Crossing the Sierras

Spitting and Sputtering Our Way Across the Dusty Sierra Madre

Carl Lumholtz’s description of crossing the Sierra Madre Occidental in 1890 leaves one quaking with fear of the unknown. Not much has changed in 120 years, but the opportunity to try to retrace his route left us shaking with anticipation. Near the beginning of his journey in Sonora, he describes leaving Granados for Bacadehuachi, and Nacori Chico. This extant route is for four-legged foot traffic and vaqueros only. We checked it out when we made this trip in 2002, while looking for another Lumholtz landmark Cara Pintada, which is just outside Granados. At that time, the road was paved only as far as the new intersection at the top of the spectacular climb outside Huasabas and northward to Nacimiento La Caracol, a verdant spring in a fold of parched sedimentary cliffs north of Bavispe.

From the spring, that road leaves any thought of pavement behind and continues as a bouncy rutted route past Paso Pulpito, another “shortcut” to Chihuahua, and roughly follows the big meander of the Rio Bavispe to Colonia Morelos before heading north towards Agua Prieta. It intersects southbound Cajon Bonito at the only flowing vadoyou cross.

Now from this modern intersection, it’s curvy paved highway all the way through Bacadehuachi to Nacori Chico. A providential Tecate expendio is located right as you enter town so that you can load up with ice cold beer for the bouncy terracería that gets you the rest of the way across the sierras. What they still don’t have is a Pemex, but there are a couple of tiendas where you can get gas in 20 liter increments. A kindly gentleman will come out to your vehicle, and with a funnel made out of a recycled two liter Coke bottle and a hose, he will dispense the agreed-upon amount of fuel. At $12.50 pesos/liter, you’re only paying about 10 cents surcharge. That’s an unbelievably economical price considering the remoteness of the region. It’s way more economical than gas prices you pay as you follow the Sierra Nevada on Highway 395 in eastern California.

Tanked up, so to speak, we headed for Mesa Tres Rios which was now only 50 kilometers away. On the paved road to Bavispe, there’s another eastbound dirt road to Mesa Tres Rios from Huachinera, but that one is 90 kilometers, and much rougher (as we found out in 2000). That route has the advantage of taking you down main street upon your arrival in Mesa Tres Rios, whereas this Nacori Chico route is the bypass. As our road left Nacori Chico, it climbed gradually and soon topped out at a junction. It appeared that one fork was the new road that followed the steep incline, in case you want to pass the logging trucks that are using the less macho slightly-inclined 10%-grade route like we did. The other side of Arroyo Bonito is steeper, and narrower, and climbing up we had to hug the inside of a curve for dear life as a logging truck came down straining and lurching in its lowest gear. It was full of milled lumber, and strapped down on top of that were about eight barrels and a couple of spare tires. Once the blood came back into my hands, we pulled back into the road. We climbed and climbed, passing Rancho Pinos Altos as we entered the high sierran pine forest, and still we climbed and climbed. Just when we started doubting the decision we had made at the last rancho, we bounced into the Mesa Tres Rios intersection. Jubilant, we made the sign of the cross, and zoomed off to El Largo at a brisk 12 miles per hour.

As we zipped along, it became increasingly obvious that a map and compass and GPS and even a satellite uplink are all useless because the road zigzags north and south, up and down, as it imperceptibly moves you east. These were switchbacks on a gargantuan scale. We climbed for twenty minutes going due south, then made a U-turn and descended for twenty minutes going due north. Then we would cross an arroyo and start the whole process over. We weren’t really going due north or south. We were constantly going 90 degrees east or west of due north or south in more minuscule switchbacks designed to keep your arms constantly flailing on the steering wheel. Added to that was the sheer joy of downshifting and upshifting as every curve offered the possibility of a straightaway. But it was really only the possibility of a straightway and not a realization, so it was imminently enjoyable gently swerving along at a perfect speed too fast for first gear, and too slow for second. Then there was the dust. We were traveling just slow enough that when we hit the brakes in a curve, the dust would hang in the air and we would turn into that hanging cloud. Uncanny, those dust clouds. It also would have been easy to ask directions to confirm our way, but that one logging truck in the Hail Mary curve was the only traffic that day. And naturally, the most recent edition of the most detailed map I could get didn’t even have this route as a road. But hey, if I didn’t want adventure I could have (a) reread Lumholtz’ book, (b) stayed home and cleaned the garage, (c) made this stuff up.

Hacienda Sirupa on the Papigochi River
Eventually we got to a fork in the road at Pico de la India. Someone had spray painted “La India, Sonora,” on the back side just to make sure we understood that we still weren’t in Chihuahua. We took the left fork, and as we went around the mountain, we got to another fork. There was a  sign  on a tiny rock scribbled with a big fat brush. One side we eventually deciphered as “3 rios,” and with the aid of that indispensable map, we figured the other one was the Arroyo Arco. For full disclosure, I should mention that we took the wrong fork last time and although we weren’t actually lost, we were misplaced for the night at a trout farm run by a friendly family. Secure in our reading of the map, and with 20-20 hindsight, we blasted right on through that intersection. Now the descent became steep. If you don’t have new brakes, at least have 4WD, and let the engine do the breaking in low gear. Then after a few more harrowing miles, the gradient diminished, and we where making almost 20 mph. The sight line increased and the speed increased to 25 mph. We spotted El Largo in a large plain to the east. We were in Chihuahua! Viva Chuichupa!

