Sept 15, 2022
“Here’s a fun fact,” I told the person behind me on the trail. “We’re climbing this volcano exactly 481 years after tragedy struck below.”
“Yup. In the wee hours of the morning of September 11, 1541: that’s when the unfortunate event happened.”
It was 5:00 AM and we were socked in, in fog, high on the slopes of Guatelmala’s Volcán Acatenango. Unfortunately, I couldn’t gesture majestically to show where it happened, because we couldn’t see shit. And it was still dark anyway.
The previous evening, though, we’d been fortunate. The rainy season clouds had parted and given us a great view, from our base camp, of the action on neighboring Volcán Fuego, only about two kilometers away. Every fifteen minutes or so, the mountain blew up! I’d never sat next to an erupting volcano before, and it was completely thrilling—a once in my lifetime (so far) experience.
“What happened on September 11th, 1541?” my trail mate asked.
For context, we’ll go back to August 29th. That’s when Beatriz de la Cueva finally found out that her husband, Pedro Alvarado, the governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, had been squashed beneath a rolling horse two months prior in Mexico.
They’d only been married a few years, and a long life of widowhood now stared unfortunate Beatriz in the face. She was from a noble Spanish family and had beautiful, expressive eyes, which had apparently attracted Pedro to her after his previous wife, who was Beatriz’s sister, died shortly following their nuptials. Now at age 36, Beatriz was a childless widow stuck in a damp palace in Guatemala.
Aggrieved, she ordered the capital into an extended period of mourning. This capital was Santiago de los Caballeros, the exact location of which is unknown today; consensus is that it lay about two kilometers west of the current town of Ciudad Vieja, in a valley of fertile pastures beneath volcanoes Acatenango and Agua. By 1541, it was a thriving place.
You might say Beatriz was unfortunate for marrying Pedro. If they ever gave out an award for cruelest conquistador, Pedro would definitely make the shortlist. Deemed excessively brutal even by his conquisting contemporaries, he was also one of the least capable of governing, caring only about the next opportunity to murder, pillage, loot, and get wealthier. He was on his way to the Spice Islands to do just that when the horse rolled on him in Mexico, having left affairs in Guatemala in the hands of his brother Francisco.
But Beatriz was distraught over her husband’s death. She ordered the palace walls to be smeared with black clay.
She also ordered herself to be the next governor! It’s true; on September 9th, Beatriz became the only woman to hold such a position in a major division of Spanish Latin America during colonial times. You can imagine this didn’t go over very well among many folks, least of all Francisco, even though she appointed him lieutenant and put him in charge of day-to-day governing.
When she ascended to the governorship, still-mourning Beatriz signed the declaration as La Sin Ventura, “the unfortunate one.”
Little did she know!
Coup plotters got to work right away, preparing to storm the palace a day and a half later, early on the morning of September 11th.
Simultaneously, heavy September rain continued to pour down, saturating the mountainsides and filling the crater lake of Volcán Agua to an above-average level.
Then an earthquake struck, Agua’s crater wall collapsed, and the lake emptied downhill in a wall of mud. The three-story colonial palace, built next to a creek bed on the slope above the settlement, lay directly in its path.
The earth-shaking and noise were enough to rouse two-day governor Beatriz, who ran to the safety of the rooftop chapel. The wall of muck soon arrived and swept most everyone else away: her courtiers, the approaching coup plotters, not to mention most of the town and its population.
Among the survivors was Leonor, Pedro’s daughter by his indigenous mistress. She made it through by holding on to a tree.
And Beatriz too survived! In her rooftop chapel.
Then a second tremor struck, and the chapel roof collapsed, killing Beatriz.
She’s buried at the rebuilt cathedral of Santiago de los Caballeros, in the lovely nearby city of Antigua.
Four decades later, Leonor had her father Pedro’s remains moved from Mexico to Antigua, to lie next to his unfortunate bride with expressive eyes.
Blog Extra, August 31, 2022
“What are we doing today?” I asked Chico, my foreman, as I joined the work team inside a greenhouse at an agricultural training institute in Guatemala.
“Podas de frutas,” he replied (pruning of fruits). He showed me what to do.
It’s been nearly a month since I started interning here, and I continue to learn new things every day about how to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in commercial-scale greenhouses. Typically, I feel like an oaf every time I start with a new procedure. But by the time I’ve done it a few hundred or thousand times, I’m usually okay at it.
In addition to learning, I add a needed pair of hands. “We’re short workers right now,” Maria Felisa, my supervisor, told me recently. “So many are in Canada.”
Aha, I thought. August: harvest time in Canada.
You may have seen the headline last week describing an August 11 letter issued by Canada’s Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. In it, the organization calls out as “systematic slavery” the country’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). A national day of action is planned for September 18, the day before Canada’s parliament resumes. Thousands of Guatemalans are currently in Canada under a similar program—the TFWP (Temporary Foreign Worker Program)—and quietly enduring the same abuses.
Meanwhile I’m here, “back-filling” so to speak; a reverse migrant learning how to grow food.
As I worked the tomato vines, plucking misshapen fruit and adjusting the number of green tomatoes and/or pollinated flowers on each branch to four, I watched a bumblebee land on one of the plant’s fresh tiny yellow flowers near the top.
Hello there! I whispered. Fellow imported worker!
Have you ever wondered how pollination takes place inside an enclosed greenhouse? How the flowers, in the absence of wind, transform into the beefsteak tomatoes that land on your plate?
I hadn’t, until now.
It’s bumblebees! Or in Spanish: abejorros!
This may seem like a no-brainer but it isn’t. In fact, this is quite a recent innovation. And it is interesting.
Only by the mid-1980s did we figure out how to rear bumblebees in captivity and create transportable colonies. Now, for about $175 plus shipping, you can purchase a carboard box containing a fully-functional hive of about 70 workers serving a queen. You set it elevated off the ground, somewhere in the shade in your greenhouse, give the bees a couple hours to get settled, and then open the doors and walk away. Thazzit. The bees proceed to work for you like crazy.
No longer do humans have to rove the greenhouse three times a week with a mechanical wand, performing the soul-crushing job of agitating each and every branch of every plant to try and shake pollen loose (and you really need to vibrate those tomato anthers to get the pollen grains to release). What’s more, naturally-pollinating bumblebees do a vastly better job and create superior fruit. And they work for free! The labor cost savings are game-changing, even here in Guatemala.
Indeed, the advent of our enslavement of bumblebees has been key to the worldwide expansion of the greenhouse tomato industry.
Note that it’s BUMBLE bees we’re talking about: the bigger, bumblier, cousins of honeybees, those hyperintelligent hymenopteras having secret lives. Historically, honeybees are the species humans have pursued to perform managed pollination. But honeybees are rather hopeless in a greenhouse, truth be told.
For one thing, they only work hard in the middle of the day, only when it is sunny and warm. Bumblebees on the other hand work much longer hours, morning to evening, and they keep going when it is cool, cloudy, foggy, and rainy—conditions in which honeybees won’t even come out of the hive. What’s more, bumblebees visit many more blooms per minute, and they do it with their big hairy buzzy bodies, providing strong thoracic vibrations that make them extremely efficient at the task. A bumblebee pollinates a tomato flower in a single visit, whereas a honeybee has to visit 7 to 10 times to accomplish the same feat.
Fun fact: honeybees, in their quest for nectar, don’t like the long narrow corolla of tomato flowers because their tongues are rather short. Bumblebees on the other hand don’t care much about nectar; they snack on it, and their tongues are long enough to reach it, but it’s the pollen they are mostly after to feed the young back home. This means they do a fantastic job spreading pollen around between flowers in the process. In addition, they fly between plants much more randomly than honeybees do, which results in a higher degree of cross-pollination, which in results in far less misshapen and odd fruit.
And more fruit! With bumblebees you can get up to 50% more kilograms of tomatoes per unit area than with mechanical agitation (And with honeybees? Don’t ask), thus ramping up the cost-benefit curve into overdrive. And the fruit tends to be tastier as well. A recent study conducted in the greenhouses of China’s Gobi Desert asserts that bumblebee-pollinated tomatoes contain more fructose and glucose, and less sucrose, citric acid, and malic acid, and more consumer-liking volatile compounds relative to their mechanically-pollinated counterparts.
Did I mention bumblebees don’t sting? It’s true: to get stung by one is rare. They’re just not swarmy or aggressive like honeybees are. You go about your work, they go about theirs; everyone’s cool with each other.
There’s more. You may say it’s because bumblebees aren’t as smart as honeybees, and it’s true they don’t fly miles from the hive and have a sophisticated communication system to inform their brethren back home where the juiciest flowers are, traits which make honeybees leave greenhouses for finer pastures. But bumblebees, in their bumbling along, do have a better sense of direction which makes them able to better navigate a protected greenhouse. Put honeybees in there and they have a hard time orientating themselves, getting lost and banging against the glass, etc. Refracted light confuses them.
What’s more, a bumblebee hive is compact and easily bred, transported, and handled. Colonies are small but robust, containing about 70 workers which can grow to as many as 200 during its eight to twelve-week service stint. Have you ever tried to move a honeybee colony? Sheesh, at 20 to 80 thousand swarming individuals, you don’t want to, and you better have a full-body suit.
Hail to the bumblebees! I am in awe of these affable creatures, working so hard to get vegetables to our markets. They’re the lynchpin of the modern tomato, cucumber, and pepper et. al. industries.
However I can’t help but feel: What’s the catch? There has to be one…or more.
One worry is that imported bees could invade nonnative countries and wreak environmental havoc. Anytime you have a small number of species being reared by a small number of companies and shipped all over the globe, you have to be concerned. Already, stable populations of imported bumblebees have established themselves in New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Tasmania, Chile, and Israel. There are real dangers that they can displace native bumblebee populations and disrupt the pollination of indigenous plants, bring non-native diseases with them in the form of more virulent pests and parasites, and introduce non-local genotypes and traits selected by commercial rearing which could result in unknown bad consequences (think teenage mutant workerbees).
These grave concerns are being tracked and studied, and so far there have been no known catastrophes (yet) to put a brake on the massive bang for the buck humans get in forcing bumblebees to work the world’s greenhouses.
