I emerge from the mountains into the town of Choix. I am the only non Mexican, except for a couple running a Chinese restaurant. I am such an oddity that a student turns up and asks if she can interview me about Tourism in Choix. She cannot speak English but her brother, who is in Phoenix, Arizona does. She calls him up, asks him the question, he then asks me in English. I reply and he then explains to his sister. We have a lot of fun!
Look up Choix on Google and you will understand that Merita has a great career ahead promoting tourism. However, the frightful paradox, because there are no tourists, it is completely authentic and fascinating. There must be an algorithm comparing number of tourists to authenticity that predicts when the whole system breaks down.
The shops sell mainly horse stuff.
I eat very well.
There is nothing to see in Choix except Choix itself, which turns up all kinds unexpected delights.
I head of for the legendary San Fuerte and, skimming over the tarmac, arrive an hour latter. Changed days. I meet my first non Mexicans, ok Chinese restaurant, for nearly 2 weeks. They want me to have lunch with them to swap tourist stories. I explain that I have rabies and shoot off like a frightened cat. El Fuerte s very pretty.
The Apache curse has followed me to Mexico. The morning I left Ulrique I woke with seriously impaired vision in my right or telescope, camera viewfinder eye. My vision is very blurred with very active particulate Brownian motion. This makes bird watching very difficult. I only know 2 causes of blindness. One is gin and the other we will not talk about. As neither have been high on the agenda on this trip, I cannot understand why I should suddenly be blind in one eye. I suppose it will go away.
I leave idyllic Urique and head off for El Fuerte. I had not intended to go to El Fuerte, in fact I had never heard of El Fuerte, but Luis told me that it was very beautiful. I also got the impression that it was about 4 hours drive away.
A diversion. You can no longer buy road maps. You are totally reliant on having a good phone signal and so access to Google maps. I have not had a good signal for the last week and frankly have no idea where I have been or how I got to where I am now. Another associated effect, which may only apply to me, is that as you do not see the name of the place you are going on the map, you do nots have frequent visual reinforcement of the name. You have to rely on your memory of what someone told you. Thus I soon forgot I was going to El Fuerte. The name changed as I drove to, El Fuente, San Fuerto, San Felipe, The end result is that you do not know where you are and if asked where you are going you can only say, “No se.”
It is a dirt road through the mountains. I drive expecting to see signs for El er Whatsit, but there is nothing. We climb difficult roads up high mountain passes,then down into beautiful river valleys. It is very grandiose scenery and so, so remote. I see virtually no one apart from the odd truck coming in the opposite direction.
I am expecting to hit a paved road just around the next mountain with a big sign saying, er San Blackpool. Not so, the road goes on and on.
A distinguishing factor of Mexican roads , even dirt ones, are speed bumps. I hit a huge one in the middle of nowhere that is not signposted. I am doing my usual speed of 15mph but it gives the truck a big jolt.
The camper is held onto the truck by four turnbuckles. Since the camper fell off the truck a few weeks ago, I have been obsessive about making sure that the turnbuckles are super tight.
The hooks of the turnbuckles are made of soft aluminum. The jolt had bent the hooks of all four turnbuckles and so the camper was no longer attached to the truck. Bad news. I had two spares and by cannabalizing hooks from these, I fashioned four working turnbuckles. I reattach them, which is a very fiddly and tedious job. I curse soft aluminum hooks.
On and on I go but there is absolutely no sign of civilization. I have been driving for 8 hours. I go through a ford that unexpectedly has a very abrupt exit. Jolt. Yep, the hook on one of the remaining turnbuckles has bent open. It is now getting dark and it is clear that I have to find somewhere to camp. I cannot drive as the camper is precariously attached.
I find a flat spot by the side of the road, which mysteriously is the parking lot for a ruined basketball court. I have no idea where I am beyond, in the mountains. There is not a single light to be seen anywhere but someone built a basketball court here. I pass a troubled night.
Next morning, in desperation, I bash the bent turnbuckle hook with a lump of rock, caveman style. To my joy it bends easily and I am back in business!
