Bob Dow » Motorcycle travel story

Motorcycle travel story by Bob Dow
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Ride Copper Canyon, Mexico in April 2005

 PUBLISH TRAVEL STORY PUBLISH TRAVEL STORY

Story Line

Twelve men, old enough to know better, decide to spend a week riding dual sport motorcycles from Presidio, Texas, to see Copper Canyon. The Mexico portion of the trip was 1,200 miles and covered in 7 days. The focal points of the trip were Creel and Batopilas, Mexico. Creel is the staging point for most tourists in the area, because the Copper Canyon train stops there. The elevation ( 7,600 ft ) is 6,000 feet higher than Batopilas, which is located in the bottom of the canyon. Batopilas was settled in 1632 and is famous for its silver mines (1708). In 1880, the ex-mayor of Washington D.C. came to Batopilas to expand mine production. You still cross over to the village on the bridge he built in 1880. The village population is 1653. It is one street wide and follows the contour of the river for about 2 miles.

Director / Producer

None, they would have had a plan. In Mexico, a plan is a concept, not a reality. The trip was anticipated for 2 years. The addition of the 12th rider was unknown to 8 of the riders, until they stopped at the first break of the first day of the trip. He was greatly appreciated, being the service manager of Ft.Worth BMW.

Cast

The parts of Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby were played by Bob, Tom, and Nace. I guess I was Bruno because I had the original idea for the trip. The "City Slickers" cast consisted of: four salesmen, three engineers, two associated with construction, two business owners, and one insurance agent. The youngest cast rider was 48, the oldest 68. A cast of 12 is about as large as you want. It impresses the natives as you parade thought the village and entertains them when you criss-cross the village trying to find your way out. It makes it more difficult to find places to stay, get started in the morning, and makes the gas stops longer. On talcum powder roads, it creates a dust cloud miles long. Three to six is a more manageable size. Three can cause a problem with rooms unless 1 is willing to sleep on the floor, but it does make it more difficult to pin point who was snoring.

Shot on Location

Copper Canyon is approximately 350 miles due south of Deming, New Mexico, on the west side of the Continental Divide. It is 5 times as large as the Grand Canyon and 1,000 feet deeper.

Weather & Road Conditions

The weather was perfect - sunny and warm every day. We had frost one morning in Creel. There was not even a hint of rain in the 7 days. Some roads?? had over 4" of talcum powder to negotiate. If it had rained, those could not have been ridden. This report uses the term "road??" to refer to an area of land containing 2 disturbed rows of soil or rock. There is nothing in the English language to properly refer to the modified soil conditions in Mexico. You will be better prepared if you think of non-paved roads as "Paths". All dirt roads?? (except the one from Batopilas to Urique) are used by 4 wheel vehicles. That doesn't mean you won't find them challenging, but if you break down, someone will eventually come along. When you ride dirt, take along cotton rags. You will need them to clean your face shield several times. Paved roads were in excellent condition and can truly be thought of as highways.

Rolling Stock

Eleven motorcycles were trailored (544 miles) from the Ft. Worth, Texas, areas to Presidio on March 18th, then ridden 7 days. One rider chose to ride the entire trip. The motorcycles were: 7 KLR 650's ranging from 1988 to 2004. 1 1997 Suzuki DR 650, 1 2004 KTM 940, 1 1988 BMW GS 1000, 1 2004 BMW 650 Dakar 1 2004 BMW R1150 GS.

Equipment Modifications

At our age, there was little benefit to making the bikes do more. The most modified cycle was the Suzuki DR 650. It had a 4.5 gal. tank, 1" handle bar riser, and a gel pad inserted in the original seat. Only a couple KLR's had metal skid plates and after market windshields. Several KLR's had been lowered 2". The magic word is knobby tires.

Equipment Report

Twelve riders logged a total of 15,488 miles (1,200 miles in Mexico by 12 riders + one rider covering 1,088 miles to and from Ft.Worth). Equipment service was limited to: adding brake fluid to one KLR, adjusting an overflow line clamp, and replacing a headlight fuse. As far as I know, only one person adjusted his chain (me). There were no flats or tire problems of any kind! There were no significant crashes. There were 3 slow speed turn tip overs and one rolling tip over. None did any damage to the motorcycles. On the last day, one KLR blew the end out of the after market muffler. He went to the back of the line - far back. We learned that being fully prepared meant having brake fluid in your saddle bag. Only the BMW service manager knew this, which put him in great respect by the group. It an't easy finding Dot-4 break fluid in a Mexican village.

