The Ride Up from Batopilas

A race of sorts via mountain bike to the top of Batopilas Canyon in Copper Canyon, Mexico.

La Bufa Switchbacks
The road from Batopilas up to Kirare in Copper Canyon.

Part 1

I set off from Batopilas, at the bottom of Copper Canyon, intent on riding my mountain bike up the 40 or so mile gravel road ascent to the intersection with the paved highway, as fast as I could. The unofficial record for doing it was 4 hours and my goal was to beat that. Whether or not my quest was realistic, will forever remain to be seen.

The bike made a sickening squeaking sound each time the pedals were pushed down. I figured the chain needed some lube, since the whole area, including the road, was mighty dry and dusty. My legs were feeling heavy as I rounded yet another corner and what little hope I had for relief, disappeared when I was greeted by a long, painful looking and persistently uphill straightaway which was overshadowed by a ridge, several thousand feet above. I was simply, depressed at the sight. I realize now that I hadn’t really been thinking the riding logistics through as I rode, because I kept thinking I would come to a flat section or even a downhill, somewhere along the way. Interestingly, I’d been on the road numerous times before and knew that there wasn’t such a section, but for whatever reason, I guess I figured I must’ve missed something on previous trips. There was plenty to think about as I rode and it mostly involved pain, but I tried to keep visualizing my legs pedaling in smooth circles, which somehow led me to pondering the idea of a loop that was all downhill. My mind began wandering more and more as I rode, but my lungs and legs stuck to reality and they began to scream.

The high point on the road was still miles ahead and way above. I made a quick glance upward as far as I could see and noted that, besides the rocks and brush, there was only something that I assumed to be cows up ahead in my immediate riding future. As I rounded a corner right near the old graveyard, a mongrel of a Border Collie came at me quickly and, I was sure, deliberately. I yelled at it, stopped abruptly, got off of my bike, reached down and actually picked up a rock to throw at it. Thankfully, with my motion, it retreated back to wherever it had come from. I dropped the rock, adding back one more to the collection already covering the ground, got back up on my bike and went back to riding.

It wasn’t really hot outside and certainly not cold. The sun was mostly behind some clouds and there was only a gentle breeze as I rode. And so, the weather wasn’t an issue as I kept on riding up the endless, but gradual climb. At least I’m ahead of everyone, I started thinking, and maybe I could just slow my pace. Yes, I decided, I can just soft pedal my way to the top from here and will still probably be out in front. But then, the 4 hour record came to mind once again and I realized that going easy from that point on to the top was not an option, if I had any hope of beating the time. The bike was not listening to any of my ideas or thoughts and began to get louder, regardless of the pace, as it climbed on up the road. It got be the fine dust getting into the chain, I rationalized. I grasped at any sort of thought or idea that might take my mind off the pain that had continued developing in my right leg. I began hypothesizing that perhaps what I was feeling wasn’t true leg pain, but some sort of a mental reaction being manifested in the leg as I looked up to the top of the ridge and considered what still lay ahead. I’d also been looking at my watch and was well aware that at this point, I’d been riding for a couple of hours and that if I was going to break the record to the top, was still 2 hours from that mythical finish line, assuming I rode hard. By this point, all I could see in my immediate and foreseeable future, both physically and figuratively, was pain. I instinctively avoided doing the arithmetic, pondering the leg situation, or trying to figure out what the new sort of lung burn that was developing was all about, as much as I could because I had the feeling that doing so would only make things worse, and I knew I didn’t need that.

It was just about then, almost at the halfway point, that the faint sound of a flute came into my ears and then seemed to float right on through my head. It was as if it was in one ear and out the other. It seemed as though the flute melody was just suddenly there in the air and that my ears were just going along the dusty road and scooping it in. My mind went from looking ahead and above and thinking about my pain and fatigue, to pondering what might’ve been going on somewhere out there in the brush and cactus with the flute.

Part 2

The flute player was really just a teenager who’d been sent out to watch the family’s little herd of a single sheep and several goats. The animals were content to just slowly graze their way through the brush toward the Screaming Lady spring. Herding was boring business to the kid, especially with the dogs running around and doing most of the work.

The new flute that the old blind man had made for the herder was begging to be played……… since there wasn’t a lot of running around or rock throwing to do, the shepherd sat down in the wide open on a big flat rock and pulled the new flute out of his shirt and let it play. The part of the flute where the mouth goes tasted sweet and the flute player’s breath was all that the flute needed to send it’s song out into the air. It played itself. At first, the boy wasn’t sure what the melody was. He played, but strangely didn’t consciously know what the song was that was coming out of the flute. Each time he came to the next note, a good one just seemed to flow out. He was confused, but he kept blowing and letting it happen. The goats and old ewe didn’t seem to mind all of the repetition, he realized. After the refrain had repeated itself a couple of times, he started to know how it went.

He wondered if he’d heard it before? It seemed so familiar. Why did he know where the next note was? He had a lot of questions as he continued repeating the melody. After about the fifth time through it all, he came to a conclusion. Yes, it was something he knew deep down, somewhere. Maybe it had been something he’d heard at the church during Semana Santa. Maybe he’d heard it when he was a kid sitting around a fire outside his grandfather’s house. Maybe he’d heard it at a Tutuburi. Whatever the case, he suddenly understood that it was some old well known melody that a lot of people must’ve known.

Part 3

Eventually, I rounded a corner and as I looked up the next straightaway could see the little mud hut house and store that was right at the top of the steepest part of the climb. I knew I was almost there, because I’d passed that way before and there was just no mistaking the scene that was suddenly before my eyes.  There was only one Coca Cola sign anywhere in the area and I knew that it was at the little store at the top of the steep part.

All the pain, dust and squeaking of the early part of the ride to the top had eventually been drowned out by the flute music and now there was just the picture of a cold Coke, smooth sailing and a crow making racket somewhere up above in what had become my immediate future. Once I got to the store, I’d take a break and have a drink before tackling the second half of the climb, which I knew was significantly more moderate and rolling.

I did ultimately reach the top and the pavement, although not in record time. After the cold Coke, the second half of ride went smoothly and the pain in my leg and the burning sensation in my lungs just went away. During that final part of the ride, I remember that even without the flute music playing to occupy my thoughts or time, the melody I’d heard was stuck in my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my head, as it repeated itself over and over. And then suddenly the dirt road had stopped as it intersected the highway, and I realized that I was at my destination and feeling amazingly strong.

Tarahumara house in Copper Canyon, Mexico

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.