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Chapter 4

TWO DAYS LATER, Salvador dropped his backpack, mopped his sweating face, and said,“We’re here.”

  I looked around. There was nothing but rocks and cactus.

  “We’re where?”

  “Aquí mismo” Salvador said. “Right here. This is where the Quimare clan lives.”

  I didn’t get what he was talking about. As far as the eye could see, it was exactly like the dark sideof a lost planet we’d been hiking over for days. After ditching the truck on the rim of the canyon,we’d slid and scrambled our way down to the bottom. It had been a relief to finally walk on levelground, but not for long; after striking out upstream the next morning, we found ourselves wedgedtighter and tighter between the soaring stone walls. We pushed on, holding our backpacks on ourheads as we shoved against water up to our chests. The sun was slowly eclipsed by the steep walls,until we were inching our way through gurgling darkness, feeling as if we were slowly walking tothe bottom of the sea.

  Eventually, Salvador spotted a gap in the slick wall and we climbed through, leaving the riverbehind. By midday, I was longing for the gloomy dark again; with a baking sun overhead andnothing but bare rock all around, pulling ourselves up that slope was like climbing a steel slidingboard. Salvador finally stopped, and I dropped against a rock to rest.

  Damn, he’s tough, I thought. Sweat was pouring down Salvador’s sunburned face, but he stayed onhis feet. He had a strange, expectant look on his face.

  “.Qué pasa?” I asked. “What’s up?”

  “They’re right here,” Salvador said, pointing to a little hill.

  I hauled myself back up. I followed him through a crack between the rocks, and found myselffacing a dark opening. The hill was actually a small hut, fashioned from mud bricks and contouredinto the hillside so that it was invisible until you were literally on top of it.

  I took another look around to see if I’d missed any other camouflaged homes, but there wasn’t ahint of another human in any direction. The Tarahumara prefer to live in such isolation, even fromeach other, that members of the same village don’t like to be close enough to see each other’s cooksmoke.

  I opened my mouth to call out, then shut it. Someone was already there, standing in the dark,watching us. Then Arnulfo Quimare, the most feared of Tarahumara runners, stepped outside.

  “Kuira-bá,” Salvador said in the only words he knew in the Tarahumara language. “We’re all one.”

  Arnulfo was looking at me.

  “Kuira-bá,” I repeated.

  “Kuira,” Arnulfo breathed, his voice as soft as a sigh. He put out his hand for the Tarahumarahandshake, a soft sliding of fingertips. Then he vanished back inside. We waited and … waitedsome more. Was that it? There wasn’t a whisper from inside the hut, not a sign that he intended tocome back out. I edged around the corner to see if he’d slipped out the back. Another Tarahumaraman was napping in the shade of the back wall, but there was no sign of Arnulfo.

  I shuffled over to Salvador. “Is he coming back?”

  “No sé,” Salvador said, shrugging. “I don’t know. We might have really pissed him off.”

  “Already? How?”

  “We shouldn’t have just up like that.” Salvador was kicking himself. He’d gotten overexcited,andviolatedakeyr(come) ule of Tarahumara etiquette. Before approaching a Tarahumaracave, you have to take a seat on the ground a few dozen yards away and wait. You then look off inthe opposite direction for a while, as if you’d just happened to be wandering by with nothing betterto do. If someone appears and invites you into the cave, great. If not, you get up and go. You donot go walking right up to the entrance, the way Salvador and I had. The Tarahumara like to bevisible only if they decide to be; laying eyes on them without invitation was like barging in onsomeone naked in the bathroom.

  Luckily, Arnulfo turned out to be the forgiving type. He returned a few moments later, carrying abasket of sweet limes. We’d turned up at a bad time, he explained; his whole family was downwith the flu. That body behind the hut was his big brother, Pedro, who was too conked out withfever to even get up. Still, Arnulfo invited us to rest.

  “Assag,” he said. Have a seat.

  We sprawled in whatever shade we could find and began peeling limes, gazing at the tumblingriver. As we chomped and spat seeds in the dirt, Arnulfo stared off silently at the water. Everyonce in a while, he turned and gave me an appraising look. He never asked who we were or whywe were there; it seemed like he wanted to figure it out for himself.

  I tried not to stare, but it’s hard to keep your eyes off a guy as good-looking as Arnulfo. He wasbrown as polished leather, with whimsical dark eyes that glinted with bemused self-confidencefrom under the bangs of his black bowl-cut. He reminded me of the early Beatles; all the earlyBeatles, rolled into one shrewd, amused, quietly handsome composite of raw strength. He wasdressed in typical Tarahumara garb, a thigh-length skirt and a fiery red tunic as billowy as apirate’s blouse. Every time he moved, the muscles in his legs shifted and re-formed like moltenmetal.

  “You know, we’ve met,” Salvador told him in Spanish.

