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I met Alexis outside his place in Berkeley, where he was getting the last of his luggage dialed with three pounds of freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee beans and a portable hand-held Japanese grinder that had arrived in the mail that morning. Though I’d known him only a couple days, upon seeing his coffee supply, I knew that we’d get along fine.
The genesis of this trip came about during the cold and damp Bay Area winter, as a way for our mutual friend Patrick and me to maintain our mountain-minded sanity. We traced fingers down the desert dangle of Baja California, across the Sea of Cortez and into northern Mexico, where the Rocky Mountains become the Sierra Madres before disintegrating into the Copper Canyons. Our end goal: the town of Urique and, for me, running the 50-mile Ultra Caballo Blanco.
Amid Twitter traffic, hipsters and an omnipresent city buzz, we imagined a harsh void of few people and even fewer words. The prospect of adventure caught the attention of some like-minded and under-employed friends, and, not long before Patrick’s bike breathed a final death rattle, he asked if his friend Alexis could join us.
“He’s a big, Russian Jew,” Patrick explained. “Siberian stock, mechanically minded. Just the person you want deep in the Mexican desert with not a lot of help nearby.”
Dejected, Patrick shrank in our rear view mirrors. Alexis and I wove our way down the 580 to the 880 to the 101. At gas stations and rest stops we explained our plans to envious older men, who eyed the knobby tires and our gear, enough to last us a month or more. We picked our way through the clogged arteries of LA, into San Diego and finally into the no-man’s hills along the Mexico border, where we crossed into a close patchwork of tin roofs, adobe tiles, smoky haze and tousled ravens.
We ate at a converted school bus—painted white, with a white horse and “El Caballo Blanco” beside the folding-door entrance. As we waited for our tortas, I explained to my new travel companion, whose depth of running lore was shallow at best, about the race and the enduring runners of the Copper Canyons. I told Alexis what little I knew about Micah True, an American runner known throughout the Copper Canyons, his adopted home, by the nickname Caballo Blanco—thus the irony of the two of us now eating at El Caballo Blanco. I talked about Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book, Born to Run, that turned True, against his wishes, into something of a demigod among ultrarunners.
That night, in the town of La Rumerosa, the temperature dropped and the snow fell. We slept late the next morning as the desert air warmed. In the afternoon we joined the Sea of Cortez and by sundown we’d found a nice spot to camp along the water. Alexis stripped down to nothing and exchanged the sweat and stench of the road for a thin, drying layer of salt water.
The days passed by as they do when you’re traveling with a deadline and a purpose. People come and go. Roads pass beneath you like a conveyor belt. The good roads made smoother by the bad roads. The bad roads made more interesting by the smooth roads. My back and legs made stronger every time the dirt and sand sent my bike and me to the ground. Forests of cacti grew around us as we made our way farther south. Mountains reached up 10,000 feet in places.
Halfway down Baja it occurred to me that I didn’t even know Alexis’ last name. “Iliinski,” he said, laughing, knowing that traveling like this doesn’t require last names. In fact it barely requires first names. Over the previous days he had described himself as a “builder, maker and dancer.”
“I’ve done everything I can to avoid Burning Man,” he explained to me, “yet somehow have found myself there eight out of the past 11 years.”
From La Paz we caught a ferry to mainland Mexico. When finally we rode our motorcycles off the ferry, I looked at the time and calculated a mere 36 hours to ride the 250 miles to Urique in time for the start of the Ultra Caballo Blanco. We rode into the night, climbing up from the Sea of Cortez onto the poorer and more decrepit roads of the Copper Canyons.
Depending on on which geologist you ask, the Copper Canyons, named for their glowing amber color and not for their mineral content (though rich in many other minerals), form a network of up to six different canyons. The region is so rugged that it has provided shelter for Tarahumarans for nearly 500 years, for Mennonites for nearly 200 years, hard-working miners and farmers for over 100 years and drug lords for the past couple decades.
