Top Down on the Twisty Roads of Igo, California

Dateline: Igo, California

I recently joined an online forum for aficionados of Mercedes SLK cars. I happen to own an early model, a 2001 SLK230. It’s a sporty, two-door, four-cylinder supercharged roadster, with a six speed manual transmission, and a load of fun. It’s what got me across the country, and may someday take me to Mexico City. I just submitted this post to my SLK club, and thought I’d re-post it here.


After what seemed like endless days of gray, rainy weather, the morning dawned looking like it’d be yet another rerun of gloom. But by noon, the sky had mostly cleared, the pavement was dry, the temperature had reached the mid-60’s, and I could hear my SLK whispering softly from the garage,

“C’mon…it’s nice. Take me out! Take the top down and find a twisty road where we can let loose and strut our stuff.” 

Twisty Roads West of Redding, CA

How could I resist? After just a few of those whispers, my will gave out, and by two o’clock, I was on the road, top down. Heading north through Redding, California on highway 273, I could see the lower Cascade mountains off to the east, crowned by the regal Mount Lassen. To the west, where I was headed, the coastal mountains that separate the northern tip of the San Joaquin valley from the Pacific Ocean beckoned me.

Before leaving, I had done a little research on Google Maps. Though it was virgin terrain for me, it looked promising: mountains, tiny roads, lakes and streams. Surely there would be some exciting driving ahead.

Where the Twisties Get Serious

I turned left at Buenaventura Avenue, but hit a red light almost immediately. A white Buick Riviera with an elderly driver sat to my right. Ahead, the road narrowed to one lane in each direction. “I gotta get ahead of her, or this mountain road is going to be nothing more than an exercise in frustration,” I murmured to myself. I could see the opposing light turn yellow, and I depressed the clutch, engaged first gear, and got ready. Green! I let out the clutch, pressed the accelerator to the floor, and listened with glee as the whir of the supercharger rose to a whine. I jammed it into second and hit the first curve with gusto. Soon I was in third and the Riviera was just a bad memory.

Yes! I was now flying up the hill with the wind in my hair, no one ahead of me, and the road racing up to greet my tires. After a few sweeping curves, I crested the hill and hit Placer Road. There I made a left. Placer Road is a broad, two-lane country highway with gentle turns running through rolling hills. Though not a particularly technical or twisty drive, it’s pleasant place to zoom through with the top down. As I drove, the houses thinned out to be replaced with farms, cows, and open grasslands dotted with gnarled old oaks, still leafless from the winter. I could see their twisted silhouettes against the cloud-flecked sky, and felt glad to be alive.

This part of Northern California is the transition zone between the valley and the mountains. So there are wide meadows dotted mostly with oaks. It’s mainly cattle country, with little other farming. The terrain is hilly, and as you get farther from the valley, begins to get steep.

Parked by the Clear Creek Bridge

After a few miles of gentle curves, rises and falls, I crossed Clear Creek Bridge. I stopped to take a picture of the car next to it. The bridge was surprisingly high, and I’d estimate the creek was about a hundred feet below. By this point, Mr. SLK was happy. His engine was purring softly, and his suspension had just gotten warmed up. But he wanted more than Placer Drive. “Find me a twisty side road,” he softly begged me. “C’mon, we can find somewhere where we can really have some fun.”

Muletown Road is Calling Me

Who was I to say no? So I got back in and drove on. Shortly I found Muletown Road. The sign warned that it was twisty and that the pavement would end in three miles. “That sounds like fun!,” I thought to myself as I pointed the SLK down the country road. I was not disappointed. The pavement, though smooth, was not wide, and there was no center line. There were some houses along the way, but it was mostly desolate countryside. Though a small and twisty road, I managed to keep the car in third gear, with about 2,500 RPMs, which meant I was keeping a speed around 30-40 MPH. At one point, I nearly planted it into an embankment, but a quick stab at the brake followed by a deft move of the steering set me back on course and I continued without incident. Off to the side of the road, I spotted a flock of wild turkeys and stopped to take a photo. I’d seen these birds many times around my home in Boston, but I was surprised to find them here. Camera shy, they quickly disappeared into the underbrush.

Wild Turkeys in California. Who knew?

After a few miles, a sign warned that the pavement was ending. At this point, I also encountered a young family. Because I had learned to drive on twisty dirt roads, I wasn’t fazed by the idea of no pavement. But I asked the family if the road was public. They took one look at my car and said, “You won’t make it in that. If we have to go on that road, we take our large four-wheel drive truck. You’re probably best off just going back.”

