Above the Rocks and Beneath the Stars
© Copyright 2010 by Lowell Harp
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
One kind of journey begins with one step. Another begins with a dream. This is a tale of both, and of the lesson learned, in Mexico’s canyon country.
I was driving down the highway at a normal cruising speed, let’s say 55. For some reason, I decided to go in the opposite direction. I cut the steering wheel sharply to the left while braking hard and, with tires squealing, did a 180. This violation of the laws of physics and the principles of common sense was followed by another: The car was now flying backward down the highway at full speed—in its former direction. I applied the brakes hard, but they seemed to have little or no effect. I struggled to keep the car on the road while looking over my shoulder. It was weaving from one lane to the other, and I knew this situation couldn’t last. Sure enough, another car came from the opposite direction. I had to try to avoid a collision. The next thing, I was fighting to keep the car under control as it flew through the ditch. The car and I were still moving at highway speed in spite of my strenuous efforts to apply the brakes.
I awoke in a tiny cave, a shallow notch in a rock wall, in Mexico’s Sierra Tarahumara, certain that I had been on this wild ride before. I had slept fitfully on a narrow, uneven, sloping perch, worrying about the sanitary and safety implications of some small animal droppings on a shelf just above me. These are good conditions for dreaming.
The year was 2001 and I was in the Copper Canyon region, Las Barrancas Del Cobre, famed for its network of canyons that in places are deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. It is a remote area of north-central Mexico, accessible in most places only by primitive roads or on foot, a wild and beautiful land to which I awoke the next morning, and through which I followed my son Dylan, our guide Reyes Ramirez, and a horse over the trails and dirt roads leading to our destination, the bottom of Copper Canyon, on the Urique River, near Tejaban.
Our journey was Dylan’s idea, proposed months earlier over the telephone. An adventurous, athletic twenty-eight year-old, he wanted to visit the Copper Canyon region before it succumbed to twenty-first century commercialization.
Dylan’s request presented many challenges. Keeping up with my hardy son wouldn’t be easy in steep terrain and thin mountain air. Also, although Dylan conversed competently in Spanish, my skills were at the “Me-Tarzan-you-Jane” level, so communication would pose obstacles to a gringo like me. Above all, I looked to this adventure as a test of my mental awareness and common sense. A ponderer and a daydreamer, I resolved that on this trip I would think less and experience more.
Our journey to Copper Canyon began in early June when we arrived in the little village of Cusárare and were introduced to our guide, Reyes, a wiry man with deeply wrinkled brown skin and graying black hair and mustache. When he smiled, which was often, he revealed that he was missing all his teeth except for those in front on the bottom, a result of exposure to mercury in the days when he worked for the mines. In his white straw Stetson and cowboy-style shirt, he looked like a typical mestizo farmer.
But Reyes was more prosperous than most of the people of Cusárare. His property, a handful of acres devoted to a cornfield and an apple orchard, sat on the edge of the village, alongside the stream that ran through the community. The front of his white adobe house presented a pretty picture, with blue window frames and door frames and an unpainted picket fence in the foreground.
But Reyes showed us that a gas explosion had destroyed the entire back section. A recently constructed one-room log cabin nearby served as sleeping quarters for the family, while the one habitable room in the house functioned as a kitchen and dining area. A 1960’s vintage Ford pickup truck, its front end on blocks, sat in front. It didn’t run, but it appeared to be the closest thing to a motorized vehicle in the village.
Before leaving, we sat in the kitchen. It seemed as if we had stepped back in time one hundred years. There was no electricity, and thus no lights or refrigerator, and no running water, only a pitcher and bowl. Heat for cooking was provided by a small crude woodstove in the corner.
Reyes’ wife and their son, a young man who left off working the field with a horse-drawn plow, assisted in preparations for the trek. We left with our gear tied to an old saddle on the back of a small smoky-white stallion, headed southward towards Tejaban. Reyes led the horse while Dylan and I followed immediately behind. After just a few yards, we found ourselves climbing a steep ridge overlooking Reyes’ home.
