Today was going to be the day we departed from Batopilas. That much had been decided, there was nothing more to do but wait, wait all day for the sun to cease its tyrannical hold on our will to mobility. So we sat and ate mango and chili popsicles in the shade of mammoth trees, watched the owner of a small Tarahumara sandal company cut old tires to the stenciled shapes of human feet, and cheered on an adolescent boy as he demonstrated how to stop a brakeless bicycle â€˜using his foot to grind down the back tire.
We bought groceries, divided up the food into fourths; Jacob took a mid-afternoon nap in the gringo-zoo-cage gazebo. I took off down the road towards the entrance of Batopilas to explore the ruins of an old hacienda once owned by a silver mine tycoon. A sign on the front gate read Â´Ten pesos a headÂ´. A thick chain was wrapped around the gate and nobody seemed to be within shouting distance, so I climbed the surrounding crumbling walls for a better look. With a dozen or more automobiles stashed in and around the old roofless chambers of the guest house the hacienda looked a bit like a parking garage. The main building was missing half of its southern wall, all the other walls were shrouded in overgrown bougainvillea one could peer into its interior and see a giant swarm of black beetles ominously hovering, waiting to intercept and annihilate the cheap vagrant sightseer. Venturing further into the hill behind the hacienda I found myself in the communal yard of three different households. A man emerged from a hut carrying some debris toward a barrel fire. After incinerating his trash he greeted me with an uneasy wave.
I returned to the town square to find that the Popsicle store with the beautiful girl had reopened. She welcomed me into the store with her large almond eyes that said, â€˜why would this silly gringo remain so long in this sleepy townâ€™. After I would say my choice of flavor â€˜taking the utmost care in accentâ€™ she would repeat the word again as though I were an infant who, still shaky in pronunciation, needed further verbal reinforcement. I wanted very much to ask if she would consider coming along on the bike trip. Maybe she would accept if I were to build a wagon that could trail behind my xtracycle and in it she could have her freezer to sit upon and hawk popsicles to heat exhausted travelers. Surely the world could benefit from more stories of incredible feats of strength performed for the sake of preserving a loving relationship.
Luckily I abandoned the idea, for I certainly would have died towing a fridge and a woman out of Batopilas. We left town with impeccable timing the sun was low enough so that the ledges of grated hill sides offered plentiful shade on our grueling two-hour climb out of the canyon. This road would be the steepest we had ever encountered it immediately began weaving its way into the hills in tight switchbacks just as we passed the last house in town. There were good half mile stretches where if you didnâ€™t grundle with everything you had youâ€™d be forced to grundle even harderÂ¨ as Nate described the climb in reflection. We literally had to juice our legs for all they were worth, because if we stopped pedaling weâ€™d be at an impossible angle to resume momentum, even in the easiest gear. Then we would be on foot pushing and dragging which wears you out much quicker than pedaling.
When we had reached what appeared to be the summit we took our first group photo since Nate had joined the trip. Staring out past the setting sun, the monolithic folds of rock and sheer ledges of the Batopilas Canyon seemed to drift lackadaisically from our stationary bodies, as though the land was composed of inverted clouds erupting in volatile arrangements.
The real mountain peak proved to be another two miles of torturous gradient. At one point I hallucinated seeing a decrepit old pick-up-truck the whole body bouncing precariously on its chassis, stereo system blasting mariachi music at a decibel its speakers could not coherently convey, the teenage driver with a fat liter of Tecate swinging in one hand out the window, an inebriated crew of the machismos of every single age, cheering, throwing bottles, drooling on themselves, and maintaining wicked grins in the face of inevitable destruction. I looked on in horror as the truck barreled rapidly toward a sharp curve knowing the thick powdery dust of the road would provide little traction. Inevitably I came to my senses and was spared the grim fate of El Viaje de los Borrachos (the drunken voyage).
Finally we reached the top. It was indeed the very top of the mountain â€˜Mexican roads rarely skirt around some side ridge, no; they climb straight to the top then plummet to the bottom. The peak offered a three-hundred-sixty degree view of rugged mountains expanding everywhere. Down in the bottom of the next valley we could make out the faint lights of the tiny town of Rodeo. Sleep that night was aided by a cool breeze, a high altitude phenomenon much appreciated after experiencing the dizzying effects of dry dessert air.
Should a biker ever need a challenging course to test the weak points of a set of breaks, the treacherous descent into Rodeo would do nicely. Again a thick powdery dust covered up grooves between jagged stones exacerbating the problem of finding a decent line to follow. I managed to get a pinch flat in the first five minutes of riding. Goat stood nearby and sweated while I burned my finger tips on a wheel rim that felt as if it had just emerged from an oven. Just minutes after I fixed my flat, Goat discovered that his tire was flat as well. It was a miserable shadeless place to work.
We met up at the only grocery store in Rodeo. For cold drinks they had cans of Jumex nectars of which we drank three or four apiece.
From Rodeo the road took a mellower course, we managed to make it to the Rio Batopilas in just a few hours. There we sat under the shade of a giant Juamochile tree clinging to the side of an eroding slope. Held in bean pods a bit smaller in size than Tamarind, the Juamochile has a red fleshy fruit that surrounds a large black seed. It has the taste of roses and could be potentially refreshing if only it contained some juice.
