Chapter 9.  Heading North

© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.


Day 58 - Monday, March 11 - Catemaco, Veracruz (Milepost 2842; today 280)

(Shari) Gilford says "Good morning," and I wonder if it is really morning already. Still dark, I walk around the Palenque campground to determine who is not ready to leave. A 6 AM departure, though not early for a birding trip, is early for the caravan to exit. We have a tedious 9-hr. trip ahead of us and want to get a timely start. Other than a hard rain in the morning hours, and an accident blocking the road, we have an uneventful trip. We keep on truckin' and arrive in Catemaco, nine hours on the road. Another caravan has already arrived but thankfully we talked to their Wagonmaster last night and made parking arrangements. He was able to get 17 of his 19 rigs in the parking lot, allowing us the remaining spaces around the hotel complex. He deserves a margarita for that feat and we appreciate his effort. Speaking of margaritas, we use the last of my cans of concentrated limeade for the drinks this evening. One more party and the other ingredients will also be used up. Bob tells a wonderful story about the car repairman and an oil change in Catemaco. Not all Mexicans fit the stereotype and Bob gets a free T-shirt. It reminds me of the time I bought some produce and gave the man thirty pesos because that is what I thought he said it cost. He corrected me and said "Trece, no trienta," and immediately gave me my change. I think we Americans are too quick to judge based on our limited experience from TV shows. I have found the Mexicans to have a generous soul and willing to give you the shirt off their backs. "Mi casa es su casa" prevails. As we are cleaning up after the Happy Hour, the peacocks put on a show for us and we marvel at the beautiful feathers in the cock's spread tail as he rattles and turns for his mate. Too tired to cook tonight, we eat out at the hotel restaurant with Gilford and Nelda. Bert has the fried fish I had last time and I have the stuffed fish with shrimp. My meal is a bit tasteless and dry, but Bert's is delicious.

(Bert) Raining like los gatos y los perros, the windshield wipers are fanning full power. How convenient that it rains on a travel day, not interfering with our many touring and birding activities! After almost two months, we are finally heading north again. From the foothills of Palenque we travel to Villahermosa, through the lowlands of the Usumacinta Basin, then the coastal plains of Tabasco and later marshlands near the unseen Gulf Coast. The clouds zip up their load, leaving a gray dishwater sky, but by afternoon clearer skies return. We snake through Los Tuxtlas and get mountaintop views of Lake Catemaco as we make our descent into the city. Margarita Happy Hour with lots of good snacks is even more entertaining with a story from Bob about the local mechanic who returned Russ's 200 pesos, saying "Friendship is always worth more than money." Our bird count stands at 382 species, plus 14 additional subspecies, and we study the list to see what new possibilities exist for the days ahead.

Day 59 - Tuesday, March 12 - Catemaco, Veracruz (Milepost 2842)

(Bert) The road to UNAM has worsened since January. In morning twilight it takes us 40 minutes to traverse the 8 miles of rocky road. Our first bird of the morning at UNAM is an Ochre Oriole, an off-color subspecies of Orchard Oriole. Species seem to add to the day list slowly, but the overcast skies keep the birds active until the sun finally burns off the cloud cover. We start-and-stop our way along the road to Laguna Escondida, most birders walking the entire length, drivers playing leap frog with the cars, parking them every hundred yards. At our first stop, most of us walk downhill to a likely spot, only to hear Woody yell "Kite!" We double back, out of oxygen when we reach the top of the hill. Perched on a dead tree in the open pasture a gray-headed kite poses for us long enough for us to align spotting scopes. Tom remarks about the extremely long wings that actually drag on the tree limb as it perches. This telltale feature marks the bird as a Plumbeous Kite. Hawks and kites are plentiful today and I finish my day list with a selection of ten species, including my favorite, White Hawk. By the time Lee and I return to Catemaco in late afternoon, I am surprised at the number of species on my list. Last year I broke 100 for the day, but I did not think we were close this year. Shari and I sit beside Lake Catemaco, sipping cocktails, and I find another dozen species lakeside. Then sitting in the parking lot at dusk a Pauraque calls and a Collared Aracari flies over, ending my day list with a remarkable 109 species.

