I’m still alive

I will never forget the sensation of my helmet scraping against the asphalt, moments stretching on for infinities as that grinding overwhelms my ears and I slide completely beyond control. I recall in this time outside of time, with odd detachment, a recently naive me. Confidently contemplating my recent relatively low-speed crash on gravel, imagining how I would position myself to slide and so on. And now reality like a hammer to the head. Powerless, such violence all I can do is tumble like a ragdoll.

And then it ends. I lie stunned, a concrete ditch on the other side of the road barrier. I must have missed it by inches, if that. Lost is on her side puddling gasoline into the ditch, and with a groan I sit up to assess. Not again, I moan, as if this was somehow not entirely my fault. I try to start moving right away, but have to get my wind back first. The bike needs to be righted and the luggage removed from the road. I limp over to a box; there’s no ignoring my knee now – I went down on it again. Boxes dragged to the ditch, I right Lost and assess the damage once again. Pannier mounts are completely wrecked, will have to use straps. Handlebar twisted, and the gas line broke at the filter. Trying to repair the line, I discover I must have crushed my thumb under the bike, I can hardly use it. I fumble stubbornly and eventually the fuel line is fixed, filter discarded. It’s redundant anyway. I try the starter, and the engine turns but nothing happens. On the fourth try she roars to life, and at least one problem in my life is solved. Now for the other 99.

I am not going to get this bike out of the ditch myself. Cars have been nonchalantly passing by. I’m too tired to even indignantly wonder what kind of person rides past a motorcycle accident. A curve on a highway is a pretty short window of opportunity to assess the risk, I reflect. A guy in a pickup stops and makes my day, pushing the bike along the ditch so we’re not in the curve and then strapping everything together for me. I assure him I’ll be able to make it to town myself and promise to check in at the hospital. I mean it too – breathing is tight and painful; nothing feels good. Lost and I limp the remaining distance to Parral with our new friend patiently following from the rear until we crawl into town and the clinic, warily handling the curves. Parral is a bigger city and the hospital looks good, the doctors are quick and professional.

Medical assessment – Suck it up, no damage done. They clean my knee and wrap it in bandages, then give me a shot in the ass for the pain. Kicks like a mule, but soon blissful opiates allow me to defer the damage. The security guy brings me a soup with some avocado and tortillas, I ask him how much and he insists it is complimentary. The doctors echo the same when I ask what I owe for their service – so you know that Mexicans are something special, and we from Parral even moreso, one tells me.

For all the thrashing my body has been through, I suddenly feel great.

…And then I try to stand up. Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

I figure now is as good a time as any to make some progress, at least today I’m somewhat shielded from the pain. Before leaving I shuffle into an internet cafe to see if I can find a friend in Durango – it would be good to hook up with a couchsurf connection while my body stitches itself back together. Messages sent, I head out, stopping to inhale a whole bottle of water – turns out I was a little thirsty. Ready to leave, I realize with a crescending panic that I’m not wearing my camera bag. The internet cafe – but that was almost an hour ago… Dejectedly I ride back and find the place, having already said goodbye to my loyal companion and chronicler. I enter and ask the middle aged fellow managing the place if I by any chance left my camera bag here. “Oh, there’s a camera in there?” he asks, as he reaches under the desk and passes it over to me. Incredible. I immediately feel guilty for assuming these people would have run off with it at the first chance. It’s so easy to judge, and I am thankful for the opportunity to confront my prejudices as much as for not losing my camera. Okay, so maybe I’m a bit happier about the camera.

I pass the tower of the past and present on my way out of town. A symbol for change, reflect on the past, act in the present, create your future. The worst is always behind me.

Riding with a wounded knee. Time comes to stop and stretch it out, I hobble painfully off the bike, feeling everything crack open under the bandages. Coffee and a strangely sweet empanada in a humble but clean joint with red plastic chairs; three ladies attending the lonely breeze as it carries away the seconds of the day. I ask how much, but the eldest tells me not to worry about it and hands me a plasticized prayer card. Prayer to the Powerful Hand. The reverse instructs say to make your supplication and then read the prayer. I guess I must look like I was just in a motorcycle accident or something.

I’ve brought all this on myself and am already more than lucky to be able to still move, and somehow the good keeps on coming. I just reflect on how beautiful life can be and thank her profusely. Riding on, I rewind and rewatch to try and see just where I went wrong but it’s all so fast. I remember the loss of control on the gravel, and then sliding. I remember the railing coming too fast, too close, and then the scraping asphalt. The memories aren’t revealing anything that can be of use to me, and curves keep interrupting my thoughts. I tense involuntarily each time, slow down to bicycle pace until the road straightens. Time, I need time to heal inside and out.

