100 miles of dirt
The paved road out of Creel lasts 50 miles, and the 100 miles after it are the most challenging and rewarding motorcycle miles in all of my 50,000 to date. Those miles descend 6,000 feet into a town controlled by men armed with automatic weapons. Those miles cross a river bested only by four wheel drive trucks, and then they climb mountain roads as narrow and as steep as steps themselves.
This is a story of determination. At times, I feel like luck alone keeps the bike upright. These are not the kind of roads for texting and driving. They demand an extreme kind of attention. I don’t have much video or pictures of the dangerous sections for this very reason. For the most part, I run the throttle, clutch, and brakes, and my brain works overtime to keep the bike between the mountain to my one side and the cliff edge to my other.
But first, I must say something of the new road out of Creel!
It is fantastic. The views of the canyons make touring by motorbike an absolute treat. I take Jim and Katie’s recommendation to climb a particular overlook and find a Tarahumara farm poised on the edge of the canyon rim. It’s a good place to pause and appreciate the timelessness of this area. The modern world is fast approaching, and yet some people here still wash their clothes in a river and weave baskets out of pine needles. They grow their own food, birth their own children, and subsist for the most part on land that has looked this way for eons.
So many of the roads in this region are under construction that I never know what to expect when I plan a ride in Mexico. Much to the distaste of dirt-lovers, the Mexican government is on a paving frenzy in these remote areas. Several of the roads throughout Copper Canyon are getting not just a coat of tarmac. Some, including the road between Creel and Chinipas, are being widened, straightened, and made much safer.
Such tends to take away the adventure in the ride, and I understand why these riders grimace when I post photos of new blacktop.
When I do hit the dirt, it doesn’t take long to become a challenge. I spend the next four hours in the saddle averaging less than 20 miles per hour. Dust is just the beginning of my troubles. I dodge traffic and hidden road obstacles. The road conditions themselves never stay the same. While difficult for me because of my inexperience, the ride isn’t without its beauty. How can a ride among canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon be ugly? It absolutely cannot. And when the beauty does catch my eye, I pause to take it in.
Have you ever ridden a bicycle in the snow? The front wheel does nothing for control in these conditions. The only way to stay upright is to slow down and paddle my legs through these turns. Powder flies everywhere and covers me from head to toe. Beneath the powder is hard pack dirt. Or rocks. Or both. I never know until I get there.
Chinipas takes me by surprise when I finish the long descent. I haven’t asked to be sure, but the armed men in Chinipas sure do look the part of watchmen for some drug cartel. They’re not wearing the uniforms I’ve seen elsewhere. As soon as I can, I stop the bike and put the helmet camera away before it takes a picture of something they don’t want photographed.
Photos of these casually dressed men would show automatic rifles slung over shoulders or sometimes held at the ready. Except for the guns, I wouldn’t peg these men as menacing or dangerous. They return my waves with smiles and head nods as I ride through town. Some wear sunglasses and hats; others do not. Some wear jeans and boots; others wear more modern gear. But they all have one thing in common. They stand together in groups of two or more and very intently watch the traffic moving through town.
In a town as small and remote as Chinipas, traffic means me. They watch me move through town. They watch me move through town three or four times as I realize the town has only one hotel and that the hotel wants way too much money for me to stay the night.
From the look of the mountains around me, I know the road ahead will be at least as difficult as the road that put me here. The sun will surely set in three hours whether I’ve made it over the mountains or not. The fifty miles I can make in that time should put me close to the next big town. I’m dirty inside and out from the dusty road and sweaty ride. Climbing back into this dirty gear tomorrow sounds dreadful, and yet, it would be such a shame to not camp one more night in these beautiful mountains.
First, the river crossing. The depth doesn’t look too bad. The rocks beneath the water — they look big. Scary big. I watch a truck bounce through the river like a bronco. Those rocks won’t be easy on a bike. Those rocks won’t be easy for me. I’ve never crossed a river on a motorbike before. I won’t be able to just ride through like it was a cobblestone driveway. If the bike hits a rock that puts me over, everything will be wet for many minutes while I struggle to lift the bike. I can only hope that the dry bags will keep my electronics safe.
I decide to go for it.
Not five feet into the crossing, the bike hits a rock and stops. My feet go to the sides and touch bottom. From here to the other side, it’s all clutch and throttle. Too many times to count, the bike lurches over one rock and stops at the next. My shoes, planted to the bottom, keep it steady. The clutch smells overworked. I can hear the terrible noise it makes as it catches just enough friction to put me over the next rock without stalling. Fifty feet later, the river ends, and I put my sopping wet boots back onto the pegs.
The next crossing is a breeze — an afterthought, really. It may as well have been a cobblestone driveway.
The river is just the beginning. For the next hour, I find myself crawling at walking speed up a 4300-foot ascent in first gear. The switchbacks average 16-percent grade and are made of everything from deep sand to solid rock. At times, the cliff edge drops hundreds of feet to one side. The same edge is littered with makeshift memorials, crosses, and shrines to people who have died here.
About half way up the pass, the oil temperature light on the bike begins to flash. I know the bike is hot because it feels and smells hot. It sounds hot by the way it chugs up the mountain. Climbing in first gear at a snail’s pace isn’t giving it the airflow it needs to stay cool. But I can’t stop now. I’m in that endurance mindset that runners and swimmers know. If I stop now, I won’t be able to continue. My body would just quit, and so I push on and keep an eye on the temperature gauge.
This kind of riding is way out of my league. Every bit of this road is an opportunity to hurt myself. Every time the bike threatens to topple, I hope for the best and somehow manage to hold it steady. By the time I make camp, my feet hurt from being wet for hours. My shoulders burn from the stress of the ride. I stink beyond words, and my gear is plastered with dust and mud.
And yet, I feel incredibly accomplished. I’m alive and uninjured. The bike cooled to a safe temperature on the downhill side of the mountain.
This side of the mountain range is very dry and cool in the evening. It looks like the desert I envisioned for Mexico. The cactus have replaced the pine trees from Creel. Riverbeds are bone dry. The water I do see is occupied by people or their animals. Just before dark, a side road catches my eye. It drops down a little way into a lush valley. I’m hopeful of some water down near the deep greens but find none. It’s too dark to continue, and so I make camp near the ruins of an adobe house.
Farm animals make noise further down the road where a family must live. I’ll just be one night; surely they won’t mind.
Twelve hours in the saddle have made me thirsty and dirty. I can’t go to bed being both, so I divide the little water I have left between drinking and washing. Not quite quenched and not quite clean, I crawl into my sleeping bag. The vivid memories of these 100 miles of dirt replay in my head. The difficult parts don’t seem so bad in memory. Maybe the dirt miles are growing on me in ways I’ll never be able to shake.
I fall asleep with curious anticipation for the thousands yet to come.