(Shari) "Cuantos anos esta bebe?" I ask the guide. We are taking a boat trip of Lake Catemaco and our guide does not speak a word of English. I want to know how old the baby monkey is that we see on the shore of the island with its mother and do not know exactly how to say "how old" so I ask how many years is it. I get my point across and he answers "Dos meses" or two months. After the eight of us snap mucho pictures of the monkeys we go to Nanciyaga, the most northerly path of the tropical rain forest and where, notably, Sean Connery shot the movie The Medicine Man. We pay an extra 25 pesos, that allows us to walk a circular path on the grounds with a Spanish guide. Between Bob and me, we do glean some knowledge of the place. Most of the statues are replicas of the ones carved by the Olmecs, one of the oldest civilizations in the northern hemisphere or maybe she meant North America. Bob and Joanne are the only two brave souls in the bunch of us who agree to have a mud facial. We sample mineral water from a cup made from palm leaves and Bob visits the Shaman, Benito, for some healing of his sore leg. Today the area is a resort where tourists can spend the day or an hour, close to nature. We pass on the sweat bath and complete mud bath ourselves. Guacamole and key lime pie will never be the same for me after this trip. Don just LOVES both, therefore when I make a lime pie for dinner this evening, I feel guilty and I take Don and Jean a piece each.

Day 60 - Wednesday, March 13 - Veracruz, Veracruz (Milepost 2946; today 102)

(Bert) Traveling the same stretch of highway we did almost two months ago, the road conditions are just as bad; although this time we do it in sunny weather, not rain. A pair of flat-bed semis transport a grater and other earthmoving equipment, moving at snails pace and staying together so closely that we have to pass the full length of both rigs in tandem, a nearly impossible task given the lack of straight-aways on the winding mountain road. Larry and Marlene endure two flat tires on their trailer, tires he has already patched once before. At their request we leave our Tailgunners behind and continue. The group makes the hundred-mile trek in about 4 hours and with the efficiency of a trained caravan, everyone is parked in the Veracruz beach lot within 15 minutes of arrival. Finally again in a large city with ample stores, we all stock up on supplies at Wal-Mart and I transfer e-mail at Office Depot. Dinner at Villa Rica, across the street from the RV lot, becomes a gathering of the whole group, now much more like an extended family than mere acquaintances.

Day 61 - Thursday, March 14 - Poza Rica, Veracruz (Milepost 3125; today 179)

