Copper Canyon: There’s more to the story

a group picture
Copper Canyon Riders – click for more

On March 29, you got a newsletter about my motorcycle trip to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. If you need a reminder, it is here. While helpful to know some of the details of the trip, it’s not a requirement for appreciating the story in this newsletter, about something incredible and truly wonderful which happened on the last night of the trip, at a small dining room in Nuevo Casa Grande, Mexico, about 3 hours southeast Douglas, AZ where we would end our trip.

Here is a quick background: The allure of Mexico’s Copper Canyon region to motorcycle riders has had it on my radar for over twenty years. A ride there was near the top of my mental bucket list. Thinking I might be closer to the bucket than at other points in my life, in March of 2018 I persuaded a group of my closest riding friends to join me on a seven-day ride from Douglas, AZ down to the Copper Canyon. Skip Mascorro and his MotoDiscovery team put together the itinerary and managed everything. All we did was show up and ride.

First, you need to understand the players. Joining from around the USA were: Roger Hansen from Florida, Mark Dilly from Phoenix, Eric Schmid from Salt Lake City, Kevin Ward from Florida, a friend of Eric Schmid’s from Chicago – Eric Baurele, and my brother Leif Larsen from Minnesota. Roger is an experienced rider, a veteran of several of Helge Pederson’s global rides, including the Silk Road tour. Roger and I had met in 2006 on an American Flyers Motorcycle Club ride in Washington State. Roger was riding a Harley then and found it was unable to keep up with the group, which was mostly on sport-touring bikes. I believe I was testing Yamaha’s new FJR 1300 for one of my magazines. Back on that 2006 ride, Roger and I spent dinners discussing the riding he hoped to do in the future. Once I knew his plans, I recommended he get a BMW 1200 GS. It was less than a month after the Washington trip when he was riding a new BMW.

Kevin Ward is a member of the American Flyers Motorcycle Club. Although in a near-perpetual state of probation with this group, Kevin is a skilled rider, displaying one trait I greatly admire in a motorcyclist – a constant desire to improve his skills. Kevin understands that if you’re not always practicing and mastering new skills and techniques, you’ll regress and your abilities will atrophy. We have an affinity for the same instructors and riding schools. We’ve become close friends.

Kevin had introduced me to his friend Eric Schmid a year earlier, and we’d ridden together off-road in Moab, UT, staying in his luxury trailer/toy hauler. Eric is a superb rider and signed up instantly. Unlike Kevin, Roger and I, Eric was on the younger side of fifty (then for sure, I don’t know about now). For me and most of my riding friends, our transition to a more cautious approach to off-road riding had occurred in our early sixties. For the self-aware in the group, this assessment of our bodies’ speed to heal combined with our inability to turn as fast, wheelie as far or slide the rear tire as smoothly through an entire turn, had gradually dawned on us. For all the rest, it was some sort of crash, mishap, or other “oh-shit” moment, often accompanied by some sort of a physical damaging motivator. Don’t get me wrong, we still love riding challenging terrain, we’re just learning to do it differently. Schmid invited his pal from Chicago, Eric Baurele.

Some years ago, Mark Dilly had made the move to Arizona from Chicago. A key reason for his choosing Arizona and the Southwest was his love of riding. The abundance of great motorcycle roads and the long riding season. When calling or emailing Mark about a motorcycle ride, be it a day ride or more extended trip, he has yet to say anything other than “Oh, sounds like fun. Count me in.”

Talking with my brother, Leif, in Minnesota, I told him about my upcoming trip. Never wave a trip south in front of a Minnesotan in March. He was officially sick of winter and so was added to our group. What Leif lacks in formal motorcycle training, he’s makes up in being a quick study. Although I had some worries, it was mostly “older brother syndrome.”

Just as I had invited people on this ride, Skip Mascorro surprised us all. He had extended an invitation to join our group to Kaz Uzunoglu, his partner for planning and executing motorcycle tours in Europe. I’d met Kaz in 2001 on a ride in Italy with Lotus Tours but really got to know him on an American Flyers Motorcycle Club trip to Turkey in September of 2005. AFMC member Andy Forrester had instigated the trip and Kaz had pulled it all together. This time, Kaz flew to Texas from Turkey where he met up with Skip, then rode to Douglas, AZ with Skip and the crew. Skip’s team included Juan Stanglmair of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Juan is a walking encyclopedia of all things automotive, including racing and classic cars. We were joined in the Canyon portion of the trip by Ivan Fernandez, a registered tour guide with vast knowledge of the Sierra Tarahumara (or Raramuri to be more correct). Ivan’s instincts and contacts make sure we didn’t end up someplace where we shouldn’t.