We arrived in the small village of Urique, in the deepest depths of the canyons, covered in milky-white dust a mere 11 hours before the race start. My body continued vibrating to the rhythm of the motorcycle. Birds chatted boisterously from majestic trees towering over the plaza. Cobblestone streets, cast-iron benches and the tired colonial buildings surrounding the plaza kept the heat in well past sunset.
Pre-race announcements were taking place on a stage in both English and Spanish. Please do not leave trash on the trail. Please follow the course markings. The race briefing was different than other race briefings: these people seemed to actually be listening.
As Alexis and I walked down the street, dust still billowing from our pants and hair, I noticed a motorcycle steadily making its way down the street toward us. The rider was dressed in a full-piece gorilla outfit, lucha-libre mask and a T-shirt with hand-written letters—Mula Peluda (Bald Mule). The gorilla noticed us and, for show, whipped his motorcycle like the stubborn mule he seemed to believe it to be.
We continued on down the night street, the last of the motorcycle’s vibration seeping out as a dull numbness in the palms of my hands and deep in my ears.
The next morning, Alexis and I were drinking coffee in the kitchen of a newly acquired friend and talking about the race. The original course was a point-to-point from neighboring Batopilas Canyon to the current start/finish in Urique through rugged territory with little to no vehicle access throughout.
Getting people to participate was Caballo Blanco’s main objective and to accommodate he changed the course to what it is today. The newer, much-tamer course started and finished in Urique and consisted of four out-and-backs. In addition to lessening the life-threatening danger generally implied in the Copper Canyon backcountry, the new course also established Urique as an optimal viewing point.
Suddenly, I heard cheering coming from down the street, and my heart sank. Alexis and I stood, with coffee cups in hand. I wore a light shirt and shorts of questionable cleanliness. Our shoes rested beside the door. We looked at each other, at first confused and then panicked.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I cried.
I darted about the living room, found my phone and read the time: 6:04. “Shiiiit!”
I ran out of the house, putting my shoes on mid-stride, and descended to the main street, where the last of the stragglers were shuffling by. Behind me I heard Alexis’ deep, soft laughter. He had agreed to an adventure he knew little about. Though his interest in running had grown throughout the trip and would continue to grow as the hours passed that day, his race was to help get me here in time. Mine was to get to the finish line as quickly as I could. In a panic I sprinted past the walkers before beginning the long, slow process of picking off the entire field of runners.
As I clicked off places one by one, I managed to convince myself that missing the start of the race was a good thing, as it provided me with a view of the entire field and not just the fast guys up front. Keeping pace beside me were old weathered women in long, flowing, flowery dresses. There were old men in jeans and button-up shirts. Some of them carried their food and water alongside them in a plastic bag. There were young boys and girls who couldn’t help but go out fast, and by the time I caught them, they were gulping for air.
The sweet, burning incense of marijuana permeated the hills. The heat increased and, finally, as we approached the small mountain village of El Naranjo, two hours after leaving town, I found myself with a mostly Tarahumaran chase pack. Most of the faster Tarahumarans have adopted more modern attire for running—shorts, shoes and the occasional sponsor. Three-time Ultra Caballo Blanco champion Miguel Lara has even picked up a sponsor: written in bold red letters across his tight-fitting cotton T-shirt was “Corredor Patrocinado por Cabañas San Isidrio” (Runner Sponsored by San Isidrio Cabins). I tucked in behind Lara as we made our way back into Urique.
The chafe started on the outskirts of town. I immediately admitted that trying to get 10 days out of a single pair of running shorts before testing their stamina in an 80-kilometer race was perhaps not the best idea. My worn-out shorts provided a mild discomfort from the very beginning of the race that grew exponentially as the day drew on. When a feeling of circumcision by sandpaper took over with several hours still left to run, I knew that I was in desperate need of a solution.
