What happens when three Berkeley intellectuals drop into Mexico’s Copper Canyon with a spaced out guide?

The trio includes Cathy, author and advisor to the White House on western literature, Liz, a Boca Rotan yoga instructor, and Neil the anthropologist. Four months ago on learning that I live in a hole, wear rope suspenders, and mumble Spanish monosyllables; they hired me as a guide for the price of adventure.

I cancelled the trip one week ago on learning that our insert was to be at the peak of the marijuana harvest, that the Canyon produces the most choice and copious crop in all of Mexico, and then the breaking news that two warring drug cartels- La Linea and Guzman- just gunned down dozens in our portal towns of Juarez, Creel and Batopilas.

The Intellects mutinied, and I yielded to go.

We met in Juarez, Mexico on October 22, 2008, bused to Chihuahua, trained along the canyon rim, and dropped by collectivo taxi 3000´ to Urique at the bottom.

The hike downstream begins the next morning with Urique children throwing sticks at us and shouting, ´Gringos!´ to which Cathy sings back, ´Sticks and stones may not break my bones…´

But as the day warms to 90F the Intellects’ legs turn rubbery. I gently reflect that they were told to carry 20 lb. rather than double that packs, to walk only a half first day, to drink water before thirsty, and jump in the cold rio when overheating. They refuse, and jettison food along the trail, pop Advil, and plod on.

The Copper Canyon dominates the state of Chihuahua, and is larger with deeper portions than the Grand Canyon of the neighboring USA although the Grand Canyon is larger than any of the individual canyons. Our goal is to wet walk down the Rio Urique to Tubarus where the Urique flows into the Rio Furerte, in three days. This odd route that I concocted from a history book and topo maps, is secured by rumored Tarahumara settlements for resupply for a peso, or song.

There is no real trail, but instead an intermittent path the Tarahumara four centuries ago used to flee Spanish conquistadores from the fertile plains into these rugged Sierra Madres. The mother of mountains. The way criss-crosses the 30´ wide Rio Urique with multiple hour climbs up and around escarpments.

Their walking sticks clatter noisily on the stones in walking neatly behind one another like a centipede, chattering gaily and scattering lizards. I lead like an antenna with earplugs serving well until late afternoon as my chums grow too weary to talk, and I acquire swollen ears and can’t hear anyhow.

The odor of freshly cut marijuana wafts a thousand feet up a cliff we hike, high above green postage stamp farms with brown sticks cutting and packing the buds, who grow larger as we descend cautiously and wave. The Copper Canyon is the premier drug supplier to the USA, yet our passing seems mundane to the Tarahumara.

At Naranjo, a bent figure rises from a creaking rocking chair at a shanty perched next to the last footbridge over the river. He shows a long tooth as Cathy snaps a photo, and displays the preview. The ancient stares in wonder not realizing it’s trapped in the camera, seventy years well in a tear, and he clutches the image to his heart. Cathy promises to mail a print to the grandchildren at the nearest pueblo.

In late afternoon, under a baking sun, Neil scouts for a camp sight as the gals slow and fan out behind me. We lose visual, and then voice contact. There are walky-talkies in Neil’s pack that the Intellects refused to distribute. Liz crashes to the path, won’t budge, and yells until I find her patting strips of purple duck tape on raw shoulders from a tank-top friction. There is no need to tape for bra straps. Cathy locates us by shouts through the scrub pine, and we track Neil down to a beautiful sand beach that will be our camp.

Cathy, with a game leg and white faced from heat exhaustion, falls to the sand. ‘Get up, Cathy!’ she moans, but can’t. We spark a quick fire on the bank, and if marijuana fumes combust this canyon will blow with the tea water, soup, and coco to revitalize us all.

The liquid heals, but Spanish voices above on the trail bring our own whispers to mark social security numbers in our pants so the bodies can be identified. Huge black spiders mount the tops of thousands of stones on shore during a watchful dusk. The Intellects burry their passports and money, pitch tents atop them, and I plop a sleeping bag between room-size boulders stoned from the atmosphere, and doze.

