It was music to our eyes. A horizontal mine shaft that a mountain bike could be ridden into. The official-looking opening into the Porfirio Diaz Tunnel was stuck onto a hillside in the middle of Batopilas, Mexico. Sure, it’d been abandoned for 70 or 80 years, but that wasn’t really of any 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 as we’d contemplated the place previously. A flat dirt roadway- perfect for mountain bikes– led into the darkness. Even though it had the ominous appearance of almost being eaten by the solid rock, it ‘s beckoning call was persistent and ultimately won us over.
We were a group of four that first time and were down in the bottom of Mexico’s Copper Canyon for a few days as a part of a more extended mountain biking adventure trip. There was Drew, who worked for my adventure company, Outpost Wilderness Adventure, as an adventure guide; myself, the leader, so to speak, of the group; 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 the last part of that, being game or having a willingness to venture into the unknown, is a crucial factor in having so many compelling adventures actually happen.
During this particular trip, we’d all been out riding with our group that day, then went to supper at a local cafe, and before the beer drinking even started, decided to ride into it. I’d heard about the old mine for years. Locally, it was known simply as “la mina.” Bits and pieces of legend and lore said that its various shafts were last owned and worked by the US industrialists owned Batopilas Mining Company toward the end of the 19th century and that the tunnels wove their way for great distances into and through the mountains and canyons of that part of the Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon.
As we prepared for the excursion, it was apparently of no consequence to any of us that there was no one in the group with previous abandoned Mexican mine mountain biking experience, that the mine had not actively been worked for 80 years, or that it was darker than dark inside. We did realize that we were far from the nearest EMS, but had already come to grips with that fact and didn’t let that concern us. As I hovered over my personal equipment and organized my gear, the thought that maybe some sort of forgotten stash of treasure had been left somewhere inside 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. I had to see for myself what was inside, as did the others and had a willing group of friends to egg me on. And so, one thing led to another and it finally just happened.
As we continued preparing, each of us went through our extensive personal gear checklists one final time- bike, headlamp, helmet, gloves, daypack with stuff inside, headlamp, helmet, daypack with stuff inside, bike, gloves. We ended up going through our lists a couple of times and apparently made the conscious decision to forego including any sort of specialized repair materials or tunnel exploration equipment because none was taken. 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. Had there been any sort of equipment malfunction once we got in there, it would’ve had to have been dealt with whatever we had on hand, which wasn’t much.
I like to think that we recognized that there were risks. Assuming that we did, we willingly accepted them at least partly because we were confident that someone else in the group knew more than we personally did, partly because in our minds at the time bad stuff just doesn’t happen, and partly because it was something that we could do.
The fact that the opportunity presented itself so abruptly and out of the blue did somehow play into it all. Perhaps, if we’d had more time to think through the consequences or ponder the various possibilities, we would’ve come up either with the decision to not do it at all, a different plan from what we ultimately ended up doing, or at the very least more of a plan. But alas, that just wasn’t the way it ended up working out.
I would like to think 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 ride 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 who are drawn to outdoor adventure in a general sense, and in the case at hand, saw an opening in the ground and simply wanted to see what was inside.
Back in the early ’90s when we did the ride, the place was both unobstructed and unregulated. It had a nice hardpacked dirt surface, plenty of headroom, and miles of tunnel which could theoretically lead anywhere and might possibly be loaded with 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 an eager and willing group. At the time of the ride, it all almost seemed too good to be true. I remember thinking how exciting it was to have things align as they had.
Nowadays, I think back to our trip into the void, and it all once again seems to make perfect sense. But as my maturity, or some such thing, kicks in, those thoughts abruptly disappear leaving behind visions of the realities of some of the bad things that we could’ve encountered along the way such as cave-ins, bad mine gas, or poisonous snakes. On top of that, I often visualize ourselves lost, dying of thirst, or one of us having a serious crash. Interestingly, I remember well that 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. Thank goodness, I’ve thought several times as I’ve gotten older, that we did it and are still around to tell the story. 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 located in the middle of a neighborhood of sorts. Daylight had been dwindling as we maneuvered our bodies and bikes along passageways, through gates, and around houses and we eventually arrived at the rock entrance.