(Shari) Today we have a day and a half packed into half as many hours and I begin to wonder if this job is for me. It all starts when we pull into a Pemex for a short break at 10 AM. I am thinking we'll easily get to Poza Rica by lunchtime. How wrong can I be! The first thing I hear is that Russ and Maggie's truck will not go out of second gear. Next I find out that Gilford and Nelda have a broken spring. Then Joanne and John also find a broken spring and Woody and Gwen have a broken shackle. One problem at a time, please! Larry fixes Woody's problem with parts he carries, Marlene goes with John and Edie to find a parts store and the rest of us wait. Since Russ can only drive in second, we send them off with Jack and Monica in front and Jerry and Doris in the rear, intending to catch up with them at a Pemex forty miles down the road. Since there is no parts store until Poza Rica, Larry must chain up the springs and catch up to the caravan later. Bob mentions that this is something like Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest. The rest of us take off and make good time until we see a fork in the road that was not there last year. Our choices, according to the signs, are Papantla on the free road or Poza Rica on the cuota road. Since I have been to Papantla on the free road and do not wish to repeat that experience (see last year's story) and since we intend to go to Poza Rica anyway, we choose the cuota road. It is a very nice road, but as we travel further and further east, I suspect we will not even get close to the Pemex where we are to meet Jack and Monica. I guess we will just have to get the caravan situated and drive back to get them. I am trying to log this new road, but there is absolutely nothing to make as a reference. The KM markers have even changed. We barrel onward, all the time wondering where oh where is this going to lead. Surely the man at the toll both would not have let us take this road if it were not completed or if it did not go to Poza Rica, would he? Remembering that many men let us take a similar road to nowhere last year, my heart travels way up in my throat. We finally see a sign pointing to Poza Rica and take the road. According to my GPS, we are way off to the east of the town, and I wonder where in town this road will go. I still have nightmares of last year's trip with the caravan stuck on an incline and no place to go, forwards or backwards. At least the road is nice and wide, flat and double lane. As we get close to town, I guess we are on the road where the police station is and where we spent so much time in January. Just to be on the safe side and not to get the caravan stuck someplace, we decide to pull them off to the side, unhook and take the car into town. I keep telling Bert this is the road to the police station and it gets really narrow and congested further up. I am half right. We pass the police station and see a sign that points to a road angling around the congestion. Taking it, we find our way to the hotel parking lot where we are to stay the night. We drive up the hill and wonder where are we are to park the rigs. Cars are everywhere and when I tell the lady at the desk we are here, her eyes widen and she asks if we had a reservation. I assure her we do and she says "uno momento" and disappears behind closed doors. Soon someone else comes out and the two talk to each other in Spanish while Bert and I look at each other with concern. Finally one says, no problem. They will move the cars out of our way if we give them 30 minutes. No problem there. We still have to go back to retrieve our group. I notice on the map that a road circles the city and Bert and I try to find its exit, but never do. We better take the group through town and divide them in half with Bert leading some and me the others. When we return, we find our limping ones have rejoined us (except for the two with Jack and Monica that we still have to go back to retrieve). We have a short travel meeting on the sidewalk, and I show them on the map where we are, and where we want to go. Bert leads the first five and I take the second. Woody is in front of me. For the first mile I can see Bert's group ahead, but with millions of stoplights, I eventually loose sight. I just hope Woody can see. I realize he cannot when he passes the left turn. Immediately I get on the CB to inform him of his mistake and tell him to go straight and turn left at the next major road. He is using a handheld CB (his antenna was stolen in Palenque) and I wonder if he hears me. I can't worry about him now; I still have five behind me. I'll come and retrieve him after I get the five in camp and before we go back for Jack and Monica. My group makes the left turn and the next left turn after that. As I pass one of the side streets I see Woody returning. He must have heard me but now I wonder where I'll find him since he is heading back to the police station. I get the group to the U-turn by the hotel, tell them to go up the hill, and I wait for the last two to show them where the hill is located, and take off to find Woody. Thinking to myself that I should see him by now, if he got back on track, I begin to worry. Finally I see him perpendicular to me and tell him to turn left. He goes straight across. Oh darn! I talk to the CB, still not knowing if he hears me, informing him that he crossed the street he should have turned left on and that I intend to come up behind him, pass him and lead him in. He makes his U-turn, I pass him and we proceed to the hotel. Meanwhile I try to find Bert since we still have to go back 20 to 30 miles to retrieve the three others. After 15 minutes of looking, I find out that the three others got tired of waiting for us and since Russ's problem did not reoccur they came on in by themselves. Joanne tells me that Bert is in the motor home where I find him throwing up, with diarrhea, and requesting that I get the air conditioner working. I tell Tom that I need to start the generator for the A/C because Bert needs cool quick. Thinking the diesel generator is smelly (we have propane), Tom offers to check the voltage on the boxes, saying he is plugged in and that it was low for him. I try to start the generator and it does not work. Bert is still throwing up. I go outside and Lee helps me find the electrical cord to plug in and I just pray that the voltage is good enough for our A/C. Bert is still throwing up. I get the air on and thankfully it works. While Bert naps, I collect money, pay for the campground. I come back to check on Bert. He is spread-eagled on the bed in his underwear, sleeping peacefully. I put on my swimming suit and head for the pool to cool off, noticing that the temperature is 98 in the shade. Believe it or not, after a bit in the nice pool, I get chilled and must get out. Meanwhile Marlene and Larry are out looking for springs. They return, telling us they found a shop that hopefully can make three springs by morning. I take them out to dinner at the hotel and we spend the whole meal talking about our day. I am afraid to get up in the morning wondering what it has in store.

