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.

May 1999By Comments

“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.

DAY 1

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 guides and tend to the ten burros that would carry our gear for the first half of the journey; and three dogs from the lodge. Spanish, the second tongue for Indians and gringos alike, was the language of communication. No one but Chunel and Skip understood the Tarahumara dialect, which was unlike anything I’d heard before.

 The gringos and mestizos wore hiking boots, while the Tarahumara opted for huaraches, binding their stubby feet with simple leather straps and pieces of old tires for soles. Otherwise, they looked like modern guys in their jeans and gimme caps. Paulina and Maria, aged 19 and 25, respectively, were the expedition’s tortilla makers, and they wore multicolored layers of billowy skirts, blouses, scarves, and shawls, traditional Tarahumara garb. Paulina, who was Chuy’s daughter and Corpus’ wife, wore cheap running shoes. Maria, the sister of Antonio, sported plastic slippers. E-skeep, el lider maximo, wore black oxfords with rubber soles and hiked hatless, his hands stuffed into the front pockets of his jeans and an Afro comb sticking out of a back pocket. We gringo hikers, on the other hand, were equipped with all-weather jackets, shades, sunscreen, tents, purification tablets for our water, and Bill the Geek’s global positioning system (GPS) doodad, which would instantly tell us precisely where we were.

The expedition quickly broke up into clusters of trekkers, guides, and burros as we cleared a rise and cut across the withered remnants of a cornfield before climbing up a slope that was covered with tall pines and low piñons, all kinds of oaks, madrones, lechuguilla, yucca, and cactus, reminiscent of the high country in Big Bend and New Mexico. After little more than an hour, we reached a windswept mesa as barren and desolate as the moon, where we stopped by a primitive wooden corral with three simple log structures that could have been two hundred years old. The premises appeared to be deserted save for a few goats milling around inside the fence.

This was the home of a Tarahumara family Skip knew. We waited silently outside the fence while two children watched us from a couple hundred yards away. A small man eventually emerged from one of the shacks. Following Tarahumara custom, Skip instructed us to “shake hands” with him by brushing fingertips. The man sold us a sack of greens for soup and about one hundred pounds of dried cornstalks to feed the burros, all of which was strapped onto the back of a Tarahumara to be carried into camp.

We shuffled a quarter mile off the mesa to an overlook. On a distant ridge was our final destination, Divisadero, the village where the train stops on the canyon rim. Bill pointed his GPS toward it. “Seven miles as the crow flies,” he said. Too bad we weren’t flying.

We descended for a couple of hours until we reached a small river at the bottom of a small side canyon, a 1,300-foot drop from where we had started. The burros were penned in a rock corral nearby. I crossed the river and found Bill taking a soak in a pool of hot water. He pointed out the steam pouring from a five-foot fissure on the opposite bank, where a crude wooden cross had been posted—a sanctified sauna in a cave.

Back at camp, the Indians and mestizos gathered wood for a fire while Chunel and Antonio prepared the evening meal. Four live chickens that had been brought along were dispatched by Skip, who wrung their necks after I declined the honor.

Ray and Steve, who had lagged behind from the beginning, still hadn’t arrived. Steve had told us the night before that he was diabetic and preferred walking slowly enough to smell the flowers. “They were probably taking it easy and enjoying themselves,” Skip said, reassuring Sue. He sent Rubén to retrace our path back to the lodge. The Tarahumara are known for their running ability and endurance, and what had taken us four hours he could easily cover in one.

After we had finished our dinner of chicken, onions, and garlic fried in a woklike skillet, avocado slices, and hand-patted corn tortillas cooked on an oil-drum cover over the fire, another runner returned with a note from the lodge manager and one from Ray. He and Steve had waited on top of the mesa until sundown, then headed back to the lodge. Steve had experienced shortness of breath, Ray said, and was inclined to stay put. We wrote notes back, reassuring Steve that he had done the right thing and giving Ray directions for reconnecting with us the next morning in the company of Rubén.

I had also experienced some shortness of breath, and my calves were sore—but otherwise, no problem. The only surprise was how cold it got at night, well below 20 degrees. At Skip’s urging, I had lightened my load, bringing along only a T-shirt, an extra thermal shirt, a sweater, two extra pairs of socks, two changes of underwear, and a wool muffler and cap. I went to sleep wearing everything but the extra underwear. (“You’re going to stink like a goat,” Ray had told me earlier, laughing. “You’ll want to burn everything when it’s over.”) Luckily, one of the dogs snuggled against my tent, warming my sleeping bag.

