The Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Stacey Worman, 2006-2007 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Date: May 20th, 2007
To: Undisclosed recipients
Re: Hitch Hikin' Strickin' Gold...
David (an Australian!) and I met in the town of Creel . Over a delicious pancake breakfast at our hostel...and with encouragement from an English girl named Carrie...we decided that we'd hitch down to the bottom of the Copper Canyon (a canyon larger and deeper than our Grand Canyon!) to an old mining town!
The dirt road to our destination was the twisty-turn-ey, rural and remote kind...the sort that no one without a specific purpose travels on...and the type where anyone heading one way will stop to pick up anyone needing to go that way too. Needless to say, we found it fairly easy to piece together different rides...advancing little by little...to get us where we wanted to go.
Our most brilliant lift was undoubtedly this truck; we flagged it down and it screeched to a halt right in the middle of the road. A Mexican man wearing a cowboy hat popped out of the passenger seat. Except asking us where we were going, we exchanged no other words; he simply unlatched the large metal doors of the trailer and signaled for us both to hop in. And so...just like that...there we were; locked inside a large and moving metal box that I think they typically use in the transportation of livestock. With each twist in the road, we were grasping at whatever we could find to prevent us from slipping, sliding, and smashing around. I guess beggars can't be choosers...and we were glad for the ride...even if its' novelty quickly wore off and the dust on our clothes never did.
The drivers of our chariot un-locked us at the junction...muchas gracias! ...and we scurried up the road and plopped ourselves in a shaded spot just across the street from the military post. After a slight delay...a makeshift lunch...and being somewhat of a spectacle...three men in a pick-up stopped, lowered their window, and invited us to hop in their flatbed...thus beginning our long-slow-rickety-dusty descent into the canyon.
Stopping for water and photos, they explain that they are independent filmmakers, hired for their current gig by an organization that is trying to restore/preserve the historic cathedrals in the area. They are in the midst of a balls-to-the-walls-statewide road-trip to gather footage to make a documentary that will be used for their fundraising efforts. So we did one better than simply getting to our destination...we also scored roundtrip transportation to the "Lost Cathedral" of Satevo!
Throughout the afternoon, the men tell us more about the organization and their desires to restore these historic cathedrals. Such a project would provide jobs for many of the state's poor-rural communities! And futhermore...upon completion, these communities would then have an asset which would allure tourists and infuse pesos into these struggling areas. Outsiders being philanthropical! How nice to hear!
Upon returning from our guacamole, bean, and tortilla dinner that night...from a cowboy's saloon that could have been right out of a country-western film...David and I take a stroll through the town's quaint, illuminated Zocalo. We spot a white-haired gringo sitting on one of the historical park-benches, with his legs crossed and his arms out-stretched. With a contemplative look upon his face, he is watching the local children kicking around their half-inflated soccer ball (or half-deflated, if you are the pessimistic type).
We catch his eye...and he immediately repositions himself as if startled...albeit pleasantly...by our presence. He nods his head and with a deep mid-western drawl, kindly invites us to join him for a drink. We sit down and he pops up...and pops open the trunk of his Ford Explorer and starts frantically rustling around. He comes up with two more glasses and proceeds to pour while proudly proclaiming that this particular red wine is a by-product of his backyard and basement back home in rural Illinois . And then, without much prompting on our part...he launches into a narrative monologue...leaving us to sit, sip, and listen...
He has just finished his 46-hour road trip. Upon his arrival, he was notified that his good friend Carlos...who he is here to meet with...actually won't be back in town for a 'few more days now' (and he actually seems completely at ease with the classical incident of Mexican tardiness!). He then explains that he met Carlos the very first time he ever came to this town, 40-some-odd years ago. Every year since then he has come back for a visit...saying that this place is the 'one real constant' in his life. As he has watched every element in his life...people, places, and things...dramatically changed over time...he loves coming back here because it 'never really seems to' and so here he finds a 'timeless refuge'.
But it 'ain't strictly pleasure' this time...he's here on business and he explains that that is precisely why his wife has opted to stay home. Over his visits...over the years...he and Carlos have done countless hours of panning and prospecting over a measureless distance in the Canyon...and they are pretty darn-confident that at last...they've finally struck it big! The jackpot! A golden jackpot! Next step is to promote the mine...and if they get the bite that they are hoping for...all of their efforts will actually materialize into something!
He then speaks of many things...of people, of mining, and of money...saying things like, 'The difference between these mountains and the mountains most other places in the world, is that when you look up into these mountain...they look back at you. They have eyes!' (speaking of the Tarahumara Indians). He speaks of roads, of schools, and of churches...the 'taming of the masses' and the 'disappearance of these people'...
At one point he pauses completely. Taking a deep breath...he leans forward, looks intensely into my eyes, and proceeds with a slow solemn voice, 'Oh I hate to say it honey, but you come back here in 10 years and well...you ain't gonna like what you're gonna see.' And then, we all sit there motionless.
Our long bout of silence is finally broken as this old man pulls a shiny coin out of his pocket. He flicks it in the air...catches it...and flicks it in the air again before handing it to me. "Who's that?" he asks.
I take a look at the coin, think 'no duh' to myself, and answer, "That's Sacaquewa."
"Look again," he encourages me and so I start examining it more closely unsure of exactly what he wants me to see. "Haven't you seen that woman here? Isn't that a Tarahumara?" My jaw drops and I am utterly speechless as I realize how right he is. "And guess what? The same thing that our government did to our Indians back then...the Mexican government is doing to their Indians right now...as we speak."
I had no idea what to say. There was nothing I could say. I stretched out my hand, returning the coin to him. He tells me to keep it, that he has a whole stash of them that he keeps handy exactly for this purpose. Retracting my arms, I squeeze it tightly in a fist and then cross my arms. For the next few minutes, we all just sit there in silence...watching those kids kick that half-deflated...yes, it is half-deflated...soccer ball. One...and only one...thought running through my mind, 'Our Living World is Dying'
But there are still some things that don't quite make sense to me. At one point, this man mentioned how Carlos' wife is the only non-native that the Tarahumaras will trade with because she is the only one that they trust. Furthermore, Carlos is now 75 and they have no children. Even if he strikes it rich now...what does he really have to gain? Especially when the entire area -- the place that has been his home his whole life -- has a whole lot to lose.
Searching to understand these things...I ask the old man. He responds by simply saying it has been Carlos' life long dream...that he absolutely won't...and simply can't...let go of it. 'Take the money and run, I tell him. And so...that's exactly what we both are going to do. He wants to be a millionaire and well, if it is going to happen, I wouldn't mind a chunk of that change either.'
I think I was surprised most that this was coming from insiders. From people who fully understood the area and who couldn't claim negligence for the ramifications of what they were about to do. Quite contrasting to the experience with the filmmakers earlier in the day, eh?!
When I wrote my proposal...when I titled my project...this was about the disappearance of ecosystems and non-human life. But in Mexico...in the bottom of the Copper Canyon...one conversation and my through line takes an interesting twist... making me realize that this is about so much more than simply just that...