Copper Canyon – Pt 1

Mexico, Take Two
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Many people had warned me about the dangers of traveling to Mexico at this time, especially for someone traveling alone and on a motorcycle. The borders were rumored to be rife with murders and drug cartels were fighting for supremacy. But I wasn’t planning on staying near the borders – I only had to be there long enough to get my paperwork in order and then I’d be gone, deep into the interior where the locals were friendly and helpful. Friends and family questioned my intentions, some of them sending me helpful official US Government warnings. But as with most people, they only know what they see on the 11 o’clock news, and we all know they only report on the bad news. I took their cautions under advisement but did not let them deter me. I had done a lot of research for this trip and I had a list of places and things that I wanted to see. Almost all of them were in the Copper Canyon area, far away from the border and known as a haven for tourists. It would be safer than taking a commuter train to Oakland, CA.

March 6-15, 2009
Total Miles: 3,422 miles
Mountain View, CA to Copper Canyon (Mexico)
Tickets: 0
Mishaps: 0
Puckers: dozens

Photo note: some of the photos were taken with my 2nd camera on the fly, if you will. This lead to some blurry, not centered photos, some with gloved fingers interfering. I included these photos anyway because I felt that they give another glimpse of what one sees while zipping down a Mexican road.

Day 1 – Friday 392 miles

I had my bags packed and ready to go the night before I was to depart. I left work a little early on Friday, threw the bags on the KLR and immediately hopped on I-5 south to Anaheim. The ride, as usual, was uneventful. But spring was in the air and before the sun set into the western sky I could see the orchards full of blossoms, the dainty white petals covering the ground beneath like a fine layer of snow. Honeybee boxes had been strategically placed to encourage proper pollination and a plentiful crop. But not much else sparked my interest and it was only a matter of following the GPS for a few hours before I finally arrived at my friends’ house in Anaheim. Robert and Trina greeted me warmly and we settled in for a short evening before retiring for the night.

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Robert, Trina and Audry

Day 2– Saturday 531 miles

The next day being Saturday, Robert offered to take me on some interesting roads on my way east. I was heading for Tucson, AZ and I had no particular agenda. The two of us set out in a southeastern direction, following the interstates while Robert pointed out the scenery where wildfires raged just a few months ago. The number of lanes diminished and soon we were on a nice two-lane road that rolled through the countryside. A turnoff a few miles later led us up Palomar Mountain and to Mother’s, a famous local restaurant and motorcycle hangout at the top of the mountain. Robert, who knew the road and his limits much better than I did, took off while I dawdled along behind him. I eventually reached the top and together we had a nice breakfast and watched the sport bike riders come and go. Afterwards we headed down the other (“fast”) side of the mountain, where the road doesn’t twist quite so much and speeds were held a little higher. Robert remarked a number of times about how unusually green everything was, what with recent rains and the early springtime. Deciding to take advantage of this rare weather phenomenon, we took a slight detour to visit Borrego Springs. Rumor had it that this was to be a “100 year bloom” where the valleys would be full of beautiful desert flowers. We descended down into the valley, temperatures rising slightly as we came down the open and rocky mountain face. There wasn’t a lot of color to be seen, but perhaps it was tucked in a canyon somewhere at the bottom. We stopped at a gas station to ask and the attendant was kind enough to give us incredibly vague directions. Robert and I meandered around straight, un-blooming roads, looking for any hint of spring color. We eventually ended up at a large metal sculpture in a field with many cars parked around it. People were walking around, some with large and unwieldy cameras, and we decided that this must be the place. We parked the bikes and walked along the sandy tracks. Only up close could one really get a sense of the individual beauty that was happening in this desert oasis. Flowers for which I have no name or knowledge of were blooming, their tiny heads sitting low over the warm ground. Not a grand show of nature, but a subtle one at least.

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View from Palomar Mountain

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The east side of Palomar

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Borrego Springs

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The highway down to the valley

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The town of Borrego Springs

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Flowers

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More flowers

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Weird sculptures

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Sculpture detail

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Sculpture detail

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Bike among the flowers

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Close-up of a cool plant

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Glowing cactus!

