I was in Mexico’s Copper Canyon with a group of adventure travelers “Chavochi’s” (non-indigenous/devil people as some of us gringos are fondly known among the Tarahumara). Some things happened while we were down there in Batopilas Canyon and the town of Batopilas, which may or may not be related to each other. I think they are.
After a hard day of van and bike travel, we finally made it to the town of Batopilas, which is at the bottom of Batopilas Canyon. After checking into our hotel, we walked down the street to the only bar in town, ready to relax. We dragged some extra chairs over to an outside table under a big Mango tree and sat down. A hundred feet off to one side, the Batopilas River rushed downstream. We were surrounded on the other three sides by the old colonial town itself, along with its requisite rural Mexico town sounds. The courtyard we sat in was surrounded by a solid fence, which semi-separated us from the confusion of the town. A pudgy, young barmaid approached to take our order and began the process by informing us that the Corona beer truck was late. That meant that the selections and quantities were more 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. My thought was that the beer choices in that part of Mexico were often somewhat limited anyway, so it was “no le hace” as far as I was concerned. However, I did want to be of as much help as possible with the problema. So, I ordered a Modelo, figuring that they were likely to have a stockpile of that. The other group members followed suit. She waited for all six of us to order before informing us that they were out of Modelo, although they did have enough Tecate to go around. Okay, I thought, what the hell? So, I ordered a round for the table.
There was a brief lull in the table talk as everyone pondered the ordering process. While the clients’ voices were silent, their eyes weren’t, and they wandered all around. Like with the waitress taking our order, there was a lot to absorb. Eventually, someone did talk, which led to a verbal eruption around the table. There were a lot of questions. First off, there was a lot of intrigue about the road we’d driven down from the canyon rim on. The blind curves, drop-offs, dirt, rocks, and width (or lack of it) had made an impression. Hugo, a doctor from Bolivia, had noted the small graveyard stuck back in the brush part of the way down and was curious about what was up with it. He was just starting to get his explanation 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 Tecate and launched into the cemetery story. At that point, my mind and thoughts had moved beyond the brand of beer.
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. But then, loud and invisible footsteps ran past, just on the other side of it as someone went somewhere in a big hurry. None of the noise caused any of the bar workers to even look up from what they were doing. For them, it was just another day that was turning into night.
While 2 Mestizos ran the bar and hotel, there were plenty of indigenous Tarahumaras in town. And that ancient culture was particularly fresh on my mind since I’d recently read an ethnology about them. So my mind drifted between group logistics and Tarahumara beliefs in invisible birds that do all sorts of nasty things. And 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 I didn’t want to give an inappropriate response since I wanted to be a part of the ongoing conversation and appear to be engaged. So, I did what always seems to work in moments like that and started talking about the weather. It worked. Seamlessly, everyone began talking about the crisp and 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. Life was good.
We sipped on our beers, talked about the big scar on the chief of police’s face, and speculated about what it would be like to live in a town like the one we were in.
Eventually, we got up from our table and walked over to the Puente Colgante restaurant for supper. When the owner/chef/waiter came over to take our order, he let us know right off the bat that there was no beer because the beer truck was delayed. That was old news to us. So, we ordered bottled water “con gas” and soft drinks and then sat back and began talking about various area bridges, including the swinging one right outside the front door.
During the first few minutes of waiting for our meal, various 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 at first. The group (there were 3 men and absolutely no women) was with the local volunteer ambulance service, and the word was that there was a physician in our group. We all looked at Hugo and agreed. Then, a tall man with a big mustache launched into a description of the situation. He explained how the Corona beer 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 he needed to go to the nearest hospital, which was some 6 hours away in San Juanito.
They asked if the doctor would 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’d left, I realized 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 before we had to return to the El Paso airport. Hopefully, I thought, there would be plenty of time to let things unfold and get the doctor back before we had to leave Batopilas.