(Bert) Misfortune and misadventure are the twin tunes we sing today. The first does not play until we make our second rest stop of the day during our trek from Veracruz to Poza Rica. Roads are much better today than yesterday, still pothole permeated and tope tiered, but with less depth and height so that we can maintain a faster speed. Pulling into the oversized Pemex station, Russ announces he cannot get his truck out of second gear. While we puzzle over the transmission problem, John discovers he has broken a spring on this 5th-wheel. I look underneath the carriage and see the snapped band of metal hanging limply. Then Woody comes up to me and announces the shackle has broken on the spring of his 5th-wheel. Now everyone starts inspecting their rigs and just when I think things cannot get worse, Gilford reports that he too has a broken spring on his 5th-wheel. Ever since John broke his first spring early in the trip, Larry has been checking out repair shops for replacement springs, unable to find any to buy as spares. Upon a gas station attendant's suggestion, Don drives to a nearby town with a spring shop, taking along Marlene and Edie as mechanical and Spanish interpreters. Meanwhile Jack offers to lead a group of three rigs, centered by Russ's limping transmission, on a slow drive to Poza Rica. We pick a rendezvous point at a Pemex near Papantla. Using a spare part that he had purchased earlier, Larry replaces Woody's broken shackle. One vehicle is now up and running. When Don returns empty handed, Shari and I decide to lead the caravan on to Poza Rica, leaving Larry and Marlene to deal with the remaining two disabled rigs and a plan to tie up the broken springs and limp to Poza Rica far behind us. Now, with our caravan fragmented into three trains, we hope we will all see each other again by nightfall. Next comes the misadventure tune, starting with the prelude of a fork in the road. Not on our logs prepared from last year's travel, the new toll road to the right is signed for Poza Rica while the old road announces Papantla as the destination. Which road did Jack and Monica choose? Without the benefit of a log, we guess they would choose the Poza Rica road. The new highway is superb and we glide smoothly along at 65 mph. But at this speed I begin to wonder why we haven't overtaken the group traveling in second gear. Our toll road wraps east, circling a third of the metropolis and comes into the congested city from a direction we have not taken before. I direct the mini-caravan to pull off to the side of a wide street and Shari and I detach the Pathfinder to reconnoiter the city. Without a wrong turn we find our way to the campsite, but then try to find a shorter route than the 4.5 miles through city streets we have already driven. Finding none, we return to the caravan and just short of the goal we hear Marlene on our CB. While we were exploring the city, their group of three has caught up with us, taking the same toll road we took. To safe guard against loosing part of the caravan at one of the many stop signs on our route, Shari drives the Pathfinder in the center of the caravan, while I lead the group from the front. Even then, Woody looses sight of the line-up and since his CB is disabled, he makes a wrong turn. Shari sees the mistake and heads off to bring the wandering sheep back into the fold. Eventually, we are reconnected and we complete the trip to the campground. Shari and I had already discussed our plans to return to Papantla for the group waiting at the Pemex station we sidetracked. It is with amazement that I meet Doris outside her rig, already parked in the hotel lot. After we get others parked, I find out from Jack and Monica that after a 90-min. wait while sitting on lawn chairs in the shade of their RV, sipping on cool drinks and watching taxi cabs refuel, had voted to move on to Poza Rica on their own, thinking we must have taken the alternative fork in the road. So, with far less trouble than we had anticipated, our caravan flock is back together again. Russ's transmission problem has disappeared, Woody's vehicle is repaired, and plans are underway to fix the other two rigs as well.