“But what about bee well-being?” I find myself asking myself.
All that work, and for what?
It feels mean sometimes, how we are tricking them. We get them to fly around indoors for twelve weeks to create our food. They labor tirelessly to nurture their young, every single workerbee laser-focused on the same, singular goal: to ensure the survival of the colony. And it never happens. In the end everyone dies. The colony always dies.
But another way to look at this is that the relationship with humans is making the bumblebees very successful. After all, propagation of species is never about the happiness or wellbeing of its individuals. Quite the contrary. Just look at the chickens and cows of the world, for example—not to mention the humans, ever since we became domesticated by wheat during the agricultural revolution (and not the other way around, as Yuval Noah Harari so eloquently explains in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind). We certainly are a successful species, from a biomass and genome perspective! Billions and billions of us; many if not most living in abject misery.
Consider commercial bumblebees: in the course of being tricked into performing all this work, they have spread all over the globe. Good grief, we even have genus Bombus living in the Gobi Desert! Regardless of how any individual bumblebee is feeling these days, they certainly are getting around.
As a greenhouse worker myself, I am massively grateful to them. Every time I see one I feel a flood of gratitude.
And then there’s the respect, gratitude, and compassion for the people: for the human workers who toil to make our food happen.
One thing I know for certain from this experience so far: I will never look at a tomato on my plate in the same way again, understanding the sheer magnitude of labor required for it to get there. I don’t see how it can be cost-effective. I feel like we should be paying about ten times more for a tomato. And though we may be tricking and exploiting bumblebees, I cannot imagine greenhouse cultivation without their help. Even with them working so hard, there is still so much for humans to do. So incredibly much. True, we no longer have to go around with a wand, mechanically pollinating. But man oh man, imagine! Every single plant in a 4,000 or 8,000-tomato plant greenhouse, still needing to be visited over and over again by a person, more than a dozen times, to perform intricate, mind-numbing, body-exhausting procedures that ensure planting, training, pruning, and harvesting happen. And then: do it all over again.
No wonder there’s forced labor in Xinjiang. And yes, we MUST stop sourcing tomatoes from there.
I feel for the workers.
And I’m grateful for the bumblebees!
August 14, 2022
“Aha, so those are the chicken buses,” I told myself, on reaching the lush temperate western highlands of Guatemala. You can’t help but notice them, these splendid celebrations on wheels!
The term comes from the foreign travel literature, and is disrespectful and derogatory. Guatemaltecos don’t use this moniker; many have never heard of it. Instead they call their iconic, everyday, every-person’s inter-town transport camionetas (trucks). Indeed, it is rare these days to see live animals on public buses. And though camionetas can get as crowded as chicken wagons, so it can be just about anywhere else in the world.
But most countries don’t elevate basic transport to the level of proletarian street art! In Guatemala, the camionetas are fabulous to behold: vibrant elements of social fabric and national identity. They are symbols of culture, integral to the country’s psyche and pride.
And each superb camioneta is in the midst of a second life, having once been but a castoff, mundane North American school bus.
Here’s how it works. When school buses in the USA reach age ten or so, and/or approximately 150,000 miles, for some reason the school districts don’t want them anymore, even though they usually still work fine. So, they get auctioned for between three and six thousand dollars apiece in places like Slippery Rock, PA (where the company ‘422 Sales’ is having its 40th anniversary school bus auction on September 10th, in case you’re interested). They are then driven to Guatemala via Mexico, and sold to importer-middlemen, who in turn sell them to Guatemalan owners, usually on a payment plan.
It is important to put a bus into service quickly in order to service its payments. But first the makeover must happen! Otherwise, how will the new bus be able to compete for passengers? People only want to get on something that is clean and well-decorated.
So, off it goes to one of the expert workshops. Here it is fitted with the mandatory luggage racks, and is sanded, primed, and given a unique hand-masking-taped design. Racing lines are popular, as are names, slogans, and symbols such as birds and stars.
Of course, all the school-bus-yellow and black lettering must go, to be sprayed over in colors such as cream, scarlet, and cobalt. The former may have shown up well in dawn and dusk to warn USA drivers that children were in transit, but it’s way too drab for the Guatemalteco esthetic. Along with the pizzazz of the paint job come chrome grills and bumpers, chrome siding, curvy window dividers, flashing lights, colorful kinetic signboards, decorations, tassels, and a sound system.
NOW it can be called a camioneta!
There’s no denying how good it looks cleaned up. It’s hard to believe it was once a common yellow school bus, plying a monochromatic American suburb.
It’s a great representation of ingenuity and resilience—both Guatemalan and American (enabled by the wastefulness and affluence of the latter). How cool it is, that something so functional, so well-engineered for safety—after all, designs were optimized over many decades to securely carry schoolchildren—gets saved from the scrap heap by Guatemalan creativity and geographic proximity, and given years more life in such vivacious style.
The more I watched the camionetas, each one different from the other, the more addicted to watching them I became. Along with this elation came a feeling tinged with sadness—that I was witnessing something beautiful but nostalgic and fleeting. Something that is bound to disappear.
Which is also not a bad thing.
Facts are, the camionetas are enchanting, functional, heavy, and drink diesel. They are hardly appropriate for the future. They will necessarily disappear in Guatemala, some years after the American supply of discarded fuel-combusting school buses necessarily dries up.
How long does the Guatemalan camioneta have? Electric school buses are currently making big gains in the USA, with 12,275 committed to this year by school districts in 38 states. This is about equivalent to the entire school bus fleet of North Carolina, which may seem small, but it’s a 10-fold increase over a year ago.
For now, the diesel school bus remains king in the USA. This means that by 2032 there will still be plenty of unwanted 10-year-old fuel-belching yellow buses available for auction.
But hopefully no one will want them.
Hopefully by then we’ll have electro-camioneta!
July 14, 2022
Ah, July. Here in Longmont, Colorado it’s time once again for ice cubes in the coffee, sleeping in the basement, and bidding au revoir to the Cabin Creek snow gully.
Actually, these things usually happen in June. Especially the last one.
“The saying goes: We’re doing good if that line of snow up on Longs Peak makes it to the end of June,” a friend, who is a Longmont native, told me once.
“You mean the Cabin Creek snow gully?” I asked, pointing. He nodded.
“And that’s Mount Meeker, not Longs Peak,” I added.
I tend to overshare on this whenever I get the chance: on the fact that almost all of what we see of our town’s soaring namesake is not really Longs Peak, but instead Mount Meeker. A tiny bit of Longs does show up, as a point above and behind Meeker. Together they are known as the Twin Peaks.
Truth be told, I’m glad I live in Longmont, not Meekerville.
For most of the year, a striking line of snow fills up the drainage of Cabin Creek on Meeker’s east face, which lights up in the morning sun. Being a deep cut, the gully remains white long after the adjacent slopes have melted. Ever since my friend told me about the “end-of-June/doing good” rule, I’ve monitored it each year to see how we’re doing. And for the last bunch of years the verdict has been “not good”: the snow has disappeared significantly prior to the 30th, beaten by June heat.
But this year it was different! Here it was, the 12th of July, and the Cabin Creek gully still displayed a thin line of white!
The Twin Peaks are hardly twins. They are distinct and differently-shaped mountains. Longs gets all the glory, attention, and crowds, being Rocky Mountain National Park’s sole fourteener (peak over 14,000 feet), and possessing a startling, sheer northeast face that is up there with Yosemite in terms of being an extreme rock climber mecca. Meeker, only 350 feet shorter, is largely overlooked. This is fine by me, since Meeker is one of my favorite solitude places.
And the Twin Peaks are named for two very different men. Stephen Long was one of the USA’s most prolific expedition leaders in the late 1810s and early 1820s, scouting more than 26,000 miles of American West. A century before the Dust Bowl proved him correct, Long concluded that much of the land west of Missouri was a “Great Desert” and was “unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by people depending on agriculture.”
Nathan Meeker, on the other hand, was an artsy progressive guy from Euclid, Ohio. He tried to make it in New York as a novelist and poet but, needing to make a buck, returned home to Euclid and became a traveling salesman. Apparently he was able to avoid religion up into early adulthood. But then he got married, and his wife forced him to get baptized in order to address her concern about his lack of faith.
And so Nathan got bit by the Christian bug. He got bit bad.
The newlyweds moved to the soon-to-fail utopian colony of Trumbull Phalanx, in Ohio. This settlement was based on the ideas of French socialist thinker Charles Fourier.
Fourier inspired many such movements in America at the time, even though quite a few of his ideas proved far too strong for American Christians to handle. For example, Fourier is credited with originating the term “feminism” in 1837, and he viewed the traditional home as a place of exile and oppression for women. He believed all important jobs should be open to women, based on skill and aptitude, and, contrary to the times, viewed women as individuals and not as half of a human couple.
Another example: In an age before the word “homosexuality” existed, Fourier wrote that both men and women possess a wide range of sexual needs and preferences, which may include same-sex ones, and which may change throughout their lives.
Fourier was all about liberating the individual, through education and liberation of passion.
Nathan Meeker wasn’t. Quite the contrary. Nor was the Christianized American version of Fourier’s utopia, which was decidedly not about liberating any passion, or gayness, or women.
After the Ohio colony failed in 1837, Meeker knocked around awhile as a journalist. When he came west for work in the 1850s, he was inspired to relocate here and try again for the Christian utopian communal economic enterprise thing. He recruited for and founded a colony at what is now Greely (25 miles northeast of Longmont) which he advertised as a “cooperative venture for people of high moral character and temperance.”
Like all the others, the colony lasted only a couple of years. It failed financially; it failed irrigation-ally (water fights have gone on since the beginning of White settlement here). Also, the colony members did not meet Meeker’s standards for Christian values.
After that, Meeker continued in his quest for domination of Christian values. Despite having no experience in Indian affairs, he got the governor of Colorado to appoint him Indian Agent in charge of the newly established Ute reservation at White River. He lacked experience, but he was thoroughly on board with the tenets of American white supremist imperialism: convert indigenous people to Christianity, compel them to become sedentary farmers, and abduct their children and force them into residential schools so as to purge the survivors of their language and culture.
