A stumble may prevent a fall – Thomas Fuller
My rescue attempt ended badly. The winter sun shone weakly. A chill wind bit my exposed arms. I was wedged between two grey-white boulders limbs akimbo, my butt in a freezing stream, one leg thrust to the sky like a flagpole, the other askew under me, surrounded by pieces of Nikon’s best littering the landscape. How did I get here? Read on.
Creel changed much from last time I’d visited in 1995. My first visit was in 1989 and I think there were three lodges (including what was now the Best Western), a hostel and a couple of humble restaurants.
Creel RV Park
Bernie and I came to Creel a couple of days before my fall at the falls. There are dozens of hotels and hostels in Creel in all price ranges. The Villa Mexicana Creel Mountain Lodge has cabins and a big field that used to be a KOA campground. They still allow RV dry camping (http://www.vmcoppercanyon.com/indexingles.html).
We stayed at the Best Western, The Lodge at Creel (http://www.thelodgeatcreel.com/english/). Although the manager didn’t know the infamous “Mexico” Mike, he did think my spiel was entertaining, so he gave us a substantial discount on our rooms.
As it turned out, we could not have made a better choice for my recovery. They have a hot tub, sauna and masseuse on premises – which makes it great for a fallen writer. (Would a female write be a “fallen woman”? Why is there no equivalent for men? Perhaps we are baser and lower to begin with?)
The Internet at The Lodge was remarkably good, the cabins were cozy and warm with gas heat. There was a bathtub – a rarity in a Mexican hotel. Even though the cabins (like most every structure in Creel) were built of wood, they were spaced so that you did not hear your neighbors. The rooms are blessedly quiet. Their restaurant was reasonably-priced and the food was quite good. We ate most of our meals there – again a plus for someone who could not walk without a bastón (cane) and a lot of willpower. Bastón was one of those words I tried for years to learn. Having to use one (in my case a photographic monopod worked fine) made me more aware. My absent-mindedness (which predated my knocking my head about on Copper Canyon rocks) reinforced my learning of the word.
Señor, you forgot your bastón, people frequently reminded me, no doubt worrying about the decrepit old man who couldn’t even hold onto his cane. Ah, aging, what joy.
Oh How The Mighty Have Fallen
My last visit before this one was in 1995 when I was accompanied by Alan R. Myerson, a New York Times reporter who was writing a feature story about me (http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/05/garden/all-the-roads-are-straight-in-mexico.html). Ironically, Mr. Myerson fell to his death in 2002 from the 15th floor of the Times. I liked him. He was a good man.
Those were heady days! I was surfing atop of a wave of fame. I was frequently interviewed as an “expert” on Mexico by media outlets from around the world. This was brought on by my writing. It probably wasn’t that my writing was all the notable for its style or literary nuance. It was remarkable for what it was about. Had a monkey been able to bang out my missives, he would have been famous too.
I wrote the mile-by-mile Sanborn’s Travelogs. With remarkable detail, these travel guides escorted drivers over the then mysterious highways of Mexico, offering a feeling of familiarity and safety to skittish foreigners. These loose-leaf volumes chronicled the location of every tope, ejido, gas station (and cleanliness of the bathrooms) and side trip you could imagine. The whole package, like an authentic taco from a street vendor, was wrapped in corny humor and educational tidbits designed to make Mexico seem less foreign and to foster an appreciation for the country.
The Travelogs are no more. After I left, Sanborn’s abandoned them. I maintain the tradition on my own limited budget. It’s a stretch to say I make a living at it. My Social Security check is more dependable. Sanborn’s paid about $500,000 a year in 1990 dollars (including a $60,000 salary and an unlimited expense account for me) to research, print and maintain those missives. I continue the tradition, though on a much smaller scale – about one-twentieth of their budget.
Today my “expense account” depends on how many personalized road trips I’ve helped people plan and how many roadlogs I’ve sold in the previous six months. Whether or not I go anywhere at all depends on the state of my eleven year-old Ford Escape. The Ford’s not bouncing back from the rocky trails I send it down any faster than I am.
Back At The Falls – The Adventure Continues
Rahui (our guide) leaped ahead of me like a mountain goat. He jumped over the rivulets of white water snaking between one jagged grey-white boulder to another. Even mountain goats and Tarahumara can misjudge a leap. He insisted on carrying something for me, so I let him carry my tripod. That turned out to be fortuitous, since he used it to slow his first fall. It may have saved his life.
Almost to his destination, a round almost pure white boulder smack in front of the waterfall, he slipped. He thrust the tripod forward to stop his momentum. It was too late. He fell hard on his back. Then like in a cartoon, he very slowly slid down into a crevice between two huge boulders. He did not move. For a long time, he did not move. I quit photographing and headed over to help him. He got up, shook himself and took off again. He didn’t get far. He fell once more. I hurried. This time he got up more slowly, but after less time.
Good rescuers know they should take care of themselves first. I was a crappy rescuer. I had one foot on a rock and another in the stream and I moved too fast to my next step. I missed. I fell hard too, in slow motion. My camera was on a chest harness in front of me, so I lifted it up to try to protect the lens from the rocks. Obviously, I didn’t think about me. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of my spare time wrecking motorcycles. I always worried about the bike first. I figured I could be patched up easier than the scooter. I have not gotten much smarter in the ensuing years. Patching me up has gotten harder too.