DAY 2

WE AWOKE to sheets of ice on the puddles by the river’s edge and a revitalizing breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon and leftover chicken, fresh tortillas, and cowboy coffee. Lunch handouts were more meager—an orange, an apple, a granola bar, peanuts, and raisins. While we warmed our hands around the campfire, Skip arched an eyebrow at me and said, “Yesterday was the last easy day.”

I smiled. Piece of cake. He told us he had heard about another hot spring, maybe the largest one in the canyons, and suggested looking for it. Only two of the Tarahumara had heard of the route, and they couldn’t agree on whether it was the trail down or the trail up and out that was more treacherous. “That means fewer guarantees than usual,” Skip said. We were game.

We left at ten, ascending about 1,500 feet in an hour and a half to another corral on a mesa. After the owner, Eligio, emerged from his cabin, we brushed fingertips and, while he whittled an ax handle, chatted in Spanish across a barbed-wire fence that was adorned with what appeared to be ribbons of audiocassette tape. Eligio had guided for Skip before, and Skip told him of our plan to search for the giant hot spring. Most of the guides worked part time at a sawmill in the area. Skip hires them during their downtime and prides himself on paying them better than the sawmill does.

Eligio produced small woven baskets his wife had made out of pine needles and sold us several for a dollar each. Three little children played nearby, pulling a teddy bear in a box with runners. Skip reached into his pocket and passed out balloons to our group, which we blew up and released in the breeze, much to the children’s delight. It was a trick he’d learned from a National Geographic photographer who had visited Copper Canyon in the mid-seventies and found that the balloons were an effective icebreaker. The kids would follow the balloons, which they had never seen before, and the normally reclusive adults would follow the kids.

A few hundred yards from Eligio’s place was the school for this small settlement. Since the eighties, the Mexican government has paid mestizo teachers handsomely to teach the Tarahumara children, a job previously held by Jesuit priests, the first whites to work and live among the Indians. I don’t know whose eyes were wider when we walked past the school—the kids’ or ours.

From the school, we followed a high-country logging road a few miles through the highlands. Skip said these routes are used by dope growers more frequently than loggers. As a result of a prolonged drought that broke only last year, marijuana has become a cash crop for the Indians; with a limited supply of water, it’s easier for them to grow than corn or beans, though their profit is minimal.

We stopped for lunch on a grassy mesa, where Ray and Rubén met up with us. A few minutes later, Eligio showed up wearing a bright, rainbow-hued wool cap: He was going down to the hot spring with us. I passed around slices of four Texas grapefruit I’d brought along. A couple of the Indians thought them too sweet. They offered me pinole, a Tarahumara staple of coarsely ground roasted corn kernels. Mixed with water, it tasted sort of like cold mush, only crunchy.

An hour later we reached an overlook facing Tararecua Canyon, the kind of deep ditch I had imagined before the trip, with sheer rock faces banded in colors and punctuated with strange-looking towers. The minute we started descending, the trail turned treacherous, becoming steep and alarmingly narrow, and sometimes disappearing altogether. “This may not be a good idea,” Skip said. “It’s a long way down there.” We pressed on for three hours, halting whenever a stubborn burro wouldn’t move or an Indian guide had to figure out a route. It was getting so dicey that whenever piedras falsas (loose rocks) were kicked off the trail, I made a point of not listening to how far they fell. Making matters worse, scree, the loose, shalelike volcanic rock that sometimes covered an entire slope, was like banana peels with hard edges.

I tried not to look at the stunning scenery around me. The last thing I needed while stumbling along a path littered with stumps, branches, thorns, cactus spines, and rocks was a case of vertigo. When we finally sighted the Tararecua River a thousand feet below us, I grabbed on to a branch to steady myself. For some time I had been aware of a flapping noise, and during a water break, I realized that the heel of my left hiking boot was coming apart. Both big toes were throbbing from being stubbed against the inside of the boots every time I tried to brake.

We finally reached the fabled hot spring, making camp at the canyon bottom by the Tararecua, which joins the Urique, the biggest river in Copper Canyon, several miles downstream. The clear, warm water was fed by numerous springs that emerged from both sides of the riverbank, many of them dammed with small rocks and perfect for a relaxing soak. Spying a waterfall that tumbled twenty feet into the river from a moss-framed fissure, I hiked over and around some boulders and took a shower.

That night, as we sat around the fire, I obsessed about my boots. They were falling apart and there were four days to go. “Wrap them in duct tape,” Skip suggested. Nice idea, only there wasn’t any duct tape.