A sweeter distraction comes in the form of a beauty pageant in the small town of Vaqueros, girls riding on top of trucks in skirts are just the distraction I need.

A local photographer befriends me and introduces me to the girls as he takes shots. I don’t stay late; no energy to chase these shy small town girls tonight. I go to my rest that night thankful – for kindnesses from strangers, for the adventure. I feel the throbbing in my leg, my unbroken leg, and go to sleep glad for soft landings and to be alive.

Sometimes you really should just stay down.

Leaving Batopilas is just as scenic as entering, but several orders of magnitude easier. I’ve been given directions on how to find Korareachi, and hopefully complete my Quest for that delectable lechugilla. Lost and I snake our way up and down the canyonsides, the gravel road progressively improving. I too have improved, I’m pleased to notice the ease with which I can pick up the pace when I’m not busy trying to simultaneously stay on the road and drink in the canyons cutting away to adventures in the distance. Smiling eagerly inside; already I’m planning my return.

Thoreau still rings in my head. From what I understand the man was a massive hypocrite, but with standards so high it’s hard not to be. The point he makes, ultimately, is that it is important to be a good person, to question what that means and to pursue it. I wonder about my own life and decisions, and decide I have not suffered enough to learn be a good man yet. Mine has been a soft life; is this why I gravitate towards the rawest experiences, to callus my soul?

It’s not my soul that is callused today.

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing; I love that saying. At the very least it’s worth doing well. When my panniers fall off and I bash them into a shape that can once again attach to the motorcycle with a rock – that is not doing it well. So in a way I had it coming.

I’ve hit my stride, passing several trucks and a military transport, again remembering Chuck talking about drifting through the curves, that satisfying sensation as the bike pivots on the front wheel, gravel flying out behind me. Every time I slow to admire a view or take a photo I hear or see the military transport coming up behind me, I guess they want to catch up. Making a game of it, I stay just ahead of them, blasting through straight sections.

On one of these my right pannier falls off. I’m not near the canyon’s edge anymore, so I’ve picked up some good speed. The front tire catches a rut and we start drifting hard towards the left edge of the road. The bike slips, and this time I’m not doing it on purpose – and then the ground slams into me, hard. My boot is caught underneath as Lost slides on the loose gravel and we scrub the dirt together.

I lie on my back, and breathe, staring up at the sky in a daze until I notice the engine is still running. With a start I realize the time to act is now, while the adrenaline is staving off some pain. My ankle is throbbing and I can tell it’s going to get worse, I can feel wet blood sticking my knee to my pants, but I can move and nothing feels broken. I limp over to Lost and turn her off.

The shifter is bent to shit, but otherwise she looks to be alright – just a few more scars for character. I heave her upright with a groan, doing all the lifting with my good leg, and use my ratchet strap to secure the pannier after straightening it again – This time it’s staying on. The military transport comes around as I’m struggling with the shifter, and offers to load up the bike and take me the two hundred remaining Km to Guachochi. Maybe I’m still punch drunk, but I tell them no thanks, I just need to repair the bike and I’m good to go. They loan me a thick set of pliers and stress the importance returning them when I get to town. As soon as they round the bend it occurs to me that I haven’t started the bike yet, and anyway what the hell am I doing turning an offer like that down?

“I haven’t suffered enough to learn to become a good man yet” – Well, I’m working on it. Paulo Cohelo would have a smug comment to make about making your own destiny.

I get the shifter aligned and clear the carb, and after a few tries she starts again. I’m relived, because my battery is going on me – like an idiot I left my lights on one day in Urique, and when I (finally) found someone with cables who could charge the battery he had to coax it back to life by jarring the plates, pulsing electricity through as he tapped the cables against the terminals in a shower of sparks. I promise to buy Lost a new battery for being a good girl and starting for me when I needed her. Would have served me right to be stranded here after brashly passing up a free ride. Getting my leg over is not an enjoyable experience, and I have to shift using my heel – it hurts too much to tilt my foot for the shifter – but once I get moving it’s not so bad, just the steady throbbing in my knee and ankle.

The lonely gravel road implacably winds on, seemingly forever at my newly conservative pace, my mind occupied reviewing the fall and incredulous that I’m still going. But then the only alternative at this point is to just lie down in the middle of nowhere and wait for the vultures. I make it to Guachochi evntually and drop off the tools with thanks. It’s not even two in the afternoon yet, and I am close to Parral. Lost has proven she’s up to the task… My short-circuited common sense decides it’s a good idea to keep going.