Day 62 - Friday, March 15 - Tampico, Veracruz (Milepost 3287; today 162)

(Shari) I am so tired I do not get up this morning until 7 AM and miss the El Tajin tour and a shopping opportunity. I wish I had told Pat to get me some vanilla. She says everything was so cheap this year and she purchased vanilla for only 10 pesos. Oh well. At 11 AM we are out of the driveway and onto the road. It is a rough road and will take us over six hours to go a bit over 160 miles. I hear Maggie's voice on the CB and I am afraid to listen for fear something has gone amiss. We are without tail gunner and Bob and Helen are bringing up the rear. Marlene and Larry are back in Poza Rica fixing the spring on John and Joanne's 5th-wheel. The road is worse than I remember and dodging potholes is like skiing a slalom course. Kamikaze trucks pass on solid yellow lines, on curves and hills and we are not surprised to see a total of three semis in the ditch this afternoon. We stop for lunch at a Pemex and after about 25 minutes we are told to leave because we are blocking traffic. This is the second station we have been told to depart. Seems Pemex stations are not as nice as they used to be. If the potholes and slow trucks don't get us, the topes do. One town has 13 of the blasted things, a bit ridiculous. On top of that we are stopped and boarded twice by the military today. Once just to look around and the second time to ask for a Coca-cola. I think they are taking advantage of their jobs and if it happens too often I just may call the telephone number on the posted sign to report any inconvenience. Surprisingly the information on the sign is written in Spanish and in English. We reach the campground at 5 PM and everyone is truly ready for margaritas. Gilford wonders if his cup is big enough to take the tension out of the day but soon we are laughing and betting on the time Marlene and Larry will arrive. Guess who wins. Yup, ME. And no, it was not fixed, in spite of what anyone may say. I decide to donate my winnings to pay for Marlene and Larry's campground tonight since they have had a rough couple of days.

(Bert) "It looks like collusion to me," I announce when Shari wins the bet. It was Woody's idea for the contest to see when Larry and Marlene would arrive with John and Joanne. Most of us gather for a margarita party after a hard day's drive, but we left two rigs at the hotel RV lot in Poza Rica just as Larry returned with the replacement spring to install in John and Joanne's 5th-wheel. Eleven betters pick times ranging from 6:15 tonight to noon tomorrow for when the four will return to the caravan. We are sure Nelda is the winner at 6:15 when we think we see Larry pull his rig up to the dump down the road, but then recognize it is Russ instead. At 6:55, just as darkness settles in, the two rigs appear and Shari shouts for joy, both at being winner of the contest and at the once again having her flock gathered together. In gratitude she donates the money to Larry for his camp fees tonight. Our day was a long one, packed with activities. Touring the El Tajin ruins when they open at 8 AM followed early morning birding. We are joined by hundreds of school children, bussed in by a fleet of buses. One group gathers at the steps of a ruin for a class photograph and while the teacher snaps his camera, I take a picture also. I show him the digital photo on my camera screen and soon the whole class wants to see the picture. One by one, twenty students, teachers and chaperoning parents look at the camera for what might have been their first view of an instant picture digitally recorded. As I've noted before, each ruins that we have visited has its own unique design, characteristics and setting. El Tajin is different from all the others in the liberal use of false windows, hundreds of them, forming a decorative façade on most structures. Also, the thoroughness of rehabilitation and the density of buildings within the site give a real sense of the city that El Tajin was. After a two-hour visit, we head back to the RV site, hitch our wagons and complete the tedious trek to Tampico. Frequent traffic jams, usually precipitated by snail-paced, over-loaded trucks slow our transit, as does the poor condition of the highway. Impatient truckers, with more diesel power than intellect, risk passing uphill, around curves and with oncoming traffic. Perhaps for this reason, we encounter four wrecks in little over a hundred miles: a semi headed straight into an embankment at right angles to the road; another semi jackknifed at the bottom of a 30-ft. drop-off, splitting open its trailer and sprinkling boxes laden with bananas; a flat-bed trailer and truck suspended over the edge of the road, with a tow truck still resting on its trailer bed; and a bus which I am told about later, but missed seeing. And then there was the cargo of oranges piled high beside the road near El Tajin, evidence of yesterday's accident. We could call this stretch the demolition derby highway.

