The Trail Home - A Volcano and a Valley

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The Trail Home - A Volcano and a Valley

We continued our trek north from Oaxaca toward Guanajuato - but we needed to find a place to stop for the night near Puebla. The day of driving stretched on and on and on, and we wanted to avoid entering the Puebla City limits, so we found a nearby national park in which to camp - Volcan Malinche (also spelled Malintzi), Mexico's 5th tallest peak. 

And they weren't kidding! We drove up and up and up over 10,000 feet, through towns without roads (surprise!) until finally we reached the entrance to the national park. 

At 10,000 feet it is cold, and hard to breathe. Even a short jaunt to the baño left us doubled over catching our breath. Crazy! 

There was a fancy campsite run by the state with cabins and bathrooms and campgrounds, etc., but we opted to camp just outside in one of the more rustic and natural campsites that had obviously been used for that purpose many times before (imagine a clearing in the woods with a used fire-circle). We were making ourselves some dinner at our campsite, in the dark, when the policía rolled up. "Here we go," we both thought. "Our first run-in with the Mexican law." Five guys emerged from the car and walked onto our campsite with their flashlights in our faces. 

They wanted us to leave - to stay in the government-run fancy campground up the hill (for 200 pesos night) because we weren't "safe" where we were - no one was supervising our activities. We were suspicious of their request, but didn't have much of a choice but to oblige. We shelled out the money and slept in the fancy campground. Policia: 1 - Ian and Jessie: 0. 

The next day we headed toward Guanajuato to stay with some of Ian's family's friends, and got a little bit lost on the way. We decided t pull over to a group of people on the side of the road who looked semi-official to ask for directions, only to realize we'd driven ourselves right into a road-check of immigration officers, who were immediately suspicious of our dilapidated truck and our pasty American faces. They wanted to see our documents, asked us a bunch of questions, etc. We were like "we just want to know how to get onto that road over there!" Finally, they let us go, but we vowed not to stop to ask for directions again. Policia: 2 - Ian and Jessie: 0. 

Road stress melted away when we reached Guanajuato - or Marfil, where our friends have one of the most beautiful houses we've ever seen. So beautiful, in fact, we extended our stay from one night to two. And we were very glad we did. We had a day to explore Guanajuato - just a beautiful and vibrant city with tons to see. 

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¡Ghost Zoo Oaxaca!

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¡Ghost Zoo Oaxaca!

Sadly, we could not stay in Zipolite forever. We had to pack up our sandy belongings and climb back into Lorraine for our trek back north through Oaxaca city, and eventually home. 

They say that the roads in Oaxaca are terrible and the drive from the coast to Oaxaca City through Pochutla is no exception. Twisty, curvy, windy roads that barely pass for roads, and mountain cliffs that have crumbled away at points can make for a rough commute. Sometimes the road is there and sometimes it is not. There were times when projectile vomiting from the window was almost a thing. Ian, who was driving, loved it. Me, not so much. But even though we lost 4th gear somewhere along the route, everyone held their chunks, for better or worse. 

But the reward at the end of the difficult day is arriving is Oaxaca City, another place we've spent much time in and have fallen in love with over the years. We pulled in to Ian's Aunt's/Cousin's/Counsin's-once-removed house before sunset, and enjoyed a lovely dinner, chat, and sleeping indoors. 

We spent several days reacquainting ourselves with Oaxaca City, visiting old friends, visiting yonkes (junkyards) and wandering aimlessly through markets. We also did a bit of truck repair at the Overlander Oasis, an awesome spot made specifically for overlanders. Calvin and Leanne were great and the clutch work we did helped us make it to the border. 

After a couple days in the city, we set out for Hierva el Agua - a natural water phenomenon just an hour's drive (or so) from Oaxaca City. The "or so" will really depend on whether you have to take the long road or the short-cut. The short-cut is often blocked off by the towns that are along the longer route. They charge you a 10-peso toll per person to drive through, so every time that shortcut road gets cleared away it mysteriously gets all blocked up again. . . 

The long road had its charms, as well. We passed by many roadside mezcalerias. We even stopped and got an impromptu tour of one and picked up some blueberry mescal. 

