Chocolates for Charlie
CHARLIE WAS THE SWEETEST GUY in the apartment building. He taught me how to get around Guadalajara on the bus, he took me to the symphony and he showed me how to shop for food at the open-air market. Charlie loved whiskey, cigarettes, chocolate and traveling. Originally from New York City, the 70-year-old man had worked in Mexico City for 20 years before retiring in Guadalajara.
Charlie told me he planned to take a group tour to the Copper Canyon... But Charlie caught a terrible case of the flu a few days before the November departure. Being a kind and caring neighbor, I took Charlie a pot of chicken soup and offered to buy his trip....
Shortly after the train departed I ensconced myself on the small platform between two passenger cars so I could lean out the open window to take pictures.
The train traveled through fields of corn before beginning the climb toward the rim of the canyon. The track twisted and turned for the next nine hours through 86 tunnels and across 37 bridges, going from sea level to 8,000 feet. The floor rumbled beneath my feet and every tunnel was dark as a bat's cave. After making a 180-degree turn inside a tunnel, the train emerged and made a dizzying 360-degree loop. It looked like the caboose was attached to the engine as it wound around the track in a full circle. After that loop I gave up my place on the platform. Feeling windblown and dizzy, I returned to my seat.
The old bus lumbered up a different gravel road than the one we had traveled on to the village. The driver, a young man with a gentle smile and good command of the English language, told us about the canyon.
"The Copper Canyon refers to only one of the seven canyons comprising the Urique Canyon system in the Sierra Tarahumara," he explained. "The total length of the canyons is 540 kilometers, the depth is 1,250 meters and the height at the rim is 2,250 meters," he told us.
Creaking and swaying, the bus took us up the twisting road to a lookout. We all clambered out to see the sweeping view. The canyon is actually deeper and greener than the Grand Canyon in the United States. Far below, the thin silver line of a river coursed through the mining village of Urique. Craggy rock walls with trees clinging to their sides turned copper in the fading sunlight.
As dusk descended, we stopped near some caves. A native woman showed us baskets she had woven and stored in a cave for preservation. The baskets, of all different sizes, were made of pine needles and cactus. I carefully chose a small one in an unusual triangular shape with a lid. Several of my companions were envious of my basket and from then on we competed to see who could buy the best basket.
Through long shadows that soon turned to darkness, the bus took us back to the mission. The light from the fire in the giant rock fireplace of the main lodge welcomed us to dinner. Guitarists played while waiters poured white wine. The mission has its own vineyard and produces its own table wines. Soon after dinner we headed for our cabins—the diesel-powered electricity would be turned off at 10 p.m.
I had forgotten to bring a flashlight, but there were matches and candles in the cabin. I burned up half a pack of matches making several trips to the bathroom. I finally fell into a deep sleep. When I woke sometime after midnight, I thought this was the darkest, quietest place I had ever been.
I took a quick cold shower the next morning before joining Tony and the others for breakfast and a two-mile hike to a pretty waterfall. Monica, Jay and I led the pack through fields of corn and apples. We crossed two pole fences by climbing over them on wooden ladders and hiked on up the trail. At a pool, formed by the falling water, we rested on boulders and took pictures. We left the waterfall at 11, even though Tony had told us we should board the bus at 11 for the trip to the station.
"Don't worry, the train is always late," Tony said. We got to the station at 1 that afternoon. We joined a group of natives waiting there. Two Indians carried a man with a broken leg on a blanket stretcher; they placed him beside the tracks so he could be taken on the train to a doctor. The train arrived at 3.
baskets and dolls during a trip to the Copper Canyon
We didn't travel far on the rails that day, only 50 kilometers to the Barrancas Station. It was a short bus ride to the Hotel Mansion Tarahumara, a stone lodge and cabins set among pine trees.
We ate a late lunch in the main lodge where a giant mural of the canyon decorated one wall. Tony proposed a hike along the rim of the canyon.
"These canyons are home to about 45,000 Tarahumara Indians, the second largest native Indian group in North America, who have managed to preserve much of their distinctive culture into this century, partly because of their extreme remoteness," Tony told us as we strolled the easy trail.
