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.