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 some 20 miles from the last little outpost of a town that we’d been through. But theoretically, at least, we were 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 relative to whatever data it was loaded with. The adage, “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 desperately searching for any sort of clues about it all, I was saved by one of my favorite quotes- “you’re not lost, if you don’t care where you are.”

That combination of words once again brought me peace of mind during a particularly small-feeling moment. I had a positive hunch about one of the trail options in particular. And I 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 when the trail I was on made a sharp turn in the wrong direction, I realized that they’d done the right thing and that I was utterly off-track.

The realization of my wasted efforts bummed me out, but I just sucked it up, turned, and rode my mountain bike back down to the intersection and then followed the others. Their trail had looked solid and rideable from down at the intersection. But from the very first time I saw it, for various reasons, I decided not to follow it. I wasn’t going to fall prey once again to the siren’s call of heading up what seemed to be the right trail, only to run into some sort of trouble and be stopped. Not gonna do that again, I confidently reasoned.

In this instance, 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 even began to doubt that they were anywhere up ahead. But then I 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 all 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 trail sign are essential parts of the trail hunting process. And we’d learned to never go too far in any one direction in that pursuit without accounting for each other. There was enough confusion as it was, we’d determined, without adding misplaced people into the equation.

As I ascended toward the others, the trail almost took on the appearance of a road. And I saw what seemed to be unmistakable signs of human construction as it crossed a small ravine. It looked like it’d been improved for some sort of vehicle traffic. But I knew that was an impossibility given our remoteness and the distance back to the last road. And so, I 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—cool, calm, and sunny. And since we were riding through old-growth forest with big trees, there was a lot of shade. While the riding was tough, the overall experience, pleasant.

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. I soon started struggling with my breathing. Then, I remembered that we were on a trail that had evolved as a way for people, burros, and mules to walk between places. And it had been doing that just fine since before the bicycle even existed. The term “wanker” came to mind, and so I just put my head down and walked with a smile on my face.

Up to that point, we’d guessed a lot about the abundant jumble of local trails that interconnected and created a link between Batopilas and Carachic. Our main goal all along was to figure out how it all went, physically mark the most confusing parts, and then map it.

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 was the driving force for what we were doing. It’s a simple, straightforward, and profound thought or idea. We were all doing it at least 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 portions 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, 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 good adventure.

I was intrigued as I thought about the route’s early 20th Century heyday and how teams of mules, sometimes made up of over 100 pack animals, transported millions of ounces of refined silver over the route. And how going the most efficient way was undoubtedly a primary concern. Mules struggling or not making it up a climb was an actual problem, and 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 due to some sort of physical hardship. But instead, it was one imposed by the situation- which in this case was a particularly gnarly and steep rock hump that was just too hard to ride the bikes 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, we each hoisted our bikes up over our shoulders, and we 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 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 but thankfully began to cool down almost instantly. The protective canopy, in conjunction with a pleasant breeze, combined to perform its 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. It was headed toward our next landmark, which once again confirmed our hunches. As I looked ahead, I was comforted by the combination of seeing rideable terrain and a trail that appeared to be going where it was supposed to. And so, I reorganized my gear while waiting for the others. Once everyone was there, we got back up on our bikes and began riding along another pleasant section. We were able to talk to each other as we rode, 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 in the day. And I was exalting at the world-class bit of riding that we were doing at that moment. I knew the riding quality wouldn’t last, but for the moment, I just rode and enjoyed it. The hardpacked dirt surface was free of loose rocks. My tires rolled smoothly along the wide and only slightly uphill track, winding between and around trees and 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 the ride. I wished that people everywhere could have the same experience. But then, the magic abruptly ended as we came to another unrideable section of tall, steep, and solid rock.

We once again came to a stop, and the six of us picked up our bikes and began walking. There were comments as we started, but none meant to do anything other than lighten 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. We followed several different paths as we maneuvered up gullies, around boulders, and across exposed areas of slick rock, but were 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 it could end on the top of some small, lonely mesa. But we were 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 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 an opening. The mesa top we were about to reach created a frame for the magnificent view. 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 an amazing place and with good people. I didn’t doubt for a moment what would happen next. 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.