Progress is tediously slow through curving roads, several times I stop to stretch out my throbbing knee as the pain becomes distracting. I try to hold off as long as possible because the raw wound fuses to my pants each time, cracking open as try to stretch out the ache. As I near Parral, darkness falls and I realize on a series of sharp bends that I have another problem – the light on the bike is gone. I ride with my blinker on for the scant light it provides but soon it is black out and I begin searching for refuge. Painstakingly and painfully we advance in staccato orange light. Eventually a small house appears and I decide to try my luck. Approaching in darkness in narco territory, a strangers home, wounded. But there is a pen with livestock, this home seems to be supported by an honest living… I hope. Barking dogs herald my arrival and the owner emerges cautiously, flashlight in hand. I explain my situation and to my relief he is friendly and agrees to let me hang my hammock up, even giving me the shed to set up in and bringing me some oatmeal and cookies. Gustavo talks to me a bit and tells me that he has actually hosted a few travelers caught by darkness, most recently a Japanese cyclist. These hills make distances deceiving; this must be why locals will tell you how far you are in hours rather than kilometres.

Sleep is rough. Get in the hammock with my left boot on just in case I can’t put it on again tomorrow. The owner gets in his truck and heads off, and I ask myself, paranoid, where could he be going at this hour and why? It’s nothing, he’s a nice man… but when I hear footsteps in the middle of the night I am alert and ready. They come closer and I sit up, turning on my light and flashing it around. “Who’s there?!” I demand.

I hear the steps again, this time followed by a plaintive bleat – it’s the goat. Must be an insomniac.

Morning comes – have I even slept? It’s chilly at this elevation, the sun still hiding below the horizon. Gustavo is outside, I thank him for his hospitality and ride off, only twenty clicks until Parral. So close, yet so far. I’m riding the curves at a decent pace, getting the hang of positioning my knee at the right angle to make it less bothersome. And then, coming up to a curve no different than the hundreds I’ve already passed through, something goes wrong.

I’m watching it come closer, wondering why I’m still going straight. My brain is screaming at my arms but they obstinately refuse to start turning in time, and then it’s too late.

We’re hurtling toward the aluminum highway railing. It’s too late to make the curve.

Icarus Complex

Fun is a relative term. That’s why some people’s favourite roads are what others would call “bad”.

The road, to use the term loosely, to Batopilas from Urique is one of those roads I think everyone can agree is bad, no matter how much fun you have on it.

I have never dropped my bike so many times in one day. The steep inclines and washed out roads cluttered with boulders keep pushing me to the limits of my abilities as a rider; I am consistently outclassed by this dilapidated pathway. I am focused with all my being on keeping the bike up, but around every hairpin a new rutted ruin of a road further taxes my overspent resources. There’s no going back, so I grit my teeth and pick the bike up every time, my ragged tires slip and twist as I fight a battle for every foot of progress. With the hefty weight of the panniers on either side, the slightest tilt off balance is a struggle to recover from. I twist the throttle to keep the bike up as it threatens to fall, only to hit a patch of loose rocks that slip out from underneath; now I’m trying to save it from falling on the other side. At one point Lost tips over onto the shifter on an especially steep and slippery slope, the impact knocking the gear into neutral. I try to lift her but now she slips down the slope and falls again every time, the incline too sharp for the front brake to keep the bike up. Eventually I have to find a good rock and dig away at the road to reach the shifter, straining in the dust to switch into first so the bike will lock into place when lifted. The going doesn’t get any easier. It’s a Sisyphean endeavour, and I lose my sense of self completely as every fiber of my being focuses on keeping the bike upright, moving forward, and away from that patiently waiting edge cliff edge. Occasionally the road will branch into two equally rugged choices, never an indication of where they lead.

After about the fifteenth (!) time I lose the battle (but not the war!) against the trials, one of my aluminum panniers decides to fall off in protest to being used as a cushion. I skid to a wobbly halt as my unbalanced ride yaws towards the edge. I empty the pannier and bash the box back into a more or less square shape again with one of the readily available rocks.
Fits good as new – after all this I hope I’m going the right way.

Occasionally a dwelling will be accessible from the path, but the locals are maddeningly unhelpful when it comes to asking directions. The native people of these cliffs are shy or unfriendly, and will pretend they don’t notice you unless you address them directly.

I spot a man repairing a fence, and yell hello. No answer. I walk over a few feet away and say good day, he acknowledges me by looking at me expectantly.

I ask the man, “Batopilas, is it that way?”
Yes.
I point in the opposite direction. “Batopilas, is it that way?”
Yes.

I’m concerned because gates are blocking the roads, wood lattices I have to take apart and put back together after crossing. Where the hell is this path taking me?
The canyon is no less breathtaking as I make my slow progress, so I decide not to worry about it. I’m going somewhere, best to embrace it wherever it is.