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Robert and I with the bikes

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Ocatillo plant

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Bike near some more ocatillo plants

At this point Robert had to head back and I needed to continue east. I had made arrangements to stay with someone from ADV in Tucson and I didn’t want to be rude and show up in the middle of the night. I continued east to the Salton Sea and then followed the coast to Brawley (which has a very nice city hall) and Yuma before being regulated to I-8 across the desert. I looked for things to amuse me along the way, enjoying the acrobatics of a crop duster as it flew low over a field before it rose up and banked hard to start another pass. Later, I watched ORVs make their way across silky sand dunes, the vehicles’ tall orange flags waving in the breeze. The Border Patrol had set up shop along this route, it being just a few miles from the Mexican border. I felt that their actions were a waste of time and money, but what is one to do? I kept on riding.

Not wanting to impose on my future hosts, I made a quick stop for dinner at a Casa Grande truck stop. The food was mediocre, the service was slow and the water tasted awful. Other than the break it gave me from being on the bike, it was not worth stopping for. I eventually reached Tucson, and thanks to the GPS, I found Bill’s house without any trouble. I was very tired at this point, as the KLR is not the ideal bike to ride for hours on a straight road at high speeds, and my bum was glad to get off the stock seat. Also, my knees were slightly sore from the restricted space I have to position them in and it felt good to stretch out my legs. Bill and his wife were very friendly and let me just sit and recover a little bit before calling it a night.

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Dunes near Mohawk, AZ

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I-8 in Arizona

Day 3 – Sunday 263 miles

Sunday morning was bright and hazy, a perfect day for riding. Bill made some road suggestions to get to the border crossing at Douglas and I was eager to check them out. The roads ran through Arizona’s “Wine Country” and having come from California’s “Wine Country”, I was curious as to what I’d see. What I didn’t see was anything that remotely resembled what I knew of wine country. Instead there were some scrubby hills, a few nice twists and turns early on (it always pays to take the road marked “Old” before the name) and eventually some wide open grazing lands. I noticed a sign in a field, rather unofficial looking that read “Grazing prevents wild fires”. The irony of the sign in that barren, overgrazed pasture was not lost on me.

There were a couple of other motorcyclists on the roads with me, not surprising since it was such a lovely Sunday morning. I followed a couple of cruisers through wide-open fields with short rocky hills in the distance. I was on my way to Tombstone. Not quite “on the way”, but a short enough detour to warrant my taking the time to see the infamous Western town. The town itself was very well preserved, with the main street blocked off from vehicle traffic and still unpaved. Garbed historical actors kicked up dust as they prepared for their “Gunfight Daily!” show. I can’t imagine the joy that it must be to kill the same person, day after day. A few tourists wandered around the wooden sidewalks and I went back to my bike. It was time to head for the border.

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Homes outside of Tucson, AZ

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Old Sonoita Highway

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Plant life along the way

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Views along Hwy 83 in Arizona

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Tombstone, AZ

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City Hall in Tombstone

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Downtown Tombstone

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Locals in Tombstone

The road south of Tombstone was surprisingly interesting. The hills had heavy geological striations and slight variations in color. The earth on either side crowded in close until I was riding through a narrow, rocky canyon, the red rock face exposed to the sun. Suddenly I was in Bisbee, a quaint looking town stuck to the sides of the canyon. Buildings perched precariously upon the rock walls and the streets wound narrow along the canyon floor. My viewpoint from the main road allowed me to look upon the town as an oversized miniature and it would be easy to imagine a model train running through the middle of it all. On the other side of the town was the key to its prosperity: a massive open pit mine. I stopped for some photos, but without reference, it is difficult to imagine the scale of this operation.

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Highway 80 south of Tombstone

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Bisbee, AZ

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Bisbee, AZ

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Determined house-building

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Lavender Pit Mine in Bisbee

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Lavender Pit Mine in Bisbee

The road from Bisbee to Douglas is beyond unremarkable. It is straight and with nothing of interest along the sides. The last 10 miles have been built up into some Grand Entrance, with the road widened into two lanes in each direction, a boulevard down the middle and massive streetlights curving overhead. The town did not deserve this welcome, as it was a small, dirty place whose only claim to fame was as a well-used border crossing into Mexico.

It had been recommended to me to change my dollars into pesos before crossing the border, as it was generally easier on the American side. What I didn’t take into account was that today was Sunday and any change house or bank would be closed. I stopped at a couple of places but found nothing open. I decided that I’d find a way on the other side and proceeded to cross into Mexico. When I did cross over, I found that the exchange house was right across the street and the rate was a nice 14 cents on the peso. My American money looked very impressive in pesos.

