In the summer of the stay-cation, gubernatorial unallocation, economic hard knocks and budget aftershocks, we are pleased to change the pace and bring you another installment of "The Further Adventures Of" the intrepid Polly Scotland. Queen of sunscreen, iron of foot and stomach, our heroine reports back this time from Mexico's "world wonder", Copper Canyon, proving again that you can get there from here, providing you're willing to pack light, dig deep, and keep moving forward.
"Don't go! It's too dangerous!" That's what my well-meaning friends (and the media) said when I told them I would be traveling through Juarez City, Mexico, in order to hike the Copper Canyon area of Chihuahua. That is the current truth: Murders by the thousands have been the horrible result of the escalating drug cartel wars. The history of the trip began five years earlier, when a friend of mine got a glimpse of the Canyon and immediately thought of me. Over the five years of planning, trepidation, and convincing my three companions to go with me, it was our guide, Raul, who was the central figure in making it happen. Happen it did. Separate from the agonies of the present, this was a trip into the true life of a region with a story all its own.
Messed With in Texas
When our friends Craig and Barb Benson rendezvoused with my husband Lee and me in El Paso, it was with some unease about the border crossing. A sleek hotel shuttle took us as far as the El Paisano bus station. Following an anxious crossing over the Rio Grande via the Bridge of the Americas, passengers were directed to disembark while masked and armed soldiers searched everything. Yet no one asked for our passports nor instructed us to fill out any paperwork, even for an entry visa. After an apparently satisfactory inspection, we simply re-boarded.
Proceeding through Juarez's near empty streets and storefronts, we pulled into a central busing station for a hectic transfer to Chihuahua City. Following a token rummage of our backpacks by masked guards, we rushed to catch the Mexican Omnibus we thought we had missed. Time had begun playing with us.
Big Dreams and Bedrock
After a five-hour bus ride, we checked into a downtown hotel and met our world-class guide, Raul Rodriquez, who briefed us on the three-night/four-day hike in Urique Canyon (6, 135 feet deep) and Batopilas Canyon (5,900 feet deep) of the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains. Both canyons are deeper than the Grand Canyon, Urique the deepest in North America and eighth in the world.
In the morning Raul drove us to Creel, a lumber town of 5,000 that is the gateway to Copper Canyon, where we boarded a trail to experience a 60-mile portion of the 410-mile route to Los Mochis. In 1872 (pre-1914 Panama Canal completion), and American engineer conceived the idea to build a trail from the sea to the interior for logging and mining freight transportation. There were many geographic obstacles, as well as the 1910 Mexican Revolution, that prevented this dream from becoming a reality until 1961.
Twelve miles south of Creel, at an elevation of 8,000 feet, the locomotive chugged around El Lazo (the loop), the amazing engineering feat whereby the train turns 360 degrees "in on itself", a brain-teaser closely followed by my first eye-popping "wow" of the Copper Canyon. The name is something of a misnomer. This "world wonder" is actually six massive gorges with copper-colored lichens dotting the 25,000 square mile area.
The native Tarahumara women at the rest stop in Divisidero, dressed in the age-old traditional headscarves, multicolored blouses and skirts, were busy making and selling baskets, bracelets, and other handicrafts tourists routinely purchase. Most men roaming the streets wore jeans and cowboy hats, but a few wore the more traditional brillant tops and loincloths. The Tarahumaras call themselves Raramuri, "fleet of foot". For decades their skills at navigating the rugged mountain trails have produced some world-class runners, most wearing "shoes" consisting of a piece of rubber tire laced with thin strips of leather.
Raul cautioned us to respect the local people by not taking photos unless permission was granted. Smiling and speaking my broken Spanish, I asked some of the children if I could take their picture. They all responded with the same two English words: "One dollar".
The Raramuris are the last indigenous tribe living in Chihuahua in the way their Aztec ancestors did after escaping enslavement by the Spaniards more than 500 years ago. Semi-nomadic, they move "south" (down the mountain) inthe winter and "north" (back up) in the summer, taking advantage of the temperature and weather extremes. By learning how to cultivate and use the area's 350 species of plant life, these self-sustaining people have adapted to the rigors of mountain living.
Different and Delicate, With Donkeys
By mid-afternoon our group had disembarked from the train and re-embarked into a waiting van, which took us four hours and more than 5,000 feet down a narrow, dusty switchback road to the city of Urique. In one day we had traveled 14 hours by van and train! At a modest hotel at the end of the road in Urique village, that evening we dined in an attached restaurant that served beef from the local, athletic cattle (healthy but chewy) and instant coffee. A quick warm shower (once I figured out the hot know is on the right) relaxed me prior to slipping into bed, the perfume of bougainvillea the last think I remember before drifting into slumber.
Jarred awake by the braying of what turned out to be our pack animals, I was introduced to our "Burro-men handlers" Don Tonio, 67, and his nephew Gilberto, 21. The "boys" tended to the two mules and two burros that would carry our gear up and down the 10,000-foot elevation differential over the course of our four-day trek.
Prior to our arrival, Don Tonio had proposed a different 40-mile route, as the main corridor had too many recent bandito attacks. This alternate passage up over the montana was new to everyone, including the animals.
As we walked along the river, Raul entertained us with interesting facts about the canyon's sub-tropical floor. There were wild figs, kapoc, mesquite, apples, orchids, and a variety of sinister thorns. At a prickly pear cactus farm, we samped one of Mexico's main food sources. Expertly scraping off the spiny thorns, Raul presented me with a clean piece speared on the tip of his knife. The delicious flavor, similar tosweet peas, bathed my mouth with moisture.
Raul was well versed on a variety of topics: the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico's 1810 Independence from Spain, a political history of how NAFTA had affected this area. His intellectual horsepower stimulated lengthy discussions.
