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Chapter 5

“YES, YOU’D HAVE to be down here a looonnng time before they’d feel comfortable with you,”

  I told later that night by ángel Nava López, who ran the Tarahumara schoolhouse achi a few miles downriver from the Quimares’ hut. “A.os y a.os— years and years. LikeCaballo Blanco.”

  “Wait,” I interrupted. “Who?”

  The White Horse, ángel explained, was a tall, thin, chalky white man who jabbered his ownstrange language and would emerge from the hills with no warning, just materializing on the trailand loping on into the settlement. He first appeared ten years before, shortly after lunch on a hotSunday afternoon. The Tarahumara don’t have a written language, let alone written records ofweird hominid sightings, but ángel was dead certain about the day, year, and strangeness of theencounter, because he’s the one who did the encountering.

  ángel had been outside at the time, scanning the canyon walls to keep an eye on kids returning toschool. His students slept over during the week, then scattered on Friday, climbing high into themountains to their families’ homes. On Sunday, they came traipsing back to school again. ángelliked to do a head count as they trekked in, which is why he happened to be out in the hot noon sunwhen two boys came tearing down the mountainside.

  The boys hit the river at full speed, churning through as though they were being chased by demons.

  Which, they gasped to ángel when they made it to the schoolhouse, they probably were.

  They’d been out herding goats on the mountain, they said, when a weird creature darted throughthe trees above them. The Creature had the shape of a man, but was taller than any human they’dever seen. It was deathly pale and bony as a corpse, and had shocks of flame-colored hair juttingout of its skull. It was also naked. For a giant, nude cadaver, the Creature was pretty quick on itsfeet; it vanished into the brush before the boys could get more than a glimpse.

  Not that they hung around for more glimpsing. The two boys hightailed it back to the village,wondering who—or what—they’d just seen. After they reached ángel, though, they began to calmdown and catch their breath, and they realized who it was.

  “That’s the first chuhuíI ever saw,” one of the boys said.

  “A ghost?” ángel said. “What makes you think it was a ghost?”

  By this point, several Rarámuri elders had ambled up to see what was going on. The boys repeatedtheir story, describing the Creature’s skeletal appearance, its wild shocks of hair, the way it ranalong the trail above them. The elders heard the boys out, then set them straight. The canyonshadows could play tricks on anyone’s mind, so it was no surprise the boys’ imaginations had runa little wild. Still, they shouldn’t be allowed to panic the younger kids with wild stories.

  “How many legs did it have?” the elders asked.


  “Did it spit on you?”


  Well, there you had it. “That was no ghost,” the elders said. “That was just an ariwará.”

  A soul of the dead; yes, that did make a lot more sense. Ghosts were evil phantoms who traveledby night and galloped around on all fours, killing sheep and spitting in people’s faces. Souls of thedead, on the other hand, meant no harm and were just tidying up loose ends. Even in death, theTarahumara are fanatics about elusiveness. After they die, their souls hustle around to retrieve anyfootprints or stray hair the body left behind. The Tarahumara technique for getting a trim was topull their hair taut in the crotch of a tree and saw it off with a knife, so all those leftover hanks hadto be picked up. Once the dead soul has erased all signs of its earthbound existence, it can ventureon to the afterlife.

  “The journey takes three days,” the elders reminded the boys. “Four, if it’s a woman.” So naturallythe ariwará is going to look a little bushy, what with all that chopped hair jammed back on itshead; and of course it’ll be moving top speed, with only a long weekend to knock out a ton ofchores. Come to think of it, it was pretty impressive the boys managed to spot the ariwará at all;Tarahumara souls usually run so fast, all you see is swirl of dust sweeping across the countryside.

  Even in death, the elders reminded the boys, they’re still the Running People.

  “You’re alive because your father can run down a deer. He’s alive because his grandfather couldoutrun an Apache war pony. That’s how fast we are when we’re weighed down by our sapá, ourfleshiness. Imagine how you’ll fly once you shuck it.”

  ángel listened, wondering if he should bother pointing out another possibility. ángel was anoddity in Mu.erachi, a half-Mexican Tarahumara who had actually left the canyon for a while andgone to school in a Mexican village. He still wore traditional Tarahumara sandals and the koyerahairband, but unlike the other elders around him, ángel had on faded work pants instead of abreechcloth. He’d changed on the inside, as well; though he still worshipped the Tarahumara gods,he had to wonder if this Wild Thing in the Wilderness wasn’t just a chabochi who’d wandered infrom the outside world.