Progress was slow due to the stallion’s leisurely pace, punctuated with frequent stops to expel quantities of green manure or foul gas that imperiled our shoes and assaulted our noses. Reyes gave up on leading the horse and instead walked behind, offering encouragement by means of vigorous whacks with his walking stick. After about an hour, it began to rain, fitfully at first and then steadily. By the time we reached our campsite three hours later, we were soaked to the skin.
Nevertheless, our spirits were high as we changed clothes and dried out in front of a campfire at the mouth of a small cave. A bullfrog, heartened by the rain, croaked in the distance with a loud, hoarse quack that persisted all night. I left the cave, which I deemed too small for three people, to Dylan and Reyes, and slept in the still smaller notch further down the ridge, where I dreamed of my struggle to control the runaway car. The next morning, as we resumed our slow walk behind the stallion, I decided that the dream was a cautionary tale about capricious decisions, a parable about the proper application and limitations of control, directed to a man who was constantly in pursuit of goals of one kind or another.
We met a boy on a bicycle coming from the opposite direction on a wooded dirt road. He was followed by a gray burro trotting with an empty wooden pack frame on his back. Behind the burro came a man in sandals, younger than Reyes but dressed in an identical plaid cowboy shirt and straw hat. He smiled, revealing a missing upper tooth, as the two men greeted each other warmly and hugged. It turned out that the man was Reyes’ cousin. They agreed to switch animals and proceeded to unload the gear from the horse and place it on the back of the burro. The cousin then rode off on the horse, after the boy on the bicycle.
The burro was an improvement on the horse, less balky and better at negotiating the steep uneven ground. Reyes marched immediately behind it, almost in lock-step, urging it on in a hoarse loud whisper or with a lip-smacking “tsk-tsk” sound. When it stopped, he whacked or poked it with his walking stick. When he wanted to communicate a still greater sense of urgency, he jabbed the burro sharply in the rectum. Rather than making the animal jump, this merely produced a grudging compliance. When the burro made one of his frequent diversions to the edge of the trail in order to sample some tasty plant, Reyes ran over to his side and drove the reluctant animal back with a vigorous whack or two.
Although Reyes set the course, the burro had a lot to say about how fast we went, and when and where we took those brief unsanctioned breaks. Reyes accepted this give and take with equanimity, never truly angry at the animal. “Poco a poco (little by little),” he announced repeatedly. It was as if he were commenting on my dream about the boundaries of control.
Meanwhile, as we progressed over the trails that twisted up and down the ridges, the terrain and plant life were changing. When we had left Reyes’ home in the valley surrounding Cusárare, the vegetation had tended toward scrub pine and bushes. But as we ascended to higher elevations, the land came to be dominated by forests of tall but thinly interspersed pine, oak, and juniper trees. The madroño, a strikingly attractive deciduous bush, was also common. It displayed a bright red bark that tended to peel off to reveal white wood underneath, like a sycamore.
Much of the time, we picked our way up and down over gravel, loose shale, or uneven rock, or we followed inches-wide paths and switchbacks skirting steep slopes. Occasionally we jumped from boulder to boulder. At the highest levels, the ground often consisted of solid expanses of dark gray pocked volcanic rock, looking like the surface of a dry sponge.
Reyes’ walking stick skimmed over this often treacherous terrain like a third leg. He locked his eyes on the ground directly in front of him, at the heels of the burro. Although he sometimes commented on the beautiful scenery, he rarely looked about him unless we stopped. Even on the few occasions when we traversed level ground, he moved with short, heavy, plopping steps as if he were still walking up or downhill. This I surmised to be the gait of a man who had spent his life treading over these mountain pathways, a man who understood the importance of maintaining a solid footing in life, a man who was not likely to act impulsively.
