Travel Thursday: Copper Canyon

As always, I got to the train station, this time in Chihuahua, way early, well before the dawn in fact. Of course I had no idea how long it would take to get from the hotel to the train station, so there I sit on the hard concrete, trying not to sleep, and of course having people trying to cut in line as the time comes.
Once on board I found the train itself wasn’t so bad. As the sun began to show its wares over the horizon, the air conditioning took out the humidity completely. . . though of course because it was dawn, it quickly became too cold. But at least the seats were big and comfortable, something that surprised me when I considered all the stuff I’d heard about Mexican trains. Still, this was the tourist train; the regular train, carrying all the locals, left an hour later, and was sure to be much different than this one. Right now I appeared to be the only North American on a trainful of Europeans, mostly Germans; later I found out this wasn’t true, but it didn’t do me any good on the ride.
The steward was blasting norteño, overpowering my headphones, and the train was too shaky to read coherently, let alone write. Worse, the landscape of flatlands with distant bluffs was the most boring I’d seen since Eastern Hungary, even if that promised to change soon, so I just sat there with my head against the window, sometimes sleeping but mostly just staring out at the landscape.
Even when we did get to the beginnings of the canyon, it was nothing compared to the photos I’ve seen, but then those were rumored to be on the other half of the journey. For once I was able to sleep some on transportation, no doubt because of the early start time, but even that was screwed by the presence of first a really loud group of Germans and then an even worse band of Alabamian senior citizens, in all their famous glory. . .
Anyway, not in a good mood by the time we arrived in Divisadero.
If there’s one place in the world that could change that, it should be here. . . right?