While searching for a campsite we found that all the prime property was being hoarded by a herd of cattle. We set up camp on the sand, right up on the bank of the river. The road from Rodeo extends out of an arroyo wash and continues to forge the river over a path of stones. During the course of the night we could hear the fiery engines of large trucks hauling goods to restock the tiendas in San Ignacio. Some drivers employed the gung-ho method of accelerating as quickly as possible across the water way kicking up huge stones that bombarded the truckâ€™s undersides with a loud â€˜clunkâ€™.
The next morning we awoke to find that a small convoy of soldiers had driven out the cattle and taken over the prime property beneath the Juamochile trees. One of the soldiers, who introduced himself as David, came over to visit us. We offered David a cup of coffee, and he stood around in his heavy camo-fatigues. He related stories of his life to us with the enthusiasm of one overjoyed to encounter such a random opportunity to practice English.
Born in Chihuahua, his family moved to Ciudad Juarez where they hoped that within time they would be able to immigrate into the U.S.
â€œI would test out the different crossing points.â€� David reminisces, Â¨Just casually walk down pedestrian bridges, and when one of the guards asks you what youâ€™re up to, just say something in English like, `Iâ€™m returning to my homeÂ´. The ones that would get suspicious, youâ€™d just remember their faces and watch out for them the next time. He laughs at the ease and relative tranquility of the old border. Â¨You canâ€™t do that today.Â¨
Eventually his family crossed over and settled down in Chicago. David found employment with a landscape crew, specialized in installing irrigation systems, and dealt drugs on the side. Immigration busted him on the job sight and deported him back to Mexico. Now he was in his third year of being an enlisted soldier. All soldiers were required to remain in service for a minimum of three years, it seemed to David that he had done his time, but he was not sure when his superiors would grant him leave to go home.
â€œWeâ€™re supposed to get paid every two weeks, a five hundred peso salary, plus, sometimes a little extra. Right now weâ€™re waiting for the general to return; maybe heâ€™ll let us know today when weâ€™ll get paid next.Â¨
David was on mess duty today. As soon as the Hummer came along, he was supposed to be ready to start cooking up the morning meal.
â€œIf Iâ€™m not over there when the hummer comes backâ€¦â€� indicating the rest of his unit that sat dozing under the shade of the Juamochile. Â¨â€¦theyÂ´ll make me run laps. Thatâ€™s what happened to five guys who arrived here the latest last night. The general, he says, you must run from San Ignacio to the river in half an hour, and so the last ones to arrive, he makes them run across the river ten times, with their heavy packs on and everything.Â¨
That was the story of the unit as a whole. Every day, all day, they marched around desolate and remote landscapes searching for marijuana crops. Technically it was the function of another operations (a Mexican version of the D.E.A) to search and destroy narcotics, but they mostly scoped out areas from the sky, in helicopters, and had the army perform all the lowly grunt work. As David mused, itâ€™s not like weâ€™re fighting any wars abroadÂ´.
Â¨Some of us carry machetes, but they become dull very quickly, because we chop up the plant at the roots and often hit stones. It gets hot, and we move all day long, each only carry one canteen of water.Â¨ The size of his canteen looked like it could hold enough water to hydrate me for, at best, an hour and a half.
We asked him what happened when the military unit encountered the people maintaining the fields.
â€œSometimes we arrest the farmers just for time it takes to destroy his fields. Weâ€™ll make him help with the work, and then release him at the end of the day because itâ€™s too much responsibility to ensure his safety, to feed him and transport him back to a base. We have to be careful though, sometimes weâ€™ll be hanging out in a town, and a farmer â€˜whose crop was just destroyedâ€™ heâ€™ll get real drunk and then come shooting at us. But itâ€™s a lot worse in places like Durango and Zacatecas. If this were Zacatecas, our general would certainly be shot at. Itâ€™s crazy man, but I it happens just as much in the U.S.. Man when I was dealing in Chicago, there would be gunfights almost every day. Gangsters would pull right up alongside some rival and popâ€™em right through the windshield of their car.Â¨
Our military friend admitted that he was a recreational pot smoker.
â€œIf I find some stuff thatâ€™s purple, or looks really good, I say to myself, Â´thatâ€™s mineÂ´, and stash it away so that itâ€™s not just thrown into the fires. Then I dry it out and hide in the bushes and make tea.â€�
It went without saying that if Davidâ€™s superiors found marijuana on him, the punishment would be severe. Yet, perhaps because he had managed to get away with habitual use for so long, he didnâ€™t feel any anxiety about getting caught.
We were hanging around some rocks near the deepest part of the river. Large lizards and spiders darted around the rocks as though every quarter of a second they could teleport themselves a few centimeters; their movements were too quick for my eyes to comprehend. Even when talking about his strenuous existence, David had an infectious mood of well-being that made me forget momentarily that the coals of our heavenly inferno were approaching their maximum output for the day. It would be tough riding ahead.
