Sage, Befriender of Feral Dogs
Cass Gilbert and his son Sage head out on an overnighter in Mexico. Their mission? To camp out with a view. Listen to music. Eat tacos, memelas, and ice cream. Spend time together. And feed street dogs…
A lesson I’ve learned when envisioning bicycle trips with my son, Sage, is that we enjoy having a theme, even a loose goal, to our rides. It lends a continual thread to our journey, a binding ‘reason’ for our outing, and a shape to our adventures akin to a route on a map.
Our most recent overnighter is an example. Sage was visiting me for the first time since I moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, and it was our shared love of dogs that would provide the motif for the ride. As an animal lover, Sage has always gravitated towards canines on our cycling trips together throughout the Americas over the years. Even when he was just a few years old and travelled in a trailer, I remember watching him wobbling over, fearless, to a matted Bolivian beast to pet it, scruffling its hair and hugging it. And for my part, I’ve always dreamt of befriending a homeless hound on the road and scooping it up into my arms (or a pannier, maybe) and taking it along with me. As such, my eyes are forever peeled for ‘keepers’, the perfect size and demeanor for a new life of bicycle travel.
And so it was that on this trip we loaded up Sage’s stem bag with dog treats, setting off into the hills behind Oaxaca, our sights aimed on a road called the ‘Libramento Norte’, originally conceived to be a busy bypass around the city. But local opinion turned against it, funds were misappropriated, and the Libramento was never completed. Now, it’s semi-reclaimed by nature and serves as a backstop to the city, an expansive (and expensive) bike path of sorts that provides a wonderful space for runners, cyclists, and families to enjoy in the early hours of the day.
With the last year often making travel difficult, it’s been some time since Sage and I last bikepacked together, making me wonder if the chunky but traffic-free climb I regularly use to access the Libramento – along a rather loose and rocky incline called Loma Blanca – had soul-crushing potential. Thankfully, our theme came to the rescue, or rather, our first group of hounds, a motley posse snoozing in the shade of a construction site. As a preoccupied parent, at first I questioned their intentions. But I needn’t have worried. Sage, Befriender of Feral Dogs, was soon petting them and channeling their good-natured inner spirits, and we both agreed that one was a keeper for sure.
Back on pavement, albeit of a broken and dug-up variety, we continued our climb. Next up, dog-wise, was a loosely owned pack that I’ve watched grow from pups over the past months. It didn’t take more than a handful of dog treats, thrown in an arc across the road, before Sage was surrounded by a dozen of them, all extended family by the looks of it and vying for his attention.
To those bemused by the number of roaming animals, I should point out that Mexico’s relationship with dogs is different from that of the US or the UK. It’s hard to convey just how many there are. Look about you in any which direction and you’ll see at least a few loitering around. They’re everywhere and anywhere. Under a parked car. Along a roadside verge. Watching you from a roof. You only need to stop and listen to catch a four-part barking Capella somewhere in the distance. Dogs in Mexico are as much a part of the fabric of the land as the taco stand or the Sunday market.
And, whilst some of these pooches are household pets in the more conventional sense, many roam freely around their neighbourhoods. Granted, the majority bark hysterically at passers-by without drawing breath – they’re the day shift. But some sit in the street passively watching the world go by, perhaps saving themselves for a cantankerous evening ahead. Inevitably, there’s also a good number who live full time on the streets, supplementing day-old tortillas with dog food that wellwishers leave out for them and their forever empty bellies. These city centre dogs are invariably a friendly bunch, sometimes tagging along behind you for a few blocks, as if imagining what it might feel like to be owned. A few have their own collars, and some snooze at the feet of tourists in restaurants. One, called Mazapan, has an Instagram account with almost 10,000 followers. I’m not kidding!
I’ll admit that those in the campo can be harder to read. I’ve learned to intuit the ones most likely to lunge, stopping them in their tracks with a local intonation – a sharp tzzzzzzzzzz – accompanied by a meaningful glare. Yet even the territorial types, who heckle or take chase, mostly quiet down once you’re beyond the invisible periphery of ‘their land’. Sure, I’ve experienced a number of precarious run-ins. But of the many dirt road miles I ride here in Mexico, only a few have been harrowing!
Anyway, onwards we rode, cresting the Libramento jubilantly, which is no small deal, particularly for little legs and little wheels. And down on the other side, we coasted on a classic blend of Mexican dirt and pavement, swerving around a few dogs dozing in the afternoon sun, who implicitly trusted us not to run over their tails.
The trip was also a chance to introduce Sage to my favourite food stops, because the two of us also share a love of street tacos, or in the case of Oaxaca, crispy memelas, the Oaxacan staple, on hot comals. Served with a large jarra de agua fresca – whatever is made on the day, be it a milky white horchata or a purple-red jamaica – it never ceases to amaze me how such simple fare can make life feel so complete.
