Desert Elves Are Dancing All Around Me

Perhaps celebrating the arrival of darkness
or the emergence of stars in the heavens,
or even the temporary company of humans.

Story & Photos by Buddy Mays

I hoisted my 40-pound backpack and stepped off the Ferrocarril Chihuahua Al Pacifico train, locally known as El Chepe (che for Chihuahua, Pe for Pacifico), into a warm, pleasant, early October afternoon in the heart of northern Mexico’s Mother Mountains, the Sierra Madre. I was about to begin an extended backpacking trip into the Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, one of North America’s deepest and least explored gorges. The Mexican exploits of the intrepid explorer, and my old friend, Dana Lamb, detailed so exquisitely in his book “Quest for The Lost City,” had, for two decades, poked and prodded my explorer worm into doing something adventurous in a remote part of the world. But Dana had also mentioned the Barrancas del Cobre specifically, telling me about the Tarahumara Indians and the vast, unexplored canyon network that made the Grand Canyon look small in comparison. I had been to the Barrancas before on several occasions, but only on the rim where I gawked and oohed with the other tourists. Dana had told me there was no other place like it in North America. He was long dead, and I was way beyond my youth with a wife and daughter and a mortgage at home, but, as Dorothy Thompson said, “Age is not measured by years. Nature does not equally distribute energy. Some people are born old and tired while others are going strong at 70.”  I was a ways from 70 and I had plenty of energy, and I couldn’t resist the challenge of taking one, last, long adventure.

The seven-hour train ride from Ciudad Chihuahua, capital city of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, was an unhurried, beautiful trip, winding southwest through the Chihuahuan desert foothills for the first 75 miles or so, then climbing into the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental, the Mother Mountains of northern Mexico. The train had made a short stop at the town of Cuauhtemoc, heart of an 80,000 strong Mennonite community, before starting its 3,000 vertical feet climb up the steep eastern flank of the Sierra Madre. As the elevation changed, creosote bushes and prickly pear cactus gave way to pine and piñon trees, oaks, and red-barked madrones; the train tracks wound and twisted through the hilly terrain, often burrowing through a rocky ridge or uplift like a gopher in tunnels up to a mile in length. The Tarahumara Indian town of Creel –110 miles southwest of Ciudad Chihuahua —  is the last stop on the east-west route before reaching the Barrancas del Cobre rim. Thirty years ago, Creel was a rough, lawless town in which many residents openly carried revolvers in hip holsters and crime was common. Even in the late 1970s, armed bandits still roamed the nearby villages and hamlets, robbing and sometimes beating tourists who were unlucky enough to cross their path. More recently, a gang of 40 odd ladrones (outlaws) wiped out a Mexican Army base and pillaged a number of local villages, then shot down a pursuing Army helicopter before they were finally hunted down and killed by Mexican Federales. Today, most of Creel’s 5,000 residents have given up their pistolas, and depend on tourism instead of crime for their daily bread.

Fifteen miles west of Creel, the Divisadero is the first, and one of only two stops El Chepe makes on the actual canyon rim. Train passengers get their first look at the Barrancas from a spot near the platform known as El Ojo de la Barranca (the Eye of the Canyon), from which you can look directly down to the bottom, some 7,000 feet below. There are always dozens of Tarahumara Indian women dressed in brightly colored cotton wraps squatting or sitting on the platform, most of them selling hand-woven baskets, traditional Indian dolls, colorful seed necklaces, and hand-carved wooden violins with fishing twine strings. 

I detrained at the second stop on the rim, the Estación Posada Barranca (Hotel Copper Canyon Station), two miles west of the Divisadero, so named for a small hotel nearby. Several dozen tourists headed for the coastal city of Los Mochis where the Chihuahua Al Pacifico terminates waited patiently on the platform clutching their duffle bags and suitcases. The Posada Barranca itself, where I planned to spend the night, was just a short walk away, clinging to the edge of the canyon like a morning glory vine clings to a picket fence. I’d made my reservation months before by telephone, using the hotel’s middleman in Ciudad Chihuahua because there were no phones at the hotel itself.  