Thus Meeker set out to colonize the White River Utes, who at the time were animist nomadic hunter gatherers and who prized, more than anything else, their large herds of horses. Meeker didn’t like any of this. Early on he forced them to relocate to a valley bottom, where they were instructed to plow and plant. Few complied; instead, they grazed and raced their horses in the fertile valley. Meeker, incensed, withheld government rations and annuities, and asked the USA cavalry to patrol the borders to prevent the Utes from leaving to hunt and gather.
He also plowed under their horse racing track, and apparently said out loud that there were too many horses and that it was time to kill a bunch of them.
Long story short: instead of killing their horses, the Utes killed Meeker.
It’s known as the “Meeker Massacre.”
And now we have Mount Meeker. Like so many other things: named after some White male asshole.
But that doesn’t mean Mount Meeker is not to be loved. I personally am very glad so few people around here pay attention to Meeker, and instead focus on Longs Peak next door.
There is nothing meek about climbing Meeker! It’s easy to know when to go. As you study the progress of the melt of Cabin Creek gully, you can also observe the progress of the melt on Meeker Ridge above it. As soon as it becomes largely free of snow, just go. Like I said, it’s no slouch! The climb is exactly one full vertical mile of elevation gain. The trail begins at a tiny obscure trailhead, and peters out at a saddle beneath the ridge. But no matter; once you gain the ridge, it is obvious where to go (and go, and go). When you finally reach the very top, you get the pleasure of a thrilling and dicey rock scramble to get to the second of Meeker’s own twin peaks.
Here’s the best part: On any given summer day, hundreds if not thousands of people are vying to get to the top of Longs. Meanwhile, on top of Meeker, you will sit in absolute solitude and gaze at Longs in close-up where, through binoculars, you can see the colorful gaggle of the crowd on top.
Each time I have climbed Meeker, I have been the sole human being from the saddle all the way to the summit. On my most recent climb, last summer, I didn’t see a single other human all day after I left my car.
By the way, I just checked: as of today, July 14th, the Cabin Creek gully snow is still ever-so-slightly hanging in there.
We did good!
June 16, 2022
I stared at La Campana as if I’d been beamed into a dream.
“Am I really here?”
That’s how it can be when you go way back with a place. The scene before me was so familiar. It had replayed in my mind so many times, over the decades. To see it again, now, felt surreal.
But it was the real deal. This was the field and the old broken swing-set, down the street from Luisa’s house. And there was the granite cap of La Campana—The Bell—rising above the town of Limache, Chile.
Limache has held a special energy for me ever since I first came in 1994. It’s a mysterious, soothing energy, with a touch of bittersweet. It emanates from the circular pérgola in Brasil Park, from the mesmerizing trees lining Urmeneta Avenue.
Perhaps the oldness of the settlement has something to do with it. People lived here, and called it “Limachi” before the arrival of the Spanish. There are two theories about the name. One is that it derives from Quechua for “people of Lima,” and it is true that the Inca installed a mitimae—a community of colonists—here when they were expanding south. Another possibility is that the name comes from Lli, meaning “large crag or rock” combined with de machi, which means “of the witch.”
The “large crag or rock” is, of course, La Campana. The mountain and the town go hand and hand. According to folklore, when the Spanish arrived, the machis of the area decided to hide all the gold. To thwart the invaders they piled it on top of La Campana and laid a cap of granite over it.
Actually there isn’t any gold up there. But there is a sizable amount of quartz. And perhaps it’s the quartz beneath the granite cap of La Campana that adds energy to this whole place.
Sometimes big mountains come in small packages. This rather unremarkable, 6,170-foot Coastal Range peak has an outsized story and importance. And the tale of the hidden witch’s gold isn’t the only one.
Now it was time to climb it. I promised myself, during my last visit, that I would this time.
I got up early and left Luisa’s house just as the sun was beginning to poke over La Campana’s shoulder. I walked to Urmeneta Avenue, and waited only a minute before a colectivo came along with a kind driver who took me all the way to the park entrance. As I began hiking up through the forest, the freshness and energy of the superb morning was augmented by the fact that I was walking in the footsteps (or horse hooves rather) of a 23-year-old Charles Darwin.
It is said that it was Mr. Darwin’s experiences in the Galapagos Islands, more than anywhere else, that had the foundational effect on his development of the theory of evolution. But in truth Chile played a pivotal role as well; one perhaps more influential than the Galapagos. And this big-little mountain I was hiking up had been a part of it.
For fifteen months, while the HMS Beagle charted Chile’s coastline, a seasick-prone Darwin spent much of his time ashore hiking, riding, investigating, and specimen collecting. On August 14, 1834, while the Beagle was docked at Valparaíso, Darwin obtained horses and set off with a companion to the Hacienda San Isidro, at the base of La Campana. Two days later, with a fresh change of horses, they began the climb. They summited the following day.
I didn’t need as much time as Darwin. The ascent of La Campana is steep, but it’s only 7 kilometers to the top; rather run-of-the-mill for a day hike.
Within a couple hours I reached the abandoned quartz mine at the base of the final pitch. “Sorry, but you are not authorized to go to the top,” a warden there informed me, holding a printed list. I hadn’t been aware that I needed to make an advance reservation online.
Aw shit, I thought. Then I thought: No big deal. I’ve climbed dozens if not hundreds of crags such as this one. All I really needed to do was get into the warming sunshine on a nearby hill, and enjoy gazing at The Bell in close-up.
Which I did.
“Am I really here?” I asked myself, dreamily.
Darwin of course didn’t have anyone telling him he couldn’t go to the top. As he and his buddy scrambled up the “rough mass of fragmented greenstone” they passed numerous attempts at gold mining. Even on the summit a small pit had been excavated. Apparently those El-Dorado-drunk Spanish weren’t taking any chances with the folklore’s veracity!
Here’s what Darwin wrote in his journal:
“We spent the day on the summit, and I never enjoyed one more thoroughly. Chile, bounded by the Andes and the Pacific, was seen as in a map…Who can avoid wondering at the force which has upheaved these mountains, and even more so at the countless ages which it must have required to have broken through, removed, and levelled whole masses of them?”
Six months later, Darwin would be farther south, experiencing some upheaval of his own in the form of the 1835 Concepción earthquake. Viewing the devastation, he noticed rocks lined with marine shells that were now elevated well above the tide. He saw that the island of Santa Maria had been raised by a whole nine feet. This experience, combined with others such as finding fossilized forests and seashells high in the mountains, affirmed to Darwin the constantly evolving nature of our planet. It was a first-hand look at how the ever, slow-changing features of Earth are products of thousands of successive uplifts over unfathomable periods of time.
Which led him to ask, “How do living things change in order to adapt?”
24 years, and a massive amount of research later, he published his answer: “On the Origin of Species.”
I sat on La Campana and thought of how it all must have looked to Darwin: pretty much the same as what I was looking at now, minus the deforestation and dryness due to drought. I’d arrived a mere 188 years after him—less than a snippet in time.
Some birds flew by, and I thought of the geese honking in Luisa’s backyard.
And I thought of the amazing bar-headed geese of Asia. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? How is it, that they fly over the Himalayas at elevations of 5,000, 6,000, even 7,000 meters every autumn, from China and Tibet, to spend the winter on the Indian subcontinent, and then fly back again each spring? These birds flap, they don’t glide, and they go from sea level to the tops of the Himalayas in less than a day, into freezing thin atmospheres containing a third as much oxygen as at sea level, while consuming 10-15 times more oxygen than they do at rest.
Researchers have identified a suite of adaptations which set them apart from other geese, which make them able to do this, such as: ability to breathe more deeply and efficiently, modified blood hemoglobin that binds oxygen more efficiently, heart left ventricles that have significantly more capillaries, and modified cellular structure of flight muscle that decreases the distance oxygen must diffuse to reach mitochondria.
Even more fascinating to me than how they do it is WHY they do it. Why do bar-headed geese fly over the Himalayas?
Perhaps the answer is: because they “always” have. They, and their forbears, have “always” flown south for the winter and north for the summer.
But the Himalayas haven’t always been there.
Not very long ago geologically, only 40 to 50 million years or so ago, the island of India began to crash into the Eurasian Plate. Since then, it has continued to move north at about 5 centimeters a year, sliding beneath Asia and creating the Himalayas, which still rise at about 1 centimeter a year.
I bet if I lived for 40 million years, and walked from Tibet to India and back each year, I’d scarcely notice that my initially-level walk increased by one centimeter each year. By the time I was crossing 6,000-meter passes it would be more than routine. It would be the way it had “always” been. And my body would be totally tuned for it.
I thought about this during my hike down from La Campana, and on the bus rolling back to Limache. 40 million years! I feel I’ve adapted pretty well after bagging only 58! And this is without the aid of additional natural selection!
I got down on Urmeneta Avenue, away from the center, so that I could walk beneath its amazing trees on my way to Santa Isabel supermarket.
Inside the store, I tossed a packet of candles into my cart. Then I went to look for a cake. What would be the flavor of my Chilean birthday?
Lúcuma, of course.
I carried it back to Luisa’s house.
Tales of Caliboro
May 14, 2022
In the mythology of central Chile, near the summit of Cerro Caliboro, more specifically a little bit down to the west, there is a hollow that forms the bed of a small lagoon. Here a wonderful animal lived. He was called the Little Bull of Caliboro.
His color was deep bright pink. His bearing was slender and majestic. His eyes were huge and expressive. But the most magnificent thing about the Little Bull, his most brilliant distinction, were his horns. They were well-proportioned, expertly-turned. And they shone brighter than the sun because they were made of pure solid gold.
When the Little Bull walked, his horns lit up like a lantern, and many animals followed him. Back then the hills around here were covered with huge thick trees that formed impenetrable forests. On Caliboro, the Little Bull reigned benevolent and supreme since the entrances, crossroads, and exits were known only to him. Whoever else entered became lost forever. Not even the lions, who lived in a den on a different hill to the northwest (which is still called the Cave of Lions) could pursue the Little Bull and his followers on Cailboro, where they lived peacefully and in protection.