The border crossing at Douglas was much easier than the one in Tecate. In Tecate, there were three different buildings that had to be visited in order to get all of the Tourist Visa and vehicle importation paperwork taken care of, plus some running back and forth as stamps and copies were procured. At Douglas, all three offices were located in the same building, all windows open within 50 feet of each other. While they didn’t speak much English, they managed to let me know what I needed to do and I spent a few minutes filling out paperwork and handing over various copies and forms. An American gentleman was behind me, doing the same thing and we struck up a conversation. He made suggestions on roads and towns, saying that he comes down here often and knows the area well. After 20 or 30 minutes, I finally had my papers in order, an Importation sticker on my bike and I was ready to go.

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Douglas/Aqua Prieta border crossing

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My bike waits for me at the border

Signage in Mexico, at least within the towns themselves, leaves a lot to be desired. I headed south, or so I guessed, and hoped that I was on the right route. A little zigzagging eventually took me a to a highly trafficked road that seemed to be about right. Sure enough, a couple of miles later I saw a sign for Mex 17 – the road that was recommended to me and the one that I wanted to take. I had originally planned on taking Mex 2 southeast towards Chihuahua, but on a whim I figured that this would be more interesting, and I could then cross over later to reach Nuevo Casas Grandes and Madera, two of the places on my list of things to see and do while I was here. The road was fast and wide open. There was very little traffic and I could see far into the distance, the sky heavy with clouds as they met with the mountains in front of me. There was a steady wind from the west and the air was slightly cool, but not uncomfortable at my speed. I was heading for the mountains, but it would be a long time before I reached them. Instead, I reached a Police check station. They didn’t bother to ask to see my papers (I assumed that having the Vehicle sticker on the bike told them I had everything else they would need to see) but instead asked me in Spanish where I was headed. Using my own meager Spanish and my map, I showed them my proposed course: head south on 17 for a while longer and then take one of the small roads to the east towards Nuevo Casa Grande. They frowned slightly. They told me that I shouldn’t go that way; that it would be dangerous. I don’t know if they meant dangerous as in “bad roads” or dangerous as in “robbers”, but I figure that it didn’t really matter: if the Mexican guards said it was dangerous, then it must be dangerous. I thanked them, inspected the map and continued south on Mex 17.

The road was fast and straight. I passed through some very small, poor looking towns, barely big enough to be considered “towns”. There might have been 6 or 7 buildings clustered around the road. Frequently along the side of the road would be a shrine of sorts. In America, some people will place a simple wooden cross at the site of where a loved one died in an accident. But in Mexico they take this idea to a whole new level. Shrines were everywhere and would consist of anything from a white painted cross, loaded with plastic (or maybe even real) flowers, to entire buildings built to house candles, photos and vases of flowers. Elaborate paintings might accompany such a shrine, or be painted on the raw rock face nearby. Fences, white-painted stones – the grieving families let it be known how much they missed the departed soul.

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Road-side shrine

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Road-side shrine

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Road-side shrine

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A more elaborate road-side shrine

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Inside the shrine

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Heading south on Mex 17

Most of the landscape in this area was dry, desert scrub lands. Some evidence of agriculture existed, especially once I started to follow a river. I approached a pick-up truck driving my way and couldn’t quite figure out what he was hauling in the back until I passed him: he had two very large steer in the bed of the truck but one of the poor creatures had slipped and was resting on his haunches while one hoof dangled out the back, rhythmically bouncing on the pavement. There being nothing I could do, I kept on going.

During one straight stretch, with thick brambles on either side of the road, I saw someone jump up from the edge of the road ahead of me. He was on the opposite side of the road and started to walk across the road, all the while frantically waving his arms up and down, as though asking me to stop. It being my nature to help others, I immediately rolled off the throttle. He was still a ways ahead of me and I quickly scanned the situation: a long, lonely stretch of road, no houses nearby, no other vehicles near by, “something” (person or large bag – I didn’t take the time to verify) lumped on the ground near where he sprang up from and more than likely, nothing I could do to help anyway. I shook my head as warning that I wasn’t stopping and that he should move. I rolled back on the throttle to zip by him as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, he spent this entire time still waving his arms and walking across the road. By the time I was getting to the point of no return I had a serious choice to make: do I go around him to my right on what little pavement is left (note that most Mexican roads have no shoulder and drop off immediately to grass, dirt, rocks, shrubs – whatever is handy) or do I scoot by him on my left, hoping that he doesn’t follow human nature and jump back from my speeding bike? I chose to go to the right. I guess that I had about 3’ of space left – not a lot when you consider how wide the bars are on the bike and that he’s still waving his arms. As I passed by him he was in mid-swing, his hand coming up quickly and glancing off my hand guard, knocking my mirror back and hitting me on the upper arm. My hand never left the bar and the bike held steady; I kept on going and never looked back.