The Barrancas del Cobre canyon system is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t been there. Basically it is an amalgamation of six massive, V-shaped, converging gorges, each one more than a mile deep, which encompasses 10,000 square miles of corrugated landscape in the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental. The largest and deepest of the six is the Rio Urique Canyon, but at least three others, Rio Batopilas, Rio San Miguel, and Rio Chinipas canyons, are similar in size, depth, and terrain. The average elevation along the rim is about 9,000 feet above sea level and at river level, about 2,300 feet. In between lies a wild, and for the most part unexplored, desert landscape in which jaguars, cougars, and javelina are still masters of their environment, and where only the Tarahumara Indians flourish.

I planned to spend at least seven nights in the canyons, though I was prepared to stay an extra night or two if necessary. A close friend from New Mexico, Michele Jenkins, had led half-a-dozen week-long “adventure” trips into the Rio Urique Canyon the previous year using Tarahumara guides, and had briefed me on the best trails to take in and out. I didn’t have a map—simply because no maps of the Barrancas existed as far as I could tell—but Michele said if I paid attention to where I was going and stuck to the widest, most used pathways, I wouldn’t get lost. If I did get lost, she said, I should find the nearest Tarahumara, point to the rim, and say simply “Estoy perdido. ¿Qué camino hacia el Divisadero?” which means “I’m lost. Which way to the Divisadero?” If that brought no results, I should take off my pack, bend over, and kiss my butt goodbye because I would be on my own. Michele didn’t mince words, so I had a feeling she probably wasn’t kidding.

The inhabitants are Tarahumaras

In the late afternoon, after I had checked into the Posada, gotten settled into my room, and checked and double checked my gear and food supplies, I went searching for the trail Michele had suggested I take into the canyon (which actually began at the hotel). There were no signs saying “This Way To The Rio Urique” but the trailhead was easy to locate just a short stroll from the hotel lobby. With no other pressing business, I went exploring, hiking down a lesser-used pathway into the canyon just to see where it went. The first part was a bit daunting, as it switched back downward but half a mile from the hotel.  I found myself standing on a level ledge at the bottom of steep rock face, staring into a high-roofed, smoke-blackened overhang called a rock shelter. It was occupied, something I had heard about but never seen. The inhabitants were Tarahumaras, an elderly gentleman about 70, a younger man and woman probably in their late twenties, and three children—two young boys and a younger girl perhaps four. The woman and girl were dressed in the Tarahumaras’ traditional colored blouses, long skirts, and head scarves; all four males wore tattered cotton pants and shirts.       

The old man spoke a tiny bit of English and broken Spanish and told me his name was Atlahua. He shook hands shyly and graciously waved off my apology for arriving unannounced. He said the two adults were his son and daughter-in-law, and the kids his nietos or grandchildren. I asked how long he had lived in the rock shelter. He said por siempre, forever, and chuckled.     

I asked politely if I could look around and the old man nodded. Hand-woven baskets in several sizes and stone grinding tools were neatly stacked against the back wall of the shelter, and hanging in the deep shade above them, the hindquarter of a deer swung from a wooden peg driven into the rock. The shelter contained three stone huts with wooden ceiling beams, probably used as sleeping quarters. Water for washing and drinking was provided by a tiny spring seeping out of solid rock at one end. With the exception of an old iron skillet and some empty Mescal bottles probably used to carry water, the place could have been recently transported from the Desert Archaic Period.

