Saturday, July 1, 2017

07 Copper Canyon on the Gold Wing

   My annual pilgrimage to Daytona Beach provided me with the opportunity for several late winter tours. I remember once being at a motel in Fort Stockton, Texas on one of those pre-Daytona tours when a guy noticed my license plate and said, “Wow, you’re a long way from home. Where are you headed?” I said, “Actually I’m on my way to Daytona Beach.” He hesitated for a moment and laughed, and said, “You must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.” On a few occasions I would meet up my friend Ralph Spencer there, who would ride in from his home in Sun City, AZ, and together we would tour scenic places like the Rio Grande Valley, the hill country north of San Antonio or the Chester W. Nimitz War Museum in Fredericksburg. When I would eventually head east for Daytona, Ralph would head back to Sun City.

   On one of my pre-Daytona jaunts, I visited Barranca del Cobre, (Copper Canyon), in the state of Chihuahua in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of western Mexico. When I told Ralph about this plan, he said he wouldn’t travel in Mexico on a bet. Having already made up my mind, I proceeded to prepare for my trip. In the months leading up to it, I got a lot of advice from friends about not drinking the water or eating vegetable salads, and I even heard horror stories about people disappearing, never to be heard from again. "You're not really going to Mexico alone!" was only one of several negative comments.

   The day after I left on the tour, I realized I had forgotten my birth certificate. Although thousands of people enter Mexico to visit the border cities every day without birth certificates, one is required to visit the interior. I wondered whether I should take the time to return home for it, or ask Lillian to send it to Presidio, Texas by express mail - or should I take my chances and put together a Plan B just in case I don't make it across. I chose the latter and decided on Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico as my Plan B.

   I soon arrived at the Mexican immigration building in Ojinaga, ready to give it my best shot. As I stood in line at the counter, I felt a strong urge to head for the men's room. But how could I have become afflicted already? I was in the country for all of five minutes. Thinking about it, I was pretty sure I had gotten the problem from eating breakfast at a small greasy-spoon restaurant in Texas. I broke from the line and hurried for the door with the silhouette of a man and the word "Hombres" underneath. To my shock, there was no seat ring on the commode, no paper on the roll and no water in the sink. I was forced to improvise the best I could. I thought, welcome to Mexico! Thank goodness for the extra napkins that I often help myself to at restaurants along the way.

   I returned to the line where a pretty senorita behind the counter motioned that I was next. I told her briefly about my plans. The first thing she said was, “I see your birth certificate, please.” I said, “I was born in New York, and I have my New York State driver's license here that tells you how old I am. What else would you like to know?” She slowly turned her head side to side and said she must see my birth certificate. I proceeded to show her my Medicare card, my retirement ID card, my Golden Age Passport for the national parks, my AARP card and my Blue Cross card. I even showed her pictures of my grandchildren and an honorary New York State Police PBA card. When all seemed in vain, I appealed to her good nature and told her how I had just traveled 2,500 miles to be a tourist in her beautiful country, and I would hate to have to go to Carlsbad Caverns instead. That did it. She shook her pencil at me and said, “Next time you no forget”.

   I had read about vehicle insurance requirements, so I asked where I could get the insurance. “No need insurance” was her answer and I was directed to another counter for my vehicle permit. As the next agent was finishing up, I also asked him about the insurance too. He pointed back to the previous counter and said, “Get insurance there.” I told him the senorita had just said I don't need insurance, upon which they exchanged a few words in Spanish across the room that I didn't understand. He turned to me and shrugged, and said, “No need insurance.” I learned later that you only need insurance in case of an accident, in which case you better have it. I suspected that if I were to visit Ojinaga, the border town for that day only, I could get through without it.

   I located a bank in Ojinaga where I got an exchange rate of about 2700 pesos to the dollar. It took me a while to get used to the pesos, and to dividing by an odd number like 2700 in my head every time. It cost about 40,000 pesos per night for a hotel room, 15,000 pesos for dinner and 9700 pesos for a gasoline fill-up, which comes to about $14.80, $5.50 and $3.60 respectively. The gas was the best deal, although it was only about 81 octane in the remote areas. I estimated gas to be less than 80 cents per gallon. The higher octane gas is available only in the larger cities.

