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Austin Chronicle Copper Canyon

By Wendell Smith

JUNE 1, 1998:  We set out from Divisadero around 11am and an hour later we had walked along the rim of the canyon and started down into it on a backbone ridge. Already we had lost the trail once on the rocks and had to backtrack to pick it up again. The trick of Copper Canyon trails is that pleasure hikers are not the only, nor even the most frequent, users of them. The canyon is a Parque Nacional but that doesn't mean there are signs pointing the way. The canyon is not a depopulated nature preserve but the homeland of the Tarahumara. Therefore, there are trails which connect to other trails all over the place. Finding the way often consists of being able to judge the wider human and burro trails from the goat trails or the squirrel trails. It also means letting go of your notion that there is one right trail and just letting your sense of direction guide you. For us it seemed simple: Just go down. But soon we were standing at a fork and had to pick between two trails, both of which went down. While walking along the ridge, a group of four Tarahumara men passed us. It felt silly walking along with 40 pounds of stuff strapped to our backs when we were passed by a group of men, with only one small shoulder bag between them, almost skipping from rock to rock, with gnarled feet in sandals, going about twice as fast as we on their way uphill to buy a few things. Our big backpacking adventure was the Tarahumaran equivalent of a walk to the corner store.

By lunchtime we had come to the edge of a bowl-shaped valley. We sat on the rim and ate our cheese and crackers and watched the scene below, which contained two stone and timber cottages, a far-off herd of goats, and a couple of people coming and going. The cottages were surrounded by bare fields recently planted with corn. The entire time we sat, we kept hearing the regular sound of a rooster crowing, seemingly on the stroke of the minute, which made us feel all the more remote from civilization.

Our trail led down into the valley and up a ridge on the other side. Once we got down into the valley itself we chose a wrong trail. Suddenly we found ourselves with no other option but to walk right by the doorstep of one of the cottages. We tried to step lightly but through the open door we could hear a baby crying and a mother comforting it. It smelled of woodsmoke. As we crossed the cornfields going across the valley we saw a man turn away from us and head back into his house. We had read about the famous aloofness of the Tarahumara, but actually experiencing it made a strong impression that we were trespassing.

By 7pm we were running out of daylight, had found no water, nor patch of flat ground upon which we could possibly sleep, and my wife was hiking with a kind of crippled, stiff-legged gait. The continuous, steep, downhill trek had completely exhausted her thighs so that she could no longer bend her knees without her legs completely buckling. I didn't think we would die, I just thought that we might have an awful bad time huddled by the side of the trail all night without enough water to drink, trying not to fall to our deaths in the dark. But then we rounded a bend in the trail and noticed that the valley below us ended in a box canyon.

Down at the narrow bottom of the canyon there was a vibrant contrast - instead of the gray and brown scrub of the desert there was a patch of green. I hiked on toward it and, as I went, I became convinced that the exhaustion of the day's hike had made me delirious because I kept hearing a sound like wind in the trees, only there were no trees nearby. At the bottom I found the source of the wind sound: a hot spring shooting out of the bottom of the canyon, as if an entire creek were continually erupting from the rock, and below it, a campground. What's more, in looking around the campground I noticed that the ground was covered with round, green, Ping-Pong ball-size fruit of some kind. Audrey, who was hobbling her way down to where I was, heard me let out a big whoop. They were lime trees, and I had brought tequila. We were home.

The next day we hiked down the rest of the canyon to the Urique River. It took us a couple of hours to get there down very steep canyon faces. On the canyon floor the temperature change from the cool pine forests at the canyon rim was evident. Though it was only late May, it felt at least 100 degrees. We spent the afternoon staying in the shade on the river beach, eating our lunch, watching the hawks drifting on the air currents that rose up the massive canyon walls around us, and diving into the cold, clear water of the Urique as often as we could.

We saw one Tarahumara man who passed us on his way down the canyon hopping from boulder to boulder. We waved and he waved back. As much hard work as it is getting to the bottom of Copper Canyon, any time spent hanging out by the Urique redeems the effort. That evening we indulged ourselves in the pleasures of camp - a sort of survivalist-style margarita made with fresh-squeezed lime and Gatorade powder, and a soak for our sore muscles in our own private hot spring.

The next afternoon as we were hiking back across the cornfields in the valley, the same old Tarahumara man emerged from the cabin across the field and, holding up something in his hands, called across the 300 yards that separated us, like a scene from some feel-good, all-the-world-is-one TV commercial: "¿Quieren Coca-Cola?" So we joined him in the shade next to his house. His name was Modesto. We talked with him and traded some. His niece and nephew joined us. I'm not sure if their behavior was based on Tarahumara belief, but when the children came up to us, they held their hands up shielding their faces in some sort of show of fear or respect or an attempt to ward off the evil outside forces we represented. We gave them what little candy we could find in our backpacks. We gave Modesto, who had a bad arthritic knee, our extra Advil. Because of the knee, Modesto said he didn't get out of the canyon much anymore. He had set his wares out to sell on a rock and I finally settled on a fine cowhide drum. He beat on it a little to demonstrate, and then the nephew played it a little and Modesto said the nephew was going to make a good drummer for the dances next Easter at Lake Arareco.

What Modesto really wanted me to buy was his highest-priced item, a feather headdress. I asked him what kind of feathers. When he said the word "gavilan," I noticed that there was a windcatcher uphill from the house made in the carved wood shape of a buzzard. About that time, an actual buzzard came drifting over on the upcurrents, and just as it cleared the eaves of the house the rooster in the yard began to crow like crazy. Suddenly we had the explanation to the constant rooster crowing we had heard on our hike in. Here in Modesto's yard a life and death struggle was going on. He said he lost a lot of chickens.

If you go, please take Modesto a bottle of Advil for us.

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