“Makes sense. I guess I’ll follow your advice then,” I said, and turned around, the tiny turning radius of the car coming in handy yet again. God, I love this car! The ride back to Placer Road was all the better since I now knew what to expect. I hit the twisties with greater vigor, and soon I was back on the highway and continued on. After another couple of miles, Placer Road turned into South Fork road.

The road then narrowed and began to wind. Though I saw the occasional other car, they were few, and fortunately going the other way. I would have quickly caught up with anyone going the same direction.

Where Zogg Mine Road and South Fork Road Meet

Suddenly I saw Zogg Mine road, and it looked like Muletown road, only better. A dire warning was posted at the entrance: “Narrow Winding Road. Road ends in 4.6 Mi. Trucks Not Advised. NO TURNAROUND.” “Well, in my little car, that last bit shouldn’t be a problem,” I thought. “Sounds like fun, in fact.”

Fortunately, I saw no cows on the road

I turned right, and my next adventure began. I immediately crested a small hill, and then the road narrowed dramatically. The center line disappeared, and all I could see were hills, trees, grass, and the road disappearing off into the distance. “Yes! Pay dirt,” I thought with glee.

As I raced along, I could feel the suspension working overtime. The turns were narrow and banked, often the wrong way. As the turns shifted direction, the banking reversed. The road went up and down, and as I zoomed along I felt like I was on the back of a bucking bronco. But the SLK’s suspension ate it all up with aplomb, keeping the car firmly planted without shaking my teeth out.

On the straight part of Zogg Mine Road

Since my car is the 230 with only a four cylinder engine (not a six), it has nearly perfect 50/50 weight balance. Thus the handling is incredibly neutral and forgiving. It’s almost impossible to make the tires squeal, and even with the traction control off, it takes persistence to spin the tail. Incredibly, I was able to do most of this road in third gear, again maintaining a speed between the low 30’s and the mid-40’s. Since I didn’t know the road, I had to be a bit careful, but it was an exhilarating ride nonetheless.

Alone in the mountains next to a swollen creek.

As I got higher into the mountain, the trees got thicker, and soon I was driving under a forest canopy. The occasional house went by in a blur, but I was mostly alone on this wonderful country road. Soon, I saw a waterfall to my right, and then a babbling creek to my left. I stopped to take photos.

After a few more miles, I got to the end of the road, which rather suddenly turned into someone’s driveway. It was only by slamming the brakes that I managed to not end up on the guy’s porch. Jeeze, there really was no place to turn around. By then, the road was maybe eight feet across. Since the driveway was literally festooned with “No Trespassing” signs, I didn’t want to ask if I could turn around in the guy’s driveway. So I ended up backing up about fifty feet before I could turn around. “Man, that warning sign wasn’t kidding,” I thought.

By then it was about four thirty, and I knew it was time to think about getting home. I had promised to cook dinner for my elderly mother, and I knew she’d be hungry. As I headed back, I reflected back on the drive. It had been a perfect afternoon, with temps in the 60’s, top down, few cars on the road, and some really fine twisties. I counted myself a lucky man as I headed back along Placer Road, and then back onto the interstate.

Toward the end of a beautiful country drive

Since I’m still stuck here in Redding, I can hardly wait for my next chance to explore more of these country roads.

Saludos!

Come Hell or High Water…

img_3753-shasta-dam-low-resDateline: Living in Fear of Flood

Perhaps you’ve heard. California’s drought is over. Oh, sure, there are public officials who still deny it. And who could blame them? They’ve spent years counseling parsimony in water use. Some have even levied fines, cut flow to profligate households, and even managed to stigmatize clean cars and green lawns. But that gig is up.

We have water in excess now. Way in excess. Perhaps you’ve read about the floods in San José, California. Or maybe you’ve heard about the evacuation of Oroville, CA, after a dam there threatened to burst. Or maybe you’ve recently driven through the Sacramento Valley, where fields are doing their best lake impersonations. Here in Redding, my mother lives a mere few hundred yards from the mighty Sacramento River, California’s largest, and it’s nearly overflowing its banks.

The Firemen Haven't Used that Boat in Years

The Firemen Haven’t Used that Boat in Years

Fortunately for us, Franklin Roosevelt saw fit to have the river dammed, so we don’t have too much to fear from flooding. At least if the dams here are in better shape than in Oroville. Here, there are two dams upstream: the boringly utilitarian Keswick Dam, designed mostly for electricity generation; and the awesome Shasta Dam, built for flood control, recreation, and also electricity generation.

