Afterward, we began to call it the Trail of Death.
For the longest time, Batopilas, Mexico, was connected to the small town of Cerro Colorado, by just a little bit of dirt road and seven or so miles of trail, just barely wide enough for local burro traffic. Then, a few years back, that same dirt road was bulldozed into the little Copper Canyon town. Most of the old trail was “improved” for vehicle use, although the last mile was left untouched where the road took an easier route.
While the road extension did make it possible to drive vehicles into and out of Cerro Colorado, it made hiking or mountain biking into the dusty outpost significantly less appealing. For years, riding bikes out there and back had been a good day trip for many of our OWA groups. We’d ride out from our hotel in Batopilas after breakfast. Then, we’d enjoy a pleasant mountain bike ride or hike on a mix of single and double track and arrive in Cerro just in time for lunch. Once there, we’d have a typical rural Mexican lunch prepared by one of the local ladies and served in her home. It made for an interesting and fun day trip.
Things started smoothly on this particular trip, and the ride to “Cerro” went like clockwork. From Batopilas, we first followed the trail along the old aqueduct, eventually joined up with the dirt road, and then followed it to the shortcut/old trail for the final approach to our destination. We ultimately rejoined the road near Cerro just a bit before it became “Main Street,” and at that point, “things” started to get a little off-kilter.
Just as we rode up a slight rise and entered the town outskirts, a herd of pigs blocked our intended path. Our organized entrance into town instantly became more of a confusing mess. We closed ranks and pulled it back together when we rode up and stopped outside the tidy casa where lunch awaited. Senora Perez waited with a serving spoon and dishrag in hand, just as the radio in the nearby store began blurting out the high noon chiming. At least we’re still on time, I concluded.
After leaning our bikes against her fence, we went inside the house and had an enjoyable meal. Life was good and simple, or so we thought, as we finished our meal, got back up on our bikes for the ride back, and began the return, ready for whatever might come our way. Or so we thought.
We took the shortcut/old trail again as it forked off from the road just outside town. Just past the intersection, the dirt path lazily skirted a pasture for a few hundred yards. And then, it began to narrow and weave its way through the various shallow desert-like gullies (or arroyos as they call them down there). The arroyos progressively steepened and eventually became small canyons, which forced the five-foot-wide pathway to defy reason and cling to the rock, part of the way up the canyon wall. That whole rocky section is a pure marvel, and more than once, I’d pondered how it seemed to be carved into the solid rock cliff. In a short time and distance, the riding went from relaxed and casual to something more on the tricky and challenging end of the spectrum.
Since I knew the route, I rode out in front. Our group of 11 continued to spread further and further apart. And by the time we reached a particularly exposed section of cliff trail, we were all separated by 20 or 30 yards.
The riding was enjoyable and exciting as we rode out onto the rocky part. Then, a few hundred feet into the steepest and most exposed section, I rounded a curve, rode up and then over a small rock hump, and finally into a more mellow and predictable stretch.
As I entered the more moderate section, I allowed my mind to wander and, for some reason, began mentally re-riding the rocky curve and hump. I hadn’t paid much attention to that specific rock or turn before, but something about it on this particular ride caused it to stick in my mind. Finally, about 200 yards past it, I rolled to a stop and looked back at it across the canyon. From my vantage point, I could see how the whole curve complex seemed to jut out of the cliff. And then, as I watched, the entire thing became almost magically highlighted by a beam of intense sunshine. Right then, one of the group members, Rich, came around the corner, rode up onto the top of the rock, and then crashed and fell off the cliff.
It was just that simple and straightforward. Initially, I was paralyzed and gazed motionlessly back at the curve. My biggest fears were confirmed as I heard his bike crashing and bouncing its way down the cliff and come to a suddenly silent and abrupt stop at the bottom. How, why, and don’t were words that came to mind, and my world went into slow motion as I let my bike fall onto the trail and began running back to where he had once been. I had no idea about what to do in that sort of situation but felt the need to go and do something. I glanced back at the rock one more time before taking off and saw the trail, rocks, and distant mountains filling in the background, but no Rich. The sight of what wasn’t there caused a rush of adrenaline to begin free flowing into my head. But then, after I’d only gone a short distance, from seemingly out of nowhere, he just reappeared, climbing up onto the cliff edge of the trail. Like his falling off, it was a seemingly simple and straightforward occurrence. I was excited, confused, and intrigued by the situation all at the same time. But I could see him across the way, standing by the rock in question, and apparently in the flesh.
I kept my eyes on him as I continued heading his way. And then I watched as he just brushed himself off and began talking and gesturing to other nearby group members. If I let him out of my sight, I thought he might disappear again, and I certainly didn’t want that. So, I just kept looking at him as I moved.
It would be an understatement to say that I was overwhelmed. I can likely speak for everyone else who witnessed the event by saying they were as well. It’s not that often that you watch someone fall off of a cliff and then reappear. Things like that are something we all remember.
When I got to Rich, he recounted what’d happened. He’d ridden onto the rock, lost his balance, and fell to the cliff-side. I can only imagine that he’s still reliving that moment of whatever goes through your mind as you’re falling toward certain death. In his case, he fell onto a sizable ledge some eight feet below the trail. Somehow, he came unclipped from his pedals, untangled from his bike, and stuck on a flattish spot while his bike bounced down to the bottom.
After hearing his story, my first thought was that eight feet is a long way to fall, but I quickly concluded that eight is way better than a hundred. He was bruised, scratched, and dirty but had very much survived. I had difficulty coming up with something relevant to say. Then, after only a few minutes, a local Tarahumara man appeared right in front of us with something pertinent to show us. He had the damaged bike in hand and recounted how he’d seen the whole event unfold from down below. He told us how he was walking along the creek when he heard a noise, looked up, and saw Rich fall onto the ledge while the bike went down to the bottom. He had gone over, picked it up, and was now bringing it back.
Eventually, it was time to ride on. Everyone, except for Rich, was particularly careful about how and where they got up onto their bikes. A few riders hadn’t even gotten to the rocky curve when the fall occurred and opted to walk their bikes through that entire section. Rich walked back to Batopilas, and while it’s true that his bike was messed up, I don’t think he would’ve ridden anyway.
As the trail turned into the road and the route became less dramatic, I had time for reflection. There’d been a lot that had happened in those few minutes at the rocky curve. I tried figuratively putting myself into Rich’s shoes but was unable and decided to ponder it later. And so, I then focused on trying to comprehend what the Tarahumara must’ve thought. I couldn’t resolve that either. Finally, I looked down at the ground, which kept relentlessly disappearing ahead of my front wheel and just rode. As I rode onto wider and less technical terrain, I concluded that some things are beyond my comprehension. And in those cases, I should just keep moving.