When the going gets tough
At daybreak, I do wake up and everything is well.
The campsite isn’t so bad after all. Sweeping the glass away for the tent worked. My mattress isn’t popped, and I don’t see any holes in the floor. The bike tires look unscathed too. Morning traffic puts the smile on my face that I so needed last night. Big trucks carrying heavy loads of cut timber make their slow climb up and over the hill I’m camped on. They honk welcomingly as they crawl past. Now that daylight makes my camp visible from the road, the traffic that had me so worried the night before has become a high point of my morning.
I wave back and feel a decided improvement in the area.
Something in Guachochic spooked me yesterday to think that I was unsafe or unwelcome. My intuition didn’t like seeing every single inch of land wrapped in tall fences and razor wire, walls topped with sharp things, and bars covering every window and door. The leering eyes of the Pemex gasoline attendant didn’t sit well with me either, though my antisocial mood may have put him off before he had a chance to be friendly. I think being cold, tired, and focused on finding a place to sleep can get in the way of the pleasantries needed to be friendly and in return see friendliness in the people I meet.
Sometimes I can’t help the stress of riding a motorbike late into the evening and being concerned about finding a place to sleep. If I were traveling by car, truck, or van, these concerns would vanish. I would simply sleep inside my vehicle wherever I found parking.
Between waves and honks, I break camp. The three riders I met yesterday spoke very highly of Batopilas, the town at the bottom of Copper Canyon. I think today I will attempt the ride. The 150 kilometers between me and the bottom should be some of the most difficult riding I’ve ever experienced. And for this reason, I’m both excited and nervous.
After a short while of excellent riding through the timbered hills, I turn onto the road to Batopilas. At least for now, it’s a fantastic continuation of the same beautiful pavement I’ve had since Parral. This wasn’t in the overhead satellite imagery I saw when planning the ride. No, this road into Copper Canyon is brand new, and the descent is one of unmatched beauty. Except for a few rough places in the corners, the new pavement lets me descend quite rapidly. And in 45 minutes, I find the end of the nice road. I’m unfortunately still twenty miles and two hours from my destination.
The little bit of the road I see ahead doesn’t look too bad. Then I remember seeing the entirety of this section from high above. It looked like a tangled mess of rope from up there. I can’t imagine it’s any nicer down here. This kind of riding scares me. I’m solo, and lifting a dropped bike is a heavy ordeal. I can’t lift it without first removing a significant amount of the weight I carry. Usually this means leaving the bike on its side for a few minutes while I rest and catch my breath from whatever excitement caused the fall. I learned this lesson after a fall in California. I dumped the bike into a ditch below the road and wasn’t going to get it out anytime soon. There’s no need to fuss over uprighting it right away. Resting gives me a chance to think of a solution.
The road of course turns to crap in no time. It narrows into a single lane wide enough for a pickup truck and gives me two tire tracks to choose from. Both are heavily rutted and send me and the bike bopping up and down every which way. I brake and clutch with care, my legs flail on either side to push off the ground when needed. My heart pounds inside my chest for the fear of the edge on this very steep descent.
Falling over an edge here would be easy. The road is only wide enough for a truck. And in some places, going over the edge means tumbling a hundred feet.
When the road finally levels, it meets the Batopilas River, one of three responsible for carving this beautiful canyon and inspiring this dreadful road. I usually like bridges because they go over rivers. Bridges are quite superior to water crossings without a bridge. I won’t attempt a water crossing on this heavy bike. Risking damage to my electronics and camera equipment is just not worth it. However, this bridge isn’t ideally safe, either. Like the cattle guards from several days ago, it’s the kind of bridge made for four wheels. The parallel tracks and missing sections make me think several minutes before crossing with the bike. I eventually choose a route and go, literally pulling myself across with my eyes fixed to the other side.
If I thought finally meeting the river would make the road better, I was fooling myself. The road markedly worsens on the other side of the bridge due in large part to the yet unfinished roadworks. On one steep climb in particular, heavy equipment has left the roadbed loose, pitted, and dotted with large rocks. The uncertainty of what to do catches up to me and the bike takes a hard fall to the right.
My first thought is that of dread. This is the very kind of riding I hate. Why again am I here doing this to myself? Does this discomfort somehow make me a better person? Exactly what kind of practical skill am I learning by risking life, limb, and property? Surely I’ve wrecked something on the bike. Just glancing at the pannier I can see a huge dent — bigger even than the silly lady’s car made in Houston.
For an instant, I think I can lift the bike without unloading it. That idea fails miserably when the bike doesn’t budge an inch. I’m going to need help, or every single box, bag, and container comes off the bike before I try lifting again. In the quiet of the valley around me, I hear the distinct sound of chopping. Not too high above, I see a man working at the brush. We look at each other for a few seconds, and I start with a big hello in Spanish followed by a plea for his help.
His response: 100 pesos.
I quickly agree and then immediately regret our verbal contract when I reach into my pocket to find only 50. I yell to him to stop his descent and give warning that I only have half of our agreed payment. He looks disappointed and drops his price to 85. Again, I say I only have 50 and apologize. We stare at each other in silence for a few more moments before he decides 50 is okay.
Up close he looks young — maybe my age or younger. He’s stout for sure and wearing sandals of all things whilst climbing around mountainsides clearing brush by hand. If anyone can help me lift the bike, he can. With a big heave, the bike goes upright and rests upon the awaiting side stand. I smile until I look to the road ahead. I’ll need his help to get up this dreadful section of the road. I climb onto the bike and get ready. With sign language, I gesture for him to push and hold me steady.
Ten paces, and we rest. Ten more paces, we rest again. The bike nearly falls a few times before we reach a solid section of road. I look back at the hundred feet or so of bad road and reach out to shake the man’s hand. He takes the 50-peso note with a frown and then smiles when I offer cool water and food to supplement the remainder.
While he drinks, I ask about the road beyond here. Is it bad like this? No, he says. Not bad like this. Okay, then I go on. I thank him again and set to work at repacking the bike. He climbs the side of the road like a goat and resumes his chopping.
I hate when a road requires so much attention that the beauty around it goes unappreciated. I’m here for the view after all; the road is just a means to that end. Why can’t this road be like the one in King’s Canyon, California? Paved from top to bottom and width enough to move a house! That’s the kind of road I like!
The road does improve and in sections turns to pavement to my glee. My excitement builds every time I see pavement and plunges every time I see it end. The next hour and a half at least lets me enjoy the view. High above, the mountain tops touch the sky. Below, the Batopilas River trickles around rocks and over shallow riverbeds. Rock faces colored green and red line the roadway to my left. In some places, boulders completely fill the paved road. Alternate routes make passing these sections possible if not always easy.
When Batopilas finally comes to view, it does so with the kind of color and welcome of dreams. There’s an aqueduct built alongside the river. The very first house is more a multidimensional botanical garden than it is a building. In the distance, a tall bridge spans the now turquoise river. Past the bridge, the town snakes on for about a mile as if defined by the very edge of the river. Above, homes made of stone climb the valley walls amidst cacti and a few trees.
Most important, the place is abustle with people. Happy people. This is Batopilas at the bottom of Copper Canyon.