Given the rather stunning lack of museums, nightclubs, musical venues, and the like here, the dams are a rather popular spot. And even if there were more alternative diversions, Shasta Dam would still be worth a visit. The lake is beautiful, the scenery tranquil with pine-forested mountains rising up from the water, and eagles and hawks soar above it all. But it’s the dam itself that takes your breath away. It’s the eighth-tallest in the country, and holds the largest California reservoir. When completed, the dam was the second-tallest in the United States after Hoover, and was considered one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. And recently there’s an added bonus: actual water! Yes, the dam has filled up and now there’s honest-to-goodness water flow unlike the former bit of minor turbulence below the power house.

Compare the Water Level in the Video

Drought Starved Lake Shasta. Notice the Boat Ramp.

In fact, there’s been so much water flow, that I’ve become nervous about the prospect of my mother’s house flooding. The normally placid flow of water here has turned into an angry torrent. So we decided to visit and assess the risk of flooding ourselves. We made two visits, and I decided to document our findings on video, which you can see below.

What follows is obviously amateurish, but I hope this little video gives you some sense of our dam, rainfall, and local scenery.

Saludos!

 

Mexico is Burning

bigstock-running-on-empty-225717-cleaned-upDateline:Outta Gas and Outta Patience

Mexico suddenly finds itself in dire straits. A number of things which were neither foreseen nor planned-for have suddenly occurred. Three years ago, sub-$100 oil seemed like an impossible fantasy, at least for consumers. A slowdown or reversal of globalization was seen by no one until quite recently, when Brexit shook the establishment. Trump was considered a long-shot candidate right up to the eve of the election. Worse, the peso has lost nearly 50% of its value over the last two years, recently exacerbated by the Trump victory. And the final blow, gasoline, which remains in plentiful supply on global markets, is now having trouble finding its way to Pemex stations across the country, even at newly elevated prices, which should theoretically stimulate supply.

Of course, the most pressing of these issues is gasoline. Even back in 2014 when I did my road trip, gasoline was a contentious topic in Mexico, having seen a steady upward climb in prices. Now it’s everything.  Given the recent, hefty, and indeed record-setting price hike in Mexico, combined with shortage, I decided to do some research to better understand the facts. I looked at DOE data on global production and pricing of crude, and domestic pricing of gasoline. I looked at historical Mexican gasoline prices, and I looked at the exchange rate. I even read through bits of Pemex’s 2015 annual report. I’ve also read many articles in the Mexican press about the situation.

I learned some interesting things. First, since 2010, the price of Magna (regular unleaded) has had one very minor dip (Jan 2016) in an otherwise uninterrupted rise. Mostly those rises have been around 1% per month. Sure, they add up over time, but any given monthly hike is not too big, so people grumble, but then move on.

Relentless Price Increases in Pesos

Relentless Price Increases in Pesos

However, the most recent hike was the biggest ever, 14% in a month for Magna, more for premium. That, along with shortage, has unleashed the simmering fury.

Poor Policy Making in Action

Poor Policy Making in Action

But the real culprit is not gasoline; it’s the USD/MXN (peso) exchange rate. Over a very long time frame, the peso has mostly only moved in one direction versus the US dollar: down. Sure, it’s not a perfectly smooth downward path, but the longer term trend is about as inexorable as any seen in finance. Historically it’s been a mostly gentle depreciation, with a few twists and lurches along the way. More importantly, it’s been manageable both for the economy and for Pemex.

One Direction: It's Not Just a Boy Band

One Direction: It’s Not Just a Boy Band. Pesos per USD Over Time

But things changed in the fall of 2014, when crude oil started to tumble in earnest and OPEC gave up trying to stop it. Suddenly the peso’s gentle, long-term swoon turned into a dive, creating a host of problems, particularly for energy and imported goods.

Gentle Peso Decline Turns into a Swan Dive

Gentle Peso Decline Turns into a Swan Dive. Source: Federal Reserve

Not only do currency traders view Mexico’s economy as dependent on oil, and thus vulnerable, but the picture for Mexican oil continues to worsen, well beyond the price of crude. In 2014, along with the global crude price, Mexico’s crude production began to decline at an accelerating rate. Add to this the fact that as the most liquid emerging market currency the Peso gets used as a proxy to short oil, and you have a pile-on to the poor Mexican peso.

