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Chapter 3

FIGURING OUT WHERE over the border, however, was going to be tricky.

  Runner’s World magazine assigned me to trek into the Barrancas in search of the Tarahumara. Butbefore I could start looking for the ghosts, I’d need to find a ghost hunter. Salvador Holguín, I wastold, was the only man for the job.

  By day, Salvador is a thirty-three-year-old municipal administrator in Guachochi, a frontier townon the edge of the Copper Canyons. By night, he’s a barroom mariachi singer, and he looks it; withhis beer gut and black-eyed, rose-in-the-teeth good looks, he’s the exact image of a guy who splitshis life between desk chairs and bar stools. Salvador’s brother, however, is the Indiana Jones of theMexican school system; every year, he loads a burro with pencils and workbooks and bushwhacksinto the Barrancas to resupply the canyon-bottom schools. Because Salvador is game for just aboutanything, he has occasionally blown off work to accompany his brother on these expeditions.

  “Hombre, no problem,” he told me once I’d tracked him down. “We can go see Arnulfo Quimare.


  If he’d stopped right there, I’d have been ecstatic. While searching for a guide, I’d learned thatArnulfo Quimare was the greatest living Tarahumara runner, and he came from a clan of cousins,brothers, in-laws, and nephews who were nearly as good. The prospect of heading right to thehidden huts of the Quimare dynasty was better than I could have hoped for. The only problem was,Salvador was still talking.

  “… I’m pretty sure I know the way” he continued. “I’ve never actually been there. “Pues, lo quesea.” Well, whatever. “We’ll find it. Eventually.”

  Ordinarily, that would sound a little ominous, but compared with everyone else I’d talked with,Salvador was wildly optimistic. Since fleeing into no-man’s-land four hundred years ago, theTarahumara have spent their time perfecting the art of invisibility. Many Tarahumara still live incliffside caves reachable only by long climbing poles; once inside, they pull up the poles andvanish into the rock. Others live in huts so ingeniously camouflaged, the great Norwegian explorerCarl Lumholtz was once startled to discover he’d trekked right past an entire Tarahumara villagewithout detecting a hint of homes or humans.

  Lumholtz was a true backwoods badass who’d spent years living among headhunters in Borneobefore heading into Tarahumara Land in the late 1890s. But you can sense even his fortitudegrinding thin after he’d dragged himself through deserts and up death-defying cliffs, only to arriveat last in the heart of Tarahumara country to find…No one.

  “To look at these mountains is a soul-inspiring sensation; but to travel over them is exhaustive tomuscle and patience,” Lumholtz wrote in Unknown Mexico: A Record of Five Years’ ExplorationAmong the Tribes of the Western Sierra Madre. “Nobody except those who have travelled in theMexican mountains can understand and appreciate the difficulties and anxieties attending such ajourney.”

  And that’s assuming you make it as far as the mountains in the first place. “On first encounter, theregion of the Tarahumara appears inaccessible,” the French playwright Antonin Artaud grumbledafter he sweated and inched his way into the Copper Canyons in search of shamanic wisdom in the1930s. “At best, there are a few poorly marked trails that every twenty yards seem to disappearunder the ground.” When Artaud and his guides finally did discover a path, they had to gulp hardbefore taking it: subscribing to the principle that the best trick for throwing off pursuers was totravel places where only a lunatic would follow, the Tarahumara snake their trails over suicidallysteep terrain.

  “A false step,” an adventurer named Frederick Schwatka jotted in his notebook during a CopperCanyon expedition in 1888, “would send the climber two hundred to three hundred feet to thebottom of the canyon, perhaps a mangled corpse.”

  Schwatka was no prissy Parisian poet, either; he was a U.S. Army lieutenant who’d survived thefrontier wars and later lived among the Sioux as an amateur anthropologist, so the man knew frommangled corpses. He’d also traveled the baddest of badlands in his time, including a hellacioustwo-year expedition to the Arctic Circle. But when he got to the Copper Canyons, he had torecalibrate his scoring table. Scanning the ocean of wilderness around him, Schwatka felt a quickpulse of admiration—“The heart of the Andes or the crests of the Himalayas contain no moresublime scenery than the wild, unknown fastnesses of the Sierra Madres of Mexico”—before beingjerked back to morbid bewilderment: “How they can rear children on these cliffs without a loss ofone hundred percent annually is to me one of the most mysterious things connected with thesestrange people.”

