A Long Ride To a Distant Place

by Conger Beasley, Jr.

“The bush is so wide and the Sierra
is so great and lonely that you disappear
and nobody knows where you are
or what has befallen you.”

— B. Traven

Are you tired of taking safe vacations? Of sitting comfortably in air-conditioned conveyances watching the countryside glide by, prim and tidy, on the other side of the sturdy glass window that protects you from the wind and sun?

Well, I have something for you--a real voyage, a bonafide ordeal, a tough, challenging trip deep into some of the most spectacular canyon country you will ever cast your eyes upon.
No, I’m not talking about Nepal and the Himalayas. I’m not talking about Patagonia and the empty spaces of Chile and Argentina. I’m talking about somewhere a lot closer to home.

• • •

It begins, invariably, with a neurotic episode. This time I’ve misplaced my passport. Can’t find it anywhere amidst the jumble of clothes and gear heaped on top of the bed in my room in the chilly mountain town of Creel. Sometimes it’s money or books or articles of clothing, but it’s always something--lost, forgotten, neglected, overlooked that leads me to fidget, to dither, to throw up my hands in despair. My friend Tom coolly searches my luggage and finds the passport in my day bag. “Here,” he says. Do I detect a gleam of pity in his eyes?

• • •

Creel Station. 11:50 A.M. February 21, 2006.
A few gringo and European tourists wait on the concrete platform for the train to Divisidero amidst a bevy of teenage Indian girls tending to younger siblings, their colorful dresses poofed and swathed with bright patches, their hair done up in floppy bonnets, their waists cinched with gaudy sashes. Pretty girls, intelligent, alert, in the flower of their difficult lives, with bright black eyes and full lips chapped by the dry mountain air.

While waiting for the southbound, second-class train down from Chihuahua City, Tom and I view a little museum across the tracks that features panels and artifacts depicting French actor/playwright Antonin Artaud’s visit to Mexico in the 1930s. More about him later.

Burly guards, dressed in black uniforms, clutching AK-47s with 9 mm pistols stuck in their belts, patrol the platform. Jim Glendinning, leader of our little expedition, explains that a year or so ago a gang of bandits boarded the Copper Canyon train not far from Creel and robbed the passengers of their valuables Jesse-James style. They then shot a Swiss tourist who insisted on taking their photos even after they warned him not to. “For some reason the Swiss fellow didn’t think they meant what they said,” Jim said. “Too many cowboy movies, I guess.”

The train chugs into the station at 12:45. Our party of six boards, finds seats, settles in. A few minutes later, with a crank and a groan, the train shuttles out of the station into high-plateau country shaded by wiry red pines growing between rock slabs littered with dry needles. A nubby, abrasive, semi-arid terrain, unsuitable for cattle grazing or subsistence farming; logging, mining, and tourism appear to be the main activities.

“There are two Sierra species on the verge of extinction, the imperial woodpecker and the Chihuahuan grizzly bear,” Jim says, waxing professorial from his comfortable chair. It’s a familiar role for him, and he’s very good at it. “There are reportedly more types of pines in the Mexican Sierras than anywhere else in the world.”

South of the busy mining town of Creel, the famed Copper Canyon railroad dips down into the bewildering depths of one of the biggest canyon complexes in the world, located in the remote hinterland of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Impassive Indian faces stare at us through the windows as the train glides into the rock-walled depot at Divisidero, where we disembark, walk around, examine the colorful blankets and straw baskets made by the Tarahumara women. The members of our little party--Tom, Dave, Tony, Pam, and Jim--stroll through the market sampling a variety of comestibles cooked by a dozen vendors on metal sheets heated by blazing wood fires. My stomach feels tender so I abstain. The others bolt down one mysterious dish after another. “I really don’t know what I’m eating,” says Dave Mattson, a tall, rangy Texan from Terlingua, “but I like the color.”

Back in their seats, belching contentedly, they gaze out the windows at the yellowish (copper) extrusions bulging off the passing cliff faces. A pale late-winter sun gilds the cliffs with a faint saffron touch. Down into the labyrinth of forbidding canyons the train steams and rattles. A vendor passes down the aisle selling popcorn, candy, and newspapers. A photographer snaps pictures of us gazing out the windows or dozing with our mouths open, which he then tries to sell, but without much luck.

“We’ve got a good crew here,” Jim says to me as he looks around at the people in our little party. “I think we’ll do just fine.”

• • •

We spend the first night in the clean, quiet, orderly town of Temoris, an hour’s bus ride from the tiny depot deep inside Copper Canyon where we detrain late that afternoon. The next morning, escorted by an eighty-year-old vaquero named Chico Campos, the six of us embark upon a pleasant, scenic, five-hour hike through high-desert country. Overcast sky, pleasantly cool air. We plod past milpas covered with dried cornstalks, fenced with blades of prickly pear cactus the size of pizza pans. We watch a trio of young cowboys guide a herd of cattle to a nearby corral where they are to be branded. The way these guys sit in the saddle is a sight to behold, bouncing in synch with the horses’ rhythmic trot. After passing through a thriving ponderosa forest, we arrive at the village of Batosegachi (elevation 4,720 feet), the jumping-off place for our descent into little-known and rarely visited Wa’Chahuri Canyon.

The hamlet of Batosegachi exudes the unmistakable air of the sort of place one finds at the edge of civilization anywhere in the world. The population consists of around fifty people. The church and local schoolhouse stand on a hill at one end of town. The houses are modest, built of adobe brick, roofed with sheets of corrugated metal, the ceilings and interior walls bolstered with timber struts and crossbeams.

There appears to be only one car in town, a broken-down, rusted hulk resting on shredded tires next to a wire fence. Apparently everyone in Batosegachi gets around on foot or by horse.

That evening we make ourselves comfortable around a sturdy, retangular, wood-planked table inside a detached, adobe brick kitchen belonging to a jolly, energetic woman named Lupe who serves us a tasty meal of beans, tortillas, and potatoes, flavored with a tangy hot sauce.

“The last time it snowed here,” Lupe tells us, “was four years ago. “The region is suffering a terrible drought. It hasn’t rained in six months.”

On the bare dirt floor, as I stuff my face with frijoles, I watch, entranced, a sleek black cat fiddle with a piece of string in the glare of a crackling kerosene lamp.

