Mine Riding

Porfirio Diaz Tunnel

The entrance to a horizontal mine shaft that we could ride our mountain bikes into was music to our eyes. The stone opening to the Porfirio Diaz Tunnel sat solemnly on a hillside in the middle of a barrio in Batopilas, Mexico. Sure, it’d been abandoned for 70 or 80 years. But that was of no consequence to us at the time. The entrance was circular and at about 12 feet in diameter, a little bigger than we’d each envisioned it to be previously. A flat dirt surface/pathway- perfect for mountain bikes– led into the darkness. Even though the place had the ominous appearance of almost being eaten by the solid rock, its beckoning call was persistent and ultimately won us over.

We were a group of four, that first time I ventured in. When it happened, I was down in the Copper Canyon area, leading a group on a mountain biking adventure trip. Our mine riding team included one of our Outpost Wilderness Adventure guides, Drew, myself, and a couple, Chris and Sara, both experienced adventurers and serving as volunteer guides for the trip. Each of us was skilled at mountain biking, but probably even more importantly, everyone was game. I’ve come to realize that being game for such things and having a willingness to venture into the unknown often play a big part in compelling adventures.

During this particular trip, the four of us had been out riding with our group that day. That evening, while having supper at a local cafe, and before the beer-drinking even started, we just decided to ride into it. I’d heard about the old mine for years. Locally, it is known simply as “la mina.” Bits and pieces of legend and lore say that its various shafts were last owned and operated by the US industrialist-owned Batopilas Mining Company toward the end of the 19th century. And that the mine tunnels wove through that part of the canyons for great distances.

It was a fact that none of us had any experience riding into abandoned Mexican mines. And it was also true that the mine had last operated in the 1920s. But we didn’t let either get in the way of our decision-making or planning. After we decided to go in, we all went back to our hotel rooms and began preparing for the excursion. At that point, I was starting to question the whole idea to myself. But as I hovered over a pile of personal mine-riding gear, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps a stash of forgotten treasure had been left inside. That, coupled with fuzzy visions of scenes from the old Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mummy movies, to dominate the brain place where common sense and pragmatism should’ve been, and provided me a viable reason for going in. I had to see what was in there and had an enthusiastic group of friends to egg me on. And so, one thing led to another, and the whole thing gained unstoppable momentum.

As we prepared, each of us went through our extensive personal gear checklists repeatedly: bike, headlamp, helmet, gloves, daypack with stuff inside, headlamp, helmet, daypack with stuff inside, bike, gloves. We ended up going through our lists multiple times. And apparently, we made the conscious decision to forego including any sort of specialized repair materials or tunnel exploration equipment, because we took none. We were into the concept of light and fast travel, probably because we’d read about it somewhere. And in this particular case, it jived with our desire to get going sooner than later. If there’d been any sort of equipment malfunction once we got inside, we would’ve had to deal with it with whatever we had on hand, which wasn’t much.

I like to think we recognized there were risks but consciously accepted them, although I’m not so sure about that. I do know that we ventured in partly because we were each confident that one of the others in the group knew more about what we were doing than we did ourselves. Also, it was partly because, as far as we were concerned, bad stuff doesn’t happen all that often.

I’m pretty sure that there was nothing brash or dismissive about our decision to go in, but who knows? I do know that undoubtedly, there was likely some element of pre-selection in our group of four. After all, most people in the world wouldn’t join in on a group mountain biking adventure in Copper Canyon, to begin with, much less consider riding into an abandoned mine. So, it just makes sense that each of us standing with our bikes at the entrance were part of some subset of people drawn to outdoor adventure in a general sense. So, in this case, we were a willing and able group presented with a mysterious opening in the ground and were all curious to see what was inside.

Back in the early ’90s, when we did the ride, the semi-circular entrance was both unobstructed and unregulated. The mine shaft itself had a nice hardpacked dirt surface and plenty of headroom. And to top it all off, there were miles of tunnel, which could theoretically lead anywhere and were perhaps full of untold riches. I can remember thinking at the time how lucky we were to have the situation present itself as it did. There were no guards, no locked gate, and no one to tell us not to do it. And we had plenty of time, bikes that were working well enough, and were an eager and gung-ho group. At the time of the ride, it all almost seemed too good to be true. I kept thinking about how exhilarating it was to have things align as they had.

