Pulling into Creel from having just ridden the most awesome mountain roads of my life has me pumped. That my phone starts dinging in my ears makes the day even better. The dings mean T-Mobile has done it again — in the remote mountain village of Creel of all places. I’ll be able to contact my friends and family after a three-day hiatus in the blackout zone of Copper Canyon.
My first contact in Creel is with a Tarahumara boy begging pesos. I don’t have pesos. Food, I do have. He scampers away with a Cliff bar.
My next contact in Creel is an American couple. Their Arizona plates give them away, and I’m quick to say hello. Their story is an interesting one. They come and go from Creel six or more times a year to trade in Tarahumara goods. They mainly buy pine needle woven baskets, though the Tarahumara also sell carvings, masks, and belts. People in the States eat this stuff up, they say. And because visiting Mexico to buy these beautiful baskets is just something Americans can’t imagine right now, Jim and Katie do it for them. They travel back and forth, bringing coffee and other hard-to-get items into Creel and leaving with the goods they sell back home.
If you have it, Creel is a good town to spend your money in. And if you don’t have it, it’s a good place to spend the money you don’t have. Main Street is abustle with business. Shops left and right sell food, luxury goods, and of course the Tarahumara crafts. Every business advertises having fee Wi-Fi. Hotels abound. There’s even a Best Western. This is a mountain town of infrastructure. It even has a water treatment facility on the south side and an up-and-coming airport in the hills. Roads connect Creel to the North, the East, and the West. The railroad between Los Mochis and Chihuahua city runs through Creel. By every measure, this city is ripe for tourism.
The food here is already priced to match that hope. Though my hostel accommodations are the cheapest yet at 100 pesos per night, a simple breakfast with coffee costs nearly as much. Other things are still cheap. Bicycle, ATV, and scooter rentals cost about 200 pesos per day. A hiking tour or bus ride into the nearby canyons are about that price, too.
It seems the economically poorest of people here are the indigenous Tarahumara Indians and a sort of Tarahumara-Mexican assimilate. They either labor at construction sites, or their children beg pesos and sell woven baskets in the streets. The indigenous men who still live in the surrounding hills come to town carrying maiz for trade. They can be seen wearing sandals and beautiful white tunics. The Tarahumara presence here is very much a part of Creel. Several murals I encounter on a walk around town speak to this.
The rich people of Creel are the business people. They drive modern trucks and cars, wear Puma everything, and speak excellent English. They use smartphones, and I overhear them speak of Facebook from time to time.
Creel has all the good things that I didn’t see in Guachochic. Both are mountain towns and both process timber, but only Creel has the tourism. The most noticeable difference is that not every building in Creel is surrounded by a tall fence. Not every window and door is barricaded. Nice, expensive things can sit about unattended day and night and not grow legs.
The people of Creel are obviously pleasant. They smile and look me in the eye with welcome as we pass. Even the hounds are friendly. Likely a testament to Mexican culture, the dogs are incredibly well behaved for all being untied, un-collared, and unrestricted from movement.
If the weather was better, I would ride or hike the nearby trails. Just a bit south of Creel is a waterfall — the Cusare Cascadas. Then there’s the lake I would love to swim, the canyon rim I hear is good for a visit, and so much more. But the weather isn’t good today. Rain and cold are keeping me in town. The wind rips right through my tropical blood. And to be honest, I enjoy the Internet access for catching up on the world and sharing my travels.
I do get a chance the next day to meet some fellow American adventure riders. Nick and Allan from Missouri are in town to ride the (even more) dangerous and remote roads of Copper Canyon. They have the advantage of lighter bikes (800cc and 650cc) and get to keep their heavy gear in the hotel. Their ride to Urique and then on to Batopilas will cover trails meant only for four-wheel-drive. Good for them! I’m happy the roads are diverse enough in these beautiful canyons to suit all riding styles. Heck, a street bike could ride everywhere I’ve ridden except to Batopilas.
By afternoon, I find myself sitting in the plaza and soaking in as much sun as the sporadic clouds allow. It’s cold, and then it’s hot. The wind blows, and then it stops. Every now and then, rain spits for a few minutes! I’m not pleased with the weather at all. My new friends Jim and Katie find me on the bench and invite me up to their cabin for hot coffee. We burn through the rest of the afternoon and evening talking our mouths off. We talk world travel and economics. We cover concepts of religion, parenting, and philosophy. These are smart folks, and I’m thrilled to not only talk in English but to talk intellectually.
Our conversation eventually covers their own Mexico story. As I said, they retail and wholesale indigenous arts and crafts. But what I didn’t say before is that most of the money they earn from selling these things back in the United States returns to this very community in the form of support for three young girls. They’ve sort of adopted a Tarahumara family. In exchange for buying the family’s arts and crafts and putting a roof over their head and food in their bellies, the girls attend school. Jim and Katie also emotionally support the girls. This is obvious when the girls come in from school and immediately lurch for hugs.
This mission of theirs hasn’t been easy. It’s taken Jim and Katie half a year to establish rules for their support. They explain, theirs isn’t charity meant to pull you up without effort of your own. It’s a stepping stone or a rope ladder of sorts. You must show an effort to climb it. Finding a workable way to support the family without being taken advantage of has been a hard lesson to learn.
This is the same conundrum world governments have yet to solve for their own social welfare programs. How do you make charity a pathway to prosperity? How do you give help that results in someone becoming self-sustaining and possibly even successful enough to be able and willing to help others?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and Jim and Katie are scratching their heads too. They may have stumbled upon a possible solution for their own mission. Now instead of paying the family directly for the arts and crafts, that money goes to local businesses to become credit for such things as fresh food and heating fuel. They’ve also established a network of eyes and ears in the community. When the girls don’t look like they’re getting what they need, Jim and Katie find out and intervene.
I ask about the living expenses for the area. Renting a two-bedroom, one-bath cabin is a cheap way to live here for $300 a month. That includes privacy, furnishings, gated parking, onsite laundry, heat, electricity, and water. More meager accommodations are available for much, much less. Scrap the parking, laundry, and furnishings, the price goes south of $150 per month.
Their generosity isn’t costing a giant sum of money. It does however consume a canyon’s worth of time and work — the kind of effort that is thankless by most measures. These are three girls among hundreds. Creel is one city among thousands the world over where children need an intervening hand in their lives. Jim and Katie aren’t wealthy. They offer the little money and time they have out of a sense of personal responsibility to fellow humans.
I’m genuinely touched by what they do. If you’d like to learn more about the Tarahumara, hit up Jim and Katie on Facebook.