Production Continues to Decline, Now at a Faster Pace

Production Continues to Decline, Now at a Faster Pace. Source:DOE

So the gasoline problem is really an exchange rate problem, exacerbated by political bungling, and crippled, inefficient Pemex. In USD terms, the price of gasoline in Mexico has fallen since 2014, which reflects the global reality of excess supply against relatively fixed demand. And prior to late 2013, gasoline was actually cheaper in Mexico than in the USA. Even now, the Mexican price premium is nothing compared to places like Europe or Japan.

gas-in-usa-vs-mex-in-usd-per-gal

US vs Mexican Gas Prices. Converted to USD/Gal at Avg Monthly Foreign Exchange Rate

As for political bungling, Peña Nieto hasn’t helped his own cause. During his 2012 campaign, he promised that the energy reform would spur foreign investment and lower the price of gasoline to consumers. Had he been able to wave a magic wand and immediately turn the creaky Pemex-controlled monopoly into a thriving, competitive marketplace, this might have come true. But given the reality of a very long lead time to that promise, it was nearly impossible that it would work out as expected. In order for him to have been correct, he would need to accurately forecast both the peso exchange rate and the price of crude more than three years out, an impossible task for anyone. Sure, he was correct in essentially saying that Pemex was wildly inefficient. But he erred in thinking he could foresee future prices.

So instead of what he might have expected — a soft decline in the peso, and crude oil trading around $100/BBL — he got a collapse in both, exacerbated by steep production declines at Pemex. Worse, Pemex’s finances collapsed along with the crude price, thus cutting off a source of financing for the Mexican government. So by the time the Energy Reform was passed, and Mexico held its first auctions for oil drilling rights, the big, global energy producers responded with a collective yawn. Most of the drilling rights went unsold, leaving yet another hole in government finances. The majority of Mexico’s crude lies offshore, and it’s expensive to find and expensive to extract. Below $50/BBL it probably isn’t worth the hassle, especially when fracking costs onshore in Texas continue to plummet. Add to that the political risk of operating in Mexico, where the rule of law can be a variable thing, and a weak and bureaucratic justice system operates at glacial speed, and foreign oil producers stayed away.

As for Pemex, it is rapidly on its way to becoming a national liability instead of a national asset. It’s suffering perhaps the worst possible business nightmare of rapidly falling production, and a steep fall in the prices it can charge. Add to that enormous liabilities in the form of pensions and union contracts, and it’s in a tough spot. Oh, and the drug cartels have expanded into pipeline theft, stealing millions of liters of gasoline and disabling pipelines in the process. Add all that together and suddenly you have a state-owned albatross which can only be bailed out by radically higher oil prices, something not on the immediate horizon.

As for the immediate shortage, the above longer-term issues collided shorter-term with the law of supply and demand. While I have zero evidence to support the following thesis, it makes economic sense. Knowing that gasoline prices would be 14% or more higher in January than in December, Pemex and the gas station operators had every incentive in the world to “run out of gas” as December rolled to a close. Right? Hold your gasoline for an extra week or two and suddenly it’s worth 14% more. What sensible capitalist wouldn’t do that? Now, I don’t know if that’s what actually happened, but it seems to be the simplest explanation for sudden shortages around the country. And if that’s correct (and I have to believe it is at least partially correct), then policymakers erred big league in not foreseeing and addressing this problem, possibly via weekly price increases or some other measure.

But whatever caused the shortage, Mexican consumers are now mad as hell, and they feel betrayed once again by a government which is widely seen as rapacious and unresponsive to the needs of the ordinary people. Sadly and ironically, their protests are making things worse. Yesterday I read about a typical Mexican form of protest, shutting down federal highways. While such protests are, in my view, almost always misdirected, in this case they are almost comically misdirected. Not only are hapless drivers now wasting more gasoline idling on stopped freeways, but stalled gasoline trucks can’t make deliveries. Add to that the fact that people are trashing, burning, and sacking those gas stations, and any reasonable observer would conclude that this will only exacerbate the problem.

looters-in-toy-store

No Gas? Let’s Steal Toys!

Alas, Mexico is now in a tough spot. There’s zero confidence in the government. People are just angry, and acting out. There are reports now of looting all around the country. Toy stores, electronics stores, and other businesses completely unrelated to gasoline are being looted with abandon. Civic order seems to be breaking down in an unprecedented manner. Given the above, it’s hard to see a rapid resolution to the problem, even at higher prices. Gas stations will take time to rebuild, and as long as the highways remain blocked, gasoline won’t flow. Add to this misery the fact that the peso takes a dive every other time that Donald Trump issues a tweet, and you have a formula for more social unrest. As for the longer-term fallout, no one comes out looking good in this. The government manages to look incompetent, and possibly heavy-handed. The looters look just as bad as looters everywhere, and with handful of deaths to boot, Mexico just got another black eye.

