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 available maps of the area 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 trail went that miners had used back in the old days to haul silver ore out of the canyons, 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 despondent 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. Without any further hesitation, I chose one of the three trails to head up and did so even though Arturo had gone up one of the others and was already out of sight. I was somewhat bothered when the rest of the group followed him, rather than me, but soon realized that maybe they’d done the right thing when the trail 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 had appeared solid and rideable at the bottom, but from the very first time I’d seen it, had decided that I wasn’t going to once again fall prey to the siren’s call of heading up an obvious and good looking trail, only to run into trouble. Not gonna do that again, I’d confidently reasoned.

In this particular case, my determination was wrong. I’d been certain that the obvious trail they were following would go to crap once it started going somewhere, but in fact, the thing just got wider and appeared ever more developed as it rounded a corner and began going up.

A long corridor soon opened up 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 on our mapping expedition up to that point and we’d all ultimately learned the importance of staying in contact or periodically regrouping as we each pursued our various exploration tangents. Understanding and evaluating tracks and sign of various sorts are an important part of the trail hunting process and we’d learned 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, the trail almost took on the appearance of a road and I saw obvious signs of human construction on parts of it as it crossed a small ravine. It appeared as though it’d been improved for some sort of vehicle traffic, but I already knew that was an impossibility given our remoteness and pushed the thought aside.

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

After a few minutes of riding alone, I rounded a bend and saw the group just ahead. They were stopped, 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 quite catch up. For a while, the trail was flat and we moved almost effortlessly. But within only moments, it switched back once again and resumed climbing. The smooth and easy pace that we’d enjoyed for a few minutes, slowed as the climb began. My first thought was that the grade was too steep for mountain bikes. Just as I was beginning to physically 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. Recognizing that it’d been traveled many times before, I sucked it up and kept riding until the steepness got the best of me. At that point, I just stopped, got off of my bike, and began walking.

The concepts of recreation and trails built and maintained for simple diversion had initially confused my thoughts as we’d begun contemplating and planning the project. We did a lot of speculating and guessing about how the abundant network of local trails had once been pieced together to connect the silver mines of Batopilas with the Bank of Chihuahua, some 250 miles away. Our main goal was to figure out how the route went, physically mark the most confusing parts, and then  map it. The name it assumed and still goes by in many areas was The Silver Trail and our predominate hope was to help in creating a long distance route for adventure travelers that would also tell something about the area’s history, bring increased and 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 some sort of inevitability that came from focusing so much on the more concrete objectives, I’m not sure. But it was real and perhaps the driving force for what we did. It was the simple 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 came because of technical skills or work and others 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 how to get there, what to pack, and deciding which trails to follow would be a buen aventura- a good adventure. And we knew that from the very start.

We came to recognize 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 one of the trails 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 and least physically demanding way would’ve been a primary concern. Mules struggling or not making it up a climb were important. And so, we used that concept time and again in concluding that we were off route whenever the trail we were following at any given moment became excessively tough or steep.

And so, back to our climb. Within only minutes we all came to the same forced stop. It wasn’t one of those that are done by some sort of choice related to the joy or thrill of the ride, but was instead, one imposed by the situation. In this case, what got in our way was a particularly gnarly and steep rock hump. We should’ve recognized that we were off track, but for whatever reason didn’t. Such a thing had happened several times before on this particular trip and even though we knew better, time and again had just gotten off of our bikes, hoisted them up onto our shoulders, and kept walking the wrong way.

In this particular instance, I walked faster than the others and soon assumed the lead. The trail was obvious 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 I reached 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 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 were forgotten.

The trail leveled out and veered off in a new direction as it traversed the ridge. Since it seemed to be headed at least in the general direction of our next landmark and the 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 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, although this time at a much more moderate rate. For a while, we were able to actually 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 from the morning, the spooky 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 in the midst of. I knew it 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 easily 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 a completely unrideable section of tall, steep, and solid rock.

Knowing just what to do, 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 the same trail which meant that we surely could. It did at least occur to me as we walked that perhaps the way we were going was too steep for mules and that they hadn’t gone that way to begin with. But, once again, I ignored my impulse to overthink it and just walked on.

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 and following several different paths as we maneuvered up gullies, around boulders, and across exposed areas of slick rock. The higher we went, the more we speculated about what awaited. We all knew that it could be more of the same loose rocky crap or abruptly end on the top of some small and 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, 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 that we hadn’t seen  before, snaking its way across a lower ridge, and intersecting the big rock down at the bottom. How had we missed it, I wondered? It wound its way lazily up through the trees and apparently continued on 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 just off to our 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 obvious 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- ever 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.