Words and photos: James Murren
Originally published in Issue #191
Shakedown in the Storm
The evening light wanes, but we ride on into it. Carlos’ German shepherds weave and dart between our bikes, never dragging tail. I am on a shake-down ride in preparation for the big one coming up two days from now. Singletrack to doubletrack and back to singletrack some more, pumping my heart faster. The bike feels good. Everything is working just fine.
The sky darkens. Thunder echoes. We carve turns to the watering hole as the storm churns above us. The dogs relish the respite, submerging their bodies and lapping up a thirst-quencher. Thick-to-thinning air is blown on us by a mountain storm that descends down the slopes. Is there anything more present tense than a first ride on unfamiliar trail as a menacing sky envelops the eye’s periphery?
Soaked to the bone in less than five minutes, we are. The trail tails keep running as all of us seek a dry porch, which is a couple of miles away from where we are. Lightning flashes and booms, its earth strikes resonating close by.
It is less than 70 hours after the shake-down. The midmorning Zapotec sky is clear. A hardy, and hearty, group of us roll out from Carlos’ mountain bike center slash home. The day’s agenda is an hourlong climb—mostly more and never less—up into the Oaxacan sierra, followed by easier riding and then a fast, steep, rocky downhill, which can be especially bone-jarring if you miss the side loop turn. Some of us, me included, will end up missing the turn.
Here is what we know: The initial section of the ride is mostly a climb that covers more than 5 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It is not all up all the time, though. The final push up the forest road, however, is all up with no sustained flat section to take a breather. Before that, there is some singletrack and rocky, rural “campo” roads that are characterized by somewhat strenuous cross-country riding. The way back to the village is mostly downhill that spans 7 miles in remote southern Mexican mountains, followed by a few workhorse miles of riding to the house.
I see bones. Million-year-old rocks, aka earth’s bones, laying in a scatter in front of me. Jorge Guadalupe Posada skulls, aka calaveras, laugh with each other. Teeth fastened to jaws of my fellow riders chuckle while jokes sound out around the trail side. I feel my own teeth shaking in my mandibles. The mood is light. Everyone seems to be enjoying the camaraderie of the ride. We drop in and roll along a creek, rocks keeping us honest before a gut-punch climb that pops us out on a narrow, rocky trail. I roll them bones fine, along a small stegosaurus spine situated above the waterway.
Climb to Pines
Up and up and up we go. The turn-in to Carlos’ Flume Trail, which lives above the pueblo of San Pablo Etla, is a patience-testing leg and lung burner. Jokes subside. Tired, scattered human bones stop along the doubletrack. The forest road tries to beat us down.
“You OK?” I ask.
“How much to go?”
“Not too much more.”
Up we go some more, two-track lying behind our wheels. I am happy. Climbing is a mountain biking joy for me. We have reached the high point and are pleased in knowing so. Pine forest scents the mountain air that floats, endorphins pop and smiles emanate.
I drop in on Flume and hit a baby armadillo shell. My front wheel knocks awkwardly, and I fall into a mattress of pine needles. I feel no pain; only my ego is bruised. Carlos is out in front, on his home turf. The trail is really tight, not permitting any unbalanced line. It’s barely wider than my tires if they were doubled in size.
At a stop to regroup, I get the Cliffs Notes version of the trail-building history from Carlos: He studied maps. He talked with neighbors. He secured the local permissions and the paperwork to ride in private areas.
Years ago, Carlos walked one foot after the other, connecting map lines. Then he built trails where they were needed, starting at both ends and then joining them in the middle, fulfilling his mountain biking vision. Then he rode it, the dream coming alive. High in the sky, I watch his bones move in the motion of his dream.
I care less about the other riders. My eyes and mind’s eye are focused. Again the singletrack is tight and narrow and does not allow for looking off the trail. I roll rubber up and down the deep, dark forest trail that drips sunlight from the tree canopy.
Ghosts live in the shadows: What scurried there? Did I hear something? And on and on my head flows, no longer focused on the trail. I tell myself to let go of the ghosts so that I do not wreck my bike. I do not, and at one point I clean a creek crossing followed by rocks and a hard right turn that immediately ascends a ridgeline. Carlos lets out a jubilant whoop.
They are a motley crew. I see them in the forest, bones sitting on bike saddles. Riders merge into memories. They have wings and long white beards, feathered caps and top hats and sparklers are festooned on their heads. I laugh; my calavera chuckles like a content Posada.
“What do you think?” Carlos asks.
I do not know what to say. My cliche brain wants to say, “I am not thinking.” Instead, I offer, “This is a great ride.”
I continue on commenting about how remarkable it is that he had the vision to build this trail, to link up the connections to make this a big loop. He smiles. I wish that I knew how that smile feels.
