Riding for the Record

On the Road

Part 1

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.

Part 2

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.

Part 3

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.

Mpuntain biker riding the road between Batopilas and La Casita in Copper Canyon, Mexico
The long ride from Batopilas to La Casita

Marching Always


Backpacking in Copper Canyon

Marching to the drummer
Across the canyon
From where I walk.

Rhythmic echoes, pounding drumbeats
Like the ticking
Of a clock.

Miles of trails and distant rivers,
Manzanitas, Oaks, and pines.
Hardened heels and herds of goats,
And long-forgotten mines.

The only time that matters,
Is how long until the night.
Move like the Raramuri,
Who keep following the light.

Dancing fiercely o’er the mesas,
With partners
Made of rock.

Often soaring skyward,
Flying freely
Like a hawk.

Layer upon layer
Of color fills the sky.
The magic of the distance
Inundates the eye.

Subtle tailwinds urge me forward
And gentle headwinds hold me back.
But like the local people,
I maintain an onward track.

Then the drumbeat fades away,
Yet still, the land has much to say.
I close my eyes and faintly hear
A beating heart that’s somewhere near.

I realize it’s underfoot,
The sound is rising
From the dirt!

It’s good to know
That even though
The drummers come and go.

The land I cross
Lives on and on,
And the beat is never gone.

Audio Version:

Marching into the canyon

Trail Supper

Copper Canyon Trail Supper

Out on the trail,
Leaning against a rock,
Cooking supper, and
Watching the water boil.

I’m hungry,
But have to wait.
And so,
I feast on tales.

We begin with a story
About noodling for Catfish.
Which seamlessly leads to
A discussion of Black Holes.
And then, there’s a description
Of how to set a cedar fence post
In rocky ground.

The lasagna will take 20 more minutes,
But no worries…….
Because there’s plenty more food for thought,
Waiting to be had.

Further proof
that dessert,
Is often
Best eaten first.

Audio Version:

Re-finding the Silver Trail- Copper Canyon, Mexico

Hike-a-bike on the Silver Trail

From the mines near Batopilas,
To the bank in Chihuahua.
And then by train,
To El Paso.
Haul the silver,
Hide the gold.

125 miles of trail.
Trains of mules with steel shoes,
Tarahumara’s with none.
Five stations along the way.
Mountains with pines,
Canyons with rocks.
Following the path,
That leads,
To the wagon road,
At Carachic.

A generation of travel,
Stopped by time.
Trees grow,
Meadows change.
The route forgotten,
Except for what,
The mules cut,
Into the rock,
With their hooves.

Forgotten stories linger:
Pilares, El Patron,
La Laja, Los Conchos,
El jefe with the knife,
The piano,

Eventually, the day arrives.
And we go.
60 years later.

Years of talk and wondering,
Turn into action.
How hard could it be?
Mountain bikes, walking, and camping
Many questions asked,
But few answered.
Is this the trail?

We do it backwards- from Carachic.
First to El Ojito, then on south.
Past La Herradurra,
Night with Gabino Flores at Huajochi Station,
Walk through the Arroyo de las Iglesias,
Camp at The Hot Springs,
The next night with support at Pilares Station.

On to Siquerichi.
Cold night at La Laja Station.
Camping near Teboreachic Station.
Past Coyachique,
Then down to the Batopillas River.
From there, it’s ten miles of gravel road,
Finally, we arrive in Batopilas,
And Casa San Miguel.

The trail re-found
Was it ever lost?
Reconnoitered, mapped,
Ridden, walked, photographed,
Written and talked about.

Like before, the Chabochis
Move on.

But the trail stays.

Audio Version:

Morning Dawns in Huahochic

Tarahumara- a poem about the indigenous people of Copper Canyon

Tarahumara men dancing during Semana Santa in the town of Norogachi in Copper Canyon, Mexico
Semana Santa in Norogachi

Beating slowly,
And filling the air
With distant

A sound that connects
One canyon
To another.
One village to
The next.

Like a heartbeat,
Faintly pounding,
Almost rumbling,
As the people
Move their feet.

Somewhere, always somewhere.
Down the arroyo,
Across the meadow
To the big rock,
Never talking.

Soft, but hardened,
Mostly happy,
Sometimes sad,
And often burdened.

By others,
Who want something more

Semana Santa,

Places to go,
People to see,
Things to do,
And a world to ponder.

Audio Version:

Semana Santa, Noragachic

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 about 12 feet in diameter, a little bigger than we’d envisioned. 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.