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Continuing on Mex 17

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Views along Mex 17

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Typical cemetery in Mexico

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The cemeteries usually look better than the houses

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River along Mex 17

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Looking back the way I came along Mex 17

Around 4 o’clock I reached the town of Moctezuma. This was shown to be a pretty good-size town and it turned out that it was. But that night, in the section I was in, it looked tidy but small. I could only find one motel and one official restaurant. I couldn’t go any further that night, as I needed to do some research on the roads that I intended to take on the next leg and besides, it was starting to rain. I rode through the main section of town from one end to the other. I casually noted that many locals ran the one stop sign and the unusual group of locals sitting and standing under a makeshift tarp while someone stood by his hot dog cart. I finally returned to the solitary motel I had seen earlier which looked surprisingly neat and tidy.

I pulled up and opened the door to the attached restaurant (ah ha! I hadn’t noticed this on the first time through) but no one was inside. However someone soon showed up and took my request for a room. For only $300 pesos I could have my own well-appointed room, hot water and the softest and warmest blankets I found all trip. It was a deal. I parked the bike near the door, unloaded my gear, changed into something more comfortable and proceeded to explore the town on foot.

The town itself was cleaner than most towns and everyone I met was very friendly. There were the requisite stray dogs and the occasional chicken, but no cats. It turned out that the crowd under the tarps was there for an upcoming election, the hot dog vendor had tasty bacon-wrapped with grilled onion hot dogs and the local store sold Hershey bars by the 6-pack. Not a bad haul for the night.

When I returned, I found the motel family working around the property and I asked the father about the roads that I wanted to take the next morning. He and his wife spoke no English whatsoever, but their son Orlando was very fluent and helpful. The three of us discussed the various roads and towns I would find if I were to continue south instead of going west towards Hermosillo and they assured me that it would be ok, although there might be some dirt along the way. They encouraged me to talk to them in the morning and they would show me which road to take south of town so that I was on my way. The rest of the evening was quiet, with me reading a book and listening to the rain pour down outside.

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Nice hotel in Moctazuma

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Room #3, please

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Stray dog

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Nothing to investigate, I’d presume?

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Election time!

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One bacon-wrapped hot dog, please

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Painting the truck

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Unfinished structure

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Walls – check. Paint – check. Logo – check. Roof? Manana

Day 4 – Monday 252 miles

When I woke up the next morning it was still raining and I packed the bike quietly and donned my rain gear. I found one of the family members, but soon found out that Orlando had already gone to school. How was I to get my directions now? The mother then indicated that I was to follow her, as she got into her pick-up and started to drive south (blowing through the stop sign, of course).

We wound our way through some very wet streets, bouncing through hidden potholes and generally making a grand mess of things. I saw another motel along the way, but the one I stayed at looked much nicer. Besides, I was getting a lead out of town; how can you beat that? As we left the town behind the hostess eventually pulled over to the side of the road, an intersection jutting off to the right. I pulled up next to her window and she indicated that I was to go that way. I thanked her profusely and pulled away, heading towards lumpy mountains reaching for low-hanging clouds.

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South of Moctezuma

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Straight roads and overcast skies

The pavement was good but wet. The mountains kept their distance as I found an arrow-straight road in front of me. I was just a few miles from town but I already felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. A well-maintained dirt track on my right, complete with starting gates, indicated that horse racing was a popular pastime for the locals. Eventually the road reached the mountains and as I gained elevation the pavement twisted and turned. The rain, which had tapered off in the flat lands, was starting to come back but I still had good visibility and could take in the scenic scrub lands around me. I was very pleased that I had brought my contacts along for this trip, as dealing with fogging glasses and raindrops would have been almost impossible. There was a particular tree that I noticed dotting the hillsides, notable because of the large white puffy material it produced, I could see the white balls of fluff dotting hillside after hillside and I found it fascinating.

Because of the wet and unknown roads, I kept my speed down to 40mph, making this mountainous stretch last a lot longer than I had anticipated. I finally reached the town of Sahuaripa, a key point on my travels south. I stopped in the town itself to see what items of interest it held, but other than being uncommonly neat and clean, and having a large rodeo ring, it was unremarkable. I did find an Internet café and sent a quick note off to Dan before heading back out into the rain.