Nowadays, I think back to that trip into the void, and it once again seems to make perfect sense. But as my maturity, or some such thing, kicks in, those thoughts abruptly disappear. Visions of some of the bad things we could’ve encountered along the way, such as cave-ins, bad mine gas, or poisonous snakes, are long forgotten. But I do still have periodic nightmares that include being lost in a dark maze of tunnels, dying of thirst, or having a horrid bike crash deep in the bowels of the mine. Interestingly, I remember well that at the time, we were not oblivious to the possibility of there being poisonous gas, although I don’t think we ever thought of it as a real possibility. I realize that as much as anything, we were probably just plain old lucky to get away with it all. I take some degree of solace in the fact that at least we were wearing helmets.

The entrance was in the middle of a neighborhood of sorts. Daylight was dwindling as we maneuvered our bodies and bikes along passageways, through gates, around houses, and eventually arrived at the concrete and rock entrance.

Suddenly, we were just there, straddling our bikes ready to go in, on the very same ground that some 80 years before was the setting for all kinds of drama that didn’t involve bicycles. Back then, that very place had dominated the lives of hundreds in both good and bad ways. Tarahumara miners, Boss Shepherd, La Conducta, Hacienda San Miguel, grand pianos, guns, knives, Pancho Villa, The Kid, Carachic, and the list goes on. We were at the main entrance to an underground maze of silver mining tunnels that’d previously been the focus of life around those parts. So many things are related to the place and permanently etched into the history of the canyons. We did our best to appreciate where we were, but I’m not sure that we did. And now, that same entrance into the main shaft was just a big hole in the rock, mixed into a barrio of sorts in a God-forsaken remote corner of rural Mexico. And we were about to ride our mountain bikes into it.

After a few more moments of final contemplation and preparations, we moved forward. In the world outside the tunnel, it was nearly dark. And we soon saw that inside, it was even more so. Progress was tentative at first, as we dodged human bullets on the ground and got our bearings. Right from the start, we focused our headlamps on the dirt riding surface. There were plenty of unknowns and questions, but we had to deal with the ground surface first. What we were riding on was critical, and we were relieved to see that for as far as we could see, it was flat and hardpacked with only a scattering of fist-sized rocks strewn about. Initially, at least, we decided that what we were riding on was suitable and, for whatever reason, assumed that the whole mine would be like that. So, for the moment, the basic riding part was settled.

While we didn’t have actual bike lights with us, we did have headlamps. Initially, we each shined them down onto the ground, but within a few moments, were shining them at other places, including the walls, up at the ceiling, and out ahead. As for myself, once I determined that the riding surface was good, my immediate curiosity was in regards to the shaft ceiling. I was relieved to see that it looked solid and stable. For as far as the lights would shine, all we saw was dull and dusty rock, the single tunnel we were in, and the dirt floor. From the outset, I was hopeful that some sort of treasure— perhaps some old tools, Spanish armor, or a bag of coins would just be sitting in the middle of the main tunnel and blocking our way. My first moments of disappointment in that regard were relieved when I realized that by that point, we hadn’t gone all that far. And I clung to the idea that all of the riches were just further in.

Initially, our movements were tentative, but the pace gradually picked up as we became more comfortable with our new world. From what we could tell, the shaft was in good shape, and there was little inside to give us pause. There were no disconcerting cracks or rotting timbers, at least that we could see. So we just kept going further in and with growing confidence. There was just solid-looking rock with a big hole cut through it, a great riding surface, and the prospect of miles of forgotten or overlooked tunnel. The more we rode, the more excited we got. Moab be damned, I remember thinking, we have “the mine.”

From the start, there was no discussion about how far we would go. I guess everyone figured that we’d just keep going until we stopped and turned around, but it was never made clear as to when that would be. I guess we all assumed that the circumstances of the moment would dictate where the stopping point was and that the turning around part would happen when it needed to.

