In the 1970s the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad between Chihuahua and Los Mochis (called the Chepe) had been completed for only a few years. Its route passes through the high peaks of northern Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental where even roads had not penetrated before. The Tarahumara, celebrated by Artaud in the ‘30s for their veneration of peyote and by many for their long-distance running had learned to sell their crafts at the Divisadero train stop on the Continental Divide, others had contracted to receive visitors curious to step into their huts in small tour groups, and big hotels had already been built in the in the Barranca del Cobre itself, but Creel was still a dusty frontier town with unpaved roads used primarily by horses. The only souvenirs were available at the church’s mission office. I would like to think the traditional value of sharing or kórima will survive the construction of the airport now planned for Creel.
In the days before online research could provide the prospective visitor with information about even rather remote locations, one wandered. After a short time, it became clear that here, as in much of Africa, there was no middle ground between the humblest hotel and the grandest. Somewhere off in the valley, amid verdant growth only a short distance from this chilly height, were world-class hotels, offering amenities which aspired at least to equal those available in world capitals. And here in town?
Upon asking “¿Dónde hay un hotel barato?” someone pointed us toward the Hotel Gomez, inconspicuous with only a crudely painted sign a few inches high above the door. Barato it was. The place had a dozen or so rooms off a main corridor on two floors. It was midwinter in the mountains and decidedly chilly. The room was dark, and the bed, over many years of faithful service, had developed a decided declivity in the center. Out back was an outhouse for all to use in common, thoughtfully provided with three holes in close proximity, so its users might discuss the day’s events while making themselves comfortable there. After dark, this convenience was pitch black. We found it necessary to wear clothing to sleep as the thin blankets, even when doubled by those in the wardrobe, were insufficient.
In the morning the two Franklin-type woodstoves in the corridor were burning hot, but not so hot as to prevent the Tarahumara men lounging on either side from resting their bare feet directly on the iron. They had inch-thick calluses, doubtless from going barefoot on the rocky mountainsides, and I feared at any moment the smell of cooking flesh might rise.
It was nearly New Year’s Eve, and we saw notices for a Gran Baile with live music. We mentioned our interest in attending to one local in a restaurant, and she cautioned us, “You can’t go. There will be so much drinking. Too crazy.” When a second informant told us the same thing with evidently kind intentions, we decided not to go. We were, after all, traveling with our preschool daughter.
She loved walking with us on the footpaths that extended out from Creel in every direction. Now and then we would pass a dwelling, sometimes literally a cave, often built into a sheltered spot with stone, sometimes free-standing. Clare, not yet four years old, would run merrily ahead to see whether the residents had any children. The native people here, no less than Mexicans in general, adore children, so she made an instant and natural bond between us and the locals. The parents may have been startled and disarmed by our sudden appearance, but the young children made differences dissolve.
The trip up from Los Mochis had been glorious – it is rightly rated by many one of the grandest train trips in the world. Completing its less spectacular eastern portion to Chihuahua, we saw the Tarahumara sitting on the city streets, selling their wares, as Amish men, those unlikely Germanic campesinos, strode past, and, in those days, Pancho Villa’s widow still appeared to tell tourists about the bullet-riddled black 1919 Dodge Roadster in which her husband had been killed.