RECOMMENDED: Yaguar Xoo...at noon...on a weekday.  On the way to the we found ourselves passing by the Yaguar Xoo (Jaguar Zoo) with some time to kill, so we took a slight detour. Located about between Oaxaca City and Hierva el Agua, the Jaguar Zoo sits in the middle nowhere, in a desert, directly across from a large human prison (the prison/zoo parallels were not lost on us). It was a dry, windy, dusty, and hot hot hot day and we were the only ones there. Literally. We saw more animals at this zoo than humans. There wasn't anyone sitting in the ticket booth. There wasn't anyone pouring animal themed beverages at the palapa restaurant. There wasn't even anyone in the gift shop. It was a ghost zoo! We were actually a little concerned that the ghost zoo had been abandoned, until we saw two workers on a zebra-striped truck driving in the distance. The zoo mostly offers big cats, and we saw many of them. As well as some camels, some monkeys and a big snake. Some of the enclosures were suspect, at best and we could reach out and touch a lot of these animals, if we had wanted to. More importantly, they probably could have reached out and touched us with their paws or talons, or fangs, etc., but fortunately it was a round noon and it was too hot for most of them to do anything except lay in the shade and pant. Overall opinion of the ghost-zoo? MUST-GO. 

Hierva el Agua was much more populated. Everywhere you turned there was a human in your face asking for a toll or a fee or money of some sort. It got to be a little much. On the bright side, thanks to a tip from fellow travelers, Westy Goes South, we camped there for the night and in the morning had the place to ourselves, which was pretty great.  



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Zipolite - Our Home Away From Home

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Zipolite - Our Home Away From Home

Ahhh. We take a huge sigh of relief when we pull in to Zipolite. Nothing to do for a week but bask in the beauty of the beach from our respective hammocks, while eating ice cream. No lie. 

Zipolite is a place we've spent a lot of time in. We first discovered it back in 2005, and lived and worked there for a time in 2005/2006. We got engaged here in 2012, and now we're back once again.

We won't give you the play-by-play of our daily activities in Zipo - it goes against the grain of the place. We will say that we watched the sun set every night, and never failed to be humbled by the raw beauty of the place. We made some new friends and caught up with some old friends. We went to a baptism party and ate a goat. We went to a carnival and watched some fireworks. And we played in the waves. 

Here's our week in pictures. 


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The Pacific Coast - Acapulco to Zipolite

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The Pacific Coast - Acapulco to Zipolite

From Tasco we headed south to the coast once more - the main road taking us down to Acapulco. The air soon turned hot and muggy and before we knew it the giant resort high-rise hotels crested the horizon. Acapulco may have been a beloved vacation spot for Elvis, but our goal was to get through it and past it as fast as we could. 

We stopped for the night in a town called Barra Vieja, just southeast of Acapulco. This part of Guererro's coast is called Costa Chica. We found a place to camp for the night that was pretty rustic, but still held on to the Acapulco tourist prices, unfortunately. We set up our hammock and tent among the trees but were soon besieged by mosquitoes and barking dogs. Jessie got a rash all over her face from something..? and we accidentally ate a 400 peso fish. Overall, Barra Vieja not highly recommended, though we did get some lovely hammock time out of it. 

The next day brought us to the state of Oaxaca, a wonderful and welcomed sight. We knew we that we were that much closer to our final destination - Zipolite. 

Our first night in Oaxaca was spent on the island of Chacahua - a place Ian had been back in 2006 and wanted to see again. At the time it was a barely trafficked, untouched island with pristine beaches and great waves for surfing. We pulled off the main road and took a bumpy dirt path about 30k towards the ocean (we got to air down our tires for the first time). We found a spot to park our car (30p) and hopped a boat across the river mouth (15p per person) to the island of Chacahua, where we walked down a dusty dirt road for a bit until we found the beach. Much has changed in Chacahua in the past 10 years, but we still found it a sleepy beach spot for backpackers willing to push beyond the beaten path. We rented a little cabana (200p) for the night, did some swimming, laid in hammocks, listened to the waves, and ate some delicious fish. 