I strove for the same attention to task. To do otherwise would invite a nasty fall, with no way out for help except on foot or on the back of a burro. Loose shale required the most care, especially going down steep inclines where we had to take short slow steps to avoid a hard fall on our butts. On the other hand, the porous volcanic rock provided excellent traction. Feeling like a fly on a wall, I trusted it on the steepest slopes.
I found myself thinking about those rocks, seemingly so solid, and yet made of atoms that are for the most part just empty space. I was fascinated by the thought that I was walking on an illusion, a force field rather like the ones in old Star Trek episodes. From there it was only a short step to reveries about so-called reality.
So much for my resolution to stay in the here and now. I don’t suppose that such fancies occur to most of the people of the Copper Canyon region, people who are of necessity of a practical bent of mind and who don’t find it difficult to live in the moment, people like Ramona. She was the wife of Reyes’ cousin, the one who met us on the trail and traded his burro for Reyes’ horse. They lived at the edge of Tejeban, a dusty village near the beginning of the descent into the canyon.
We approached the back of their house in the early afternoon while negotiating a steep rocky slope down to the village. As we neared, Reyes tossed a stone onto a metal roof below, bringing out a couple of barking dogs, followed by Ramona, a stocky young woman in a loose-flowing housedress. She smiled, revealing severely receding gums, and chatted cheerfully with Reyes as we made the final descent to the grounds outside her house.
We came around to the front of the house, overlooking the village below. The house and village were located on a rocky, sparsely vegetated slope that baked in the hot June sun. In addition to the dogs, we found chickens, a sow, and a young pig on the grounds of Ramona’s home. Dylan was amused to see the sow wallow in a small puddle of water, then chase away the pestersome pig, who squealed loudly in panic.
After the burro was unpacked, Dylan and I were sent down to the village to buy tortillas and coffee. This ostensibly mundane errand proved to be an adventure consisting of a steep descent, a pack of hostile dogs, and a challenging ascent by an alternate route in order to avoid revisiting the canine gauntlet. Much later, we would learn that Reyes and Ramona had neglected to tell us about a less direct but much gentler route than the ones we had taken.
We approached the house with Ramona and Reyes repeating, “No muerde, no muerde (Don’t bite, don’t bite),” to her now balefully silent dogs, who followed us to the kitchen door with their noses at our legs. We crossed the concrete floor to a small table, covered by a plastic tablecloth, near the window. Dylan and Reyes sat on a pair of crude wooden benches while I made use of a huge air filter from some kind of large engine. Facing the window, I observed on its broad sill an incongruous juxtaposition: a kerosene lamp and a boom box with a wire running from its antenna out the window.
Conversing easily with Reyes and Dylan in Spanish, Ramona set about heating the tortillas on a small wood-burning stove in a corner of the kitchen. We opened up some of our canned food to be spooned onto the tortillas, eliminating the need for individual silverware and dishes. Meanwhile, Ramona began tossing the heated tortillas onto a folded dishcloth on the table and we washed down our simple meal with coffee.
In spite of the primitiveness of Ramona’s home, I didn’t find it to be squalid and depressing, like much of what Dylan and I had seen in the cities of Juarez and Chihuahua. I admit to a tendency to romanticize the lives of rural people like those of the Copper Canyon region. Perhaps they would give it up, if they could, to escape its drudgery and poverty. Still, I was impressed with the way that Ramona and Reyes appeared to take pleasure in what life was offering them that day.
We left Ramona’s house in the hot mid-afternoon sun, heading back to the top of the ridge, but this time westward and upward toward the trailhead that would lead us into the canyon. As we climbed a sloping lava field we caught up with an old man, walking stick in hand, moving at a slow, steady pace. His head, topped by a straw Stetson, sagged forward from his shrunken neck and shoulders.
Dylan and I learned that this was Reyes’ “tío,” or uncle, and that he was 97 years old. Reyes and he engaged in a brief conversation, and then we turned south to obtain water from a nearby resort. The old man continued westward, and I assumed that we had seen the last of him.
