For readers of Jon Krakauer and Susan Orlean, The Coyote’s Bicycle brings to life a never-before-told phenomenon at our southern border, and the human drama of those that would cross.
Prologue: EVERYBODY LOVES A BIKE
This is the story of several thousand bicycles that made an incredible journey. They were very ordinary, used bicycles. Mountain bikes, with their knobby tires and sturdy frames, made up a large percentage of the total. Some of these sported shocks and disc brakes—accessories you might think necessary for a trip of this distance and nature. But there were also fragile-looking ten-speeds, three-speeds, and fixed-gears. I once glimpsed a pink-and-purple girl’s bike with a small white seat and frills at the handle grips. Heavy American beach cruisers rolled on comfortable balloon tires. English roadsters and Dutch omafiets suggested sleek market runs down grass-lined lanes. The bikes were made in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China. They were adorned in all manners, but the consistent theme was an admirable patina of road wear, rust, dings, dents, and scrapes. The seats and handle grips took the shapes of the bodies that touched them. Yet there were bikes with no seats, no brakes. Some bore labels of origin—shop emblems, registration stickers, or evidence of sale at auction by a police department. In a superstitious, totem-like fashion, an unknown cyclist had drawn simple, elegant waves along the black rubber sidewalls of an unremarkable bike’s tire—giving it the blessing of oceanic drift. There was another cycle I remember because of its brilliance: a classic lowrider fashioned from a boy’s Schwinn, with the “ape-hanger” handlebars, crushed velvet banana seat, gold piping, and gold-colored rims. The bike lay on its side, spokes sparkling in the dirt like a roulette of icicles. Many of the bikes fell into the category of “utility,” a style that peaked in the 1960s and conjured the image of a straight-backed professor pedaling between ivy towers. There were a number of rugged BMX racing bikes that evoked sunny suburban lots and dirty socks. A few high-tech-looking road bikes and classic gems turned up, but soon vanished. I never saw a tandem bicycle, but could easily have missed it. A high-wheel would have been impossible. Clown bikes, depending on personal definitions, abounded. Most of the bikes were not worth much. Some of them were missing important parts. All of them had generated thousands of dollars in their life spans. They had been snatched up by criminals, confiscated by police, purchased by human smugglers, dumped in a swamp, sold to a movie studio, contracted to the military, utilized in war training, co-opted in prisoner reform, donated to orphans, sold at swap meets, cycled and recycled again and again.
Not one human being who influenced the course of the bikes understood their full trajectory or end destination. No one knew how far they had traveled in a group. Few who handled or pedaled them were aware of their specific bike’s origin, its next step, or even its next owner. The bikes were not invisible, but at important stages, they were unseen.
The journey was not made entirely on their own two wheels.
The bicycles rode in trucks packed tight alongside boxes of AK-47s, grenade launchers, and pyrotechnics. They shipped out to a small, craggy, restricted island off the coast of California called San Clemente. They were crammed into the backs of border-enforcement vehicles. They flew to the Hawaiian archipelago. They drove north to Canada, east to Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. The bikes rolled over the Mexican border powered by the feet of illegal immigrants. They rolled under the seats of actors and horse trainers and pumpkin farmers. Convicts rode them in prison. Real soldiers preparing for battle in Afghanistan took time out to pop wheelies on them. Finally, after years of service, the bikes again coasted under the feet of regular citizens, boys and girls. The bikes are out there now, still rolling. You might own one yourself. Most of their riders have no idea how well traveled their well-worn wheels really are.
When I tell the story of the bikes, listeners invariably ask, “How do you know?” or “Who arranged it all?”
To the first question, all I can say is that I happened upon a large pile of ordinary bikes in an unlikely place, under bizarre circumstances. Everybody likes bikes, I’ll say, and when I saw this motley collection of tubes and cranks and frames and wheels—the bicycle equivalent of a shipyard after a hurricane—I discovered that I liked these bikes most of all. I am a person attracted to thrift stores and yard sales. The more battered and unloved an item’s appearance sparks an equal and opposite sentiment in me. But I wasn’t the only one. A small, feverish cadre of people—ranchers and farmers and alley-trawlers—drawn by the mysterious arrival of bicycles in the bushes, in the river, abreast trails, by the roadside and under bridges, bicycles that poured down with a winter rain that seemed never to end, stopped to pick them up without knowing why. Or, maybe, even caring. Lucky finds don’t inspire deep inquiry.
