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Born to Run
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Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen To John and Jean McDougall, my parents, who gave me everything and keep on giving Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen The best runner leaves no tracks. —Tao Te Ching Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen CHAPTER 1 To live with ghosts requires solitude. —ANNE MICHAELS, Fugitive Pieces FOR DAYS, I’d been searching Mexico’s Sierra Madre for the phantom known as Caballo Blanco—the White Horse. I’d finally arrived at the end of the trail, in the last place I expected to find him—not deep in the wilderness he was said to haunt, but in the dim lobby of an old hotel on the edge of a dusty desert town.! “Sí, El Caballo está,” the desk clerk said, nodding. Yes, the Horse is here. “For real?” After hearing that I’d just missed him so many times, in so many bizarre loca- tions, I’d begun to suspect that Caballo Blanco was nothing more than a fairy tale, a local Loch Ness mons-truo dreamed up to spook the kids and fool gullible gringos. “He’s always back by five,” the clerk added. “It’s like a ritual.” I didn’t know whether to hug her in relief or high-five her in triumph. I checked my watch. That meant I’d actually lay eyes on the ghost in less than … hang on. “But it’s already after six.” The clerk shrugged. “Maybe he’s gone away.” I sagged into an ancient sofa. I was filthy, famished, and defeated. I was exhausted, and so were my leads. Some said Caballo Blanco was a fugitive; others heard he was a boxer who’d run off to punish himself after beating a man to death in the ring. No one knew his name, or age, or where he was from. He was like some Old West gunslinger whose only traces were tall tales and a whiff of cigarillo smoke. Descriptions and sightings were all over the map; villagers who lived impossible distances apart swore they’d seen him traveling on foot on the same day and described him on a scale that swung wildly from “funny and simpático” to “freaky and gigant- ic.” But in all versions of the Caballo Blanco legend, certain basic details were always the same: He’d come to Mexico years ago and trekked deep into the wild, impenetrable Barran- cas del Cobre—the Copper Canyons—to live among the Tarahumara, a near-mythical tribe of Stone Age superathletes. The Tarahumara (pronounced Spanish-style by swallowing the “h”: Tara-oo-mara) may be the healthiest and most serene people on earth, and the greatest run- ners of all time. When it comes to ultradistances, nothing can beat a Tarahumara runner—not a race- horse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner. Very few outsiders have ever seen the Tarahumara in action, but amazing stories of their superhuman toughness and tranquillity have drifted out of the canyons for centuries. One explorer swore he saw a Tarahumara catch a deer with his bare hands, chasing the bounding animal until it finally dropped dead from ex- haustion, “its hoofs falling off.” Another adventurer spent ten hours climbing up and over a Copper Canyon mountain by mule; a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in ninety minutes. “Try this,” a Tarahumara woman once told an exhausted explorer who’d collapsed at the base of a mountain. She handed him a gourd full of a murky liquid. He swallowed a few gulps, and was amazed to feel new energy pulsing in his veins. He got to his feet and scaled the peak like an overcaffeinated Sherpa. The Tarahumara, the explorer would later report, also guarded the recipe to a special energy food that leaves them trim, powerful, and unstoppable: a few mouthfuls packed enough nutritional punch to let them run all day without rest. But whatever secrets the Tarahumara are hiding, they’ve hidden them well. To this day, the Tarahumara live in the side of cliffs higher than a hawk’s nest in a land few have ever seen. The Barrancas are a lost world in the most remote wilderness in North America, a sort of a shorebound Bermuda Triangle known for swallowing the misfits and desperadoes who stray inside. Lots of bad things can happen down there, and probably will; survive the man- eating jaguars, deadly snakes, and blistering heat, and you’ve still got to deal with “canyon fever,” a potentially fatal freak-out brought on by the Barrancas’ desolate eeriness. The deep- er you penetrate into the Barrancas, the more it feels like a crypt sliding shut around you. The walls tighten, shadows spread, phantom echoes whisper; every route out seems to end in sheer rock. Lost prospectors would be gripped by such madness and despair, they’d slash their own throats or hurl themselves off cliffs. Little surprise that few strangers have ever seen the Tarahumara’s homeland—let alone the Tarahumara. But somehow the White Horse had made his way to the depths of the Barrancas. And there, it’s said, he was adopted by the Tarahumara as a friend and kindred spirit; a ghost among ghosts. He’d certainly mastered two Tarahumara skills—invisibility and extraordinary endurance—because even though he was spotted all over the canyons, no one seemed to know where he lived or when he might appear next. If anyone could translate the ancient secrets of the Tarahumara, I was told, it was this lone wanderer of the High Sierras. I’d become so obsessed with finding Caballo Blanco that as I dozed on the hotel sofa, I could even imagine the sound of his voice. “Probably like Yogi Bear ordering burritos at Taco Bell,” I mused. A guy like that, a wanderer who’d go anywhere but fit in nowhere, must live in- side his own head and rarely hear his own voice. He’d make weird jokes and crack himself up. He’d have a booming laugh and atrocious Spanish. He’d be loud and chatty and … and … Wait. I was hearing him. My eyes popped open to see a dusty cadaver in a tattered straw hat bantering with the desk clerk. Trail dust streaked his gaunt face like fading war paint, and the shocks of sun-bleached hair sticking out from under the hat could have been trimmed with a hunting knife. He looked like a castaway on a desert island, even to the way he seemed hungry for conversation with the bored clerk. “Caballo?” I croaked. The cadaver turned, smiling, and I felt like an idiot. He didn’t look wary; he looked con- fused, as any tourist would when confronted by a deranged man on a sofa suddenly hollering “Horse!” This wasn’t Caballo. There was no Caballo. The whole thing was a hoax, and I’d fallen for it. Then the cadaver spoke. “You know me?” “Man!” I exploded, scrambling to my feet. “Am I glad to see you!” The smile vanished. The cadaver’s eyes darted toward the door, making it clear that in an- other second, he would as well. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen CHAPTER 2 IT ALL BEGAN with a simple question that no one could answer. It was a five-word puzzle that led me to a photo of a very fast man in a very short skirt, and from there it only got stranger. Soon, I was dealing with a murder, drug guerrillas, and a one-armed man with a cream-cheese cup strapped to his head. I met a beautiful blonde forest ranger who slipped out of her clothes and found salvation by running naked in the Idaho forests, and a young surfer babe in pigtails who ran straight toward her death in the desert. A talented young runner would die. Two others would barely escape with their lives. I kept looking, and stumbled across the Barefoot Batman … Naked Guy … Kalahari Bush- men … the Toenail Amputee … a cult devoted to distance running and sex parties … the Wild Man of the Blue Ridge Mountains … and, ultimately, the ancient tribe of the Tarahumara and their shadowy disciple, Caballo Blanco. In the end, I got my answer, but only after I found myself in the middle of the greatest race the world would never see: the Ultimate Fighting Competition of footraces, an underground showdown pitting some of the best ultradistance runners of our time against the best ultrar- unners of all time, in a fifty-mile race on hidden trails only Tarahumara feet had ever touched. I’d be startled to discover that the ancient saying of the Tao Te Ching—“The best runner leaves no tracks”— wasn’t some gossamer koan, but real, concrete, how-to, training advice. And all because in January 2001 I asked my doctor this: “How come my foot hurts?” I’d gone to see one of the top sports-medicine specialists in the country because an invis- ible ice pick was driving straight up through the sole of my foot. The week before, I’d been out for an easy three-mile jog on a snowy farm road when I suddenly whinnied in pain, grabbing my right foot and screaming curses as I toppled over in the snow. When I got a grip on my- self, I checked to see how badly I was bleeding. I must have impaled my foot on a sharp rock, I figured, or an old nail wedged in the ice. But there wasn’t a drop of blood, or even a hole in my shoe. “Running is your problem,” Dr. Joe Torg confirmed when I limped into his Philadelphia ex- amining room a few days later. He should know; Dr. Torg had not only helped create the en- tire field of sports medicine, but he also co-wrote The Running Athlete, the definitive radio- graphic analysis of every conceivable running injury. He ran me through an X-ray and watched me hobble around, then determined that I’d aggravated my cuboid, a cluster of bones parallel to the arch that I hadn’t even known existed until it reengineered itself into an internal Taser. “But I’m barely running at all,” I said. “I’m doing, like, two or three miles every other day. And not even on asphalt. Mostly dirt roads.” Didn’t matter. “The human body is not designed for that kind of abuse,” Dr. Torg replied. “Especially not your body.” I knew exactly what he meant. At six feet four inches and two hundred thirty pounds, I’d been told many times that nature intended guys my size to post up under the hoop or take a bullet for the President, not pound our bulk down the pavement. And since I’d turned forty, I was starting to see why; in the five years since I’d stopped playing pickup hoops and tried turning myself into a marathoner, I’d ripped my hamstring (twice), strained my Achilles ten- dons (repeatedly), sprained my ankles (both, alternately), suffered aching arches (regularly), and had to walk down stairs backward on tiptoe because my heels were so sore. And now, apparently, the last docile spot on my feet had joined the rebellion. The weird thing was, I seemed to be otherwise unbreakable. As a writer for Men’s Health magazine and one of Esquire magazine’s original “Restless Man” columnists, a big part of my job was experimenting with semi-extreme sports. I’d ridden Class IV rapids on a boogie board, surfed giant sand dunes on a snowboard, and mountain biked across the North Dakota Badlands. I’d also reported from three war zones for the Associated Press and spent months in some of the most lawless regions of Africa, all without a nick or a twinge. But jog a few miles down the street, and suddenly I’m rolling on the ground like I’d been gut shot in a drive- by. Take any other sport, and an injury rate like mine would classify me as defective. In run- ning, it makes me normal. The real mutants are the runners who don’t get injured. Up to eight out of every ten runners are hurt every year. It doesn’t matter if you’re heavy or thin, speedy or slow, a marathon champ or a weekend huffer, you’re just as likely as the other guy to sav- age your knees, shins, hamstrings, hips, or heels. Next time you line up for a Turkey Trot, look at the runners on your right and left: statistically, only one of you will be back for the Jingle Bell Jog. No invention yet has slowed the carnage; you can now buy running shoes with steel bed- springs embedded in the soles and Adidas that adjust their cushioning by microchip, but the injury rate hasn’t decreased a jot in thirty years. If anything, it’s actually ebbed up; Achilles tendon blowouts have seen a 10 percent increase. Running seemed to be the fitness version of drunk driving: you could get away with it for a while, you might even have some fun, but catastrophe was waiting right around the corner. “Big surprise,” the sports-medicine literature sneers. Not exactly like that, though. More like this: “Athletes whose sport involves running put enormous strain on their legs.” That’s what the Sports Injury Bulletin has declared. “Each footfall hits one of their legs with a force equal to more than twice their body weight. Just as repeated hammering on an apparently im- penetrable rock will eventually reduce the stone to dust, the impact loads associated with run- ning can ultimately break down your bones, cartilage, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.” A re- port by the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons concluded that distance running is “an outrageous threat to the integrity of the knee.” And instead of “impenetrable rock,” that outrage is banging down on one of the most sens- itive points in your body. You know what kind of nerves are in your feet? The same ones that network into your genitals. Your feet are like a minnow bucket full of sensory neurons, all of them wriggling around in search of sensation. Stimulate those nerves just a little, and the im- pulse will rocket through your entire nervous system; that’s why tickling your feet can overload the switchboard and cause your whole body to spasm. No wonder South American dictators had a foot fetish when it came to breaking hard cases; the bastinado, the technique of tying victims down and beating the soles of their feet, was developed by the Spanish Inquisition and eagerly adopted by the world’s sickest sadists. The Khmer Rouge and Saddam Hussein’s sinister son Uday were big-time bastinado fans be- cause they knew their anatomy; only the face and hands compare with the feet for in- stant-messaging capability to the brain. When it comes to sensing the softest caress or tiniest grain of sand, your toes are as finely wired as your lips and fingertips. “So isn’t there anything I can do?” I asked Dr. Torg. He shrugged. “You can keep running, but you’ll be back for more of these,” he said, giving a little ting with his fingernail to the giant needle full of cortisone he was about to push into the bottom of my foot. I’d also need custom-made orthotics ($400) to slip inside my motion-control running shoes ($150 and climbing, and since I’d need to rotate two pairs, make it $300). But that would just postpone the real big-ticket item: my inevitable next visit to his waiting room. “Know what I’d recommend?” Dr. Torg concluded. “Buy a bike.” I thanked him, promised I’d take his advice, then immediately went behind his back to someone else. Doc Torg was getting up in years, I realized; maybe he’d gotten a little too conservative with his advice and a little too quick with his cortisone. A physician friend recom- mended a sports podiatrist who was also a marathoner, so I made an appointment for the fol- lowing week. The podiatrist took another X-ray, then probed my foot with his thumbs. “Looks like you’ve got cuboid syndrome,” he concluded. “I can blast the inflammation out with some cortisone, but then you’re going to need orthotics.” “Damn,” I muttered. “That’s just what Torg said.” He’d started to leave the room for the needle, but then he stopped short. “You already saw Joe Torg?” “Yes.” “You already got a cortisone shot?” “Uh, yeah.” “So what are you doing here?” he asked, suddenly looking impatient and a little suspi- cious, as if he