The Tarahumara are a colorful and extremely interesting society. No one really knows exactly where they came from, but archaeologists are reasonably sure they’ve occupied the Barrancas del Cobre area for at least 2,000 years. Linguistically, they are associated with the Uto-Aztecans, a widespread society of prehistoric cultures that include the Aztec civilization in south-central Mexico and the Hopi Pueblos in Arizona. They call themselves Rarámuri (Tarahumara, a Spanish mis-pronouncement of the word) means “foot-runner” or “fleet-footed” or “he who walks fast.” Long distance running, in fact, has become a trademark of the Rarámuri culture. Hunters have been known to chase a deer on foot until the animal collapsed from exhaustion. Interestingly enough, Tarahumara feet are splayed out from wearing only open sandals—usually made from tire treads—and nothing else, all their lives. Their feet are usually so hard and calloused that thorns cannot penetrate the skin.       

No one seems to know just how many Tarahumara occupy the Barrancas del Cobre but the Mexican government thinks the population is somewhere between 35,000 and 60,000. Years of gold and silver mining, logging operations, and drought conditions in Northern Mexico, have severely degraded Tarahumara territory, however, and their numbers are probably decreasing. Some Indian families, such as the one living below the Posada Barrancas, still reside in primitive rock shelters and subsist mainly on wild meat—rabbits, squirrels, snakes, gophers, javelina, and deer—that they trap or kill with bows and arrows in the canyon. They also make pinole, a combination of parched corn, agave, cocoa, cinnamon, chia seeds, vanilla, and other wild spices, all ground together on a grinding stone into a powdery flour and used to make tortillas, mush, and sweet, non-alcoholic drinks. Recipe for pinole dates back to the Aztec Empire that flourished in Mexico in the mid-1400s.      

A much larger percentage of the Tarahumara live in rancheras or ejidos, small hamlets of between five and ten families scattered throughout the canyon country. Resources are scarce in the Barrancas and ranchera occupants usually share food, water sources, and arable land on which to grow corn. Pinole is a basic food source here too, but many Indian houses — typically one- or two-room dwellings built of chinked logs or hand-hewn stone blocks with slatted shingle roofs—have small gardens attached in which the occupants grow beans, mustard greens, squash and potatoes. Large plots of arable farmland with water nearby are rare and often farmers have to walk several miles each day to their corn fields.  Some families might own a burro or two to haul baskets and other tourist trinkets to the rim, and at harvest time, corn home from the fields. Others keep small herds of goats for milk and meat, and everyone in the family forages for whatever is available and in season, be it cactus fruit, agave (century plant), wild onions, milkweed, wild grape, or sotol. The latter, a sort of low-growing desert palm, is perhaps the most important wild plant in the Tarahumara environment. Most of the baskets sold by Tarahumara women are woven from sotol’s long, slender leaves.  A potent alcoholic drink, also called sotol and a poor cousin to tequila and mescal, is made from the fermented innards of plant. 

Tarahumara Legend

Traditional Tarahumara believe that all animals have souls, and that the soul is what gives human beings the ability to speak and to sing. They also believe that being drunk is considered an enlightened state, and not cause for shame or embarrassment. Drunkenness is a way to vent violent emotions, and if violence—up to and including murder and rape—happens to occur when someone is drunk, the Tarahumara blame the alcohol, not the perpetrator, and that person is not usually punished for his or her actions.  And like the women of many primitive cultures, when a Tarahumara woman is about to give birth, she leaves the house and goes to some hidden spot that has earlier been prepared. There, attended sometimes by her husband, or sister, or a neighbor, or sometimes with no assistance at all, she squats over a soft bed of grass and has her child. Within 24 hours she’s usually back at work in her home, and a few days after the birth, a traditional curing ceremony is held for the new infant by a local shaman. When the ceremony is finished, if the baby was a girl her umbilical cord is buried under the hearth so that she will become a good housekeeper and mother. If the baby was a boy, the cord is buried in the family cornfield or hung from a tree, depending on whether the father wants the baby to become a good farmer or a good hunter.  