This situation, like much of running, was about management and survival. My Spanish is good, and went through my Rolodex of words and phrases for when I arrived at the next aid station to help communicate my needs—Necessito algo para la pena … Vaseline? How do you say Vaseline in Spanish? Lubricación?
Guapalayna was due up in a couple miles—maybe I can buy a tight pair of underwear there to … keep everything in place … no, I’ll lose too much time … and I have no money.
The pain emanating from the nether regions beneath my shorts was such that it made me question everything—descending into the depths of the Copper Canyons, running, life, even the evolution of the human race—how could evolution have allowed for that amount of pain to happen? Did our cave-dwelling, tree-fleeing, hunter-gathering ancestors have to deal with chafing?
If so, did they have to experience it to the same grating and utterly debilitating extent? All of this coming from the part of my body that, over the course of human history, has incited curiosity, contemplation, power, failure and now this—a level of pain such that I wondered what waterboarding feels like.
I tucked my shirt down into the mesh of my running shorts, cradling my problematic appendage and for a brief moment I felt reprieve—static, dry-fabric reprieve—but in order to prevent my shirt from riding up I found myself running buckled over like the Hunchback rushing for the clock tower. Despite my efforts, my singlet emerged loose from my shorts, the pain returned and I soon found myself back where I began, wondering how to say Vaseline in Spanish—this time thinking that it might be name-brand and untranslatable like Kleenex.
Kleenex? That might help.
In an act of desperation, I removed my shirt and stuffed it down the front of my shorts, creating a sort of nest for my parts. I had managed to isolate the problem, but the loss of barrier meant the sun began to suck me dry. Though I had just traded one problem for another, it was an exchange that I quickly came to terms with.
Relief from the pain in my tropics sent me bounding down the road through the small town of Guapalayna and up the trail toward the village of Los Alizos. Poppy fields appeared in my periphery but I kept my eyes ahead.
“When you run across snakes or poppy fields in the Copper Canyons,” one of the armed guards told us when we entered the Canyons, “keep running.”
At Los Alizos, I was informed that I was in second place only two minutes off the lead. I ate tortillas and beans, drank a cool cup of pozole, chugged a beer (yes, beer is offered at the aid stations) and flew down the trail. When I approached the Tarahumaran leader from behind, I slowed and marveled at his form—the embodiment of beauty and grace.
I continued to slow as the sun and exhaustion did its worst. At the bottom of the hill, Miguel Lara passed me, looking strong. Not far beyond that, another runner passed me. I chased the small splashes of shade along the course, though they offered little reprieve.
When, finally, I finished the race I had lost six more spots and just as many liters of sweat. The finish line was a calm and joyous gathering of cultures: Chilangos from Mexico City, Chihuahuences, Americans, Europeans, runners from as far away as Japan. Different clothes, shoes, hair and faces. Nobody in a hurry to go anywhere. Alexis and I bought beer and everybody partook.
Happy to be chasing neither the start nor finish of a race, we spent the next couple days relaxing in Urique. The festive atmosphere invited into town by the race was carried on with the momentum of Carnival and Fat Tuesday. Alexis and I meandered down the street in search of food, and noticed, parked outside a downtown family house, the same motorcycle that had carried the gorilla a couple of days earlier.
Grand colonial doors were parted wide, the festivities within displayed like a child’s dollhouse. Ranchero music echoed from the living room where men gathered about on tired couches. Ancestors looked down on them from faded photographs. Holding court in the middle of the floor sat a short man—mid-40s, mostly bald, an old plastic Coke bottle filled with Mexican moonshine in his hands.
“Come in, come in, guys,” he said in a raspy, nasal tone. He gestured toward an empty couch along the wall and then continued speaking in a lazy Copper Canyon Spanish dialect—one where any word extending more than a syllable is chewed-up cud.
“Call me Raymundo,” he said to us as we settled into the couch. “They have a hard time with ‘Ray.’” Glancing up at me, he flashed me his bright, blue Spanish eyes.