It wasn’t until afternoon that we made it to Casa Raab, home to an animal rescue shelter for all those in the community of San Pablo Etla and beyond. I’d met its owner, Rebecca, after finding a lost and feverish puppy in the hills above the Libramento some months prior. We’d named him Huesos – Bones – because he was so small and skinny he could fit into a saddlebag. Rebecca had helped nurture him back to strength and happiness and whilst Huesos no longer lived there, I’d asked her if Sage and I could come by to meet a new litter of abandoned puppies she’d received. Rebecca is forever matching dogs to new owners, be it here in Oaxaca or overseas – their furever homes, as she calls them.
First, we played with the puppies and a Chihuahua mix called Roo (definitely a keeper), then Rebecca joined us with a gang of her own dogs for a hike-a-bike to a nearby eucalyptus forest. There, she pointed us towards a prime camping spot beside a mineral spring before replenishing Sage’s supply of dog treats and heading home. The late afternoon view was glorious across the fertile Etla Valley, and we could see the ancient Zapotec settlements of Atzompa and Monte Alban perched on strategic hilltops. Sage and I pitched the tent, and our hands were soon cozied around a mug of hot chocolate, another of Oaxaca’s culinary staples.
Equally sublime was the morning light; soft and warming enough that we let it wash over us, feeling no urge to hurry on. We lingered over a breakfast of oatmeal and honey so Sage could read aloud to me, and then he finished sanding his spoon, which he’d begun carving a few days prior. Rather than retracing our steps, we connected a series of trails and dirt roads back into San Pablo, where I saw a local mountain biker pulling up to his home after a ride. We were soon enthusing about the places we love to ride in the Sierra Sur while Sage, ever the opportunist, used the chance to feed a couple of dogs that had gathered to see what the commotion was about.
Onwards we rode once more, up a series of steep and rutted inclines, demanding enough to warrant a refuel in a Campesino-style restaurant I knew about, accessed by a rickety wooden gate. Technically, the establishment is closed during the week, but the owner insisted on rustling us up an omelet, warming up some tacos, and preparing us a jarra of freshly squeezed orange water. For his part, Sage was happy to dig into seconds, much to her delight, and enjoy a break from the crescendoing heat outside.
Your mileage may vary with your child, of course. But with Sage, I’m always on the lookout for non-biking activities to break up the saddle time. For example, he brings along his Kindle so he can relax and read at lunchtime. Feeding dogs along the way meant we were always changing things up. And we downloaded a film to my phone to watch as a treat in the tent: Sean the Sheep and the Farmer’s Llamas. It’s a stop motion classic!
Although our trips generally include a few challenges, I try and make sure there are plenty of opportunities to sit back and unwind too. Sage invariably rises to the challenge of getting to the top of a climb on his own steam. But I want him to think of these experiences as fun more than anything, and never to become ‘sufferfests, even if they sometimes turn out harder than we expect. My loose rule is to spend at least as much time off the bike as on it, a ratio that serves us well. We pack a Tow Whee bungee, and whilst we only used it on a couple of climbs on this trip, it’s a complete game-changer, ensuring the riding (almost) always stays manageable. For the first time, Sage rode a bike with 24-inch wheels, which he borrowed from my landlord’s daughter, bedecked with bags for snacks, his compass, and a Wayward Riders Louise seat pack in which he carried his quilt and extra clothing. Although designed for dropper posts, this seatpack is well suited to setups where there’s limited space between the seat post and tyre, and it’s really light.
It always feels good to have something to look forward to in the evening – hot Oaxacan chocolate, on this occasion. I gen up on places we can resupply during the day and in the case of Mexico, I marked the paleterias on the map, which was then scrutinized by Sage! We also brought his spoon-making kit – he has his own knife and gloves – and he sanded his spoon while I packed up the camping gear.
We also made a playlist – alternating between his songs and mine – and I attached my little JBL speaker to his bike. Sage loves music and found listening to his favourite songs to be a great motivator for the hilly terrain here.
I’ve always aimed to live in cities where I can pedal straight out of the front door, and within a few kilometres, be on dirt roads or trails – which is certainly the case with Oaxaca. Planning family routes that are low in traffic is really important, both for the sake of my own blood pressure and Sage’s safety. When we’re riding together, my car proboscis is especially sensitive, and given how few people concentrate fully on the responsibility of driving these days, I aim to keep busy roads to a very minimum. If you’re touring through a city with your child, particularly if they’re on their own bike, a helmet mirror can be really handy, like the one from EVT. Normally, Sage would be wearing his reflective vest but he left it at home on this occasion.
Beyond lay La Mesita, a community-run eco-center with a butterfly farm, which I’d figured would provide a fitting reward for what can only be described as a knee-popping climb – whatever caliber of rider you may be. Slowly we winched our way upwards using the Tow Whee – or the Magic Bungee, as we call it, until the grade became so steep that we hopped off the bikes and pushed from one patch of tantalizing shade to the next. Victorious, we arrived at the entrance to the centre, only to find that the butterfly season had long passed! Thankfully, the caretaker’s kitten and a recently donated rabbit provided perfect alternative entertainment, as did all the installations made by local artists, set to a backdrop of magnificent views across the Etla valley from our vantage point. As Sage surveyed the panorama before us, he marveled at the ‘mountain’ we’d climbed, relishing the sense of achievement.