And there we stood, ready to go in, straddling our mountain bikes on the very same ground that some 80 years before had been the setting for all kinds of drama that didn’t involve bicycles. That history was not lost on us. We took a moment before going in to try to absorb all of that in its entirety. We were at the main entrance to an underground maze of silver mining tunnels that’d previously been the center of life around those parts. 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. So many things were and are related to it and are carved into the history of the canyons. We did our best to appreciate where we were, but I’m not sure that we really did.
Now, as we stood there preparing to go in, that same main 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.
After a few more moments of final contemplation and preparations, we finally moved forward. In the world outside the tunnel, it was nearly dark. We could see that inside it was even more so. Eventually, we just got on our bikes and rode in. 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 just fine and for whatever reason assumed that the whole mine would be like that. So, at least, in our minds, that part of it was quickly settled.
We didn’t have actual bike lights with us, but 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 of us. As for myself, once I’d 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 could see was dull and dusty rock, the single tunnel we were in, and the dirt floor. I’d been hopeful that something else— maybe some old tools, Spanish armor, or a bag of coins would be sitting right there near the entrance, but that wasn’t the case. My moment of disappointment was relieved when I realized that we hadn’t gone all that far yet and all of the riches were probably just further in. Initially, our movements were tentative, but the pace gradually picked up as we became more comfortable with our new world. There was little to get in the way of our growing confidence. The shaft seemed to be in good shape, and there was little inside to give us pause or hesitation as we kept just going deeper in. There were no disconcerting cracks or rotting timbers—just solid looking rock with a big hole cut through it, a level and flat riding surface, and the possibility of miles of tunnel that had somehow been overlooked. The more we rode, the more excited we got. Moab be damned, I remember thinking, we had “the mine.”
There’d been no talk about how far we would go. I guess everyone figured that we’d simply 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 of it would happen when it needed to. It would probably be safe to say that the stop and turn-around plan was a bit ambiguous from the start.
Our pace continued accelerating and within a few hundred yards, we were up to traveling at normal mine mountain biking speed. We rode in 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 was little dust as we rolled along and within only minutes, we reached maximum cruising speed. That lack of dust was more critical than we realized at the time and we had no thoughts about how hard it would be to see or breathe if the tunnel was filled with choking dust. My only thought regarding the whole matter was in the context of poisonous mine dust, and I knew that I wanted no part of that.
We stopped after a few minutes to gather our senses and to simply see what we could see. The latter part of that was inevitable. We’d all been looking ahead at the route, into both the depths of the mine and at each other, but were anxious and curious to see what was behind. While riding, we knew better than to look back, but once we 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 outside evening light was still far brighter than the pure darkness that we were traveling deeper into. What we saw was not unexpected and definitively defined just what is meant by the word, dark. As we stood there, straddling our bikes, the drone of mine riding banter paused as we each pondered it all. In a word, it was profound.
After a moment or so of silence, we all got antsy to move and got back up on our bikes and began riding once again, going ever-deeper into the abyss with each turn of the pedal. Within moments, we were 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 wondering when one of the others was going to “blink,” so to speak. 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 even as I kept mentally working out the details for a potential television show where a man thinks he’s leading a group of riders only to stop, look back, and realize that he’s actually 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 as we continued on our way, although no treasure, skeletons, or even any mining artifacts ever appeared. All we saw was the pathway, rock walls, and the ever-present distant darkness, which stayed just beyond our most powerful light.
Eventually, the shaft began slowly curving to the right. There were no intersections or anything that seemed out of the ordinary, just the subtle turn, the rock, and the darkness. As we moved along, there were no choices to be made, 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 own 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 remember having the profound feeling that the darkness was somehow getting darker. How dark was total dark, I suddenly 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 at least a mile inside, but rounded down and came up with the conclusion that we had gone a fourth, instead. 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 came to the stop, each of us put a foot down onto the ground. Then, we found the switches to our lights and turned them off, and it was instantly dark— really dark. The curve had separated us from the entrance, and there was now no source of any sort of visible light. Among other things, our brains suddenly had no kind of reference point to work with. 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 couldn’t be seen, was the person really there? I knew for a fact that we’d all been standing there in a group when the lights went off, but I soon started to have my doubts about even that undeniable fact. The strange new world immediately absorbed us, and after Drew’s comments about how dark it was, there was an extended moment of silence, except for the noise inside our heads.