That night the six of us rest comfortably in a newly renovated cottage with blue doors, whitewashed walls, and a hardpacked dirt floor located across the road from Lupe’s house under the shadow of a gigantic mesquite tree that, despite the lack of rainfall, is just beginning to leaf out. Outdoors, before turning in, by the light of a crackling fire, I make a note in my journal:

“How much can a person capture in a single glance? a legitimate question, especially in regard to travel where so much is taken in on the sly, while in motion, in transit, casually, furtively, out of the corner of the eye. Travelers are thieves, purloiners of images and identities, colors and nomenclature . . . if it sparkles or strikes their fancy, they’ll steal it . . .”

• • •

Next morning we meet our guides and pack handlers, two congenial middle-aged guys named Lico and Gregorio, attired in the standard (male) Chihuahuan costume: levis, straw hats with the brims bowed up slightly on the sides, quilted jackets and vests, hand-tooled belts and cowboy boots. With the help of a pair of teenage assistants, Ramon and Martin, they load the half-dozen burros with supplies and our packs.

Around eight A.M., strung out in a long, scraggly line, we slip down off the canyon rim. Two vultures laze across the sky. The mood among visitors and locals alike is buoyant. It’s been awhile since anyone from the outside world has ventured into these depths. We know the path ahead is full of danger and travail. No electricity, no cell phones, no medical facilities, no rescue helicopters, no ATVs to haul us out if we get into trouble. We’re on our own.

Jim Glendinning, the expedition leader, of Scottish birth and upbringing--a seasoned traveler to remote parts of the world--has wanted to check out this route for some time, ever since hearing about it from veteran Mexico explorer, Skip McWilliams, who pioneered the first trips to Wa’Chahuri ten years ago. Jim and I, as senior members of the trip (we’re in our sixties), are slated to make the descent on horseback. The others--Dave Mattson, Tony Plutino, Tom Doerk, and Pam Gaddis--mere lads and lassies in their forties and fifties--start down on foot; should one of them want to ride, there’s an extra horse available. Lico and Gregorio, experienced vaqueros, ride their own horses. Ramon and Martin share a pony, though the job of keeping the cantankerous mules on track will force them to remain dismounted for most of the time.

I’m a novice at this horseback business, though I try not to act it, holding myself easy in the saddle as I imagine a real vaquero might. Two hours after dropping off the rim we cross a narrow, rocky creek at the bottom of the first canyon and start up the other side. Two hours in the saddle so far for this city boy, and already my limbs are stiffening, the joints locking into place. A dull, insistent pain glows deep inside my lower back. I believe in the palliative effects of good whiskey, and have brought along two bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon.

After crossing the creek we go up and up and up through some really deep forest, part-pine, part deciduous, following a hoof-worn set of switchbacks, with me clinging to the pommel and saddle horn to keep from sliding off. The horses seem incredibly surefooted, which bodes well for the ground we have to cover. The younger members of the team--Tony, Dave, Pam, and Tom--tramp behind us. Again and again the burros get side-tracked and have to be herded back into place. They also come to a full stop maddeningly at the most inopportune times, holding traffic up behind them. Ramon and Martin whack their rumps with sticks and pepper them with stones. The steady jingle of tiny bells looped around their necks signals that they are back on track.

• • •

Around noon we reach a ridgetop and drift along a stretch of open ground. I find myself riding alone. Tom and Jim, Tom on horseback now, are out ahead, along with Lico and Gregorio, Ramon and Martin and the burros. Behind me, out of sight, plod the foot soldiers--Pam, Dave, and Tony.

My horse and I slip through what appears to be an abandoned orchard, composed of tough, gnarly trees I can’t identify. Someone at one time must have worked a little spread on the side of this mountain. The view to the west is spectacular, ridge after ridge cresting like bold waves to the horizon. I stay alert for low-hanging branches. The horse is tall; though short, I am long waisted, so I sit high in the saddle (like a real vaquero, of course).

Then it happens. I duck a drooping branch, sit back up to get whacked on the side of the head by a second branch I don’t even see. The impact gouges a chunk of flesh out of my scalp. My hat flies off. Blood spills down the side of my face, streaming past my right eye, wetting my shirt and pants. Somehow, clutching the pommel with my left hand, I manage to stay astride the horse. I call out to Jim and Tom, up ahead somewhere, hopefully not too far. The horse weaves through the orchard, with me ducking and bobbing to avoid getting clobbered again. “Jim! Tom!” I call. “I’m hurt!”

They hear me, turn their horses around on the narrow trail, find me a few minutes later, help me out of the saddle. I lie down on a rock. Tom manages with a few compresses to stanch the worst of the bleeding. Pam, Tony, and Dave come up a few minutes later. Pam has recently taken a wilderness first-aid course and she carries a well-equipped medicine kit. She soaks the wound with hydrogen peroxide, which seems to quell the worst of the seepage, and binds my head in a puffy bandage.

I rest a bit, drink water, take a long pull from a flask of Wild Turkey. My head is definitely sore, the wound throbs, I get back on the horse. In the warm, high-desert air the blood spots staining the pommel and saddle horn are already beginning to dry. A short while later we start down an intricately steep and twisty path that leads to the bottom of yet another canyon. Down down down we go along the sun-dappled trail, through a mix of willows, oaks, and pines, straight down at such an acute angle I’m fearful the horse might topple head over heels. But the animal knows what to do. He flattens his hooves, lowers his haunches; skidding and sliding, he picks his way with uncanny balance along a ribbon of loose stones. I bite my lip and hang on as best I can.

My ballcap covers the wound on my head. Like water from a leaky tap, blood trickles down the right side of my face, spotting my shirt and pants. No other way to do it, I guess. It’s a mess, but what the hell--I think how lucky I am. What if the branch had knocked me off the horse or poked me in the eye?

• • •

It takes three hours to reach the bottom of the canyon, at the confluence of the Wa’Chahuri and Mochomo Rivers (elevation 1,920 feet), where we are to camp for the night. Subtlely, almost imperceptibly, as we stumble down the ridge, the pine trees thin out, the oaks disappear, the variety of cacti increases, as the vegetation changes from high-desert flora to colorful subtropical Sonoran Desert foliage.