Ray took a pull from the lechuguilla then passed the bottle on to us, each of us taking a swig. The smoky moonshine warmed my belly, while a high-frequency buzz immediately began to take effect.
“Le echarón en el carcel anoche,” one of the men said drunkenly, pointing at Ray—his voice hinting at both humor and anger. He clanked his fists together and mimicked the sound of a jail-cell door slamming shut. “Dos veces!”
“They just wanted to get to know me,” Ray said. From his pocket he pulled out a plastic sandwich bag of tiny, red pods no larger than a ball bearing.
“You wanna get high?” he asked while pulling a pod from the bag. Placing one in my hand and one in Alexis’ hand, he instructed us to chew. “Let it mix with your saliva.”
The pod unleashed an intense heat in my mouth.
“Keep chewing it,” Ray said.
It got hotter and hotter—nearly unbearable.
“Fucking awesome, eh?” Ray said as he watched the suffering spread across my face. Through the enduring pain, I learned that, in The Book of Ray, self-mutilation is another form of getting high. As the heat subsided, it occurred to me that it really wasn’t all that different from running 50 miles.
Ray commanded two simultaneous conversations—one in Spanish, explaining to the man on the couch the benefits of fish oil, and the other in English, detailing to us his past 48 hours, which included being tossed in jail (allegedly for civil disobedience and breaking the peace).
Ray not being much of a runner, the race seemed to be an excuse to come down to the Copper Canyons where he’d be sure to find a party.
“The cops took my weed and my jacket, man,” he said. “They’re not bad. They just wanted to get to know me better. Shit, they even gave me some of their shitty weed and a shrimp cocktail.” With that he tossed another chili pod into his mouth and went through the mouth-watering process all over again.
We stayed there on the tired couches for some time, drinking, eating chili pods and absorbing a stream of stories from Ray that covered two decades of adventures into the Copper Canyons. He told us about the mountain-bike tours he used to lead through the canyons, a kayak that he brought down on one of his trips that he’d like to recover this time (how he planned to carry it on his motorcycle was beyond us).
He explained that he always brings down some quality tire-rubber for making huaraches—running sandals—for his friends. “No sidewall, man. Don’t let anyone sell you sidewall.” He told stories of growing up just north of the Mexican border—old Spanish blood running through his veins, tinting his eyes even bluer. When we made a move to get going, Ray stood up and asked what the plan was.
“Where we going, boys?”
I told him that Alexis and I were looking at heading to the next canyon over—Batopilas.
“I could be ready in a couple of days,” Ray replied, not waiting for an invite.
Not anticipating a new travel companion, we paused for a moment. “We were thinking of leaving tomorrow.”
“OK. I could be ready tomorrow.”
And that’s how Ray joined our team.
When we returned with our loaded and ready motorcycles in the morning, Ray was sitting on the floor fashioning a new pair of huaraches for his host. An ashen cross was smeared on his forehead.
“Ash Wednesday, man. You guys didn’t go to mass this morning?”
“Ray, we getting out of here?”
“Give me 20 minutes and I’ll be good to go.” With that he disappeared out the back of the house.
Three hours later we finally rolled out of town. Only a mile down the road, Ray pulled over, parked his bike and sat down in the dirt.
“I can’t go on, guys.” He sat there for a moment, covered in dust, staring at the ground. Alexis and I looked at each other. This, we guessed, is what it looks like to be coming down hard from five days of lechuguilla, jail, some running and very little sleep.
“OK, let’s go,” he soon said, and with that was back on his bike.
The 30-mile journey to Batopilas would continue on like this for the next eight hours. Drive a mile. Stop. Contemplate life. Talk. Go. Darkness had arrived as we crested the tall dividing ridge 5,000 feet above Urique and Batopilas. Ray stopped and began telling us about the Micah True that he knew—the one he’d known running through the canyons pre-Born to Run. The one who, like Ray, came to the canyons of northern Mexico to get away.
