Wednesday November 5th

Sierra Madre Tarahumara Mountains

Chihuahua, Mexico

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Such a beautiful day…

Thunder shakes the earth beneath my feet. Lightning pierces the wall of rain that replaced the pelting hail. My clothes are heavy with accumulated water and I am shaking uncontrollably. I lean my bike against a wall. I huddle beneath the slight over-hang of roof. An old hobbit-of-a-man is standing in the low-framed doorway.

“Hola,” I say through chattering teeth. I point to the roof and press myself harder into the wall, further from the driving rain. “Here. Please. I am very cold,” I say in woefully bad Spanish. But my words are not important as my condition is obvious. My needs are clear. I am human. I am suffering and exposed to the elements. He invites me inside.

I duck through the doorway and enter the adobe walled shack. A lone lightbulb flickers from the ceiling illuminating a long wooden table. In the far corner, an elderly woman stoops over a wood burning stove preparing dinner. Her back is hunched making her 5 foot frame appear even smaller. Her hair is wrapped in a scarf. She is wearing a long skirt.

The man points to a chair next to what must be his daughter. She is my age, perhaps younger. Short in stature as well with more meat on her bones, a child is asleep in her lap. Another, older, sits between us in a chair of her own. We exchange shy glances. She is very cute.

Now, seated in this man’s house he tells me I can sleep here. The day is still early but, outside the mud walls, the storm still rages. I am still soaked. Still shaking. Today, I go no further.

I excuse myself and walk out to to my bike. I am experiencing the first stages of hypothermia and desperately need dry clothes. I change in the shelter of the awning donning long pants, sweater, and down jacket. I stoop back through the doorway and sit down. I am semi dry now. But it will be hours before warmth returns to my body.

I have been in dangerous situations before on this trip. However, this is perhaps the closest to real peril I have come. The threat of being struck by lightning was very real. Hypothermia, while not quite as frightening, was even more concerning. Dripping wet with no place to pitch my tent, and already shivering uncontrollably, I easily could have slipped into sleep from which I would never wake. I like to think I have the skills to survive, but am happy I did not have the chance to find out.

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The view from above the Palmarejo mine and of the approaching storm.

The hobbit-like man asks if I would like a cup of coffee. “Yes! Please!” I am desperate for warmth. I dream of doing push-ups on the floor to warm my core, but want to draw no more attention to my strangeness.

A short time later, a stocky man and teenage boy knock at the door. Friends over for dinner. The stooped woman sets the table. She pulls pots from the stove and we are told to help ourselves. “Provecho!”

Tortillas, thick as pancakes and freshly ground from the pile of corn in the corner, are served with squash and beans most likely fresh from their farm as well. Rice is served on the side. The meal is delicious. I feel my strength returning and my body warming.

Somehow, I am able to have a conversation with these people. We talk about the climate of my home and theirs. We talk about work. And we speak of family. They inquire about my trip and what exactly I am doing out here alone in these mountains. They seem to understand. They are excited.

After dinner the table is cleared. The hobbit-like man walks outside and returns with a machete. Light flashes off the blade catching my attention. I am suddenly on high alert. “Oh shit. I’m about to be hacked to pieces.”

The stooped woman produces a squash the size of my leg. She lays it on the table. The machete raises. The machete falls. Machetes are frightening instruments. And the precision with which he wields it; remarkable.

After hacking the gigantic squash into manageable pieces he holds each in turn over a bowl. Then, with practiced precision he chops the round rings of squash into tiny cubes. More impressively, he retains all his fingers.

The cubes of squash are placed in a bucket of water and set on the floor for a future meal. The stocky man and his young son say goodbye and walk out into the continuing storm. The daughter of the hobbit man takes her children and walks into an adjoining adobe building. The bedroom I guess.

I am shown where I will sleep for the night: next to the pile of corn. I am presented a stack of blankets to use as a mattress. The hobbit-like mountain man then points to the light switch, flicks it on and off in demonstration of this marvelous power, and then follows after his wife and daughter into the adjoining shack.

Despite my exhaustion, I am unable to sleep for quite some time. I lay on the floor contemplating all that had happened this day. From waking in my tent atop the crest of a hill surrounded by dead ants that ate through my tent in the night and consumed my flesh, to climbing a mountain only to be told I must descend for the mountain will shortly explode. “Boom,” he says quickly spreading fingers from a fist perfectly illustrating his point.

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The Palmarejo Mine.

I lay on my makeshift bed thinking of the storm clouds that chased me up the mountain. I reflect on the feeling of hopeless I experienced at the top when I realized I was surrounded and standing below the only patch of clear sky.

Resigned to my fate, I pulled my stove from my bag; a last meal for a prisoner facing dark, ominous clouds; my executioner. I watched the circle of clear sky close. I watched the haze of surrounding rain approach. I packed my stove. I prepared to meet my maker.

The rain began. Small dropplets that quickly turned to hail the size of marbles. Balls of ice pinged off my helmet and stung my hands. I rode searching for shelter. Anywhere to pitch my tent, but the road is lined with barbed wire.

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Atop the mountain I stop for lunch. The rain begins to fall. The clear circle of sky closes. The sun disappears.

Hail turned to torrential downpour. The road turned to a river. Stream crossings threatened to wash the wheels of my bike out from under me. Mud choked my tires. I was in trouble.

A truck passed. A short hobbit-like man jumped from the cab running for the door of his adobe shack. I followed him to his house. I parked my bicycle. And I joined the family in shelter for an evening I would never forget. What an incredible experience.

From hell to heaven, the experience of exploration changes as fast as the weather. Good days go bad. Bad days go good. And people never fail to surprise.

Clouds come and go. For a while, I think I can outrun the storm. It has happened many times before.

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Navigating up here is easy. There is only one road. Sometimes with an obstacle in between.

Running the ridges of mountains is fun. The views are stunning.

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A sign indicates from where I have just come.

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The Palmarejo mine.

It will shortly explode. I am told I must turn around, descend partly down the mountain. Thirty minutes of steep climbing must be repeated.

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The sky looked so clear ahead.

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The landscape so beautiful.

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Epic really. Like a scene from Lord of the Rings.

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Goats roam free.

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Cows are my only companions.

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And trucks my riding partners.

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The road up here goes on forever.

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But the clouds are closing in.

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And my situation hopeless. Thankfully, the world is full of good people.

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