The early sun slants into our camp where the hardy Intellects arise and speedily break camp to beat the day’s heat. There are a half-dozen climbs and descents, with as many fords, but mostly smooth stone hopping along the river banks. When the sun’s straight overhead, they break for cold lunches, but I notify that since the hike was planned to connect a handful of settlements for supplies, I’m out of food, and must advance as they siesta.

It is the season up and down the long canyon that spikes Mexico’s economy, the October marijuana harvest. Women and kids work countless mountainside farms cutting, cleaning, and drying within a one week window for each plant’s maturity. The female bud, or sinsemilla, is green gold with the greatest concentration of resin in the thousands of plants that I stride by.

Birds chirp, dragonflies pause to salute, and pines wave to and fro on the bank that, further along with decreasing elevation, are supplanted by deciduous trees, and then cactus. I take one sharp climb along a disintegrating stone wall around an escarp until the path peters, the wall falls away, and I entangled in ivy balanced on one foot and grab a handhold of cactus to save a 500´plunge. I chew free the vines, lower the center of gravity in the pack by shuffling contents, and carefully weave to the rio.

The sun drops beyond the wall as I pick along the shade mindful of the others. I am no intellect. What am I doing in the biggest crack on earth with three of them? Later, a solitary youth on the path informs that the next settlement is Eureka, a few hours off, where I shall prepare the Intellects’ nest. The youth grunts, passes, and later the river bends to show six adobe homes on the sunny bank.

It is the Day of the Gringo in Eureka! Dogs bark, kids cheer at my heel, and the announcement that an outsider has walked two days from Urique grabs a handful of adults to the entourage. We pause at a hut store where I wolf tins of tuna and sodas, until a lady named Maria invites me to her patio for dried goat plucked from a string. The flies are burnt crisp on an open grill, with fifteen tortillas and chiles, washed down by sweet well water.

The husband, pot bellied with hairy legs like a burro, raises a radio, speaks rapidly, and soon the ejido (community) turns out in singles or pairs to shake my hand, and shyly back to ring the patio. The radio reaches up and down the canyon, so I ask him to alert farmers everywhere of my inbound mates.

His squat brother comes aside.

‘What do you farm?’ I ask.

‘Drugs,’ he replies.

´What do you do with the profit?’

‘Í buy cattle and houses. How may do you have?’

‘I own one trailer, and have students instead of cattle. I’m a fired teacher.´

‘Then tonight you shall sleep in the schoolhouse. The teacher abandoned thirty-two students and you may dream of teaching here.’

If only I smoked and loved children.

For before me, one after the next, the children trudge under white sacks up a log step, step over my shoes, and into the home followed by flops on the floor. ´Six bags today,’ counts the patriarch. ´Not bad for a poor family.’

My companeros soon appear upstream like flotsam, sweating under orange rip-stop packs, and break the family ring to lumber onto the veranda. They plop onto the dirt, breath slower and easier… and gobble goat burritos. One kid asks Cathy how old she is, and to the reply, ´How old do you think?´ the child twinkles, ´You look 125 because you have been hiking.´

The grandfather steps forward and offers his outbuilding as a bunk, the apparent old jail with double adobe walls, timber roof, barred windows, but modernized with inner door latches that he advises to lock to keep bad things out.

‘Also, there is no bathroom,’ he says pleasantly. ‘Put it in the backyard.’

Liz worries all night about sleeping with criminal spirits. Cathy screams ´Bats!´ like a midnight toll. Tiptoes past my cot late in the night to the back door with auspicious tinkles heard through the barred windows favor tomorrow’s hike.

Roosters awaken even the deepest sleeper in Mexico. The Intellects already are brewing coffee on the jail step sunshine as I walk out. Suddenly, a broken line of men and boys hauling white sacks passes at the river below the house, and I shout, ´Look…´ but Neil interrupts. ´We’ve discussed the trip options. It’s well and good that you packed lightly and hike differently, so the consensus is that, if you wish, continue alone.’