I’ve been on the horse so long I feel soldered to the saddle. I swear it’ll take a forklift to pry me off the animal’s back. Tom and Jim help me swing my right leg over the horse’s neck; clinging to the pommel and saddle horn, I lower myself with excruciating slowness to the ground. My feet don’t seem to want to work, but after bending and stretching, my legs recover a portion of their motility. If there were only some way to leave your body at home so you could do this stuff unencumbered by stiffness and pain; but that ain’t the way it’s done. Everything, good feelings and bad, passes through the prism of the body. The body with its confusing array of contradictory senses is the ultimate arbiter. There’s no escaping the burden it carries as a matter of course.

At the stone-littered confluence, Lico gets a fire going; we unroll our sleeping bags on the warm sand and break out the food. I take a sitzbath in the shallow water of the Mochomo River, which helps restore my circulation. There’s nothing like the healing properties of running water.

That night we sleep soundly, interrupted only by a wandering burro that enters our camp and tramps up to Tom’s sleeping figure and with his face a mere foot away lets out a loud, long, trumpeting blast that wakes everyone, especially Tom, with a spasm of heart constrictions. Gregorio calls out angrily, a long, crackling skein of local Spanish that sends the animal skedaddling across the river. The spate of nervous giggling that follows this intrusion finally fades. We relax and lie back down. The stars glisten like gristly bits of tinfoil In the generous slice of sky that looms between the canyon walls.

Next morning, after breakfast, Pam and Tony redo the dressing on my wound. They cut and shave as much hair on the right side of my head as they can and bathe the wound again with a strong antiseptic. Before binding it up, Pam holds a mirror to my face. I flinch. It’s a sorry-looking sight. Tony can’t contain himself. “You look like the JFK autopsy photos,” he says. He’s right. It looks as if a bullet has creased the curvature of my skull.

Jim informs us that, thanks to our staunch effort yesterday, we have come more than two-thirds of the way to the Lost Hacienda. “Piece of cake today,” he says. “The final lap.”

I’m suspicious, but then I always tend to think the worst about any challenging situation. Plus, I’ve known Jim a long time, and I know how easy it is for him to put a positive spin on things. It’s not just the Scottish demeanor, resilient and tough, that comes to him naturally; it’s the Oxford accent he acquired as a young man at that august institution, which sounds so smooth and beguiling, so polished and serene. Who can doubt what he has to say when he says it so memorably?

Our first challenge of the day is El Cajon (the box), protective gateway to Wa’Chahuri, a narrow passage between tall, granite rocks that follows the bed of the Mochomo River. In high water the horses have to swim, but today the water comes only to the stirrups, and they can walk. First the packs are unloaded from the burros so we can hand-carry them on the horses’ backs through the cliff-walled slot at the base of the canyon. The distance the horses have to negotiate is only about a hundred feet. After the baggage has been transferred, we each ride over on a horse, holding our feet out of the water. The effort is accompanied by lots of good-natured laughter. So far, so good.

The hikers then follow a path along the river that eventually will lead them to the hacienda, tucked back several miles in the folds of the canyon. Meanwhile, the trail for the horses and pack animals climbs sharply up the mountainside, up and up and up, along a loose stone path that takes a lot of skill and effort for the animals to negotiate. Back and forth the path then ranges in a series of tight, vertiginous switchbacks. I realize the horses have done this countless times, but it’s still scary, especially when their hooves start to slip and they begin to slide. It’s even scarier when they reach the end of a switchback and have to turn themselves around and position their feet on a new path. At this point, as their bodies sway, swinging their riders out over sheer drops of two and three hundred feet, I was inclined (even though I’m not a religious man) to consign my fate to a Higher Power, in this case the horse. I saw My Death, ashy-faced and twisted, sitting in a nearby tree, cackling and poking a finger at me. “Not long now, boy!” he whooped. “Not long now!”

An hour later we reached a saddle of sorts between two timbered ridges and started down into the Mochomo River valley. The trail widened; abandoned fields and pastures came into view, outlined with rusty wire fences. We heard familiar voices, those of our footsore compadres far down in the valley off to the right, where the river rippled and purled. They had made nearly the same time walking around the base of the mountain as we had made going straight up and over.

Signs of a settlement multiplied the closer we drew to the river--weather-beaten shacks and outbuildings, many built of wood planks, broken-down fences, windmills, empty watering troughs. At one time quite a few people must have lived in the orbit of this rustic place. The roof of the main house gleamed between the trees. The horses’ hooves rang against a long, slanting, cobblestone path that crossed the river and rose past a shady banyan tree, past a whitewashed wall, through a wide gate. The time was mid-afternoon. A warm sun beamed down on the dirt floor of a rectangular plaza. We had arrived. For an instant I saw myself in the fancy garb of a Spanish soldier--wicked spurs, shiny sword, cockaded hat, gleaming buttons, flashing epaulets--arriving at a remote outpost in the Mexican bush in the early 1800s. A stab of pain down both legs brought me back to who I was. I leaned over and gave my horse a heartfelt hug. My body from the waist-down felt like a slab of red-hot metal. My legs were welded to the horse’s back. Sensing my dilemma, Gregorio slid off his sweaty horse and ambled over and cranked my right leg out of the stirrup and swung it over the saddle horn like a pump handle; then he pulled me off the saddle and lowered me to the ground. For five minutes I stood there like a man on stilts, blinking with discomfort and relief. Jim limped up to me and shook my hand. A shy, triumphant smile lit up his face. “We did it,” he said. “We did it.”

The hikers rolled into the courtyard a few minutes later. With everyone accounted for, Mercedes, Lico’s wife, brought a tray of glasses filled with freshly squeezed orange juice. The taste was tangy and restorative. The blood began to trickle through my legs. I took one step, then another. Amid the melodious tinkling of bells, a flurry of yips and yowls, Martin and Ramon brought the burros bearing our packs through the gate. I grabbed my gear and shuffled to the shaded porch on the other side of the plaza and stretched my aching body out on the limestone floor and gulped down a big swig of Wild Turkey.

