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January 27, 2008

The Curse of the Tarahumara

The old man with the slim-hipped body of a boy did a rain dance for our entertainment. He was once a world champion in the 100 mile super-marathon. The Tarahumara Indians run rather than walk; they live in steep canyons – at 7000 feet in the summer and in the valleys much lower in the winter. He and his friends drove to Leadville, Colorado to compete in the 1993 when he was already in his fifties; he won then. He was second to an American when the race was run in his native Sierra Tarahumura. Now he dances traditional dances, sometimes. His feet and legs are still strong.

He lives in his hut on land belonging to the local Tarahumura council. The hut, which has nether running water nor electricity, is surrounded by his corn field, his peach orchid, and the fenced in area where his bull grazes. The cows are free on the range. They don’t keep goats anymore because of the damage they do to the thin soil of the plateau. When he ran competitively, he wore sandals made from old tires. When he dances the rain dance, he wears rattles on his ankles made from dried butterfly cocoons filled with dry seeds.

Trouble is the rain dance worked during what should be the dry season. It was raining when we got up the next morning (yesterday). In the village before the village where the train station is, we found out that the trains were not running – no explanation, just no trains.

For a not-so-small fee the driver who was taking us to the station said he would take us to the next station (that’s as far as we planned to go on the train yesterday) and rendezvous with the driver who was already arranged to take us from that station to Uno Lodge, our next destination. We changed to a pickup for the ride over the rutted, wet, and occasional steep gravel road to San Rafael, suitcases in plastic garbage bags in the back. At San Rafael, we switched vehicles with an ashen-faced couple, clearly in shock, who had just come from Uno Lodge and were headed back the way we’d come. “Interesting ride,” the man said but didn’t unclench his teeth.

It’s only six miles from San Rafael to Uno Lodge; in good weather the drive takes an hour and there’s usually a four-wheel drive vehicle but that’s in Chihuahua being serviced. And it’s not good weather. The small-wheeled long van with rear wheel drive slips alarmingly on the wet limestone and occasional clay or mud. Some of the canyons at the edge of the road carved into the cliff are a five thousand foot sheer drop. Mary doesn’t look and I only pretend to be brave.

Finally the women revolt and with some relief I accompany them walking the last precipitous mile in a light drizzle. The lodge at 6600 feet overlooks a canyon at least as picturesque and on the same scale as the Grand Canyon. At a mere thirty million years  since its fiery genesis, this landscape is only a quarter the age of the Grand Canyon and correspondingly much more jagged. The views are beautiful when we get glimpses of them through the now driving rain and swirling fog. The guest book talks about the best hikes ever and we’re stuck inside playing dominos and hearts.

We have yesterday’s forecast but the promised afternoon clearing hasn’t happened. The lodge has a little solar-generated juice left in its battery and is recharging the radio telephone so we may get a later report. We’re the only guests and not quite sure if we’ll be able to leave as scheduled tomorrow since the road is no longer fit for the vans even by local standards and snow was in the old forecast.

There’s a horse I call Plan B. It could carry most of the bags. We can walk six miles if we have to if we can keep dry  (it’s cold) and we did save the garbage bags our suitcases were in to use as panchos. Not the hike we had in mind but people do come to Stowe to ski and sometimes find no snow. No use complaining.

Too late I read in the guide book that the Tarahumara like to be left alone. With hindsight that’s clear from their isolated huts spread through the canyons. My advice is don’t accept rain dances from strangers unless you want to get wet.

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