thought I really enjoyed having needles shoved into the tenderest part of my foot. Maybe he suspected I was a sadomasochistic junkie who was addicted to both pain and painkillers. “You realize Dr. Torg is the godfather of sports medicine, right? His diagnoses are usually well respected.” “I know. I just wanted to double-check” “I’m not going to give you another shot, but we can schedule a fitting for the orthotics. And you should really think about finding some other activity besides running.” “Sounds good,” I said. He was a better runner than I’d ever be, and he’d just confirmed the verdict of a doctor he readily admitted was the sensei of sports physicians. There was abso- lutely no arguing with his diagnosis. So I started looking for someone else. It’s not that I’m all that stubborn. It’s not that I’m even all that crazy about running. If I totaled all the miles I’d ever run, half were aching drudgery. But it does say something that even though I haven’t read The World According to Garp in twenty years, I’ve never forgotten one minor scene, and it ain’t the one you’re thinking of: I keep thinking back to the way Garp used to burst out his door in the middle of the workday for a five-mile run. There’s something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time. And when things look worst, we run the most. Three times, America has seen dis- tance-running skyrocket, and it’s always in the midst of a national crisis. The first boom came during the Great Depression, when more than two hundred runners set the trend by racing forty miles a day across the country in the Great American Footrace. Running then went dormant, only to catch fire again in the early ’70s, when we were struggling to recover from Vietnam, the Cold War, race riots, a criminal president, and the murders of three beloved leaders. And the third distance boom? One year after the September 11 attacks, trail-running suddenly became the fastest-growing outdoor sport in the country. Maybe it was a coincid- ence. Or maybe there’s a trigger in the human psyche, a coded response that activates our first and greatest survival skill when we sense the raptors approaching. In terms of stress re- lief and sensual pleasure, running is what you have in your life before you have sex. The equipment and desire come factory installed; all you have to do is let ’er rip and hang on for the ride. That’s what I was looking for; not some pricey hunk of plastic to stick in my shoe, not a monthly cycle of painkillers, just a way to let ’er rip without tearing myself up. I didn’t love run- ning, but I wanted to. Which is what brought me to the door of M.D. No. 3: Dr. Irene Davis, an expert in biomechanics and head of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware. Dr. Davis put me on a treadmill, first in my bare feet and then in three different types of running shoes. She had me walk, trot, and haul ass. She had me run back and forth over a force plate to measure the impact shock from my footfalls. Then I sat in horror as she played back the video. In my mind’s eye, I’m light and quick as a Navajo on the hunt. That guy on the screen, however, was Frankenstein’s monster trying to tango. I was bobbing around so much, my head was disappearing from the top of the frame. My arms were slashing back and forth like an ump calling a player safe at the plate, while my size 13s clumped down so heavily it soun- ded like the video had a bongo backbeat. If that wasn’t bad enough, Dr. Davis then hit slow-mo so we could all settle back and really appreciate the way my right foot twisted out, my left knee dipped in, and my back bucked and spasmed so badly that it looked as if someone ought to jam a wallet between my teeth and call for help. How the hell was I even moving forward with all that up-down, side-to-side, fish- on-a-hook flopping going on? “Okay,” I said. “So what’s the right way to run?” “That’s the eternal question,” Dr. Davis replied. As for the eternal answer … well, that was tricky. I might straighten out my stride and get a little more shock absorption if I landed on my fleshy midfoot instead of my bony heel, buuuuut… I might just be swapping one set of problems for another. Tinkering with a new gait can suddenly load the heel and Achilles with unaccustomed stress and bring on a fresh batch of injuries. “Running is tough on the legs,” Dr. Davis said. She was so gentle and apologetic, I could tell what else she was thinking: “Especially your legs, big fella.” I was right back where I’d started. After months of seeing specialists and searching physiology studies online, all I’d managed was to get my question flipped around and fired back at me: How come my foot hurts? Because running is bad for you. Why is running bad for me? Because it makes your foot hurt. But why? Antelope don’t get shin splints. Wolves don’t ice-pack their knees. I doubt that 80 percent of all wild mustangs are annually disabled with impact injuries. It reminded me of a proverb attributed to Roger Bannister, who, while simultaneously studying medicine, working as a clinical researcher, and minting pithy parables, became the first man to break the four- minute mile: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up,” Bannister said. “It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a li- on or a gazelle— when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” So why should every other mammal on the planet be able to depend on its legs except us? Come to think of it, how could a guy like Bannister charge out of the lab every day, pound around a hard cinder track in thin leather slippers, and not only get faster, but never get hurt? How come some of us can be out there running all lionlike and Bannisterish every morning when the sun comes up, while the rest of us need a fistful of ibuprofen before we can put our feet on the floor? These were very good questions. But as I was about to discover, the only ones who knew the answers—the only ones who lived the answers—weren’t talking. Especially not to someone like me. ———— In the winter of 2003, I was on assignment in Mexico when I began flipping through a Spanish-language travel magazine. Suddenly, a photo of Jesus running down a rock slide caught my eye. Closer inspection revealed that while maybe not Jesus, it was definitely a man in a robe and sandals sprinting down a mountain of rubble. I started translating the caption, but couldn’t figure out why it was in the present tense; it seemed to be some kind of wishful Atlantean le- gend about an extinct empire of enlightened super-beings. Only gradually did I figure out that I was right about everything except the “extinct” and “wishful” parts. I was in Mexico to track down a missing pop star and her secret brainwashing cult for The New York Times Magazine, but the article I was writing suddenly seemed a snore compared with the one I was reading. Freakish fugitive pop stars come and go, but the Tarahumara seemed to live forever. Left alone in their mysterious canyon hideaway, this small tribe of re- cluses had solved nearly every problem known to man. Name your category—mind, body, or soul—and the Tarahumara were zeroing in on perfection. It was as if they’d secretly turned their caves into incubators for Nobel Prize winners, all toiling toward the end of hatred, heart disease, shin splints, and greenhouse gases. In Tarahumara Land, there was no crime, war, or theft. There was no corruption, obesity, drug addiction, greed, wife-beating, child abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, or car- bon emissions. They didn’t get diabetes, or depressed, or even old: fifty-year-olds could out- run teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up moun- tainsides. Their cancer rates were barely detectable. The