Lost and Found on the Silver Trail

“You’re not lost, if you don’t care where you are.”

Mountain biking the Silver Trail

By this point, we were probably some 20 miles from the last little outpost of a town that we’d been through but were theoretically about to come to another. Jerry had the best maps of the area available loaded onto his GPS, but it only told us where we were in relation to the relatively paltry data that it was loaded with. The realization that we might actually be the first people ever out in that part of Mexico’s Copper Canyon trying to figure out and quantify where the hell the old trail went left me with the feeling of simply being overwhelmed. The old adage of, “garbage in, garbage out” came to mind and was soon followed by the vision of a web page that simply said, “no data available.”
I was momentarily depressed as I looked at the convergence of three trails, all of which seemed to head up toward the top of a wrong ridge. Just as we were each desperately searching for any sort of clues about it all, I was saved, once again, by the quote- “you’re not lost, if you don’t care where you are.”

That combination of words once again brought me peace of mind at a particularly small-feeling moment when we were at the intersection of three trails confronted with the choice of which one to follow. I had a positive hunch about one of them and chose to follow it even though Arturo had already gone up another. I was somewhat bothered when the rest of the group followed him, rather than me, but soon realized that perhaps they’d done the right thing when the trail that I was on made a sharp turn in an obviously even more wrong direction, telling me that more than likely, I was off track.

I was bummed by the realization of my wasted efforts but just sucked it up, turned, and rode my mountain bike back down to the intersection and then followed the others. Their trail looked to be solid and rideable down at the intersection, but from the very first time I saw it, I’d made the decision that I wasn’t going to once again fall prey to the siren’s call of heading up an apparently good trail, only to run into some sort of trouble and be stopped. Not gonna do that again, I had confidently reasoned.

In this particular case, my determination was wrong. I was sure that the trail the others took would go to crap after just a short distance, but in fact, the thing just got wider and appeared ever more developed as it rounded a corner and began going up.
A long and open corridor soon appeared above me as the trail cut its way through thick forest. With the extended line of sight, I figured that I ought to see at least one of the group members just up ahead, but there was only the green of the trees and the browns and grays of the ground for as far as I could see. They’re moving fast, I thought. For a moment, I began to doubt that they were actually even anywhere up there, but looked down, saw their tire tracks, and was reassured.

That same sort of thing had happened more than once before on our mapping expedition, and we’d come to realize the importance of staying in contact or periodically regrouping as we each pursued our various exploration tangents. Understanding and evaluating tracks and sign are essential parts of the trail hunting process, and we had come to learn to never go too far in any one direction in that pursuit without the whole group being accounted for. There was enough confusion as it was, without adding misplaced people into the equation.

As I ascended toward them, the trail almost took on the appearance of a road, and I saw what seemed to be unmistakable signs of human construction on it as it crossed a small ravine. It looked like it’d been improved for some sort of vehicle traffic, but I already knew that was an impossibility given our remoteness and the distance back to the last actual road and pushed the thought aside.

After the dip of the ravine, I just kept riding up towards the ridge top. The going was slow, but the weather almost perfect for riding—cool, calm, and sunny. And so, while the riding was tough, the overall experience, pleasant. The trail was mostly shaded, as it cut its way up and through what appeared to be old growth forest. The trees were massive, and I could see that the mix included a species of fir that I couldn’t quite identify, pines similar to the Ponderosas I was so familiar with back in Colorado, and the occasional juniper (or Tascate as they’re called down there).

After a few minutes of riding solo, I rounded a bend and saw the group just ahead. They were stopped, appeared to be waiting for me to catch up, and animatedly discussing something. As I neared, they got back up on their bikes and began riding, before I could even quite get there. Hmmm, I thought.

For a while, the trail was flat, and we moved almost effortlessly. But within only moments, it switched back and resumed climbing. The smooth, leisurely pace that we’d enjoyed for a few minutes slowed as the climb began. My first thought at that point was that the grade was too steep for mountain bikes. Just as I was starting to struggle with my breathing, I once again remembered that we were on a trail that had evolved mostly as a way for people, burros, and mules to get from one place to another and that it’d been doing that since way before the bicycle had even been thought of. There had never been any intention of making it good for mountain bike riding. And so, I just rode until the steepness got the best of me and then stopped, got off of my bike, and began walking– and without my confidence or self-image being diminished.

The concepts of recreation and trails built and maintained for diversion had initially confused my thoughts as we began contemplating and planning our project. We did a lot of pondering, speculating, and guessing about how the abundant jumble of local trails and paths were pieced together to create a route that was used up until mid 19th century to connect the silver mines of Batopilas with the Bank of Chihuahua, some 250 miles away. Our main goal all along was to figure out how it all went and linked together, physically mark the most confusing parts, and then map it. The name it had assumed “was” and “is” The Silver Trail and our predominate hope was to help in creating a long distance route for modern-day adventure travelers that would tell something about the area’s history, bring unobtrusive commerce into the Barrancas, and share a part of the area’s wild magnificence with the rest of the world.