When Little Bull bellowed, black clouds formed over the hills and it rained infallibly and torrentially. To this day, whenever Cerro Caliboro becomes covered in thick dark clouds, it is a sure sign that storms and rain are imminent.
More About Caliboro
Many Chilean children learn the legend of El Torito de Caliboro, the Little Bull of Caliboro, before they learn their ABCs. Earliest memories might be of picture books depicting a bright pink little bull with golden horns, leading his animal followers through a hillside forest primeval. This story is central to the mythology of central Chile, and Cerro Caliboro is a real place that is home to this myth, not unlike how Mount Olympus is a real place that is home to Greek myths.
It’s a major claim to fame for an otherwise little-known, very secluded, very off the beaten track place. Set in the Mediterranean-esque Maule Valley of south-central Chile, Caliboro has a dirt road, and the nearest towns of San Javier and Linares are over thirty kilometers away in different directions. At night the stars are very bright thanks to an absence of light pollution, and aside from the sound of the breeze, the silence is profound. The clear air and bright sunshine are enchanting.
The name “Caliboro” derives from the Mapudungun words coru and calil, which translate to “bone of human flesh.” My boss, whose family vineyard has been here for over two hundred years, told me that the story is when the indigenous Mapuche first arrived at this hill, they found a graveyard of human bones on its lower slopes from an earlier civilization.
Beginning in the mid-1500s, the Mapuche started to be displaced by a hardy stock of Europeans, who brought with them cows, goats, sheep, and intensive agriculture of cereals and other crops, including—largely due to the wine needs of church friars—grapevines.
A lot of magical realism exists here: a palpable, mystical energy. Someone told me that the soil contains lots of quartz, and perhaps this is part of the reason. Someone else told me that Caliboro is like a Macondo Seco, or a dry version of Macondo, the fictional locale immortalized by Gabriel García Márquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” In the novel, Macondo begins as a tiny settlement with almost no contact with the outside world. It grows to become a prosperous place, before its downfall.
Indeed the similarities are striking. Chile, to begin with, has always been much more isolated than Colombia. This long strip of land is separated from the rest of the world by the Atacama Desert to the north, the continuous wall of Andes to the east, the icy Antarctic to the south, and the vast Pacific Ocean to the west. And Caliboro is an isolated place within this isolated country: an area of intoxicating solitude.
The houses of Caliboro are largely adobe, still, although this is changing in favor of more earthquake-resistant materials. Whitewashed in lime and topped with terracotta tiles, their outer brick corridors lead to opulent vegetable gardens, which prosper despite a lack of water.
Houses and people here are few. And the people work very hard. They also play hard, and it’s pretty fun and can get out of hand sometimes. Over this past Easter weekend some horse races were held at the Media Luna (“Half Moon”), the local rodeo stand. Lots of competition, accompanied by abundant drinking and betting, led to arguments. “Did you hear what happened?” a workmate asked me first thing Monday morning. Apparently an argument resulted in a fight in which two men got stabbed, one quite seriously in the intestines. Both were taken to hospital in San Javier and will probably survive.
But yes; masculinity is present, big-time, in Chilean campo culture. And like everywhere else it is prone to going hyper and toxic.
Back to the legend of the Little Pink Bull:
Naturally, people coveted his golden horns and wanted to catch him and kill him, and melt the horns down. They also wanted to harvest his animal friends and make charqui, a dried and crushed meat jerky popular to this day, which they could transport on the placid waters of the Rio Perquilauquén (Mapudungun for “purgative”) and sell to hungry people living in towns.
But the Little Bull and his followers remained safe in their sanctuary on Cerro Caliboro, what with the forest almost impossible to travel through, and anyone daring to enter quickly becoming lost. For many years people tried to hunt the Little Bull, and they failed every time.
Eventually it became clear that the only way to get at him and his followers was to combat the forest, i.e. to get rid of it.
Cutting it down proved to be a long and arduous task. Wave after wave of effort was made, with no golden horns to show for it and barely a hunk of jerky. But plenty of exhaustion was experienced by all involved.
Then someone had a bright idea: “We don’t have to cut the forest down. We can just burn it.”
Origin of Myth
Stories come from somewhere. Myths spring from real life. When European settlers began to arrive in Chile nearly five hundred years ago, the Earth appeared vast and limitless to them. And its purpose was to serve and be dominated and plundered by man, as so instructs the Book of Genesis.
The Mapuche, on the other hand, had probably learned a different lesson over the thousands of years since their homo sapiens ancestors arrived in the Americas. The extinction of the megafauna in very short order was but just an early, and perhaps forgotten, step in a long sequence of degradation, and by now they were instinctively more conscientious of nature. Their customs and legends centered more on the need to respect the Earth and preserve it.
With the Europeans came hundreds of years of intensive cycles of agriculture and environmental exploitation, resulting in large-scale deforestation and elimination of most of the native vegetation. Much territory to this day is used for increasingly large, industrially-farmed monocultures. At first the fertile flat bottoms were ideal for many crops, grapevines not excepted, and cleared and planted as such. Soon the hillside forests were being destroyed and converted to slanted fields of European cereals and wheat. Of course, the easiest way to clear a forest is to burn it down. This comes with the added benefit of purging the animals, which can be harvested as they flee and made into edible protein.
So on the hillsides, first came the cereals. Then came forestry monocultures for timber export. The latter began in the 1970s, promoted and subsidized by the neoliberal state as economic policy of the Pinochet dictatorship. It takes several decades for a tree crop to grow, so when the Pinochet regime ended in 1990 the trees were still very much growing. And these tree plantations continued (and continue) to be promoted by subsequent civil governments.
All this has resulted in drastic changes to the health of the soils throughout the area. Along with serious loss of soil has been a huge loss of biodiversity, and an alteration in the water balance. And it can be argued that there has also been a drastic decrease in the prosperity of the average person. This loss of course doesn’t show up on the balance sheets of agriculture corporations, or in the net worth of the elite, or in government GDP figures.
Not to mention there is now a much higher risk of large-scale forest fires. One such incendio was sparked by a piece of machinery this past December 23, and tore through a swath of lower slope on Calboro, nearly torching the 200-year-old winery (bodega) that I’ve been working at these past couple months.
In some ways it’s like Macondo again. Macondo began as a small and isolated place, and grew to become prosperous and thriving. But the arrival of a banana plantation was the beginning of its downfall. Environmental destruction and human abandonment ensued, followed by a windstorm that wiped it off the map.
As the people set fire to Cerro Caliboro, the Little Bull and his herd took refuge in the deep forested hollow of their lagoon.
But the flames approached.
Very scared, the Little Bull led his herd to the summit.
There, he let fly a huge bellowing that could be heard for miles around.
And suddenly a massive thick cloud appeared, and covered the entire hill.
“Woo-hoo!” I yelled as the rain shower intensified.
Across the road, a big black cloud had formed, completely obscuring Cerro Caliboro.
I stood in a plastic bin along with 500 kilograms of freshly-harvested grapes, elevated eight feet above the ground by a forklift, tied-off by a waist belt. Armed with a pitchfork, I shoveled grapes as fast as I could into the rotating teeth of the de-stemmer machine, where they became separated and converted into a slurry that flowed through a fat hose to one of our biggest stainless-steel fermenters inside the bodega. This was the last cosecha, or harvest, of the year. The previous day we’d received thirty of these bins—15,000 kilos of grapes. The de-stemmer was located beneath the bodega’s tall sloping terracotta roof, but where I stood shoveling madly I was totally exposed to the elements.
“Woo-HOOO!!!” my workmates hooted back from beneath the shelter, laughing, as a veritable downpour, or aguacero ensued.
It was my honor to get my turn with the pitchfork during the most intense minutes of a week-long period of rain during which the sun did not come out a single time. It’s quite a rigorous workout, to shovel 500 kilograms of grapes as fast as you can to keep up with the de-stemmer, so we were rotating the task between three men. Another guy piloted the forklift, and another collected the rejected stems and tossed them into a tractor trailer to be sent to compost.
I had a second honor that day: My turn with the pitchfork came when it was the last bin to be shoveled. And as such, I closed out the cosecha for the year at the bodega.
And lo and behold, the very next day, the sun, the glorious sun came out! For the first time in a week! And with it: snow-covered Andes!
Drawn like a magnet to observe the wondrous mountains, at midday I walked down into a nearby industrial-mechanized grape farm that was in the process of being scoured by two enormous harvester machines that straddled each row to move through the vines as a giant monstrous sieve. The grapes in this field were low-quality, my mates informed me. “Full of water” from irrigation, they said. The fruit would be used by a corporation to make bulk low-grade wine. These were not the dry-farmed, hand-harvested grapevines of my organic bodega.
I have to say that mechanization is definitely a quick way to get a lot of grapes—orders of magnitude quicker than the laborious days I’d spent in the fields with a pair of scissors, clipping grape bunches one by one. Oh! The days I spent doing that, coming home exhausted and sleeping sounder than I’ve ever slept before in my life. I got pretty good at vine surgery, at getting only the grapes. Only occasionally would a leaf land in my white plastic bin, and I’d pluck it out.
But here these machines were getting more grapes in ten minutes than I could clip in a whole day.
As I watched, I noticed they were getting more than grapes. They were getting lots of leaves too. In our hand-surgery method, this was a no-no. We were only after the grapes.
“What did you think?” Kako, my foreman, asked me from his forklift seat when I huffed my way back up to the bodega.
“Amazing! The mountains, I mean. As for the harvesters, it’s quick, but I noticed they’re getting a lot of leaves along with the grapes.”
Kako grinned and waved his arm dismissively. “Not just leaves! Everything: rats, birds, bird nests, snakes and—”
“And rabbits and spiders!” Nico chimed in. “Everything!”
So think about THAT next time you consider buying a big box or jug of cheap bulk wine. In your glass, you’re getting a little bit of everything!
The Little Bull bellowed some more, and the people heard him through the thick black cloud that had rendered Cerro Caliboro completely invisible.
Then something truly astonishing occurred.
