Steve Johnson, Walt Decker, Ira Irhlich, Jan Peterson, Brian Frankle
Its Fall. Weather in the mid-latitudes has begun to chill and I am looking for any excuse to extend the summer time temps…not to mention more time on the moto and less time at work. Priorities. I talk with Jan and he reminds me of his upcoming trip with The Prof and others who have signed up for a trip south of the border. Perfect. Emails sent, calls made, paperwork worked. I’m in. Lets Ride!
Jan and I trailer south, heading towards sunshine, good food, and amazing people; not reluctant in the least bit to delay winter as long as we can, nor gain a reprieve from the political redundancy of an election year news cycle.
Our freedom is further enhanced as soon as we off load and ride…taking a few days to drift towards the border utilizing our best Interstate avoidance techniques along the way. The traffic is light, the landscape seemingly endless, and our spirits high…the official trip has yet to begin but I could turn home now and be satisfied. Just going is so important.
We arrive in Presidio, TX and meet up with the rest of the group. Introductions, a bit of BS, and then we ride down to the border to get our paperwork square for tomorrow’s early start. 2.5 hrs later we emerge successful, but still trying to determine if the process was inefficient or just an inconvenience to being an American…routinely spoiled by convenience and accustomed to immediacy. No conclusions are drawn, but I know in the coming days the answer will likely become clear.
Dawn comes as early as ever, the energy level is high and we depart with first light. 5 bikes, 5 riders, and a varied day of riding ahead of us.
Last night we had decided on the Cuota to Chihuahua to eat up some quick miles to make the day easier. I was psyched that once we started riding, that decision was overridden. We stuck to the small roads, passing through rural outposts colorfully decorated with Day of the Dead celebration and an immediate introduction to riding in Mexico: Topas, Curvoso Peligroso, Camino Sinsouso…signs we were happy to acquaint ourselves with as we rode through the uplifted landscape towards Chihuahua.
Arrived in Chihuahua. Passed through Chihuahua. All of us anxious to ride beyond the city and find a quaint place to eat lunch further down the road. When we do stop, we are greeted by a charming, young chica happy to humor our mangled Spanish and giggle with her co-workers on our account.
Fanta-refreshed, we continue on, bypassing Cuahtemoc through cattle ranches and apple orchards, and then turning south into timber country. Curvy, twisty roads are the norm until we pass through San Juanito, a vibrant timber town whose main street was a raucous cacophony. Music, animals, smiling kids. Fragrant roadside food stands. Riding on the curves continue…a reminder of road design before massive machinery made straight-aways in mountainous terrain a possibility. An hr later we drop into Creel. Creel sounds so Un-Mexican, so it was no surprise to me that the town felt inauthentic…a bustling trap for Midwestern bluehairs, Euro-youth Backpackers, opportunistic locals, and stray dogs.
We re-group at the hotel. Inside the walled parking lot is an enormous flaming barbeque, an assortment of empty cans and bottles, and a group of Mexican policia who are busy working towards an evening dedicated to inebriation. They greet us warmly, offering up Tequila. I manage to escape the gracious offer and wonder to myself if the weapons in their rooms may be discharged before the evening concludes…in celebration of course.
At dinner Jan and I hatch an escape plan. Copper Canyon. Batopilas. Satevo. A classic moto-descent and the opportunity to fling some gravel. Salvation!
Morning comes and we hit the road, 35 km of paved twisties before hanging a right to begin a 6,000ft+ single lane dirt descent 45 km to Batopilas and the bottom of Copper Canyon. We air down, eat some food, and set off, leaving ourselves plenty of time to ride conservatively and arrive safely.
After Quare the road narrows. Further along, an abrupt 90 degree turn signaled our arrival in the Rio Batopilas Drainage and enormous views unfold below us. We pull over at a roadside shrine. The dirt road continues to drop below us, an infinite corkscrew spiraling below out of sight. Grand Canyon? Grand indeed, but incomparable to where we are at the moment. Countless switchbacks lead us downward. The temperatures rise. Donkeys, Cattle, and Goats rest in the roadway and give us something else to ponder other than the shoulder-less and severe drop to the river far below or the vultures circling overhead. Thankfully, traffic is light but we are still hyper-cautious at every blind corner…which every corner seems to be.