The resort was located at the edge of the canyon ridge, and it afforded us our first look, a magnificent view of the huge crack in the earth that is the canyon. It went so deep that, although we could see a narrow fissure at the bottom, we couldn’t make out the river that it contained.
We filled our water bottles and returned to the trail where we had left the old man. Continuing westward, we eventually turned south onto a path leading sharply down into the canyon. The descent was a hot, jarring two-hour affair over steep, narrow switchbacks that had my runner’s knee aching after the first hour. As we went down, the flora gradually changed from mountain trees and bushes to plants associated with desert settings. These included various kinds of cacti and yucca, including the century plant, with its tall flowering stalks that extended well above our heads.
To my surprise, we again came across Reyes’ tío, accompanied by a burro and two dogs, about halfway down. The old man, who had continued on the trail while we replenished our water supply, lived near the bottom of the canyon, on the other side of the river, and was on his way home. We rested together inside a narrow line of shade provided by a turn in the canyon wall. Reyes and his uncle sat on a couple of rocks and conversed.
As I surveyed my weary muscles and aching knee, I observed the old man with respect. We were negotiating this rocky and treacherous terrain in expensive hiking boots that supported our feet and protected them from the sharp rocks, while Reyes’ tío had only his sandals and walking stick. Yet he seemed no more tired than the rest of us.
Again parting company with the old man, we reached the bottom late in the afternoon, and found ourselves in a narrow canyon, about a hundred feet wide, with the brown, turbid Urique River running through the center. We gazed up between steep slopes, thousands of feet high, and saw a band of clear sky. Making our way upstream over a field of boulders, we came to a beach, bound on one side by the boulders and on the other by a projection of rock wall. Here we set up camp, using a small cave for shelter from the sun and for storage of our gear. That night, we slept on the soft sands of the beach.
The next morning, Dylan and I forded the river. We jumped from boulder to boulder as far as we could go, and then waded thigh deep, the water rushing hard against our legs. On reaching the other side, we climbed up to a rugged trail that ran along the south edge of the canyon. We were on a mission to obtain drinking water from one of the springs that gushed from the canyon wall.
Ruins of stone structures were scattered along the trail. They date back to the days when this was a busy mining center and men like Reyes worked for the company, hacking ore out of the mines and driving burros loaded with gold up the switchbacks to the top of the canyon.
We found the spring behind one of the ruins. After we filtered and collected all the water we could, Dylan went to the other side to watch for passers-by as I rinsed off under the spring and changed my filthy clothes.
When I emerged, I found Dylan in a small stand of fruit trees, talking to Reyes’ tío, who was dressed in the same dirty clothing that he wore on the previous day. The old man sat with one pant leg rolled up and proudly shared with us the contents of two buckets filled with small apricots, each about the size of a large cherry tomato, and what may have been figs. Cheerfully describing the area to Dylan in Spanish, he seemed none the worse for wear from the previous day’s journey.
In the afternoon, Dylan and I again forded the river in order to further explore the side opposite our camp. We saw more ruins, including “la casa blanca,” a white adobe house on a narrow ledge overlooking the canyon bottom. I presume that the now roofless structure housed the owner or manager of the mines in the past. With its six rooms, balcony, patio, and beautiful views out the beveled window openings in its thick walls, it must have inspired awe in the people of the canyon in its day.
Among the most striking aspects of the canyon bottom were a number of horizontal water wheels, each about four feet in diameter. The mills were constructed by men who worked the old mines for the small quantities of gold that still could be extracted from them. The miners made these mills using only wood, except for a metal rod which attached the axle of the wheel to a yoke above, and two iron chains that dragged stones over the ore as the wheel turned. Spring water bursting from the canyon walls was directed to the wheels by sluices made of hollowed logs.
