There is a bus at the lower refugio. Overweight British tourists sit next to the stove, waiting for their hot chocolate. We ask the caretaker where the trail is to the next refugio. Gesticulation leads our eyes into the fog, a barrier we cannot penetrate. But there is nothing for it. We are here now, have payed to get here, are hoping that the clouds will break apart as the forzen night descends. Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador–over 6300 meters–is invisible. Rain plays a rhythm on the plastic that covers our heaving bodies.
The two of us, standing on the concrete deck of the upper refugio at 5000 meters, watching out of the corner of our eyes for a gap that will reveal the route, arguing, for the sake of it, about nothing.
¨That´s because you´re not cultured.¨ This Tyler, as he chews on a tuna sandwich.
¨How can you say that? Everyone has culture. Everyone.¨
¨No. Some people have culture, like me. Other´s don´t have any. You.¨
¨You can´t quantify culture. Its intangible.¨
¨Wouldn´t you agree that culture is made up of tangible things?¨
¨Well then its tangible and therefore quantifiable.¨
¨But culture itself is not tangible. Either everyone has it or no one has it. We all have different culture, but not more or less of it.¨
¨Hmmm. Well then I guess your culture is just illigitemate.¨
¨Oh. That I can agree with.¨
For a moment, like a pay-by-the-minute peep show for a man with holes in his pockets, the mountain appears. We hear the muffled tumble of enormous stone, see the falling boulder as is splashes the glacier on its way down, know that the route lies somewhere in the path of that thunder. A corridor of snow traverses underneath a city of crumbly outcrops. Then the mountain is gone again, shielded by the bottomless clouds, and we wonder if it was just an illusion.
Throaty coughs and a throbbing head make it hard to sleep. Tyler arises at eleven o´clock to check the conditions. When he gets back to the bunkroom I ask him if its worth me getting up. Even though the room is pitch black, Tyler invisible, he doesn´t need to speak for me to know the answer. I curl my arms back into my sleeping bag, wait for sleep to come in fits. Lofty air presses against the tiny window, cracked plaster walls, tin roof.
A slight change in the tone of the clouds signals daybreak. The weather worsens. Flakes start falling where rain used to be. Footprints, rock tops, gulleys are filled in. Our hopes are shattered. There is nothing we can do in this. If the weather clears tonight, the snow conditions still make it too dangerous for us to climb. This is an easy defeat to admit. There is no second guessing, not a chance for a regret. It wouldn´t be right to buy the grey t-shirt hanging in the refugio that says ¨Chimborazo: Closest to the Sun.¨ We don our plastic suits and trudge the eight kilometers down to the highway, thouroughly drenched.
We walk into the pizzaria and drop our filthy backpacks in the corner, hang our dripping raincoats on the backs of our chairs. The flavors only remind me of the loaded Waterfront pies that fill you in a slice. We share three pizzas between the two of us, are finally satisfied, ready for travel.
Two nights later we climb into a truck bed. Wood paneling keeps us from falling off the sides. The normal road to Hacienda Zuleta is blocked by a landslide. We have to go the round-about way. The driver has his wife in the car with him. We share bottles of beer, shiver at the biting wind. Smile, laugh, scream the name of the Ecuadorian President at people we pass. Four bottles are empty by the time we reach the hacienda. We finish the fifth as we prepare a late dinner in Tyler and Nuria´s cottage. White plaster walls, dark beams, double windows, an old matress with ruptured sides cleans up nice when we put a sheet over it.
One morning we are signaled by a honk. The kids are already in the truck. They relinquish their seats to us, sit in the back with our backpacks sliding between them. Eddie, the driver, takes us to the base of a gentle slope. The four kids jump out, eager to begin the hike. There is Vladamir, 15, with a top-toothed smile and sharp eyes, shorter than a fire hydrant. David, 18, quiet and taller than the rest, wears a red cotton sweatshirt and shakes my hand while looking me in the eye. Santiago, 17, skinny bones but round face, listens attentively to Tyler, the teacher, as he points in the direction of the trail. And Anídal, 14, wide lips and nose, acne dots, an unassuming look, rarely lets a smile cross his face, but you can see how hard he has to try to do so.
Featurless paramo spreads out in front of us. Below, green barley fields are broken by Eucalyptus forests, rough edged islands in an emerald sea. The clouds come in again, wind ruffling waves across the pastures. The rain doesn´t come quickly, but slowly builds and builds and then disappears for a moment when we reach the summit, so that we are eating our tuna sandwiches in sunshine. The kids are wonderful. Constant jokers, strong as the roots of the tough paramo grass. They walk strait up hill while Tyler, Nuria and I make switchbacks.
On the descent, the drizzle turns to a squall. Their jeans and sweatshirts are soaked. Only Santiago has a rain jacket. Vladamir borrows Nuria´s rain pants. The others are sponges, never wrung out. They run and jump down the muddy trail, trip each other and fly into the humps of grass, legs twisting in the air, laughter breaking the silence of the countryside. I am inspired by their joy, happy to be a part of their lives for one small moment, want to take them on longer trips, want to teach them, with Tyler, what the mountains and the wilderness are truly about. But my small impact is enough. For now.
The tree lined cobble roads, the smell of mushrooms on high heat, the fluffy cacoon of my sleeping bag, the cracked white walls, the spider webs, the Spanish, the mud, the evening drizzle remind me that I am home. In eleven days I will be jetting towards an awakening Northwest spring. Morels, rich air, evergreens, friends, family, the freezing ocean. I am beginning to remeber what it is like. I remember that that too is home.