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Mexican Rave

Day One

Saturday. The paperwork was done, I was on my way to Mexico. It all began a few months earlier while surfing the internet. Pancho Villa Moto-Tours offered three or four tours that just happened to coincide with my Spring Break as a teacher. My wife, Cindy, allowed me to venture into Old Mexico due to the fact that Skip Mascorro, founder and driving force of PVMT, basically put her mind at ease with his knowledge of the country and his near twenty years of leading tours in Latin America. He would take care of me. My twenty seven year wait was over. Not event the cold, Spring rain bothered me. Cindy was driving, I had the plane tickets, and the car was warm.

El Paso was warmer and I arrived ten minutes before the first briefing was to begin. Not to worry, the hotel was just across the parking lot and I made it with seconds to spare, this was going to be fun.

Yucca in the wild

Our tour was the Original Pancho Villa Motorcycle Campaign and took place in the Copper Canyon region of Northern Mexico and was lead by Mike Quinn, a Harley rider from New Mexico. Assisting Mike on this trip and driving the support vehicle were long time PVMT veterans, Dave and JoAnn Whitehead from Colorado. The three of them, along with Skip himself, welcomed the members of the tour, eleven in all, and helped clear the air of any concerns about our tour. Due to the fact that PVMT sends out all the info you could ask for well in advance, I was well prepared. I got my PVMT official T-shirt, changed dollars for Pesos, and signed my life away for the rental bike, a Kawasaki 650 KLR. It was here that I noticed that my credit card had expired. I had brought the wrong one. No problem, I had my debit/credit card that I use all the time. I got the keys, we went out for dinner, and then I went to bed ready for 8 am “clutch out”. I giggled my way to sleep.

Day Two

Sunday. I was up, dressed, packed, and ready to go. Then I remembered that most people eat breakfast. I can adjust. That is the key to organized tours. In fact, Skip writes in his Tour Information Booklet that he sends out that the key to enjoying one’s journey is the importance of attitude. Patience is stressed as much as Pesos. I enjoyed another chance to learn the other people’s names, where they were from, and what type of bike they drove. What a mixed bag. Cary (Kass) and Allen Kassebaum, a father and son team, aboard a Kawasaki Voyager, Miles Kulukundis and his friend Valle Nelson, both on rental KLRs, Art Milliken driving his BMW R80ST, Harvey (Harv) Read aboard his large BMW K1200LT, Greg and Carol Skolnik sharing their Honda Goldwing GL1500A, and Warwick Evans and Susanne Kingsford, both sharing a rental KLR.

Are we on the right road?

A great group of people that were from all over the country, or in Warwick and Susanne’s case, all over the world (Australia) that had gathered together to explore one of North America’s best kept secrets, the Copper Canyon. But first we had to say good-bye to Skip and finish breakfast. Then it was “clutch out” and about a ten minute drive to the border. Or was it. Art’s BMW would not start. Dead battery. Art is from Carlisle, Massachusetts and had driven the bike all the way to Texas. We all found it odd that it choose not to start the day the real adventure was to begin. It did help curb the Harley jokes that Mike had put up with the night before. Again, no problem. Dave and his trusty Dodge Ram came to the rescue and we were ready to roll. This just gave me a few extra minutes to learn the secrets of the KLR. I drive an old BMW R80GS, which is just a bigger, heavier, version of what I was sitting on. I still had to tip-toe somewhat but hey, this bike had real front brakes and I could stop on a dime, bring on the border. Clutch out.

The border was non-eventful. Sunday morning in Juarez was peaceful and we all just cruised on by. The fun did not begin until we reached the check point about twenty miles south of the border. This is where all the paperwork is completed and you receive a sticker for your vehicle. This is what makes driving into Mexico different than driving into say, New Mexico. PVMT had given us tons of info on what was needed and we were briefed the night before. I was ready.