Service Tips

(1) Before you leave, check the chain slackness AFTER the bike is fully loaded. (2) With 0 ring chains, all that is necessary is to carry WD-40 & clean them after riding dirt roads. (3) Check your brake pads, they will be abused!!! (4) Group your tools by use. Don't be forced to unload everything for tools you need to fix a flat. (5) Tire Slime, even up to 6 oz. in a tire, does not cause the tire to get out of balance - use it. (6) Air Filters - Some riders used 'Filterskins' as a prefilter for the KLR's. That is a good idea, I did not know about them before the trip. My filter was completely clogged, & the air box had a thick layer of talcum in the bottom when I got back. (7) Carry nuts, bolts, zip ties, duct tape, safety pins, etc. Things will come loose on their roads??. (8) I used clear self sticking shelf liner to protect my KLR tank - it worked. I also used non-slip matting (found under throw rugs on hardwood floors) under my tail bag. It helps keep things from moving. On their roads??, things will move. (9) Be equally concerned about keeping dirt, as well as rain, out of your bags. (10) Figure out how to access your $$ on the road. You will need to get to it for tolls and gas. Health Report One rider sprained his ankle but not enough to interfere with his trip. He wrapped it, took ibuprofen, and went on. One rider had intestinal problems one morning. We suspect it was not from what he ate, but didn't eat and did drink. Bottled water was readily available everywhere and cheap. It appeared every restaurant uses bottled water for cooking. Places to eat are not readily available, and everyone took food bars, jerky, or cans of meat to picnic with. Medical Tips (1) Travel sites recommend taking 2 Pepto-Bismol tablets at a meal, to prevent diarrhea. (2) Several riders said in the past, their doctor gave them prescriptions of ibuprofen (800 mg.) for pain. They were told they could take it up to 4 times a day over an extended period. The over-the-counter dosage is 200 mg, so it is easy to take the prescribed amount. (3) I carry 'New Skin' liquid bandage. It works better than to stick on a bandage, & stays in place if you need protection for a cut, burn, or blister. (4) Sleep is important to having a good time & riding safe. I carry ear plugs, some claimed their's was not adequate. One rider carried a walkman & went to sleep listening to Rock & Roll.

Costumes

We prepared for the worst (rain & cold) but didn't wear any of it except extra pants. I substituted an Army coat liner for my riding jacket liner. ($2 at a flea market.) I think it is better than what comes with the coat. It is light and insulates you from the outside heat on a warm day. There was much discussion about footwear before the trip. The conclusion was that you do not need heavy riding boots. All but one wore comfortable riding boots. I wore Army jump boots (with soft soles) and found them ideal. Plan to walk around. You can ride twisty roads in the US. You don't experience the Mexican culture by speeding down the road? Something like a camelback water system is recommended. You are riding in high dry country, and you will need to drink more frequently than at gas stops.

