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Chapter 6
“WHAT A CON JOB.”

Salvador and I set off the next morning, racing the sun to the rim of the canyon. Salvador set abrutal pace, often ignoring switchbacks and using his hands to scrabble straight up the cliff facelike a convict scaling a prison wall. I did my best to keep up, despite my growing certainty thatwe’d just been tricked.

The farther we left ángel’s village behind, the more the idea nagged that the weird White Horsestory was a last line of defense against outsiders who came nosing around in search of Tarahumarasecrets. Like all great cons, the story of a Lone Wanderer of the High Sierras teetered betweenperfect and implausible; the that there a modern-world disciple of the ancientTarahumaraartswasbetterthanIco(news) uldhavehopedf(was) or, which made it too good to believe. TheWhite Horse seemed more myth than man, making me think that ángel had gotten tired of myquestions, dreamed up a decoy, and pointed us toward the horizon knowing we’d be hundreds ofhard miles away before we wised up.

I wasn’t being paranoid; it wouldn’t be the first time tall tale had been used to blow a smokescreenaroundtheRunningPeople.CarlosCastaneda,a(a) uthor of the wildly popular Don Juanbooks of the ’60s, was almost unquestionably referring to the Tarahumara when he describedmagical Mexican shamans with astonishing wisdom and endurance. But in an apparent twinge ofcompassion, Castaneda deliberately misidentified the tribe as the Yaquis. Castaneda apparently feltthat, in the event that his books launched an invasion of peyote-hungry hippies, the badass Yaquiscould hold their own a lot better than the gentle Tarahumara.

But despite my suspicion that I’d just been Castanedaed, one odd incident helped spur me to stayon the hunt. ángel had let us spend the night in the only room he had free, a tiny mud-brick hutused as the school’s infirmary. The next morning, he kindly invited us to join him for a breakfastof beans and hand-patted corn tortillas before we set off. It was a frosty morning, and as we satoutside, warming our hands around the steaming bowls, a torrent of kids came swarming past usout of the schoolhouse. Rather than having the cold kids suffer in their seats, the teacher cut themloose to warm up Tarahumara-style—meaning I’d lucked into a chance to witness a rarájipari, theTarahumara running game.

ángel pulled himself to his feet and divided the kids into two teams, girls and boys together. Hethen produced two wooden balls, each about the size of a baseball, and flipped one to a player oneach team. He held up six fingers; they’d be running six laps from the schoolhouse to the river, atotal distance of about four miles. The two boys dropped the balls into the dust and arched one oftheir feet, so the ball was balanced on top of their toes. Slowly, they coiled themselves down into acrouch and ….Vayan! Go!

The balls whistled past us, flip-kicked off the boys’ feet like they’d been fired out of a bazooka,and the kids went stampeding after them down the trail. The teams looked pretty evenly matched,but my pesos were on the gang led by Marcelino, a twelve-year-old who looked like the HumanTorch; his bright red shirt flowed behind him like flames and his white skirt whipped his legs likea trail of smoke. The Torch caught up with his team’s ball while it was still rolling. He wedged itexpertly against the front of his toes and zinged it down the trail with barely a hitch in his stride.

Marcelino’s running amazing, it hard to take it all in at once. His feet were jitterbugginglikecrazyb(was) etw(so) eentherocks,but(was) everything above his legs was tranquil, almostimmobile. Seeing him from the waist up, you’d think he was gliding along on skates. With his chinhigh and his black hair streaming off his forehead, he looked as if he’d burst straight out of theSteve Prefontaine poster on the bedroom wall of every high school track star in America. I felt as ifI’d discovered the Future of American Running, living five hundred years in the past. A kid thattalented and handsome was born to have his face on a cereal box.

“Sí, de acuerdo,” ángel said. Yes, I hear you. “It’s in his blood. His father is a great champion.”

Marcelino’s father, Manuel Luna, could beat just about anyone at an all-night rarájipari, thegrown-ups’ version of the game I was watching. The real rarájipari was the heart and soul ofTarahumara culture, ángel explained; everything that made the Tarahumara unique was on displayduring the heat of a rarájipari.

First, two villages would get together and spend the night making bets and pounding tesgüino, ahomemade corn beer that could blister paint. Come sunup, the villages’ two teams would face off,with somewhere between three and eight runners on each side. The runners would race back andforth over a long strip of trail, advancing their ball like soccer players on a fast break. The racecould go on for twenty-four hours, even forty-eight, whatever had been agreed to the night before,but the runners could never zone out or relax into an easy rhythm; with the ball ricocheting aroundand up to thirty-two fast-moving legs on all sides, the runners had to be constantly on their toes asthey surged, veered, and zigzagged.

“We say the rarájipari is the game of life,” ángel said. “You never know how hard it will be. Younever know when it will end. You can’t control it. You can only adjust.”