We soon cross the Rio Batopilas on a sturdily planked bridge. We park, dismount, disrobe, and decide on a swim in the river below. The waters are cool and a welcome physical and mental reprieve from the mornings ride. A few trucks pass overhead during our hr long layover. We are in no hurry. We are in Mexico, the sun is shining, and we are on motorcycles. Damn. Things are good. But…Batopilas awaits. The afternoon ride is more of the same, narrow dirt, occasional roadside shrines, blind corners, and stunning views both up and down canyon. We pull over to let a pick-up pass, its bed full of military personal and associated weaponary. Further along they are stopped at a flowing creek, pouring water over their brakes before continuing their descent. We exchange looks of understanding and ride past.
Cobblestone streets lead us into the center of town. School is being let out. Uniformed children greet us with warm smiles, waving hands, and the occasional high-five as we ride past. We park the bikes adjacent to the main plaza, drawing friendly looks that transcend spoken language. A welcome confirmation that rumors heard before we began our ride to Batopilas were unfounded. So it often goes. We quickly find accommodations for ourselves and for our bikes. Unpacked and cleaned up, we roam around town, happy to not see another white face among the populace. A local is making sandals from leather and discarded tires. Jose speaks no English, but he still manages to ask, “Obama or McCain?” No escape! After dinner, we settle into an ornate bench at the main plaza…content to watch Batopilas go about its business and happily ignorant of where we are from.
Morning arrives. We witness Batopilas awaken. The swish of brooms. The splash of water from a bucket upon cobblestones. The sing-song of soft Spanish. After breakfast we re-pack and head downcanyon towards the Satevo Mission. Only half and hr, but seemingly 50 yrs distant. More kids. More distribution of caramels to anxious hands and happy mouths. We leave with warm waves behind us. Back in Batopilas we hydrate, eat, and re-mount. Anxious for the road ahead, the return to cooler temps, and the chance to share and receive stories from and with the group back in Creel. Upward we ride. Traffic is noticeably heavier today, and every truck we pass (or passes us) is well beyond its load limit with human cargo. Rounding a bend we are stopped by an active landslide which is pouring talus and boulders across the road ahead. Everyone is out of the trucks and watching, snapping photos with their cell phones as the earth erodes. Jan and I signal to the roadcrew if it is OK to proceed. They smile. Si! Motos bueno! Indeed. Motos are good. We clear a small path, pushing the larger boulders to the roadside, wary of the danger from above. Mounted and riding, we work our way to the front of the stalled traffic just as a parked CAT Front End Loader belches a diesel plume skyward and signals us to wait. With a few quick passes, the road is cleared and we proceed upward.
We continue up canyon, climbing slightly with every switchbacked turn and aggressive contour across ridiculously steep slopes, stopping occasionally to take in the silence of the place or snap a photo, but moving steadily to stay ahead of the traffic and its blinding dust trail.
Rounding a bend we come upon a group of mtn bikers, pulled over to the edge of the road, mouths agape at the scene below. Their support vehicles are just behind them, and Jan I steer ourselves to the outside edge of the roadway to let them pass…side view mirrors and handlebars within inches of touching. Not much room. With the trucks passed, I start forward. Before I know it, half my bike is over the downward slope and I’m face down in the dirt. I jump up, kill the bike. A bit dazed, adrenaline flowing, I gratefully accept an offer from one of the truck drivers to heave my 650 back up to the road. Strong backs. Fortunately no paparazzi to record the event (sorry Jan!). With the bike upright, I notice the clutch level is gone, but no other damage is visible. Jan and I push the bike up the road to a shady inside corner. Fortunately I carry a spare, so we swap out the busted lever quickly and then decide to take a break to re-group and to assess the situation.
