Adios Señor Presidente

4 min read

I liked the Mexican President. I admired the Mexican President. So, I felt bad when I had to leave him hanging. Literally. About 1,400 feet up, dangling over Copper Canyon, in a malfunctioning cable car. But I had a ride to catch. And he would be fine. At least I was pretty sure he would be fine. Help had arrived. Still I felt bad leaving him. And his wife. And his three small children. Dangling there about half a kilometer above the gorge. But like I said, there was only one ride out of this place. And it was ready to leave without me. Yes, he’s the president of Mexico… and I’m sure he’s gotten himself out of tighter jams. Right?

Copper Canyon Tram

So I made my way out to a late afternoon field where a Vietnam War era Huey helicopter was waiting. A few others joined me – it was either this or a 15-hour car ride through the hills of Copper Canyon, all the way back to Mexico City.

And anyway, this shoot was done, nothing more anyone could do today. The star, the President was indisposed. So there you have it – I had made my executive decision. And it’s not like he was my president.

My president was back in D.C., crafting health care solutions, not riding a silly tram for a travel documentary (although later, those health care solutions would also get stuck, dangling over their own gorge, swaying in the breeze.)    

Copper Canyon day

This shoot had started out nicely; we were getting glorious footage of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, in the northern state of Chihuahua. It would be a fun scene: Let’s put the President and his family in this new, modern tram and send them a few miles out over a canyon to enjoy the view.

This they were now doing… for about the last hour.

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When the cables for the tramway had suddenly jerked to a stop, it was one of those “WHA…” moments. You know, when the movie of life around you suddenly freezes, and you frantically look for the switch to get back to normal. Except there was no switch…

And these weren’t just tourists; this was Mexico’s first family. I jumped on my phone calling everyone I could. I had the number for the Secretary of Tourism. I called her. I called assistants and chiefs of staff.

The park people came running over. Now an engineer appeared. He pulled open the housing, revealing the guts of the apparatus. He scratched his head. Uh, oh – that’s never a good sign.

Life In The Bubble

Meanwhile, how was the President doing? And his wife and his kids? And the crew? How were they all holding up? Oh god, did I really just write that? 

The hanging tram

I radioed over to them and could hear singing in the background. Children’s voices – singing some happy song. That was a relief. I could just imagine them all crying out some tearful dirge from church. Ok, they were keeping the kids busy and distracted.

This will all get fixed in a moment. The tram will continue its journey, the shoot will continue. We’d be right back on schedule. Now I was comforting myself. The only thing missing was me singing a happy song.

More engineers showed up. The place was awash with mechanics and the President’s security detail – wrenches and Uzis. Plus, lots of radio traffic.

All this activity was somehow reassuring; all would be set right, we’d get on with the shoot. In the meantime, we had cameras and a crew in that little gondola so we could record the fun. We’ll show how intrepid and brave the President and his family were. This would make our show more interesting. Why this entire situation was actually a lucky break! 

See? What just moments ago was shocking, even frightening was now… I don’t know… fun?

Interesting how the mind works. In the face of danger, even death, we can inexplicably become cock-eyed optimists. Is this strength, sacrifice or just stupidity? Maybe it’s all about survival.

Clearly a theme was emerging for this day. Just hours before we had met some people who taught us centuries old lessons in survival.

Running with the Tarahumara

Tamahumara Girl

They have inhabited these high sierras since the 16th century. And they did it to survive. When the Spanish invaded, the Tarahumara people retreated up these canyons and made their lives here ever since.

Earlier in the day, upon landing at Copper Canyon, we visited them in their small cabins and caves, still living much the way they always have. On our arrival, they brought out handmade violins and played for us. There we stood on a dusty cliffside, serenaded in the middle of friggin’ nowhere by these lovely people.

tamahumara with fiddle

It was acoustic everything, not a lightbulb or switch in sight. Our group – the President, his entourage, the security detail, the crew – we all slowed down to appreciate this gentle gift of music slicing through the windy silence of these canyons. We might have even danced a little.

Village children, teenagers and grown men came running over to join us. This was a beautiful sight and not just because of the sweet nature of the music drawing in the community. No, I mean the way the Tarahumara run is beautiful to watch.

Tamahumara runners.