My Nikon D600 and 28-300 lens hit the rocks before me and didn’t fare well. My photo GPS went flying off into the wild blue yonder, never to be seen again. While I did bounce my skull a couple of times, my main concern was my hip. I knew I wasn’t going to hippity hop like a bunny out of that canyon. My leg and hip hurt like nothing I’d felt since my motorcycle-crashing days. Sharp pains. Were they broken? I winced just thinking about finding out. I thought it might just be easier to lie here and die than to try to stand. Still, I got the photos I had been trying for just before my faulty heroics, so everything was not all bad. I figured they’d look nice at my funeral. I think I hit my melodrama bone.
Life Lessons Are Everywhere
A young Japanese man rushed over to help me up. Other young people were on the way to help. I used to be one of those who decried the presence of “tourists” (though I am cognizant of the incongruity of that statement) at unspoiled places. I don’t anymore. In times of need, it’s nice to know that others are there to help us. It is also nice to know that others WANT to help strangers. I believe in the essential goodness of people and (perhaps because I have that mindset), am frequently shown how true that is.
The young man helped me up. I used my monopod (yes I carry both a tripod and a monopod) to stand up. It was useless as photo gear now, but a great bastón or cane. Surpassingly, I could put weight on my right leg. The pain wasn’t any greater than when I was lying in the water thinking about standing up. Perhaps there is another life lesson there. The reality is often not as bad as the imagining. It’s better to face things than to imagine how we will get the courage to face them. Courage comes from doing, not from thinking about.
I thanked the young fellow, waved the others away and looked over at Rahui. He didn’t need rescuing. In fact, he was contentedly sitting atop his prized boulder, contemplating the waterfall. I took a lesson from him and spent some time appreciating the majesty of the place where we were. That moment was all there was. I could have hurt myself badly. Rahui could have been hurt badly. One or both of us could have died. I got some good photographs. The sun was out, though the day was cold. All in all, it was a wonderful day. I was thankful to be alive, able to walk and in such a tableau of God’s handiwork. Life was good.
Rahui, My Brother
On the way back up, Rahui tried to help me, since I was listing to starboard like a leaking ship. I knew he had to be hurting himself, so I wouldn’t let him. He started shivering. We were both wet, but he had only jeans and a tee-shirt. I gave him my jacket. I at least had a long-sleeve shirt under it.
He expressed his gratitude in a complex dance. He stood in front of me, lifted his left leg up, stood like a crane, pulled his arms together and sing-songed a chant in Raramuri. Then, he made a series of moves that reminded me of images I’d seen of Buddhist monks in India. He finished this ritual with a complicated handshake with himself and with me that was similar to an African-American dap. At the end of it, I think we were, if not brothers, at least first cousins. He then insisted he take my camera bag, since I was wobbling like a bobblehead doll. This time I let him. After all, what are brothers for?
Up top Bernie looked relieved. At the car, Rahui started to take off the jacket. I waved him off and told him it was a gift. He said something in his blended language that we were amigos for life. At least that is how I interpreted it. He could have said gringos sure are clumsy, instead but I prefer thinking the best. We took off for Rahui’s house. He went to sleep in the back. Bernie and I worried a bit that he might have passed out. If we couldn’t wake him when we got to his turn, we figured we’d head back to Creel and find a clinic. We didn’t know how to contact his wife. Fortunately, he came to or woke up just before the turnoff to his home. He seemed fine, so we dropped him off near his house. I paid him the equivalent of thirty dollars and a jacket. I was going to give him a blanket too, but decided to save it for another person in need. I always carry a giveaway blanket.
Consult With a Higher Power
When we got back to the Best Western, I thought I’d better get some expert medical advice, so I contacted my Higher Power. As any married man knows, that means I called my wife. She said if my hip or leg were broken, knowing me, I would be screaming in pain and probably sniveling to boot. She said something about baby and I don’t think it was expressed as, Oh baby, oh baby.
She said I would not be able to walk if anything was broken. She pronounced it a bad bruise. Surely there is a stronger word for the pain I suffered! Nope, she said, you’ve got a boo-boo. Women!
That evening, I got a massage. It was painful getting up on the massage table, but I hobbled and crawled up that mountain. I asked the masseuse to concentrate on my right leg and hip and skip the “standard” massage. She listened – a rarity among masseuses in my experience. Her ministrations helped. So did the hot tub. So did the sauna. I spent the next couple of days sleeping a lot, stretching gingerly, taking hot baths, hot tub soaks and saunas and massages. Oh yeah, thank God I had some pain pills too.
Plenty to be Grateful For
On the third day, I felt like walking to a downtown restaurant. A family consisting of a young father, wife and three daughters was sitting across from us. I struck up a conversation. Somehow the name “Mexico” Mike got bandied about.
The father perked up and said, I know you. I’ve followed you for years. I read your website all the time when I want to know something about Mexico. It’s an honor to meet you in person.
I may not be the go-to Mexico expert for the world’s media anymore and hoteliers may not universally recognize me and invite me to stay gratis, but I still have a few fans. And I am alive. And I am not crippled. I am grateful for all of the above.