At the far eastern end of that broad plain is Mesa de Huracan. There’s a Pemex located where the pavement begins, and far to the south is Madera. Along the way there are some fun things to see such as the extensive cliff ruins of 40 Casas and less than a mile away is the picturesque waterfall eponymously named Cascada El Salto. A reservoir at the north end of town offers camping, picnicking, and swimming if it ever gets warm enough in this windswept high sierran lumber town. Madera has always been a center for some fascinating day trips, but it’s taken us years to find them. There’s river rafting, hot springs, and Anasazi-era cliff dwellings known as Conjunto Mogollon such as Nido de Aguila and Cueva del Serpiente. Now you can take Avenida Independenciato the western edge of town where a bank of signs give destinations and distances.

Big fat ripe Mexican avacados make the best guacamole
One new addition is Mineral de Dolores. There’s always been an approach to Dolores from the south, at the Yepachic junction with the main carreterabetween Hermosillo and Chihuahua. Lumholtz mentions it along with other successful mining operations in this part of the sierras, but now it connects to Madera on the right fork at the swinging bridge at Sirupa Canyon. An old standby for us has been the roughly parallel road to Tomochi west of Basaseachi, but we haven’t taken it in years so we opted for that. At this point we knew that we were leaving the tried-and-true Lumholtz route, so we’ll continue with a narrative of that route on our next adventure.

We took the left fork at the bank of signs and smoothly descended 2000 feet in 12 miles to Hacienda Sirupa and the cliff ruins of Ranchería located at the puente colgante on the Papigochi River. Then it was up, up and onward at a brisk clip of 20 mph until El Coyote. In the intervening years there must have been a serious flash flood here because this route is no longer an option. We had to go into 4WD low and undo our seat belts. We bounced and slid and skidded along and incredibly ahead of us was a woman walking with a sack over her shoulder. After half an hour or so we closed the 30 meters of distance and asked her where we were, and was this the main road, and other things. We asked her if she wanted a ride. Her suspicion faded when she saw a woman in the passenger seat. She said this was the main road, and lots of traffic passed, and she could sell salt and sugar and cigarrosto the folks passing by, but that she didn’t have any money to buy those things from the occasional truck that passed selling that stuff. It was close to dusk, and she asked us to take her not to the turnoff to her house, but to the front gate. Then she invited us in for coffee, and as the hour was pretty late we accepted.

Crossing the Sierra Madre
Marianita stoked a fire from the embers, but she didn’t have a match or a candle to light the room. She thought our little dog might be hungry and pulled a treat from a bag and handed it to me. I hadn’t realized in the dim light what it was. It was a fresh killed rat that she had taken from her cat that morning. Remolino didn’t appear overly enthusiastic so I thanked her and handed it back. Maybe Remolino would be more appreciative in the morning. She made us a cup of coffee, and we shared chicken and avocados that we had left over from lunch. We talked late into the night. She knew the sierras well, but got everywhere on foot—currently in a pair of pink Tommy Hilfiger running shoes. She harvested beargrass and wove baskets to make money. The life of a palmillero is very hard, and someone had stolen the manguera that she had running from a nearby spring to bring water to her house and scraggly cornfield. She had moved here ten years ago when her good for nothing borracho husband had run off to Madera. She was coming from El Coyote where she had been visiting a friend. If we hadn’t picked her up, I’m sure it would have taken her two or three hours of get back home. In the morning over coffee she asked if I knew how to chop wood.

Marianeta had clear green eyes and a bronze burnished face. She laughed easily, but was a bit self conscious about only having two teeth. She must have weighed all of 90 pounds and stood almost 5 feet tall, but she thought it prudent to carry the ax as we left the yard for the oak woodland. We hauled the branches back to the house and made preparations to leave. Now that she had a little firewood for a few more days, she thanked us and asked when we might be passing by again. Not sure we said, but probably not for a year. She said we were welcome to come and help plant the corn and work the ranch. She wished us well, “que les vayan bien”, and waved good-bye.

Teresita inspired the Tarahumaran uprising of 1891- Viva Mexico

We were just out of sight of her house when we came to the next junction. Most of the traffic made a sharp left going downhill and east, but we knew we had to gain elevation and go south so we took the right fork. We bounced along at barely 5 mph and within 2 hours we were in Cienega Blanca. This was not good as Cienega Blanca is a turn off the main road, so we asked directions from a bunch of kids and a woman who indicated lots of directions, and ranchos, and road choices all with the same motion of her arms. She said we had just passed the turnoff, and soon, very soon, we would be on a carretera with no rocks and making good speed. Coming into Cienega Blanca we tried to make heads or tails of all the road turnoffs, and going back the way we had just come was all that more confusing. We found a likely road, but it took a bad direction and we had to backtrack. Eventually, an unlikely option covered with pine needles headed the right way, and lo-and-behold, two more roads joined it. We crossed a cattle guard, and come to a sign announcing the Guacamayo Reserve.

We recognized the sign! Yeah!! This was cause for celebration, so we popped the top on a Tecate and settled the dust a bit for the last bouncy 4 hours to the highway.

6 Responses to “Crossing the Sierras”

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  1. El Codo says:

    Cinco Estrellas señor Michael!

  2. BC says:

    I just looked up some of the sites you mentioned on Google Earth Satellite view [Mesa Tres Rios, El Largo, Mesa de Huracan] and looked at the one trail that is visible between these points and I think you understated the road[trail] conditions. The satellite views really adds a visual impact to your trip report. Which has got me fired up to try that trip.

    Have you guys ever used the U.S.-Mexico port crossing at Antelope Wells ?

    • Hi BC, we cross at Antelope Wells/El Berrendo all the time as long as our paperwork is in order. They’re open 9am to 4pm, but be aware that New Mexico time is different than Chihuahua or Arizona. Also the 14 km of terceria (dirt road) between Mexico Hwy 2 and the US border a bit tricky with a sedan if it’s been raining in the last few days. Most of the Phoenix-Chihuahua shuttles cross here, too.

  3. Lorena says:

    Wow Churpa and Rich, that is some serious back country traveling.

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