Mexican Moose is on the road at last!
After many months of planning, reflection, debate, confusion, tears, panic and resolve, our big, fat, epic, across North America relocation road trip has finally launched!
We will be driving over 4,200 km between Calgary, Alberta and Queretaro, Mexico over a seven day period, starting out on Thursday, May 3, 2018. Watch this post to keep track of our progress on this amazing journey that will traverse the continental US from north to south!
DAY 1: Calgary, Alberta to Great Falls, Montana
We didn’t get a very early start from Calgary. Final packing of the car proved to be a more difficult task than expected. The majority of our can’t-live-without items were loaded into the Nissan days ago (thanks for the logical loading, Scott!), but there were many items that had to be added last minute, and that was quite a challenge. In the rush to get things going, I had to abandon my large BenQ monitor to free up space to fit in one of the travel bags that held unimportant things like clothing.
We finally got on the road, and I was glad we’d planned a closer destination for the first day. With the late start, and a quick snack stop in Lethbridge, Alberta, we still got into Great Falls by about 4 PM.
After checking into the La Quinta right on the Missouri River, I asked the Concierge about finding a retailer who could set me up with a SIM card that would allow me to keep in touch on the road. My ostensibly ‘quick’ trip to Snap Communications turned into a bit of a lengthy ordeal as the disinterested and non-communicative teen employee struggled to find a way to get my ‘foreign’ cell phone to work with a local SIM. The location of the retailer really should have been a warning sign: Located in a strip mall, sandwiched between a psychic palm reader and a national air guard recruiting center, the place didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
The communications debacle ironed out, we grabbed a quick dinner and returned to the hotel to relax. I spent time doing some writing and letting friends and family know we had arrived safely.
To plan out our next leg of the journey, I loaded my previously saved map in Furkot and booked accommodation for our second stopping point on the trip.
Tomorrow’s drive should put us all the way into Wyoming. Stay tuned for updates to this blog as events warrant!
Day 2: Great Falls, Montana to Casper, Wyoming
We got away fairly promptly from our hotel in Great Falls and were on the road by just after 9 AM.
An hour out of Great Falls we hit road construction that slowed things down to a stop for a bit, but the weather was bright and sunny, so overall a pretty good day.
We made a brief rest stop at a place called Big Sky Grocery, a phenomenal little grocery that has its own brand of product, and features local foods like various grains, canned fruits and special chocolates. This place is well worth the stop – I was impressed by the cleanliness and general orderliness of the store, as well as the wide variety of local food. I enjoyed a huckleberry ice cream sandwich and we tried out the wonderful adirondack style chairs they have available for sale. They even had one that fit my long legs perfectly. (Although in fairness it wasn’t intended that the user could have feet on the ground while using this high chair.)
We found a local diner with really great (although tiny) burgers in Billings, Montana. After a top up on fuel, we headed for our final destination for the night.
There was a tense moment in the car as we approached Casper. I got a message in the driver information display that said “Maintenance: Tires”. I was already tired and subject to panic after such a long day driving, but a quick Google turned up a number of other confused drivers on Nissan forums who couldn’t find any problem with their tires. As it turns out, Nissan has helpfully included a routine maintenance warning message for users to rotate their tires at certain intervals. Since my summer tires only got installed a couple of weeks ago, rotating them isn’t something I really need to worry about… or that I EVER worry about, for that matter. Thanks for nothing, Nissan.
After over eight hours driving, it was definitely time to stop for the night.
Each night when we reached our destination, I’ve been checking hotel prices through Furkot and then booking a hotel room at our next target destination based on that information. The place I booked for Casper (or Evansville, actually) turned out to be a real turkey.
Baymont by Wyndham in Casper East was by far the saddest excuse for a hotel that I’ve seen in a long while. It claimed to be 2.5 stars (enough censure in itself, looking back now), but really should lose a full star for problems with cleanliness and state of repair.
Strategically placed traffic cones at the parking lot entrance are meant to discourage travellers from attempting to traverse the immense holes in the asphalt, making entry to the parking area challenging. The wallpaper in the bathroom was peeling, the paint chipped badly. The bathroom fan did little to extract air from the space, and the control for it was really more of a volume knob than anything else. An attempted grout repair along the bottom edge of the bathtub didn’t go well, resulting in a rough and cracked gap between the tile and the side of the tub. The side entrance to the hotel had a security lock that was meant to open with your key card, but in actual fact didn’t lock at all, allowing anyone off the street to enter the hotel unhindered. The television was completely non-functional, and when we asked the desk clerk about it, he gave some helpful hints about trying to change the inputs.