High noon. The road had become a path, with a noticeable ascent. Crossing a barbed-wire fence, we left civilization and entered an unmarked zone. Don Tonio needed to prod the animals to coax them forward and upward. Afternoon temps were approaching scorching.
Conversation ceased. Focused on the next point of shade, sipping water every 10 minutes by necessity, I grew concerned about my depleting supply. An occasional but infrequent breeze was welcomed.
The higher we Gringa girls went, the farther we lagged behind. We could scarcely take 20 paces before needing to rest to allow our heart rates to lower. Our plodding was poco a pocito, "little by littler". The scalding sand and hot orange clay of the mountain walls were taking their toll.
Ahead of us, now atop a shady slope inthe mountain's saddle, Craig and Lee were worried. While Craig arranged a mule rescue with Raul, Lee came back down to pour some precious water over us in an effort to cool our lobster-red faces. My head felt like Mount Vesuvius ready to exlode.
Oh, those beautiful burros! They carried us from the inferno, past the narrow drop-offs, and up to a shade tree, where we were greeted like royalty...except for the little asterisk of a venomous coral snake, recently immobilized for our safety.
I could see our destination, El Pie (the foot), but we were still at least an hour from water. Fortunately most of the remaining journey was downhill.
While Raul negotiated our evening's headquarters, I gratefully accepted, and greedily guzzled, water from a natural spring. I forced down some dinner (fresh spinach, jicama, and lime juice), but found it easier to share my food with some of the children. As the setting sun lost its intensity, slowly my heat-exhausted body began to cool. Raul brewed us some bay leaf tea for our sore muscles. Nightfall came as a balm.
Swifter, Higher, Stronger
Morning came first to our ears: roosters, burros, goats, and the hum of thousand of bees in a giant Mesquite tree. Day begins quickly, and the correct goat trail out began an arduous climb, with with plenty of breaks to enjoy the dramatic vistas, we had tackled at least 3,000 feet of elevation at an acceptable pace. We set camp near a fenced area with two padlocked homes connected by a path lined with brilliant red geraniums.
Breakfast by Raul included extolling the benefits of the common lime. Holding the magnificent fruit between his thumb and forefinger, Raul said, "We Mexicans put lime on everything except pinto beans and coffee. Lime is useful not only for our food, but our underarms and breath as well. Truly limes are a gift from God."
Don't Look Down
Our trek brought us next to an intersection of three canyons: Urique (west), Sinforosa (south), and Batopilas (east). Gazing down the vistas, I understood how this was Mexico's premier world wonder. The only blemish on the landscape was a gold mining operation. With the aid of binoculars, we could observe some of the 2,500 people employed by a Mexican and Canadian partnership.
Back on the trail, soon we stood above Batopilas, now some 5,000 feet and six hours below. The old bridge, built in 1870 for silver mining extractions, was visible from our vantage point.
We reached a shaded plateau above El Pine, the only level spot capable of sustaining two households. Adobe houses, 20 paces apart, stood one one-half of a hockey-rink-sized peninsula of land, with drop-offs surrounding 75% of it.
Dinner, we found, was atime for mutual sharing of food. The residents liked our granola bars, and we loved their fresh corn tortillas. Afterward, the kids and I taught each other songs and played games. They were wonderful rope jumpers, but the surprise of the evening was a grandma, who randomly hopped in, jumping more times than anyone.
Lying in my tent, I listened to the sounds of both families settling down by firelight. Each family shared the one long bed extended across most of the room. There was quiet chatter, a few giggles, a cough, and occasional whimper from the baby. Then total silence.
For my 2:00 am.m. nature call, I put on my headlamp, took the single step out of the tent, and gently lowered myself down the drop-off to a place of safety. Getting back up required the use of all four appendages. I was pleased: I hadn't disturbed any of the other 23 people or 100 animals occupying this tiny piece of ground.
The next morning, sitting on a rock, I observed the wonderful families we had had the unexpected honor of spending an evening with. These tribal people were the most gracious, fun loving, subsistent, functional folks I have ever had the privilege to be with. If I had listened to the media, I would have missed this most unforeseen encounter. We left them all the food and goods we no longer needed. They weren't sure what to do with the dental floss, but I explained it was great thread for mending.
On the fourth day we walked into the now bustling town of Batopilas. It had been a ghost town between 1910 and 1992. Because of the silver mining boom of 1870, it was rumored that the city streets were once paved insilver.
What Did You Bring Me?
The hike completed, we returned to mechanized travel on a narrow, hair-raising road lacking guardrails and full of sharp switchbacks, making it back to Chihuahua for our farewell dinner. The following afternoon Raul escorted us to the Juarez-El Paso border.
Heading back to the USA, I worried there might be a problem with my "paperless" status, but after walking across the bridge (we needed exact change, in pesos, to ge the turnstile to work), waiting in line went quickly. Our bags were X-rayed, and it was an easy, uneventful re-entry.
This was a unique adventure. It had beauty, culture, exercise, and good will. It brought me new friends, who I miss. It brought me from "This is different from my world" to "I am part of this world". It taught me to value each breath even as it left me breathless. It filled a day, and counted millennia in the blink of an eye. Its people live among wonders.
* Polly Keith Scotland is a 1973 graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Dental Hygiene and received her Bachelor of Science 1974. She currently practices with her husband Dr. Lee Scotland, in Bemidji, Minnesota.
My time in Copper Canyon taught me the strategy of steadiness, and the discovery of what is left behind or carried with you at ech point of rest and departure. There were times I wondered if I could make it, and it was that which gave me the real discovery I brought back from this journey: that sometimes doubt is what leads you to the place that is waiting.