Riding El Chepe: Part 3

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Back on the Train

As the train pulled out of Bahuichivo, memories of the past several days flashed before me: the boozy, musical afternoon in the El Fuerte cantina; the enchanting train ride into the mountains; the close shave with death on the narrow road; the splendid chaos and grandeur of Urique and the canyon it calls home. All of it added up to a heady string of hours, the kind of travel I hadn’t properly tasted for years now.

By my standards this was to be a short trip — just a week — so I was wringing it out for all it was worth. Perhaps the time limitation forced me jump into things head first and do my best to truly live in the moment. What I do know is that most everything that had transpired since I stepped off the bus in Los Mochis only reaffirmed why I do this — why I find this kind of travel so intoxicating. I’ve found few other avenues that come close to charging me with such an electrifying sense of freedom.

El Chepe weaved through the highlands now, a world of pines, small farms, and white rock formations approaching the psychedelic. It was a bright, sun-soaked land of big sky and blooming clouds. Again, I was reminded of the American West, before chiding myself on the worthlessness of such comparisons. The land itself was the same on either side of the border; it will always be indifferent to those very temporary, large lines drawn up by small men. A magnificent stone spire doesn’t give a damn about the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and it never will.

One of the more thrilling parts of the trip took place when we passed the El Chepe train heading the opposite direction. There are only two trains each day — one heading east from Los Mochis, and one heading west from Chihuahua. The moment the two meet is cause for celebration for the passengers and crew on both sides. I leaned out between two of the cars and cheered, and was met with smiles and fanfare from people on the sister train. It was a very simple, childlike moment of recognition, of saying, Hey, we’re all doing this same thing and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

El Chepe, meet El Chepe

After a couple of hours, the train pulled into the stop known as El Divisadero. This popular viewing and access point sits atop the rim of the canyon and is home to a cluster of luxury hotels, along with a ramshackle track side complex of handicraft and food stalls. One look and whiff had my mouth gushing, despite the fact that I had bought and taken down three excellent tamales during the ride there. I just couldn’t resist the pull of freshly prepared fare offered up by local women from humble little food stands.

Photo by Matt Nager

We were now in Tarahumara Indian country, and all of these women were natives, dressed in colorful shirts, headscarves, and long skirts. The smoky aroma of frying meat hung in the air, underscored by the constant sizzle of the pans. One stall caught my eye, and I soon walked away with two thick flour cakes — gorditas — over which the woman heaped fat little piles of pork cooked up with loads of onions, spices, and red chilli peppers. I spooned on two kinds of salsa and tucked into these juicy, hot, delectable treats, eating just for eating’s sake. The fact that I wasn’t even hungry never entered into it. This was a chance to experience a native take on Mexican street food, and there just was no way I wasn’t getting down.

Afraid that the train would pull away, I hurried back aboard, where I sat for another 15 minutes. El Chepe makes a 20-minute stop at El Divisadero to give passengers a chance to visit the viewpoint that looks out over the expanse of canyon. This fact must have sailed past my ears (or cerebral Spanish comprehension center) when they announced it as we pulled in. I somehow didn’t get the memo and missed out the big photo op and vista, but those gorditas were so damned good that I didn’t care.

A Town with No Bars

I jumped off El Chepe in the town of Creel, which serves as the tourist base camp for the whole Copper Canyon region. It’s full of hotels, restaurants, and companies that book excursions in or around the surrounding canyon land. After a few days in the hinterlands, I felt firmly back in the realm of civilization.

I really had no idea where to stay, so I threw my fate into the hand of a hotel tout who greeted me when I walked off the train. I’ve dealt the touts and hawkers throughout my travels and have learned how to ignore or avoid them accordingly, but sometimes they come in use. If you need a place to stay and guy working with a hotel promises to bring to you a decent place to stay, it’s not always a bad idea to take him up on the offer. Most hotel touts aren’t there to rip you off; they’re just trying to get their cut while hooking up the proprietor with guests.

His name was Oscar, and he led me to a more-than-acceptable hotel for a price that seemed fair. I got a fully-outfitted, clean, warm room (Creel is a high elevation town, and it was late October and cold), and he got his commission. This is what scientists call “win-win.”

