January 28, 2011 by wcobserver
As the popular hymn goes: “My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation; I hear the sweet tho’ far off hymn that hails a new creation.” The refrain continues, “How can I keep from singing?”
Last Friday, two friends and I took off in a small blue and white four-seater Cessna from the dusty Sierra Madre town of Guohochi, Mexico. We soared out across the sheer precipices of the Copper Canyon marveling at the morning sun lighting up sheer rock gorges deeper than the Grand Canyon. Landing on the dirt runway in the tiny hamlet of Huisuchi, the pilot told us that he would pick us up the next morning at 7:30 to return to Guohochi.
Huisuchi, a mountain top community of some thirty Tarahumara Indian families naturally had no overnight accommodations, so after spending the day exploring the place, that night I, myself, borrowed a small mattress, some heavy wool blankets, two candles, unlocked the local church, and went in to sleep on the concrete floor. I dozed off listening to a few Tarahumara hooting loudly in the distance as they drank their “tesquino” (homemade corn beer) into the night.
After an uneventful night, interrupted only by the to-be-expected occasional spider or unknown night creature crawling across my face, I lay rolled up in my blankets in the cold grey morning, studied the crucifix hanging on the front wall of the church, and listened to the wind buffeting the roof of the church. I remembered what my friend Mark had said the previous day, “It’s a great day for flying: no wind.”
I picked up my blankets and left the church, breathing heavily. It occurred to me: “I really need to get back to the gym if I can’t drag around a bunch of wool blankets around without huffing and puffing.” Then, I recalled that I was at an altitude of over ten thousand feet.
“It’s 7:30. Where’s the plane?”
“He said he would be here sometime between 7:30 and 8:00.”
It was eight o’clock and still no plane. Some of the local men had joined us, sitting in the morning sun, waiting for the plane. We would stand and greet them, gently shaking their hands, “Quirra” and “Churi-ah-gah-tee”: “Hello, How are you” in Tarahumara (or as they would say, the Raramari language.) We would all sit down, stare pensively at the ground and mutter small talk with each other as we listened carefully for the sounds of an approaching plane.
In the distance, we saw approaching us, the local drug boss. A dark fat man with a scarred face and greasy unkempt hair, he carefully studied me and asked Mark about me. After a brief explanation from Mark, I went over to him, “Quirra, Churi-ah-gah-tee.” He courteously shook my hand, turned, and hawked up an impressive glob of phlegm and spat on the ground. Apparently assured of my harmlessness, he then went over to some locals and joined them in talking and joking.
Another hour went by; no plane. Another hour went by; still no plane. The drug boss came back and he and Mark talked about his wife and two kids, kidding about how fast his children were growing up and how he was an old man—he was forty.
Finally, after three hours, we heard a distant plane. We grabbed our bags and ran over to the dirt runway to where the plane was landing. After waiting for the drug boss to unload some boxes about which we carefully displayed no interest, we ran over to the plane.
Mark complained on the lateness of the plane, but the pilot just urged us, “Let’s go!” Throwing our bags into the back, we clambered into the plane and took off. Roaring down the dirt track and out over a cliff, we began to realize why he was running late: the wind buffeted the small plane around as a play toy in an unseen giant’s hand.
Now, I have flown quite a bit, but this was only a distant cousin to actual flight. The pilot chewed gum, but with each blast of wind, his jaws would work more furiously. What had been a day earlier a tourist’s dream was rapidly turning into a nightmare. The wings wagged back and forth as we rolled from side to side; then there was the sickening drop of the plane out from under you. Bucking up and down was one thing but I was almost sure the plane was not supposed to be going sideways. I gripped the bottom of my seat with one hand and dug my fingers into the nearby window frame with my other. I looked over at Mark who was hanging onto the two front seats, one in each hand, with his eyes closed.
The pilot then began to curse—never a good sign, I thought. I looked over and saw mountaintops pass by me so close that I could hit them with a tossed rock. Less marveling at the orange cliffs carved out as by a gigantic ice cream scoop and more interested in what lay ahead, we all strained forward, looking through the windshield, hoping for a glimpse of level ground.
Finally, after about 40 minutes of being thrown around from side to side, bellies almost sore from being cut by seatbelts, we could see flat ground ahead, but then we saw the Guochochi airstrip—perched at the top of a sheer cliff that we were apparently making a beeline for. Still sweating, chewing his gum furiously, and mutter a string of Spanish obscenities, the pilot gave a heroic effort, pulled up the nose of the plane, momentarily steadied the wings and began to lower the plane to the runway.
Tumbling out of the plane, laughing at each other, we grabbed our luggage as the pilot studied the wind bending over the tops of trees lining the runway and mused, “I am not going out again, today.”
“Through all the tumult and the strife; I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—how can I keep from singing?”
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