At the root of the problem is the exchange rate as I’ve demonstrated, yet there’s little the government can do, though it is trying. Banxico, Mexico’s central bank, has raised overnight rates five times in 2016, for a total increase of 250 basis points. Each hike put a temporary floor on the peso, but ultimately did nothing to halt its slide. Mexico now has one of the higher overnight rates in the world, which should theoretically attract peso purchases.

But it’s not working. Thursday Banxico intervened directly in the market, purchasing one billion dollars worth of pesos, but the effect lasted all of six hours or so. Friday, Banxico intervened again with another billion.

Market Not Impressed With Banxico Intervention

Market Not Impressed With Banxico Intervention

This time it seems to have halted the slide, at least for now. But such intervention is not sustainable as it will chew up foreign exchange reserves in a hurry. And Mexico’s foreign reserves took a hit in 2015 and haven’t recovered. Moreover, central bank interventions in currency markets have a long and storied history of failure. If the market wants to take the peso lower, it will.

Foreign Exchange Reserves Well Off Their Highs

Foreign Exchange Reserves Off Their Highs

So Mexico finds itself in a tough spot. Though the peso could bounce a bit from here in the short term given the recent bolus of bad news, I suspect that it will find lower levels before stabilizing. Trump indeed will build the wall. Though that shouldn’t affect Mexico’s economy directly, it will be a psychological blow for the country and its investors. Worse, Trump has already persuaded several high profile companies not to invest in Mexico. And whether he can actually carry through with his threats or not, we can be certain that any company which had been considering inbound investment in Mexico has to at the very least be delaying such plans to see what comes after the inauguration.

As for this gringo, I’m fairly convinced that now is not the time to be buying property in Mexico. The peso is likely to get cheaper in my view. Between higher interest rates, higher gasoline prices, likely increases in inflation, and a “Trump-nado” about to be released, Mexico is probably looking at a recession in the next year. Given the social fragility that this episode has revealed, one can only wonder what might occur during a full-fledged recession. Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.


P.S. This post has been a couple days in the making. This morning’s news suggests that the worst of the rioting and shortages may be over or on the mend. Nonetheless, I believe my conclusion still stands.


P.P.S. For an earlier analysis of the Mexican Peso I wrote in January 2016, click here.

My Life, an Update of Sorts

insanity-2Dateline: somewhere between neglect and insanity.

Yes, it has been a long time since I’ve posted. In fact, it’s been months. A lot has happened since then, particularly lately, so I thought I’d write something of an update post. My last post, “Living in Ecstasy,” about my landlord’s Rolls Royce was meant to have a follow-up post, and perhaps I’ll write that some day. But for now, here’s what I’ve been up to.

In early May, just after being more-or-less dumped by Cupcake Boy, I met a real man (>35 y/o), “Luis,” who I’ve been seeing ever since. On our first date, we hit it off. Without prompting, he announced he doesn’t own a TV, loves NPR, especially Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air,” which he knows from having lived in Phoenix for a few years, and is also doing “A Course in Miracles,” something I’m inching through myself. Though younger than me, Luis is at least within shooting distance. If you use a twelve-gauge, that is. We’ve been dating since we met, exclusively, and things are going well, though we’ve had a few ups and downs, as is normal.

Luis is an architect, a Chilango, though not by birth. When I met him, he was working on a complex public works project. At the end of August, his contract was through, and he decided to come with me to Boston, just to help me celebrate my birthday, get a chance to see the place, and generally hang out. As for me, I needed to return to my native soil to do various errands around the house, pay certain bills, and generally look after the place.

After a few weeks, Luis decided he loved Boston and wanted to find a job there. It’s not a tough sell. We can live together in my house, the city has a ton to offer, and with the collapse of the peso, even a crappy job in the USA pays literally multiples of what he could make in Mexico. And unusually for a Mexican, he claims to love cold weather. Add to that his eligibility for an easy-to-get “TN” visa under NAFTA for qualified professionals such as architects, and it’s something of a no-brainer. He hasn’t found a job yet, but we’ll see what happens. So I’ve basically been in Boston since late August, though still renting my apartment in Roma Sur, CDMX.

