Have you ever dreamed about going somewhere and then discovered the reality of getting there was more than you’d expected? This may not come as a surprise, but that’s happened to me more than once. The problem with having a bold, adventurous nature is you reach the point where you think you can go anywhere and do anything.
Making my way to the bottom of Copper Canyon, Mexico, to see an old Spanish church was one of those trips.
My friend—we met in college geology class—was a rock hound and a photographer, like me. When I asked if he’d like to go to Mexico with me to find an old church, where centuries ago the priest had allegedly been a serial killer, he said yes!
The views from the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains are breathtaking. They have a way of reaching down into your soul and making even nonbelievers consider the possibilities of a God. Thirty years ago when my friend and I made the 9,000-foot vertical journey to the bottom of Copper Canyon, it was a rugged, bone-jarring experience. We spent 10 hours in a three-door Gold Chrysler with Pedro Estrada Perez, who’d said he would drive us if he could stop along the way and see a friend. Little did we know his friend was one of the illusive Tarahumara Indians, who lived in a cave, or that we might be part of a mission to convince someone to come back from the dead.
By the time our visit was over, I’d seen more of the Indian’s genitals than I wanted.
During our 10 hour, 60-mile drive, we sometimes got out and waited as Pedro inched his way along a dirt and bolder strewn road so narrow… the outer tires were almost hanging off the edge of the canyon. In case you’re wondering, the entire route was a scary view from the backseat of a car that was missing a door… When we arrived at the bottom of Copper Canyon, it was a surprise to see a real town.
Now that I’ve caught you up on the who, what, when, where and why—if you want to read the details, click here. If not, here’s PART TWO of ONE OF MY MORE BIZARRE SUMMER VACATIONS:
Except for a handful of cars and a red pickup, Batopilas looked like it had just awakened from a 200-year-old nap. The few streets were dirt, and you could see where the water level had risen along the sides of the white stucco buildings. When my friend informed me his bad back was “talking to him,” and our driver was making a beeline for the cantina, I knew if I wanted to see the 300-year-old church, I would have to go alone. With only a few hours of daylight left, I needed to go, then!
Pedro negotiated for the owner of the red pickup to take me to the church and bring me back. Because Pedro was a frequent visitor to Batopilas, I trusted he would put me in good hands. It was then I learned it was another four or five more miles to the church. We were in Batopilas. The bad road was behind us, right? I should have known better when the driver of the red pickup made the sign of the cross before he started the engine.
Years later I learned our route had been taken over by the drug cartels for their marijuana and poppy farms, and they’d executed the former mayor of Batopilas and another had survived an assassination attempt. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have gone in the first place… Maybe not…
We headed out of town on a trail shared by goats, big rocks, boulders and deep crevasses. The driver inched his way along, trying not to tear out the oil pan or the undercarriage of his truck. This “road” was worse than the one I’d just spent 10 hours driving on to Batopilas.
Hundreds of pale, yellow butterflies flitted around goats that were painfully thin. Even that late in the day the temperature was mucho calor, a reminder our truck was without air conditioning.
An image of the Virgin Mary—bordered by a blue, zigzag decorative trim—hung from the rear view mirror, while the truck’s ceiling had been made into a shrine. The overhead light was covered with a rectangular “Kleenex” box and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was encased in plastic and pasted onto the bottom of the box. Along the sides of the box hung yellow fringe… and three cougar tails… which brushed the top of my ear each time the truck lurched over a boulder.
The driver was consumed with the road and paid little attention to me. After about an hour he stopped and turned off the ignition. He waved for me to get out and pointed toward an opening in the brush, then popped the hood on his truck and once more gave a quick nod toward the opening.
I took my camera bag and hiked up the rock incline until I could see part of a church… the church that had brought me to this remote part of the world. The church sat on the only flat portion of the canyon and was made of red brick and stucco. If there had once been any paint, it had faded centuries before.
The sun was beginning to disappear from the horizon. With each step I felt hesitant and uneasy. What if the driver left me there? What if I had to walk back to Batopilas in the dark? This was wild country, and this Texas girl knew there would be rattlesnakes that came out to warm themselves on the rocks and hungry cougars.
But I was “Ramborella™,” a nickname a friend had given me, so onward I went.
I reached the top of the rise and stopped to take a photo with my panorama camera—it’s framed and hangs on my office wall—and then took more shots with my 35mm. My instincts told me to turn around, but I needed to see the inside of the church.
I hurried over a series of rough gullies and then ran the rest of the way until I was 30 feet from the open doorway. I love Mayan ruins and the patina of old buildings, and the old Spanish mission didn’t disappoint. I could see why some referred to it as “the lost mission,” but it wasn’t lost. No one had the stamina to find it.
The floor inside the church was a mixture of brick and dirt and a strong, musty odor filled the space. I heard something scurry along the wall to my right. It was too dark inside for a photo. I looked at the great expanse of floor and wondered if—according to legend—women were, in fact, buried there.
My little voice was telling me to turn back, and almost as soon as I’d arrived, I was retracing my steps. I stopped and took one more look before the great structure vanished from view.
I got back to the truck in time to see seven or eight, dark-skinned Indians on horseback who’d come out of the elevated brush—more were making their way down—and were lining the driver’s side of the truck. The Indians didn’t seem surprised to see me. They registered no emotion at all but stared at me with an uncomfortable intensity.
The driver motioned for me to get in the front seat, and then he closed the hood of his truck. The engine hesitated a few times and started up. As we drove forward, the Indians closed ranks behind us and followed us for maybe 50 feet and then turned and disappeared back into the brush.
It was dark now, and the headlights were on. As we crept across the rocks, at the speed grass grows, occasionally an Indian on horseback came out of the brush to watch. They didn’t smile or wave. They just stared. It was eerie to see them suddenly illuminated by the headlights, as though they’d come out of nowhere.
The truck crested a small incline, and the engine died. Another group of dark-skinned men on horseback appeared. This time there were 10 of them, and they were more animated and curious about me than the first group. They nudged their horses forward, half going around to the driver’s side, the other half riding up to my side of the truck. I wasn’t sure whether to confront their stares or look away, but I knew I needed to project strength and calm.
The driver got out of the truck, opened the hood and fiddled with something, then closed the hood, and the truck started. This time I didn’t turn around to see where the horsemen had gone.
Finally, when we pulled onto the main street in Batopilas, my friend was standing in the middle of the street. I could tell he was irritated, but I wasn’t up for a scolding. I told him I was exhausted. I wanted a cold beer and to go to sleep.
My friend, more than a foot taller than me, leaned down and in a stern voice said, “A nice woman fixed dinner for us and has been waiting for more than four hours for you to return.”
I looked at my friend’s watch. It was 11pm.
“You’re going to sit at her table,” he continued, “and eat every bite that’s puts in front of you.”
With that he took my elbow and walked me down the dirt street. After a lengthy silence he stopped and looked at me. “Do you have any idea… ” His voice trailed off. “I’ve been wondering… Where you were… What happened to you… If you were still alive.”
I started to explain, but he held up his hand. He guided me through a small structure onto a back porch. A bare lightbulb hung over a long table covered in a colorful oilcloth. At the table was Pedro—the driver of the three-door Chrysler who’d brought us to Batopilas—the woman, her husband and her children.
None of them had eaten. I was their guest, and they had waited for me.
I sat down and apologized and thanked the woman for dinner. No one said a word as we passed bowls of cold macaroni with mayonnaise, sliced tomatoes and tortillas around the table. I felt like I did when my father sat with me at the dinner table until I ate every bite of the cold, grey liver on my plate. It was late and he was silent… But this time, I was grateful to be there.