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Chapter 26
Baby, this town rips the bones from your back;It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap …—BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “Born to Run”

CABALLO BLANCO’S face was pink with pride, so I tried to think of something nice to say.

We’d just arrived in Batopilas, an ancient mining town tucked eight thousand feet below the lip ofthe canyon. It was founded four hundred years ago when Spanish explorers discovered silver ore inthe stony river, and it hasn’t changed much since then. It’s still a tiny strip of houses hugging theriverbank, a place where burros are as common as cars and the first telephone was installed whenthe rest of the world was programming iPods.

Getting down there took a cast-iron stomach and supreme faith in your fellow man, the man inquestion being the one driving the bus. The only way into Batopilas is a dirt road that corkscrewsalong the sheer face of a cliff, dropping seven thousand feet in less than ten miles. As the busstrained around hairpin turns, we hung on tight and looked far below at the wrecks of cars whosedrivers had miscalculated by few inches. Two years later, Caballo would make his owncontributiontothesteelcemetery(a) when the pickup truck he was driving caught the lip of the cliffand tumbled over. Caballo managed to dive out just in time and watched as the truck exploded farbelow. Later, chunks of the scorched carcass were scavenged as good-luck charms.

After the bus pulled over on the edge of town, we climbed down stiffly, our faces as war-paintedwith dust and sweat salt as Caballo’s had been the first the time I met him. “There she is!” Caballohollered. “That’s my place.”

We looked around, but the only thing in sight was the ancient ruin of an old mission across theriver. Its roof was gone and its red-stone walls were collapsing into the ruddy canyon they’d beencarved from, looking like a sand castle dissolving back into sand. It was perfect; Caballo had foundthe ideal home for a living ghost. I could only imagine how freaky it must be to pass here at nightand see his monstrous shadow dancing around behind his campfire as he wandered the ruins likeQuasimodo.

“Wow, that’s really something, uh … else,” I said.

“No, man,” he said. “Over here.” He pointed behind us, toward a faint goat trail disappearing intothe cactus. Caballo began to climb, and we fell in behind him, grabbing at brush for balance as weslipped and scrabbled up the stony path.

“Damn, Caballo,” Luis said. “This is the only driveway in the world that needs trail markers andan aid station at mile two.”

After a hundred yards or so, we came through a thicket of wild lime trees and found a small, clay-walled hut. Caballo had built it by hauling up rocks from the river, making the round-trip over thattreacherous path hundreds of times with river-slick stones in his hands. As a home, it suitedCaballo even better than the ruined mission; here in his handmade fortress of solitude, he could seeeverything in the river valley and remain unseen.

We wandered inside, and saw Caballo had a small camp bed, a pile of trashed sports sandals, andthree or four books about Crazy Horse and other Native Americans on a shelf next to a kerosenelamp. That was it; no electricity, no running water, no toilet. Out back, Caballo had cut away thecactus and smoothed a little place to kick back after a run, smoke something relaxing, and gaze offat the prehistoric wilderness. Whatever Barefoot Ted’s heavy Heidegger word was, no one wasever more an expression of their place than Caballo was of his hut.

Caballo was anxious to get us fed and off his hands so he could catch up on sleep. The next fewdays were going to take everything we had, and none of us had gotten much rest since El Paso. Heled us back down his hidden driveway and up the road to a tiny shop operating from the frontwindow of a house; you poked your head in and if shopkeeper Mario had what you wanted, yougot it. Upstairs, Mario rented us a few small rooms with a cold-water shower at the end of the hall.

Caballo wanted us to dump our bags and head off immediately for food, but Barefoot Ted insistedon stripping down and padding off to the shower to sluice away the road grime. He came outscreaming.

“Jesus! The shower’s got loose wires. I just got the shit shocked out of me!”

Eric looked at me. “You think Caballo did it?”

“Justifiable homicide,” I said. “No jury would convict.” The Barefoot Ted-Caballo Blanco stormfront hadn’t improved a bit since we’d left Creel. During one rest stop, Caballo climbed downfrom the roof and squeezed his way into the back of the bus to escape. “That guy doesn’t knowwhat silence is,” Caballo fumed. “He’s from L.A., man; he thinks you’ve got to fill every spacewith noise.”

After we’d gotten settled at Mario’s, Caballo brought us to another of his Mamás. We didn’t evenhave to order; as soon as we arrived, Do.a Mila began pulling out whatever she had in the fridge.

Soon, platters were being handed around of guacamole, frijoles, sliced cactus and tomatoes dousedin tangy vinegar, Spanish rice, and a fragrant beef stew thickened with chicken liver.

“Pack it in,” Caballo had said. “You’re going to need it tomorrow.” He was taking us on a littlewarm-up hike, Caballo said. Just a jaunt up a nearby mountain to give us a taste of the terrain we’dbe tackling on the trek to the racecourse. He kept saying it was no big deal, but then he’d warn uswe’d better pound down the food and get right to bed. I became even more apprehensive after awhite-haired old American ambled in and joined us.