The Tarahumara creation story is similar to that of Navajos, just told a little differently. Legend says that the sun and moon are brother and sister and in the first days of the world, the only light came from the morning star, which was a louse from the head of the sun. When the moon noticed the louse, she ate it, plunging the earth into darkness. When the first Tarahumara came to earth, they erected tall crosses of madrone, soaked them in alcohol and set them on fire, allowing them to shine in the sky and brighten the world. Brother sun and sister moon grew angry and flooded the land, destroying everyone except for a one Tarahumara boy and one girl who hid in the mountains with three kernels of corn and three beans. When the flood waters subsided and the earth dried out, the corn and beans were grown into a bountiful harvest and the boy and girl procreated, creating all of the Tarahumaras in the world today.

I left the hotel early the next morning, just as the sun was beginning to light up the Barrancas rim, taking the trail I had scouted the afternoon before. I’d been warned by my friend, Michele, that there were many crisscrossing trails in the canyons, most of them leading to a Tarahumara village or rock shelter or field.  There were simply no maps available for the canyon country and signage was unknown here, so her advice was simply to stay alert and keep to the main trail if I could. The first segment of the trail was well-used and easy to negotiate as it switch-backed downward, following smaller side drainage into the main canyon system. Sweating under the load of my backpack and a rapidly warming sun, I plodded along, trying not to think of the 6,000 vertical feet climb out.     

After a mile or so, the Chihuahua and lummox pines began to give way to oaks and junipers, and by noon, the landscape had changed dramatically. The upper elevation forest had been replaced by a fuzzy, tropical, deciduous blanket of cactus, acacia, cat claw, sotol, and various other thorny shrubs that I didn’t recognize.  In early afternoon I passed a Tarahumara ranchera of five or six chinked log huts, built on a patch of high barren ground above a trickling stream. A few burros wandered loose nearby, their front feet hobbled with segments of rope. Near one of the houses was what looked like a garden, enclosed by a low “coyote fence” made of dead tree branches. Pods 

of clucking chickens scratched here and there as they searched for insects and seeds in the dry earth. A young girl, perhaps 10 years old, ran out to meet me waving a small woven basket above her head. Within seconds, four or five other children appeared, tugging at my clothing, offering me baskets, flutes, and bead necklaces.    

I was led, or pulled, into the compound where four or five women traditionally dressed in colorful cotton skirts and blouses sat in the shade of a sagging wooden porch weaving sotol baskets. They greeted me with smiles but said nothing. I tried some elementary school Spanish.

Buenos tardes, senoras.” My accent was terrible but it had gotten me in and out of Mexican beer joints for years. “Es un lindo día, no?”

The women looked at me blankly and said nothing. I motioned to the beautiful basket one was weaving. “Esa canasta es bonita.” Still nothing.

“Where are you going?” It was one of the girls who spoke. I was surprised because the 

nearest school was in the town of Creel, a considerable distance away both vertically and horizontally. 

“To the Rio Urique,” I answered. “Please tell these ladies their baskets are very pretty.”

The girl said something in Tarahumara to the older women. They all chuckled and nodded their heads in my direction.    

“Why you go to the river?” the girl asked. “It far away.” She pointed down the canyon in the same direction the trail went.   

“Just to see what it looks like. Where did you learn English?”   

“I go to school for one year,” she said, holding up one finger and grinning, “at the Jesuit mission. Pretty good, huh?”  

I was coerced into buying a basket from the girl for a dollar, a small one that I could tie onto my pack with a piece of string. As I walked out of the compound back toward the trail, the children accompanied me, all of them still trying to sell their wares.  

I don’t know how far I walked that first day, but it wasn’t more than eight or nine miles, most of it downhill. I didn’t want blisters and I didn’t want the muscles in my legs and thighs to feel like I had been straddled by a hippo, so I camped early on a level shelf near a little creek that cascaded down a mini-canyon next to the trail.  When I had gathered enough dead cactus wood for an evening fire and found a level place for my sleeping bag, I stripped and soaked in the pool at the base of a small waterfall, letting the cold water splash deliciously on the top of my head like a shower. Refreshed, I built a fire and fixed a package of rehydrated chili for dinner. Darkness came early because of the towering canyon walls, and somewhere around eight p.m. I spread my sleeping bag on a groundcloth of lightweight plastic and turned in, hoping that the creepy crawlies would keep to themselves.     