Our pace continued accelerating, and within a few hundred yards, we were traveling at average mine mountain biking speed. We rode in a single file, partly because that was the way we always rode and also because the actual geometry of the mine shaft dictated it. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much dust stirred up as we rolled along, and eventually, we reached our maximum cruising speed. That lack of dust was more critical than we realized at the time. We had no concept of how hard it would be to see or breathe in a tunnel filled with choking dust. My only thought regarding the whole matter was in the context of poisonous mine dust, and I knew we wanted no part of that.

We stopped after a few minutes to gather our senses and to see what we could see. The latter part of that was inevitable. All of us had been looking ahead as we rode. We’d mostly been both looking into the depths of the mine and at each other. But after a quarter-mile or so of doing that, our curiosity got the best of us. And we had to stop and see what was behind. While riding, we knew better than to look back, but once stopped, wasted no time doing just that. Right where it should have been, there it was—a small penlight where the outside world came in. The dwindling evening light outside of the mine was still far brighter than the pure darkness that we were traveling into. What we saw was not unexpected, and it definitively defined the word “dark.” As we stood there, straddling our bikes once again, the drone of mine riding banter paused as we each pondered it all. The experience was utterly profound.

After a moment or so of silence, we all got antsy to move. And so, we got back up on our bikes and began riding once again. With each turn of the pedal, we headed ever-deeper into the abyss. Within moments, we were once again back up to cruising speed and riding in close formation. Thoughts of getting lost, poisonous gas, cave-ins, and darkness kept creeping into and out of my mind as we rode. But mostly, I just kept thinking about how neat the riding was and speculating about which of the others might “blink” first. I remember not even considering the possibility that I might be the blinker, which is all the more disconcerting now that I think about it.

As I kept riding, I struggled to recall the protocols for Mexican mine riding. And I also found myself continually working out the details for a potential television mystery show. One where a man thinks he’s leading a group of riders only to stop, look back, and realize that he’s all alone.

I stayed optimistic about the idea of riding up on something of real and/or historical value the deeper and farther in we went. That thought was also likely shared by the other three. However, no treasure, skeletons, or even any mining artifacts ever appeared. All we continued to see was the pathway, rock walls, and the ever-present distant darkness, which stayed just beyond our most powerful light.

Eventually, the shaft began gently curving to the right. There were still no intersections or anything that seemed out of the ordinary. There was just the subtle turn, the rock, and the darkness. As we moved along, there were no choices to make, no decisions to ponder, nowhere to go—but forward. So, we just kept riding.

As the big curve continued, I could feel the pace begin to slow. The leg motions were the same, but the speed or energy or something was different. Just my perception of the slower speed was enough to dampen my enthusiasm. And where was the bag of coins, the bars of silver, or at least some sort of sword or something, I wondered? We kept moving, but the uneasy feeling continued building, and our progress kept slowing.

My mind began wandering wildly. I was losing my focus. Was it some sort of mine gas? I had the profound feeling that the darkness was somehow getting darker. How dark was total dark, I wondered? We talked about it as we rode and ultimately came to the conclusion that we had to see for ourselves, or not, as the case might be. And so, we came to another stop. We were sure that we were almost a mile inside. But that was only a guess—we’d never know. Based on our various other mine mountain bike rides, we were confident that we’d at least gone “pretty far.”

Once we rolled to a stop, each of us put a foot down onto the ground. Then, we found the switches to our headlamps, turned them off, and it was instantly dark— really dark. The curve had separated us from the entrance, and there wasn’t any sort of visible light. Among other things, our brains were suddenly without a reference point. I looked down at where my hands should’ve been, and they weren’t there. I heard Drew talking about how dark it was, but couldn’t even make out his silhouette. I wondered if a person spoke in total darkness and I couldn’t see them, was he or she actually there? I knew for a fact that we were all standing in a group when the lights went off, but I soon started to have my doubts about even that undeniable fact. By this point, the strange new world had begun absorbing us.

But then it happened.