I hadn’t hit a proper boozer since El Fuerte, and after talking to my wife and grabbing a couple of quick tacos, I figured that I was overdue for some cantina time. My trip was winding down and I longed for the drunken polka-beat and according squeal of Norteño music washed down with proper Mexican lager.

I asked Oscar about any bars, and he told me there was a joint on the town’s main drag, but numerous trips up and down the strip revealed nothing. Eventually, I came across the place he was presumably talking about, but the lights were off, and a padlocked iron gate stood in front of the door.

Undeterred, I continued my march through the streets of Creel, but my recon proved fruitless. I just couldn’t locate a cantina, and the temperature was dropping. It was now see-your-breath cold, and the only real warm-weather clothes I packed were a padded vest and a long-sleeved thermal shirt. My teeth were chattering and I was assed out from a long day of travel, so I picked up a couple of Tecate tall boys from the shop, trekked back to my hotel room, and sipped cerveza while I read a fantasy novel on my Kindle beneath a positive avalanche of blankets.

*

Most people who’ve haven’t visited Copper Canyon have never heard of Creel, but this all changed August 16th, 2008, when the town became another infamous entry in the tragic history of the Mexican drug war. A heavily armed gang in three SUV’s pulled up to a group of locals as they talked on the street, got out, and opened fire. By the end, 13 people lay dead, including a baby boy. It was cold-blooded killing, straight up.

The next morning I got up, tracked down a decent cup of coffee, and walked around the layout of the town in an attempt to get my bearings. Soon I came across a large compound housing a high school, and behind it, a massive white mural.

What was once an empty lot had been transformed into a simple memorial for the 13 victims. A plaque listed their names, and statue of a woman reaching into the sky with two children at her side, stood on a pedestal up front. But it was the mural itself that delivered the deepest impact. The 13 faces were painted onto the white wall with photographic detail. It seemed to me a simple, yet very effective way to keep their memory alive.

This was as close as I got to seeing any of the drug war violence during my week in the country. It was sobering to take in those faces, knowing that these were just a few of the tens and thousands of people murdered by the sicarios of the cartels. The tendrils of violence had reached all corners of Mexico, though it was the northern states — especially Chihuahua — that had been hardest hit. In fact, just two years later, sleepy Creel would see even more violence, when another cartel gang rolled into town, broke into a home, and slaughtered 9 members of the same family, including their 14-year-old daughter.

Despite the fact that I never once felt unsafe during my whirlwind visit, the killing continues in Mexico, unabated. 2017 has been the worst year yet, with over 18,000 people murdered. That is an insane number to try to wrap your head around, the kind of body count racked up by conventional warfare. When confronted with such grim statistics, it’s no wonder so many tourists are giving the country a skip.

Despite the grimness of my morning pilgrimage, I was determined to see more of the place, so I rented a mountain bike and headed out to explore a nearby Tarahumara settlement and country around it.

The road out of town was thankfully free of traffic. I peddled under a brilliant high country sky with gnarled, layered rises of rock and pine expanses on either side. Clouds floated by like fat sailing ships, and an intermittent breeze sliced through the insulation of my vest, reminding me of the elevation.

It had been years since I’d hopped on the back of a bike and just it felt good to move my body after several days sitting in busses, vans, and trains. Soon I was at the gatehouse for the settlement, and after paying a toll of 25 pesos, I peddled on over the dirt track leading in.

My first stop was the San Ignacio, a 17th-century Jesuit mission with a big white cross carved out of stone in front. A few local women in colorful clothing stood nearby, selling necklaces, bracelets, and little dolls. It was a cool old building, but like temples in Asia, I have a hard time getting excited about churches, so after a quick peek inside I jumped back on the bike headed out, just as a van full of Mexican tourists arrived.