He was even happier to find out that almost all the climbing for the day was now over. A steep descent awaited, one that had me somewhat alarmed at the speed at which Sage was riding, given those skinny tyres, 24-inch wheels, and all the ruts, rocks, and loose gravel that lay between us and the valley floor below. I tried to reign in my worry as a parent and let him revel in the feeling of letting his bike hit full speed.
“This feels so good, the wind in my face!” he yelled, while I scoured the road ahead for possible obstacles and tried in vain to resist the urge to bleat “slow down!” in reply. I needn’t have worried so much, because with each day he’s been staying with me, he was becoming more and more adept at negotiating the vagaries of Mexican dirt roads.
We snaked our way across the highway, grateful that we didn’t need to tangle with it, dropping down further towards the valley floor on lesser travelled roads. All that remained was our triumphant return into town via the old railway line that once ran from Oaxaca to Puebla. A perfect conduit into the city that completely avoids heavy traffic, these days it’s an endearingly motley affair, part dirt, part exposed railway tracks, part tufts of grass, and of course rife with dog-feeding potential. Not that every one of them quite understood Sage’s noble mission. Indeed, a few couldn’t quite handle his generosity with dog treats, and just growled at us and skulked off.
Dogs, tacos, and ice cream complete the trio of this father and son’s shared passions when bikepacking, so we stopped at a paletería on our approach into town, an establishment I’ve been known to frequent and was excited to introduce Sage to. It was closely followed by another of my regular haunts, a drinks stand, where we couldn’t pass up the chance to fill our bottles with water from a freshly loped coconut. We also passed a severed DC9 with clipped wings parked up in a field and a street crammed with old and colourful VW Bugs, both classic sights on my alternative tour of the city when friends visit town.
Finally, beyond the disused railway station where carriages are decorated like colourful murals, we ran the gauntlet through touristy Centro, returning via a pedestrianized, cobbled street to the imposing Templo de Santo Domingo before the final race to my apartment. A shower and some clean clothes awaited, then dinner with his mum, who in contrast to our dinner last night, was treating us to a fancy restaurant and – because this would be our last night together before Sage’s ninth birthday back at their home – a cake that was larger than his smile.
Sage and I aren’t living together, and we’re not always able to spend as much time with each other as I’d like, so I value these experiences all the more, because of the space they create for us to bond as father and son. Investing the energy to make them happen – even if they’re simple overnighters – helps us forge powerful memories that we’ll always be able to call upon, talk about, and enjoy for years to come. And now that Sage is getting older, they’re memories that are becoming more tangible and vivid.
During this overnighter especially, I felt that the seeds sown on our trips in the past, when he was just a few years old, were now truly flowering. I couldn’t help but glow with paternal pride with every rugged hill that he crested or section of trail that he cleaned, brow furrowing with concentration. Now that Sage is building up strength, confidence, and resilience on his own bike, his newfound delight in the act of cycling itself has become more visible. I see it in the way he jumps speed bumps for the pleasure of it, or playfully pops off curbs, or barrels down steps for heart fluttering thrills, elevating still further the soulful satisfaction of getting from one place to the next on our own steam.
And that, as a bike-loving parent, fills me with unbridled joy!
Addendum: How many dogs did Sage feed? I tried to keep a tally, but I lost count. Thirty or more, for sure!
Packlist (Core gear)
It’s the dry season here so we didn’t need to bring too much gear, as we were only out for one night and temperatures are relatively mild. But we did want to be able to enjoy dinner, breakfast, hot chocolate, and coffee al fresco, so we brought the stove. We prepped our dinner and breakfast before we left, so it was just a case of adding water and supplementing it with locally bought tortillas, which we stored in a Stasher bag. Oaxaca has plenty of small grocery stores to grab fruit and nuts along the way, so finding healthy snacks isn’t too much of a problem.
- Tarptent Double Rainbow Li
- 2 x Exped air mattresses; thick, insulated, comfy ones
- 2 x down summer quilts bags
- Fleece for Sage, Nanopuff jacket for Cass for the evening + pillow
- Spoon making gear
- Bug repellent – well we forgot it but we should have brought it
- Clikstand + 1.2L Evernew ti pot + Trangia alcohol burner + lighter
- 300ml denatured alcohol
- 1 x Sea to Summit X-Seal collapsible bowl
- 3L Hydrapak water bladder
- Dehydrated dinner and breakfast; mushroom soup + fresh tortillas, oatmeal + honey + nuts and coconut milk powder
- Shasher bag for local food/takeway/leftovers
- 2 spoons; wooden and ti
- Coffee filter
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