There are some parallels between people riding together and going through military boot camp. Jokes and constant ribbing abound. When it’s all men, few things are out-of-bounds: choice of bike, your inadequate gear, lack of preparation, your lousy physical shape, bad hair, general ugliness, and of course, ridiculously poor riding skills. Oh, and flatulence. Very macho and all fun, with that certain edge. But something grows as the days go by. Concern for others in the group is evidenced by the speed at which everyone rushes to the aid of a fellow biker who’s gone down, and this trip, pretty much everyone went down at least once – except maybe for Eric.

While riding, your head is encased in a helmet. You are not talking with your fellow riders. As Rich Marin, the founder of the American Flyers Motorcycle Club, explains in Chapter 1 of his book, “The Ride Is All,” nothing is more whimsical or fickle than seeking to be alone in a group. Riding is a solitary endeavor with nothing to restrain you or anyone to annoy you. You live in your helmet with your thoughts. It’s very much a solitary experience.

However, every breakfast, lunch stop, and dinner you are together. At every gas stop or rest break, you are together – every single day of the trip. You talk, you get to know each other, learn what others do, what they’re working on, care about, and the people important to them in their lives. This group became aware of Eric Schmid’s business issues, my open heart surgery and its complications, and all our various political ideas.

Overhearing Roger Hansen on a few cellphone calls, we learned he was helping his daughter and the recovery homes she’d founded to assist recovering alcohol and drug addicts. We learned Jennifer Hansen had emerged from a drug habit that had nearly ended her life. She was now taking on a cause and struggle that she knew all too well. Her Serenity Houses are set up exclusively for men or for women. All residents living in the Serenity Houses are expected to work full-time, go to school, or volunteer. Roger agonized over how and why the State of New Jersey, rather than helping these efforts, worked to stop these homes and shut them down. At one dinner, Roger pulled out his phone and showed a video residents had helped put together, eloquently expressing how these homes had saved their lives.

On a tour planned and operated by a tour operator, it is traditional on the last day for members of the group to gather tip money from well-mannered participants. Typically the money is pooled; those not perceived to have given enough are cajoled to give more. One person holds the money and watches for an opportunity to present it, along with the thanks of the group. This typically occurs on the final night dinner and when beverages and glasses are available for toasts, and that is what happened for our group.

If you know nothing of the motorcycle touring industry, know this: One should not go into it with the idea of becoming wealthy. Besides Skip, I’ve known several other tour operators that I admire greatly and have ridden with repeatedly over twenty-five years. Their motivation is to make some semblance of a living while doing what they love most – showing remarkable parts of the world and its citizens to like-minded individuals who can see and appreciate this particular experience. So, tips at the end of a trip are never refused.

Mark Dilly took the leadership role and pulled all of the money together. Mark was a pretty effective fund-raiser and so, following his very nice speech thanking Skip and his crew, the pile of cash he pushed into Skip’s hands was not only decent, perhaps even slightly better than average.

Tradition then calls for the recipient of the tip to thank his crew, pledge to share a portion with them, and tell the participants that they are indeed, the absolute best group he’s ever had the pleasure of leading.

As Skip Mascorro began his speech, one he’d given countless times before, we could see him hesitating, losing his train of thought. His words and direction began to change. Of course, he said all the nice things about his crew and how great it was to ride with us and how he’d love to do it again sometime. But then, he took the ball cap full of tip money and pushed it in front of Roger Hansen, saying: “If it’s okay with all of you guys, I’d like to give this money to Roger Hansen’s foundation to help his daughter and her Serenity Houses.”

Roger Hansen is a tough guy, but he couldn’t keep the tears from rolling down his face. Nor could the rest of us.

Note: Photos of the riders are listed at the bottom of this newsletter’s page.

Best Motorcycle Mishap Ever

One of the most humbling experiences of my motorcycle career was attempting Trials Riding. Trials bikes are purpose-built motorcycles supporting a very precise and particular sort of riding competition. The sport is generally referred to as “mototrials” or “motorcycle trials” and is big in Europe, South America and other parts of the world, but has a more limited following in the US. If you’ve never seen a Trials bike ridden well, click HERE. This video will give you a good idea of what it is and what a skilled trials’ rider can do. It is highly exacting and rigorous riding focused on balance and control over speed.