We parted ways with our soldier friend and hit the dusty trail. After an hour of rolling hills we started climbing steeply. During the course of another long hill heat exhaustion was an eminent possibility for all of us. I found myself hugging one side of the road or the other, trying to benefit from the thin shadow of a cactus or some leafless shrub. My prayers were directed upwards to the sky that the buzzards and vultures might mistake me for helpless carrion, circle in anticipation over my head, and bless me with the shade of their mighty wingspan.
Eventually we crossed paths with yet another river and gradually surrendered our will to move to the temptation of a refreshing swim. Judging from the sight of a car left abandoned on the steep sandy slope leading out of the rivers edge, the ford looked like a formidable task best left for morning. Within half an hour a pick-up-truck approached the crossing. After a minute of inspection it shied away from the steep climb in favor of a deeper crossing with a mellower grade leading out. The truck took something of a leap of faith, barreling down the loose stone path into the river, and was soon stuck. No repositioning of the tires or gunning of the engine improved the situation, and driver and girlfriend jumped out of the truck into the river yelling at one another in heated argument. After a quick survey of the truck and some more screaming the girl took off down the road; dude-bro proceeded to suck down a cigarette at a ferocious pace. Presently Goat went up to the man to ask if our assistance would be needed, but the man expected that a truck would soon come by that could tow him out. He claimed that his girlfriend had headed down the road to seek out help.
About an hour passed. The only people to come upon the scene were two men on horses, who werenâ€™t in any position to help out the stranded truck. Jacob, Nate, and I were heading back from an exploratory hike when Goat came trotting up to us.
â€œThe stranded guy has changed his mind. He doesnâ€™t think any truck will come by to help, and fears that his lady has ditched him.â€�
So we headed back toward the car. Our method of rescue consisted of all four of us pushing the truck from the front while the driver accelerated in reverse. Every few feet we had to dig out the big rocks from behind all four tires before pushing again. In this way the truck progressed in baby steps back toward the shore. By the time the truck was out of the water, girlfriend had reappeared and was cheering us on with a lively chant â€˜muy fuertesâ€™ (so strong). Then the four of us got in the back of the truck to serve as a counterweight so that the rear tires could get better traction during the mad dash up the slope. While the truck was in motion the truck bed felt like a springboard that threatened to catapult all four of us into the air like a bucking horse. We made it to the top of the hill and all four of us felt relief from the burden of heavy machinery; handling bikes was all too easy in comparison.
Neither Jacob nor I wanted to take any chances with the mosquitoes that night â€˜they had been especially obstinate in depriving us of sleep the night before. We took the advice of Private David and lit several patties of dried cow dung on fire, propped them upon rocks interspersed throughout the camp so that the billowing smoke would hang like a death sheet encapsulating and protecting us from bloodsuckers.
Later on in the night we heard the sounds of yet another truck getting stuck in the dreaded river crossing. Jacob stood in the shadows watching as some rather suspicious activity unfolded. A few men were frantically carrying packages from the stranded car to a truck running idle in front. Once the truck was packed up it took off with tires spinning out along the steep sandy river exit. Minutes later a third party arrived and then some rather intense shouting began. There was not much to do but sit in a state of paranoia and inhale the noxious fumes of cow dung.
Then there was the unmistakable sound of cocking guns as two men emerged from the bushes flanking our camp. Two more men emerged from the front completing that claustrophobic feeling of a sealed tomb. If these men were drug smugglers there was a chance that they might just shoot us â€˜just the usual elimination of pesky witnesses.
â€œLevanta sus Manos. Venga aquÃ.â€� (raise your hands and come this way)Yelled the leader.
Goat responded with a laconic â€œÂ¿Porque?â€�
The leader repeated his command while compelling Jacob to emerge from the shadows where he had lurked in quiet observation.
“Somos Gringos. No entendamos mucho espaÃ±olâ€�. Goat attempted to diffuse the situation.
Oddly enough Goat, Nate, and I all held bowls of food in our hand, and we all continued eating through the unfolding confrontation. This stoic behavior must have struck the armed men as rather bizarre. Then a military commander, finally grasping the concept that we were harmless â€˜though weirdâ€™ gringos, rushed into the middle of our camp, waving his hands frantically in the air, telling all of us, â€œesta bien, itâ€™s alrightÂ¨. He explained to us, between heavy gasps for breath, that he had seen our lights and was worried that we were armed bandits preparing a sneak attack. His face was pale and drenched in sweat; I worried that he might be working up a stroke.
Our capturers searched Goat, seeing the tools on his belt, and then took a perfunctory glance at our belongings. My guitar case caught their attention, but they soon left it alone after it was clear that it served as a kick stand to my bike and would create a big mess should it be removed.
Â¨This area has a lot of drug smugglers. Mucha Marijuana.â€� Concluded the commander. Then, without as much as a Â´be warnedÂ´, or enjoy the rest of your eveningÂ´, the soldiers retreated towards the river. They were probably eager to share such an unusual story with their comrades, or maybe just wanted to forget the surreal encounter with gringos, on bikes, literally in the middle of nowhere.