Monday, March 17, 2014



Last night I dreamt of mountains. This came as no surprise, being that I crossed the Andes (cordillera to us locals) by land twice in the last three days. Living in Santiago, they have always been a point of reference for my internal compass. The sun rises from behind those looming rocky ridges and then, at the end of the day, illuminates them from the west. I know that, if I’m heading towards the mountains, I am heading east. I can always count on the glacier-capped peak of El Plomo to be there, even when hidden in clouds.

 Heading to Mendoza, Argentina, we followed the rising, winding road carved in rock, along ledges, through tunnels, bordering rivers into the heart of the cordillera. The surrounding peaks, cliffs and canyons closed in, swallowing us in their wild terrain. Gazing at those tilting strata in hues of rust, ochre and grey, I wished I'd remembered more of the contents of the geology course I took at the university. The knowledge has become fuzzy and I wanted to understand how this all - rivers, canyons, sculpted cliffs - came about. 

Midway through the Cristo Redentor tunnel, we passed from Chile to Argentina, and, emerging the tunnel, we descended into a landscape of pale green slopes and alpine valleys. To our left, rose the highest peak in the western and southern hemispheres at 22,837 ft., Mt. Aconcagua, gleaming in snowy splendor against a deep blue sky. I search for words to describe how the sight made me feel: euphoric, in awe, blessed. Later, we passed a reminder of its wild nature, a small hill enclosed by a low rock wall, the burial ground for climbers defeated by the mountain they set out to conquer.

Descending into the flat vast Argentine plains, the vegetation changed to tufts of long grass, long waving fox tails and scrubby bushes, interspersed with neat vineyards. My perspective of the land changed as well. Now the sun would set behind the Andes, and I knew that far into the east lay the Atlantic. Rather than El Plomo, my view encompassed the Aconcagua and the Tupungato volcano, new points of reference for three days.
To develop an inner sense of place on the eastern side of the cordillera would have required more time. As we headed west, back to Chile through the cordillera, and then descending the caracol, that mountainside of twenty-nine perilous switchbacks (which the customs officer gleefully informed us was one of the world’s ten most dangerous roads), I felt comforted to be returning to the sight of the familiar rocky formations and peaks that ground me on this land, where the sun rises from behind the mountains and sets over the Pacific, just as in California.

1 comment:

  1. I still carry the picture in my head of the Andes mountains from the windows of our fourth floor walk up apartment on Avenida Pocuro in Providencia so many years ago. But have never driven it as you have just wonderful to do that. I loved the orientation you describe of always knowing east from west when I lived at the base of the Andes mountains. A lovely essay....