Ryan had never bonked before, at least in the metabolic shock/ overexertion sense of the word. When he started to bumble around and lose more and more of his edge, I knew that something was up and figured that’s what had happened. Not realizing what was going on, he kept on trying to mountain bike further up the Colorado Trail, although with diminishing returns. The big patches of snow that remained on the trail, even though it was June, were probably a good thing since they ultimately turned us all around. His disrupted mental and physical state likely made the retreat more palatable to the 13-year-old, since he wasn’t one to be prone to turn around before his goal was reached.
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.
I was going downhill, and the trail flowed well. The section of the Colorado Trail we were mountain biking on drops slowly and steadily for miles as it winds its way down the Craig Creek drainage. It’s a fast, fun, and effortless ride that I’d done many times before. Sure, there are some obstacles along the way, such as unfortunately positioned rocks, encroaching Potentilla bushes, and washed-out ruts. But the only significantly tricky spots occur where small creeks, thick with willows, come in from the sides.
“You’re not lost, if you don’t care where you are.”
By this point, we were some 20 miles from the last little outpost of a town that we’d been through. But theoretically, at least, we were about to come to another. Jerry had the best available maps of the area loaded onto his GPS. But it only told us where we were relative to whatever data it was loaded with. The adage, “garbage in, garbage out,” came to mind and was soon followed by the vision of a web page that simply said, “no data available.”
Interesting events late at night during a 24 Hour mountain bike race.
Things got progressively weirder as the Utah mountain bike race, known as the 24 Hours of Moab, continued. It was an event where riders, in teams ranging in size from individuals to up to 8, rode as many laps as possible within 24 hours. I was doing it solo, which among other things, created some intriguing late-night moments. At some point in the middle of the night, two tandem bikes with riders dressed as frogs rode in from a direction that had nothing to do with the racecourse. During the previous lap, I’d been concerned when another racer didn’t correctly yield the trail on a long climb. But by the time the frog thing happened, things like that were no longer bothering me. I was just pleased that the frogs were stopped and waiting off to the side of the trail for me to pass before continuing. From that moment on, as I rode up toward the crest of that hill each time, I kept looking for the frog riders and continued to be concerned that they might be riding the same section of trail as I was. I hoped that if so, they’d at least be going in the same counterclockwise direction as everyone else.
An interesting turn of events while mountain biking some Copper Canyon singletrack.
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.
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