   As I left Ojinaga for the hinterlands, I noticed the government apparently doesn't spend much time or money on highway cleanup. It looked like all of the trash that gets thrown out or dropped there, stays there. If an animal is killed on the highway it stays until scavengers finish it off. During my visit to Mexico, I saw some of the biggest "road kills" I ever saw, including a full-grown cow, a horse and several dogs in various stages of decomposition. You could smell some of them for long distances. Much of the trash looked like it had been laying there for quite a while. It was a real mess in and around the city of Ojinaga.

   I was stopped about 20 miles from the border at a Mexican immigration check in the mountains. A single uniformed official asked where I was going, and he wanted to see my permit. Upon producing it, he looked around my windshield and said, "Where shhticka?", I tried to explain as he continued to walk around the bike looking for it that I didn't know anything about stickers, but that I would go back to Ojinaga to get one if that was necessary. After a few more minutes of studying my permit and looking at me like I was in real trouble, he handed it back, and said, "No need shh-ticka." I had the distinct impression that a few thousand pesos would have been accepted. I thought about the girl at the customs desk and wondered if I would have gotten a sticker if I had shown my birth certificate, or maybe it would have come with the insurance. I concluded that the sticker was probably only needed for going beyond the border city.

   The highways were easy to follow in the open country, but route signs were scarce in the cities and towns. I missed a sign in the town of Aldama, a Chihuahua suburb, and got into some back streets that were rough dirt and mud. I stopped and got directions on how to get back to my route. I learned while asking that I could make out better with my limited vocabulary of Spanish than by trying to get them to understand my English. They seemed to feel more comfortable with me in the disadvantaged position of struggling with their language. I found very few people in the interior who spoke as much English as I did Spanish, and I don't speak Spanish. I only studied a pamphlet called, Survival Spanish.

   My rear tire slipped out a few times on sand traces on the mountain roads, and I had to dodge a few farm animals and big loose stones. I had very little problem traveling the numbered highways. Drivers were generally courteous and most signs are clear, although I couldn't translate all of them. At one place I saw a sign, "Topes 500m." As I was wondering what topes could be, I saw another sign, "Topes 300m", followed almost immediately by "Topes 100m." I thought it sounded a lot like something to eat and I was looking around for a roadside stand when I hit the first huge speed bump. The front forks bottomed and the frame smacking the 18" wide by 6" high bizarre speed bump. Fortunately I was going only about 25 mph at the time. I hate to think of the consequences of hitting one of those at 60 or 65 mph.

   Once as I was cruising along on a fairly good two-lane highway, I saw a sign with an arrow pointing to what looked like a narrow dirt road to my right. I think it said something like Dividido. I thought it was saying there was a town in that direction called Dividido. About half a mile farther down the road, I realized I was driving on the wrong side of a divided highway with trucks coming at me. The sign must have meant that a divided highway was coming up, and I should have switched over to the other side there.

   The first time I got gas, I pumped it myself until my tank was full, and I handed the attendant a 10,000-peso note. As I waited for change, I got a really strange look from the guy that I didn't understand, and his hand was still out. My first thought was that I hadn't given him enough, so I started to hand him another 10,000-peso note while glancing over at the pump, which registered 9160, so I quickly pulled back the second 10,000, and I held out my own hand for change. Finally he dropped about eight heavy 100 peso coins in my hand with an unfriendly grunt. I figured out later that each of those big coins was worth less than four cents, and that my total change was around 30 cents. Obviously they don’t like to make change for small amounts.

   I found most eating places to be relatively clean. Of course I passed up many that I didn't have the courage to try. I also steered clear of the fancy places to avoid inevitable delays. I learned that most restaurants in Mexico begin cooking the food after it’s ordered. I figured that’s why enchiladas and burritos are so popular, because they’re quick. It seemed that restaurants in Mexico range from the fanciest down to some real greasy spoons. I didn’t know if there were government health controls or not.

