In 1966 I backpacked to Basaseachic, the lovely, little-known 1,000-foot waterfall in Mexico's Sierra Madre, west of Chihuahua, and almost died there. It was clean and primitive then. Now off-road vehicles have brought visitors, and some of them have hacked it up with dirty campsites and cut trees.
A small creek makes the waterfall. It falls the full 1,000 feet through the air—not really a bridal veil, more of a long white ribbon, a wonder of nature, charming rather than stupendous.
My fellow hiker was a friend named Newton Sikes, then and now a ranger in the National Park Service, backpacking in Mexico to get away from his office. A logging truck brought us to the general area of the fall. We didn't know where it was exactly, and accepted vague, conflicting directions from dirt farmers, housewives and boys walking home from school.
But we did find it, after plodding pleasantly for a day or two through fine April weather. Beyond a village called Tónachic there were no more roads, just trails. They linked little mountain farms whose pale gray dirt was being plowed by yokes of oxen. Where two trails crossed we found a general store in a hut with an inventory worth perhaps $12: cigarettes, soda pop, matches, aspirin, thread. The store's owner was a woman, bearing up under a bad headache.
How far, we asked her, was the village of Basaseachic? "If you're walking tired," she said, "you'll get there after dark." We were uncertain, not tired. Her directions were confusing, like everyone else's. So before sundown, we made camp.
A fine spot: a pine grove beside a pretty stream. We put thick mats of pine straw under the canvas floors of our tents, and piled more against the sloping sides for insulation. April nights are cold in the Mexican mountains. Water, boiled in our cooking pots after supper, was usually iced over by sunrise, sometimes an inch thick. But it was worth thawing for our canteens because we liked the wood-smoke flavor better than the municipal-swimming-pool taste of water purified with Halazone.
The stream we camped beside that night turned out to be the one that made the waterfall. We followed it the next day, crossing it on rocks, wading it when we had to, wondering if we were in the wrong valley altogether. Then, about 4 p.m., we realized that all the imprecise directions had somehow canceled each other out and brought us to Basaseachic.
You come to it from upstream, so your first awareness is not of the waterfall but of the gorge beyond, into which it pours. The canyon floor you walk on is clean rock, with the stream moving briskly in a trough it has cut down the middle. At the brink, the water goes silently over the edge, turns white, changes to slow motion and falls as delicately as the efflorescence of fireworks through the air.
We camped that night on the bare rock, some 30 feet back from the edge. It was an uncomfortable, vainglorious choice of a campsite, but we wanted to say we had done it. The wind spun around in the chasm below, at times blowing some of the waterfall back over the rim and onto our tents. It sounded like a series of little hard rainstorms, each lasting about five seconds.
The next day was sunny as usual. Spring in the Sierra looks like autumn because it is the dry season. Things don't turn green or wild flowers bloom till midsummer, when it rains.
Climbing alone above the waterfall to take some pictures, crossing a jumble of rocks, I stepped onto one the size of a bathtub. It dropped silently from beneath my feet. With no instructions from me, my arms embraced an adjoining rock as my body fell past it. I hung there, legs waving like feelers in search of a toehold (which after a while I found) while from below came the sound of the big rock smashing trees and bushes and other rocks as it went on down and down.
This event gave me the biggest charge of adrenaline my bloodstream has ever carried. Shaking, I crawled to a place that seemed safe. But was it? That gray boulder had looked like the Rock of Ages. The Sierra Madre, or anyway a lot of it, is tuff, defined in Geology Made Simple as "rock formed from the lithification of volcanic ash." Tuff erodes faster than most other rock, which explains the narrow slashed canyons of western Chihuahua, some of them a mile deep.
Even so, tuff is solid and heavy and you can drive tent pegs with a piece of it. It must have required a few hundred thousand years for that boulder to erode to the point where my weight made the critical difference. Perhaps I can claim to have been almost killed by the passage of geological time.
It took half an hour for my panic to clear. I sat and waited, proud of my resourceful body, which had done the whole lifesaving procedure by itself—hugged the rock, found the toehold, climbed up the short, difficult distance to safety. I was just its terrified passenger.
Newt, enduring his only day of illness on the trip, had stayed in camp and had moved our tents to a good place about a hundred yards upstream from the waterfall. With plenty of leisure for such things, he had made a camp of oldtime Army neatness—the two tents exactly parallel on a bed of sand, a big supply of firewood sorted and stacked. He had equipped each tent with a kind of wooden doormat made of old shingles found in the stream bed, washed down from some sawmill by last year's floods. They were for standing on while, we undressed and for leaving our boots on during the night. Our one-man tents were comfortable, but too small for any activity other than breathing.
Newt was the experienced outdoors-man. I learned from him. He had started camping in the pine forests and around the sawmills of Georgia at the age of 10; the forests of the Sierra Madre were in some ways a homecoming for him. Pine needles, he said, are called pine straw. Fried salt pork is known as sawmill chicken in some parts of Georgia. When more firelight is needed for a chore, a fat pine knot is the answer. From three or four well-selected rocks. Newt could build a little cook stove that supported perfectly our soup pot and our bean pot. He built a stove at the end of each day while I put up the tents. We left a string of cook stoves in western Chihuahua, some of them in such remote places that they are probably undisturbed even now. (It is a strangely moving moment when an outdoorsman returns and finds the rock fireplace he made and cooked on years before. It has happened to me, and I have seen it happen to another hiker.)