Before I relate my mototrials riding experience, know that I took from that experience a healthy respect for those who learn to ride a trials bike well and compete in the sport. Later in my motorcycling career, I became good friends with former mototrials champion, Gary LaPlante. I rode with Gary and went on a few trips with him, and wrote about him and his riding school, MotoVentures, for different MC magazines. Gary’s off-road motorcycling training is superb. He is a masterful coach. I also had the good fortune to meet Geoff Aaron and do some publicity photos for him. Geoff is an exceptional mototrials rider and went on to gain sponsorship from Red Bull and now makes a career of giving mototrials riding demonstrations at Red Bull events. You can see more about Geoff here.

My trials training was done under the tutelage of Griff Wigley, one of the best teachers on the planet. Griff can teach just about anyone anything. He’s patient, kind, observant and somehow knows precisely the right thing to say at the right time. Griff is very civic-oriented and spends most of his time with non-profits, helping them build their communities, online and otherwise. There are few people who I admire more for their commitment to the greater good.

So, time for my trials story: Many years ago when living in the Twin Cities area, Griff volunteered to loan me one of his trials bikes and teach me some basic trials riding exercises. Taking him up on his offer, one Saturday morning I found myself some miles out of Northfield, MN near a park with a lot of trails.

Typical modern trials bike

Griff unloaded the bikes from the trailer, explaining to me their nature and operation. Trials bikes have super grippy tires running 5 – 8 lbs of pressure. Gas tanks hold less than 1 gallon, so they have a range of only about 50 miles. But with no seat, few use them for serious transportation. Top speed is less than 40 mph and most riding is done slower than 10 mph. The bikes weigh only about 150 lbs., putting them in the rarest form of motorsport vehicle, where the vehicle weighs less than the rider. The bikes have six gears, with the first four being super short with high torque. What and where riders manage to ride these bikes is mind-boggling. A trials bike can climb to the roof of a house. I’ve personally seen one ridden up the side of a semi-truck trailer to its top. I couldn’t wait to see what I could do.

After a morning of the basics, with Griff not letting me out of his sight, he allowed me to begin the afternoon on my own, working on the exercises he’d shown me: jumping over logs, balancing along a railroad tie, and riding over some big rocks.

At one point, Griff took off on a jeep trail that wound around and around the mountain, through some beautiful large pine trees, up to the top. I followed but, of course, could not keep up, and soon he was far ahead of me. About half-way up the mountain, I came across a log on the trail. I slowed, recalling Griff’s instructions on how to approach the log slowly, then blip the throttle as I pulled up on the handlebars, to raise the front wheel over the log. This time I grabbed more throttle than intended, and the bike reared up like the lone ranger’s horse. As the bike began getting away from me, I grabbed the handlebars more tightly, twisting the throttle fully wide open. The bike took off on its rear wheel without me, over the steep drop-off at the edge of the road. After checking myself for damage and finding none, I tiptoed to the side of the road and looked down for the bike. There it was, hanging from a tree limb, about 6 feet up from the ground.

Further down the hillside, I spied a bit of the road that circled the mountain. That was a good sign. I slid down the steep ten feet or so to the base of the tree and looked up. Sure enough, there it was, stuck about six feet up. I scooted down another few feet to the roadway below and waited for Griff to appear. Eventually, he did. As he rode up and stopped, he instantly realized I’d crashed and began looking around for the bike. I just stood there. He looked, not seeing anything anywhere. Finally, he said, “Okay, I give up, where’s the bike?” I took him to the side of the road and pointed up into the tree. There was his other bike. Griff looked for a while, then started to laugh and laugh. Then he finally said, “Wow, I wonder how many points you’d get docked for losing your bike in a tree.”

To understand what Griff said, you need to understand how scoring is done in trials competition runs. Each contestant starts with zero points. Points are added for errors. Dabbing a foot down adds 1 point for each dab, 5 points for going out-of-bounds, which are the sections marked with ribbons, 5 points for going backwards, etc. Like golf, the person with the lowest score is the winner. Griff had no idea how many points I’d “earned” for getting a trials bike caught over six feet up in a tree, a pine tree no less.

By the time we got the bike lowered to the ground, we were covered in pine tar. The bike was unhurt, but my riding prowess had taken a considerable blow. The next day I woke with every muscle in my body complaining. I could barely move. It eventually dawned on me that the skill, balance and physical conditioning required to ride a trials bike vastly surpassed other sorts of motorcycle riding, and I still believe that to this day. After I got into teaching precision riding, I often told students that learning to ride properly at slow speeds was critical. Unskilled riders often use speed to hide poor technique. Top riders know that executing maneuvers perfectly at slow speeds means you’ll always be able to do it right when the speed increases. BTW, in the years since this has happened, Griff has gotten into off-road bicycle riding. You can find his site here.