Conclusion? Too much throttle. Lost the rear wheel in the gravel-heavy center of the road and overcorrected. Good fortune decided to shine. If the rear wheel would have bit, I’d have been airborne with a much less positive outcome.
The remaining ride back to the bitumen is decidedly less eventful. We stop at a roadside snack bar. Jamon y Queso. Fanta. Refreshed, re-inflated, we throttle our way back to Creel, finding the positive traction of paved surface a fine way to end the day. A margin of confidence regained. We re-group in Creel, and share stories of our respective days apart over dinner and cerveza. Plans hatched for tomorrow and the sleep of satisfaction comes quickly.
Back on the bikes as a group we push off for Nuevo Casas Grande. Backtrack through San Juanito, and La Junta before finding a new road northbound. Hellish crosswinds keep us attentive to the riding and our necks strained. Stop for lunch in Gomez Farias at a roadside Burrito stand. I’m in awe watching handmade tortillas get made…so impressed I order three Burritos just to watch her work. She can tell I am intrigued and she hands me a hot tortilla for the road. Mucho Gracias! As we fire the bikes up, we all get a laugh as we watch a Silk-Scarf-Wearing-Walt test his Spanish on some young ladies. Careful senoritas! When Walt has on his Silk Scarf, he is an animal…
Back on the road, back in the wind. Pretty non-descript roads during the afternoon ride, but big, blue skies and open country before us. Ranch and ag lands dominate the landscape. Occasional outposts spring up, along with abrupt topas and Pemex Stations. No complaints. Our line of bikes thins out, each rider likely lost in a reverie of thought as we head upward into the Sierra Madre and 22 km of Curvo Peligroso’s. Great stuff. We re-group for a few photos and then drop off the other side, into acres of freshly harvested Peppers. Front yards decorated with long, red rows of bundled chile peppers. It makes me hungry and I decide Chile Rellano is my meal tonight.
We arrive in Nuevo Casas Grandes, miss our turn, but continue on. Prof pulls up to a local moto rider and asks for directions. The light changes and we are waved to follow. Our impromptu local guide is gracious with his time and leads us on a chase through town, weaving through neighborhoods, across a dry wash, and then gunning across 4 lanes of traffic to the entry drive to our hotel. Nothing like local knowledge…
Late afternoon and we get cleaned up and head to the bar. Popcorn, peanuts, and a few El Sol’s to wash it down. The old guys stick with Red Wine. Unbeknownst to us, it’s Mexican Bingo Night and the BlueHairs start to filter in. We filter out. Head to the restaurant to resume our conversation, our snacking, and our drinking. Eventually dinner rolls around and I follow through with my want of Chile Rellano. Another great day in Mexico, on a Motorcycle, and in good company.
Morning. No rush today as we have ½ a day of riding on big, fast roads. Before we head out, we head to Paquime, but not before doing a few laps past town in our quest to find the unsigned turnoff. We make it just before the Tour Buses and have the Museum to ourselves for ~15 mins before the tours start and the crowds form. The Museum is very well done, and Jan and I figured we could have spent a half day there. Back outside, and a quick ramble around the ruins…always humbled by the scale of accomplishment and social complexity from so-called savages in 1200 AD.
We re-group and re-fuel at the Hotel and head north. The roads suck when compared to where we’ve been, but are justified in the context of the whole trip. Double Trailer Semi’s make passing more of an adventure than it needs to be, but the Mexican drivers are accommodating…a helpful signal to clue us in to traffic ahead and honest efforts to let us by safely. It’s all appreciated. A stark contrast to their American counterparts.
A Military Checkpoint shuts us down. We wait behind local traffic until a guard catches sight and flags us forward toward waiting sentries and a German Shepherd. All clear, until they get to me, last in line, papers in hand. No interest in my docs, but a keen interest in having me open my tank bag and panniers. Abierto! Abierto! Bad teeth. Bad breathe. Spittle on my face shield. I comply. Drogas? I play stupid American and say no comprende. He’s not buying it, but I know what’s in my luggage, and there are no drugs! In frustration, he removes a laminated card from his front pocket which is labeled with the English words: Methamphetamines / Amphetamines / Ecstasy. I shake my head. No. No drogas. Meanwhile another sentry is going through my hygienge kit. Pepto. Bayer. Colgate. The usual. Prof intervenes and smoothes some feathers. Still suspicious, Bad Breathe Sentry seems reluctant to allow me to pack up.
