December 25, 2013

The "Road" To Huisuchi

Clenching the steering wheel, I stared at the rocky riverbed in absolute disbelief, then looked at Sweeney in the passenger seat. This was not the road we were told of, not even the risky off-road path we had been warned about. This was a totally washed-out patch of rocks bigger than basketballs, with a trickle of slippery mud streaming in-between. He seemed as worried as me. «Think we can make it?»

«Think we should even try?»

Sweeney, Maria and myself had left Creel early in the morning, heading to the village of Huisuchi to meet our Raramuri friends for the Rarajipare and Ariweta, the traditional ball and hoop races. It was an absolute first for us all, and a very exciting first stop on our long trip deep into the Barrancas del Cobre.

From having traveled around the Canyons before, I knew just how bad the roads could get. Sitting in jacked-up pickup trucks, I had seen the river crossings, bad bridges and rock slides over some already treacherous terrain. Therefore, I had asked repeatedly how the road was, and made a clear point of explaining to everyone I was NOT driving a souped-up off-road machine, but a standard city van.

«If it's 4x4, you'll be fine.»

The... "Road"
We'd left the comfort of asphalt off the main Batopilas road and already made our way down to Samachique, carefully weaving around boulders and washouts, rarely getting into second gear, making painfully slow progress. But as soon as we left the village, things started getting bad. Little did we know, we were just getting started.

«Just take it slow», said Sweeney, half-convinced.

I released the brake pedal and let the impulse move us forward. Immediately, the van started bouncing left and right, up and down as we rolled from one boulder to the other. I tried to keep the low parts between my wheels, aiming the tires at the highest protruding rocks.

Can you feel the tension?

The bottom scraped against a rock. Luckily, the lowest part of the van was the cargo tray, a metal carrier plugged into the hitch shaft. The last thing I wanted was to repeat a painful experience we had two days before, when I drove over a rock on the road and hit the oil pan, effectively punching a golf ball-sized whole in it and losing all the engine oil, leaving us stranded for hours.

I let go of the brake again, even slower, allowing only half rotations of the tires before braking again.

A nicer segment.
Steep slopes, covered in huge rocks and scarred by deep, eroded water washes. I thought we would have to face that for a small stretch, then get back to what they call «mas o menos», more or less driveable. They couldn't possibly have told us to drive on that miserable excuse for a road all the way, right?


God damn it.

We finally reached the top of the hill and I released a deep sigh. In front of us, more bad road was stretching, only interspersed with cleaner segments of maybe 200 feet. At that point, the best idea would have been to turn around, leave El Capitan behind and seek a ride with a bigger truck, but what would happen to all the donations we were carrying? And how would I get back to my van after the event, and to go where? So we just kept going, slowly, in a tense silence.

Turn right at the tree, then...
Some time later, after more of the same, I came to a full stop. In front of us, the steepest of the hills so far, covered in even bigger rocks, without a single visible path to safely attempt a climb. I parked the van. «I can't do this.» I looked at Sweeney, disheartened. «There's adventure, and there's stupid. We're gonna end up in big trouble if we keep going.»

I wanted to bang my head against the steering wheel. The idea of backing out broke my heart, and the path was so narrow and bad I wasn't even sure I could actually turn the van around. Even by doing so, we were facing an hour or more of very bad driving that could cause a breakdown in an instant. I took another breath and tried to empty my mind. Out of the blue, someone popped into my head; Christy Little Wings. Her presence was so vivid that I could actually hear her voice. I repeated out loud what she had told me, maybe a year ago, while running rough trails in upstate New York.

«The only way out... is through».

Yeah. Through... that.
I put the van back into drive, and slowly started moving ahead. The road didn't get any better. Not long after, we came across the first river crossing. Several inches of fast water were swirling over a rocky path that we couldn't see, making every foot of the way an absolute guess. We went in as slow as I could go, making sure never to stop so that water wouldn't gurgle down the exhaust pipe, and made the crossing. Once again, I sighed in relief.

The next several hours were spent clenching the wheel, worried sick about the road and angry at whoever had told me this road was drivable. I felt bad for dragging my friends into this, and responsible if anything happened to us. We were full to the brim with donated material, which was now screeching and scraping over canyon rocks, riverbeds and all sorts of nasty road hazards.

We crossed other trucks on the way, vehicles way more suited for that kind of driving which had blown their differential spinning and skidding up treacherous rocky hills. We saw people stranded on the trails with oily parts taken out of their engines, trying to achieve a quick fix that might take them out of this mess. At one point in the steepest of climbs, going no more than 2 to 3 mph, I could smell El Capitan's transmission overheating and I felt its blistering heat seeping through the floor. I decided to stop half way up, park for half an hour and cool things down, including myself. Maria took Guadajuko for a walk, Sweeney strolled around and I fell into an instantaneous, deep sleep that felt like a single minute.

