Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Revisiting the Topia Road: Walking in the Footsteps of West and Parsons

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Revisiting the Topia Road: Walking in the Footsteps of West and Parsons

Article excerpt

Sixty years ago, Robert C. West (1913-2001) and James J. Parsons (1915-1997), two young, exuberant Carl Sauer graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to rediscover historic mining sites in Mexico's western Sierra Madre. They undertook the trip, chronicled in their 1941 Geographical Review article "The Topia Road: A Trans-Sierran Trail of Colonial Mexico," in December 1940-January 1941 to provide a firsthand look at mining areas that had been, in their heyday, some of the most productive sites in North America. West had traveled extensively in northern Mexico in the mid-1930s, conducting fieldwork for his master's degree; for Parsons, the trip was an opportunity to "get his feet wet" in the region that nurtured many of Sauer's doctoral students (Anderson 1998). (1) The trek to Topia was probably inspired by fieldwork previously conducted by Sauer throughout the Sierra Madre Occidental in the 1930S and his subsequent research pinpointing the routes of the great Spanish colonial expl orations of the area (Sauer 1963).

West and Parsons's ten-day trip by horseback and on foot traversed the 140-mile Topia Road up and over the Sierra Madre Occidental from Tepehuanes, Durango, through Topia, Durango, and on to Culiacan, Sinaloa, following one of the earliest paths that crossed the mountain range (Parsons 1940--1941; West and Parsons 1998).2 Based on photographs, field notes, and archival research, West and Parsons's article traces the history of "the most outstanding of the trans-Sierran trails" across the rugged mountains, the trail the Spanish utilized in the 1500s to connect the isolated silver mines of Topia with the outside world (West and Parsons 1941,408).

In the mid-1980s, when we were graduate students at Syracuse University, a professor of ours, perplexed at why West and Parsons went to such remote and largely abandoned mining hamlets, suggested that someone should contact the scholars to ask why they went there and then revisit the sites. Johnathan Walker, who had been an undergraduate student of Parsons, telephoned him to see whether, perchance, he had kept notes from the trip or originals of the photographs in the 1941 article. At first Parsons voiced amazement that anyone would care and expressed doubt that he still had anything from the trip. But he "took a look in a dusty trunk that had not been opened in thirty years and there were indeed a few photographs and a notebook with a quite fair amount of information on our Topia venture" (Parsons 1987). Two weeks later Walker received a manila envelope containing an article offprint an ancient pocket volume of field notes, and seventeen beautifully preserved, glossy, black-and-white photographs that Parson s had taken on the trip. Even as this essay was being copyedited, it emerged that Betty Parsons, Jim's wife, had letters and postcards Jim had written to her during the trip (she and Jim had been on just eight dates at the end of the fall 1940 semester, before Jim departed for Mexico). Those missives, addressed to Miss Betty Rupp, provided valuable additional insights (Parsons 1940a, 1940b, 1941a, 1941b).

Almost sixty years after the West and Parsons journey we embarked on a retracing of their route in order to document landscape change along the Topia Road. In 1987 Walker had made an initial foray to Tepehuanes, and in 1995 he returned there to reconnoiter the "northern" part of West and Parsons's excursion. He was joined by Jonathan Leib in 1996 for research travel along the "southern" part of the route (Figure 1). (3) We report here on that fieldwork. We discuss each major stop along the Topia Road and assess change through photographic replication in what West and Parsons referred to as some of the most isolated settlements in all of Mexico (1941, 412). The communities along the route are still isolated, but mining, migration, and drug trafficking have transformed the area in the past six decades. …

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