The Baymont wasn’t cheap either… This felt like a $50/night hotel that was on special for $112 a night. Definitely give this one a miss if you happen to be passing through Casper, Wyoming!
Day 3: Casper, Wyoming to Colorado Springs, Colorado
Since our third day of driving was going to be a bit shorter, we elected to sleep in and make some calls back to Canada before we got going.
After a quick complimentary breakfast at the hotel (which thankfully wasn’t as bad as the hotel itself), we filled up and got back on the road. (Incidentally, we are averaging 10.5 litres per 100km right now. That’s 22 miles/gallon for our American friends.)
The weather has continued to be bright and sunny, with fluffy white clouds that drift across the sky. Some areas did have very strong cross winds, and we were amused to see certain sections of interstate are equipped with wind socks along the road to help drivers in judging wind speed and direction.
We took lunch in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Beautiful little town on the plains with pristine streets and handsome old buildings in the downtown core.
After lunch, it was back on the I-25 south for Denver. It was as we approached Denver that the traffic problems started. Well before we were near the city (out in Thornton) the traffic thickened up and we ground all lanes to a stop. The overhead traveller advisory signs indicated that our ability to keep highway speed would only be a dream from that point onward. And they were not wrong.
Getting through Denver and the Castle Rock area just south was the worst traffic I’ve seen in years. The odd thing was, there were no traffic accidents to account for the abrupt stop-and-go game that took us from the posted 130 km/h limit to zero every few kilometers. As a result, the last two hours of our drive proved to be the most tiring of the entire day.
Finally, we made it safely to our hotel for the night, and were overjoyed to see that it was a significant step up from the hovel of the night before.
Day 4: Colorado Springs, Colorado to Amarillo, Texas
After a restful night in a great hotel, I was eager to get on with our southward push into Texas. I took a brief walk when I first got up, and marveled at how clear the view of Pike’s Peak was in the early morning air.
We pushed through as far south as Raton, New Mexico, before we stopped for lunch. During our lunch break, I had cause to ponder the stereotypes of Americans. The other patrons of the restaurant were very friendly, and engaged eagerly in conversation when they learned we were from out of town. In fact, everywhere we’ve been so far in the USA on this trip has proven the point to me again and again: People are generally pretty friendly everywhere you go.
I will extend the topic of friendliness and welcoming travelers cited above to segway (somewhat awkwardly, I admit) to the one issue that has made this trip challenging. That would be my ability to pay for gasoline…
Yes, pay for gasoline. It’s hard to believe that something like this could even be an issue in this age of modern payment systems. However, as we travel further south in the US, I am finding that at many pay-at-the-pump locations (which is almost all of them), when you use a visa card to purchase fuel, you are prompted by the pump for a zip code. And the zip code that the pump is looking for, as it happens, is the one you set up with your bank when you had your visa card issued. Using a random zip code does not work. Using the hotel’s zip code does not work. When I raised this issue with many of the gas station attendants, I seem to get either a blank stare or a shrug. Many had no idea why the payment process requests this, or what a traveller should do to overcome it.
After having this discussion with several gas station operators, the picture starts to become clear: The US has a huge problem with credit card fraud for fuel purchases. As a security countermeasure, they have implemented the zip code requirement as a secondary measure to ensure that the user of the card is, in fact, the registered owner of the card. NONE of this explanation is much consolation, however, when you are a foreign traveller somewhere on the I-25 with an empty tank and a gas pump asking you for a piece of information you never had.
I know what you are thinking. (Scary, right?) You are thinking, “Why not just pay cash and avoid the whole zip code thing?” And normally, that would be easy to do. However, since I always want to fill the tank, in order to prepay, I first need to be able to predict how much fuel I will need. Which requires me to determine, based on my fuel gauge alone, the quantity of fuel I will need to fill the tank in US GALLONS, and then calculate the value of that fuel in US DOLLARS. Neither US gallons nor US dollars mean very much to a Canadian who is used to calculating fuel amounts in litres for Canadian dollars. As a result, successfully using cash as a payment method means overestimating the value so you can be sure of a full tank, pumping your gas, then returning to the attendant with your receipt to get your cash refund for the unused fuel portion.