Some sort of civilization must be just around the corner but I drive another 6 hours and see nothing other than miles and miles of magnificent Mexican mountains. I am now convinced that I am going around in circles and will never get out of this maze. I am also running out of gas.
I stop by a shack that has a horse outside. The guy sells me gas in 5 liter plastic bottles. We have a classic conversation.
I, “Donde es cuidad?”
He, “Qual cuidad?”
I, “No se.”
He points me down a side road and 10 minutes later I hit a beautiful paved highway! Another 10 minutes and I am in the city of Choix, Sinaloa. I have never heard of this place before! I stop at the first Ferreteria and buy the essential tool for traveling in a Four Wheel Camper.
I have now been on the road for over 3 weeks. It has been pretty tough due mainly to the sub zero temperatures and snow, making it difficult to do anything away from the heat of the truck or the camper. My vision of evenings outside, cooking wonderful meals over a camp fire, looking up at the Milky Way turned out to be me huddled in the camper eating Spam sandwiches, watching my beer freeze.
But now I have come to Urique. The name must derive from Eureka. What a discovery!
It is a very small town on a river at the bottom of a deep canyon, one of the canyon complex known as Copper Canyon.. The temperature has changed from -15 in New Mexico to 27 degrees in Urique. I find the perfect campsite by the river, just outside town. I sit in my chair, watch birds and soak up the sun.
The site is essentially in the garden of a couple, Theresa and Luis. Luis actually says “Mi casa, su casa.”
The house is very rustic and there are turkeys and chickens everywhere. There are about 10 dogs and puppies, who are delighted to see me and beg to let them show me around.
Theresa washes my clothes and cooks me delicious meals, which I eat on their terrace overlooking the river. All cooking is done over an open wood fire and each meal is accompanied with hot, homemade tortillas.
Luis takes me to have my hair, unfortunately mainly ear, nose and throat, cut.
The main activity in town, is young men riding beautiful horses up and down the Main Street. They are incredible horsemen. The horses go sideways, backwards, they prance and stand quite still. The rider has very long stirrups and is essentially standing up. I am the only tourist. They are doing this as part of an elaborate courtship display I suppose. Well I am certainly impressed.
As I wait for the Internet cafe to open, three children come up to me and sell me bunch of cilantro.
The next time I see the older girl, maybe 8, she is driving a huge quad bike up the Main Street with another little girl, who is holding a baby, on the back.
A little further up the street a bunch of guys are butchering a pig.
I sit at my camp, watch the river and birds. I see a pair of Common Black Hawks, which despite their name are very rare. There are also masses of Black Headed Vultures, Great Blue Herons and Orioles. Alas no photos as my lens is not feeling well.
So, last night it rained like crazy. I am here to visit the town of Urique, which is right down at the bottom of Copper Canyon and very far off the beaten track. After many questions and much driving around the town where I stayed, I head off up the road to Urique. My understanding was that the road would go down to Urique, it being at the bottom of Copper Canyon. On the contrary it is a very steep grade that means staying in first or second gear. After a couple of kilometers the paved road changes into a muddy track and also becomes very narrow. The surface of the track, after all the rain, is slippery mud. Up and up for kilometers until I convince myself that I am on the wrong road, I mean we should be going down. At this point, a truck arrives coming the other way. The driver reassures me that I am on the right road and says I will love Urique; no mention of any potential difficulties.
A bit further on the road is blocked by a truck that has slid into the ditch negotiating a fairly gentle bend. Frankly I am surprised it got this far. There are two guys and a Tarahumara woman with her son. I manage to get around the truck and we make a few doomed attempts to haul the truck out with my baby Tacoma. My clutch begins to smoke alarmingly and my truck skitters sideways as it attempts to haul out its much larger cousin. We give up.
They asks if I can give them a ride to Urique. I make space on the bench seat but then they start unloading big crates of stuff from the stuck truck. We somehow manage to stow it all in the back of the camper and off we go again, still first and second up hairpins coated in greasy mud.
Things get much worse as suddenly we enter the cloud layer. Visibility is awful.
