The Test Drive

Concordia is a town on the drive from Matzalan to Durango, Mexico.
Concordia is a town on the drive from Matzalan to Durango, Mexico. (Visit Mexico)
By Dave Wielenga
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 11, 2006

Driving to Durango, Mexico, is a marvelous, occasionally treacherous journey from the coastal resort of Mazatlan, and the trek over the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains to this historic high-desert mining city makes a fascinating and spiritually balancing side trip from touristy beaches, restaurants and high-rise hotels.

At least that's how I pitched the trip to Kristin. She responded with that cut-the-crap laugh I've come to like. We both knew we were driving to Durango for something more.

We'd been match-made a couple of months before by a mutual friend in Southern California -- Kristin flying out from Chicago, where she's lived all her life; me flying up from Mexico, where I moved three years ago -- and now she'd come to visit me in Mazatlan. Such is fate, or whatever you call it when divorced people in their forties get their hopes up again.

But the scheme to test our budding romance by taking it on the road was entirely premeditated. Such is my belief that traveling with someone you think you could love is the best way to determine if they are someone you can stand.

* * *

It's about 180 miles from Mazatlan to Durango, but the drive takes six to seven hours. The two-lane highway, known as Carretera 40 on the map but called Camino de Tres Mil Curvas (Road of 3,000 Curves) by the locals, twists dizzyingly upward through mountains of more than 8,000 feet.

You share this ribbon of pavement with long, slow trucks and buses. It's bad enough when those plodding arks are on your side of the road, which has few turnouts and thus pins your progress to a harrowing test of passing skills. But when they're on the other side of the road, they're still on your side -- that is, they often can't negotiate the tight turns without sweeping out across your lane, typically just on the other side of a blind curve.

I was eager to set out before daybreak so we could get some easy miles behind us, start climbing the mountains at first light and reach Durango in time for lunch. Kristin? Not so eager. She explained she's not a morning person, especially on vacation.

This wasn't just our first red flag. It was a total repudiation of my core values. I've been an early-starting long-hauler since childhood. My truck-driver father began every family vacation at 4 a.m., and the first-day destination always lay beyond the fold of the maps he distributed to his groggy kids in the back seat. When I opened my mouth to say something to Kristin, however, this is what came out: "Okay."

I actually derived a guilty pleasure from the dawdling breakfast we shared at a seaside cafe in Mazatlan's beautiful Centro Historico-- although I couldn't stop doing velocity-times-distance equations in my head, obsessively recalculating our ETA in Durango as hours of precious traveling time slipped away.

We finally hit the road just before noon. I yearned to make up for lost time but knew it would be unforgivable to sacrifice the pleasure -- hell, the purpose -- of a Mexican road trip by punching straight through to Durango. It had been only an hour when we neared the quaint 16th-century mining outposts of Concordia and Copala, but I bit my lip, hit the blinker and turned off the highway.

Concordia's mines played out long ago, but the 441-year-old settlement still bustles. The roadsides are dotted with stands offering the local specialties: mangos, pottery and highly polished wood furniture. We resisted until we reached the main square, where we savored a couple of raspados (shaved ices) before spending a few moments in the beautiful old church of San Sebastian.

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