One gas station attendant let me leave my Alberta Operator’s License with her while I fueled up, then pay with my visa at the register. Terrific! Finally a solution! However, when I tried that same routine at the next fuel station, the teenage attendant looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. Of course, the fact that my strange looking out-of-country driver’s license probably looked about as official as a Blockbuster Video membership card probably didn’t help matters much…
Suffice it to say, this whole refueling issue at US gas stations has been the most miserable part of the trip so far. At one point, I was so frustrated when the pump asked for a zip code, I closed my fuel filler door and drove away to seek out a gas station where they hadn’t yet implemented the additional security.
After our lunch in New Mexico, we drove the 215 miles (346 km) to arrive in Amarillo, TX. It was hear that it really felt like we had broken the back of this epic road trip. We were way beyond the halfway point in our driving, and it felt good to look back at the whole thing and realize that we were going to make it.
The hotel was terrific, and for the first time on this trip, we decided to take a dip in the pool for some refreshment after the long drive through fairly mundane prairies and hills.
All that was left now, was the drive through Texas and the final long day through Mexico.
Day 5: Amarillo, Texas to San Antonio, Texas
We intentionally chose a shorter day for this next segment of the trip, as we had been pushing pretty hard all the other days. It is very nice to arrive early enough in the afternoon to settle into the hotel before you start thinking about finding a place for dinner.
The topography of Texas has some distinct changes as you head south. The northern bit was pretty tiring to see. Mile after mile of scrub bushes on rolling slightly rolling hills, interspersed with dry salt pans against a background of flat topped mountains, all hazy blue in the distance. Occasionally we would spot a few pronghorn antelope that would watch us resentfully as we whizzed past at the 75 miles/hour speed limit on this secondary highway.
South of Amarillo, we started to get into some greener foliage. Along the roadway, there were signs of spring flowers just starting to bloom. In certain more arid areas, low cactus was pushing up bright yellow flowers.
Because our route was along a secondary highway and not an interstate, every time we approached one of the many small towns along the route, the speed would progressively drop from 75 miles/hour down to 60, then 55, then 40 and then through the main streets, do 35 miles per hour. While a bit frustrating when you are trying to get somewhere, each of these did offer the opportunity to make a brief stop for a stretch break.
As we entered Clayton, Texas, I decided I needed a quick break. When we stopped and opened the car doors, the 35° C heat hit us like a wall. With the A/C in the car, you didn’t even notice the climbing temperature. I decided to take a wander around the block, as we’d pulled down a side street when we entered town. I was rewarded by a most unusual sight: A huge iron dragon adorned the top of an abandoned building on the main drag through town.
Somewhere along the drive, we encountered vast fields of wind turbines. These monstrous three-bladed turbines went on for miles, sometimes on both sides of the highway. At one point I noticed we’d been driving for about 20 minutes while passing them. I have no idea how many there are, but the count has to be in the thousands.
Along the highway we couldn’t help noticing the high mortality rate of deer, possums and raccoons. There is obviously a lot of wildlife among the short trees and grasslands, but none of them are very compatible with the 75 mile/hour speed limits along this route!
It was with great relief that we pulled into San Antonio in the mid-afternoon, glad that we would have one full day to rest up before continuing our relentless push south.
Day 6: Time in San Antonio, Texas
We were so glad to finally have a day to NOT get up and rush through breakfast just to get back on the road for a full day of driving!
The weather here in San Antonio has been HOT. Considering that the last of the snow in my backyard in Calgary just melted a few days before we started our trip, it seems REALLY hot here. During the mid-afternoon we are peaking at 34° C. Most years, Calgary might hit this temperature a few days right at the peak of summer, but even this is rare. If San Antonio is getting this temperature in early May, I can only imagine what the rest of the summer must feel like.
We had to do a bit of shopping while in the larger city, as I won’t be able to find any clothing or shoes that will be my size in Mexico. I found shoes that will be good for the amount of walking I plan on doing, as well as a duffle bag I needed to replace the one that I split opened when trying to wedge too many clothes into it when we were in Great Falls.