They prefer to drink and chat, while I aim to have an armed escort into adventure. I thank the Intellects for their graciousness, and leave to catch the string.

I take a spot behind the uncle with a pearl handled revolver stuck in the back of his belt, and we thread down to the river, ford, and resume downstream. The bearers walk rapidly with 60 lb. sacks roped around foreheads and onto their backs, so fast that I lose their sight. Yet I’m overtaken by more bud backpackers, some carrying double loads.

They pass and ford the river barefoot.

A train of pack animals materializes behind them- four burros with three sacks each, two horses with four, and a giant black mule with five. They know the way, breathing heavily and clacking stones. They are overtaken by a dozen more human carriers to a common depot. An hour downriver from Eureka, the broken trains take a final ford, and unload on the far side.

The place is a stony flat, sheltered by boulders and trees, from which a rocky track rears up a cliff.

I sit scant meters from the growing pile with a teen porter, who explains that his wage of $15 per tote doubles if he manages two bags. The 2’x3’ 25-kilo sacks pile up like fat white logs until the stack is double-wide, thirty feet long, and six feet tall!

The grandfather comes aside with a black revolver in his belt, and smiles. ´It’s a fine day. The sixty sacks fetch the community $120 each.’ A radio cracks, and he adds, ´The truck arrives in five minutes. Senior, it would be better if you are not here.´

He hands me a 7´´ green clean bud. I take a snip, squeeze and smell, sigh and say, ´I’m a teacher. My American students smoke it, but I cannot.´

1.5 tons of marijuana.

Street value of $US One million.

Three hauls weekly from this arm.

The Copper Canyon has six arms

I hand back the gift flower.

In minutes, a stake bed truck with a white canvas top growls above the rio, and I take my cut, a worn notebook from a hip, jot a final line, and whistle downriver.

What happens when three Berkeley intellectuals drop into Mexico’s Copper Canyon with a spaced out guide?

The trio includes Cathy, author and advisor to the White House on western literature, Liz, a Boca Rotan yoga instructor, and Neil the anthropologist. Four months ago on learning that I live in a hole, wear rope suspenders, and mumble Spanish monosyllables; they hired me as a guide for the price of adventure.

I cancelled the trip one week ago on learning that our insert was to be at the peak of the marijuana harvest, that the Canyon produces the most choice and copious crop in all of Mexico, and then the breaking news that two warring drug cartels- La Linea and Guzman- just gunned down dozens in our portal towns of Juarez, Creel and Batopilas.

The Intellects mutinied, and I yielded to go.

We met in Juarez, Mexico on October 22, 2008, bused to Chihuahua, trained along the canyon rim, and dropped by collectivo taxi 3000´ to Urique at the bottom.

The hike downstream begins the next morning with Urique children throwing sticks at us and shouting, ´Gringos!´ to which Cathy sings back, ´Sticks and stones may not break my bones…´

But as the day warms to 90F the Intellects’ legs turn rubbery. I gently reflect that they were told to carry 20 lb. rather than double that packs, to walk only a half first day, to drink water before thirsty, and jump in the cold rio when overheating. They refuse, and jettison food along the trail, pop Advil, and plod on.

The Copper Canyon dominates the state of Chihuahua, and is larger with deeper portions than the Grand Canyon of the neighboring USA although the Grand Canyon is larger than any of the individual canyons. Our goal is to wet walk down the Rio Urique to Tubarus where the Urique flows into the Rio Furerte, in three days. This odd route that I concocted from a history book and topo maps, is secured by rumored Tarahumara settlements for resupply for a peso, or song.

There is no real trail, but instead an intermittent path the Tarahumara four centuries ago used to flee Spanish conquistadores from the fertile plains into these rugged Sierra Madres. The mother of mountains. The way criss-crosses the 30´ wide Rio Urique with multiple hour climbs up and around escarpments.