Standing on the pegs to better control the bike, I suddenly jerk to the left when my footpeg spins off – a bolt fell out! I can’t find it on the road, but fortunately I’ve been warned single cylinder thumpers like mine are notorious for rattling bolts off and am prepared with spares. I repair Lost in the shade of a pine tree, my boots crunching on the dirt road, the only company I’ve had all day. After several hours of wandering the meandering canyons open up before me to reveal a massive valley and a town below. Batopilas, in sight at last! At least I hope it’s Batopilas…

The intensity of the day has driven my focus inward, the voices in my helmet quiet as my energies concentrate on the immediacy of the moment. This inner silence sharpens my appreciation of the landscape around me, raw contentment and a feeling of achievement suffuse each moment on what is, to me, the top of the world. I sit and observe in the afternoon sun and silence, not yet ready to enter the town and switch on.

Eventually a truck drives by and breaks the spell. I take some photos for retrospect and head on down, the descent ludicrously simple after the day’s challenges; I enjoy the heightened feeling of awareness as the rear tire slips on the switchbacks and I simply twist the throttle for more speed, let the bike straighten itself out, no fear left for today, that inner animal conquered. If only I could capture and keep this feeling I could ride all the way to the top of the highest mountain, never need a road again.

Batopilas is intriguing, I ride around its tilted streets after finding a place for the night – 150 pesos. Lost and I go wander. A cute girl winks at me as I pass by – hopefully I run into her later – but for now there’s exploring to do. Across from town a set of ostentatious buildings in ruins catch my eye, the evening sun highlighting the paper thin scarlet bougainvillea flowers covering the brick towers.

Nobody seems to be around. I stroll through alone after a yelling out a couple of greetings, trying not to think of horror movie tropes. There are pickup trucks parked here, but everything seems to be vacant and falling apart. The trees grab my attention most of all; graceful forms contrasting against their effortless destruction of man’s fragile works. I see signs of habitation in the smaller structures closer to town – plastic chairs, clothes hanging on lines – but still no people. Strange.

Back in town I wander around and eventually sit down to chat with some locals. The conversation turns to my quest to discover a source of lechugilla moonshine – for its multiple uses such as fuel and sterilization of course. I’m entertained by hunting down a fellow named Lazaro Torres in a group of dwellings clustered together on the skirts of the cliffside. As soon as I get off the bike and start wandering around, the dogs approach growling and barking. A handy trick I picked up in Guatemala – I crouch and make as if to grab a rock and they quickly turn and run. Poor beasts have been trained harshly to fear people, here. I eventually get pointed to Lazaro’s house and a beautiful young woman comes to the door. He’s out working, but has sold all his hooch for now. I won’t be around long enough to catch the next batch, unfortunately, but get a lead on another town where I can find some on the way out of the canyon – Korareachi.

I park the bike inside the hotel and walk the streets at night, looking for something to fill my belly, and maybe run into that cute girl from earlier. I ask the armed police officer in front of the presidencia municipal building about the safety of wandering around at night. He says it’s fine, no worries. As I wander father towards the outskirts I fall into step with a middle aged woman of classically round Mexican proportions. She tells me I will get robbed, and that she never walks the streets alone at night. She explains to me that transient workers are housed at the hacienda across the river, and that robberies have increased with their presence. I ask her what she is doing out in that case, and she says, “Well I live here”. I walk with her until she turns at a door and wishes me a good night, and blesses me in the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I take it in stride and carry on, less than ten bucks in my pockets and ambivalent about the most likely imagined dangers.

I have a burger at a food stand, curious if it will be different so far from the beaten path. It is, and not for the better, but it’s food. Kids play with a soccer ball in the street, and I think of the friends I left behind in Urique. The people here are friendly but it doesn’t feel the same here – I’m a tourist again. It makes me wonder why it is that I don’t miss my vastly more intimately friendly community back in the frozen North, but I suppose it is merely the immediacy of the departure – eventually it will all fade into memory, overwhelmed by the present. I enjoyed the change of pace, but it’s good to be moving again. Too quickly I settle into a comfortable rhythm, my shallow root system taking hold. Need to keep the momentum, or the adventure decays into indulgence.

Nothing wrong with stopping to savour the places I pass, but there is a long road ahead of me. There will be time enough for comfort, for the now I seek adventure.

Be careful what you wish for…

Small towns are the beating heart of human nature, exposed.