Project Funding

Starting at the border, the trip cost me about $300. Others ate better, but we all stayed in the same rooms. Rooms, food, and gas, will cost you about the same as in the States, if you go in a large group. Room prices varied from $16 to $27. Because of the size of the group, we had to stay at more expensive, nicer places. The higher priced rooms included an evening meal and breakfast. I never could figure out the cost of gas because of spending pesos for liters. At 2 stops, it figured out at $2.17 per gallon. This was the same price we paid on the American side. The peso exchange rate was 10.9 to 1 and allowed us to estimate what we were paying for things. The very last day of the trip, I figured out one of the reasons I stayed confused about their currency. They have both paper money and coins of the same value. I grew up working a cash register and know how to combine paper money and coins to keep the number of coins in the change to a minimum. I tried this in Mexico - never worked. They just looked at me (crazy gringo), took the paper money & gave out another handful of coins. Crossing the Border Entering Mexico should take about 30 minutes, it took us 3 hours. It wasn't crowded at 7:30. It was at 10:30. The story we got was that the border computer broke down. It could be that they just take a beak Saturday morning between 8:00 and 10:00. It appeared they run you through 3 checks on the computer, one at a time, and had to wait for each response to come back. Three times 12 does explain some of the wait time. Using a Passport is the simplest way to enter Mexico, so that wasn't for me. I carried the "original" vehicle title and birth certificate, but the wrong birth certificate. They wanted the hospital certificate. They were understanding, and let me into Mexico to spend my money. They don't like Discover cards for the vehicle deposit. Luckily I also carried a Visa card. I think I paid the government $30 dollars to see Mexico. Next stop, vehicle liability policy ($19.70 for 7 days). Then the currency change & you are off. We encountered one check point about 25 miles into Mexico. All they wanted to see was our tourist permit. We were waved through one check point later in the day. We were checked one time on the way out. It was obvious to the young solders that there was no room on our motorcycle to smuggle anything out, so they did a symbolic check, which consisted of having us open one easy to get to piece of luggage and answer the questions of "no weapons?" "no drugs?". Exiting Mexico took 30 minutes. About 2 blocks from the border was a currency exchange store. I couldn't tell you if the conversion was fair, but it was easy. At the border, you turn in your tourist papers and window sticker. Riding out with only US currency, I dropped $1.75 in the box and said good by to Mexico.

Scene One

Day One -- 11 motorcycles are trailored to Presidio, Texas (544 miles). Day Two -- 12 gringos parade through the streets of Hidalgo del Parral, criss-crossing the town, looking for a way out. We saw a police station and stop and exchange hand gestures. It eventually occurs to the police that it would be much better to escort 12 gringos out of town in a police led motorcade than spend the day rounding up lost gringos. Later in the day, the group got separated returning from seeing the canyon south of Guachochi, and 8 riders spent the afternoon waiting on 4 riders who were trying hard to play catch-up before they get to the next town. Upon arrival at Creel, we were told there was "no rooms at the inn". This is the big Easter Weekend. We can stay the night but must leave the next morning. Next stop is an all day ride to Batopilas and the uncertainty of our accommodations there. It is low in the canyon, and we can camp out if necessary. Summary Escorted out of town by police. Loose 4 of 12 riders. Accommodation problems. Day Three -- Frost on the seats, just like we like it. We ride from Creel to Batopilas, on the twisty road everyone has seen photos of.

Scene Two

Spend 2 days in Batopilas. The town is planning for a big weekend, but we have no problem taking over Hotel Mary for 2 nights, so we are back on schedule. As much as I had read about Batopilas (read Grant Sheppard's autobiography 'Silver Magnet' about growing up in Batopilas as the son of the mine owner), I still did not comprehend that the village is one street, one lane wide, and about 2 miles long. We got caught up in afternoon traffic one day and had to wait until the calf dragged the young boy at the other end of the rope about a block. Another afternoon, we saw an unaccompanied donkey heading down the street. If you want to experience Mexican culture, this is a good place to do it. More that one night should be spent here. Go to the south end of the town and hang around the village square. Hotel Mary is the place to stay. It has the charm you came to Mexico for. Next door is an outdoor bar and in the entrance is a large mural of the town, highlighting where you are and points of interest. One of our goals was to ride from Batopilas to Urique. Some travel stories include this route (Mark Sampson made it). Some stories say they couldn't ride it due to the present conditions. (The Rider magazine group could not make it due to the rain.) The first answer to our inquiry was that it could not be ridden. Someone else told us there was "NO PROBLEM" riding to Urique. We went with the "NO PROBLEM" answer, after we were told by the police that 2 supply trucks were going over the road?? the next day, to supply new mines being (future tense is significant) opened up. We were also told, mines first, roads second. Of the 12 riders, three decided to accept the challenge. We got hand written directions from the police and thought that would be helpful - wrong! Within 2 blocks of the departure point, the point man took the wrong fork in the road. A very bad omen since he couldn't read the only sign we saw for the next 4 hours. He was replaced! We are not sure if we followed the directions given to us. The maps we had were no help. We thought we would come out in Urique, but we came out on the road to Urique. It really didn't matter. The ride was worth it. For the first 16 miles, it was steep runs and tight turns - all negotiable by supply trucks. (We never saw a supply truck, but we did find evidence of supply truck parts strewn along the road?? we traveled.) Then there were 8 miles of very flat roads??. Then back to a mix of easy and tough rides. The river was about 16" deep, but not difficult to cross. The 10ft. high sandy bank was another matter. (It doesn't hurt very much to lay a KLR over in deep sand that is at a 45 degree slope.) We thought it curious that in the middle of no where, there was a ranch hand sitting on the bank just watching. Apparently it is the highlight of his week; to just sit and watch crazy gringos splash around in the Urique River. For those up to the challenge, the directions given to us by the police were: head south out of town. At the sign saying Mission to the left, take the right fork. The police wrote out the following village names to guide us to Urique (San Juan de Dios, El Guayacan, Piedras Berdes, Mesa de Artura, and Urique). We were told to turn before we reached Tubares. (Note, Tubares is not on the list - important omission. You might assume you will come upon a sign saying Tubares ___ km and then start looking for a turnoff - wrong.) We did not know if we should turn at the edge of the village or miles before the village. We saw no turn until we reached the village, and turned to the right at the very edge of the village where we got gas from a small store. I suspect there is a road trail long before you get to Tubares that will bring you into Urique Unfortunately, we did not ask how many huts make up a village, so we never knew where we were until we reached Tubares. You know you are at Tubares when you see a mile long bridge. You might think a village would have a sign, a school, or a named mission - wrong. We traveled 161 miles that day and only 34 were paved. All paths that we took had 2 disturbed rows of soil or rock. The best advice I can offer is to follow the mufflers and cans. As long as you see them, you know the road?? is being used at some frequency. Late in the afternoon, we were riding a very high mountain crest. We had a number of buzzards circle us, low overhead for several passes. Didn't find that comforting, but they did not attack.

