Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Copper Canyon, Mexico

While residing in San Diego, I befriended a Nisei Japanese American who lived in Los Angeles, but was born in Imperial County, the easternmost part of California that faces Arizona. He was very familiar not only with De Anza Borrego Springs, Ocotillo Wells, but also Sonora, Chihuahua, States of Mexico. He said he owned a piece of land in New Mexico near the famous 650 ft (200 meter) “Gorge Bridge” crossing the Rio Grande, not far from Taos (the Pueblo Indian village with Hispanic and Latino influences). His dream is to build his house there that is completely solar-powered and I sent him my employer’s catalogs of photovoltaic products. I envied his ability to speak excellent Spanish.

In 1981, when spring brought the flowering season to Borrego Springs, he invited me to join him on a visit to Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico. I had heard about the canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of Mexico and I jumped at the chance. He rode a train from Los Angeles and I was to join him at Mexicali Station. On Friday evening, I parked my car inside Calexico (U.S.) and walked to the border through customs to Mexicali and waited for the train. A couple of days before our departure, there was an earthquake near El Centro, in a town called Westmorland, and I saw damaged brick fences on both sides of the border.

I met my Nisei friend without incident and he introduced me to a few passengers with him. Since the train was not on a regular schedule, it took a while before we left Mexicali. To my disappointment, I was not able to take day- time photos of Cerro Prieto Geothermal plants when we passed it. The train ran by the well lit electric plant complex with lots of steam rising from it. It is built directly on the Baja California fault. It is one of the most studied geothermal field in the world. I had a special tour invitation from San Diego Gas & Electric, which ran it as a joint venture with Mexico since the 1970‘s. I could not make the tour, but I’m glad I had at least a glimpse of the shoreline site, about 20 kilometers south of Mexicali.

When we woke up the following morning we were at the Los Mochis Station, about 1000 kilometers (600 miles) south of the Mexican Border, the gateway station to go up the rugged Sierra Tarahumara. For the next 600 kilometers we would hug the sides of Copper Canyon along the River Septentrion, zig-zagging and tunneling through the mountains. Los Mochis is noted for sugar plantations. The name means the place of the land turtle, a Tarahumara Indian word. We were stopped here for a little while and we learned that two local young Mexicans were hired as cooks. My friends and I welcomed the news as we both like Mexican dishes. There was an announcement that passengers were to take turns going into the dining car after relaying information about the Saturday and Sunday jaunts.

It was a very scenic journey, except for the soot coming from the front locomotive. Divisadero was our destination. Upon our arrival, we were taken to the viewpoint to see the Canyon 1,760 meters deep and Rio Urique. Honestly speaking, I liked Grand Canyon better than Copper Canyon. Probably the color made the big difference. Before dark, our group checked in to a warm cottage with hot showers and had a good sleep after a Mexican fiesta, a lot of cervesas and guitar music.

Sunday morning we started the day by visiting caves of the Tarahumara Indians. We had seen some Indians selling their handicrafts in the town of Creel and at the Divisadero Station. These Indians had a reputation of being excellent long distance runners, as good as the Tarascan Indians to the south.

I had a chance to hear Victor Villasenor, a Mexican-American writer, speak. He lives in North County San Diego. He wrote “Rain of Gold” and “Walking Stars” both of which I want to translate into Japanese someday. "Rain of Gold" is the story of three generations of the author's family migrating from revolutionary Mexico in the 20th century to California. It is a really thick book and an excellent read. I suspect his family covered some of the same ground I passed through. I want to relate here one of his stories, “Toreando el Tren” or “Bullfighting the Train", which is full of the Tarahumaran spirit.

In the story, the family of Juan (Victor’s grandfather) was among the migrants on the train heading north. At one of the stations where their train had stopped, the boys gathered to bet on the train bullfighting game. They were to chase the train after it has started down the tracks. The most confident runner waits longer than the others before starting to chase the train. The object of the game is for the confident runner to catch the moving train. Well, Juan was the "confident" runner, but he did not catch the train. He ended up chasing the train alone in the hot desert, running on the tracks for two-days with burning feet, even fending off a mountain lion attack. Luckily, he finally caught up to see his family at the next stop.

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