For dinner, we found a terrific Thai place that had great food and good prices. Since it may be difficult to find this kind of ethnic food (which I love) in Mexico, we decided this was the right thing to enjoy on our second-to-last night in America.
After dinner, we spent some time on the pool deck in the wonderfully warm evening air, doing some preparation with our friends in Queretaro to make our arrival in Mexico easier, and making some Skype calls to family. Once the mosquitos started biting, we decided to return to our room to book our next hotel in Laredo and finalize our driving plans for the last push through Mexico.
Day 7: San Antonio, Texas to Laredo, Texas
Since our drive for the day would only be about three hours, we elected to linger over breakfast, then drive downtown to experience the Riverwalk in the city core.
Riverwalk in San Antonio is a terrific place to explore. Along a section of the San Antonio river, which is located below street level, there is a pedestrian promenade that features entertainment, restaurants and a beautiful walkway system with cultivated gardens and trees. Being in the middle of a downtown core as it is, the sights and sounds come as a welcomed surprise.
As we were downtown well before lunchtime, we took the opportunity to stroll along the promenade, where the restaurants were just getting things set up along the walkway in anticipation of the lunch crowd.
Open topped tour boats ply the waterway in both directions, where groups of sightseers take in the experience as the tour is narrated by the boat operators over a loudspeaker on the boat. We didn’t want to take the 45 minutes for the tour, so we just enjoyed the sights from the promenade.
Along the path, we popped back up to street level to follow signs directing us to the Alamo, which is in the same area. After a brief tour around the Alamo, we returned to the Riverwalk to seek out a good place for lunch along the promenade.
Access to the Riverwalk itself is free to enter, but parking downtown seems tight, so we paid for a parkade. During lunch it seems to get quite busy, even on a weekday. I imagine the weekends are much more crowded.
Leaving from the downtown core of San Antonio, we drove for about two-and-a-half hours to our final destination for the day: Laredo, Texas.
Day 8: Laredo, Texas to Santiago de Querétaro, Qro., Mexico
Author’s Note: Sorry about the delay in getting this last chapter of the road trip blog published. Since our arrival in Queretaro, we’ve been completely absorbed with figuring out where things are located in the city, lining up a place to rent and getting our utilities and services (including internet) connected. But that is a story for another time.
Without further ado…
Getting on the road as quickly as possible for our final day’s drive was important, so we set a wakeup alarm for 6:30 AM and had the hotel cafeteria prepare a ‘to-go’ breakfast burrito bag so we could eat on the road. The drive for the day was estimated as being over nine hours. Given the potential delays along the way for any construction or problems, it was shaping up to be a long, long day.
Friends had given me some instructions on what to expect with the border crossing, but this was probably still the tensest part of the trip for me. We had prepared a manifest of all the things we were bringing with us, as the Mexican border agents are within their rights to inquire as to what you are importing into their country. We had heard horror stories about some tourists being charged import duty on things they brought with them, so we were especially concerned. I had with me my equipment for audio recording and photography, which included cameras, laptop computers, high-end microphones and digital interface equipment. We also had a massive bag of vitamins and health supplements, a guitar and a substantial collection of clothing and shoes. If the Mexican customs decided to follow the letter of the law, they could charge me a percentage of the value on all the goods being imported. And that wasn’t in the budget.
We had heard that at the border the Mexican government employed a ‘red light, green light’ system. Red light meant you stopped for a mandatory inspection of your vehicle, green light meant you sailed right through without delays. As we waited nervously in the queue for the border, we noticed that the entire customs area seemed to be under heavy construction. There was no light system to be seen. As we came to the front of the queue, the agent asked where we were headed and how long we would be in Mexico. That check completed, we pulled forward (still looking for this reported light indicator) only to be pulled aside by two border agents who wanted to look through the car. It appeared that they were stopping everyone for this vehicle inspection.
I suppressed an inward groan. If things were going to go off the rails, this would be the time.
