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riding the sierra madre

We wake in a field, where we have all fallen asleep under a starry sky, encrusted in ice and set off again. Our aim now is to reach Zacatecas, as quickly as possible, while travelling on as few paved roads as we can manage. Our maps are all but useless for this endeavour and so we rely, largely, on Jeff quizzing the locals, in his all but perfect Spanish, to guide us on our way.

After a few kilometres of highway, we turn off onto a gravel road that the guy at our favourite burrito stand in Guachochi had told us about. The road winds along a river and takes us through small villages in bucolic rural country-side.

Riding down the main street of a Chihuahuan village.

Riding down the main street of a small Chihuahuan village.

Cowboys with an unfortunate calf.

Cowboys on the road with an unfortunate calf.

A vulture colony congregating around a dead calf.

A colony of black vultures congregate around a dead calf in a field.

Rock walls line the road.

Rock walls line the road...

Cass fording the river.

... which is zig-zagged by the river. Cass almost, but not quite, manages the ford without getting his feet wet.

The morning passes happily enough in this sunny forgotton valley but we have some slightly disturbing encounters. A women, part of an incongruous group of well-dressed professional looking types, in a small village is surprised to see us passing by. After making the usual enquiries about our trip, she issues dark warnings: “Be careful here. Be careful…of the people. There are bad people here.” We promise to be careful and continue on our way.

We stop to eat by the river, where we admire canyon wrens, fly-catchers and kingfishers going about their business by the water. A friendly cowboy fords the river on his horse and invites us to lunch at his house but, after some discussion we politely decline, figuring that this unscheduled detour would probably take us all afternoon.

The road continues to roll up and down along the valley and still we don’t meet any ostentatiously bad people but at the point where the road returns to the highway a group of heavily armed military personnel in full combat gear are stopping all cars exiting the valley. They stop us, too, and ask us questions about our trip before sending us on our way.

We are back on the highway and our aim is to reach El Vergel before dark. I guess we should have known that we would have to pay for yesterday’s twenty-five kilometres downhill run but I don’t think any of us are fully prepared for the thirty kilometres ascent that we are now presented with. The roads winds up and up and up, in a series of merciless switchbacks, and darkness falls without any sign of El Vergel. We find ourselves camping high in mountains in a gravel pit by the highway, as the occasional truck lumbers by in the night.

In the morning, we finally reach El Vergel and stop to stock up on food again. We are definitively turning off the highway in a few kilometres and are uncertain of where we will be able to shop next.

Shopping for food in Mexico often requires going to every store in town to get everything you need.

The bikes lined up outside a shop. Food shopping in Mexico often requires going to every store in town to get everything you need. This the third or fourth shop we visited in El Vergel.

Meat drying outside the general store.

Meat drying outside yet another general store; bags of 'carne seca' are available inside.

We leave El Vergel and turn off the highway again onto gravel roads. At some unmarked and unremarked place, we finally cross the state border from Chihuahua into Durango. This unnoticed moment, however, is something of a milestone – it has been six and a half weeks since we crossed the border into Mexico and we have only explored one state so far.

We are in remote mountains and logging is clearly an important part of the local economy. We stop by the road to camp and, in this instance, there is no need to search for firewood to warm us and to cook our dinner on; cut timber lies in piles all around us.

In the morning we set off, riding alongside an icy stream. The road is tough going with lots of steep rough climbs as we follow a ridge which runs by some of the highest peaks in the Sierra Madre. Logging trucks pass by in both directions, empty in the direction we are riding and piled high with precarious loads in the opposite direction. They throw up clouds of choking dust but on the down hill runs it is easy to overtake and outpace these vehicles, as they inch along pumping their noisy air-brakes.

Icy stream

We are back in the high mountains: an icy stream runs beside the road.

Logging trucks pass us on the road with impossible loads swaying side to side secured by a few flimsy straps.

Logging trucks pass us on the road with impossible loads swaying side to side secured by a few flimsy straps.

The road unwinds slowly and as the going is tough we find it impossible to meet our target mileage. Eventually, we find ourselves camping in the snow on another anonymous mountain top, uncertain of exactly where we are.

Afternoon sun on the road.

Afternoon sunlight on the road...

...fades into evening on a mountain-top.

