A mysterious thirst is quenched.

Wild Copper Canyon

The sixteen empty soda bottles sat on the counter in the Cerro Colorado store for two days, before the shopkeeper finally stuck ‘em down with others. They’d been a good conversation piece sitting out there in the open, but he’d found a spider in one of ‘em just that morning and since he needed to move them anyway, he just did what needed to be done and put them into some of the empty slots in the wooden Fanta case down on the floor. After he’d tidied things up, he thought about dragging the whole box of empties out from behind the Sabrita’s rack where it would be more visible, but realized that if he did so, it would just be in the way and would make things look disorganized, and so he just put it in the back room.

The shop had been our refuge when we’d ridden into the little Copper Canyon town of Cerro Colorado on our mountain bikes and in desperate need of fluid. We’d come in from what is typically considered to be the wrong direction and with no water to fill our water bottles for several hours, were simply thirsty as well as just plain ‘ole worn out.

It was likely the first (and probably last) time that anyone had ever ridden a bike down into the little outpost of a town from the north. The whole thing could’ve combined epic riding and spectacular places, but it just didn’t work out that way. The spectacular part did happen and much of what we saw far exceeded our expectations. But the riding part, was a different story. It wasn’t that there weren’t some world class sections of trail, but they were just that—sections. The parts in between were either way too steep, overwhelmed with rocks or had simply not been constructed with mountain biking and safety in mind.

The 30 or so miles of theoretical trail from the town of La Cieneguita down to Batopilas, began well up in the mountains and eventually descended several thousand feet into Batopilas Canyon. We’d speculated that we could do the ride in one full day of riding, assuming that we got an early start. So, we rode into the town one afternoon, slept on the porch of a house that night and got our early start the next day. The riding started out smooth and easy as we descended a dirt road for a few miles and then turned onto a heavily used trail. Eventually, the trail kept dividing itself, each time becoming a bit smaller. By mid morning, the trail had become more of a path and in places was almost completely 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 and while the thing likely did a reasonable job of describing the area topography in a map sort of way, it didn’t tell us much about the specifics of where we were at any given time. Like the others in our group, I didn’t let the riding difficulties that we encountered early in the day 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. It seemed as though we were home free at that point. Our thought was that the route would go straight on down to Cerro Colorado from there, where it would pick up a heavily traveled trail that led on into Batopilas. Arturo and I filled up our water bottles at a spring near Yesca, while Al and Paul decided to wait for something further along the way. At that point, we didn’t think that water or thirst would be an issue since we could see the bottom of the valley down below (and our apparent destination) and assumed that we’d be there well before dark and before our water ran out.

We ate some snacks and I had my first pinole while at Yesca, which we considered to be our lunch break. The riding after lunch began smoothly enough, but soon deteriorated into a prolonged hike-a-bike. Our confidence regarding the route and the joy we’d momentarily felt as the trail wound through what turned out to be a small area of open forest, was soon forgotten as our thoughts turned to wondering how so many rocks and branches could possibly be in the middle of any one trail. Our pace had slowed as the going had become increasingly more convoluted. Besides the little Manzanita bushes that were growing everywhere, including in the middle of the supposed trail, a plethora of bowling ball sized rocks soon took over the riding surface, rendering it mostly unrideable. The gentle and rolling mountain single track that we’d experienced in long sections earlier in the day, were suddenly few and far between. And we found ourselves getting excited just to have sporadic 50 yard long sections of anything that we could actually ride.

With our exploratory adventure ride becoming increasingly ominous, we walked down into a particularly tight curve and stopped for a moment to catch our breath and check on how much water we didn’t have in our bottles. By this time, which was mid afternoon, the bottom of the valley looked as far away as it had an hour before at lunch. We looked down in that direction and could sense that we were going nowhere, fast.

As we took a break from the trail pounding that we were receiving, while we should’ve been looking at the water levels in our bottles, checking the air pressure in our tires, lube on our chains and cussing the rocks strewn out all over the trail, our collective gaze was pulled to more distant things.

Layers of mesas and canyon walls filled our view- from those nearby to others further away that almost seemed to melt into the distance. Each successive one was a lighter shade of blue and and the dramatic cliffs, cactus and boulders that we’d quickly become accustomed to that morning eventually just disappeared, as “close by” drifted into “far away”. I knew that I should be thinking about immediate needs, but my attention was captivated by the almost total quiet engulfing us, the sight of massive clumps of hardwood trees filling the valley far below as they congregated close to the Rio Cerro Colorado, and the liberating realization that we were at least twenty five miles from the nearest traffic sign and feeling stronger than ever.

As a pleasant early winter breeze freshened the air, I suddenly realized why the Tarahumara people had retreated deeper into the wildest parts of the canyons generations before as they sought refuge from the ravages of development that sought to mold them into something that they weren’t. As we sat there looking and pondering, hundreds of years after the goldseekers chased them as deeply into the canyons as they dared, I looked at the landscape and was thankful for how harsh and remote it was. They’d been saved by the harshness of the land.

And it was just at that moment, that Paul said, “this is why we do it”. There was a brief moment of silence as we soaked up what he was saying, until he added another simple, but complex 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.

And then, all kinds of things began to make sense. Suddenly, I understood how rare it was just that we were physically capable of being in that place to begin with. For years, I’d been under the assumption that I was training for a race event of some sort, and I had been, although it wasn’t quite the race I’d envisioned. At that moment, I realized that I’d been training for the race of life for years and that I’d just won it. As I sat uncomfortably on a poorly shaped rock, low on water, somewhere in the depths of the whole wild world, with a confusing jumble of trails behind and a mystery maze of ridges, arroyos, animal trails and cliffs up ahead, I took a moment to fully drink it all in, 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 actually 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 that was still some ten miles away from our bustling destination, 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, and so we drank our fill.

mountain biking
Group Mountain Bike Ride


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.