  Even today, when the Internet has shrunk the world into a global village and Google satellites letyou spy on a stranger’s backyard on the other side of the country, the traditional Tarahumararemain as ghostly as they were four hundred years ago. In the mid-1990s, an expeditionary groupwas pushing into the deep Barrancas when they were suddenly rattled by the feeling of invisibleeyes:

  “Our small party had been hiking for hours through Mexico’s Barranca del Cobre—the CopperCanyon—without seeing a trace of any other human being,” wrote one member of the expedition.

  “Now, in the heart of a canyon even deeper than the Grand Canyon, we heard the echoes ofTarahumara drums. Their simple beats were faint at first, but soon gathered strength. Echoing offstony ridges, it was impossible to tell their number or location. We looked to our guide fordirection. ‘.Quién sabe?’ she said. ‘Who knows? The Tarahumara can’t be seen unless they wantto be.’”

  The moon was still high when we set off in Salvador’s trusty four-wheel-drive pickup. By the timethe sun came up, we’d left pavement far behind and were jouncing along a dirt track that was morelike a creek bed than a road, grinding along in low, low gear as we pitched and rolled like a trampsteamer on stormy seas.

  I tried keeping track of our location with a compass and map, but I sometimes couldn’t tell ifSalvador was making a deliberate turn or taking evasive action around a fallen boulder. Soon, itdidn’t matter—wherever we were, it wasn’t part of the known world; we were still snaking along anarrow gash through the trees, but the map showed nothing but untouched forest.

  “Mucha mota por aquí,” Salvador said, swirling a finger at the hills around us. Lots of marijuanaaround here.

  Because the Barrancas are impossible to police, they’ve become a base for two rival drug cartels,Los Zetas and the New Bloods. Both manned by ex-Army Special Forces and wereabsolutelyruthless;theZetaswerenotoriousfo(were) r plunging uncooperative cops into burning barrelsof diesel fuel and feeding captured rivals to the gang’s mascot—a Bengal tiger. After the victimsstopped screaming, their scorched and tiger-gnawed heads were carefully harvested as marketingtools; the cartels liked to mark their territory by, in one case, impaling the heads of two policeofficers outside a government building with a sign in Spanish reading LEARN SOME RESPECT.

  Later that same month, five heads were rolled onto the dance floor of a crowded nightclub. Evenway out here on the fringes of the Barrancas, some six bodies were turning up a week.

  But Salvador seemed totally unconcerned. He drove on through the woods, throatily butcheringsomething about a bra full of bad news named Maria. Suddenly, the song died in his mouth. Hesnapped off the tape player, his eyes fixed on a red Dodge pickup with smoked-black glass thathad just burst through the dust ahead of us.

  “Narcotraficantes,” he muttered.

  Drug runners. Salvador edged as close as he could to the cliff edge on our right and eased evenfurther back on the gas, dropping deferentially from the ten miles per hour we’d been averagingdown to a dead halt, granting the big red Dodge every bit of road he could spare.

  No trouble here was the message he was trying to send. Just minding our own, non-mota business.

  Just don’t stop … because what would we say if they cut us off and came piling out, demandingthat we speak slowly and clearly into the barrels of their assault rifles while we explained what thehell we were doing way out here in the middle of Mexican marijuana country?

  We couldn’t even tell them the truth; if they believed us, we were dead. If Mexico’s drug gangshated anything as much as cops, it was singers and reporters. Not singers in any slang sense ofsnitches or stool pigeons; they hated real, guitar-strumming, love-song-singing crooners. Fifteensingers were executed by drug gangs in just eighteen months, including the beautiful Zayda Pe.a,the twenty-eight-year-old lead singer of Zayda y Los Culpables, who was gunned down after aconcert; she survived, but the hit team tracked her to the hospital and blasted her to death while shewas recovering from surgery. The young heartthrob Valentín Elizalde was killed by a barrage ofbullets from an AK-47 just across the border from McAllen, Texas, and Sergio Gómez was killedshortly after he was nominated for a Grammy; his genitals were torched, then he was strangled todeath and dumped in the street. What doomed them, as far as anyone could tell, was their fame,good looks, and talent; the singers challenged the drug lords’ sense of their own importance, andso were marked for death.