Soon enough, the holidays rolled around, time for my annual trip to Northern California to see my parents, siblings, and old friends. Since it was no longer just me, the calculus of the trip, where to stay, and a bunch of other things changed. What to do? I defaulted to my normal first-order decision-making process: procrastination. So we spent a lot of time talking about flights, whether we should fly to SFO then to Mexico City, or go back to Boston. Luis was also starting to waver about the wisdom of working in Boston, so that added yet another element of uncertainty. Meanwhile, airline tickets were rising in price and starting to sell out. Rental car rates also had approximately doubled from last year.

What if we drive? Compared with a trip to Mérida on a variety of Mexican highways and byways, a coast-to-coast drive on US interstates didn’t seem all that challenging. And on a cost basis, it compared very favorably to flying two people and renting a car. On the other hand, it also seemed a smidgen insane. While we would not have to contend with narco-gangs, we faced a much more certain danger: snow. The default Google map directions would have taken us through Kansas City, Denver, then west along Highway 80, through southern Wyoming, then into northern Nevada, before having us cross Donner Pass by Lake Tahoe and then descending into the Sacramento Valley. My initial thought was that this would be doable for a few seemingly-good reasons. It’s still early in the season. In Boston, at least, snow is rare before Christmas. The places along the way get plenty of snow, so they’re prepared to deal with it. I had images of hourly plowing and salt application, with messy, but passable roads.

Our Trusty but Tiny Steed

Our Trusty but Tiny Steed, Parked in New Mexico Snow

As it turns out, all these reasons were pretty harebrained. A friend confirmed that west of Denver, there’re often debilitating blizzards that close the interstates. Some quick internet research confirmed this. I would also have been required to carry chains, something that I don’t own. Nor would they have fit. We decided to drive across country in my 230SLK, something the size of a Miata. As it turns out, every single square inch of trunk space was accounted for, and even then we had to gently force the trunk closed. Nope. I didn’t want to deal with chains. Or snow.

The Sensible Southern Route

The Sensible Southern Route

So we decided to drive the sensible, southern route. We left the morning of Wednesday the fourteenth, and over the course of a few days, passed through Hartford, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and through the Texas Panhandle. We then spent the night in Shamrock, Texas, about 100 miles east of Amarillo.

Art Deco Gas Station, Shamrock, TX

Art Deco Gas Station, Shamrock, TX.  Photo Courtesy of Luis

From there, we drove west, hoping to pass through Albuquerque. Alas, the Goddess of the Road didn’t like that plan. As we reached Tucumcari, NM around 10:30 AM, we encountered a gate across the interstate. The highway was closed. No one seemed to know anything as to why, or when it might reopen.

Tucumcari, Gateway to Amarillo. Or to Albuquerque. Or maybe to nowhere

Tucumcari, Gateway to Amarillo. Or to Albuquerque. Or maybe to nowhere

Fortunately, it was early in the day, and we had come upon the gate probably less than a half hour after it was closed. So we turned around and went into Tumcumcari, had lunch, and tried to figure out what to do. At lunch, Yolanda, our waitress informed us that there was a 40-car pile-up beyond the gate. Given that the snow had been very light (less than 2″), and that we hadn’t seen a single cop in the entire state, we figured the road could be closed for a long time. We immediately booked a motel.

It turns out that was the smart move. As the day wore on, the town filled with trucks, truckers, trailers, and hapless automobile travelers such as ourselves. Motels sold out, and that evening (with the highway still closed) we found it almost impossible to get out of the Denny’s parking lot due to the enormous trucks everywhere we looked. In fact, it seemed like the entire town was full of big rigs.

The Truck Traffic Jam Within an Hour of Closure

The Truck Traffic Jam Within an Hour of Closure

The next morning dawned bitterly cold (-2°F/-19°C), but clear. Luis was happy that I had forced him to pack gloves and a hat. The highway had been reopened, but the traffic remained. But after we had packed and eaten breakfast, the worst of the jam was gone. So we continued on.

As we drove, we saw mangled trucks, crumpled cars, skid marks, and all the signs of past disaster. I was astonished that the authorities had allowed such mayhem to occur. Very little snow had fallen, but if the streets in the city were any gauge, someone was scrimping on salt and plowing. In all of Massachusetts, such a dusting would have hardly caused a fender bender. There, the authorities put down salt before snow even starts to fall, and then follow up every couple of hours as needed. But in New Mexico, laisser faire became a disaster.