Day 63 - Saturday, March 16 - La Pesca, Tamaulipas (Milepost 3451; today 164)

(Shari) This is supposed to be a birding caravan, but this is ridiculous. It is 3 AM and I cannot sleep because the pauraques are practicing for some kind of concert. Start and stop! Start and stop! Will they never get it right, I ask myself? Our 8 AM travel meeting comes way too soon for me and I am tired for the whole trip north today.

(Bert) Crossing the border into Tamaulipas, the landscape begins to feel more like familiar South Texas brushlands. The highway is wide, straight and smoothly surfaced, a refreshing and much appreciated change from the last few days travel. The birds, too, are more like home. I see a Loggerhead Shrike and a few Mourning Doves, the first in almost two months, a sure sign that we are closing in on U.S. territory. But the half-dozen Brown Jays that we encounter tell me we have not crossed the border yet. If you dropped me blind-folded into abandoned countryside anywhere in North America, I think I could determine where I was and how close I was to Texas simply by observing the birds surrounding me. After several hours drive due north, we turn eastward through the mountains and to the Gulf coast. As several have pointed out to me, "mountains" is an exaggerated descriptor of the high hills we wind through. The hills form a continuous ridge paralleling the coast, separating the flat brushlands from the coastal prairies and saltflats. Our eastward jaunt follows Rio Soto La Marina to the sea, but we stop short by a few miles to stay at a riverside campground with a nice view and a great swimming pool.

(Shari) I am glad it is an easy, unpopulated road and Bert does not need my eyes too. We arrive at La Pesca a little after noon, get parked and I collapse for a nice long nap. Others are using the swimming pool by the shore and still others are perusing the small town or beach. But by 5 PM all are gathered for our hamburger cookout. Jerry, Woody and Larry help me cook the patties since Bert is nowhere to be found. He never is when it comes to grilling, so I am not surprised. All bring side dishes, using up their things that cannot cross over into the U.S. on Tuesday. Delicious potato salads, fruit salads and cakes and puddings made with eggs complete our meal. Conversation is fast and furious among this closely-knit group and it is hard to tear ourselves away from the circle at 7 PM when the mosquitoes and darkness arrive.

Day 64 - Sunday, March 17 - La Pesca, Tamaulipas (Milepost 3451)

(Bert) Before we can see them, we can hear them. A raucous, desperate plea for help is the way I interpret their call. Double entendre - in sound and in situation - the call mourns the threatened status of this pretty parrot. Last year a few in our group saw Yellow-headed Parrots in Catemaco and near Blue Hole National Park in Belize, but this year we have missed the parrots until now. The hills west of La Pesca are one of the last strongholds of this endangered species, put in that status mostly by its value in the pet market and the concomitant poaching of wild birds. Now, in the distance we can hear small flocks call as they fly over the treetops. Eventually one pair wings in our direction and we get our first view of them as they fly across the road. Fortunately we get views later of others, totally nearly a dozen during the morning. Tom marks Yellow-headed Parrot as his 135th life bird addition on our Mexico-Belize trip. The La Pesca habitat and its northern position is so different than the earlier part of our trip that we add many new species to the list today: Greater Roadrunner, Grasshopper Sparrow and others readily found in the U.S. as well. Looking down into a valley, we see a distant hawk perched and when I align my spotting scope on it, I see two hawks. One faces us, all white from the front; the other has its dark back to us. I cannot say I've ever seen a pair of Short-tailed Hawks at rest before. Almost always we find these soaring high in the sky. We quit birding early, so that we can get back in time for Shari's surprise brunch for the whole group. I find the last few days of the caravan the most relaxing of all. Little travel, comfortable campground, luxurious swimming pool, pleasant nighttime temperatures and a great variety of bird species all combine to make La Pesca a welcome curtain call to our birding adventure.