• • •

Two hundred years ago a Basque family named Ochoa, seeking refuge from Spanish oppression, disappeared into the recesses of Copper Canyon. Along the banks of a bountiful river, at a spot where the canyon widened ever so slightly--a place the secretive Tarahumara Indians called Wa’Chahuri (“The Place of Aromas”)--they planted orange trees and milpa fields, gourd and pepper plots, and constructed a system of aqueducts. For years burro trains bearing cargoes of fresh citrus tramped the trails leading out of the canyon to the highland villages and mining camps. The rancho was self-sufficient, raising all its food and making all its clothes. As late as 1950 over a hundred families shared the good things, and bad, about living in such a far-off place. Today, only one family resides on the premises--Lico and Mercedes and their six children (all girls). In 1998, Skip McWilliams, founder of the Copper Canyon Lodges in Cusarare and Batopilas, made the difficult trip, fell in love with what he found, and since then has encouraged outsiders to visit. “It’s not for everybody,” McWilliams says in his website. “But for those who want the ultimate backcountry experience and the magical privilege of sharing the life of a people who live as they did in the past, there is nothing quite like the hike or horseback ride to ’The Lost Hacienda in the Forgotten Canyon of Wa’Chahuri.’”

• • •

Barring one memorable incident, the three days and nights we stayed at the hacienda slipped by like a smooth, liquid dream. The place was remote--not just out in the boonies, but truly isolated and cut off. It looked that way, it felt that way; for anyone wanting to disappear or hide out, Wa’Chahuri was the place to go. There were no amenities; those things we take for granted back home--electricity, television, running water, automobiles, airplanes--were nowhere to be found. The isolation at Wa’Chahuri wasn’t staged or fabricated. There were no Disneyesque touches or refinements. It wasn’t a copy of anything else. It was utterly, implacably, real. The historical feel it gave off was more akin to 1806 than 2006. There was virtually nothing to remind us of the existence of computers, space shuttles, or instant replay. To say that we had slipped into a kind of time warp was to state the obvious. Here in this secret nook lay a place that seemed to have no beginning or end, that followed its own momentum, its own inimitable pace. Once upon a time the whole world lived this way, detached and self-reliant, following the dictates of a life filtered through the medium of the senses. A slow, deliberate, animal life, steady and unvarying, full of stretched-out moments charged with the simple weight of their own unfolding.

The main house was too small to call a hacienda. I suppose rancho is more accurate. The family lived on one side, in back, next to the kitchen and dining area. The visitors slept either in the guest bedrooms or spread their sleeping bags under the portales shading the porch that overlooked the plaza. That first night, in the middle of the night, a brisk wind skittered down the canyon wall on the other side of the river and danced across the bare dirt plaza. The trees with their flowering leaves shivered and hissed. Donkeys brayed, horses whinnyed, roosters crowed, night birds none of us could identify uttered their own strange calls.

That first night every part of my body ached with pain. I felt as if a predatory bird had hauled me high into the air and dropped me onto a flat rock with the express purpose of breaking and softening my bones so it could tear through my flesh and feast on me. The image troubled me at first, and then I had to laugh at it.

• • •

The rancho was located on a ledge overlooking the Momocho River. After breakfast next day Jim, Tom, and I walked upstream through an orange grove that grew along the riverbed behind the rancho. Tom and Jim forged on around a bend and disappeared. I found a generous pool dammed up by several good-sized boulders and stripped down to my swim trunks and waded in. It was delightful to sink waist-deep into the coolish water and square myself around on a rock and bask in a spot of sun glowing between the shadows cast by the trees. Around noon the air heated up, the smell of ripening fruit filled my nostrils. Small birds twittered in the shrubs.

Late morning of that first full day at the rancho I was lounging in the pool with the water up to my chest when I glimpsed something out of the corner of my eye. A moment later two Tarahumara Indian men came into view, around a big rock in perfect silence. Thin men, short and wiry, with brass-colored skin and slim-featured faces, shod in huaraches, cheap pants and shirts, each carrying a cloth bag over his shoulder . . . father and son, I learned later, on their way upstream to a settlement several miles away. I was wearing a swimsuit, which I was glad of; the native people I’ve known are usually quite modest, and I didn’t want my pulpy, frog-white nakedness to make these men uneasy. After all, I was a guest in their country. They materialized out of the air like phantoms, moving with complete silence and physical ease . . . I’ve never seen people move as effortlessly as they did. They didn’t seem bothered by my presence. As if in acknowledgement they slipped up to where I stood and extended their hands. We didn’t shake; we just touched fingers. They nodded and made a curious sound in their throats, a kind of gurgle. I wanted to speak to them, but I don’t speak Spanish and most likely they didn’t either. A moment later they disappeared upstream. Pouf. As if they’d slipped through a hole in the sky. Quiet, unassuming, self-contained. Something about them made me think they might be invisible. Other than the gentle growl in their throats, they made no sound. I knew of them, of course. Peyote worshippers, long-distance runners, deeply spiritual . . . they lived in the secret depths of the Sierra Madres, pursuing a way of life as old as the mountains themselves.

The French actor and playwright Antonin Artaud came to Mexico in the 1930s and spent several months down in Copper Canyon, living with the Tarahumara. He wrote a marvelous book about the experience, entitled The Peyote Dance. The book opens like this:

“In northern Mexico, forty-eight hours from Mexico City, there is a race of pure red Indians called the Tarahumara. Forty thousand people are living there in a style that predates the Flood. They are a challenge to this world in which people talk so much about progress only because they despair of progressing.

“This race, which ought to be physically degenerate, has for four hundred years resisted every force that has come to attack it: civilization, interbreeding, war, winter, animals, storms, and the forest . . . .

“Incredible as it may seem, the Tarahumara Indians live as if they were already dead. They do not see reality and they draw magical powers from the contempt they have for civilization.
“Sometimes they come to the cities, impelled by I know not what desire to see, as they say, how it is with those who are mistaken. For them, to live in the city is to be mistaken.”

• • •

There wasn’t a whole lot to do at the lost hacienda. I’d brought along B. Traven’s gritty novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and reveled again in the gripping story of the three gringos and their quest for gold in the wilderness of northern Mexico. We explored the orange groves, basked in the river’s refreshing water, took photographs, ate a lot of oranges. Jim and Tom prowled upriver on both sides. Pam crashed out on the rocks and soaked up the sun. Dave wandered off to take photos. Tony Plutino went looking for birds. I was hoping we would hear more about the Tarahumara village and maybe go there, but there didn’t seem to be a Tarahumara village anywhere nearby; the existence of the village was as elusive and ephemeral as the two Indian men I encountered on the river that first day. “They don’t really live in villages,” Jim explained. “They live by themselves or in limited family units as far away from everything as they can get.”

Mostly we rested, recovering our strength after the long haul down into the barranca. In three days we’d be at it again, from Wa’Chahuri to Batosegachi in a single day. The prospect made me cringe. Somewhere out there, sitting on top of a cactus, My Death was surely waiting.