On the right there are vertiginous drops and on the left is cliff face. Crawling up with 10 meter visibility, we come to a a very narrow part of the road with many statues of the Virgin and associated Saints snuggled into niches carved in the cliff edge. I hate to think what is on the right. The dense cloud is probably a blessing as I am ready to weep and a clear view of thousand foot drops would probably have done it. The lady is crossing herself and muttering prayers of desperation
The prayers seem to work as the road starts to flatten out and is about a meter wider. Suddenly a policeman emerges from the cloud, fully equipped with submachine gun, and behind him are two huge trucks. Again, how the hell did they get here!? The first one is OK but the second is horribly stuck in the ditch.
Everyone seems to be in a very good mood except me. I feel the time has come to try to turn around and get off this terrible road. Of course, I cannot dump my Tarahumara friends and the truck drivers show me I can get by with at lest 30 centimeters to spare before my truck falls off the road and into the void. I hope I never have to do that again.
Anyway the road is now downhill, which adds to the overall slipperiness of the voyage. It is first gear for 15 kilometers. Suddenly we burst out of the cloud and finally we can see, where we are and where we are going.
The views are amazing as we hairpin it down the almost vertical mountain side to finally arrive in Urique. I am panting. I have never, ever been on such a crazy, scary drive.
What amazes me is that none of the several people I asked for directions, nor the guy in the truck coming the other way, in any way intimated that this was a very freaky dirt road, deep in greasy mud, strewn with stuck trucks and very, very dangerous. I suppose it is their commute.
At Urique, there are people waiting and the Tarahumara folk disappear with no thank you. Again I do not think they felt there had been any drama, just another normal day.
However the road into Urique is blocked, not by huge trucks, but by a power cable pole that has fallen, cutting off power to the town. There is no way in. I am writing this sitting by the roadside eating freshly roasted peanuts with truck drivers. It could be days before there is power again and I can send this from Ulrique’s Internet cafe.
You will remember that I came to the U.S. to attend a Bird Photography Course at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. It was cancelled due to a strong cocktail of bad weather and Government shutdown.
I go to the Reserve anyway, I have come all the way from Okinawa so I might as well see the place. Although all the buildings are closed, there are masses of birds. I spend a wonderful day with my Tokina AT-X 300.
At the end of the afternoon I notice that the love of my life is not feeling well. For some reason she will not focus at distance. This is not a good curse as this is, after all, a bird photography trip. Birds tend to be far away. I haven’t even got to Mexico.
I carefully scrutinize the lens and, sure enough, there are 3 tiny crosshead screws that are all very loose. I am surprised they have not fallen out. Phew, here is the problem, all I need is a tiny screwdriver. I rush back to Socorro.
I am back at the reserve early, confident that the lens is fixed. It is not. The focus ring seems to lose traction as it moves out towards infinity. Oh dear. What a curse.
Oh well, I go to San Antonio, tiny town near the reserve. The Owl Bar, on the corner of Highway 380 and Highway 1, is famous for its green chile cheeseburgers as well as having been a meeting place for the scientists who detonated the world’s first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site east of San Antonio on July 16, 1945. I can’t wait to demolish a green chile cheeseburger and study the photos of physicists that must cover the walls. I have been looking forward to this. It is Sunday, it is closed. I have no food, I have not eaten all day. I cannot camp. I retreat to Socorro. Damned Apaches!
I wake up in Hovenweep in that silence that can only mean snow.
I start on my walk around the ruins but it is hopeless as the path is hidden by snow and I worry about falling.
I do find some ruins, very impressive, built in the 12th century, but the hike round all the sites is definitely off.
The snow is getting worse and I head out for the nearest town, Cortez Colorado. The drive is very scary as Google maps takes me down farm roads that are covered in snow, such that you don’t really know if you are on the road or have driven off; this in a whiteout. Delighted after 2 hours of 20 mph crawling to hit a highway and make it to Cortez.
There I get an ATT strong signal and read email. The first says:
The second is worse news:
What to do now? The course was the foundation of the whole trip. I booked it in October last year and then invented the camper trip out there and back. Now I am snowbound in Cortez, Colorado with no destination. At least the snowstorm stops me going anywhere, simplifying decision making for the moment.