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. The sight of it was discouraging, to say the least. The only encouragement I had was a persistent and foggy notion that I would soon come to a section that was either flat or downhill. There was plenty to think about besides the mistaken assumption that the riding was about to get easier, and it mostly involved pain. I made an effort to visualize my legs pedaling in smooth circles, which somehow led me to ponder the concept 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.

I knew the high point on the road was still miles ahead and way above. As I rounded a corner right near the old graveyard, a mongrel of a Border Collie came at me quickly and deliberately. I yelled, stopped abruptly, got off 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 continued riding.

It wasn’t hot outside and certainly not cold. The Sun mostly stayed behind the clouds, and there was only a gentle breeze. And so, the weather wasn’t an issue. I was sure that I was ahead of the others. And I decided that perhaps I could just slow the pace. Yes, I concluded, I could just soft-pedal the rest of the way up to the top, stay out in front, and not get so tired. But then, the 4-hour record came to mind once again, and I realized that going easy from that point was not an option, if I had any hope of beating the time. The bike had no thoughts of easing up and began to get louder as it climbed on up the road. It must be the fine dust of the road 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. My legs were hurting, but I began hypothesizing that perhaps what I was feeling wasn’t actual leg pain. Maybe, I thought, it’s all in my head. I realized that it could’ve developed after I looked toward the top and saw what lay ahead. All the while, I also kept looking at my watch. And I was well aware that I’d been riding for a couple of hours and to break the record to the top, was still 2 hours from that mythical finish line, assuming that I rode hard. At this point, all I saw in my immediate future, was pain. I did my best to avoid doing the arithmetic, pondering the leg situation, or figuring out what the new sort of lung burn that was developing was. Because I knew that doing so would only make matters worse, and I didn’t need that.

Right then, almost at the halfway point, a faint flute sound came into my ears and 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 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 mouthpiece tasted sweet, and the flute player’s breath was all it needed to send its 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 coming out of the flute. Each time he went 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 repeating the song five times, he finally came to a conclusion about that. Yes, he realized it was something he knew deep down in his gut. Maybe he’d heard at the church during Semana Santa. Or perhaps he’d heard it when he was a kid sitting around a fire outside his grandfather’s house. It could be that he’d heard it at a Tutuburi. Whatever the case, he suddenly understood that it was an old well-known melody that many people knew.

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 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 was eventually 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 took a break and had a drink before tackling the second half of the climb.

I ultimately reached the top, although not in record time. After the cold Coke, the second half of the ride went smoothly, and the pain in my leg and the burning sensation in my lungs just went away. During the final part, even without the flute playing, the melody kept repeating itself. I just couldn’t get it out of my head. Suddenly, the dirt road intersected the highway, and I was at my destination, feeling stronger than ever.

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.