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 was stirred, and dust began to fill 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 like 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 the rest of the group 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 was only intensified as some sort of unidentifiable objects suddenly appeared in the air. Whatever they were almost seemed to be racing us 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 time for worrying about flying mammals since for some reason we had to get out quick. 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 were suddenly relishing the fact that we were doing it with a bunch of bats and participating in their daily routine.
Nothing had really changed for us, 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 then eventually trickled to a fizzling halt. At that point, all was good with us. 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 that should be where the story ended. But it isn’t.
Some year’s later it kind of happened again. Our group was a little larger the second time around, and we picked our way around fences, through gates, and across yards, arriving at a small flat clearing in front of the entrance to the Porfirio Diaz Tunnel just as sundown gave way to twilight. If all went according to plan, we’d be deep inside the mine shaft just as 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 the tales from that first trip and wanted to be a part of the story. Perfect, I thought. The stars were aligning again. It was coming together. 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, instead of a group of four, this time around there’d be five of us. An improvement in numbers, I remember thinking, although I’m still not sure what the benefit was of that. For the second trip, we planned to go further in, knew better what to expect, and had better 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. 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 tunnel was the same as I remembered it. There was nothing about it which had changed. We quickly got up to cruising speed and traveled faster and smoother this time around, mostly because of the added light. I was excited by the prospect of the bat ride, but almost equally excited by the prospect 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 plans for the second trip were a lot like the ones that we had in place and used on the first one. I’ve come to realize that we didn’t have any real idea about how far we’d gone in that first time and 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 “far enough.” So, we just rode, and I can remember having some vague notion that we would once again just keep doing so until we stopped and turned around. As I think about it now, I can see that so many ventures are that way—people sometimes 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. Thankfully, this was one of those times when it did just work out.
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, 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 point before stopping and bolting for the entrance. But this time around, I just kept on riding, and at that point, we 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 both it and the trail. The room created a four-way intersection with side tunnels going off at right angles. A big 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 main tunnel and once past the pile, quickly regained our speed. At about that point, in the back of my mind, I was once again hoping for some sort of treasure or something lost or stashed somewhere down there deep in the bowels of the Sierra Madre. I looked hard and listened intently for the beating of a distant drum or something to indicate that we were closing in on some sort of lost civilization, but there was only the noise of our bikes and bodies doing their best to keep going. A bag of gold nuggets, stacks of silver bars, or old guns ought to be in here somewhere, probably blocking the trail, I kept thinking. Eventually, I could sense that we’d gone “a good ways” 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. It, too, had a debris pile and vertical shaft of some sort. 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 and hot. We rode on into the rancid air for a short distance. 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. And since none of us wanted to find out what that entailed, we stopped right there.
Even though we hadn’t found any gold, mining tools, or Spanish armor and had heard nothing off in the distance that could be attributed to some mysterious forgotten civilization, we were still mindful of the fact that we had the bats. 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 had figured 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 and organized 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 of there. 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 apparently 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. Interestingly and for better or worse, we each undoubtedly also had “riding with the bats” on our minds, and so kept scanning up above while focusing on the riding surface as much as we could.
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.
I can say now, 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, which 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 finally him saying that he was okay. With all of the chaos, I had slowed, sort of glanced back, and had 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 for whatever reason assumed that there’d be even more this time around. Somehow, I combined the urgency of the escape with the bats 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’d been looking or 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 only better, we’d gone further in, and we had better light. 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 soon 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 now my vantage point was just different.
I was disappointed about the bats up to this point but 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 vantage point 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 apparently 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 near the top of that list.
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 story about the events. After a while, talk turned to what we’d do next time. I’m sure that each of us took a variety of things away from the experience. For me, I learned the value of having multiple light sources, came to the conclusion that turning out lights in a mine ride inevitably leads to panic, and I’m still trying to figure out why five in a group is better than four. But perhaps most importantly, I came to realize the importance of having competent companions when riding in abandoned Mexican mines.