• • •

One afternoon the schoolteacher appeared. He came out of the jungle like a character out of a B. Traven novel, riding a burro and leading another piled high with canvas bags full of books. From Gregorio later that day we learned that the man was sent by the Chihuahua state government to teach the children how to read and write and how to add and subtract. He traveled from one remote place to another in the Sierra Madre, staying a few days in each, before continuing on to the next. A short stocky man, most likely an Indian, a Yaqui, Gregorio thought, he rode into the plaza dressed in a fluffy white shirt and cotton pants, a floppy straw hat shadowing his face. Lico greeted him with a smile; Mercedes gave him a glass of orange juice. He had come to drop off the books so the daughters and the three or four other children living with their families in the canyon could familiarize themselves with the texts before he returned for the next two-week session. The schoolroom was located across the plaza next to the tack room where all the saddles, bridles, packs, and extra boots were kept.

The teacher spent the night. He ate with the family in the kitchen, not with us in the dining room. He seemed reticent and well-mannered. He nodded cordially, but his English was poor and he was reluctant to join us on the porch. “When the children down here get to be teenagers,” Gregorio said (with Jim translating), “they usually go to the house of a relative in Creel or Chihuahua City to attend high school. Mercedes and Lico have six children, all girls. The other four attend school in Chihuahua City. Next year, or the year after, the two girls here will join them.”

“Do any of them ever come back here to live?” Pam asked.

Gregorio shrugged. “Not often. There are no jobs here. It’s not a good place to meet eligible boys. Once they leave, they leave for good.”

A troubled expression clouded Pam’s face. “What a shock it must be, that first day at school in Chihuahua City. What an adjustment they have to make between the pastoral life they’ve known here and the life they’re forced to embrace out there.”

I rolled Gregorio a pair of smokes, one for himself, one for the schoolteacher. Across the plaza a few minutes later the schoolteacher raised his hand in acknowledgement. He put a match to the tip of the cigarette and pulled a clot of smoke down into his lungs and let it stream back into the air.

I went back to reading The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

• • •

I’m a dedicated practitioner of the art of supine travel. Going somewhere and sitting or lying down on the spot, and as much as humanly possible emptying my mind of the everyday static that jumbles my senses, letting the sights and sounds of the new place percolate through my brain. The wound in my head continued to ache. Scars make the body more interesting, and I had acquired a doozy which a year later would still not be completely healed, leaving a noticeable gap in the side of my scalp.

• • •

With Pam in my favorite pool that second afternoon she told me an interesting story. She’d grown up in Alpine, Texas. In 1954 a Hollywood company led by director George Stevens came to the Big Bend Country to film Giant. The company included Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. “I don’t remember much about the men, but I was dazzled by her beauty. I was a cute towheaded little kid, and they used me in a Christmas scene in front of a Christmas tree with several other children. Most of the scenes featuring the children got cut, but not that one. By the age of four I had already had my fifteen minutes of fame, though the scene was so short, it was more like fifteen seconds. No, more like five.”

Thanks to her, my head wound was slowly healing. Twice a day, morning and evening, she rinsed it with an antiseptic and changed the dressing. It was because of her that the wound did not become infected. It throbbed steadily the whole time I was at Wa’Chahuri; no doubt a few stitches would have helped, but, considering what could have happened, I was fortunate indeed.

Pam left to roam the orchard. I leaned back into a rocky cleft and let my gaze settle on the other rocks, trees, and shrubs on the bank, the smooth tongues of water gliding downstream, and worked on emptying my mind of all extraneous thoughts and feelings. Impossible, I decided. Maybe a few moments before death, with the body drugged to the point of senescence, the mind shuts down, turns off, sputters to a halt, but up to that point, like a tireless engine, the little train that could, it keeps pumping out thoughts, words, images, reactions . . . asserting its singularity as the primary agent of consciousness in the universe.

• • •

That evening, after supper, as we lounged on the porch, Tony Plutino, no doubt feeling philosophical, put a question to Jim. “What do you think this trip is all about?”

“I’m not quite sure,” Jim replied with an impish grin. He was sitting in a cane-backed chair, legs crossed, looking relaxed. “It’s not a trip about insight or epiphany. I doubt that any of us are going to take back any earth-shattering impressions of the human condition that we didn’t know before.”

He looked off. A day or two of rest had restored the flow of blood to his thin, flaccid cheeks. “I’d say it’s a trip about suffering.”

“Suffering?”

“Yes.”

“As in pain?”

“Most certainly. And how are you feeling today? I’m sore all over, a bit stiff in the joints. God knows how Conger feels.”

“But you guys are practically geezers!” Tony protested, as if that explained everything.

“Well, that’s the point.”

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s all relative,” Jim explained. “For a youngster like yourself, the trip might be a breeze. For us geezers, it could very well sound our deathknell.”

“Well, I should hope not!”

“Well, I doubt if it will, but it could. We’re in a different zone than you. We’ve arrived at the age when entire systems can break down.”

“Bummer.”

“Life has an urgency for us that it doesn’t have for you.”

Tony was built like an NFL linebacker--solid, compact, agile. His Death sat in a tree somewhere a long way off. Barring a stunning quirk of fate, there would be no rendezvous between them for a long, long time.

(The death figure, or whatever it was--as I understood it--couldn’t cause one’s death or arrange for it to happen. The figure was more symbolic than real. Every living thing had its death accompaniment, hovering alongside, floating out in front, waiting patiently in a tree or perched on a telephone wire, ready to pounce. It was only when real death moved in to take possession of what was rightfully its own that the death figure became conspicuously present.)

Tony stroked his dark goatee. “Is there a way, when I reach your age, that I can avoid that?”

“I doubt it. Unless, somewhere around here, you stumble upon a fountain of youth that will keep you perpetually young.”

“I think I know where to look,” Tony said.

• • •

The idea of immortality is so strong with the Tarahumara that death for them is little more than a change of form. Dead, alive--the difference isn’t much. At the same time the dead miss their family and friends and long for their company. When a man dies, people assume he has been summoned by the dead. Some glib, smooth-talker on the other side has managed to make the case for being dead more appealing than staying alive. Not only do the dead miss their friends but they miss the good things they left behind. Friends and family leave out food and tesvino (strong fermented beer) for the dead to eat and drink. The dead have been known to kill cattle and sheep. Occasionally they will even spit in the face of the living, making the person sick or worse. The dead are thought to move around mainly at night, which is why the Tarahumaras don’t like to travel at night for fear of meeting the dead on the road, who whistle at them when they pass.