The next morning we hopped a boat back to Lorraine and drove back out the main road, passing a band of horses on the way. 

This brought us to Puerto Escondido a big surf town on the ocean just northwest of Zipolite. We decided to spend the night here, as well, to walk the oceanfront main strip, and watch the pounding waves that make this spot a primetime location for international surfing competitions. We stayed at the Hotel Acuario, on the Playa Zicatela strip. We crashed a wedding, drank two-for-one cocktails at happy hour and watched the sun go down. Buenissimo. 

That next day was a hop-skip-and-jump to Zipolite - our home away from home, at long last. We both heaved a sign of relief to be back at one of our favorite places in the world. We checked into our usual spot - Hotel Lyoban, and we've been blissing out ever since. 

 

Zipolite is a place where one is encouraged not to do to much. Really, you should try not to do anything at all, if you can swing it. Lay in the hammock, dip in the ocean or the pool, walk along the water. Eat. Drink. Lay some more. Heaven. We've been here a week so far and will be hitting the road on Monday, heading back up north and ultimately to Chicago, where it is currently frigidly cold, and snowing snowing snowing. 

We'll post more from out time in Zipolite soon. But for now, we do nothing. 

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Into the Mountains!    Cd. Guzman, Butterflies & Taxco

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Into the Mountains! Cd. Guzman, Butterflies & Taxco

We began our journey into the Mexican interior with a visit to our dear friend and college roommate, Cassie. She is living in Ciudad Guzman (a small town a few hours southeast of Guadalajara) while working for the Peace Corps and was kind enough to let us crash on her floor for the weekend, during which time she showed us most of the sights the city has to offer.

The City of Ciudad Guzman is not a tourist Mecca, though it has plenty of charm.

For example, we went to a bazaar where Jessie found the perfect jacket, and Ian got some Snap-on socket wrenches for a steal.

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We hiked some bluffs and took in the entire town in one view.

We attended the town's Valentine's Day color festival, in the Centro, where we took in some music and got involved in a brief, but very intense color battle.

 

Not Totally Recommended: Salchipulpos. SalchiPulpo is a combination of the words, Salchicha and Pulpo and roughly translates to "Hot Dog - Octopus." Cassie claimed these are a local favorite, and so we had to try them. They're basically hot dogs, cut in half, splayed at the ends (that's the octopus part), deep-fried and then slathered in your choice of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. They are kinda gross. Really gross, actually. Ian will eat almost anything, hates to waste food, and will happily finish whatever is on anyone's plate. Yet, he couldn't get through these and ended up feeding them to some dogs. I think it was the very brief re-deep-frying that killed them. Anyway, you are warned. That said, here is a very cute picture of salchipilpos (ours were not this cute) and a website that will teach you how to make them. http://www.salchipulpo.ca/salchipulpos/

 

Ian got a sweet haircut and Jessie drank some beet juice.  

Ciudad Guzman kept us so busy, in fact, the we were unable to visit its biggest attraction, the nearby volcano that spews clouds of ash high into the sky on a daily basis. It was just too cold and rainy/snowy up at the peak to have done any climbing. Bummer, but that's life. We did, however, get to see the ash from the volcano fall all around us like rain on a daily basis. Lorraine was quite ashy.

Perhaps the greatest diasspointment of all in Ciudad Guzman was trying to see Cinquenta Sombras de Grey (50 Shade of Grey), only to find it was sold out. Valentines Day ruined!

We'll get you next time, Ciudad Guzman!

From CD we headed to Morelia – a good day's drive. It is a well-preserved and culturally vibrant city full of cobblestones, church squares, clowns, dulces, and “gaspachos” which are actually mango, pineapple, and pineapple in a bath of lime juice and and chili powder. 

We stayed at the Only Backpacker's Hostel, which was great. The family that owns the place is delightful, and the acommodations totally adequate. We ate tacos by the aquaduct and wandered the pedestrian parkways where the local kids did their nighttime necking.

I wish we could say we loved the city itself, but the magic just wasn't there.