The agent asked me to unlock the rear door and to open the back hatch. I did so and waited. From what I could see in the mirrors, the two agents didn’t even do much of a check of the contents of the vehicle, apart from a cursory poking about at the precariously loaded contents. It’s just as well. If they had wanted us to actually unload so they could inspect each item, repacking the cargo would have taken at least another 30 minutes. Things were so tight back there you would have been hard pressed to slip a credit card into the space. (Incidentally, upon unloading the cargo when we arrived at our temporary home later this same day, I discovered that the load was so tightly packed that the waffle pattern of one of our hard-sided suitcases had been embossed into a plastic moulding along one side of the cargo compartment.)
With considerable relief I pulled out of the inspection area with nary a comment from the border inspection agents. And then we found ourselves outside of the secured customs area on a random street in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Without visas. Had we missed a step somewhere? Panic ensued.
Just like that, we were illegal Canadian immigrants in Mexico.
I pulled the car down a side street to stop and consider my options. To see if we could figure out where we’d gone wrong, I tried to call a friend who lives in Mexico but couldn’t get through. Should we try driving back into the border security area? Just make a run for it and try get the visa when we reached Queretaro?
After some contemplation, we decided to drive along the main street beyond the border area and look for somebody who might help. I pulled into a money exchange place and inquired (as best I could in Spanish) about the visa. The staff indicated that I had to drive further down the road, away from the border crossing. I was doubtful, but decided that this was still a better option than ‘plan B’…. which at that moment was to grow a mustache, learn Spanish and see if I could pick up some seasonal agricultural work on a farm where they didn’t care about papers.
As we drove a few more blocks past the exchange house, we couldn’t help but notice a man in a wheelchair in traffic at an intersection ahead who was wildly gesticulating in our direction. He apparently wanted us to stop near him in the left turn lane. We’d been warned that if there were going to be problems with vehicle hijacking, it would be in the border state. But a guy in a wheelchair?
I pulled alongside the man and rolled down my window. “Visa de tourista,” he shouted over the sound of traffic, and indicated that I needed to make a U-turn through the intersection and head back the way I’d come. This seemed unusual, but I figured that advice from a one-legged man in a wheelchair who was able to correctly identify the look of panic and fear in the eyes of a lost tourist was probably the best direction I was likely to get at that moment. I pressed a few pesos into his outstretched hand and took the turn.
Sure enough, the roadway did an odd lane split and diverted us off toward a building that looked much like a warehouse, but which just happened to house the Mexican Immigration office.
Thankfully we found there were a few locals coming through the immigration office who spoke a bit of English. Otherwise, it would have been difficult for us to figure out that the immigration process consists of three distinct steps, each of which is conducted at a different counter in the building.
To get to the start of the process we had to find the “Paso Uno” desk, which was at the far end of the building. It is the desk that is just beyond the passage between all the vehicle insurance booths, where the girls call out to you like betel nut sellers in Taiwan as they hawk their particular brand of insurance.
At the first step (paso uno), you fill out your arrival card, which looks much the same as the one you are given on the aircraft when arriving on a flight into Mexico. Second step (paso dos) was to register the out-of-country vehicle and receive a certificate and window sticker. The third step (actually this was labeled as ‘paso quatro’ as the agent told us we didn’t need to do step three counter – I still don’t know what the third desk was for) is the cashier where you pay for everything.
Steps one and two went off without too much difficulty, but when it came time to pay we hit a snag. The agent informed me that their computer system was down, and as a result, the system wasn’t showing our vehicle import license properly. We were politely asked to wait. No timeframe given. Just wait.
I kept checking my watch as we waited. We’d already been at the immigration office for well over an hour at that point. The delay was going to push the end of our day to after sundown, and I wasn’t keen on trying to navigate unfamiliar streets with ambiguous traffic rules after dark.
Mercifully, we were called back to the wicket after only a five-minute wait. They had the computer issue worked out, and we could now pay.
I tendered my visa card and they put the transaction through. After a moments hesitation the agent abruptly left the wicket to confer with a colleague. There was much animated discussion that involved pointing at the information on my receipt, consulting a computer screen and surreptitious glances in my direction. The agent returned to inform me that the USD/MXN exchange rates were just updated seconds after my transaction, and as a result they had to reverse the charges on my card and process it again to get the right exchange from my Canadian dollar account.
At that point I didn’t have the energy left to inquire as to why this was an issue. I just went with it, and handed over my card again. The agent cancelled my transaction, gave me the cancellation receipt, processed a new transaction and sent me on my way. (It was only days later in looking at my bank records that I realized I had lost out on the deal. When my transaction refund was processed, it must have used the revised exchange rate, because the initial transaction was for $32 CAD more than my refund!)
