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Spring Break and the Sierra Madre


As I walked up the jet way, I could feel the dry, desert air in my lungs.
As I approached the baggage claim, I could hear the sounds of mariachi music. I wasn’t able to discern if it was being played over the PA system or if it were a real live band.
After reaching the bottom, and rounding a pillar, I was pleased to find a four-piece mariachi band playing near the baggage claim. I thought to myself, “Hey, how did they know I was coming?” Officially, my spring break vacation had begun only five minutes earlier by landing at the El Paso airport; and I was already being enveloped in the warm embrace of Mexican culture. It was a sign of great things to come.
I stood, waiting contently, for my bags to show up on the carousel, listening to the beautiful lyrics of a Spanish love song. Even though, I couldn’t understand the language, amore has a way of making its presence known.
Grabbing my bags, I walked out the door into the warm desert sun. The sun felt warm on my skin, a far cry from the colder, northern clime I had vacated only a few hours earlier. The SUV and driver were waiting at the curb just as planned.
My driver was John Hatch owner of Gavilan Tours (www.gavilantours.com). John was not only to be my driver, but also my tour guide for the next four days. I jumped into the suburban and my spring break adventure really took off! As it turns out, John’s grandfather guided Aldo Leopold into the Gavilan River basin; which inspired Leopold’s essay The Song of the Gavilan (Leopold is considered by many to be the father of modern ecology).
It is Colonia Juarez is a three-hour drive from El Paso. Chili pepper and cotton fields turn into blurry streaks as we cruise down the narrow Mexican highways into the interior of Chihuahua. Many storms over the past couple months brought much needed rain. The ancient volcanic cones and hills are green and lush. Wildflowers in brilliant yellows and reds dot the landscape. Once in a while we will drive through a sparsely populated village and then head back into the wide-open desert.
After what only seems like an hour and a half, we arrive in the city of Casas Grandes. So named because of the large ruins left by the Paquime Indians, the original inabitors of these parts over 1,000 years ago. We drive straight through the city. On the south end of town the highway makes a hard right curve and then heads west into the foothills of the Sierra Madre.
The suburban traverses a curvy, road through ten miles of foothills. Orchards appear on both sides of the road. Thousands of acres of peach trees have bloomed making the landscape appear as a sea of pink. We crest a hill; drive through a ravine, and round a bend into the quaint community of Colonia Juarez.
The next day is filled with getting a feel for the modern history of the community. John asks me if I would like to accompany him on a community tour he conducts for a Tucson-based tour company. I said, “That sounds like fun.” A large tour bus stopped in front of John’s house at 9:30 a.m. I climb on board and take a seat next to the driver. The tour guide introduces John and for the next two hours John keeps the tour bus enthralled with stories of rugged pioneers, bloodthirsty Indians, and armies of Mexican revolutionaries who during the past 100 years have shared this area of Mexico.
The first white settlers were Mormons who settled the area in 1885. Many original brick homes still dot the town. The Mormons at one time had ten settlements or colonies, thru ought the Northern parts of Chihuahua and neighboring state, Sonora. On day three of my adventure, John is going to take me into the peaks of the Sierra Madres to visit some of the original colonies and nearby Indian ruins.
On day two, John takes me to Mata Ortiz. Mata Ortiz is a town known worldwide, for its unique styles of pottery. Along the way, John points out Indian ruins along the side of the road. I purchase several pots to take back home because the pots make unique gifts for family and friends.
Day three began at 9:00 am leaving for a full day in the Sierra Madres. During the day I had the opportunity to climb to three different Indian cliff dwellings. One of the cliff dwellings is knows as the olla cave. It contains a large (12 feet tall, 6 feet in diameter), onion-shaped storage bin. I saw unique rock formations such as pillars and arches which, I found as amazing as those found in Bryce Canyon and Arches National Parks (Just on a smaller scale and number).
Between sites, John holds me spellbound with stories of marauding Indians, expatriated American train robbers, and man-eating grizzly bears. We don’t arrive back to Colonia Juarez until after 6:00 pm.
Day four finds me lamenting the fact that I have to go home. John drives me back to the airport. As I wait for my plane to board, I find myself wondering how soon it will be until I can make it back to this enchanting place. No matter how soon, it won’t be soon enough.

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