• • •

Later that afternoon I found Tony standing on a ledge on the right bank of the river, drinking from a ribbon of water that trickled from an opening in the cliff. “I found it!” he called.

We talked a while about the whole death thing.

“I don’t know what it is,”Tony confessed. “Whether it’s programmed or happens purely by chance or what. Do we die when we’re supposed to die? Or does it jump us from the shadows when we’re not looking?”

“I’m not sure. I only know that at this point in my life, I feel its presence more than I have in the past. It keeps nudging closer, like a scary guy on a crowded bus who keeps looking at me like he knows me.”

“I don’t have that feeling yet,” Tony said as he filled a canteen with water that seeped from the spring.

• • •

An hour later I came upon Tom Doerk engaged in his own form of communion with the elements. He was stretched out in a shallow pool with his head pillowed on a rock, reading a volume of poems by the Chinese poets of the Late Tang dynasty; tiny butterflies gyrated around his face and head. He looked enviably at ease. Not wanting to break the spell, I waved from the other side. Tom was a true contemplative. After leaving a lucrative career as a finance lawyer in Denver, he had lived ten months in a tipi in Montana before joining a holy order in a monastery outside Aspen. If anyone could find the quid, the nub, the meaningful core of what we were looking for down here--or what was looking for us--it was him. I admired him for many reasons, not the least of which was that, no matter where he was, he rarely looked rumpled or dissheveled. He radiated a cool, soothing elegance.

• • •

Dinner at the rancho was a special event. As gringos our daily caloric intake was enormous, compared to the people in the canyon. They ate sparingly, but then they had no choice; there just wasn’t that much food. Fruit was plentiful; now and then somebody killed a peccary; there was usually a hen to pluck. Every evening, Mercedes cooked tortillas, frijoles, and eggs, served to us at a common table by her daughters. The room was lit by a couple of shimmering kerosene lamps. The effect was hallucinatory; outside the radiant limit of the light, the air was pitch black. A person walking away from the table disappeared body and soul as if swallowed in toto by the darkness. Living in these depths was like living in a state of chronic eclipse, part shadow, part light . . . penumbral.

• • •

How long could you live down here before going bonkers? The only way to satisfactorily answer that question would be to have a go at it. Give yourself three months. Keep a detailed journal of your thoughts and impressions, the changes you sense might be taking place inside your head. One of the requisites is that you be down here by yourself, with no companion from your own culture; especially no one who speaks your language. No easy repartee, no familiar jokes, no falling back into the old, comfortable, linguistic patterns. (You can bring along all the books you want.) Another requisite is that you’re not allowed to speak the language that the others around you may be speaking, in this case Spanish. (Mostly Spanish, though no doubt flavored with Indian idioms and vocabulary, as well as a few englishisms.) What kind of new voice would you start hearing in your head? Or, because you were so cut off and stranded, would the old voice, your native voice, the voice you heard your parents speak every day when you were growing up, would this familiar natal voice dry up and blow away? Would you then be compelled to adopt the language of the animals out in the bush? Would you begin to squeak and chitter and buzz?

“If it wasn’t for the pain in my head and lower back,” I wrote that night in my journal, “the cuts, bites, bruises, and rashes on my body, I’d be no more substantial than a wisp of smoke. Pain helps define who we are. It lends us that all-important air of gravitas we look for so that others, particularly our elders, will take us seriously.”

• • •

Each night a playful wind skirled across the plaza stirring the dust, fluttering the leaves and blossoms of the plants and shrubs on the other side. The clothes left to dry on the line during the day were taken down before the sunlight drew itself up out of the canyon and melted away over the rim. The silence was profound, punctuated by cheeps and cries and calls outside the area illuminated by the fire. The place was so peaceful. No doubt a host of predators moved stealthily through the bush enclosing us on all sides, looking for something to eat. Here, within the confines of the rancho, we felt protected and safe. Maybe civilization was merely a matter of imposing geometrical forms upon the landscape (in this case, the rectangular plaza). Arbitrary designs, to be sure, mathematical constructs projected by the rational side of the brain, but they seemed to do what they were supposed to do--define, contain, encompass. Something that’s constrictive back home, with its endless layers of suffocating figures in the form of super highways and housing developments, here in the canyon, with its limited touch, seemed almost welcome. I liked the sound of water bubbling through the aqueducts at the foot of the ledge. I liked the hen that every evening parked herself high up in the branches of a tree to fluff and squawk awhile before falling to sleep. I liked to stroll from one end of the plaza to the other, inhaling delicious breaths of perfumed air, looking up at the congested swath of stars crinkling between the canyon walls.

• • •

Wa’Chahuri Hacienda, 1:28 A.M. February 24, 2006
We must be in the moonless part of the month; not a sliver of light anywhere to be seen except at the tip of my flashlight as I traipse along the side of the hacienda to a steep set of rail-less stone steps leading down to a path that slants through a corner of the orange grove out to the privy perched on the edge of a slope. I pick my way carefully, wary of the eerie whistle of a passing Tarahumara shade on its way to perpetrate some mischief. It’s the middle of the night, 1:35 A.M. by the luminous dial on the cheap Timex watch that I bought five years ago in a pharmacy in Los Angeles for ten bucks. The privy, a two-seater, creaks as I enter . . . soft rustle of pants as they collapse to my ankles. I’ve noticed on earlier visits that the spindly, roofed-over structure seems a bit tippy, swaying back and forth under the ponderous weight of my middle-aged body. I settle myself squarely on one of the openings. What I am about to engage in is, of course, one of the least-discussed subjects of the travel experience. A tidy, successful evacuation in a wilderness situation can bring with it an unmistakable glow of joy. I know some people who simply hold it in as much as they possibly can during a short stint in the bush, saving it for the toilet in the motel upon resurfacing from the depths. Maybe it’s a product of my middle-class upbringing, but I’m a great believer in regularity, which, as the old-time laxative salesmen knew, helps promote a sunny disposition.