I am quickly adopted by Cecilia’s sister Adriana and her friends, Oso, Junior, and their wives Adilene and Adilene. They tell me about the local tradition of “stealing” girls – when a man wants to declare his intentions he takes the girl away, either to another village or to somewhere hidden up in the barranco, until enough time has passed that he can return and declare her his. Since parents are often opposed, if the duration is too short or they find out where the couple are hiding out, they can go and the culturally obedient daughter typically returns to the family. We get a good laugh out of Junior’s account of stealing Adilene to go hide out in the cliffs, her inexplicably trekking along in heels.

My new friends and I explore the canyons and enjoy excellent socializing across the road from Luz, the agreeable storeowner who at any hour will respond to the cry “Luz! Una seiz!” with a six pack. The local girls teach me how they dance and play pingpong in my boxers, and the local guys teach me to respect the alcohol content of Tecate and how to make a delicious michelada– sort of a Mexican bloody mary. Everyone wants to know who I’m going to “steal”, and times slows down for a siesta as the days are packed with hiking and grilling and drinks. Every morning I ride to the canyon summit, whooping back down again, a good mood guaranteed til I close my eyes dreaming of the next morning’s ride.

While investigating options for continuing through the canyon, I meet Alonso who introduces me to two of the canyon’s most powerful substances. First, he offers to introduce me to lechugilla, local agave moonshine. I expect a shot, he hands me a whole glassful, and to demonstrate its potency spills some on the ground and lights it. Despite the kick, it’s actually incredibly smooth and has a light flavour and clean finish. When he offers me a pint-sized chilli pepper, I eat the tiny berry in one bite. My first mistake. The second was grabbing the nearest glass at hand and reflexively chugging it.

When everyone stops laughing, my face still feels flushed red and I am bright eyed; fortunately I don’t have far to take the motorcycle to the other end of town.

Tomas’ nephew Tony takes me out to the next town over to try and get a ride lined up to take me over the rain-swollen river. No luck, he gets in a hummer with some Cicarioswho are passing by and heads up the cliffs to ask around for me while I sit and chill with his younger cousin. The lanky Rogelio sidles up to us with a manic laugh that bursts out and cuts off abruptly at random intervals, making awkward conversation. I offer him one of the dobladas I’d bought from a passing lady but he hefts a bag of corn flour and says that’s his food, poor people food. He goes quiet as another man strides up forcefully, surprisingly blue eyes set hard and fists clenched. Rogelio drops the flour and picks up a rock, while blue-eyes screams out at him “Why did you hit her!?” over and over as they circle, him relentlessly pursuing and the other dancing out of reach keeping his attacker at bay swinging the rock. Tomas’ nephew explains Rogelio got drunk and punched blue eyes’ wife. The scene becomes surreal when blue eyes heads off to go get his “steel”; Rogelio returns to his bag of flour, rips it open and pours it on the ground in an X, yelling to the skies, “Today there will be blood!”
He is almost flattened as a white pickup truck barrels down on him, family members finally emerge to diffuse the situation and by the time Tony gets back nothing remains of the madness but an X on the ground.

I also manage to lose my laptop among all this. Too comfortable, I suppose – in my evening walks I have come to meet most of the locals who sit out on The Street for lack of anything urgent, as if anything is urgent here. I hone the art of sitting around and passing the time with them, enjoying conversations and absorbing the atmosphere of silent conviviality. However, it was still stupid of me to go climbing the cliffs with the gang while my laptop lay unsecured in the unlocked kitchen, on the one day the caretaker was in a different town no less. At least the idiots didn’t recognize my USB drive – all photos are saved, though blog entries up to present date were not backed up. A generous donation for lessons on overconfidence, I hope not to need them again. The police chief is less than helpful, and considering that the gun toting cicarios roll through in hummers and trucks undisturbed, I have a feeling his interpretation of lawful might be a bit more exclusive than mine; his request for the password and unprompted description of the laptop sink any hopes of recuperating it.

The tranquility at my hostel ends with the arrival of new guests, but they’re mostly cute international girls studying at Guadalajara university and one über chill German guy who offers Schmlz & Schn as Germany’s answer to Four Tet. Keep trying, Germany. Convival backpacker life is shared and I take the opportunity to guide them around “my” Urique. We enjoy the spicy shrimp agua chile at Mama Tita’s and in the morning they make crêpes, to my delight. We trek to Guapalayna where a local lady empties her larder to feed us and the local drunks offer us a ride, leering at the girls. I end up negotiating driving us to Urique in their truck; the road tilting crazily, everyone in the truck silently praying we don’t teeter over into the river. We make it and the poor guys circle town, hoping for another chance. We grab some beers and retreat to the hostel where a good night is had and I am given good reason to believe I’d not regret going to Guadalajara.