Hongos

I really had no idea what to expect when I rode out to this settlement, other than open space and fresh air. I quickly learned however, that this area was famous for the beautiful and bizarre rock formations that popped up around the landscape. Each one went by the name “valley:” The Valley of the Frogs (Las Ranas), The Valley of the Mushrooms (Los Hongos), The Valley of the Monks (Los Monjes), and my favorite, The Valley of the Titties (Las Chichis). These were impressive and very trippy stands of stone that more than often clearly resembled their namesakes. Taking these in reminded me of my younger days, when I’d head into out into the open country with a few friends, where we’d attempt to enter new realms with the aid of some particular compounds. This piece of land was perfectly designed for such vision quests, a kind of natural psychedelic theme park.

Chichis!

When I left Creel, the clouds appeared fluffy and harmless, but after an hour of peddling through Indian country a much larger, menacing cloud took shape. It began to pelt the area with bursts of frigid rain, which would ease up, and then return with a stubborn intensity.

For a while I took cover in a nook carved out form the rock underneath a great pine. From there I watched the world pass by in what seemed like quarter time. A farmer worked his field, while his two bristly dogs paced the perimeter of his little field and barked my way. A couple of pickups, one packed with what must have been fifteen locals, rolled by, and three women scurried along the road in hopes to get out of the unpredictable precipitation.

The dark cloud refused to blow over. Instead it just parked its stubborn ass over the land and unleashed its wet payload in waves. Sensing a lull, I jumped back on the bike and blazed out in search of a local lake on my crude, hand-drawn map, which I hoped would be out of rain range. After an hour of grinding trail riding, I managed to locate it, only to discover that my back tire was nearly flat.

Once I got the bike back out to the sealed, main road, there was no air left in the tire. It was dead flat, so I had no choice but to push the bike all the way into town. This, however, turned out to be one of the most pleasant legs of this day’s journey. The rain let up, allowing me to savor a walk along an empty road through stunning quiet, stunning country, reminding me that no form of transit beats my own two feet.

As soon as I got back to Creel, turned in my bike, and retired to my room for a late afternoon nap, the cloud — which had been growing in size and darkness for hours now — let loose an icy, thundering deluge that pummelled the town and drenched the landscape. As the drops exploded on the roof of my hotel, I was serenade into an inky, syrupy sleep.

Creel after the rain

Chihuahua

The last leg of the eastbound El Chepe is said to be its least scenic. After Creel, the train descends onto a flat expanse of high plains that offers up little for the eye or camera. As a result, many travelers elect to take the bus instead, which saves both time and money.

I opted for this choice, and after a few hours found myself on the outskirts of Chihuahua City, the financial and political center of Mexico’s largest state. This was to be my last stop before the long slog back to Phoenix.

Chihuahua stretched through this flat range of scrubland with a few little mountains rising stark from the clusters of pink, green, and white buildings that made up the neighborhoods of the town. A couple of high-rises — nods at skyscrapers — poked up from the general sprawl, reminding us that this is a place of commerce — the center of ranching, mining, and agriculture in this vast, rugged part of Mexico blessed with resources galore.

The bus deposited me in a corner of town far from everything, it seemed, but a very friendly taxi driver ferried me into the city center, where I decided to spend the night. Like several Mexicans I met, he had lived in the U.S. for some years, but was now glad to be home.

This is a great misconception that a lot of people from the U.S. have towards our southern neighbors. Because of the flow of immigration, a lot of us assume that most Mexicans are desperate to cross the Rio Grande or the Sonoran Desert in order to make a new life in the great, big, shiny U.S.A. While this may be true for some of the poorest, most Mexicans that I met who have lived in both places actually prefer life south of the border — where things are still more centered around family, friends and a kind of happiness that can’t be found chasing material gain. And despite widespread poverty, Mexico has a very large, thriving middle class — one that, for the most part, is very happy just where it is.

Chihuahua City

As I walked the streets of downtown Chihuahua, I got the sense that the place didn’t draw too many international tourists. Still, I liked it a lot. It had the clean, well-ordered look of a regional capital. Government workers in business attire and lanyards walked down the uncluttered sidewalks, carrying briefcases and paper cups of coffee. The city’s plaza was home to a huge, centuries-old church, while nearby the tricolor of a gargantuan Mexican flag flapped in the high desert breeze from atop a towering pole.

