For more than a week now, an American hiker has been lost in northern Mexico’s deep Sierra Madre canyons, in the town of Urique, Chihuahua, where the Caballo Blanco Ultra is held each March. Police first thought that Patrick Braxton-Andrew, a 34-year-old Spanish teacher in North Carolina, went missing while alone on a hike. But as investigators in both countries learn more, they’re realizing the case might not be so simple.
Braxton-Andrew had flown to Chihuahua city on October 24. He planned to take the El Chepe train over the Sierra mountains to the coastal town of Los Mochis, Sinaloa, then meet his brother in the country’s capital for a Day of the Dead celebration. The train covers some of the most gorgeous high-elevation pine mountains on either side of the border, passing through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges. At the train route’s zenith, it pauses at Divisadero, a small town that overlooks the Copper Canyon, which in parts is nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The Tarahumara natives—the famous long-distance runners of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run—sell handmade wares in stalls outside the train stop. Mexican visitors are everywhere snapping photos. For a place as remote as the Sierra mountains, it can feel a bit touristy.
Braxton-Andrew, above all, loved hidden places. He’d traveled through much of Southeast Asia and Central America searching them out. “That’s what he lives for,” his father, Gary, told Outside. So in the interest of exploring he rode a bus three hours down serpentine switchbacks to Urique, where he’d read online about a national park with deserted trails.
In Urique, Braxton-Andrew’s family said he met a group of fellow travelers, the only other foreigners in town besides himself. They explored the Copper Canyon National Park and the river together, but as the weekend came to an end, they went their separate ways. On October 28, the last anyone heard from Braxton-Andrew, he mentioned to his family one last hike.
More than 100 police officers, a canine unit, and drones, have scoured the river at the bottom of the canyon, as well as nearby rancherias, including Guadalupe Coronado, El Naranjo, Chiltepin, and El Guayabo. Locals, including Tarahumara villages, have also helped in the search. But Andrew-Braxton’s brother, Kerry, told Outside that his brother had talked to friends and coworkers from a local internet cafe that afternoon. In one message, he seemed to describe the final hike, which would mean Andrew-Braxton had finished his trek that morning and returned to Urique.
There is also what he left in his hotel room: practically everything. He left his jackets and the nice camera he took everywhere worth Instagraming, both of which Kerry said he’d have taken on a longer walk. All that was missing from his pack were the clothes he’d been wearing, some money, and maybe a book. “He was most likely either going to dinner, or if he had a book, maybe there was somewhere around town he wanted to see where he might have gone to sit and read,” Kerry says. Police have also started looking less around the park, and asking more questions in town.
Urique lays at one of the Copper Canyon’s deepest points, and while its remoteness draws the occasional adventurer like Braxton-Andrew, these same remote qualities also make it ideal for outlaws. The region is known locally as the Golden Triangle, because it’s where Mexican cartels grow most of the drugs they traffic to the U.S. In 2015, warring gangs cut short the Caballo Blanco Ultra. A mob of armed, flack-jacketed men stormed a local police station and left with two officers in the back of their truck. The race’s organizers evacuated all foreign runners after gunshots and grenades were heard.
And the same week that Braxton-Andrew went missing the heads of six men believed to be in a local cartel were found outside a gas station in the town of Creel, where the El Chepe train passes through on its way to Divisadero.
The Sierra register some of the highest murder rates in Mexico. But Randy Gingrich, who runs a non-profit called Tierra Nativa that gives aid to Tarahumara in the region, says he could not recall the last time an American was harmed in the mountains of Chihuahua. That’s because even in a place as lawless as the Sierra there have always been certain rules. Cartels killing other cartels, or even targeting local Tarahumara who refuse to grow drugs, or give up their land, is common. A weekly occurrence even. But if the drug gangs did something to a tourist, it could mean the area is growing increasingly paranoid, which might bring greater violence to the region. “Now,” Gingrich says, “I am very concerned.”
Police say the locals are also obeying another unwritten rule of the Sierra: staying silent about any details. But Andrew-Braxton’s family is hopeful somebody knows what happened to him and will come forward. The family has talked with the foreign tourists he met up with in Urique, but are still trying to get in touch with a young man from the group who stayed behind. He was camping in the area, and he might have even moved on to Central America, where he said he’d be traveling next. “The bottom line is we want Patrick back,” his father, Gary, says. “That’s the most important thing to us. And we’re here for the long run.”