“How’s the giddyup, Hoss?” he greeted Caballo. His was Bob Francis. He had first wandereddowntoBatopilasinthe’60s,andpartofhimhadne(name) ver left. Even though he had kidsand grand-kids back in San Diego, Bob still spent most of the year wandering the canyons aroundBatopilas, sometimes guiding trekkers, sometimes just visiting Patricio Luna, a Tarahumara friendwho was Manuel Luna’s uncle. They met thirty years before, when Bob got lost in the canyons.

Patricio found him, fed him, and brought him back to his family’s cave for the night.

Because of his long friendship with Patricio, Bob is one of the only Americans to have everattended a Tarahumara tesgüinada—the marathon drinking party that precedes and occasionallyprevents the ball races. Even Caballo hasn’t reached that level of trust with the Tarahumara, andafter listening to Bob’s stories, he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“All of a sudden, Tarahumara I’ve been friends with for years, guys I knew as shy, gentle amigos,are in my face, butting against me with their chests, spitting insults at me, ready to fight,” Bobsaid. “Meanwhile, their wives are in the bushes with other men, and their grown-up daughters arewrestling naked. They keep the kids away from these deals; you can imagine why.”

Anything goes at a tesgüinada, Bob explained, because everything is blamed on the peyote,moonshine tequila, and tesgüino, the potent corn beer. As wild as these parties get, they actuallyserve a noble and sober purpose: they act as a pressure valve to vent explosive emotions. Just likethe rest of us, the Tarahumara have secret desires and grievances, but in a society where everyonerelies on one another and there are no police to get between them, there has to be a way to satisfylusts and grudges. What better than a booze-fest? Everyone gets ripped, goes wild, and then,chastened by bruises and hangovers, they dust themselves off and get on with their lives.

“I could have been married or murdered twenty times before the night was over,” Bob said. “But Iwas smart enough to put down the gourd and get myself out of there before the real shenanigansstarted.” If one outsider knew the Barrancas as well as Caballo, it was Bob, which was why, eventhough he was liquored up and in a bit of a ranting mood, I paid careful attention when he got intoit with Ted.

“Those fucking things are going to be dead tomorrow,” Bob said, pointing at the FiveFingers onTed’s feet.

“I’m not going to wear them,” Ted said.

“Now you’re talking sense,” Bob said.

“I’m going barefoot,” Ted said.

Bob turned to Caballo. “He messing with us, Hoss?”

Caballo just smiled.

————Early the next morning, Caballo came for us as dawn was breaking over the canyon. “That’s wherewe’re headed tomorrow,” Caballo said, pointing through the window of my room toward amountain rearing in the distance. Between us and the mountain was a sea of rolling foothills sothickly overgrown that it was hard to see how a trail could punch through. “We’ll run one of thoselittle guys this morning.”

“How much water do we need?” Scott asked.

“I only carry this,” Caballo said, waving a sixteen-ounce plastic bottle. “There’s a freshwaterspring up top to refill.”


“Nah,” Caballo shrugged as he and Scott left to check on the others. “We’ll be back by lunch.”

“I’m bringing the big boy,” Eric said to me, gurgling springwater into the bladder on his ninetysix-ounce hydration backpack. “I think you should, too.”

“Really? Caballo says we’re only going about ten miles.”

“Can’t hurt to carry the max when you go off-road,” Eric said. “Even if you don’t need it, it’straining for when you do. And you never know—something happens, you could be out therelonger than you think.”

I put down my handheld bottle and reached for my hydration pack. “Bring iodine pills in case youneed to purify water. And shove in some gels, too,” Eric added. “On race day, you’re going to needtwo hundred calories an hour. The trick is learning how to take in a little at a time, so you’ve got asteady drip of fuel without overwhelming your stomach. This’ll be good practice.”

We walked through Batopilas, past shopkeepers hand-sprinkling water on the stones to keep thedust down. Schoolkids in spotless white shirts, their black hair sleek with water, interrupted theirchatter to politely wish us “Buenos días.”

“Gonna be a hot one,” Caballo said, as we ducked into a storefront with no sign out front. “.Hayteléfono?” he asked the woman who greeted us. Are the phones working?

“Todavía no” she said, shaking her head in resignation. Not yet. Clarita had the only two publicphones in all Batopilas, but service had been knocked out for the past three days, leavingshortwave radio the only form of communication. For the first time, it hit me how cut off we were;we had no way of knowing what was going on in the outside world, or letting the outside worldknow what was happening to us. We were putting a hell of a lot of trust in Caballo, and once again,I had to wonder why; as knowledgeable as Caballo was, it still seemed crazy to put our lives in thehands of a guy who didn’t seem too concerned about his own.