Instantaneously, and seemingly in one connected motion, we flipped on our lights, turned the bikes toward the entrance, and began riding for the exit. It was borderline pandemonium. I don’t know who started it—maybe it was a simultaneous motion by the whole group, but I don’t think so. Within moments, we were up to tunnel panic cruising speed. We each rode hard, making constant spur of the moment riding decisions. Rocks rushed past, even the hardpack stirred, and dust began filling the tunnel. Get to the entrance fast, permeated my thoughts, but don’t crash. There was yelling about something, strange groaning, and heavy breathing. A lot was going on as we rushed to get out. It seemed as though the whole group was there, but it was more of a feel or a sense, rather than any sort of confirmable fact. I wonder now, what we all would’ve done had one person crashed or someone been unable to keep up. I like to think that in such a case, one of us would’ve stopped and rendered aid, but I guess I’ll never know because it didn’t happen.

As the penlight of the entrance began to grow, the confusion of the exodus intensified as some sort of unidentifiable objects suddenly appeared in the air, racing toward the exit. There were tens or maybe even hundreds of them. And they were darting past and through our ranks going much faster than us. They were everywhere and joined our frenzy. Initially, I just felt their presence, but soon recognized that they were bats. At that point, we didn’t have the luxury of worrying about flying mammals since, for some unknown reason, we had to get out quickly. There was simply no time to think about them or anything else besides getting to the entrance, and so we just rode hard.

For several moments, the confusion continued. But then I realized that the yelling, groaning, and heavy breathing had changed over to hootin’ and hollerin’. In an instant, we had gone from bolting for the exit in horror to excitedly riding with the bats. We were headed to the entrance as fast and recklessly as before. But we were suddenly relishing the fact that we were doing it with a bunch of bats and participating in their daily routine.

Nothing had changed except our perception. Our exit went from one of fear, confusion, and pain to one of pure joy and wonder. We rode with the bats as they swooped, darted, and rushed to get out into the night air where they would hunt and eat their fill before heading back inside the next morning.

The penlight soon became a floodlight. Then, it filled the tunnel as we headed recklessly down the homestretch without regard for whatever might be on the ground and then burst through the entrance out into the night air along with scores of bats. We came to an immediate stop. The flying mammals flew on out and away. Their mass exit continued for a few more moments but eventually trickled to a fizzling halt. At that point, all was good. We’d made it back out unscathed, the mine hadn’t collapsed, and no one had even crashed. Off in the distance, dogs barked, a warm wind howled, and bats hunted. On the little flat spot in front of the entrance to the Porfirio Diaz Tunnel, four people straddled their mountain bikes, telling their own story about what’d just happened. There was no blood, but there was laughter and chatter as everyone did their best to describe what they’d seen and felt as they rode fast through a Mexican mine in the middle of a cloud of bats.

And maybe that should be where the story ends. But it isn’t.

Some years later, it kind of happened again. Our group was a little larger the second time around since there were five of us rather than four. Like before, we picked our way around fences, through gates, and across yards to get there. And then, also just like the first trip, we arrived at a small flat clearing in front of the entrance to the Porfirio Diaz Tunnel, just as sundown gave way to twilight. We intended to be deep inside the mine when the bats came to life and flocked to the exit. Or at least that was the hope. We were each prepared to re-create the bat riding part from the first trip and anticipated that this time would be even better than before because we planned to go further in. The members of the second group had heard tales from that first trip. And they wanted to be a part of the story. Perfect, I thought. The stars were aligning. And once again, there were good people to egg me on.

This time, we were better prepared for mine riding, which included having actual bike lights in addition to our headlamps. Except, that is, for our local mine riding expert, Arturo- who had only a headlamp. Also, as mentioned, instead of a group of four, this time around, there were five of us. An improvement in numbers, I decided, although I’m still not sure what the benefit of that was. For the second trip, we planned to go further in, had a better idea about what to expect, and more light. And so, we anticipated an even more astounding “riding with the bats.”

Without much hesitation, we started into the tunnel in a single file. I led. And since Arturo was the only one in the group without a bike light, he rode in the middle of the pack to take advantage of other people’s lights.