Back on the road we climb up and over the Sierra San Luis. Slow truck traffic makes the corners feel underappreciated, but we patiently roll on and bide our time for safe passing. Just outside of Agua Prieta we catch a glimpse of the homeland. Contrast. Mexicans are some of the warmest people I’ve met…and just across the 12 ft high barrier to the homeland are some of the coldest. Not ready to go home quite yet. We fill up at a Pemex and grab a taco roadside. A local entrepreneur tries to earn a few pesos with an offer to clean my windscreen. I point to my bike and laugh. No parabrisas! We laugh together and I hand him a few pesos. I am happy to pay for a shared smile.
The afternoon we head back south towards Narcozari de Garcia along twisty roads. The temps cool as we follow the cottonwood and tamarisk filled corridor of the Moctezuma River. Dry, but still holding moisture somewhere in its depths. We climb slightly, twisty up and over a bump in the landscape and then drop into town. A fiesta is taking shape below us and we manage to get ourselves and our bikes into town before the road barriers are placed. As always the bikes draw a crowd…as do caramel for the kids, and Jan’s iPhone for the ‘tweens. Universal wants. Prof does his thing and an informal celebration takes place with kids and teachers happy to receive the annual donation that f650.com makes possible. Giving is great. Even better when you see first hand that the contribution will make an immediate difference. Huge smiles, handshakes, and an obvious vibe of gratefulness and gratitude round out the afternoon. The vibe of fiesta is running strong through the town of Narcozari and I find it seeping in. I want to dance. I want to drink. I want to flirt with the ladies. My inner-gringo holds out though, and I resign myself to a bench to simply watch the event unfold…content with tapping my foot, nursing a Tecate, and stealing quick glances. At this moment I feel very American. Not ashamed, just self-conscious.
Dinner comes and goes. A slow event in a place I’d rather not be. American football on TV. Great food, and great company, but the real Mexico is just beyond the door. I can hear it. I can feel it. Back out in the streets, we grab some ice cream and go our separate ways. Wandering through the mass of people that fill the central plaza of Narcozari de Garcia. Dancing. Singing. Food, fun and frolic. Do Americans have this much fun? I am doubtful. Sleep eventually comes, but the heavy bass of a discothèque and the repetition of an auctioneer makes it a considerable challenge.
Morning again, out the door early with the sun. I want to watch this place awaken or come to discover that it never slept. Both are true. Hot atole takes the chill off, and I wander around town. Along the dry river channel. Through the surrounding neighborhoods. Morning greetings always returned from friendly faces or a casual wave. I skip the group breakfast to continue my wanderings. Stomach is content with a banana, yogurt, and a few pastries from the Super-Mercado. We all get our bikes out of the hotel before the crowds reconvene downtown. Local Red Cross offers us a safe place to park in their vehicle compound just up the street and away from the congestion of the Fiesta and the mid-morning Parade.