  Granted, it was probably even more of a long shot than sharing the trail with a traveling spirit. Noone ever penetrated this far unless they had a very good reason. Maybe he was a fugitive hidingfrom the law? A mystic seeking visions? A gold digger driven mad by the heat?

  ángel shrugged. A lone chabochi could be any of the above, and still not be the first of his kind tosurface in Tarahumara territory. It’s a natural law (or supernatural, if you’re so inclined) that weirdthings appear where people tend to disappear. African jungles, Pacific islands, Himalayanwastelands—wherever expeditionary parties go missing, that’s where lost species, Stonehengeystone idols, the flitting shadows of yetis, and ancient, unsurrendering Japanese soldiers are sure topop up.

  The Copper Canyons are no different, and in some regards, considerably worse. The Sierra Madresare the middle link of a mountain chain that stretches practically uninterrupted from Alaska toPatagonia. A desperado with a knack for backcountry navigation could hold up a bank in Coloradoand slink to safety in the Copper Canyons, darting across desolate passes and desert ranges withoutcoming within ten miles of the next human being.

  As the best open-air safe house on the continent, consequently, the Copper Canyons not onlyspawn bizarre beings but also attract them. Over the past hundred years, the canyons have playedhost to just about every stripe of North American misfit: bandits, mystics, murderers, man-eatingjaguars, Comanche warriors, Apache marauders, paranoid prospectors, and Pancho Villa’s rebelshave all shaken pursuit by slipping into the Barrancas.

  Geronimo used to skeedaddle into the Copper Canyons when he was on the run from the U.S.

  Cavalry. So did his protégé, the Apache Kid, who “moved like a ghost in the desert,” as onechronicler put it. “He followed no pattern. No one knew where he would show up next. It wasunnerving to work cattle or mine a claim when every shadow, every slight noise, could be theApache Kid closing in for the kill. One worried settler said it best: ‘Usually, by the time you sawthe Apache Kid it was entirely too late.’”

  Pursuing them into the maze meant running the risk of never finding a way back out again. “Tolook at this country is grand; to travel in it, is Hell,” a U.S. Cavalry captain named John Bourkewrote after barely surviving another unsuccessful pursuit of Geronimo into the Copper Canyons.

  The click of a tumbling pebble would echo around crazily, getting louder and louder rather thanfainter, the sound bouncing from right, to left, to overhead. The rasp of two juniper brancheswould have an entire company of cavalrymen yanking out their pistols, their own shadowscontorting monstrously against the stone walls as they searched wildly in all directions.

  More than just echoes and jumpy imaginations made the Copper Canyons seem haunted; onetorment could transform into another so quickly, it was hard not to believe the Barrancas wereguarded by some wrathful spirit with a sadistic sense of humor. After days of baking under amerciless sun, soldiers would welcome the relief of a few dark clouds. Within minutes, they’d betrapped in a surge of flood-water as powerful as a fire hose, scrambling desperately to escape upthe slippery rock walls. That’s exactly how another Apache rebel named Massai once wiped out anentire cavalry squad: “By bringing them into a shallow gorge just in time to be swept away by amountain cloudburst.”

  The Barrancas were so treacherous, even a quick sip of fresh water could kill you. The Apachechief Victorio used to lead U.S. Cavalry troops on a cat-and-mouse chase deep into the canyons,then lie in wait by the only water hole. The cavalrymen must have known he’d be there, butcouldn’t help themselves. Lost and crazed by the heat, they would rather risk a quick bullet in thehead than a slow choking from a thirst-thickened tongue.

  Not even the two toughest hombres in U.S. military history were any match for the Barrancas.

  When Pancho Villa’s forces attacked a town in New Mexico in 1916, President Woodrow Wilsonpersonally directed both Black Jack Pershing and George Patton to haul him out of his CopperCanyon lair. Ten years later, the Jaguar was still on the loose. Even with the full might of the U.S.

  armed forces at their disposal, Patton and Pershing had to be bewildered by ten thousand miles ofraw wilderness, with their only possible information source, the Tarahumara, disappearing at thesound of a sneeze. The result: Black Jack and Old Blood and Guts could whip the Germans in twoworld wars, but surrendered to the Copper Canyons.