How did we ever get by last time with just headlamps, I wondered? The first part of the tunnel was the same as I remembered it. There was nothing about it that had changed. We quickly got up to cruising speed and traveled faster and smoother the second time around, mostly because of the added light. I was excited by the prospect of the bat ride. But almost equally so by the possibility of going further in. I can’t help but wonder about the reasoning that we used in determining how we planned to decide just how far “going further” was. In many ways, our turn-around plan for the second trip was a lot like the one we used on the first one. We had no real idea about how far we’d gone-in that first time. And I know for a fact that for the second trip, there was no discussion of turn-around time or any set distance measured by cyclometer that would be “further.” So, we just rode, with a vague notion that we would just keep going until we stopped and turned around. As I think about it now, I can see that so many ventures are like that. People often keep moving or working towards a goal until somebody cracks or blinks, which then sends them off in another direction. Sometimes, it works out. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes people are buoyed to do the seemingly impossible because nobody cracks, and sometimes people become enthralled with a goal and just go too far.

It was all as I remembered it. Gears shifted, chains clacked, and riders moaned, groaned, and laughed as everyone was intent on keeping up while savoring the ride. We pushed the pace, although we could’ve certainly gone faster. No need to crash in there, have a flat, or a mechanical issue, I kept thinking as I made a concerted effort to ride conservatively.

After the tunnel began bending, I recalled that on the first trip, we’d only gone a short distance beyond that before stopping and bolting for the entrance. But this time around, I just kept on riding, and we soon began moving into new territory.

After the bend, the tunnel straightened out for a distance, and we rode up on something new. The narrowish hole we were riding through suddenly opened up into a big room. A pile of rock debris, maybe three feet tall, sat right in the middle of our path. The room created a four-way intersection with side tunnels going off at right angles. A significant vertical shaft went straight up from above the pile of rocks and dirt— an air shaft, we assumed. We probably should’ve been concerned about the fact that there was a pile of rocks and dirt at all, but once we saw that there was a rideable route over the top of it, we were good with it, picked our line, and just kept going.

We kept to what seemed to be the central tunnel and, once past the pile, quickly regained our speed. At about that point, I began hoping, once again, to ride up on some sort of lost treasure. Or at least on some kind of relic. I looked hard. And I listened intently for the beating of a distant drum or something to indicate that we were closing in on some sort of lost civilization. Still, there was only the noise of our bikes and bodies doing their best to keep going. Nonetheless, I continued holding out hope that a bag of gold nuggets, stacks of silver bars, or old guns ought to be in here somewhere. Eventually, I could sense that we’d gone “a good way” and figured that it was all just a matter of time until we came upon something of value.

We kept moving along and soon passed through another intersection. Like the other one, it also had a debris pile and vertical shaft. Once again, there was a route over the top of it. And this time, we didn’t even hesitate as we rode over it and continued along our way.

After the second intersection, there was just more rock and tunnel for a while. And then, like a wall, we hit it. In an instant, the air went from poor, but tolerable, to poor, stale, and hot. For a short time, we rode on into the rancid air. Up to that point, no one had crashed or dropped dead from poisonous gas, so we determined that luck was on our side, and things could be worse. But since none of us wanted to find out what worse entailed, we stopped right there.

We hadn’t found any gold, mining tools, or Spanish armor. And we’d heard nothing off in the distance that we could attribute to some mysterious forgotten civilization. But we were still mindful of the fact that we had the bats. And our disappointments were simply overwhelmed by the prospects of that.

We turned our bikes around, and as before, we were each curious to see what the darkness was like. So, it was with that great anticipation that we turned off our lights. During the build-up to the event, I’d envisioned us arriving at this point and, for some unknown reason executing the exit process in some sort of organized fashion. I anticipated that we would stop, turn our bikes around, and point them toward the entrance. Then, we’d switch off our lights to get a sense of the total darkness, esoterically discuss what dark is, and then begin the exit in a controlled manner.

That didn’t exactly happen. We did turn our bikes back toward the entrance, talked for a moment about how dark it was about to be, and then simply turned off our lights. And that’s when the plan collapsed. The control and organization vanished. Someone or something started a panic, and in an instant, we were all moving and riding as fast as we dared toward the exit.

I could feel and hear the utter commotion as we rode hellbent to get out. I had no real clue as to what was going on but assumed that one of the others knew something that I didn’t, and so I just did what everyone else was doing.

By this time, we were all sharing a few goals as we rode. Number one was obviously to move fast. Next was to avoid crashing. And finally and probably most importantly, to get out. For better or worse, we each also had “riding with the bats” on our minds. And so, we kept scanning up above while focusing on the riding surface as much as possible.