There are some truly nasty creatures that live in northern Mexico’s dry tropical forests, and among of the worst are kissing bugs, members of the Triatominae family, and also called assassin bugs or vampire bugs. Kissing bugs feed on the blood of vertebrates — humans included — and often give the object of their bloodsucking a nasty illness called trypanosomiasis, or Chagas disease.  The illness is not pleasant; victims suffer from swelling at the infection site, fever, fatigue, a rash, body aches, swollen eyelids, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and enlargement of the liver or spleen. During the day, the bugs hide in crevices or under rocks, but at night, when campers are sleeping in the open, they emerge, hungry and aggressive. They tend to feed on people’s faces, thus the name “kissing bugs,” and after they bite and ingest blood, they defecate on their victim’s face. The unsuspecting, sleeping person may accidentally scratch or rub the feces into the bite wound, eyes, or mouth and if the trypanosomia parasite carried in the bug feces enters the body through mucous membranes or even minor scratches, the result isn’t pleasant.     

Then there are the rattlesnakes, at least three kinds that inhabit in the Barrancas. Most common are rock rattlesnakes, Crotalus lepidus, light gray reptiles with dark, zigzag banding around the body. Twin-spotted rattlers, Crotalus pricei, are also gray or sometimes medium brown, with cream colored bellies and an exceptionally venomous bite. The third kind, ridge-nosed rattlesnakes, are small—less than two feet in length—but they have big teeth and a nasty temperament. Because of a ridge of upturned scales along each side of the nose (thus the name), they resemble the African Gaboon viper, one of the most ominous looking reptiles on earth. The ridge makes them easy to identify, but I had no desire to get that close.    

The next morning I soaked in the waterfall pool once again, then devoted another hour to breakfast, coffee, and refilling and purifying water bottles. I broke camp late, mainly because I was in no hurry to get anywhere and wanted to give night-hunting rattlers plenty of time to slither back to whatever lair or den they occupied during the heat of the day.    

The farther I plodded into the canyon, the steeper the trail became, spilling in switchbacks down steep, crumbly slopes, or corkscrewing through fields of granite boulders and thorny stands of catclaw. In one place where the trail tiptoed along the rocky lip of a side canyon, I spotted a Tarahumara woman with a young child seated on a rocky ledge with the maw of the gorge spread out below her like a quilt. While her child looked on, the woman worked on a large basket, deftly plaiting the slender sotol leaves into a beautiful herringbone pattern. I waved and took her picture.  She nodded and then returned to her weaving giving me no more of her attention. Where she lived I had no idea; I hadn’t seen any sign of a rock shelter or passed near a ranchera the entire morning. I wondered if she actually enjoyed the view, or just required personal space after an argument with her mother-in-law.

Campsite along the river

I reached the Rio Urique in late afternoon, just as my thigh and calf muscles were beginning to scream in agony from what I estimated was a 10-mile-long downhill hike from the previous night’s camp. I was caked with mud from trail dust mixing with sweat, and my eyes ached from the glare of the sun. I was trying not to think of the hike out. . . 18 miles of rocky uphill trail that probably had heart attack written all over it. 

After a couple of days of rest and recovery, however, I hoped I could persevere. Newt Gingrich once said, “Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” I already did it so I figured I could do it again.

Beginning near the Indian hamlet of Norogachi in the lesser canyon country southeast of Creel, the Rio Urique flows southward through the Barrancas del Cobre for about 100 miles before joining the Rio Gatopilas and the Rio San Miguel, to become the Rio Fuerte, which then dumps into the Gulf of California near Los Mochis. Perhaps in April or May, when the stream was gorged with spring runoff, it would be fatter and wider and deeper and more impressive. But now, in the Mexican winter, my first glimpse of the river was disappointing. Green, sluggish, and very low,  it alternated between long, shallow pools and lengthy boulder flats, and seemed insignificant and far out of proportion compared to the massive gorge that it had carved over the eons.     