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Getting closer to the mountains

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Looking back on the road

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Fluffball tree!

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Close-up of the fluff

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Snaking my way through the mountains

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Clouds added for dramatic effect

There were a few other small towns I passed through or near – one of them I never did learn the name of, despite getting lost while going through it. It had a beautiful square and church and the space was lively with children playing under the blossoming trees. I was hoping to find more central zones like this, but on a much nicer day. As it was, I got some directions (barely) and managed to get to the other side of town and continue on my way.

The road had dropped down into a sort of lowlands, following a river where I saw large cranes and herons flapping low along the surface. Along the sides of the road was a tree that held what looked like a watermelon. The fruit looked to be about 6” in diameter and had the peculiar green and white stripes of a young watermelon. It was hours later before I stopped again. After miles of ups and downs and intermittent rain I had finally reached Mex 16. This would be the end of the slow back roads and I could finally make some time – or so I thought

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River along the way

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Good grazing at the side of the road

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Notice how the arrow is missing – I had to stop and check my map

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Another nice cemetery

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Sahuaripa

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Internet!!!

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Typical Mexican street

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More Sahuaripa

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More Sahuaripa streets

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A very nice looking hotel in the middle of town

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The hotel’s yard

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Leaving town – which way to go?

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Mission in an unknown town

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Square across the street from the Mission

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Kids playing in the square

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Bridge south of town

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Almost to Mex 16

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Mexican house

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Mexican house

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Watermelon tree!

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Dam near Guisamopa

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Looking back

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Visible raindrops in the puddles

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Coatimundi (the one I saw was very roadkill dead)

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One of many, many rockslides

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More cloudy views

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Muddy detour

It turned out that Mex 16 was in a lot worse shape that I remembered from when I had been on it years before. Between the bumps and the potholes and the rain, I was lucky to break 40mph. There were large trucks hauling just about anything through the mountains, but mostly loads of lumber. I could see one truck grinding up the mountain ahead of me and assumed that I’d catch up to it eventually. That time came even sooner than I expected when I rounded a corner only to find the driver waving me to slow down. Apparently he was hauling some cattle and the tailgate had fallen off of his truck. When I reached him, he was dragging it across the road to put back on behind the animals. At least he didn’t hit me as I went by. It was also during this section of road that I noticed that my voltmeter flickered and died, as did my heated grips. By default my auxiliary lights were also out and as I found out later, so was my headlight. Apparently something had worked itself loose at the front of the bike. And this road also ensured the demise of my fork seals. Sure, they were leaking slightly when I left San Francisco, but by the time I stopped for lunch in Yecora there was more oil dripping on the outside of the fork than there was inside it.

I hadn’t been on Mex 16 long when I saw the first sign warning that there would be a military inspection point ahead. This didn’t concern me, as the Federales have always been very polite when I went through their checkpoints on my prior trip. This stop turned out to be no different, with them asking me only where I was from and where I was headed. They then asked me to open my bags, which they barely even looked inside of, before waving me through. The worst part about the entire stop was the dogs that chased me as I was leaving. The military had laid down very high and steep dirt berms across the road and I couldn’t take them as fast I would take normal topes. This gave the 3 or 4 dogs an easy target as they barked and snapped at me.

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Near Santa Rosa on Mex 16

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New sign? Old sign? Why not both?

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Wet views on Mex 16

Mex 16 continued to pound my bike and me for another two hours before I reached Yecora. Someone had told me that Yecora was a beautiful place, but not today. The rain had started in earnest when I reached Mex 16 and it hadn’t let up since. My boots were mini swamps, my gloves were soaked and I was sick of being cold. I rolled up and down the muddy roads of the town, looking for an inviting, warm restaurant to take a break in. The only one I could find was back out along the main road. As I made my way back to it a modern pick-up truck flew up on my right and blew through the stop sign. I managed to slide the bike to a stop, the rear wheel kicking out sideways on the wet pavement, and the driver never even hesitated. I’d have to watch these stop signs.

