A photo of Lenore and I on the side of the road.  I'm holding up both hands indicating how long we were told we'd be waiting.  It took much longer.

After traveling to Utah to view the annular eclipse in November, an experience that was absolutely incredible, both because of the eclipse itself and because of the people with whom we shared it, Lenore and I knew we had to travel somewhere to view the great North American total eclipse of 2024. After looking at cloud coverage maps, it didn’t take long to make our decision: we needed to go to Durango City, Mexico.

Now, despite being a location of deep and fascinating history, beautiful architecture, and delicious food, Durango isn’t exactly a common tourist destination, which means, in the past, traveling there would have been a bit challenging. Fortunately for us, ten years ago a brand new highway was opened that connects Mazatlán to Durango, turning what was once a 7 to 8 hour journey across a highway colourfully referred to as The Devil’s Backbone into a 3-4 hour trip through 63 tunnels and across one of the highest cable-stayed bridges in the world.

Realizing this, we came up with our plan: we’d fly into Mazatlán, spend a couple of days there, and then take a bus to Durango the day before the eclipse, tour around that afternoon, view the eclipse the next day, and then return to Mazatlán the day after and enjoy a few more days of sun and sand before flying home.

I would’ve never guessed that bus trip would turn into one of my favourite memories from the trip. And not for the reasons you’d expect.

The beginning of our vacation was fairly uneventful, though that didn’t stop me from being wracked by intense anxiety. Why? Well, first of all, neither my wife nor I speak any Spanish, making this our first trip to a country where we couldn’t easily communicate with the locals. On top of that, you don’t have to look hard to find endless warnings about travel in Mexico in general, and Sinaloa in particular, whether it’s concerns about petty crime, cartel violence, scams, or even just dangers drinking the water. Result: I was a bit of a wreck.

I also spent way more time than was rational worrying about the challenge of taking the bus to Durango: Would we have issues finding the bus? Would they have problems with the luggage1? Would the bus be clean? Safe? Do we need to worry about anyone stealing stuff?

It’s ironic, then, that the things I was most worried about were complete non-issues (well, mostly: finding the bus was actually pretty difficult), while the trip to Durango went utterly haywire in a completely unexpected way.

The original schedule for the trip was to depart Mazatlán around 9:45 AM PT, arriving 2:45 PM MT. But, about two hours into the journey, after passing through yet-another-tunnel, our line of traffic came to an unexpected stop. That, by itself, wasn’t necessarily surprising, but when our driver opted to turn off the bus and open the door, we knew something was going on. Unfortunately, as the only non-Spanish speakers on a bus full of non-English speakers, we were more or less in the dark until we heard someone say “accidente”.

That’s when we realized we might be there for a little while.

Worse, aside from the Wi-Fi on the bus, which was no longer running, due to a lack of cellular coverage we had no way to communicate with the outside world and no way to know what was going on.

Of course, this was a sunny day in the Sierra Madres, and it didn’t take long for the bus to heat up enough to drive us out and onto the side of the road. Sitting there, we saw a police car pull up beside the bus, a small crowd forming as the driver rolled down his window and began explaining the situation.

Did I mention we don’t speak Spanish?

Fortunately, a kind young man from our bus saw we were struggling and came over, making “typing on your phone” gestures with his hands. So I pulled out my phone, popped open Google Translate2, and handed it to him: “they say we could be here for ten hours” he typed (in Spanish). I gaped, my new friend nodding at me seriously.

Yeah. It was gonna be a while.

A photo of our group coordinating a food order.  On the far right is our newly made friend.

We spent a lot more time sitting there on the side of the road, smiling and nodding to our fellow passengers but otherwise quietly keeping to ourselves. But, a little while later my friend returned, again gesturing to my phone: “we’re going to order food”, Google translated for him. Confused, I asked him (through my phone) how they could possibly get food out here? With his hands he mimed riding a motorcycle and I realized they planned to call and have food brought over from somewhere nearby! So we told him what we wanted and we watched as he and another gentleman collected orders on the torn back of a cigarette carton.

In the photo, which I actually took on our return back from Durango, is a row of little open-air roadside eateries serving gorditas, burritos, empanadas, and so forth. Ours is the one with the red writing on a yellow background.

A little while later we noticed a shift in the group and suddenly people were piling back onto the bus. “They’re going to take us to get food,” my friend informed us. And so we loaded up and our bus turned around and headed back through the tunnel and out to a collection of roadside food stands we hadn’t noticed earlier. There we hopped off and, along with many other stranded travelers, relaxed and ate gorditas3 and drank cold Coca-Cola.