We only spent a night in Morelia, and switched gears the next morning to headed high into the mountains to the Cerro Pelón Monarch Buterrfly Reserve outside of Zitácuaro. The base of the reserve was about 9000 feet up, in a wee village called Macheros. Getting there is a little tricky, and we had to stop a few times to get the right directions. We got some caballos ( which were really ponies) and a guide and hiked up another few thousand feet to where the butterflies were dozing IN DROVES. Entire trees were covered in a thick orange blanket of Monarchs. You could close your eyes and hear the flapping of butterfly wings. It was truly a sight to behold, and like nothing we had seen before. 

That night we camped at the base of the reserve, right inside the park entrance.

From Butterfly country we headed out to what became, for us, the crown jewel of the Mexican highlands – Taxco. A suprise city nestled in the mountains, Taxco (pronounced Tass-co) sits on a silver mine and has silver jewelry shops on every corner. The city itself is compeltely Spanish-inlfuenced, and the modern laws require that all new construction match the old - white buildings with terra cotta roofs. The place seems suspended in time, as it is truly suspended on the side of a steep, sloping mountain. All the taxis in town are old VW bugs. You quickly understand why when you watch them maneuver through the steep, narrow city blocks that wind through the city while surrounded by pedestrian traffic on all sides. Maneuvering Lorraine through those streets was somewhat harrowing, but after we found her a safe place to park for the night, and found ourselves a room at the Casa Grande Hostel, we were free to roam the city, and roam we did.

Everywhere you go in Taxco has a beautiful vista to behold – ancient churches, or hillsides clustered with low white buildings, or the misty mountains in the distance. We rode a gondola up one side of the mountain to the swanky hotel resort to catch the sunset, and found that vista to be as good as any, though the drinks more expensive.

Taxco's streets are full of people out and about and enjoying themselves at what seemed to be all hours of the day and night. As we sat eating pizza and watching the action in the central town square, we both agreed that this would be a place we would be coming back to again.

From Taxco we wanted to push on to the beach – we missed the lazy days of listening to the surf lap against the sand. But first we had one quick stop to make, at Ian's behest – the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa – or, the Caves of Cacahuamilpa. We spent 75 pesos apiece to take a two hour long walking tour through some pretty large caves. Impressive, no doubt, though the majority of our guide's spiel involved pointing out rock formations or shadows that looked like other things “This is the devil's face” or “this is a giant ape” or “these rocks look like boobies” (not kidding) and so on.

From there we drove and drove and drove and at Acapulaco we finally caught sight of the ocean once more. Things got super hot and super humid, and we found the area around Acapulco not much to our liking. But that's a story for next time. 

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La Paz to Ciudad Guzman

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La Paz to Ciudad Guzman

La Paz is a city where one can get down to business. Which we did. We were stopped there for two days, while we waited for the ferry that would take us from Baja to the mainland. We got our laundry done, cleaned out the dust that had accumulated in the car and caught up on some internet time. We also sprung for a hotel room and spent two nights in beds. With indoor plumbing. And Mexican TV. We watched a lot of Seinfeld, in English, and My Girl, in Spanish. We also drank Micheladas at Tony Calmato's, ate some burgers at "The Shack" and meandered up and down La Paz's malecon - the sea-side pedestrian walkway. I can't say we really fell in love with the place, but it was a very useful 48 hours.  

We bought our tickets for the Baja Ferry a couple days before our departure at their main office in town for a boat departing Sunday. It's not a cheap ticket, mind you. We paid for the car to cross (which includes a driver), an additional person and then we sprung for a private cabin. We also paid a 157 peso "embarkment" tax when Ian drove Lorraine onto the ship that seemed, well, informal. Even though we got a receipt, something about the way the guy sidled up to the car and asked for our 157 pesos with barely concealed glee behind a devilish grin made this tax feel "gringo oriented."

In retrospect, we were extremely glad to have the private cabin. There were a lot of people crammed into the oddly smelling boat, and it was nice to have a place to retreat to and keep all our stuff. There was a lounge with airplane-style seating facing a big TV screen (playing movies like War Horse, The Rock's Hercules, and Bicentennial Man) and a cafeteria directly adjacent. 

There was also a top deck where you could schmooze with other passengers over a beer and watch the dolphins and sea turtles swim by you in the Sea of Cortes. Overall - not too terrible 18 hours spent. 