DAY 3

“Yesterday was the last easy day,” Skip told me as I examined the heel of my left boot after breakfast. We spent most of the morning following the river downstream on a fairly flat trail, looking for a way back up to the rim. One guide noticed a fellow Tarahumara who had been shadowing us on the other side of the river. After a few exchanged shouts, we met at a crossing, everyone brushing fingertips. He lived in a cave nearby and knew a route out. Skip did some quick bargaining and hired him for the afternoon.

The trail network in the Sierra is something like an airline’s hub-and-spoke system. Individual Indians know their own local routes—from home to their fields, their water source, other houses, and to market—but little else. People like Skip try to make sense of each little network and link them for a long-distance journey. It was a good thing we found someone knowledgeable about this particular path, because no one else in our party seemed to know the way.

The new guide figured it was two and a half hours to the top; but by Bill’s calculation, there would be a three-thousand-foot gain in elevation, meaning it could take all day. The path was even more ill-defined than the trail down the day before, and as temperatures warmed into the seventies I was slugging down gulps of water every five minutes. The burros were becoming downright skittish, stopping on switchbacks that were made slick by thick beds of dead pine needles.

Tensions frayed as the burro wranglers cursed their charges, waving their hands and shouting. I hydrated deliriously. Even the Tarahumara were taking swigs. Making room for a burro scooting around a small boulder, Aine was nearly killed when one of its packs knocked her off balance onto a slippery slope; she saved herself by grabbing the burro and pulling herself back up.

Finally the rim came into view. We had stopped for another breather, leaning into the slope of the trail because there was nowhere else to lean, when the silence was broken by the sound of crashing rocks above us. It was a loud, extended clattering that carried considerable bulk with it and lasted for several seconds. A burro? A hiker?

“Burro,” came a shout from above, accompanied by the loud wail of what sounded like a goat. Aine and Sue thought it was a joke. We sat and waited in silence. What was it?

Five minutes later, the word filtered down. It was a burro, now a very dead burro. It had lost its balance and gone into a free fall.

The mood shifted from mere exhaustion to nervous exhaustion laced with somber introspection. We made it to the top and passed through a mesa village with a church, a school, and a store before making camp another mile farther on. The burro’s death was a grim reminder that it could have been any one of us. The burros were scheduled to go back in the morning because the rest of the trail was too difficult for them to negotiate, and Sue confided that she was thinking of going back with them.

I hadn’t thought much about the real world I’d left behind, only that it was a weekend and my kids must be playing somewhere and my wife was likely shuttling them around. Here, in a place with no power lines, no television, no mechanical sounds, not even any planes flying overhead, it was hard to imagine what they were doing. My calves ached and my feet had blisters. The heel of my boot had completely fallen off, although the foam inner heel appeared intact.

After a dinner of two soups, a vegetable stew, and quesadillas, Skip broke out four bottles of tequila. The normally shy Tarahumara became animated while taking sips out of soda cans and plastic water bottles that had been cut in half. In the firelight their faces took on a mystical quality. The campfire, a part of human life since the dawn of history, had vanished from my modern world. Here, among the Tarahumara, it was still the social event of the day.

DAY 4

At breakfast Sue announced that she’d had enough. Ray, a concerned husband as well as a conscientious guide, would accompany her on the mostly flat, twenty-mile hike back to the lodge, along with several guides, the burros, and two of the dogs. That left Richard the photographer, Bill the Geek, and me. Skip urged us to lighten our load. My tent was so big, he said, couldn’t we double up? But Richard snored and Bill liked his privacy. So did I. And after having given up my extra pair of shoes before leaving the lodge, I was no longer inclined to be so agreeable. In fact, we were all as stubborn as burros, so all three tents were packed into duffel bags to be carried by the Indians for the rest of the journey. We’d have to carry our own day packs.

Around eleven, after Ray and Sue’s group had headed back, we finally left. A Tarahumara named Corpus who lived near our campsite (we dubbed him Corpus Number Two) and his seven-year-old son, Juan, joined the expedition. The scenery on our descent into the widest chasm yet became more surreal with each step. A nearby mesa where most of the Indians on the expedition lived appeared to be suspended in air. We could look back and see a notch on the horizon where we had started the trip. Far below us, so far that we couldn’t see the rivers that had carved it, was the bend where the Copper and Tararecua canyons meet. The first spring we reached was dry, and we were advised to start rationing our water, though quenching thirst was key to staying sane and stable on the hike. Skip didn’t help matters. Whenever someone slipped, he’d say, “Adiós.

Four and a half hours after we had left camp, we finally spied the Tararecua River, which was so far below us it triggered a flash of acrophobia. “Focus on the boots in front of me,” I kept repeating to myself. “Don’t look down.” Half an hour later, I looked. What I saw was a landscape of dreams. Canyons fantastic and dramatic. Cliffs so sheer and steep they appeared to have been sliced off, one eon at a time. Canyons beyond canyons, rugged and sublime. And all of it was shrouded in silence, witnessed only by us. “Beautiful canyon,” Chunel whispered, the first time I had heard him speak in English. I nodded. Increíble. Incredible.