The Copper Canyon and Some Amazing Paintings

I’ve gotten a few questions about my motorcycle ride in Mexico’s Copper Canyon and its timing, right before my second OH surgery. Here is some background on that trip and most importantly, some of the photographs that led to paintings by my wife, Maggie, who is an artist with a special talent for painting portraits. Below is one of her paintings. “Worried and Waiting” based on a photo from the Copper Canyon Trip.

Worried and Waiting

For a real treat, check out the website where Maggie has many of her paintings. Can you spot the ones from the Copper Canyon trip? (hint, look near the end).

While the Copper Canyons in Mexico are deeper (over a mile/1.6 km) and four times longer than the Grand Canyon in Arizona, they’re very different. The Grand Canyon is larger overall than any of the individual canyons of the Copper Canyon system in Mexico, but Mexico has six canyons: 1. Tom chic, 2. Las Varas, 3. El Comanche, 4. Manzanita, 5. San Juanito and 6. Copper Canyon. Mexico’s canyons sport far more vegetation and are populated by the Tarahumara Indians, who’ve managed to keep their unique and fascinating culture despite thousands of years of outside pressure.

Most people know the Tarahumara from their long-distance running abilities, outlined in Christopher McDougall’s book, “Born to Run.” During the 16th century, they retreated deep into the canyons to escape the Spanish conquistadors. They have remained largely isolated from the outside world growing corn, potatoes, and beans while living in caves. A complex network of trails links their small communities. Trail running to deliver messages between families is a major part of their lives. Running is also important for hunting animals, as they chase deer until the deer are too exhausted to escape.

Skip Mascorro of MotoDiscovery, a tour operator, is one of the world’s best-known experts in this part of the world, having led trips here since 1981. I’ve known Skip for over 20 years. We often talked about his adventures in Mexico and the Copper Canyon specifically. In 2018, almost a month to the day before my big surgery, we managed to pull together a trip with some of my closest riding friends, including: Roger Hansen, Mark Dilly, Eric Schmid, Kevin Ward and a friend of Eric’s from Chicago, Eric Bauer and my brother Leif formed the core group. We were joined by Kaz Uzunoglu, a good friend and tour operator from Turkey as a special surprise guest of Skip. Skip’s crew included Alex Moore and two skilled, bi-lingual guys who formed the chase crew.

We met in Phoenix on Thursday, March 15, and left the following morning for Douglas, AZ, right on the US side of the border. Before leaving, Mark and Jeanne Dilly hosted a terrific party at their home and provided rooms for some of the out-of-town riders. Bikes had been shipped into Phoenix the weeks before the ride or trailered in from Salt Lake City or rented locally.

After transitioning from the center of Arizona to its far southern border, we met up at the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas where Skip reviewed the route and details for the next six days. It was a remarkable trip and following are some of the photos. I’ll try to put captions on some of them. In general, here is what the riders among you will want to know:

  • Weather (Mexico in March): It was glorious. It hovered around 70 degrees and was sunny nearly every day. Cooler at night at the bottoms of the Canyon – or maybe it was cooler near the rim, I forget. It’s almost a mile straight down to the bottom of the canyon, so the temperature changes were significant. Removing or adding a layer was pretty much all that was needed to find comfort.
  • Roads: In general, they were very good. However, some roads leading into the bottom of the canyons as well as several others were not paved. They were graded and in pretty good condition, but riders needed to be comfortable on gravel and traversing loose rocks and sand. Anyone experienced with this sort of riding knows you can’t ride this terrain tensed up or get overly concerned if your bike moves around a bit. A different attitude from pavement is necessary as the bike moves differently. Fortunately, all of the riders on this trip were well-qualified and experienced, and those who may have been borderline caught on pretty quick.
  • People: The Mexican people are gracious and welcoming. We saw smattering evidence of what we took to be possible drug cartel presence, a couple of very well-armed men sitting in a pickup truck at the edge of a town we were entering. But this was far from the Copper Canyon areas. We never had any encounters with anything scary and even our interactions with police officials when we’d gotten a bit cross-wise with some of the local laws were resolved by our bi-lingual team members.
  • Food: Superb, but it goes without saying, it helps if you like Mexican food. Rice, beans, chicken, tortillas, salsa, steak, eggs, salad, and fresh veggies. All dinners were well-prepared and very good and many breakfasts were superb as well. Some of my favorites were stopping to lunch at small stands along our route.

Be sure to tell me if you were able to navigate to Maggie’s website and if you saw her paintings.