Journey to the Bottom of the Sierra Madre
and the Sea of Cortes
One summer — Kurt as a professional professor didn’t work summers — Kurt and I headed south into the Sonora, to the town of Chihuahua. There we got on a train taking us up into the Sierra Madre. We had no idea where we were going, but a stop called Divisidero sounded decisive, so there we stepped off the train onto the continental divide. It was a stop, not a station. There was a platform next to the tracks, but not a building, or a person, in sight. We walked a bit, sat down and looked out at the vast space plunging down before us into Copper Canyon, the Barranca del Cobre. The air was warm with the scent of dry pines. After some hours, a man came walking by, leading his burro. He wore a white shirt and white pants, and his hair was greying. He and Kurt conversed a while. My Spanish was not adequate to understand all they said, but Kurt explained that he had invited us to be guests at his home. The man’s name was Jose, and we picked up our packs and followed Don Jose and his burro for an hour or so on a path through the pines to his home.
Don Jose’s house was three rooms in a row, each with a door opening onto a porch running along the front of the house. The room on the right was Don Jose and his wife’s, the middle was a storeroom, and the room on the left was his two daughters’. The daughters moved in with their parents and gave us their room. It was evening and the family shared with us their dinner of beans and tortillas. Kurt explained to Don Jose that we wished to hike down to the bottom of the Barranca del Cobre. Don Jose said he would find us a guide.
In the morning, Don Jose brought us the guide. He was a young boy, looking about ten or twelve years old. He had a small brown dog. Don Jose assured us that he would be able to guide us down to the river at the bottom of the canyon and back without problem. We laced up our boots and picked up our packs and followed our guide into the trees. For a time we walked on a discernable path, but soon we were just descending rocks following no apparent route other than down.
Copper Canyon is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon. I don’t know about Kurt, but I had never hiked down the Grand Canyon, or any canyon for that matter. Nor was I in any particular good shape for hiking or clambering down rocks. As the day warmed, fatigue set in earlier than I had expected. We stopped frequently for rests. Without trees among the rocks on the canyonside, there was little shade to be found. About noon, we took a longer break for lunch, and began to consider the adequacy of the water supply we were carrying. Too soon we returned to the descent.
By this time it had become quite warm. As we picked our way down and around rocks and boulders, longing for some kind of level path, it occurred to me that “level” is not a natural phenomenon. A pond’s surface is about as close as you can get, but even that, liquid or frozen, is disturbed by ripples. Sandy beaches, salt flats — as miniscule a portion of the earth’s surface as they represent — are close to being level, but are actually still rippled and disturbed and impermanent. A flat, truly level surface is an artifice made by man. Nature does not provide such a condition — nature provides only gravity.
Descending the Barranca del Cobre, like all earthly activity, is an interaction with gravity — a particularly intense and concentrated interaction with gravity. Before us were more rocks and boulders, a level path was an unreal wish. Fatigue, aches, heat, thirst were real. On our frequent stops, as Kurt and I grimaced with our exhaustion, our guide observed us, most likely a bit quizzicaly. We two gringos were wearing our sturdy hiking boots, carrying our packs holding our water bottles, food, sleeping bags, and whatever else, and after only a couple hours on the rocks were moving like invalids. He was wearing a shirt and pants, and sandals made from automobile tires, and carrying nothing. He and his dog walked on the rocks like a stroll on the beach, probably slower than they might go normally, but certainly without any stress or fatigue.
The people of the Barranca Del Cobre were called the Taramuhara by the Spanish. They refer to themselves as the Raramuri, “those who run”. They are renowned for long distance running and are said to hunt birds and deer by chasing them to exhaustion. They were never defeated by the Spanish, but were driven into the mountains and canyons after the invasion to escape enslavement in the silver mines the Spanish operated in their lowland territories.
Our guide was a Raramuri, at home on the rocks. His two gringo companions were definitely not at home. Despite, or maybe because of, my hiking boots, my feet ached, as did my tired legs, my back, and my shoulders chafing at the pack straps. The heat, the pain, and the fatigue combined into a lightheadedness bordering on a mild delirium. There was no stopping, there was no going back. There was only gravity, rocks to step on and around, a descent to pick down. As bad as the pain of the present moment was the realization that every step down meant another future step up whenever we would eventually make the return climb. It was too late to ask why. There was no one to blame. Anger, self pity, resentment — emotions like these were of no use, they were simply energy drains. There was no way out. There was nothing to do but give up — give up resisting and rejecting, give up experiencing pain and fatigue and heat and thirst as suffering to be avoided, give up the notion of escaping discomfort and finding pleasing feelings. Give up hope for something else. Let go of all that.