Tarahumara geniuses had even branched into economics, creating a one-of-a-kind financial system based on booze and ran- dom acts of kindness: instead of money, they traded favors and big tubs of corn beer. You’d expect an economic engine fueled by alcohol and freebies to spiral into a drunken grab-fest, everyone double-fisting for themselves like bankrupt gamblers at a casino buffet, but in Tarahumara Land, it works. Perhaps it’s because the Tarahumara are industrious and inhumanly honest; one researcher went as far as to speculate that after so many generations of truthfulness, the Tarahumara brain was actually chemically incapable of forming lies. And if being the kindest, happiest people on the planet wasn’t enough, the Tarahumara were also the toughest: the only thing that rivaled their superhuman serenity, it seemed, was their superhuman tolerance for pain and lechuguilla, a horrible homemade tequila brewed from rattlesnake corpses and cactus sap. According to one of the few outsiders who’d ever witnessed a full-on Tarahumara rave, the partiers got so blitzed that wives began ripping each others’ tops off in a bare-breasted wrestling match, while a cackling old man circled around trying to spear their butts with a corncob. The husbands, meanwhile, gazed on in glassy-eyed paralysis. Cancún at spring break had nothing on the Barrancas under a harvest moon. The Tarahumara would party like this all night, then roust themselves the next morning to face off in a running race that could last not two miles, not two hours, but two full days. Ac- cording to the Mexican historian Francisco Almada, a Tarahumara champion once ran 435 miles, the equivalent of setting out for a jog in New York City and not stopping till you were closing in on Detroit. Other Tarahumara runners reportedly went three hundred miles at a pop. That’s nearly twelve full marathons, back to back to back, while the sun rose and set and rose again. And the Tarahumara weren’t cruising along smooth, paved roads, either, but scrambling up and down steep canyon trails formed only by their own feet. Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time, and he could barely shuffle through his first marathon despite sucking down an energy gel nearly every mile. (Lance’s text message to his ex-wife after the New York City Marathon: “Oh. My. God. Ouch. Terrible.”) Yet these guys were knocking them out a dozen at a time? In 1971, an American physiologist trekked into the Copper Canyons and was so blown away by Tarahumara athleticism that he had to reach back twenty-eight hundred years for a suitable scale to rank it on. “Probably not since the days of the ancient Spartans has a people achieved such a high state of physical conditioning,” Dr. Dale Groom concluded when he pub- lished his findings in the American Heart Journal. Unlike the Spartans, however, the Tarahu- mara are benign as bodhisattvas; they don’t use their superstrength to kick ass, but to live in peace. “As a culture, they’re one of the great unsolved mysteries,” says Dr. Daniel Noveck, a University of Chicago anthropologist who specializes in the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara are so mysterious, in fact, they even go by an alias. Their real name is Rarámuri—the Running People. They were dubbed “Tarahumara” by conquistadores who didn’t understand the tribal tongue. The bastardized name stuck because the Rarámuri re- mained true to form, running away rather than hanging around to argue the point. Answering aggression with their heels has always been the Rarámuri way. Ever since Cortés’s armored invaders came jangling into their homeland and then through subsequent invasions by Pan- cho Villa’s roughriders and Mexican drug barons, the Tarahumara have responded to attacks by running farther and faster than anyone could follow, retreating ever deeper into the Barran- cas. God, they must be unbelievably disciplined, I thought. Total focus and dedication. The Shaolin monks of running. Well, not quite. When it comes to marathoning, the Tarahumara prefer more of a Mardi Gras approach. In terms of diet, lifestyle, and belly fire, they’re a track coach’s nightmare. They drink like New Year’s Eve is a weekly event, tossing back enough corn beer in a year to spend every third day of their adult lives either buzzed or recovering. Unlike Lance, the Tarahumara don’t replenish their bodies with electrolyte-rich sports drinks. They don’t rebuild between workouts with protein bars; in fact, they barely eat any protein at all, living on little more than ground corn spiced up by their favorite delicacy, barbecued mouse. Come race day, the Tarahumara don’t train or taper. They don’t stretch or warm up. They just stroll to the starting line, laughing and bantering … then go like hell for the next forty-eight hours. How come they’re not crippled? I wondered. It’s as if a clerical error entered the stats in the wrong columns: shouldn’t we—the ones with state-of-the-art running shoes and cus- tom-made orthotics—have the zero casualty rate, and the Tarahumara—who run way more, on way rockier terrain, in shoes that barely qualify as shoes—be constantly banged up? Their legs are just tougher, since they’ve been running all their lives, I thought, before catching my own goof. But that means they should be hurt more, not less: if running is bad for your legs, then running lots should be a lot worse. I shoved the article aside, feeling equal parts intrigued and annoyed. Everything about the Tarahumara seemed backward, taunting, as irritatingly ungraspable as a Zen master’s riddles. The toughest guys were the gentlest; battered legs were the bounciest; the healthiest people had the crappiest diet; the illiterate race was the wisest; the guys working the hardest were having the most fun…. And what did running have to do with all this? Was it a coincidence that the world’s most enlightened people were also the world’s most amazing runners? Seekers used to climb the Himalayas for that kind of wisdom—and all this time, I realized, it was just a hop across the Texas border. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen CHAPTER 3 FIGURING OUT WHERE over the border, however, was going to be tricky. Runner’s World magazine assigned me to trek into the Barrancas in search of the Tarahu- mara. But before I could start looking for the ghosts, I’d need to find a ghost hunter. Salvador Holguín, I was told, was the only man for the job. By day, Salvador is a thirty-three-year-old municipal administrator in Guachochi, a frontier town on the edge of the Copper Canyons. By night, he’s a barroom mariachi singer, and he looks it; with his beer gut and black-eyed, rose-in-the-teeth good looks, he’s the exact image of a guy who splits his life between desk chairs and bar stools. Salvador’s brother, however, is the Indiana Jones of the Mexican school system; every year, he loads a burro with pencils and workbooks and bushwhacks into the Barrancas to resupply the canyon-bottom schools. Because Salvador is game for just about anything, he has occasionally blown off work to ac- company his brother on these expeditions. “Hombre, no problem,” he told me once I’d tracked him down. “We can go see Arnulfo Quimare. …” If he’d stopped right there, I’d have been ecstatic. While searching for a guide, I’d learned that Arnulfo Quimare was the greatest living Tarahumara runner, and he came from a clan of cousins, brothers, in-laws, and nephews who were nearly as good. The prospect of heading right to the hidden huts of the Quimare dynasty was better than I could have hoped for. The only problem was, Salvador was still talking. “… I’m pretty sure I know the way” he continued. “I’ve never actually been there. “Pues, lo que sea.” Well, whatever. “We’ll find