The sun came out.
And it revealed the top of the hill.
As the people watched in amazement, the Little Bull made a run, and a leap, and jumped onto a passing cloud.
Other animals followed. As many who could. But not all.
And the cloud moved away toward the Andes, carrying with it the Little Bull and the friends who were able to jump aboard.
The view of the Andes from the top of Cerro Caliboro is magnificent. A whole sweep of them have become my new friends.
Volcan Chillán, a ski mecca, rises in the south. Next and most impressively comes Longaví. Now that we’ve had that week of rain, which was snow up there, Longaví’s lava dome shines white, and it displays a luxuriantly long, snow-caked skirt. Mapudungun for “head of snake,” it is non-threateningly dormant. It last erupted about 6,000 years ago.
A jagged snow-caked ridge of cordillera continues northward, and then we get to Cerro Azul and its stark northerly protrusion, Quizapú. Unlike Longaví, Quizapú wasn’t there 6,000 years ago. It wasn’t even there a scant 200 years ago. It burst out of the side of Cerro Azul in 1846, surprising some local arrieros (backcountry herdsmen) who were camped nearby. Then, on April 10, 1932 one of the strongest eruptions of the twentieth century anywhere in the world occurred, sending ash to Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and southern Brazil. When all was said and done, we had most of the sharp point we see now.
Quizapú acts up in tandem with its northern brother, Descabezado Grande (Spanish for “big headless”) as they are part of the same complex. Descabezado’s name is self-explanatory; its silhouette formed when a part of its old upper cone collapsed during an explosive eruption.
End of Story (?)
As the Little Bull and some of his herd floated away to the Andes, the other animals scattered through what remained of the smoldering forest, and were hunted down and made into jerky.
(Now all that’s really left around here for people to hunt are rabbits, which they do with sport and enthusiasm on weekends using trained dogs. But if you see a rabbit pelt draped over a barbed-wire fence, that’s not their work. Nor is it witchcraft. The birds of prey here also hunt the rabbits, and for some reason they like to hang the pelts on fences.)
But witnessed by all, the Little Bull and his band of animals survived.
They haven’t been seen or heard from since.
It is hoped, and believed, that one day the bull with the golden horns will return.
Chilean schoolchildren are told this will happen when the hills and valleys are covered by native trees again. When the impenetrable forests are formed, once again.
Looking for Little Bull
I had a day off the other day. It was sunny. So naturally, I headed up Caliboro.
It was my sixth time climbing Caliboro. I’d come about as often as I could these past months, to enjoy the exercise, the beauty, the breeze, the views, and the solitude. Oh man, the solitude. When you go up here, you know there’s not another human being around for miles. It’s just you, the hills, the stubbly trees, the grasses, the Andes, and the birds and other animals who live up here.
This time I was determined to find Little Bull’s lagoon.
As I climbed through last December’s burn, the bodega and the fields and the river dropped away to reveal quadrangular-shaped grape farms turning yellow and burgundy-purple in late autumn. In front of me, thanks to the recent rain, a wintergreen carpet of short grass was pushing up through the longer dry grass. And flowers! Tiny yellow flowers everywhere.
As I reached the second of three minor summits, I began making my way through the by-now-familiar, unmaintained government reforestation project. Some years ago, perhaps out of guilt or shame magnified by legend, a concerted effort was made to return the native forest to Cerro Caliboro. To do this, a decidedly non-native network of hoses connected to small reservoirs was installed, to supply thousands of wire mesh cylinders, each containing a support stick and, hopefully, a seedling. Lots of public money was spent on this, but obviously, after an enthusiastic start, the project fell into disrepair and nobody was maintaining it. The reservoirs are dry; their auxiliary equipment is smashed and decrepit. Many of the mesh-stick cylinders have toppled over, and of those standing, most but not all don’t contain a seedling. However some do. Some trees will grow from this.
The web of hoses grew denser and more intricate as I huffed my way nearer to the top. Then one of the hoses moved, and I realized it was a little black snake slithering away. Then I spied a rabbit. And a white butterfly.
I reached my usual sitting place on the summit, but walked I past it and descended–westward.
“Maybe that’s where it is,” I whispered, spying a deep fold between the hills which I had not yet investigated.
Down I went. As I descended, the vegetation increased and I began to hear things: bird sounds that I had not encountered before.
Down, down I continued, into deep shade, until the vegetation would not let me go any farther. All was thick and green and impenetrable, and level enough to contain some water beneath the foliage though I couldn’t see or hear any. Certainly, during wet periods, there would be water here. But I couldn’t get any closer to inspect and I knew it; during an earlier voyage I’d entered a lower section of this drainage and almost didn’t make it back out again.
So instead I sat. I closed my eyes part-way, and listened.
I heard birds: calling and responding faintly, softly, sweetly.
I heard small rustlings, also of birds.
But I heard no hooves, nor any movements of larger animals.
No Little Bull, nor any of his followers.
They have yet to return.
After half an hour, I got up, brushed myself off, and began climbing out and up the dry prickly-bush, tree spotted hillside.
Then I heard it! Hooves! And a big rustling!
Instead of Little Bull, a little wild horse appeared before me. Shy, she ran ahead to join her group, which was already running away from me and up along their self-made path.
And the wild horses led me back to the top of Caliboro.
It's In the Skin
April 15, 2022
Winemaking is dermatology, someone told me recently. The exquisite flavors, colors, and nutrients come primarily from the skin.
There’s been a lot of skin to move here these past few weeks, along the Río Perquilauquén in central Chile, at a place called Caliboro, where I have come to learn and help out during this busy season. ‘Tis the season, indeed! When autumn comes there’s lots of work to do, not just with the grapes but also with so many other things on this organic restorative-agriculture finca: fields to be readied with key-lines for new planting, fence to be built and repaired to keep the sheep and goats moving and fertilizing, wood to be chopped for heating stoves which will be in heavy use in the coming months.
For now, the days are still warm enough and the stoves are not necessary, although a sweater and ear-flap hat are called for when the sun gets to slanting. That clear bright air becomes thin and cold on the skin real fast!
Then of course there’s working the grapes themselves. Tons of grapes means tons of skins, all of which need to be moved. During fermentation the skins float on top and create a “sombrero,” and it’s important to get them good and wet once or twice a day so that all that good stuff participates in the process. This is called remontaje, and can be handled at smaller scales using a flat-faced plunger and a self-descriptive method called “push down” which can be quite the upper-body and aerobic workout, amidst dizzying fermentation gasses and buzzing of bees (the bees add their own special ingredients via their intrepid feet).
Push-down is not physically possible in the larger domed stainless steel tanks, however, or when the sombreros are thick, so instead liquid is pumped from below in these cases and returned to the top via a hose. This too is good exercise, up on a ladder or platform, manipulating a hose to soak and agitate the entire sombrero over the course of several minutes.
Eventually comes prensando, when the skins come out of the fermentation tanks and are squeezed to wring out every possible drop of the good stuff. Here at this small organic winery it’s done mostly manually, with plastic shovels and a person going inside. And the squeezing? Feet—booted or bare—remain an extremely effective method and very much in use, especially to stomp on the skins and create room while more are being shoveled in. We do have a hydraulic machine to finish the job, and end up with a thick pressed grape-skin torta to move into a truck bed for transport to compost.
Then there’s all the equipment that needs to be moved and cleaned, tanks and sieves and floors to be rinsed, hose lines to be flushed with hot water and citric acid, wayward skins to be swept up. All told it makes for a calorie-burning day.
Winemaking the manual way is indeed and old profession. It has been done this way, here, for a long time, on land which has been in the same family for over 200 years. Awhile back they considered replacing the bodega—a word which translates to “cellar” even though the facility is entirely above ground—but since it wasn’t broken they thought, why fix it? This grand, graceful adobe structure, whitewashed with lime and topped with terracotta tiles, has walls that are two feet thick, and is oriented to enable a passive ventilation system that for centuries has provided a wonderful barrel-aging environment. Earthquakes have been unable to fell this bodega; not even the 2010 biggee, which epicentered off the coast about 60 miles west of here and created a tsunami that damaged San Diego and Japan, could take out this bodega.
Next to it, in the central courtyard of the hacienda, grows a vine with a twisted trunk that is over a foot in diameter. How old is it? No one knows for sure. It’s difficult to tell with grape vines, what with the outer bark constantly cracking and peeling off. But it’s said that each full twist equates to approximately 100 years.
And this old-wood trunk has more than two full twists.
“Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “It’s a well-known fact that grape vines live for only about 100 years, and cease producing decent fruit long before then.”
That may be true in most cases. But don’t try telling this to the people of Maribor, Slovenia, where a vine grows that dates back to the late Middle Ages. In addition to withstanding earthquakes it has survived Ottoman invasion, fires, vine lice, bombing by Allied forces, and more. And it still produces grapes; enough to make a special limited vintage each year.
Perhaps the old vine here in Caliboro is a similar hearty stock. It’s grapes certainly are plentiful. A vat of them is currently fermenting outside my door.
Of what ancestry is this Caliboro vine? Who are its parents? Where in Europe did it come from? And are there any others like it in the world? DNA analysis is currently underway, but in all likelihood it will turn out to be a one-of-a-kind hybrid, which means it will need to be given a name. And that name will most likely be: Caliboro.
Which derives from Mapudungun for “bone of fresh human meat.” But that’s a different story.
The lush shambolic field vines of this organic viñedo appear quite a bit different from the industrial bright green perfect thin rows of the neighboring vines, which are cookie cutter in appearance and have grapes perfectly accessible to machines, denuded earth between them without a stray mala hierba (weed) in sight, and every one of the hundreds of thousands of trunks wrapped in a sleeve of frost-protecting sky-blue plastic, since there is no herbaceous ground cover to help even out the temperatures.
Even scarier is what is happening up the road from my house, in a vast expanse along the river. For weeks, machines have been churning the earth to prepare a mammoth new monoculture cherry tree farm in what was formerly grapes. The bare, tractor-razed earth looks stark, and when I hike up Cerro Caliboro in the afternoon to watch the condors soar and gaze at the soon-to-be snowy Andes, I look down and see massive clouds of topsoil blowing away in the direction of the ocean. I hope they transplant the cherry seedlings soon, to help anchor down all that earth.
