The choice of the Sierra Madre as a strategic retreat from the Spaniards all those centuries ago is both the gift and the burden of the Tarahumara today. Their ancestors weren't cowards or pacifists; histories recount violent rebellions among Tarahumara in less remote mission and mining centers, where colonists used them for brute labor while trying to press them into European-style village living. But as a people, the Tarahumara survived largely because of what a Sierra priest described to me as a gift for the evasive maneuver—and here the priest clapped his right hand over his left and then slithered the left out gently from underneath, like a fish slipping through a crack in the rocks.
The geography that made the Tarahumara's lands so inaccessible to conquerors, though, made them irresistible to a succession of plunderers. The peaks and canyons contained silver and other minerals, which drew miners as early as the 17th century. The forests attracted loggers, who leveled the trees and eventually—under the initial leadership of a late 1800s American engineer—got a railway built to carry out the spoils. The construction effort lasted almost 80 years; the completed track that winds through the Sierra Madre, with its high bridges and multiple tunnels, is a marvel of railway engineering. These days the logs are brought out by truck (still in reckless numbers, logging critics say, despite their admonitions about the degradation of the forest), and the principal train now using the Sierra track is called the Chihuahua Pacífico, or more familiarly, the Chepe. It's pronounced CHEH-peh, and its main job is hauling tourists.
Tarahumara and other locals ride the second-class Chepe regularly, en route to the towns or seasonal fruit-picking jobs just beyond the mountains. But the real Chepe money comes from outsiders, Mexican and foreign, who crane their necks out the railcar half-doors and disembark at the overlooks, where the first full view of the canyons is so astonishing, such a dizzying display—the Copper label isn't from the mineral, but rather from the luminous colors of the massive sunlit cliffs—that the next exploitable resource is obvious: grandeur. You're standing there blinking, taking it in, thinking: This is too beautiful. There are too many people with money who want a piece of this, including the entire development-hungry nation of Mexico. It's not a fair fight.
Scholars of the Tarahumara say their culture is remarkable in its tenacity—that for centuries they have sidestepped one form of chabochi interference after another, which is why the language remains vigorous, the religious beliefs intense, and so many women still wear the scarf and long skirt. Once I watched a women's race outside a grim-looking Rarámuri enclave in Chihuahua city, where thousands of Tarahumara have migrated to live in close-quartered ghettos that take up entire blocks. The Tarahumara do much of their running in a traditional form of Rarámuri competition, people gathering to bet livestock or other possessions on the outcome. The men race in staggeringly long trail runs, wearing huaraches or barefoot, while steadily kicking a baseball-size wooden sphere. When the women run, they fling and catch hoops with long sticks as they go, and that's how the girls and young women were running through the streets of Chihuahua, huaraches slapping the pavement, skirts flapping at their calves. Behind the cheering spectators, who looked to be their aunts and grandmothers, the wagered goods were heaped hip high: a mound of Rarámuri garments, brilliant as jockey silks.