Ray’s Wild Hike with Squawking Chickens, Three-Legged Dog and Ramon the Burro—to Basirecota Hot Springs

Note: Ray was a guide at the Sierra Lodge and is a frequent traveler to the Copper Canyon. Here is a story (all true!) about an overnite hike to Basirecota). You can’t make up this kind of story!!

The burros have fled! Reyes, their wrangler and our guide, is negotiating with Antonios’s little boys and girls to help him capture our pack animals, who always flee when they get wind through the burro-grapevine that there’s a big hike in the offing. We don’t want to carry all this stuff ourselves—a cast iron frying pan, cooking oil, beer, tequila, sodas, bottled water, sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, flashlights, eggs, beans, onions, cheese, masa, towels, bathing suits, a table cloth—all of which lies neatly packed in three black plastic garbage bags beside us on the porch. Maria, our tortilla lady, is patiently weaving pine needles into a basket. She’ll sell it later to another guest for twenty pesos. Sue and I sit on the rustic Madrone wood chairs on the long porch sipping our third cup of coffee, still wearing our gleaming white robes against the morning chill. We’re two hours late, but we don’t care. Late isn’t in our vocabulary today. We could sit here forever watching Rubin plowing his cornfield behind a sway-backed horse, listening to the ripple of the river and the laughter of the children, soaking up the morning sun as it climbs above the mountains to the east. The lodge is located in a Tarahumara ranchito populated by several families.

The last easy day - photo by Richard Speedy

This is our first full day at the Sierra Lodge. We plan to walk the three hours to Baserecota Hot Springs carrying only our canteens, rain gear and snacks—burritos, peanuts and fruit—and spend the night in a mysterious cave. The animals, the burros, not the three dogs and two chickens, will carry the rest. But what are plans in the Sierras? The Indians say that when we make plans, God laughs. And He’s already chuckling at our feeble attempts at organization.

Finally, we’re ready to go. Reyes ties the squawking hens, tonight’s entree, to the lead burro’s pack and we follow Maria across the creek. She dances across the rocks without looking down, still working on her basket. This is her home ground, just as city streets are ours. It’s a little scary. I lose my balance and step into the water. My boots are wet. Embarrassing! Sue’s usually the one who falls into the water. We negotiate the rocky winding path and top the little ridge opposite the lodge and look back for one last view of it, wondering if we really want to do this and then we’re over the top and looking down into the Valley of the Songs spread out before us and we realize that it’s going to be worth it. Maybe for a brief moment tonight we’ll long for our soft beds, the iron woodstove and the big porcelain toilet but…. The wind sweeps down into the valley and we can hear them: the songs of the ancients and nothing else. An eagle floats above the cross that dominates the big rock above the valley. A weathered two-room adobe house with a shiny corrugated iron roof covering half of it sits in the middle of the valley. We’re told that priests once lived here. Except for the basketball goal in the yard we could be in the 16th century. There’s not a soul in sight except for those in our little party. A dog pokes its head around the corner of the big house, barks at our dogs and then retreats. Our dogs ignore them. Even this close to the lodge the locals are shy. A hastily abandoned handmade toy wooden log truck lies next to a corn husk doll in the yard. Colorful clothing dries on a clothesline.

And we have the first of several mutinies. Ramon, the senior burro, flops to the ground and refuses to move. The two hens are trapped beneath him and flap their wings and protest loudly. The big black dog and the skinny yellow one bark and snap at Ramon’s feet. Penny, the other burro, turns and trots toward the hill behind us, headed for the lodge, followed by the other dog, a three-legged multi-colored mutt. Reyes generates an unearthly guttural hissing noise from deep inside his chest, turns toward Ramon, raises his big stick and as quickly as it began, the revolt is over. The three-legged dog proudly returns with his errant burro. We are on our way again.

For the next hour we climb, winding our way up the switchbacks. The footing is treacherous. Tiny, almost invisible, paths branch out from the main one so we have to be careful and keep Maria in sight. The burros are far behind us. Their bells tinkle. Two of the dogs, including the three-legged mutt, weave in and out of our little group. We watch our feet. When we pause for breath we look behind us and see the Valley of the Songs far below. It looks like a diorama exhibit in a cultural museum. The children have emerged from hiding and are playing with their toys. They, the children, look like toys themselves. One of their dogs, still insulted, barks at us. The barks echo off the hills. Life will be normal until the next group of Gringos intrude. We hear laughter from somewhere echoing through the hills. A truck grinds its way up a steep hill on the model-train-layout highway on its way to Creel.

We’re ready for a break at the top of the hill. Reyes tells us that it’s easy going for the next hour across flat terrain. We break out the peanuts and sip water. The burros lounge nearby with their angry chickens strapped to their backs. Maria disappears for a while and returns with a plastic bag full of apples and green leaves. Reyes tells us that she’s visited a distant cousin who lives a few hundred yards from where we are resting. I give her a few pesos so she can pay him for the food, but she refuses it, saying (I think) that they have little need for money.

On the trail again the walking is easy and we breathe freely, though we can tell that the air is getting thinner because of the altitude. The path widens into a former log truck road that slopes gently upward. I spot a plastic bottle stuck onto a tree limb and grab it, intending to dispose of it. Reyes takes it from me and puts it back on the limb. My Spanish is limited and his English is nonexistent (we are led to believe) but he makes me understand that the bottle is a sign, just like a road sign back in Little Rock, that tells travelling Tarahumara that there’s water nearby. There’s no such thing as trash up here; everything is useful. We pass a pile of rocks surrounding a crude wooden cross at what must be the highest point so far of our trip and Maria and Reyes add a few rocks to the pile. Maria gestures to us to do the same. I gather that this is some kind of boundary. From now on, all the way to the river where we’ll camp tonight, it will be downhill. The hard part is over, I think. Little do I know.

