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 them down with the others. They’d been a good conversation piece while sitting out there in the open, but he’d found a spider in one of them just that morning and since he needed to move them anyway, put them into some of the empty slots in the wooden Fanta case down on the floor. After he’d tidied things up a bit more, he thought about dragging the whole box of empties out from behind the Sabritas rack where the bottles would be more visible and still be the talk of the town, but realized that if he did so, it would just be in the way and would make things look disorganized. And so he just drug it out and stuck it in the back room.

The shop had been our refuge when we’d ridden into the little Copper Canyon, Mexico town on our mountain bikes and in desperate need of fluid the night before. 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 both the first and last times that anyone rode a bike down into there from the north. The whole thing could’ve been epic (in a good mountain biking way) with a lot of exceptional riding in exceedingly spectacular places, but it just didn’t completely work out that way. The spectacular part did occur 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 caliber 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 properly 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 of the Sierra Madre and eventually descended several thousand feet into Batopilas Canyon. We’d speculated that we could do the ride in one full day of riding from the little town, assuming that we got an early start. So, we rode into the town late one afternoon, slept on the porch of a house that night, and got our early start on the following day.

The riding started out smooth and easy as we descended a dirt road for a few miles before turning onto a heavily used trail. After a short distance, the trail began dividing itself, each time becoming successively smaller. By mid morning, it’d 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 it 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 moment. Like the others in our group, I didn’t let the unrideable sections that we encountered early in the day discourage me as we kept doing what the map did say 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 that the route would go directly on down from there to Cerro Colorado via a well established trail, where it would pick up an even more heavily used one that would lead on into Batopilas, our destination. Arturo and I filled up our water bottles at a nearby 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 down below and assumed that we’d be at our destination well before dark.

We ate some snacks and I had my first taste of pinole while at Yesca, which was during what 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 that we’d momentarily experienced as the trail wound through what turned out to be only 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 diminished as the going became increasingly more convoluted. Besides the little Manzanita bushes that were growing all over the trail, a plethora of bowling ball sized rocks eventually overwhelmed the riding surface, rendering it mostly unrideable. The long sections of gentle and rolling mountain single track that we’d experienced earlier in the day, were suddenly fewer, shorter, and far between. Eventually, we found ourselves getting excited just to have sporadic 50 yard long sections of anything that could actually be ridden.

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 while we were eating lunch. We looked down to where we needed to get and sensed 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 the dramatic cliffs, cactus, and boulders that we’d quickly become accustomed to eventually just disappeared, as “close by” drifted into “faraway”. 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. Even on the very day that we were in the midst of, I looked out at the landscape and was thankful for how harsh, remote, and protective the whole place still was.

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.

And then, all kinds of things began to make sense. Suddenly, I both understood and realized how lucky and rare it was just for us to physically be able to be in a wild place like we were in to begin with. For years, I’d been under the assumption that I was training for a race event of some sort. While I had been, it wasn’t quite the one 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. I sat there uncomfortably on a poorly shaped rock and low on water pondering it for a few more moments. I was somewhere in the depths of the whole wild world with a confusing jumble of trails behind and a mystery maze of ridges, animal trails and cliffs up ahead, and I just drank it all in and basked in my newly understood winner’s confidence.

Finally, 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 just before it was too dark to do so easily. We were tired 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.