I’m warned by Alonso that the local Cicarios gang is asking about me, insinuating I might be affiliated with their rivals la Linea. A story another friend I’ve made here told me comes to mind. Like many locals, he worked picking marijuana. One day the rival gang appeared and started shooting the workers. He and his friend were caught and tied to a tree, but managed wriggle free and make a break for it. He made it out and didn’t look back, but never heard from his friend again. The gangs are serious business here, and I’ve figured out how to continue the road along the canyon; it might finally be time to leave. One last time I sit with my new friends and enjoy tecate until too-late, but despite their entreaties and promises of parties and grills, the time has arrived once again.

Blearily the next day I load the bike into the back of a pickup truck to cross the river. I tell Alonso to just leave me on the other side but he insists on taking me up a few hundred meters, the truck slipping and sliding on the loose rockslide they consider a road here.

Unloading the bike I survey the path. I thought I had ridden some gnarly roads before, but the rainy season has removed all the dirt from between the rocks and created a formidable obstacle course.

I turn the ignition and smile.

Today is going to be a most tubular day.

I am my own worst enemy. After cats. And arachnids. Don’t even get me started on spiderfelines.

Urique mornings.
“You’re an inspiringly tenacious little bastard, Mr. Fuzzynuts,” I grumble halfheartedly as my well endowed feline foe zips past me when I open the kitchen door, leaving behind him a mess of crumbs where I’d left my bread, again. Breakfast comes fresh from the trees. The membrane between sections is what makes grapefruit bitter, so I slow it down some and free the succulent flesh to mix with avocado and cilantro. Delicious, the taste of a day deliberately prepared.

I am supposed to get Tomas to build a fire to heat the water tank, but even before the sunlight sears the canyon floor the impending heat is enough for cold water to suffice. Getting dressed after showering is an adventure, shaking a scorpion out of my shirt and scaring a tarantula from under my pants. I spot two more small scorpions in the crevices between the mortared stones that make up the shower walls and decide to shake out my boxers again – just in case.

Ready to ride the canyon again. Sheer cliffs sheer joy, near drops, and a man chasing his runaway cow punctuate the ascent. Cecilia recommended a hike here called Curvas de Maria. Eventually the path leads to the edge of the cliffs and winds down a dramatic ridge. I can’t help but compare with the Grand Canyon, the panorama so vast perspective slips past easy grasp; I just breathe and take it in.

Tequila Halo

Verdant canyons fold away into the horizon; it could swallow its American counterpart but I can barely understand that from my smallness. Scattered everywhere, the crystalline rocks they call geodas weigh down my magpie pockets. I’m not sure if this is where I was supposed to end up but I’m glad to be here.

Geodas, I choose you!

Tequila comes from... asparagus?

The trail meets the dirt road again well down the cliffside – and presents me with a challenge.

Yesterday Cecilia told me about the Raramuri people and their renowned ability to run up the canyons. Their traditional races became an international event with the help of a gringo they called Caballo Blanco, an 80 Km ultramarathon rising over 500 meters. Ultramarathoners from around the globe come to compete, but save for a few outliers, almost nobody beats the Raramuri at this race – and they’re running in sandals made from old tires and leather thongs. She got a smile recounting when Nike tried to sponsor them but they didn’t like their shoes and ended up tossing them to finish barefoot. Inspired and determined I put my pride as a runner on the line as I start an easy jog, wondering just how far down I’ve climbed. An embarrassingly short distance later I accept I am hopelessly outclassed by this challenge and choke down canyon dust as a couple of trucks pass me by on the way up, oblivious to the sweaty gringo with his thumb out.

I race down – the trek took longer than I’d hoped and I have plans for drinks with Cecilia. Adrenaline floods my system as I go for a record time, familiar enough with the curves now to not panic when I feel the rear sliding. I make it down ten minutes faster, time to spare! Of course my clock is an hour behind so I’m late anyway. She is unimpressed. What kind of Latina is she!?

Retiring for the evening, I’m kept good company by Thoreau – Walden is just the book for me at this new pace. Some thoughts to share:

“We slave the better part of our lives to rest the remainder that we’re ready to slave again. Pass on lessons rather than the useless frivolities of the “upper class”. Work to travel, and you will still see less and be behind the vagabond who just goes.”