It was nearly sunset when we reached the Tararecua for the second time on the trip. We had dropped 3,600 feet that afternoon. The nimble-footed tortilla girls had arrived almost an hour ahead of us, along with the guides packing our gear. The skidding on the way down had taken a heavy toll on my boots: The heel of the right one was coming unglued, and the seams on both had begun to split. The boots had become as flimsy as ballet slippers. My big toes ached, making it hard to take another step. Sand fleas and bloodsucking gnats found me before I dropped my backpack by the river. I was grateful when Corpus Number Two and Juan led me to a hot spring a quarter mile away, where I soaked my feet.

Dinner was lentil soup and chile chilaca, long peppers not unlike New Mexico Big Jims. We threw them on the fire until the skin turned black, peeled them and removed the seeds, then put the roasted pepper strips on big chunks of Mennonite cheese (Mennonite farmers dominate the agriculture of the Cuauhtémoc region of Chihuahua) and melted the cheese on tortillas. Delicious. When I finally headed to my tent, I was startled by an eerie glow on a canyon wall high above us. It came from the cave of a goatherd we had seen earlier, who we learned was Corpus Number Two’s aunt. From Divisadero, you can see dozens of fires like that, Richard said, flickering throughout the canyon at night.

DAY 5

We were on the trail before the sun broke over the canyon rim, tailing Sahuaripa, the most surefooted of the Tarahumara, up a slope so steep that two phrases from Spanish obituaries, se murió (“he died”) and ha fallecido (“has expired”), kept popping into my head. We continued on for another half hour, then began skirting around a cliff. Its slope was so exaggerated, it was hard to believe that any life-forms could exist here, and yet there were goat pills on the path and the sounds of a rooster crowing and dogs barking. Homes, built under overhangs and into the cliffside, were everywhere, but we glimpsed only a few of their inhabitants, who poked their heads from behind walls when they thought we weren’t watching.

Each inhabited cave was near a shady spring where oaks, castor beans, mint, and lush grasses flourished. The third spring we passed had cool, clear water that dripped into a hollowed-out log and a steel barrel. We filled our jugs, using the small can provided as a scoop. We had gained more than two thousand feet and were smack dab in the proverbial middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, discarded cracker cartons, wrappers for laundry soap, and little pieces of plastic were scattered along the trail. Disposing of trash isn’t a problem here: It is merely dropped on the ground or tossed down the slope.

One stone dwelling was set on an isolated point, like an eagle’s aerie, overlooking a vista of several canyons that literally took my breath away. “These people have come here to get as far away as they can from other people,” Skip said. “They’ve come for this.” The grandeur of the setting made me question all the rhetoric about how the Tarahumara need to be helped because their way of life—subsistence farming—yields so little income. I could see that their paradise was here. “Yeah,” Skip said, “let’s educate their kids, move them to the city, teach them how to make money, so they can buy a high-rise condo. Show me a penthouse with a better view than this.”

We skirted more cliffs, then stopped at the edge of a plateau. “Okay, I’m done,” Skip said, plopping onto the ground. Before us was the grandest expanse of canyons I could imagine, filling the entire landscape. I had never seen anything in nature so perfectly poetic, so emotionally overpowering. Although the slopes appeared verdant, almost soft, they were impassable to all but the eagles and the turkey buzzards we watched soaring on air currents below us.

We sat there on the edge for a long while without speaking, and I said a silent prayer of thanks for this earthly masterpiece. Finally, Skip broke the silence. “Only a handful of mestizos or gringos or even Tarahumara have ever seen this,” he said. After what we’d been through, it wasn’t hard to believe.

We continued skirting cliffs for several hours, passing still more dwellings and scootching over tight spots where one false move would mean instant death. With absolutely no room for error, this skirting was the most difficult part of the hike. “Pasitos, pasitos,” Chunel whispered, noting my wobbly progress. Little steps. We finally spied camp a long way down—a maple grove along a creek in the bottom of a side canyon with no name—and started our descent. When I stumbled in, every vein in my arms prickled with the tiniest movement, as if all circulation had been cut off. My hands were so swollen you couldn’t see the knuckles. I knew I’d pushed it to the limit.

