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Sailing to San Miguel

by Jerome Phillips

I totally miscalculated the vagaries of minivan travel between Nayarit and San Miquel de Allende. Who hasn't? Also, I gave no thought to being 67 years-old. Hippy optimism is my dominant chakra.

Hopelessly American, I believed I had the option of crashing in a funky roadside motel if I couldn't drive it in one day. (I love the archetypal Route 66 Motels, especially their TVs, mostly because I don't watch TV. That is, unless I'm binging.) What could be the harm in leaving the Pacific Coast at 1 pm and driving everything I own across Mexico?

The first sign of trouble came, in a very strange way, just south of Guadalajara, four hours after leaving the marina north of Puerto Vallarta. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, bright blotches of light danced across the dashboard of my Honda Element.

WTF? I associate bright, suddenly appearing lights on the dashboard with something gone wrong, dire warning signals regarding engine or brake problems, or an end-of-life moment, or worse.

When driving a vehicle, a single second can seemingly take ten minutes to pass. I was fully aware that I was zooming along at 65 mph and that I had stopped looking forward. Legally blind in my right eye after suffering a detached retina, I weighed the time it would take to look through my left window, find the source of those mysterious, flashing lights and face forward again.

Within those three seconds of turning to my left, I considered that I would be blind as to what was happening on my right, and that on my left was a Miata positioned to overtake me in 22 seconds. Still, I was compelled to find the source of that otherworldly light show, possibly a Rod Sterling gnome on my left wing, wickedly crisscrossing the dashboard of my Honda with the beam of his flashlight. It was all so cool. I wasn't scared.

But what had seemed a supernatural phenomenon was revealed, in that quick glance, to have a perfectly natural explanation; the lightning flashes of an approaching thunderstorm.

A light rain began to fall. I regretted that I hadn't changed the wiper blades before the trip. The red brake lights on the vehicles in front of me blurred as it commingled in the mist of rain on the windshield. The bad wiper blades created a semi-circle I had to see through. I reached into the glove box and took out my eye patch. The bum eye causes me to see double when she's lazy, and I needed to fix that asap.

Within six minutes all hell broke loose. A gust of rain pushed me toward the right. The Honda was water-skiing over the recently-hot Mexican highway. I could feel her gyrate. The idiot in front of me was drunk. He was weaving between the left and right lanes, while the highway steamed under pummeling rain.

Being an alcoholic myself, I found the weaving driver predictable. I got up close. I seldom back off in highway or bar situations. As he veered to my right, just as I was about to plunk his bumper, I gunned the Honda and passed him before he oscillated back to the left lane.

Things got worse. Every driver including me slowed to a near stop because we couldn't see. My little van rocked in the rainstorm. I decided to pull over and collect myself, wait it out. I pulled off the highway onto the first exit that appeared.

The "exit" shortly dead ended in the darkness at an abandoned restaurant. But that would do just fine. Frustrated and tiring, I turned off the headlights and engine. I'd try to nap, not a big deal for a sailor who has caught moments of sleep alone at sea, and then continue onward when the tempest settled down and my adventurous spirit re-emerged.

As I closed my eyes, I drifted into the helm of the sloop Flamboyant in the deep of the night, a few days south of Honolulu. Those memories reoccurred, along with false promises that sleep and a cool dream would soon follow. The balmy rain soothed me and wed my current situation to the emerging nautical dream.

But, with so much adrenaline coursing my bloodstream, the possibility of sleep became only disappointment. After a short while, sensing the calm after the gale, I raised the sails, got back on the highway and continued toward my new life in San Miguel de Allende.

My next concern was staying alert. I soon sobered to the dearth of roadside hotels in Mexico. What was I thinking? I hadn't given thought to the kayak and carbon-fiber mountain bike on my roof rack, they'd be worth stealing even if I found a motel. Only halfway through my journey, with yet another five hours to do, I gobbled a Ritalin to stay awake.

The rest of the night was just hard work. I kept two GPS programs on at once. I compared their different directions, made some minor errors, and paid too many tolls.

I ramble on with my nautical metaphors, but let me keep to the point and save the ocean tale for another telling. Still, I have to mention, and kid you not, that the true weirdness of the night only presented itself at 1am when I finally arrive in San Miguel.

Getting into town, I pulled over to the side of the road just in front of what turned out to be the Real de Minas Hotel. There, I took out my phone and opened the Airbnb app hoping I might find some host still awake. Then suddenly, I could hardly see it. Holy shit! Again, there were more bright lights on my dash. This time, what was bearing down on me was not a meteorological phenomenon, but the headlights of ten sparkling new, white Ford Escalades driving single-file at 20 mph. At first, I considered they might be a Mexican funeral parade. But, I knew that at that time of night that made no sense. It was The Cartel. And, ironically, watching the parade of SUVs turning into the hotel, I felt relieved, safe at last. Normalcy has returned and all would be well. I figured if the Real de Minas Hotel was good enough for The Cartel, it was good enough for me. But groggy as I was, I had the good sense to let them finish checking in and leave the lobby before I entered and asked for a room.


Jerome Phillips was born in East St. Louis. A well-respected musician/singer, as a young teen he backed up Mitch Ryder and Mike McDonald. He left the Midwest for California and received a degree in Philosophy and Transpersonal Psychology in 1976. His professional life was spent in musical instrument product development, restoration and marketing. Much of his later life was spent on boats. Hear him play Sunday mornings; see below.


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