     Luckily I spotted a sign pointing to a bypass of downtown Chihuahua. I wasn't ready to get lost in a major city. I had difficulty following the bypass until I finally spotted a sign for Cuauhtémoc, which was the next town I was looking for. When I reached it, I looked for the road to San Juanito. I carried three different maps from three different sources, all of which showed a direct road to San Juanito. I asked several people for directions and learned that the road I was looking for doesn't exist. The only way to get to San Juanito from Cuauhtémoc was by way of La Junta. None of my maps showed a continuous route going that way. I didn’t have much confidence in my Mexican maps after that.

   As I was picking my way through some rough cobblestones in San Juanito at about 10 mph, a half-dozen Mexican soldiers stepped out into the road and blocked my way with automatic weapons and serious looks. The first thing that crossed my mind was the incident a few years earlier when some nuns were murdered and buried in shallow graves in El Salvador. I was glad I was in a town. One of the young soldiers, who appeared to be the leader, said something to me nervously in Spanish.

   I answered just as nervously, "No comprendo." A different soldier pointed his gun at the camera bag hanging from my belt, and said, "You got gun?" I answered, "No! No! No gun. Camara. Fotografica." Two of them walked around to my side and looked at the holster-shaped bag on my hip that contained the camera with a long zoom lens. They exchanged a few words in Spanish, studied the bag a little more and finally allowed me to pass. I was not about to reach for the camera before they were convinced that it wasn't a gun.
Good gravel road nearing Creel
    The road from San Juanito to Creel crosses the Continental Divide at least once. I guessed that the altitude at the divide was about 8,500 feet. The bike gave me no problems at that altitude with the low-octane gas. I had anticipated a problem and carried an octane booster, but I never had to use it. There was some snow in the woods at the higher elevations, but not much. The altitude at Creel where I stayed for two nights is 7,694 feet.

   The city of Creel is in Tarahumara Indian country, in the heart of the Copper Canyon region, where the natives retain many of their rites, laws and customs from ancient times. They're very friendly to tourists. Barranca del Cobre is a Mexican national park near Creel that attracts visitors from other parts of Mexico as well as from the United States. A scenic tourist railway passes through the entire length of the canyon. Trains carrying motor-home caravans on flatcars stop at Creel and often lay overnight. I heard that the tracks cling precariously to the edges of the steep canyon walls as the train winds slowly through the rugged mountains. Most of the motor caravans originate from Los Mochis on the Gulf of California. Early one morning in Creel, I spoke with a few tourists sitting in their motor homes on the train. After two days in Mexico it felt good to hear English spoken at me again.

   It was apparently the off-season at Creel. I was one of the only guests registered at the hotel. My room could best be described as rustic. The temperatures dropped to the mid-twenties at night. The only heat was from a tiny wood stove in the corner, when it was lit. I searched the area in vain after dark for kindling wood to start a fire. The only wood provided was 2" diameter pieces that needed help to ignite. I went without a fire the first night. I learned the next day that the big Pepsi bottle near the stove was filled with kerosene for lighting the fire. I had plenty of heat the second night.

   The floors were bare wood with small scatter rugs. The bed was very uncomfortable. The corners of the thin mattress rose up when I sat on the bed, and the corners of the flimsy, fitted sheet pulled off at the same time. The mattress under the fitted sheet had a moisture-proof plastic cover that crinkled every time I moved. The blanket was like a heavy braided rug. When I got under it, I had trouble breathing, so I decided to put on my hi-tech long johns and socks, and I slept with just the sheet and the bedspread. The temperature inside the room in the morning was about 50°. The entry door to the bathroom was only about 5' 10" high. Every time I entered with my 6'4" frame, I banged my head, which was particularly annoying during the night when I was half-asleep. The hotel brochure described the rooms as "without luxury, but clean".

   Breakfast was served at the hotel restaurant starting at 8:30. From the time I usually got up, I had two hours to explore the town before breakfast. It was a bit shabby in some places. I left for my first full adventurous day of exploration a little after nine, much later than I would have liked. I learned from a small hand-drawn map, which I found in the motel brochure, that there are actually several canyon accesses in the area. I decided to head for the Canyon de Batopilas, 75 miles south of Creel, which is said to have the nicest scenery.