For that immediate night, the rest of us ate our supper and talked more about the canyons before retreating to our rooms at the Hotel Real de Minas. Our plan for the following day included a bike ride to the Lost Cathedral at Satevo and more beers at the Zaguan (assuming they had any). After that, the schedule was a bit “loose.” I was hopeful that Hugo would be back by the day before we needed to leave and visualized that we would all (including Hugo) be sitting around the table under the Mango tree drinking the beer of our choice on our last night in town. It would all work out, one way or the other, I surmised. Never mind that one of our friends/clients had gotten in an ambulance and disappeared somewhere deep into Mexico.
There was a surprise (to us) lunar eclipse early that first evening as fate would have it. It didn’t impact us directly since we were inside the restaurant most of the time it was taking place. The light of the almost full moon ultimately did return. This meant we could walk back to our hotel without walking into walls or through potholes and remained substantially unscathed.
The next three days went as planned. We spent our nights at the Real de Minas. And we rode mountain bikes out to the village of 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 before departure day. So the whole situation had worked out. Hugo was back, and according to the doctor, the driver was on the mend and getting proper attention at the hospital. To this day, I’m not sure what would’ve happened had the middle-aged physician not shown up back in Batopilas when he did. But he did, so it was a moot point.
The morning of our fourth day in Batopilas arrived as predicted, and it was then time for us to leave and head back to Creel. The drive was about 80 miles, the first 40 on somewhat sketchy dirt. I was curious if there was anything to see regarding the beer truck situation. I’d driven the road several times previously and could think of several spots where a vehicle could easily fall off and roll down the hill. And some strange little curious part of me was simply that—strangely curious about what had happened.
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 and begins climbing more steeply along the southern Batopilas canyon slopes.
Old pick-up trucks and a few walkers passed us, apparently headed either to or from town. The further we went, the less activity of any sort there seemed to be. Finally, a few miles out of town, we passed a Tarahumara family walking in the same direction as us. I wondered where they were going since we were headed toward what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. The nearest town or settlement ahead of us was La Bufa, almost 20 miles away.
A Bob Marley tune provided an almost perfect tempo for our slow but persistent pace, constant turning, and braking as we kept slowly driving with the windows up and the A/C on to avoid the dust and heat. Other than the music and vehicle sounds, things were mostly silent. Everyone looked out, preoccupied with the intricacies of the canyon, and undoubtedly, had thoughts about what it would be like to fall off the road just like the beer truck had.
The absence of talk continued as we kept moving along, which probably accentuated the creaking of the ’96 Ford as it negotiated potholes, rocks, and clumps of cactus. Everyone in the van eventually drifted off into a silent world of almost sleep. But then, 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. All of us were startled wide-awake, and we immediately began trying to absorb what we were seeing. And then, 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 started happening fast, even as our driving pace began to slow. The silence was broken by what sounded like 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. We turned slightly to the 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 kept under control by a green headband. He had a serious but pleasant and amused look on his face and seemed disconnected from the others.
It took me a moment, but then I realized where we were and blurted out, “the beer truck.”
There was an instantaneous commotion in the van as everyone looked everywhere for wreckage or carnage of any sort. But there was no dented or torn-up truck to be seen anywhere. There was no blood, apparent brush damage, and not even any skid marks or ruts to indicate what had happened.
The talking inside the van became louder and more disjointed, and the words “look” and “there” predominated.
Until then, we hadn’t thought much about the realities of life in that part of the world. But here it was, right in our midst. Families headed to some 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. An anonymous 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. Villagers taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity that miraculously appeared. Ultimately, I realized that we were on forty miles of living dirt road that was snaking its way into, up, down, and through ridges and canyons and taking civilization with it. And we had been looking for a wreck.
We passed the beer truck site and eventually reached our 20-mph cruising speed. Finally, we came to La Bufa, crossed a rickety old bridge, climbed out of the canyon at Quirare, and pulled into Creel late that afternoon.
I ultimately learned that the beer truck rolled several hundred feet down from the road to 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 our fateful first night and also that the power went out that night in Batopilas as well. I chuckle to myself as I speculate about a Tarahumara legend likely born with the events of that day and night. It’s the one that tells of the time when the moon went dark and free beer appeared all over the ground. I wonder how the people in our group remember the events. I guess I’ll never know for sure. But as for me, the experience convinced me that there is often more to a situation than meets the eye.