I was down in Mexico’s Copper Canyon with a small group of adventure travelers, or “Chavochi’s” (non indigenous Tarahumara/devil people as some of us Gringo’s are fondly known among the Tarahumara), in the early 2000’s and some things happened while we were down there in Batopilas Canyon and the town of Batopilas, itself, which may or may not be related to each other. I think they are.
We drug 3 more chairs over to the table and sat down. I liked the table under the big Mango tree and so that’s where we sat. Off to one side, the Batopilas River rushed downstream. We were surrounded on the other three sides by the old colonial town itself and the plethora of expected rural Mexico town sounds. The courtyard we sat in was surrounded by a fence, separating us from the confusion of the town. A pudgy, young barmaid quickly approached to take our order, but started the whole process off by informing us that the beer truck was late, which meant that for the moment, the selections and quantities were limited. She said it in a way that made it seem not all that unusual, so we were only partially irritated. I was not completely surprised by the situation and my thought was that the beer choices in that part of Mexico were always somewhat limited anyway, so it was simply “no le hace”, as far as I was concerned. I wanted to help out as much as I could with the problema, so ordered a Modelo, figuring there was bound to be more of that in the back than anything else. The other’s followed suit. She waited for all six of us to order before informing us that they were out of Modelo, but did have enough Corona to go around. OK, I thought, what the hell? So, I ordered a round for the table. It was kind of the way things were around Batopilas and at the Zaguan (the only bar in town), so I was not all that surprised.
There was a brief lull in the table talk as most everyone struggled to think through and rationalize the ordering process. While the clients voices were silent, their eyes weren’t and they wandered all over the place. Like the waitress taking our order, there was a lot to absorb. Eventually, someone did talk, which led to something of a verbal eruption around the table. There were a lot of questions. First off, was the intrigue with the road down into the canyon from the little village of Quirare. The blind curves, drop-offs, dirt, rocks, and width (or lack of it) had obviously made an impression. Hugo, the Bolivian doctor had noted the small graveyard stuck back in the brush part way down and was just starting to try and get an explanation about what it was all about when a middle-aged male waiter brought the beers. I couldn’t help but wonder where the pudgy woman had gone, but took a swig of my Corona and launched into a story about the pigs in Cerro Colorado instead. My mind and thoughts had gone somewhere else and I was moving on.
The late afternoon light began casting longer and longer shadows onto and around the old buildings. A scuffle of some sort erupted just outside the old wooden fence toward the plaza, but quickly stopped, seemingly when a car or truck horn started blaring somewhere off in the distance. Just then, loud and invisible footsteps ran past, just on the other side of the fence as someone went somewhere in a big hurry. None of the noises caused any of the bar workers to even look up—for them, it was just another day turning to night. A few moments later, through a hole in the cobbled-together fence which separated the bar from the town, I caught brief glimpses of what was obviously the bottom half of people walking past and down the side street and could see by the distinctive white of their sitabachas, a sort of loin cloth, that at least some of them were Tarahumara men.
And that ancient culture was fresh on my mind. I’d just been reading an ethnology of sorts about them and my mind was drifting between the Tesquinado Complex, the Tarahumara family structure and their beliefs in various invisible birds that do all sorts of bad things, when suddenly I realized that everyone at the table was looking at me and awaiting my response.
It was like a bad dream. I didn’t even know what the question was and didn’t want to give an inappropriate response, since I wanted to be a part of the ongoing conversation and to at least appear engaged. So, I did what always seems to work in moments like that and started talking about the weather and, in this case, the ongoing area drought. It worked. Seamlessly, everyone began talking about the crisp, dry air; cloudless days and the pleasant evening sub-tropical temps. Here we were, sitting outside in January, in the early evening without even so much as a jacket on. To us, the drought was just a point of interest. Life was good.
We sipped on our beers, talked about the chief of police and the big scar on his face, speculated about what it would be like to live in a place like the one we were in the midst of and talked about how people all over the world are always trying to re-create places like the Zaguan and never quite getting it right.