They actually call themselves the Raramuri, which means “runners on foot” or “those who run fast” or “light footed” – some variation of that. They are known throughout the world as fantastic runners, capable of traversing 200 miles of these canyons in a single long-distance marathon.

Elite world-class runners have come here to study the Raramuri, as they fly over the dusty hillsides, with nothing but thin leather huaraches on their feet. Their stride is flowing, low-impact and rather joyful.

Tamahumara runner

The Raramuri have raced over their world only using the mechanics they were born with. They made me want to step off my electronic treadmill and race through the streets of Los Angeles, wearing nothing but huaraches.

Maybe we’ve become too dependent on the mysteries of electronics. In front of me now were more engineers and technicians digging into the wired guts of the tramway, trying to spark the machine and fetch back the President from thin air.

The Solution

Diesel motor

They rolled in some kind of diesel motor and hooked it up to the big tram gearbox. The plan was to slowly crank the stuck cable car back. I moved closer to the action to “help” – as if I knew anything about diesel motors or exotic aerial tramways.

We all want to feel like we’re doing something helpful, even it’s just staring thoughtfully at a situation. I supposed I did this with some semblance of authority as several crew members asked me how long it would take to bring the President and his family back.

I looked down at the now slowly moving cable. I mean, like inching slow… as if it were the internal mechanism for some big tramway clock. As if the whole apparatus would chime out through the canyons every half hour. That’s how slow this cable was creeping.

I caught the eye of an engineer.

“Cuarenta minutos”, he shrugged.  Forty minutes. It had only taken them a fun ten minutes to get to dangle out in the middle of the canyon. Now it was a lifetime to get back. But thank goodness for good old-fashioned diesel power.

Tram being winched

While the tram was painfully winched, creeping toward solid ground, word had filtered down that there wasn’t enough room in the President’s chopper to take me back to the regional airport, where we had arrived that morning on his plane. The logistics for his entourage were always complex and if you blinked, elusive.

A few days back, I had been engrossed in some shoot details, missed my cue and the Presidential motorcade had sped off, leaving me in a parking lot. Another time, I was slow to get to the chopper and they lifted off without me. So much for being a producer.

However, over my radio, I heard another chopper had been readied for us and was about to touch down in a nearby field. If I left now I could catch my ride. Or, I could wait to welcome the President, miss my ride and be relegated to an interminable 4 x 4 schlep over the hills, getting to Mexico City sometime in the distant future.

My Ride Is Here

I made my decision. I would stay and welcome the President back. I would show my support and concern.

The Copper Canyon tram

I imagined the moment: The President and his family would step from the tram, happy to be back on solid ground. He’d smile, shake my hand and…

Then his people would rush him off to his chopper and I’d stand there like a schmuck, watching them all lift off into the sky. I would stumble off and search for whatever vehicle would inch me over the mountains for the next 15 hours.  

Huey Helicopter landing

Out over the field I saw the dark, green Huey settle down amidst its own dust storm. Bobby, the still photographer on the shoot was already heading toward the settling chopper. There were one or two others walking into the field.

Bobby spotted me and waved me over. “It’s leaving!,” he shouted over the slowing whine of the engine. 

Hell… I belong up in the air as much as anyone.

I radioed out to the presidential tram once more. Why? To ask permission? To let them know my decision? I wasn’t sure which. I figured I’d just let the words spill out when they picked up. But they never picked up – maybe the diesel motor created interference; maybe they were all singing and didn’t hear the radio.

Hey, I tried.

Then I grabbed my gear and ran into the field toward the big chopper, as if the Viet Cong were right on my tail. Bobby reached out and pulled me in. The pilot and my crew welcomed me and we rose right up as the pink rays of sunset broke over the canyon.  

Huey Helicopter sunset

The Huey pivoted away from the sun as the wind rushed through the doors. In just moments, we were at altitude and tiny lights appeared out on the horizon.  

We flew fast into the evening and I knew in just a short while the President would get a hero’s welcome as he stepped from the tram. There would be pictures in the papers. His approval ratings, the first lady’s, even the kids’ would all spike upwards. It would be a good day.

Meantime, I rode the chatter of the old Huey’s engine – smiling, as we sailed through the darkening desert night, up here where I belonged. 

Huey Chopper in Sunset

 

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