Did I mention my credit card? Let me say right now that I did know that my credit card had expired and made sure my wife gave me the new one, which I was sure was in my wallet. I made a special point about this because I don’t carry a credit card, I use my bank debit card. Ha! Lets be kind and say that I ran into a slight problem. Debit cards are not welcome at the border check points. That was clearly stated in the booklet. No problem. With the help of Allen, who was born in Columbia and speaks fluent Spanish, Mike and I charmed our way through the process, holding the group up for at least an hour (who keeps track of such things). Bottom line, I owed Pancho Villa Moto-Tours $620 for a bond on the bike, $300 of which I could collect when I brought the bike back to the same window within ten days. Mike paid the very helpful ladies, Allen said our good-byes, and I was ready to see what all the hype was about. Twenty miles into the tour and the fun was just beginning. Catch was, the tour did not return to Juarez. No problem.

First day riding together, not knowing each other, and I held everyone up. Lucky for me, the group had the right attitude and they kept their thoughts to themselves, or at least from me. We headed for Chihuahua, the state capital.

I was just happy to be there. The drive was, to be kind, straight and lacking of character. All I could think of was the old Clint Eastwood movies. If I was in the Calvary, I wouldn’t want to chase anyone into Mexico. Sorry.

Copper Canyon resident

Chihuahua made it all worth it. Palacio del Sol, our hotel with a wonderful stained glass widow of the sun, is in the heart of the city and just a block away from the wonderful colonial cathedral and the main plaza. Begun in 1724 but not completed until 1826, the cathedral is the focal point of the city and made up part of our short but sweet city tour before dinner. I don’t think I need to mention why we were somewhat late getting into town and for our planned tour of the city. We did manage to follow in the foot steps of Pancho Villa, the outlaw and hero of Mexican Revolution fame, but did not spend much time in any one place. Again, the group was kind and never placed the blame where it was due. Dinner was excellent, it was Carol’s birthday, and the evening turned out just fine.

Day Three

Monday. Left the city of Chihuahua and headed for the country side and the town of Hidalgo de Parral, or Parral for short. With the foothills of the Sierra Madres to our right, the ride became more of what we were hoping for. Nice, two-lane roads with light traffic. Once we got out of the city and the road opened up for us, we broke away from the group and were pretty much on our own. As with any group, the riders seem to fall into place and travel at their own speed. Each morning, Mike handed out route sheets and went over any concerns for the day. I just kept track of what road I needed to be on, waited until I knew I could not make a wrong turn, and then drove on, stopping at any and ever “photo-op” I could find. I never worried about being left behind, first off, because I was not one of the slower riders, and secondly, because Dave and JoAnn were always there as the “mop-up crew”. I would drive ahead, stop, take a picture or two, get passed by most of the group, then bomb on ahead. I was having a good time.

Parral is another stop on the Pancho Villa trail. He had a large ranch just outside town and this is where he was assassinated while riding in his car. A statute of Pancho mounted on his famous horse, Siete Leguas (Seven Leagues) welcomes you to the town and his tomb can be found in the large cemetery.

I made it to town early, checked into the hotel, rested for a second, then went out for the remainder of the day taking pictures, calling my wife with a pre-paid Mexican phone card, and enjoying a simple meal at a downtown stand. No, I did not drink the water.

Day Four

Tuesday. On to the Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre). This is where the real adventure began, for me anyway. Once we left Parral and headed West, the landscape and roads took on a different look and feel. Mountains closed in, roads began to wiggle, and the driving became more spirited. The weather remained unreal also. Cool mornings, pleasant afternoons, and plenty of sunshine. Perfect motorcycle weather. Perfect motorcycle conditions.

In spite of all of this, what made the trip special, were the people. I love to stop and meet people. My camera opens many doors and what I remember of this day is the people I met and photographed while enjoying the ride. A man plowing his field with his donkeys, the family where I bought a warm soda yet had the best time driving the boys around on the back of the bike while chasing their little pigs around the yard. It was hard to keep moving. But on to the canyon I drove. In fact, once I put the camera away, the road took over and off I went. Perfect.

I enjoyed the twisties all the way to the cave. I did not know what it was at first. There was a van pulled off the side of the road and two people were walking up to this big rock. I slowed down, saw a cave with a front yard, turned around, and parked the bike. Interesting. Turned out to be a home, a type of Anasazi ruin come to life. There were two girls, a dog, a few chickens, a cooking fire outside, some laundry on the line, and a house inside a cave. I took some pictures, gave the girls some pencils and candy, and just marveled at how these two kids can live in a black hole in the rocks. No running water, no electricity. Like I said, it is the people that I remember the most.