Continue reading “Mine Riding”


A mysterious thirst is quenched.

Wild Copper Canyon

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 other empties. They were a good conversation piece while they were sitting out there in the open. But when he found a spider in one, and since he needed to move them anyway, he put them into some empty slots in the Fanta case down on the floor. Then, after tidying things up, he thought about dragging the whole box of empties out from behind the Sabritas rack so they would still be visible. That way, they would continue to be the talk of the town, but he realized that if he did so, they would just be in the way and make things look disorganized. And so he just stuck the case in the back room.

Continue reading “Thirst”

Nacho Kino

Missing a Tutuburi

Copper Canyon Kino Springs campsite
Camping at Kino Springs

The countryside opened up as the Silver Trail left the Valley of the Churches. Our group of seven backpackers had passed a young Tarahumara man (the indigenous people of Mexico’s Copper Canyon) earlier that day. And I’d asked about Nacho Kino, an old Tarahumara whom I’d met while mapping the Silver Trail a few years before.

“He’s not at his ranchito. He’s gone to the Dutuburi in Kisochi. I’m on my way there now,” he replied. {Dutuburi- An event held periodically in Tarahumara villages to ask Oruame (God in simplistic terms) for something, such as rain for crops. After dancing the Yamari, the people dance the Dutuburi. And afterward, the feasting begins}.

I’d hoped to introduce Nacho to the group when we passed by his log house the following day. The wiry older man embodied pure happiness and a positive perspective. I’d stopped and visited with him several times previously. And the experience had always served to brighten my day, and I wanted to share that with the group. With a broad smile, he’d once told me how he’d come back to the valley of his birth to die. And how he had all the good stuff around him that a person could ever really want—a fine dog, a prolific apple tree, and plenty of family and friends nearby. Since visiting with him this time around wasn’t going to happen, I told the young Tarahumara to tell him, “Saludos de David, el gringo.” He said he would, and we all moved on in different directions.

After the trail encounter, our group continued backpacking along the trail toward our anticipated campsite on a mesa just above Nacho Kino’s house. On the next day, we planned to go from there to a place adjacent to the Rio Conchos called Huajochic. That section was a long haul, but I figured we’d break it up with a short visit with the old man. Now, I reasoned, we’d have that much more daylight to work with since we wouldn’t be making that stop.

As mentioned, we were a group of seven. It included five teenagers, me, and another leader, Ryan, and we were backpacking along a 40-mile section of the historic Silver Trail. We were headed northward on the section of trail that starts near the remnants of the waystation named Pilares. Ultimately, we planned to pass by the ruins of the one named Huajochic. And at that point, we’d cross the waters of the Rio Conchos and then head toward our final destination, the town of Carachic.

At the northern end of the rock-spire-filled Valley of the Churches, the trail markedly turned to the north as the creek we’d been following joined another. Once we rounded the corner, I could see the Kino Springs mesa overlooking Nacho’s ranchito, rising above the lower hills a mile ahead. So, I knew we were getting close. We worked our way across the valley floor and soon passed just to the side of the small and seemingly deserted village of Siquerichi before beginning a gradual climb to the mesa summit. The trail steepened as we moved up onto the actual mesa. It crossed a rocky section and stayed just below the ridgeline before finally dumping us out onto a flat and scrub brush-covered area on top. Once there, we found a good place to camp and began setting up with just enough time to do so before dark.

Everyone put their packs down and immediately began setting up tents and fetching water from the spring. By 7:00 pm, we were all sitting around and waiting for the supper water to boil when the same young Tarahumara man we’d seen earlier in the day just appeared. He stood off to the firelight’s edge and obviously had something to say. I was a bit confused by his reappearance. “What is going on,” I wondered. I’d never felt at all threatened anywhere in the Copper Canyon backcountry. And we were in the Nacho Kino realm, so I felt that at least there wasn’t likely anything sinister going on.

Then, he spoke. He said that Nacho Kino had invited us to the Dutuburi and that he, the young man, would take us there. I was immediately overcome and overwhelmed by the gesture and its prospects. Seven white boys from the United States attending a Dutuburi in the wilds of the Sierra Tarahumara. How could we not seize the moment? What would it mean to a 16-year-old from middle America or even a 50-year-old like me? My mind buzzed with excitement.

