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