Eventually, we got up from our table and walked over to the Puente Colgante restaurant for supper. The place had a variety of old photos and memorabilia on the walls and decent enough food. When the owner/chef/waiter came over to solidify what it was that we wanted to eat, he let us know right off the bat that there was no beer—the beer truck had been delayed. That was old news to us, so we ordered bottled water con gas and soft drinks to go with our meals and then sat back and began talking about some of the various area bridges, including the swinging bridge right outside the front door.
During the first few minutes while waiting for our meal, a variety of patrons came in and some went out. Just as our food was arriving, a large contingent of what appeared to be locals burst through the front door and immediately addressed us. We were a bit shocked the chain of events. The men (there were absolutely no women) were with the local volunteer ambulance service and word was that we had a physician in our group. We all looked at Hugo and agreed. The tall one of the group launched into a description of what the situation was. The Corona delivery truck had run off the road and rolled down the hillside a few miles out of town, up toward La Bufa. The driver had survived and been hauled up to the road, but needed to go to the nearest hospital, which was some 6 hours away in San Juanito. They needed the doctor to go with them to help take care of things. There was no hesitation. Hugo, who conveniently spoke Spanish, got up from his chair and followed the three men out the door. After he had left, I realized that there was no real plan about how this would all work out, what the next step was or even how long he might be gone. We had three days on the itinerary scheduled for riding, hiking and exploring around the area, so surely, I figured, there would be plenty of time to let it all unfold and get the doctor back before we had to head back to the real world.
For that immediate night, the rest of us ate our supper and talked more about the canyons before retreating to our rooms at the Real de Minas. We had something of a plan for the following day which included eating breakfast at Dona Mica’s followed by a bike ride to the Lost Cathedral at Satevo and perhaps more beers at the Zaguan. After that, the schedule would be a little bit “loose”, but at least, more than likely, Hugo would be back and we’d be talking about medical stuff and San Juanito as we sat around the table under the Mango tree at the Zaguan drinking the beer of our choice. It would simply all work out, I surmised. Never mind that one of our friend/clients had gotten in an ambulance and disappeared somewhere into Mexico. I remember briefly wondering what would happen if he never came back or if the Zaguan ran completely out of beer. Surely, I figured, there was a plan for such things, but once again, I just moved on.
As fate would have it, there was a surprise (to us) lunar eclipse early that evening that really didn’t impact us too much, since we were inside the restaurant while it was going on. The light of the almost full moon did return, I understand, which allowed us to walk back to our hotel without running into walls or through potholes, so that we arrived, substantially unscathed and right on schedule.
During the course of the next three days, we did what we had planned to do. Our nights were spent at the Real de Minas, we rode mountain bikes out to and had lunch in Cerro Colorado, visited the Lost Cathedral in Satevo, explored the ruins of the Hacienda San Miguel and played basketball in the plaza. All went according to schedule and then got even better when Hugo showed up during the early evening of the day before we were set to depart. It had worked out and according to our Bolivian doctor, the driver was getting proper attention at the hospital, was stable and on the mend. To this day, I’m not sure what would’ve happened had the middle aged physician not shown up when he did, but as it worked out, that wasn’t a path we had to follow.
The morning of our fourth day in Batopilas arrived as predicted, right on schedule, and it was time for us to leave and head back to Creel. The drive was about 80 miles, the first 40 or so on somewhat sketchy dirt. I was curious to see if there was anything to be seen of the beer truck situation. From my various travels both up and down the road, I could think of all sorts of places where a vehicle could fall off and roll down the hill and some strange little curious part of me was simply that—strangely curious.
We loaded the van and were driving out of town by mid-morning. Batopilas has one long, main street that parallels the river. Ultimately, the road crosses a bridge, passes the hacienda ruins at the entrance to the town, slowly ascends into and through low hills and arroyos and finally begins climbing more steeply along the southern Batopilas canyon slopes as the river of the same name cuts deep into the Sierra Madre. The road mostly stays well above it.