«Flint. Wake up, man.»

Clench. Worry. Repeat.
«How long's it been?», I asked, still half-asleep and wishing someone would tell me they saw the village just above the hill we were climbing. «Twenty minutes. We should get going.». I climbed back at the wheel and started driving again. We weren't talking much, and everyone felt how bad our situation was. At that point, there was not much else we could do than go forward.

The drive went from crazy to ridiculous. When we hit the lowest point in the valley, the stream was over a foot deep and rushing down with enough force to move the van. Every time we went in, I had to guess where the highest path was and hope not to hit a hidden rock on the way. After several crossings, one of which was so deep it actually made the exhaust gurgle, I stopped the van again.

«Now where the fuck is the road?»

No one had an answer to offer. The rocky path led straight down to the river, which was about 25 feet wide and rushing over rocks way too big to try to drive through. On the other side, a forest with not even a footpath between the trees. Baffled, we looked at each other, suddenly considering the possibility that we'd taken a wrong turn, hours ago, and now had literally reached the end of the road.

Sweeney jumped out the van and walked down to the river. He turned around, looked at me and threw his hands in the air. I stepped out and joined him. Even from the edge of the water, there was not a single clue if the road went anywhere from there. He stepped in the cold water and started to cross, to get a better perspective. I took off my jeans and did the same. The water was extremely cold, but in that moment, this was the least of my worries.

We reached the other side and realized the road did continue. To get there, however, we would have to sink into the stream, maneuver between sunken boulders we couldn't see, make an almost 90-degree turn around a huge cliff side rock and climb back onto the path through a steep, unfriendly muddy bank.

We were neck-deep in stupid.

... And it takes only one rock
to break down.
We gathered by the van and tried to assess the situation. There was virtually no coming back, considering how lucky we had been so far not to break anything. But there was no guarantee we would make it even to the turn in the river, much less to the other side where more horrible road laid. I wasn't going to make that decision alone. «We need to all understand what we're into right now. Whether we go back, move ahead or do anything else, we need to all agree.» After some discussion, considering various options and their consequences, it was decided we would try to push through.

That's what the madness had come down to. Two bug-eyed gringos listening to a third one in his underwear, shivering from the biting cold of the river, making doomsday scenarios about every available option there was. Whichever way we went, I thought, we were not going to make it. No way.

Nonetheless, we all got back into the van, and everyone held their breath as we dropped down into the stream. The van moved sideways, so I gave it more gas to move forward. It bounced on the rocks and the cargo tray screeched and banged against the bottom, but we made the turn and headed for the muddy bank that would take us back into relative safety. The wheels hit it and the van stopped. Panicked, I stepped on the gas in a last-ditch attempt to get out of the river and the wheels spun, but eventually took grip and nudged the van back into movement. When all four wheels got to the other side, I let out yet another sigh. We'd made it.

The Bridge. Zoom in on this picture. It's really worth it.
I foolishly thought that the bottom of the valley would be the worst of the road that we would see, but we spent many more hours weaving and dodging at a snail's pace, with every stretch looking worse than the one before. After a series of very steep climbs, we reached the top again, and as we started coming down, I noticed the sun was getting ever closer to the canyon rim. «If we don't make it by daylight...» I said, looking at Sweeney, who just nodded. No need to finish that phrase. We would have to camp out in the wild, and therefore miss the beginning of the ball race.

Just as the last light was stretching overhead and we started looking for a spot to safely move away from the rocky path, we crossed a truck. I rolled down my window and asked if we were still far from Huisuchi. «No! Very close! Half a mile».

... An hour later, we are still trying to make progress through the rocks, with Sweeney providing extra light by holding a flashlight in front of the van to spot the safest path. At very long last, we saw a series of white-painted rocks that led to the last treacherous rocky slope, and a long-awaited arrival.

But I had long run out of sighs to release.

Huisuchi at long last, a gorgeous Canyon gem
that we received as a treasure

Ce n'est pas l'impossible difficulté du chemin qui m'a le plus dérangé; c'est d'être forcé de briser ma promesse, de revenir sur la parole que j'avais donnée de ne rien tenter de dangereux pendant mon voyage. C'était bien contre mon gré, et je n'y vois aucune gloire, même après en être sorti relativement indemne.


  1. D'aventure risquée en aventure plus risquée.. Mais pousse quand mëme pas trop ta luck Flint! Bonne continuation!

  2. I'm so glad you are okay. Be well. ErinG

  3. Bonne année Flint! Plein de nouvelles aventures captivantes à raconter en 2014! Take care!