I also noticed scores of young people walking the streets wearing black jeans, band t-shirts, and black leather boots. Some had pink, red, or green dyed streaks in their hair. Many of them sported eyeliner and visible tattoos. As I came around one corner, I saw what most have been a hundred of them lined up at a bank. My only guess was that they were buying concert tickets. What else could explain a snaking afternoon queue of emo kids and goths?

Now I had known for some time that Mexico is home to a sizeable subset of young people into darker music. Bands such as Depeche Mode play sold out soccer stadiums both in Mexico and all over South America. Perhaps this is a nod to their Day of the Dead traditions — who knows — but for some reason this subculture caught fire south of the border, especially among the middle class kids who have the luxury of chasing such trends in fashion and music. I had always been curious about this phenomenon, and it was interesting to see a gathering of this scene’s adherents up close.

Northern Mexico is serious cowboy country, and downtown Chihuahua is the place for all of your vaquero outfitting needs. I came across three city blocks packed with stores selling hats, boots, shirts, chaps, even saddle and tack. It was like cowboy Costco, with ranchero music blaring out from each shop.

I needed a room for the night, and while I thought about splurging for something nice, I realized that I would probably be spending very little actual non-sleeping time there. In the end settled for a bare-bones $20 affair that looked like a very good place to bring a hooker of the same price.

The only mistress I’d be meeting that evening was one so familiar to me: beer. So, I located the bar closest to my hovel and walked through the door.

It was called El Tradicional Cocina/Cantina, and while I found it more than sufficient, the only thing “traditional” about the place was its name. It was a kind of shrine American sports; the walls were completely decked out in pics and memorabilia from MLB, NFL, and NBA. The clientele was mainly middle-class, educated guys who worked for the government, and spoke decent English. I stayed there for several hours, watching football and baseball at same time on two separate TV’s, chatting with the friendly locals, while washing down the evening with bottles of Indio beer and a couple, well places shots of Don Julio, which I sipped, of course.

After a late-night meal of tacos al pastor straight off the kabob rotisserie (tacos as we know them are said to come from Syrian immigrants to northern Mexico), I decided to get one, final nightcap. As I wandered the streets of the city center, I heard music flowing up from a side street. A young man sat playing guitar and singing in front of a small restaurant/bar. A number of tables were set up outside, with customers drinking and listening to the tunes. I pulled up a chair and soaked it in, happy to spend my last night in Mexico as I had my first.

As I sipped my beer and basked in the overwhelming romance of it all, I noticed young woman waving me over to her table, where she sat with two male friends.

I joined them an immediately bought a round of beers, for which they were grateful. From one look I could tell that they were twenty-something bohemians and probably light in the wallet. I know, as I had lived it.

I was right, the girl’s name was Rubi, and she was an aspiring theater actress.

“You looked so miserable, over there, alone,” she said, in fluent English.

“I’m actually very happy,” I said, smiling. “It’s been a hell of a trip.”

Her friends were Adan and Ivan. Adan was a musician, while Ivan, resplendent in his long black hair and Che Guevara beard, was a painter.

Rubi had lived in the USA, but it wasn’t a great experience.

“Where were you?” I asked

“Oklahoma. For two years.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yeah, it was terrible. Every day the racist kids at my high school called me ‘wetback’ and ‘spic.’

It crushed my heart to hear this, especially after the kindness and beauty of spirit shown to me by her countrymen. All I could do was apologize for her mistreatment by my fellow “Americans.”

Pendejos,” I spat. “Lo siento.”

I tried to assure them that her view of the States may change if she were to visit a more enlightened pocket of the country. But who knows? The ascendance of Trump has brought out this nasty hairball of anti-Mexican bigotry all throughout the country. Could I guarantee that she would be immune from such abuse in so-called liberal enclaves as San Francisco or Seattle?

What I can say is that the three of them were very happy to hear of my adventure, especially the fact that I was ending it in their city. As the music reverberated along the walls of the alley, Rubi said:

“You say you are a writer? Then write about this. Tell people about Chihuahua. Tell them how lovely it is. And, please, tell them to come.”

What could I do, but smile, nod, and order another round?

Chihuahua at sunset



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