it. Eventually.” Ordinarily, that would sound a little ominous, but compared with everyone else I’d talked with, Salvador was wildly optimistic. Since fleeing into no-man’s-land four hundred years ago, the Tarahumara have spent their time perfecting the art of invisibility. Many Tarahumara still live in cliffside caves reachable only by long climbing poles; once inside, they pull up the poles and vanish into the rock. Others live in huts so ingeniously camouflaged, the great Nor- wegian explorer Carl Lumholtz was once startled to discover he’d trekked right past an entire Tarahumara village without detecting a hint of homes or humans. Lumholtz was a true backwoods badass who’d spent years living among headhunters in Borneo before heading into Tarahumara Land in the late 1890s. But you can sense even his fortitude grinding thin after he’d dragged himself through deserts and up death-defying cliffs, only to arrive at last in the heart of Tarahumara country to find… No one. “To look at these mountains is a soul-inspiring sensation; but to travel over them is ex- haustive to muscle and patience,” Lumholtz wrote in Unknown Mexico: A Record of Five Years’ Exploration Among the Tribes of the Western Sierra Madre. “Nobody except those who have travelled in the Mexican mountains can understand and appreciate the difficulties and anxieties attending such a journey.” And that’s assuming you make it as far as the mountains in the first place. “On first en- counter, the region of the Tarahumara appears inaccessible,” the French playwright Antonin Artaud grumbled after he sweated and inched his way into the Copper Canyons in search of shamanic wisdom in the 1930s. “At best, there are a few poorly marked trails that every twenty yards seem to disappear under the ground.” When Artaud and his guides finally did discover a path, they had to gulp hard before taking it: subscribing to the principle that the best trick for throwing off pursuers was to travel places where only a lunatic would follow, the Tarahumara snake their trails over suicidally steep terrain. “A false step,” an adventurer named Frederick Schwatka jotted in his notebook during a Copper Canyon expedition in 1888, “would send the climber two hundred to three hundred feet to the bottom of the canyon, perhaps a mangled corpse.” Schwatka was no prissy Parisian poet, either; he was a U.S. Army lieutenant who’d sur- vived the frontier wars and later lived among the Sioux as an amateur anthropologist, so the man knew from mangled corpses. He’d also traveled the baddest of badlands in his time, in- cluding a hellacious two-year expedition to the Arctic Circle. But when he got to the Copper Canyons, he had to recalibrate his scoring table. Scanning the ocean of wilderness around him, Schwatka felt a quick pulse of admiration—“The heart of the Andes or the crests of the Himalayas contain no more sublime scenery than the wild, unknown fastnesses of the Sierra Madres of Mexico”—before being jerked back to morbid bewilderment: “How they can rear children on these cliffs without a loss of one hundred percent annually is to me one of the most mysterious things connected with these strange people.” Even today, when the Internet has shrunk the world into a global village and Google satel- lites let you spy on a stranger’s backyard on the other side of the country, the traditional Tarahumara remain as ghostly as they were four hundred years ago. In the mid-1990s, an ex- peditionary group was pushing into the deep Barrancas when they were suddenly rattled by the feeling of invisible eyes: “Our small party had been hiking for hours through Mexico’s Barranca del Cobre—the Copper Canyon—without seeing a trace of any other human being,” wrote one member of the expedition. “Now, in the heart of a canyon even deeper than the Grand Canyon, we heard the echoes of Tarahumara drums. Their simple beats were faint at first, but soon gathered strength. Echoing off stony ridges, it was impossible to tell their number or location. We looked to our guide for direction. ‘¿Quién sabe?’ she said. ‘Who knows? The Tarahumara can’t be seen unless they want to be.’” The moon was still high when we set off in Salvador’s trusty four-wheel-drive pickup. By the time the sun came up, we’d left pavement far behind and were jouncing along a dirt track that was more like a creek bed than a road, grinding along in low, low gear as we pitched and rolled like a tramp steamer on stormy seas. I tried keeping track of our location with a compass and map, but I sometimes couldn’t tell if Salvador was making a deliberate turn or taking evasive action around a fallen boulder. Soon, it didn’t matter—wherever we were, it wasn’t part of the known world; we were still snaking along a narrow gash through the trees, but the map showed nothing but untouched forest. “Mucha mota por aquí,” Salvador said, swirling a finger at the hills around us. Lots of marijuana around here. Because the Barrancas are impossible to police, they’ve become a base for two rival drug cartels, Los Zetas and the New Bloods. Both were manned by ex-Army Special Forces and were absolutely ruthless; the Zetas were notorious for plunging uncooperative cops into burn- ing barrels of diesel fuel and feeding captured rivals to the gang’s mascot—a Bengal tiger. After the victims stopped screaming, their scorched and tiger-gnawed heads were carefully harvested as marketing tools; the cartels liked to mark their territory by, in one case, impaling the heads of two police officers outside a government building with a sign in Spanish reading LEARN SOME RESPECT. Later that same month, five heads were rolled onto the dance floor of a crowded nightclub. Even way out here on the fringes of the Barrancas, some six bodies were turning up a week. But Salvador seemed totally unconcerned. He drove on through the woods, throatily but- chering something about a bra full of bad news named Maria. Suddenly, the song died in his mouth. He snapped off the tape player, his eyes fixed on a red Dodge pickup with smoked- black glass that had just burst through the dust ahead of us. “Narcotraficantes,” he muttered. Drug runners. Salvador edged as close as he could to the cliff edge on our right and eased even further back on the gas, dropping deferentially from the ten miles per hour we’d been averaging down to a dead halt, granting the big red Dodge every bit of road he could spare. No trouble here was the message he was trying to send. Just minding our own, non-mota business. Just don’t stop … because what would we say if they cut us off and came piling out, demanding that we speak slowly and clearly into the barrels of their assault rifles while we ex- plained what the hell we were doing way out here in the middle of Mexican marijuana coun- try? We couldn’t even tell them the truth; if they believed us, we were dead. If Mexico’s drug gangs hated anything as much as cops, it was singers and reporters. Not singers in any slang sense of snitches or stool pigeons; they hated real, guitar-strumming, love-song-singing crooners. Fifteen singers were executed by drug gangs in just eighteen months, including the beautiful Zayda Peña, the twenty-eight-year-old lead singer of Zayda y Los Culpables, who was gunned down after a concert; she survived, but the hit team tracked her to the hospital and blasted her to death while she was recovering from surgery. The young heartthrob Valentín Elizalde was killed by a barrage of bullets from an AK-47 just across the border from McAllen, Texas, and Sergio Gómez was killed shortly after he was nominated for a Grammy; his genitals were torched, then he was strangled to death and dumped in the street. What doomed them, as far as anyone could tell, was their fame, good looks, and talent; the