The Memorable Adventures of Sage and Huesos
In their first family dogpacking bike trip, Cass, his nine-year-old son Sage, and Huesos (the ex-street pup) set out to forge memories on an overnight ride to a Zapotec archeological site, via a vulture road, a Mongolian ger, three dozen barking strays, a bicycle-molino, and the girthiest tree in the Americas. Read all about it here…
By now, dog lovers who frequent this site will likely have spotted a certain hound called Huesos (or Bones, so named for the cadaverous figure he once cut) enjoying a number of dogpacking adventures. First, he could be seen living his best life bouncing along Mexican dirt roads in a milk crate, curled up on a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite sleeping pad, his pointy-eared head resting on a pool noodle.
Then, his ever-more-lanky legs outgrew its 19″ x 13″ confines and he was upgraded to a markedly elegant Francis Cycles bicycle trailer, hand-crafted in Santa Cruz, California. To temper the dry season heat, we even fashioned him a sun shade – a bimini, in posh English – from spare tent poles, cord, and a piece of an upcycled poncho.
I’m delighted to report that Huesos’ latest adventures were shared with my nine-year-old son Sage. Or rather, my son’s latest adventures were shared with one-year-old Huesos. Trips with Sage have always been a highlight of my bikepacking existence, no matter their length or their location. We toured across the salt flats in Bolivia when he was three and a half (his lasting memory is the llama legs we saw stacked up like kindling in a La Paz market). We’ve ridden in a Basque Country that’s home to mystical animals and giants (where we floated through an inky black tunnel that was three kilometres long). We’ve explored regal New Forest with my mum on a rented e-bike (Sage pitched her tent, made her coffee, and curated a dinner menu that included Porcini Mushroom Risotto and Green Salad From the Garden). These trips have always been a chance for us to spend time together and forge memories that are quite distinct from those accrued during the daily rhythm of life.
More recently, riding with Huesos in Mexico has introduced me to a more offbeat aspect of bike travel that I never expected to experience firsthand, despite how much I’ve always loved the pups. To share such an experience with my son, also a Devotee of the Dog, was really rather special.
The original plan we’d hatched even included two dogs in our pack – Huesos (aka Mr. Legs) and Sage’s own Bodhi (aka Wild Bodhi). Sadly, a last-minute logistical glitch meant his beloved and very well-mannered Shih Tzu (which, talking of small dogs, was found roaming the Chihuahuan suburbs of El Paso) couldn’t make it. This was a real shame, not least because Sage was looking forward to seeing what the two dogs would make of each other, and I’d mocked up a bike setup that included Wild Bodhi in Huesos’ hand-me-down milk crate on the front of the bike, Mr. Legs in the trailer behind. And, just imagine a bike adventure with a cuddly purebred of a furball, his long and lustrous facial hair slicked back in the wind, and a leggy, ever-smiling streetdog, tongue dangling to one side!
Still, we tried not to let Bodhi’s absence dampen our spirits, seeking instead to cheer ourselves up with a pre-trip showing of The Secret Life of Pets 2, to get us in the mood for our adventures ahead. Allow me to segue into a tangent for just a moment, that other parents may appreciate: during our time together, Sage also caught me up with other like-minded films that had somehow slipped me by, like Madagascar (the Penguins are his favorite characters, King Julien the lemur is mine), The Willaboughs (delightfully nefarious and narrated by a cat), and lastly, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (in which a brood of aggressive roast chickens and a father’s awkward fishing metaphors were especially memorable).
But back to the ride at hand and making memorable adventures. As part of his two-week visit to Oaxaca, I’d planned an overnighter with Sage and Huesos that I hoped would be mellow enough in character that we felt no need to rush, yet still provide us with variety, a mission of sorts, and a sense of purpose. Whilst a colourful quest isn’t always a requirement in a family bike tour, I do find a theme helps lend purpose and shape to a ride. By keeping the riding distance short, the three of us could enjoy cruising the sublime dirt roads of the Mitla Valley floor and relax in each other’s company.
As for bikes, well, Sage has now long outgrown his trusty and much-loved Salsa Timberjack 20. The last time he visited me here in Oaxaca, he rode a Trek hardtail with skinny tires and 24″ wheels, a bike that my landlord’s daughter kindly lent him. We’d banked on Montse’s generosity again for this trip until we realized that he’d bean-stalked over the intervening months. Instead, he tried out a borrowed Jones SWB Spaceframe, size small and shod with motorbike-like 27.5 x 3″ tires – and with the seat slammed and brakes levers dialed right in, this dreamy space horse actually fit! When I was young, I’m not sure I could have imagined life getting any better than on my Raleigh Grifter. What a loaner for a nine-year-old kid!
The ride itself was two-pronged: historical on the one pointyside and environmental on the other. Initially, we steered our handlebars towards the Zona Arqueológica Dainzú, a two-thousand-year-old archeological site that’s located between the new and busy paved highway and the ancient, empty, and unpaved Camino Real, set gorgeously amongst the groves of organ pipe and prickly pear cacti that lie between the tongue-twisting settlements of Tlacochahuaya and Tlacolula. As for lodging, we’d spend the night at an off-grid camping site nearby, complete with solar cookers, vegetable gardens, and an electricity-free fridge full of frogs.