Old pick-ups passed us. A few, of what seemed to be, locals were walking toward town. The further we went, the less activity of any sort there seemed to be. A few miles out of town, we passed a Tarahumara family walking in the same direction in which we were driving, which was away from town. I remember wondering, where could they be going? We were all headed into what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. The nearest town or settlement in the direction which we were traveling was La Bufa, some 20 miles away. I decided that perhaps there was something out there that I didn’t know about.
We kept slowly driving with the windows up and the A/C on to avoid the dust and heat. A Bob Marley tune provided an almost perfect tempo for our slow, but persistent pace and constant turning and braking. Other than the music and vehicle sounds, things were mostly silent as everyone looked out, up and down, preoccupied with the intricacies of the canyon and thoughts of what it would be like to fall off the road. The beauty of the surroundings were probably less important for the moment as each member of our group was likely trying to imagine what they would do in the moment when the side of the road collapsed, we swerved to miss a goat crossing the road and loose gravel sent our van uncontrollably skidding toward the edge and we violently began tumbling down, crashing through the brush and headed toward the river.
The absence of talk continued as we kept moving along which probably accentuated the creaking of the ’96 Ford as it negotiated pot holes, rocks and limb pieces. Everyone in the van had drifted into a silent world of almost sleeping, and watching/waiting, when we rounded a corner at the bottom of a side arroyo and saw three Tarahumara men sitting under a Huisache tree in the middle of piles of beer bottles. We were all kind of startled and trying to absorb what we were seeing when a single man appeared from a gully on our left, seemingly oblivious to the van. I could see in his eyes that he was not quite right. Our senses quickly became overloaded and events were happening fast, even as the van had begun moving slower. The silence was broken by what seemed to be some sort of singing outside. Within moments, a cacophony of talk erupted inside the van as everyone began verbally unleashing their thoughts. It was almost as if the cork had been pulled out of some sort of collective voice box.
Right about then, two men came walking toward us, each with a beer bottle in hand and distant looks on their faces. The van turned slightly to its right as the road cut deeper into the hillside and then a single old man, sitting on a boulder came into view. His hair was gray and flowing, but was seemingly kept under control by a green headband. He had a serious, but pleasant and amused look on his face and seemed to be disconnected from the others.
It took me a moment, but then I realized where we were and blurted out, “the beer truck”.
There was instant commotion in the van as everyone looked everywhere for wreckage or carnage of some sort, but there was no dented or torn-up truck to see anywhere. There was no blood or apparent brush damage and not even any skid marks or ruts to give any indication of what had happened.
The talking became louder and more disjointed and the words “look” and “there” were obvious.
The actual cargo and the part of the world that was immediately impacted by the whole event was not something any of us had thought much about. But here it was, right in our midst. Families headed to town to buy a bag of dried beans or some such thing; a man just sitting back, observing a spectacle and putting his own spin on it; ridge upon ridge of canyon walls stretching out into the horizon; someone singing at the top of their lungs even though they probably shouldn’t have been; the Batopilas River falling toward the Pacific bringing so much to so many; people taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity that miraculously appears; and forty miles of dirt road snaking its way into, up, down and through ridges and canyons and taking civilization with it.
We passed the beer truck site and eventually reached our 25 mph cruising speed. At some point, we came to La Bufa, descended from there down to the river, crossed the rickety old bridge across the Batopilas River, climbed out of the canyon at Quirare, and pulled into Creel late that afternoon.
I know now that the beer truck rolled several hundred feet down from the road to near the bottom of Batopilas Canyon while on its way to make its regular delivery at the Zaguan. According to Hugo, the driver survived, although I would guess he’s no longer driving a Corona truck. The beer survived, but probably not in the way the beer execs envisioned. I know for a fact that there happened to be a lunar eclipse on the fateful night and that the power went out in Batopilas as well. I chuckle to myself whenever I think about how a Tarahumara legend was probably born that night, that talks of the night when the moon went dark and free beer appeared all over the ground. Interestingly, I realize now that I was more focused on the beer and beer truck than the plethora of important day to day things going on all around me throughout the whole time that the event was happening. Among our own group, I wonder how each person remembers it now. The only thing I’m really sure of is how I do.