Where will all these cherries be exported to? China, I’m told. China loves their cherries.
When the cherry monoculture is completed, I’m certain it will be just like all the others. A couple Augusts ago I finally walked into the monoculture cornfield that I run past in Colorado. I hiked about a quarter mile in, sat down, and waited to see what I could experience. And what I experienced was this: that this was not a farm. This was a factory—and a dead one at that. Sure, there was green corn stalk after green corn stalk, each one almost identical. But the whole place felt dead. Not one weed, not one bird, not one insect. It was a sterile corn manufacturing facility created by genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, producing a starchy product big in bulk but small in nutrition. Most of all, it was creepy.
Another problem here in Caliboro are timber farms on the neighboring hillsides. Paulina, my boss’s mother, informed me that not only do these non-native trees interfere with the natural flow of water—and are causing people’s wells to run dry—their needles emit oils into the air which interfere with grape skins and affect their flavor. Grapes have thick skins, but there are limits to what they can endure.
There’s got to be a better way. I feel certain this organic viñedo I’m working at is part of the solution and not the problem. I’m glad I got here in time to partake in the tail-end of picking season. Armed with hundreds of white plastic bins and industrial-strength scissors, we waded into vines after someone tamed the biodiverse jungle-like setting with a machete. Each vine for me was a unique puzzle: how to find the big hidden bunches of ripe juicy manna and locate the best places to snip to obtain the heaviest clumps. And the place felt so alive! With insects buzzing, birds chortling, and plenty of other plants and organisms doing their thing in harmony with the vines. The sheep hadn’t yet made it here to chomp, churn, and nutrify.
The delicious skin-infused final product, of course, makes all of this way more than worthwhile. These wines explode their flavor into your mouth in a way that makes you know they are healthy. Your body just knows.
And the air here feels the same: good and healthy, the sunlight so clear, the stars so bright at night since we are so far from any city; the silence.
Especially at night, the air feels very good on the skin.
Paulina advised me the day I arrived: “At night, take your glass of wine and go outside and look at the stars.”
I didn’t need additional coaxing.
The night air on my skin, and the vibrant flavor of grape skin in my mouth. What a pairing!
Blog Extra, April 3, 2022
Otoño has arrived to the Pacific Southwest in all its glory. It’s time for hats and jackets and crispness in the air. By afternoon the comforting scent of woodsmoke pervades the lanes, emerging from tin chimneys of houses. Nights are getting cold and, at higher elevations, very cold.
And snow has begun to fall. Being autumn it comes and goes, but it tinges the upper cordilleras in a lasting white. And then there are the volcanoes: the gorgeous, conical volcanoes of Chile. They positively light up in white, thanks to the autumn dusting! It takes the standard, severe wet PSW weather to make this happen, but when the sun eventually comes out again—and it does—man, oh man is it ever glorious!
Volcán Llaima, 10,630 feet, is one of the continent’s most active. Frequent eruptions have occurred before and since the first recorded by the Spanish, in 1640, while in the early stages of unsuccessfully attempting to subjugate the Mapuche. Since then there have been about 35 more eruptions, including a biggee in 1873-76 that altered the shape of the mountain and gave it its current name. Before 1873 it was known to the Mapuche as Chañel, which means “finger” in Mapudungun. Back then it was likely about 150 feet higher than it is now, and pointier. But a fissure appeared near the crater during the 1873-76 period and the name became switched to Llaima, which means “drain” or “ditch” (although it could mean “blood veins”; also fitting). The last major eruption was in 1994, capping off a very active 20th century, and a significant event occurred in 2008 stretching into 2009. I hiked through the gravelly black moonscape resulting from this eruption, through driving wind and rain during my long trek into the national park.
Llaima for the Mapuche, like all volcanoes, is a place with supernatural connotations and sacred qualities. A spirit or guardian lives at the top, called a ngen, and a court of minor but still-powerful spirits inhabits the lower flanks. All are associated with evil. The mountain is symbolically related to other elements affiliated with malevolence: the color red, fireballs that fall from the sky, and a cosmic region called Minche Mapu, which is a negative underworld inhabited by a couple major gods of evil. Bad volcano!
You might think this reputation arose from its frequent eruptions. But this concept doesn’t hold up when you consider Villarica, Llaima’s neighbor to the south, which is regarded by the Mapuche as a “good” volcano despite the fact that it is similarly active and even has a pool of molten lava visible inside its crater; a rare thing. Nor can beauty explain the good/bad dichotomy of these mountains: both are utterly gorgeous. Regardless, Villarica is considered to be an inducer of beneficial dreams, whereas Llaima transmits bad omens to sleeping people.
Since 1957, Llaima has been good enough to be protected by the Parque Nacional Conguillio, which also protects amazing old-growth forests of huge moss-covered trees and, spectacularly, hillsides of araucarias that climb from the valley floors all the way to the bush line. In fact, some of the tallest araucarias—and they can reach 250 feet in height—grow right at the tree line! It’s crazy! Seriously, they look like something out of Dr. Suess.
Araucaria, Chile’s national tree, might be more familiar to you as the “monkey-puzzle tree.” That’s what I called it growing up in Seattle (actually, the name given to me was shortened to “monkey tree”). The monkey-puzzle moniker was given in the late 1700s by a Brit who saw one growing on an English estate and speculated that climbing its spike-covered spiral branches would be a puzzle even for a monkey. Indeed! Or even touching the thing, or even thinking about touching it! I touched one while out hiking in Conguillio, and immediately decided to never do it again.
If you think these trees look like they come from a different geological epoch, that’s because they do. Araucarias are “relicts,” meaning they inhabit a restricted area whose range was once far wider. Evidence dates them back to the Middle Jurassic; it has been speculated that the long necks of sauropods evolved to browse the yummy nuts and other foliage in tall trees such as these. Now they grow mostly only in this one namesake province in Chile, and in the adjacent area in Argentina. Relatives of it dot the Pacific in places such as Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, and Papua.
Known to the Mapuche as pehuén, the tree is considered sacred. Its seeds are larger than but similar to pine nuts, and were and are an important food source. They were especially important to the Pehuenche, or “people of the pehuén,” an indigenous group partially merged with the Mapuche that retains some ancestral lands here.
The lake you see is not a reservoir but a natural lake. There is no outlet stream; rather it drains subterrain-eally through porous volcanic rock and discharges from a hillside about 1,000 feet lower. Consequently the lake’s level varies quite a bit. It will freeze over in the coming months, when up to two meters of snow will fall in this moody, wet Pacific Southwest.
Severe winter weather is one thing, but autumn here too is no joke. To enjoy the stupendous sunny fall days, you need to know how to brave the wet and the cold. And man, the weather can really roll in! Fortunately for me, being from the Pacific Northwest, I have it in my blood. During my three nights in Conguillio I stayed mostly warm and dry enough, though not always. One cold and rainy night my tent leaked and little lakes formed inside. I fixed that, and the next morning I woke to a tent coated in ice. Yes; abundant rain, fog, and bone-chilling cold are part of the deal. So is GLORY, when the sun comes out and your clothes steam dry and everything is warm and unbelievably beautiful…with added fresh white on the mountaintops!
After Conguillio I was ready for the main event: a visit to another Bad Volcano. One that is very dear to me. One that I have carried with me, in my heart and mind, for 27 years.
Volcán Lanín is the “marmie” of the Pacific Southwest volcanoes. At nearly 12,400 feet, it’s the highest thing around. However it exists in relative obscurity, tucked away behind Villarica in gorgeous, remote, wild back-country borderlands with Argentina, where it rises above a pass that the Mapuche kept secret from the Spanish all the way up into the late 1800s. Elusive unlike its brethren, it isn’t a pinnacle point of reference viewable from fertile western valleys like Villarica, Llaima, Osorno, and others. Nope; in order to see Lanín, you need to go to Lanín.
The same isn’t true on the Argentine side, where Lanín dominates the landscape and takes its rightful place in the center of the Neuquén provincial flag and anthem.
It’s hard to get Lanín out of your mind once you see it. I’ll never forget my first time, which was also my last time—up close and personal, that is. It was on the summer evening of December 23, 1994. I was making a backpacking trek through this untrammeled hinterland and there, rising beyond an evening ridge, appeared this dreamy, triangular cardboard-like cutout of a mountain.
I pitched my tent and gazed at it into twilight, spellbound.
What was most entrancing to me was the triangular shape, made all the more dramatic by a distinctive pointy cap of ice sitting on top. Rather than curving to a crater, the top is covered by a sharp, striking glacial crown. This is because Lanín probably hasn’t erupted for over 10,000 years. In the meantime, the crater has filled in with ice whipped up into a cornice. The ice cap is most captivating from the south, where it extends several hundred meters down. Here on the north side, I learned it barely existed anymore. I was hoping to inspect the status for myself. As everywhere, glaciers are vanishing.
Strange how Lanín is considered “bad,” being as dormant as it is. Indeed, its name may come from Mapudungun for “dead rock.” However, it may be coming back to life! Faint rousings and seismic tremors were recently detected in Lanín for the first time in recorded history, in February of 2017.
But if the last eruption occurred 10,000 years ago, that means it was probably witnessed by human beings. And Lanín certainly has a prominent place in Mapuche mythology.
By all means, Lanín is a sacred mountain to the Mapuche—one of the most sacred. Word is, in antiquity it was a peaceful place. But Pillán, the god of evil who inhabits the summit, didn’t want anyone to go up it. When some Huanquimil people arrived and climbed it, they aroused Pillán’s ire, and he responded by issuing violent eruptions. To appease the god, tribal sorcerers decided that somebody needed to—you guessed it—throw a maiden into the crater. So, a young brave named Quechuán brought the chief’s youngest daughter, Huilefún, up there to do it. But he caved at the last minute, could not complete the task, and instead abandoned the girl near the top. Then a condor arrived, seized Huilefún in its talons, and dropped her in. And Lanín has been a dead rock ever since.