But for the moment, the grumble of my stomach and the aroma of Clarita’s breakfast managed topush those thoughts aside. Clarita served up big plates of huevos rancheros, the fried eggssmothered in homemade salsa and freshly chopped cilantro and sitting atop thick, hand-pattedtortillas. The food was too delicious to wolf down, so we lingered, refilling our coffee a few timesbefore getting up to go. Eric and I followed Scott’s example and tucked an extra tortilla in ourpockets for later.

Only after we finished did I realize that the Party Kids hadn’t shown up. I checked my watch; itwas already pushing 10 a.m.

“We’re leaving them,” Caballo said.

“I’ll run back for them,” Luis offered.

“No,” Caballo said. “They could still be in bed. We’ve got to hit it if we’re going to dodge theafternoon heat.”

Maybe it was for the best; they could use a day to rehydrate and power up for the hike tomorrow.

“No matter what, don’t let them try to follow us,” Caballo told Luis’s father, who was stayingbehind. “They get lost out there, we’ll never see them again. That’s no joke.”

Eric and I cinched tight our hydration packs, and I pulled a bandanna over my head. It was alreadysteamy. Caballo slid through a gap in the retaining wall and began picking his way over theboulders to the edge of the river. Barefoot Ted pushed ahead to join him, showing off how nimblyhe could hop from rock to rock in his bare feet. If Caballo was impressed, he wasn’t showing it.

“YOU GUYS! HOLD UP!” Jenn and Billy were sprinting down the street behind us. Billy had hisshirt in his hand, and Jenn’s shoelaces were untied.

“You sure you want to come?” Scott asked when they panted up. “You haven’t even eatenanything.”

Jenn tore a PowerBar in two and gave half to Billy. They were each carrying a skinny water bottlethat couldn’t have held more than six swallows. “We’re good,” Billy said.

We followed the stony riverbank for a mile, then turned into a dry gully. Without a word, we allspontaneously broke into a trot. The gully was wide and sandy, leaving plenty of room for Scottand Barefoot Ted to flank Caballo and run three abreast.

“Check out their feet,” said Eric. Even though Scott was in the Brooks trail shoe he’d helpeddesign and Caballo was in sandals, they both skimmed their feet over the ground just the way Teddid in his bare feet, their foot strikes in perfect sync. It was like watching a team of Lipizzanerstallions circle the show ring.

After about a mile, Caballo veered onto a steep, rocky washout that climbed up into the mountain.

Eric and I eased back to a walk, obeying the ultrarunner’s creed: “If you can’t see the top, walk.”

When you’re running fifty miles, there’s no dividend in bashing up the hills and then being windedon the way down; you only lose a few seconds if you walk, and then you can make them back upby flying downhill. Eric believes that’s one reason ultrarunners don’t get hurt and never seem toburn out: “They know how to train, not strain.”

As we walked, we caught up with Barefoot Ted. He’d had to slow down to pick his way over thejagged, fist-sized stones. I squinted up at the trail ahead: we had at least another mile of crumblyrock to climb before the trail leveled and, hopefully, smoothed.

“Ted, where are your FiveFingers?” I asked.

“Don’t need ’em,” he said. “I made a deal with Caballo that if I handled this hike, he wouldn’t getmad anymore if I went barefoot.”

“He rigged the bet,” I said. “This is like running up the side of a gravel pit.”

“Humans didn’t invent rough surfaces, Oso,” Ted said. “We invented the smooth ones. Your footis perfectly happy molding itself around rocks. All you’ve got to do is relax and let your foot flex.

It’s like a foot massage. Oh, hey!” he called after us as Eric and I pulled ahead. “Here’s a great tip.

Next time your feet are sore, walk on slippery stones in a cold creek. Unbelievable!”

Eric and I left Ted singing to himself as he hopped and trotted along. The glare off the stones wasblinding and heat kept rising, making it feel as if we were climbing straight into the sun. In a way,we were; after two miles, I checked the altimeter on my watch and saw we’d climbed over athousand feet. Soon, though, the trail plateaued and softened from stones to footworn dirt.

The others were a few hundred yards ahead, so Eric and I started to run to close the gap. Before wecaught them, Barefoot Ted came whisking by. “Time for a drink,” he said, waving his empty waterbottle. “I’ll wait for you guys at the spring.”

The trail veered abruptly upward again, jagging back and forth in lightning-bolt switchbacks.

Fifteen hundred feet… two thousand … We bent into the slope, feeling as though we only gained afew inches every step. After three hours and six miles of hard climbing, we hadn’t hit the spring;we hadn’t seen shade since we left the riverbank.

“See?” Eric said, waving the nozzle of his hydration pack. “Those guys have got to be parched.”

“And starving,” I added, ripping open a raw-food granola bar.

At thirty-five hundred feet, we found Caballo and the rest of the crew waiting in a hollow under ajuniper tree. “Anyone need iodine pills?” I asked.

“Don’t think so,” Luis said. “Take a look.”

Under the tree was a natural stone basin carved out by centuries of cool, trickling spring water.

Except there was no water.
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