Cotopaxi, at the elevation of 5900 meters, is the highest active volcano of the world. It attracts climbers all year round. On a clear day, one can see its solid glacier crown.
“Coto” means “Adam’s Apple”; “Paxi” means “lunar”.
After observing how easily we got bored in Cuenca, Carlos suggested an additional activity after we returned to Quito: mountain biking down Cotopaxi. Carlos said the entire route was 32 kilometers, and it was all down-hill. Having never completed one mountain biking trail, I guessed that was a good thing.
In the morning, a white Toyota Land-cruiser came to pick us up. A wavy banner was painted on the side of the car, “Biking Dutchman”. A dozen colorful mountain bikes had already been mounted on the roof. The driver was a Swede, Alex. In addition to us five, there were another middleaged English couple and a young woman from Berkeley.
It took us over an hour to get out the urban sprawl of Quito. We reached the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park shortly after departing Quito. There were a few Indigenous people, dressed in bright color, selling souvenirs at the entrance. A couple of unfriendly dogs checked us up while we were waiting for Alex to pay our entrance fee. Not far from our vehicle, lumber trucks were busy loading and unloading. Alex told us that all of the Monterey pine forests outside of the park belonged to one private lumber company. In two years, they would all be logged.
Immediately after we entered the park, the real “jewel” shielded by the Monterey pines was revealed in front of us. An endless plain of lunar landscape extended to the horizon, where an army of volcanoes dark shadows laced the end of the gray earth, separated it from the gray of the sky. Everyone stopped talking at once. A deafening quietness engulfed us. As if we were afraid of wakening someone, something that had belonged here, it seemed, since the beginning of Time.
Alex broke the silence, told us slowly that this plain is still covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash, left by the last eruption of Cotopaxi. That was over a century ago. Like an insisting beetle, our white cruiser steadily advanced on this vast and quiet plain. Gradually, a few peaks came closer into our view on the right. Alex pointed out the peak in the middle, “That’s her, Cotopaxi.” We all poked our head out to have a better look, but “she” was completely hidden in the cloud. “Hopefully she will be kind enough to show her face to you later.” Alex smiled tolerantly, as if talking about a moody lover.
The cruiser carried us all the way to the end of the road, at 4500 meter elevation. It was the highest we’ve been since we came to Ecuador. Under our feet was coarse volcanic sand, dark red. It was also the first time we’ve stepped on a piece of Ecuadorian earth where there was not a single sight of plant or greenery. Looking up, we could see the base-camp at 4800 meter. The bright yellow construct stood against the dark read volcanic rock, shinny white glacier, and the bluest blue sky that was now slowly appearing out of the mist. The wind that came down from the glacier was as sharp as a knife. We put on all of the clothing we had. Alex brought out a thermos full of hot tea. That was probably one of the best tasting tea I had ever had! Standing on the edge of the volcanic sand, looking down on the plain we just crossed; I noticed that the seemingly lifeless valley floor was actually covered with colorful highland plants that waved into a patched blanket.
We each put on helmet and gloves. Alex and Carlos took down eight bikes. They adjusted the height of seat for each of us, and explained to each individual the characteristics of his or her bike’s front and back brakes. By now, the mist that had covered up Cotopaxi slowly dissipated, we were finally allowed a glimpse of her beauty.
A couple of more Jeeps arrived around us. A few climbers, carried their ice picks, started their ascent to base camp.
Sarah and I were the most impatient among the group. After Alex and Carlos finished adjusting our bikes, we test rode around the group for a couple of rounds and started begging to get started. When everyone was ready, Alex told us the game plan. Bikes would go first. Carlos would be on a bike with us. Alex would drive the cruiser following us and possibly picking up the “deserters”. The first nine kilometers were straight downhill, we must be extra careful. Control the speed of our ride. If we fall, we would guarantee at least one broken limb. If there was any problem with the bike, wait by the side of the road for Alex’s cruiser. The good news was no one else would be on the road but us. So enjoy!
