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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Vaguely famous

This is an article I wrote for the NETRA newsletter. I'm no Hemingway but I was happy to see it all in print. If you've followed this blog you will recognize the narrative.

I will be presenting a seminar on Adventure Touring at the NETRA Expo on 10 Jan. The Expo and seminars are free and open to anyone who wants to attend. Come join the fun and say Hi.

Attainable Dreams

Everyone who rides a bike wants to take a road trip and everyone who rides a bike with knobbies wants to take a dual-sport road trip. It's a dream, it's on their bucket list, some day … However, as we all know, the road named Someday leads to Nowhere.

Last summer a friend of mine had an Africa Twin that he decided to sell me. The only problem was that it was near San Francisco and I live in CT. OK, not much of problem since I was due for another cross country trip. I have done US 50, the White Rim Trail in Moab, Baja California, and the TransAmerica Trail. Now it was time for something really serious.

This is the Grand Canyon in Arizona
This is the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico – Four times bigger and a whole lot deeper!
I got out the maps and there it was, not too far south of the border and pretty accessible on a bike. I told my friend Eddy I would fly out in Sept to pick up the bike and ride it home.

On 3 Sep I flew out and picked up the bike, checked it over, visited some family and friends, and then hit the road. My original plan had been to ride the length of Baja and take the ferry to the mainland. However, a couple of hurricanes changed my plans and I decided to hit Yosemite, Death Valley, Mojave, the Grand Canyon, and then cut over to Tucson. I crossed the border at Nogales without any trouble. I stopped to change dollars to pesos within a half mile of the border and was on my way again.

This brings up the first misconception about Mexico – It's very dangerous! I'm walking around with US$500 in my pocket and couldn't have been safer. The people who run the exchanges (which admittedly look pretty seedy) do not allow any crime or corruption. When I asked I was told that they operated on trust and if people didn't feel safe they would all be out of business. No where in my 2 weeks in Mexico did I ever feel the least bit of apprehension!!

I'm heading south and the weather is delightful, the road is pleasant, and I'm having a great time. This is when I find out why they have no radar traps in Mexico. Instead, they have killer speed bumps. These will soak up all 8” of suspension travel and still throw you into the air. One learns very quickly to be ever vigilant. Every little village has them and nobody speeds.

They also have shrines to people who have lost their lives in accidents. Multiple shrines means Muy Peligroso! (Very Dangerous) On the other hand the No Rebase (No Passing) sign seems to actually mean No passing unless you really want to and don't let the blind curve bother you. This was a bit exciting the first time or two until I realized that it's just the way it is and nobody gets upset. If somebody is coming straight at you in your lane you just slow down and pull over if necessary so that they can slide through. Nobody blows their horn or makes finger gestures, maybe next time it will be you that needs a little help.

Camping is easy, just pick a spot, any spot. One night I pulled off the road into a clearing and pitched my tent. Another night I took a side road and found a place I thought was secluded. It turned out to be the road to a village and several people passed me in the night. I was ignored except for one person who wished me Buenas Noches. So much for desperate thieves who are waiting to rob you.

Continuing south I stopped in the town of Arizpe. I wondered about the town checking out the church and plaza. Returning to the bike I met Senora Carmen Puente who runs a small museum. She was a direct descendant of Colonel De Anza, the man who founded San Francisco California. The museum is unmarked and it was just good luck that I found it. Our knowledge of each other's language was minimal but we understood each other well enough. The first of many gems I found on this trip.

South again I stopped in Hermosillo for a liter of oil at the Honda dealer and then started east. I was stopped at a Policia roadblock who wanted to know where I was coming from, where I was going, and what my purpose was. Again, another myth evaporated. They were not interested in bribes, transit fees, or anything else. They were just doing their job and I was quickly on my way.

To be clear, my Spanish is not very good. However, with pointing, a phrase book, and patience I never had a problem. The Mexican people I met were warm, generous, and very helpful. They are proud of their country and wanted me to enjoy it. You could think of it as Very Southern Hospitality.

