Arriving in Creel, the center of the Tarahumara region. Approximately 50,000 of the indigenous Tarahumara live in the Sierra’s around Creel and in the massive canyon system known as Barranca del Cobre. My last visit here In November 2003 I was lucky to witness some of the festivities that surround Die de la Muerte (day of the dead; or Halloween). Like my previous visit, I altered my schedule and route so that I could meet with old friends attending the annual Horizons Unlimited meeting of adventure and world traveling motorcyclists. I figured this would be a good break to let time heal the damage caused by Hurricane Stan in Southern Meixico and Guatemala. Sadly, many people have lost their homes, loved ones and worldly possessions. Roads have been turned to mud, bridges washed out and the government and aid organizations are having difficulty getting supplies to help these people.
But in Creel thousands of miles from the damage we watch the weeping, destruction and desperation of these people and their homes in the comfort of the motel lobby. In addition, news of the massive earthquake in Pakistan, a destination high on my list and more than a year away, compounds my thoughts of helplessness for these people, and even guilt. What can I do to help sitting here in this isolated area surrounded by pine forests and unique rock formations. Motorcyclists gather here from New Zealand, Thailand, Canada, Australia, Mexico and the United States. Eager to meet other motorcyclists to learn what it takes to travel the world. Seminars on packing, tire changing, photography, planning and motorcycle maintenance are combined with riding events and training on handling the rigors of off-road riding.
For me, I am happy to to connect with Marc from Belgium, Arturo from Chihuahua and Gerardo who now lives in Indiana but formerly guided tours through Mexico and the Tarahumara region. I make new friends including Tom & Deb from Indiana and Grant and Susan from Australia, both couples are in the midst of touring the world on their motorcycles. And there’s Jeremiah who plans to go as far as Tierra del Fuego before returning to his home in Durango, Colorado. There’s Wayne and Joanie from Oklahoma and my roomate Leroy from Texas, a 79 year-old man riding a bike similar to mine.
I arrived in Creel without a reservation at the motel hosting the Horizon’s Unlimited meeting. With only one cabana available for one night, I accepted the notion that I’d camp for several days during the meeting before riding the Sierra’s through Mexico’s historic colonial region including the states of Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Guanajuato. But I knew it’d be cold nights on the frosty ground of Villa Mexicana’s campsites when the evening chill of Creel’s 7,500 foot elevation leaves frosts on the seat of my motorcycle. I’d be happy camping but would prefer a bunk in one of the cabins.
That’s when I met Leroy. A slender man with soft features and character in his face but who still didn’t look his age. At 79 years old Leroy retired as from his business of crop dusting in in 1991. He moved to Alaska and took a job as a commuter air pilot for Denali airlines. He’d fly tourists iinto a tiny landing strip on Mount Whitney while entertaining them with stories of his colorful past. As we lay there in our respective beds with the lights out and the massive array of stars blanketed the evening sky we would talk and exchange stories.
“I only had one close call,” Leroy explained when asked about his more than 50 years of flying. “I was flying down from McKinley when I felt something was wrong,” he spoke in a slow matter of fact tone, clearing his throught with a steady resonance of a smooth cough, “the engine was losing power.”
“Did you have any passengers?” I asked curiously.
“The plane was full,” Leroy answered using his by now trademark cough to clear the air. These planes were small and carried perhaps less than a dozen passengers. “I scanned and spotted several potential landings, but pressed on hoping to make it back to the airport.”
“When the engine finally gave out, the only place to land was on the road that takes tour busses and tourists’ cars into Denali, ” he explained referring to the road that winds its way from Parks Highway in Alaska into Denali National Park. “There’s only one straight section of that road. And I was right over it when the engine blew. Good thing there were no cars, so I landed it rigth on the road.” Images of hikers and busloads of tourists watching a single-engine plane land on the road made for cars made me crack a smile in the dark.
“When I let the passengers off, one old lady thanked me for the ride and gave me a $1 tip. She thought this was part of the ride.”
Leroy has been flying planes and riding motorcycles for most of his life. He has ridden to Alaska, all over the United States, all over Mexico and traveled as far as Guatemala. And recently he’s had some close calls.
“I just passed dozens of burro’s and none of them even moved,” Leroy cleared his throat as he delivered his next story inb the same calm steady tone with his slightly slow Texan drawl, “I t-boned him going about 50 miles an hour,” he explained the donkey just started walking into his lane at precisely the right moment. “that was just three years ago on my KLR,” he coninued. “all I saw through the screen in my helmet was pavement as I skidded for a long time. When I finally came to a stop, ” he cleared his throught. “I couldn’t move but I noticed I had donkey crap all over me. Then I knew where I hit him.
Leroy broke his pelvis in this accident. “What happened to the burro?” I asked.
“Oh. The burro? He was 50 yards up the road eating grass.”
Just over a year ago about the time that I had my mishap that left me with hardware in my wrist, Leroy was riding the Continental Divide in Colorado when he hit a deer. He shattered his wrist which orthopedics pieced back together with pins. And more recently, he was riding a street motorcycle, a BMW 1200RT just outside of Creel when he went into turn with a good lean. Sparks were flying as he was scraping metal in the turn. Concerned and slighlty freaking out, he righted the motorcycel and then crashed. No body parts harmed here, but what amazed me is this nearly 80 year old legend brushed himself off after each of these mishaps and gets right back on his motorcycle.
All I could hope is I have half the energy and guts this guy does when I’m 60, let alone 79.
Photos: (1) Rock formations in valley surrounding Creel, Mexico; (2) Wayne & Joanie from Texas; (3) Marc Staelens, Belgium; (3) Gerardo Ibarra, Indiana; (4) Cold mornings in Creel; (5) Leroy the legendary rider from Texas.