Gazing at Lanín that evening in 1994, I was perfectly happy with my vantage point and didn’t need to climb it and piss Pillán off. I did proceed to the summit of Quetrupillán the next day, however. Quetrupillán is a low-lying volcano that sits between Lanín and Villarica; the three form a triumvirate. I descended Quetrupillán’s western slope on Christmas eve, pitched my tent in a meadow…and then realized my vision was getting blurry. By the next morning I couldn’t open my eyes due to snowblindedness. I spent the day sleeping, rising periodically to feel my way over to a stream and dampen a rag to lay over my eyes. By the following morning I could open my eyes without too much pain, but everything was blurry. I continued downhill and towards Villarica, proceeded to get lost in the forested saddle as a torrential rain arrived, and eventually, a day and a half later, stumbled into a town which turned out to be Coñaripe. I must have been a pretty scary sight, because at first they refused to give me a hotel room.
And I never forgot Lanín. Since that time I have carried its image in my mind as a personal friend, a force; a talisman.
I tried to visit Lanín again in 2008, when my child and I were traveling back to Chile through Bariloche and Junín de los Andes in Argentina during The Year We Roamed. But it was late August then, deep into winter, and buses weren’t going over Mamuil-Malal pass. I had to content myself with saluting Lanín from afar as we headed to the pampas town of Zapala to prepare to head over a different, more northerly pass. But I was happy to accomplish this reunion of sorts, albeit from afar!
Now, on the blustery autumn morning of March 29, 2022, I set out from Puesco just like I did in 1994. I needed to see my old friend again. But snow had arrived in the upper country, coating the forest and bushes. Sixteen kilometers later I arrived on the ridge of what I believed to be my tent site of yore, in half a foot of fresh snow, wind, and boiling clouds; my whole body long wet from plowing through the thick foliage along the faint trail.
No Lanín in sight.
Early stages of hypothermia had set in by the time I got back to the trailhead that evening, soaking wet and exhausted. Fortunately, the former military border post where I got yelled at by a soldier in 1994 (apparently he thought I was trying to invade Argentina) is now a national park cafeteria, complete with a wood-burning fireplace and hot chocolate. And they stayed open until 8 pm!
I had one more day left to see Lanín before I had to leave. After a very cold night, I awoke and poked my head out of my tent to a clear blue sky.
Today was the day.
I didn’t hike the sixteen kilometers in this time. Instead, I took a newer path that climbs a more proximal mountainside. And like always, I was the sole hiker.
Rest assured, I got my Lanín time.
Glorious Lanín. Dusted in autumn snow.
The north side of the ice cap looks to be hanging in there, but only barely.
Being so sacred, climbing Lanín is highly regulated and restricted. Both the Chilean and Argentine national parks that encompass the mountain make it a priority to promote respect for the spiritual and emblematic meaning it carries for the Mapuche. Ceremonies occur each year when it is not possible to climb Lanín at all. Particularly important is an annual period of ritual that takes place near the eastern base (east: where the sun and life are born). Lots of prayers to the god Nguchén happen then. Lots of favors are asked for.
If we weren’t always required to be so respectful of religion we might think this is silly. But these beliefs are not one ounce less audacious, magical, and Marvel comics-like than the ones held in utter seriousness throughout the world by people and their governments’ leaders. Indeed, in the United States today it is unlikely you’ll ever get elected to any position of real power unless you claim to have a personal relationship with a great invisible wizard who you talk to and plead with regularly. And how unsurprising it is, that in Lanín’s case the wizard became appeased by an act of violence against a woman. This too is no different in modern religions, which in every case make it central to demean, denigrate, humiliate, and subjugate people, especially women.
Never was this more obvious than in Mexico recently…downright creepy. In December I witnessed the week-long celebrations of the Virgin. Wild obsession over The Virgin. That’s it—they never used her name. She didn’t even have a name. In place of a name she had an adjective, one describing the status of a female body part. And then there was the ever-present cross, a symbol of horrific violence. And let’s not even get into the written stuff: myths and legends way crazier than anything the Mapuche ever dreamt up. Yet people swear by and operate by this stuff to this day. Including the people in power.
Religion: a cult plus time. And it’s just a blip in time in fact—a mere thousand years or three for the religions we’re stuck in now.
Why is it so respectable to be in the grip of fantastical, magical thinking? And to the people who are: has it ever begun to dawn on you that perhaps the great invisible wizard isn’t even there? And that this isn’t a problem?
What is there is a universe: a beautiful one, that we are part of, that we are made of. One we are not separate from. One that isn’t out to get us; one we don’t need an imaginary wizard to protect us from. We don’t need these conversations in our minds, these superstitions, this supernaturalism. But even if we did, it would have nothing to do with any of it being true.
But, wow, the imagination of homo sapiens. We have incredible ones. Is it our species’ greatest attribute? And/or, will it be the main cause of our downfall?
Real things are far more magical to me than imaginary ones. And living in the real world. And this trip has reminded me that it’s always better to get to livin’ (thank you Dolly Parton). I think it’s even more important now than ever before, what with the clock ticking on so many things such as glaciers.
I’m all for worship: of what is there. Lanín is there. I have carried it in my mind, ever since that magical evening in December of 1994 when its triangular shape watched over me. Since then it has been a personal symbol for me, one of beauty, of power.
As the afternoon wore on, I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to sit with Lanín. But I had a 5:30 bus to catch, and continuing life I needed to head on to.
As I sat, I imagined sitting millions of years ago, and being a part of the whole story of this mountain. I squinted my eyes and imagined a scene close to its birth, when it was an up-and-coming volcano exploding out of the ground. Then I imagined how everything looked at around the halfway point, clouds and smoke boiling everywhere, searing hillsides chockful of araucarias.
Then I opened my eyes wide to the Lanín of the here and now. Fun and cool, to have an imagination!
“Goodbye, Lanín” I said as I finally rose to leave. “It has been so good to see you again.”
As I turned to go, something rose in the corner of my vision.
It was a condor. With her massive, seven-foot wingspan, she sailed on the thermals, rising and flying between Lanín and me. She circled and soared I don’t know how many times as I watched, transfixed. She flew directly over me, not more than fifty feet above me, at least three times.
Then she sailed away towards Lanín and was gone.
If that’s not religious, I don’t know what is.
No. Scratch that. It just IS.
I am. Lanín is. The condor is. We ARE. No more, and no less.
March 16, 2022
“What’s this called?” I asked the waitress at Victoria, a venerable picantería (lunch spot serving gourmet local dishes) in the heart of old Arequipa, Peru. I pointed to the fruit on top of our ice cream and alpaca rice.
Pale orange and the size of a large cherry, it arrived crowned with a papery husk which added an artful touch to the beautiful dessert. All our plates here had been delightful works of art.
“Aguaymanto,” she said, spelling it out while my travel mate typed it into his phone.
And in this manner I finally encountered the physalis peruviana, also known as aguaymanto or ground cherry: fruit of a flowering shrub native to Andean foothills.
I crunched into it and felt tartness flood my mouth. Then came sweetness.
The aguaymanto felt like a metaphor for Peru: tart and sweet. For travelers, Peru is not for the faint of heart. It requires strength and endurance. It isn’t easy. But at the same time, it is very easy—if you are willing to go out and do it. It’s all there and waiting for you: intense, lifetime experiences. But you have to take deep breaths, muster your stamina, and go do them.
Take Vinicunca for example. Also known as The Mountain of Seven Colors, this is a recent addition to the world travel bucket list, coming into renown only in the past five years or so. To get here you get up at three thirty in the morning in Cusco (par for the course for travel in Peru) and join a van. Maybe you got up at three thirty the previous morning to go somewhere else, and will be on an all-night bus that night getting yet somewhere else. But you have to do it.
You’re probably familiar with Vinicunca’s supersaturated photoshopped images via Instagram. But you may not know that reaching the famous vista is but icing on the cake, of a stupendous hike amid towering higher mountains with mighty glaciers spilling down them. Or that you may be hiking higher than you’ve ever hiked in your life—to over 17,000 feet. Or that you’ll be part of an alpine carnival that culminates in a full-blown fiesta at the notch beneath the viewpoint, where your lightheadedness will be well-assuaged by local women serving fried alpaca meat and steaming coca leaf tea, huge smiles all around. Here you can get your passport stamped, and pose (and maybe get spat on) by a colorfully-clad llama.
Ah yes. Tart, and so sweet.
That’s also how it felt to me two days previously, at Machu Picchu, when I was searching for the view stone I’d stood on 27 years ago. Had I walked past it without seeing it?
“No puedes regresar, amigo,” I heard one of the guards call to another visitor. “You can’t go back, my friend.”
The guard was referring to the fact that the covid-era walking circuit is one-way only through the ruins. But what he said felt like it applied to life.
It was a tart, true fact: I couldn’t go back 27 years.
Perhaps my stone was gone; long unearthed and removed to improve the flow of visitors?
Then I saw it! Right there on the hillside, where the trail wound around ahead.
“Dewey!” I yelled. “There it is! There’s my stone!”
“Go,” he said, and prepared his camera.
My stone was behind a roped-off area, and I decided I’d just get as close to it as I could. But then the only guard who had a view of us turned his back. So, I ran out and stood on it while Dewey snapped away.
Sweet! Rule-breaking for sure. But this was important! This was history!
I guess you can go back. Sometimes. You just don’t need to dwell on it.
“Now sit there,” Dewey said, pointing to a different area that wasn’t roped off. “This will be your comparison photo, 27 years from now, in case your stone is still off-limits then.”
“Looking forward!” I said, smiling and turning to gaze at the ruins. “To the next 27 years! Going forth!”
Peru is a great place for going forth. From Vinicunca’s 17,060-foot summit, you can drop down, down, down, to a mere 550 feet in the next 20 hours, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. There, along the swollen chocolate-brown Madre de Dios River you can stare partially-submerged caimans in the eyes, gape at birds and flowers you’ve never seen before, and zipline and canopy-walk in pouring tropical rain.