Their walking sticks clatter noisily on the stones in walking neatly behind one another like a centipede, chattering gaily and scattering lizards. I lead like an antenna with earplugs serving well until late afternoon as my chums grow too weary to talk, and I acquire swollen ears and can’t hear anyhow.

The odor of freshly cut marijuana wafts a thousand feet up a cliff we hike, high above green postage stamp farms with brown sticks cutting and packing the buds, who grow larger as we descend cautiously and wave. The Copper Canyon is the premier drug supplier to the USA, yet our passing seems mundane to the Tarahumara.

At Naranjo, a bent figure rises from a creaking rocking chair at a shanty perched next to the last footbridge over the river. He shows a long tooth as Cathy snaps a photo, and displays the preview. The ancient stares in wonder not realizing it’s trapped in the camera, seventy years well in a tear, and he clutches the image to his heart. Cathy promises to mail a print to the grandchildren at the nearest pueblo.

In late afternoon, under a baking sun, Neil scouts for a camp sight as the gals slow and fan out behind me. We lose visual, and then voice contact. There are walky-talkies in Neil’s pack that the Intellects refused to distribute. Liz crashes to the path, won’t budge, and yells until I find her patting strips of purple duck tape on raw shoulders from a tank-top friction. There is no need to tape for bra straps. Cathy locates us by shouts through the scrub pine, and we track Neil down to a beautiful sand beach that will be our camp.

Cathy, with a game leg and white faced from heat exhaustion, falls to the sand. ‘Get up, Cathy!’ she moans, but can’t. We spark a quick fire on the bank, and if marijuana fumes combust this canyon will blow with the tea water, soup, and coco to revitalize us all.

The liquid heals, but Spanish voices above on the trail bring our own whispers to mark social security numbers in our pants so the bodies can be identified. Huge black spiders mount the tops of thousands of stones on shore during a watchful dusk. The Intellects burry their passports and money, pitch tents atop them, and I plop a sleeping bag between room-size boulders stoned from the atmosphere, and doze.

The early sun slants into our camp where the hardy Intellects arise and speedily break camp to beat the day’s heat. There are a half-dozen climbs and descents, with as many fords, but mostly smooth stone hopping along the river banks. When the sun’s straight overhead, they break for cold lunches, but I notify that since the hike was planned to connect a handful of settlements for supplies, I’m out of food, and must advance as they siesta.

It is the season up and down the long canyon that spikes Mexico’s economy, the October marijuana harvest. Women and kids work countless mountainside farms cutting, cleaning, and drying within a one week window for each plant’s maturity. The female bud, or sinsemilla, is green gold with the greatest concentration of resin in the thousands of plants that I stride by.

Birds chirp, dragonflies pause to salute, and pines wave to and fro on the bank that, further along with decreasing elevation, are supplanted by deciduous trees, and then cactus. I take one sharp climb along a disintegrating stone wall around an escarp until the path peters, the wall falls away, and I entangled in ivy balanced on one foot and grab a handhold of cactus to save a 500´plunge. I chew free the vines, lower the center of gravity in the pack by shuffling contents, and carefully weave to the rio.

The sun drops beyond the wall as I pick along the shade mindful of the others. I am no intellect. What am I doing in the biggest crack on earth with three of them? Later, a solitary youth on the path informs that the next settlement is Eureka, a few hours off, where I shall prepare the Intellects’ nest. The youth grunts, passes, and later the river bends to show six adobe homes on the sunny bank.

It is the Day of the Gringo in Eureka! Dogs bark, kids cheer at my heel, and the announcement that an outsider has walked two days from Urique grabs a handful of adults to the entourage. We pause at a hut store where I wolf tins of tuna and sodas, until a lady named Maria invites me to her patio for dried goat plucked from a string. The flies are burnt crisp on an open grill, with fifteen tortillas and chiles, washed down by sweet well water.