With that, Sarah and her bike shot out like a bullet. I was trying to follow her. When the lonely and endless scenery of the valley floor rushed up to me with such speed, listening to the whistling of wind by my ear, I suddenly remembered why I had not become a mountain biker. My fear grew proportionally as my bike shook violently faster and faster on the switch back dirt road. Holding on to both brakes as firmly as my freezing hands could manage, stood on the pedals, praying non-discriminatorily to eastern Buddha and western Gods, I rushed, hopelessly, toward the stark beauty of the desolate land. The mechanical modern structure under my body seemed to suddenly have gained a restless heart, turned into a beast that wanted to run wild…
Fortunately, all of us arrived at the foot of the mountain safely. A flock of wild horses were grazing by the road, as our noisy bikes paraded past them. They didn’t even bother to raise an eye brow. Looking back at our mysterious hostess, Cotopaxi, she had again pulled down her cloudy veil. Our white cruiser was slowly coming toward us. The road in front of us extended toward the brooding dark blue shadows of more volcano giants. They, too, shouldered their own cloud castles. It was quiet. We could hear the low rustling sign of the wind as it passed the low grass. Alex pointed to a sliver of light blue in front of a distant mountain, said, “Ride toward that lake. Turn left at the lake, the next seven kilometers was level ground. At the end there was a small slope going up hill. At the top of the slope, we would enter the forest again. Soon after that, you would see a small road branch off to the right, follow that branch. It will lead you to a small museum. I’m going there first to prepare our lunch.”
It was then that either that time and space extended to infinity, or we had shrunk. Pedaling on the volcanic ash covered gray plain, we became eight tiny dots that were measuring the century-old desert land hopelessly. I mechanically pedaled along, breathing heavily to extract as much oxygen as possible for my thirsty body, imagining how the burning lava had devoured this land behind me, chasing after me, as it had done over a hundred years ago. Suddenly I saw a Indigenous cowboy, wearing a dark brown poncho, rode on a tall horse, leisurely wandered away, disappeared in the lunarscape. In a split of second, it was hard to tell where the reality had begun and where the imagination had ended.
We had a small accident. The wife of the British couple lost control on a small down hill slope and collided with Caroline who happened to be in front. Her bike’s bar handle happened to knock into Caroline’s back. Caroline managed to ride to our lunch spot, then beg for some pain killer. The pain made her almost teary eyed. Back home, I was able to help lessen my mom’s back pain somewhat with a massage. I volunteered to give Caroline a massage, thinking it could at least help the blood flow. She let me. After fifteen minutes, Caroline turned around and smiled. “It stopped hurting. You should’ve stayed with Delfin to become a Shameness! You’ve got the magic touch.” I thought she was joking. But she said, no, really, it really doesn’t hurt anymore. Now it was my turn to get scared. I looked at my own hand and looked at the mystic surrounding, not sure how to explain my newly acquired magic. Thanked to Helmut, who remembered Alex’s pain killer. “It was probably time for the medicine to take affect.” I was very relieved.
After lunch, we climbed up a steep hill. At the top of small hill, the scenery suddenly opened up. Below us, Quito valley spread toward another group of volcanoes on the horizon. Looking onto the grid-fashioned modern roads that carved up the valley, I suddenly had a vague impulse to charge toward the civilization lying below me, to conquer, to own, everything. I remembered the historic moment when the nomadic Mongols charged toward the lowland civilization. Maybe the desire to own and conquer has always been a secret ingredient of our blood, passed on from generation to generation.
On the other side of the mountain, like the ghost of an ancient fish, we followed a dried water bed to the entrance of the park. We finished the last two kilometers inside the Monterey pine forest. The forest floor was carpeted by thick pine needles. Their dark red hue dyed the ambient light red, too. The air was filled with the refreshing scent of pine saps. I heard the wind whistling a happy song. My ride and I were like a needle, threading between pine and pine.
These were the pines that would be logged within two years.
On our ride back to Quito, I started talking to Alex about drug, Amazon Jungle, and oil. He said, Ecuador has always been proud of not having any drug plantation base. As Columbia civil war became intensified, some Columbian drug lords had moved their operation south across the Ecuadorian borders, especially in remote jungles. However there was still one tribe in the jungle that has not had any contact with western civilization. They won’t come out, Ecuador government couldn’t penetrate, either. Recently a few Columbian accidentally stepped cross into that tribe’s territory. Their bodies were recently found. Alex smiled, “That tribe might be the last hope of the Jungle, the last hope of Ecuador. Only they could stop the lumber company and the oil company. The rest have all been bribed.”
Sarah was very glad to hear this news. It saddened me, somehow. Isn’t it ironic? As civilization advanced to today’s height, we, the modern world, must rely on a primary tribe using poison arrow as our savior? If the tribal people can distinguish between right and wrong, if they could understand the value of the jungle; how could we, armed with modern knowledge and technology, not know? Helmut laughed, maybe we valued money more than the rest. Alex signed, by the time we understood the value of the jungle, it is probably too late to buy it back.