  Over time, the Mexican federales learned to take a more be-careful-what-you-wish-for strategy.

  What was hell for pursuers, they realized, couldn’t be a whole lot nicer for the pursued. Whateverhappened to the fugitives in there—starvation, jaguar attack, dementia, a life sentence of voluntarysolitary confinement—was probably more ghastly than anything the Mexican court system wouldhave meted out. So, often as not, the federales would rein in their horses and allow any bandit whoreached the canyons to try his luck in the prison of his own making.

  Many adventurers who slunk in never slunk back out again, giving the canyons their reputation asthe Bermuda Triangle of the borderlands. The Apache Kid and Massai galloped over Skeleton Passinto the Copper Canyons one last time and were never seen again. Ambrose Bierce, the celebritynewspaper columnist and author of the satiric hit The Devil’s Dictionary, was reportedly en routeto a rendezvous with Pancho Villa in 1914 when he strayed into the Copper Canyons’ gravitationalpull and was never seen again. Imagine Anderson Cooper vanishing on assignment for CNN, andyou get the sense of the search that was launched for Bierce. But no trace was ever found.

  Did the lost souls of the canyons suffer a terrible fate, or wreak terrible fates on each other? Noone knows. In the old days, they’d be killed off by mountain lions, scorpions, coral snakes, thirst,cold, hunger, or canyon fever, and you could now add a sniper’s bullet to that list. Ever since thedrug cartels had moved into the Copper Canyons, they’d guarded their crops through telescopicscopes powerful enough to see a leaf quiver from miles away.

  Which made ángel wonder if he’d ever see the Creature at all. A lot of things could kill him outthere, and probably would. If the Creature didn’t know enough to keep his distance from themarijuana fields, he wouldn’t even hear the shot that took off his head.

  “.Hoooooolaaaaaa! .Amigoooooooooos!”

  The mystery of the lone wanderer was solved even sooner than ángel had expected. He was stillsquinting into the sun, watching out for returning schoolkids, when he heard an echoing yodel andspotted a naked guy waving and running down the trail toward the river.

  On closer inspection, the Creature wasn’t entirely naked. He wasn’t exactly dressed either,certainly not by Tarahumara standards. For a people who prefer not to be seen, the Tarahumaraalways look fantastic. The men wear bright blouses over a long white cloth bound around the groinand left hanging, skirtlike, in the front and rear. They cinch it all together with a rainbow-coloredsash, and accessorize with a matching headband. Tarahumara women are even more magnificent,wearing brilliantly colored skirts and matching blouses, their lovely umber skin highlighted bycoral-colored stone necklaces and bracelets. No matter what kind of fancy hiking duds you’ve goton, you’re guaranteed to feel underdressed among the Tarahumara.

  Even by sun-crazed-prospector standards, the Creature was seriously shabby. He only had on somedirt-colored chabochi shorts, a pair of sandals, and an old baseball cap. That was it. No backpack,no shirt, and apparently no food, because as soon as he reached ángel, he asked in awkwardSpanish for agua and made shoveling gestures toward his mouth—maybe he could have somethingto eat?

  “Assag,” ángel told him in Tarahumara, gesturing for him to sit. Someone produced a cup ofpinole, the Tarahumara corn gruel. The stranger slurped it down hungrily. Between gulps, he triedto communicate. He pumped his arms and let his tongue loll like a panting dog.

  “.Corriendo?” the teacher asked. You’ve been running?

  The Creature nodded. “Todo día,” he said in pidgin Spanish. “All day.”

  “.Por qué?” ángel asked. “.Y a dónde?” Why? And where to?

  The Creature launched into a long tale, which ángel found highly entertaining as performance artbut barely intelligible as narrative. From what ángel could make out, the lone wanderer was eithertotally nuts or not so lone after all; he claimed to have an even more mysterious sidekick, somekind of Apache warrior he called Ramón Chingón—“Ray, the Mean Motherfucker.”

  “.Y tú?” ángel asked. “What’s your name?”

  “Caballo Blanco,” he said. The White Horse.

