Nacho Kino

Missing a Tutuburi

Copper Canyon Kino Springs campsite
Camping at Kino Springs

The countryside opened up as the Silver Trail left the Valley of the Churches. Our group of seven had passed a young Tarahumara man (the indigenous people of Mexico’s Copper Canyon) earlier in the day and I’d asked about Nacho Kino, an old Tarahumara whom I’d met while mapping the Silver Trail a few years before.

“He’s not at his ranchito. He’s gone to the Tutuburi in Kisochi. I’m on my way there, now,” he said. {Tutuburi- An event held periodically in Tarahumara villages or ranchitos essentially to ask Oruame (God in simplistic terms) for something, such as rain for crops. After dancing the Yamari, the Tutuburi is danced. Once the dance is done, the feasting begins}.

I’d hoped to introduce him to the others when we passed by his log house the following day. The wiry old man was the embodiment of pure happiness and positive perspective. Whenever I’d stopped and visited with him previously the experience had always served to brighten my day and I wanted to share that with the group. Among other things, he’d once related and with a broad smile on his face, how he’d come back there to the valley of his birth to die and had all the good stuff around him that a person could ever really want—a fine dog, healthy and prolific apple tree, and plenty of family and friends close by. At any rate, visiting with him this time around just wasn’t going to happen, so I just told the young Tarahumara to tell him “saludos de david, el gringo.”

He said he would and then we all moved on, in our different directions. After the trail meeting, our group continued on with our plan, which called for us to backpack the four or so more miles from where we were at that moment up to a remote ridge-top above Nacho Kino’s ranchito where we’d camp for that night. Then, on the next day, we’d go from there all the way to a place on the Rio Conchos called Huajochic. That particular hike was a long haul, but I’d figured that we’d have a short break at the old man’s house en route and after stopping and visiting for a while would still have the better part of the day to get there and with the added bonus of a nice rest in the middle of it. Now, I reasoned, that since we wouldn’t be making that stop, we’d at least have that much more daylight to work with.

As mentioned, we were a group of seven. It included 5 teenagers, myself, and another leader, Ryan. We were backpacking a portion of the fabled trail which runs between the town of Batopilas and its old silver mines at the bottom of Batopilas Canyon up toward Chihuahua City, some 250 miles to the north. Beginning in the late 1800’s, the trail was developed and used for hauling actual tons of silver via mule train, wagon, and railroad ultimately up to the U.S. with supplies and household goods (including a grand piano of all things) back in the other direction. The route was used regularly up until the 1920’s and then more sporadically until about the time of WWII. At that point, it became abandoned and forgotten on a large scale, although various parts of it remained actively used for local traffic even up to the present day.

In 2004, I was involved with a group that reconnected the various pieces of the trail between Batopilas and the mountain town of Carachic some 125 miles to its north. We mapped and marked it in hopes of creating a long distance hiking, horsepacking, and backpacking trail that would take adventurous travelers into the remote and spectacular backcountry of Copper Canyon. And on this particular trip, we were backpacking a 40 mile section of that route.

(A further note regarding the history of the trail and the mining operation that literally solidified it in stone: The area was mined for silver at various times dating back to the 1700’s and finally by a U.S. entity, the Batopilas Mining Company, around the turn of the 19th century.  The mine was in Batopilas and the ore was hauled some 125 miles via mule train from there up to the town of Carachic, then transferred onto wagons for the final 125 miles on to the Banco Minero in the city of Chihuahua, and ultimately loaded onto rail cars for the final portion of its journey to the U.S. There were four rustic manned rock stations along the backcountry part of the route along with a more extensive one in Carachic, where an actual stage road began. The stations along the mule train section of the route were each spaced about a day’s ride apart, so that back in the day the nights were spent along the way in relative security and comfort. Each had a small kitchen, sleeping quarters for the leaders, and corrals for the mules. There was also a windowless room for storing the riches. La Conducta, as the mule trains were known, typically consisted of about 100 pack animals along with assorted walking and mounted arrieros and armed guards, so the trail was certainly well beaten-in).

We were backpacking northward on the part of the trail that started near the remnants of the station known as Pilares. Ultimately, our plan was to pass by the ruins of the station at Huajochic, where we’d cross the waters of the Rio Conchos as we headed on toward Carachic. The trail for us would actually end a few miles short of Carachic in the small town of Baquiriachic.

At the northern end of the rock-spire filled Valley of the Churches, the trail made a marked turn to the north as the creek we’d been following joined another. Once we rounded the corner, I could see the Kino Springs mesa sticking up above the lower hills a mile or so ahead. We worked our way across the valley floor and passed to the side of a small and seemingly deserted village before beginning to gradually climb. The trail eventually steepened as we moved up onto the actual mesa. It cut across a rocky section and stayed just below the ridgeline as it crossed up and to the north and then finally dumped us out onto a flat and thickly forested area up on the top edge of the mesa. We arrived on the very top, found a good place to camp, and began setting up with just enough time to do what needed to be done in order for us to all be ready for sleep by dark.

Everyone put their packs down and immediately began setting up tents and fetching water from the spring. By 7, we were all sitting around and waiting for the supper water to boil when the same young Tarahumara man whom we’d seen earlier in the day just appeared. He stood off on the edge of the firelight and obviously had something to say. I was a bit confused by it all initially. I’d never felt at all threatened anywhere along the Silver Trail or for that matter, anywhere in the Copper Canyon backcountry. And at that very moment we were in the Nacho Kino realm, so it just made no sense to me that there was anything negative going on, but I still had to wonder.

Then, he spoke. He said that Nacho Kino had invited us to come to the Tutuburi and that he, the young man, would take us there. I was immediately overcome and overwhelmed by the gesture and its prospects. Seven white boys from the United States attending a Tutuburi in the wilds of the Sierra Tarahumara. How could we not seize the moment? What would it mean to a 16 year-old from middle America, or even a 50 year old like me? My mind buzzed in excitement.

I seamlessly went into mental rationalization mode. The water didn’t have to boil right then, everyone had headlamps for traveling in the dark, and we had a rest day in camp built into the itinerary which could be used the next day. Just as I was trying to figure out how we could logistically make it work, the slightly inebriated way in which he’d slurred his words while extending the invitation came to the forefront of my thinking. That, brought to mind visions of corn beer drinking, American boys getting into a moment they weren’t prepared for, and me trying to explain it all to a parent in an Austin coffee shop– and I simply turned down the offer.

“Thank him”, I said, “but we have a lot to do tomorrow and need to rest.”

True, it was late and we still had a long way to go. A part of me said, amazing opportunity missed. But my pragmatic side told me, profound disaster averted. The Tarahumara shook his head in acknowledgment, smiled, and disappeared back into the brush.

The offer and refusal part was simple and straightforward enough. Even though the boys didn’t speak a lot of Spanish, they could pick out a few words, feel the goodwill, and ultimately got the gist of what was happening. And so, for that moment it was some sort of cut and dried event that they just weren’t going to be a part of, but felt good about, nonetheless.

After the Tarahumara vanished, everyone in our group began talking, asking questions, and essentially trying to figure out what’d just happened. We discussed it for a few moments and I was convinced that both the details of the Tutuburi and the invitation for us to attend had captivated the five younger people as it had both Ryan and me. Even though none of them spoke much Spanish or completely understood the nuances of what had occurred, they had been fully absorbed into and were intrigued by the whole thing. But then, just as I was beginning to take a certain amount of satisfaction in how nicely it was all working out, their conversation turned to the lack of mosquitoes, Sardine guts, and what was for dessert- and I knew that  for that moment in time, the Tutuburi episode had moved into their past.

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Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.