We encountered a miner, a dark, handsome, mustachioed young man with a calm, friendly manner, at work at one of these ore mills. I later learned that he was Reyes’ nephew. Was anyone between the canyon and Cusárare not related to Reyes?
His work clothes were uniformly stained a deep, reddish brown that matched the color of the water flowing out of the mill. As we watched, he used a hard hat to pan some of the sediment into a silver ball containing gold and mercury, a day’s worth of work that he sold to Dylan for about fifteen dollars. Later, Reyes would burn off the mercury, using hot coals from the campfire, to produce a gold pellet about twice the size of a pea.
The young man allowed us to follow him into the mine through a slit-like opening which led us up, rather than down, over loose rock. We climbed a rickety wooden ladder into a vaulted cavern with another slit that opened to sky. For a few moments we watched the young man work. He projected a serene dignity as he squatted on the floor and chipped at a rock with a small pick.
Later in the day, back at the camp, I briefly saw a short man in his thirties or forties, a Tarahumara Indian, standing on a ledge above us and bantering shyly with Reyes. His name was Candelario and he was the only person who lived at the bottom of the canyon. Candelario’s home was a cave on a ledge directly across the river. Most of his right arm was missing below the elbow, but he had enough of a stump to support a bucket handle. Each day he made many trips, carrying a bucket on each side, to fetch water from the river for his garden located on the ledge above.
He and Reyes seemed to know each other well. Upon first spying him across the river, Reyes had shouted, “Candelariohhhhh! Ven por acá para un cafecitohhhhh!” (Come over here for a little coffee!). They jovially shouted back and forth on this and other occasions.
That evening, we lay on the beach beneath a clear night sky that ran the length of the canyon ceiling. The stars, their true immensity and violence belied by their remoteness, appeared as brilliant pinheads in that black band above. Across the river, the reflection from Candelario’s fire flickered on the rock wall. I wondered what had happened to his arm, and why he chose to live in his lonely cave.
In the morning after this, our second night on the canyon bottom, we loaded the burro and headed back up the canyon wall. We arrived in Tejaban in the late morning. As we approached Ramona’s house, we encountered two of her children, a young boy and girl playing in the dirt with a wheelbarrow. They smiled excitedly when they saw us and ran ahead to the house.
On arriving at the house, we unloaded the burro, and the little boy was sent back to get the wheelbarrow. This he did, tearing through the dirt at full speed in his bare feet while he clutched a long knife in his fist. Soon after, a woman and two children showed up. Ramona’s son returned, unharmed in spite of his run with the knife.
The children laughed and smiled broadly at Dylan and me. Then they tried to engage us in conversation. When I replied, “No hablo Español. Solo un poco,” they thought this was very funny.
When we went inside to eat, Ramona’s son appeared in the open outside door with a coloring book. He sat on the floor in front of the door and turned the pages in an ostentatious manner while the other children stood at the threshold and watched us. Ramona’s daughter now had the knife. She gazed at us while running the flat of the blade over her cheek, as if to say, “Look at what I have!” After the meal, as Dylan and I waited outside, the children again attempted to engage us. Ramona’s daughter sat near me and showed me her toy, a battery-operated device that produced English phrases when she pushed its buttons.
Dylan and I seemed to be celebrities. Perhaps the attention we received was due to the novelty of our appearance. Or perhaps the children had been exposed in the past to generous gringo hikers who offered gifts to friendly boys and girls.
We left Tejaban and returned to the first night’s campsite, the site of my dream in the cave, arriving in the late afternoon after a slow hot dusty walk. The next morning we retraced the hike from Reyes’ home in Cusárare, bringing our adventure with Reyes to an end.
After a couple of days of rest in the nearby town of Creel, Dylan and I boarded a bus to a small town near Divisadero, further to the west but also at the edge of Copper Canyon. Here we enlisted the services of a Tarahumara Indian guide for a day hike part way down into the canyon through Tarahumara country. We had already been exposed to these fascinating but elusive Native Americans, but this excursion enhanced our mental portrait of them.
