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Running With the White Horse

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I contacted him in the early autumn of 2008, one year before a book came out and changed his life. He went by Caballo Blanco on the website that advertised his services as a tour guide through Mexico’s Copper Canyon. At the time, my Spanish was rudimentary, and I began my introduction with a polite “Dear Caballo.”

Several days later, after confirming a four-day trek, I realized that Caballo Blanco—“White Horse”—was the nom de guerre of an American, Micah True, who had made the Copper Canyon his second home. The Spanish-speaking nurses at work had a good laugh. “Dear Horse”: It was somehow quintessentially gringo, an eager American tourist writing to an American operating under the guise of a Mexican horse.

Caballo Blanco’s website offered a simple service: knowledge of the canyon, its trails and its people. No bells or whistles, no champagne service at sundown, no hired hands on horses to pack in gear and set up camp. The exchange of emails seemed more interview than negotiation. Was I ready for his raw, scrappy, robust canyon experience? Would we be a good team?

The running addict in me salivated as I read his itinerary. We would travel lightly and quickly, running and hiking through the canyon. The runs would explore the trails around the villages; the hikes would take us south, from Urique to Batopilas, up, down and along the canyon rim.

Two months later, I took a bus south from El Paso, through the jittery streets of Juarez to the lonely, rugged interior of northwestern Mexico. Dressed in a thin old race t-shirt, shorts, running sandals and a scruffy golfer’s cap, Caballo greeted me at the bus stop with a broad, toothy grin and firm handshake. As we walked to my hotel, I noticed a billboard with several pictures of men in uniform underneath a banner with large red letters. “Local policemen shot and killed by the cartel, recently,” he said. He seemed unimpressed.

Thoughts of cartels and dead policemen faded the next day as we made our way through fields and forests to the rim of the canyon. Though deeper and larger than the Grand Canyon, the Copper Canyon is also older and less fabulous. Steep slopes of loose rock and scree settle into ravines under course blankets of grass, brush and small trees.

Hiking in the Canyon. Photo by Andrew Yim

Settling into a brisk pace, we began to talk about, of course, running. Caballo spoke about an indigenous tribe, the Tarahumara, whose ancient culture and rituals celebrated and enshrined long, punishing runs through the Copper Canyon. To Caballo’s dismay, race organizers from the United States had recruited Tarahumara runners for American ultramarathons, paying them poorly and providing subpar food and lodging. He saw the organizers as imperialists bent on exploiting the tribe. In response, he had organized an ultramarathon in the Copper Canyon; the entry fees from Americans and other international runners paid for thousands of pounds of corn, which were awarded to the top Tarahumara runners. Instead of being exported to American ultras, Caballo said, the Tarahumara would share their homes, culture and canyon with well-intentioned visitors.

Another favorite topic was Geronimo, which I knew only as an exclamation made on the release of inhibition. Caballo knew him as a historical figure, an Apache warrior who fought the Mexican and American governments as they tried to domesticate and control his nomadic people. Geronimo waged his insurgency out of the Copper Canyon and the Sierra Madres, and, like his hero, Caballo saw the canyon as his refuge from a world of greed, surveillance and oppression.

Several times, Caballo mentioned an American journalist who had recently visited the Copper Canyon to gather material for a book on the Tarahumara. Chris McDougall’s name came up several times as we swapped travel stories and philosophical musings, but, occupied with matching Caballo’s pace and navigating the tricky footing of the canyon’s switchbacks, I barely registered the significance. McDougall was just another character in Caballo’s vast trove of adventures.

We spent our second night under the vaulted ceilings of a tastefully decorated home owned by a professor at the University of Washington. Caballo was a part-time caretaker when its owner was up north, and popped in every week or two. We had dinner in the kitchen of one of Caballo’s “grandmas,” elderly women who provided rice, beans and meat for a few pesos, as various members of her extended family drifted through, stopping to chat with Caballo.

Rested and well fed, the next morning we ran across a footbridge over the river, to a village three miles upstream. As we ran by the school, children on recess began to yell, until Caballo kicked his legs up and down, whinnying like a horse. “Caballo!” they screamed, and then returned to playing as we jogged away from the schoolyard. In the afternoon, we hiked up the canyon wall to the small farm of a man who helped Caballo with trail repair before his ultramarathon each year. He had a worn, leathery face and wore a belt buckle with a cannabis leaf in relief. Throughout the evening, his 12-channel radio crackled with communication between farmers who were moving the cannabis harvest out of the canyon. Like Appalachian moonshiners, they played a cat-and-mouse game with the Federales.