I, however, am also attracted to a yarn, to irony, circularity, and meaning. It is a documentary flaw, I know. Phenomenal events take place without portent or meaning every day. And so, despite the mystery of the bicycles in plain sight, it is understandable that not many who wheeled their prizes homeward ever bothered to ask why—why here? A front-page article in the city’s only major newspaper reported the event but never asked as much—emitting only a “Huh, look, a bunch of bikes.”
And yet, varying ideas of value just might help answer the question of “Who arranged it all?” Because, maybe, we all did. A pile of discarded cars is an eyesore called a junkyard. The last time I entered a junkyard, I needed a rear turn-signal assembly for a 1982 Nissan extra-cab. I didn’t look around or admire the other clunkers. Bikes, however, belong to that class of essentially elegant innovations of travel—an airship, an airplane’s wing, a sailboat’s hull, a keel, a kite, the fin of a surfboard, a bicycle in motion. Bicycles execute the willpowers of the people who buy, find, steal, trade, and use them; they mark the memories of the people who love them. I like to think that it was the curious sight of ownerless cycles descended from nowhere that sits at the heart of this tale—because suddenly they became available to the will of whoever came upon them next; suddenly their destinies were without limit. I didn’t collect the bicycles myself. I merely wanted to know where they came from and where they were going and how far they could get. I began to understand the nature of their remarkable journey only by seeking out, speaking to, and investigating the people who had handled them one to the next.
At a certain point, as I charted the expanse of the bikes’ adventure, I tried to draw rude diagrams and flow charts. I once tried to draw a map of the journey, but this was difficult; I needed to illustrate things as big as the world yet include details as small as a ditch. In truth, I felt as though I’d caught the tail of a comet, all of the glinting and glittering bits shooting past in the darkness and somehow the very trailing end slowing just enough to get me all tangled up in it. The question of the bikes cost me a good few productive work years when I could least afford it. Following worthless bikes, I was warned a number of times, could cost me everything. On a couple of occasions, I was told, “Don’t end up with your head in a bucket,” and “You might end up off in the desert somewhere.” This was due to the fact that on my own, I was unqualified to sniff this story out. My Spanish is questionable. I’m not a criminal. I’m not affiliated with the military. My motives to expose the story ran at odds with the interests of those who knew the story best. There was no way I could ever keep up with either the speed or trajectory of this comet. It was headed for strange places and worlds that wouldn’t admit a regular, unassociated citizen like myself.
So on the trail, I made unlikely allies: movie makers, a Border Patrol agent, a Homeland Security investigator, a couple of Navy SEALs, a few ranchers, some environmentalists, human rights activists, human smugglers—people Mexicans generally refer to as “malandros” or bad guys—bike freaks, social agitators, artists, architects, academics, and people obsessed in various ways with small aspects of a story I couldn’t always explain. Everybody likes bikes, was my simple premise. Everybody likes to talk about bikes. And to get this story right, I had to believe that people like to talk about bikes to the extent that they’ll talk about them even while they’re stealing them, fencing them, breaking them down into sellable pieces.
The most critical part, however, the questions of where the bikes I was interested in had come from, and how they ended up in ownerless piles, was only answered after I made an alliance that became a friendship, with a fifty-year-old, ex-con deportee who worked at the public bathrooms in Tijuana and lived in a fake ship. Our meeting was not preordained, but it was meaningful in a way that defied logical connections. Because, as it turned out, El Negro was not just a man with entrée but an extraordinary investigator who delved into the border slums. And from his underworld interviews—with the dons of Tijuana smuggling and itinerant cycle mechanics alike—I was able to piece together the story of El Indio, an impoverished child of campesinos who walked out of his tiny Oaxacan village, arrived at la frontera, and built an empire on the strength of a single foolhardy idea.
Abandoned bicycles hold the unique ability of reflecting the desires of their finders. They are equally junk and prizes. Art and vehicles. They move people and goods and plans along. They become machines in the service of their riders’ willpowers and destinies. By following the mass of these bikes that caught my eye even as they rested, I thought I’d discover just where that collective willpower and destiny led.
Everybody likes bikes.
Kimball Taylor is a longtime contributor to Surfer Magazine, and the author of two books about the sport: Return by Water: Surf Stories and Adventures and Drive Fast and Take Chances. Taylor holds a BA in journalism, a MFA in creative writing, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.