And, he added, no one gets through it on their own. Even a superstar like Manuel Luna couldn’twin without a village behind him. Friends and family fueled the racers with cups of pinole. Comenightfall, the villagers spark up sticks of acate, sap-rich pine branches, and the runners racethrough the dark by torchlight. To endure a challenge like that, you had to possess all theTarahumara virtues— strength, patience, cooperation, dedication, and persistence. Most of all, youhad to love to run.

“That one’s going to be as good as his father,” ángel said, nodding toward Marcelino. “If I lethim, he’d go like that all day.”

Once Marcelino reached the river, he wheeled around and drilled the ball to a little six-year-oldwho’d lost one sandal and was struggling with his belt. For a few glorious moments, Little One-Shoe was leading his team and loving it, hopping on one bare foot while grappling to keep his skirtfrom falling off. That’s when I began to glimpse the real genius of the rarájipari. Because of gnarlytrails and back-and-forth laps, the game is endlessly and instantly self-handicapping; the ballricocheted around as if it were coming off a pinball paddle, allowing the slower kids to catch upwhenever Marcelino had to root it out of a crevice. The playing field levels the playing field, soeveryone is challenged and no one is left out.

The boys and girls were all hurtling up and down the hilly trail, but no one really seemed to carewho won; there was no arguing, no showboating, and, most noticeably, no coaching. ángel and theschoolteacher were watching happily and with intense interest, but not yelling advice. Theyweren’t even cheering. The kids accelerated when they felt frisky, downshifted when they didn’t,and caught an occasional breather under a shady tree when they overdid it and started suckingwind.

But unlike most of the other players, Marcelino never seemed to slow. He was tireless, flowinguphill as lightly as he coasted down, his legs scissoring in a surprisingly short, mincing stride thatsomehow still looked smooth, not choppy. He was on the tall side for a Tarahumara boy, and hadthe same thrill-of-the-game grin that always used to creep across Michael Jordan’s face as theclock was ticking down. On his team’s final lap, Marcelino fired a bank shot off a big rock to theleft, calculated the ricochet, and was in position to receive his own pass, picking the ball up on thefly and covering fifty yards in a matter of seconds over a trail as rocky as a riverbed.

ángel banged on an iron bar with the back of a hatchet. Game over. The kids begin filing backinside the schoolhouse, the older ones carrying wood for the school’s open fireplace. Few returnedour greeting; many had only heard their first words of Spanish the day they started school.

Marcelino, however, stepped out of line and came over. ángel had told him what we were up to.

“Que vayan bien,” Marcelino said. Good luck with your trip. “Caballo Blanco es muy norawa demi papá.”

Norawa? I’d never heard the word before. “What’s he mean?” I asked Salvador. “Caballo is alegend his dad knows? Some kind of story he tells?”

“No,” Salvador said. “Norawa means amigo.”

“Caballo Blanco is good friends with your dad?” I asked.

“Sí.” Marcelino nodded, before disappearing inside the school-house. “He’s a really good guy.”

Okay, I thought later that afternoon. Maybe ángel would buffalo us, but I gotta trust the Torch.

ángel told us Caballo might be heading to the town of Creel, but we had to hurry: if we didn’tcatch him, there was no telling where he’d turn up next. The Horse would often vanish for monthsat a time; no one knew where he went or when he’d be back. Miss him, and we might not getanother chance.

And ángel sure hadn’t lied about one thing, as I was discovering by the surprising strength in mylegs: just before we began our long climb out of the canyon, he’d handed me a dented tin cup fullof something he promised would help.

“You’ll like this,” he assured me.

I peered inside. The cup was full of gooey slime that looked like rice pudding without the rice, lotsof black-flecked bubbles I was pretty sure were frog eggs in midhatch. If I were anywhere else, I’dthink it was a gag; it looked exactly like a kid had scooped the scum out of his aquarium to see ifhe could trick me into tasting it. Best guess, it was some kind of fermented root mixed with riverwater— meaning if the taste didn’t make me hurl, the bacteria would.

“Great,” I said, looking around for a cactus I could dump it behind. “What is it?”

“Iskiate.”

That sounded familiar … and then I remembered. The indomitable Lumholtz had once staggeredinto a Tarahumara home looking for food while he was in the middle of a grueling expedition.

Looming ahead was a mountain he had to summit by nightfall. Lumholtz was exhausted anddespairing; there was no way he had the strength left for the climb.

“I arrived late one afternoon at a cave where a woman was just making this drink,” Lumholtz laterwrote. “I was very tired and at a loss how to climb the mountain-side to my camp, some twothousand feet above. But after having satisfied my hunger and thirst with some iskiate,” he wenton, “I at once felt new strength, and, to my own astonishment, climbed the great height withoutmuch effort. After this I always found iskiate a friend in need, so strengthening and refreshing thatI may almost claim it as a discovery.”