A blue-eyed Mexican farm boy of 13, who had been fishing below the waterfall, sold us seven little trout for two pesos. Probably his great-grandfather was one of the German or English mining engineers who added blue eyes to the local gene pool in the 1890s. The boy was a passionate fisherman with rudimentary equipment—a stick, a string and a barbless homemade hook. We gave him four brand-new fish hooks, mean-looking and shiny. They made him wildly happy.
Lacking fat, we wrapped the trout in foil, buried them in earth and built a fire on top. We hadn't cooked anything that way before, and expected a bit of a mess, but the fish turned out to be excellent—delicious after days of jerky, precooked beans and dry soup mixes. Backpacking in the mountains for weeks at a stretch, you sacrifice variety and go for basic commodities in bulk—half-gallon plastic bags of powdered eggs, Bircher Muesli, shelled pecans. Our custom-made jerky developed a patina, gray-green like that on the copper spires of Copenhagen. We scrubbed it off with our toothbrushes and stream water, wondering if we were wrong to do so. It may have been penicillin.
The trail into the lower canyon is rough but not dangerous. Some prankish boy had hung a dead snake from a limb that overhung a switchback. If you were looking the wrong way, it would brush your face just after you made the turn. About halfway down, the trail comes to a scenic overlook, placed by nature about where a Swiss hotel owner would put it. Looking up, we could see the top of the waterfall. Looking down, we saw the green pool into which it plunged. It fell past us quite silently, some 60 feet away, and the wind blew a little spray into our faces.
We had packed up and brought everything down, planning to spend the night in the gorge, but the place was inhospitable. There was no level ground to sleep on, the plunge pool was cold under its eternal rain and the stream bed below it so filled with boulders—rocks the size of elephants, PT boats, bungalows—that the water could only rarely be seen. It was all too easy to remember that these big rocks hadn't been formed in place by erosion but had fallen into the stream from on high. And easy to fear that another one, big enough to cover us in our tents as a man's boot covers a June bug, might come loose while we slept.
The waterfall itself, pure and graceful from above, when seen from down there against its stained brown cliff suggested a factory sewer draining into a canal. We climbed back out to the smooth rock and clean sand above, and put our tents back where they had been that morning.
In unfamiliar country you come upon the best campsites about 10 a.m. When you do find a good one at quitting time, you linger the next day and enjoy it. This was a good one, so we loafed a little on our second morning, drinking extra cups of coffee and doubling our breakfast ration of powdered eggs. The pale mountain sunlight stenciled our undershirts on our backs in half an hour. We mended things, washed socks, bathed in the stream.
The kids who climbed in and out of the canyon with fishing poles and cans of hellgrammites said they came from the village of Basaseachic, which was allà—over yonder. Yes, they said, we could get a meal there, at Do√±a Trini's. Over yonder was an hour's walk, the village perhaps 20 houses strung out over miles in a high, dry valley. There were no signboards of any kind in the remote mountain settlements. Commercial establishments were few, and all but a tiny fraction of their customers were local people who knew what and where they were. A 10-year-old boy agreed to lead us to Do√±a Trini's. On the trail we met a slightly bigger boy. We all halted. Newt and I waited while the boys, muttering rapidly, both heads bent over an open palm, worked out a trade of marbles. Then we resumed our walk.
In Do√±a Trini's 1895 kitchen we sat at an oilcloth-covered table while she built up the fire in her wood-burning range. She was a lively little woman of about 70, with long gray braids and an apron. Her kitchen was well scrubbed and it smelled good. It was midafternoon, but we were in the habit of eating whenever we found purchasable food. Do√±a Trini fried us three eggs apiece, served beans with goat cheese melted on top and made a pot of good Mexican coffee. All through the meal her teen-aged helper brought us hot tortillas while our young guide sat in a corner drinking a large room-temperature Pepsi-Cola.
"Would you like some peaches?" the old woman asked as she got down a quart of the pickled fruit from a shelf. "I put these up last year." We ate them all, with more coffee and with pan dulces, which are pastries about midway in sweetness between bread and cake.
"You have been to the waterfall," Do√±a Trini told us. The local people have their own tracking system for strangers. They always knew where we were and where we had been. "Come back in the time of the waters. It is larger then."
And so it is. Although we were never to see it that way, an aerial photomural in an office in the city of Chihuahua shows the waterfall in rainy season. It isn't a chaste white ribbon; it is, after a heavy rain, a muddy horror 70 yards wide, filling its canyon, taking drowned cows and uprooted trees and 1,000-pound rocks over the brink and down. Not many people ever see it like that, for the logging roads and the foot trails become impassable after the heavy rains and the mountain communities are cut off even from one another.
Recently, again in the dry season, I went back to Basaseachic to see if I could, with caution, crawl up to the gap left by the rock that dropped from under me in 1966 and peer down and see how far I might have fallen. I couldn't find it. Everything looked as if there had been no change in centuries. Except, alas, for the tracks made by off-road vehicles, and litter, and the words EL PASO CITY LIMIT sprayed on the canyon wall.