And so, at some point, I let go. It was not a matter of choice, it just happened. The thought came to me that what had happened was that I had died. Nothing had changed — the aches, the heat persisted — but now there was a certain lightness to it all, a certain naturalness. My step did not have the lightness or agility of the boy or the dog, but the relaxation of the mind effected a relaxation of the body. An atmosphere of lightness pervaded all around, encompassing the sky and the rocks, and in it my heavy clumsy steps, and gravity itself, floated.
The atmosphere of lightness included a different visual light. By now it was past mid-afternoon. The sun’s lower angle reflected off the rocks with a brightness and clarity, speckles and sparkles here and there. Traces of color glinted from the grey-brown stones and their shadows.
The boy and the dog stopped on top of a large boulder and looked down. Kurt and I came around and looked. Below us was a pool of crystal clear water, generally circular in shape, maybe twenty feet in diameter. Water poured out of the rocks above, filled the pool, and drained out somewhere below. A number of small orange trees grew along the sides.
Kurt and I scrambled down. We tore off our boots and clothes and plunged in the water. It was cool, not cold — baby bear right. We spashed and dove and swam and floated, like pup seals, otters, dolphins. The orange trees were somehow in blossom and fruit at the same time, their fragrance hung above the water. White and yellow butterflies flitted among the branches and against the blue sky. The boy gave us oranges he had picked, small, the size of tangerines, nectar sweet. Where the stream showered down, at pool level was a natural rock seat. Sitting at that spot, the water fell directly on our backs, shoulders, necks.
We swam and floated in the pool for some timeless time, blue sky above. Paradise, Eden, Pure Lands were no longer concepts, the pool and its perfection manifested naturally in the world we were immersed in. We knew that like a god realm it was temporary, and we had to continue our hike down while there was still light. We dried and dressed and booted up, hoisted our packs and, with great gratitude for the gifts it had given, departed the garden.
Another hour or so of climbing down in the gathering evening light brought us to the bottom, finally, the point of no more descending, where the Uribe flowed — a nice sized, clear river flowing at a crisp pace. We could have picked a way across without much trouble if we had wished. What caught our eyes were the small stretches of sand in patches, somewhat level, alongside the river. These were inviting spots on which to spread out our sleeping bags and rest and relax our backs in the comfort of a regular surface. The boy told us that was not to be. The banks of the river were dangerous because a flash flood could come at night and wash away anything in its path.
After a short sit at the river, our reverse summit, the return began immediately. We climbed up a short distance, out of flood’s way, and found some rocky spaces that would do as beds. We brought out our food and water for a dinner. The boy and the dog, carrying nothing, shared what we had brought — the dog eating some dried meat. In our sleeping bags we contorted our bodies to accomodate the rock formations of the spots we had chosen. By now the sky was black and the stars brilliant. Back and legs and feet were tired. Sleep was deep.
The next morning we started early while it was still cool. In a couple hours we reached the pool, where we immersed ourselves again, to refresh and draw energy for the continuing climb. Then we continued on, step after step, rock after rock, muscle against gravity.
It had taken one day going down. It took two days going up. Late in the afternoon of the second day we arrived at Don Jose’s house. The skinned carcass of a goat hung from the rafters of the porch. We collapsed stretched out in our room. Don Jose’s daughter brought us a carton of liquids we requested. We drank bottle after bottle of bright orange and yellow soda, rehydrating our bodies like parched plants. In the evening, the family prepared us a feast of roasted goat, beans and tortillas.
We stayed two days at Don Jose’s home, resting and recuperating, restoring our hydration. The evening before we left, Don Jose asked our advice concerning his elder daughter. On the right side of her abdomen she had an internal lump the size of a small grapefruit. Kurt told Don Jose that he must take her to a hospital to see a doctor, and it might be necessary to operate to remove it. Don Jose said that the nearest hospital was far away. We left them a gift of dollars we hoped might help them get medical care.
