Travel Diaries: Mexico’s Copper Canyons

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You know that feeling you get at the airport?

When you’re on the precipice of a trip you know has both the potential and likelihood to be life changing… when that nervous and excited energy starts to course through your veins…

God, I live for that feeling.

Boarding the plane, feeling it vibrate under your feet, listening to the chatter of a new language… Each time aware that you are beginning another journey that will shape you as a person. That takeoff, that feeling of breaking into the sky never loses its thrill.

I return to Mexico following a vibrant red sunset on the first day of November, sky darkening behind the wing outside my plane window. Chihuahua City greets me beneath a blanket of stars, surrounded by dark mountains and hills and sky.

And yet… it’s strange how unintimidating a new place is at first, at night.

Spanish lettering lines awnings and appears on gas stations in the fringe towns we drive through, but otherwise this could be any town, any road, any city. The fact that I have gone straight from a two hour plane trip to a three hour car ride without enough light to truly see the city probably has something to do with this first impression, but I find it interesting all the same.

Tired and hazy, I am mesmerized by headlights on the road like that Chet Faker music video. Occasionally clusters of light- small cities- pop up in the distance. At midnight the four of us- myself and the kind souls willing to wait at the airport for me- emerge at the edge of Creel, a tiny town in Chihuahua.

My contacts are stinging from the dirt, the dryness. We wolf down dinner and I am sent out to find my cabin in the dark. I spend perhaps 10 minutes wandering in the wrong direction, growing ice cold, until a man with a giant flashlight appears and asks me something in Spanish.  I can’t understand him but I repeat my cabin number a few times and eventually he tells me to follow him. All I care about at this point is finding a warm place to lie down, but when I realize we’re heading a pretty far distance from the other cabins towards a single shack on the outskirts of a big field, I hang back. Luckily, this is one of those situations where following the random guy with a flashlight works out. I find both my cabin and a badass roommate. I fall asleep looking forward to dawn.

CREEL

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I can see my breath when I wake up. Outside, frost covers the ground but a chilly sunrise shatters the illusion of stillness. Aire Libre, the group organizing this trip, has a knack for finding the most magical places to explore, and already I can sense this place shifting pieces of my soul.

We begin our day by setting intentions. Paty Baro, our yoga instructor and a woman who embodies the word “life” guides us to thank our bodies for all they do for us. This is an Aire Libre tradition on each trip, a way to practice gratitude and set yourself up for each day.

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Then we head into the hills.

The crisp scent of pine rises up to meet us as we cross rocks and rivers, climb on our hands and knees up crumbling stone slabs and crash down dirt trails. Often, our guide Ariel- a local ultrarunner- looks around and seems to pick a direction at random. At one point he scrambles up a steep rock face, then turns around and holds out a strong hand to help the rest of us up and over the edge. We pass cliffside dwellings previously inhabited by the Tarahumara who live in the area, a bizarre experience. It has been said that the Tarahumara only appear when they want to, and I finally understand what this means a few miles into our run.

We are in a fairly open forest- it isn’t at all difficult to see between the trees. Yet out of nowhere a man appears, hand in hand with a small boy, just.. out there walking. We nod, buenos dias, and run on. A moment later a woman dressed in traditional attire also appears- we incline our heads but she says nothing, and moments later it was if she had never been. I am reminded of descriptions of these native people before their homeland became a sort of bucket list destination for runners- quiet, silent, like ghosts. Not unfriendly, just… on the edge of invisible until they choose otherwise.

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Ultimately, the area we run through in Creel is stunning. Bright yellow leaves shade us from the sun in places, and the forest smells fresh and like autumn, reminding me somewhat of the places I ran in Winthrop when I was younger. It is what I expected from the area, despite its reputation as being a sort of back-of-the-world town. It is also a million times more fascinating than I’d expected. Every time I turn around and look at the path we’ve followed, the oddly shaped stones and glorious spaces between the trees cause me to smile and look even more deeply. I want to drink it all in.

As amazing as this all is, I am about to be even more stunned when we run through Batopilas.

BATOPILAS

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Again, we arrive at night. This time the darkness is so complete there is nothing except for the headlights upon the road ahead and shadows beneath the stars. Instead of wide highways though, this time we are 25 or so in a van careening around corners and creeping around boulders twice the size of the vehicle. We descend into the depths of a canyon, quiet. I have headphones in, creating a lonely soundtrack, and feel like I’ve fallen into an adventure novel. This feeling escalates when we are stopped- only for a moment, thank goodness- by men in a truck with machine guns, some part of Mexico’s infamous cartel, upon entering Batopilas.

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We drive for a while through this one road, dimly lit but gorgeous town. Batopilas is a colorful, stunning little place at the bottom of a canyon sitting parallel to a river. At night, we only catch glimpses as we eat outdoors, serenaded by local guitarists, and do yoga under the stars. Luckily, the sun is up when we are and we are greeted by the town in full color the next day.

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We walk to a river and face a hill we know to be 8k- but because of the winding, circling nature of the wide trail, it looks easier. I follow Silvino Cubesare, our Raramuri guide and his son Eleazar up… and up… and up. We keep going. every corner we turn unveiling another beautiful view, a mountain, a river. Fifteen more distant hills. Each hike we crest releases more of this absolutely stunning scenery. More people might fall in love with the act of running if it left them feeling this awestruck each day.

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Long dirt roads and the hot sun drawing sweat across our backs… the footfalls of friends, fellow runners… taking a break to taste a cactus that Silvino expertly sliced into pieces… careening down a gravel section of the trail… dunking hats and headbands in the river to cool ourselves off…. being able to just run

Is there anything so satisfying as this continual forward motion? The ability your body has to propel itself forward, the strength of your spirit to continue despite any discomfort that arises? All I can think is…

I am so grateful to be here, now.

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I end up staying an extra night in Chiahuahua city with a friend made on the trip. We fall asleep in a whitewashed suburb on a hill overlooking the city, plain and clean. Early, we gaze at a foreign moon before dawn as we head to catch a morning flight, that crescent smile and planet’s outline above, alien, beneath which lies a flickering blanket of city lights, a golden-yellow silent ocean. Beautiful.

One of the best parts of this trip was meeting the others that took it with me. Catching up to our support van on top of a mountain and everyone dancing around to music, shooing away the cows on the trails and calling VENGA!!, cheering each time another of our runners made it up the climb… I loved laughing as we crashed downhill through the “magic forest”, free-falling so fast a single misstep would have sent us careening head over heels, and delighting in the sheer childlike joy of it;. And that’s the thing about these excursions- they free you to go back to your roots.

Everyone on this trip, it seemed, was looking for something here, whether they knew it consciously or not. A travel dream fulfilled; a brave young woman with MS regaining her strength after paralysis, brothers who wanted a chance to reconnect…

I wanted to feel strong again, the kind of strong that only mountain dirt can give you.

This trip was extremely personal for me. A lot has changed in my life this year, and I was in desperate need of a reminder that I can handle the challenges life tosses at you.

One of my mantras for the trip was I can do this which I later realized was flexible because you could change the emphasis depending on the task at hand.

can do this

I CAN do this

I can do this

I can do THIS.

I believe each trip, each journey, each adventure changes you. But this time I felt less as though I had changed, and more like I had been reminded of pieces of myself I’d lost. It’s been a long year. Sometimes it takes running through the mountains to remind yourself that you are stronger than you think.

Still, no matter what, somewhere inside you knows your truth. Something inside you remembers. And when you free yourself from the weight of the day to day, when you are brave enough to live in the moment somewhere new and different, you can’t help but reclaim the pieces of yourself you may have lost along the way.

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