The husband, pot bellied with hairy legs like a burro, raises a radio, speaks rapidly, and soon the ejido (community) turns out in singles or pairs to shake my hand, and shyly back to ring the patio. The radio reaches up and down the canyon, so I ask him to alert farmers everywhere of my inbound mates.

His squat brother comes aside.

‘What do you farm?’ I ask.

‘Drugs,’ he replies.

´What do you do with the profit?’

‘Í buy cattle and houses. How may do you have?’

‘I own one trailer, and have students instead of cattle. I’m a fired teacher.´

‘Then tonight you shall sleep in the schoolhouse. The teacher abandoned thirty-two students and you may dream of teaching here.’

If only I smoked and loved children.

For before me, one after the next, the children trudge under white sacks up a log step, step over my shoes, and into the home followed by flops on the floor. ´Six bags today,’ counts the patriarch. ´Not bad for a poor family.’

My companeros soon appear upstream like flotsam, sweating under orange rip-stop packs, and break the family ring to lumber onto the veranda. They plop onto the dirt, breath slower and easier… and gobble goat burritos. One kid asks Cathy how old she is, and to the reply, ´How old do you think?´ the child twinkles, ´You look 125 because you have been hiking.´

The grandfather steps forward and offers his outbuilding as a bunk, the apparent old jail with double adobe walls, timber roof, barred windows, but modernized with inner door latches that he advises to lock to keep bad things out.

‘Also, there is no bathroom,’ he says pleasantly. ‘Put it in the backyard.’

Liz worries all night about sleeping with criminal spirits. Cathy screams ´Bats!´ like a midnight toll. Tiptoes past my cot late in the night to the back door with auspicious tinkles heard through the barred windows favor tomorrow’s hike.

Roosters awaken even the deepest sleeper in Mexico. The Intellects already are brewing coffee on the jail step sunshine as I walk out. Suddenly, a broken line of men and boys hauling white sacks passes at the river below the house, and I shout, ´Look…´ but Neil interrupts. ´We’ve discussed the trip options. It’s well and good that you packed lightly and hike differently, so the consensus is that, if you wish, continue alone.’

They prefer to drink and chat, while I aim to have an armed escort into adventure. I thank the Intellects for their graciousness, and leave to catch the string.

I take a spot behind the uncle with a pearl handled revolver stuck in the back of his belt, and we thread down to the river, ford, and resume downstream. The bearers walk rapidly with 60 lb. sacks roped around foreheads and onto their backs, so fast that I lose their sight. Yet I’m overtaken by more bud backpackers, some carrying double loads.

They pass and ford the river barefoot.

A train of pack animals materializes behind them- four burros with three sacks each, two horses with four, and a giant black mule with five. They know the way, breathing heavily and clacking stones. They are overtaken by a dozen more human carriers to a common depot. An hour downriver from Eureka, the broken trains take a final ford, and unload on the far side.

The place is a stony flat, sheltered by boulders and trees, from which a rocky track rears up a cliff.

I sit scant meters from the growing pile with a teen porter, who explains that his wage of $15 per tote doubles if he manages two bags. The 2’x3’ 25-kilo sacks pile up like fat white logs until the stack is double-wide, thirty feet long, and six feet tall!

The grandfather comes aside with a black revolver in his belt, and smiles. ´It’s a fine day. The sixty sacks fetch the community $120 each.’ A radio cracks, and he adds, ´The truck arrives in five minutes. Senior, it would be better if you are not here.´

He hands me a 7´´ green clean bud. I take a snip, squeeze and smell, sigh and say, ´I’m a teacher. My American students smoke it, but I cannot.´

1.5 tons of marijuana.

Street value of $US One million.

Three hauls weekly from this arm.

The Copper Canyon has six arms

I hand back the gift flower.

In minutes, a stake bed truck with a white canvas top growls above the rio, and I take my cut, a worn notebook from a hip, jot a final line, and whistle downriver.