...fades into evening on a mountain-top.

Morning brings more of the same but in the afternoon we finally top out and leave the forest. An expansive valley opens up before us and the road leads down into it.

Snow by the road as we set off again in the morning.

Snow by the road as we set off again in the morning. (Photo: Jeff Volk.)

Jeff and Cass consult a local for directions.

Jeff and Cass consult a local for directions.

These cattle guards present a serious road hazard for cyclists - their logic escapes me completely.

These cattle guards present a serious road hazard for cyclists - their logic escapes me completely...

A road side shire.

... but perhaps that is why there is a need for so many road side shrines.

Finally in the afternoon, we top out and an expansive valley opens up before us.

Finally in the afternoon, we top out and an expansive valley opens up before us...

... and we are finally rewarded with a long descent in to the valley.

... and we are finally rewarded with a long descent in to the valley.

The descent takes us past an active silver mine, a hectic hive of frenetic construction activity, and then into the somehow slightly edgy town of Guanacevi, which I circle around for some time in the gathering dusk looking for the boys who, as usual, have been riding far ahead of me.

Eventually I find the guys and we leave town hurriedly to find a camp. We find an openable gate leading into a field where an emaciated, and probably doomed, puppy, quickly christened, Spot, joins us and snuggles up with Jason for the night.

But Spot turns out not to be our only visitor for the evening. Two army men creep silently into the camp from the brush, appearing suddenly out of the darkness into the circle of firelight in full combat gear. Clad in black balaclavas, helmets, jungle camouflage greens, big black boots and armed with knives, pistols and long assault rifles they cut quite menacing figures, which their surly attitude doesn’t soften at all.

“What are you doing here?” We explain.

“This is private land! You can’t camp here.” We offer to put out the fire and move but then they suddenly capitulate and tell us that it is OK.

Even so, while one man asks us questions – which range from the usual ones about our trip, to suddenly urgent enquires as to whether or not we are carrying drugs or arms, to positively outlandish queries – the other pokes around the camp shining his searchlight into tents and panniers until his batteries fail him. The conversation is slightly surreal: “Aren’t you scared?,” the spokesman asks; “Of what?” Jeff parries; “Cows!” is the surprising answer. Well, frankly, no… heavily armed men creeping into camp, perhaps – that is the thought that occurs to me.

Finally, they leave with a final warning to be careful of rattle snakes; creatures of which I have seen no trace in my journey, through not only Mexico, but also New Mexico and Arizona – as far as I know they are not particularly active in winter.

Rain falls during the night, necessitating a hasty pitch of the tent – these days, when I can, I prefer to sleep under the stars and the previous night the sky had been relatively clear. The morning brings rainbows and, unfortunately, also a stiff head wind which makes the eighty mile ride on the highway to Tepehuanes more punishing than it might have been otherwise.

We wake to a double rainbow arching over our camp.

We wake to a double rainbow arching over our camp.

Cass is keen photographer who take a mean picture. Here he drops to the ground to snap me climbing a hill.

Cass is a keen photographer who takes a mean picture. Here he jumps from his bike on the crest of a hill and drops to the ground in the middle of the road to snap me climbing the incline.

Riding on very windy days is my least favourite cycling scenario. I struggle along without really appreciating the beautiful countryside we are passing through as I am buffeted backwards and forwards across the road. The rocky walls alongside the road, however, house a number of religious figurines which attract my attention.

More road-side shrines.

A cluster of road-side shrines.

Another odd roadside shrine.

Another odd roadside shrine.

Eventually we make it into Tepehuanes where after eight days of camping out and pretty tough riding we decide to treat ourselves to a night in a hotel and a good fish dinner.

Fish dinner in Tepehuanes.

A nice fish dinner in Tepehuanes...

...is quickly demolished.

...is quickly demolished.

In Tepehuanes, I finally decide to take action on my self-diagnosed giardia infection, a phenomeon which by now has been collectively christened “The Worm” by the group and makes me, at times, a less than desirable travelling companion. Luckily Mexico has a relaxed attitude towards self-medication and it is possible walk into any pharmacy and ask for pretty much whatever drug you please. So, after a little internet research, I choose my poison and for less than $2 I am soon armed with a course of Flagyl with which to enter into combat with “The Worm”.

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