The only campsite in view was on the opposite bank; it was a narrow fifty-foot-long bar of white sand lying next to the river, with a thick hedge of thorn scrub growing between it and the steep canyon wall behind it.  I waded across in waist-deep, lukewarm water, carrying my pack and boots above my head and hoping I didn’t step into a hole or get spined by a catfish. Before I made camp, I checked the sand for tracks, hoping the sandbar wasn’t a playground for snakes or a watering hole for jaguars, but found nothing. I gathered driftwood for a fire and refilled my water bottles, adding a couple of drops of Clorox to each bottle to kill the parasites and bacteria, and then stripped and spent the next half-hour soaking my tired muscles in the tepid river.       

I really didn’t expect to meet any other hikers at that lonely campsite along the Urique, and didn’t really want to. I didn’t mind being alone and was quite content with my own company, mainly because I was too tired and too achy to carry on much of a conversation.  An hour before dark, however, I heard a shout from the other side of the river, and saw three backpackers, one man and two women — all of them college age — smiling and waving. Judging by the modern expedition packs they carried and their composite trekking staffs, they looked like they knew what they were doing.      

“I ask you please do you mind if we share your camp?” the man shouted. He spoke with what sounded like a German accent. “There is no other place.”   

“I waved them across. The sandbar was certainly large enough for the four of us and I had taken a couple of aspirin for the aches and pains. They removed their packs and boots and waded across, holding their gear above their heads.    

 “I’m Hans,” the man said when he waded out onto the bar.  “This is Lisa and that is Marna. They’re twins as you can probably notice. Thanks for letting us stay on your sandbar. We think Marna has been kissed by the kissing bug last night.” He pointed to one of the girls. The left side of her face was slightly swollen and a she had a bright red spot on her cheek. “We take her to the doctor tomorrow.”   

They found a spot they liked at the far end of the sand bar and dumped their packs in a pile. Lisa and Marna immediately and unabashedly stripped naked and went swimming, squealing like children as they splashed and gurgled in the green water. 

As we sat around the campfire after supper, Hans told me that they were all law students from Heidelberg University in Germany and that they were taking a few months off before starting their final year of law school. A month earlier they had been in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, exploring the trails above Wengen and Grindlewald, but bad weather had moved in and they decided to go someplace warmer. Trekking in Mexico, they knew, would be cheaper than trekking in the southwestern United States and since Lisa spoke fluent Spanish in addition to German and Hans spoke English they had the language problem pretty much covered. They had flown Lufthansa from Frankfort to Mexico City to Ciudad Chihuahua and caught the train to Creel. They hiked into the Barrancas two days earlier on a trail that began near the Divisadero, planning to stay in the canyon for at least six days. The plan had been scrapped, however, when Marna was bitten by something during the night. 

“We never saw what bit her,” said Hans, “but I have heard about this kissing bug. It makes you red and swollen and gives you a rash. Then you get fever and vomiting and diarrhea and your liver grows to twice its size. It does not sound happy. We have no aspirin but we have some very good weed.” He said something to Lisa in German. She produced a small tin and a package of ZigZag papers and rolled four of the most perfect joints I’ve ever had the pleasure to see.

Swarms of fireflies were beginning to pirouette  

I donated half a bottle of aspirin from my first-aid kit to Marna, and at dark, my three campmates retired to their end of the sandbar and spread their sleeping bags and pads on the sand. I stayed by the fire and finished the joint Lisa had given me. In the distance I could hear the evening nocturne, a couple of coyotes squabbling over a rabbit kill somewhere downriver, and the squeaks and squeals of bat sonar echoing off the canyon walls as they worked their echolocation magic in search of insects. Above the river and up and down the far shoreline, swarms of fireflies were beginning to pirouette and cabriole across the landscape in search of lovers, each displaying its bioluminescence like a swimsuit model displays her booty. It was probably the weed, but I could imagine a troupe of desert elves waving tiny torches as they danced all around me, perhaps celebrating the arrival of darkness or the emergence of stars in the heavens, or maybe even the temporary company of humans.  I could see that the Germans were sitting up in their sleeping bags watching the spectacle too.  