  The bizarre fatwa on balladeers was emotional and unpredictable, but the contract on reporters wasall business. News articles about the cartels got picked up by American papers, which embarrassedAmerican politicians, which put pressure on the Drug Enforcement Administration to crack down.

  Infuriated, the Zetas threw hand grenades into newsrooms, and even sent killers across the U.S.

  border to hunt down meddlesome journalists. After thirty reporters were killed in six years, theeditor of the Villahermosa newspaper found the severed head of a low-level drug soldier outsidehis office with a note reading, “You’re next.” The death toll had gotten so bad, Mexico wouldeventually rank second only to Iraq in the number of killed or kidnapped reporters.

  And now we’d saved the cartels a lot of trouble; a singer and a journalist had just driven smackinto their backyard. I jammed my notebook down my pants and quickly scanned the front seat formore things to hide. It was hopeless; Salvador had his group’s tapes scattered everywhere, a shinyred press pass was in my wallet, and right between my feet was a backpack full of tape recorders,pens, and a camera.

  The red Dodge pulled alongside us. It was a glorious, sunny day with a cool, pine-scented breeze,but the truck’s windows were all tightly shut, leaving the mysterious crew invisible behind theirsmoked-black glass. The truck slowed to a rumbling crawl.

  Just keep going, I chanted inside my head. Don’t stop don’t stop don’t don’t don’t…The truck stopped. I cut my eyes hard left and saw Salvador was staring straight ahead, his handsfrozen on the steering wheel. I darted my eyes forward again and didn’t move a muscle.

  We sat.

  They sat.

  We were silent.

  They were silent.

  Six murders a week, I was thinking. Burned his balls off. I could see my head rolling betweenpanicky stilettos on a Chihuahua dance floor.

  Suddenly, a roar split the air. My eyes slashed left again. The big red Dodge was spitting back tolife and growling on past.

  Salvador watched in the side-view mirror till the Deathmobile disappeared in a swirl of dust. Thenhe slapped the steering wheel and blasted his ay-yay-yaying tape again.

  “.Bueno!” he shouted. “.ándale pues, a más aventuras!” Excellent! On to more adventures!

  Parts of me that had clenched tight enough to crack walnuts slowly began to relax. But not forlong.

  A few hours later, Salvador stomped on the brakes. He backed up, cut a hard right off the ruttedpath, and started winding between the trees. We wandered farther and farther into the woods,crunching over pine needles and bouncing into gullies so deep I was banging my head on the rollbar.

  As the woods got darker, Salvador got quieter. For the first time since our encounter with theDeathmobile, he even turned off the music. I thought he was drinking in the solitude and stillness,so I tried to sit back and appreciate it with him. But when I finally broke the silence with aquestion, he grunted moodily back at me. I began to suspect what was going on: we were lost, andSalvador didn’t want to admit it. I watched him more closely, and noticed he was slowing down tostudy the tree trunks, as if somewhere in the cuneiform bark was a decryptable road atlas.

  “We’re screwed,” I realized. We had a one-in-four shot of this turning out well, which left threeother possibilities: driving smack back into the Zetas, driving off a cliff in the dark, or drivingaround in the wilderness until the Clif Bars ran out and one of us ate the other.

  And then, just as the sun set, we ran out of planet.

  We emerged from the woods to find an ocean of empty space ahead—a crack in the earth so vastthat the far side could be in a different time zone. Down below, it looked like a world-endingexplosion frozen in stone, as if an angry god had been in the midst of destroying the planet, thenchanged his mind in mid-apocalypse. I was staring at twenty thousand square miles of wilderness,randomly slashed into twisting gorges deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon.

  I walked to the edge of the cliff, and my heart started to pound. A sheer drop fell for about… ever.

  Far below, birds were swirling about. I could just make out the mighty river at the bottom of thecanyon; it looked like a thin blue vein in an old man’s arm. My stomach clenched. How the hellwould we get down there?

  “We’ll manage,” Salvador assured me. “The Rarámuri do it all the time.”

  When I didn’t look any more cheerful, Salvador came up with a silver lining. “Hey, it’s better thisway,” he said. “It’s too steep for narcotraficantes to mess around down there.”

  I didn’t know if he really believed it or was lying to buck me up. Either way, he should haveknown better.

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