Scene Three

Creel, Mexico - A fine town that should not be visited on a major holiday. Rooms were hard to find, and the banks were closed. We stayed one night at The Lost Valley Hotel and one night at Hotel Kari Creel with "bunk house" rooms. Both included breakfast and the evening meal with the room. The bunkhouse motif, at Kari Creel, was more fun and reminiscent of my college days. Cell phones and phone cards may work in Creel. The ATM machine does work. That is how you work around the banks being closed & you having no pesos for food or gas.

Scene Four

The Ride -- None of the stories I read prepared me for the high quality paved roads. They were great, almost as good as the ones Bill Clinton bought for his home state of Arkansas. Of the 1,200 miles ridden, all but the run south from Batopilas to Urique was on roads?? used by trucks & pickups. If your bike can negotiate dirt roads, you can ride 1,000 miles of our route. Most bikes had knobby tires. The most common was Kinda 760 & 270. The Dakar had Avon Grippers 24, not a good choice for dirt roads but fine on the paved roads. The R1150 GS had Continental Twinduro knobbies and worked fine on all roads. WE HAD NO TIRE PROBLEMS. I think a factor was that most of us had new tires. Gas was not a problem. In Batopilas, Tubares, & San Rafael we filled up at a "private gas store". We did not buy gas out of 55 gallon drums. Everywhere else, we found Pemex stations. Remember we were riding KLR "6 gallon Tankers" and getting about 250 miles to the tank. Money was not a problem. Open your hand, and they will take it. Ride Advice (1) Any map you take will be incomplete. Have one but don't expect much. They won't always show the right direction you leave town, and the road numbers are not always a match. (2) Carry a cheap compass. Look at your map to confirm which way you should be heading out of town. Confirm you are heading in the right direction, and look for fresh coke and beer cans. (3) Don't expect the "main" road?? to look different from an alley, driveway, or vacant lot. (4) Monitor the age of the coke & beer cans, they will suggest how frequently the roads are used. (5) Take FRSs. This was my fist exposure to them. I won't ride without them again. During the Urique ride, we would come to an intersection. Larry would go one way and Ronnie the other. I stayed put. One would call back to the other, "this way" and we would follow suit. The lead also broadcast road conditions, such as bad road, speed bump, road kill, approaching car, route is to the left, etc. They will allow you to fall farther back in dust conditions too. They are not expensive. You can shop around and get one for less that $15, and all brands communicate with each other. Then you have to find a boom mike and wire a push to talk switch on the handle bar.

