Learning Who I Am Not, the Hard Way
Backpacker|July - August 2021
One hiker finds his limits in Mexico’s Tararecua Canyon.
M. JOHN FAYHEE

The carved footholds were barely perceptible, even to my highly motivated eyes. They were more like minor imperfections in the cliff-face than something wrought by man. Fortunately, I had become adept at recognizing the subtle handiwork of the Rarámuri, who have been moving through the formidable topography of northern Mexico’s Copper Canyon region for half a millennium. Before committing to what by anyone’s standards would be an inadvisable move, I found myself wondering: Just how did they manage to chisel that diminutive series of steps into sheer rock hundreds of feet above the Rio San Ignacio, which flows through Tararecua Canyon?

Four days before, Jay Scott, a longtime hiking chum, and I had embarked upon what we thought would be a relatively straightforward trek into the depths of some of the most stunning topography in North America. It turned out to be a journey difficult and dangerous enough that it changed me forever.

I first rubbed elbows with Tararecua Canyon, one of the six smaller gorges making up the greater Copper Canyon region, in 1983. My wife and I were on our way to Central America and, on a whim, opted to detour into this area of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, just over 500 miles southwest of Big Bend National Park. We stayed for a few days, mostly relaxing at a place called Recohuata Hot Springs—now a popular tourist destination in a region which has seen a steady rise in hiker and mountain bike traffic since the empty days of my first visit. I was smitten, and decided to return at my earliest opportunity for further exploration. It took me a few decades, but there I finally was.

A mimeographed, hand-drawn tourist map with no scale provided a rough itinerary: Follow Tararecua Canyon down to its confluence with the mighty Rio Urique. Then figure out a way to climb out of one of the deepest abysses on the continent (Tararecua is 4,674 feet deep). After that, drink some cervezas.

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