By Mike Huckaby
People’s Guide correspondent Mike Huckaby is an avid hiker who runs a guiding service in the Copper Canyon. This is the second installment in a three part series on Mike’s most recent canyon adventure.
We filled up too, and started on our way. Down and up. Up and down. The Tarahumarans you meet on the trail aren’t known for conversation, but what talk there is usually centers on arriba or abajo. In canyon country, you’re either going up, or you’ve just come from up, and today we had a lot of down before we could finish with up.
We encounter a wide dirt highway, long abandoned now that Cieneguita is more easily reached from Urique. It would have been nice to hitch a ride, and we probably would have been picked, too, but there was no traffic, and not even fresh tracks on the road. After hours of walking we encountered a junction, and picking the wrong route, we flagged down a passing vehicle. They said they were cutting firewood, and would give us a ride when they were done. They siphoned gas out of the truck gas tank and into a plastic bottle. Then they added just the right amount of oil to the plastic bottle, and filled up the chainsaws. They were only interested in oak. Apparently they had felled these two trees in December, and now they were sufficiently seasoned. They said they would split the logs by hand so the wood would fit into their cook stove. We helped them load the logs, and the saws. Then we added our packs and climbed on top.
The old truck had a time getting up the hills. Soon the differential was smoking in protest. The driver had all the guys in back jump off and help push uphill. I think the main thing was to stay agile enough to jump clear if the truck started rolling downhill. We had to push a couple of more times, and then we all just had to hang on to the tailgate for the rest of the long, bouncy ride into town. We lurched to a stop in front of a house just past the church.
As we pulled our packs off the load of firewood, the family came out and the woman of the house shuffled over and invited us in. It dawned on us that the sun was setting, and finding a camp spot might be difficult. Anyway, although the yard was by now full of people, she was having none of our silly talk about camping out. She sat us at a tiny table and quickly served us each a bowl of hot and spicy chili and nopales, and plopped down a stack of steaming tortillas. Barely was the last spoonful up to our mouths when she whisked the bowl away and filled it with tasty lentil soup. We had Nescafe for dessert standing up since the chairs were needed for the rest of the family to have dinner. We hadn’t realized that we’d been bumped to the head of the serving line, and apparently there was never a thought of it being otherwise.
Afterwards, we sat around and talked and established genealogy, and met the rest of the family; the daughters and their husbands and kids, the son, and the woman’s husband, who had been in the passenger seat of the truck, and her brother. By one’s and two’s they drifted into the next room to watch a comedy TV show powered by a truck battery. Power lines had reached the village in the last 6 months, but as people could ill afford the rates, the meters had yet to be installed.
They left the kitchen and dining room to us until the neighborhood chickens announced that it was time to start water for coffee. We had a filling breakfast of chorizo and eggs, before they gave us explicit directions for navigating the crossroads to find the route down to Urique. Less than 2 minutes later, at yet another road junction, we were confused, and started in a somewhat appropriate direction. We ended up in a fenced yard, and luckily the owners weren’t shy about setting us off on the right path. In fact, just to be sure they sent us off accompanied by 2 kids with instructions not to leave us, until we were too far to get lost again. I guess that meant they had to see us to the canyon rim, which it turned out was a hour and a half away. But from the rim we could see far below us the church plaza in the little village of Guadalupe Coronado perched picturesquely on the banks of the Rio Urique. Before they left, we took pictures and gave them candy and money and thanked them profusely.
It was all downhill from here, but arrow straight, and a vertical mile of descent. The views were inviting, but the day was wearing on. As we dropped, the oven effect of the canyon walls magnified the heat. Once again, everyone we had met on the rim that morning had remarked, “Oh, you’re only four hours from the river”. Four hours later with our water supplies running we low, we found a little arroyo with a pool. Goat and burro poop be damned, Hazel jumped in and splashed around. A couple of locals passed and confirmed that this brutal, sun-soaked trail was the only choice, and by now we only had a couple of hours to go.
We finally arrived in Guadalupe, and bought refreshments at the local tiendaacross from the church. By now we were only 7 km from Urique. We half jested about catching a ride to town, and our jesting offer of a hundred pesos was countered with 400!! We entered the church to get a view of God’s middle finger, a stature popularized in a novel be Richard Grant, and to pray for a more reasonable compromise. But it was hot, HOT; and a shower and a beer sure sounded good. We ponied up the the cash. The proprietor and his sidekick closed up shop and took us into town. Even with a ride, it was hot and dusty, and 20 minutes; money well spent. We arrived in Urique with barely 12 hours before the start of the 8th running of the Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon, an 80 kilometer race along the canyons upstream and downstream of Urique. We showered and went into town for libations and food. Tita’s Restaurant was packed, but luckily we ran into the owner serving plates on the way in and she said there was room in back. We ordered from her then and there before we even found a place to sit.
Nacho, a former race champion, sat at the head of a long table packed with international contestants. He was dressed in Tarahumaran finery with a brilliant pink blouse with contrasting green cuffs, and a distinctive striped headdress. Another table in an adjoining room had some space at the far end where some runners from Guanajuato were just finishing. When the food arrived, we ordered beers. When the beers arrived, Nacho showed up to play his violin. He screeched out a tune, and whenever anyone tried to take a photo, he held up a finger to signal for one more beer. Several songs later we all poured out onto the street to watch the race participants parade across the stage to get their official “Club Mas Loco” t-shirts. Five hundred runners, with 80 foreigners from 13 countries were heading out the following morning. The best time for their 80 kilometer race was 6 hours and 40 minutes- a Tarahumaran named Miguel Lara from Porochi; followed minutes later by Danel Oralek from the Czech Republic. But we had just finished our own 80 kilometers, and were looking forward to being spectators for a change.