Seamlessly, I went into mental rationalization mode, figuring out the logistics of how to make it work. Then, just as a plan was solidifying itself, the slightly inebriated way he slurred his words while extending the conversation changed the situation. Visions of corn-beer drinking, teenage boys getting into a moment they weren’t prepared for, and me trying to explain it all to a parent in an Austin coffee shop suddenly overwhelmed my thoughts. And I turned down the offer.

“Thank him,” I said, “but we have a lot to do tomorrow and need to rest.”

True, it was late, and we still had a long way to go. A part of me said, a fantastic opportunity missed. But my pragmatic side told me, “a profound disaster averted.” The Tarahumara shook his head in acknowledgment, smiled, and disappeared into the brush.

The offer and refusal parts were straightforward enough. Even though the boys didn’t speak much Spanish, they could pick out a few words, feel the goodwill, and ultimately get the gist of what was happening. And so, for that moment, it was a cut and dried event that they weren’t physically going to be a part of but felt good about, nonetheless.

After the Tarahumara vanished, everyone in our group began talking, asking questions, and mostly trying to figure out what’d just happened. We discussed it a bit, and I was convinced that the details of the Dutuburi and the invitation for us to attend had captivated the minds of the five younger people. Even though none of them spoke Spanish or completely understood what had occurred, they each seemed outwardly fascinated by the events. But then, a discussion about Sardine guts started up. And for that moment, the Dutuburi episode drifted into the background. And I smiled to myself as I thought about the time that would surely come when one of the boys would be an old man and recount what had happened. And I had to wonder how he’d tell the story.

Crossing through The Valley of the Churches in Copper Canyon

The Beer Truck

Tarahumara house in Copper Canyon, Mexico


I was in Mexico’s Copper Canyon with a group of adventure travelers, “Chavochi’s” (non-indigenous/devil people, as some of us gringos are fondly known among the Tarahumara). Some things happened while we were down there in Batopilas Canyon and the town of Batopilas, which may or may not be related. I think they are.

  Continue reading “The Beer Truck”

Mountain Biking The Trail of Death

An interesting turn of events while mountain biking some Copper Canyon singletrack.

The Trail of Death

Afterward, we began to call it the Trail of Death.