  Arnulfo nodded.

  Three years in a row, Arnulfo had hiked for days to show up in Guachochi for a sixty-mile racethrough the canyons. It’s an annual all-comers race pitting Tarahumara from throughout theSierras, plus the rare handful of Mexican runners willing to test their legs and luck against thetribesmen. Three years in a row, Arnulfo won. He took the title from his brother, Pedro, and wasfollowed in second and third by a cousin, Avelado, and his brother-in-law, Silvino.

  Silvino was an odd case, a Tarahumara who straddled the line between old and new worlds. Yearsago, a Christian Brother who ran a small Tarahumara school had trekked with Silvino to amarathon somewhere in California. Silvino won, and came home with enough money for an oldpickup truck, a pair of jeans, and a new wing for the schoolhouse. Silvino kept his truck at the topof the canyon, occasionally hiking up to drive into Guachochi. But even though he’d found asurefire way to make cash, he’d never returned to race again.

  When it comes to the rest of the planet, the Tarahumara are living contradictions: they shunoutsiders, but are fascinated by the outside world. In one way, it makes sense: when you loverunning extraordinary distances, it must be tempting to cut loose and see where, and how far, yourlegs can take you. A Tarahumara man once turned up in Siberia; he’d somehow strayed onto atramp steamer and vagabonded his way across the Russian steppes before being picked up andshipped back to Mexico. In 1983, Tarahumara in her swirling native skirts was discoveredwanderingthestreetsofato(a) wninKansas;shespe(woman) nt the next twelve years in an insaneasylum before a social worker finally realized she was speaking a lost language, not gibberish.

  “Would you ever race in the United States?” I asked Arnulfo.

  He continued to chomp limes and spit seeds. After a while, he shrugged.

  “Are you going to run again in Guachochi?”

  Chomp. Chomp. Shrug.

  Now I knew what Carl Lumholtz meant about Tarahumara men being so bashful that if it weren’tfor beer, the tribe would be extinct. “Incredible as it may sound,” Lumholtz had marveled, “I donot hesitate to state that in the ordinary course of his existence the uncivilised Tarahumare is toobashful and modest to enforce his matrimonial rights and privileges; and that by means of tesvinochiefly the race is kept alive and increasing.” Translation: Tarahumara men couldn’t even musterthe nerve to get romantic with their own wives if they didn’t drown their bashfulness in homebrew.

  Only later did I find out that I’d thrown my own wrench into the social wheels with big blunderNumber 2: Quizzing Him Like a Cop. Arnulfo wasn’t being rude with his silence; I was beingcreepy with my questions. To the Tarahumara, asking direct questions is a show of force, ademand for a possession inside their head. They certainly wouldn’t abruptly open up and spill theirsecrets to a stranger; strangers were the reason the Tarahumara were hidden down here in the firstplace. The last time the Tarahumara had been open to the outside world, the outside world had putthem in chains and mounted their severed heads on nine-foot poles. Spanish silver hunters hadstaked their claim to Tarahumara land—and Tarahumara labor—by decapitating their triballeaders.

  “Raramuri men were rounded up like wild broncos and impressed into slave labor in the mines,”

  one chronicler wrote; anyone who resisted was turned into a human horror show. Before dying, thecaptured Tarahumara were tortured for information. That was all the surviving Tarahumara neededto know about what happens when curious strangers come calling.

  The Tarahumara’s relationship with the rest of the planet only got worse after that. Wild Westbounty hunters were paid one hundred dollars apiece for Apache scalps, but it didn’t take long forthem to come up with a vicious way to maximize the reward while eliminating the risk; rather thantangling with warriors who’d fight back, they simply massacred the peaceful Tarahumara andcashed in on their look-alike hair.

  Good guys were even deadlier than the villains. Jesuit missionaries showed up with Bibles in theirhands and influenza in their lungs, promising eternal life but spreading instant death. TheTarahumara had no antibodies to combat the disease, so Spanish flu spread like wildfire, wipingout entire villages in days. A Tarahumara hunter would leave his family for a week in search ofgame, and come home to find nothing but corpses and flies.

  No wonder the Tarahumara’s mistrust of strangers had lasted four hundred years and led themhere, to a last refuge at the bottom of the earth. It also led to a meat cleaver of a vocabulary when itcomes to describing people. In the Tarahumara tongue, humans come in only two forms: there areRarámuri, who run from trouble, and chabochis, who cause it. It’s a harsh view of the world, butwith six bodies a week tumbling into their canyons, it’s hard to say they’re wrong.

  As far as Arnulfo was concerned, he’d met his social obligation with the limes. He’d made sure thetravelers were rested and refreshed, then he withdrew into himself the way his people withdrewinto the canyons. I could sit there all day and pursue him with all the questions I could think of.

  But I wasn’t going to find him.

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