This point onward for the last day was mostly just intense driving with a few really quick rest stops along the way for gasoline and sustenance. With a few important lessons on Mexican driving etiquette.
It quickly became clear that the posted speed signs in Mexico are either posted MINIMUM speeds, or are perhaps intended as a speed guideline to indicate the speed beyond which your vehicle is likely to disintegrate due to the poor road patching. Regardless of their actual meaning, I found that unless I maintained a pace that was at least 50% above the posted speed, large rigs were breathing down my neck.
The mix of types of vehicles on Mexican freeways (particularly the toll highways, or ‘cuotas’ in Spanish) is very different from what we saw through the USA. Certainly there were heavy commercial trucks all along our route, but on the Mexican side of the border, well over 80% of the freeway traffic consists of large rigs. I’ve asked around, and it seems there are a couple of reasons for this. First, commercial trucks are probably willing to pay to use the cuotas, whereas private individuals likely can’t afford the cost, or choose not to pay it and prefer slower, less direct routes across the country. Secondly, cuotas are apparently safer to travel, making it more attractive to commercial trucks who carry valuable goods.
There was an interesting disconnect I observed in the quality of Mexico’s roadways. At one point we observed a huge highway interchange project underway, with very impressive and well engineered cloverleaf structures under construction. But then, just minutes down the road, we almost were taken off the road due to a combination of the high speeds and the Mexican’s inexplicable inability to properly apply asphalt patching. Sometimes the patches appeared to be 5 or 10 cm’s higher or lower than the roadway. My Nissan seems to have difficulty maintaining road contact over these kinds of differences (especially given the speed), which frequently caused us to skitter sideways over rough areas. It made for a very white-knuckled day of driving, to be sure.
More than once on our drive, we had people decide to cross the highway (where speeds were up around 120 km/h), often right as I was approaching. On one occasion, a man darted across in front of us even though there was nobody within sight behind me. And he did this directly in the shadow of a pedestrian overpass!
Another bizarre anomaly we observed was the use of turn indicators on vehicles. I had read on another blog that Mexican drivers, especially when travelling a single lane roadway, will often drive with their left turn signal on to indicate to the driver behind them that it is safe to pass them (rather than using it to indicate that they want to pull into oncoming traffic to pass someone ahead of them, as in Canada). This seemed odd enough in itself, but what we observed was altogether more puzzling.
Many times when we were on multi-lane cuotas, we observed trucks with their left turn signal on, even when there was nobody around them. Sometimes we even saw trucks in the right lane with their right turn signal going, but with no exit in sight.
We began trying to figure out the rules around turn signal use based solely on how we saw signals being employed. Here is what we came up with, sorted by order of most likely to least likely significance:
- 35% – “I say, did you notice that cow in yon field?”
- 25% – “I may eventually turn left/right and want everyone to know it.”
- 22% – “My vehicle is new enough that my electrical system is fully functioning. Impressive, no?”
- 18% – “It is safe to pass me on the left if you choose.”
The turn signals usage was baffling enough, but we would also frequently see drivers with their four way hazard lights employed as well, merrily driving along at great speed in the left lane. Frequently drivers wouldn’t use their turn signals at all, but would drift between lanes freely.
It was with great relief that we finally arrived in Queretaro shortly after the sun had set. We met up with our friends at an agreed location so we could follow them to our place of lodging for the night.
On the short drive to our accommodation, one thing quickly became clear. Driving in Queretaro has no rules. Of any kind. A ‘lane’ is anywhere the width of your vehicle can be accommodated. Following distances at high speed are measured in centimetres (I call it the ‘half second rule’), unless you want somebody to nose their vehicle in front of you. Traffic can be barreling along at double the posted speed limit one second (with half a second between vehicles), then come to a screeching halt over the next hill, often for no discernable reason.
We did finally arrive at our destination for the night, but I was completely exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed with the whole days experience.
Suffice it to say that we are thrilled to finally be in our new city and looking forward to all the challenges and rewards that are certain to come with it!
Thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to keep up with all our exploits in the year ahead here on Mexican Moose!