After a hard day on the trail, I’m back at the Sierra Madre Lodge, relaxing in front of a roaring fire. There’s a steaming mug of Darjeeling tea on the table beside me, while outside the last blush of a million-dollar sunset is splashed across the horizon.
I was feeling restless this morning, so after seeing off our guests at 9:30 a.m., I decided to take a ‘bus driver’s holiday’ and explore the mesas and canyons to the _____ of us.
It took less than 30 minutes to throw my stuff together: in addition to my usual guiding gear of first aid kit, compass, binoculars, camera and bird books, I also packed an enamelled cafetera, a spoon and tin cup, coffee and two liters of water. With the addition of handfuls of pinole , machaca (dried beef) biscuits, tangerines and peanuts, I was prepared to enjoy a Sierra Madre banquet.
On second thought, I strapped a sleeping pad and inflatable pillow to my pack – now that I’m 50, and officially over the hill, it pays to be prepared for trailside siestas.
I set off from the Lodge at a brisk pace and hiked for a couple of hours, exploring the nearby ridge tops and then dropped down into a long narrow canyon – the ‘secret’ lair of the Eared Trogon that I discovered a couple weeks ago.
My goal, however, was further on – to explore a deep arroyo that faces westward. From a distance, it seemed to offer good cave sites. I’ve learned by now some of the tricks of finding cave dwellings – one of them is to approach from above. So I humped up yet another ridge. Even with several weeks of frequent hiking under my boots, I still felt the altitude as I topped the crest at 7,600 feet.
The payoff, however, lay below me – a stunning view in full autumn color of rustic Tarahumara homesteads and cornfields. Against a panoramic backdrop of forested mountains and fantastic rock formations, their scattered log cabins, pole corrals and stone corn cribs made an unforgettable picture of life from centuries long past.
As usual, though, my search for lost caves was getting off to a slow start. My next distraction was a lichen-encrusted Tarahumara ‘spirit map’. Perhaps centuries ago, a shaman had carefully pecked this powerful spiral-shaped petroglyph into a broad shelf of smooth, ochre-colored rock. Though its age and true purpose may never be known, whenever I’m on the ridge, I always stop by for a few minutes of rest-and-reflection.
Leaving the petroglyph, I abandoned the trail for unknown territory, making a ‘dead reckoning’ traverse of the mesa top. Dodging through the trees, I soon came upon a playhouse-sized stone structure perched on top of a broad, waist-high boulder.
This long-abandoned troje or casita (little house) was a typical Tarahumara storage crib for corn, apples, squash and beans. It once had skillfully laid stone-and-mud walls, a small tight-fitting door of heavy pine and a heavy roof of overlapping half-logs, called canoas (literally, ‘canoes’). Nearby was a semi-abandoned ranchito and several cave storehouses and temporary dwellings.
In fact, when I add up all the cave dwellings, stone granaries, apple cribs, overgrown terraces, rotting log cabins and rock art I’ve stumbled across in my unsystematic explorations, it seems obvious that this entire area constitutes an ‘undiscovered’ archaeological site.
An hour later I was close to 8,000 feet – but closer yet to needing a hot lunch and a long nap. In local parlance I was faldeando or ‘skirting’ the flank of another, even higher mesa. I had already made two fruitless attempts to follow the arroyo down, but it was so deep and choked with massive boulders that my progress was ultimately blocked.
Frustrating as they were, these forays were also inspiring. Because of the depth and protection from the sun, the bottom and sides of this gorge were a moist, heavily shaded garden of ferns, ‘rock roses’ and small seeps. Oak leaves drifted knee deep among maze-like passages of sensuously sculpted rock. Here, with bird songs, dripping water and jade-green mosses, it seemed unbelievable that Cusarare was suffering from a year-long drought.
By 2 p.m. I was tired enough to realize that I’d have to stop for lunch, but I decided to make one more effort. I just knew there had to be something special down below. I modified my search pattern and began moving back and forth, criss-crossing the side of the gorge in a gradually descending zigzag. But once again I was blocked. I paused to rest on top of a huge rock some twenty feet above the bottom of the gorge. To reach the opposite boulder, I had only to hoist my pack, suck in my gut and leap nimbly across a yawning chasm about 3 or 4 (or was it 5) feet wide and several times as deep.
As I considered the grim consequence of failure, I was distracted by an unusually regular pattern of niches in the cliff beside me. I felt a wonderful chill on the back of my neck. Someone had chopped a ladder into the face of this rock. Six historic steps, heavily worn and overgrown with moss – they not only seemed to confirm my sense of a nearby cave dwelling, but they offered a most tempting detour around the risky leap I’d been considering.
On the other hand, I have relatively lousy balance and a very healthy fear of heights. These steps weren’t just narrow, they didn’t come with a handrail. One slip and I’d have more fractures than Humpty Dumpty.
Commonsense prevailed. I reluctantly backtracked to a shady nook beneath an oak tree and sprawled onto a natural mattress of leaves. After a few minutes though, I decided to leave my backpack and head out on ‘just one more try’. I began searching for a downstream route among the massive stacked boulders – many the size of houses.
Fifteen minutes later, I’d not only reached the bottom of the gorge, but I was walking with relative ease between towering boulders. This natural ‘alley’ gradually closed together above me, forming a gloomy, moss-lined tunnel. After about thirty feet, there was a sharp turn to the right and a sudden, unexpected flood of brilliant afternoon light.
I found myself standing face-to-face with a Tarahumara log cabin. Even more remarkable, the cabin was inside a huge cave. Beautifully hewn and notched – and perfectly protected from the elements – the timbers of this cabin might well be hundreds of years old.
Overwhelmed, I literally staggered out onto the sunlit terrace of stone and earth. Though now choked with weeds, I knew that during tesquinadas Tarahumaras would have gathered on this broad terrace to dance, drink and play their fiddles.
An ancient stone metate was sitting in front of the cave, complete with the mano or small hand-grinding stone. Off to the side there was a goat pen of huge hand-hewn beams. Inside the cave’s main room were pottery fragments, firewood and torches of split ocote (pitch pine). A spring of clear, cold water was just a little further down the gorge.
It took my breath away. All this hidden in a spot so secret and quiet that it brought chills up my spine.
Once I got over my initial shock, I went back for my pack and fixed a late lunch.
Then I did the only thing logical for a 50-year-old boy. I spread out my blue mat and took a nap, vowing that next time, I’d bring my sleeping bag and spend the night.
* Drinking large quantities of corn beer, tesquino, is an important aspect of traditional Tarahumara culture.
Carl’s Note: In the early Nineties, Lorena and I worked as resident guides and “talking heads” for Skip McWilliam’s Copper Canyon Lodges. Skip owns lodges in Cusarare, near Creel, and in Batopilas — a small mining village at the bottom of one of North America’s deepest canyons. This article was written during one of my first stays in Cusarare. C.F.
For more information about the Copper Canyon, check out the Copper Canyon Book Reviews by Carl Franz