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

The way of the guey

How to cross the border into Mexico:

Go towards Mexico. Pass the US Border. There, you’re done!

The Mexican frontier has no customs or immigration from the U.S. side, though they are hardly so lax with their neighbours to the South. Borders seem to be a one-way economic valve around here.

Crossing into Juarez is immediately interesting, not in the least because in my hungover fugue I both mislay my handwritten directions to the vehicle import office and forget to change money. I spin around in circles in Juarez till I’m pointed in the right direction and have seen enough to feel confident this place is not Mexico as most Mexicans know it. Trucks with gun turrets and armoured soldiers with heavy weaponry roam the streets, massive office buildings and hotels are betrayed as Mexican only by their low-slung and crammed together counterparts.

Customs takes a $400 deposit on the bike and an hour of my life, most of which is spent waiting for Jesus the copy guy to show up. A long desert road later I make it to Chihuahua for the night; Hostel San Juan turns out to not be the backpacker paradise the internet claims. I’m the only foreigner there, and the local ladies of the night add colour with their moaning through the paper thin walls. A drunk motions for help with his door in the dim and claustrophobic hall – he can’t get his room key to work – turning it works for me. Seedy, would be the word to describe the joint.

Looks great from the courtyard, though – I even ran into some architecture students the next day taking photos of the centuries old building.

I’m glad to connect with a couchsurfer the next day, and even moreso when Pepe turns out to be the most interesting Mexican I’ve met. A fellow shoestring traveller, we compare notes and talk about bar food vs. actually going out and purchasing nutrition. Lotta protein in peanuts. He is currently nursing several projects while interning as a doctor in a village South of Chihuahua. I’m fascinated by his RFID blood donor scheme, in which he proposes to insert RFID tags into the Mexican populace to track their participation in blood donations to know what is available and where for emergencies, as well as to encourage participation by prioritizing based on donations.

Apparently he nearly managed to secure an $800,000.00 grant for it and when it went through the ministry of Health the department head met with him to tell him she would only release half of the funds for the project, and tried to get him to sign off on the move. He refused to sign, good man, working with the next president to get the ball rolling, in the meantime occupied with his work and directing truckloads of medical supplies to remote villages.

We go on a tour of the city together where they point out the Angel of Liberty statue complete with laser-shooting sword in front of the palace or palacio as they call their city halls. There is an interesting series of murals supposedly depicting the history of Chihuahua inside, and on the other side of the walls a punk rock show protest is going on for unsolved murders of women in Chihuahua.

We go out to a rooftop cafe view of the city where I try cheese mixed with huitlacoche, a sort of fungus that grows on corn. Delicious, the first but certainly not last in a series of tasty latinamerican weirdnesses.

The next day we ride to the village where he practices – in Mexico all doctors must work a year in rural areas to graduate. I’m warned to stay inside the clinic but of course I go explore. On inquiring about the bullet holes riddling the town I learn there was a firefight. A long time ago, right? No, last weekend! The clinic is located by a roundabout that connects four towns, which apparently makes it the site of most conflicts. Chihuahua is a state in which mucho marijuana is grown, leading to much drug-related violence.

We check out a desert museum which is pretty cool for a museum, and on a whim head out an hour West for the world-renowned caves of Naica.

Turns out he has an uncle who heads security there, but at the moment it is closed to all, so we ride North an hour or so to a lake for fresh fish soup. Not having expected these impromptu detours, I’m in flip flops. Riding through the gravel roads we end up on is an interesting experience.

His friends put us up for the night, I play Kinect with their kid, and they feed us delicious homecooked dinner and breakfast. Three spinsters bring me savoury filled tortillas for lunch and interrogate me about my journey; two of them look at me as if I have a second head but the third is aglow with enthusiasm and excitement at the idea. This introduction to Mexico has been very interesting, I have been impressed by how open and friendly the people have been, I’m looking forward to whatever is to come.

For a long time now I’ve been contemplating via satellite image the Copper Canyon of Mexico. Perhaps this is the only way to do so, for in person its scale is completely overwhelming – six times larger than the so called Grand canyon of the U.S.A., twice as deep; I have set no time limit on this part of my journey. Who knows, I may never leave.

Next stop, Creel, gateway to the Canyon.

The soft side of the ragged edge

Cold droplets on my face wake me instantly. It is drizzling and the mosquito net is jewelled with water.

The pines are grey under cloudy morning; light seeps in from beyond the horizon where the sun has already risen. I pack quickly in the early chill, breaking my fast with single-serving peanut butter packets before setting off to lower altitudes where the pines give way to cacti.

I make it out of the wild hills and gulleys of the desert after a 4×4 points me in the right direction – the GPS track is long lost, and each time I take a path that looks like it should head to the city it veers away, leaving me staring at a labyrinth of dirt tracks that would be a blast to ride if I didn’t have a destination.

Arriving in Phoenix it’s Couchsurfing to the rescue again – Rogelio tells me to stop by to “see what he can do for me”. He sizes me up and decides I’m alright. I don’t yet know how lucky I am.

