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 that connects Creel to Batopilas area and Guajochi. 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 unknown.
As I rode, the bike made a sickening squeaking sound as 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 just that– tedious, but that soon changed.
After less than a third of the way into the ride, my legs were already feeling “heavy.” Each time I approached a bend, I hoped to be greeted by a flat or downhill section just around the corner. But time and again, that hope disappeared when I was greeted by the sight of yet another long, painful-looking, and persistently uphill straightaway. Thankfully, 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 experiencing in my right leg. I kept trying various mental tricks like visualizing birds flying or my legs pedaling in smooth circles to mitigate the pain and monotony. But 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 continued wandering more and more as I rode, but my lungs and legs stuck to the reality of the situation, and they soon began to scream.
After a couple of hours of riding, I realized 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 out of the brush quickly and deliberately. I yelled, stopped abruptly, got off my bike, reached down, and picked up a rock to fake throw at it. Thankfully, with my rock-grabbing motion, it retreated 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’d avoided looking at my watch but finally did so and saw that I’d been riding for nearly three hours. After some mental ciphering, I decided that I was several minutes ahead of the record pace. I was overjoyed and decided I could relax and slow down a bit. I figured I could soft-pedal the rest of the way to the top and still break the record. After a few euphoric moments, the sad reality of the situation became apparent as I realized that I’d miscalculated the time, and going easy from that point and beating the record was not an option.
The bike didn’t have the same choice of whether or not to ease up and began squeaking louder as it continued to climb. Once again, I thought about how the noise must be a result of 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 that the pain might have blossomed in my head (and not my knees) after I looked toward the top and saw what lay ahead. All the while, I kept looking at my watch and projecting the numbers. The longer I rode, the worse the arithmetic of my performance got. The record was just over 4 hours and after 3 hours of struggle, I hadn’t even gotten to the midway point. I was depressed by my situation, but then decided to let go of my record quest and just ride and enjoy the moment. So, I just lowered my head and rode, and avoided doing any more arithmetic, thinking about my leg pain or fretting about the lung burn that was developing in my chest
Right then, as I neared the halfway point, a faint flute sound came into my ears and seemed to float right through my head. It was as if it was coming in one ear and then 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 a scrawny 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 be relaxed by the sound? 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 Dutuburi. 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 my pain, it seemed to have consumed the dust, and my squeaking chain moved in silence. 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.