Let’s Get Lost

My six-day trek through Mexico’s spectacular Copper Canyon was a grueling endurance test—and the adventure of a lifetime.

WANT TO TAKE A WALK IN THE WOODS?”

Skip McWilliams’ invitation sounded so innocuous. We were sitting in a North Dallas seafood joint last October, talking about Copper Canyon. Sprawling over 20,000 square miles of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Copper Canyon is actually a complex of canyons, and such a wild and woolly place, it makes Arizona’s Grand Canyon look like a theme park. If Big Bend conveys the sensation of having fallen off the edge of the earth, Copper Canyon is the hole you fall into. Some “woods.”

Skip, who is 52, has hiked the region for eighteen years, operates two lodges in the high country—one near the town of Creel and the other in the quirky little colonial village of Batopilas in the canyon bottom—and probably knows Copper Canyon better than any gringo on earth. A day’s drive from the Texas border, the canyon is so remote that the lives of the 50,000 Tarahumara Indians who inhabit it have hardly changed since their ancestors retreated from the plains after the Spanish began settling the area more than three hundred years ago. Skip would like to preserve this special place and the people who live there through ecotourism—specifically, by building a string of smaller guest houses, linked by hiking trails, that the Tarahumara would operate.

We had met in Dallas so that he could determine whether I was the right stuff for a canyon crossing, a weeklong “extreme” hike that he organizes a couple of times a year. It’s not for everyone, Skip told me bluntly. But at 47, I felt I was in better physical shape than ever. I walk several miles a day, swim laps, and like to run rivers and creeks in an inflatable kayak. Six days and five nights in Skip’s woods seemed within the realm of possibility.

A few weeks later, Skip called to try to talk me out of it. Emergency rescue was out

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