copper canyon

Here I sit on the balcony of my hotel room, with the entire canyon seemingly before me. I firmly believe I could never get tired of this view.
I stayed like that for what seemed like hours, the only downside the wind whipping in my eyes, occasionally gasping, until finally I whispered, “Too much” and tried to engage my brain again.
A couple of pinnacles that give the impression of being towers were probably only 2km away as the crow flies, but it feels like I could lean over the balcony and touch them. The first bluff to the right is probably half that. The plateau a little left of center is about 5km.
Far across the canyon to the left, I’m sure I can see for a good 100km, and at least 1km straight down, leaning over the railing. Despite there being more land across the way, this felt like the end of the world.
Looking closer now, between those two pinnacles, possibly a shadow but what fun would that be, looked to be a cave entrance. Wanna bet I wanted to go exploring? As luck would have it, a walking tour was about to begin, taking us first all the way to the top on the other side of the tracks, till the promontory containing the hotel itself looked tiny. Can’t believe my legs weren’t hurting yet, but hopefully that was a good omen and I’d have plenty of things to see before they inevitably let me down.
As always, looking straight down didn’t help my sense of balance, or any other sense. At this height, it got cold in a hurry, and I was in t-shirt and shorts. The guide said that at the bottom of the canyon it was tropical enough to grow bananas and there was a tour that went down there, but since that was six hours down, sleep over, then twelve hours back up the next day. . . nah, don’t think so. . .
The wind at the top was barely there, but once we started dropping it rushed loudly by us. Luckily we were never on any path where it could toss us off the side, but it was still a bit of a struggle. At one point we reached a spot where it seemed like the canyon was 360 degrees around us, possibly the only time I’ve ever wished I had a fisheye lens.
For a few minutes we walked through a meadow with no view of canyon, and with a couple of buildings, one of them being the schoolhouse, but there was no one home or no reason to stop by, and soon enough we were back in the pretty land. From way up there I’d spotted a dot of red far below with my telephoto, and I was amazed to find, first of all, that we climbed down that far, but also because that red dot turned out to be a local woman weaving, and consequently selling, baskets, which I love. First I turned to take in the steep rocky path we’d descended, still amazed by how easily it had seemed. Then I noticed the hotel and saw there were caves below it too, which would satisfy my spelunking curiosity if we got to see them. . . whch we did eventually, but other than a few petroglyphs that looked rather modern compared to most I’ve seen, no big deal.
Then I turned to see what I could buy. The kid with her, about two years old, didn’t make it easy, clad in a dress that for some reason reminded me of Hungary. Of course she posed for a picture–for a price–and smiled shyly.
The guide, who was one of those guys who ran marathons through the canyon to bring messages to all the distant towns, told us about the Tarahumara gods, particularly Raienari, the sun god, protector of men, and Mecha, the moon goddess, protector of women. Kinda disappointing to find a mythology so. . . typical, but on the other hand it’s really interesting how so many cultures went the same way with that, back to the Ancient Greeks and many others.
Finally back from the incredible hike, I took stock and found myself tired but not as bad as I’d feared. It certainly could have been worse, but the scenery couldn’t have been better. Unfortunately those Suthin’ oldies were staying here too, and being incredibly obnoxious. Seems like they were the only ones here, though I did find a pair of calm Canadian couples to have dinner with and talk to in the lounge, when the Alabamians didn’t butt in with their incredibly lame jokes. One of the Canadians was an emergency room doctor, his wife a nurse–they often took cruises for free, with him being the ship doctor—and I actually visited them in Vancouver a few years later. The other couple was from Edmonton, and I got to talk to the gruff-looking but genial bearded gent about Rush for a while, especially their ballads; he’s one of the few people I’ve met who even knew they existed.
Back on the balcony of my room, the last rays of sun shining on my face, I sat there looking out while listening to Mannheim Steamroller’s Red Wine. For a change I had quiet neighbors, not the loud Alabamians, so nothing kept me from enjoying the soaring of the hawks, the blowing of the wind–now that it couldn’t push me over–and to make the cliché complete, I’m reading Walden. . .
But finally I put the book down, and reached for my notebook instead of my camera. My powers of observation are strong, but this would likely tax my writing skill. Definitely out of this world to be looking out at all these green ridges, like waves, or a labyrinth, verdant splendor bathed in the warm sun, and have Mannheim’s version of Stille Nacht come into the headphones, followed by Enya’s Sun in the Stream–though I doubt there’s any place remotely like this in Ireland. My music player seems to be in tune with the setting, choosing just the right songs: a piece of Vivaldi’s Spring is encored by Mannheim’s Interlude I, with the sounds of nature in the background echoing the ones in real life.
I almost missed it when it got dark, but suddenly there were SO MANY STARS. I’ve been out in the countryside plenty of times, away from the big city lights, so I’m well aware that you can see a lot more of the night sky out there than in the city, but this was as far beyond that as the countryside is to the city. For the first time in my life I can make out the nebulous cloud that is the Andromeda galaxy. The Big Dipper has never been more defined; Venus is amazingly bright. The Southern Cross, Orion–the sky seems crowded.
Until I look down, to the front, and see nothing before me but an ominous pitch-black void, with only one single small light that’s probably a campfire. So eerie. . .
Looking back up to recapture the joy, not only do I see stars, but also what appear to be lines connecting stars, as if there was a lattice of spider webs in the background. I would get lost counting them before getting to 100, wondering if I’d already ticked that one off. The sky seemed as crowded as a subway.
The air feels so clean. . . and cold. But it’s an honest cold. The night was so clear that, even with the screen door closed on the balcony, I could see the tiny points of light that signified weak stars, and the big ones shone enough to allow me to read a newspaper someone had left. It was so bright, in fact, that when I got up in the middle of the night to hit the head, I didn’t have to turn on the light in this unfamiliar place.
I slept very well.
Yet as incredible as the first sight was, it was that much more amazing at dawn, and we all know I’m not a dawn kinda guy. At 6:58 the light meter on the camera–on tripod–told me there wasn’t enough light; at 7:00 there was. An amazing low-level fog–or probably dust particles–lifted up from the canyon floor, illuminated by the beginning rays. I’ve never seen the sun so small, so distant. It’s almost like the hotel staff arranged it that way, to give the impression—again–you were at the edge of the world.
While at night it had been, for lack of a tighter definition, cosmic, during the day it was all about being in tune with nature. I didn’t have a thesaurus, so I had to do my best: breathtaking, majestic, mystical, spiritual, glorious, primeval, unspoiled, tranquil, haunting, soul-stirring. . . grandeur. In this place, all the clichés meet and, instead of clashing, mesh into harmony.
And most of all, the power of silence. . .
It was damned chilly this early; not only could I see my breath, but it formed around my head until it coalesced into a cloud. But I barely felt it; as many had observed, when I’m playing with my camera I’m as giddy as a schoolboy. {Time out while we remember the person who said that, Ilsa the gorgeous bad-girl blonde in Indiana Jones 3. . . and we’re back.}
Was invited to do a morning hike with the bearded Canadian, but as I checked my body I regretfully realized I was too sore for another jaunt. In fact, I spent most of the morning after breakfast just sitting there and taking in the view some more, though occasionally I wandered around to take shots from different angles. But soon enough it was time to walk the ten paces back to the railway platform. Part of me felt sad to be leaving so soon, but on the other hand I was feeling so overwhelmed that I knew it had to be done. Copper Canyon is too big to take it all in, plus it doesn’t have as many handy viewpoints and lookouts as the Grand one further north. . . plus it’s green, not orange. If I ever come back, I should be able to better handle it, but for now I could take in no more.
As I waited for the train, locals began setting up their wares, as there are some people who take the train straight through without getting off to enjoy the scenery for more than ten minutes. I spent some time haggling with a little Indian girl, about four years old, selling some craft works. I thought some of those carved keychains would be fun to give as gifts, and I was particularly amused that one was shaped like a dolphin, all the way up here in the remote mountains; never saw a TV out here, but maybe they took a trip to Mazatlan. She wanted me to buy 2 for 10, but when I told her I’d take 3 for 12 she went to ask her mom, who okay’ed the deal, and I kept the dolphin for myself.
And of course, as I took a last view from the balcony as the train is coming to take me away, all my earlier feelings left and I was sad to have to leave. I would hate to think that I will never in my life see another sight like this. . . but if I don’t, I’ll come back here.
The train to Los Mochis was so much better, much more beautiful landscapes, though I’m surprised I could consider any of it beautiful after the canyon. Slowly the train dropped out of the Western Sierra Madre, through the only pass across the country between the desert to the north and the Mazatlan-Durango road that I had described understatedly as beautiful but gut-wrenching. Some of these vistas, so different from either the flatlands or the snow-capped majesty of the Rockies, made my jaw gape. There were times when the canyons fell off to both sides of the train, and others where the rock walls rose around us as high as you could see. Some of the rock formations reminded me of the area of the Elbe river south of Dresden, but they seemed a lot scarier on a train.
Finally tired of the observation bubble, I went out to the space between cars, where the top part of the loading door was open so people could look out; safety standards had never been a priority in Mexico. Plenty of waterfalls, but I particularly remember looking out the side of the train to see what appeared to be a toy town at the bottom of a ravine, and just behind it a trellis over a rushing river. . . and then I realized we were going to be traveling down there and got my cameras ready, one fast for the river and the other wide for the town.
Which turned out to not be homes–not in the traditional sense, anyway–but discarded boxcars. Ha! Shoulda taken more shots from up top.

It was quite an odyssey getting back to El Lay, especially being in the middle of drug country, but that’s a story for another time. No need to mood-whiplash you after such a beautiful journey. . .



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