We disembarked in Mazatlan on Monday around noon and headed to the neighboring Isla de Piedra, or Stone Island. It's not really an Island, but a peninsula directly across from the ferry dock. It took about an hour to drive there from the Ferry docking point, but when we arrived we realized we could literally see the marina from where we were camped on the beach. 

Stone Island is very much our speed, and was exactly what we were looking for. A few restauraunts, palapas, a great beach to swim around in. We asked the first guy at the first restaurant we saw where we could camp, and he (Gabriel) excitedly directed us to camp on his property, just a few doors down. He had a great setup, with a little palapa, running water, electricity, a view of the ocean, and a kitten named Tonto, which Jessie thought was a reference to the Lone Ranger, but is actually slang for "dumb" in Spanish. The cat lived up to its name, for sure, but was also delightfully adorable. 

Gabriel was a smart, funny, and incredibly kind host to us for two days. We spent that time swimming in the ocean (¡cuidado mantaraya!), drinking cervezas at his restaurant, and researching what route we were going to take to to our next stop, Ciudad Guzman. We ate tacos in town, did some people watching and took a stroll through the recently built botanical gardens. So, we basically did very little. It was perfect.

Next we hit the road for San Blas. Here on the mainland there are two main ways to get between  cities - libre roads (free roads) and cuota roads (toll roads). The quota roads are well paved, often 2 lanes, and watched over by the Green Angels. That said, they are crazy expensive, even by US standards. We stuck to the libre roads, which take a lot longer, and whose potholes rival those in Chicago. The libre roads do take you through lots of small towns, which we like.

San Blas is much like Stone Island, but with WAY MORE MOSQUITOES. It is situated between estuaries in what is essentially a swamp, and a naval base. It is swarming with mosquitoes who proved to be relentless at all hours of the day, whether one was wearing bug spray or not. Best remedy was to be in the water, which we were quite a bit. Ian got some surfing in, as well. 

We stayed at Stoners Surf Camp, which was essentially a hostel on the beach with little cabanas, hammocks, and camping sites. We met some very nice Belgians, Canadians, Israelis, and a guy from Toledo, OH.  We rented a cabana overlooking the water and spent two days exploring town and trying not to scratch our bug bites. 

Recommended: Coco Locos - just around the corner from Stoners, Coco Locos is a funky, neon red bar that will serve you cocktails from a coconut. Pros: A/C, no bugs, solid jukebox, feels like a tropical trailer park bar from a 70's movie. Cons: Maybe you hate tropical trailer park bars.

From San Blas we've made our way to our friend Cassie, currently doing Peace Corps work in Ciudad Guzman, just south of Guadalajara. It was a long day of driving, but we made it before sunset. We drove through a grey and rainy day (a welcomed change!) that took us through beautiful jungle mountains and outcroppings of volcanic rock. 

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¡Baja!

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¡Baja!

The last week has taken us through some breathtaking vistas: desert and beach, rocky cliffs, salt flats, dusty cities and mud. Lots of mud. Lorraine has been a trooper the whole way, despite her lack of air conditioning and the creaks and grinding sounds emanating from her belly. We have arrived in La Paz and are getting ready to catch the ferry to the mainland mañana.

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Grand Canyon to Encinitas, CA

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Grand Canyon to Encinitas, CA

Well, we spent a few days here in sunny San Diego, parked across the street from our friend Max's house. Downside, it was right by the train tracks. 

Our last few days stateside were spent doing some last minute packing and shipping, surfing, and visiting with friends. We also made our final phone calls of reassurance to Grandma and parents.

We did take Lorraine to "The Truck Shop," a San Diego mechanic that specializes in Toyota trucks and came highly recommended by the 4Runner guys on the 4Runner forum. I wanted someone who was an expert in these cars to take a gander at a few lingering questions of mine, and this is the place if you're in the San Diego area. Jerry, the owner of the shop, took a look at a few things on Lorraine. I don't think he is used to seeing trucks from the Midwest, and was a bit taken aback by Lorraine's rust. But, he made some recommendations and gave me a few tips.  His yard his full of great looking Toyotas and these guys certainly know their stuff. If you're in the area and need work done, go here.  