Not sick, just jpegged, this donkey

Then there was Creel. Creel is a Mexican version of any western frontier town at the turn of the last century. Hotels, shops, a train station, and people either coming or going someplace else. My kind of town. Finding our hotel was quite interesting, I just happened to stumble onto a very small sign wired to a fence. With a name like Pueblo Viejo, it was easy to read the sign, I was just glad I didn’t need to ask directions. As you might of guessed, I speak very little Spanish. It fact, it would be save to say I speak no Spanish. I found the sign, the trouble was finding the hotel. Down a dirt road, go left at the cows, cross over a little dried up stream bed, stay on the main dirt road, and head for the compound with the nice rustic looking cabins. I knew where I wanted to go, just was thrown off by the cows and the maze of dirt “roads”. This was all within, say, half a mile from the main road. Interesting.

Pueblo Viejo was worth the effort. Run by Skip’s good friend, Francisco Barriga, the complex is made up of several log cabins. Very nice, comfortable cabins, with an excellent main lodge where Francisco and his crew put on a great meal. But first, I had to get out and explore Creel.

This is not a border town, this is the real thing. True, Creel is a tourist town, but there is a funky feel to the small village and this is where my real introduction to the Tarahumara Indians began. Known for their running ability, these quiet, and somewhat shy people, live in this Sierra Madre region on their own terms. Many live the way they have for generation, in the remote canyonlands away from the modern world. Even the ones that settle around towns like Creel, hold on to ancient customs and dress. Yes, some of the younger ones do wear western style clothing, listen to personal CD players, and wear cowboy hats, but you also see the traditional dress and their colorful crafts on sale in the streets. That is the beauty of Creel. There is a mixture of old and new all rolled up along the streets of this frontier outpost town. It was here that I saw an elderly Tarahumara gentleman wearing a customary tagora, or breechcloth wrap around skirt, coming out of a store where the young man inside wore blue jeans and a Chicago Bulls T-shirt. The contrast was striking and summed up Creel quite well, that and the fact that our hotel rooms only had electricity for a few hours at night. I loved it.

Day Five

Wednesday. The shortest riding day of the tour. It was also, in my opinion, the finest riding day of the tour, or any tour for that matter.

After a quiet morning of shopping, which at 7,650 feet above sea level, was also a very chilly morning, the group rounded up and headed for El Divisadero (the Divide). The plan was to leave the bikes in Creel and take the historic Chihuahua al Pacifico train to our hotel located near the rim of the canyon. I for one, am glad that the train no longer runs as often as before due to a new highway. True, it would have been nice, but I was here to ride motorcycles. And ride I did. Another perfect day, a new road built along a canyon, no traffic to speak of, and a willing motorcycle. Best road I have ever ridden.

I live just south of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina for just that reason, the Parkway. Now, envision this, take the Parkway, remove the camper vans and most other four wheel vehicles, throw in a cactus or two, and you have the new Grand Vision Highway. Unreal. I just wish it was as long as the Blue Ridge Parkway, oh, and throw in the Skyline Drive as well, I think of them as one. The only thing missing would be the salsa! This road alone is worth the price of the tour.

Our hotel, the Mansion Tarahumara, sits just below the rim of the Copper Canyon off an interesting gravel road and then a tricky dirt/gravel driveway. What made it real interesting was the fact that half way up the drive, a large water truck was headed half way down the same one-way driveway. I’ll be kind and not mention any names (remember the credit card fiasco?) but someone had to stop a little too fast and had trouble holding up their machine. No harm done, I was just glad to be on a nimble KLR. This was fun. If it were not for the canyon on the other side of the hotel, I was tempted to turn around and ride the highway one more time. Once I witnessed the view from the rim however, I never gave it another thought.

The Barranca del Cobre (the Copper Canyon) is truly one of the earth’s natural wonders. Think of it as four Grand Canyons crammed together and tucked away in a corner of Mexico that is not yet overwhelmed by man. If the road from Creel was not enough, the canyon itself is worth any hassle the Mexican government can throw at you, and any negative press you might have read about travel in Mexico. Simply grand. At dusk, one loses any sense of time or place. The echo of Tarahumara drums fills the cool night air and the vastness of the canyon system below you is matched only by that of the solar system above you. Magical.

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