“This was the original route. Batopilas to Urique. This is what he wanted for his run.” Ray talked more and more about the man who has morphed into something of a mythical character in the Copper Canyons ever since his death.
As a close friend and one aware of True’s tendencies, Ray was one of the first to go looking for him following his disappearance, in 2012. He knew that to find True, he’d have to think like True, study the terrain and follow his instincts. He knew not to look for him on the trails. Some days later, he found his friend dead, lying beside a stream in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.
“He was rocking out, man.” Ray mimed a man shredding on the air guitar, rigor mortis fingers mid-solo. “That’s how he looked, man. Like fucking Eddie Van Halen or something. But with flies in his mouth.” He paused, lost for a moment.
It was getting quite late on the ridge and I suggested that we simply camp there for the evening.
“No, man,” Ray said. “You don’t want to camp here.”
I pushed harder for staying on the ridge as we had food and camping supplies and were frankly exhausted.
Ray jumped up, and stomped over to his bike, screaming. “This isn’t some happy-camper bullshit, man! This is a fucking war zone!” And with that he got on his bike and disappeared around the corner.
Alexis and I stood there, perhaps a little relieved.
“Well?” I asked.
“Maybe he’s got a point,” Alexis said. “Anyway,” he added for effect, “he’s certainly more interesting than just the two of us.”
The hum of an engine grew from around the corner and within moments Ray came bouncing back, barely staying atop his motorcycle.
“There’s men with radios and guns around the corner!” he yelled. “We gotta get the fuck out of here and now!” He spun his bike around and disappeared off again around the corner, oddly enough in the direction of imminent danger. Alexis and I mounted our bikes and followed him. Just around the corner was a man with drugged-out eyes and a poncho. Whether or not he had guns and radios, we didn’t stop to find out.
The vertical-mile journey down to Batopilas seemed to take us several more hours as the alcohol slowly left Ray’s system. When finally we arrived in town, a calmness took over Ray’s being. The blackness between towns, it would seem, was no place for us “boys with toys,” as he said.
We got beers and gas, and sometime in the predawn hours we curled up in our sleeping bags alongside a building on the outskirts of town.
Our final days in the Copper Canyons meandered on under a continuous blur of lechuguilla. Ray soliloquized endlessly on subjects ranging from his invention of the fat-tire bike to the calls of different area birds, rival drug gangs and Tarahumarans. He talked more of True—how he wanted to create something more than a race. He wanted to create an atmosphere where love commanded. Driving home this final message, Ray glanced up and flashed his bright blue eyes.
Slowly, we emerged from the depths of the canyon and even further depths of inebriation.
In the gateway town of Creel, snow again began to fall. As we packed up our motorcycles to head north to the border, Ray made a final attempt to convince us to wait a day or two—to ride up through Texas with him—to stop off at a house that he owns in northern Mexico. Anything to keep the party going.
“Ray,” Alexis said, “I want a bed that doesn’t sag. I want 3G. And I want a hot shower. Anyway, we’re out of coffee.”
He looked at our route, tracing a finger along the map. “You don’t want to go through Sonora, man,” he pushed. “They’re pissed off cause they don’t have drugs.”
We got on our bikes and fired them up. Beneath the hum of the motors, Ray continued talking—something about the starter or the carburetors of his Beemer. In my rearview mirror, I looked at one of society’s many misfits—part gorilla, part human, unable to fit in anywhere but the Copper Canyons.
As Alexis and I made our way to the border, not conversing, enclosed in our helmets, I thought about the Copper Canyons’ allure. I thought about the people who have gravitated to its depths for decades and centuries—drug lords, Tarahumarans and runners, united through survival and endurance. And I thought about Ray Molina—a man who’s existence seems to hinge on his ability to keep going … and going … and going.
Rickey Gates believes endurance can exist in many different forms, but the gift of gab was not one he was blessed with. This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.