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Mexican Hat & The Grand Canyon

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Mexican Hat & The Grand Canyon

Mexican Hat is a rock that looks like a hat. Probably not the only Mexican Hat we'll see on our Mexican adventure, but this one holds a special sentimental nostalgia for Ian, as he took a high school trip out west and came to see this particular oddly-shaped rock. It was as thrilling this time around as he remembered. Lorraine enjoyed a brief off-road jaunt into the dusty scrub brush. 

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Day 2: Moab, Utah

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Day 2: Moab, Utah

Moab, Utah, the home of Arches National Park, is awesome. Granted, it has a bro-ey exterior, replete with Land Cruiser tours, mountain biking lodges, and restaurants like Eddie McStiff's. But it also has a delightful underbelly of natural beauty, which we got to explore, at the crack of dawn, in quiet solitude. 

January, while warm according to Chicago standards, is still winter in Utah, and very much the off-season for Moab. Everything was closed, including the Pancake Haus and the KOA we tried to pull into after a long day of driving. We opted for 4 walls and an indoor bathroom at the Hotel Moab Downtown. No complaints. 

Our almost-sunrise hike into Arches National Park was about 3 miles round trip, ending at the Delicate Arch. It was chilly, and a bit icy, and beautiful. 

Next up? Grand Canyon. 

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Setting Out at 8000 ft.

Reunited and it feels so good! The whole family is back together again - that is, me, Ian, and Lorraine. We are here in Aspen, packing up the car once again and will be hitting the road for San Diego momentarily. 

Aspen is great. Everyone is beautiful, and the mountains loom white and majestic in every direction you look. At 8000 ft. above sea level, I have felt drunk since I set foot off the airplane. They say that goes away with time. They have oxygen bars here, and marijuana dispensaries. Ian likes Silverpeak. I spent some time at Victoria's Espresso yesterday, staffed by authentic Aussies. Chai tea latte with almond milk. I spent much of the day yesterday trying not to blurt out the many Dumb & Dumber references that crossed my mind. 

The X-Games now complete, we've got no time to wait. After we cram all of our belongings into the truck (clown-car style) we will be hitting rte. 70 and heading west toward Utah. Arches National Park? Fishlake National Forest? Somewhere around dusk we'll find a cozy KOA and spend our first night snuggled up in Lorraine and put the sleeping platform to the test. 

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Day 1: Ragbrai breakdown - 4Runner style

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Day 1: Ragbrai breakdown - 4Runner style

Well, it was an adventurous first day. I really should have seen it coming. After a week of frantic, stressful car work (that included dropping the transmission twice), part hunting and packing, I left Chicago on Friday at 5:30 am on my way to Aspen, Colorado. It was dark. There was a beautiful, dense snow/fog, and I was starting to feel good. Starting to feel excited. As Lorraine and the road roared below me, the possibilities of what the next two months might hold started to warm me from the inside. Which was good, because Lorraine probably needs a new heater core...  

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The Sleeping Platform

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The Sleeping Platform

A sleeping platform is a relatively common modification for those who do any camping in their truck. If the weather is bad or we're just feeling to lazy to set up a tent, it'll be nice to be able to pass out back there. It also give us a secure place to store all of the Baja sweatshirts we'll be picking up along the way... 

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60 Days

Did you know there's a website that will tell you the date it will be 60 days from now? 

There is, and at at the time I'm writing this, it's February 1st. A Sunday. They day before my 32nd birthday, and a day before we pack up our snowboarding gear, and hit the road from Aspen to Zipolite, Mexico. 

True fact: I've never snowboarded before.

That's Ian, the snow king. King of the slopes. King of the nar. Or is it Gnar? 

Anyway. I've never overlanded before, either.  

To recap: T-61 days and counting.

A lot has been accomplished so far in preparation for this trip. A lot more needs to be done in these next few months, however. I myself have been tasked with securing Mexican auto insurance, securing vehicle permits, plotting our storage strategy inside the truck, and making curtains to keep out those prying eyes. 

The curtains are going to be baller. 

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