We bond over lust for adventure and I am impressed by his drive; at his age not many people have their own place and a nice jeep. He’s deceptively mature, and that seems to be the only thing keeping him in place; he loves what I’m doing but the total irresponsibility of leaping before you look keeps him building a solid life step by step instead. I can respect that. Still, his eye gleams with adventure as I share stories and before long we’ve planned to cross the border together to party in Juarez after celebrating his sister’s birthday in El Paso next week. So much for just changing tires and heading to Mexico. It’s a chill time eating massive amounts of grilled chicken, going to sleep by his otherworldly axolotls, and saving the occasional damsel in distress.

I purchase a big blocky TKC80 that should eat up any paths the road ahead can throw at me, and look for ways to kill time until it arrives. Phoenix is sprawling and uninspiring, low slung cookie cutter neighbourhoods and strip malls box inhabitants together and apart. I decide to take an alternative sightseeing trip, an Italian designed architectural oddity left fallow in the name of capitalism.

Stan Bergstein elaborates: “Phoenix Trotting Park … was originally supposed to be built for $3 million, but [cost almost] $10 million, essentially bankrupting its builder, James Dunnigan… It was built of reinforced concrete, and could have withstood a direct hit by a hydrogen bomb… it went belly up and was bought by Sportservice, to make sure no reincarnation took place and its greyhound operation in Phoenix was protected. It is still standing, and some future travelers from space probably will regard it in the same way Stonehenge in Britain is regarded today……a monument built in the desert by sun worshipers.” Sounds worth checking out while I’m here.

Normally the most fun part of urban exploration is devising stratagems and puzzling over points of entry. The building stands alone a straight shot from the highway across a good half mile of dried mud and low scrub in any direction; subtle entry isn’t an option at midday. I gun it from the nearest road and stash Lost out of view while I poke around.

The strangely angled structure looms over me as I slide under a twisted gate and inspect this oasis of solitude, alone in plain view. It is a strange contrast to at once feel so isolated and so exposed. My feet crunch past graffiti and up frozen escalators. Highway sounds wash in; the only indication of life on this planet. I finish reading The Tiger’s Wife by the stairwell windows, and then use it as a pillow for a nap. No denizens lurk here to bother me; too far removed from the necessities of life, too exposed to be a decent hobo nest. Satisfied I’ve poked at the mysteries whispering in all hidden corners, I make my escape under the bold sun, none to challenge my exit anymore than my entry.

Fellow adventure rider Julio invites me to work on my steering head column bearings in his garage. I’m eager to follow the advice of more experienced riders; in short order he has me changing the fork oil and stiffening the shocks, lubricating axles, cleaning the filter. He invites me to stay for a delicious home cooked dinner and crash the night – why not.

I learn how he came from Puerto Rico to study architecture, living ten years in the Bronx for the cheap rent. A practical man after my own heart. Like Rogelio, I can see he’s excited for me, his own wanderlust ignited – but he’s got family. Lucky kid, between the bikes in the garage and the omnivorous library collection, he’s got the makings of a childhood to be envious of. Julio can’t ride with me, but he sends me off with a spare camelback that I immediately fall in love with.

Lost gets her new shoe and Rogelio is flying to El Paso so it’s time to go. An hour into the 700 km ride rain starts. I pull over to put on the rain gear.

It isn’t anywhere. Somewhere far behind me, someone is opening a bag they found on the road and saying, “My, what a lovely set of rain gear!”. This is going to suck.

Riding through the rain I remind myself I’ve weathered worse. I come from the land of regular -40 degree winters. Still I try to race out of the storm. The new rear tire has brutal highway handling – pinning the throttle the tire screams bloody murder and the whole bike wobbles in the rain. I stop at a gas station to warm up at some point and some Johnny down-on-his-luck tells me how he’s stuck here because he ran out of gas and has no more money. Suspiciously convenient place to end up, but what the hell, I’ve gotta spread the love I’ve been receiving.

I make it to Rogelio’s soaked to my bones, but after a hot shower I am happy to meet the family and they have beer and food at the ready. And most importantly, a bed – that was a long ride in the rain. Apart from the rainy arrival everything about El Paso turns out aces – I have the good fortune to find a rainsuit for twenty bucks on Kijiji, and Rog’s family are all great people, his dad even takes us out to see my first motocross show. I get a gleam in my eye during the races, but that’s a dream for another day.

Two days and too many beers later, I awake in the gazebo to clean up the feathers and fish my keys out of the pool while Rog dries his cell phone and cleans up glass shards. Despite my prizewinning hangover I am gloriously happy with my life. A parting kiss from a delicately beautiful lady doesn’t hurt either. I’ve met a brother in arms, and I mean it when I tell him we must meet again down the road. I say goodbye to his family, a bit abashed that we probably kept them up with our adolescent revelry last night.

Life has been good in the U.S.A. and I don’t regret extending my time, but the day has come.

Mexico is calling. Let’s go see what kind of real trouble I can get into.