There was a small shed/concession stand like structure near the restaurant and I parked my bike under it, a vain attempt to keep it somewhat dry. What I hadn’t noticed was the tiny puppy tied up inside this shed, now cowering from my noisy bike. I quickly pushed the bike far from him and said some words in a calming voice. I went inside and tried to order a burrito, but the woman taking my order didn’t seem to understand me, as she came out later with a large bowl of soup. Burrito? Soup? No, they’re nothing alike. But the soup was very tasty with large hunks of vegetables and some rather scary looking but meaty rib bones. I ate the soup and then smuggled a rib bone out to the puppy. I also gave it some water (it was hard to believe that in the middle of all of this rain that the creature had no water at all) and then continued on my way, heading for Basaseachi. As I left Yecora I chuckled at an odd sight: horses grazed freely on the left side of the road, cows were on the right, and off in the pasture was a dog. It was though the locals didn’t know where to put their animals. Fortunately from here on out, the roads were smoother and a little more open and it only took me another four hours to get to a good stopping point for the night.

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Streets of Yecora

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Lunch

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A dry spot for the bike

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Puppy!

I had stayed in Basaseachi once before, in a tiny 100 peso room with a wood-burning fireplace. I dreamt of this same place but was disappointed when they didn’t have room available. I went next door and found a tiny room with an electric heater for 200 pesos. It would do. I unpacked everything I had and hung it around the room, hoping that it might dry somewhat before I had to put it all back on the next morning. The town, if you can call it as such, is merely a strip of mud that runs from the highway to Basaseachi Falls, just a couple of miles away. I ventured out into the rain to see what I could find of interest, but other than picking out an orange to eat later, I came back to my room with nothing else.

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Restaurant and main building

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My room was behind the two windows on the left

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Hanging stuff out to dry

Day 5 – Tuesday 140 miles

I listened from the warmth of my bed as the rain pour down outside. It hammered loudly on the metal roof over the doorway, amplifying the true quantity that was pelting down. I dreaded getting up, putting on my damp gear and getting back on the bike. As I lay there I listened to the construction workers load up their trucks and pull out of the lot, honking and calling out as they did so. Then complete silence once again. But wait – complete silence? Full of optimism, I jumped out of bed and looked out the window: not exactly blue skies, but at least the rain had stopped. It was quarter after 6 when I stuffed my belongings back into their bags, pleased at how dry most of it was. I went over to the main building and despite verifying the correct words in my dictionary, I still stumbled on how to ask for two plastic grocery bags. I wanted to put them on my feet, seeing as the boots didn’t dry at all over night. Eventually I got my point across, mostly by pointing to a couple of bags and then myself, and walked out with a couple of bags for my feet. By the time I had everything packed and my gear on, it had started to rain again.

I left Basaseachi in a heavy drizzle, first doubling back a few miles to the last gas station I had passed the night before. After filling up, I went back to Mex 16 and turned east once again. Fortunately the road was in much better shape and I could maintain a normal pace. Heavy clouds and dark skies obscured the view. Where on a clear day I might have pulled over for half a dozen photos, I was not enticed to do so at all today. I kept on riding.

The usually dry pinewoods soaked up the moisture and the rocks glistened. There were few towns along the way and I trundled along with my cold, wet hands and feet, watching the miles go by. According to my map, there was a road that would save me quite a few miles on my way to Creel. I would appreciate that today. I kept an eye out of for the turn for San Juanito and felt relieved when I finally saw it. But as I stopped to verify the town names indicated on the sign as they compared to my map, I saw a second sign, one that directed me to stay on Mex 16. This didn’t seem right, but it was a big, new-looking sign and my map was, well, not an official road map. I stayed on Mex 16.

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Hours of tree-covered hills

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Dropping down into the flat lands

I eventually realized that I should have indeed taken the mis-marked turn now miles behind me. But it was too late to bother backtracking and besides, the rain was starting to let up. The road wound itself nicely through the mountains, opening up slightly as it did so. I soon saw open fields and pastures and the occasional signs of inhabitation. The sun hinted that it might make an appearance and I encouraged it to come out. I could even see a halo of blue sky hovering low in the northwest and I hoped that the wind would push the remaining clouds out of my path.

A couple more miles passed through dense pine forests before I was given a view: miles of flat lands with a couple of mesas to break up the monotony. This seemed odd, as I was expecting the more dramatic geology of Copper Canyon, not a prairie. This must be part of the route though, as there hadn’t been any roads heading south for a very long time. I kept on going, distracting myself with the blue band in the sky behind me and the ominous clouds to the south of me. I passed a large, well-signed junction and checked it with my map. If that junction was the one I thought it was, then I had missed yet another turn off. This was getting ridiculous. I pulled over and studied my map. I turned on the GPS, but it continued to be useless and only showed me major Mexican highways or the individual streets of big cities. It did not show me the road I was looking for to Creel. I turned around and went back to the junction and found a pick-up truck parked alongside the road. I parked my bike and walked to the driver’s side door, where I could see two men sitting inside. They opened the window and, using my map and limited Spanish understanding, they reassured me that the road I was looking for was just a few more kilometers down the road.

True to their word, five kilometers later I came upon a large sign announcing the turn to Creel. Now the blue sky was to my right and easily visible, but it wasn’t to get any nearer. The rain had tapered off, but now I was getting soaked from a different source: passing traffic kicked up an enormous amount of road spray that swept over me every time someone drove by, which was more often than I would have thought possible in this empty and wide-open farmland.

As I left the farmland behind me, the mountains returned. The valleys were wide and frequently filled with rough Mexican homes and buildings. I saw the railroad tracks that lead from Creel to Chihuahua, thinking about the tourist trains that run through here and what it must be like inside a dry and warm rail car. I reached Santa Juanito, a large and bustling town, and saw the road that I should have come in on. I stopped for fuel before making the final leg to Creel. It was still early in the day and I had hopes of getting to Batopilas that night. But then those dark and ominous clouds opened up and the rain came pouring down again.

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Heading south towards Creel

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A dry shed to take a break in

I pulled into Creel amid a deluge. The streets ran tan with mud and water and the water flowed across the pavement. I slowly cruised along the main street, wondering where to stop. Off to one side was an enormous three-sided shed with a corrugated roof. The only thing inside was a trailer full of what looked like dry corn stalks and some windblown litter. I crossed a river of mud and rode my bike under the protective covering. I stood there, watching the wind slant the rain across the opening and wondering what to do next. I decided to explore some more, as I noticed a parallel area of the town that I had missed. I backtracked and found a way to cross over the railroad tracks and found myself in the more touristy area of the town. Colorful storefronts proclaimed that they had authentic Tarahumara arts and crafts inside while motels abounded and a few straggling tourists huddled under overhangs. I rode from one end of the tourist district to the other and back again. I stopped at one small store and bought two pairs of socks, knowing that all of the pairs I had brought with me were soaking wet and having dry feet would be greatly appreciated. I noticed an Internet café and decided to check my email while procrastinating on making a decision on what to do next. While in there, I spoke with an American tourist who had just come from Batopilas via the tour bus. She said that the ride to the bottom of the canyon was about 6 hours and that with all of the rain, surely the dirt road 2/3rds of the way down would be a complete quagmire of slippery mud. She did not paint a good picture for the success of my reaching Batopilas that day. It was already noon and the sun would set around 6:15; add to that the rain and the mud and the uncertainty of what I’d find at the bottom of the canyon? I decided to get a room and stay put. I could dry my things, do a little shopping and then make a plan of attack for the next day.

I found a hostel for 100 pesos; a stellar deal that even included dinner and breakfast. But the best part of the hostel was the washer and dryer they had on the premises. I didn’t need the washer, but I put just about everything I had into the dryer. I had changed into warm and dry clothes, pulled out my maps and considered my options. They looked meager; I’d have to do some investigation this afternoon. I loathed the idea of sitting in one place for an entire afternoon, especially considering the driving rain that made any sightseeing unmemorable.

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My hostel next to the church

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My room

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Courtyard of the hostel

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Local girl walks by a nice Mexican house

Once my stuff was dry, I put on my jacket and went out into the rain. I found the cyber café and emailed Dan that I was going to stay put for the day so that he didn’t worry about me. Then I found an interesting shop: through the windows I could see 8 small tables, each one with a sewing machine on it. The walls were lined with shelves full of material and thread. Finished shirts hung randomly around the room and one person was diligently moving around inside. I let myself in and managed to convey what I wanted done, which was to add a small length of fabric and Velcro to the neck flap of my jacket so that it would actually reach the other half of the Velcro when I tried to closed it. She did this, as well as re-attach some loose Velcro on the sleeves, all for a paltry 20 pesos. I thanked her profusely before heading back out into the monsoon. I had difficulty in crossing the streets as the water was inches deep as it flowed by, covering the pavement from curb to curb. I had brought my summer sneakers with their well-vented construction so that I would stay comfortable while hiking around in the warm sun. Instead, they let in the water if I didn’t choose my steps carefully enough.

Eventually I met Bob. Bob is an American who lives in Creel and Mazatlan (as well as “in the States”) and knew the town very well. He proceeded to buy me a hot chocolate and explain to me about the town, the people and – with my insistence – what the story was behind the recent murders in the area. It is questionable as to just what Bob does, as he stated that he has no job, but works for various shops yet gets no money. He had an uncomfortably close association with the recently murdered local victims, explaining how it was all due to the cocaine people wanting to take over the marijuana people’s business. He knew all of the victims very well, knowing their names and calling them friends. The more I listened to him, the more I realized that being seen with Bob might not be a good idea. I excused myself, saying that I was tired and was going to have a nap.

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Local sewing shop

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Seamstress saves the day!

One good thing that Bob did before I left was to introduce me to the owner of Three Amigos Tours. Simon spoke good English and knew the area very well. The plan of attack for the next day relied heavily on local knowledge, and local knowledge that wasn’t wrapped up in Spanish. I showed Simon my maps and he showed me his. I had three options: retreat north back up to Mex 16 and west to Hermosillo (something I loathed to do); go east to Batopilas and then ford a river to reach Choix; or go south towards Urique and cross a bridge to Choix.

Obviously going back to Mex 16 was something I wanted to avoid at all costs. I had just come from there and quite honestly, it wasn’t that interesting the first time (especially in the rain). Not to mention that the pavement west of Yecora was something I didn’t know if I could tolerate again. The Batopilas route was interesting to me, as Batopilas was the site of a lot of interesting areas I had wanted to see and made up the majority of my List. But while the first part of the road was paved, the second part wasn’t. The tourist’s comments from earlier that day about slick mud still haunted me, and the idea of fording a large river at the other end of the road concerned me. I had seen pictures of this river and I knew that it was a very wide one. Would the recent rains have caused it to swell? There was also an unknown portion where I would mysteriously get from “here” to “there”, as the map didn’t indicate that there was even a track between the two places. The third option, passed Urique, was also a cause for concern because only the first 30 miles were paved and as for the rest of the road? Most of it wasn’t even on the map I had. It was reputed to be steep and difficult, but there was at least a bridge at the bottom to get me across the river. Both routes were estimated to take 10 hours, and each one had their own level of anticipated traffic (Batopilas was a big tourist destination whereas Urique was near an operating gold mine). I finally decided to go with the one known factor I really had: the bridge.

The evening was passed with the two-dozen or so hostel guests over a tasty dinner. Or at least the soup was tasty. I couldn’t eat anything else, as I was already full from the soup alone. There were two other people sharing my room: a couple from Rhode Island who had just spent the last two months exchanging their labor for room and board at a small ranch just north of the canyon. It was fun to watch them come back to civilization and re-acquaint themselves with things like beer, music and conversations in English. Now they had three months to hike and backpack around the country before heading back to their hometown. Other guests were from the States, Europe and even one from Mexico City. I find it amusing to think of a Mexican tourist, but I guess it does happen. Most of the guests at the table had taken El Chepe, the tourist train that runs from El Fuerte to Creel and then on to Chihuahua. Most of them thought I was “brave” for riding my motorcycle this far and were very sincere in their efforts to help me with my dilemma. Now all I had to do was get through tomorrow.

Day 6 – Wednesday 202 miles

I woke up to the sounds of the kitchen staff making early preparations for the morning’s breakfast. I didn’t hear any rain and peered out my window hopefully: pink-tinged clouds and blue skies greeted me. The rain had passed.

I leapt out of bed and as quietly as I could, I packed up my bags and donned my gear. Today looked like a good day and I was excited to be getting on the road an hour earlier than planned, it being a full 11 hours before sunset to make my 10-hour journey. Too excited to get on the road, I didn’t wait around for the hostel’s breakfast and I slipped out of the building virtually unnoticed. One of the hostel workers, as a joke, had left a large green chili on my bike. If only he knew how dear a chili is to my heart he would have left a red one. As I puttered down the main street, I could see that this section of town was actually quite beautiful when seen in the sunlight and I was almost sorry not to stick around to enjoy it. I stopped for gas before leaving and the attendant had fairly good English and was able to reassure me that I would be ok on the route I had chosen. I was still nervous about my decision, but the sunshine brightened my outlook.

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Church in Creel

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Gift of a chili pepper

Continue to Part 2

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