Post Parade, the group re-groups. Now 7 riders as John and Marilynne arrived yesterday from Phoenix and join us on the ride to Pilares. Ghost town. An hr of dirt riding on private roads that we somehow have permission for. We scoot out of town, ride past the power station, climb a twisty hill, to views of the landfill below. There is no away to throw to. Rounding a few more bends we signal right and diagonal across a gapping cattle guard. Ahhh…dirt. Loose hands. A squirrelly backend as the Tourances look for some bite. The group spreads out again but soon accordions back together. Ira’s dropped his 1200GS just before a creek crossing. No injury to bike or body. Big smile. We get him upright and all is well. Jan and I pause to re-establish the gap, soak in the scenery. Upward. The road has been recently graded. It’s a smooth, loose canvas of silty soil. Standing, giving the bike gas keeps it straight and steady, but the tracks ahead of me tell me a different story. But hey, forward progress is forward progress. Jan and I catch back up as we crest a rise, just in time to see Walt careen into the right bank of the road cut, and Ira dump his 1200GS in an attempt to switch lanes to avoid Walt. Bingo, Bango, two bikers down. I hustle past to a safe place to park and then run back uphill to assist. Walt’s right leg is pinned beneath his Funduro, but a quick lift to the rear end gives him enough clearance to wiggle free. I scamper up to Jan and Ira and assist with righting the 1200. Ugh. That’s a big bike. Upright, we fire the 1200 up and I am nominated to ride it to a flat spot below. Success. Walt is riding, Ira’s remounted and determined to continue on. Jan and I are sweating, relieved that after 3 collective falls, everyone is still smiling. Again we start up, knowing we must be close to Pilares but not knowing how far. The day is beautiful. Desert. Sky. Motorcycles. Yeehaw.
Yeehaws change quick to Uh-Ohs as we round a bend and see Walt standing roadside and his bike off the edge. In slow motion, Ira’s bike does a left to right pirouette and tosses him off but not before landing on his ankle and promptly busting it. The 1200 stalls out, headlight aimed back up hill. Jan parks at the crest of the hill and I continue past the scene, park the bike and check with Ira. Jan’s with Walt. Despite the circumstance, Ira is admirably still smiling and cracking jokes. Last day in Mexico…
With the scene assessed, Jan stays with Walt and Ira and I re-mount and continue to Pilares to grab Steve and Rodolfo in the suburban. Steve is amped upon hearing the news. He revs his Najanga but I wave him to a stop and tell him to settle down and take it slow. All is well. Relax. He nods in the affirmative. We backtrack. Roldolfo calls the Red Cross/Policia in Narcozari de Garcia and summons the calvary. Back at the scene we re-assess. Jan goes into Paparazzi mode to document the events. 10 minutes later help arrives. Before we know it, Ira is in a splint, on a backboard and in an ambulance headed to the hospital in Narcozari. We team up and haul Walt’s bike out of the ditch…a perfect tensioned pull that leaves the bike w/o any scratches. Only immediate damage is a punctured fuel line, a trail of gas, and a Mexican Red Cross muchacho taking a smoke break. No Fumar! A few more heaves, ho’s and a shout of “Frijoles” and Walt’s and Ira’s bikes are loaded together into the back of a police pick up. We are all impressed with the professionalism and efficiency of the Mexican authorities. We re-dress, re-mount, and return to Narcozari stopping at the hospital to double check Ira. All is well.
We re-group at the hotel, the fiesta still in full swing. Showers, drinks, and a plan unfolds for the evening. I grab a 6-pack for the group and we re-visit Ira and do what we can to implement his exit strategy. The Mexicans are again incredibly helpful. Everyone in the group seems to have an opinion as to what Ira should do. It’s his ankle, let him decide. Which he eventually does. With a plan in place, our evening begins and we head over to Rodolfo’s house on the hill for Carne Asada, cervasa, lively banter with his wife and family, and a prime view of the evenings firework display — which is launched from the end of Rodolfo’s driveway.
The following morning came quick after a long night of more music, a big fireworks display, and too much Carne Asada and Tecate…we hired a Mexican local to haul out both bikes and then followed him to the border and back into the US. Despite the circumstance, we were all happy with our collective actions to address the events of the previous day. It certainly could have been much worse and much more of a pain in the ass!
That same afternoon, we all went out separate ways…myself and Jan heading back to Tucson to re-load the trailer with plans to head back to Logan the following day. That evening Ira called and asked if I was interested in his motorcycle…still in Douglas, AZ and a long ass ways from New Jersey. Negotiations followed and on the 10th, Jan and I drove back to Douglas to pick up Ira’s bike…so now I have 2 motorcycles…and, after a fantastic trip in Mexico, an even stronger desire to ride ‘em.
Thanks for reading.