Worse for me, while in New Mexico, I learned that my 88 year old stepfather was in the hospital, with a very vague diagnosis. His heart was weak, he wasn’t eating, and had swelling in his legs. Though it wasn’t shocking, the timing was a little surprising. He had sounded fine when I called on his birthday two weeks prior, and my mother had not mentioned anything unusual. His health had certainly been slowly failing for some years though. Tied to an oxygen tank, he suffered a constellation of problems common to some older folks: COPD; blood pressure issues; weak heart; several pacemakers; and the like. Indeed the fact that he had made it to 88 at all was something of a miracle. Suddenly, the need to get to California quickly became my dominant concern, and we pushed it, driving 700 miles or more a day.

After five days on the road, we made it to Redding, CA, where my mother and stepfather live. That was Monday the nineteenth. We hightailed it to the hospital. My stepdad didn’t look good, but he was happy to see me. I finally got to talk to his doctor. The prognosis wasn’t good. He had heart failure, which basically means the heart doesn’t pump enough blood. This leads to edema (swelling) of the legs, weakness, fatigue, and related symptoms. The doctor also said he likely had bladder cancer, definitely had internal bleeding, and the cancer had probably started to migrate to his pancreas. Not good.

Over the following days, various decisions were made. Surgery was out, as stepdad was too weak to survive it. Nor did he want any extreme measures to keep him alive. No fool, he had realized his time was coming, and he had put his affairs in order. After consultation with his own children, we all decided that he should come home, but under hospice care. We would try to make him comfortable, but would not treat him beyond that.

Friday morning, the 23rd, we took delivery of a hospital bed, and various other paraphernalia associated with home care. For lack of any other good place, the bed got set up in the living room. Stepdad came home a few hours later, but wanted to sit in his favorite armchair instead of being in the bed. His son came up from the Bay Area, and neighbors dropped by to visit. He even ate some ice cream, a small victory for us. Things looked like he’d have a few weeks to a couple months at home to slowly die and say good bye. Only days before, the doctor had given him 4-6 weeks of expected remaining life.

But the fates had their own plans. And maybe they were better than ours. Within six hours, stepdad had managed to slip out of his chair and onto the floor a couple of times. It was surprisingly difficult to get him back, as he had no strength of his own. He pulled out his oxygen line a couple times too. By 10:45, Luis and I were watching television with him when I noticed that he was unusually quiet. I went to look at him. His hands were cool. No pulse. No detectable breathing. Six hours after getting home, he was dead.

The next few hours involved various phone calls, a nurse visit to certify a natural death, and then a pair of creepy undertakers an hour later. My mother, who typically falls asleep in front of the TV by 8:00 PM was up until 1:30, utterly exhausted. We too were a little frayed, still recovering from the 5-day drive.

Now we’re all trying to deal with the new reality. I’ve told my mother that I’ll stay here at least six weeks. Beyond that, we’ll have to see what works for everyone. My mother is elderly too, 86, and I question how much sense it makes for her to live alone. For now, though, we are just grieving and recouping our strength. I’m fine, but my mother caught a bad cold and is still recovering. I’m doing my best to pamper her, cooking and cleaning, running errands, etc.

As for what the future holds, we’ll see. For now, we can thank the mysterious forces that conspired to make me drive here, leaving me with a car, flexibility, and an open-ended return.

Saludos and thanks for stopping by.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!


P.S. If you comment, please keep in mind that my mother reads this blog.

Living in the Spirit of Ecstasy

Dateline: The Terrain Between Luxury and Decay

As I sit here writing this blog post, not thirty feet from me sit not only one, but two parked Rolls Royces. This is curious for fairly obvious reasons. I’m in a nice neighborhood, but not a super-rich one. In my neighborhood in Boston, a far wealthier place, no one has a Rolls. And I seldom see anyone driving one in Boston, though it’s not uncommon to see Bentley Continental GTs, Ferraris, Maseratis, and other super-expensive cars. But the Rolls Royces, if they exist there (and they surely do) are remarkably shy about showing their Spirts of Ecstasy. And here? I’ve never once seen one on the street anywhere in Mexico.

One of the Rolls Royces here, an ’87 Silver Spirit, belongs to my landlord Rafael, and is parked in the courtyard. I pass by it every day. The other one, an early 70’s Silver Cloud II belongs to his friend, Tony, and is parked on the street, where it has sat unbothered for a couple of weeks now. Rafael borrowed it a while ago, because for a spell he had no working cars, and needed something to get around in.

