I set off from Batopilas, at the bottom of Copper Canyon in Mexico, intent on riding my mountain bike up the 40 or so mile gravel road ascent to the intersection with the paved highway. My plan was to ride it as fast as possible and break the unofficial record of 4 hours. Whether or not my quest was realistic will forever remain to be seen.
As I rode, the bike made a sickening squeaking sound each time I pushed the pedals down. The road was dry and dusty, so I figured the chain just needed more lube. Even though the noise was irritating, it provided a distraction from the incessant uphill riding tedium. Initially, the ride was simply tedious, but that soon changed.
After only a third of the way into the adventure, my legs were already feeling heavy. Each time I approached a bend, I hoped to be greeted by a flat or downhill section. But time and again, that hope disappeared when I was invariably greeted by the sight of yet another long, painful-looking, and persistently uphill straightaway. Besides my mistaken assumption that the riding was about to get easier, I did have other things to think about. But unfortunately, those “things” mainly involved the physical pain I was dealing with in my right leg. I did keep trying various mental tricks like visualizing birds flying or my legs pedaling in smooth circles to mitigate the pain and monotony. Unfortunately, doing so did nothing to alleviate my pain, although it did lead me to ponder the concept of a loop that was all downhill. My mind began wandering more and more as I rode, but my lungs and legs stuck to the reality of the situation, and they began to scream.
At this point in the ride, I knew that my goal (and the high point on the road) was still more than 20 miles away and a couple of thousand feet higher. Then, as I rounded a corner near an old graveyard, a mongrel of a Border Collie came at me quickly and deliberately. I yelled, stopped abruptly, got off my bike, reached down, and actually picked up a rock to throw at it (which I ultimately didn’t). Thankfully, with my rock-grabbing motion, it retreated back to wherever it had come from, and I was able to move along, bite-free.
The temperature was almost ideal, not too hot and not too cold. The sun mostly stayed behind the clouds, and there was just enough of a gentle breeze to keep the air fresh. And so, at least the weather wasn’t an issue. Up until this point, I had avoided looking at my watch but finally did so and saw that I’d been riding for nearly two hours. After some mental ciphering, I determined that I was several minutes ahead of the record pace. So, I decided I could slow down a bit. I concluded I could just soft-pedal the rest of the way to the top, not get so tired, and still break the record. But then, the reality of the situation became more apparent as I realized that I’d miscalculated the time. So, going easy from that point was not an option if I hoped to beat the record.
The bike didn’t have the same choice of whether or not to ease up and began to get louder as it continued to climb. Once again, I thought about how it must be the fine dust of the road getting into the chain. I grasped at any sort of thought or idea that might take my mind off the pain that continued developing in my right leg. And then, my knee on the other leg began hurting, and I suddenly concluded that perhaps what I was feeling wasn’t actual physical leg pain.
“Is the sensation I’m feeling just a thought in my head,” I wondered?
I knew for a fact that both knees hurt, or at least they seemed to. I realized the pain and fatigue had developed after first seeing and then pondering the route. So, I began considering how it might have actually blossomed in my head (and not my knees) after looking toward the top and seeing what lay ahead. All the while, I continued looking at my watch. And I was well aware that I’d been riding for a couple of hours, and if I wanted to break the record, I was still at least 2 hours from that imaginary finish line. At that point, I realized that the main things in my immediate future involved pain. So, I just lowered my head and continued riding, avoiding doing the arithmetic, pondering my leg situation, or thinking about the lung burn that was beginning to develop. I knew that thinking about those things would only worsen matters, and I didn’t need that.
Right then, almost at the halfway point, a faint flute sound came into my ears and seemed to float right on through my head. It was as if it was in one ear and out the other. The flute melody was just suddenly there in the air, and I felt like my ears were just going along the dusty road and scooping it in. In an instant, I went from looking ahead and above and thinking about my pain to pondering what was going on somewhere out there in the brush and cactus with the flute.
The flute player was actually just a teenager who’d been sent out to watch the family’s little herd of one single sheep and nine goats. The animals were content to slowly graze their way through the brush toward the Screaming Lady spring. Herding was a boring business to the kid, especially with the dogs running around and doing most of the work.
The new flute the old blind man had made for the kid was begging to be played. So, since there wasn’t a lot of running around or rock throwing to do, the young shepherd sat down in the wide-open on a big flat rock and pulled the new flute out of his shirt and let it play. The mouthpiece tasted sweet, and the flute player’s breath was all it needed to send its song out into the air. It seemed to play itself. At first, the boy wasn’t sure what the melody was. He played but strangely didn’t consciously know the song coming out of the flute. Each time he went to the following note, the right one just seemed to flow out. He was confused, but he kept blowing and letting it happen. The boy found the unknown melody soothing and noted how the goats and old ewe also seemed to. Soon, once the refrain had repeated itself a couple of times, he started to know how it went.
“Have I heard it before,” he wondered? It seemed so familiar. Why and how did he know where each following note was? He had a lot of questions as he continued repeating the melody. After doing so five times, he finally realized the combination of sounds was something he knew and held deep down in his gut. Maybe he’d heard it at the church during Semana Santa. Or perhaps he’d heard it when he was younger, sitting around a fire outside his grandfather’s house. It could be that he’d heard it at a Tutuburi. Whatever the case, he suddenly understood that it was an old well-known melody that he and the others probably knew.
Eventually, I rounded a corner, and as I looked up the next straightaway, I saw the little mud hut of a house and store that marked the top of the steepest part of the climb. I knew I was almost there because I’d passed that way before. There was no mistaking the scene that was suddenly before my eyes- the large red Coca-Cola sign near the road contrasted with the surrounding canyons.
At that point, the flute music had drowned out all the pain, dust, and squeaking of the early part of the ride. Now there was just the picture of a cold Coke and smooth sailing along with an unseen crow cackling somewhere up above in what had become my immediate future. Once I got to the store, I took a break and had a soft drink before tackling the second half of the climb.
Ultimately, I reached the top, although not in record time. After the cold Coke, the second half of the ride went smoothly, and the pain in my legs and the burning sensation in my lungs just went away. The remainder of the ride was by no means all downhill but was less steep and tedious. Even without the flute playing during the final part, the melody kept repeating itself in my head. Then, almost abruptly, the dirt road intersected the highway, and I was at my destination, energized and feeling stronger than ever.