There is a middle ground, here. Yes, there is an element of adventure to having to immediately confront lack of food or shelter. But at the same time, if all our energies are spent acquiring these necessities how will we find the time to stop and savour the experience of the places we go? His penchant for minimalism aside, I think what he refers to is the necessary interaction with communities that comes from entering them as a vagabond – immediately you integrate yourself because you need to learn about the people, safe shelter, easy fuel for warmth and belly. Enter with all these arrangements taken care of, and once you have eaten your fill you will have no necessity to talk to strangers, no unavoidable questions to ask locals, and having a bed at your disposal may simply let inertia take you to sleep when in reality you had energy for far more interactions and adventures than you will ever know if you never need to use it. Easily available comfort means fewer opportunities for the blissful rest of the truly exhausted, the overwhelming satisfaction of eating after going hungry rather than just because it’s that time again Pavlov.

On pop culture he nails it – entertainment (reading, in his time), has been reduced from a sharing of the mind to a kind of masturbation without the mess. It’s more profitable to satisfy than to teach. No novel or clever thought necessary so long as you hit all the right notes. This is why Hollywood always churns out the same crap – hero, love story, bad guys, easy on the eyes. Avatar is an excellent example of this. A huge hit – millions of people empathized with the poor “fictional” aliens being exploited by resource hungry advanced races, fantasized about a world they could save, and stroked their moral vanity in the mirror. Meanwhile, Barrick Gold buys legal immunity for causing rapes and murders in Papua New Guinea and TVI Pacific displaces indigenous people with private military forces. And the crowd demands catharsis, not change.

I read and reflect on contradictions and human nature as the sun sets beyond the canyon walls, not looking for answers, just trying to understand.

Moments of stilness

Stop motion living

I’m staying at Entre Amigos, a beautiful name for a lonely place on the edge of town. Peanuts, squash, lemons and grapefruits all grow abundantly in the orchard where my hammock is strung up. My only company here is Tomas the groundskeeper with his sheepish smile and old work jeans labelled Dolce & Gabbana. It’s peaceful, and I’m told to help myself to anything that grows there.

At the Mezquital taco shack I meet the lovely Karen, Vanessa, and Maria when they steal my seat as I set up for a photo.

Sweet sweet tacos

They take me for a tour, a bit self conscious, but they’re sweet girls and leave me completely at ease in this tiny town. Urique is impressive more than anything for its location. But it’s a damn impressive location. Even moreso considering that upon its construction no roads existed – materials for everything had to be carried and donkey’d from the nearest town 200 km away, then hauled down the treacherous slopes. Any building of significant size here is a monument to human tenacity.

Colonialism isn't over

All the inhabitants seem to be sitting on steps or plastic chairs, taking the air and commenting to any passersby (or hooting at the girls for catching the gringo).

They teach me a bit about local wordplay and we meander until dark. Despite my Spanish fluency I’m stumbling on double entendres and local slang. Goodnight to the ladies and off to my hammock, cosily hung amidst the grapefruit trees and cacti in the massive garden that is the Entre Amigos hostel. When Tomas asked me how long I’d be staying I told him I didn’t know. I sink back with a smile into my nest, and think, a while.

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I am surprised to learn there is a tourism office in this nugget of a town, so I stop by. In charge is the stunning Cecilia who takes me out for coffee in a house/restaurant wild with local greenery. She tells me about Urique and the natives, we exchange souls over conversation and a haze settles over me. Her story is about following your own path with confidence and determination no matter how unusual, leaving Oregon and love for Mexico and to have a child on her own. Inspiring.

Spot the Tecate

I take Lost for a spin on the route she suggests to nearby Naranjo – definitely not a ride I should have undertaken on flip-flops. The dance ends in a nap for Lost when a truck comes around the corner and eliminates the road as an option. Fortunately some thoughtful civil engineer thought to squeeze a telephone pole into the narrow ditch, so that helps slow me down considerably.

I head back to the hostel to straighten the guards and bars, thankful for my intact toes. Strolling through town the I am greeted by the friendly and talkative DudeBro, whose memorable quote is “Dude – if you don’t get laid in every town you go to, I don’t know what you’re doing in Mexico”.

The one with the booze and the nature.

A desert rises ahead and falls behind on the journey to Creel. I can’t stop and see everything, to my chagrin. What I would give for another hundred years on this earth…

The route, though quickly deteriorating to remote gravel roads, is surprisingly well signed. Gotta get that infrastructure taken care of to shuttle beer in and precious metals out.

The cheap dorms I’d read about are full and I settle on another place with a Romanian couple I meet wandering the streets in motorcycle gear.

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Alex (Alejandro, here) and Andreea are an absolute pleasure. We talk about the journey, walk around town, I learn that in the same time frame as myself they left from Montreal two hours away from my own departure point, and went to Alaska before heading this way on Gunnar, their trusty V-Strom. They also stopped at Julio’s place on the way down, but coincidences have stopped surprising me by now.

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We head together to the famous divisadero through some delightful curves that temper our speeds with gravel-filled potholes. It feels good to take a ride without all the power ranger gear.