Home-brewed Red Bull! Now this I had to try. “I’ll save it for later,” I told ángel. I poured theiskiate into a hip bottle that was half full of water I’d purified with iodine pills, then tossed in acouple of extra pills for good measure. I was dog tired, but unlike Lumholtz, I wasn’t desperateenough to risk a yearlong bout of chronic diarrhea from waterborne bacteria.

Months later, I’d learn that iskiate is otherwise known as chia fresca—“chilly chia.” It’s brewed upby dissolving chia seeds in water with a little sugar and a squirt of lime. In terms of nutritionalcontent, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growthhormone. As tiny as those seeds are, they’re superpacked with omega-3S, omega-6S, protein,calcium, iron, zinc, fiber, and antioxidants. If you had to pick just one desert-island food, youcouldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, loweringcholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet, you couldprobably swim home. Chia was once so treasured, the Aztecs used to deliver it to their king inhomage. Aztec runners used to chomp chia seeds as they went into battle, and the Hopis fueledthemselves on chia during their epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean. The Mexican state ofChiapas is actually named after the seed; it used to rank right up there with corn and beans as acash crop. Despite its liquid-gold status, chia is ridiculously easy to grow; if you own a Chia Pet, infact, you’re only a few steps away from your own batch of devil drink.

And a damn tasty devil drink at that, as I discovered once the iodine had melted enough to risk afew swigs. Even with the medicinal after-bite from the pills, the iskiate went down like fruit punchwith a nice limey tang. Maybe the excitement of the hunt had something to do with it, but withinminutes, I felt fantastic. Even the low-throbbing headache I’d had all morning from sleeping on afrosty dirt floor the night before had vanished.

Salvador kept pushing us hard, racing daylight to the canyon rim. We almost made it, too. Butwhen we had a good two hours’ worth of climbing still ahead, the sun vanished, plunging thecanyon into darkness so deep that all I could make out were varying shades of black. We debatedrolling out our sleeping bags and camping right there for the night, but we’d run out of food andwater over an hour earlier and the temperature was dropping below freezing. If we could just feelour way up another mile, we might catch enough light above the rim to make it out. We decided togo for it; I hated the idea of shivering all night on a sliver of trail on the edge of a cliff.

It was so dark, I could only follow Salvador by the crunch of his boots. How he was finding theturns on those steep switchbacks without straying over the edge, I didn’t really want to know. Buthe’d proven me wrong with his psychic navigation when he was driving us through the woods, so Iowed it to him to shut up, pay careful attention to his every move, and … and …Wait. What happened to the crunching?

“Salvador?”

Nothing. Shit.

“Salvador!”

“.No pases por aquí!” he called from somewhere ahead of me. Don’t go this way!

“What’s the prob—”

“Calla.” Shut up.

I callaed and stood in the dark, wondering what the hell was wrong. Minutes passed. Not a soundfrom Salvador. “He’ll be back,” I told myself. “He would have screamed if he had fallen. You’dhave heard something. A crash. Something. But damn, he’s taking a long—”

“Bueno.” A shout came from somewhere above me and off to the right. “Good here. But go slow!”

I twisted toward the sound of his voice and slowly inched along. To my left, I felt the ground dropabruptly away. How close Salvador had come to stepping into empty air, I didn’t want to know.

By ten that night, we’d made it to the rim of the cliff and crawled into our bags, chilled to the boneand just as weary. The next morning, we were up before the sun and fast-hiking back to the truck.

By the time dawn broke, we were already well on the bouncing, meandering, word-of-mouth trailof the White Horse.

Every time we came to a farm or tiny village, we hit the brakes and asked if anyone knew CaballoBlanco. Everywhere—in the village of Samachique, at the schoolhouse in Huisichi—we heard thesame thing: Sí, of course! He passed through last week … a few days ago … yesterday…. You justmissed him….

We came to a little cluster of ramshackle cabins and stopped for food. “Ahhh, ten cuidado conese,” the old woman behind the counter of a roadside stand said as she passed me a dust-coveredbag of chips and a warm Coke with her thin, trembly hands. “Be careful with that one. I heardabout that Caballo. He was a fighter who went loco. A man died, and he went loco. He can kill youwith his hands. And,” she added, in case I’d forgotten, “he’s loco.”

The last place he’d been spotted was the old mining town of Creel, where a woman in a taco standtold us she’d seen him that very morning, walking the train tracks toward the edge of town. Wefollowed the tracks to the end of the line, asking all the way, until we reached the final building:

the Casa Pérez hotel. Where, I was both thrilled and nervous to hear, he was supposed to be at thatmoment.

Maybe it was a good thing I fell asleep on the corner sofa. That way, at least, I was hidden in theshadows and managed to get a good look at the lone wanderer—before he saw me, and bolted rightback into the wild.


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