Uphill Both Ways in the Fog – the Road to Xéla

After two nights of rest in Huehuetenango, I had just about had my fill of the nondescript little Guatemalan city, and was ready to forge onward to the beauty of the lofty highlands.  I remounted my steed and pedaled out of town, through clouds of thick black exhaust which sputtered out from behind trucks and buses which roared by.  As I’d grown accustomed to since arriving in the mountains of Chiapas several weeks before, the sky was a patchwork of artistically strewn, silver lined, bubbly clouds against pale blue.  Silver lining eh?  Well, perhaps my luck was about to change, perhaps today would be the day that I would race headfirst up the towering spires of the Guatemalan mountains, through crisp breezes and dazzling blue skies of early afternoon.  Perhaps I would arrive triumphantly at the awe-inspiring summit, throw my arms into the air, arch my head backwards and shout out to the world in glorious conquest, revitalized and rejuvenated by the fruits of my determination.  Ok, well, I guess that’s why dreaming is sometimes better than reality.

So, as usual, I set off with a feeling of determination – but also with the lead-weighted soreness of my resentfully over-worked legs.  After navigating my way out of the little roller-coaster hills of Huehue, the road began to flatten out and I hoped that perhaps this would be the majority of the ride and the great uphill climbs that everyone had warned me of would just be a short blip towards the end of the days journey.  It was amazing how green the landscape returned once leaving the city, a theme which would become quite common over the next few weeks traveling through Central America.  I suppose I didn’t realize just how far I had already ascended since crossing the border from Mexico, but as I took in the scenery around me it appeared that the flora had all gone from steamy, lush tropical palms to somber, monochrome pine forests.  Yet, as I was leisurely ambling along, the road suddenly rounded a bend and fell gracefully downward, disappearing as it wound into the thick tree-cover below.  The altitude continued to drop for some time and at first all I could think to myself was just how glad I was that I was going in this direction.  However, my ephemeral moment of optimism fled once I broke through the tree cover and saw the endlessly looming mountains off in the distance.  I didn’t have to guess that my path would lead me up and over these mountains, I already knew the sadistic pattern that fate seemed to have lined up for me – surely this was no exception.

I finally did reach the trough between my carefree slalom and the beginning of eternity.  At first the incline was so gradual that I questioned whether perhaps the highway would find some intricate pattern of valleys carved through the mountain bases which I couldn’t see.  This carried on for almost the next two hours.  But once I had ridden up high enough to follow the high ridge of the mountain which I had been climbing, I realized that this was just the warm up.  Sinisterly swirling dark gray clouds licked along the massive mountaintop arising off to my left, obscuring its true stature.  This was about to get interesting.  The temperature had also begun to grow chilly and the scent of rain hung thick in the air.  I weaved unwilling into the mountain’s foreboding gravitational pull and not long after a slow, sad pattering had begun to soak through the back of my shirt.  I decided that this was as good a time as any to stop for lunch and hope for the weather to pass, and for once, I happened to be passing a restaurant just as the thought dawned.  So I sat to dine alone in the empty four tabled restaurant, open on one side with hens clucking around me in the empty silence of the rain and a mangy dog lingering around like Eddie’s stomach, not knowing when it would next get fed.

I was very quickly receiving a crash course in just what a difference an international border can make between two adjacent worlds.  It was as though I had taken my bicycle and ridden off of the high mesa of Mexico’s culinary beauty and over the cliff descending into the abyss of Central America’s bleak offerings.  I wondered just what cut of meat I might be dining on as I tried to saw through the rigid, charred creature before me – was it too late to turn back?  Finished and satisfied… well, satiated, I noticed that the rain had tapered off to an insolent drizzle and decided that this was as good a time as ever to head on.  The road just continually wound ever higher along the mountainside, soon disappearing into the mist.  As I rode towards it, I could actually see the foggy clouds sliding UP the mountainside as if coming for me.  I reached for my final drops of adrenaline, using the personified threat to drive me forward, but soon realized that it was losing battle.  My energy drained, my knees began to buckle, and then, like a wave of shivering cold, I pedaled right into the white veil which had thrown itself before me, enveloping me in an ethereally dull world of pale, hazy silhouettes.

From high above me in the surreally invisible world I thought that I heard the muffled laugh of children, almost as though a distant memory was manifesting itself in the hills.  Off to my left side I saw only whiteness beyond the edge of the road, as though the world dropped away beyond existence.  The incline of the road grated against my determination as I seemed to osmose like molasses upward.  Spectral forms partially emerged from the mist, their features swathed in obscurity, but vaguely recognizable as the indigenous campesinos with their wide-brimmed straw hats and side-sheathed machetes.  Twice did I stop to rest and to inquire how much longer my torture would last – the first time receiving an answer of about five kilometers, and an hour of riding later, receiving an answer of twenty kilometers.  Well, I guess I should have remembered to replace the battery in my odometer back in Mexico after all.  My journey had all but exhausted me, and in this dismal gray world I wasn’t sure just how much more I could take.  My breaks were becoming more frequent and my average distance per hour felt as though it was dropping rapidly.  When I finally decided that I wasn’t sure if I could go on, I pulled over to the side of a road to a little tienda, hoping that replenishing myself with something sweet would give me the burst of energy that I needed, but as I sat on the front step and chatted with the owner, he pointed to the road around the bend and said that I was there.  This was the summit of the road and from here on it was almost all downhill to Cuatro Caminos and Xéla.  Of course, I couldn’t really see quite that far beyond the cloud covered street, but I felt a pang of optimism, thanked the store owner, and prayed that this guy knew what he was talking about.

Moments later I was whizzing down the slopes, the wind in my hair, noting that the day was growing uncomfortably late for a bicycle ride.  By this point I had broken free from the swirling mists, but the weather was frigid and the sky drained completely of its color.  I pulled aside to find my jacket to brace against the cold air that rushed by me now, longing for the feel of warm water showering down on my face and a cozy bed to crawl into.  At first I was just descending in short legs, from one ridge-top to another, but once I crossed the final threshold, a marvelous vista opened up off the my left, a smoothly painted fertile green valley, with patchworks of fields clinging to the mountainsides.  At this point I began soaring downwards so quickly that all I could do was grip my handlebars as tightly as possible and cast short glances over my shoulder at the panorama.  However, the majority of the time I was focused forward and as I descended into the fields, little children in sweaters shouting and rolling in the grass along the roadsides called out to me as I passed by.  It was as if I was looking through a window into another world, it felt like Autumn in some past era – children still playing outside, as opposed to desolate American streets, conquered by television and the internet.  

I coasted in  my bubble of warm euphoria through this magically tranquil place, in some ways only wishing that I could relinquish my race and what I knew about the world to instead join their simplicity.  But truly, deeply, I knew that even this life was not that simple and that I had another destiny to fulfill.  It wasn’t long before I rose once again atop a low ridge and was leaving the peaceful valley below.  But on the other side I soon began yet another descent and this time I could see the sparkling lights of a populous civilization down below, nothing like the green hills that I had just passed through.  The day was beginning to fade, but I knew that this would be Cuatro Caminos, and I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that it was only a short way beyond to Xéla.  And to my great relief, not long after, I had passed the chaotic town of Cuatro Caminos, I was bumping along pot-holed roads and into the city limits of Xéla.  I cycled towards the central plaza of the town and after a round of questioning, had finally located the Black Cat Hostel, what would soon become my home for the next week while seeking refuge from the endless rains of Guatemala.


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