of driving in these countries. First, a couple of matters deserve comment.

Jim’s observations about, and comments, on the countries we visited are generally in keeping with my own and need no elaboration. This suggests, contrary to conventional wisdom, that despite being an OF, Jim’s memory of recent events is quite good.

However, and also contrary to conventional wisdom, other comments he makes suggest that his remote memory may be failing. I refer in particular to his recollection that “I was a courteous, patient, compassionate judge.” You can draw your own conclusions.

His second suspect comment is not finding me at ‘his’ airport for about half an hour, which is indeed true. He blames “new security regulations that prohibit visitors from any areas where the plane and passengers are actually visible.” When we did cross paths at the baggage area, nowhere near any security devices, he stated somewhat aggressively that he had been at one of the food concessions in a far corner of that floor having a coffee and bagel. I am sure I heard “bagel,” though I am equally sure my mind immediately translated that to “donut,” since “bagel” and what Jim may have been eating do not fit comfortably in the same sentence.

It is true that I, the Navigator, “kept trying to refine the plan the entire trip to no avail.” This must be taken in context. There are other driving hazards with which you must become familiar beside “topes,” if you are to survive the highways and roads in these countries. One hazard is informational signage. There are plenty of signs that direct you to do or not do certain things, all of which are universally ignored. The octagonal red sign that reads “Stop” ‘en Espanol’ means virtually nothing, unless compliance with its direction might avoid a terrible accident.

Judging from the number of crosses and shrines on the highways and roads that mark the sites of fatal accidents, apparently little attention is paid to these. Similarly, entire community populations disregard the many signs that prohibit the dumping of trash along the highways and roads. A funded “Adopt a Highway” program in these countries would keep every man, woman, and working age child employed a lifetime and I doubt a lot of progress would be made.

Despite this genre of signs, there are almost no signs that tell you where the highway for which you are searching is located, or the one you were sure you were on has gone. You may enter a town and drive down a road you are sure is the highway on which you entered, only to find yourself at a dead end. You may be on a numbered highway and come to a rotary that you circle several times until you realize that its number is nowhere to be found. Your highway has disappeared. A sign advising you that your highway turns at a particular intersection may be placed before or after the intersection at which you are supposed to turn. All in all, it is very difficult and leads to interesting communications between confused drivers and bemused residents.

It was in this context that many of my failures as Navigator occurred. Most

were simply variations on the same theme. For example, we are directed to turn onto a different, typically narrow road or street, but the sign is misplaced. As we accelerate down the wrong street, I, Navigator, say in a voice a couple of octaves above normal, “Jim, for Chrisake, we are going the wrong way on a one way street and those cars are coming right at us. We’ve got to pull over.” Pilot: “Don’t worry. My truck is bigger than their cars. They’ll pull over!” Exit navigational assistance.

To be fair, this worked most of the time. No one ever flipped the bird or shook their fists at us or showed any particular displeasure or annoyance at our driving. They just pulled over. I came to believe that Mexican drivers are a tolerant lot quite used to other drivers performing peculiar maneuvers. A few did not stop, however, and we had to take refuge in whatever space we could find.

This ‘self help’ method failed somewhat miserably when we came upon a large group of Mexican bicycle road racers on a highway. The car leading the bicyclists was going understandably slowly, a few cyclists were close behind it, next came the ‘peleton’ and a few stragglers, and then 15 or so support cars stacked bumper to bumper immediately behind the slowest cyclist.

This mass of moving metal and flesh was proceeding at less that 30 KPH (18.6 MPH) and such a speed, on a highway, was not long to be tolerated. Despite Navigator’s plea that we just stay in line until we could see our way clear, Pilot determined to pass the entire lot with a hill on the horizon. Unfortunately a car crested that hill about the time we were opposite the peleton. Pilot made the choice to take to the left hand shoulder – one of the few places in Mexico where there was a shoulder – and dodge trash rather than to drive through the peleton or to take on the oncoming car that apparently was not about to stop. Trash seemed less likely to scratch the truck than did a dozen or more bicycles.

While hanging on for dear life I wanted to see what I knew had to be the demonic look on the face of the oncoming driver, who apparently had no intention of getting out of our way, and I saw him clearly as he passed on our right. His look, and the look of other passengers in his car, was not that of a demon bent on our destruction, or winning a game of daring. It was the look of someone frozen by terror! I assume he must have been only recently permitted behind the wheel of a car and did not know the Mexican Rules of the Road yet. Yet I had to chalk up another navigational failure. We were able to complete the pass on the left hand shoulder, however, so once again Pilot prevailed.

As Jim notes, animals are not a problem ON the highways, but many farm animals graze tethered along what appear to be rights of way on the sides of or between traffic lanes, and some are even herded there, a precarious job if ever there was one. Dogs are uniformly not on any kind of leash and pigs, some large enough to create real problems for a driver, run loose. I attribute the fact that none are ON the highways to the large number of very well fed, apparently healthy vultures that populate most of Mexico. They know good road kill areas when they see them and are perhaps the most efficient sanitation experts in Mexico. Animals are a problem.

Despite the long distances you have to drive in Mexico, the highway from Roswell, New Mexico, to Laredo, Texas, was the most barren, dull, monochromatic stretch of road imaginable.

It was there that Jim made the quote of the journey: “Allen, this is one of the few places in America where litter would actually enhance the scenery.”

We may still pursue whether Lucille’s decision to leave the farm “with crops in the field” was because the father of her four kids announced that once the crops were in they were headed to West Texas. Perhaps it was indeed a fine time for Lucille to leave, for if she indeed had “finally quit living on dreams” and was “hungry for laughter,” she wasn’t going to find it anywhere in West Texas. Maybe Lucille did not want to be a navigator anymore.

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