The most difficult part of the hike for is the descent into Basirecota canyon where we’ll camp. From the top the trail looks impossible to negotiate but Reyes laughs and says in Spanish that I can barely understand that, as Tarahumara roads go, this is an interstate highway, complete with signs and rest areas. The burros plunge into the abyss and disappear in a clatter, followed by Reyes and then Maria. We can hear their snorts, Reyes’ hisses, their bells and the clucking of the hens below us becoming fainter and fainter. We must follow or we’ll be stranded in this wilderness two hours from the lodge. And the burros have all the food! We know we’re on the right path though, because of the fresh green burro-apples dotting the trail. It’s not as bad as it looks. One step at a time and don’t look down. We stop once to rest while Reyes levers a large rock from the trail. Out here there’s no highway maintenance department so those who use the trail must keep it up. We see a doll-like Maria far below skittering down the last few yards of scree on her ridiculous plastic shoes, her tiny feet a blur. She’s too far away for me to tell whether she’s still weaving a basket but I wouldn’t be surprised. And then she’s there, at the bottom. She disappears behind the rocks next to the river.

By the time we arrive at the bottom Maria is wearing a fresh dress, her hair is shiny and clean and the dress she was wearing previously is hanging from a limb drying in the afternoon sun.

Because we left so late, the shadows are growing long. Only a few more hours of daylight left. Reyes gathers a pile of firewood and starts a fire in front of the cave where we’ll sleep. Maria rolls wet masa into what look like golf balls and pats them expertly into tortillas with wide, brown hands. The strange green plants she bought on the mesa are stewing in a big recycled oil can. Somehow the chickens have become chicken parts and are laid out on wax paper. Reyes crosses the river and builds another fire on that bank in front of a large hollow that looks like a band shell. He and Maria will sleep over there.

We put on our bathing suits. Reyes points down river to where steam rises from the rocks. “Aguas termales,” he says. We walk around a black rock outcropping and find a stepped series of pools fashioned from rocks caulked with moss. Steaming hot water flows from deep inside a cave. Inside I can barely make out a statue of the Virgin Mary tacked to the wall. The pool in the cave itself is too hot and the one nearest the river is too cold, but the middle one is just right. I’d guess it’s about the same temperature as our hot tub back home. We sit submerged on the smooth rocks and loll, feeling the healing heat flow into our aching muscles. Maria peeks around the big rock to see if we’re decent then brings us a pile of freshly laundered towels and two Negra Modelas. It doesn’t get any better than this. When we finish a beer another magically appears to replace it. We fall asleep. I dream that its morning and that a helicopter lands in our little valley. The pilot offers us a ride back to the lodge.

Fireside dinner in the Sierras

When we awaken, its dinner time. We towel off, don our robes and sandals and climb over the rocks to our campsite, in front of the cave. More beer, fried potatoes and roasted chicken in front of the fire. Piles of fresh tortillas. Fierce chilies for those who’ll dare try them. Its dark. We’re sleepy and tired but we don’t want to sleep yet. We drink hot black boiled coffee. We’re not the least concerned that it’ll keep us awake.

Someone has laid horse blankets on the floor of our cave. Our flashlights and water bottles are next to them. We sleep. I awaken in the middle of the night. I hear the moon. I know that sounds weird, but I DID hear the moon. Don’t ask me what it sounds like. You had to be there. Do I hear a railroad train? Probably the railroad we rode to Creel on. I hear the crackle of our fire, the sizzle of another, smaller one across the river amplified weirdly by the shape of the big open-mouthed cave, the ripple of the river itself and other unfamiliar sounds. Somewhere in the distance I can hear the tinkle of the burro’s bells. I put on my robe and boots, wrap myself in a blanket, walk to the river’s edge and sit on a big rock and see an eerie sight across the river—a cavern with a fire in front of it with long-shadowed sleeping figures sleeping inside mounds of blankets. It looks like a band shell emitting a ghostly flickering light. The parabolic shape amplifies the sounds and light inside and projects them across the river. Gentle snoring. One of the dogs is dreaming and yips like a coyote. From one of the piles (Reyes’?) an arm emerges and tosses a rock at the noisy dog. The popping of the fire. I’m sitting in front of a big movie screen.

More sleep. I awaken and poke my nose from under the blanket. The sun is blinding. I see in front of me the outline of a big tree with a figure on top of it, backlit by the sun. The figure gives a gentle huff. Its head swivels around and glares down at me. It’s a big white owl! The owl hoots again, drops from the treetop and, just before it strikes the ground, flaps its long wings, rises languidly like a hot air balloon and flies into the sun to spend the day wherever nocturnal creatures such as owls sleep in the daytime. Assuming of course that it was a real owl.

Hey, there’re two cups of steaming coffee next to our sleeping spot. Where did they come from?

I lay wrapped in my blanket, sipping my coffee, dreading the long climb up the canyon wall. Breakfast of eggs, potatoes, left over chicken and strange green veggie. More soaking in the pool; the hotter one this time, the one in the little cave that I didn’t think I could stand last night. Reyes and Maria are gathering our stuff and packing the burros. As soon as the burros are packed they disappear. Another revolt? Reyes laughs and says (I think) that they’ve headed back to the lodge by themselves. They know the way.

And to our surprise we strike out along the river instead of climbing up the winding path. Thank goodness, the path is relatively level. Two hours later we’re at the waterfall and it’s a cakewalk from there. We walked to it yesterday, before dinner! I didn’t realize that the hot springs is on the same river, the Cusarare, that runs in front of the lodge. Two hours later we catch up with the burros, still wearing our stuff, grazing in a little field next to the lodge. And then we’re sitting on the lodge porch watching Reyes unpack the burros.

Time for lunch!