Everyone with bike lights had immediately turned them on out of necessity so that the area all around us was well illuminated. From the start of the panic retreat, our bike lights were focused on the ground, while our headlamps scanned the bat flying zone.

In retrospect, I can say that we were riding a little faster and more recklessly than we probably should’ve been. Since Arturo had no bike light, he relied on staying close enough to the rider in front of him to see the nuances of the trail. The ride into the mine had initially been sufficiently under control for that to work just fine. But now, things were happening faster. Everything was moving at a new pace, and he allowed the bike ahead of him to get a little further out in front than he’d hoped. And that effectively decreased his vision of the riding surface. Just as he realized what was happening, our riding mass came to one of the debris piles. Slowing slightly and with all the light I had to work with, I was able to pick a line through it and could hear a couple of riders behind me doing the same.

But then, I heard brakes grinding and wheels running into rock, followed by a thud as someone hit the ground. I heard groaning, Arturo saying something about the rocks, and then him telling us that he was okay. With all of the chaos, I slowed, sort of glanced back, and somehow sensed him running and jumping back on his bike. So, his words were a sort of definitive confirmation of his condition. I was relieved that he was moving again and that his fall had not been more severe or time-consuming but wasted no time in getting the pace back up to maximum speed.

I kept looking for the bats. I was ready and mindful of the whole bat riding part this time around. I knew that the creatures were in there somewhere and assumed that there’d be even more this time around. Somehow, I combined the urgency of the escape with the bat riding and settled into a sort of excited anticipation.

I was almost giddy about what lay in store, but only a few of the winged mammals soared past. I was hoping for more—in fact, there was no doubt in my mind but that we were about to experience the most astounding “riding with the bats” ever. What was the issue, I thought? We weren’t doing much differently this time around. The time of day was even better, we’d gone further in, and we had better light. And, it was about the same time of year as the last time, there were more of us, and we’d made plenty of noise. What was different, I wondered, and then I recalled that the first time I was riding at the back while this time, I was at the front. Maybe, I thought, the same number of bats were there, but that my vantage-point was just different.

I was disappointed about the bats up to this point. But I clung to the idea that perhaps I was just missing something due to my location in the riding group. I was optimistic—hopeful that maybe everyone else was experiencing something profound that I wasn’t, because of their perspective as opposed to my own. All the while, I kept pushing the pace. We were undoubtedly outriding our lights and abilities. Even though we all knew better, none of us were concerned about crashing enough to consider the possibility of slowing down or riding more carefully. Getting out was our first order of business and the riding with the bats, a close second. Style, control, or caution were not priorities.

We soon came to the second debris pile. This time we were all ready. I slowed down and picked my way over and through. I made a slight bend around a bigger rock and caught a momentary glance at the riders behind and noted that there were five. Good, I thought, Arturo is with us this time around.

After passing the last debris pile, it was smooth sailing, and our speed increased. A mysterious and unseen force of some kind seemed to be pushing me from behind to keep going faster. There was a brief meager attempt at hootin’ and hollerin’, but it didn’t last, and mostly, there were just moans, groans, and bike sounds.

I saw the opening getting bigger and brighter, and then fresh air began slapping me in the face. It all happened so fast. Suddenly, we burst through the opening into a wide-open, star-filled night sky and came to a stop in the small entrance clearing.

Each of us turned and looked up and back. There were only a few bats. But we could see that we were each all there. Thank goodness, we’d all made it out. I was disappointed about the bats, but only in a temporary way. There would be other times for bat riding down the road, but we’d only had one chance to get out of the mine unscathed on that day, and that part of it had been a success.

We paused in silence for a moment to absorb what had happened. And then everyone began telling their own story about the events. After a while, talk turned to what we’d do next time. I’m sure that each of us had a variety of takeaways. As for me, I learned to value multiple light sources and concluded that turning out the lights in a mine always leads to panic. And I’m still trying to figure out why five in a group is better than four. But beyond that and perhaps most importantly, I came to realize that amazing rewards are sometimes found in the darkest of places.

Hacienda San Miguel- Batopilas, Mexico

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.