singers challenged the drug lords’ sense of their own importance, and so were marked for death. The bizarre fatwa on balladeers was emotional and unpredictable, but the contract on re- porters was all business. News articles about the cartels got picked up by American papers, which embarrassed American politicians, which put pressure on the Drug Enforcement Ad- ministration to crack down. Infuriated, the Zetas threw hand grenades into newsrooms, and even sent killers across the U.S. border to hunt down meddlesome journalists. After thirty re- porters were killed in six years, the editor of the Villahermosa newspaper found the severed head of a low-level drug soldier outside his office with a note reading, “You’re next.” The death toll had gotten so bad, Mexico would eventually rank second only to Iraq in the number of killed or kidnapped reporters. And now we’d saved the cartels a lot of trouble; a singer and a journalist had just driven smack into their backyard. I jammed my notebook down my pants and quickly scanned the front seat for more things to hide. It was hopeless; Salvador had his group’s tapes scattered everywhere, a shiny red press pass was in my wallet, and right between my feet was a back- pack full of tape recorders, pens, and a camera. The red Dodge pulled alongside us. It was a glorious, sunny day with a cool, pine-scented breeze, but the truck’s windows were all tightly shut, leaving the mysterious crew invisible be- hind their smoked-black glass. The truck slowed to a rumbling crawl. Just keep going, I chanted inside my head. Don’t stop don’t stop don’t don’t don’t… The truck stopped. I cut my eyes hard left and saw Salvador was staring straight ahead, his hands frozen on the steering wheel. I darted my eyes forward again and didn’t move a muscle. We sat. They sat. We were silent. They were silent. Six murders a week, I was thinking. Burned his balls off. I could see my head rolling between panicky stilettos on a Chihuahua dance floor. Suddenly, a roar split the air. My eyes slashed left again. The big red Dodge was spitting back to life and growling on past. Salvador watched in the side-view mirror till the Deathmobile disappeared in a swirl of dust. Then he slapped the steering wheel and blasted his ay-yay-yaying tape again. “¡Bueno!” he shouted. “¡Ándale pues, a más aventuras!” Excellent! On to more adven- tures! Parts of me that had clenched tight enough to crack walnuts slowly began to relax. But not for long. A few hours later, Salvador stomped on the brakes. He backed up, cut a hard right off the rutted path, and started winding between the trees. We wandered farther and farther into the woods, crunching over pine needles and bouncing into gullies so deep I was banging my head on the roll bar. As the woods got darker, Salvador got quieter. For the first time since our encounter with the Deathmobile, he even turned off the music. I thought he was drinking in the solitude and stillness, so I tried to sit back and appreciate it with him. But when I finally broke the silence with a question, he grunted moodily back at me. I began to suspect what was going on: we were lost, and Salvador didn’t want to admit it. I watched him more closely, and noticed he was slowing down to study the tree trunks, as if somewhere in the cuneiform bark was a de- cryptable road atlas. “We’re screwed,” I realized. We had a one-in-four shot of this turning out well, which left three other possibilities: driving smack back into the Zetas, driving off a cliff in the dark, or driving around in the wilderness until the Clif Bars ran out and one of us ate the other. And then, just as the sun set, we ran out of planet. We emerged from the woods to find an ocean of empty space ahead—a crack in the earth so vast that the far side could be in a different time zone. Down below, it looked like a world- ending explosion frozen in stone, as if an angry god had been in the midst of destroying the planet, then changed his mind in mid-apocalypse. I was staring at twenty thousand square miles of wilderness, randomly slashed into twisting gorges deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon. I walked to the edge of the cliff, and my heart started to pound. A sheer drop fell for about… ever. Far below, birds were swirling about. I could just make out the mighty river at the bottom of the canyon; it looked like a thin blue vein in an old man’s arm. My stomach clenched. How the hell would we get down there? “We’ll manage,” Salvador assured me. “The Rarámuri do it all the time.” When I didn’t look any more cheerful, Salvador came up with a silver lining. “Hey, it’s bet- ter this way,” he said. “It’s too steep for narcotraficantes to mess around down there.” I didn’t know if he really believed it or was lying to buck me up. Either way, he should have known better. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen CHAPTER 4 TWO DAYS LATER, Salvador dropped his backpack, mopped his sweating face, and said, “We’re here.” I looked around. There was nothing but rocks and cactus. “We’re where?” “Aquí mismo” Salvador said. “Right here. This is where the Quimare clan lives.” I didn’t get what he was talking about. As far as the eye could see, it was exactly like the dark side of a lost planet we’d been hiking over for days. After ditching the truck on the rim of the canyon, we’d slid and scrambled our way down to the bottom. It had been a relief to finally walk on level ground, but not for long; after striking out upstream the next morning, we found ourselves wedged tighter and tighter between the soaring stone walls. We pushed on, holding our backpacks on our heads as we shoved against water up to our chests. The sun was slowly eclipsed by the steep walls, until we were inching our way through gurgling darkness, feeling as if we were slowly walking to the bottom of the sea. Eventually, Salvador spotted a gap in the slick wall and we climbed through, leaving the river behind. By midday, I was longing for the gloomy dark again; with a baking sun overhead and nothing but bare rock all around, pulling ourselves up that slope was like climbing a steel sliding board. Salvador finally stopped, and I dropped against a rock to rest. Damn, he’s tough, I thought. Sweat was pouring down Salvador’s sunburned face, but he stayed on his feet. He had a strange, expectant look on his face. “¿Qué pasa?” I asked. “What’s up?” “They’re right here,” Salvador said, pointing to a little hill. I hauled myself back up. I followed him through a crack between the rocks, and found my- self facing a dark opening. The hill was actually a small hut, fashioned from mud bricks and contoured into the hillside so that it was invisible until you were literally on top of it. I took another look around to see if I’d missed any other camouflaged homes, but there wasn’t a hint of another human in any direction. The Tarahumara prefer to live in such isola- tion, even from each other, that members of the same village don’t like to be close enough to see each other’s cook smoke. I opened my mouth to call out, then shut it. Someone was already there, standing in the dark, watching us. Then Arnulfo Quimare, the most feared of Tarahumara runners, stepped outside. “Kuira-bá,” Salvador said in the only words he knew in the Tarahumara language. “We’re all one.” Arnulfo was looking at me. “Kuira-bá,” I repeated. “Kuira,” Arnulfo breathed, his voice as soft as a sigh. He put out his hand for the Tarahu- mara handshake, a soft sliding of fingertips. Then he vanished back inside. We waited and … waited some more. Was that it? There wasn’t a whisper from inside the hut, not a sign that he intended to come back out. I edged around the corner to see if he’d slipped out the back. An- other Tarahumara man was napping