"The Indians were pushed out of the best lands by the Spaniards at first and then by other Mexicans. They now subsist on marginal land on the canyon's rims and walls. Their dwellings used to be stone and mud huts or caves in the canyon wall and some Tarahumara still live in those types of homes. Most families have more than one dwelling since they wander far afield, spending the winter near the canyon floor and the summer near the rim."
As we walked by vegetation along the trail, Tony paused to point out several native plants including amaranthus and epazote. "The natives use these herbs to flavor black beans or eat them as vegetables," he explained. "The remainder of their diet includes corn, cactus fruit, beans, mustard greens, squash, wheat, potatoes, chiles and peaches. Peaches are a prime trading commodity, often exchanged for cigarettes or cloth."
A little further along, Monica, Jay, Tony and I climbed a ladder to the top of a gigantic rock. From there we could see a native's cave house built into the canyon wall below. Farther down was a small ranch where a few cattle grazed. "To a Tarahumara, a man with 10 or more cattle is wealthy, a man with 100 goats is average," Tony said.
The route back to the hotel involved walking down a steep and rickety wooden stairway. A few of us gathered for drinks in the bar, a round stone building shaped like the turret of a castle, next to the main lodge. As I sipped a "Tequila Sunrise," a gilded sunset dissolved beyond the canyon rim.
After dinner, when total darkness had enveloped the landscape, Monica, Jay and I ventured back up the steep stairway. We climbed the enormous boulder where we had been earlier. Millions of stars were brilliant in the navy sky. Jay knew the constellations and pointed them out. Only once before, in Australia, had I been in a place isolated enough to view the starry night with such clarity.
Jay guided us back along the gravel path and down the stairway. I clung to the shaky handrail, thinking I might at any moment plunge over the side onto the rocks below.
Only Monica and I braved the climb again, early the next morning, to view the sunrise from that lofty rock perch. I was immensely happy that I had made the effort; in the distance the horizon turned dozens of shades of pink blending to orange; suddenly the sun appeared, like a honey-oat bagel popping out of a toaster. In the cool dawn, a lasting friendship was born as Monica and I talked about our families.
Later that morning we all boarded a bus for the 40-kilometer ride to the logging town of Creel, where the railroad has its eastern terminus. Tour groups often leave from Creel to travel to the rim of the Copper Canyon, though by doing that, they miss the spectacular tunnels and bridges the train traverses on the western portion of the journey.
Before stopping in Creel, we went to the tiny village and mission church of Cusarare. Tony led us on another hike through woods along the Cusarare River leading to the top of Cusarare Falls. Monica, Jay and I were rewarded for our bravery, with a sparkling rainbow, when we crossed the shallow river at the top of the falls. We joined the rest of the group at a grassy spot by the river, where we fed blue jays as we ate our lunches of fried chicken, ham and cheese sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, bananas and juice. When we headed back, the trail was scattered with women and children waiting to sell baskets, dolls, weavings and carved wooden animals. I bought several things.
The next morning we returned to Los Mochis. Monica, Al, Bob and Betty left for Arizona, the rest of us flew to Guadalajara.
I got back to my apartment, dropped my bags and went to check on Charlie. He still looked a little peaked when he answered the door.
"I feel a little better, but that was a bad bug that bit me," he said.
I handed him the triangular woven basket with the cover. It was filled with chocolates I'd bought at the airport.
"I'm glad you feel better, but I'm also glad you got sick."
Text © Copyright 2004 by Starley Talbott. All rights reserved.
These extracts are reproduced, with full permission, from
Lasso the World by Starley Talbott.
(Plainstar Press, 2004). ISBN: 0-9762943-0-3
Available from the Publishers at 1555 Main St., Suite A3 #180, Windsor, CO 80550, USA, and from Amazon Books.
Starley Talbott Anderson is an award-winning author who has been a reporter and freelance writer for more than 30 years. Her work has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines. Starley has traveled a great deal of the world and lived in four countries. Though she moves her campsite often, she currently collects her mail in Colorado, while she continues to collect memorable people and places on her journey through life. [Editor's note: Additional extracts will appear next month]