The rest of the party had been there long enough for the tortilla girls to soak and cook a pot of pinto beans that sent up a tantalizing aroma. The site was a sliver of the tropics, just below a citrus grove fat with oranges, limes, and grapefruit as well as avocados. Skip was elated that the farmer who tended the plot had been able to grow a crop again. Five years earlier, his grove had been sprayed with Paraquat by Mexican soldiers who were destroying marijuana crops, wiping out everything and forcing him to move elsewhere. Now he was back.

Daylight was fading fast, but I had time to soak my feet in the cold water of a spring before scarfing down my final supper—the pinto beans, some Mennonite cheese, three oranges, and a delicious soup made from leftovers. With all the climbing, descending, and skirting, we had gained 700 feet, Bill said; we would have to ascend another 3,500 before we would reach Divisadero. The temperature was so mild that, for the first time, I slept without my socks and jeans. I paid for it with a rash of bug bites around my ankles.

DAY 6

I felt surprisingly little pain when we broke camp at first light. The rhythm of the hike was easy to lock into. Everyone’s steps were smaller, and we stopped more frequently to savor the view. After 45 minutes, Bill announced, “We’ve just climbed Enchanted Rock.” We had climbed 450 feet, and we added another 500 in half an hour—more than a fourth of the way up already. The cool of the morning was a godsend. But I realized that somewhere along the trail I had finally acquired the aroma of goat.

Shortly before noon, the last rim came into focus. For the first time in a week, I heard the sound of an engine. We paused for lunch on a windswept mesa with a million-dollar view. A haze—which Chunel said was from fires set by dope growers preparing fields for planting—fractured the light so that I could count eighteen ridge lines from the foreground to the horizon.

When we crested the final rise, we could clearly make out Divisadero. Our crossing was official. “Un gran exito. Todos vivimos,” Skip declared as everyone shook hands. A great success. We all live. And I was the king of the world: 10,000 feet down and 10,000 feet up in six days. Not exactly Everest, but it would do. I was in better shape than ever, with quads to die for. Never mind that I smelled like a dumpster, my ankles and arms were covered with itchy bites, and my big-toe nails were black and would fall off a week later. The boots had held up.

Everyone posed for a group photograph, smiling and saying “queso.” It was another hour’s walk into town, where two Suburbans waited for us with cold beer and sodas. As if on cue, a train pulled into the station, and tourists piled out to buy trinkets and food and have a peek at the scenic overlook, which is how the vast majority of visitors actually see the canyons.

I watched one pudgy white-haired gentleman in sunglasses and bright red suspenders waddle up to the edge and peer over. “Big hole,” he said before waddling back to the train.

You can say that again.

IF YOU GO

A canyon crossing is not for everyone, but if you’re interested, you should talk to Skip McWilliams; the cost is $2,250, including two nights at McWilliams’ Sierra Lodge, meals, and transportation to and from Chihuahua City. Although I’m not likely to do a crossing again, I’d go back to Copper Canyon in a heartbeat, and take the family with me. The Sierra Lodge, thirteen miles southwest of Creel, is a stretch version of a log cabin with twenty rooms; McWilliams’ Riverside Lodge, in Batopilas, is a fanciful restored nineteenth-century hacienda with fifteen rooms (there are also Tarahumara-style sleeping quarters in a nearby cave). Both offer extended-stay packages that start at $2,250 per person per week (a second week is half-price), including meals, guide services, and transportation to and from Chihuahua City. The Sierra Lodge lacks electricity and phones (no Y2K problem here), but kerosene lanterns, portable reading lights, a tile shower with hot water, oversized towels, his-and-her robes, and a potbellied stove in each room—not to mention three-course candlelight meals with fine wines, and an open bar in the dining room—assure a certain level of comfort. The lodges are closed in June, because of the heat in Batopilas, but reopen in July, when the cooling summer monsoon rains begin. Besides taking day hikes and reading on the porch, there’s not much to do. Says McWilliams: “People who drink a lot or have health problems or who are traveling with small children are advised not to come.” For more information, call or e-mail Skip McWilliams’ Copper Canyon Lodges (800-776-3942, coppercanyon @earthlink.net) or visit the sierratrail.com Web site.

There are other accommodations in Divisadero and Creel (both four hundred miles southwest of El Paso and accessible by a paved two-lane highway) as well as in Batopilas; for information, call Columbus Travel in New Braunfels (830-885-2000). Aerolitoral has daily nonstop flights to Chihuahua City from DFW and El Paso (800-237-6639).

Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico, the “world’s most scenic railroad,” has first- and second-class service daily between Chihuahua City and Los Mochis, near the Pacific coast, with stops in Creel and Divisadero. The trip, which passes through 86 tunnels and crosses 37 bridges along its 418-mile route, takes about twelve hours (Columbus Travel specializes in Copper Canyon train tours).

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