(Shari) "Have you ever tried this before?" asks unbelieving Monika when she finds out how our omelets in a bag will be cooked. Yes, I have, since we did it last year and it was a big hit. Sixty-four eggs, everyone's leftover ham, bacon, onion, cheese, green pepper and tomatoes are consumed for brunch along with my coffee cake, side dishes of fruit and toast. And the eating is not over yet. After a free afternoon when most are found at the pool, we have another social. Pat and I have cooked up some new questions for another birder's edition of the oldie-wed game and the festivities start at 4 PM with margaritas supplied by Russ for Maggie's birthday. Much laughter accompanies our answers and everyone is a winner. Doris has made spaghetti for us all to share and Helen, Monika and Joanne bring cake and ice cream. It really is hard to tear ourselves away from the circle of friends tonight but the mosquitoes get their way and the last of us dive into our rigs by 7:20.

Day 65 - Monday, March 18 - La Pesca, Tamaulipas (Milepost 3451)

(Bert) The last birding day of the caravan, I still have birders joining me, some even at 6 AM for the dawn chorus of awakening birds. Birding by ear, we hear a pair of Mottled Owls and a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl at first light. Within minutes an Eastern Meadowlark announces the sun with its cheery song, but a Blue-crowned Motmot still hoots the cadence of a quiet night, as if day and night were in a tug-of-war. Day wins out when the Yellow-headed Parrots start their raucous party. They seem to be all around us, but keeping their distance, only twice coming into our line of sight. Leaving the foothills, we drive the short distance to the seashore. Even after 65 days of birding, we still add many birds to our list since we are in different habitat and further north than other sites. All the late additions are also U.S. species, but for me all birds are interesting, even the ones I have seen many times before. In the afternoon I complete the compilation of our trip bird sightings and print the results out in a form to distribute to the group. During Happy Hour, Lee and Pat entertain us with Pat's Roast & Toast to the caravan. Pat has a remarkable ability to capture the essence of the trip and the characteristics of individuals and set all to rhyme. We laugh at what the two of them read about our fellow travelers, but each of us cringes when it comes our turn to hear the barbs about our self. In the aftermath of the presentation, most everyone stands in turn to offer impromptu thanks addressed to the group for the many ways they added to each others enjoyment of the trip. I say, "I started leading caravans because I enjoy birding, Shari because she likes to party and we both love to travel. Our previous caravans have included a great group of people, but this one has been so good I don't know if it can be outdone." Joanne comments, "Spoken like a principal at commencement. Each class is better than all of its predecessors." Perhaps that is true, but I have no doubt that this was a terrific group of people to travel with for 2+ months and I certainly have made many lifetime friends in the process.

(Shari) Tom quotes from a book he has read, "Where is the 'good' in 'goodbye' and the 'well' in 'farewell'?" That hits the nail on the head as we linger tonight after dinner, in spite of mosquitoes. No one wants to call it a night and break up our last party. Pat has done another outstanding job on her "Roast and Toast" lyrics, capturing each and everyone of us to a "T". We've eaten the last of my jambalaya and sipped our last drink together. Tears well up in many an eye, including some men, as we reminisce the days of the trip. Has it really been 65 days? It seems so short, yet it seems like we've known these friends forever. Bert mentions that he almost is afraid to run a caravan next year, because the group could never compare to this one. We think no other group could put up with the adversity that this one has suffered with such resilience and good grace. Enduring heat and rain, sickness and accidents, broken springs and flat tires, they smile and are ready for the next day. We've had a trip and a half, laughed a million times, seen wonderful sights, tasted many delicious meals, but most of all became a close-knit family.