The vista is magnificent as we approach the canyon. Locals point out a rock jutting over the edge that teeters precariously, so naturally we head over to tempt fate.

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I talk the manager of the canyon’s cable car into giving us a free ride by introducing my new friends as Famous Romanian Documentarians. Alejandro is really earnest about making the interview we film with the manager into a quality product to repay him. It’s a truly impressive experience, soaring over the vastness of what is only a tiny corner of the canyon. The cables fall away into the distance, so far you can’t even follow them to the end with your eyes, as if the trolley could at some point just reach the end and slip off into thin air.

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After climbing around and playing on the edge of the void, we grab some of the delicious gorditas that everyone has been telling us to try. Alejandro, ever the optimist, uses the hand sanitizer as if that one tiny concession to hygiene could save him.

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Andreea wants us to get a move on.

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Creel is not quiet this night. The same notes are repeated over and over on a rustic sounding violin, punctuated occasionally by a group of voices yelling “woo!” well into the morning. Around 5AM I give in and go for a run up the Cristo Rey, as obligatory a town structure in Latin America as a greasy spoon in the USA. A middle aged paunchy fellow puts me to shame as he jogs up the steps past me, then points out the Tarajumara Indian party that had been causing the hubbub all night. They were right behind the hostel, no wonder it was so loud.

Further investigation quickly leads to me being accosted by a fellow who is well into his cups, and dragged into the brilliant Technicolor crowd where I am proffered tesguiño to my halfhearted dismay. On the one hand, drinking fermented maize being scooped out of a garbage pail in communal gourd-cups is something mom wouldn’t endorse. But my philosophy of never turning down an invitation forces my other hand. I try to ignore the echo of Pepe’s advice in Chihuahua – “Don’t try the tesguiño. They ferment it with spit”.
I drink, and silently toast to shared immunities.

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The sludge at the bottom of the plastic garbage pail is pretty bad even before taking into account the flavour though – what was a liquidy potent potable at the top of the barrel seems more like regurgitated corn at the bottom. Still, I can’t get away with half finishing my generous bowl, they insist I finish up and with a smile I choke it down.

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The Tarajumara culture is very interesting in regard to these parties – wealth is displayed by holding them, and there is strong religious significance. The violins and group cries go on all night while dancers in religious garb circle a makeshift shrine to what I suspect is the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to their beliefs, alcoholic intoxication is a religious experience. As the night goes on, everyone keeps on chugging tesguiño and getting “closer to God”. Definitely beats “we broke up again” as far as reasons to hit the sauce go.
Fortunately I am rescued from my enthusiastic new companion by some other Tarajumaras who warn me to watch out for him.

Things seem to get a little tense and I make my way out of there to bid goodbye to Alejandro and Andreea. Their philosophy resonates with me in my untethered idealistic state – when they return, their priorities are to make a good life where they land, and to help build the community around themselves. Building a community, when I’d never considered another option apart from finding a community and adopting it. But then, I’m a nomad, a madman or nebunul as my new Romanian friends put it. My community is perforce scattered among the places I have known. But it lightens my heart to collect them as part of my disparate clan, members of which I have already encountered on the road, lost in a sea of complacent fellows or staking their claims for their own communities to flourish.

I enjoy the opportunity to allow these thoughts to percolate on the ride out; on my own again. In the unpredictable map of my plans, reaching the bottom of the Urique canyon is the only one that has constantly remained among the shifting futurescape of my possibilities. Arrival means traversing increasingly rural terrain until I’m on gravel and dirt with nothing but the occasional subsistence farmstead in sight, the landscape serenely shifting as I make it farther and farther from civilization as I knew it.

The canyon itself arrives gradually, and the impact grows and reverberates as I stop more and longer to drink in the unexpectedly gorgeous view. Not that I didn’t expect it to be, generically, beautiful… but this, no I didn’t expect this. Until you’ve seen some things with your own eyes, you can never quite imagine them no matter how much time you spend watching the world through a glowing screen.

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Everything the light touches

I stop to check out the Mexican Pre-fab home.

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At the bottom I stop, elated, and survey the impressive cliffs that surround me, hardly believing I actually came down such a slope on my motorcycle. My elation is interrupted by the improbably expensive looking white pickup that rolls up beside me, overflowing with shotguns and automatic rifles. The faces look friendly and they ask me where I am heading as if they don’t expect people to lie about where they’re sleeping to heavily armed strangers. Seemingly satisfied I have no business with them, they head off saying, “anything you need, come to us.”
Now I know who to talk to about filling something with bullets or guerrilla horticulture.

Should be an interesting time here in Urique