For the longest time, Batopilas, Mexico, was connected to the small town of  Cerro Colorado, by just a little bit of dirt road and seven or so miles of trail, just barely wide enough for local burro traffic. Then, a few years back, that same dirt road was bulldozed into the little Copper Canyon town. Most of the old trail was “improved” for vehicle use, although the last mile was left untouched where the road took an easier route.
While the road extension did make it possible to drive vehicles into and out of Cerro Colorado, it made hiking or mountain biking into the dusty outpost significantly less appealing. For years, riding bikes out there and back had been a good day trip for many of our OWA groups. We’d ride out from our hotel in Batopilas after breakfast. Then, we’d enjoy a pleasant mountain bike ride or hike on a mix of single and double track and arrive in Cerro just in time for lunch. Once there, we’d have a typical rural Mexican lunch prepared by one of the local ladies and served in her home. It made for an interesting and fun day trip.
Things started smoothly on this particular trip, and the ride to “Cerro” went like clockwork. From Batopilas, we first followed the trail along the old aqueduct, eventually joined up with the dirt road, and then followed it to the shortcut/old trail for the final approach to our destination. We ultimately rejoined the road near Cerro just a bit before it became “Main Street,” and at that point, “things” started to get a little off-kilter.
Just as we rode up a slight rise and entered the town outskirts, a herd of pigs blocked our intended path. Our organized entrance into town instantly became more of a confusing mess. We closed ranks and pulled it back together when we rode up and stopped outside the tidy casa where lunch awaited. Senora Perez waited with a serving spoon and dishrag in hand, just as the radio in the nearby store began blurting out the high noon chiming. At least we’re still on time, I concluded.
After leaning our bikes against her fence, we went inside the house and had an enjoyable meal. Life was good and simple, or so we thought, as we finished our meal, got back up on our bikes for the ride back, and began the return, ready for whatever might come our way. Or so we thought.
We took the shortcut/old trail again as it forked off from the road just outside town. Just past the intersection, the dirt path lazily skirted a pasture for a few hundred yards. And then, it began to narrow and weave its way through the various shallow desert-like gullies (or arroyos as they call them down there). The arroyos progressively steepened and eventually became small canyons, which forced the five-foot-wide pathway to defy reason and cling to the rock, part of the way up the canyon wall. That whole rocky section is a pure marvel, and more than once, I’d pondered how it seemed to be carved into the solid rock cliff. In a short time and distance, the riding went from relaxed and casual to something more on the tricky and challenging end of the spectrum.
Since I knew the route, I rode out in front. Our group of 11 continued to spread further and further apart. And by the time we reached a particularly exposed section of cliff trail, we were all separated by 20 or 30 yards.
The riding was enjoyable and exciting as we rode out onto the rocky part. Then, a few hundred feet into the steepest and most exposed section, I rounded a curve, rode up and then over a small rock hump, and finally into a more mellow and predictable stretch.
As I entered the more moderate section, I allowed my mind to wander and, for some reason, began mentally re-riding the rocky curve and hump. I hadn’t paid much attention to that specific rock or turn before, but something about it on this particular ride caused it to stick in my mind.      Finally, about 200 yards past it, I rolled to a stop and looked back at it across the canyon. From my vantage point, I could see how the whole curve complex seemed to jut out of the cliff. And then, as I watched, the entire thing became almost magically highlighted by a beam of intense sunshine. Right then, one of the group members, Rich, came around the corner, rode up onto the top of the rock, and then crashed and fell off the cliff.
It was just that simple and straightforward. Initially, I was paralyzed and gazed motionlessly back at the curve. My biggest fears were confirmed as I heard his bike crashing and bouncing its way down the cliff and come to a suddenly silent and abrupt stop at the bottom. How, why, and don’t were words that came to mind, and my world went into slow motion as I let my bike fall onto the trail and began running back to where he had once been. I had no idea about what to do in that sort of situation but felt the need to go and do something. I glanced back at the rock one more time before taking off and saw the trail, rocks, and distant mountains filling in the background, but no Rich. The sight of what wasn’t there caused a rush of adrenaline to begin free flowing into my head. But then, after I’d only gone a short distance, from seemingly out of nowhere, he just reappeared, climbing up onto the cliff edge of the trail. Like his falling off, it was a seemingly simple and straightforward occurrence. I was excited, confused, and intrigued by the situation all at the same time. But I could see him across the way, standing by the rock in question, and apparently in the flesh.
I kept my eyes on him as I continued heading his way. And then I watched as he just brushed himself off and began talking and gesturing to other nearby group members. If I let him out of my sight, I thought he might disappear again, and I certainly didn’t want that. So, I just kept looking at him as I moved.
It would be an understatement to say that I was overwhelmed. I can likely speak for everyone else who witnessed the event by saying they were as well. It’s not that often that you watch someone fall off of a cliff and then reappear. Things like that are something we all remember.
When I got to Rich, he recounted what’d happened. He’d ridden onto the rock, lost his balance, and fell to the cliff-side. I can only imagine that he’s still reliving that moment of whatever goes through your mind as you’re falling toward certain death. In his case, he fell onto a sizable ledge some eight feet below the trail. Somehow, he came unclipped from his pedals, untangled from his bike, and stuck on a flattish spot while his bike bounced down to the bottom.
After hearing his story, my first thought was that eight feet is a long way to fall, but I quickly concluded that eight is way better than a hundred. He was bruised, scratched, and dirty but had very much survived. I had difficulty coming up with something relevant to say. Then, after only a few minutes, a local Tarahumara man appeared right in front of us with something pertinent to show us. He had the damaged bike in hand and recounted how he’d seen the whole event unfold from down below. He told us how he was walking along the creek when he heard a noise, looked up, and saw Rich fall onto the ledge while the bike went down to the bottom. He had gone over, picked it up, and was now bringing it back.
Eventually, it was time to ride on. Everyone, except for Rich, was particularly careful about how and where they got up onto their bikes. A few riders hadn’t even gotten to the rocky curve when the fall occurred and opted to walk their bikes through that entire section. Rich walked back to Batopilas, and while it’s true that his bike was messed up, I don’t think he would’ve ridden anyway.
As the trail turned into the road and the route became less dramatic, I had time for reflection. There’d been a lot that had happened in those few minutes at the rocky curve. I tried figuratively putting myself into Rich’s shoes but was unable and decided to ponder it later. And so, I then focused on trying to comprehend what the Tarahumara must’ve thought. I couldn’t resolve that either. Finally, I looked down at the ground, which kept relentlessly disappearing ahead of my front wheel and just rode. As I rode onto wider and less technical terrain, I concluded that some things are beyond my comprehension. And in those cases, I should just keep moving.

Mountain biking the Colorado Trail in the Fall.
Mountain biking the Colorado Trail
%d bloggers like this: