Part 1. Getting There
Two of my buddies go to Mexico every year on their BMW’s. They always come back bragging about what a wonderful time they always have down there. Having been in third world countries before, I have always been reluctant to go with them. This time I agree to tag along, and to document the trip for the BMW Riders of Mississippi newsletter.
We chose the Copper Canyon area as our primary destination for some dualsport riding. On 12 Jan 2001, Greg Pitts and Larry Moss from Brandon, Ms. trailered their bikes to my home in Gulfport, Ms. We loaded my Kawasaki KLR 650 up behind Greg’s identical KLR and Larry’s BMW F650. With much anticipation we head west on I-10. After getting about 15 miles from home, I realize that I don’t have my motorcycle jacket with me. All my border crossing documents are in the jacket. Nothing we can do but turn around and go back for it. With jacket in hand, we set out once again.
We spend one night in a roadside motel where we discuss how much stuff we really need to haul on these lightweight bikes. Greg convinces me to shed about 25 lbs. of gear, including my sleeping bag since we are planning on staying only in hotels. Larry also decides to leave his in the truck. This turns out to be a huge mistake as you will see later. Greg, ever the gadget freak, has his sleeping bag compressed to a size smaller than a volleyball, and feels he is traveling light enough to take it along.
Arriving in Del Rio, Texas, we park the truck and trailer at a temporary storage facility for the paltry sum of $25.00 for up to two weeks. While loading our gear on the bikes, I am unable to find my CB radio headset cord. Reluctantly, I leave the CB radio in Greg’s truck since weight is a big problem on these little 650 machines. This later turns out to be my third major mistake of the trip, and we haven’t even gotten out of the United States.
Finally, we are out on the road riding the motorcycles, but I sure feel left out without my CB radio. Heading west, we ride open highway toward Judge Roy Bean’s place. With Greg leading, we are assured of going as fast as possible. Greg thrives on speed. I prefer cruising at around 70 MPH on this particular machine, but Greg gets bored at that speed. We ride nearly at full throttle in the flats and at full throttle on the grades. The KLR’s have six gallon gas tanks, but the bikes inhale fuel at those speeds, and I cover only 154 miles plus about 30 miles on reserve before I run out completely. We stop and siphon gas from Larry’s oversized Acerbis tank. Larry snickers and makes rude and annoying remarks about Kawasuckis. I gently remind him that I am the one carrying the rope that we will probably be needing to tow his BMW back from Mexico.
We finally make it to Judge Roy Bean’s place and take the free grand tour of both rooms of this historical sight. It reminds me of my Granny’s old storage shed. Nothing like the TV version of the place. Still, it is a very famous place, so I decide to capture this moment in time with my trusty digital camera. I open the camera case and along with the camera I find my CB headset cord. I now remember putting it there so I wouldn’t forget it. Can you spell Alzheimers?
Moving on, we head for Big Bend National Park where we are required to pay $5.00 apiece to enter the park. It’s getting late in the day, so we ride through a portion of the park and exit at the village of “Study Butte” where we take an exorbitantly priced room from a most unfriendly hotel clerk at the Big Bend Motel.
Greg knows from a previous visit, of a good restaurant in nearby ghostown Terilingua. The restaurant is called “Starlight Theater.” It is an old adobe structure that was built originally to be a movie theater. The floor is still slanted downward toward the screen. The bar is built on a level platform right in the middle of the theater, and guests may choose to dine on either side of the bar. Greg recommends steaks, and we sample their red hot salsa while we wait. The food is surprisingly good, and the salsa will never be forgotten.
The next morning we dine at Ms. Tracy’s restaurant where we have a less than memorable breakfast. We are now anxious to ride back into the park. Once inside the gate, Greg promptly turns off onto the first available dirt road. Without looking back, he runs through the gears quickly and stirs up a huge billowing cloud of dust. Larry and I stop and contemplate what it is going to be like riding through that dust cloud. We are not exactly what you would call dirt riders anyway, and we certainly aren’t looking forward to sucking up all that dust. However, Greg is already familiar with the park, so we tag along obediently. The road is rough and the machines shake violently. Somewhere along the way my CB antennae somehow unscrews itself and abandons ship. Greg finally stops on the bank of the Rio Grande. He is clean as a whistle and fresh as a daisy. Larry and I are covered from head to toe with a very fine layer of Texas dust. Greg just looks at us and grins contentedly.
After a photo op on the bank of the river, we get back on good old paved road and proceed to further explore the park. Unfortunately, Greg turns off onto the next available dirt road which consists of deep ruts and craters, as well as loose gravel and most importantly: —DUST! Greg hits the dirt road at full throttle, standing on his pegs as he dodges the bigger ruts and holes. He seeks the ever elusive threshold of high speed whereby he can safely handle his bike while it just kind of floats over the bumps. Larry and I pause and look at each other in amazement as our younger 43 year old buddy gets further and further out into the desert. The dust cloud is huge. We decide that henceforth and forever more Greg will be known as “Dirt Road” Pitts, or “D.R.” for short. And so it is, and ever will be.
Against our better judgement, Larry and I follow him. We ride several brutal miles and finally come to a turnaround right there in the middle of the desert. Unbelieveable! The damn road doesn’t go anywhere! We have to turn around and go back the same way we came. Unperturbed, D.R. smiles, and blasts off once again retracing the route.
Back on paved road, Larry and I corner D.R. and convince him that we have seen enough of Big Bend National Park for one day, and we are ready to head for the border. We leave the park and find ourselves on a wonderful road that twists and turns through the scenic desert. Traffic is very light, and Greg is inspired to test his riding skills in the twisties. Larry also thrives on this kind of riding. Soon, they are pushing their machines to the limits, leaning in and out of the sharp blind curves. Being the old man of the three, I tend to ride a lot more conservatively; mostly out of fear I guess, or perhaps because I just want to live to ride another day.
Finally, Greg turns off into a little village called “Lajita.” It is known mostly for it’s famous beer drinking goat that is penned up in front of a country store. Visitors can entertain themselves by pouring longnecks down the goat’s throat. From what I could see, this particular goat can drink as many beers as you care to bring. The little village also claims to have a five million dollar golf course. Personally, I can’t tell where the desert ends and the golf course begins.
Next stop is Presidio, Texas on the American/Mexican border. We bunk down for the night at the Three Palms Inn. There is a good restaurant right beside the motel. This is the place to stay and eat if you are ever in Presidio.
We’re up early the following morning and purchase our Mexican liability insurance. We buy enough for nine days. I think the cost was about $56.00. With little hassle, except for a border guard making a cursory inspection of Larry’s saddlebags we enter Mexico and the town of Ojinaga.
Part II. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Motorcycle Snow Skiing, River Crossings, and Sleeping with Goats
Crossing the border at Presidio leads us directly into the Mexican village of Ojinaga. It doesn’t take long to see that we are visiting a country that has little regard for maintaining any kind of building construction code. Buildings seem to be made from whatever is locally available at the time of it’s construction. It is also apparent that when something breaks or wears out, it is just left that way. Many buildings have broken window glass. Sidewalks and curbs that are busted are left to further deteriorate. Plastic grocery bags are lying around everywhere and hundreds of them can be seen caught up in the various types of crudely constructed fences that are prevalent in the area.
Moving south from Ojinaga, we are on a good paved road in a bleak desert. D.R. leads at a very quick pace toward Chihuahua. After about 30 miles, we stop at a mandatory checkpoint where we have a friendly chat with the border guards. This discussion consists of them talking and us smiling and nodding. They give us no trouble, and allow us to proceed. A few miles down the road we stop again at a military checkpoint. The soldiers doing the searches are very young, and are supported by a crusty looking supervisor and several other young soldiers with automatic weapons. They poke around in our saddlebags and generally aggravate the hell out of us before allowing us to proceed. After that it is clear sailing all the way to Chihuahua.
Chihuahua is a bustling city with all the amenities. Traffic is very heavy in the downtown area and I am anxious to get to our hotel. D.R., I am learning, has a dark and evil side as he leads us around the center of town about 15 times in search of a fine hotel that he and Larry stayed in the year before. They both assure me at a few dozen of the hundreds of stoplights that we encounter that the hotel is “definitely” nearby, and we will soon find it. Finally, my bike’s engine starts to get a little too hot for my liking and I am forced to stop. While we are waiting for my bike to cool down, D.R. and Larry put their heads together in a futile effort to remember how to find this wonderful but elusive hotel. We never did find it, and on the last day we are in Mexico I find out why. The hotel isn’t even in Chihuahua, it’s in another town! It crosses my mind that perhaps my two comprades might be suffering from the same early stages of Alzheimers that I have been experiencing for the last couple of years.
Finally, we end up in a flophouse of a hotel that requires us to climb miles of stairs to our sorry room. So far, Mexico isn’t the fantastic place that my buddies had led me to believe it would be. Still, a hot shower reenergizes me and I am anxious to find a great restaurant and have a nice hot meal. We are unable to find a place to our liking, so we hire a taxi driver who promptly carries us about 15 miles to take us about two blocks from where he picked us up. He drops us off at a really ritzy looking placed called “Los Vitrales Restaurant and Bar.” As we enter the foyer, it is apparent that this is one helluva fine eating establishment. Construction of the entire interior of the building had obviously been a labor of love. Fine craftsmanship is evident in every detail. The tables and chairs are of the finest quality. Gorgeous paintings adorn the walls, and there are beautiful arched windows of stained glass. The entire staff is poised and very well dressed. They are clearly anxious to serve our every need, which should be no problem since there isn’t even one other customer in the whole place. Before sitting down we give that some thought. Either the food is really bad, or it just costs too much for the local people to eat here. We discuss this amongst ourselves while the staff waits eagerly to see if we are going to sit down or hit the bricks. About the time we decide the food has to be good and the locals just can’t afford it, Larry reaches for a cigarette and a waiter races to light it for him. That seals it, Larry decides for us that this is where we are going to eat.
The menu is in Spanish, and we have no idea what to order. The waiters notice that we are dismayed, and one of them disappears into the back and brings out this really spiffy looking dude who speaks a little English and identifies himself as Carlos Ernesto Rivera Flores, “Jefe De Servicios.” Whatever that means. We assume he is the manager. He is most friendly and helpful, and painstakingly explains each item on the menu to us while our waiters shuffle back and forth keeping our glasses filled with Jack Daniels and Crown Royal, and keeping Larry’s cigarettes lit. Larry gets such a kick out of watching the waiters come running that he only takes a couple of hits off each cigarette and extinguishes it before reaching for another one. Finally, we ask them to bring us something with beef and all the trimmings. After that, things start moving quickly, and the feast begins. The waiters hover around us seemingly fearful that we may somehow be displeased with the food or their services. As we finish our meal, a very classy Mexican family enters the restaurant, and promptly receives the same red carpet treatment that we are getting. As we watch the waiters scurrying about, we discuss how poor the service is in most restaurants back home.
Carlos reappears and searches our faces for any sign of disappointment in our dining experience. We assure him that we are more than satisfied and ask him what is on the second floor of the restaurant. He replies that there is a nice bar and invites us to take a look. At the top of the stairs, we are astonished at the quality of the construction of the place. There are colorful hand painted murals on the walls. The music is great and the waiters continue to fawn over us, so we settle in for a couple hours of socializing. When it’s time to leave, the waiter hails a taxi for us, and the entire restaurant staff stands on the front steps at attention and waves goodbye. It’s nice to be appreciated.
The next morning, it’s back on the road and we head for the mountains and the town of Creel. Creel is somewhat of a jumping off place for everybody that wants to visit Copper Canyon. There is a train depot there, and this is where all the Gringos bring their RV’s and load them up on flatbed train cars for the trip down into the canyon. There is no other way to get an RV into Copper Canyon. We are fortunate enough to find, of all things, a beautiful Best Western Hotel in Creel. We take a room, and that night we dine in the hotel restaurant where we have excellent ribeye steaks. A local character called “PePe” entertains us by strumming his guitar and singing American songs. He plays and sings very well, and we reward him with drinks and many pesos.
After sleeping soundly, we rise early for our trip to the canyon. The plan is to ride to a hotel called “Paraiso Del Oso” near the village of Cerocahui. We intend to use this hotel as a base camp for a few days while we explore the Copper Canyon. We move swiftly through some very scenic country on an excellent paved road that leads us toward our destination. Suddenly we come upon a village and the beautiful road becomes history. Welcome, I think to myself, to the world of Mexican dirt roads! D.R. is elated, and does a wheelie to show his appreciation to the Dirt Road Gods. Larry and I get a sinking feeling in our guts and fear for what lies ahead; and for a very good reason as we are to later learn.
D.R. takes a reading on his GPS, proudly announces that everything is just peachy keen, and fishtails violently as he blasts off through the loose gravel toward only God knows where. Since D.R. has a GPS receiver and we don’t, we follow behind like loyal little puppy dogs, gagging in the huge dust cloud. We are now in an area where very few automobiles can go. The ones we do encounter along the way are mostly ragged logging trucks and an occasional time worn 4WD pickup truck. None of the vehicles appear to have any kind of functional suspension systems. We navigate through mile after mile of some of the most primitive dirt and gravel roads anybody could ever hope to find. There are many deep ruts, mud bogs, and stream crossings. We pass through a few little nameless villages that seem to be from another place in time. They don’t even bother to put up signs announcing the names of the villages. Without a GPS it would be a simple matter to get lost. People stop what they are doing and stare as we pass through the villages. We move on at breakneck speed as D.R. gleefully hones his dirt riding skills. He is far ahead, and often disappears from sight. We eventually catch up to him only to see him give us that now very familiar cheese eating grin as he drops his helmet visor and blasts off once again.
The KLR’s work well on the rough terrain. The heavy loads they carry are both a curse and a blessing, because the weight both slows us down and gives us much needed traction. The F650, being much heavier with very poor suspension takes a toll on Larry. It’s easy to tell that he is not happy about riding dirt roads. D.R.’s pace is exhausting, but Larry and I are learning more and more about the fine art of high speed dirt riding. The secret is to ignore the beautiful scenery that surrounds you, hold on tight, and never take your eyes off the road. While proceeding in this manner, we pass by our roadside hotel which we were told we could not possibly miss. None of us saw it, so we didn’t really know we had missed it.
Suddenly, the road intersects a river. There is no bridge. Larry and I are now absolutely positive that we have lost our way. Without hesitating, D.R. calmly fords the river. Safely on the other side, he dismounts and flashes us a devilish grin. I creep slowly up to the waters edge, and try to figure out how the hell I am going to get through this without taking a bath. Not wanting to look like the coward that I am, I enter the river and somehow wobble to the other side. D.R. and I watch as Larry takes his turn. Miraculously, we are all three high and dry on the other side.
Before we can question D.R. about where we are, he glances down at his GPS and attacks the road like a Kamikaze pilot. The road is now little more than a rugged mountain trail. For what seems like an eternity we navigate higher and higher up the mountain. The view is breathtaking, but the trail is super slick. Larry and I are now certain that we are going to die, and it is just a matter of when and where it is going to happen. D.R. shows no sign of unhappiness with our plight. He is having the time of his life.
Finally, D.R. stops in an area with a beautiful view of the valley below. It’s time for our first adventure meal of beanie weenies, crackers and water. He assures us that we are doing fine and swears we are not lost. We know, of course that we are either lost, or D.R. is suffering from some kind of mental disorder that possesses him whenever he gets near a dirt road. At this point in time we are at his mercy since we have absolutely no idea where we are. With full bellies, we set out once again. Up, up, the mountain we go. The grades get steeper and rockier. The bikes slip and slide perilously close to the steep drop offs which mean certain death if we are to get just a little careless. The two KLR’s climb like mountain goats, while Larry struggles desperately to keep the heavy F650 upright. We lose sight of Larry in our vibrating mirrors, so we stop and wait. There is no sound of his engine. Exhausted, I rest while the ever perky D.R. walks back down to see what happened.
After a 15 minute wait, D.R. returns on Larry’s F650. He explains that Larry couldn’t get the bike any further up the mountain, and he would be walking up in a little while. D.R. proclaims that it was a miracle that Larry had gotten as far as he had, because the F650’s suspension is absolutely shot and the bike is just too heavy for what we are trying to do. After awhile, Larry appears on the trail below us gasping for breath. We can’t help but share a laugh at his expense as he collapses exhausted on a huge boulder. D.R. offers to ride Larry’s F650 the rest of the way and to let Larry ride his KLR. We mount up and ride on for a short time. D.R. suddenly stops to examine the F650 because it is not handling well at all. He discovers the front tire is flat. No wonder Larry couldn’t get it up the mountain! The tube has a very small hole in it, so D.R. is able to patch it easily. Besides being our navigator, D.R. is our mechanic and general problem solver. He is one talented dude.
By now it is getting late in the day and we are concerned about getting stuck on this mountain after dark. As we continue our ascent, we pick up the pace as much as possible. We know that we are now in very real danger of being stuck on the mountain after dark. This is something to be avoided in Mexico. As the sun begins to go down, we begin our descent down the backside of the mountain. The temperature drops dramatically and we ride harder and harder searching for any kind of a place to sleep. D.R. gets caught in a hairpin turn in some soft mud and has to gently lay the F650 down to avoid tumbling down an embankment. Larry and I begin to think simultaneously that perhaps D.R. is human after all. Somehow, this eases our pain.
Finally, we see a small cluster of houses in the valley below us. There is a big fenced in compound. We stop at the gate, knowing full well that we had gone as far as we could possibly go for the day. Young children rush to the fence to see the Gringos. A man and woman appear and we barter for a place to sleep. They kindly agree to put us up in a bunkhouse for the night. The gate is unlocked and we are allowed to enter the sparse compound.
The place appears to be an orphanage or perhaps some kind of a boarding school for the mountain kids. The kids are all painfully shy and very curious about us and the motorcycles. They are all in desperate need of proper winter clothing and socks and shoes. I take out my digital camera and take a couple of photos of the kids and show them the pictures on the small playback screen. Their shyness disappears as they laugh excitedly at seeing their images on the screen.
The compound has a full size concrete basketball court with no nets on the rims. It appears to be the only playground the kids have. There are no electric power lines, but there are very small solar panels on three of the buildings. We learn that the solar panels are used to power very small fluorescent ceiling lights. The panels are too small to provide more than a couple hours of electricity each night. There is a hog stall with several pigs, and we see two baby goats that roam freely about the compound. The ground is bare dirt, packed solid. The outhouse is a two seater that is set very low to the ground for the benefit of the young children.
We are shown our quarters for the night which are in a blockhouse with no glass in the windows. There are many double decker bunks in the room and each of them has coarse wool blankets that are almost as stiff as cardboard. There is a very thick layer of dust on the blankets. D.R. smiles broadly as he breaks out his sleeping bag, knowing full well that he had been responsible for us leaving ours way back in Del Rio,Texas in his truck. As Larry and I stack about ten blankets each on our chosen bunks, it dawns on Larry that he is going to be in for one very long miserable night. He starts to notice how cold it is now, and his mood sours. He walks down to the kitchen building to warm up by the wood stove.
D.R. and I follow a few minutes later, and find Larry snuggling as close to the big wood stove as he can get. A teenaged girl is busy making tortillas and reheating beans in a huge pot. D.R. and I sit down at the table and the girl places cold metal trays in front of us. She is very businesslike in her manner and proudly serves us the meager meal which is probably what they eat every day. The fresh tortillas are very good, but the beans are only lukewarm, and we fear that they are several days old. Remembering how sick he got last year, Larry chooses not to eat. D.R. and I eat as much as we can stomach and compliment her on her cooking. She smiles as D.R. slips her a few pesos, which she shyly and reluctantly accepts.
We move back up to the bunkhouse followed by the two baby goats. The goats walk right in the bunkhouse like they own the place. We are given a few minutes to settle in, and somebody shuts off the power to our little fluorescent ceiling light and we are now totally in the dark. The frigid wind sails through the bunkhouse. The goats don’t like the darkness and stir up a ruckus until we are able to get a flashlight going. Larry ‘s light quits working, and D.R. has problems with his also. I give them my virtually indestructible LED flashlight. Then I remember that we have some Cyalume “Snap Light” lightsticks and we break those out. The goats find them to be fascinating but are undecided as to whether or not they are edible.
Larry, who prefers camping in his motor home or a decent motel is clearly unhappy with the accommodations. Our conversation centers around our current plight. Larry and I gang up on D.R. and jokingly accuse him of deliberately getting us lost just so he could ride the mountain dirt road.
The only way to avoid the cold wind in the bunkhouse is to sit on the floor. D.R. and Larry sit with their backs to the wall and start nursing a bottle of Crown Royal. The goats move about the room checking out everything we have. Goats aren’t quiet animals. They make strange noises that become very irritating to listen to after awhile. After a few drinks, Larry loosens up and takes a liking to one of the goats. The more Crown he drinks, the more he likes the goat. Larry and the goat strike up a conversation with each other that only the two of them can understand. After a few more drinks, they are the best of buddies. The goat stands directly in front of Larry and stares at him lovingly while he chews his cud and makes strange noises. Larry expresses his eternal affection for the goat, and asks D.R. if he would put the goat on his motorcycle and haul him back to Mississippi for him. D.R. asks him if it wouldn’t be easier to just buy another goat when he gets home. Larry would have no part of that. This was the goat that he wanted, and no other would do.
Meanwhile, D.R. is having goat troubles of his own. He had spread our map out on the floor to study it in the dim light. The other goat decided that there was only one place for him to stand, and that was on the map facing D.R. This goat would not move out of the way, regardless of what D.R. did to him. The goat would always come back and stand right on the map and continue chewing his cud. Hell, I didn’t even know that goats chew cud. Finally, D.R. remembers he has a candle lantern and he struggles in the darkness to assemble it and get it lit. This fascinates D.R.’s goat and he chews his cud at a faster pace while faithfully holding the map down on the floor. Suddenly, D.R. starts screaming at his goat. Seems the goat decided the map was as good a place as any to take a leak. Larry and I find this to be hilarious. We now know that this is truly a motorcycle adventure we will never forget.
After studying the map thoroughly, D.R. announces that in the morning we will have to retrace our route to get out of there. Larry groans in despair at this news and hugs his goat. D.R. still refuses to admit that he got us lost, but I know better and make a mental note to buy a GPS at the first opportunity. With the plan for tomorrow decided, we crawl in our racks knowing full well that it is going to be one very long cold and miserable night. D.R. extinguishes the candle. This doesn’t sit well with the goats. They run excitedly around the room going from bunk to bunk making noises you wouldn’t believe. It’s as if they are trying to tell us to get up and play with them. We quickly learn that crying human babies have nothing on baby goats. Baby goats make deep guttural sounds that can raise the dead. They have the ability to whine, wail, and scream; and they do it well.
None of us can believe what we are hearing, and none of us want to get out of bed and put our feet on that cold concrete floor to put the goats outside. We hope against hope that they will eventually settle down and go to sleep. After what seems to be an eternity, the goats finally stop running around and the screaming tapers off. We decide that maybe the worst of it is now over and we briefly sense that we might be able to get some sleep after all.
The goats finally decide to station themselves beside my bunk. They stand side by side facing me, not more than 15 inches from my ear, where they resume chewing their cud. They chew and they chew, and before long they chew in sync with each other and set up a rhythmic beat. They seem mesmerized as they chew faster and faster and every 15 seconds or so, one of them jumps straight up to see if I am paying any attention to them. Pretty soon I can just about tell exactly when he is going to make his next jump. This absolutely cracks me up, but it does nothing to further my goal of getting some sleep. I bury my head under the weight of the heavy wool blankets, but the goats never miss a beat. Exasperated, I peek out and stare in amazement at their perseverance. The goat jumps up again and sees that he has my attention, and tries to climb in bed with me. Having had about enough of this I reach out and smack him on the head only to hit his stubby little horn. Larry yells at me not to hurt his goat. Now I am in intense pain and I forget about being cold. I get out of the bunk cursing and swearing, and chuck the goats out the door. D.R. and Larry are now in hysterics. Before I can get back into bed, the goats are already back in their whining and wailing routine, and it reaches a fever pitch. They bang up against the door and circle the building repeatedly, searching relentlessly for a way to get back in.
We lay there helplessly in the cold and the dark as the goats perform with ever increasing intensity. By now sleeping is out of the question. The goats have taken control of our lives, and we have no way of defending ourselves. Our dilemma is absolutely absurd. For about 15 minutes the noises continue unabated and then suddenly we are in total silence. The quietness engulfs us, and now we are worse off than we were before. It’s too damn quiet to go to sleep!
Somehow we make it through the night and we awaken to the bitter reality of the elements. There is snow on our bikes, but none has stuck to the ground. My thermometer registers 25 degrees. We fear for what awaits us at the higher elevations that we must traverse to get back over the mountain and down the other side. We walk down to the warmth of the kitchen building where the teenaged girl and an old woman are busy making our breakfast. The tortillas are hot and tasty and there is something else on our plate that is unidentifiable. We eat as much as we can, and drink lukewarm chocolate milk. We fear that it is goat milk. Larry joins us for this meal, but we can tell he doesn’t want to. Afterwards, D.R. breaks out his handy dandy coffee making gadget and makes us a nice hot cup of java.
The teenaged girl unlocks the compound and allows us to leave. Shivering, we make our way back up the mountain trail. Our electric clothing slowly warms our frozen bodies as we climb higher and higher. After about an hour our worst fears are realized. We have now reached the snow line. Larry, riding D.R.s bike is the first one to go down as he climbs a steep incline. He barely avoids going over the side as the rear wheel spins wildly in the air unable to find traction. I manage to get my bike parked and rush to his aid. He has already managed to kill the engine, but is straining to hold the bike from taking him over the side of the mountain. Together, we manage to get the bike upright. Larry is visibly shaken by the experience.
The bike sustains only very minor damage, and we are soon back on the trail moving cautiously on the slippery snow covered trail. We come to a very steep downgrade and D.R. wrestles the F650 down the hill. Larry gives me a petrified look, but somehow he makes it to the bottom. It’s my turn now, and I begin to ease down the grade. My engine stalls, and without engine power I am now literally skiing. In my wildest dreams I never envisioned skiing on a motorcycle, but without a running engine I have absolutely no control. I quickly elect to lay it down before I gain too much speed. Fortunately, it is the right decision, but now I’m stuck on a steep grade that makes it impossible for one man to pick up the machine. D.R. makes his way back up the hill on foot and helps me get back up.
Now I’m truly frightened, and contemplate humbling myself by asking D.R. to ride my bike to the bottom of the hill for me. I sense that he doesn’t want to ride it down anymore than I do, so I decide to give it a go myself. After all, I did come here for an adventure; might as well have one.
My mind flashes back to my skiing days and I recall the instructor telling me that when faced with a terrifying slope that it is better to just quickly assess the possibilities, pick a line of travel, and go for it. Thinking too long and hard about it just increases your chances to fail. I take a deep breath as I crank the engine, and once again the bike is rolling forward and downward. I maintain a death grip on the handlebars, and the KLR bounces, hops, slips, and slides over the loose snow covered rocks, as gravity sucks it down as if in a vacuum tube. I gain speed quickly, and with all my might I resist the natural tendency to reach for the brakes. I fight to keep the front wheel pointed in the right direction. Using only the engine as a brake I manage to sporadically get enough traction as I slide and bounce over the rocks to keep the bike upright. Safely at the bottom, I breathe a deep sigh of relief and look back to see D.R. carefully making his way down the hill. As he approaches me I confess to him that I had nearly asked him to ride the bike down for me. He smiles and says “I was going to offer to do it, but I didn’t know how you would react; so I just waited to see what you wanted to do.”
Part III. “Peg Leg” Moss, I Get Lost, Paraiso Del Oso, and the Journey Home
Soon we are back down below the snow line and the riding is much easier. Our mountain riding skills are improving and we are even having a little fun. We ride briskly, taking chances we shouldn’t be taking. D.R. and I easily cross a mountain stream and climb a steep hill at high speed. We glance back and don’t see Larry, so we turn around and go back to find him in the middle of the stream struggling to hold D.R.’s bike up out of the water.
He is soaking wet from head to toe, and is definitely not a happy camper. D.R. races to his aid and together they push the machine up onto the embankment. As Larry checks his body for broken bones, D.R. examines the bike and everything seems to be OK. He hits the starter and it fires right up.
Larry relates that he had entered the stream too fast and all he can remember is that he was suddenly face down in the water with the bike pinning his leg down. He had a very hard time getting the bike off his leg, and had injured his knee. Fearing that the water would ruin the bike’s engine, he had somehow mustered the strength to pick it up out of the water, hurting his back in the process.
Larry now has enough. He is wet and cold, his back is out of whack, and his knee hurts like hell. He walks like he has a wooden leg, so D.R. and I dub him “Peg Leg.” As we mount the bikes, I ask him if he is OK. ” No!” is his simple and forceful reply.
We ride on a little further, and D.R. stops to take a reading on his GPS. He decides we are going the wrong way and turns around and starts retracing the route. I am in some very loose gravel, and have extraordinary trouble turning my bike around. By the time I do, D.R. and Peg Leg are out of my sight. I ride very fast for about two miles trying to catch up to them. It then dawns on me that they must have turned off somewhere on another dirt road. Now I am stranded! I return to the stream to wait. For an hour and a half I wait, but there is no sign of them coming back to find me. I am really in a pickle now. I have no CB radio, no compass, no GPS receiver, no map, no idea where I am, and no idea which way they went. I swear to myself that as soon as I reach civilization I will buy a GPS, even if I never again have a need for it.
After about two hours, I decide that I definitely don’t want to get stranded here after dark, so I elect to pick one of the other dirt roads and follow it. I use big rocks to form arrows in the road to point them in the direction I had decided to go, to assist them in finding me if and when they return. As I complete the second arrow I hear the welcome sound of D.R.’s motorcycle approaching.
D.R. tells me that he had not known that I wasn’t behind them. When he finally realized it, they stopped and waited, taking the opportunity to make a cup of coffee and study the GPS. By that time, they were very close to the original river crossing that had brought this whole nightmare on in the first place, so D.R. decided to get Peg Leg safely across the river and into some dry clothes before coming back to find me.
We return together to the river and ford it easily this time. We stop where Peg Leg is lying on the ground in agony waiting for us. He forces himself up off the ground and hobbles over to his F650 and slowly crawls back into the saddle. D.R. and I are now afraid that his injuries are worse than he is letting on, and will preclude him riding the bike much longer. We decide that it is best to cut the trip short and get him back to the USA. With that in mind, we set out for Creel and the comfort of the Best Western Hotel. D.R. and I ride the dirt road hard, but Peg Leg can’t keep pace, so we stop frequently to allow him to catch up. At each stop, his appearance worsens. He has no color in his face at all, and I fear that he may have suffered some kind of internal injury that we don’t know about. He no longer talks to us much, other than to say that he isn’t OK.
We press on, wanting to get him out of his misery and into a warm hotel bed as soon as possible. We soon approach a large building on a hill behind a stone fence. Surprisingly, there are several Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycles parked in front. D.R. and I both realize that this must be the hotel that we had been looking for the day before. We stop at the second driveway and ride up the hill to the front of the building where we meet a group of bikers who are participating in a Copper Canyon tour sponsored by “Rosen’s Rides” tour group. While exchanging pleasantries, one of them asks if our buddy is going to come up or stay down there alone in the road all day. We look down the hill to see Peg Leg still sitting there on his bike. D.R. walks down the hill and helps him dismount. He then rides the F650 up and parks it while Peg Leg slowly and painfully stiff legs it up the hill. He promptly announces that he is through riding for the day, and possibly forever, because he is just hurting too much. The Rosen’s Rides bikers don’t know what to think about all this.
Inside the lobby, we meet the world famous Doug “Diego” Rhodes, the owner of the hotel. Diego is an American from Ohio who likes Mexico better than he does the United States. He is, if nothing else, a colorful and adventurous character with a zest for life and a deep rooted affection for horses and the Mexican people. Diego looks at us all knowingly and says: ” I wondered when ya’ll would be coming back down out of the mountains. You guys have been the talk of the people in the region for two days. They are all laughing about the stupid Gringos who were lost in the mountains.”
Hearing this, I quickly size Diego up and conclude that he is a man that tells it like it is, even at the risk of losing three cash paying customers. However, being a shrewd businessman, he doesn’t dilly dally around and offers to give us rooms at a cut rate price since we had been such good entertainment for the local populace.
Without really waiting for our answer, he barks out orders to his staff to build fires in the stoves in the rooms. He then herds us into the dining room where the noon meal is already being served to the Rosen’s Rides tour group. The meal is quite good, and as we dine, we tell everybody about our overnight experience. Some of them think we are crazy, but in others it stirs their spirit of adventure; and to have an adventure is what they are really down here for anyway.
After the late lunch, D.R. gets directions from Diego to go to Copper Canyon. It is at least an hour away by motorcycle on a treacherous dirt road. Peg Leg is in no condition to travel. I want to see the canyon myself, but the very thought of eating more dust behind D.R. at full throttle just to get there for only a quick glimpse of the place and hustle back before dark does not appeal to me. I like to see things at a more leisurely pace.
D.R. is like a small child with a new toy as he wheelies down the dirt road knowing that he will not be slowed up by two dirt road rookies. He makes the two hour round trip in an hour and twenty minutes which includes taking time to snap some photos. Did I ever tell you that the man can ride a motorsickle?
While D.R. is out searching for the canyon, Peg leg discovers that his motorcycle keys are missing. This sets off a fruitless search by everybody in the hotel. D.R. was the last to ride the F650, but when he returns from the canyon, he doesn’t have the keys and doesn’t remember removing them from the ignition. Hearing this, Peg Leg slips further into his already deep state of despair, and figures that this is just another one of D.R.’s diabolical schemes to torture him to a slow and miserable death. D.R. reassures Peg Leg that all is not lost, and sets about hot wiring the bike and picking the lock on the tail trunk. D.R. may be one piss poor navigator, but he is one handy man to have around.
The hotel was hand built by Diego himself, slowly and methodically, one room at a time. There are currently 21 rooms and they are designed to keep you warm or cool depending on the time of the year. This is done without the benefit of gas or electricity. There is a very efficient wood stove in each room, and the staff supplies firewood and kindling each day as needed. The kindling is simply little plastic bags of sawdust soaked in kerosene, which is very effective in quickly igniting the well seasoned firewood. There are three kerosene lamps in each room and the showers are nice and hot. The bedding is fresh and clean, a far cry from the night before.
Strategically located beside a river, the hotel is below some very high and beautiful rock columns, one of which projects a reasonably realistic profile of Yogi Bear wearing a derby hat. It is this rock formation that inspired Diego to call his creation “Paraiso Del Oso,” or “Paradise of the Bear.” There is not only a hotel, but a vehicle accessible campground nearby, and a ranch where he maintains a herd of horses and pack mules for guests to take horseback tours into the canyon. Backpackers and bird watchers are also frequent visitors to the hotel and campground. Diego’s love for horses is clearly evident by the artifacts, saddles, decorations, and books that can be seen in the hotel lobby. Diego apparently loves to read, and he maintains a well stocked library of books and magazines that reflect his personal interests as well as the history of the local Mexican people. Apparently, he is well known in the region and is active in local cultural affairs and charities.
There is no television or telephone service, so that night the hotel guests gather in the lobby to read from the library or go to the bar to socialize by the fireplace. It is a step back in time, free from the complexities of the high tech lifestyle that we have become accustomed to. After a few rounds of cheer, huge trays of pizza are brought out of the kitchen. There is plenty for everybody, and there is even Veggie pizza for those who can’t eat meat. As the fire crackles and casts it’s magic spell over the room, we all get to know each other better and take turns telling lies. It is truly an experience to be treasured.
The next morning, the Rosen’s Rides motorcycle tour group sets out early for the day’s ride. Peg Leg has stiffened up considerably and is no better off than he was the day before. We manage to pour him onto his motorcycle. D.R. explains to him which wires to use to crank the engine. We set out for Creel and Peg Leg quickly falls behind. We stop frequently to allow him to catch up. He is in such great pain that he has serious doubts that he is going to make it. D.R. and I know that we most certainly have to get him back home, and our Copper Canyon adventure will just have to go on the back burner until next year.