   Some of the two-lane macadam road leading south from Creel was well-maintained and scenic. The macadam was made up of crushed red stone, similar to roads in Zion National Park. Much of the scenery reminded me of central Arizona. Twenty-four miles south of Creel the road changed to two-lane dirt with loose stones, potholes and a rough washboard surface. It gradually descended for another 20 miles where I found the turnoff for Batopilas. That road soon narrowed to a single lane, and it continued downward through the small Indian village of Kirare where the Tarahumara inhabitants have one of the most primitive cultures in the Sierras.
The 8-Mile descent into the canyon started here
     I stopped briefly in Kirare and was immediately surrounded by children and teenagers who acted like they had never seen a big motorcycle before. Everyone was friendly and smiling. I didn't try to use my limited vocabulary of survival Spanish because I figured they probably had their own language or dialect, and I’d probably get along better if I just smiled. Less than a half-mile beyond the village, the road dwindled to a single set of tire tracks, which began to descend at a much steeper rate, and led to the edge of the canyon, an ideal spot for photos. I could see for many miles up and down the canyon and I could eventually see a bridge across the Rio Urique at the foot of the canyon. It was still a long way off, and I wondered if it was on the same road that I was on.

   I checked my watch and my gas, and did some quick figuring to estimate if I could make it to the river and back to Creel before I ran out of gas, daylight or both. I decided to go for it, at least until two o’clock when I would reassess the situation. There were several partial washouts in the road and many big, loose stones. At times it looked like even a four-wheel-drive vehicle would have a problem with traction on the steep descent, not to mention coming back, which concerned me more because it was steep with a lot of loose surface. I would certainly have a problem in a few spots if I met someone coming the other way. On one steep descent, I had to apply both brakes as much as I dared on the stones because I kept gaining speed. Both wheels skidded for several feet before I was able to regain control and stop sliding. I looked down and I could see several hundred feet down the cliff, which brought a few cold chills down my back, and a lump in my throat; but I kept going, and paying a little more attention to my speed.

   At one viewpoint where I had a panoramic view of the canyon, I could see several hairpin turns below me. I was quite sure by then that the road was taking me to the river. I got to the bridge across the Rio Urique at two o’clock sharp. I took a few photos, peeled off a few layers of clothes, turned the big bike around, and I started back up the hill. I estimated Batopilas would have been another several miles from there over similar gravel roads. The temperature at the foot of the canyon was in the mid-eighties and quite humid. I used first gear all the way back up the hill. The rear wheel broke traction several times on the steep climb, but for the most part, I had enough traction to get back out as long as I was careful with the throttle. The 8-mile climb back to Kirare took about an hour, which included stopping a few times for photos.

   I met a native with two cows about a third of the way up. The bike frightened the cows, and they lunged for the sides. I shut off the engine as quickly as I could, as one cow turned toward the cliff side of the narrow road and the other climbed the embankment. The first cow stopped to avoid a big drop off the cliff but the other cow climbed to a precarious ridge about 15 feet above the road. I held my breath when he came to the very edge and the unstable bank began to give way under his hooves.

Nearing the river
   I didn't think the guy would be happy about losing one of his cows, so as the cow turned briefly away from the edge, I restarted the engine and churned my way out of there on the loose stones. I figured he could deal with it better without the bike around. Near the top, I met a four-wheel-drive pickup coming down on a very narrow, steep section of the road. It was the only vehicle I had seen on the hill in either direction. I figured I could probably back down easier than he could back up the hill, so holding my front brake as it occasionally broke traction, I backed down very slowly for about 50 feet to a small shoulder on the cliff-side of the road. I had to lean the bike toward the edge slightly so his side mirror wouldn't hit my arm on his way by. I could see down the scary edge of the cliff by looking down between my forearm and leg.

Many loose stones
Two natives with their burro carrying firewood near the Urique River.
My long-distance and very-reliable adventure touring bike
   I made it back to Creel around 6:00 on reserve gas. When I pulled into the only gas station in town, there was a line of four trucks and two cars waiting. An old one-ton pickup, who was being served when I got there, was getting several 55-gallon drums in the back of the truck filled. I didn't know how much gas the place had left, or what time they closed, so I stayed in line for about a half hour, rather than returning to the hotel. I thought they might not be open in the morning when I'm ready to leave, or maybe they would be totally empty then.