in the shade of the back wall, but there was no sign of Arnulfo. I shuffled over to Salvador. “Is he coming back?” “No sé,” Salvador said, shrugging. “I don’t know. We might have really pissed him off.” “Already? How?” “We shouldn’t have just come up like that.” Salvador was kicking himself. He’d gotten overexcited, and violated a key rule of Tarahumara etiquette. Before approaching a Tarahu- mara cave, you have to take a seat on the ground a few dozen yards away and wait. You then look off in the opposite direction for a while, as if you’d just happened to be wandering by with nothing better to do. If someone appears and invites you into the cave, great. If not, you get up and go. You do not go walking right up to the entrance, the way Salvador and I had. The Tarahumara like to be visible only if they decide to be; laying eyes on them without invita- tion was like barging in on someone naked in the bathroom. Luckily, Arnulfo turned out to be the forgiving type. He returned a few moments later, car- rying a basket of sweet limes. We’d turned up at a bad time, he explained; his whole family was down with the flu. That body behind the hut was his big brother, Pedro, who was too conked out with fever to even get up. Still, Arnulfo invited us to rest. “Assag,” he said. Have a seat. We sprawled in whatever shade we could find and began peeling limes, gazing at the tum- bling river. As we chomped and spat seeds in the dirt, Arnulfo stared off silently at the water. Every once in a while, he turned and gave me an appraising look. He never asked who we were or why we were there; it seemed like he wanted to figure it out for himself. I tried not to stare, but it’s hard to keep your eyes off a guy as good-looking as Arnulfo. He was brown as polished leather, with whimsical dark eyes that glinted with bemused self- confidence from under the bangs of his black bowl-cut. He reminded me of the early Beatles; all the early Beatles, rolled into one shrewd, amused, quietly handsome composite of raw strength. He was dressed in typical Tarahumara garb, a thigh-length skirt and a fiery red tunic as billowy as a pirate’s blouse. Every time he moved, the muscles in his legs shifted and re- formed like molten metal. “You know, we’ve met,” Salvador told him in Spanish. Arnulfo nodded. Three years in a row, Arnulfo had hiked for days to show up in Guachochi for a sixty-mile race through the canyons. It’s an annual all-comers race pitting Tarahumara from throughout the Sierras, plus the rare handful of Mexican runners willing to test their legs and luck against the tribesmen. Three years in a row, Arnulfo won. He took the title from his brother, Pedro, and was followed in second and third by a cousin, Avelado, and his brother-in-law, Silvino. Silvino was an odd case, a Tarahumara who straddled the line between old and new worlds. Years ago, a Christian Brother who ran a small Tarahumara school had trekked with Silvino to a marathon somewhere in California. Silvino won, and came home with enough money for an old pickup truck, a pair of jeans, and a new wing for the schoolhouse. Silvino kept his truck at the top of the canyon, occasionally hiking up to drive into Guachochi. But even though he’d found a surefire way to make cash, he’d never returned to race again. When it comes to the rest of the planet, the Tarahumara are living contradictions: they shun outsiders, but are fascinated by the outside world. In one way, it makes sense: when you love running extraordinary distances, it must be tempting to cut loose and see where, and how far, your legs can take you. A Tarahumara man once turned up in Siberia; he’d somehow strayed onto a tramp steamer and vagabonded his way across the Russian steppes before being picked up and shipped back to Mexico. In 1983, a Tarahumara woman in her swirling native skirts was discovered wandering the streets of a town in Kansas; she spent the next twelve years in an insane asylum before a social worker finally realized she was speaking a lost language, not gibberish. “Would you ever race in the United States?” I asked Arnulfo. He continued to chomp limes and spit seeds. After a while, he shrugged. “Are you going to run again in Guachochi?” Chomp. Chomp. Shrug. Now I knew what Carl Lumholtz meant about Tarahumara men being so bashful that if it weren’t for beer, the tribe would be extinct. “Incredible as it may sound,” Lumholtz had marveled, “I do not hesitate to state that in the ordinary course of his existence the uncivilised Tarahumare is too bashful and modest to enforce his matrimonial rights and privileges; and that by means of tesvino chiefly the race is kept alive and increasing.” Translation: Tarahu- mara men couldn’t even muster the nerve to get romantic with their own wives if they didn’t drown their bashfulness in home brew. Only later did I find out that I’d thrown my own wrench into the social wheels with big blun- der Number 2: Quizzing Him Like a Cop. Arnulfo wasn’t being rude with his silence; I was be- ing creepy with my questions. To the Tarahumara, asking direct questions is a show of force, a demand for a possession inside their head. They certainly wouldn’t abruptly open up and spill their secrets to a stranger; strangers were the reason the Tarahumara were hidden down here in the first place. The last time the Tarahumara had been open to the outside world, the outside world had put them in chains and mounted their severed heads on nine-foot poles. Spanish silver hunters had staked their claim to Tarahumara land—and Tarahumara labor—by decapitating their tribal leaders. “Raramuri men were rounded up like wild broncos and impressed into slave labor in the mines,” one chronicler wrote; anyone who resisted was turned into a human horror show. Be- fore dying, the captured Tarahumara were tortured for information. That was all the surviving Tarahumara needed to know about what happens when curious strangers come calling. The Tarahumara’s relationship with the rest of the planet only got worse after that. Wild West bounty hunters were paid one hundred dollars apiece for Apache scalps, but it didn’t take long for them to come up with a vicious way to maximize the reward while eliminating the risk; rather than tangling with warriors who’d fight back, they simply massacred the peaceful Tarahumara and cashed in on their look-alike hair. Good guys were even deadlier than the villains. Jesuit missionaries showed up with Bibles in their hands and influenza in their lungs, promising eternal life but spreading instant death. The Tarahumara had no antibodies to combat the disease, so Spanish flu spread like wildfire, wiping out entire villages in days. A Tarahumara hunter would leave his family for a week in search of game, and come home to find nothing but corpses and flies. No wonder the Tarahumara’s mistrust of strangers had lasted four hundred years and led them here, to a last refuge at the bottom of the earth. It also led to a meat cleaver of a vocab- ulary when it comes to describing people. In the Tarahumara tongue, humans come in only two forms: there are Rarámuri, who run from trouble, and chabochis, who cause it. It’s a harsh view of the world, but with six bodies a week tumbling into their canyons, it’s hard to say they’re wrong. As far as Arnulfo was concerned, he’d met his social obligation with the limes. He’d made sure the travelers were rested and refreshed, then he withdrew into himself the way his people withdrew into the canyons. I could sit there all day and pursue him with all the ques- tions I could think of. But I wasn’t going to find him. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has never seen CHAPTER 5 “YES, YOU’D HAVE to be down here a looonnng time before they’d feel comfortable with you,” I was told later that night by Ángel Nava López, who ran the Tarahumara schoolhouse in Muñerachi a few miles downriver from the Quimares’ hut. “Años y años— years and years. Like Caballo Blanco.” “Wait,” I interrupted. “Who?” The White Horse, Ángel explained, was a tall, thin, chalky white man who jabbered his own strange language and would emerge from the hills with no warning, just materializing on the trail and loping on into the settlement. He first appeared ten years before, shortly after lunch on a hot Sunday afternoon. The Tarahumara don’t have a written language, let alone written records of weird hominid sightings, but Ángel was dead certain about the day, year, and strangeness of the encounter, because he’s the one who did the encountering. Ángel had been outside at the time, scanning the canyon walls to keep an eye on kids re- turning to school. His students slept over during the week, then scattered on Friday, climbing high into the mountains to their families’ homes. On Sunday, they came traipsing back to school again. Ángel liked to do a head count as they trekked in, which is why he happened to be out in the hot noon sun when two boys came tearing down the mountainside. The boys hit the river at full speed, churning through as though they were being chased by demons. Which, they gasped to Ángel when they made it to the schoolhouse, they probably were. They’d been out herding goats on the mountain, they said, when a weird creature darted through the trees above them. The Creature had the shape of a man, but was taller than any human they’d ever seen. It was deathly pale and bony as a corpse, and had shocks of flame- colored hair jutting out of its skull. It was also naked. For a giant, nude cadaver, the Creature was pretty quick on its feet; it vanished into the brush before the boys could get more than a glimpse. Not that they hung around for more glimpsing. The two boys hightailed it back to the vil- lage, wondering who—or what—they’d just seen. After they reached Ángel, though, they began to calm down and catch their breath, and they realized who it was. “That’s the first chuhuíI ever saw,” one of the boys said. “A ghost?” Ángel said. “What makes you think it was a ghost?” By this point, several Rarámuri elders had ambled up to see what was going on. The boys repeated their story, describing the Creature’s skeletal appearance, its wild shocks of hair, the way it ran along the trail above them. The elders heard the boys out, then set them straight. The canyon shadows could play tricks on anyone’s mind, so it was no surprise the boys’ ima- ginations had run a little wild. Still, they shouldn’t be allowed to panic the younger kids with wild stories. “How many legs did it have?” the elders asked. “Two.” “Did it spit on you?” “No.” Well, there you had it. “That was no ghost,” the elders said. “That was just an ariwará.” A soul of the dead; yes, that did make a lot more sense. Ghosts were evil phantoms who traveled by night and galloped around on all fours, killing sheep and spitting in people’s faces. Souls of the dead, on the other hand, meant no harm and were just tidying up loose ends. Even in death, the Tarahumara are fanatics about elusiveness. After they die, their souls hustle around to retrieve any footprints or stray hair the body left behind. The Tarahumara technique for getting a trim was to pull their hair taut in the crotch of a tree and saw it off with a knife, so all those leftover hanks had to be picked up. Once the dead soul has erased all signs of its earthbound existence, it can venture on to the afterlife. “The journey takes three days,” the elders reminded the boys. “Four, if it’s a woman.” So naturally the ariwará is going to look a little bushy, what with all that chopped hair jammed back on its head; and of course it’ll be moving top speed, with only a long weekend to knock out a ton of chores. Come to think of it, it was pretty impressive the boys managed to spot the ariwará at all; Tarahumara souls usually run so fast, all you see is swirl of dust sweeping across the countryside. Even in death, the elders reminded the boys, they’re still the Running People. “You’re alive because your father can run down a deer. He’s alive because his grandfather could outrun an Apache war pony. That’s how fast we are when we’re weighed down by our sapá, our fleshiness. Imagine how you’ll fly once you shuck it.” Ángel listened, wondering if he should bother pointing out another possibility. Ángel was an oddity in Muñerachi, a half-Mexican Tarahumara who had actually left the canyon for a while and gone to school in a Mexican village. He still wore traditional Tarahumara sandals and the koyera hairband, but unlike the other elders around him, Ángel had on faded work pants instead of a breechcloth. He’d changed on the inside, as well; though he still wor- shipped the Tarahumara gods, he had to wonder if this Wild Thing in the Wilderness wasn’t just a chabochi who’d wandered in from the outside world. Granted, it was probably even more of a long shot than sharing the trail with a traveling spirit. No one ever penetrated this far unless they had a very good reason. Maybe he was a fugitive hiding from the law? A mystic seeking visions? A gold digger driven mad by the heat? Ángel shrugged. A lone chabochi could be any of the above, and still not be the first of his kind to surface in Tarahumara territory. It’s a natural law (or supernatural, if you’re so inclined) that weird things appear where people tend to disappear. African jungles, Pacific islands, Hi- malayan wastelands—wherever expeditionary parties go missing, that’s where lost species, Stonehengey stone idols, the flitting shadows of yetis, and ancient, unsurrendering Japanese soldiers are sure to pop up. The Copper Canyons are no different, and in some regards, considerably worse. The Si- erra Madres are the middle link of a mountain chain that stretches practically uninterrupted from Alaska to Patagonia. A desperado with a knack for backcountry navigation could hold up a bank in Colorado and slink to safety in the Copper Canyons, darting across desolate passes and desert ranges without coming within ten miles of the next human being. As the best open-air safe house on the continent, consequently, the Copper Canyons not only spawn bizarre beings but also attract them. Over the past hundred years, the canyons have played host to just about every stripe of North American misfit: bandits, mystics, murder- ers, man-eating jaguars, Comanche warriors, Apache marauders, paranoid prospectors, and Pancho Villa’s rebels have all shaken pursuit by slipping into the Barrancas. Geronimo used to skeedaddle into the Copper Canyons when he was on the run from the U.S. Cavalry. So did his protégé, the Apache Kid, who “moved like a ghost in the desert,” as one chronicler put it. “He followed no pattern. No one knew where he would show up next. It was unnerving to work cattle or mine a claim when every shadow, every slight noise, could be the Apache Kid closing in for the kill. One worried settler said it best: ‘Usually, by the time you saw the Apache Kid it was entirely too late.’” Pursuing them into the maze meant running the risk of never finding a way back out again. “To look at this country is grand; to travel in it, is Hell,” a U.S. Cavalry captain named John Bourke wrote after barely surviving another unsuccessful pursuit of Geronimo into the Copper Canyons. The click of a tumbling pebble would echo around crazily, getting louder and louder rather than fainter, the sound bouncing from right, to left, to overhead. The rasp of two juniper branches would have an entire company of cavalrymen yanking out their pistols, their own shadows conto

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