Madera – Batopolis by way of Urique
Copper Canyon Mexico, you know it as, the epicenter of the Mexican Cartel’s grow operations. What you don’t know is that it is home to one of the most exhilarating stretches of tarmac and gravel, in the world.
Busting out of Madera at 5am it is chilly, cold, really cold. I want to get an early start, Copper Canyon can be a volatile place and night driving is a no-no. I’m also realistic about my ability to source cell service, internet or power, its zero. True, the grow operation’s territories and borders are well defined by now, this is not the place of turf battles or gang war shoot outs, but make a wrong turn and people are libel to take trespassing very seriously. The first few hours are tough; its pitch black, the visor on my helmet distorts the faint light reflecting off the center stripes imparting a faint sense of vertigo. Cows roam freely here and I must be cautious. I take it slow. As daylight breaks things are calm, serene even, but it’s when I turn onto highway 25 normality becomes heavenly.
Highway 25 and Highway 17 leading to Batopolis are pure, hart pounding, pulse racing, grip tightening titillation for the senses. The road begins to get curvy just past the 25 turn-off. Tight concurrent S and L turns bank into the sunlight as it pitters between the towering old growth pine trees still early in the morning. This is my first trip with my new running mate Kuzco, a 2008 orange BMW 1200GS, and we are just getting to know each other. The road climbs, as I ascend the roads cures get tighter and tighter, the view begins to reveal itself. After 40 or so miles the trail has summated the peaks and traces out long wavy path along the top the canyon wall like the waving ribbon of an Olympic dancer. Peering over the edge I can now see Copper Canyon in its all its majesty. It’s a labyrinth of sheer Grand Canyon-esq walls and Sopris-like monolithic tree and cacti covered peaks. The mountains and canyon walls intermix in a celestial dance, all covered in vibrant green foliage, the rock in magnificent hues of white, red and purple. It’s magnificent.
I bank a sharp right at Highway 17 waving to a family awaiting a bus. Now it gets interesting. The road to Batopolis is closed to traffic, though I will only learn this later. The next 67km of donkey track are being finely manicured into a 2 lane ribbon of bliss that drops precipitously several thousand feet down the canyon wall in just a few miles then continues to undulate and contort along the canyon floor. And today, with the road closure and access by bike or foot only- it is all mine.
I stop, overlooking the winding ribbon of freshly laid surface. It’s perfect, 2.5 lanes wide, no lines. It looks like a racetrack. Empty. I swap to sport mode. With each turn I dare to inch closer and closer to the ground, I get on the throttle a bit quicker out of each corner. The bike is begging me for more but I’m not ready. I don’t know him well enough yet nor he I. Some of the banked turns are so steep my stomach drops. My body pulses, what a feeling. As the canyon wall begins to bottom out I see the remnant of the ongoing construction project ahead. Massive landslides with boulders the size of quarry trucks block what remains of the old donkey path.
It’s tremendous; the sheer scale of the sediment that has been blasted free to form this new road is breathtaking. I pass on a small gravel road built to the slide’s right. On the other side, I am greeted by a devilishly steep and winding pitch of loose white sand and large irregular rocks. 4’ wide at best, no guardrail, the surface slanted 15 degrees into a rock wall. The lingering smell of explosives, generators and charcoal fill the air. Now we are traveling! I dip in slow, dead slow. I rely on my gears but this is steep and slanted no room for error, I know if I come off I am done for, there is no way I can pick this massive bike up on a surface like this. I raise my visor for better visibility, dust fills my eyes, visor back down, my palms are sweating and I hear myself in my own head “don’t drop it, don’t drop it, stay upright”, finally I let off the brake as the road levels out to an old mining bridge. I stop and rejoice.
On the other side of the river I find pavement again, not fresh pavement, but pavement nonetheless. It invites me with deep, long, fast bends that trace the river’s bath. Suddenly, I find I’m carrying 20% more speed through every bend than before, a relationship is forming. Kuzco got me through a tough sport and now I’m rubbing his belly. With each turn we tip in harder, go faster. I feel the suspension compress, he feels my belly pressing his tank. The clank of a shifter, the “whap” of a downshift, the squeak of a break, the hollers out of my mouth. We are not learning to ride, we are building trust.
The final 11 miles are interspersed with loose gravel, landslide remnants, unbroken pavement and loose rocks. We dance around the gravel, power over pavement and slalom between rocks. A friendship has been formed.
As we pull into Batopolis it’s hardly noon. Unexpected haste. The sun now beats down on the Canyon with merciless intensity. The town is curious, suspicious.
At its heart is a large plaza. It’s beautiful, banked by rose bushes on three sides and a vibrant, white terraced, yellow and maroon colonial style building at its end. From the square you can gaze upward to the mountain top which holds a white and red structure, filled with thousands upon thousands of rose bushes. And yet, the streets are bereft of motor traffic, people are scarce; shops are closed, boarded up. It’s as if it’s permanently suspended in that moment in an old western where nothing moves, dust blows across the screen and the whirl and click of the gun-fight-to-be music plays. The one-story cement walls seem cavernous, even prison like. I buy some chips, no restaurants are serving. Those who are about seem statuesque; they lay dormant, perched on stoops and street corners. Young kids in t-shirts and old men with dark skin, deeply weathered faces and cowboy hats. When I smile, the throw a peace sign or a head nod. They are receptive, as if to say “hey man, your cool, we got you”, but not engaging. The ladies smile and sheepishly nod their heads, but even they are not inviting. I feel no threat, no danger, just that I am a spectator to a world I do not know and which is not interested in revealing itself to me.
I stumble upon a hotel with a lovely, flower filled central courtyard. The owners are gracious, they don’t even ask for payment. On their request I pull my motorcycle inside and shut the door. It’s going to be an early night. Tomorrow, a very long drive to Mazatlán, at least I will have a friend for the ride.
Skippy Mesirow is Chair Next Generation Advisory Commission Aspen, CEO Real World Reporting, AVSC Big Mountain Coach, Enthusiastic Community Member and Friend.