The night sounds outside the little wood-slabbed protective shell sputter against my ears--the trickle of water down below in the aqueducts, the wind fluttering through the leaves of the orange trees, the sleepy cluck of a feathered creature, the high-pitched yip of a predator closing in for the kill. I let go with a rush, feeling rather smug about my ability to deliver the goods on cue. I lean against the back wall when for the second time in a few short days in the depths of this wretched canyon I am made the victim of yet another terrible catastrophe. With a loud, grinding, popping creak, the privy tears free of its moorings and topples backward down the hill carrying me with it--bang! wham! crunch!--straight into God only knows how many years of accumulated night soil. I grab the sides of the hole I’m perched on with both hands and hold on for dear life as the privy tips upside down, leaving me suspended in midair. The delapidated wooden structure then collapses in a jumble of loose boards and logs. Oh my God! Oh my God! I hesitate, in the throes of yet another calamity to call out for Tom and Jim, but somebody must have heard something urgent in the startled cry I involuntarily gave out as the structure crumbled into the cesspool below. It was Dave Mattson, a light sleeper, who arrived first at the scene. Heroically, he made an effort to slip down the side of the hill, between the dirt face and the pile of scrambled logs and planks that had once been the privy. The beam from his flashlight revealed the features of my no doubt horror-strickened face. “Are you all right?” he called. Then I heard him gasp and wheeze. I thought, naturally, that he was taxing his body to the utmost to rescue me from a fate worse than death, then realized that he was literally shaking with laughter. Tony Plutino, next on the scene, managed, with equal temerity, to reach into the wreckage and grasp me by both arms and tug and pull and haul me through the splintered opening in what had once been the ceiling of the privy. With one arm circling my waist, exhibiting the strength of a Norse god, he hauled me up the slope. Dave, reaching down his long arms, pulled me onto the top where I struggled to regain my senses at the same time I mentally inventoried my body parts to ascertain whether anything was seriously amiss. By that time Tom and Jim and Pam, along with Gregorio, had arrived on the scene. The spots of their flashlights crawled over my face and body, the wreckage lying below, like a horde of bugs. Gregorio toted a kerosene lamp that gave off a wide arc of radiant light. The laughter that erupted once they ascertained that I had suffered no serious harm except to my vulnerable, middle-aged pride was deafening. Oh God! Oh God! I had been shamed in a manner I didn’t think humanly possible. Gregorio leaned over, hands on his knees, wheezing and gasping for breath. The others appeared on the verge of convulsions, so seized were they by the hilarity of the moment. I spent the next hour down by the river cleaning up as best I could, soaking and sudsing my body parts, rinsing and washing my clothes, under a lush black sky flecked with glistening bits of adamantine glass, before finally patting myself dry with a towel and crawling into my sleeping bag.

• • •

Next morning I offered to help rebuild the treacherous structure, but Lico said no, it wasn’t necessary, thank you very much, senor, maybe you should just take yourself upstream to your favorite spot and plunk yourself back in the water and continue reading your book. The poor man couldn’t look me in the face for more than a few seconds without giving way to uncontrollable giggling.

• • •

Our next to last night at Wa’Chahuri I dreamed about my mother. Nothing elaborate or dramatic; she was sitting in a chair reading a book, which she often did when I was a child. More of a snapshot than a dream, with her looking down at the book in her lap, then looking up at me, reading me a passage which I couldn’t hear or understand.

The next afternoon, sprawled on the porch overlooking the plaza, reading Carl Lumholtz’s classic travel account, Unknown Mexico, I came upon this passage: “Little or nothing of the tesvino [potent fermented beer] is spared, and it is the avowed intention and aim of everybody to get a ‘beautiful intoxication.’ I’m saying that they all like to get drunk. An Indian explained to me that the drunken people weep with delight, because they are so perfectly happy. Every Tarahumara has in his heart a cross which Tato Dios placed there long, long ago, and this cross they respect. When drunk they remember Tato Dios better. At their feasts they sit alongside of him and drink with him. The women sit alongside of the Moon and remember ancient times.”

I looked out into the plaza. A pair of mangey dogs nipped and bit at each other’s flea-ravaged buttocks. Freshly laundered clothes, including some of our own, certainly some of mine, fluttered in the afternoon wind. My father, mother, brother and I enjoyed some of our best times together as a family when we were drinking. Not at home in Missouri, but off somewhere, in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco, at a nightclub or a jazz cafe. I was sixteen or seventeen, my brother four years older. I was underaged, but I had a fake draftcard; my father, a dedicated communal drinker, was always willing to vouch for my eligibility. Nobody really cared back then; it was the 1950s, the last placid, easy, truly free ride for middle-class white folks in America. No, it couldn’t last, and thank god it didn’t--there was so much in the culture that needed shaking up, and finally was. Though today, slogging along in my mid-sixties, I find myself looking for certain time-warps, places like the vintage hotels and bars I knew when I was a kid, places like minor-league ballparks with bold advertisements decorating their outfield fences, places like Wa’Chahuri, unblemished by time, where traces of Tato Dios still linger.

• • •

Our final night we had our own little fete. We’d brought gifts-- sweets, ballcaps, t-shirts bearing athletic logos--which we passed around. I gave Lico a pouch of the Dutch tobacco I’d been rolling into cigarettes. Dave Mattson contributed some toilet articles. Pam Gaddis, a bottle of aspirin and other medical supplies. Tomorrow, before dawn, we were to toil our way back up to the top of the canyon. Lico’s daughters joined us on the porch, dressed in pleated skirts and frilly white blouses. For awhile they paraded back and forth in a manner both coquettish and shy, looking boldly at us over their shoulders then dissolving into laughter. Tony and Dave asked permission from their parents to photograph them clasped in each other’s arms with their cheeks pressed together. Pam combed their long silky black hair and fastened it up off their pretty faces with some fancy clips. Jim told them in halting Spanish how attractive they looked, how many hearts they would no doubt break when they went off to high school in Chihuahua City. They laughed and we laughed. Tom broke out a box of Belgian chocolates and passed them around till the box was empty. It was all sweetness and fun, euphoria and good feelings, never again to be repeated in this exact fashion, in this exact place, one of those luminous, happy encounters the traveler now and then enjoys.