We must’ve spent a good solid two hours there, idly killing time while we waited to see what would happen next. And on its face that sounds kinda terrible, right? But, oddly enough, I found myself more relaxed and comfortable than I’d felt in a long time.

Here you can see me while, in the background, two women work behind pots of full of different guisados that, with fresh made corn tortillas, would turn into delicious gorditas.

See, in that moment, on the side of the road, in the shade of that aluminum roof, there was nothing expected of us, and nothing to do. Moreover, by this point, through their repeated kindnesses, and despite all our difficulties communicating, we knew our fellow passengers were looking out for us just as we were looking out for them. And so there, in that liminal space, I felt safe enough and secure enough to just be.

And all that anxiety I had been feeling? It was just… gone.

It’s a place I hope I can find my way back to from time to time, particularly in the waning days of this career break that I’m on.

Eventually I heard an engine starting and I had a feeling it might be our bus. Wandering over, I confirmed we needed to get back onboard, and as I walked back to retrieve Lenore, I saw that another group of passengers had already realized what I did and had waved Lenore along to join them. As we were walking back together, we all laughed as one of the women from the group said (in Spanish) “We may not understand English, and you may not understand Spanish, but you understand this!” and she waved her hands in a “come along” gesture!

We like taking selfies, okay?!  Lenore and I are *very* much in the foreground while in the background you can see a stunning view of the mountains.

So we loaded back up and the bus drove back through the tunnel (in the left hand lane), returning to the spot we’d vacated4. My memory at this point is a bit fuzzy, though we eventually did get another update which my friend passed along: “they plan to open up a lane by 2am”. Again I gaped and indicated my astonishment. There’s a while, and then there’s a while.

As the evening wore on we returned to the bus and our comfortable seats, but it didn’t take long for Lenore to kindly request I give her a little space because I was, apparently, radiating heat like a wood burning stove.

A little late night reaction shot, Lenore and I standing outside the bus after a much-needed... uh... break.

I can’t say I blame her.

So I found myself on the side of the road, listening to music and enjoying the dying light and coolness of the evening. Eventually I saw my friend approach. As he walked toward me I saw the bottom half of a plastic pop bottle in his hand. He smiled and gestured at the makeshift cup. “Cáfe?!” I said, pointing at the steaming cup, and he eagerly gestured for me to follow him around the back of the bus and toward a group of guys standing in the halo of a nearby streetlight. Approaching the group I realized a lot of these gentlemen were truck drivers, and one of them had lit up a gas burner and was boiling water and sharing his supply of instant coffee.

And you bet your ass I took them up on the offer!

I stood around with them for a while, having broken conversations through Google Translate and sipping my coffee. At one point one of the drivers took out his own phone and started showing me all the places he’d traveled during his work, an impressive list ranging all over the US and Canada. The gentleman making coffee even took out some cookware and offered to make food, but I demurred. It seemed time to get back to Lenore, who I was sure was wondering where I’d gotten to.

The rest of the evening was a dozy blur. But finally, at 3:30 in the morning, we got going. Our final arrival time in Durango: April 8th, the day of the eclipse, around 6:30am5.

Now, any other time, a story like this might seem like a nightmare. But, even then, as we were living it, I knew this was different.

See, during that trip, we experienced something special: simple human kindness. We were part of a group of random strangers that came together to help each other, and to make the best out of a challenging situation. Thinking back, what surprises me most is the lack of anger, or impatience, or irritability. Having been trapped in my fair share of airports, watching travelers melt down over unexpected delays, I’d come to view that sort of thing as simply expected. But there, on the side of the road in the Sierra Madres, we saw nothing of the sort.

Instead, the experience highlighted for me something essential about human nature: Somehow, even without being able to talk to each other, we can still find ways to connect and to communicate and to care for one another.

  1. I brought my 4” telescope with me along for the trip which meant I had a long, large, rather unwieldly bag to drag around. 

  2. Which, I have to admit, is a pretty damn impressive product. It’s certainly not perfect (you might even get some rather surprising mis-translations from time to time), but as a way to connect and communicate across language barriers, it is indispensable. 

  3. I have to say these were damn delicious gorditas. I was particularly taken by the chorizo and potato. Yum! 

  4. And yeah, I gotta admit I was surprised that the other drivers saved our spot! 

  5. Yes, we did make it to our Airbnb, and after a short nap, from there to our chosen spot to view the eclipse. And it was utterly magnificent! But that’s for another post.