When we get back to Creel, we once again take a room at the Best Western. With Peg Leg safely tucked away in his warm bed, D.R. announces that since he has about three hours of daylight left, he is going to ride his motorcycle to another canyon that is about fifty miles away. He asks if I would like to tag along. In response, I offer him the name and phone number of a psychiatrist friend of mine. He tries, but is unable to completely hide his happiness that I have declined. Now he is free to ride as fast as the little KLR will go. I spend a relaxing afternoon on foot, checking out the shops in the village.
That night D.R. programs his GPS with a new and somewhat shorter route back to Chihuahua and on to Presidio, Texas. Peg Leg is still hurting and expresses doubts that he can make it that far in one day. We decide to give it a shot anyway.
As we awaken in the morning and load our bikes, I notice that my thermometer registers 22 degrees. It is not going to be a fun ride! At least we will be riding on pavement all the way. We turn our thermostats up on our electric clothing and head north. There are many spots in shaded areas of the road that have patches of black ice. More than anything else, I respect and fear ice because motorcycle tires do not grip ice. I know this not from heresay, but from personal experience. I lag behind, taking no chances with it.
Late in the afternoon we reach Ojinaga, and go through the usual red tape associated with border crossings. Finally we are across the border and take a room at the Three Palms Inn. With Peg Leg still hurting, we decide to stay there two nights to give him some more time to recuperate. The next day D.R. and I set out to explore the desert and to search for a waterfall that he had heard about. We never did find it, but we did ride way out in the desert where the vultures won’t even go. D.R. is beside himself with joy as he pushes his KLR for all it’s worth. Once again, I am unable to maintain his pace, but I am excited to have the opportunity to ride in some of the most beautiful desert I have ever seen. We end up on the bank of the Rio Grande at a place where the river is very narrow and it would be very simple to cross over into Mexico.
The next morning we ride all the way back to Del Rio, Texas where we stash our gear in the truck and cross back into Mexico to do some shopping in the border town of Ciudad Acuna. We roam the streets and visit many shops, most of which depend almost entirely on American tourists for survival. I find the high prices to be a turn off, although the shopkeepers are eager to dicker. The few items I find of interest would require a big truck to haul home. I purchase a sombrero to hang on the wall of my den. Crossing the border back into Texas is a hassle this time. The border guard questions D.R. about everything. I become very impatient as Peg Leg gets the same treatment. Now it’s my turn, and the border guard starts in on me. Being just a little angry at this senseless hassle, I cut her off and tell her to just go ahead and search to her heart’s content. She waves me on.
Back at the truck, we load the bikes on the trailer and head for home. In Houston, we stop at the REI outlet store where I keep a promise that I made to myself, and purchase a Garmin GPS III receiver. I do not intend to ever be lost again.
The rest of the trip is uneventful, but as we travel we discuss the whole trip and laugh at our mistakes. Although nothing went as planned, it was a trip to be remembered. Some of the lessons we learned are that we should take fewer clothes with us next time and we should take a tent, sleeping bags, and plenty of batteries and spare bulbs for our flashlights. A group of four people instead of three is better for sharing hotel costs since rollaway beds are not always available. Traveling with good friends makes the adventure twice the fun, but also causes you to travel only as fast as the slowest person in the group. Large, unorganized groups would be troublesome in the area surrounding Copper Canyon.
We also learned that there is a lot to be said for taking organized tours such as Rosen’s Rides. The tour operator carries all your baggage for you in the chase truck which frees you up to travel faster and more comfortably. They provide an expert motorcycle mechanic who is generally able to keep all the bikes up and running. They carry spare parts for all their bikes. They handle all the hotel reservation problems and speak the native language. They know all the places of interest, and where to find the best restaurants with reasonable prices. If you get injured, they know how to deal with the authorities and the hospital staff, and will insure that your family back home is informed and all your needs are met. The tours aren’t cheap, but you do get a lot for your money. Something to consider.
I don’t know about the rest of Mexico, but the area that we visited on this trip is beautiful and rugged. It is no place for any kind of a street bike. If you go there, it is best to ride a dual sport machine with a large gas tank. An older model BMW GS would work fine, but the newer heavier ones would not fare well in the particular location that we got lost in. Without a doubt, the little Kawasaki KLR 650 is the bike of choice. It can be had brand new for under five grand. Add Givi or equivalent saddlebags, topcase, tank bag, and a tall windscreen. I used soft saddlebags on this trip, and found them to be extremely bothersome. It was a big hassle loading and unloading them at hotels, and dust penetrated them if I failed to mount the rain covers. Beef up the suspension, install stainless steel brake lines, and tighten all the screws and bolts before you start out. The KLR will do the rest.
For more information on Hotel Paraiso Del Oso go to www.mexicohorse.com This is a most interesting and informative website. For details on the Best Western Lodge at Creel, go to http://www.thelodgeatcreel.com To obtain more information on Los Vitrales Restaurant and Bar in Chihuahua, send an Email message to: Carlos Ernesto Rivera Flores at: RiveraFlores@mailcity.com The Three Palms Inn at Presidio, Texas can be reached by calling: 915-229-3436 or 915-229-3211.
If you are interested in taking a Rosen’s Rides Tour, go to: www.rosensrides.com, or call 1-800-484-9250 x 5409, or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like more information, please Email me at: email@example.com