Heading east on Mex 16 I entered the Sierra Madre Occidental. These are mountain roads that would make any sport bike rider delirious. Think of the Tail of the Dragon but 100 miles long with spectacular views. Oh, and a few cows, horses, and goats to keep you focused.

Where I should have turned south on Chi 22, I goofed and turned right into the Cascada de Basaseachi. This was another of the gems I collected along my trip. It is one of the highest waterfalls in North America.

Once on Chi 22 I was quickly into the town of Creel which is the gateway to the Copper Canyons. I spent a day relaxing and touring the town on foot. There are a few tourist shops but the main activity is logging and mining. I found a room at Casa Marguarita that was very nice and included breakfast and dinner in the price of the room.

I left Creel with the intention of visiting Urique but I missed a turn and ended up in some unfinished construction. I backtracked and decided to go straight to Batopilas. Good choice!

These are switchbacks that will rival any in the Stelvio Pass in Italy.
While I was having a great time, I was beginning to wonder where the adventure was. I had ridden on some class 1 & 2 roads but most of the route had been paved. Well, I soon found out. The canyon walls are very steep and there were multiple massive rock slides. So much so that when I got to the construction area I had to wait for half an hour while a Cat D-9 carved a notch through the rubble so I could get through. I was riding on TKC-80 knobbies and it was still a challenge. You can see the route 

Batopilas is a wonderful step back in time. If it were not for the new pickup trucks I could easily believe it was 100 years ago. I stayed for a couple of days to soak it all in. Batopilas is an old mining town in the bottom of the canyon at the edge of the river. I rode the bike with no luggage to the next town Satevo and had a blast sliding the rear around the corners on this class 2 road. Keeping in mind that a trip over the edge of this one lane road might be fatal ...

Me with my NETRA t-shirt at the bottom of the canyon
Leaving was tough because it meant that I was now heading north and back to CT. On the other hand it was now getting late and, as warm as it was in the canyons, I knew cold weather was waiting for me in New England.

I made it back through the construction after a 3 1/2 hour wait while the bulldozer again the cleared road. From there it was more mountain roads to Hidalgo del Parral. This is a big city but luck was with me and I found the hotel I was looking for. Breakfast was good and I stopped to fill the tank. The attendant at the PeMex station pointed out the correct road for me to take north and I was on my way home.

The border crossing was a hour of waiting to show my passport and then 3 minutes of checking to make sure I was legal. After that it was just a normal road trip through Austin, Memphis, Nashville, and Pennsylvania. I wanted to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway but the weather report was forecasting cold and possible snow so it was time to make some miles. As it was I caught the last two 60F days of the year on my ride home.

The Mexico part of my trip was only two weeks. Doable by anyone that wants to do it with an understanding spouse and boss (is that redundant?). Add 3 days each way to get to Eagle Pass TX and the rest of the times is all south of the border.

The cost was only gas, meals, and hotels. Gas is about the same south of the border but meals are much cheaper and hotels generally ran 300 pesos (US$25) a night. I camped out about 50% of the time so it was really cheap for me.

Any bike from a KLR650 to a BMW GS could have handled all the roads. I would ride road tires to Austin TX and then have them changed to TKC-80 or Dunlop 606 tires with the understanding that they would save the old tires and switch them back when you return if you want. Order them in advance! Throwing the bikes in the back of a pickup and driving down with a buddy is also an option.

Don't just sit there wishing you could go, make a plan, set a date, and just do it. Remember: The dread is always worse than the deed!

Want to know more?
My blog is – go back to September 2014 and you can read about the trip day by day with many more photos.

Mark Walker – Mexico Maps - 805-687-1011
Mark has all the best maps and was unbelievably patient when helping me get everything sorted out.

Noel Gonzalez – Guide - +52 635-199-1161
Noel can help you with everything from reservations to actually arranging side trips. A great resource in Creel. He speaks very good English

Casa Real de Minas de Acanasaina (Hotel de Minas for short)
This is the only place to stay in Batopilas. The hotel is inexpensive, clean, and has a secure place to store the motorcycle for the night.

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