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WHITE-KNUCKLE ROADS LEAD TO CLIFF DWELLINGS, NATIVE ARTISTS AND TIDY RV PARKS IN CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO

Sitting on our horses atop a low hill, we watched thunderheads build in the afternoon shadows over the valley. We felt somewhat exposed as streaks of lightning flashed menacingly across the mountains and invisible waves of thunder rumbled over us. Then, to our total astonishment, as the sun slowly dropped behind the line of squalls, the sky erupted into a brilliant orange across the entire horizon. This was more than a sunset. This was a light show beyond imagination.

We sat dumbfounded as the spectacle unfolded before us. Not since the aftermath of Mount St. Helen's cataclysmic explosion had we seen such an atmospheric extravaganza. With the smell of rain in the air, I had left my camera in the truck. Just as well. Had I taken a picture, it would have looked as if I had used some trick filter. Some things you just need to record with your memory.

We had been invited by Eduardo Payan, a local rancher, to accompany him as he checked on some cattle in a foothill pasture near the community of Nuevo Casas Grandes in the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico. The rain was a welcome sight for Eduardo. The area had been suffering from several years of severe drought. As we gazed out over die surrounding grass land, pocked with cacti and thorny mesquite trees, we tried to imagine how it might have been to travel through this semi-arid landscape on foot, as the Paquie inhabitants had, centuries ago.

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For more than 1,000 years, while Anasazi, Utes and Navajos settled the canyons and mesas of the southwestern United States, their counterparts far to the south - the Toltec, Aztec and Mayans - flourished. These major civilizations dominated North and Central America long before the arrival of Europeans. But who were the Paquime? Some 900 years ago, this unique culture thrived in an area today called Casas Grandes, or "Big Houses." They had been noted as early as the 16th century by Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabaza de Vaca. With an estimated population of 10,000 at its height, the ruins of the adobe "city" and surrounding cave dwellings are considered the most important archaeological site in northern Mexico.

Crossing the U.S.-Mexican border at Douglas, Arizona, we had threaded our way out of Agua Prieta and picked up Highway 2 to Janos, where Highway 10 heads south. Border towns have always been the most treacherous to drive through. The pavement was rough and broken, but improved after a few miles, and soon we were climbing on a classic narrow, winding road into the heart of Chihuahua. The only menaces were the occasional cow or horse and the seemingly huge semis coming from the other direction. Most Mexican secondary roads were never designed for these big overland transport trucks, and semis take all of their lane's width, right up to the line. On a hairpin corner, they take the whole road!

Since there was usually no shoulder to speak of, and a 2or 3-foot dropoff extending over a 500-foot cliff, it made for some white knuckles, especially when we'd come up behind a truck going about 15 mph on a steep grade. Without losing our momentum, and drawing on some of our Power Stroke diesel's 550 lb-ft of torque, it was often a matter of looking far ahead and sling-shotting around. The good news is, the drivers of the big 18- and 26-wheelers usually know what they're doing and are considerate of their size. They will typically flip on their left turn-signal to let you know when they think it's safe to pass. Then you take your chances. It's kind of exciting, passing a 90-foot semi combo on a hill you can't see over yet.

Arriving in Nuevo Casas Grandes (New Big Houses), we found it was a friendly place to be. The tidy Los Metates RV park, just on the edge of town, had clean, grassy sites and easy access to all shopping and services. Tito and Mara Parada and their family operate the small park (20 full-hookup sites), a car wash, a gift shop and a beauty parlor. A gas station, a water-purification plant and a grocery store are within half a block. Hey, we could live here!

Tito, like many locals, speaks surprisingly fluent English. As it turns out, because of a Mormon bilingual school in the adjacent community of Colonial Juarez, a large number of people in town speak excellent English. As we met and talked with locals - often in English - our planned two-day stopover quickly stretched to two weeks, and then to three.

The main ruins of Paquime is adjacent to an excellent cultural museum, Museo de las Culturas del Norte, with many interesting displays showing the similarities of all the tribes of the Southwest, long before international borders were created. Visiting the museum gave us a much-clearer idea of what we were seeing as we walked around the maze of partially restored buildings. The Paquime had running water, a sewer and a complex system of underground water storage for domestic and agricultural use. They also raised macaw parrots, whose colorful feathers were an important trade item. Artifacts found during the site excavation indicate that Paquime trade routes extended north into what is now Arizona and New Mexico, south to the Toltecs, and all the way over the Sierra Madre to the Pacific.

While the Paquime ruins were interesting, there is much more to see and do in the area. Eighteen miles south of Nuevo Casas Grandes, (the locals just call it Casas), a bumpy unpaved road brought us to the small town of Mata Ortiz. Here the traditional art of Paquime pottery has been revived. Beautiful pots are made with local clays that range in color from a deep red to brown, cream and black. Some 300 potters live and work here, including famous Juan Quezada. Several small shops have selections for sale, and, in some, we could watch the artists at work.

Along the way to Mata Ortiz, we stopped at the Hacienda de San Diego, an old mansion dating back to 1902. Pancho Villa took it over during the Mexican Revolution. Bullet holes can still be seen in the adobe walls. JohnJ. ("BlackJack") Pershing and his Expeditionary Force camped in nearby Colonia Dublan while his troops chased Pancho Villa. The future General Patton was Pershing's aide.

Many of us are familiar with the Chihuahua/Pacific Railroad, which traverses the Copper Canyon (four times larger than the Grand Canyon) and offers a close-up view of the Tarahumara Indians. RVs are sometimes loaded onto flatcars for the adventure. A little-known spur of the Chihuahua/Pacific descends through the mountains from La Junta all the way to Nuevo Casas Grandes. The tracks are in poor shape, and the bridges would no longer support a full-size locomotive, but portions of the route are still in use.

On a sunny morning, we climbed aboard a small passenger carriage. A rickety little service mule, powered by a smoking six-cylinder gasoline engine, lurched out of the now-abandoned train station in Casas. The limited service brings supplies and locals to remote farms and ranches in the mountains. We bumped and swayed over the twisting tracks for about 62 miles, climbing into pine forests and slowing for cows that invariably would decide to cross the rails just as we approached. We rattled through narrow tunnels and saw a closeup of rural Mexico that was fascinating.

At the midway stop - an old logging camp - our hosts brought out what looked like a plow disc with legs. In fact, that's what it was. A fire was built under the disc, and a local dish called a discada was prepared, with beef, onions, potatoes and spices. Bowls of guacamole, cilantro, tomatoes and a spicy sauce called pico de gallo, along with piles of fresh tortillas, made the job of building our own tacos fun and delicious.

Each time we thought of leaving Casas, someone would come up with another place we just had tosee or something we must do. We visited cave dwellings and followed backroads through small villages where farmers still plowed with a horse or mule. We branded and vaccinated calves and hiked up canyons to see ancient rock carvings.

By chance, we were introduced to Norma Pi...oon. Her family owns a couple of hotels in town, including the Hotel Paquime. She offered to show us around Colonial Juarez, the Mormon community where she had gone to school. It was like driving into a Pennsylvania suburb, with tidy gardens around neat brick houses. The Mormons had originally settled in this part of Chihuahua in the 1880s, and their peach and apple orchards have been prosperous, as some of the beautiful homes demonstrated. Equally industrious, to the north of Casas there are two Mennonite communities, which have helped make the Chihuahua cheese one of the most famous (and delicious) in the country.

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