Scene Five

The Memories The scenery is spectacular, but you can see almost the same thing in the States in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. What you will not see is the people & their style of living. Do the hard rides, but don't leave out the more traveled back roads through the villages. Satellite TV dishes were evident in the small villages. Change can not be far behind. Wave at the kids - you are their parade. Take pictures of the donkeys. They will be replaced by ATV's. Stay at Hotel Mary & Hotel Kari (the owner speaks good English) and be "in" Mexico culture. You can get by with a minimum of Spanish. A phrase dictionary is not much help, because you are so far south and away from the cities. You can do it without any Spanish, Mark Sampson did. If you know no Spanish, make a picture book. You can point to pictures of, food, gas, lodging, bank, ATM machine, phone, the name of villages, etc. That will make do until you run across someone able to speak a little English. EVERYONE was friendly, even the gas station attendants. You are so far into Mexico that they appreciate your commitment to observe their culture. I walked the streets alone at night in several towns and villages and felt as comfortable as I do at home. Left Behind Only 2 people had something stolen. In Batopilas, we stayed across from the police station and left the bikes cabled together at night. During the day there, someone liked the electronic compasses attached to the tank bags. One bag was not fully zipped up, and they took the compasses, flashlight, and a can of tuna. Other things were lost, not stolen. Someone lost a money clip, they think it fell out. The battery to a VCR fell out on rough roads. A disposable camera could not be found. A camelback was left on a tail bag during fueling and fell off. Pictures About half of us took digital cameras. I recommend taking a cheap 35 mm. It simplifies things (no battery or storage media problems). One rider had his digital camera quit, even thought he kept it in his coat to protect if from shock. One lost the battery to his VCR. When you return, you can have the film processed (no prints) and transferred to a CD. With this, you can edit the pictures and choose what you want prints of. More than one of our riders plan to make a DVD of the trip so that it can be shown on the TV. The End

Credits Three years ago, the author decided to do something memorable for my 60th birthday. It took 2 years to make it happen. It was worth it! Scouts - Nace & Rick , they had ridden in Mexico before. Catering - Walt, he had the coffee pot & opened the coffee shop each morning. Camera Man - Larry & Chris, Larry did good, dropped his camera many times but it still worked. Chris lost the battery to his camera on day 3. Sound - The responsibility of Larry & Ronnie because they brought FRS radios & could use them. Tom provided the background rumble on the way back to Presidio, when he lost the guts of his muffler. Trip Reporter - Bob, no other skills. Money Manager - Terry, he showed talent in managing money after he lost his money clip on day 3. Motivation - Don P., at his age (68), if he could do it everyone else was shamed into keeping up. Security - Don W., he rode the most expensive bike (2004 BMW R1150 GS). With his bike as bait, we knew our old KLRs and DR were safe. Resources - Dave, he seemed to always know where to get things sold in groups of 6. Translator - Tom shared translation responsibilities with Rick, Dave, and Larry.

Epilog

"Memories are made of the things that you overcome, not the trip where everything went as scripted! We were not disappointed with the trip in any way! Uncertainties about having accommodations and being able to get dollars converted to pesos was part of "the adventure". And, what's a trip without getting lost? The locals were very warm and friendly and tried to be helpful. Three of us accepted the challenge from Batopilas to Urique. We have 161 more miles of tall tales to tell than the rest.

Post Script

My first college roommate read my story and sent this reply. ".. Now you can sit back and wait for the movie offers to roll in -- the movie teaser will be something like, "See a dozen hardened bike hoodlums terrorize entire villages in Northern Mexico as they ride through marketplaces and churches at top speed, torturing defenseless communities, and looting what little the poor families have worked for all their lives. Know as the Dirty Dozen, they . . . The original assumption that the most severe injury was a sprained ankle in error. I learned 2 weeks later that the sprain was actually a minor bone fracture. One that only required a Velcro walking cast - that he wears occasionally. Below are a few photos to give you an ideas of the "fun" roads?? we took. (1) We started at the very bottom and came over this pass, where the buzzards checked us out. (2) This shows part of the 6,000 ft. drop down in to Batopilas. (3) Close up of some of the road?? in photo two. Remember everything brought to Batopilas comes over this road. (4) Second highest (812') waterfall in Mexico, and 28th in world.

   Story by Bob Dow

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