Sixteen empty soda bottles sat on the counter in the Cerro Colorado store for two days before the shopkeeper finally stuck them down with the other empties. They were a good conversation piece while they were sitting out there in the open. But when he found a spider in one, and since he needed to move them anyway, he put them into some empty slots in the Fanta case down on the floor. Then, after tidying things up, he thought about dragging the whole box of empties out from behind the Sabritas rack so they would still be visible. That way, they would continue to be the talk of the town, but he realized that if he did so, they would just be in the way and make things look disorganized. And so he just stuck the case in the back room.
The shop had been our refuge when we rode into the little Copper Canyon town on our mountain bikes and in desperate need of fluid the night before. We came into town from what’s often considered the way into the boonies. And with our water bottles dry, we were mighty thirsty in addition to just being physically exhausted.
Our ride could’ve been epic in a modern mountain biking good way with a lot of exceptional riding in exceedingly spectacular places. But it just hadn’t worked out that way. While the spectacular part did occur, and much of what we saw far exceeded our expectations, the riding aspect differed. It wasn’t that there weren’t some world-class riding caliber sections of trail, but they were just that—sections. The parts in between were either exceedingly steep, overwhelmed with rocks, or hadn’t been adequately constructed with mountain biking and safety in mind.
When we first concocted the plan, our idea was to ride thirty miles of “supposed and theoretical” trail, from the town of La Cieneguita down to Batopilas, all of it well up in the mountains of the Sierra Madre. Eventually, we hoped, it would descend several thousand feet into Batopilas Canyon and continue to our destination. We speculated that we could do the ride in one full day, assuming we got an early start. So, we rode down a dirt road and into La Cieneguita late one afternoon, slept on the porch of a house that night, and got an early start the following morning for our big day.
The riding started smooth and easy as we left town. Initially, we followed the same dirt road that we’d ridden into town on before we turned onto a heavily used trail. After a short distance, the trail began dividing itself, and each time it did, it became successively smaller. By mid-morning, it had become more of a rough path and, in spots, was almost entirely blocked by limbs and wayward bushes. I thought about consulting my trail guide for some beta, but since one didn’t exist, I didn’t bother. I’m pretty sure that one of the other guys, Arturo, had a map. It likely did a reasonable job of describing the area topography in a map sort of way. But it didn’t tell us much about the specifics of where we were at any given moment. Like the others in our group, I didn’t let the unrideable sections discourage me as we kept doing what the map said and going to the south and east.
Around midday, we arrived at a place called Yesca, which is right up on the top of a pass that separates the towns of Urique and Batopilas. At that point, it seemed as though we were home free, and it looked like our route was going to go directly from there on down to Cerro Colorado, which we could almost see off in the distance. And once down there, we knew that a well-established and heavily used trail would take us on into Batopilas.
Arturo and I filled our water bottles at a spring, while Al and Paul decided to wait for something further along the way. There was no thought that water or thirst would be an issue at any point, especially since we could see the bottom of the valley below. And we assumed that we’d be at our destination well before dark and before our water ran out, in any case.
We considered the stop our lunch break, and while eating snacks, I had my first taste of Pinole. The riding after lunch began smoothly enough but soon deteriorated into a prolonged hike-a-bike. Our confidence regarding the route and the joy that we’d momentarily felt as the trail wound through what turned out to be a small area of open forest was soon forgotten. And our thoughts turned to speculation about the number of rocks and bushes in the middle of the trail. The pace continued to diminish as the going became increasingly more convoluted. Besides the little Manzanita bushes growing in the middle of the trail, a plethora of bowling ball-sized rocks soon inundated the riding surface, rendering it primarily unrideable. The long sections of gentle and rolling mountain single track we’d experienced earlier in the day were suddenly fewer, shorter, and farther between. Eventually, we were excited just to have sporadic 50-yard-long sections of anything we could ride.
With our exploratory adventure ride becoming increasingly ominous, we walked our bikes down into a particularly tight curve. We stopped at the far end to catch our breath and check how much water we didn’t have in our bottles. By mid-afternoon, the bottom of the valley looked as far away as it had an hour before while we were eating lunch. We looked down to where we needed to get and sensed that we were going nowhere, fast.
While taking the rest break, we should’ve been attending to things such as drinking water, checking the air pressure in our tires, and lubing our chains. But instead, our collective gaze was pulled to more distant things. Layers of mesas and canyon walls filled our view- from those nearby to others more distant that seemed to melt into the distance. Each successive one was a lighter shade of blue. And the dramatic cliffs, cactus, and boulders that we’d become accustomed to eventually disappeared as “close by” drifted into “far away.” While I knew I should be thinking about our immediate needs, my attention was elsewhere. I was captivated by the almost total quiet engulfing us. The realization that we were at least twenty-five miles from the nearest traffic sign made me feel stronger than usual.
As a pleasant early winter breeze freshened the air, I realized why the Tarahumara people had retreated from encroachers ever-deeper into the wildest parts of the canyons. I looked out at the harshness and remoteness of the landscape and, for an instant, felt that same soothing, protective cloak.
Then, Paul said, “this is why we do it.” There was a brief silence as we soaked up what he said until he added another complex but straightforward thought. “We do the long rides; we hike, run, train, and work our butts off, not necessarily for a race or event of some sort, but so that we can just get to and be in a place like this.” There was more silence as we each absorbed the addition to his thought.
Suddenly, all kinds of things began to make sense. I both understood and realized how lucky and rare it was just for us to physically be in a place like we were in. For years, I’d been under the assumption that I was training for a race event, and I had been, although it wasn’t quite the one I’d envisioned.
As I sat uncomfortably on a poorly shaped rock, low on water, somewhere in the depths of the whole wild world, I continued pondering. Then, with a confusing jumble of trails behind and a mystery maze of ridges, arroyos, and animal trails ahead, I realized that I’d been training for the race of life for years. And that I’d just won it. And so, I took a moment to drink it all in thoroughly and bask in my newly understood winner’s confidence.
And then, it was time to move on, and we got up and walked a few feet down the trail to a point where we could get on our bikes and ride for almost 100 yards. Eventually, the afternoon gave way to the evening. And we rolled into the one-street village just before it was too dark to do so easily. We were tired, hungry, and out of water, but the only store in town had plenty of sodas, so we drank our fill.