Then you can go back up: to stunning Lake Titicaca, the highest huge lake in the world. Take a two-day lake tour (only a few dollars, but in reality, priceless), and homestay with a welcoming family on Amataní Island. Go in rainy season when it is green and flowers are everywhere…with the vast azure water spread out below.
“What is this place?” you can forgive yourself for asking. “Where am I? Greece? Switzerland?” No; the soaring white mountains in the distance are the Bolivian Andes.
You are in Peru.
Nothing will prove this more clearly than dancing the night away at Amantaní Island’s community center, hand-in-hand with everyone, dressed in a colorful woven poncho while an eight-piece live band of flutes and guitars jams. And your lungs will assure you that you are dancing at 13,000 feet. And when the music finally stops and you go outside, you’ll totally see why it’s called the MILKY way.
You can keep on going. Get up one more time at three thirty in the morning, in Arequipa, and board a bus to view a ring of 22,000-plus foot volcanoes in the freezing dawn.
And witness the flight of the condor in Cañon de Cholca.
Tart and sweet—that’s travel in Peru. Like an orange aguaymanto on ice cream with alpaca rice!
February 16, 2022
You might have seen the news last week: the world’s glaciers contain significantly less water than previously estimated. In an article published in Nature Geoscience on Feb. 7, it is reported that high-resolution satellites have tracked the movement of 98% of the world’s glaciers in recent years and enabled a much more accurate assessment of their volume. Overall, there is about 20% less glacial ice remaining worldwide than previously thought. In the soaring high tropics of Peru, it is about 27% less.
This information weighed on me as I hiked to Laguna 69 in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca a few days ago. I’d come here to revel in the beauty, but also to inspect the ice. I was last here about eight years ago, in 2014, and now I was anxious to see what changes had taken place in the interim.
Walking in mountains is my favorite thing to do in the world. Walking amidst snow-and-ice covered mountains brings lumps to my throat and tears to my eyes. One of the reasons I get so emotional, especially near the equator, is that I know I am witnessing something mighty and invincible looking, yet fragile and temporary—something that will disappear within my lifetime.
Here, in a narrow stretch of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, lies the world’s densest concentration of tropical glaciers. They coat 33 peaks over 5,000 meters (18,000 feet) in height; 16 of the peaks are over 6,000 meters (19,700 feet).
And the ice is doomed. Within a few decades most of the 250 or so glaciers will be gone. When I was last here, in 2014, I read that 20-30% of the surface area of the ice had disappeared since 1970. That figure is now closer to 40% and accelerating. Scientific consensus is that any ice lower than 5,400 meters is done for. This means that only the tippy-tops of the highest peaks of the White Mountains will remain white.
Ahead of me, Mount Chakrarahu looked to be holding up pretty well, towering above the cirque where Laguna 69 lay hidden. Though largely obscured by clouds, the mountain’s western slope looked almost as glaciated as I remembered it. This was encouraging not least because it is now summer in Peru (albeit rainy season), whereas the last time I was here it was winter (albeit dry season).
I turned and looked behind me, and had to gasp and hold my heart. There, the clouds had cleared enough to reveal most of Huascaranán. This stupendous white giant is Peru’s highest point. At 22,205 feet, it’s the fourth highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.
What will this mighty mountain look like in 10, 20 years? I asked myself. Certainly it won’t look like it does now: a soaring sentinel cloaked in eternal snows. Instead it will be a hulking dark rock, capped by a white hat.
Now that we know there’s less ice in Peru’s glaciers, we know it will be gone sooner. “But wait,” you might say. “Loss of heart-thumping glacial scenery aside, might this be good news? Less ice melting means less water raising the sea level, correct?”
Correct. But that’s not going to save the coastlines. The previous overestimate of glacial meltwater accounted for only small percentage of projected sea level rise.
Here in Peru, the fact that the glacier melt will run out sooner than later makes a dire situation all the more dire. Agriculture here depends on seasonal meltwater, as do millions of people for their drinking and electricity. Peru is way behind the eight ball on implementing alternatives, and now there’s even less time than previously thought.
What are the alternatives? Probably it’s not a good idea to construct expensive and disruptive reservoirs in steep mountains prone to earthquakes. Small man-made glaciers known as “ice stupas”, like the ones being tried in Chile and India, could help out a little. Best might be to build solar-powered desalination plants; the first such municipal project came online in Peru last year, and more are in the works.
The fact that there’s nearly a third less ice to melt here than previously thought doesn’t alleviate the looming dangers. Rivers will sharply swell in volume as they reach “peak melt” conditions, flooding communities before dropping off in flow considerably. Glaciers steepen as they melt, so there’s no avoiding the menaces of avalanches and outburst floods. An outburst flood happens when a large chunk of ice drops into a lake contained by an unstable natural dam. Outburst floods are nothing new; many modern towns and cities here are built on the alluvial deposits of past ones.
I hiked past emerald-hued Lake Consuelo, and descended a little to travel through the high basin beyond it. Above, the glacier tumbling down a shoulder of Chakrarahu looked similar to how I remembered it. The ice looked to be holding up pretty well.
I climbed the final rise, wrapping around dramatic cliffs. Then my breath caught in my throat. Ahead, in a ‘V’-shaped cut in the mountain, appeared turquoise, glacial-silted Laguna 69.
I walked to it, mesmerized. I reached it, sat, and gazed across to where a long thin waterfall plunged into the cerulean water beneath Chakrarahu’s massif. I hugged myself, overcome with emotion.
Being choked up was due mixture of things. Number one was that it was so intensely, impossible-to-describe beautiful.
Number two was that I was saying goodbye. Sure, much glorious ice remained and appeared invincible and reassuring. But this was deceptive; an illusion. Even if I make it back here in another eight years, there will be much less left.
It was sort of like the feeling you get when you watch a beautiful sunset. Glorious, not least because of the fleeting nature of the proceedings. Beautiful, precious, and temporary.
Except in this case, when it’s gone it will be gone. This “sunset” will never happen again.
I rocked back and forth, swallowed, and wiped my eyes. There was a third feeling I was experiencing: one of deepest gratitude. For being alive, and being here to witness this supreme beauty one more—likely final—time.
And I thought, “What can I do? What can be done?”
The answer is: nothing. There is nothing we can do, now, to make this stop. The deed is done.
But we CAN continue to do our best to persevere, preserve, and take care of our vulnerable planet. Part of this means loving it and being present in it, while we still can. The planet needs us. It needs mentally and emotionally healthy humans to be its stewards.
I don’t like to tell people they should travel if they don’t want to. And I am mindful of the significant carbon footprint travel can have. But if there is a way you can make your travel low-impact, I believe it’s worth pursuing. Go for a significant period of time if you can, and use public transportation—instead of staying home where your footprint might be larger.
As the B-52s sing, “Roam, if you want to.”
Go. Go out and love and see the world, while you can.
For those who say it’s too expensive, I suggest reconsidering that old story. How much is it worth to you, to see the Cordillera Blanca before the “blanca” is gone? Is it worth a $470 round trip ticket to Lima, a $14 bus ride to Huaraz, and a $22 van to/from the Laguna 69 trailhead? Less than $600 altogether (and what do you spend $600 on without really thinking)?
If your answer is “yes,” then GO. Go this year. Or next year. But don’t wait ten years, because it isn’t going to wait for you.
At Laguna 69, I dried my eyes and gazed across to the waterfall.
A quote came to mind. This was from the late great acting instructor Stella Adler. She was talking about her craft, but to me it applies to everything:
“There is one rule to be learned:
Life is not you.
Life is outside you.
If it is outside, you must go toward it…
The essential thing to know is that life is in front of you.
Go toward it.”
January 20, 2022
The tallest volcano in North America is also Mexico’s highest point, and the third-highest mountain on the continent overall after Denali and Logan. Dormant but not extinct, Pico Orizaba last erupted in 1846. Its most violent eruption is thought to have occurred in 6710 BC.
Located 300 miles south of the Tropic of Cancer on the border between Puebla and Veracruz, Orizaba is one of only three volcanoes in Mexico still having glaciers. Its soaring ice gets lit in morning sun, visible to ships approaching in the Gulf of Mexico when the coast is still bathed in shadow.
A much closer view is had from the hilltop adjacent to the small city of Orizaba, one of Mexico’s oldest towns, which for eons has been an important settlement along the route between the central highlands and the coast.
After taking in the morning view and hiking back down, the walk along the river running through town is an utter delight. This is also a great place to go running, especially in the mornings; it rivals or surpasses the best city-river runs anywhere in the world.
Stonework paths line each side of the waterfall-imbued stream, and cut beneath the dramatic archways of the venerable street bridges above. While walking or running here you’ll gaze into the eyes, and breath the breaths, of the many animals that live in the intermittent streamside enclosures, including jaguars, tigers, toucans, hippos, lions, spider monkeys, coyotes, ostriches, and emus.
If it’s after 1:00 or so, it’s a good idea to climb up to the overpassing bridge of Poniente #2, the street that runs through the center of the center of old town. By this time, LuzyLu has switched over from breakfast, and put out her signboard listing the 40-peso set-menu options for the day in her five-table dining room adjacent to her kitchen. Everything she makes is good, but if she’s got green mole stew don’t pass it up! This warm dish is especially great on a cool day when it’s cloudy and drizzling out the door.
The trip to LuzyLu’s little restroom is unforgettable! It’s via a narrow metal balcony that winds around the exterior, about 60 feet above the rushing creek water. I accidentally dropped my pen once and it almost landed in the exotic duck zoo cage far below.
Why am I telling you all this? Because Orizaba, to me, is a reminder as I head into a new year to always trust my gut and go with what feels right. And if things don’t feel right, change them so they do.
When you do that, more often than not, what is for you will not pass you.
Something wasn’t right with the Yucatan. It just wasn’t a place for me and my travel mate to wrap up our nearly-four month voyage in Mexico.
So we got on an overnight bus on New Year’s Eve and headed back to the Mexico we love, the Mexico that is HOME, the Mexico of the central highlands.
And lo and behold we stumble across Orizaba.
And then head on to Taxco…and Valle de Bravo…and Mexico City again. I could go on and on.
Thank you, Mexico!! Everyone, every place, everything. You are AMAZING!!