The evening continued on a swell of good fun. The light from the seething kerosene lamps and a fire crackling in the center of the courtyard added to the atmosphere. Arm in arm, their shoulders draped in colorful shawls, the two girls continued to promenade till their mother called to them and they slipped reluctantly inside the house. One by one the vaqueros on the other side of the plaza disappeared as if they’d gone up in smoke. The scene burned itself into my consciousness like an emulsion on a sheet of photographic paper. As I write this I seem to remember everything. Gregorio joined us for a final cigarette on the porch and confirmed what we all knew. “We leave tomorrow before dawn,” Jim announced. “Big day, hard day, long day. We’d best sleep now. We’ll need every ounce of strength for the effort.”
The jingle of the bells around the necks of the burros woke me the next morning as Ramon and Martin brought them into the plaza and began strapping the packs to their backs.

• • •

We made it back to Batosegachi in a single day. It may have been the longest, most agonizing day of my life. I stayed on the horse till late afternoon when we reached the top of the canyon, the pain in my legs and hips smoldering like the fire in a steel-yard furnace. The discomfort in the early hours was like a little red light that blipped at the edge of my awareness; gradually, as the day wore on, the blip expanded in size and deepened in color, crowding out everything else. By the time the horse hauled me up over the lip of the canyon, the blazing light of that pain flooded every corner of my consciousness. “Jim,” I called. He had ridden his horse all day, and looked none too spry himself. “Jim, I’ve got to get off this horse or I’ll die.”

How I got down off the horse I don’t remember. Jim may have helped me. My feet were numb; when they struck the ground, I fell on my face.

“It’ll probably do you some good to get back on your own pins,” Jim said. “Get the blood to flowing.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t worry about the horse. He’ll follow me on home. See you at the cottage.”

“Yes.”

He rode off. I’d like to say that after all these days of companionship, through thick and thin, that my horse looked back to see what had happened to me, but he didn’t. He was already out in front of Jim, no doubt thirsty, hungry, no doubt glad to be rid of the lumpish weight that had burdened him for the last ten hours.

Grunting and groaning, clutching a tree trunk, I managed to pull myself up to a standing position. It felt as if someone had wedged a pair of steel rods deep into my pelvis. All the limberness and flexibility were gone. The joints felt as if they were welded together. I took a step forward and fell on my face again. I was still there when Gregorio rode by. He halted the horse, slid out of the saddle, and came over to me. I lay on my side, looking up. “I’m okay,” I said. “I just need to get to my feet.”

Somehow he understood me. I managed to sit up and he got behind me. Slipping his hands under my arms, he lifted me to my feet.

“Okay, Gregorio. I’m okay. Thank you.”

He picked up the reins of his horse and swung his leg over the saddle and rode off.

I tried to walk, but my legs weren’t ready yet. I managed to stay on my feet, but I couldn’t get them to work. “Walk,” a voice whispered in my ear. “How hard is that?”

I gazed down sadly at my feet. They seemed a long way away, a pair of smallish feet shod in sturdy Rockport hiking boots, dull stubs pegged to a plot of solid concrete.

When I looked up I saw My Death poised on the branch of a pine tree a few feet away, doubled over with laughter.

Tony Plutino came by. Along with Dave Mattson he had walked the entire way, down into the canyon and back out without ever once getting on a horse. He looked a little fatigued, but not much. His day pack was full of food and water. To keep himself properly primed, he had to eat every few minutes.

“Are you all right?” he called.

“I think so.”

“Did the horse buck you off?”

“No. I got to where I couldn’t sit in the saddle any more.”

“Sometimes it’s better to count on your own two feet.”

“I’ll remember that next time.”

Tony went on, following the path through the ponderosa forest, at the same, steady, unruffled pace he’d maintained during the entire trip.

Pam came by next. “Well, there you are,” she said. “I was wondering how you were doing.”

“Pretty well, considering.”

“Can I do anything for you?”

“No thank you.”

“How’s your head feel?”

My head. I had totally forgotten about my head.

“Thanks to you, it’s lots better,” I said.

“Next time you do this, you might think about walking . . .”

She disappeared between the trees.

Dave Mattson came by. He looked pale and wan. His eyes seemed to float in their sockets like date pits in a glass of phlegm. “I confess to feeling a tad fatigued,” he said. “That was a monumental bitch of a walk.”

“It was no picnic riding a horse,” I said.

“How are you doing?” Dave asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Dying won’t be this difficult,” he said.

“Why do we do it?” I asked.

“There’s no logical answer. Because we think we have to, when we really don’t.”

An hour later, teeth clenched, limping like an old mule, I walked into Batosegachi.

“You’re still alive,” Tom said with a welcoming smile. He looked as relaxed as an Anglican vicar at a dowagers’ tea party on a Sunday afternoon. “I’m surprised.”

• • •

Back at Jim’s house in Alpine two days later, I noticed a rash of red welts that had broken out on my chest and legs. Bug bites of some sort, I presumed. After a few days they were still there, itchy and enflamed.

When I got back to Kansas City, I went to one of those walk-in medical clinics. After a short wait I was examined by a Jamaican doctor, a big man with an ebullient manner, playful eyes, and a shiny, hairless, skull.

“And you head, what happened dere?”

I told him about riding the horse through the orchard and getting conked.

“Dat’s a pretty good hole. You ought to have had stitches.”

“I know. But we were in the middle of nowhere. There was no place I could go to get them.”

“I tought Mexico was a civilized country.”

“Well, parts of it are. And parts of it are pretty rough and raw.”

He looked at me in disbelief. “I see by you chart dat you is sixty-five year old.”

“Yes sir, I am.”

“I don’t like to tell you dis, my friend,” he said. “But you got scabies.”

“What’s that?”

“De red marks all over you body . . .”

“Yes?”

“Dere parasitic mites that bore unter your skin and make you feel bad all over.”

I had heard of scabies. The ultimate unclean affliction. Down and dirty. The sort of pest an old tar might pick up in a cheesy whorehouse in the wrong part of town.

“I goint to give you a ‘teroid shot, plus two weeks wort’ of pills. Dat ought to kill dem off.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“We find some ot’er way to pluck the buggers.”

“Okay.”

“And mon . . .?

“Yes?”

“Let me gif you some advice.”

“Yes?”

“You too old to be doin’ dis shit.”

I hear you.

• • •

 

Conger Beasley has published a dozen books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Sundancers and River Demons: Essays on Landscape and Ritual was given the Thorpe Menn Award in 1991 for the best book published by a Kansas City writer. In 1996, We Are a People in This World: The Lakota Sioux and the Massacre at Wounded Knee won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for the best contemporary nonfiction book published in 1995. The book was also given the 1996 Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in North America.

 

 

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