Hans and the twins left early the next morning, hoping to reach the Divisadero by the afternoon and then find a doctor, if there was one, in Creel. If not, they would have to catch the train to either Los Mochis, or back to Ciudad Chihuahua, in order reach civilization and medical help for Marna. After they left, I did very little except to hike downstream until the nearly vertical canyon walls on both banks made walking further impossible. It was easy to see why no one had ever rafted or kayaked the Rio Urique from end to end. In low water even a kayaker would spend most of the day pulling or carrying his craft over boulder field after boulder field, with very little paddling in between. In high water, no kayak or raft would have survived the rapids caused by those same boulder fields.  And because of the steepness and corrugated nature of the inner gorge walls and the thick riparian hedge of thorn bushes that grew down to the water’s edge on both banks, I could see that camping spots were probably rare. My sandbar, in fact, was the only level place I saw in the half-mile of riverbank I had explored the previous afternoon.

I spent the rest of the day birdwatching. Bird life in the riparian belt along the river seemed inexhaustible. Three types of parrots inhabit the canyon, red-fronted, thick billed, and green parakeets, all of them raucous and chattering constantly as they gamboled from tree to bush like brightly colored mini-rockets. There were belted kingfishers waiting for sucker or squawfish minnows to carelessly venture into the shallows, and dozens of endangered black-capped vireos and fly-catchers popping in and out of the thorny shoreline hedge searching for insects. Quail, Inca doves, and chachalacas — long-legged, rust-colored birds that look like the offspring of a mourning dove and a roadrunner — cooed and twittered from the shade beneath the thorn bushes. Overhead, there were the ominous and ever-present turkey vultures, floating like black kites on the canyon breeze, always on the lookout for something dead and rotting. 

Larger creatures occupy the bottomlands of the Barrancas as well. Cougars and jaguars still roam the canyons, not many, but enough to be concerned about if I was a white-tailed deer or a herd goat meandering about unattended at night. The latter, known as El Tigre by Spanish-speaking locals, is the third largest wild feline on earth after tigers and African lions, and is not to be taken lightly when it’s hungry. More common are white-tailed and mule deer, and collared peccary — smelly, tusked, pig-like ungulates that, because of inherent species blindness, can’t see much farther than their nose. They are social animals and often roam in herds of 30 or more animals. When startled, the herd tends to bolt headlong in every direction and woe to the hiker or Indian who stands in their way. The small group than I ran into along the river broke and ran when they saw me, luckily in the opposite direction.

I left the sandbar camp early on my fourth canyon day, not looking forward to the long climb out. Hiking uphill would be slower and more difficult than descending, and I wanted an extra day or two to do some exploring. My friend Michele had suggested I take another trail back to the rim, one that branched off the Posada Barrancas trail a few miles from the river and was supposedly marked with a rock cairn. If I took it, I should then look for a secondary trail forking off to the right about three miles from the junction. Michele hadn’t been there herself, but according to the Tarahumara guide she always hired for her canyon expeditions, the smaller trail led to a box canyon that contained a prehistoric rock shelter and some Tarahumara pictographs. 

The first trail junction was easy enough to find. There was no signage whatsoever but the fork was marked with a pile of rocks that I had completely missed on the way down.  The secondary trail leading to the box canyon was more difficult to locate but I finally spotted what I thought was an old and little-used pathway branching off to the right. I’d gone less than 100 yards when I saw the first set of pictographs painted on a sheltered rock panel 30 feet above the trail. I could make out birds with feathery tails and wings (called thunderbirds in the American southwest), and four or five quadrupeds of some sort, probably goats or deer. There were also several sets of rectangles within rectangles, and what looked like a corn plant. They had all been painted using red ocher pigment.  

