“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 of the question, he said. The nearest hospital was in Chihuahua City, a four-hour drive from the canyon rim. The weather was unpredictable—anything from searing heat to snow was possible. There were snakes and scorpions and bugs that biologists haven’t yet identified, including translucent assassin bugs that swell up by gorging themselves on blood. Finally, liability lawsuits weren’t part of the Mexican legal system, so if I didn’t like what I experienced, too bad. “There are no guarantees,” he warned.
Also, the romance of exploring the unknown was tempered by some disturbing realities. My friend Jan Reid, a Texas Monthly contributing editor, was shot in Mexico City last year. Although the Distrito Federal and Copper Canyon have as much in common as New York City and Floydada, two European tourists were shot, one of them fatally, during a robbery on the Copper Canyon train last fall. A month before our scheduled departure, Philip True, the Mexico correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News, was murdered under mysterious circumstances while hiking in the remote mountains of Jalisco, about four hundred miles south of Copper Canyon. That area’s Huichol Indians are notorious for growing and distributing marijuana and opium poppies, which suggests that True may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was no secret that marijuana cultivation had made inroads into Copper Canyon too. But I shrugged off my concerns and told Skip that I still wanted to go. Besides, I told myself, dope-growing season was over.
I was one of six paying customers who met at Skip’s Sierra Lodge near Creel one freezing night in January. Ray and Sue McEuen, a retired couple in their late fifties from Beebe, Arkansas, had visited the canyon so often that Ray, an ex-Marine who liked to wax philosophical, was a part-time guide. Sue described herself as a repressed tomboy who was doing all the things she wasn’t supposed to do as a child in Memphis. Steve Weaver, a 53-year-old retired electronics technician from St. Petersburg, Florida, ran two Web sites dedicated to travel in Mexico, magic-bus.com and mexicotraveler.com. Broad-shouldered and bulked up, he appeared to be the most physically fit of the bunch and wore shorts just to rub it in. Richard Speedy, a 52-year-old commercial photographer from Princeton, New Jersey, had gotten hooked on Copper Canyon on his first visit three years ago and had been back four times since. Bill Appel, 48, was an electrical engineer from Austin who introduced himself as a “geek” and had warmed up for the trip by hiking in Big Bend from the desert floor into the Chisos Basin and back down again the previous weekend. I was the only first-time visitor.
AFTER BREAKFAST, WE MET with Skip in the lodge kitchen. We needed to be flexible, he told us: “Don’t overextend yourself. Take a step and rest. Don’t take another step until you’re rested.” He warned us to watch out for dehydration: “It typically takes three hours for water to get into your system, so if you’re thirsty, it’s already too late.” It was important to respect the Tarahumaras’ personal space, he said: “Stand at the outside of their corral. Don’t walk up to their house. That’s like standing on their bed. Don’t take pictures of them or their house.” We were each issued a metal cup and spoon—our dinnerware—and then, after persuading me to leave my backup jogging shoes behind, Skip disappeared to supervise the packing of equipment.
Our expedition left the lodge shortly after one. The crew included Aine Roberts, a thirty-year-old blond gringa from California who had been guiding for Skip in Batopilas for five years but had never done a canyon crossing; Chunel Olivas Parra, a tall, blue-eyed mestizo (someone of Spanish and Indian blood) from Batopilas who was our senior guide; Chunel’s 23-year-old son, Poncho, who was making his first crossing; another mestizo guide, named Reyes Ramírez; eight Tarahumara men—Antonio, Corpus, Felipe, Eliseo, Chuy, Sahuaripa, Rubén, and Chubasco—none over five feet tall, who would serve as our Sherpa