   I arrived at the hotel hungry, tired and covered with a thick layer of dust. I hadn't eaten anything since my 8:30 breakfast. After a quick shower, I was ready for dinner, but the motel's restaurant was closed. I went to the convenience store and found the woman who cooked breakfast for me. I asked her, "Quiero algo comer, por favor", which meant "want something to eat". She rattled off something in Spanish back. I recognized the word, espere, which I knew meant "wait", and I recognized "ocho y media" as 8:30, which is the time her store closes. By 8:30 I was ready to eat anything. She suggested pork cutlets, which consisted of some small chops, cooked well-done in a frying pan. I suspect they were already cooked, and she merely reheated them. She served the chops with fried potatoes and a large serving of refried beans. As usual, I asked for and drank bottled refresca with it.
The convenience store where I ate.
  The water at Creel looked clear with no odor but I still didn't drink it because of stories I heard about Mexican drinking water. Since I already got diarrhea once on this trip from something I ate or drank in Texas, I used purifier pills in the Texas water that I still had in my cooler. It turned the water slightly yellow and made it taste and smell pretty bad. I used it mostly for brushing my teeth, and I drank only bottled refresca in Mexico. The tap water was probably pure in the mountains, but I didn't dare risk it.

   I expected my return trip to be easy, but I was unable to locate the Chihuahua bypass that I used on my way down. Consequently, I bumbled my way into the heart of the city. I stopped for gas and asked the attendant in Spanish for directions to Ojinaga, which is like asking someone in the center of Washington, DC for directions to Philadelphia. The general directions that he rattled off quickly in Spanish only got me deeper into the city. I saw a motorcycle cop giving a guy a traffic ticket, so I waited for him to finish and asked him, hoping that he spoke English. He was a clean-cut looking young guy wearing a neat new uniform and a shiny new helmet. He rode a small Yamaha Virago with no tank emblem. It had a Harley Davidson sticker on an aftermarket windshield.

   He spoke much too fast in Spanish for me to understand. After I answered a few times with “No comprendo”, he looked a little perplexed, and maybe even annoyed. He got on the radio with his home station and exchanged a few words in Spanish, which I was also unable to translate, and he motioned for me to follow. I suspected he told them what he was about to do. I hoped for the best, but I confess that visions of the legendary Mexican "slammer" crossed my mind. My "police escort" went through the heart of the city, past huge churches, statues and many large department stores. It's actually a beautiful and clean city. After about ten minutes of riding very fast through city traffic, he finally stopped, got off, pointed down the road, and said one word, "Ojinaga." I thanked him with “Gracias por todo”, shook his hand, smiled a lot and headed in the direction he pointed. I wondered after I left if I should have offered him a few thousand pesos.

   That young motorcycle cop was typical of most Mexican people I met on the trip, especially the ones far from the border. Everyone was friendly, helpful and polite. They were nothing at all like the stereotype that's often depicted in the movies. I would have no hesitation about returning for another visit. A moderate vocabulary of survival Spanish would be very helpful and more politically correct, particularly in non-tourist areas, in remote restaurants, and for directions. The more words and phrases you know, the easier it is. I did double lock my bike at night, but I can think of many other places in the US where I would double and triple lock it and still feel less than confident of finding it in the morning. 

   I didn't carry a tent and/or sleeping bag on this trip, which I had plenty of room for on the back seat. The Gold Wing worked out very well for me as a long-distance adventure touring bike. It was certainly much more versatile and easier to handle than the Suzuki GS750 that I used for my first two Alaska tours, and the overall ergonomics were far superior. The handling with both bikes on loose gravel, mud or sand would have been much better with more of a dirt-bike tire on the front wheel, although I rode with long-distance street tires on both wheels. Both bikes exhibited excellent reliability, which is a must for traveling alone in the hinterlands. The worst scenario I can think of is breaking down or having a serious accident with injuries on a lonely gravel road in the mountains where someone might come by once every few hours, or even once every few days, and maybe that person might not even stop. But then again, I have faith and confidence that I'm never really alone.

The next chapter is:  08 Return to Newfoundland

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