At the time he borrowed his friend’s Roller, Rafael was in possession of approximately five, non-functioning vehicles: the Rolls; a Pontiac Fiero in the workshop that’s in the process of being converted into a Testarossa lookalike; a late 90’s Range Rover, which is his daily driver and most recent casualty to mechanical failure; a Lamborghini Murcielago parked out front, which lacks an engine among other critical parts; and a large, graffiti-covered van/bread truck, also parked on the street. The bread truck looks abandoned, but it’s not.

Tony's Rolls Royce

Tony’s Rolls Royce

Of the bunch, the Rolls is the most interesting, or at least the most storied. When I first rented the place, I noted the Rolls’ presence. It was covered with dust and apparently not working, a sad testimony to bygone better times. As I got to know Rafael, I came to learn the Roller’s colorful history.

He bought it six years ago in Miami and drove it from there to Mexico City. With an EPA-rated 10 MPG highway mileage, I’m sure it was an expensive trip. Gasoline at the time was fetching around $4 USD/gallon. I marveled at the sheer chutzpah of such a trip and asked him if he wasn’t nervous about crossing the border in a Rolls. At the time, sometime in 2010, the northern states of Mexico were a virtual battleground between various drug gangs and other criminals, the police, and the Mexican military. Ciudad Juarez was more dangerous than Baghdad, and large parts of it had been deserted. The border area didn’t seem like an auspicious place to drive through in a Rolls Royce, even if it wasn’t new. But Rafael was undeterred and sailed through with nary a problem. Hearing this only made me feel a little ridiculous remembering my own fears about such a border crossing. In the spring of 2014, a much calmer time, I also crossed the border, only I was in a rusty 1989 Toyota pickup. Ha!

The Spirit of Ecstasy

The Spirit of Ecstasy

For a few years, life with the Rolls was automotive bliss. Rafael drove it around Mexico City without incident, either mechanical or otherwise, though he did have a few adventures. One day he was out in the Rolls with one of my predecessors, a Swiss guy who had rented one of his units. As they were driving around one late afternoon, Rafael got lost. I’m not quite sure how this happened as Rafael is a Mexico City native and seems to know all the backroads. But they ended up in some iffy neighborhoods, and the Swiss guy began to get nervous. After all, there are plenty of places in the USA where you probably wouldn’t want to take your Rolls. A questionable barrio in Mexico City? Yeah, I’d be nervous too, especially given the danger of being stopped for long periods in the ever-present traffic. But apparently Rafael laughed off any notion of danger, much to the Swiss guy’s chagrin.

One of the more notorious iffy barrios here is Tepito, just North of the Centro Historico. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been warned by people, especially my ex, “F,” not to go anywhere near Tepito. “They’ll rob you down to your underwear there, and you’ll leave nearly naked. That is if you’re still alive.” Those were the kind of anecdotes F loved regaling me with. As a result, I’ve always steered clear of Tepito.

Well, Tepito is exactly where Rafael and the Swiss guy ended up in the Rolls. At this point, according to Rafael, the Swiss guy was in a state of near-panic. But of course he couldn’t abandon ship, because that would only have been falling out of a very plush frying pan and into the fire. And then a very strange thing happened. People started making way for the Rolls, pushing pedestrians out of the street, saluting Rafael and the Swiss guy, and cheering. Apparently they thought he was one of the BIG bosses, come to check up on his network of pirated DVD sellers or some such errand. And soon Rafael found his bearings, and he and the Swiss guy floated to safety without so much as a scuff to the Rolls.

For years Rafael has driven the Rolls all over the city with nary a problem, something that still amazes this Gringo every time he thinks of it. Sadly, this automotively blessed state of affairs ended about two years ago. The Rolls fell under some kind of mysterious mechanical malaise and stopped working. Rafael was forced back into the relative penury of his Range Rover.

Elegant Decay

Elegant Decay

As you might imagine, finding a competent Rolls mechanic in Mexico City is even harder than finding some oddball type of Gringo convenience food. And to put it politely, Rafael tends to bargain hard when he buys things, which ruled out taking it to the Rolls Royce dealership in Polanco. So the Rolls then spent months and months and months shuttling between various incompetent mechanics, losing bits and pieces along the way, but never regaining its ability to elegantly glide over the potholed streets of Mexico City. After several mechanics who could not deliver the goods of functionality, it was finally towed back here where it sat for a maybe another year before I rented my unit.

Sad, dust-covered, and dejected is how I came to know Rafael’s Rolls. But little did I know that I was to become a player in the Rolls Royce Resuscitation Project. But that’s a tale for another post. For now, saludos and thanks for stopping by.