Travel Stories

Last notes from Ecuador

Thru-hiking the Andes is absurd. Whose idea was this? Bushwhacking through ravines of prickers and razor sharp reeds, hurdling barbed wire every 70 meters on 50 degree slopes, way-finding with soggy topo map and compass on a ridge top in borderline hurricane winds and complete white-out conditions, agave in all its pointy glory in exactly the wrong places every time … but will we keep going? Of course.

Thru-hiking the Andes is absurd. Whose idea was this? Bushwhacking through ravines of prickers and razor-sharp reeds, hurdling barbed wire every 70 meters on 50 degree slopes, way-finding with soggy topo map and compass on a ridge top in borderline hurricane winds and complete white-out conditions, agave in all its pointy glory in exactly the wrong places every time … but will we keep going? Of course.

It´s been quite the stretch down here. We keep setting these time goals for where we want to be by when, which would be completely attainable, if we had a trail, or a known route at least. However, completely lacking those things, and learning every day the reality of the burliness of this, the longest mountain range in the world, we, over and over again, have to modify our plan. Along with these modifications and reevaluations, not to mention the struggle of struggling every day, comes a very healthy dose of mental and emotional checking-in. We’ve both been going through some bouts of “Why??” and (though it might seem impossible) a frustration at times with almost “going through the motions,” we both feel a pull toward some greater purpose that pushes us to lace-up the boots day after day, and keep walking south. We’ve done hours of speculating about what that purpose is, and for now, have no solid conclusions, beyond a strong sense. Is that crazy?

So beyond those struggles, the trip continues to be amazing and inspiring every day. We began the chapter with a thru-hike of Cajas National Park, perhaps the most beautiful place on the planet in many ways. The days were cloudy and rainy, but the radiance of the land compensated. Over every ridge that we crested was a more beautiful view of high mountain lakes and waterfalls and steep mossy slopes with dramatic rock outcrops. Unfortunately, the park is on the small side and we were through it in only two days. But we weren’t lacking incredible landscape for long. After a few kilometers over high, rolling plains we descended into a river valley that may just as well have been Eden—for its own beauty, but also for the life changing experience that happened in its vicinity.

After emerging from the other side of the river valley and making our way up a higher, shallower valley, we set up camp near the top and went about our normal nightly routine: filling the water bottles, making dinner by the lingering light of sunset, journaling. Just after the last daylight faded and the first couple of stars joined the waxing crescent moon, I heard a high-pitched wind-like noise over the ridge to my right, moving quickly in an arc across the sky. I stopped immediately; this was not a sound I recognised. I looked at Gregg, he had stopped and looked at me. A few seconds later, the noise returned, this time an arc over the valley we were camped in, and hearing it again, I could make out that it was clearly some type of high-pitched engine. I saw nothing. In a few more seconds, an arc over the ridge opposite us. Whatever this was was covering a whole quadrant of the sky in about a second. At this point Gregg and I were both standing silently with mouths open, perhaps a few words exchanged to confirm our own experience. It continued, clockwise around us. Having the compass on hand we checked the angles of the take-off and landing points of whatever this was, and each time was 90 degrees from the last. The only times the sound deviated from this pattern was when it stopped and resumed its path mid-air a few times and when it crossed directly overhead—180 degrees away from where it started—and it was at these few points where it was closest to us, close enough that we ducked at the same time. At points the sounds were so close to each other in time and originating from opposite points in the sky that it seemed there must be more than one object creating the sounds. For twenty-five minutes this kept up, and throughout it, we saw nothing and felt nothing. Only the clear sound, very close to us. Both of us had tears in our eyes. Both of us were speechless. We eventually tried to talk through different possibilities, wrote about it, tried in vain to sleep. Throughout the night, nothing more came of it, until just before sunrise. Lying awake in the dark I wasn’t sure if the sound I heard was my brain repeating the noise from the previous night or if whatever emitted it was coming back. But the sound got louder and began again in the same arcing manner. This time, being slightly more within our wits, we tried to record the noise as sound files on Gregg´s camera. (Currently the files are somehow damaged; we´re trying to recover them.) The early morning session was shorter and seemed slightly farther away, with no direct paths overhead. They faded, and nothing more came of it. We are at a loss. We were not in any way mentally altered at the time, and the experience that each of us wrote down prior to speaking with each other matches exactly. This was not something natural. This was not a technology that exists publicly, if it is something engineered by humans at all. This occurrence did not comply by the rules of science that my college degree in natural sciences could explain. Whatever this was opened new possibilities in my mind for what can exist. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions or thoughts, please share them. I am changed by this incident, but I don´t yet know what to do with it.

I can only describe the next day as seeming unresolved. A sense of, “We may very well have been visited by other-worldly beings last night. I guess we´ll hike today.” It just seemed odd. But we continued over mountain ridges, down valleys, into Nevada-type mountainous desert, back into steep crop-land, adding to our miles, broadening further our experience of Ecuador.

An evening arrival in the little town of Manú introduced us to Lorenzo. Every single person we saw once we entered a five-mile radius of the town asked us about Lorenzo. What is this Lorenzo? The next town? A place in town? By the fourth person who asked us it was clear enough that there was someone by the name of Lorenzo in Manú that it was assumed we were visiting. We began answering yes. Of course we´re here to see Lorenzo! We were pointed to his apartment. Putting two and two together, the first two being that this was the first town we came to with dual trash bins on the streets—one for organic waste and one for inorganic—and the second two being that we are backpacking gringos, we asked if Lorenzo was a member of the Peace Corps. Sure enough. Unfortunately, he was in Loja at the time, so we were not blessed with a meeting of the famed entity. If you´re out there Lorenzo, well done for being the most active/popular Peace Corps Volunteer ever and drop a line our way. We like PCVs.

The climb out of Manú was epically long, and unbelievably beautiful. It also let us feel for a few brief hours the gloriousness of trail-hiking. No battling of foliage every step, no constant checking of the compass, no calculating elevation differences for different possible routes on our topos, just going. Ahhhh; so fast, so easy. Though of course, that ease of foot travel could not go unbalanced. The high ridge that we planned to walk south on, for it was the only route that wasn’t completely ridiculous with quickly, steeply alternating valleys and mountains, happened to be high enough that it was in the clouds. And being a ridge, it inherently came with high winds funnelled over its top. For two and a half days, there were only a few instances where we could see more than 20 feet from us, when the cloud briefly parted to show the hugest peaks rising up and deepest valleys dropping off and our small, white world became shockingly vast. Hiking through winds that could support a full-body-with-pack lean, we pushed over the rocky ground, checking the map (against our memory of the experience, not the surrounding whiteness) and compass frequently. The moment on the third day when we descended below the cloud and could see our exact whereabouts, and could see that we were exactly where we wanted to be, was lovely to say the least. As a reward, we were again graced with trail, which we ate up, passing though countryside and small towns at a refreshingly quick speed. Loja, our goal destination for waaayyy too long was soon ours, awaiting us in the valley below under the full moon. But certainly not awaiting quietly, for it happens to be El Dia de la Virgen del Cisne, a huge celebration with lots of fireworks explosions and vendors and folk dancing. When we do civilization, we are destined, it seems, to do it big.

We are expecting to be at the Peruvian border within the week. The very long-awaited Peruvian border. So, signing off from Ecuador … we send our love to friends and family. We miss you all.

Deia Schlosberg