First, however, we had to leave town. Oaxacan drivers are, on the whole, courteous to cyclists, and are proof that mixed modes of transport, of varying speeds, can cohabitate on the same roads. However, add potholes to the equation, along with the distraction of cell phones, speeding taxis, and diesel-belching buses, and the result is an environment that’s far from relaxing for family cycling. Patching together lesser-traveled city streets, we headed straight for what I endearingly call ‘Vulture Road’, on the fringes of town. Set amongst tall and impregnable thickets of carrizo, this grassy jeep track passes an organic waste facility and is completely traffic-free, which meant Huesos could both cajole the wakes of vultures and skip freely alongside us as we bounced our way past agave fields and vegetable scraps alike.
Beyond, we took a series of unpaved farming roads to San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, where we camped at the improbably-titled Mongolia Yurt Adventure, an off-grid site run by solar enthusiast Michael Götz. Michael is from Switzerland and has lived – all but self-sufficiently – on this patch of land for the last seven years. There’s space for a few low-impact structures, a horse, his vegetable garden, a solar cooker, a tiny house that he rents out to travelers, a spot to pitch a tent, a dry compost toilet, and, as the name suggests, a Mongolian-esque ger (or yurt).
With all the dogs of various natures and sizes roaming the property, it took a little time for Huesos to find his place in the canine pecking order, and one big and ferocious fellow called Guapo did have to be banished to the fields. But balance was eventually found, and I can report that Huesos did a sterling job protecting our tent from all four-legged intruders.
With dark clouds hanging over the Sierra Norte and the seasonal rains due in at any moment, Michael kindly suggested we shelter in the yurt should the weather take a turn for the worse. I trusted our ‘mid, though I did take a peek inside this beautiful structure. It was one made from available resources – think bamboo, carrizo, cotton, nylon, and plastic sheeting – rather than the felt, hides, poplar, and willow found in a traditional Mongolian ger, which also makes use of materials that can be found locally, albeit on the steppe and not in the Mitla Valley.
Michael shares his grounds with La Sazón del Sol – a small business with a shop in town that sells solar dried fruit, vegetables, herbs, and more. It’s run by Victoria Aguilera, who hails from Mexico City, and as we soon found out, is also a collector of dogs without homes. Victoria introduced us to them all, took us on a tour of the facility, explained the solar drying process, and let Sage try out the bici-molino, using pedal power to grind down corn as he chomped on sun-dried mango.
With solar ovens, ferocious dogs called Guapo (that’s handsome, in Spanish), and transplanted yurts I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when Michael asked if we could do him a favour and test his latest invention. A science game developed for scout jamborees, it involved donning a set of virtual reality goggles in which the electronic innards had been removed and replaced by a series of fibre optic cables linked to a controller. Each cable, and accompanying beam of light, was associated with an arrow that flashed inside the goggles’ display – forwards, backwards, left, and right, or a hand gesture. Michael loaded the Mario Brothers soundtrack on his phone and then off we delved into the garden, assigned with the task of picking fruit from trees. First I ‘controlled’ Sage, then he ‘controlled’ me. Weirdly robotic yet also completely free of electronics and electricity, it was rudimentary but fun!
On the way home, Sage, Befriender of Feral Dogs, stopped to stroke and dote on any willing creature. Not that he didn’t know where to draw the line – he was strict and fearless with the snarling menaces who took chase as we pedaled by, fending them away from the trailer if they snapped at Huesos. By now, the weather was increasingly confused, either blazing sunshine or spitting with rain, so the Farfarer’s foldaway awning came in especially handy, proving itself an integral part of all-weather dogpacking.
We rounded off our ride with a pause in Santa María del Tule for nieve – regional sorbet – gazing upon the eponymous Árbol del Tule as it stood towering high above the church, shrinking it to toy-like proportions. This mighty Montezuma Cypress spans some 14 metres wide and is 42 metres in circumference at its most buttressed point, making it amongst the very ‘stoutest’ trees in the world. Fans of the celebrated botanist-explorer Alexander von Humbolt may be interested to know that he made a special journey to Tule in 1803, having heard about the tree’s impressive stature and girth. At over 1,500 years old, it really is quite the specimen, especially when a thousand birds are chit-chatting amongst its branches.
All that lay ahead was an easy pedal along the bike path back into Oaxaca. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of an overnighter shoehorned with micro-adventures. Hopefully Sage will add this experience to his roster of more unusual memories, to join the llama legs and New Forest scones. Either way, with this latest family escapde in the books, we already have plans to introduce Wild Bodhi to the bizarre wonders of dogpacking when I’m next in New Mexico. We both can’t wait!
You can find out more about this route, including details about Michael’s off-grid camping and the Sazón del Sol solar superfoods, in the Meandros en Mitla route guide, linked below.
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