  “Pues, bueno,” the teacher said, shrugging. Good enough.

  The White Horse didn’t linger; once he’d gulped some water and a second cup of pinole, he wavedgood-bye and went trotting back up the trail. He stomped and shrieked like a wild stallion as hewent, amusing the kids, who laughed and chased at his heels until he disappeared, once again, backinto the wild.

  “Caballo Blanco es muy amable,” ángel said, concluding his story, “pero un poco raro.” TheWhite Horse is a good guy, in other words, if you like ’em a little loony.

  “So you think he’s still out there?” I asked.

  “Hombre, claro,” ángel said. “He was here yesterday. I gave him a drink with that cup.”

  I looked around. There was no cup.

  “The cup was there, too,” ángel insisted.

  From what ángel had picked up over the years, Caballo lived in a hut he’d built himselfsomewhere across the Batopilas mountain. Whenever he turned up at ángel’s school, he arrivedwith just the sandals on his feet, the shirt on his back (if that), and a bag of dry pinole hangingfrom his waist, like the Tarahumara. He seemed to live off the land when he ran, depending onkorima, the cornerstone of Tarahumara culture.

  Korima sounds like karma and functions the same way, except in the here and now. It’s yourobligation to share whatever you can spare, instantly and with no expectations: once the gift leavesyour hand, it was never yours to begin with. The Tarahumara have no monetary system, so korimais how they do business: their economy is based on trading favors and the occasional cauldron ofcorn beer.

  The White Horse looked and dressed and sounded nothing like the Tarahumara, but in a deeperway, he was one of them. ángel had heard of Tarahumara runners who used the Horse’s hut as away station during long journeys through the canyons. The Horse, in return, was always welcometo a meal and a place to rest when he came roaming through ángel’s village on his rambling runs.

  ángel waved his arm, a brusque sweep of his arm out thataway— beyond the river and the canyontop, toward non-Tarahumara country whence no good can come.

  “There’s a village called Mesa de la Yerbabuena,” he said. “Do you know it, Salvador?”

  “Mm-hm,” Salvador murmured.

  “Do you know what happened to it?”

  “Mm-HM,” Salvador replied, his inflection conveying Hell, yeah.

  “Many of the best runners were from Yerbabuena,” ángel said. “They had a very good trail whichwould let them cover a lot of distance in a day, much farther than you could get to from here.”

  Unfortunately, the trail was so good that the Mexican government eventually decided to slick itwith asphalt and turn it into a road. Trucks began showing up in Yerbabuena, and in them, foodsthe Tarahumara had rarely eaten—soda, chocolate, rice, sugar, butter, flour. The people ofYerbabuena developed a taste for starch and treats, but they needed money to buy them, so insteadof working their own fields, they began hitching rides to Guachochi, where they worked asdishwashers and day laborers, or selling junk crafts at the train station in Divisadero.

  “That was twenty years ago,” ángel said. “Now, there are no runners in Yerbabuena.”

  The Yerbabuena story really scares ángel, because now there’s talk that the government has founda way to run a road along the canyon floor and right into this settlement. Why they would put aroad in here, ángel doesn’t have a clue; the Tarahumara don’t want it, and they’re the only oneswho live here. Only drug lords and illegal loggers benefit from Copper Canyon roads, whichmakes the Mexican government’s obsession with backcountry road-building rather bewildering—or, considering how many soldiers and politicians are linked to the drug trade, rather not.

  “That’s exactly what Lumholtz was afraid would happen,” I thought to myself. A century ago, thefarseeing explorer was already warning that the Tarahumara were in danger of disappearing.

  “Future generations will not find any other record of the Tarahumares than what scientists of thepresent age can elicit from the lips of the people and from the study of their implements andcustoms,” he predicted. “They stand out to-day as an interesting relic of a time long gone by; as arepresentative of one of the most important stages in the development of the human race; as one ofthose wonderful primitive tribes that were the founders and makers of the history of mankind.”

  “There Rarámuri who don’t respect our traditions as much as Caballo Blanco,” ángellamented. “(are) El Caballo sabe—the Horse gets it.”

  I slumped against the wall of ángel’s schoolhouse, my legs twitching and head pounding fromexhaustion. It had been grueling enough to get this far, and now it looked like the hunt had justbegun.

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