The peek-a-boo vistas of Oaxaca are not unlike the East Coast of the U.S. where trails twist under the tree canopy and then suddenly turn out to long views situated along Mother Earth’s ribs. I revel in them. Out there, far below, humans work fields of corn. I taste “tacos de cabeza.” A thought of the greasy meat that hangs from steer faces and is cooked and then wrapped in corn tortillas gives me the mid-ride munchies.
I daydream for a few seconds of a taco stand coming up around the next corner. Alas, some dreams do not come true.
Dropper post is down. Still, my stomach graces the seat. My shorts are not far from the rotating rear tire. The terrain is that steep, and probably steeper. My calves burn like the rocks up on Monte Alban—the famed Zapotec ruins—that sear in the afternoon sun.
Pines blend to oak, and darkness opens up to more light. A bed of pine needles and tree leaves turns to rock and dirt and sand. I hear a yipping dog in the trees behind me. I squeeze the brakes less. Worn human bones stand off to the side of the trail, needing a break from the intensity. Yipping dog bones blast down the trail. I ride on, not stopping, slaloming down the mountain. Suddenly, I come upon more human bones that have dismounted their bikes. Skeletons are intact; none appear broken.
We regroup at an opening, the descent not yet complete and not yet past the turn for the extra side loop. Bikes with riders arrive with dust and dirt and sand flying into the air.
“Burros! I heard the burros and they made me go faster!”
“I heard the dogs!”
Riders are worked over to the point of dehydration. A human skeleton lies on the ground before me, where he wrecked his bike in a controlled fashion. He smiles, signaling that he is OK. Skulls laugh all around, heads back and teeth dancing.
The campesinos arrive with their donkeys strapped with pieces of pines and oaks. I think of fuel wood, cooking, the felling of trees, dead Ents and the need for people to eat.
Mountain bikers out of water are very thirsty. Some are in desperate need of H2O. The Oaxacan farmers, people of the land, have 1.5-liter Coke bottles filled with water that hang from a string rope of sorts that hangs from the burros. A few requests are made, and in a Polaroid instant, Coke bottles are untied and the bikers drink cool mountain water. Liquid passes teeth and runs down through rib cages.
The forest transforms into desert scrub. We all regroup again and then set out in troops. I am in the first one, about halfway back in the pack. No lines exist. It is rock. It is loose scree. It is ledges and drops. It is straight down and the kind of descent where you do not want to follow the person in front of you. With each heavy rainfall, the ride looks different. It is a technical mountain biking Zen moment that can be described as “tight-gripped and hold-on” riding.
Rocks are airborne. Black ones. Brown ones. Striped ones. Hippo vertebrae. Hip bones from burros and bears. Sea turtle shells. Jaguar toes. Whale tail slabs. Deer and coyote calaveras. Feline femurs and pig knuckles. Earth’s bones slide and tumble down the path, resettling somewhere, anywhere until disturbed again by donkey hooves, human shoes, rain and mountain bike tires.
A couple of riders are stopped on the trail. Apparently, we have missed the turn. The hootin’ and hollerin’ is no more. In the hot, dry air, we seek shade. There is little to be found. Spent, all of us feel a need to be done with the ride. We wait for the other group of riders. And wait. Cell phones are checked. No connections. We wait some more.
I look out and feel in my bones that if we go down quickly, all will be OK. I hear humans and cars. That, usually, means hydration and food.
More waiting and then Carlos appears. He leads the other troop out from the side loop. He asks how we missed the turn; we got caught up in riding the gnar and blasted past it. He goes on to tell me that I missed one of his favorite sections. I am bummed. He talks of other ledges, rock slabs and drops that do not descend as quickly as the “trail” some of us just rode down. They are other bones that I did not get to ride. His entire vision is not complete in my mind’s and rider’s eyes.
“Next time,” I tell myself, a little disappointment in my inner voice.
To get back to where we started requires grit. Cross-country trails that scratch my legs, test my endurance and bore a hole into my psyche want to knock me down. I want to be done, but I am not. I pedal on, turning over and over. From a foothills vantage point that I stand on, I think of the Flume Trail and look back to the mountains.
When all is said and done, it is a loop ride that leaves me with sore muscles and my MTB appetite satiated. I am thankful for being able to ride the rough, dirty, raw trails that wander through remote mountains that see few mountain bike tires.
Back on the porch, I sit on a chair and drink water while Carlos rides around the yard on his bike. His German shepherds follow him, getting a little exercise for the day. The ride was too big for them to join us. In the backyard, they seem like they are ready to head out on a shorter ride. Carlos seems, too, like he could ride a few more hours.
Not me. Tiredness fills my bones, but they are happy and they smile.