The “Federales” on patrol. Photo by Andrew Yim

The next morning, as we hiked to the rim of the next canyon, Caballo confided that, according to his friend, a rogue member of a minor criminal family had set up camp not far from the trail. On more than one occasion, he had attacked hikers who were camping along the trail, Caballo claimed. Like any other bully, this man would cease his harassment only when confronted by a stronger force; Caballo had plans to urge the mayor and local police to take action.

I didn’t take the story seriously until what sounded like the report of a rifle shot echoed across the canyon rim. “We have to move quickly,” Caballo said, and our already brisk hike became a half-jog. I heard a second gunshot. A half-hour later, Caballo stopped. He said we were out of range with the calmness of someone guiding vacationers through whitewater rapids or some other mildly risky thrill.

We spent that night near the bottom of the canyon, in Batopilas, the town Caballo called home. A local hotel owner had lent him a modest tract of land on a ledge above the river. With the help of the locals, he had built a simple house with little more than a small stove and bed. He took his morning shower with a bucket of water. An orange tree in the front yard provided breakfast.

Tarahumara in the Copper Canyon. Photo by Andrew Yim

In spite of its idyllic landscape, the town had a nervous, prickly energy. On the main road just south of town limits, the military had set up station against drug runners. In the evening, young men cruised up and down the main drag in SUVs with American license plates, blasting ranchero music. Several months earlier, Caballo said as we strolled past the police station, tensions peaked during a shootout between the local police and the cartel, claiming several lives from each side. Afterward, the cartel and police reached an uneasy détente, finding a common enemy in the soldiers who patrolled the city limits. The peaceful, forgotten town that Caballo once knew had become ground zero for Mexico’s recently declared war on drugs.

Though Caballo mentioned them often, I hadn’t seen any Tarahumara until Batopilas. They came down from the villages, I learned, in the morning in small groups to buy supplies, visit medical clinics or tend to other important matters. Mothers came with children in hand or swaddled on their chests. The men wore baggy loincloths, as if ready to break into a run at a moment’s notice; some wore baseball caps.

The last evening of the trip, after a run up and down the canyon wall, we sat on the river’s edge and sipped Mexican beer. Before we went to bed, Caballo jogged to his house and came back with a gift. It was a t-shirt from the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, and had a picture of a white horse galloping up the canyon, above the inscription “Club Mas Loco.” I had earned the t-shirt, he said, and entry into his club of crazy runners.

Two years later, I received an email from a friend.

“Have you read the book?” he asked.

“What book?”

“The one about your running guide, in the canyon, there’s a book about him.”

A Google search brought a flood of sites for Born to Run, by Chris McDougall, which was making its way up the bestseller lists. The name triggered a memory of a rambling conversation in a canyon: Geronimo, the ultramarathon, predatory race directors, McDougall the journalist, Tarahumara. Caballo’s stories were entertaining, but, it seemed to me, the lines between truth and fiction, perception and reality, had been blurred by his many years exploring the canyon. In this case, though, the line was clear. McDougall the journalist really had visited the canyon and written a book about Caballo and the Tarahumara.

Photo by Andrew Yim

I wrote him an email to congratulate him on the book.  He responded with thanks, but also concern that his newfound fame might become a burden as government agents, with their audits and surveillance, took notice. The state has little patience for nomads who create their own borders. His hero, Geronimo, finally gave up the fight and spent the rest of his life in the reservation system he hated. Perhaps Caballo feared a similar fate.

I lost contact with him after that email but read on occasion of his new life. The Copper Canyon Ultra was booked to capacity. But he struggled with the consequences of his, and the Tarahumara’s, fame. He had become a symbol of a movement to simplify, a rejection of the industrial and embrace of the natural, and in celebrating simplicity his life had become complicated.

I learned of his death through, again, an email from a friend. Out on a run in the Gila Wilderness, he suffered a type of heart attack and so found his rest on the trail. His death reminded me of the melancholy I felt when I left the canyon by bus, headed back to Juarez and El Paso. He had lived with a spirit I recognized in myself, before the gradual accumulation of mundane responsibilities and obligations became as much burden as achievement.