The next morning Don Jose walked us back to Divisidero. We boarded the train, which carried us down the western slopes of the Sierra Madre to the town of Los Mochis on the Gulf of California. “Los Mochis” means “the tortoises”, and was the site of an American utopian colony formed in the late 1800’s to farm sugar cane. The utopia grew into the United Sugar Company, which managed its costs by paying its employees in tokens good at the company store, until its operations were expropriated in the 1930’s and its ownership distributed to the employees. In more recent years Los Mochis became the headquarters of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and was the spot where “El Chapo” Guzman was rearrested after his celebrated prison escape. When we were there, it was a dusty, sleepy and non-descript town.
From Los Mochis, we took a ferry across the Sea of Cortes to the town of La Paz in the south of Baja California. We had dinner on the veranda of hotel. A group of five or six Americans were sitting a few tables away and Kurt was soon in conversation with them. They were boat people, living on their sailboats and dropping into town occasionally for shopping and restaurant meals. They invited us to their boats and a few hours later we were aboard their large catamaran, gently rocking on the Sea of Cortes under a night of stars. Kurt was “grabbing feet”, administrating his lymph system lower leg and foot massage to each and everyone.
One in the group, Peter, quickly reidentified as “Pedro” by Kurt, was sailing solo and he invited us to sleep on his boat, a sleek two masted Tahiti ketch of polished wood, unlike the fiberglass and steel of the catamaran. Next morning, both boats set out for a nearby island. As supplies, we carried water, rice, beans, cooking oil and coffee. We arrived at the island by midafternoon, dropped anchor, and everyone went overboard into the water with snorkel masks and spears to gather dinner. The islands were dry, red brown, treeless. The seabed was alive with color, rocks, and sealife of all kinds. Within an hour we had a bucket of fish. We rowed dinghys to a sandy beach and built a fire to cook the catch. Kurt overcame his avoidance of fish, based on his longtime belief that he was allergic. With some trepidation he shared in the sacrament of the sea’s gifts, and was overjoyed to find that he experienced no adverse reaction.
For the next few days we sailed north with Pedro visiting other islands in the Gulf. We stayed up late at night on deck, watching the stars rise in the east, ascend, and descend in the west. We sailed mornings and afternoons and slept out of the sun midday. We ate rice and beans augmented by the bounty Pedro gathered below, one evening including a lobster. A sailor needs to know a lot, not only about water, wind and sail, but about location — where to head, where to avoid rocks and shallows, where to anchor, where to land on an island to find fresh water. We paddled a dinghy to a beach and hiked to a spring Pedro knew of to replenish our water jugs. Coming back to the ship, we became primal sailors, catching an offshore breeze in a towel we held by the corners to propel us by sail rather than paddle back to the ship.
After four or five days of sailing, we headed back to La Paz, all sails deployed for maximum speed, carried along by pleasant northerly winds. We moved through the water with purposeful speed and direction, unlike our previous days of relaxed meandering. Pedro fixed a trawling line, a line with multiple hooks, to trail behind the boat, leaving dinner to chance rather than hunting skill. I sat on the port side of the boat next to where the line was affixed. After an hour or so, suddenly the word “strike!” inexplicably sounded in my mind. I rested my fingers on the line which I had been ignoring. Within only a few seconds it hit, a sharp tug on the line. Together we hauled it in.
Hooked was a large beautiful silver mahi-mahi, the prize culinary catch of the Gulf. We laid the fish down on the deck and held it still as it thrashed. As we watched and prayed for its happy rebirth, its silver color changed brilliant hues — green, blue, red, pink, yellow, finally dull white — the reason it’s called the rainbow fish. We ate the mahi-mahi that night raw, sashimi style. Again Kurt was happy to be spared any allergic reaction.
In La Paz we checked into a hotel, had dinner and cervezas. The next morning we took a bus to Cabo San Lucas where we were able to book a flight that same day to Los Angeles. At LAX we were in two separate Customs lines. As one Customs agent cursorily rifled through my backpack, he said to another agent “Go check out the hippie over there”. Kurt’s shoulder length hair and full beard apparently registered as something other than professorial to the Customs agents. I was aware with some concern that Kurt’s sacramental whale tooth pipe--generously encrusted with cannabinoid residue--was hanging on his hip from his belt in a colorful knit pouch. As the agent performed what he thought was a thorough search, Kurt engaged him in conversation. It was a scene I was to see dramatized a few years later in the first Star Wars movie where Obiwan Kenobi performs “an old Jedi mind trick” on some Empire stormtroopers. Kurt laughed warmly as the agents waved us on home to Californa del Norte.
February 22, 2018