By now, few are the people who pay attention to matters outdoor related who have not heard that El Caballo Blanco, Micah True, met his maker in the Gila Wilderness — a mere 40-or-so miles north of where these words are being typed — in March.
According to preliminary autopsy reports, True’s captivating life likely expired because of a heart issue.
True gained justifiable international notoriety via Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.” The book was based primarily on True and a footrace he organized from the remote town of Urique to the equally remote town of Batopilas among the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon Country.
I red-faced admit I have never read McDougall’s book, at least partially because of the melodramatic title (“Hidden Tribe”? … give me a break) and at least partially because of my ambivalent response to the last book I read that centered on a part of the world where I have spent so much time, “God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre,” by Englishman Richard Grant.
Anyhow, it was heartening to see Micah receive the credit he so richly deserved because, unlike most organized competitive events, the Urique-to-Batopilas race existed primarily to helped raise resources for and awareness of the Tarahumara and their various modern-era lifestyle challenges.
It will come as no surprise that, given our mutual Copper Canyon connections, Micah and I knew each other. We first met at Margarita’s Casa de Huespedes in Creel. The first edition of my Copper Canyon book had just come out and I was down there guiding backpacking trips into the heart of the barrancas. Micah at that time was a Copper Canyon neophyte and was greatly interested in hearing whatever skinny I could lay on him about various backcountry routes. I remember two things mainly from that conversation: he said he was a runner, and he said he drove an old truck.
Thing is, I did not recollect that meeting at Margarita’s until the second time Micah and I crossed paths. “When in Doubt, Go Higher: The Mountain Gazette Anthology” had just been published and I was dashing to some coffee shop on Pearl Street in Boulder for a live radio interview. I parked behind a battered pick-up sporting, of all curious things in the well-coiffed epicenter of cultured Colorado, a Batopilas bumpersticker. As I was being interviewed by one of the most distractingly beautiful radio personalities who has ever drawn breath (and who also happened to be wearing a ridiculously short mini-skirt) (and who happened to also be sitting directly across from me on a couch conducive to a reclining posture), I noticed a gangly hombre sitting nearby, observing the proceedings. Though he looked familiar, I assumed he was, like me, merely captivated by the comeliness of the radio lady.
After the interview, the gangly man came over and said words to the effect of, “You probably don’t remember me, but you had a significant effect on my life.” Now, when you’ve been John Fayhee as long as I have been John Fayhee, your natural reaction to words like that is to duck and run, assuming, of course, that, somewhere in the middle of those significant effects lie a pregnant sister and a stint in a local rehab unit. But, no, in this rare case, it was a positive effect. Micah reminded me of the time we met in Creel. By that time, he was well on his way to becoming not Micah True, but, rather, El Caballo Blanco. He had by then met his first Tarahumara Indians at the Leadville 100, and that interface changed the trajectory of his life forever. He was then living in Batopilas six months of the year in a house he built and was in the process of organizing the race that was immortalized in “Born to Run.” We chatted for maybe 30 minutes before I had to dash off for another promotional interview.
The third time we met was in Batopilas. I had just returned from an extremely arduous 10-day cross-canyon backpacking trip — the type of on-foot journey where you arrive at your destination with your clothes in tatters and campfire smoke absorbed into your eyelashes. I was beat, and my three compadres and I had to arrange for transport out to civilization the next morning, so Micah and I did not have much time to catch up. In that short time, though, he told me a bone-chilling story.
Though there is now a dirt road connecting Urique to Batopilas, back then, there was only one road into Batopilas and one road out, and that one road is an engineering marvel of ass-puckering proportions. From the lip of Batopilas Canyon to the Rio Batopilas, it drops 6,000 feet and includes more than 40 hairpin switchbacks and more than 200 curves.
Littered in the various arroyos the road crosses are the remains of many vehicles that did not make it. Their brakes might have overheated. The driver might have been drunk. A tie-rod might have broke. Whatever the cause, when you’re descending into Batopilas Canyon on that road, you see a lot of wreckage that lends a high degree of motivation to your driving efforts, for those off-road vehicular corpses are always trashed, burned and in a such a state of destruction that you know beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt the people who were in those vehicles did not walk away.
Turns out that Micah’s old truck was among that wreckage. Yes, he had lost control and down he went. But he managed to walk away from certain doom. I do not remember all the details, as, like I said, I was beat to shit and had duties to perform, so I could not delve deeper. I have driven that road into Batopilas Canyon many times, and, always, I tried to determine which of the wrecked vehicles was Micah’s. Though I never picked his old truck out, the fact that he survived the unsurvivable raised my respect level for this man I did not know well to new heights.
Over the years, I received dozens of emails from Micah. He tried and tried to get me journalistically interested in his Urique-to-Batopilas race. He never did. Truth be told, by that time, I was very burned out on Copper Canyon. And, not being a runner myself, I told him I was simply not the right person. I am glad that, in the end, McDougall, a runner and a running writer, took the task.
My wife and I were recently in buttfuck Cameroon and I had a chance to check emails in a sweltering internet café populated by a colorful demographic array of tribespeople. There was an email from my friend Marc Weinberger, who did not know I was in Africa. “Are you going to write anything about Micah True?” he asked my perplexed self. “Uh, why would I do that?” I responded.
I did not then know Micah was missing. His body had not yet been found.
I am not exactly certain upon which trail Micah died. I have a good guess and could learn that info with a quick phone call. Perhaps I will soon do just that and go out and retrace his last steps. But I already know what I will find: I will find a desire to say the inevitable superficial: “Well, at least he died doing what he loved in a beautiful place.”
He had discovered his place in life, and he had discovered his people. He lived through a harrowing crash in Batopilas Canyon. He became famous for an honest effort to help the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe I have spent much time with. He died while running at age 58, two years older than I am now, in one of the most spiritually powerful places on Earth, the Gila Wilderness.
The man lived well, was reborn not once but twice, and died well.
That all of us could make such claims.