There was another part or goal to the endeavor for each of us. Perhaps it was more of a result of having focused on the first, I’m not sure. But it was real, and perhaps the driving force for what we were in the midst of doing. It’s a simple, straightforward, and profound thought or idea. We were doing it partly for the adventure of it all. Some of us had been drawn-in and intrigued by bits and pieces of trail that we’d come across before and parts of stories about mule trains, grand pianos, and trail bosses with big knives. Some of us were there, at least outwardly, because of technical skills or work. And others were there, at least partly because of who else was. The reasons varied, but they all led to the same place. The whole thing, from figuring out logistics and what to pack to dealing with chaos and choosing which trail to follow- would be a buen aventura- a good adventure.

I should’ve known from the outset that the muleteers, vaqueros and mine owners from back in the pre-vehicle era would’ve only been concerned about the steepness of any particular trail they were using in regards to how a mule could handle it. Back in its early 20th Century heyday, teams of mules sometimes made up of over 100 pack animals, transported millions of ounces of refined silver over the route. Going the most efficient way would’ve been a primary concern. Mules struggling or not making it up a climb were essential. Backpacking and mountain biking were not even words or terms.

And so, back to our uphill. Within only minutes, we all came to the same forced stop. It wasn’t one of those that are done because of some sort of physical hardship, but instead, one imposed by the situation- which in this case was a particularly gnarly and steep rock hump that was just too hard to make the bikes go up. Such a thing had happened multiple times on this particular trip, and after five days, we’d simply come to accept it as something that was going to happen periodically. Without hesitation or struggle and once down on our own two feet, we each hoisted our bikes up over our shoulders and began walking and picking our way up. We’d come to realize that there was always a top and a more rideable section ahead and that in cases like the one we were encountering, just putting your nose to the grind and carrying your bike and gear was the fastest and simplest way to get there.

In this particular instance, I walked faster than the others and soon assumed the lead. The trail was evident as it climbed on up an open hillside, but loose rocks and dirt conspired with the steepness to make the walking tough and slow. The lack of vegetation allowed the sun to beat down on us relentlessly, and I began to sweat, well before reaching the clump of trees covering the top of the hill. By the time I got up there and into the shade, I was sweat-soaked and thankfully began to cool down almost instantly. The protective canopy, along with a breeze that had only gotten stronger as we’d ascended conspired to perform their cooling and drying magic and within only minutes, the pain and suffering of the climb was forgotten.

The trail leveled out and veered off in a new direction as it traversed the ridge. Since it seemed to be headed in the general direction of our next landmark and our day’s destination, our hunches and hopes about the route were once again momentarily confirmed. As I looked ahead, I was comforted by the combination of seeing rideable looking terrain ahead along with a trail that appeared to be going where it was supposed to and reorganized my gear while waiting for the others. Once everyone was there, we got back up on our bikes and began riding along a pleasantly flat section that wound in and out among the trees while continuing to climb, but this time at a more moderate rate. For a while, we were actually able to talk as we rode. It was at what’s known as a conversational pace, and it was nice to have something coming out of my mouth besides huffing and puffing.

Within only minutes, I’d forgotten the hour-long mistaken bushwhack, the trail along the edge of the cliff, and the meadow with no exit that we’d experienced earlier that day and was exalting at the world-class bit of riding that we were doing right then. I knew riding quality wouldn’t last, but for the moment I just rode and relished it. The hardpacked dirt surface was free of loose rocks, and my tires rolled smoothly along the wide, only slightly uphill track that wound in and out between and around trees through mostly open forest. It took no effort to turn the pedals. For a brief instant, I felt as though the bike was in control, and I was simply along for a magical ride. I wished that people everywhere could have the same experience, but the magic ended abruptly when we came up to yet another unrideable section of tall, steep, and solid rock.

There was no real choice, so the six of us picked up our bikes and began walking up the next rock section. There were comments as we started out, but none meant to do anything other than lighten up the tone. I had no doubts that each person would make it up to the top, one way or the other. Even if the going got tough and tricky, I realized, that if we were actually on the right track, then mules loaded with silver had once gone up that same trail which meant that we surely could.

Once we got about halfway up the rock section, we began to catch glimpses of the top and started speculating about what the trail would be like up there. We were a bit like ants as we kept working our way up, following several different paths as we maneuvered up gullies, around boulders, and across exposed areas of slick rock, but all headed for the same place. The higher we went, the more we pondered and talked about what awaited. We all knew it could be more of the same loose rocky crap, or could simply end on the top of some small, lonely mesa, but were forever hopeful that it would be more like the riding bliss that we’d experienced only a few hundred yards back. We were almost to the top when he turned and looked off to the side. It was Quentin who noticed and said it first. We all stopped and turned, and then he spit it out, “look over there, I think that’s the trail.”

I didn’t want to believe it, and half expected him to be messing with us, as I looked in the direction that he was pointing. But there it was, as plain as day. An obvious trail, snaking its way across a lower ridge and intersecting the big rock we’d been by down at the bottom. How did we miss it, I wondered? It wound its way lazily up through the trees and ultimately up and, more than likely we assumed, over a small pass. In the distance, mesas of various shades of blue stuck up through the opening of a sort of sag in the ridge, framed by the mesa top that we were about to reach and another one just off to the east. I couldn’t see enough of the distant peaks, ridges, and mesas to come to any sort of conclusion about our route or current whereabouts, but for the moment I was content. Even though it was apparent that we were off track, we were in a good place and with good people. I had no doubt that we’d just climb our way back down, find the other trail, and follow it, hopeful that it would be the right one.

Mountain biking Copper Canyon's Silver Trail
Hike-a-biking the Silver Trail

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.