I knew that Tarahumara rock art was fairly common in the Barrancas, but it was often difficult to spot because of where it was located—usually in rock shelters and hidden overhangs well away from main pathways. The red ocher paint, made from hydrated ferric oxide, has been used by the Tarahumaras for centuries and is still used to paint drums and other tourist items today. This particular panel could have been made a thousand years earlier or painted yesterday; I simply had no way of knowing. 

A hundred yards past the first pictograph panel, I spotted another one on the opposite side of the trail. It too featured thunderbirds and four-legged, goat-like animals. The rock shelter itself was another 50 yards along the path, tucked into the base of a nearly vertical rock face. I leaned my pack against a tree and scrambled up to the overhang, expecting to find nothing but crumbled ruins. Instead, there were three, almost textbook perfect stone huts built against the back wall, each with a single rectangular doorway facing outward. When I peered inside the first doorway, I knew immediately this was not just an abandoned homesite. The interior floor was littered with stacks of bleached bones—what looked very much like leg bones, tibias, fibulas and femurs—of human beings. Human leg bones are easy to identify because the fibula, the larger bone, is triangular in shape and the tibia and fibula are two separate entities. In other mammals, tibia and fibula are usually fused and the fibula is round, not triangular. I looked through the doorways of the other two rooms and saw more stacks of bones. Sometime in the past, the rock shelter had obviously been a burial site, but for whom I didn’t know. Tarahumara often bury their dead in caves and rock shelters but the bodies are usually entombed in sealed burial chambers, not left lying around for the coyotes to gnaw on. And the Tarahumara seldom bury more than three bodies in one spot, but the three huts contained the leg bones of at least 15 or 20 people and probably more. The real mystery, however, was that there were no rib cages or skulls or pelvic bones or any other body parts mixed in that I could see. An archaeologist told me later that the site was probably an Apache burial cave, not Tarahumara, but he had no explanation for the “legs only” phenomenon. I stayed in the rock shelter just long enough to snap a few pictures and made camp that evening as far away from the place as I could hike in the remaining daylight. 

It required another full day and a half to reach the rim, by which time I was running out of food and water and enthusiasm. The trek was uneventful save for the chance to watch four Tarahumara boys practice a running game called rarájipari.  They barreled around a corner in front of me at speed, taking turns at kicking a hard wooden ball down the trail in front of them. They were wearing nothing on their feet but lightweight, homemade sandals with soles made from tire treads and tied to their ankles with leather thongs. Rarájipari is only a game, but it’s taken seriously by traditional Tarahumara. Each match involves two competing teams of from four to ten to men or boys. Each team is given a solid wood ball about the size of a baseball, and the object of the competition is simply to shovel kick the ball over a predetermined course to the finish line. The first team to do so, wins. The amazing thing about rarájipari is that most races begin directly after a long night of dancing and drinking beer, but even suffering from what must be wicked hangovers the teams may run 40 miles without stopping. 

I spent my last night in the Barrancas at a small, tidy tourist hotel near the Divisadero. The following afternoon I would catch El Chepe back to Ciudad Chihuahua, and from there catch a flight home. First came a long hot shower and a cold beer, then Bistec Sonora smothered in onions with papas fritas on the side,  at the hotel’s small restaurant. Later, sitting on the patio sipping a final beer, I listened to a three-piece Mariachi band render the local version of an old Mexican favorite, Guadalajara. 

Tienes el alma de provinciana, (You are the heart of the province,)

Hueles a limpia rosa temprana (You smell like the pure early rose,)

A verde jara fresca del rio, (Like the fresh green river,)

Son mil palomas tu caserio, (You are the homeland of a thousand doves.)

Tarahumara, Tarahumara, (Tarahumara, Tarahumara,) 

Hueles a pura tierra mojada. (You smell like pure moist soil.)

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