Chihuahua City to Home - January 3, 1986
The run from Chihuahua to Ciudad Juarez left at about 6 in the morning, from the other station of course, and we were on board. We'd played the timing of the trip as close as we dared as we had a plane to catch out of El Paso that afternoon. The run up to Juarez took about 4 hours and again went through the gritty town of Cuahatemoc about halfway along its course. The smell of burning tires was back but even that quickly faded behind us as the train made a steady sixty miles per hour northbound. No vestibule today, we just sat in decent coach seats and took in the warmth of the car as compared to the January cold of the desert outside.
The train pulled into Juarez station and in a few minutes we had passed through the waiting room with its essence of locker room after the big game smell and out in the street making our way the ten blocks to the bridge back into the US. We knew the way this time and I'd say we were a bit salty after our adventure. No directions for these guys, we were experienced Mexico travelers and knew what we were doing for sure. We crossed the hump of the bridge and took our place in the end of the line, behind 75 shorter, darker folks, headed north as well. Each of them had their ID card out in their hand and passed it under the eyes of the Border patrolman sitting at the desk reading a western novel, never looking up to compare the face on the card to the person passing through the turnstile. With each entry his middle finger activated the lever on the counter looped over his ring finger, his mouth never saying a word. I got to him and did not have a card, so I reached out and simply passed my anglo hand where the others had passed their card and at the same time said "US, Nothing to Declare." His finger activated the counter with nary a head movement. Dan followed with another anglo hand but this time simply stated "me too" The snap of the counter and not of the head announced our arrival back in the USA.
We caught a cab to the airport, claimed our army duffle bags and slipped our now much lighter packs into the canvas sacks and proceeded to the check in counter. Remember, this trip was back in the day, so we asked if we could get a stand-by slot on an earlier plane and within an hour we were in our seats and headed to Dallas. Another stand by and we were in Baltimore
In hindsight, the Copper Canyon trip was the opening of a door to a world of adventure. I began with little more than a bit of halting Spanish and finished the trip with enough confidence to get a cab, get a room, and walk into a restaurant and order from the menu. it sounds like very little but in hind sight, what an experience. The author of the article in Backpacker was correct, we were going to the wild side, not simply because Copper Canyon was remote and undeveloped but because we were stepping out of the comfort zone and into a form of travel neither of us had done before.
Three years after going to Copper Canyon, I had a community college course in Spanish under my belt and my girlfriend and I bought one way tickets for me and the girlfriend to Mexico City and returns out of El Paso, with a two week gap between the two flights. Flying into Mexico City was scary but we did it and after three days there, we'd started settling down. Over the next two weeks we saw the volcano at Paricutin, the sights of Acapulco, a few remarkable days in colonial Taxco and taken the train from Mexico City all the way north to Juarez and El Paso. Two years later Dan and I found cheap tickets to Guatemala (a civil war makes for cheap seats) and had spend a week making our way from Guatemala City to Copan in Honduras and then onto Tikal, only being held a gunpoint a half dozen times by machine gun toting sixteen years old draftees. A year later I repeated the trip with my girlfriend with the highpoint of the trip being a boat ride up the Rio de la Pasion outside of Sayaxche to what was then a remote ruin next to a Guatemalan army jungle outpost. You want to impress a girl, take a tour of Mayan ruins conducted by an army soldier with a slung M-16, followed by lunch with the rest of his squad in a thatched hut surrounded by barbed wire.
As I write of the Copper Canyon trip, I reflect upon trips to Peru and Bolivia that now comprise months of travel south of the border and picking up enough Spanish to do it comfortably. And in two weeks, I will once again head south for a two week Spanish course in Guatemala . . . so allow me to say, if you have read this far and wonder if you can make a trip south with a minimum of language skills and a dearth of travel experience, I hope you will conclude that yes, you can and that by doing so, the world will open its doors to you. good luck and travel safe . . .