Tarahumara women and girls were easily recognized in their brightly colored, often intricately patterned clothing, which included a scarf, shawl, blouse, skirt, and wool stockings. The males whom we saw tended to wear the same outfits as the mestizo men of the area. In the town of Creel we did encounter two men in traditional clothing, consisting of sandals, a brightly colored broad headband, and a white knee-length tunic cut in a V on the sides so that their thighs were exposed
The homes we saw were small farms, of a few acres each, devoted largely to the cultivation of maize. The work was done by hand and by animals. We found farms in tight little valleys by remote streams, on small flat areas at the tops of ridges, and on slopes that would never be touched by a plow in the United States. On our excursion near Divisadero, we walked along a steep incline that appeared to consist solely of gravel and rocks. Looking down, I saw to my surprise that we were in the midst of a maize field. Little shoots of corn were poking out where the rock had been cleared to make tiny circles, each large enough for three or four seedlings.
The homes and buildings were made of logs or unmortared stone, with roofs of corrugated metal or long rough boards running from the peaks to the eaves. Sometimes a portion of the roof was left open. Fences were made of rails or stacked stone.
There is one other type of dwelling favored by some Tarahumara. At the beginning of the journey with Reyes, as we climbed the ridge above Cusárare, he pointed to a wide opening in a cliff above us and announced, “Tarahumara!” A large boulder along with stones stacked on either side formed a wall in its mouth. It was home to a family who, like Candelario and a number of others, chose to live in a cave.
The Tarahumara came to the mountains to evade Spanish colonists and priests in the sixteenth century and to this day assiduously maintain their separate culture and their distance from mestizos and white people, including tourists. Thus, as we passed the homes, we rarely saw people, except for the occasional farmer working in the distance or the woman or child hiding behind a door and peering out at us from the darkness. Tarahumara women and children were frequent sights around the towns and tourist sites, where they sold shawls, carvings, and other crafts, but they held people like Dylan and me at arm’s length. Even when we attempted to purchase their wares they avoided eye contact and never smiled. If we asked, “Cuánto questa (how much does it cost?),” they mumbled a barely audible response. Compliments on the quality of their work brought no reply. If we looked in the direction of a girl or young woman, she was likely to cover her lower face with her shawl or hand.
Our final excursion among the Tarahumara concluded our ten-day adventure in canyon country. As we climbed the steep trail leading to the top, we passed a young girl who, caught in the open on a slope above us, covered her mouth with her hand. Soon after, we encountered a group of women and girls who ignored us while hoeing a steeply sloping cornfield. A boom box sat in the dirt, incongruously discharging modern pop music into this primitive and exotic setting. We continued on our hot and strenuous ascent and eventually reached the top. Dylan and I then walked the two miles to Divisadero and caught the train that would begin our journey homeward.
Although we saw much beauty and spectacle during our stay in the Sierra Tarahumara, we could have experienced equally impressive natural wonders without leaving the United States. The people of the countryside offered something more precious. By living their lives before us, they enriched the context of our own.
Meanwhile, I worked hard at being alert and aware. The world became a little less solid and yet a little more real, a vibrant link between the ethereal rocks beneath us and the violent stars above. Scales of time and size took on different meanings. As I lay on the canyon floor and gazed at the black sky, I felt as if I was peering at the universe from the bottom of a tiny crack in a grain of sand.
We were suspended in time, temporarily removed from a society obsessed with control. Life could be compared to Reyes’ willful burro, or to the intractable automobile of my dream. It became reasonable to struggle less and enjoy the journey more, a lesson that survives and resonates today in memories of the people of the Sierra Tarahumara.
I am 63 years old, a retired school psychologist with a wife, three children, and five grandchildren. My current interests include writing, reading, singing and playing guitar at open mikes in my area, and, of course, engaging in backpacking and other adventures with my son Dylan.
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