Day 66 - Tuesday, March 19 - Pharr, Texas (Milepost 3661; today 210 to border)

(Shari) More hugs and many more thank you's for a wonderful trip come my way this morning as we gather for our final trip meeting. Out of the gate by 7AM we anticipate a noon arrival into the United States. That time goes by the wayside when I hear at our first rest stop that Woody has a broken spring. "Oh ----." Well we know the drill. Poor Larry and Marlene are left with Woody and Gwen while the rest of us travel north. Never experiencing more than one flat tire in two previous trips, four broken springs this year is a bit much. I know recommendations next year will be for all 5th-wheel owners to carry a spare spring. Border crossing goes smoothly and I make sure everyone gets their receipts from Mexican customs for the cancellation of the temporary vehicle importation. U.S. customs asks us a few questions, looks in our fridge for pork, chicken or eggs, and waves us on. We are HOME! Smooth roads, signs in English, cars that drive in their lanes, and decent electricity at the campground are a few of the things that we will again take for granted in a few weeks, but sure appreciate today. Still not ready for the trip to end, 20 of us meet at the Olive Garden for our last farewell. Larry, Marlene, Woody and Gwen are again part of the fold, arriving in the U.S. a little over two hours after us. Our food is delicious and has no cumin, chilies or corn. We eat lettuce like we have not had it for two months (and some of us haven't). We drink the tap water without fear of Montezuma's revenge. But most of all we talk and laugh. As we walk out of the parking lot with Pat, Lee, Gwen and Woody they request to be kept informed about next year's trip itinerary. This trip is barely over and they are already considering next year, which would make four in a row with us. Maybe those Mexican roads knocked some screws loose in their heads as well as their springs. So it is not "goodbye" but "hasta luego" for us at least.

(Bert) At 7 AM the group gathers for the last time around Shari as she conducts the travel meeting. Many use their cameras to take last minute photos of the faces of their new friends, hoping to prolong the memories of their good times together. Travel northward is though the Tamaulipas brushlands, rolling countryside of cactus and dry brush, abandoned to nature. Hawks like the habitat and I see four White-tailed Hawks, one Gray Hawk, one Harris's Hawk and many kestrels and caracaras. Five roadrunners run along the road, which is wide and smooth today. Gwen, alone, adds a single bird to the trip list: a male Brown-headed Cowbird. I find a small flock of starlings and Eurasian Starling becomes the 403rd and final species on our trip list, plus an additional 17 additional subspecies, for a total of 420; one shy of last years total of 419. Of these, I saw 383 species personally, twelve more than last year. For the most part, it is a quiet thoughtful drive to our first rest stop, a Pemex with an oversized parking lot. In the midst of another round of good-byes, Woody tells me he has just discovered a broken spring on his 5th-wheel. This time Larry has a spare and he immediately sets to work on the replacement. The rest of us continue our journey to the border, stopping a few miles short for a lunch break, and then lining up at the border exit to return our vehicle permits and obtain receipts. After customs we split up, heading to a variety of camps, but knowing that almost all of us will gather again tonight for an impromptu farewell dinner at the Olive Garden in McAllen. Although the restaurant doesn't take reservations, nonetheless they set aside a huge table in a separate dining area for us to celebrate our farewell in family reunion style. We delight in the arrival of Larry and Marlene, and finally in Gwen and Woody, happy that they have again caught up with us. During dinner we comment on all the U.S. amenities concomitant with dining in a fine restaurant, things we take for granted unless we've seen the contrast in a third-world country. Maggie tells me that she and Russ were discussing what they liked most about their completed trip. Maggie expected Russ to select a favorite place as his choice, but he said what he liked most was the friends he has made during the trip. We all talk about where we will travel next and make plans for our paths to cross. We collect invitations to visit homes throughout the U.S. and Canada whenever we are in the area. The meal finished, the bills paid, the table cleared, but we resist leaving, lingering for one more comment, one more hug, one more good-bye, one more chance to hold a memory a bit longer.

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